Tuesday, May 29, 2018
Can’t we all just get along? Over the last few weeks we have been looking at Romans 14 for the answer. So far in our pursuit of getting along within the context of the believing community we’ve learned that respect of others (specifically those of differing degrees of Christian freedom and different views of peripheral issues) is essential. We’ve also learned that condemnation—acting as the judge of our brother/sister in Christ—ought to be quenched and left to the Lord if a spirit of unity is to be achieved. Today we are going to enter Romans 15 and discover another means by which harmony is possible—service. In fact, Paul is going to highlight 5 parts of this key to ecclesiological practice in Romans 15:1-6.
a. The Obligation of Service-15:1
In order to get along well, Paul has already established respect as the proper attitude that should characterize the members of the church and condemnation as a practice it should avoid. Now that these intangible traits have been thoroughly delineated, the apostle moves on to discuss in very practical terms what the church ought to do with this proper/corrected mindset—SERVE!
Believers, especially the “strong” among them, are under an obligation to serve their counterparts in an effort to get along—“Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength” (15:1a). Before one can appreciate what this means, he must be reminded of the context. Paul is ultimately concerned (as it pertains to the church in Rome) about table fellowship. The strong members of the church allowed themselves to eat anything and the weak among them were still adhering to Old Testament restrictions on certain foods. This reminder along with an understanding that here “strong” and “weak” means “capable” and “incapable” respectively helps us understand that what is really being discussed is what people allow themselves to do and what usefulness that affords them in their mission (the edification of the saints and evangelizing the lost). Paul’s point in verse 1 is this: “it was not enough that the strong simply put up with the foibles of weaker Christians; they were to bear the weaknesses of the immature” (Mounce, Romans, 259). “Bear the weaknesses” means actively supporting a brother, not just tolerating him, for the purpose of building up the saints and reaching the lost.
For this to really work, believers cannot be in the business of service for the purpose of self-aggrandizement—“and not just please ourselves” (15:1). In other words, for the church to get along well its members ought to be more eager to serve others than satisfy themselves.
Perhaps an analogy might prove helpful here. The church ought to be comparable to an aircraft carrier not a cruise ship. On an aircraft carrier, the military personnel contribute to the mission at hand by supporting those around them and serving the needs of those on board as they efficiently and effectively execute what is called for by the captain. Those onboard are more concerned about a successful mission than they are about having a great time and feeling comfortable. In fact, those who have enlisted understand that often there is danger and a great deal of discomfort associated with a naval career. However, these nonetheless voluntarily sign up, believing all the while that they are contributing to something bigger than themselves. On a cruise ship, people can pick and choose what kind of room they are willing to pay for that will provide them with the best comfort. Everything from excursions, menu items, room service, activities, and shows are provided in large variety so that those on board can achieve the greatest personal satisfaction. Those on a cruise ship are more concerned about their needs than they are any mission, in fact, comfort, relaxation, and personal satisfaction IS the mission on a cruise ship. Anything that jeopardizes this is called out and proves to be a source of complaint. It is not the job of customers on a cruise line to serve, but to be served. Unfortunately, many churches have become cruise ships filled self-entitled vacationers trying to find as much pleasure in this world while they await the next. What is needed are more battleships filled with focused seamen intent on accomplishing a mission, placing their allegiance to the captain over personal preferences. Ultimately, church members ought to think of themselves as servants not consumers for service is what believers are biblically obligated to do.
b. The Motivation for Service-15:2
However, service itself must be conducted with the right motivation. It was and remains possible that some might be eager to serve others, but even in this activity seek to serve themselves. This is why Paul says, “each of us is to please his neighbor for his good, to his edification” (15:2).
A helpful comparison to employ here might be of a commission-based pay structure verses a salary pay structure. Often in commissioned-based pay structures, people serve the customer in part for what they hope to reap in commission. Some might pull out all kinds of stops or supplant the efforts of a fellow employees for the sake of the sale, being named employee of the month, and receiving a larger paycheck. Salary-based employees know what their reward is regardless of how good that month proves to be and as such are not under the same stress to “get theirs by any means necessary.” They are rewarded because of their faithfulness over the long haul and as such are freed to consider each customer’s needs prior to their own. Members of the church are not commission-based employees of God. There is no employee of the month award in the church, no reason to walk over others to show off how much you can accomplish, and no obligation to always be “closing the sale.” Instead, the believer’s reward is secure and faithfulness is what is called for. As a result, believers ought to serve for the sake of others and not themselves.
It is one thing to do good for others when there is some kind of kick-back. But it is another thing entirely to do good for others out of simple faithfulness. The latter is what Paul was concerned about in the church in Rome. The believer’s motivation in serving in the church ought to be the development of its members in maturity—again so that the body of Christ might be edified and used of God to evangelize the world.
c. The Example of Service-15:3-4
Thankfully, believers have the most excellent example of all to follow in this endeavor—Christ, “For even Christ did not please himself” (15:3a). You will be hard-pressed to find an example of Christ doing something for Himself. In fact, a close examination of the gospels will quickly reveal quite the opposite. Jesus lived to serve others. He spent his youth working with his dad and explaining the scriptures in the synagogue, healed scores of people during his ministry (often going well out of his way in the process), stopped to chat with people in the midst of crowds (like the woman with the issue of blood), engaged people in precarious situations (i.e. the Samaritan woman), took added measures to explain things for bone-headed disciples (often after parables), patiently endured the twelve’s shenanigans (Peter—need we say more), served food to thousands (who were looking for a handout), washed the disciple’s feet, suffered innocently on the cross and everything leading up to it (the circus trial, beatings, and crucifixion). Jesus even used his last breaths to encourage a thief hanging next to Him! Following his resurrection, he appeared to his cowardly colleagues and provided added proofs of himself to the doubtful (like Thomas). He also made available every encouragement possible to his followers in their new mission. Even now in the glory of heaven Jesus serves as an advocate before God on behalf of believers. About the only thing that Jesus did for himself was sneak away every now and then to pray alone and spend time with the Father. However, even that was so he might be refreshed to serve and prepared to give of himself thereafter. Paul is on good ground when he says “Christ did not please Himself” and in referencing Christ provides the greatest example of what service for others looks like.
