Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
Modern societies in North America have developed a political structure that favors the separation of church and state. For example, members of any religion in the United States have the freedom to express their spiritual convictions without fear of persecution or retaliation from the government.
At the same time, nonreligious people are protected from religion being imposed upon them by the state. Thus, there is freedom of religion and freedom from religion.
In this passage, the Apostle Paul makes it clear that everyone, religious or not, should be subject to the governing authorities. Why? Because the authorities that exist have been established by God. Since the Lord is sovereign over all the kingdoms of the earth, He decides who will receive this great power—whether the power is used for good or for evil.
For example, in Exodus 9:16-17 and quoted from Romans 9:17, the Lord states: “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed throughout the whole Earth.”
Jesus even told Pontius Pilate, who was an evil governor, that the authority came from God the Father (John 19:11). Daniel 4:17 also states that King Nebuchadnezzar, who was once an evil king, was appointed by God and humbled to repentance and faith in Him. These same principles exist today.
Finally, the last verse here states that whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. This needs to be understood within the context here. Paul is addressing those who are willfully defying reasonable orders by the government.
He is not telling believers to listen to authorities—even when it contradicts their convictions. Acts 5:29 clearly says, “We must obey God rather than men.” Therefore, if the government becomes corrupt and enforces you to do something immoral, you are to resist and obey God instead.
3For 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 you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
The Apostle Paul is teaching that Christians should be the best citizens of all. Although they are loyal to God before the state, believers ought to be honest, pay their taxes, labor for the well-being of their nation, and pray for governing leaders.
Matthew 5:16 encapsulates this well: “Let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” Therefore, followers of Christ should be known for their virtue, kindness, and love so that even unbelievers are impressed by their congenial disposition.
Most cultures today, even corrupt ones, have moral standards. For instance, governments will punish evildoers that partake in stealing, murder, and other deviances that would result in harm for their citizens. This is why police, jails, and the justice systems have been set up: to bring punishment on wrongdoers and also protect law-abiding citizens from criminals. Paul calls them God’s servants—For the created order knows what is right and wrong since people bear the moral image of God.
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
Jesus was once asked a fundamental question by a Pharisee. The religious leader, trying to trick the Lord, demanded whether believers should pay taxes or not. Jesus responded: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar’s and give to God what belongs to God (Matthew 22:21).” Namely, Jesus was saying we are to pay taxes out of respect for the governing authorities and to honor the Lord with our obedience.
Therefore, as believers, it’s right and good for us to give to the government what we owe them. If we owe taxes, we should pay it. If revenue, then revenue. These acts are respectful and honorable because law-abiding citizens are to contribute to the wealth and prosperity of their nations.
Whether that nation follows God or not makes no difference. A person has a responsibility to to pay taxes to the country they live in, even if some of those taxes fund programs or ideologies that go against one’s convictions.
The same was true during the time of Jesus. His disciples were still commanded to give to Caesar what belongs to Him—even though we know Caesar worshipped the roman gods and goddesses that were antithetical to the Judeo-Christian worldview.
Love Fulfills the Law
8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Paul warns believers not to have any debt. They are to work diligently in their community and society. If not, 1 Timothy 5:8 says, “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
These are sobering words. Therefore, Paul exhorts believers to provide financially for their family—and that the only debt they should have is their love for one another; for whoever loves others have fulfilled the law.
In this passage, Paul reiterates Jesus’ words as recorded in Matthew 22:36-40 where He said the two greatest commands are: “To love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.” For it is love that becomes the fulfillment of the law. Love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).
Another key point is that when we love God, we will love our neighbors. Our neighbors are people who may be believers or unbelievers. They may share the same convictions or completely disagree with our faith. Despite these differences, Christians are to be good, law-abiding citizens who listen, empathize, and reason with an eclectic culture.
The Day Is Near
11And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.
This theme of being prepared for the Lord’s return is evident throughout Scripture. For example, in James 5:8, Scripture exclaims: “You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.”
1 Peter 4:7 echoes this notion: “The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray.” Therefore, we are to be diligent, wake up from our slumber, and stand ready since our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.
For God has called us to put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. The deeds of darkness come from the acts of the flesh: immorality, debauchery, idolatry, witchcraft, discord, selfish ambition (Gal. 5:19). As believers, we are to repent from this evil and put on the the armor of light.
The armor of light is akin to the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). These virtues are to be expressed in our conduct before the world. Our reputation and obedience to God may be the only sign skeptics see to repent and prepare for the second coming of Christ. For the Lord is patient and longsuffering, not willing that any perish, but all come to faith in Him.
13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.
In this final passage, Paul advises believers to put off the evil deeds of the flesh and clothe themselves with the righteousness of Christ. For 1 Peter 2:24 says, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” Our righteousness is found in the atoning work of our Savior Jesus Christ.
When we put our trust and faith in the Lord, we will not be thinking about how to gratify the desires of the flesh. Instead, we will be meditating on God’s Word and contemplating how to worship the Lord and love our neighbors. This is the essence of Christian living. In the next chapter, Paul will discuss how mature believers ought to help new converts obey and serve the Lord for the glory of God.
Bible translation taken from New International Version
Commentary written by Chad A. Damitz (M.Div.)