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Romans chapter 13

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What does Romans chapter 13 mean?

Romans 13 is a short chapter that continues the theme of Romans 12. How do those in Christ live, now that we have received God's great mercy for us? Paul began Romans 12 by declaring that the only reasonable response is to become living sacrifices in service to God. Romans 13 continues to describe what that Christlike sacrifice looks like. This includes some specific applications.

Paul's instructions take a surprising turn in the first half of the chapter. Those in Christ must be "submissive" or "subject to" human authorities in the government. In other words, one's place in God's kingdom does not allow us to ignore those in charge of whatever earthly kingdom we occupy. This is not just about keeping the peace. Christians are to submit to earthly authorities because God put them there. In fact, Paul says that every position of government authority on earth was, ultimately, filled by God Himself for His purposes. To improperly resist authority, then, is to resist God (Romans 13:1–2).

That rejection of authority brings painful judgment. God's intention for authorities in human governments, in part, is to use them to bring judgment on people who do bad things. If you're doing good things, Paul writes, you should have nothing to fear from those in authority. If you're doing bad things, though, you should be afraid. Governments, broadly speaking, are there to rein in and punish evildoers on God's behalf. The punishment a criminal receives from the government is also from God (Romans 13:3–4).

We should not submit to our human government only out of fear, though, but also because it's the right thing to do. For that same reason, Christians must pay their taxes as a way of supporting the structure God has set up to accomplish His will on earth. In fact, in addition to taxes, we also owe to our human governments respect and honor (Romans 13:5–7).

Paul chooses not to address in this section something he faced in his own life: What do you do when a human government tells you to do something that contradicts God's commands? Or when the government is not acting fairly, or morally, or in good faith? In that case, a believer must defy ungodly commands and willingly face the consequences (Acts 5:27–29). Paul's instruction here speaks of subjection and submission, but not necessarily of obedience. This distinction was lived out by Jesus' closest followers. Nearly all the apostles were eventually killed by government authorities for preaching the gospel: they refused to obey when told to be silent, but they submitted to the punishment and authority of the government.

Paul transitioned to the idea that Jesus-followers should pay all their debts. The only debt that will never be fully repaid is the obligation to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. When that command is obeyed, it fulfills the entire law, Paul writes. After all, love itself never harms anyone, making all the other relationship commands unnecessary (Romans 13:8–10).

Wrapping up this set of instructions, Paul urges Christians to be urgent about the time. He writes that the night is gone, and the day is almost here, suggesting that the day of the Lord, a reference to mankind's ultimate judgment, will arrive at that metaphorical daybreak. That moment draws nearer every day. That's why Christians must throw off any works of darkness we have been participating in. This includes lifestyles of drunken partying, sexual immorality, fighting, and jealousy. Instead, Christians must suit up in armor of light. That is, instead of joining in the darkness, we must take defensive positions against it. In fact, we must put on Christ Himself instead of arranging our lives to gratify our own desires (Romans 13:11–14).
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