Wake up call - Romans 13:1-14
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Meet Jack and Jill. Jack is an enthusiastic Christian. On Monday evening, Jack meets Jill at a local café and says, ‘I had a great time at church yesterday. The worship was out of this world. The Music Group had never sounded so good, why, at one point I thought I had actually died and gone straight to heaven. I am sure that I even saw Scott straining to raise his arms in praise, but, not to worry, he managed to resist it.’ Jill likes to shock. She is a radical Christian. She looks at her friend knowingly and with a twinkle in her eye says, ‘I had a great time of worship myself today. I have been busy filling in my tax form- not exactly Keith Getty but I am sure the apostle Paul would have approved. In fact the worship went on as I popped into the voting booth to vote in the local government election. And it reached a fantastic climax when I called around on Mrs Smith, our elderly neighbour, to do her shopping.’ At this point, Jack thinks Jill has lost it altogether. Tell me: who has the right view of worship- Jack or Jill? Well, before we decide to push both down the hill, the truth is-both of them. Yes, gathering together with God’s people before God’s throne is worship- giving God his worth. We may want to be more precise and call it ‘public worship.’ But Jill is right too. Worship is not something we simply do in terms of praise on Sunday, but what we do in work on Monday.
You see, back in chapter 12 Paul has already described his understanding of worship as offering the whole of our bodies as ‘living sacrifices to God’ which comes about as our minds are transformed by the Word with the result that we are not conformed to the World. And because Christians are people who are now rightly related to God through faith in Jesus Christ, they want to know what God’s will is for their lives so that they can be rightly related to other Christians on the one hand and non- Christians on the other. Well, it is the latter that Paul grapples with in chapter 13 just how we are to relate in a non-Christian setting. And you can summarise what he says under three commands: Be submissive, be loving, and be expectant.
First of all, be submissive vv 1-7. Now it is sad to say that many Christians lead what in effect are compartmentalised lives. So there is the ‘God box’ filled with things like church, family, evangelism, reading the Bible, praying, and the ‘non-God box’, containing politics, finance, building a house, watching telly. But Paul will not allow for that rigid spiritual apartheid to go on because everything belongs to God- Romans 11: 36 ‘For from him and through him and to him are all things.’ And the fact that God cares about every area of our existence shows itself in the way God orders the two communities in which we find ourselves as believers- the church and the country. In chapter 12 Paul has shown how God has given gifts to everyone who is a Christian so that the Christian community can work together for their mutual benefit. Now he is saying that God has done the same in the country in which we happen to find ourselves. The fact that God is equally the Lord of both comes out in the language he uses to describe politicians and civil servants, he speaks of them as being God’s ‘ministers’ in v 4 and indeed God’s ‘priests’ in v 6-the ‘leiturgoi’, from which we get our word ‘liturgy’. So while people like Lee, Scott, Jake and myself can rightly be described as God’s ministers, as we minister the Word of God to the people of God, even non-Christians like Diana Johnson MP and Boris Johnson Mayor of London, can also be described as God’s ‘servants’ in that they ‘minister’ law and order in the nation. But notice that Paul does not limit this to just good rulers, the government we happen like, but even bad rulers, one’s we don’t like. In the case of the people living in Rome, that was Nero who was not exactly Mother Theresa. Now, Paul spells out for us three things about all governments, whether we like them or not.
First, the basis of government vv 1- 2, ‘Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against that authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.’ Paul is saying that government is God given and not man made. And just in case we miss the point, he says it twice and draws the logical inference, namely, that to rebel against government is to rebel against God. Rulers have a delegated and derived authority. It is not absolute, it is given on trust. You see, man’s original role, as we see in Genesis 1 and 2, was to exercise authority over the world, and as numbers increased with people living in communities then some form of rule of law would be required to enable people to live together. But with the fall, government is even more necessary to curb our wicked tendencies. This means that God prefers order over chaos anytime, for this not only reflects his own character, but ultimately what is for people’s good.
Which brings us on to the purpose of government vv 3- 4, ‘For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong? Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.’
You see, at its most basic, the role of government is to restrain evil and promote good. A justice system is needed so that wrongdoing is punished. This links back to what we were looking at the other week at the end of Romans 12 where Paul says that we are not to engage in acts of revenge, ‘Vengeance is mine says the Lord.’ This raises the question as to how God going to administer justice- vengeance? The answer: He does it through the state; the magistrate is an ‘agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.’ At least that is what should be happening. In a society like ours, we surrender some of our basic rights on the understanding that they will be taken up by government on our behalf. So I surrender the right to protect my person or property by the use of force on the understanding that the government does it for me instead. Also I expect that if a crime has been committed against me, then that person is punished for it. On the other hand, those who do good in the community should be commended, which I guess to some extent the honours system in our country was an attempt to do express.
But a crisis begins to occur when these two primary functions of a government begin to break down or are reversed. It is dispiriting, to say the least, when sentences are given out which are far too lenient or when evil seems to be promoted and good is penalized. That is when the temptation will be for people to take the law into their own hands and you have the formation of vigilante groups and the like, then the first step has been made towards societal breakdown.
Which leads us on to the limits of government vv 5- 7 ‘Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience? This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.’
The role of the state is to order life in such a way that people are free to go about their lawful business unmolested. So we are to submit to rulers because our consciences tell us that it is the right thing to do. Accordingly we should pay taxes to enable the government to function in this way, not to be hampered by lack of cash to do what will be good for the citizens of that country. And so we are to show due respect to those who have to carry out these tasks on God’s behalf.
