1 Peter 2:13-17 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
If you weren’t here last week please take the time to read and/or listen to Mat’s sermon from 2 Corinthians 3:18. He did a great job explaining how all mankind needs the sin-produced veil to be lifted from our eyes if we are to see the glory of God. He also pointed out that God does this (lifts our veils) in the cross of Jesus, by Grace, through faith in Jesus, in order to make his people like Jesus. And he showed us from the text that God does all of this by the person and power of the Holy Spirit. Again, thanks Mat. Well done.
This morning we’re going to head back to 1 Peter for a second sermon on how Christians (suffering Christians in particular) ought to relate (subject ourselves) to the government.
As you may remember, if we are to truly understand this passage and this command and then rightly apply them, we need a good deal of context (which I provided in the previous sermon). In the way of a brief reminder, there are two key contextual clues. First, simply, Christian subjection to government, if it is to be honoring to God, must be done in holiness and as a ministry to unbelievers.
Additionally, second, 2:13-17 addresses the first of four “human institutions” to which Christians are to subject themselves. In our passage Peter deals with emperors and governors (the institution of government). In 2:18-25 he deals with servants/masters (the institution of business). In 3:1-7 he deals with wives/husbands (the institution of family). And in 3:8-12 he deals with all of his readers (the institution of the Church).
Again, subjecting ourselves to each of these different human institutions God has placed us under is a means of ministering to non-Christians, which is a means of walking in holiness, which is a means of glorifying God.
With that, let’s pray and then get back to the questions Peter answers concerning the Christian’s relationship to the government.
SUBMIT TO EVERY HUMAN INSTITUTION
In 1 Peter 2:13-17 Peter directly answers five main (implied) questions concerning Christians and government. This morning, after briefly revisiting the first three (which we looked at two weeks ago), we’ll consider the final two.
What does it mean to “be subject”?
The key to the entire passage is in the first clause, “be subject”. What exactly does that mean? The word translated literally means “to arrange in formation under the commander.” In short, then, it means to obey; or to place oneself under the authority of another.
To whom are Christians to “be subject”?
Ultimately, Christians are to submit only to God. Indeed, in Christ, God has set his people free from all other allegiances. Peter commanded his readers to “live as people who are free (2:16). However, as we see clearly in our passage for this morning, God has charged Christians (through Peter) to submit to every human institution as an act of submission to Him. Peter’s point here is that submitting to the government (“subjecting ourselves”) is ultimately about submitting to God (“living as servants of God”).
In what things are Christians called to “be subject”?
Briefly, Peter told his readers that they honor God and minister to non-Christians when they subject themselves to the emperor and to governors as sent for a purpose. That is, Christians are to subject ourselves to the government insofar as the government calls us to subject ourselves in things consistent with its God-given purpose and authority.
And that leads us to the third question Peter answers in this passage.
For what purpose has God created the human institution of government?
If Christians are to subject ourselves to the government insofar as the government calls us to subject ourselves in things consistent with its God-given purpose and authority, then the natural follow-up question is, what purpose/authority has God given government? Or, for what purpose has God created the human institution of government? Peter doesn’t answer every question we might have on this subject, but he does get straight to the heart of the matter.
Simply and directly, Peter writes that God’s assigned purpose for human governmental institutions is to “punish those who do evil and praise those who do good.” I want to draw your attention to four important and practical principles that flow from this purpose.
First, we must see that earthly government is God’s design. This great truth is found throughout scripture.
To the greatest king on earth at the time Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, Daniel declared that it is God alone who, “removes kings and sets up kings (Daniel 2:21).
In Romans 13:1 Paul writes, “…there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”
And to the one who would eventually oversee his crucifixion, Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, Jesus said “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11).
Government is from God. Therefore, its existence is not optional and its purpose is not subjective. Because government is God’s design, not having and subjecting ourselves to government is no more of an option than not believing in and subjecting ourselves to God.
Second, if evil and good are to be punished and praised respectively, they must be defined. You may have heard it said that we cannot or should not legislate morality. God’s designated purpose for government makes that impossible. It exists to punish evil doers and promote good doers. To obey, therefore, good and evil must be clearly understood.
What’s more, God certainly did not mean for each culture or governing body to define good and evil for themselves. They are both eternally tied up in the immutable nature of God; such that good corresponds to it and evil breaks from it. Not only must we legislate morality (it’s impossible not to), good governments legislate according to morality as defined by God.
In this way, since God is life, murder (in all its forms) ought to be considered evil and punished by the government. Similarly, since God is orderly, people who speed ought to be punished. Conversely, since God is generous, citizens ought to be rewarded by the government for contributing to the needs of others. And since God is mercifully, governments ought to reward those who bring assistance to the orphan and widow.
God gives government to legislate morality—punishing real evil and promoting real good. But to be clear, government cannot stop evil. That lives in the heart, which is outside of the reach of all but God. It can only hold evil back—and it must. Similarly, government cannot create good. For that too lives only in the heart, which is beyond the reach of all but God. It can only create a context where good can flourish—and it must.
Third, while Peter does not explicitly state what punishments are to be given for various evils or what praises are to be given for various goods, the rest of the bible gives us certain principles and clues. We must, for our own sake (that we might truly obey) and for the sake of the watching world (who we are ministering to through our public submission), learn to think Christianly about these things. In particular, the main theme of scripture when it comes to governmental punishment and praise is justice.
