Q. Why would the apostle Paul write to Christians about obeying governing authorities when the awful emperor Nero was in charge? What does that mean for us today? How would it exactly apply to our lives now?
Great question! In the Star Trek movie about an alternate reality, Captain James T. Kirk and Spock must combat the evil Romulan called "Nero" who is threatening the United Federation of Planets. Why would anyone want to obey this evil leader?
Oops…wrong Nero! (This just shows how relevant science fiction is to many devoted Christians).
Seriously, the apostle Paul lived during a period of terrible upheaval in Jerusalem. He was born about the same time as Jesus and was a contemporary of Stephen, the apostles, Luke, Barnabas, and Timothy. An educated man and esteemed scholar, Paul's father was a Jewish Pharisee from the tribe of Benjamin. This was elitist Jewish lineage and Paul appealed and referred to it when supporting his new faith, "The Way."
How Paul's father became a Roman citizen, however, is not clear. He might have won it through service to the state. Or, he might have purchased it. We just don't know. At any rate, Paul's inherited Roman-citizenship proved valuable to him as he spread the gospel throughout many territories.
Goat's Hair Tents
As befits most Jewish children Saul (his Jewish name) learned a trade before finishing his sacred schooling. His occupation was to make tents from goat's hair cloth. This was a common skill and valuable to the local populace. It enabled Paul to earn his keep and not rely completely upon charity as he traveled from town to town. Probably by around age thirteen he would have studied under the famous rabbi Gamaliel in Jerusalem.
At any rate the apostle Paul's biography is primarily distilled from Acts 7:58 through 28:31 and from bits and pieces of his letters. It is clear from certain passages that Paul advised all Christians to obey the governing authorities and to live peaceably, if possible, in all circumstances.
In Romans 12:18-19 Paul writes,
"As much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men…Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' says the Lord" (NKJV).
In Romans 13:1-2 Paul writes,
"Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God - and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves" (NASB).
In one form or another, these passages are repeated in other parts of Scripture including some of Peter's writings. Thus, it is not to be dismissed or ignored lightly. It clearly defines that "there is no authority except from God.
This does not say that only certain forms of government are ordained of God. God established and upholds the principle of government even though some governments do not fulfill His desires" (Ryrie Study Bible).
Obeying Evil Men?
I already know what our readers are thinking:
What about Hitler? How about the leader in North Korea? What about the Iranian ruler who hates Jews and Israel? What about Russia?
How can Christians obey evil men like Pol Pot who killed millions of Cambodians? What about the horrible slaughter of Christians in Islamic nations? Are Christians in those countries supposed to obey Moslem leaders?
He Determined our very Locations
We have attempted to answer this question in other articles. But, the truth is that there are no easy answers.
We can reply like Peter and the apostles, "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). Furthermore, we know that God determined for us to be born in a country that still tends to grant religious freedoms to its citizens.
In Acts 17:25-27 Paul says,
…"He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things - and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us…"
We can thank our heavenly Father for that.
On the other hand, it is clear from Scripture that Christian martyrs are granted special favor and status in heaven. We American Christians probably won't have it.
The author Luke may have written this in Acts 5:41:
"So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name."
The author of Hebrews notes, "For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one" (10:34).
Pride in Achievements?
Suffering, loss of property and other mistreatment brought a sense of worthiness to those Christians willing to suffer alongside Christ.
(Perhaps we are not the fortunate ones after all).
At any rate, throughout the Bible we are told that it is important to respect and follow known traditions of authorities and hierarchies on earth and in the heavens. The apostle Jude even tells us that the archangel Michael wouldn't even oppose Satan "when he disputed with the devil and argued about the body of Moses…(and) did not dare pronounce against him a railing judgment, but said, 'The Lord rebuke you!'" (Jude 1:9).
So, when the apostle Paul stood before Nero at the judgment-seat he faced one of the meanest, most petty narcissists in all of ancient history. Nero had zero patience or tolerance. He was hyper tense, selfish, and wanted everything done now! He was a big, two-year old baby prone to nasty temper-tantrums.
Nero didn't hesitate to unfairly blame innocents for his own dumb mistakes. In front of this "joke" of an emperor (who insisted he was "Lord") the elderly, ailing white-haired Paul was brutally put to death. Just about four years before Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, Paul was beheaded before low-class commoners at the hands of one of the world's worst leaders imaginable.
Yet, the New Testament still rings out with its clarion call:
"Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people…Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor" (1 Peter 2:13-17, ESV).
"Pursue peace with all people and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14, NKJV).
We can do no less.