We were always designed to be under God’s authority, and when man’s authority challenges that authority, we have a choice to make.
February 16, 2023
If you’re new to Vintage City Church, welcome. My name is David, and I get to serve on the Teaching Team here at Vintage.
For about the last year or so, we have been going through the book of Romans. And to understand the depth that we’ve been going into the text, the last time I taught was three months ago when I taught the final verse of chapter 12. And this morning, I get to teach the first verse of chapter 13.
So Romans chapter 13 begins this way in verse one, it says, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities.” Let’s just say upfront that’s a tough opening line, right? If you ever sign a deal with Netflix for a special, don’t begin with a line like that. It doesn’t bring the room together.
And especially for some of you, hearing an English accent say that can be quite triggering. If so, raise your hand, and we’ll gather around you and pray. You can picture Cornwallis saying this line 250 years ago to a group of rebels or terrorists, however you term them, throwing tea into cold water. The main offense to us was that you don’t brew tea in cold water. Okay, it’s a devastating waste of beautiful spices.
All that to say, in this text, in the first seven verses that we’re going to explore today, what I notice when I read it is that I’m looking for my out. Anybody else? I’m looking for the “Yeah, but you don’t really have to do this.” Or I’m looking for the “Ah, this was purely contextual to the Romans.”
And so, just to acknowledge this passage and what it might be doing inside of us, even as we read it together, Romans 13:1-7 say this:
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. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For 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. 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. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities not only because of possible punishment, but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes. For the authorities are God’s servants who give their full time to governing. 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.
So the title for today’s message, if it had one, would be “Living Under Authority.” Have you ever noticed, on any given day, how many times you find yourself under the authority of someone or something else?
On Tuesday, I woke up early and started driving to the airport. And as soon as I’m on I-25, I’m under the authority of the police, who are tracking my speed at various points along the way.
When I get to the airport, I’m under the authority of the TSA, everyone’s favorite authority. If this were a video game, the TSA would be the final boss, right? And as I go through the scanner — it’s wonderful — I get a little beep sound. And the lady informs me that I’ve been specially selected for a swab of my hands.
At this point, I start pointing to my watch and yelling to the man calling me over, “I’m in a rush. I’m in a rush.” To which he responds. “I totally get it. Don’t worry about it. Keep going.”
Of course he responds — they must do this in training — he literally says, I quote, “I don’t care.” And so I take that as a cue. I walk over and get my hands swabbed.
Then I go through, get on the airplane, and am under the authority of the FAA. And so I can stand up when they tell me to stand up, sit down when they tell me to sit down, and go to the restroom when they say it’s safe to do so.
We’re flying in the plane, and now we’re under the laws of gravity and the laws of physics.
I arrive in the city, go to the hotel, and now I’m under the authority and the rules of the business.
I want to explore the city. So I get on one of those little lime electric scooters. I scoot around the city for a little bit and then come back and try to park it. But on the app I’m told I can’t park here. Why? Because I’m under the authority of the city government. And you’re not allowed to park in this little section.
So for some of us, when we think about all of this, we start hyperventilating, thinking, “Wait, I thought I was free. McDonald’s served me freedom fries. I thought this meant I was free.” But no, I’m under authority. And I have to submit myself in all these different cases. And so authority is all around us.
So as we come into this passage, we could do a whole set of teaching on what it means to live with authority because we have, as humans and especially as followers of Jesus, been given authority that we have to live with. But today’s message is not about living with authority, but rather about living under authority.
So verse one begins with the phrase, “to be subject.” It means “to be lower than” or “to be subordinate to.” But in this passage, as I read it, it raises a bunch of questions. My intent in sharing these is not to imply that I have great answers to these questions, but just to say that these are the kinds of things, as I read, that stir inside of me.
First of all, it talks about the subject of the governing authorities. Different teachers or scholars debate what authority Paul is referring to in this moment. Is he referring to the government, i.e. the Roman authorities and leadership outside of the church? Or is he referring to the synagogue leaders? Or is he referring to something else?
This is not the first or only time Paul will write about submitting to governing authorities. In Titus three, verse one, he writes, “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good.”
