God, the Government, and the Christian
Passage: 1 Peter 2:13-17
(Read) One of the great benefits of preaching through books of the Bible is that God sets the agenda for the preaching. That’s good for several reasons. When the text brings up an uncomfortable or controversial subject, it takes the focus off of the preacher and puts it on the Word of God. Whereas, if the pastor randomly preaches a message about giving, people may wonder why he brought it up. Are we having budget problems? Does he think we are too stingy? Does he want a raise? Why is he talking about such a personal subject? But if it comes up in the course of preaching through a book, the focus naturally turns to the fact that God brought it up, and if it’s important to God, we need to talk about it. Expositional preaching focuses attention on the authority of God’s Word rather than the pastor and that’s a good thing. Another significant benefit of preaching through books is that it lets God set the direction for what will be emphasized. This is also good because God knows better than any of us what subjects we really need to grasp and how much those things need to be emphasized. I’m thankful today for expositional preaching because the next four sections of 1 Peter bring up three subjects that I may naturally either tend to ignore or that would be very difficult to bring up on my own. All three subjects have to do with submission to imperfect authorities. First Peter 2:13–17 talks about submission to government, and 2:18–20 talks about submission to slave masters. Chapter 2:21–25 then ground this submission in the example of Christ, and 3:1–7 talk about a wife’s submission to her husband and the husband’s responsibility to his wife. The first subject—submission to government isn’t necessarily a difficult subject to address, but it’s one that we don’t consider that often, and because of that our thinking about this subject and ultimately our practice is often not what it ought to be. I know that my thinking and my lifestyle has been challenged this week as I have reflected on our text, and I trust that the Lord will use it today to shape how we all think and then how we live.
These five verses consist of three units that I would like to summarize in three principles. The first principle, which is found in vv. 13–14 is that…
Christians must obey government authorities (vv. 13–14).
Verse 13 begins with the simple command to “submit yourselves to every ordinance of man.” This command pictures an individual as willingly placing himself under the authority of another. The entire section extending through 3:7 teaches that we are not just accountable to God but to human authorities God has placed in our lives.
What authority does Peter particularly have in mind?
Who are we to obey?
Verse 13 mentions “every ordinance of man.” Some have taken this phrase broadly as covering every authority structure in society including your boss, schoolteachers, etc. There is biblical warrant for honoring every order of society, but I believe that Peter is specifically thinking of government based on the qualification at the end of v. 13 and in v. 14. “Every ordinance of man” is first of all a reference to “the king as supreme.” In Peter’s day, he is specifically thinking of the emperor of Rome. If we think it’s difficult to honor our government officials today, consider how unnatural it must have been for Peter to write these words and for his readers to hear them. Nero was Caesar. He was a demented, evil man, and all people recognized this, not just Christians. But he was especially opposed to Christians. Within a few short years of the writing of this epistle, Nero would lead the first official, Roman persecution of Christians. He did some terrible things, including killing Paul and Peter himself. And so when Peter wrote this command, he was telling his readers to submit to the man who would eventually kill him. But it wasn’t just Nero’s character that would have made this command difficult to swallow. There was also the fact that the Roman emperors claimed to be gods, and this was a direct affront to the monotheism of Christians. I mentioned last week that the refusal of Christians to participate in emperor worship cost them dearly in the court of public opinion and as a result in other areas also. These Christians had suffered for this bold stand, and it’s human nature for us to respond to something that is wrong by swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction. Some may have been claiming that Christians are not obligated to obey the emperor. Peter responds with a two-pronged attack. The phrase “every human ordinance” is a veiled rejection of emperor worship. The word translated “ordinance” means “creature,” and so by calling the emperor a human creature, Peter hints at the fact that he is a man like the rest of us. BUT he still commands Christians to submit. But not only does he command us to submit to the ruler of the state, v. 14 adds that we are to submit to those who act on his behalf. In Peter’s day, “governors” would have primarily been the provincial governors. This term is used in the NT of Pilate, Felix, and Festus. They carried the authority of Caesar in ruling provinces, and Peter commanded his readers to obey them. But the term can be used for other types of officials, and the qualifier, “those who are sent by Caesar” indicates that the command includes every arm of the government. And so Peter commands Christians to obey the government that God has placed over them even when it is corrupt as was the government of Peter’s day. But…
Why are we to obey?
