Last week, we finished Romans 12 with what love in action looks like. And we compared it with 1 Corinthians 13 and brought the two together to see that love is more than a feeling. It’s a lifestyle. It’s the way in which we treat each other in spite of how we may feel.
Today, we’re going to go to Romans 13, where Paul continues his thought about love and extends that thought on how love fulfills the law, or the commandments.
So if you would turn with me to Romans 13, we’ll read the entire chapter. But I’m going to not read it in its entirety all at once, upfront like I normally do, but piece by piece as we go through it. So, you may want to leave it open as we go through our sermon today. We’ll start with verses 1-7.
I debated doing a sermon on the whole chapter. When I first read it, I thought Paul got sidetracked and then came back to what he was saying later. But as I re-read it, I realized Paul didn’t get sidetracked at first, he is continuing his thoughts from the last chapter, and so I decided to put it all together for you this morning rather than breaking this chapter up into different sermons.
So let’s take a look at what he says in the first seven verses. Some of you may have the heading “Submission to Governing Authorities.”
Scripture: Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
So, these first few verses talk about submitting to authority, and this could easily be a hefty sermon of its own.
You have to wonder what Paul was thinking here. You would think that a Jew-turned-Christian under the Roman Empire would want to be just maybe a teeny little bit rebellious. Not a lot rebellious, but a little. Maybe angry and seeking justice like David in the Psalms.
Nero was the emperor at this time––one of the most notorious figures in human history. So Paul is writing this during a time when absolute evil ruled Rome. He wasn’t writing this during a peaceful period for Christians.
Paul himself would have been a ruthless religious authority at one time. In fact, as a Pharisee, he probably had something to do with Jesus’s crucifixion. Afterward, he hunted down and persecuted Christians. And then, he became persecuted. So, what’s he talking about here? He says, “The authorities that exist have been established by God.”
So, you have to kind of scratch your head and wonder why he says that. He’s saying that it’s not only about being patient and kind and suffering with an attitude of love and forgiveness; but he says that these people, such as Nero, have been established by God. Why would he say that those who persecute God have been established by God?
Steven Cole sheds a little light on that:
The Jews hated being under Roman rule. The Romans often viewed Christians as a Jewish sect, so that suspicion of revolution was always a concern in the minds of the rulers. Also, Christians easily could have taken Jesus’ teaching about the coming kingdom of God to mean that they should work for the overthrow of the secular, morally corrupt government in order to help bring in Christ’s kingdom.
So Paul made it a point to make sure the Roman Christians were seeing the Roman Empire in the light of love. Remember, in the previous chapter, Paul just spoke about love in action, and he’s going to speak about love again in a moment. He’s decided to “sandwich” love in action and “love fulfills the law” with what it looks like being a Christian under Roman rule.
So what is Paul talking about? Well, let’s take this in light of where Romans 12 leaves off. Remember from last week, it says:
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
And then Paul continues that thought by saying that it is not up to us to repay evil for evil, God has placed a system of government and authorities in place to take care of punishing those who do wrong.
Enduring Word Commentary said: Paul’s idea is that Christians should be the best citizens of all. Even though they are loyal to God before they are loyal to the state, Christians are good citizens because they are honest, give no trouble to the state, pay their taxes, and – most importantly – pray for the state and the rulers.
So Paul is not excusing authority for any sin or wrongdoing or great evil that it may be doing. He’s saying that the system of government has its rightful place, and it’s appropriate for those in authority to exact justice, not us.
In a similar way, when Paul said for slaves to obey their masters, he isn’t excusing slavery, he’s telling Christian slaves how to act as Christians in spite of the place that they are in.
He says in Ephesians Chapter 6, “7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. 9 And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.
Peter said something similar in 2 Peter, where he talks about living Godly lives in a pagan society. He talks about obeying authority and how slaves should obey their masters, even the harsh ones. It’s not about excusing abusive authority, it’s about how we should act under authority regardless of whether or not they are abusive.
But what about the persecution? Is he saying that the Roman Christians should stop following Christ in order to obey Nero?
In the Book of Acts when the Sanhedrin commanded Peter and John to stop speaking in the name of Jesus, they replied, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Later, when the command was repeated, Peter answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”
In the Book of Daniel, I’m sure you remember the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego who refused to bow before Nebuchadnezzar’s idol (Dan. 3). And later in that same book, in defiance of the king’s edict, Daniel continued to pray (Dan. 6).
So we should obey God above earthly rulers because ultimately, we are subject to the authority of God, and so are the rulers. One day, they too will have to stand before God and give an account. Not only will we have to account for our actions, but so with those that have been placed in governmental institutions.
If you are still open to Romans 13, let’s take a look at the next set of verses, 8-10.
8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
So, you see Paul segues law with law, and love with love. In other words, our obligation as believers includes living in subjection to the governing powers, including paying our taxes in verse 7(13:1-7). And then in verse 8, it’s as if Paul said, “Oh, and speaking of paying your taxes, also pay your debts. But there is one debt that you always will have and always need to be paying, namely, the debt of love. This debt sums up all the commandments and fulfills God’s law.”
Going back to Steven Cole again, he said that, “As Christians, we should work at, but can never fully pay, our debt of love toward others.”
In the Book of Matthew, we read about the Pharisees testing Jesus.
