Yesterday we looked at Peter’s principle in 1 Peter 2:13a, “Submit to human created authorities, for the Lord’s sake.” As he continues teaching, Peter illustrates this principle three ways:
- Illustration #1 – verses 13b-17 – respect and submit to the governing authorities.
- Illustration #2 – verses 18-20 – slaves respect and submit to your masters
- Illustration #3 – verses 21-25 – Jesus as the ultimate example of submission
Starting with this post, and continuing for two more, we’re going to examine each illustration to see if we can discover why Peter would have mentioned that. What was going on in the life of the church and in the Roman Empire that might have caused Peter to bring this up?
Read 1 Peter 1:13-17 and you’ll find Peter teaching that those Christians need to submit to the government. He mentions the king, which is the supreme authority, and in that day it was the Roman Emperor. In verse 14 he mentions governors, which would have been regional authorities. And finally in verse 17 he says, “show proper respect to everyone.”
Do you remember the king Peter is talking about here? We know exactly who he is referring to when he mentions the king, the supreme authority. It was the Roman Emperor, Nero, who was a bit crazy. He persecuted Christians. Wait a minute. Submit to Nero? I want to say, “Peter, that is ridiculous! You should be telling these Christians to rise up and rebel, not submit! They’re being persecuted.”
When you are being persecuted, life is hard, and certain personalities will just react, and fight back. Perhaps Peter is hearing talk about Christians who are sick and tired of being persecuted, and there are whispers of starting armed conflict. When we read 1 Peter 2:13, I can hear Peter saying “Woah, people time out. I know all about what you’re going through. You do not want to pull out your swords, believe me.” You know why I think this? Remember what happened when Jesus was arrested in the garden?
Travel back in time with me another 30 years. Jesus and his disciples, one of which was Peter, had been traveling around Israel, and Jesus was a rockstar preacher, gaining crowds with thousands of people. Right around the end of his third year as a traveling preacher, things had started to get a bit heated between Jesus and the religious establishment. The people were fans of Jesus but the religious leaders were not. The religious leaders were jealous of Jesus’ popularity, and they hated how Jesus regularly confronted them and they couldn’t win arguments with him. They were eager to take Jesus down.
When Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem for the beginning of Passover week that year, the people want to make Jesus King. They’re ready to start a war. The Jewish religious leaders see their moment. If they can convince the Roman authorities that Jesus is a rebel, they could get Jesus killed. Jesus knows this. He’s not surprised. At the end of the week, after spending a last supper with his disciples, Jesus goes out to the Mount of Olives, just outside the city. He brings the disciples with him, minus Judas who had mysteriously left the dinner early. The disciples also are getting a sense that something is brewing. Jesus has not been quiet about his fate. He’s been telling the disciples straight up for weeks that he is headed to Jerusalem and a confrontation. But the disciples didn’t get what he meant. Jesus was so popular. That night in the Garden, though, suddenly Judas shows up, now a traitor with a kiss, and with armed soldiers to take Jesus captive.
Peter has a moment of clarity. This could be the day of Jesus’ ascension to the throne. Peter whips out his sword, ready to fight! He cuts off the ear of a guy in the group who had come to arrest Jesus. Peter is ready to start a rebellion. Until Jesus rocks Peter’s world. Jesus looks at Peter and says, “My kingdom is not about that. Put your sword away.” Then Jesus heals the ear, allows himself to be arrested and taken away. Peter is utterly shell-shocked. His whole conception of Jesus and the mission of God’s Kingdom is now in shambles. You know what Peter does next? Maybe an hour later? He denies even knowing Jesus. Peter got it wrong.
I suspect 35 years later, Peter is remembering that awful night. He does not want these new Christians to think that the Kingdom of God is advanced by fighting and war. Because it is not!
Peter was writing to Christians about how to handle themselves while living in a nation that did not always treat them kindly. So how should Christians respond to government, even a repressive one? As much as possible, Peter says, they should obey. Submit. Follow the law.
But you might ask, “Should they give up their faith or break God’s laws if the government said so?” No way. Absolutely no. How can I say that? Because Peter also had to deal with that too. A few months after Jesus died, rose and went to heaven, Peter was a changed man. Jesus had brought him back in to the fold, and now Peter understood the mission of God’s Kingdom.
In Acts 4:19 the authorities in Jerusalem arrested Peter and John for preaching Christ, and do you think he denied Jesus then? Nope. He said to them, “Judge for yourselves whether is it right for us to obey you rather than God.” Jesus had given them marching orders to make disciples, preaching the good news of the Kingdom, and the religious leaders were telling them to stop. Then a few months later, they were arrested again. This time Peter says in Acts 5:29, “we must submit to God rather than men.”
So how do we know where to draw the line about when we should submit and when we shouldn’t? Has Peter changed his mind 30 years later? I would submit to you that Peter has not changed his mind.
In Acts 4 and 5 what was happening? These are the first times Christians were persecuted for their faith. The leaders were essentially saying to the Christians, “Give up your faith in Christ.” Peter responds, “No we’re not going to do that. Come what may.” What came was a severe beating, but Peter and the other Christians kept right on preaching Jesus, totally disobeying and not submitting to the religious leaders.
But in 1 Peter 2, 30 years have gone by. Peter is writing to Christians in the Roman Empire who have already been persecuted for their faith. Those Christians didn’t need to hear “obey God rather than men and keep the faith,” because those Christians had already been faced with that choice and they had remained faithful. What those Christians needed was guidance about how to keep the mission of God thriving. Therefore Peter is essentially saying to them, “Don’t rise up, rebel and start a war. As much as possible, follow the rules, live good lives.”
Look at verse 15. He teaches them to do good in the face of ignorance. Don’t go tit for tat. Do good. Silence the ignorant with your goodness. If you are being mistreated, handle it with kindness. When you are good and kind and peaceful in the face of poor treatment, it makes a huge statement. It makes Jesus attractive! That’s powerful! People take notice when you handle mistreatment with grace and kindness.
Then in verse 16 he continues this thought. He says, “You are free,” which means free to disobey government, “but don’t use your freedom for evil!” Christians are not citizens of an earthly country. We are citizens of the Kingdom of heaven, so we could say that we don’t have to follow any rules of an earthly country. We are a holy nation, the people of God. But to that, Peter says, don’t abuse your freedom in Christ. Instead, practice submission to the governing authorities.
He concludes with a very expansive statement in verse 17: show proper respect for everyone. Love the brotherhood of believers, Fear God, Honor the King.
Peter is covering three major groups that Christians should practice respect. First, the church family, which is a repeat from what he said in chapter 1, verse 22. “Love one another deeply from the heart.” Second, fear God, which is a repeat from what he said in chapter 1, verse 17. “Live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.” And third, honor the king, which is a repeat of what he said in chapter 2, verse 13 and 14 which we read today. “Submit to the King and governors.”
Peter is desperate for these Christians to be respectful.
Respect the authorities. That doesn’t mean you need to agree with all the behavior and choices of the authorities. In their day, Nero was a wicked man. Of course they didn’t need to agree with him. But as much as is possible, respect and honor and submit to the King.
It has become something of a test of authentic Christianity to be disrespectful to our leaders on social media. I think Peter would be appalled. So, Christians, respect authorities. Disagree if you disagree, but do so with humility, grace and respect. Too many Christians have damaged the cause of Christ by being out of control with their approach. “Submit yourselves, for the Lord’s sake.” And remember that the Fruit of the Spirit is to be flowing through out: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control.