The first sentence of Romans 13 can be translated, “Everyone must obey the state authorities”(GNB) or it can be translated “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.”(ESV) At first glance, one might ask what is the difference? The Greek word in question is passive. “Must obey” is very active and an imperative. Paul was not giving that force of a command. He knew the simple truth that Peter and the other apostles said when faced with orders from the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” But even still, they were subject to the Sandhedrin.
The Christians in Rome were facing severe persecution from the Roman authorities. They were being told to stop worshiping Jesus. Instead, they should worship all the other gods in the pantheon and Caesar. They faced torture and death if they did not obey. Paul would not have told them to “obey the state” and stop serving Christ. He would tell them to be subject to the authorities. The Greek word conveys that we should have an attitude towards the authorities of the land, to be subject to those authorities as if they were God. We should follow the laws of the land, provided they don’t conflict with God’s. Being lawful should be a mark of a Christian.
Paul spoke from personal experience. He had been arrested, flogged, and exposed to death many times, all from the governing authorities, because of his faith in Jesus and proclaiming the Good News. Yet he also submitted to those authorities despite being faced over and over again with death when he did. He didn’t deserve the persecution or the judgements of the authorities yet he wrote that even those that flogged him in the name of the law were “God’s servant for your good” (Romans 13:4). He proved to be a good Roman subject, even when he disobeyed the authorities regarding his faith in Jesus. He knew, as we all should, God is in control, God is the ultimate ruler of the universe.
The Lord reigns forever;
he has established his throne for judgment.
He rules the world in righteousness
and judges the peoples with equity.
The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble.
Those who know your name trust in you,
for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you. -Psalm 9:7-10