The last time we wrote, we discussed Romans 11, which ends with this beautiful doxology:
Who could ever wrap their minds around the riches of God, the depth of his wisdom, and the marvel of his perfect knowledge? Who could ever explain the wonder of his decisions or search out the mysterious way he carries out his plans? For who has discovered how the Lord thinks or is wise enough to be the one to advise him in his plans? Or: “Who has ever first given something to God that obligates God to owe him something in return?” And because God is the source and sustainer of everything, everything finds fulfillment in him. May all praise and honor be given to him forever! Amen! (Romans 11:33-36 TPT)
We discussed the mystery of God, and explored the grace and love that reveal his heart toward us:
“Just as God’s grace is born out of who he is–Love itself–so our grace is born out of us also embodying the love of God toward one another. We aren’t the manufacturers of grace, nor does love have its origin in humanity-thank God. We are vessels that carry and outshine God’s love and grace that we have encountered.“
We landed on the truth that real love and real grace look like Jesus.
Then we took last week off, but because Romans is one continuous letter, I don’t want to move onto this week’s material without connecting what we studied last week.
What we call chapter 11 ended here: And because God is the source and sustainer of everything, everything finds fulfillment in him. May all praise and honor be given to him forever! Amen!
The very next words Paul writes, the beginning of chapter 12, are:
Beloved friends, what should be our proper response to God’s marvelous mercies? I encourage you to surrender yourselves to God to be his sacred, living sacrifices. And live in holiness, experiencing all that delights his heart. For this becomes your genuine expression of worship. (Romans 12:1-2, TPT)
From here, Paul encourages the body of the Church–one whole made up of many parts–to embrace and honor their individual gifts and use them to keep the body functioning well. As Pastor Aaron preached about, there is a call for all members of the body to work together in harmony (vs. 3-8). Then Paul gives us a list of what our relationships with all people ought to look like when we’re functioning as a healthy body under the leadership of Christ. I am going to include the full list here, and I’m using the Message paraphrase, because it invites us to think differently about verses that might be fairly familiar to us:
Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality. Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.” Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good. (vs. 9-21, emphasis mine)
I included so much of chapter 12 because it is so, so, so important that we keep this letter in context as we move into another set of verses that have been widely misused and taken out of context. We have discussed the importance of remembering that Romans is one continuous letter in nearly every post we’ve written during this series. We don’t mean to be redundant. There is a reason we keep bringing it up. It is because a few verses, pulled away from their original context, can be used to do so much harm. We have seen this throughout history. Scripture has been used to justify slavery, patriarchy, sexism, racism, militarism, nationalism–even genocide. None of those represent the heart of God. None of those were facets of Jesus’ character as he walked the earth revealing God to humanity. So we have to be so careful that we don’t misuse the scriptures that are meant to lead us deeper into God to keep others away from experiencing his love–which is often the disastrous result of taking scripture out of context.
Pastor John opened his message on Sunday by telling us about his trust in and respect for scripture. He added that what he doesn’t so easily trust are many interpretations of scripture. He referred to others’ interpretations and also discussed the way we each interpret what we read through our own understanding. I agree with him on both fronts. As individuals, we must be discerning and committed to listening well to the voice of the Spirit over other voices that want to tell us how to think about a particular verse or passage. We also must remember that our own limited understanding is not a reliable source of interpretation–especially when we consider passages that have been widely misunderstood–and even used to cause harm–for centuries. I am reminded of the exhortation found in Proverbs:
Place your trust in the Eternal; rely on Him completely; never depend upon your own ideas and inventions.
Give Him the credit for everything you accomplish, and He will smooth out and straighten the road that lies ahead. And don’t think you can decide on your own what is right and what is wrong… (Proverbs 3:5-7a, Voice)
A more familiar translation of these verses says, “Lean not on your own understanding.” When we look at Romans 13, it is important that we don’t lean on our own understanding. Our understanding is informed by our own context–where we live, our culture and upbringing, our political beliefs, family structures, and life experiences. I hope that as we continue to learn and explore difficult passages, we will each grow in our ability to recognize these things in ourselves, and how they inform our opinions and understanding of what we read.
