Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
Some have noted the abrupt change in content and tone that takes place here, changing subject and tone from chapter; thinking this passage was inserted later, perhaps by a scribe. However, if we consider other teaching from the New Testament, we see this as a familiar thread: render under Caesar the Lord taught (Mark 12); and pretty much thought-for-thought in 1 Peter 2:13-17: Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. Both passages tell us the role of earthly governments, our role in submitting to them and honoring them, and the reason we should submit to them.
Doug Moo points out that this passage in Romans 13 actually builds on what we studied in chapter 12 – where we read that we are not to take out vengeance but leave that to God. Here we are told that God has appointed civil governments as His ministers to punish those who do evil. While God will bring His vengeance to bear on dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood (Revelation 22:15) at the end of this age, He has given to the state the role to do so until then. Verse 4 of our text: if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Paul is not contradicting himself – saying the only wrath to be suffered is at the hand of; he is pointing out God’s provision until He returns.
One complementary point that must be made: we see in the Bible, in history, and in our times that our civil governments are most often comprised of God-haters. Yet they are appointed by God as His ministers of justice! How can this be? In this passage, Paul doesn’t say each and every person in government is appointed by God; he says God established every earthly authority. However, we see in the Old Testament that God selected the good kings and the evil kings for Israel and the Arab nations, and it YHWH Who claims this role for Himself. Psalm 75:6-7 For not from the east or from the west and not from the wilderness comes lifting up, but it is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another. So it would seem that Paul assumes his audience would know that not just the institutions are established by God, each person put in a key position is put there by Him. We see in the record of Paul’s life how we might respond when mistreated by ruling authorities.