This is important because, as we’ll see throughout Scripture, there are many examples of where authority is challenged. But we have questions about what authority means.
Then it talks about the fact that God has established authorities.
Now, I don’t know fully what that means and how all that plays out. I don’t know if that means that God literally selects the specific individual and establishes that individual and therefore, does that mean our votes don’t matter? Does it mean that He guides our hearts in such a way to cast our votes? Or does it mean that God has established authority in general, and whoever holds that position of authority — whoever they are — is to be honored based on the fact that God established that authority?
We see, of course, how God says, “Honor your father and mother.” That doesn’t necessitate your mother and father being good people. Irrespective of who they are, how they treat you, and how they treat others, he calls us to a posture of honor.
But in Titus three, verse one, he says, “Do whatever is good,” right? So it could be this case, God didn’t establish taxes, but we see in the Gospels where Jesus calls us to pay taxes. We remember in John 19, for example, when Jesus is before Pilate, and Pilate says to Jesus, “Do you not know that I have the authority to set you free, or to have you crucified?” And Jesus looks back at him and says, “You would have no authority over me if it were not given to you from above.”
We see this fascinating example in the life of Jesus, where he is simultaneously submitting to the authority of Pilate, while clearly stating where the source of that authority comes from.
We also don’t know, for example, in this passage, what it means exactly when it talks about paying taxes. In verse seven, is he talking to the Romans about paying their government taxes? Or is he talking to them about paying that drachma temple tax? What is he referring to here? So there are a lot of things that remain unanswered, for me at least, in this passage.
But as I read it, it stirred within me the question, “What is my relationship to authority? And how might I need to engage that?”
So today, whether I’m thinking about the authority over me in the marketplace — my boss, or whomever. Whether I’m thinking about the police, or the local government, or the national government, or whatever kind of authority I’m thinking about — the TSA or whatever — I’m thinking about this question that says, “Okay, God, what do you have for me to understand today about how I might live under this authority in a way that first and foremost, honors your authority?”
So in order to get there and unpack this a little bit, I think it’s worth going back historically to 1772 — no, going back further to the Israelites before they ever had a king over them.
We read about this in 1 Samuel 8, but before we get to the text, what is the context of this passage?
Samuel is growing old, so he appoints his two sons to be rulers over the people of Israel. Their names are Joel and Abijah. And the problem is that these two sons don’t follow his ways. They pervert justice, they can easily be bribed, and they simply are not following the Lord.
And so the others and the elders from the people of Israel come to Samuel and say, “You are old.” Now, just to be clear, in today’s day and age, that would be an HR violation. And they’d be escorted out the door. But back then, I guess, you were allowed to say this kind of thing.
So they come to Samuel and say, “You are old and your sons are not following your ways. Now, appoint a king to lead us like all the other nations.”
Samuel didn’t like this idea. So he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord speaks back to Samuel and says, “Listen to all that the people are saying to you, it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. They are forsaking me and serving other gods. Listen to them, but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”
God is saying about His people in that posture towards authority that they already had a king. God was their king. But they didn’t want Him as their king. And the reality is that since that moment, we, as the people of God, have been dealing with the ripple effects of that decision. When this group of people rejected the authority of God, they opened themselves up to what it looks like to live under the authority of man.
And so in 1 Samuel 8:11, God commandds Samuel to warn his people what a king will do. So Samuel says:
This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights. He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses. They will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of 1000s and commanders of 50s and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest. Still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a 10th of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a 10th of your flocks, you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day. But the people refused to listen to Samuel, ‘No,’ they said, ‘We want a king over us, then we will be like all the other nations with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.’
So as you can see, the people say, “We want a king because:
1) we want to be like all the other nations,
2) we want to be led, and
3) we want somebody else to fight our battles.”
And Samuel responds and warns them that this is what that authority over you is going to do. Could you imagine if this were a yard sign campaign slogan? I’ll make you my male and female servants, plow your fields, and send your sons off to war. Probably wouldn’t get a lot of votes, right? But these people were so desperate to replace the authority of God with the authority of someone else that they were prepared to make that trade-off.