Now I am sure that as we have been looking at this the thought would have crossed your mind that it is patently obvious that not all governments behave in this way. There are some rulers who far from being God’s agents for good and seem to be more like Satan’s agents for evil. Let’s just think about that for a moment.
We can all think of cases where governments, instead of acting as servants under God, starting acting tyrannically as god- think Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia. What are Christians to do then? To some extent Paul has hinted at the way ahead when in v 5 he refers to the conscience. This is another area in which no government has a right to interfere – a person’s conscience. Remember what happened to Peter and John after they had been arrested and flogged in Acts 4 for preaching forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus. They were told by the authorities to stop. This is how they replied: Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.’ When it comes to a clear choice between obeying God or man then God must come first and we must be willing to pay the price. Of course this was what these Christians had to do a few years after Paul wrote this letter. Tradition has it that Paul paid the ultimate price by being beheaded on the Ossian Way. The tragedy of living in this world is that Romans 13 can so easily become twisted into the horror of Revelation 13 whereby the government becomes not a servant of God but an instrument of Satan, it becomes the beast.
So what are we to do as a church and as Christians when we face governments who have overstepped the mark? Well, one person who gave this a great deal of thought was the 17th century minister, Samuel Rutherford in his book ‘Lex Rex’ Law is King. He argued that we have to make a distinction between the office of a civil servant and the person who is the civil servant. Christians are commanded to respect the office, say of Prime Minister, but if the person who occupies that office acts contrary to God’s law, it is our duty to challenge him. So whether it is a government minister or a Bishop, if what they are saying and doing is contrary to what God has said in Scripture, whatever their office, they as people stand under God’s judgment and it is our duty to draw their attention to that fact and in some cases seek their removal. And the motivation behind this should not be our own personal preferences, but other people’s good- the principle of love. Do you see?
And so we come to the call to be loving vv 8-10 ‘Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbour as yourself." Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.’
As well as obeying civil laws, Christians are to obey the great law- the law of love. Practically, this means that Christians are not to be scroungers- debts should be paid, says Paul. But there is one debt that can never be paid- the debt of love. Whilst there can come a time when we say ‘I have paid enough’ –the mortgage has been settled for instance, there never comes a point when the Christian can say, ‘I have loved enough’, it just goes on and on. Here Paul takes the second table of the 10 commandments which are all to do with human relations and says they are summed up in one command, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself. Love doesn’t harm people by stealing their property, their spouse or their life. Love does the exact opposite it gives. Do you see what Paul is saying? He is saying that Christians are to be the best citizens around. They should be the sort of people everyone would want to have living next door to them, teaching them in school, caring for them in hospital. This is not to say that only Christians can behave in this way, but that Christians especially should behave in this way.
To some extent this forms part of the answer to those who say, ‘It doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you are sincere. Christians are not better than anyone else.’ Let me tell you something: A number of years ago, the social critic, Denis Prager was debating the Oxford atheist philosopher Jonathan Glover. He said, ‘If you Professor Glover, were stranded at the midnight hour in a desolate Los Angeles street and if, as you stepped out of your car with fear and trembling, you were suddenly to hear the weight of pounding footsteps behind you, and you saw ten burly young men who had just stepped out of a dwelling coming toward you, would it or would it not make a difference to you to know that they were coming from a Bible study?’ Amidst howls of laughter from the auditorium, Glover conceded it would make a huge difference! You bet!
You see, there is a logical link between belief and behaviour. The fact is many people in our country who are, say, over the age of 50, still retain a vestige of Christian values even if they are not themselves Christian. They grew up within a cultural climate which took such virtues as honesty, integrity, hard work, and courtesy for granted. All of that was the result of hundreds of years of Christian influence. Much of that has now been destroyed. The Christian belief system which gave rise to these things has been discarded as oppressive and out of date and has been replaced by a free for all individualism with its focus on personal pleasure. The result is the, ‘what is in it for me and tough on the rest’, culture. But you cannot have it both ways. You cannot declare transcendent values and God’s law as non-existent and yet demand the sort of behaviour which flows from those laws. People will turn around and say ‘so what? Why shouldn’t I do what I want to do?’ And you have no moral answer you can give. And of course in such a deteriorating culture like ours, Christians are going to stand out all the more as belonging to a different world living under a different King. Their children, if raised properly will be different too, because they really will believe that it is right to love your neighbour as yourself simply because God says so. And they will also do this because they know this world is not the be all and end all, for there is a world to come.
Hence the final point- be expectant vv 11- 14. ‘And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature’
Paul is saying that since we are now living in the last days, we have to do three things: wake up, get up and dress up. Christians need to be alert to what is going on. This is not the time for dozing, we need to wake up to what is happening all around us and not simply go with the flow. Neither should we be lying around like folk do at night, dawn is about to break with the coming of Jesus, so get up- don’t waste your life. We also need a change of clothing, putting off activities which people do under the cover of darkness- drinking too much, having sex outside marriage, back biting and being riddled with jealousy. Instead, Christians are to dress up, so they are ready for battle, clothing themselves with the character of Jesus, using their time not to indulge their fantasies but to express their faith.
Friends, you can look upon our present situation with its increasing paganism and social degeneration as an insurmountable problem from which we retreat or as an exciting opportunity into which we advance in order to show to a needy and desperate world that there is another way, a ‘Third Way’, the way of Christ. Well, here it is, and God says - take it!
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