13:1-7 The relation of the church to the state is a matter of perennial controversy. Israel struggled under various world empires and in NT times was under the yoke of Rome. How should God’s people relate to ungodly governments? Jesus once addressed this matter by saying, “Give, then, to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt 22:21). Government is an institution ordained by God for human benefit, but it can be corrupted and twisted out of its proper function. Paul in these few short verses does not address some of the questions that we might ask him, but clearly he wanted Roman Christians to be good citizens. However, that same government put our Lord to death (Jn 19:10-11) and killed both Peter and Paul. This same government is in view again in Rv 13. Thus the Christian must take care to discern possible cases where obedience to the government entails disobedience to God.
13:2-4 The Jewish nation rebelled against Rome in two costly wars, bringing judgment upon themselves at a cost of more than one million lives. Government is ordained by God to reward good and punish evil, providing peace and order for those whom it serves. The sword alludes to capital punishment. A government that rewards evil and punishes good will not long survive, for evil is innately destructive. “If a ruler listens to lies, all his officials will be wicked” (Pr 29:12).
13:5-7 Since the civil government is ordained by God and gives us certain benefits, we are to submit to it. We are to pay taxes to support it, honor and respect it. Early Christians refused to worship emperor or state, but they showed their respect by praying for the authorities. Paul taught, “I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all those who are in authority” (1Tm 2:1-2).
13:8-10 The Christian is to pay all his obligations, but there is one debt we can never repay. This is the debt of love. Some have misinterpreted this verse as prohibiting all monetary debt, including having a mortgage on a house or buying a car on an installment plan. It may be wise never to go into monetary debt (cp. “the borrower is a slave to the lender,” Pr 22:7), but this verse has little to do with modern methods of finance. It is about fulfilling obligations of all kinds. We can never stop loving as long as we live. Love fulfills the law because if we love our neighbor we will do him no harm. We fulfill the first four commands by loving the Lord and the rest of the law by obeying the prohibitions as we love our neighbor.
13:11-14 Christians live between the ages. The old age is passing, and the new is dawning. We long for the new age to fully come, and we recognize that our salvation will soon be completed. We have been “rescued . . . from the domain of darkness” (Col 1:13) and from the night of sin into a new realm of light. We need to wake up from spiritual lethargy. Paul used the image of taking off the old clothes of sinful behavior and putting on the Lord Jesus Christ as our way of life. This passage is famous for bringing Augustine of Hippo to salvation (Confessions, 8:12.22).