Understanding Romans 13 is based on your understanding of Jeremiah 27-29.
In the darkness of the coming exile, Jeremiah urged his hearers to submit to Babylon’s yoke and listen to her commands as she came down. Nebuchadnezzar had been converted under Daniel’s stewardship (Daniel 3-4), and he was a worshipper of Yahweh. Nebuchadnezzar was eventually exalted because he plundered Israel for her choicest fruit: he put the brightest of Israel onto his council to advise him, thereby glorifying him because he appointed Israel’s priests to serve him and teach him. Daniel, acting as a new Joseph, brings Jew and Gentile under the reign of Nebuchadnezzar that both could be saved. Jeremiah tells Israel that Yahweh has appointed his “Servant”, Nebuchadnezzar over the nations and over the animals. He is a new Noah, one to whom all of the nations and animals of the earth come to (Jer 27:6; cf. 28:14). Any nation that does not submit to Nebuchadnezzar will be punished, and Israel is expected to do the same. Because the leadership fears God, Jeremiah says that Judah should turn from her sins and turn to Nebuchadnezzar’s protection.
This is what Paul is doing in Romans 13. He tells his hearers, presumably both Jew and Greek, to escape the old system. Based on the message of Jesus (summarily copied down in the Olivet Discourse), he knew that some form of judgment was coming down on Jerusalem. This makes sense of his comments in his letters to the Thessalonians: “When they say, ‘peace, peace!’, sudden destruction will come upon them!” The Jews of the Flesh had claimed “no king but Caesar”, and lived under “pax romana”. They claimed peace when God had decreed judgment on the old system. Paul was calling his Christian hearers out of the land – Jew or Greek combined, under the banner of Christ, could be grafted into David’s family and saved from destruction. Paul called his people into Rome because of personal experience. The Acts of the Apostles shows us that the first conquest of the Gospel, Pentecost, was soon spread to the entire known world. Mass conversion took place in Rome, especially noting how well Paul was treated in the courts. He was repeatedly called into to the courts to preach the word, and was met with friendliness. His reliance on his Roman citizenship built bridges into the Empire. By submitting to Rome, at the time, Christians could find relief from the coming judgment. Peter makes similar comments: “Obey the Emperor” because the nation of Rome, at the time, was converting more quickly than Israel of the flesh.
Rome eventually apostacized, of course, and Paul describes it as such: when the one who holds back sins is removed, then destruction will come. Rome is the one who withheld the sins, and Jerusalem turned on Christians and started to remove them from their synagogues. But in the time of Romans, Paul knew that Rome was appointed to protect Christians just as Babylon was at the time of Nebuchadnezzar’s appointment. |
So what does that mean today? I think it means that we submit to the government in that God set it up to protect us. We are to disciple it as Daniel discipled Babylon and Paul Rome. Our Christian faith definitely belongs in popular discourse because it is the means by which entire nations are converted.