What I think is fascinating or instructive for us about this passage is that what Samuel doesn’t say is, “Hey folks, a king would be really bad, but if you could democratically elect a president, or maybe even better a prime minister, everything would be just fine.”
He doesn’t say that. What he’s teaching is that anytime you place an authority over you other than the authority of God, you are going to find yourself in a huge mess. What is driving the people here to pursue this authority is three main things:
1) They want to be like everybody else.
2) They want to be led by somebody else.
3) They want somebody else to fight their battles for them.
Here’s the reality. If you and I simply choose to submit to the authority of man without first submitting to the authority of God, that is not a posture of honor. That is a posture of idolatry where we have exchanged the authority of God for the authority of ourselves.
In Romans chapter one, where we began about a year or so ago, it says of the people, “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie.” And in 1 Samuel 8, we meet a group of people who exchange the truth of God, the authority of God, for something else.
Church, I think it’s important for us to understand the reality that we were, first and foremost, designed to live under the authority of God. And so then we come back to Romans 13. and we say, “Alright, well, does that mean we can simply get rid of any bad leaders who don’t line up with our perspective of the values of God?” I don’t think that’s what Romans 13 or what the Scriptures teach us.
As we go through the Scriptures, we see different examples of what it looks like to honor authority. We also see examples of what it looks like to challenge authority. And even when the challenge is made, I would argue that there is still honor given.
So we see, for example, these examples of honoring authority. We see in the Old Testament when David is on the run from the king they appointed, Saul. And Saul is seeking to kill him. David and his men are hiding in a cave. Saul needs a bathroom break. This is a true story. So he goes into the cave. This is a very vulnerable time for any man, as you well know. And he goes into the cave and needs to use the restroom. David is behind him and his men are saying “kill him now. Kill him now.”
This is like a great moment. Okay, it’s maybe not a movie-perfect scene; it’s a little messy. They’re saying, “Let’s end this thing right now.” And David reaches forward and doesn’t kill him, but cuts off the corner of his garment, and then immediately feels guilty and turns to his men. And he says, “May the Lord not let me put out my hand against my leader, for he is the Lord’s chosen one. David stopped his men with these words. He did not let them go against Saul. So Saul stood up and left the cave and went on his way.”
See, there’s something remarkable about this moment. And what I think David is doing is pushing back against the tendency to say, where it’s almost like David’s men were saying to him, “David, we want you to fight our battle for us. We want you to kill him.” And in a sense, what David is saying is, “That is God’s battle to fight, not mine. That as long as God has appointed him, and until God tells me, it’s my time, I will not kill, I will not put my hand against the Lord’s chosen.”
See, what David is showing us is that sometimes we can have a tendency to fight against authority, but what we’re really doing is not actually submitting to the authority of God. We’re placing ourselves into a place of authority. And what I’m struck by in this moment, in 1 Samuel 24, when David essentially says, “Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. That is God’s battle to fight, not mine,” we see his posture of honoring authority.
We also see in Matthew 22:21 where the people come to Jesus and say, “Should we pay taxes?” And He says, “No, don’t worry about it. It’s all good. Okay?”
No! He says, “Bring me a coin.” They bring Him a coin, and He says, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They say, “Caesars.” He says, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, give to God what belongs to God.” So Jesus is reminding us or pointing to this reality that we, as followers of Him, need to hold a posture of honor towards certain parts of authority.
That means, when we file our taxes in a few weeks, there’s this tendency within us — and I know it myself — to get really frustrated with the system that we’re in. But we have to remind ourselves, again, that Jesus says, “Hey, just give to them what belongs to them, but give to God what belongs to God.”
So we see these examples also in Scripture, where followers of God or followers of Jesus are challenging authority. We see this right in the book of Daniel, when the law comes out that you cannot pray to anyone but the ruler for a period of time. And Daniel disobeys that law and prays three times daily towards God. And he gets caught in the act of that and thrown into the lions’ den. And what happens? God fights his battle for him.