The selfless life of Christ is reflected in Psalm 69:9—“the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me” (15:3b). In this reference Christ is the speaker and God is implicated in the second person pronoun. Christ’s very life was offered, according to this verse, as a service to God. His entire mission was an act of service to God in which he bore the burden of weak and sinful men so that they might be made right again. Mark 10:45 says it this way, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The example of the life of Christ (foreshadowed in Psalm 69:9) served as a catalyst for ongoing perseverance in service in the first century and continues to accomplish the same today. Paul says in verse 4 “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Though it can prove difficult to serve given one’s ego and pesky flesh, Paul encourages both the first century and twenty-first century church by arguing that the difficulty is bearable because God in his Word “instructs” us in what to do, provides us with examples that “encourage” us on how to do it, and gives a most amazing “hope” to look forward to in the end. Are you lacking in your motivation to serve or looking for an example to follow? Paul says, “read the Scriptures!” There you will find that the call to serve is clear, all the inspiration you need to get started is present, and the greatest example to follow is found in Jesus.
d. The Prayer of Service-15:5-
Next, Paul offers a prayer for service in verse 5. He begins with “Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement” (15:5a). Notice, that the encouragement to serve and the perseverance to serve (or really to accomplish anything righteous) come ultimately from God who out of his grace enables people to behave in these counter-natural ways.
Many believers trust that God is the active agent behind salvation past—justification. However, fewer understand that God is also actively engaged in furthering the salvation process along at present in sanctification. The same God who saved believers by grace is saving the same through a continuous stream of grace that allows us to grow in all aspects to be like Christ, especially in service.
Paul calls upon the God of encouragement and perseverance to “grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus” (15:5b). Paul’s prayer is simple—that everyone in the church would have the same mindset –a Christ-like mindset—toward and for one another. Paul prays something similar for the church in Philippi.
Philippians 2:2, 5-“Fulfill my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, sharing the same feelings, focusing on one goal,…make your attitude that of Christ Jesus.”
We already learned in Romans 14 that respect, not condemnation, is a unifying agent. Here, Paul prays that service would also prove to be a unifying agent in the church. This prayer betrays that service, not selfishness, is a key to unity and getting along as we edify one another and engage the world around us.
e. The Purpose of One’s Service-15:6
That unity is one of the consequences of a church full of servants is indicated as Paul articulates the purpose of one’s service in verse 6. The first consequence is assumed—“so that with one accord you may with one voice” (15:6). Unity is a by-product of a church that serves. But unity for what purpose?
Unity that seeks to, as Paul reveals in verse 6, “glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,…” (15:6b). God receives glory when His people serve each other in the context of the church for in so doing, the body is encouraged and evangelism is effective. As an encouraged body and effective evangelism make much of God, he is glorified in these that are helped along when brothers and sisters get along by exercising respect, staving off condemnation, and enlisting in service.
Yet another comparison might help highlight what a church full of servants is NOT—a pool of self-promoters. Many in our world today work tirelessly to self-promote. The compendium of social media apps on people’s phones betray the multitudinous ways in which people seek to make much of themselves (for better or worse). Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat which allow people to promote literally anything about their lives (what they are wearing, eating, doing, and where they are going). However, there is another classification of sites that seek to advance causes. These include but are not limited to sites like “gofundme” which allow people to advertise causes, agendas, etc. that they hope people will contribute to. The church is to be more like the latter than the former. The church is not to be in the self-promotion business—always finding ways to talk about how great its members are. Instead, it is to be promoting the agenda of the only one worthy of that kind of attention—God. His mission is something that people can get excited about and sign onto as a contributor! When the church serves well, it promotes the agenda of the one who is ultimately served—the Lord God—and the purpose for which one serves in the first place—to advance His kingdom.
In this passage Paul reveals believers are biblically obligated to serve for the sake of others by following Jesus’ example and depending on God’s help so that unity and God’s glory may result. In traveling through this passage, we’ve learned that a church that get’s along with itself and is a compelling witness to the world around it looks less like a cruise ship full of entitled customers competing for comfort and popularity, capturing and posting every last detail of their vacation in a personal social media campaign and more like a selfless team of personnel on a battleship advancing and promoting the mission of God while seeking to build up their fellow shipmates through tireless service of others and allegiance to the captain and his agenda.
Which image is more in keeping with your perception/practice?
Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Can’t we all just get along? We asked this question last week and began to answer in the affirmative by looking at Romans 14. There Paul teaches how those within the body of Christ really can learn to stand each other long enough to build itself up and provide a compelling witness to the world around it. The first step to this end involves respect. In Romans 14:1-9 Paul discussed how to exercise respect in two different kinds of situations: 1. when people allow themselves to endorse varied, yet permissible behaviors, and 2. when people hold differing views on peripheral issues. Remembering that the gospel of Jesus Christ and those doctrines implicated therein are the only hills worth dying on goes a long way in this endeavor. However, often in these and other scenarios, it is condemnation, not respect, that is demonstrated. In order to get along, one must put on respect AND shrug off his/her natural tendency to judge others. How do we do this? Paul provides the answer in Romans 14:10-18. Today we are going to look at TWO COMPONENTS of Paul’s teaching on overcoming condemnation in the context of the church from Romans 14:10-18.
a. THE PRESENTATION OF THE ULTIMATE JUDGE-14:10-12
Paul begins by highlighting how ill-fitting it is for brothers and sisters to condemn each other. He accomplishes this by asking a couple of pointed questions in verse 10-“but you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt?” A more wooden translation of this would read “why are you condemning your brother? And again, why are you despising your brother, believing that he is of no value?” It is obvious by the pairing of verbs here that a particular brand of “judgment” is in view. Paul is not calling for believers not to exercise “sound judgment” that is able to distinguish between good and evil (see Prov. 3:21; 8:14; Rom. 12:13). He is questioning those who take the added step of playing the part of judge and jury and attempt to somehow sentence those around them to some sort of punishment. It is this kind of judgment that Jesus Himself condemns in Matthew 7:1—“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”
It is obvious that there were too many judges in the church in Rome. Paul calls those who are quick to condemn their brothers and sisters to ask themselves why they are doing this? Who appointed them to such a post? What qualifications render them suitable to such a task? The repetition of “you” and the addition of “you again” makes sharply point Paul’s inquiries to people who are eager to strike their gavels.
Paul reminds self-appointed judges “For we all will stand before the judgment seat of God” (14:10b). “’Judgment seats’ were common in the Greco-Roman world; official like Pilate…would make their judgments from such a bema…God judging all people before his throne was a common image in Jewish portrayals of the end.” Though a bema seat served as the place where people received judgment in the first century, in the 21st century we are more familiar with a “bench” that the judge sits behind and defendants stand before. All believers, Paul says, will stand before the one true Judge and receive His verdict.