The first seven verses in Romans 13 address how we as followers of Jesus are to relate to “governing authorities.” I looked into the original meaning of the words Paul used in these verses, and while I don’t have time to go into all that I found, I will say this: I don’t think these verses mean what we think they mean… I have already written a lot of words and don’t have the time to go into a full discussion about what I discovered, but I will say this–the word translated “authorities” in our scriptures is defined by Strong’s concordance in four main ways. The last definition Strong’s gives is the only one that has any inkling of government-like authority. The other definitions relate “governing authorities” to an idea much more like a “higher power.” Interestingly, submission to the guidance of a higher power is much more in line with what Paul outlined as the way for followers of Jesus to live in the previous two chapters than a hard turn into political discourse and government leaders would be.
We have to remember, again, that Paul was a skilled lawyer, and he was writing to people living under Roman rule–the most powerful government in the world at that time. Of course he would write in terms that made sense to them. But if we’ve learned anything at all about Paul, it is that there’s always more than meets the eye in his writing. We have to be willing to dig deeper to uncover what he’s really getting at, and doing so means stepping away from the way we’ve always understood some of these verses, and making sure that our conclusions do not stand in opposition to the character of God revealed in Jesus. We absolutely cannot use the voice of Paul to silence the voice of Christ, which we have discussed so many times here.
Pastor John asserted that this is not a political passage. I agree wholeheartedly, though it has been, and continues to be, widely used as such. After these first seven verses, Paul makes his way back to familiar territory that connects the whole thought to the rest of the letter. He writes things like:
Don’t owe anything to anyone, except your outstanding debt to continually love one another, for the one who learns to love has fulfilled every requirement of the law. (13:8, TPT)
And he finishes out this passage with the exhortation to, “. . . clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.” (13:14)
Again, this letter was not originally broken up into chapters and verses, so I thought I’d peek ahead at the first verse of what we call chapter 14. It says: “Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do.” Then Paul goes on to talk more about how we relate to one another–it’s all about living as imitators of Jesus in relationship to others. The same thing Paul has been writing about since the opening lines of this letter. Considering the themes that are clearly threaded throughout the entire manuscript, wouldn’t it be odd for Paul to depart from those ideas for seven short verses to address the actual (and often unjust and oppressive) government they were living under? I think that would be odd. And I will continue to dig in and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal truth to me about what these words really mean, because I know my own understanding is limited, and I don’t want to remain in that place. I hope you’ll do the same as we continue this journey of discovery together.
I’m so glad that Laura revisited Chapter 12 and reminded us again that what we call “the book of Romans” is actually a letter that is not separated into chapters and verses. Chapters and verses help us with our “study” of scripture, but can also be a detriment because we have a tendency to come to chapters or subheadings and assume that the context of that section stands alone. It doesn’t.
Pastor John reminded us that we have a tendency to center ourselves or our culture when we read scripture, bending the interpretation to fit our reality and our desires. This type of understanding can lead to scriptural justification of abuse and oppression which, as Laura mentioned, is never the intent of God’s heart. Romans 13:1-5 is that type of passage and has been used by oppressors and those wanting to align with earthly power to excuse poor authoritarian behavior and abuses of power in order to further their own agendas .
So, what do these verses say?
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. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 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. 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. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
As a stand alone passage that seems really clear. But, following Laura’s example, let’s back up to the end of chapter 12…
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 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. 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.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good...
And then chapter 13… Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities,… or as the King James translates that verse: 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.
The word “higher” can also be translated “better, excellent, supreme…”
And get this...”powers” in this verse is the Greek word “exousia” which can also be translated:“authority, right, liberty, jurisdiction, strength”, and refers to both physical and mental strength.
Start putting some of those words together and then think about what Paul has been writing about in his letter up to this point. In a nutshell, he keeps coming back over and over to God’s love, God’s grace, God’s gift of relationship through Jesus, our relationships with one another as a result of believing and receiving the gift of grace from God, and the reminder that we no longer live according to “the law”. To borrow from the definitions above, we live under the higher power, the supreme jurisdiction, the excellent liberty, to love our neighbor well, to choose peace over violence, to live the Jesus way.