34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
And Paul said this to the Galatians. He said, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
And this command is found in Leviticus 19, verse. 18 “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”
Sound familiar? That goes along with what we talked about last week. Romans 12 was essentially a sermon on this verse. We can have a reason to bear a grudge or seek revenge, but we are to instead love those who do wrong and pray for those who persecute us. We also talked about how we can have every gift in the world, and we can be the best at anything, but if we do not have love, we are worth nothing. In the same way, we can (hypothetically) fulfill every one of the 10 Commandments, but if we do not have love, what have we accomplished? Verse 10 says, “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” Or love is how we truly fulfill God’s commandments.
So let me read to you the 10 Commandments, and when you hear them, think of not just obeying them, but think of how love is the application––the secret ingredient to fulfilling these 10 commandments:
- You shall have no other gods before Me. (Because we love God)
- You shall make no idols. (Because we love God)
- You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. (Because we love God)
- Keep the Sabbath day holy. (Because we love God)
- Honor your father and your mother. (Because we love our father and mother)
- You shall not murder. (Because we love our enemy)
- You shall not commit adultery. (Because we love our spouse)
- You shall not steal. (We love our neighbor)
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. (We love our neighbor)
- You shall not covet. (We love our neighbor)
Do you see how love is the fulfillment of these commands? Love is the positive (the ‘shall do’) to the negative (‘shall not’). The first four is our love towards God, and the next six is our love towards one another. And this was the real issue Jesus had with the Pharisees. They tried so hard to fulfill God’s laws that they forgot about the commandment in Leviticus to love. They forgot about grace. They didn’t understand God’s love, they just understood strict obedience. And they were so afraid of God, that they were meticulous in their obedience. And they became so meticulous that they got to a point where they didn’t understand that when Jesus healed someone on the sabbath that Jesus was actually doing something good. He performed a miracle right in front of them, and they couldn’t grasp that it was a good thing. That this is what love looks like. They thought that Jesus’ work was satanic. It must be, right? It was done on the sabbath.
But what was Jesus doing? He was showing the person that was being healed the love of God. Jesus was obeying the law. He wasn’t doing “work” on the sabbath. But he healed. This is another example of obeying God’s law above man’s law. Jesus did what was right in God’s sight regardless of whether or not it was right in man’s eyes, or even the eyes of the religious authority.
If you still have your Bibles open to Romans, let’s finish the chapter, starting with verse 11.
11 And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.
Now, you might be thinking, I thought you said this chapter is tied together. How is this all tied together? It seems like it’s three separate pieces. And I could have given you three separate sermons.
But if you look at Verse 11 carefully, Paul’s phrase, “Do this” is literally, “And this.” It gathers up all that he has been saying and sets it before us in one collective package before he adds something else.
So what is Paul saying?
We saw at the beginning of this chapter that we are to live in obedience to man’s law. We might have good governmental authorities, we might have bad governmental authorities. We might be slaves, we might be free. In any case, we have an obligation to live Christ-like in any situation. We are to be humble and obedient. We are to obey the laws, we are to be good citizens, we are to be good to our neighbor, we are to be kind, we are to be the best example of people on this earth. They will know we are Christians by our love. We are to go above and beyond what people expect Christians to act like in order to show the world that Christianity is true and that God lives in us.
Likewise, we are to live as Christ by the way in which we fulfill the law through love.
So here, Paul is continuing that thought in light of the coming of the Lord. They had no idea that Jesus would wait at least another 2,000 years before he came again. They thought he’d arrive at any moment. It’s how they were supposed to live, and it’s how we are supposed to live. In Jesus’ parable of the ten talents, the departing king instructs his servants to “occupy till I come” (Luke 19:13 KJV). And in his parable of the 10 virgins, Jesus said we are to wait and be ready at his coming.
And so, how are we to be ready? How are we to wait. Well, we wait by keeping busy. Now, the parable of the 10 virgins was a little different, they were literally waiting. But the idea is that we don’t sit idly by and say, “I’m saved. I’ve got my ticket to Heaven. That’s all I care about.”
The return of Christ is always presented in Scripture as a great motivation to action, not as a reason to slumber. Here, Paul says that now is the time to awaken from our slumber. In 1 Corinthians 15:58, Paul wraps up his teaching on the rapture by saying, “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord.” In 1 Thessalonians 5:6, Paul concludes a lesson on Christ’s coming with these words: “So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep but let us be alert and self-controlled.”
Imagine if the apostles lived and served with the idea that Jesus could return within their lifetime, and so they had just waited? Imagine all that they would not have accomplished? We wouldn’t have a Bible, would we? And they would have been directly disobedient to Christ’s command to “go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mark 16:15), and the gospel would not have been spread. The apostles understood that Jesus’ imminent return meant they must get busy and do God’s work while they still had time to do it.
So what does that mean here? When Christ returns, he better see us living right. Not “in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.”
We are to continue living in the Lord until he comes again.
Prayer: Dear Lord, help us to see that love is the secret ingredient to obey your commands. Help us to have a supernatural ability to love. Help us to not only be obedient to you but help us to understand what it means to be obedient citizens; to be excellent citizens in such a way that we shine by our example.
Yes, Lord, there are times when we may have to be faced with being obedient to you or being obedient to man’s law. Help us in those times to be courageous, and yet loving at the same time.
Lord, I pray that you would also help us fulfill the desires of the Spirit, not the desires of the flesh. Keep us holy until your return. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on First Baptist Church of Watkins Glen