As we begin the task of unpacking this crucial part of Romans, always remember the context. In the latter part of chapter 12, we saw that Paul was arguing from Dt. 32 that Moses had predicted that God would be avenged upon the Jews, and that He would use a nation that has no understanding to do it (Dt. 32:21, 35). That nation was to be the Roman nation, and this is how Paul knew that the believers of the first century were to be in Jeremiah’s position, and not Hezekiah’s. On top of that, the Lord Himself had prophesied that Jerusalem would be flattened within one generation (Matt. 24: 34). Jesus had said this around 30 A.D., and Paul is writing almost 30 years later (57 A.D.). So the clock was ticking. The Jews erupted in open revolt in 66 A.D.—just 9 years after Romans was written. So Paul’s writing on this subject was not an academic exercise.
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same” (Rom 13:1-3).
Summary of the Text
Every soul is to be obedient to the higher powers (v. 1). There is no authority except what God has established (v. 1), and this includes the emperor Nero, who was emperor at that time, despite his unbelief and paganism. Paul is arguing that the Roman control of Jerusalem was God-ordained, and that those who tried to recruit Christians to join with the Jews in resisting Rome from the “holy city” were actually recruiting them to damnation and judgment (v. 2). Paul then gives his rationale for this, which is that rulers are a terror to evil works, not to good works. If you don’t want to live in fear of those in power, then earn their praise by doing what is good (v. 3).
Even More Context
In this setting, it would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of historical context. Nero had become emperor in 54 A.D. and the first five years were known as his golden years. So when Paul wrote these words, he was not living in some utopian fantasy land—the rule really was decent. Nero was at that time advised by a man named Burrus and the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca. That golden period ended in 59, when Nero had his mother murdered, an act that appalled pretty much everybody.
Further, this man Seneca had published a book On Clemency in 55 A.D. Interestingly, a commentary on this book was the first book that John Calvin ever had published. And if you compare Romans 13:1-7 and De Clementia 1:1-4, the chances will appear outstanding that Paul was acquainted with Seneca’s work, and was laboring to have the Christians do their part. How necessary this was can be seen in the subsequent events. (Incidentally, Seneca was the brother of Gallio in Acts 18:17.)
Later, when the Jewish revolt broke out, it initially looked like it had good chance of success. In the middle of the war, in 68 A.D. there was a coup against Nero, and he was forced to commit suicide. He was replaced by a rapid succession of emperors, each of whom reigned for a matter of mere months. There was to be no real consolidated rule in Rome (in the city where the recipients of this letter were living, remember). As you know, the Temple in Jerusalem was finally burned in 70 A.D. but this was preceded by the burning of the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill in Rome in 69 A.D. (it is not surprising that 69 became known as the year of the four emperors—Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian). Vespasian appears to have been the one adult in the lot—and he had to leave the siege of Jerusalem to save Rome, leaving his son Titus to finish up the conquest of the Jews.
So the time between Paul’s letter and these events in 68, was the same length of time from 1999 to the present—not a long time at all.
The reason Paul gives for obeying the existing authorities was that rulers punish evil deeds, and reward good ones. When he wrote this, it was true. But everything was about to come unstuck. So consider this —to take just one example from these years—what would it mean to subject yourself to the higher powers when Vitellius was (temporarily) ruling in Rome, and Vespasian was marching on Rome with his legions? And further, let us say that Vitellius had already distinguished himself as a debauched thug, driving the city into economic chaos by means of triumphal parades and three orgiastic banquets a day, and then trying to solve the economic problems by executing anybody who had declared him to be their heir. What about then? If there is a riot in the streets, and somebody clambers up on the courthouse steps with a megaphone, and shouts to everybody that he is the king, do you have to obey him because of Rom. 13:1? What about the second guy who shouts that? So just ten minutes of such conditions should show why Paul was as urgent in his exhortation here as he was. In this fallen world, sinful anarchy is far, far worse than a sinful stability.
The Measure of Faith
And so this goes back to a foundational principle that Paul set down in the previous chapter—no one should think they are more important than they are (12:3). As the drama unfolds, who are you in that drama? Are you Vitellius or Vespasian? Seneca or Paul? John Knox used the apt illustration of a father who lost his mind and tried to commit mayhem against his family. If a couple of his sons sit on him until the madness passes, are they dutiful sons or rebellious sons? If they are one, might someone else say they were being the other? Certainly. And so what is our duty? We must be steeped in the Scriptures, and must not think of ourselves more highly than we ought. How? According to the measure of faith.