Verdict on what? Salvation? No! That verdict was already rendered at the moment of conversion in light of Jesus’ completed work of redemption on the cross. Then what is God judging when believers stand before Him?
2 Corinthians 5:10-“We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive that is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
When it comes to believers, God will judge their works (Mat. 16:27; Rom. 2:6; Rev. 22:12)–i.e. “the quality of his or her life” (Mounce, Romans, 254). In other words, God judges what people do with their faith—how they choose to use their freedom/how they choose to live in light of their beliefs.
By drawing attention to the only legitimate judgement seat (only reputable bench), Paul wonders “what business do you have (believer) for executing judgment on others if you yourself have to stand before the Judge?”
To bolster his presentation of the one true Judge (and in an effort to dwarf would-be judges among the brethren) Paul directs the church’s attention to Isaiah 45:23 (and possibly Isaiah 49:18)—“For it is written, ‘As I live says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.’” In and around this Old Testament passage, the prophet predicts a time in which God delivers Israel and calls the nations to account before Him so that they acknowledge that He is God (Keener, IVP BBC NT, 452). The matchless authority of God over the entire world uniquely qualifies Him to serve as the ultimate judge of all and soundly disqualifies all others from serving behind this unusually lofty bench.
Paul concludes this presentation of the ultimate judge by drawing attention to what would-be judges ought to be most concerned about—“so then each one of us will give an account of himself to God” (14:12). “Since this is true, it is highly questionable, to say the least, for us to be involved in judging one another. Judging is a divine prerogative. To take up that role is to usurp the place of God himself” (Mounce, Romans, 255).
b. THE PRESCRIPTION FOR CONDEMNATION-14:13-18
Though identifying the one true judge is one important step in maintaining proper unity in the context of the church, not falling prey to dawning the robe and picking up the gavel oneself proves very difficult. This is why Paul goes to great lengths in verses 13-18 to provide a prescription for the nasty and lingering cold that is condemnation. This prescription is highlighted by six “best practices” that believers should endorse in the faith community. The first of these involves making the right choice. Paul states “Therefore, let us not judge one another anymore” (14:13a). Again, the kind of judgment that Paul prohibits here is the condemning sort that labels a person guilty and calls for punishment. Believers ought to cut out this activity entirely from their daily routine.
In its place, believers are to spend their energy making sure that they don’t “put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way” (14:13b). The word for “stumbling block” (proskomma) refers to any obstacle that might cause a person to trip. Given the context, Paul was concerned about beliefs concerning peripheral issues and permissible activities that stronger and weaker brothers were either being ridiculed and judged for. If condemnation among the brethren is to be circumvented, members of the church cannot go around and legislate what is right and what is wrong from the bench that they are not to occupy in the first place—especially in matters where the Bible provides freedom and/or is unclear. To enact new ordinances in this way is to place stumbling blocks before others that they will trip over, causing spiritual and relational injury.
In an effort to remove many of the stumbling blocks that others were placing around people, Paul provides the following consideration—“I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (14:14a). Paul’s statement—that this whole classification of clean vs. unclean is no longer literally relevant—would have put him in agreement with many of the Gentiles and philosophically-minded Jews (most of which never kept such food laws). However, it would have surprised many others who continued to uphold such regulations. That said, Paul repeats the same principle elsewhere.
1 Timothy 4:4-“Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.”
This statement is complimentary to Jesus’ own teaching when He said that it is not what goes into the mouth that makes a person unclean but what comes out (see Matt. 15:10-11, 16-20). For both Paul and Jesus, it is the heart that matters most.
However, Paul does make the following concession—“but to him who thinks anything to be unclean to him it is unclean” (14:14b). “Although no food is unclean in itself, if someone regards it as unclean, then for that person it is” (Mounce, Romans, 256). F. F. Bruce comments that “defilement is located in people’s minds, not in material objects” (Romans, 237).
After making the right choice and adopting the right consideration, one must place the right limits on his/her activity as dependent on the situation. Paul says, “For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love” (14:15a). If a Christian brother that is unable to enjoy the freedom that you enjoy is bothered by your actions and you persist in that activity, you are no longer acting in love toward your brother. In such cases, certain freedoms may need to go unperformed so that love and unity becomes the reigning principle.
Put another way Paul says, “Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died” (14:15b). “Precisely because foods do not matter, one should be willing to forgo eating them for the sake of what does matter: preserving the unity in the body of Christ” (Keener, IVP BBC NT, 452). Paul employs dramatic language here as he compares the activity of influencing others to act against their conscience to personal destruction. To force someone or even tempt someone (especially a brother or sister in Christ) to weaken their own moral structure by behaving in a way that undermines their integrity is egregious in Paul’s ecclesiological ethic. After all, Christ died for the weak and the strong alike. So should the “strong” go out of their way to love and edify their “weak” counterparts?
Exercising the right limits (in view of Christ’s great love for all) when it comes to freedom means holding off on what one is free to do so that someone who doesn’t believe they are free to do the same doesn’t stumble (isn’t destroyed). Though this directly pertained to the food that people ate in the first century church (see 14:1-9), this is applicable to other behaviors that some believe they are free to choose that others may believe are off limits.
Paul generalizes the point by highlighting the right practice in verse 16—“Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil.” By now it is clear that though people may be free to do all kinds of things, if their freedom turns into a stumbling block for those around them, what they may have permission to do becomes somethings that Paul calls evil. Though there is nothing inherently wrong with eating pork, if eating pork becomes a problem for others in a particular situation, then eating pork is a problem for everyone. The same might be applied to drinking or any number of other things. Though there is nothing inherently evil in drinking, if in drinking another stumbles, then drinking in that situation becomes a problem. When it comes to what one is free to do, liberty becomes transgression when my freedom hurts those around me.
Bringing this all together Paul works to help his audience understand how these principles foster unity when he reveals the right perspective in verse 17—“For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” For members of the church to get along they must value the fruit of the Spirit over making the most of their Christian freedom all the time. Doesn’t righteousness matter more than food? Doesn’t peace matter more than drinking? Yes! If so, then sacrificing food or drinking or whatever else to promote unity is a win for everybody and a concession that the strong ought to be willing to make. All of this is made possible by the same Holy Spirit that drew all kinds of different people into the body of Christ to begin with. The same Spirit that brought us together is the same Spirit that keeps us together and helps us get along.
