DISCLAIMER: This series of articles reflects the results of my exegetical exercise to answer the following questions: (1) what did Paul intend to convey to his original audience by what he wrote in Romans 13:1-7? And (2) in light of Paul’s authorial intent, how ought Romans 13:1-7 apply to a 21st Century Christ-follower? In no way, shape or form is this series intended to influence in any way, or cause or be a catalyst for any person to disobey a governmental authority whether it be local, state or federal. This series is merely the exercise of my right to free speech and to practice my religion under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
INTRODUCTION AND SUMMARY OF TAKEAWAY(S)
Context is a very important component of any Bible study exercise. This study of Romans 13:1-7 demonstrates that knowledge about the historical-cultural context in which Paul wrote Romans is vital to gain an understanding of Romans 13:1-7. R. C. Sproul writes at pp. 116-117 in his book Knowing Scripture, (2009) IVP Books, Downers Grove, IL:
In a word, the better I understand the first-century culture of Palestine, the easier it becomes to for me to have an accurate understanding of what was being said. But the Bible was written a long time ago, in a cultural setting quite different from our own, and it is not always easy to bridge the sheer chasm of time between the first and twenty-first centuries.
In reference to the takeaway(s), in early A.D. 57, Paul considered the Roman government to be an enabler of the spread of the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.
Paul wrote Romans 13:1-7 with a mindset that the Messianic Jew had a rebellious nature and that Roman social order could not change. He did not want Christ-followers to aggravate the Roman government so as to interfere with the spread of the gospel.
Paul’s mindset was very much different from that of the 21st Century American Christ-follower.
As we will come to appreciate, the historical-cultural context in which wrote Paul wrote Romans is particularly impactful on a correct interpretation of what he wrote to his audience via Romans 13:1-7.
THE HISTORICAL-CULTURAL CONTEXT OF ROMANS 13:1-7
Prior to Paul writing Romans, there had been some instances of persecution. In 139 BC the Jews were expelled after being accused of Judiazing among the local Gentiles. Then in A.D. 19 Tiberius once again expelled Jews from the city for similar reasons.
In A.D. 42, James The brother of John) was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I.[i]
Acts 18:2 (ESV) tells of one expulsion of Jews from Rome:
2 And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them,
The time window for the expulsion of Acts 18:2 is January A.D. 41 through January A.D. 53.
Paul wrote Romans in about early A.D. 57[ii] to believers in Rome. At the time Paul wrote Romans, it appears that Roman government thought Christianity was within Judaism, and therefore, Christianity was afforded legal protection:
Judaism was a legal religion under the Roman government of the first century. Christianity was considered a sect within it for many years (cf. Acts 18:12–16). This afforded legal protection to the missionary movement in these early years. One purpose of Acts was to show that Christianity was not a political threat to Rome. However, Rome provided an international peace and stability (pax Romana) in which the gospel spread (cf. 1 Tim. 2:1–2).[iii]
In addition to being a protector, Paul considered the Roman government to facilitate the spread of the gospel:
Accordingly, Paul’s exhortation in 13:1–7 may be seen to fall within the context of his missionary appeal in the letter. He sees the state as a gift of God’s common grace to guarantee civil order and to restrain uncontrolled evil (the ruler “is God’s servant to do you good” [v. 4]; … The Christian therefore must not be caught short by rebelling against those very governmental authorities that make it possible for the gospel to be carried throughout the empire. In the back of Paul’s mind is his appreciation of Rome’s legal and commercial system of roads, sea-lanes, citizenship, and common Greek language that promote the spread of Christianity and are ingredients in this right moment in history (“when the time had fully come” [Gal. 4:4]).[iv]
In his commentary, Johnson[v] says essentially the same thing:
At the time he wrote Romans, Paul probably saw the empire as the enabler of the Christian mission, and therefore as an instrument of God’s will for the salvation of all humans. Rome was in fact remarkably tolerant of religious diversity among its many subject peoples, so long as these did not threaten Roman rule. This explains why Rome would protect Jews against local riots in Alexandria, yet carry out merciless war against Jews in Palestine. It was entirely a matter of imperial control. As long as Christians appeared like diaspora Jews, they could enjoy the same sorts of protections as other recognized ethnic cults.
These earlier expulsions of the Jews describe the rebellious nature of some Jews. This may have been the reason Paul so abruptly changed his message from Romans 12, a text that set out the relationships and duties between believers, and Romans 13:1-7, which defined the government-believer relationship:
There is nothing in the letter to indicate why Paul feels it necessary to so positively and quickly change from one subject to another without explanation. Denney has some helpful comments on this. They are briefly, as follows. While the Roman local church was predominantly Gentile, yet there were some Jewish members. The Jews of the Roman empire were notoriously bad citizens. Many held on the ground of Deuteronomy 17:15 that to acknowledge a Gentile ruler was sinful. This was the spirit back of the question of the Pharisees who asked, “Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” Gentiles, in contact with such Jewish Christians, could well imbibe the spirit of anarchy which such an attitude would foment. Thus, Paul writes to make sure that these Christians understand their relations and obligations to government.[vi]
According to Johnson (see endnote iv), one culturally-bound factor is when Paul wrote Romans, the social order was considered to be unchangeable:
For Paul and his contemporaries, the idea of changing the given social order would have been unthinkable. The social order was as stable as nature. Indeed, it was considered “natural.” This form of household had been in place for as long as anyone had a record (whether in Greece or ancient Israel). The form of the state (the empire) had existed (in Paul’s time) for more than four hundred years—and, let us remember, would survive in the western Mediterranean for hundreds more years, and would carry on virtually unchanged in the eastern Mediterranean for fifteen hundred years. … When Paul declares that ruling authority is under God, therefore, he is making—in that time and place—a completely unexceptional statement.
