Romans 13 – Countering O’Donovan (part 2)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the language of servant (διάκονός,  λειτουργός) and ordering (τάσσω) is not unambiguously positive. As Dunn observes: ‘Any attempt to integrate 13:1–7 into a more systematic Christian doctrine of the state must needs recall this context specificity (to Rome and within Romans) of the passage. Moreover, it should not leave out of account the hidden or implied qualifications, which would be present to anyone who knew the Jewish tradition (in wisdom, prophecy, and apocalyptic) on which Paul was drawing’ (Dunn 769)

As our biblical theology has indicated, the understanding of Jewish tradition is that God frequently expresses his sovereign control over the world by directing the actions of evil people to achieve his good purposes. In Isaiah, we have seen that this does not necessarily convey any form of approval. There is a strong parallel between the description that Paul gives of the government and the way that God has used the nations surrounding Israel throughout her history. There is a particularly strong parallel to Jeremiah’s description of Nebuchadnezzar:

6 So now I have placed all these lands under the authority of My servant Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. I have even given him the wild animals to serve him.  7 All nations will serve him, his son, and his grandson until the time for his own land comes, and then many nations and great kings will enslave him.  8 “As for the nation or kingdom that does not serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and does not place its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, that nation I will punish by sword, famine, and plague”– this is the LORD’s declaration– “until through him I have destroyed it.

12 I spoke to Zedekiah king of Judah in the same way: “Put your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon, serve him and his people, and live!  13 Why should you and your people die by the sword, famine, or plague as the LORD has threatened against any nation that does not serve the king of Babylon?  (Jer 27:6-8, 12-13)

Twice more in Jeremiah, God calls Nebuchadnezzar ‘my servant’ (Jer 25:9; 43:10). This is a recognition of the fact that all authority is given by God – not just the authorities that follow an ideal (Dunn 770, Moo p801 n51).

This parallel is not strong enough to conclusively prove that Paul sees the government in the same light as Jeremiah saw Babylon, but it is highly suggestive.


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