When the right choice is made, the right consideration is adopted, the right limits are kept, the right practice is executed, and the right perspective is maintained, the right consequences will follow. Paul concludes the passage by saying “for he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men” (14:18). The hierarchy of our interest is subtly identified in this short verse. What ought to matter first is what is acceptable to God. It is acceptable to God for His people dwell in unity (Psalm 133:1-“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is For brothers to dwell together in unity!”). When believers are living lives that are acceptable to the Lord, they will be approved by each other. One necessarily leads to the other in the context of Christian community.
Brother and sisters in Christ ought not condemn each other (judge each other unnecessarily). Remembering who the ultimate Judge is and following Paul’s prescription for the awful and lingering cold of condemnation will go a long way in rooting this out. Interestingly, in Romans 14:10-18, another helpful tip in getting along in the church involves keeping the main thing the main thing. This is similar to what was suggested last week. In Romans 14:1-9 we learned that the gospel of Jesus Christ (deity, death, and resurrection along with their corresponding implications) matter more than varying degrees of allowance and differing views on peripheral issues. This week we learn that the fruit of the Spirit (things like righteousness, peace, etc.) matter more than me always getting to do what I’m free to do. We ought to care more about our brother or sister than getting our way. This will help us shake off condemnation within the body of Christ and get along to the glory of God.
Tuesday, May 15, 2018
Over the next couple of weeks we are going to enter a mini-series within our greater Romans series entitled—“Can’t we all just get along?!” This pointed question is often asked in moments of exasperation at the unrest, discord, and infighting that we witness in interpersonal relationships or even in our culture. However, we are going to apply this question to a different context over the next month or so—the context that Paul seems concerned about as he rounds the corner in Romans 14—the church. Surely the church—the body of Christ, those who have tasted the love of God and have been saved by Jesus—can answer “yes” when asked “Can’t we all just get along?” However, if you have spent any length of time in most churches, you might wonder if this kind of unity really is attainable.
And yet, Paul teaches that such unity and peace is achievable and provides a compelling prescription to this end. In Romans 14 and in the beginning of chapter 15, Paul is going to describe how respect, righteous judgment, service, and acceptance pave the way toward unity. However, today, we are going to focus on the first of these. In Romans 14:1-9 we are going to observe two different scenarios in which respect for our brothers and sisters in Christ is required for good fellowship.
SCENARIO #1: Various Levels of Allowance-14:1-4
As Paul continues to present his practical applications in the second half of Romans, he continues with his theme of promoting unity and blessing within the body of Christ. Such promotion is necessary as the church is and has always been comprised of all kinds of people. “Christians are not clones, identical in all respects” (Morris, Romans, 476). There are rich and poor Christians, old and young Christians, and blue collar and whitecollar Christians. There are also Christians from all kinds of nations, ethnicities, backgrounds, and shapes and sizes. However, this variety that was intended to be an expression of wonderous diversity within a group of like-minded people often became/becomes a hotbed for division and conflict. This was the same for the church in Rome.
In addition to race, socio-economic status, background, etc. Paul recognizes another distinction within the body of Christ—what he refers to as “strong and weak brothers.” Paul begins chapter 14 by saying, “Now accept the one who is weak in faith,…” (14:1). This assumes that there are others who are “strong” in faith. But what does that mean? As the discussion unfolds, it becomes clear that “weak” does not mean that someone’s faith in Christ is lacking. Instead, to say that someone has “weak” faith implies that such a person may not fully understand or appreciate the freedom that comes from faith—“His faith is weak in that it cannot sustain him in certain kinds of conduct. He does not understand that when the meaning of justification by faith is grasped” certain actions are no longer of any consequence.
This interpretation of what Paul calls “weakness” is evidenced by the encouragements that follow. “The main issue that surfaced [in this passage] was how Jewish and Gentile Christians could enjoy table fellowship together since they differed on which foods were permissible” (Schreiner, Romans, 708). How could they relate to each other and do life together if members of the church (from varying religious backgrounds) couldn’t share in fellowship? Some Jews who became Christians still felt compelled to abstain from eating swine and other ceremonially unclean animals and could not come to the potlucks that served pulled pork! Therefore, Paul appeals to the “strong” in verse 1 and says “Now accept the one who is weak in faith…”. This would imply that Gentiles, those who were strong enough in their faith to permit themselves to eat all kinds of food, should accept those who did not share that conviction and abstained from certain commodities.
Though it might sound weird to us, many examples exist today of people whose faith only allows them to do/behave in certain ways. Some, like the Amish/Mennonite, have a faith that only allows them to obtain certain luxuries and adorn certain clothes. Some more fundamental-leaning believers will not allow themselves to play cards (see John Macarthur). Some denominations use alcohol in their observance of the Lord’s supper while others don’t.
Believers who have a larger wardrobe, enjoy an occasional game of cards, or enjoy a glass of wine every now and then are to “accept” others who do not endorse these behaviors. The verb means “to allow to remain in the membership” and carries the connotation of friendship. Acceptance of other’s idiosyncrasies is a show of respect that is necessary for the life of any ministry. Paul knew this and we must remember this.
Paul places a check on this acceptance in the final part of verse 1 when he says, “but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions” (14:1b). In other words, the weaker brother’s actions and decisions on these matters ought not be used against them in a way that is discouraging. Stronger brothers are “not to pass judgment upon his scruples” (Moffatt). Instead, “The weak man should be accepted as the Christian brother he claims to be. One should not judge the thoughts which underlie his conduct” (F. Buchsel, TDNT, III, 950). Ultimately, Paul is admonishing the strong not to use their freedom to discourage the weak.
The underlining issue that probably plagued the church in Rome is revealed in verse 2—“One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only,…” (14:2). In this situation, those who are more liberal in their practices were tempted, perhaps to mock and ridicule those who chose to limit their diet. Perhaps they would call them superstitious or worse, misinformed. Still another accusation often raised by the strong against the weak is “do you think you are holier than me by this or that action?” or put more passively, “you probably think I’m a heathen for eating this.” These means of “passing judgment” have no place in the body of Christ and do nothing to promote the respect that Paul encourages here within the church.
However, on the flipside, neither are the “weak” to judge the “strong” for their exercise of freedom on issues. Paul continues in verse 3 and says, “The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted Him,” (14:3). The admonition cuts both ways. The strong tend to ridicule the weak for their sensitivities. The weak tend to pass judgment on the strong for doing things that make them feel uncomfortable.
