I’ve always been reluctant to continue a sermon theme from the previous week. It presumes that everyone was listening and can remember what was said. Nonetheless, the theme of foregoing personal vengeance from last weeks epistle (Romans 12:16f.) raises additional questions that are answered in part by this week’s epistle (Romans 13:1f.)
The main objection to being told, “Avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath” is the implication that this relegates us to injustice until the Lord returns. St. Paul answers this objection in the epistle by explaining how the wrath of God may be executed in time. He tells us to be subject to the government (KJV, “higher powers”) because the ruler is “the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”
This is an astounding statement, for the one St. Paul sees as God’s minister is Caesar and those under his authority, who were notorious persecutors of Christians and the agents of St. Paul’s own death. But to call Caesar God’s minister is not to call Caesar virtuous. It is to say that since all authority comes from God, all who have authority and administer justice are God’s agents of justice.
This is, of course, a two edged sword. Caesar is “the minister of God,” but Caesar is also accountable to God for how he administers justice. The writings of the biblical prophets are full of references to rulers who were weighed in the balance by God and found wanting. To have God-given authority in any capacity is always responsibility and never merely privilege.
It is likely that St. Paul developed this framework of understanding by meditating on the situation of Israel at the end of the Old Testament. When Israel became unfaithful to God, God used pagan rulers as agents of his wrath. Chief among these in the Old Testament was Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. The prophet Jeremiah said that, because of Israel’s unfaithfulness, it was God’s will for the nation to willingly submit to Nebuchadnezzar’s authority. When Israel refused, Nebuchadnezzar, God’s agent of judgement, invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the temple (cf. Jeremiah 39:1-10).
A parallel situation prevails in the New Testament. Jesus said that those who judged him would see him “coming on a cloud” in judgment (Matthew 26:64, a reference to Daniel 7:13-14). In the context of the first century, the promised judgement came through the Roman Legions who invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the temple and the city.
It should be noted that all the pagan rulers whom God used to execute justice on his people ended up subsequently being judged by God for their own sins. Again, saying that Caesar is the minister of God is not saying that Caesar is always just. It is saying that all authority is ultimately from God. All rulers serve at God’s permission and will ultimately be held accountable by God.
God’s judgment on pagan rulers is a central theme of Daniel 7:1-14, where Daniel has a vision of one “like the Son of Man”–a title Jesus claims for himself in the New Testament. In his visions, Daniel saw four successive world empires, which were portrayed as beasts–a lion, a bear, a leopard and a fourth beast more dreadful that the first three. Their beastly appearance indicates that they were ravenous and sub-human. In Daniel, God gives his universal authority to the “Son of Man” because he is the genuinely human one, the true descendant of Adam, the one who will rule righteously and fulfill the human vocation that Adam lost through sin. The authentically human Son of Man will supplant all sub-human pretenders to the throne.
In the interim period until the Second Coming, Jesus reigns in heaven as Lord. He uses temporal rulers execute justice. This is why we pray for them. For most of Christian history in the west, the rulers the church prayed for were at least nominally Christian. This is no longer necessarily the case. This is why we pray for the actual people who have authority over us, rather than only “Christian rulers.” The New Testament instructs us to pray for all in authority, not just the ones who are believers. As 1 Timothy says,
I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and or all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. (1Ti 2:1-2 KJV).
From the understanding that temporal authorities are God’s ministers of justice, we can glean a few practical points. First, God does not want us to be lawless and rebellious. This is why the New Testament constantly exhorts us to submit to authority. Sin is lawlessness. The original sin was to rebel against the authority of God. It is a sin to disobey authority God has ordained–unless that authority tells us to do something that is wrong. We should obey the laws of the land. We should be subject to the authority of the church. We should honor authority in the family. We should honor God’s rule through those he has put in place to rule for him.
Another practical point is that we are called to be just. From time to time, each of us may find ourselves in some position of authority. We are called to exercise that authority justly, with impartiality, for the good of those under our authority and never for mere personal advantage. All authority is God’s authority. We, too, will be held accountable.
A third point is that there is no conflict between forgiveness and justice. There can be both personal forgiveness and judicial consequences. I can surrender my right of retribution to God. I can forgive a murderer. And, in the same situation, the state can be the avenger on God’s behalf and execute him. In terms of forgiveness, it my responsibility to let go of anger and bitterness so that I am not led into sin. It is my responsibility to commit the task of vengeance to God and those appointed by him. But it is the state’s job to administer justice so that evil does not go unpunished. I must forgive and not seek personal vengeance. But the state must not forgive. It must be the just avenger. The failure to understand this distinction leads to a great deal of muddled thinking about forgiveness.
Justice in time is always less than complete. This is why the promise that “He shall come again with glory to judge” is so central to our faith. If the powers that be fail as God’s ministers, we know that the Lord will come, finish the job and hold unjust rulers accountable. Until then, we are called to obey those whom God has put in authority, to be subject not only for fear of punishment but also so that we may have a clear conscience and stand blameless before the Judge on that Day.