Bearing the Sword: Romans 13:4

bearing the sword (2)

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i) Rom 13:4: Ultimately, Paul grounded his rationale for behaving laudably in theology, rather than for personal benefit (Cf. Rom 13:1–3).

Concerning each civil ruler, he wrote, “For a servant (diakonos) of God he is to you for good. But if evil you are doing, be afraid.”

In the New Testament, a “servant of God” typically refers to someone in leadership in the church (Col 1:7; 1 Tim 4:6).[1]

Paul also utilized this word to refer to the office of a deacon (Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8–13; Rom 16:1).[2]

However, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (OT), the term applies to civic leaders and royal officials (Esth 2:1–2).[3]

A Jewish apocryphal work exhorted:

Listen therefore, O kings, and understand; learn, O judges of the ends of the earth. Give ear, you that rule over multitudes, and boast of many nations. For your dominion was given you from the Lord, and your sovereignty from the Most High; he will search out your works and inquire into your plans.

Because as servants of his kingdom you did not rule rightly, or keep the law, or walk according to the purpose of God, he will come upon you terribly and swiftly, because severe judgment falls on those in high places (Wisdom of Solomon 6:1–5, NRSVCE).

This secular meaning appears to be what Paul intended.[4] Whether rulers know it or not, they serve the Lord’s purposes (Isa 10:5–16).[5]



As God’s servants, such rulers have two major functions.[6] By enacting just laws, they encourage people to behave morally, and they deter evildoing by punishing transgressors.[7] The Lord intends that governments reflect his wrath against evil.[8]

Paul explained, “For not without cause the sword (machaira) he bears.”

Here “the sword” functions as a metaphor for execution.[9] The rare Greek verb phoreō has the nuance of something being carried continually or worn for a long time (Matt 11:8; 1 Cor 15:49).[10]

Human government retains the power of life and death over those who commit great evil.[11]



This brings us to the hotly contested issue of capital punishment. The basis for execution as the penalty for murder lies in the recognition that all people are created in the image of God (Gen 9:6).[12]

God enacted the death penalty prior to the debut of the Mosaic law. Consequently, the arrival of Christ did not negate it as part of the ceremonial law.[13]

Some Christians argue that capital punishment does not mesh with the ethics of Jesus, particularly in his call to avoid revenge.[14]

However, when Christ denounced the Pharisees for putting aside God’s commands in favor of human tradition, he cited an OT text concerning the death penalty without any qualifications (Mark 7:9–13).

Had his death and resurrection voided it, Christ would have chosen a different verse. Yet, in the remainder of this passage, Jesus set aside the kosher dietary restrictions as no longer necessary (Mark 7:14–19).[15]

Furthermore, Jesus pointed out to Pilate that God endowed him with his ability to order crucifixions (John 19:10–11). Paul also accepted the validity of the death penalty (Acts 25:11–12).[16]



On the other hand, the current guideline in the United States instructs a jury to determine that a person’s guilt is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This does not rise to the level of the biblical requirement (Deut 19:15).[17]

If our courts held this standard, very few people convicted of murder would remain eligible for the death penalty.[18]

In addition, the application of the death penalty as practiced in the United States reflects bias. Those convicted of murder who belong to a racial minority are far more likely to receive a death sentence than Caucasian murderers, especially when the victim was white.[19]

Those who cannot afford a good lawyer often receive inadequate representation in court. Such individuals receive capital punishment at a higher rate.[20]

This has led some death penalty proponents to argue for an increase in executions by holding Caucasians and the wealthy to the same standard.[21]

Another issue to consider is the tendency of witnesses to lie, especially when prosecutors promise convicts reduced sentences in exchange for testifying.[22]

In capital cases, lawyers must fully question witnesses multiple times to detect inconsistencies in their testimony.

The law of Moses acted as a deterrent to providing false information by insisting that a lying eyewitness receive the penalty which the judge would have ordered for the accused person (Deut 19:16–21).[23]

Thankfully, DNA testing makes a significant difference in this regard. Recent improvements in testing techniques have exonerated many death row prisoners.[24]

The Innocence Project has done fantastic work to reduce the conviction of innocent people and to release wrongly incarcerated prisoners (Prov 24:11–12).[25]

Where the guilt of one accused of murder is absolutely certain, Scripture seems to warrant the application of the death penalty.[26]

However, even in those cases, governments must fairly apply capital punishment. A just society cannot permit discrimination.[27]



Regarding why we should submit to government authority, Paul also wrote, “for of God he is a servant, an avenger for wrath against the one doing evil.”

