“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.” Romans 13: 1-7
It may help us to passover to the standpoint of the Christians of Rome who first received Paul’s epistle if we remember that the Colossus of Nero was unavoidable for anyone living or visiting the city. Nero had the looming bronze statue of himself fashioned as part of his urban renewal project after the great fire. It was originally erected in the vestibule of the Domus Aurea, the Golden House, a 300 acre landscaped villa in the heart of Rome where the fire broke out. The great fire was in 64 AD and the Golden House as well as the Colossus of Nero were both finished by 68 AD. Just in time for Nero’s unlamented suicide. The next emperor Vespasian hated Nero so much that he added a sun-ray crown (like the one on the Statue of Liberty) and renamed the Colossus Sol the sun god and about 60 years later the emperor Hadrian had it moved to the Colosseum where it remained until it was torn down during the sacking of Rome around 410. But this is what I want you to remember: that for 342 years the Colossus of Nero loomed over the city of Rome which means that people like Ignatius of Antioch passed by the statue when he was thrown to wild beast in the Colosseum in 107, Justine Martyr defended and interpreted Christianity in its shadow, Clement of Rome one of the earliest bishops, Pope Leo the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine, as well as Constantine the Great and all the other Christian Emperors up to 410 saw it with their own eyes and they understood what it meant regardless of what it was named at the moment. There is even a story of how Constantine attempted to reinterpret the Colossus after his conversion and after Nicaea in 325 by renaming it after himself and putting a bronze cross in its hand. Well, even it is true that Christians tried to give the Colossus a new identity and new meaning within 80 years of Nicaea it would be gone:
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God…”
What I want to suggest to you is that one cannot possibly understand what Paul meant by Romans 13:1-7 unless one is able to passover to the standpoint of the Roman Christians in antiquity. And it is certainly not the case that St. Paul meant to declare that the King is to be obeyed because whatever he does has God’s stamp of approval. Furthermore St. Paul statement here in Romans 13 is most certainly not a declaration that behind the temporal, lethal power of the King is the eternal, lethal power of God. All men and all rulers, including the King, the Emperor, or the Prime Minister, or “We the People,” are under an obligation to worship the God who is God and no other god and to behave in one’s personal and public life and to rule in one’s personal and public life in a manner that is commensurate with the worship of the God who is God. Any ruler who does not live and rule in a manner that is congruent with the worship of the God who is God, namely the Blessed Trinity, will dishonor his nation, dishonor his people, he or she will dishonor himself and furthermore Jesus Christ will pass a final judgment upon him in the last day. The Christians who lived under the authority of the undivided church in the years of the great ecumenical councils understood what St. Paul wrote here in light of what Jesus said as recorded in Matthew 10:28-30:
“And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.”
If Caesar thinks he will get away with harming one hair on your head he is just as out of touch with reality as you think he is. But of course it is the way of the Kings of this world to throw their weight around and to begin to believe their own public relations and image building. It was the practice of the King to plant his flag by planting his image to mark his rule and domain. This is the way of all Kings. Where the King erected his statue, there he ruled. His image declared that this piece of real estate belonged to him and the inhabitants are subjects and subjects are meant to obey the King and the King is meant to protect his subjects. Lets look at another image that actually shows up on the Old Testament. I hope that the Colossus of Nero reminds you Nebuchadnezzar’s famous image recorded in the Book of Daniel:
“King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, whose height was sixty cubits and its breadth six cubits. He set it up on the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon.” Daniel 3:1
This image of course is not just any golden image, but it was the image of Nebuchadnezzar himself — an image that declares Nebuchadnezzar’s wealth, power, and domination. In order to make sure that everyone close to him got the message, Nebuchadnezzar decreed a liturgical dedication of the image that included the principle government officials of his kingdom that included those we might understand as the national and local police officials, governors, the secretary of treasury, the attorney general and other legal counsel, and of course the military and special music for the occasion. This would be a national religious event to demonstrate the good citizenship of Babylon’s ruling class, a sort of old fashioned team building exercise displaying political solidarity and loyalty to Nebuchadnezzar. How would that happen? At the blast of the trumpets the other instruments would join in a sort of fanfare and that was the liturgical signal that everyone was to bow and pay worship to the image and anyone who did not do that would suffer the consequences. Of course no one thought that the image would come to life and take vengeance upon the unpatriotic and sacrilegious. Everyone understood that homage paid to the image passed from the image to the prototype; reverence paid to the image was not reverence to a statue, even a statue of gold, not even a golden statue of Nebuchadnezzar. Reverence paid to the golden statue was reverence paid to Nebuchadnezzar himself. Of course you know what happened, the three young Jewish men refused to bow down before the image not because the image was nothing, but in fact because the image was something and paying reverence to the image was in fact not paying reverence to the image, but rather it was paying reverence to the prototype, the reverence passed on from the image to the person or the power or the principality portrayed in the image.
