We are taking care to work through this passage of Scripture deliberately and slowly, and there are at least two reasons for this. First, the issues involved are complex and important, and are more complex and important in our day than they usually are. Second, the misunderstandings that surround this portion of Scripture are legion. We have to be very careful here.
“For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake” (Rom. 13:4-5).
Summary of the Text
Contextually, we are talking about civil rule, civil power. Paul has called the magistrate the “powers that be.” The word here is the word for authority. All authorities whatever are from God (v. 1), and so it follows that civil authorities are from God (v. 1). The word is authority in vv. 1-2, and in verse 3, Paul calls those we are dealing with here “rulers.” What kind of rulers we are talking about becomes plain here in vv. 4-5, given their tools and what they do with them. For he (the ruler) is a minister of God, a deacon of God, and his assigned task is to do the Christian good (v. 4). If a person is an evildoer, then he should be worried and afraid, because the ruler does not bear the sword in vain (v. 4). He is again called the deacon of God, and his job is to execute vengeance and wrath upon evildoers (v. 4). The Christian needs to be obedient to the law, not just because he is afraid of this wrath (v. 5), but also because he is being obedient to God—that is, for conscience sake (v. 5).
A Task and Tool
God has given these rulers two things—a task and a tool. The assigned task is to administer avenging justice to those who do evil, and the tool for this task is the sword, an instrument of lethal violence. The word for sword here is machaira, and it was an instrument of warfare. It was not used for spanking bad boys with the flat of it. This was a double-edged sword, usually about 18 inches long, and commonly used by Roman soldiers. Peter used one to cut off an ear (Matt. 26:47); James the brother of John was executed with one (Acts 12:2); however sharp, it is incapable of separating us from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:35); it provides us with a figure for the Word of God (Eph. 6:17; Heb. 4:12). It was not a toy, and God gave it to His civil deacons to kill bad people with. However much our pacifist brothers might sweat over this passage, it says what it says, and it is not in the Old Testament.
Vengeance Is Still the Lord’s
Remember that this book is written just a few years before a rebellion breaks out against the Romans. The Jews, who would erupt in rebellion, were under a prophetic statement as old as Moses that they would lose this battle, and that God would humiliate them through a people of strange language because vengeance for all their idolatries belonged to Him. The Christians were being instructed here that under no circumstances were they to join this revolt. If God is coming after a people with vengeance in His eye, don’t you jump in between.
From this circumstance, we can and should render general by induction. After all the Romans and all the Jewish rebels were dead and gone, there were still evildoers in the world who needed to be restrained generally, and they need to be restrained by force. One of the uses of the law is to give guidance to the magistrate as he considers what to do (1 Tim. 1:9-11). All we are doing here is distinguishing the first century application from our own (necessary) applications—to muggers, terrorists, rapists, and so on. We won’t need the sword anymore when we don’t have crime anymore.
What It Means to Be a Deacon
So the state is God’s deacon (Rom. 13:4), and God never leaves His deacons without instructions. A deacon is, by definition, under authority. We should measure his appropriations and expenditures over against what he was told to do. When servants use the master’s resources for tasks unassigned by him (Luke 12:46-47), what is the result? When the Lord comes back to evaluate His deacons in the Congress, what will He do? He will not be indiscriminate; the punishments will fit the crimes. Some He will cut in sunder, and others will simply be beaten with many stripes. This will not happen because our rulers are not His deacons; rather, it will happen because they are. By definition, the armed deacons in this passage of Romans are under authority. Their authority does not originate with them, as much as they would like it to. Whose authority are they under? God’s. We obey them because God tells us to (for conscience sake), and not simply because we fear their punishments for wrongdoing. And if they are levying punishments for righteousness, we are not to fear them at all—and conscience is still operative.
A Hermeneutic of Fun
The apostle Paul tells the believers of his day that he advises against marriage because of the “present distress” (1 Cor. 7:26). He also is telling believers here in our text to stand back and let the Romans do to Jerusalem what they are going to do to it (Rom. 12:19; 13:). And yet, many believers have abstracted his principle here in the latter instance, and applied it to every situation throughout all time, which they haven’t done to the first passage—which was just as contextually situated. And why is this? We grasp the importance of limiting context in 1 Corinthians because it is fun to get the girl. A lot more fun, say, than standing up to tyrants is.