Paul must have caught wind of this tendency in his interactions with the church in Rome and many recognize the same tension today. I’m guilty myself of raising an eyebrow at certain behaviors that I choose not to do that I see others doing—behaviors that, upon closer inspection, are not forbidden in the Scriptures. I’m sure some of the older members of our congregation can remember the first time they saw a woman wear pants to church! Yikes! Heaven forbid 😊. Such judgment and/or ridicule is not the proper way to promote respect in the church.
After all, as Paul wonders, “Who are you to judge the servant of another?...” (14:4). As Paul has said in verse 3, “God has accepted him” (and the aorist tense betrays that such acceptance is not-in progress, but is complete). It is God’s verdict that counts. This is especially true given the imagery that Paul employs here in verse 4—that of a servant and Master. Servants belong to the Master and therefore, they are accountable to Him. “If a servant is acceptable (see verse 3) to his master, it does not matter what his fellow servants think” (Morris, Romans, 479). Therefore, the “weak” ought not judge the “strong” for their presumed indulgences because in spite of what they presume, God has accepted them.
Paul concludes this first discussion of weak and strong brothers with the following summative statement, “to his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (14:4b). Though this statement is probably directed to the weak in their contempt or the strong, it applies both ways. God alone makes people stand (makes people saved), and weak/strong brothers ought not try to ridicule/judge people into their own brand of the sanctified life, for in so doing, they take the place of the Lord.
Your fellow congregates’ spiritual life is ultimately, between them and God. Remembering this goes a long way as we develop the respect that is required of us in the context of the church.
Scenario #2: Differing views on Peripheral Issues-14:5-9
Food and fellowship was not the only issue debated in the life of the church in Rome. There was also the issue of the observance or nonobservance of certain special days—“one person regards one day above another, another regard every day alike,…” (14:5a). Though some might be inclined to assume that Paul is talking about which day would serve as the Sabbath (Saturday as determined by the Jews or Sunday as chosen by the Christians), what is probably nearer to Paul’s concern are other days interspersed throughout the calendar that groups of people believed were worth celebrating—i.e. festivals, feasts, etc. Some, it seems, were inclined to celebrate specific events and reserved days to that end. Others lived their lives in such a way that every day was very much the same. Regardless of the exact nature of the debate concerning these “days,” one thing is certain—this was a peripheral issue that did not directly related to the gospel message in general and justification by faith in particular.
In Paul’s day, “days of observance” were peripheral matters that fomented hot debates. However, more recently, eschatological views, Calvinism vs. Armenianism, administration of the Lord’s Supper, church government, and other issues have divided churches and even created new denominations. However, every issue cited above is not a hill that I am willing to die on because it is not a salvation matter. News flash! Both pre and amillennials can be saved. We will find both Calvinists and armenianists in heaven. Yes, EVEN Methodists can be right with God 😊. Such distinctions, views, etc. are peripheral and as such these are hills that don’t deserve to be converted into fierce battlefields.
One can see reflections of this in Paul’s encouragement to Timothy when he says “As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus so that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith” (1 Tim. 1:3-4).
Concerning peripheral issues, Paul says, “each person must be fully convinced in his own mind” (4:5b). The verb means to completely fulfill and in this context suggests that people understand why and to what end they do/choose something. “To go along with what others do simply because they do it and without being convinced for oneself can be a dangerous practice” (Morris, Romans, 481). Such a practice is condemned by Paul here in Romans 14. What Paul is trying to direct people’s attention to is not necessarily the view one has on peripheral matters, but the heart behind such a view. This becomes clearer in verses 6-9.
“He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God, and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God,…” (14:6). As with so many things, it is the heart of a person that is of bigger concern to the Lord. Motivations matter most to God and these ought to be directed heavenward. Remember what Paul says in Colossians 3:17—“whatever you do in word or in deed, do all to the glory of God.”
Not only should members of the church direct their actions to the Lord, Paul reminds his audience that a life that is prepared to respect those of varying maturity levels and differing views on peripheral issues is not selfish or self-serving. He says “For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself” (14:7).
As a result, our very lives, not just our actions and motivations, ought to be lived as an offering to God—“For if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord, therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lords.” Don’t forget how this whole section of Paul’s letter to the Romans began in Romans 12:1—"Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God-this is your true and proper worship.” Recall also what Philippians 1:21 says—“for to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Why is Christ our Master? Why do we belong to Him? Why must we get over ourselves and under Christ?
Paul’s answer is simple—“For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living” (i.e. those who died in Christ and those still living in Christ). Christ died for you, purchasing you out of slavery of sin. Christ rose again so that he might pick you up and take you to your new home one day in heaven with Him. This is why Christians ought to devote their lives, their activities, and their motivations to the Lord and strive to keep the main thing the main thing in order to foster respect between brothers and sisters in Christ.
What is the “main thing?” Paul has just identified it in this last verse—Christ (divine Jesus) died (came as a man and was crucified) and lived again (rose bodily from the grave) that He might be Lord of your life (providing salvation). Other issues not directly related to this need not be causes of division and disrespect in the church.
Getting along within the church is made complicated in part by the varying levels of allowance people grant themselves in the freedom that they have in Christ and by the differing views on peripheral issues they endorse. However, Paul demands the church that in spite of these issues, respect must remain in the brethren if she is be sustained and successful in her mission. All of this is made possible when individuals within the church remember to keep the main thing the main thing—the deity, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—"For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him” (Col. 1:16). He is the purchaser of His people, the acceptor of the saved, and as such is the master whom we ought to be most concerned about pleasing.
Are you respectful of those around you in the context of this church? Or do your raised eyebrows and hidden gossip betray that you are ridiculing and/or judging your brothers and sisters? Are you keeping the main thing the main thing? Or do you major on the minor and allow peripheral matters to get in the way of your fellowship?
Tuesday, May 8, 2018
On windy roads here in the Blue Ridge area, one often sees conspicuous guardrails that help drivers stay on the pavement. These keep cars from falling into ditches or off cliffs. One might refer to guardrails as a grace that keep drivers and passengers safe as they journey from place to place. What if I told you that God’s Word offers spiritual guardrails that act in very much the same way? Like guardrails that we see on the roadways, Godly principles help keep believers from veering off into danger so that they might complete the journey that God has laid out for them. These guardrails are offered as a grace to God’s people so that they might live the lives to which they have been called. It is especially important, both for our personal edification and our evangelistic usefulness, not to transgress beyond their domain. In Romans 13:8-14, Paul draws attention to two guardrails that many might take for granted. However, after drawing attention to them and learning more about them, my prayer is that we would embrace the freedom and blessing that comes by living safely between them.