In chapter 12, Paul who is in prison for preaching that Jesus is Lord (and not the Jewish Law or Caesar) reminded the Roman Christians not to take revenge, not to be overcome by evil, but to treat people, including enemies, with respect.
So, what should we make of Paul’s words about doing what is right, not rebelling against authority, etc.?
In every society, there is a civil law that helps communities function well, and there are authorities in place to enforce civil law. To obey civil law is wise. Not to obey civil law leads to trouble. Think about what it feels like to be speeding and all of a sudden pass an exit with a state trooper on the entrance ramp. Uh oh! Dread. Civil law has been broken, and the civil authority has the right to enforce that law. We pray those with civil authority will use it responsibly to serve and protect, not harm and abuse. God, all the way back in the establishment of the nation of Israel, set forth the 10 Commandments which could be seen as civil law; however, if we look carefully at the commandments, they are a very practical way of demonstrating what it looks like to love God–heart, soul, mind, and strength- and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. AND, in doing that, if the excellent liberty we have found in Christ comes into opposition with worldly authority, we go with the higher jurisdiction of the kingdom of heaven and accept the consequences that come.
Daniel, in the Old Testament, was not going to pray to Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel didn’t create a big scene, he just continued to pray to God. Daniel got arrested and thrown in the lion’s den. He made himself subject to the consequences imposed by the ruling civil authorities without bowing to their misguided attempts to control and/or obliterate his worship of God.
One of the most beautiful examples of choosing God’s way over the world’s way is the encounter of Jesus and his disciples in the garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest. Jesus, in his life and ministry reminded people to give to Caesar what belonged to Caesar and to God what was God’s (Mt. 22)–he was respecting civil authority, yet he did not submit to the oppressive authoritarian religious structure of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, nor to the authoritarian structure of Roman law. Not surprisingly, Jesus’ obedience to God’s higher authority put him in conflict with the powers of the world. He loved the people who were inebriated by their power, and therefore spoke truth to them, which led to his arrest.
In the garden commotion, Peter, in an effort to defend Jesus, pulled out his sword and injured a soldier. Jesus immediately instructed Peter to put away the sword and healed the soldier’s wound. Then, Jesus subjected himself to worldly authorities without violence, without using all the power he had at his disposal as almighty God in human flesh, he did no harm to others for the sake of his own agenda. When Jesus was being questioned by Pilate, he respectfully spoke truth. Pilate was moved by Jesus and wanted to let him go, but instead he followed the wishes of the violent mob and power structures of the day and sentenced Jesus to crucifixion. Then, as Jesus hung on the cross and asked God to forgive those who’ve done this to him–a Roman Centurion experienced the higher power of God’s love and exclaimed “This man truly was the son of God”. (Mt. 27:54) God’s higher way leads people to him.
So, let’s go back to imprisoned Paul who has told us not to seek revenge, to overcome evil with good, to obey civil law, and see what he says after these first five verses of Chapter 13…
In verses 6-7 he encourages the church to pay taxes, and not be in debt except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law (13:8) That’s the heart of the message of Christ that Paul preaches.
In verses 9 and 10, Paul reminds us that whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law…and the chapter finishes with a reminder to clothe [ourselves] with the Lord Jesus Christ.
So can we take Paul’s first five verses and use them to abuse people and power? Yes. But why would we when we know the ways of Christ?
Jesus told Pilate: “The royal power of my kingdom realm doesn’t come from this world. If it did, then my followers would be fighting to the end to defend me from the Jewish leaders. My kingdom realm authority is not from this realm.” (John 18:36 TPT) Jesus’ realm, his supreme jurisdiction, leads to a more excellent liberty, and a more beautiful world.
As Laura reminded us above, let’s not lean on our own understanding. Instead, let’s choose to be citizens of the kingdom realm of Jesus, clothing ourselves in him, laying down our arms and loving others as he has loved us–against such things there is no law.