The times of the New Testament are book-ended by two of the most despotic rulers in human history; Herod and Nero, the Roman Emperor.
Herod, who commanded the murder of the firstborn in the time of Jesus’s birth was also guilty of murdering three of his own sons! In fact, the great Caesar Augustus said of Herod;
“It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.”
Nero ascended to rule the Roman empire in 54 AD. He is believed to have murdered his own mother and two of his lovers. He also martyred hundreds of Christians; feeding them to wild animals in the Colosseum, crucifying them and using them as human torches to light his garden according to Tacitus.
Surely God could have had no part in establishing the reign of these tyrants? Yet the Apostle Paul writes to Romans under the rule of Nero himself:
“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.”
Romans 13:1 NASB
Paul means us to understand that even Herod and Nero were established by God. But why? God knew the great suffering they would cause, why did he not prevent them from ascending to positions of such power?
We’re told on three separate occasions in Matthew’s account that Herod’s depraved actions were in order to fulfill the prophetic decrees of Hosea 11:1 and Jeremiah 31:15. So, Herod’s sinful and evil actions in trying to wipe out any record of the Messiah would in God’s Providence end up pointing many thousands right to Him!
Although we have no clear idea from scripture of God’s purposes in Nero’s reign, we do know that both the Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter were martyred in Rome under Nero. History tells us that Christianity grew exponentially during his reign, as many believers fled Rome and began to spread the faith wherever they went. So in trying to crush the Church in it’s infancy Nero was instead responsible for spreading it far and wide throughout his empire.
So what? Well, in days when there is much wringing of hands about particular politicians and parties it serves us well to remember that those authorities were put in place by our God and that He has sovereign purposes to achieve through them. Our job is to pray for those in authority (1 Tim 2:1-2) and ensure that our minds are focused first on the word of God before ever they are fixed on the words of men.