After his remarks concerning the relationship believers have with the state, Paul returns the focus of his presentation to those within the family of God. In so doing, Paul provides two underlining principles that act as fundamental guidelines keeping believers in check both with others and with themselves. The first of these is “love fulfills the law.” The initial encouragement offered to this end is given in verse 8—“Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another,…”. This passage suggests that any debts incurred should be repaid promptly—that is all debts save one. There is one debt that is ongoing, the debt to “love one another.” Citing Origen Sanday and Headlam write “Let your only debt that is unpaid be that of love—a debt which you should always be attempting to discharge in full, but will never succeed in discharging” (Sanday and Headlam, Romans, 373).
Like a loan with a large outstanding balance and an unusually high interest rate, the love that God desires from us and His interest in seeing it grow in our lives renders its payment a lifelong pursuit never to be paid off or forgotten.
When believers continue to pay their debt of love to one another, they fulfill the heart of the law—“for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law” (13:8b). Why is this? Because “All the various commands of the law are simply expressions of love. Love is the heart and souls of the commands…” (Schreiner, Romans, 692). In other words, by loving, a believer puts the law into practice and in so doing fulfills God’s commands.
Elsewhere Paul reiterates the supremacy of love by saying “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).
By perpetually paying the debt of love, Paul suggests that one will successfully fulfill the standards of God—standards that were originally given to promote righteousness, order, and blessing within the community of God’s. But how?
To explain how this takes place, Paul references four of the ten commandments that concern interpersonal relationships—“For this, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’…” These elements of the decalogue, unlike laws relating to circumcision, the sabbath, and food, represent timeless moral norms that God intended to be adopted irrespective of dispensation or ethnicity. That said Paul adds the following: "and if there is any other commandment” (13:9a). This inclusion means that Paul believed love to be compatible with other moral norms that he didn’t choose to mention by name.
All of God’s moral norms and timeless commands are “summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (13:9b). This reference indicates that love is not only the center of Paul’s Christian ethic; it is the foundation of the ethic that Jesus Himself espouses.
Matthew 22:34-40-“But when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered themselves together. One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’ And He said to him, ‘”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.’”
By recalling this episode in Romans 13, Paul argues that love is the fulfillment of the law insofar as the law is concerned to ensure that no harm is done to a neighbor (see 13:10). He is not saying that love leads believers to observe all the demands of the Mosaic law (Morris, Romans, 502). Instead, he affirms that by loving one another the intended principle of the law is satisfied.
That Paul fixes concerns of love to the law of God is important for “if love is cut free from any commandments, it easily dissolves into sentimentality, and virtually any course of action can be defended as ‘loving’” (Schreiner, Romans, 694). Though one doesn’t typically connect love to the law, godly love is witnessed when it complies with the laws that God provides. For example “making love” with someone other than your wife (committing adultery) is not really an expression of love at all and might be more appropriately referred to as “making sin.” One might say “but I love her” or “but I love him” but they are deceiving themselves and mistaking lust for something for…love.
Quite simply, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (13:10). What Paul teaches in 13:8-10 is that love exercised in the context of the church is a guardrail that keeps people within the law of God (that is in principle) and from falling into the ditch of transgressions. One cannot go wrong by loving others—that is loving others in a way that corresponds to the law of God.
The other guardrail that Paul provides the church as he wraps up chapter 13 involves looking ahead—an eschatological guardrail. Ultimately the guiding principle may be distilled as follows—"Living well requires forward thinking.” To this end Paul says “Do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than we believed” (13:11). Elsewhere, Paul’s comments suggest that today, right now, need not be wasted.
2 Corinthians 6:2-“for He says, ‘At the acceptable time I listened to you,
And on the day of salvation I helped you.’ Behold, now is “the acceptable time,” behold, now is ‘the day of salvation” (see also 1 Cor. 7:29-31).
And on the day of salvation I helped you.’ Behold, now is “the acceptable time,” behold, now is ‘the day of salvation” (see also 1 Cor. 7:29-31).
In 2 Corinthians 6 and Romans 13 “salvation” is understood as both a present and future reality. This present and future element of salvation indicate that people ought to wake up now in light of what is coming soon. Paul argues that people ought to take advantage of the opportunity for salvation at present and live in that reality because of what is about to take place. The “sleep” referred to here is the moral drowsiness that characterizes those who belong to the night—i.e. those who are lulled into lethargy and are conformed to the present age of evil. God’s people must not be caught drowsy. Because,…
“The night is almost gone,…” (13:12a). In other words, the evil age is nearly over. Paul holds nothing back when he describes the current world as a place that exists in perpetual twilight. Elsewhere Paul even says that Jesus died to save us from this darkness--“who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (13:12a). Because of Jesus’ work, believers can rest in knowing that—“the night is almost gone and the day is near” (13:12b). This “day” anticipates the day of the Lord—the same day that the New Testament makes much of as it envisions a glorious future.
Acts 2:20-“The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood,
Before the great and glorious day of the Lord shall come.”
Before the great and glorious day of the Lord shall come.”
1 Thess. 5:2-“For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night.”
2 Peter 3:10-“ But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.”
Paul refers to this glorious day as both “near” and “nearer to us than we believed.” If this was true 2000 years ago, it is even more so today!
Given that salvation is available now and will be completed soon, Paul says, “Therefore, let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light” (13:12b). What is one of the first things people do after they wake up? They get dressed! The same must be true of God’s people once that have awoken from their sinful slumber. However, not just any kind of clothes will do for God’s people—they are to adorn “armor of light.” The imagery is a military one, perhaps that of a soldier putting aside nightwear to put on his armor (Morris, Romans, 504). Being dressed for success—battle ready and prepared—is a theme that Paul revisits in greater detail in Ephesians.
Ephesians 6:10-18-“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.”
In Ephesians 4 and Romans 13:8-14, one's readiness for what is going on now and for what is coming in the end is betrayed by what he/she is wearing. Once awake and properly dressed, it is incumbent upon God’s people to live accordingly—“Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy” (13:13). Notice that the behavior that should characterize God’s people is indicative of the “day.” Those activities that are discouraged—“carousing and drunkenness…sexual promiscuity and sensuality, etc.” typically take place both literally and figuratively under the cover of night. In contrast to such behaviors, the church is to “walk in the light as He is in the light” (1 John 1:7).
