July 26, 2020
Jason Meyer (Downtown Campus) | 1 Peter 2:13-17
Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.—1 Peter 2:13–17
We are living in the midst of one of the most turbulent, confusing, and contentious moments that many of us can remember. So many people have so many strong opinions about so many issues right now. And we still have to face what may be one of the most challenging election cycles in a generation. The question before us is not simply how to think and how to engage issue by issue, but how to think and engage Christianly across a whole spectrum of political issues. That is, what do Christians do with their lips and their lives to proclaim the excellencies of Christ in the political sphere? How do they call attention to the war for the soul and the call to glorify God when it comes to the issue of the governing authorities?
This is not a text that we chose because Governor Walz mandated masks to be worn throughout Minnesota this week! This was simply the next text in our journey through 1 Peter. I think it is simply proof again that God loves us and wants us to live according to his word, not the winds of worldly thinking.
Christians glorify God in the political sphere when they submit to their rulers for the Lord’s sake.
We will take each point one at a time and apply as we go.
Submission or “be subject” means humbly putting yourself under the authority of another. It is a posture of readiness to respect and obey another’s authority. This type of posture to the governing authorities is standard New Testament teaching. Listen for example to Romans 13 and Titus 3:1–2.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.—Romans 13:1–2
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.—Titus 3:1–2
The parallel in 1 Peter 3:1–7 is very instructive here as well. Peter moves easily and naturally from “submit” (3:1, 5) to “obey” (3:6). Therefore, the word does not merely mean “respect,” it means to “do what they say” (as long as they do not tell you to sin).
This is where a knowledge of the original language is so helpful. The ESV makes it sound like we are to submit to every human “institution,” but the object of submission in the original language is submit to “every human creature” (pasē anthrōpinē ktisei). Peter immediately clarifies the human beings he has in mind: the emperor and the governors. He is not talking about submission to every individual human. He is talking about governing authorities. But what he is definitely doing is reminding everyone that they are fundamentally human and not divine. There was a whole religion in Rome that regarded the emperor as divine. Peter says he is clearly human, just like every other earthly ruler. He will end this section on that same note, as we will see in a few moments.
Peter lays out three reasons to submit to the governing authorities: (1) for the Lord’s sake, (2) they punish evil and praise good, and (3) it is the will of God and the result is that foolish people will be silenced.
Look at verse 13 for the first reason: For the Lord’s sake.
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution
You submit to your rulers not for the sake of your rulers (because they are worthy), but for the Lord’s sake (he is worthy). That is why he reinforces the point that they are merely human; they are not the Lord. You must always keep your ultimate authority in view and remember not just why you do what you do, but for whom you are doing it! Your submission to Caesar is not for the glory of Caesar, but for the glory of God.
Verse 14 gives the second reason for submitting: They punish evil and praise good.
… or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.
Why would God institute governments and put fallen people in charge? Peter highlights the fact that government is generally a good gift. Even in a fallen world, with fallen rulers governing fallen people, there is enough common grace at play that governments will usually work for the overall good by punishing evildoers and rewarding (or praising) those who do good.
What does Peter mean by praising those who do good? Praise is a term used in this context for commending. Many ancient governments would find ways to commend those who helped the community (erect statues, plaques, memorials, name things in their honor, etc.).
Does this mean that governments always reward good and punish evil? We will take up this question in a moment. But let’s look at his third reason before answering that practical question. Look at verse 15 for the third reason for submitting: It is the will of God and the result is that foolish people will be silenced.
For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.
Here is the logic. Christians should submit to governing authorities because it is God’s will. When you submit to God by submitting to the government, what impact will that have for Christianity in the sight of others? The result of this submission is that you will silence the ignorance of foolish people who think Christians are anarchists just because they will not say that Caesar is god. Furthermore, when people will slander Christians as evildoers, Christians give them lots of evidence to the contrary. The good behavior of Christians should silence the ignorance of foolish people.
Verse 16 now unpacks the nature of this submission:
Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.
The word live is an unfortunate translation. The Greek text has no verb, which means it is implied from the earlier verses. The topic of discussion is not “life in general,” but “submission in particular.” We should translate it “submit as people who are free” and “submitting as slaves of God” (v. 16).
First, Christians submit as free people. Look at the first phrase of verse 16.
Live (SUBMIT) as people who are free.
The children of God have true freedom because there were set free with a price. Peter can simply refer to this freedom without unpacking it further because he has already established it in 1 Peter 1:18–19.
Knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.
We were once enslaved to sin, but we were bought with the precious blood of Christ and so w are ransomed and free. We do not and cannot belong to the governing authorities.