But we do see that example there in Daniel of where Daniel, in a sense, is challenging the rule of the day because it goes in direct conflict with the authority of God in his life. In the gospels, we also see Jesus heal someone on the Sabbath, which was against the interpretation of the law of the rulers of that day. The religious rulers of that day would say you cannot heal on the Sabbath. But Jesus challenged their authority in a sense. Why? Because he reported to the authority of God.
We see this also in Acts 4:18-19. Peter and John are preaching and sharing the gospel, and it says, “Then they called them in again, and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, ‘Which is right in God’s eyes to listen to you or to him, You be the judges.'”
We see this example then of Peter and John saying, “Listen, we will honor the authority of man only so far as it is not in conflict with the authority of God.” They’re giving us this example of what it looks like to say that when the law of man is in conflict with the law of God, the law of God trumps all.
We also see some historical examples outside of Scripture. We see the likes of Corrie Ten Boom and Bonhoeffer and others who, at great personal cost and great personal risk, disobeyed the authority of that day in order to preserve and rescue the lives of others.
What strikes me from these examples is this. The examples of those who were challenging authority were not doing it from a place of personal annoyance. They were actually doing it in a place of great personal cost. This was not Corrie Ten Boom simply saying, “These laws are ridiculous. I want to gain power for myself.” She was actually saying, “These laws violate the laws of God. And I must stand in the breach to protect His children.”
And again, church, I think that is instructive for us of what it looks like to engage Romans 13 from a posture that says, “I need to first learn to discern the voice of God. Because if I live in submission to the authorities of this world without first discerning what it looks like to live under the authority of God, then I’ll find myself off course.
Then we look at Jesus’s posture toward authority. His posture can be summed up in eight words — eight words in English, or in the original Greek, by the way — where He says, “Not my will, but Your will be done.” I think this, for us, church, is a guiding principle that guides what it looks like to navigate this world, knowing that at every single touch point, we are under the authority of someone or something else.
You see, not only does Jesus say, “Your will be done,” but Jesus first says, “Not my will be done.” There is first and foremost a surrendering that says, “My response to this and to others’ authority is not going to be guided by what I want, but rather by what God wants.” And this is really important that our response must not be governed by selfish ambition or even personal annoyance but rather by His voice calling us to something. So we must learn to tune our ears to His authority above everything else.
I also think we need to remember what authority we are really in battle with. Ephesians 6: 12 says, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
Sometimes my frustrations with the authorities of this world can distract me from the battle that God has actually called me to fight.
Which is that we do not fight against the TSA, right? I did on Tuesday. I lost. But my hands were clean; they swabbed them, and everything was all good. I made the flight on time.
But jokes aside, when we read Romans 13, we must read it in the context of the story of Daniel. We must read it in the context of the teaching of Jesus. We must read it in the context of Peter and John. We must read it in the context of those occasions where authority has been both honored and authority has been challenged. But even when authority has been challenged, it has been done with a posture of honor.
Paul describes in 1 Timothy 2 First Timothy 2 what I think should be our posture towards authority. He says, “I urge then first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving be made for all people — for kings and all those in authority. That we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”
So we can deduce, I think, from Scripture that authority, and honor really matter to God. And what I think it’s going to look like for us to be a people who engage with Romans 13, Matthew 22, Acts 4, 1 Samuel 8, and all these passages, is that we would be a people who first and foremost have a default position of honor and submission.
But this would be paired with this, which is essential, that we would learn to be a people who listen to the voice of God and submit to His authority above all else. And again, I think historically, we see examples when followers of Jesus do that well; their selfish ambition or personal annoyance does not drive their response to authority. Instead, they are driven by this thing like Peter and John said in Acts chapter 4, “Should I listen to you or should I listen to Him?” and that His voice would guide above all.
Lastly, 1 Timothy 2 teaches us that we must be a people who pray and make intercessions for those in authority. I think it’s worth pausing, at least for me, and reflecting a little bit about all the places where I do have authority in life. Authority, in my home, authority in the workplace in certain contexts. And first and foremost, to come to my knees before the Lord and say, “Lord help me to steward the authority that I have been given. And help me to pray for those who have authority over me.”
If we think about these places of authority which God has established, then those men and women who are in those positions of authority over me will be as accountable before God as I am for the authority that he has given me.
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