This is an important principle that I want you to grasp today because it is a principle that was once universally understood though it has been lost today. This principle was one of the chief reasons for the Seventh Ecumenical Council. At that last of the ecumenical councils of the undivided Church, the bishops east and west clearly and straightforwardly declared the value of holy images such as images of the Cross and images of our Lord Jesus Christ as well as images of the holy Apostles and holy Women and that those images should be set forth in the churches of Christ because they benefit Christians and they bring honor that which is set forth in the image. In the words of the Bishops who attended the council: “For the honour of the image passes on to the prototype, and those who venerate an image venerate in it the person of him who is represented thereby.” What goes for the Babylonians goes for the Romans and goes for Americans as well — the honor paid to the image passes on to the prototype, the veneration of an image passes on to the person who is pictured.
No one gets away with misappropriating images and that is especially the case for Kings who begin to think and behave as though they are not subject to the King of Kings, the God who is God just like the rest of humanity. Remember what happened to Nebuchadnezzar? He was driven mad by the Spirit of God and he lived like a wild beast just like Daniel said he would live — mad as a hatter — “until,” to quote Daniel, “you know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth power and authority to whomsoever he will.” The emphasis is not on upon the possession of power and authority, but upon the fact that it comes from God — and just as God dispenses, God can and will take away. No one gets away with misappropriating images. And that went for the Caesars as well.
After Nicaea things did begin to change. For one thing Constantine actually affirmed personal faith in the doctrines of Nicaea and though after his death there were setbacks for the most part the Caesars began to respond at least publicly to the way of Christ. But even then the Bishops of the Church did not let the Kings forget that they were in the service of the King of Kings. For example in 390 a mob in Thessalonica murdered a Roman military governor and the Emperor Theodosius immediately retaliated by sending in troops who massacred 7,000 people without any judicial sentences being passed. When Bishop Ambrose of Milan heard of the massacre he left Milan, which was Theodosius’s residence at the time, and he refused to celebrate the mass in the Emperor’s presence until he repented and did public penance. When the Emperor found out where Ambrose was he attempted to enter the church when the bishop was about to say the mass but the bishop stopped him and publicly rebuked him for what he had done. And according to Ambrose because the Emperor was raised a Christian and he knew better he did not resist Ambrose but returned to his palace “weeping and sighing.” Eight months passed before the Bishop would finally see the Emperor and restore him to communion after he promised to impose a thirty-day lag between the passing of a death sentence and the execution. A year later under Ambrose’s influence Theodosius issued what came to be referred to as the “Theodosian degrees” which intended to root out the last vestiges of paganism from Rome. The city of Rome in the 390s, in the last decade of the forth century, was still the stronghold of old Roman paganism with fully active priests who were attempting to maintain a close relationship to the army. Furthermore both the pagan priests and the Vestal Virgins, a group of 3 or 4 Virgins chose to say perpetual prayers to pagan deities for the protection of the army and especially the city of Rome, were still being completely supported the Emperor’s treasury. Again Ambrose took action by writing the Emperor and demanding that he cease supporting these relics of paganism with public funds. Ambrose was opposed by Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, one of the greatest and most powerful pagan senators of the city, and when the Emperor delayed making a decision Ambrose ordered a halt to all Eucharistic services in his archdiocese. The Emperor quickly came to a judgment and ceased all support whatever of the old pagan state religion.
What is my point? My point is that one cannot understand what Paul meant by Romans 13:1-7 unless one passes passover to the standpoint of the Roman Christians in antiquity. St. Paul did not declare that the King is to be obeyed because whatever he does has God’s stamp of approval. All men and all rulers, including the King, the Emperor, or the Prime Minister, or “We the People,” are under an obligation to worship the God who is God and no other god and to rule in one’s personal and public life in a manner that is commensurate with the worship of Jesus. Any ruler who does not live and rule in a manner that is congruent with the worship of Jesus the Messiah will dishonor his nation, dishonor his people, he or she will dishonor himself and furthermore Jesus Christ will pass a final judgment upon him in the last day.