Commonly we must understand the context and "place ourselves in the situation" to understand the meaning and the force of a scripture. Begin with a sincere attempt to do both. (1) The Roman Emperor Claudius ordered Jews to leave Rome. Apparently Rome's society had not yet distinguished Christian Jews from Jews who were not Christians. As a result, Christians such as Aquila and Priscilla left Italy and were in Corinth (Acts 18:2). Later, when Claudius died, it was permissible for Jews [including Jewish Christians] to return to Rome. Can you imagine the inconvenience of first century dislocation, relocation, and return? (2) Claudius was committed to reviving and maintaining the old Roman religions. The Roman historian Tacitus (Annals 11-12) stated Claudius tried to preserve and perpetuate old Roman religions in the last half of his reign. The official government stance on the preservation of Roman idolatry created a difficult environment for Christians. Can you imagine daily Christian existence in that environment? (3) Nero, the next Roman emperor, shifted blame for a destructive fire in Rome from himself to Christians. Christians with their one God were unpopular. The Roman emperors made Rome's environment a difficult place for Christians. Can you imagine living in a city that mixed idolatry, politics, and civil obedience at every level?
In this letter, Paul did not write people living in a democracy with constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms. He did not write people guaranteed religious freedom. He wrote people living in a thoroughly pagan environment without our concept of rights or freedoms.
How were these Christians to conduct themselves in that environment which, at best, was suspicious and, at worst, was physically hostile? They were to be model residents. They were to be in subjection to rulers and officials who honored the gods. They were to understand this basic truth about officials in the Roman government: Rome's rulers and officials were in positions of authority by God's will. God's intention for such rulers: "Use your power and authority to oppose evil and support good." When they did this, they were God's ministers.
In a city that controlled the Mediterranean basin [and beyond], in a city devoted to the gods, in a city whose rulers had little or no conscious knowledge of the living God, how were Christians to conduct themselves? They were to live as law abiding residents who respected the government and its officials. They paid their taxes. They observed appropriate customs. They gave respect to those who were to be respected. They honored those who were to be honored.
Paul gave them two reasons for being law abiding, responsible residents. They should be such residents for (1) the sake of consequence and (2) the sake of conscience. To be less than law abiding, responsible residents asked the government to regard and treat them as people who did evil. First, if they did evil, the government rightfully punished them for the evil they did. Second, if God placed government authorities in their roles [this was not a democracy], opposing them was opposition to God's sovereignty.
To grasp the significance of Paul's reasons, note what he did not write. He did not say injustice allowed them to behave in ways they considered to be an appropriate reaction to the injustice. [By current concepts, we would classify several of Claudius' and Nero's acts as injustice.] He did not say improve imperfect civil conditions through revolt and rebellion.
In depth studies of Paul's directives in Romans regarding appropriate conduct toward government must not disconnect this directive from other directives. Do not forget Paul's previous directives: (1) never pay back evil for evil (12:17); (2) try to live at peace with all people (12:18); (3) leave vengeance to God (12:19); and (4) overcome evil with good (12:21). Paul's "model resident" directive to these Christians certainly was "in line" with and "fit" previous directives. Why would these Christians behave in this manner? They knew God's mercy.
The overpowering [but subtle] temptation for today's American Christian is to interpret Paul's directives in terms of twentieth and twenty-first century concerns rather than in terms of first century concerns. For current Americans living in a democracy with individual rights guaranteed by a constitution, our concerns are justice, freedom, rights, and independence. For Paul who wrote this letter in the mid-first century Roman empire, his concerns were God's work, God's objectives, proper representation of God, and proper presentation of people who belong to God. In a society and city that worshipped and followed many gods, it was critical for God's people to model God's impact on human behavior. Today, in a society and culture that worships the gods of pleasure, indulgence, selfishness, materialism, and hedonism, it continues to be critical for God's people to reveal God's impact on human behavior. Christians do not look like everyone else, behave like everyone else, or think like everyone else because they belong to God. By choice, they are owned by God. Their focus is formed by eternity, not by here and now.
To whom is such thinking and behavior a possibility? That kind of thinking and behavior is possible in the lives of those who are enslaved to God's mercy. Those who consciously live in God's mercy refuse to confuse the American dream with Christian commitment.
Link to Teacher's Guide Quarter 3, Lesson 6
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