Second, Christians submit as good people. Look at the second part of verse 16.
Not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil …
In other words, we submit to the government with the transparent aim of infusing good into civil society, not for nefarious, underhanded purposes (join a corrupt system and work the system and secure dishonest gain). Christians are free with respect to the government and so they can use their freedom to do good in society
Third, Christians submit as an enslaved people. Look at the third part of verse 16.
But living (SUBMITTING) as servants of God.
Christians submit to the government because it is the will of God. Therefore, Christian freedom is not unlimited or autonomous. It is freedom defined by obedience to God. Romans 6 speaks to this issue with incredible clarity.
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.—Romans 6:16–18
In other words, do not think of true freedom as having no boundaries. True freedom, like true love, wants boundaries because you want to protect what is precious. In marriage, you make commitments to each other that says, “This relationship is precious. Let’s protect it. I do not want anyone else or anything else getting in the way of what we have.”
Peter is not being naïve here. The Old Testament and early church history had plenty of examples of oppressive rulers (Pharaoh and wicked Israelite kings like Ahab & Jezebel), and Jesus was beaten and crucified by Roman rule. But even the most oppressive and corrupt governments hold widespread evil in check and keep society from descending into anarchy. But we ought not be naïve in assuming that obeying the government is always the will of God. We do not submit with unquestioning obedience with total trust. There are times when God’s people are called to disobey the government.
An example from the Book of Acts may help. In the case of the early church, God has called them to preach Christ. The governing authorities told them not to preach Christ. Therefore, what the church needs to do is costly, but it is not complicated. The apostles responded and said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
The governing authorities are forbidding something that God commanded. They have overstepped their bounds of authority and are no longer in alignment with God’s authority because they are forbidding something that he commanded or commanded something that he forbade. When forced to choose, the church will choose to obey God.
Therefore, when the will of God and the will of government come into direct opposition, the church will obey God by respectfully refusing to submit to the government. When those two wills are aligned, we will obey God by respectfully submitting to the government.
This is the same principle at work in both Testaments. For example, Pharaoh commanded something that God forbade (killing babies). God blessed the defiance of the Hebrew midwives and gave them families because they feared the heavenly king more than the earthly ruler (Exodus 1:21). Daniel and the exiles could submit to foreign rulers until commanded to do something that God forbade (idolatry—worship of the golden image in Daniel 3) or forbidden to do something that God commanded (like pray to God, in Daniel 6).
Therefore, obedience to God is a non-negotiable part of being a child of God. Our ultimate allegiance is to him and thus obedience to him is precious to us. We would rather die than disobey. When forced to choose, it may be costly, but it is not complicated: We must obey God rather than man. We are happy when obedience to God and submission to earthly rulers align and we are sad when earthly rulers overreach with their authority and command something that God forbids or forbid something that God commands.
Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
A) Honor Everyone
B) Love the Brotherhood
C) Fear God
This verse is a chiasm:
A Honor everyone
B Love the brotherhood
B Fear God
A Honor the emperor
There is a distinctive way that Christians engage with others according to what is due to them.
First, notice that the same word is used at the beginning and the end. We owe honor to all because all are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–27). We give the same honor and respect to the emperor that we would give to all people.
This seems to reiterate the point of verse 13 that the emperor or king is simply human—nothing more. But it is instructive that we do more than just obey someone. We could obey the king (because we fear for our lives) but then maliciously speak against him every chance we get. Peter is calling for both obedience and respect: Christian civility that is based on the recognition that the earthly ruler is merely human (not a god), but as a human, he is made in the image of God and thus deserving of respect and dignity and decency.
Paul’s words in Titus 3:1–2 also pair together submission to authorities and courtesy or dignity:
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.
Let us stop for a moment and let the Word do its work in us. Are we letting this word dwell richly within us? Is it guiding and instructing the way we engage in the political sphere?
Gut check time. How do you talk about the current President? I really don’t care how much you like him or don’t like him, or how much you agree with him or disagree with him. I am asking if you are honoring him the way that your Sovereign Lord and King of the Universe would have you honor him. How do you talk about him (and maybe even post about him)? How do you pray for him? How about our mayor, Jacob Frey? How about our governor, Tim Walz? I am not asking you if you agree or disagree with how they responded to COVID-19 or what they did when our city was on fire or what they are saying right now about wearing a mask.
Do you think this was easy for Peter’s readers? We are probably talking here about emperor Nero. Not exactly a morally upstanding leader. He took sexual immorality to another level. And it is not as if Christians were a special interest group with political power. Christians were not a moral majority.