As far as the significant persecution of Christians is concerned, in A.D. 64, Nero began the first persecution of Christians by the Roman government. After that, there was sporadic persecution of Christians in the reigns of Domitian (A.D. 81-96), Trajan (A.D. 98-227), Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161-180) and Septimius Severus (A.D. 193-211).[vii]
What we can take from the historical-cultural context is that at the time Paul wrote Romans, i.e., A.D. 56-57, the Roman government was not a persecutor of the Christian church, but was instead, a protector from the Jews. In A.D. 56-57, Paul considered the Roman government to be beneficial to the advancement of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which was the mission of Paul’s life.[viii]
Paul wanted to caution any Messianic Jews with a rebellious spirit not to rebel and upset the pro-evangelistic environment provided by the Roman government. This was especially the case since a successful rebellion against the Roman government was essentially impossible.
Thus, it is understandable that in early A.D. 57, Paul would have written Romans with a mindset favorably disposed towards the Roman government so as to advocate a peaceable lifestyle that would not cause the Roman government to interfere with the evangelistic mission of the early Christian church.
PAUL’S 1ST CENTURY MINDSET IS DIFFERENT FROM THAT OF A 21ST CENTURY CHRIST-FOLLOWER
Obviously, Paul’s mindset toward the “governing authorities” was quite different from the mindset of a 21st Century American Christ-follower with respect to the government (e.g., local, state, and federal). In the 21st Century, American believers understand that political change is normal and an inherent characteristic of the governments extant in the United States. Johnson (see endnote v) points out:
For those of us on this side of the Enlightenment, it is critical to grasp something about the ancient world that is most strange to us. The very thing that we most take for granted, namely, that the social order is changeable and should be changed according to the will of its participants (that governments exist by the consent of the governed), is a premise that would have been rejected as outlandish, not only in ancient Rome but also in virtually every nation before the revolutions in the West spawned by the Enlightenment. As children of revolution, in other words, we literally live within a different perception of the social world.
In addition, American Christ-followers cannot lose sight of the historical fact that the United States was birthed via an armed revolution. Many in the colonial churches supported the American revolution.[ix]
TAKEAWAY(S) FROM THE HISTORICAL-CULTURAL CONTEXT
In A.D. 56-57, Paul considered the Roman government to be an enabler of the spread of the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. The Roman government considered Christianity to be a sect of Judaism so it received Roman protection. The Roman government maintained civil order and provided a system of reads, sea-lanes, citizenship, and a common Greek language to facilitate the spread of the gospel.
Paul wrote Romans 13:1-7 with a mindset that the Messianic Jew had a rebellious nature and that social order could not change. He did not want Christ-followers to aggravate the Roman government so as to interfere with the spread of the gospel.
Paul’s mindset was very much different from that of the 21st Century American Christ-follower. The United States was birthed from an armed revolution and political change is a part of the governments in the United States.
THE NEXT ARTICLE – ARTICLE 4
In the next article, i.e., Article 4, we will carry on with the observation of the second and third Greek sentences, i.e., Romans 13:1b-2.
If you are reading this post and are not a Christian, unless God intervenes, your eternal destination is hell. But, your destiny can change. Today can be the day of your salvation. Please see my blog (https://stevebelsheim.com/2020/04/20/for-god-so-loves-you-2/) for a description of how you can be saved.
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[i] James’ execution is reported in Acts 12:1–2 (NET) reads:
1 About that time King Herod laid hands on some from the church to harm them.2 He had James, the brother of John, executed with a sword.
[ii] Paul wrote Romans in early A.D. 57 per John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament, (1996) Wipf and Stock Publishers, Eugene, Oregon at p. 352.
[iii] Utley, R. J. (1998). The Gospel according to Paul: Romans (Vol. Volume 5). Marshall, Texas: Bible Lessons International.
[v] Johnson, L. T. (2001). Reading Romans: a literary and theological commentary (pp. 197–203). Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing
[vi] Wuest, K. S. (1997). Wuest’s word studies from the Greek New Testament: for the English reader (Vol. 2, pp. 221–226). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
[vii] See pp. 25-26 of Toone, John, The Roman Empire: The Defender of Early First Century Christianity, Senior Thesis, Liberty University (2011).
[viii] See Romans 1:1 and Galatians 1:1, 15:
Romans 1:1 (ESV) – 1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,
Galatians 1:1, 15 (ESV) – 1 Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— … 15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace,
[ix] See Mark A. Noll, Christians in the American Revolution, (1977, 2006), Regent College Publishing, Vancouver, British Columbia, CANADA.