One of the most popular topics in the media is politics. There are lots of critical opinions out there about our elected officials, but that’s nothing new. No matter who is in the White House, or any other public office, it isn’t hard to find someone who doesn’t like them and is willing to say and publish harsh words about them. Sometimes the criticisms are made jokingly and sometimes the criticism is justifiable, but other times the criticisms can be downright disrespectful and hurtful. No matter what your opinions on our current elected officials might be I want you to think about something for a minute.
I’m going to describe a government official to you, it’s not anyone who is currently serving in public office, and I want you to think about what it would be like to have this person as the leader of your country. Imagine you were a citizen under this person’s government and then think about what sort of feelings you might have about this person being the leader of your country. Are you ready? Listen to a few things for which this person is well-known:
It was public knowledge that this man either murdered or gave the order to kill several of his own family members including his mother and wife.
This man almost caused his nation to go totally bankrupt because of the extravagant lifestyle he led.
This man was known for outrageous acts of debauchery that we wouldn’t even want to think about, let alone talk about.
This man did absolutely nothing to help while the capital city was almost entirely destroyed by a massive fire.
This man was perceived as a weak leader who always seemed paranoid that someone was working against him, when in fact no one really was.
This man was extremely hostile toward Christians and it seems as though he would put them to death simply for his entertainment.
Now, hearing those things how would you feel about living in a country ruled by this man? How would you view his government? Would you respect him? Would you honor him? How would you feel about paying taxes to him?
Well, like I said, this isn’t anyone who has held public office during any of our lifetimes. That was a description of a man named Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. You know him best by just his first name, Nero. He was the 5th emperor of Rome and was the man in power when the Apostle Paul (who was a Roman citizen) wrote,
“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities.”
In spite of Nero’s many, many flaws Paul still instructed the Christians living in Rome to submit to the emperor—to honor him, to respect him, and pay taxes to him because he was God’s servant as a public official. Now, just take a few seconds to wrap your mind around that, because what Paul is saying in these verses is totally contrary to everything our reason and logic tell us. If it were up to us, respect and honor would have to be earned, because that’s the way our sinful nature operates—everything has to be earned. We like to think that if we decide a person is “bad” or immoral then we don’t need to honor them. Our sinful nature tells us that it is okay to disrespect someone, even the highest government authority, if we don’t agree with what he does or how he acts. God is of a different opinion, though, and he shares his thoughts through the Apostle Paul right here in Romans 13.
This is what God says about what our attitude should be toward those who have been placed in authority over us.
“Everyone must submit himself 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, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
In those verses God gives us all the reason we need to respect our government officials…because they are there because God put them there.
Now, when you take that and put it together with everything else you know about God from Scripture you can fight back against your sinful nature that tells you not to respect those in authority. You can tell your sinful nature that if God put these people in positions of authority, no matter how bad it looks to you, it’s going to turn out alright because God is always working for the good of those who love him. God never set out to harm his people. So, even when it looks like nothing good can happen God can direct the course of history for the benefit of his people. He did for the Israelites in the Old Testament and he does for you and me today also.
In Romans 13 Paul goes on to explain how God uses the earthly governments he sets up for the benefit of his people. Paul says,
“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 he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent 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 because of conscience.”
God puts earthly government in place for our good. Governments serve our good because they are there to carry out God’s wrath on those who do evil. So then, God says that we don’t just owe respect to the government out of fear of punishment, but also because of conscience. The government exists for our good and was set up by God—those two reasons alone are enough reason to show why they deserve our honor and respect. Take notice though, there’s no mention of this depending on how well the the government does its job. So, your respect, and honor, and willingness to support your elected officials does not depend on how well you think they are doing their job, but instead God tells us to honor, respect, and support those who have devoted their time to civil government regardless of what you personally think about them.
That’s a hard pill to swallow. Even when a man like Nero, who did all those things I told you about before, was emperor of Rome Paul was instructing Christians to respect him. As you probably know, Paul was put to death during Nero’s reign and still these verses in Romans 13 stand in all their truth and purity! Now, how on earth are we going to convince ourselves to do what Paul says to do and submit ourselves to the governing authorities no matter who they might be? Where will we find the motivation to sacrifice and give everyone what we owe them whether it be taxes, respect, or honor?
The answer is love! Paul says to let no debt remain outstanding except the debt to love one another because we are never done loving each other. Keeping the laws, which the government enforces, is one way that we show love to each other. Respecting, honoring, and supporting the government shows our love for each other because the government exists to serve the good of each and every citizen.
In our gospel reading this morning we heard the Pharisees try and trick Jesus when they asked him about this very question. The Pharisees set up a false argument and tried to trap Jesus. They asked him whether or not it was right to pay taxes to Caesar. They didn’t outrightly say it, but Jesus knew why they asked that question. The Pharisees wanted to trap Jesus by getting him to say that either people should only honor the government or only honor God. Jesus didn’t give them the answer they were looking for, though, and said,
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
The two go hand in hand. We are citizens in two kingdoms at the same time and you can’t ever tear them apart as long as you are alive. The government was set up by God and are his officials, so by honoring them we honor God. If you honor God you will honor his representatives, like we are told in the 4th commandment. As Christians we will do that not because we are afraid we might be punished if we don’t, but because our conscience tells us that we owe a debt of love and thankfulness to God and each other.
Our conscience tells us that since Jesus died for us—to atone for our sins and reconcile us to God—we owe a debt of thanksgiving and love. Following God’s commands is one way that we can show that love to God and to the people whom he has created to live in this world with us. As God’s people we have dual-citizenship. We are citizens of God’s heavenly kingdom, but also of an earthly kingdom or nation. Those two are not exclusive! They overlap in a whole lot of ways and the way that we exercise our citizenship in our earthly nation is a reflection of the love we have received as citizens of a heavenly kingdom.
Our sinful nature makes us have a whole lot of feelings toward those in authority and most of them are probably not ones you’d describe as loving. If you need proof just think about the feelings you’d have if you were driving down the road and suddenly saw red and blue flashing lights from a police cruiser in your rearview mirror. That’s why our Lord has shown his love to us and fills us with his love so that we have a weapon with which to fight our sinful nature so that we can share our love with others—even the police officer that might pull you over for speeding.
The Apostle Paul lived in a time in which Christians were persecuted in ways that we hopefully will never have to endure, and still, he was able to joyfully instruct Christians to
“submit themselves to the governing authorities.”
It was by God’s grace and love that Paul was able to do that and it’s only by God’s grace and love that we will be able to make payments on our on-going debt to love each other. Thankfully we hold dual-citizenship.
We are citizens of God’s heavenly kingdom having been bought with the blood of Jesus and sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism. By virtue of our citizenship there we are blessed with the love of our Savior and gifts of the Holy Spirit. We also are citizens of an earthly kingdom and our citizenship here provides us with opportunities to put our heavenly gifts to use as we love each other and God’s representatives. Don’t neglect the rights and responsibilities of your citizenship in either of those kingdoms—both are a blessing to you! May the Lord fill us all with his love and so equip us to spread his love by giving whatever it is that we owe. Whether we owe taxes, respect, or honor let us give freely with a joyful heart knowing that God has designed all things for our good and blessed us to be both citizens of this world and citizens of Heaven.