You may disagree with how Mayor Jacob Frey responded when our city was set on fire. You may disagree with how slow Governor Walz was to re-open churches. You may disagree with the mandate to wear masks. But as Pastor Dave Zuleger said last week to the South Campus, imagine someone like Nero who set the city on fire and then blamed Christians and set them on fire as human torches.
No one is saying: “Never disagree” or “do not share your thoughts.” Obey whatever they say that is not sin. Honor them—treat them with courtesy and dignity as people made in the image of God.
But let us go further. Peter says that we should not only honor those made in the image of God (all humanity). We owe something beyond basic dignity to the family of God: love. We owe love to the people of God because they are made in the image of God and are in the family of God (through the plan of God, the purchase of Christ, and the power of the Spirit). Peter clearly emphasizes family love because he uses a unique word: love the brotherhood (used only here and 1 Peter 5:9—the same sufferings are being experienced by the brotherhood throughout the whole world).
This is an even more challenging command. Do disagreements with another believer suddenly make the command to love them null and void? If they take another view on some contentious topic (or if they vote for some other candidate), are you suddenly free to verbally vent and go on the offensive and let them have it? Is it now suddenly ok to shame them or douse them with sarcasm and light them on fire with rude rhetoric?
What we allow to divide us is a sad commentary on what actually unites us. You know what it is like to be loved by God and to be accepted in Christ. Do people feel that same family acceptance from you or do they feel canceled by you and condemned by you? Have you become the self-appointed referee for the Christian community, saying someone is out or in?
Disagreement that leads to demonizing non-Christians dishonors the image of God. Disagreement that leads to demonizing fellow believers dishonors the image of God and the blood of Christ (the purpose of God, the cost of the cross, the setting apart of the Holy Spirit, etc.).
Fearing God is the key. When God occupies the central place there is a gravitational force that helps you rightly esteem the image of God and the work of salvation. The only way you could possibly persist in dishonoring those made in his image or hating on people in the family of God, is if you stopped fearing God. If you fear God, you will not dare to dishonor those made in the image of God. If you fear God, then you would think twice before going after someone in the family of God.
We are to fear only God. We must decenter all other topics and issues and people. He alone is the source of our trust and fear and hope. There is a joy in fearing God. He must occupy a place above all others in a class by himself.
And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile.— 1 Peter 1:17
Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.—1 Peter 3:14–16
Ditches of Political Engagement
Cowardice Humility Courage (Pride)
Christians believe that we can engage and participate in politics without trusting in politics. It is a dangerous game. C.S. Lewis warned against this in The Screwtape Letters when the demons say we can tempt people to cowardice (don’t get involved in the world) or courage (bold engagement—even if they are right—as long as there is consequent pride and division). Can we hold political convictions with humility instead of cultivating political pride and smugness, which hinders us from treating people with dignity and loving the family of God along the political spectrum?
What happens in our two-party system when we divide along political lines? There are two unique temptations [ditches] in a two-party system, and our text helps us maintain image of God dignity and courtesy:
Demonize Dignity Deify
An Example of Political Dignity
George H. W. Bush
Jan. 20, 1993
When I walked into the office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know that you will feel that, too.
I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness that some Presidents have described.
There will be very tough times, made more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.
You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.
Your success is now our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck.
The church must guard against the temptation to disobey God by refusing to treat political leaders with dignity or disobey God by putting false trust in political leaders. In our two-party system, we can be tempted to demonize political opponents (and those who disagree), while putting undue trust in our political party and leaders.
The Danger of Political Idolatry (on C.S. Lewis)
C.S. Lewis observed that almost all crimes of Christian history have come about when religion is confused with politics. Politics allures us to trade away grace for power, a temptation the church has often been unable to resist.—Philip Yancey
We refuse to demonize because we fear God and want to honor his image. We refuse to deify because we fear God and worship him alone.
Conclusion: The Court Preacher and Louis the Great
Louis XIV, king of France, died in 1717. Known as “Louis the Great,” he wanted his funeral to be a continued display of his grandeur. So he arranged for all the candles in the cathedral to be put out save for one, burning brightly right on top of his casket as if to say, “Even in death my light shines stronger than any other.” However the preacher, before giving the funeral oration, descended to the casket, blew out the candle, and proclaimed loudly, “Only God is great!”
Main Point: Christians glorify God in the political sphere when they submit to their rulers for the Lord’s sake.
Pray for a grace to treat everyone with dignity and honor, love the brotherhood, and fear God above all.