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 ESV
In verses 9-12, Peter provided his readers with some indicative statements regarding their new status in Christ. He matter-of-factly stated some realities that applied to them as followers of Christ. He told them that they were a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation and God’s possession. They were sojourners and exiles living in this land on temporary assignment. They had received the undeserved mercy of God. They were God’s people and He was their God. So, what should their response be? How should they react to this news? This is where Peter began to list out some imperatives or commands that illustrate how their status as children of God should impact the way they live. First of all they were to abstain from the passions of the flesh. In other words, they were not to live as they had before, giving in to and satisfying their sinful desires. Instead they were to conduct themselves among the lost around them in an honorable and righteous way. Their actions were to bring glory to God because it was the Spirit of God within them that made it possible for them to live set apart from and distinctively different from those who did not know Christ.
But there was more. Peter provided even more imperatives to give shoe leather to their faith. He told them, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors” (1 Peter 2:13-14 ESV). Keep in mind, these people were living in a Roman province, under the authority of the most powerful government of that age. His readers were living in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, all located in northern Asia Minor. As his letter reveals, the churches in this regions were experiencing persecution. And under future Roman rulers like Nero, the intensity of the persecution against Christians would increase dramatically. And yet, here is Peter telling his readers to “be subject to” those in authority over them. His words sound very familiar to those Paul wrote to the believers living in Rome.
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. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. – Romans 13:1-4 ESV
Paul told Timothy,
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior… – 1 Timothy 2:1-3 ESV
Paul gave a similar admonishion to Titus,
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 ESV
Peter told his readers that there was no authority except from God. In fact, he said that they had been instituted by God. Government was and is a God-ordained institution. A properly run government should provide peace and stability so that the gospel can spread unhindered. And it is interesting to note that the amazing spread of the gospel and the incredibly rapid growth of Christianity in the first and second centuries took place primarily under the age of Roman rule. Rome had established the Pax Romana or Roman Peace and it lasted from roughly 27 B.C. to 180 A.D. Rome’s territory spread all the way from Spain to Israel, into Africa and Egypt and even as far as Britain. They brought peace and a certain amount of stability to the world. Their intricate network of roads made travel not only easier, but safer. It was during this time that Paul was able to travel all throughout the Roman world sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Yes, the Roman government could be highly corrupt. Their presence in any land could be heavy handed and at times, oppressive. They ruled with an iron fist. They taxed their subjects mercilessly. They brought their polytheistic religion wherever they went. And yet, they tended to be surprisingly tolerant of the religious faiths of their subjects.
With all that in mind, the words of Peter take on a whole new degree of significance. He told his readers to be subject to the Roman authorities “for the Lord’s sake.” They were to view their submission to Rome as submission to God. It was a matter of trusting in God’s sovereign will and His ability to use even pagan governments to accomplish His divine plan. The Old Testament is filled with examples of God using Pharaoh in Egypt to provide the people of Israel with protection and provision, and then using that same authority to display His power and supremacy over man-made institutions. God used Nebuchadnezzar to punish disobedient Judah. He used Cyrus, the king of Persia to fund the return of the Jewish exiles to the promised land. He did the same thing with Artaxerxes. The lesson learned from these stories is that God is in control. He is sovereign over all, including governments and political leaders.
We have to approach those in authority with an attitude that they have been placed their by God. That doesn’t mean they are godly. Rome certainly wasn’t. But God has us where we are, living during a specific time frame for a reason. Peter told his readers to “live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil” (1 Peter 2:16 ESV). They were to “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17 ESV). Christians should make the best citizens, even though we are actually citizens of another Kingdom. Of all people, we should be the most respectful and obedient, treating those in authority over us as servants of God. If our government is evil or corrupt, we are to trust that God knows and He will deal with them justly and appropriately. If our government provides us with a modicum of peace and tranquility, we are to thank God for it and use our freedom to spread the gospel.
Ultimately, we must recognize the fact that God is our King. Everyone else works for Him and under Him. And one day they will all answer to Him. So when we submit to those in authority over us, we are really submitting to God. When we honor the emperor, we are honoring God as our ultimate, supreme authority.