The first reason is…
Because of Ultimate Submission to God:Verse 13 commands us to obey government “for the Lord’s sake.” This phrase indicates that submission glorifies God, but primarily it indicates that God is our ultimate authority, and that we are to submit to government out of submission to him. This principle is also implied by the fact that these two verses are an inspired command of God. Peter teaches that our submission to government is not ultimately rooted in the nature or quality of the government. This is very important because otherwise, we could justify varying levels of obedience based on the righteousness or lack thereof within the government. There were a number of times as a teenager where I made a decision about how far I would go in obeying my dad based on how wise I thought his commands were. I’m sure many of you have been tempted to do the same with your boss. If he asks you to do something that you think is foolish or that could be done better another way, you may at least be tempted to base your submission on the quality of the leader. But Peter states that the foundation of our obedience to government is not whether we agree with its policies or how wise they are. Instead the foundation of our obedience is the authority of God over our lives. We obey out of obedience to him. Of course this raises the question—what do we do when the government’s demands contradict Scripture? Verse 13 implies the answers because it defines the order of our allegiance. Our first allegiance is to God, not government. Therefore, when human authorities conflicts with God, then as Peter himself said in Acts 5:29, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” Thankfully, we don’t have much experience with this conflict in our context, but it is very common in other parts of the world. For example, the Chinese government states that Christians may only assemble in state run churches. But since these churches do not obey Scripture and God commands Christians to assemble, Chinese Christians must obey God by organizing biblical churches against the will of the state. This has been a costly choice for many Chinese Christians, but it is right. And may God help us to always be more loyal to him than to the state or to our own comfort.
Peter adds a second reason we are to obey the government.
Because God ordained government to uphold righteousness: Verse 14 notes that one of the purposes of government is, “for the punishment…” Peter is clear that government is responsible to execute justice. This is worth emphasizing because sometimes we can think that the legal system is only there to protect society and to rehabilitate criminals. But that’s not true. Government is authorized to inflict just punishment. Sometimes we struggle with this because we fail to distinguish our responsibilities as citizens from the responsibilities of the state. God demands that we be merciful and forgiving, but he expects the state to bring justice. We’ve got to recognize this difference, and we’ve got to fulfill our responsibility while also supporting the state in fulfilling its responsibility. Something else worth noting is that we might be surprised that Peter would sound so optimistic about the government’s role while living under an evil regime. This isn’t the only place where Peter is optimistic about how government will respond to righteousness. Notice what he says in 3:13. The fact is that even the worst governments are motivated to maintain a civil society, which means they are motivated to uphold some level of righteousness. Verse 14 notes that government will sometimes persecute righteousness, and so he is realistic. But I think it’s important that we not miss his optimism because sometimes we can be overly pessimistic about government, make very negative assumptions, and then reject the role of the state in ungodly ways. We may take justice into our own hands or disobey without warrant. I’m not saying our government is incorrupt, but I am saying that we need to guard against an unwarranted pessimism about the purpose of government and that we ought to be optimistic about how reasonable people will respond to godly virtue. The first principle of our text is that Christians must obey government authorities.
The second principle is that…
Christians must honor God by their obedience (vv. 15–16).
In these verses, Peter grounds his command to submit to government in God’s authority over our lives. We see this right away in the emphatic statement, “this is the will of God.” This fact could have been assumed, but Peter includes it to drive home our ultimate accountability to God for our submission to the state.
He follows with two ways that we honor God by our submission. First…
We can silence critics (v. 15).
The idea here is very similar to what we saw in v. 12 last week. Remember that v. 12 teaches that one of the best ways to overcome slander is to prove it wrong by how we live. When we consistently live righteous lives full of kindness and grace, people will see that the things they may have heard about Christians aren’t necessarily true. Verse 15 applies this principle to how we obey the state. The “good” that v. 15 has in mind is our submission to governmental authorities. Remember that one of the reasons Christians were slandered was because they rejected emperor worship, and people saw this as disloyalty to the state. Of course, if you want to get the government mad at someone, accusing them of treason is pretty effective. The Sanhedrin pushed this accusation pretty strongly when they tried to convince Pilot and Herod to kill Christ. How do you counter such a grave accusation? Peter simply says to show it isn’t true. Respect government officials and obey their demands. Be a good citizen. Doing so will demonstrate the foolishness of those who accuse you of being disloyal. Folks, there is so much wisdom here. If we want to have a good testimony that glorifies the Lord, we’ve got to reflect his character by staying above the wickedness of fools. That means that if a government official says something foolish, we don’t respond with foolishness or hate. I’m not saying we can’t point out his error and even do so strongly, but our responses always must be in accordance with Scripture. If public service officials make a grave mistake, we can point out where improvements ought to be made, but we must do so with respect and grace. We must always reflect the character of God in our actions and responses, and we should have hope that God will honor our obedience and that it will silence critics much of the time.
The second way we honor God by our submission is that…
We can serve God (v. 16).
