logo Practical Dreamers

Paul's letter to the Romans

chapter  13

The essence of the law is love

On another page on this site we tagged Romans 13:1-7 as something Paul possibly did not write.   It's a passage which in our day brings great difficulty,  in that it can easily be interpreted to imply that religion should stick to its narrow sphere and not get involved in criticism of government policies.   This does not sound at all like an opinion that would be held by the Paul we are getting to know,  and it makes a ruling that today's caring Christians could not possibly accept.   Unfortunately there is scant evidence in the early manusripts that Romans could ever have circulated without these verses.   So here we try to come to terms with them as quite probably Paul's work.

The first thing to be said,  then,  is that ordinary people in that day had no leverage whatsoever on imperial policy.   Paul could not have contemplated a choice between pressuring the emperor to change course and doing nothing  (as we might now seriously challenge our government's war or race or social welfare policies).   And if this was beyond his imagination,  he was not,  here,  making a rule about it.

The next thing worth pointing out is that when Paul says something has been established by God he doesn't imply we should take it as God's final intention,  or as an ideal situation.   In this letter he has given a lot of space to arguing that the failure of Israel to recognize the Christ is in a significant sense God's doing,  though it is only a step along the way to the realization of God's plans,  and is something that will change.

And thirdly,  Jews in the Empire were in bad odour at the time,  and Gentile Christians were quite likely to incur opprobrium by association.   Civil unrest could easily flare up,  with catastrophic consequences.   Paul may have been aware of a particular situation in Rome  (perhaps a questionable tax imposition)  where Gentile Christians were in danger of showing their unhappiness,  and therefore in danger of uselessly stirring up trouble for themselves.   These sentences may have been intended as a signal to them to  'cool it'.

You must be obedient to the civil authority.   It exists only by the determination of God,  and to rebel is to question God's ordering of affairs.   People who do that have only themselves to thank for the consequences.   Government opposes crime,  but should hold no terror for the law-abiding.   If you don't want to find yourself in trouble with the authorities behave well.   They will look on you kindly.   They actually serve God as they serve your welfare.   If you are misbehaving you certainly do have cause to be scared of them.   It's not for nothing that they hold the power of the sword.   Even when they punish they are acting as God's agents.   You have no choice but to submit anyway,  but it's not just a matter of fearing the consequences.   It should also be a matter of conscience.   It is appropriate,  then,  that you should pay taxes.   The authorities are doing God's work.   Pay them what you owe them  -  tax and toll,  with reverence and respect as well.      [1-7]
Paul has been insistent that everything the law requires remains an obligation for us.   But Gentile Christians,  and Paul too,  understood this to mean only the moral aspects of the law.   It was taken for granted that the aspects that were cultural rather than intrinsically moral were not binding on all Christians,  even though Jewish Christians might still wish to abide by them.   Now Paul explains what this means,  in all simplicity:  love is the fulfilling of the law.
What you owe people more than anything else is love.   People who love their neighbour have fulfilled every requirement of the law.   Those commandments,  'Don't commit adultery,  don't kill,  don't steal,  don't covet  (Ex 20; Deut 17)'  and all the other commandments too,  can be compressed into one rule:  'Love your neighbour as yourself  (Lev 19:18)'.   Love is the one thing that can't hurt your neighbour;  so the whole law is summed up in love.      [8-10]

This is all the more urgent because we have arrived at the critical moment.   It's time to wake up.   Salvation is even nearer now than when we first came into faith.   The night is almost gone,  the dawn breaks.   All the more reason to leave the deeds of darkness behind,  and arm ourselves as soldiers of the light.   So no more drunken revels,  no licentiousness,  no quarrels!   Make the Lord Jesus Christ your armour.   Give no more consideration to gratifying selfish desires.      [11-14]

  paraphrase and notes by Evan Lewis


Making connections with Paul the apostle
What Paul did NOT write

>>>   Home Page


>>>   Site Index