Rather than endorse behaviors of wickedness, believers are to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (13:14).
To clothe oneself with Christ means that one renounces the wicked works of darkness and clothe oneself with the light.
Who are you wearing? Is often a question asked of celebrities on a red carpet. Answers typically include Versace, Dior, Zach Posen, Prada, and any number of gifted designers. Stars get dressed in their best to bolster their profile and place their wealth/style on display. However, when a believer puts on the armor of light and walks onto the world’s stage “who are you wearing?” becomes an entirely different inquiry. If ever they are asked, believers can proudly claim Jesus Christ and reveal the hope that they have in Him both for today and for tomorrow.
In putting on Christ, believers must “make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts” (13:14). To behave in this way while clothed in armor designed by Christ would be comparable to mowing the lawn in a designer gown—it doesn’t do the dress justice and just looks really weird! Those clad in God’s armor are expected to abstain from sinful behaviors and not to give an inch, compromise, or loosen standards in a way that is unbecoming of a soldier in the Lord’s army. The battle is nearly won and we must be ready. Act accordingly, especially now that we look the part!
The road that is laid out for us is found between two guardrails that are designed to keep us on the straight and narrow. The ethical guardrail involves loving others, thereby satisfying the principles given to us in the law. The eschatological guardrail is our expectation of future salvation from this dark world that encourages righteous living. When we love others and anticipate what is coming we are living the lives that God has laid out for us to live.
Two questions need to be asked of each of us in light of what has been shared. First, what are your debts? Love is something that will always be required of us and betrays the fact that we are disciples of God. Choose this day to satisfy God’s law by showing love to a brother or sister in Christ in some tangible/practical way. Second, who are you wearing? If you are still in your Pjs you might still be asleep in the night of your sin, giving into behaviors that happen behind closed doors and under the cover of darkness. Choose this day to put on the armor of light/put on Christ. Those who have already done so, commit yourselves to keep your righteous garments unstained by sin.
Tuesday, May 1, 2018
The controversy surrounding the relationship between the church and state has been debated for decades. What is the government’s role in private religious matters? Is there a line that the church is unable to cross in the public square? Answers to these and many other questions have been and will continue to be teased out in courts and discussed among the public. However, very little debate/investigation is required when it comes to understanding a believer’s role as a citizen. In Romans 13:1-7, Paul articulates exactly how responsible Christian citizens are to relate to three institutions within the state. Today we are going to enroll in Paul’s civics for sojourner’s course and see how we measure up when it comes to our relationship with the earthly authorities God has placed over us.
1. The Church and Government-13:1-2
After instructing the church in how to live the Christian life, love those in the fellowship of believers, and relate to all kinds of people in chapter 12, Paul zeroes in on the church’s relationship with the state. Though the encouragements Paul articulates in the beginning of chapter 13 apply to “every person” (13:1), given that this letter is written to the church in Rome, the message is primarily intended for those in the church of Rome. Rome was the state in charge when this was written and as we read what Paul describes in these verses, this context ought to take up residence in our minds. Though we might be tempted to complain about how hard these principles prove to be in our day and age here in America, consider the fact that Rome was an empire led by Caesar—a man who many were convinced was God. Not only that, Rome didn’t have a bill of rights, free speech, freedom of religion, representative government, democratic elections, etc. As difficult as things prove to be in our context, let’s not forget these principles were originally written to a church facing very real pressure and eventual persecution in a pagan society with little to no Judeo-Christian history/point of reference.
When one remembers this, what Paul writes takes on an entirely difference nuance. Concerning the church and its relationship with the government Paul says, “Every person is to be in subjection to the Governing authorities” (13:1a). Again, not only is this good advice for all, it is especially important for those in the church. Believers are not to consider themselves exempt from being good, respectful, and obedient citizens in this world just because they belong to the next world. The best citizens of any current state ought to be sanctified sojourners awaiting the kingdom of God. But why? Why are people in general and believers in particular to submit to the government?
Paul provides two reasons in the latter part of verse 1. First, no authority exists apart from God’s will. As hard as it may be to believe, God’s hand is never taken off the wheel as He steers the nations in the directions that accomplish His plan and return glory back Him.
Psalm 22:28-“for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations.”
Job 12:23-“He makes the nations great, then destroys them; He enlarges the nations, then leads them away.”
Acts 17:26-“and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation,”
Not only is God’s hand upon the steering wheel of the nations, he has appointed the drivers. Paul continues with the second reason believers ought to submit to governing authorities by saying “and those which exist are established by God” (13:1). “This means that no governing authority exists apart from God’s will and determination” (Schreiner, Romans, 682). In fact, even in the tribulation described in Revelation 13, the rule of the beast (i.e. the Antichrist), is not outside the scope of God’s sovereign control as power is “given” to him to do what must be done to accomplish God’s will in the end times. Ultimately, Paul argues that no governing power is achieved apart from God’s sovereign will.
Proverbs 21:1-“The king's heart is like channels of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever He wishes.”
If this is true—that God is directing the nations and that God has appointed the governing authorities—then the implications revealed in verse 2 naturally follow. First, “whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God” (13:2a). The person who “resists” is described by means of a participle (a form of antitassw) that is the antithesis of the same verb found in verse 1 for “submit” (tassw). The present participle form of the verb “resists” indicates that the person Paul has in mind is opposed both psychologically and behaviorally to the authority that God has placed in power. Perhaps a familiar term that would summarize the thought here is “anarchist.” Those who openly rebel against the authorities that God has ordained are openly rebelling against God’s own ordinance. Christians are not to be anarchists who seek to, either in attitude or action, supplant the governments God has placed over them. To do so is tantamount to undermining God’s sovereignty.
In so doing, one will suffer the second implication that Paul reveals in verse 2—“and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves” (13:2b). The “condemnation” or “judgment” envisioned here could either refer to punishment inflicted by the authorities themselves or the divine judgment of God. Most likely both are in view here. After all “the punishment carried out on the order of the authorities is itself the way the divine judgment works out” due to the transitive property (Morris, Romans, 462).
Pick any violent protest that you can think of and you can see evidence of how this happens. Those who protest authorities and in their protest transgress laws/ordinances in the process, are pepper-sprayed, collected, handcuffed, served, fined, and even imprisoned depending on the laws that have been broken. God has placed governing authorities in the world as a grace to keep the world from totally tearing itself/nations/municipalities/etc. apart. Therefore, those who seek to circumvent and/or undermine their power will be judged accordingly.
