Dan Popp
The sword
Romans: The most important book ever written
By Dan Popp
June 5, 2011

...not avenging yourselves, beloved, but give place to the wrath, for it hath been written, "Vengeance is Mine, I will recompense again, saith the Lord." — Romans 12:19 YLT

I've gone back into the previous chapter to start our discussion of Romans 13 because there was a question left unanswered at the last meeting of the Romans Book Club: If Christians may not reciprocate when someone does us harm, does that mean that justice must wait until the Final Judgment? Is the Kingdom of God so other-worldly that we should expect no justice on earth?

Chapter 13

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 the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. [NIV]

Paul, who would be executed by the civil authorities, is not telling us to be parties to state wickedness in the name of God. He's telling us to be good citizens. And, as Wesley suggests, perhaps the apostle is writing for a broader audience, assuring Roman magistrates that Christians are not enemies of the empire simply because they refuse to say, "Caesar is Lord."

For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God's minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. [NKJV]

Peter gave almost identical instructions to his readers:

    For the Lord's sake, respect all human authority — whether the king as head of state, or the officials he has appointed. For the king has sent them to punish those who do wrong and to honor those who do right. It is God's will that your honorable lives should silence those ignorant people who make foolish accusations against you. For you are free, yet you are God's slaves, so don't use your freedom as an excuse to do evil. Respect everyone, and love your Christian brothers and sisters. Fear God, and respect the king. 1 Peter 2:13-17, NLT

Wherefore it is necessary to be subject, not only because of the wrath, but also because of the conscience. [YLT]

Note these words, the wrath. It's the same phrase used in 12:19 when admonishing us not to try to even the score, but to give place to the wrath. Most translators insert "of God," and divine wrath is certainly Paul's meaning. But without those two added words it's easier to see the link between the wrath in 12:19 and the wrath channeled by godly government in 13:5.

The quote, Vengeance is mine...saith the Lord, has been used to argue against capital punishment. But we can see here that some of God's vengeance is administered by government's sword. This section as a whole supports the death penalty — shocking, considering that the government of Rome was the same regime that executed Christ!

Consider the sly warning, he does not bear the sword in vain, or for nothing. A sword has no other purpose than to wound or kill human beings. To update the language, we might say, "You see that service revolver on the policeman's hip? It's not a fashion accessory!" If you do not obey the law, under certain circumstances the officer could be justified before God for killing you.

What is the divinely-sanctioned purpose of government? It is to be a terror...to evil. It is to "put the fear of God," as we might say, into those who have none. It is to act as God's agent in punishing wrongdoing, even to the point of removing from this world those who commit heinous crimes.

According to Scripture, the Creator has not ordained government to feed us, to heal us, to educate us, to employ us, to guarantee a comfortable retirement, to insure us, to loan money to us, nor even to rebuild our homes after tornadoes. "Government is force," as George Washington acknowledged. Leo Tolstoy called it "an association of men who do violence to the rest of us." A sword doesn't make a very good bandage, and a gun is a dangerous eating utensil. If government is God's servant, then it must do all that He has commissioned it to do, but no more.

For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. [ESV] ...who give their full time to governing. [NIV]

Because of
what? Why do we pay taxes, according to the Bible? To fund this very thing, the justice function of government. Taxes are to support the civil agents of God as they provide the constant maintenance of public order [Phillips]. For this reason — singular; this reason alone — you pay taxes.

Nowhere in the Bible, that I've found, does God command government to give handouts to people. In Egypt under Joseph (Genesis 41) He did use government to save people from starvation — but the stored grain of the fat years was sold to people in the lean years (see vv. 56, 57). There is no free food from government in the Bible, even in the direst famine.

But the believers of AD 58 didn't need a primer on the purpose of government, as we do; they needed a primer on the Christian life, and that is what Paul is giving them in the final chapters of this letter.

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. Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. [NASB]

Jesus summed up all the Commandments in two: Love God with everything you've got, and Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. If we can do those (and by His grace and His Spirit we can — 8:4), then we'll find that not only the divine Law, but even righteous human laws, have been "written on our hearts."

Skipping to verse 11:

And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. [NKJV]

here is the perfection of our bodies, souls and spirits at the return of Christ. One word about the recent, notorious date-setter: It's natural to joke about those who foolishly predict something that Jesus said could not be predicted. But we must not joke about the bodily, visible return of Christ, because that is "the blessed hope" that has sustained and purified Christians since the beginning. The later it gets, the nearer we are to that joyful and terrifying Day.

It is far on in the night; day is near. Let us therefore throw off the deeds of darkness and put on our armour as soldiers of the light. Let us behave with decency as befits the day; no revelling or drunkenness, no debauchery or vice, no quarrels or jealousies! Let Christ Jesus himself be the armour that you wear; give no more thought to satisfying the bodily appetites. [NEB] ...make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. [NRSV]

Paul is always thinking about our war between the spirit and the flesh, and giving us ways to think about it so as to win it. Set your mind on the things of the Spirit (8:5 ff) he says, decisively dedicate all the members of your body to Him (12:1), allow your mind to be renewed (12:2), make no provision for the flesh (13:14) — don't even pencil it in your day planner.

I said last time that these final chapters contain a lot of practical instructions having to do with "getting along" in our new lives as Christians. Next time we'll look at one of the contentious issues of the first century, and how we can apply the apostle's words here and now.

© Dan Popp


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