Here in Romans 13, I think, Paul is continuing the theme he started in chapter 12. There he urged us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God in worship. Which means allowing God to transform us ever more into the likeness of his Son Jesus. In chapter 12, Paul explored what that meant in terms of our interactions with individuals. And here in Romans 13 he moves to consider what it means to worship God with our lives when it comes to those in authority over us.
In effect, Paul urges us to obey, honour and respect our authorities and to pay our taxes and government fees. Why? Because all authority stems from God. Civil authorities are God’s servants sent to punish those who are doing wrong. So, if we do no wrong (that is, if we are like Christ), we should have no cause to fear the authorities.
Of course, there are times when God’s servants, the authorities, rebel against their God-given mandate. Times when instead of punishing wrong and commending good, they instead commend evil and punish the good. In not too many years Roman Christians would face persecution from the authorities for daring to worship Christ. In like manner the early church was attacked by the Jewish authorities for preaching Christ crucified and raised. Jesus himself did no wrong, and yet was executed as a criminal by the authorities.
What are we to make of this section, then. Simply this, I think: our default position towards those in authority should be to submit to them. Unless, of course, such submission is contrary to the will of God. Even if God’s servants the authorities rebel, we other servants – Christians – should not rebel from doing right.
But what prompted Paul to write the first half of this chapter. Was it that there were those who thought that, as Christians, they were above the law of the land? That their freedom in Christ meant that they could do whatever they wanted? If so, Paul’s word here is a sharp restorative: God’s desire is that we do what is right. That is why he has gifted societies with authorities.
God desires that we do what is right. In other words, he desires that all that we do flows from our unending obligation to love. Love does no wrong to others, it fulfils the requirements of the law. When we love, we are living as God desires his people to live! Why an obligation to love? Because God first loved us. We are, after all, speaking about worshipping with our whole lives the God who loved us enough to rescue us from our selves. How could we worship the Lord by refusing to love.
The urgency for offering ourselves as living sacrifices – for being transformed by God by the renewing of our minds – is as keen today as it was when Paul first wrote. In fact, it is keener. The day of Jesus’ return is sooner now than ever before. And because we belong to that day, our lives should reflect it. (That isn’t to say that the coming day is the reason for our lives being changed. It is a motivation, true. But the reason is given in Romans 11-12: God has shown us incredible grace and mercy.)
So this is my desire and prayer. God – transform me. Renew my mind, make me more like Jesus. Help me to put off my dirty deeds, and put on the shining armour of right living. I’m not very good at that. So please, let me clothe myself in your presence, Jesus, even as your Spirit makes me more like you. I’m so encouraged to know that you are with me, that I am already right with the Father because of you, Jesus. Father – please help me to not let myself think about ways to indulge my evil desires. They’re still there – the ones that we haven’t dealt with yet. Even some of the old ones still pop up now and again. But you’ve done everything for me. So I dedicate my life to you, and I will try to focus my thoughts on you – not on indulging in sin. Help me in this, please. Thank you.