The church’s relationship with the government ought to be one of submission and obedience, not anarchy and rebellion. Then and only then will God’s people prove good citizens in this or any other country while they anticipate a heavenly kingdom.
2. The Church and the Rule of Law-13:3-5
If the church has a good relationship with the governing authorities that God has ordained, then the second relationship that Paul discusses ought to bode well also—the relationship between the church and the rule of law. Paul states “For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil” (13:3a). Now, before the volume is turned up on the question in the back of your mind so much that you can’t hear anything else that I am saying, let us go ahead and throw it out there: “What if the governing authorities are commanding evil?” or “What if the government does prove to be a source of fear in spite of my good behavior like say in the case of persecution?” These issues were not lost on Paul. He planted churches under the threat of persecution from wicked emperors who decreed all kinds of wickedness. That said, Paul “is presenting the norm, laying down conditions for living in a state in normal times, not covering every eventuality” (Morris, Romans, 463). Generally speaking, those who do good (upstanding citizens) ought not fear the authorities. It is instead those who do evil that ought to fear.
Paul asks, “Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same…” (13:3b). In other words, if you do not want a problem with the authorities God has placed, don’t make a problem with them. Good citizenship sown in the context of the state generally reaps good in return.
Paul continues and suggests that the rule of law and the authorities that execute it “is a minister (servant) of God to you for good,…” (13:4a). However exalted he may be among people, any ruler and power he/she wields is merely a servant before God. Also, these laws are given not to make life more difficult, but more fair, orderly, safe, and harmonious—“to you for good.” Just consider some of the laws on the books and how they contribute to the greater good for all people.
Laws prohibiting murder help keep the world from reading like a dystopian novel. Drug laws keep harmful and addictive substances from turning entire populations from becoming slaves to destructive habits. Most building codes help keep homes and places of business strong and safe. Even the pesky speed limit encourages safety on the roads so that people do not get injured or perish in a free for call case of extreme bumper cars. In all these examples and much more, laws and the authorities who enforce them are contributing to the greater good.
However, these only work if there are consequences when/if these are not obeyed—“But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil” (13:4b). Paul is emphatic on this point—”be afraid” (lit. “fear continually”). Why? Because authorities do not possess great punitive capacity for nothing. Whether this reference to the “sword” directly implies the death penalty or not, Paul suggests that the government has been handed the capacity to punish transgressions to keep order in any state and that such punishments will and should fit the crime. Here again Paul uses the term “servant” to describe the rule of law in the hands of God-appointed rulers. In this case, the law is an enforcer who with holy wrath avenges wrongs committed in the context of the state.
As he concludes his comment on the church’s relationship with the rule of law Paul says “Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake” (13:5). Ultimately Paul is arguing that people ought to be scared into obedience and gently encouraged toward submission to the rule of law both for the good that it brings if and when it is followed and for the punishment that it can dish out if and when it is transgressed. In essence, Paul appeals both to the best and worst parts of people as he encourages a good relationship between the rule of law in the church.
Ultimately, God’s people are to be rule-followers, not rule-breakers. Then and only then will they sojourn well in this world while they anticipate the next.
3. The Church and Taxes-13:6-7
Finally, Paul tackles the relationship the church has with taxes—“For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing” (13:6). For Paul, taxes are not “just an arbitrary impost. They are the means of carrying on responsible government” in service to its citizens and ultimately in compliance with the will of God (Morris, Romans, 466).
He continues “render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor” (13:7). In this final admonition Paul uses two words for tax—foroV (tax) and teloV (custom). The first refers to taxes paid directly to the nation (i.e. property, income, etc.). The second refers to taxes levied on goods (indirect taxes). Both are to be paid according to Paul. In fact, in many ways Paul’s encouragement here mirrors a similar encouragement given by Jesus in Luke 20:20-26.
Luke 20:20-26-“So they watched Him, and sent spies who pretended to be righteous, in order that they might catch Him in some statement, so that they could deliver Him to the rule and the authority of the governor. They questioned Him, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that You speak and teach correctly, and You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?’ But He detected their trickery and said to them, ‘Show Me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?’ They said, ‘Caesar’s.’ And He said to them, ‘Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were unable to catch Him in a saying in the presence of the people; and being amazed at His answer, they became silent.”
Not only are God’s people supposed to trade in taxes due, but they are also to trade in fear and honor (“fear to whom fear; and honor to whom honor”-12:7). This betrays a recurring theme in the Scriptures. Money is connected to the heart of a person. In fact, the love of money is even called the root of all evil (1 Tim. 6:10). In the context of the church and tithes/offerings, money given outwardly betrays inner faith and obedience to God and trust in His ability to supply one’s needs (Malachi 3:10ff; Mark 12:41-44). Here, Paul expands the connection between money and the heart to the state suggesting that paying taxes is an outward concrete manifestation of a submissive and respectful spirit that believers ought to have with governing authorities.
Responsible sojourners pay their taxes, they don’t withhold what is due.
When it comes to a believer’s responsibility as a citizen, the church’s relationship with the government ought to be one of submission and obedience, not anarchy and rebellion. God’s people are to be rule-followers, not rule-breakers. Christians ought to give what is due in taxes, not withhold what is needed. Then and only then will God’s people prove good citizens in this or any other earthly kingdom while they anticipate a heavenly kingdom. Then and only then will the Lord’s children sojourn well in this world while they anticipate the next. How do you measure up? If a sanctified civics test was administered today, would you pass? Christians ought to be the best citizens in any society under any appointed leader as they are ambassadors of a greater kingdom led by a perfect king. This is our responsibility to the state.
That said, as already mentioned, these principles, though generally applicable, suffer certain exceptions. No one understood this better than Paul who lived in a world in which emperor worship was encouraged, the church was persecuted, and there were plenty of reasons not to hand over resources to the regimes in power. However, for the sake of variety, I want to point to a case study from the life and times of the apostle Peter.
Acts 5:27-32-“When they had brought them, they stood them before the Council. The high priest questioned them, saying, ‘we gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.’ But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.’”
This passage teaches that anytime the authorities/laws of man contrast with the authority/law of God, believers are to give precedent to the Lord. This is the only permissible form of civil disobedience sanctioned by the Scriptures, illustrated in the New Testament, and sanctioned for sanctified sojourners. Aside from this caveat, let your civic light shine brightly before natural men who are finding loopholes, subverting the rule of law, and railing against any and all authorities.