When he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the stairs, motioned to the people with his hand; and when there was a great hush, he spoke to them in the Hebrew dialect, saying,
The above verse is the final verse of Acts 21 (Acts 21:40).
For those who are in the habit of reading one chapter of the Bible a day, do they live in suspense for 24 hours after having read Acts 21? Paul is on the edge of a knife here! He could be killed if he doesn’t calm his audience down. What does he say!?
Most of us are thankful for the work that went into dividing the Bible into verses and chapters. The divisions are helpful in many ways. However, there are some times that the divisions can skew our understanding of certain Scriptures if we are not careful.
In my opinion, one of the most unfortunate chapter breaks in the New Testament is the one between Romans chapters 12 and 13. When read together, it is clear that the apostle meant for the text to be understood as a single literary unit. However, most people view them as two seperate ones, which can even be seen through this website. The previous theme of articles was on Romans 12. Now, this theme is on Romans 13.
So, what’s the big deal? What difference does it make to treat them as two literary units, as opposed to one? Are there dangers in doing that?
The Danger of Misapplying Romans 13
The primary danger of separating Romans 13 from its previous chapter is missing the contrast and transition between the two and misapplying the passage.
Each imperative given in Romans 12 is with the Christian in mind. Notice the end of the chapter.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him A drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:14-21.
From there, the apostle transitions to a general, “every person,” which would include the Christian.
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. Romans 13:1-2.
Then, Paul gives God’s reasoning for appointing governing authorities.
For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honour. Romans 13:3-7.
During the entire discussion about ruling authorities, Paul does not include the Christians among them. Instead, the government is “it,” and the rulers are “they.” Is this significant? I believe so, and the significance can defeat two extremes.
There are those who would claim there are two laws in the New Testament–one to Christians and one to non-Christians. Many use this passage as a proof text. However, the difference between pronouns is not to provide instructions to different groups of people. All of the instructions in the passage are for Christians, and they were directly for the Christians in Rome. When dealing with government authorities, Paul’s point was not to instruct the governing authorities. Instead, it was to instruct Christians who live under governing authorities.
Secondly, this passage does not teach that it is a Christian’s responsibility to enforce the law. That remains the governmental rulers’ responsibility. The Christian’s job is to “be subject” to the governing authorities, in additions to honouring (1 Pet. 2:17) and praying for (1 Tim. 2:1-3) them.
John and Daniel have done fantastic jobs exegeting the first part of Romans 13, dealing with both what it says and what it doesn’t say. My job was to discuss why it matters that we know the difference. For most Bible students, it seems commonsense as to why it matters that we know what a passage says or doesn’t say. However, with Romans 13, perhaps more is at stake.
When we begin misapplying this passage to make it seem that the people of the world are outside of the law of God, then we have, at best, been distracted by the devil. Jesus’ message did not change when government officials approched Him. Peter didn’t preach a different gospel to Cornelius. God’s message is for all, although not all submit to it. Let us not get distracted from teaching men about God’s covenant offered through Jesus Christ.
When we begin misapplying this passage to teach that our responsibility is nation-building, then we have, at best, been distracted by the devil. Our purpose on this earth is not to make the community a better place. Our purpose on earth is not to ensure a prosperous and worry-free future for our children. Our purpose should be to carry on the work of Christ.
But He said to them, “I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, for I was sent for this purpose.” So He kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea. Luke 4:43-44.
For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost. Luke 19:10.
It is God’s prerogative to appoint and destroy the kingdoms of men. It is ours to labour in the kingdom of God, no matter what earthly kingdom and authorities we also must submit to (see John’s article for help in understanding appoint and submit). So long as we are exiles and strangers to this world, our mission will not be for the kingdoms of men; it will be for the kingdom of God, and when our allegiance has been misplaced, the devil has won.