A Paul is talking here about rulers in general who uphold certain laws to guarantee a civil and peaceful and harmonious lifestyle among their citizens. Paul is referring to submission to and enforcement of civil and criminal laws, such as theft or murder.
Paul is not talking here about the Hitlers or the Neros, who encourage their citizens to betray Christians or the Jews so they can be killed. We need to remember Christ’s statement to OBEY the Pharisees in all that they tell the people – but later, Peter did not obey them when they told him not to preach in the name of Christ. Christ would not obey them, either, in following their rules of ceremonial washings or to have no contact with “sinners.” So, Christ and Paul were talking about matters that were not in conflict with God’s Word. (Notice, too, that John the Baptist openly rebuked Herod for committing adultery with his brother’s wife – see Luke 3:19-20. Also, Daniel refused to obey the order of King Darius, not to pray to God, while his three
friends disobeyed the order of King Nebuchadnezzar to worship the golden image).
In John 19:11, Christ told Pilate, “`You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above. Therefore the one who delivered Me to you has the GREATER sin.” Christ is giving here an implicit forewarning of accountability and judgment on those – including rulers – who are evil. We are to be ambassadors of Christ and of the
Also, in Luke 4:6, Satan states to Christ that all authority over the kingdoms of this world have presently been given to Satan, and that it is he who gives it to whomever he wishes. Christ does not dispute this claim. In fact, we read that Satan is the “prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2) and the “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4, Authorized Version), who still has a throne on this earth (Revelation ). He and his demons are the current rulers over this world (Ephesians ), inspiring civil leaders to obey their will (1 Corinthians 2:7-8).
Today, the world as a whole is cut off from God and is subject to the rule of Satan. God placed Lucifer on the throne of this earth, with responsibility for properly governing it, but he rebelled and became known as Satan. When Satan inspired Adam and Eve to turn against God – to sin by going against what God instructed them – God gave mankind 6,000 years to find out for themselves that they cannot live without God [see accompanying box for more information on God’s 6,000-year plan for man]. And for that same 6,000-year duration, God has decreed that Satan would remain on his throne. That 6,000-year period will end at the return of Jesus Christ,
Who will come to replace Satan – a failed ruler – and restore the government of God on this earth. In that sense, there is “no authority except from God” (Romans 13:1), and all authority “has been given … from above” (John ). God has not yet replaced Satan and his demons, but they cannot do anything that God does not ALLOW them to do.
It is with that background that we must understand Paul’s statement that human governmental authorities or rulers are “God’s minister[s]” who do “not bear the sword in vain,” and “avenger[s] to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Romans 13:4). This statement does not permit true Christians to be involved in this world’s system of capital punishment [either as executioners, or as judges or jurors, condemning a criminal to death] and working for the police force by carrying and using guns. Paul’s statement in Romans 13:3 explains the fact that God allows human governments to punish criminals in order to prevent anarchy (compare Numbers 35:30-33). But, while ancient
True Christians are no longer part of this world. They have turned their back on Satan’s rule. They are ambassadors and citizens of a future kingdom – the
Paul explained in 2 Corinthians 3 that true Christians are “ministers of the new covenant.” As verse 6 points out, they are to administer life through the administration of the Holy Spirit, even though God allows civil governing authorities – “minister[s] … of the letter,” which are still under Satan’s rule – to administer “the letter [which] kills.”
At times, God might even directly intervene to insure that a particular person takes over rulership in a particular country, so that God’s overall plan for mankind can be fulfilled (Exodus ). But, we are not to follow them or their laws when they oppose God’s instructions for us.
The Broadman Bible Commentary has this to say about Romans 13:3: “…State officials as rulers deserve the loyalty of Christians only when they do approve good conduct (vv. 3-4a). The corrupt politicians who appeal to the Christian conscience to protect their unjust reign of terror and tyranny should be totally repudiated… As God’s public servant the ruler is to promote the good against the bad” (p. 257).
The German “Lexikon zur Bibel,” by Fritz Rienecker, points out under “governing authorities” [“Obrigkeit“]: “The Bible instructs us, because of God, to obey the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter
-14), and to pray for them (Jer. 29:7; 1 Tim. 2:2). The reason is, that every authority is appointed by God and that it is His servant (Romans 13:1, 4)… There is, however, a limit to obedience. That limit is reached, when the instructions of the authority prevent a human being from obeying God (Acts
). This freedom, not to follow the will of the authority, Peter defends before the spiritual authority of his own people.”