In verses 1-2 Paul commands believers to submit to the governing authorities, not because they are ultimate but because God who is ultimate has placed them in said positions according to His all-wise counsel and purposes.
In the following verses Paul further explains this command of why we are to submit, who these in authority actually are, and as a result the way we are to live our lives in light of the consummation. Paul starts by explaining the reason believers are to submit to rulers tying it to verse 1:
“3 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; 4 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.”
Paul here implores believers to do the good (C.f., Rom.12:1-2) so that they need not fear rulers. A great remedy for not fearing man, and especially those who are in authority, is to walk in God’s precepts. Paul calls rulers, “a minister of God for your good” and they are “a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath” on evil doers. Thus rulers bring a “”double-edged sword” ordained by God to keep order and peace through fear of lethal force. He continues and says:
“ 5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.”
Paul here appeals to wrath (we should fear) and to conscience (I take to mean: we should care about our witness) for why we are to be law-abiding citizens. But is there ever a time when rebellion is warranted? What do we do if a ruler calls what is good, evil, or conversely calls what is evil, good? Throughout Christian history believers have differed on this issue. We have Old Testament examples lauded by the Hebrews writer who actually disobeyed those in authority:
“23 By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw he was a beautiful child; and they were not afraid of the king’s edict… 31 By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace.”
The king’s edict was disobeyed; Rahab lied to save these spies (she turned on her leaders). How about Daniel’s three friends who defied the kings command to bow before the golden statue? How about the apostles in the book of Acts who disobeyed the rulers command to stop preaching in the name of Jesus? What of Corrie Ten Boom who hid Jews and lied about it, in order to save Jews from Nazi sure destruction? How about the “Machine Gun Preacher” fighting off ruthless murderers in Africa in order to rescue and save orphans?
Some things are clearer than others granted, but all of us will give an account to God of how we lived in our time with the light given to us. Nevertheless, what makes Paul’s command so weighty is that he will be eventually executed by the Roman Emperor of his day. He continues in verses 6-10 calling believers to walk in love and thus fulfill the law:
“6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. 7 Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.
8 Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. 9 For this, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
To love God and neighbor is what stirs the heart to obey Christ’s great commission to disciple the nations—nations which along with their rulers are even hostile to the message. We are being commanded to do what Christ did—go to those who hate you and love them through sacrifice. That’s powerful! Paul not only considers this present time, but also appeals to the consummation as a motivator, or carrot of how we are to live and why:
“11 Do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. 12 The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.”
Here the apostle calls all believers to vigilance during their journey on earth. He calls for strategies to be put in place so that our sinful inclinations don’t get the opportunity to manifest. Opportunities to sin that numb the senses so that we don’t have to think about life’s perils under rulers like: carousing and drunkenness, sexual promiscuity and sensuality, strife and jealousy.
It’s because of God’s mercies that Paul is calling believers to show this sin-riddled, broken and confused world the way of real love which comes from the Master alone. It’s a call to be and do exactly the opposite of what the world commands. It’s a call to love which will often require our lives in the process. God, may Your people submit to the grace and power of the gospel that alone can propel us to action of this sort.