The earliest charge against Christians as social rabble-rousers was that they said “there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17.7). Therefore, Christians, it was alleged, are bad citizens, prone to disorderly conduct & disregard of civil authorities. No doubt the question of whether God’s people should obey their pagan rulers was a pressing one for Peter’s audience. It was especially pressing when they were spoken of as “evildoers” & persecuted. Peter has already said that Christian’s are to conduct themselves honorably (v.12) & he begins with honorable conduct before the state.
Submission to the State (2.13-17)
God’s will is that Christians submit to & honor governing authorities which are established by Him.
13Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme,
Be subject…to every human institution: Submission & obedience to governing authorities is typical of ethical instructions found in the NT (cf. Romans 13.1-7; Titus 3.1).
For the Lord’s sake: This may be Peter’s way of echoing Paul’s “there is no authority except from God” (Rom 13.1). Contextually, the glorification of God through our submission to the authorities He put in place is the theological basis.
Whether…as supreme: The Roman emperor was the one who exercised continuous control over the empire and so was supreme. Considering the emperor at the time of Peter writing was Nero it seems this principle is binding even when rulers are neither Christian nor moral.
Peter addresses not only what Christians are to do related to governing authorities, but also gives the why: be subject (what) for the Lord’s sake (why). For Jesus’ sake is reason enough for Christians not to be anarchists or insurrectionists.
- Submit (13-14) – to governing authorities high & low
- Silence (15) – ignorant foolish people
- Serve (16-17) – everyone high & low
14or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.
Or…do good: sent by him may be referring to the emperor in his authority establishing local governing bodies to keep the peace or may refer to God (i.e. Him, cf. Jn 19.11) & once again we have tones of Paul (see Rom 13.3-4). Their function in the various Roman provinces was to punish delinquents and to praise the virtuous.
While Christians certainly have obligations to the state motivated by our theology (“for the Lord’s sake”), the state likewise has obligations to the people. The state is supposed to punish evil-doers & praise do-gooders. Paul says of the emperor, “he does not bear the sword in vain” (Rom 13.4). No whatever that means, it certainly means that governing authorities are to be “an avenger who carries our God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (verse 4). Meanwhile, those with good conduct “receive his approval” (13.3).
Our society seems to have this all backward. Those pursuing a Christian ethic are punished while those engaged in behavior contrary to God’s will are applauded. Refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex couple and you could face stiff penalties. Make the Bible your state book and it’s only a matter of time before you will hear about it. A Chicago church fired their music director who came out as homosexual and now they are facing litigation. Good is evil and evil is good & Caesar grins menacingly.
15For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.
For this is the will of God: God’s will for His people is that they submit in order to silence…
That…foolish people: Peter calls the Gentiles foolish not to denigrate their intelligence, but rather as an allusion to wisdom literature where the foolish one who does not fear God or walk in His ways & is thus morally debased (Psalm 53.1). The Gentiles ignorance springs from their irrational claims of Christians as evildoers. All of the ignorance & folly can be silence by Christians living morally upright & virtuous lives (i.e. doing good).
Here is our obligation to society at-large – live the life excellently. Live it so excellently that they are actually muzzled when they open their mouths to accuse us. People want to know what is God’s will for their life; here Peter spells it out explicitly. Do so much good that you shame to silence the stupid & silly accusations spoken by fools. This seems to be what Jesus did. There came a point where no one dared ask him any more questions (Matt 22.46). He was good & He silenced the ignorance of the foolish teachers of His day.
16Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.
[Live] as…free: Live is supplied in most English versions, however, what Peter says here is a continuation of verse 13 & “be subject.” Christians are “called to freedom” (Gal 5.13) & at the same time, as Peter emphasizes, Christians are God’s slaves.
America is the land of the free. So we truly know what it means to live as free people. But this freedom cannot & must be used to justify moral evil. Some think that we are free to do whatever we want. “Free country,” scoffs the ner-do-well. But as social critic Os Guinness says, “Liberty requires restraint, but the only restraint consistent with liberty is self-restraint.” Said another way: Liberty requires virtue. Where does virtue come from? “Add to your faith virtue,” says Peter. Therefore, without faith we cannot have virtue; without virtue it is only a matter of time before we are without liberty.
Not using…evil: “Christians do not have freedom to do wrong” (Grudem 121). “Genuine freedom liberates believers to do what is good” (Schreiner).
[Living] as servants of God: This is the inward motivation for the actions here commanded—Christians are God’s slaves. So Christians live under another King who wants us to submit to human rulers He has established.
17Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Honor everyone: Christians are to attribute high status & value to all people. Why? Though Peter does not specify, it seems best to understand that God created everyone in His image.
Love the brotherhood: Present tense so continue to love all Christians.
Fear God: Present tense so continue to render reverential awe & respect to God (see Ecc 12.13).
Honor the emperor: So the emperor is placed on equal footing with everyone.
We are inclined to honor the great & powerful. Those with money (Bill Gates), athletes with exceptional skill (Michael Jordan), the very intelligent (Stephen Hawking) – I think we look upon these people as having some position of honor. This seems particularly true in the political arena. For example, if you received an invitation to the White House, you would no doubt recognize that as a great honor. Whether you like the guy or not, you respect the office. Peter does something interesting – “honor everyone.” All people are worthy of our honor, not just the emperor. I don’t know that Peter drags the emperor down to the common man’s level so much as he elevates everyone to a position of honor. Every person is someone who was created by God in His image & therefore is worthy of honor.
Special Study: The Christian & Government
Peter’s admonition for Christian submission to governing authorities must be understood in light of the instances of civil disobedience found elsewhere in the NT. There are times when the apostles, with Peter as their spokesman, refused to comply with the orders of civil authorities because they were in opposition to the orders of God (see Acts 4.19-20; 5.29). These appear to be the exception rather than the rule. Submit to (good) government, unless they seek to force Christians to violate God’s will. Then obey God.