Every soul is to be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God, and those which exist are established by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. 3 For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; 4 for (that authority) is a servant of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a servant of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. 5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; respect to whom respect (is due); and honor to whom honor (Rom13:1-7)
Many people are likely to have a problem with Paul’s teaching here: the clue’s in the picture – the debauched Christian-persecuting Emperor Nero (r. CE54-68) will have been the Roman Church’s civic leader at the time Paul wrote his pastoral letter (c. CE56). It was hardly the case that good Christian folk need have no fear of Nero or that they would receive his praise for faithfully following the teaching of their Lord (v3).
So Paul’s comments are something of a generalization. They nevertheless contained important lessons, particularly for the fledgling churches over which he had oversight. It will not have been obvious to all that as followers of the Messiah and in the context of the Kingdom of God on earth that was being inaugurated, Christians were obliged to pay the exorbitant taxes that were being asked of them, still less that they were to regard pagan emperors and kings as in any sense God’s ministers (v6). Paul writes elsewhere that such should be supported in prayer “in order that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty (1Tim2:2). He was also making the point that, regardless of the quality of the current office holders, the authorities themselves were in accordance with God’s will and were for the wellbeing of everyone. Even Jesus Himself had affirmed God’s sanctioning of government in his dialogue with Pilate (Jn 19:11). Yet on another occasion Paul chides certain members of the Corinthian Church for taking their internal disputes to the civil authorities rather than settling them within the Church. In this instance Paul had described these authorities, or at least the people likely to be heading them as “unjust” – reminding the Church at the same time that ultimately it is they as the elect of God who were destined to judge the world (and angels) – so how much more should they be able to judge their own affairs? (1Cor6:1-3).
In terms of the motifs I have been expounding, this passage puts one in mind of the preaching of John the Baptist (which by implication had been highly commended by Jesus – Mt11:11)). “Puts one in mind” in the sense that what he had foretold has not, will not and cannot be fulfilled in the current age. And that is because of what, paraphrasing Paul, I have referred to as the fellowship (or administration) pertaining to the secret plan hidden in God (Eph3:1-10). John the Baptist did not anticipate the Kingdom of Heaven or the day of judgement that preceded it being the end of the space-time universe (cf. Lk3:7). He did however expect that the current order of things would radically change – not least with regard to the world’s government. “Every valley shall be exalted and every hill made low”; John will have envisaged that tyrannical and immoral leaders such as Herod and Nero would be replaced by godly and just rulers – individuals like King David who were “after God’s own heart”. The Messiah that John was heralding was expected to bring this about. But He did not, at least not in the way expected – to the extent that even before John was beheaded, he asked of Jesus “Are you the one or should we be looking for someone else?” (Lk7:20)
Was John so misguided in his aspirations? Not really, he was entirely faithful to the Old Testament Scriptures and the prophecy made concerning him at his birth. For he was to be the second Elijah who had come to “restore all things” [nota bene] in preparation for the coming of the Messiah (Lk1:17; Mt17:11). But as Jesus also declared concerning John – if you (Jews) can receive (my message), John is the Elijah to come (Mt11:14). Herein lies a further mystery, for they didn’t and John wasn’t as is surely evident from Mt17:11. Watch this space.