The punishments which rulers inflict upon the guilty serve as an extension of the Lord’s judgment.[28]

Paul’s Jewish readers in Rome recognized this concept (Prov 24:21–22; Isa 5:26–29; Isa 8:7–8; Isa 13:1–5).[29]

The Wars of the Jews made a similar statement concerning God and government:

While Josephus (37–100 AD) was making this exhortation to the Jews, many of them jested upon him from the wall, and many reproached him; nay, some threw their darts at him.

But when he could not himself persuade them by such open good advice, he betook himself to the histories belonging to their own nation, and cried out aloud, “O miserable creatures! Are you so unmindful of those that used to assist you, that you will fight by your weapons and by your hands against the Romans?

“When did we ever conquer any other nation by such means? And when was it that God, who is the Creator of the Jewish people, did not avenge them when they had been injured?

“Will not you turn again, and look back, and consider whence it is that you fight with such violence, and how great a Supporter you have profanely abused?

“Will not you recall to mind the prodigious things done for your forefathers and this holy place, and how great enemies of yours were by him subdued under you?…You fight not only against the Romans, but against God himself.”[30]



In conclusion, we should not separate the call to avoid vengeance in Rom 12:17–21 from the recognition that the Lord has endowed governments with the responsibility to uphold justice.[31]

God charges secular rulers to do for us what God has forbidden: taking revenge with our own hands.[32]

Since the Lord appoints governing authorities to reward those who behave well and to penalize evildoers, he commands us to submit to them with all due respect.[33]

Image via Wikimedia Commons


Read Rom 13:3–4. How did Paul describe the functions of governing authorities? Why must we submit to secular rulers? What will happen to people who refuse to obey them? How does Rom 12:17–13:4 give you guidance when faced with injustice? In what ways would you reform capital punishment?







Go to A Covenant with All Living Things (Gen 9:8–11)

[Related posts include Live in Peace (Rom 12:17–18); Leave Vengeance to God (Rom 12:19); Responding with Kindness (Rom 12:20); Overcoming Evil with Good (Rom 12:21); Submitting to Governing Authorities (Rom 13:1); Engaging in Anarchy (Rom 13:2); Do What is Good (Rom 13:3); Blood for Blood (Gen 9:5–7); Effects of the Fall Reversed (Rom 5:12–21 and Rom 16:1–12); and Ancient Literature]

[Click here to go to Chapter 9: A Covenant with Noah (Genesis 8:20–9:17)]


[1]Moo, Romans, 422.

[2]Hermann W. Beyer, “διακονος” (diakonos), TDNT 2:87–93, 89–90, 93.

[3]Dunn, Romans 9–16, 764.

[4]Moo, Romans, 422.

[5]Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2:665.

[6]Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2:665.

[7]Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 801.

[8]Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2:666.

[9]W. Michaelis, “μαχαιρα” (machaira), TDNT 4:524–7, 525–6.

[10]Konrad Weiss, “φορεω” (phoreō), TDNT 9:83–4, 84.

[11]Dunn, Romans 9–16, 764.

[12]Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics, 3rd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 264.

[13]Bruce W. Ballard, “The Death Penalty: God’s Timeless Standard for the Nations?” JETS 43, no. 3 1 September 2000):471–87, 472,

[14]Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics, 3rd Ed., 262.

[15]Ballard, “The Death Penalty: God’s Timeless Standard for the Nations?” 475–6,

[16]Walter C. Jr. Kaiser, et al., Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 116.

[17]Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics, 3rd Ed., 253.

[18]Ballard, “The Death Penalty: God’s Timeless Standard for the Nations?” 483,

[19]Matt Stichter, “The Structure of Death Penalty Arguments,” Res Publica 20, no. 2 (1 May 2014): 135–6,

[20]Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics, 3rd Ed., 264.

[21]Stichter, “The Structure of Death Penalty Arguments,” 136,

[22]Stichter, “The Structure of Death Penalty Arguments,” 140–1,

[23]Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 270.

[24]Ballard, “The Death Penalty: God’s Timeless Standard for the Nations?” 482–3,

[25]Innocence Project,

[26]Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics, 3rd Ed., 264.

[27]Ballard, “The Death Penalty: God’s Timeless Standard for the Nations?” 486,

[28]Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 802.

[29]Dunn, Romans 9–16, 765.

[30]Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, 5.377,

[31]Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 792.

[32]Moo, Romans, 421.

[33]Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 800.