It seems that v. 16 is intended to confront way that some of Christians were making a wrong application of biblical truth. Peter acknowledges that Christians are free. Jesus himself taught that the only place where man can find true freedom is in him. In John 8:36 he declared, “If the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.” What is this freedom? Christ frees us from the guilt of sin and the punishment we deserve. He frees us from the obligation to try to earn eternal life. And he frees us from the deceitfulness of sin and ultimately it’s enslaving power. These are great gifts, but sadly, there is a long history of Christians misapplying our freedom to mean that we free from God’s commands. This is called antinomianism. And in Peter’s context, it seems that some may have concluded that our freedom in Christ means that we are free from any obligation to the state. They probably would have made pious sounding statements like “God is my only king.” This sounds very spiritual, but Peter condemns it as a “cloak for vice (wickedness).” Their speech about freedom sounded spiritual, but it was just a cover for the evil in their hearts. Peter says that this is not the intent of spiritual freedom; rather, God freed us from sin so that we would be “bondservants of God.” Of course, this phrase speaks to the absolute loyalty Christians must have to God and his Word. We are his servants, and we are here to do his will. But doesn’t this contradict what Peter just said? In the same verse, Peter describes Christians as freemen and slaves. How can that be? The answer is that the only place where man can find true freedom is in submission to God’s will. This is because everything outside God’s will is dominated by the deceitfulness of sin. And no matter how free someone may feel while pursuing a sinful path, they are ultimately being led away from God and his eternal reward and toward destruction and loss. Maybe that’s where you find yourself today. You are living your life completely for yourself and God is hardly on the radar. You think you are free because you are doing what you want to do. You may be really enjoying it, or you may feel quite empty. Regardless, I want to urge you to see that you are deceived. This is God’s world, you are accountable to him, and in the end, there is no eternal joy outside of him. You need to come to Christ, believe the gospel, and give your life to him. Only Christ offers true freedom. For those of us who are saved, it is good for us to remember this fact and to also be challenged to make sure we are living as bondservants of God even in how we obey human authorities. Does your submission to the government, to tax laws, and to other regulations reflect God’s authority? Does your submission bring honor to God as a God of order and respect?
We must honor God by our submission to the state. The final principle in this text is that…
Christians must treat all people appropriately (v. 17).
This verse gives four commands that set our submission to the state in the context of our obligations to all people. The first two commands regard our relationships with all people and the second two with divine and human authorities.
Honor all people.
Of course, this command extends to all people everywhere. Peter says that we are to treat all people with honor or respect. As Christians we believe that the foundation for this command is the fact that all people are made in the image of God and have value and dignity as a result. We need to treat people accordingly whether it be the homeless man who has fried his brain on drugs or the wealthy philanthropist who could really help us out. Maybe one of Christianity’s most distinguishing marks is the value we place on all human life. We need to show it. This doesn’t mean that we let people walk all over us or that we don’t value justice. But at the same time, we’ve got to be careful to look past the sins of others and to see that they bear the image of God. And we need to honor them accordingly. Where do you need to grow in this respect? Is there someone that you are treating like trash or that you are merely using for your selfish interest? We must see the sin in this, and reflect our God in our conduct.
The second command is to…
Love the brotherhood.
The brotherhood is of course a reference to Christians. The Scriptures consistently teach that we have an obligation to love all people, but we have a special obligation to love our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are a family, and God expects us to care for each other accordingly. We’ve already talked about this demand at length because Peter has brought it up several times. But we can never be reminded too often of the importance of Christians loving each other. How are you upholding your spiritual family? Do you notice the needs of others and move to serve them? Where might you be harboring anger or bitterness that you need to address? Folks, we have lots of enemies to battle, and so we don’t need to battle each other or leave each other helpless against the enemy. Recommit yourself to loving the brotherhood.
Peter then moves to our relationship with authorities.
We talked at length about fearing God when we studied 1:17. God is the Lord of universe, he is our supreme authority, and he is our judge. Because of that, we must obey him and revere him. It’s important to note where this command is distinct from the others. We are to honor the king, but God is the only one we fear.
Finally, God commands us to…
Honor the king.
Again, this is a reference to the head of the state and to those whom he has appointed below him. As we’ve already said, we are to respect the leaders God has ordained to be over us. But what’s interesting about his command is that Peter uses the same verb he used in the first command. This seems to be a veiled swipe at emperor worship. It implies that the king is just a man like the rest of us, and he is not due the same regard as God. Therefore, when God and the king conflict, we must obey God rather than man. But while Peter rejected emperor worship, he concludes the passage with an appeal to still honor the king. And God demands the same of us. I know that most people in this room are very disappointed over the state of our government. You are frustrated by its corruption, by the backward morals of many leaders and, and by policies that are just ridiculous and doomed for failure. Personally, I don’t follow politics a lot because it just makes me angry, and I don’t find any joy in rubbing my face against a cheese grater. Politics and our leaders often frustrate us, but we must always remember that even if we don’t understand why, God in his perfect wisdom and sovereignty has placed them where they are. They are ordained of God, and we must honor them as such.
The challenge of this text is that Christians must obey human authorities out of obedience to God. May God help us to honor him and reflect his glory in how we submit to our God-ordained authorities.