Living in the Light

Reading: Romans 13
The spirit of the age in which we live is to seek self-fulfilment. We regard it as our birthright. We seek it with all our heart, with all our energies. This birthright drives us to our deathbed, yet we pursue it in the mistaken belief that self-fulfilment is life.

By contrast, the Christian faith sees God at the centre. The drive for self-fulfilment became the heart of human sin. It led to the great temptation and to the great fall. It led to the death of the Son of God on a human cross at the hands of the human righteous. But the God who is at the centre was working human redemption through that human cross.

So we affirm that true self-fulfilment doesn't come from independence and autonomy. It comes through submission. Now there's a word we don't like! Yet just as the lack of submission was the starting-point of human sin, so in the forgiveness and restoration of life with God at the centre, submission becomes part of life again - not soul-destroying submission, but the submission that leads to true fulfilment because life is as it was always meant to be. It is part of all true repentance and faith. It is part of all true Christian living. As George Matheson put it (AHB 528),

Again and again in the Scriptures, it is insisted that we submit ourselves to God, to our fellow-Christians, to our marriage partners, to our parents...

Paul has spent a good deal of time in Romans telling us that the works of the Law cannot make us right with God. Only God in his great mercy can do that. Paul began chapter 12 by appealing to us on the basis of God's great mercy to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to God. He started to spell this out in terms of our use of gifts within the Body of Christ and our need to express genuine love inside and outside the Body.

Duties to the State

Then, quite unexpectedly, he introduces the theme of submission - not towards God, to our fellow-Christians, to our marriage partners, to our parents... - but to the State authorities!

We need to understand the situation of Paul and his readers. They were living under Roman rule. Everyone was expected to worship the Roman gods - whatever else they might worship. The Emperor was regarded as divine, and refusal to worship him was seen as treason. The Jews were exempted from this provision - Jewish willingness to die for their faith had led to their religion being declared a religio licita, a legally recognised religion. Christians at first came under the Jewish umbrella. However, the Jews themselves increasingly insisted that Christians weren't Jews and should come under the full force of Roman law.

The Roman state was a key participant in the crucifixion of Jesus. In time the Roman authorities would execute Paul himself.

Yet in spite of all this, Paul insisted that the principle of authority is part of God's purpose for the good ordering of human society. Those who resist the authorities resist what God has appointed and will incur judgment. So, he says, pay your taxes, and show respect and honour for them all.

Our situation is different. Every three years we get to vote for our government. In the media there is fairly open discussion and criticism of the decisions of government. There is a strong movement towards civil liberties. Some people exercise a conscientious objection towards voting and towards military service.

On the other hand, the level of dishonesty in our society is increasing - so widespread, in fact, that we sometimes wonder just who is honest enough to conduct corruption enquiries fairly! So we feel the pressure of increasing government surveillance, the need to get our 100 points to prove who we are, the increasing use of our taxfile numbers... We wonder whether all this will make for a more honest and just society or whether it will produce an even greater number of Artful Dodgers!

On one occasion, some of the Pharisees came to Jesus and said, "Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" Jesus borrowed a coin and asked, "Whose portrait is this and whose inscription?" "Caesar's." "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" (Mt. 22.17-21).

We are part of a society and this brings us many benefits. We may disagree or be concerned about many things that are done. We may question the directions in which society is moving - but pay your taxes and show respect and honour for them all.

Of course, situations may arise where a government makes a law which is contrary to what God requires of us. In such cases we must be prepared to do what is right and suffer the consequences. Jesus said, "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Mt. 5.10-12).

Duties towards One Another

Paul goes on to speak about our duties towards one another. "Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law."

What is the greatest commandment? When Jesus was asked that question, he replied, "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (Mt 22.37-40).

Paul takes us back to this essential teaching of Jesus. He is not saying that adultery, murder, stealing, covetousness are of no account. But the positive side of the law is not prohibition but love. Human sin needs the restraint of "You shall not..." The motivation of Christian living is love. Love is "the fulfilment of the law" (Rom. 13.10) - it enables us to fulfil the whole law.

Paul sees additional motivation for this kind of life - we are living in the end-times. "And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light" (vv. 11-12).

Twenty long centuries have passed and we are still living in the end-times. The very coming of Jesus is a sign that "the night is nearly over and the day almost here." We are children of the light. As such, we need to "put aside the deeds of darkness" and be prepared for the battle, having "put on the armour of light." In Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, we read similar words, "You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet" (1 Thess. 5.5-8).

As he concludes the present chapter, "Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature" (Rom. 13.13-14).

Perhaps it comes as a shock to see "dissension and jealousy" listed along with "orgies" and "sexual immorality" as "deeds of darkness." It is a needed shock, for such they are.

To live in the light under the grace of God we are to "put on" - "clothe ourselves with" - the Lord Jesus Christ. His life and character are to be visible for all to see - and that can only happen through our relationship with him.

"And do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature." Perhaps it is a surprise that Paul feels he needs to say this. And yet… how we find ways of justifying ourselves and keeping alive some "besetting sin"! Remember, now that you have clothed yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, it is out of character to gratify those old evil desires.

God is at the centre of our living. His grace has brought us forgiveness and a whole new way of life. Live as people of the light!

© Peter J. Blackburn, Ayr Uniting Church, 18 August 2002
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

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