Romans 13:4 [The government] is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
In other words, our hope, prayer, and expectation of our government is that its punishment and praise would fit the situation. This means both that too strong and too weak punishments are out of line with God’s design. If evildoers do not tremble at the thought of getting caught in their evil, the punishment is likely too soft. Likewise, if the do-gooder does not feel free and encouraged in his good deeds, the praise is likely too weak. In Israel this meant ” life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exodus 21:23-25).
Punishment and praise must fit the crime and good work respectively.
And finally, fourth, great tragedies happen when government is allowed to go beyond its God-given scope.
Consider the images on the screen. God means humans to function on earth within four primary spheres: government, business, family, and church. (All of which Peter addresses in the coming verses.) While there is some overlap, each sphere has its own purpose and authority structure.
As we saw last week, great problems arise when government steps outside of God’s will (praising or even causing harm rather than good for instance). Likewise, we also need to see that great problems arise when government confuses its sphere of purpose and authority.
For instance, a governmental ruler has the right to make laws for his or her citizens, but it does not have the right (in most cases) to make rules for individual children in families—that right is reserved for parents. Similarly, that the husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the Church does not mean that all men have authority over all women or that men have any inherent authority over women in business. Again, elders duly appointed have authority over their local church, but do not have any authority to make traffic laws.
Peter teaches that God has given government to punish evil and praise good among its citizens and that means Christians must submit to government since it belongs to God, must fight for right definitions of good and evil, must fight for just punishment and praise, and must demand that government stay within its God-given purpose and authority.
And all of this leads to the final question.
For what purposes are Christians to submit to the human institution of government?
Again, the bible as whole gives even more reasons than what we find in our passage for this morning, but we’re going to focus on the two that Peter explicitly states: to minister to unbelievers and to honor God.
First, Peter suggests that the suffering saints ought to subject themselves to government because it will serve as a ministry to non-Christians. Back in 2:12 he worded it this way: “that they may see our good deeds (honorable conduct, holy lives) and glorify God on the day of visitation.” In our passage for this morning, in 2:15 he writes, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake…that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.”
Christians minister to unbelievers in this case by silencing ignorant and foolish people. But what does this mean and how is it a ministry to unbelievers? Simply, it is only ignorant and foolish people who reject God’s good design for government. Only ignorant and foolish people deny that God gives government to punish evil and praise good. And only ignorant and foolish people deny God as the one who declares good and evil. On account of this, Christians minister to unbelievers in submitting to governments that acknowledge this (and refusing to submit to ones that don’t), in that our submission demonstrates the goodness of God’s design and its blessing for all mankind.
Sometimes Christians fall into the trap of believing that ministering to unbelievers means giving them what they want or being as agreeable as possible. But that is not so. Christians cannot minister to non-Christians by going against God’s will. Instead, among the greatest blessings we can give to the watching skeptics around us are 1) a steadfast refusal to bow a knee to any other than God, and 2) a demonstration of the superiority of God’s will and plans above all others. We do both, Peter writes, when we joyfully submit to our government whenever it rightly punishes evil and praises good.
Secondly, ultimately, Christians submit to the human institution of government for the glory of God. That’s what Peter means in 2:13 when he says “Be subject for the Lord’s sake.” All that we do, including subjecting ourselves to the government, is for the Lord’s sake.
In doing good works we hope unbelievers will see our good deeds and praise our Father in heaven. In And in ministering to unbelievers we hope they will come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. However, for a Christian, these things must never be our main goal.
The Lord is always highest hope. The Lord is always highest authority. The Lord is always highest power. The Lord is always highest fear. Ultimately, all of our obedience and ministry must be for the sake of the Lord’s glory. Christians are to submit to the human institution of government, then not ultimately because they deserve to be obeyed for their great justice and virtue, but because the Lord has called us to for his own glory.
Grace, there has, perhaps, never been a government in human history that’s made this easier to do than ours. In 1 Timothy 2:1-2 Paul writes, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Whatever you think of the current political climate, give thanks to God that for most of us, for most of our lives, we have been able (by God’s grace) to do just that—live peaceful and quiet lives in godliness and dignity. Let that be your first disposition.
Having said that, mature and responsible Christians will also lament, individually and publically, the shortcomings of our government (calling evil good and good evil, and therefore punishing and praising backwards), and stand against its atrocities (legalizing the killing of millions of yet-to-be-born babies). Let us not remain unaffected and let us not remain silent when our government rebels against God’s good design.
But above all, let us remember that our hope must never be in any earthly government, but in One True King who conquered heaven and earth, and sin and death. Let us remember that in his death and resurrection Jesus Christ declared himself with power to be the King of all. Let us subject ourselves to the earthly government which is, in its greatest goodness and justice and protection and peace, merely a dim shadow of that which Jesus Christ is bringing and will bring in fullness and power. Let us remember that, although our sin is treason, and our treason warrants expulsion and death, by grace through faith in Jesus we are reconciled to God and welcomed back into his everlasting kingdom.
The good news of Christianity is that even while being called to submit to imperfect human governments, we are offered the opportunity to become a part of a far, far greater kingdom under a far, far greater king; a kingdom and king whose justice is perfect, whose protection is undefeatable, whose provision is limitless, and whose goodness is eternally untainted.
Indeed, let us “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” And let us do so in freedom and confidence because of the blood of Christ which has won certain victory and everlasting dominion over all the earth.