In Romans 13:1-7, we find a description of civil government as it is ordained by God. It is important to understand the apostle Paul is not saying every government is specifically ordained by God, as some have supposed. On the contrary, what he is telling us is precisely what type of government (viz., its character) God has ordained. If one understands this, then the difficulties Christians face in reconciling their obedience to God and the State are somewhat mitigated.
For example, although many Christians believe that the teaching of the Bible demands they be obedient and supportive of both good and evil governments, no matter what the circumstances, this is not the teaching of Romans 13; nor do I believe it to be the teaching of other scriptures dealing with this subject.
The Bible teaches that the kind of rulers who have been ordained by God are not a “terror to good works, but to evil” (Rom. 13:3). They are described as “God’s ministers” who have been ordained by Him for the good of those they govern. A part of that good is to “execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4). Christians should be subject to civil government and its authorities not just because the government has the power to inflict punishment for wrongdoing, but because Christians’ consciences, properly instructed by God’s Word, tell them that to do otherwise would be a violation of His will. It is quite clear that God has ordained the higher powers and has placed responsibilities both on them and on those to whom they minister. If either the State or the citizens it governs conduct themselves contrary to the obligations and responsibilities God has placed upon them, then both lose their legitimacy in those specific matters.
Justice And Righteousness
Space does not permit me the room to cite the scriptural references, so I’ll simply state what all Christians should know—namely, the Bible teaches all governments should be about the God-given tasks of doing Justice and Righteousness. And although many have missed this point, Rome, although a pagan State, administered a system of civil justice that was amazingly equitable for its time (Mosheim, Institutes of Ecclesiastical History, Ancient and Modern, Book I, page 2). This can be demonstrated from a study of some Biblical examples. For instance, when Jesus was on trial before Pilate, He was tried on a civil charge of fomenting insurrection (cf. Lk. 23:2) and was found not guilty (cf. Matt. 27:24). He was put to death not because Roman civil justice demanded it, but because Pilate was a weak and corrupt public official who gave in to the Jews. Roman law and justice “proved” itself in its acquittal of Jesus. But Pontius Pilate “proved” himself by giving in to the Jews’ threats, consigning, as a result, one who was totally innocent of the charges to His death (cf. Jn. 19:12).
When Paul was accused before Junius Gallio Annaeus, the Roman proconsul of Achaia, his judgment was: “If it were a matter of wrongdoing or wicked crimes [i.e., a matter of civil law], O Jews, there would be reason why I should bear with you: But if it is a question of words and names, and your own law, look to it yourselves; for I do not want to be a judge of such matters” (Acts 18:14-15). This is an admirable and righteous position and is, therefore, worthy of emulation by those who exercise the State’s authority. In times past, this was the traditional position of the criminal and civil justice system in the United States. In fact, in 1871, the U.S. Supreme Court declared: “The law knows no heresy, and is committed to the support of no dogma, the establishment of no sect” (Watson v. Jones, 13 Wall [U.S.] 679).
When Paul’s companions, Gaius and Aristarchus, were accused by an unruly crowd in an unlawful assembly, the town clerk informed the people that if they wanted to assemble to consider some religious matter, it would have to be done in a lawful assembly (cf. Acts 19:39). If, on the other hand, they had civil or criminal charges against any man, the law and its deputies were available to them (cf. Acts 19:38).
Again, when Paul was wrongfully charged by the Jews with being “a creator of dissension among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes,” and one “who has even tried to profane the temple” (Acts 24:5), and would have been killed by the Jews, he was saved by Roman law and justice. Although it is true that Felix, the Judean procurator, was corrupt and held Paul for two years when he should have been released, hoping “that money would be given him by Paul” (Acts 24:26), nevertheless, the Jews were unable to kill him due to the protection offered by Roman law. (I am not discounting God’s protection, but I am only trying to deal with some of the means He used to protect Paul and others.) When Festus took over as governor from Felix and would have returned Paul to Jerusalem to stand trial, Paul was able to exercise a right provided under Roman law and appealed his case to Caesar (cf. Acts 25:11). Even though Festus thought Paul to be “mad,” he judged him guiltless of any wrongdoing (cf. Acts 25:25) and would have set him free except for the fact he had made his appeal to Caesar, an appeal Festus was under obligation by Roman law to honor.
At the time Jesus gave instructions to His disciples concerning their responsibilities to civil government, we know there was a system of law and order practiced by Rome that, although flawed, was still beneficial to those it governed. And even though Augustus (63 B.C. – A.D. 14) had done much to revive the ancient cults of the Romans, the Jews and, later, the Christians, who were considered to be a sect of the Jews by the Romans, were, for the most part, exempted from the Imperial cult. Even though it is true that in A.D. 64, after the burning of Rome, the Roman government, under Nero, made the practice of Christianity a criminal offense, it is also true that after Nero’s suicide four years later, Christians were given a somewhat lengthy relief from persecution. Therefore, it can be seen that the general domestic tranquility provided by pax Romana was beneficial and worthy of support.
In contrast to the God-ordained government of Romans 13, there is the Satan-ordained government of Revelation 13. In the latter instance, it was still the Roman government; but something very frightening had taken place. In just a few short years, Rome had gone from a government that offered protection for those doing good and punishment for those doing evil, to a government that protected the criminal and punished the law-abiding. I think it’s a good possibility the “mystery of iniquity” mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 may have had to do with the transition that was already at work, but not yet accomplished, in the Roman government at the time Paul wrote his second letter to the Thessalonians. Nero became emperor of Rome in A.D. 54, the same year Paul is believed to have written 2 Thessalonians. He is alleged to have committed suicide in A.D. 68 and was described by Tertullian, in his Apology, as “the first emperor who dyed his sword in Christian blood.” Anyone familiar with the terribly perverse life of this man, who murdered his own mother and beat his pregnant wife to death, who had been declared a god by the Roman Senate, and who was the first to bring the unjust wrath of the Roman government against the Christians, would have very little trouble seeing Nero as a part of “the mystery of iniquity.”
In Part II, we’ll take a look at the meaning of the sea and earth beasts, along with the number 666. I’ll conclude with some observations concerning modern-day incense burners.