… we read Romans 13:1-7, Jesus remains the one in whom the nations place their hopes. Third, we have read Romans 13 in light of Paul’s apocalyptic narrative about the overthrow of all authorities at the return of Jesus. Paul declares the ‘powers,’ be they political or spiritual, have been disarmed and are impotent before Jesus’ lordship (see Rom 8:38-39; 1 Cor 2:8; 15:25-26; Col 2:15).
Christians did not affirm Roma aeterna (eternal Rome), but neither did Christians intend to overthrow any government themselves. Rome would be judged by Christ one day, so there was no reason to accept Rome’s claims of eternality or divine favor, but the Kingdom of God would be established by God in God’s time, so there was no need to attempt to overthrow Caesar to install Christ.
We can’t overplay the significance of Paul’s understanding of the interplay between the ruling powers of his day and the eschatological hope found in Jesus Christ. One is not divorced from the other – whether Paul thought the eschaton was imminent or not, the ‘spiritual’ is not separate from the political and social order. Paul and these early followers of Jesus did not walk around blindfolded, unaware of the daily challenges of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus in an outright pagan society that demanded the obedience of the Empire to another ‘Son of God’ and ‘Saviour’.
Reading the Bible in the New Testament in this way infers that imperial politics was merely an interesting backdrop against which the first-century followers of Jesus conducted their affairs. As I’ve stated before, the Roman Empire “… was not the background, but the foreground of Paul’s world.” Paul’s monotheistic critique of pagan rule may not have been the primary purpose of Paul’s writings, but it is a theme we cannot ignore.
Brian LePort’s challenge, however, is well made. We don’t need to assume that this automatically meant that to install Christ as Lord automatically meant working towards the ‘overthrow of Caesar’ in any overt way. It did mean to live in such a way that recognised who was truly sovereign over history, and to trust that the “kingdom of God would be established by God in God’s time.”
At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus is Lord.
For us in the twenty-first century, our very obedience to the governing authorities, our choice to pay taxes, to honour and respect those who have been placed by God in positions of power and responsibility is a recognition that God knows what he is doing. Being salt and light in our communities and working for the good and blessing of our cities is a godly calling. It is one that requires active engagement with the politics of our day – in the things we say and the way we live. But where change is not as forthcoming as we would like, and things seem to be going from bad to worse, we know that he is control. His timing is perfect. His ways will prevail.
- Michael Bird, “‘One Who Will Arise to Rule Over the Nations’: Paul’s Letter to the Romans and the Roman Empire” in Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica, Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies, 159. ↩