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.
At first glance, Peter’s main point in this passage seems like a strange one. Short people, imagine someone telling you, “Because you’re short, dunk a basketball.” Young people, what would you think if someone told you, “On account of the fact that you’re young, I want you to be in charge of a nursing home”? What if you were a poor person and someone said, “Since you’re poor, you’re going to manage the federal budget”?
Of course the problem in these examples is the fact that the stated characteristic of each person (short, young, poor) would seem, not to qualify, but to disqualify them from the task that followed (dunk, run a nursing home, oversee the federal budget). There’s something strange, counterintuitive, about each of these commands.
And yet, that’s exactly what we find in our passage for this morning. In essence, Peter says to his readers, “Because you are free (v.16), be slaves/servants/subjects” (v.13). On the surface this doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. However, as we’ll see, it does make sense in God’s economy. In fact, this is how God has worked from the beginning.
He chose an unknown nomad to be the father of his people (Abraham). He chose a stutterer to be his spokesman to his people (Moses). He chose a child to be the greatest king of his people (David). He chose uneducated, unimpressive men to be responsible for spreading the good news of his salvation to his people (the disciples). He chose an enemy of Christ to be the greatest missionary of all time for his people (Paul). And he chose to make his people free in order that we would willingly choose to subject ourselves as servants.
Let’s pray that God would help us to see the wisdom of what seems at first to be folly. And let’s pray that in so doing, everyone of us would leave here this morning eager to lay our lives down as a testimony to the reality of the saving and transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
By their very nature as Christians, two things defined Peter’s readers: 1) they were free in Christ—free from sin, free from death, and free from any rule that would set itself up against God, and 2) they were ultimately and primarily citizens of the Kingdom of God, not of any earthly government. To be a Christian is to be free and to have changed allegiance from the kingdom of earth to the kingdom of heaven.
In addition, Peter’s readers had been driven out of their homeland and, consequently, away from their place of earthly citizenship. They were living as resident aliens in a foreign land.
The parallel today is to realize that as Christians we’re still first citizens of Christ’s kingdom even before we’re citizens of the US. That ought to raise questions in our minds about whether or not we need to obey our government in the first place. Now added to that, imagine being driven out of the US and into another country that we were never citizens of, whose leaders had never been our authority. If there’s a question as to whether or not we ought to obey our own government, there’d be even greater question as to whether or not we ought to obey the government of a foreign country. Again, that’s largely the situation in which Peter’s readers found themselves.
The suffering saints to whom Peter wrote must have at least wondered if honoring God meant rejecting the ungodly, foreign governments they found themselves under. It’s not hard to imagine them reasoning that since their allegiance was first to God and never to the governors under which they currently found themselves, faithfulness to God in their situation might mean rejection of earthly government.
However, that’s not what Peter wrote. Instead, he charged them to willingly choose to place themselves in subjection to every human institution, to freely subject themselves to earthly authorities—even bad ones. That must have been at least a little shocking for his readers to hear. In order to truly understand the oomph of Peter’s charge in this passage, though, we need a bit of context. We need to be reminded of a few things that Peter had already written (prior to 2:13-17) and informed about a few things yet to come (2:18 – 3:12).
If you’ve been here for any of the recent 1 Peter sermons you may remember that in the verses immediately leading up to 2:13-17, Peter told his readers that they were to honor God in their suffering (which is what the entire letter is meant to call for and explain) by living lives of holiness. Positively he referred to this as “growing up to salvation,” “being built up as a spiritual house,” “keeping their conduct among the Gentiles honorable,” and doing “good works”. Negatively he referred to it as “putting off” sin, being “called out of darkness,” and “abstaining from the passions of the flesh”.
What’s more, Peter had also, already given several reasons as to why living holy lives in the midst of persecution is honoring to God.
First, in any circumstances, Peter taught, God’s people honor God by living holy lives because of who God is (1:16). We honor God in our holiness because He is holy.
Second, holiness in times of persecution honors God, Peter wrote, because it is who we are (2:9-10). God has made us holy (set us apart as his people) to be holy (people who love to live according to God’s commands).
And finally, third, Peter has said that holiness in hardship honors God because it serves as a witness, a ministry, to the watching unbelievers (2:12). When Christians are suffering for being Christian and still live lives of holiness, it causes unbelievers come face to face with the reality of the glory and transforming power of God (1:7). It demonstrates the real power of Jesus’ cross to save and change people (1:18-19).
The first thing to see in the way of context (looking back) is that our passage for this morning is a call to a particular application of this last reason (that holiness in hardship honors God because it serves as a ministry to unbelievers).
When Christians, who are by definition freed from subjection to all but God, willingly place ourselves in subjection to human institutions (even those persecuting us), as an expression of our holy submission to God, it serves as a powerful ministry to those who would otherwise deny God’s power and slander us. That was Peter’s point in 2:12 and he reiterates that in 2:15. In 2:12 Peter wrote, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God…”. We’ll see this again in 2:13, 15 (“be subject…to every human institution…that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.”
The main point here is that Peter’s command itself (“be subject…to every human institution”) makes little sense if it isn’t understood in the proper context. And the proper context, which Peter had already set prior to the command, includes the understanding that it is part of a larger command to honor God in times of various trials by being holy, as a ministry to unbelievers—submitting to human institutions is one specific application to Peter’s charge to be holy as a ministry to unbelievers.
The second crucial piece of context we need to truly understand 2:13-17 comes in the verses immediately after it. Specifically, we need to understand what Peter means by “every human institution”. In our passage for this morning one particular human institution is mentioned: the government. That’s what Peter means by “the emperor” and “governors”. But that is just one of four human institutions Peter speaks of in the coming verses.
In 2:18-25 he gives a series of instructions concerning what it means to be subject to another, different human institution: servants and masters (or, as I argued in an earlier sermon, employees and employers). As a ministry to unbelieving Gentiles, ignorant and foolish people, and even their own abusive employers, Peter charges Christians to freely subject themselves to their bosses in the human institution of business.
In 3:1-6, Peter calls wives to freely subject themselves to their husbands (even unbelieving husbands) within the human institution of marriage/family. Likewise, in v.7, Peter calls husbands to a type of subjection (to show honor) toward their wives, again within the human institution of marriage/family.
And finally, in 3:8-12, as a ministry to the unbelieving world, Peter calls all Christians to freely subject themselves to one another in the human institution of the Church.
We’ll consider each of these in the coming weeks, however, again, the point of all of this is to set the context of 2:13 in order that we might get out of this short passage all that Peter means us to. And the coming context is one that calls Christians to honor God in suffering by being a significant witness to unbelievers, by being submissive in appropriate ways to every human institution created by God—including government.
With that, let’s now look at our passage for this morning and the first human institution Peter calls Christians to subject themselves to: government.
SUBMIT TO EVERY HUMAN INSTITUTION
There are so many good and helpful things in our passage for this morning. It was and still is practical in remarkable ways. To help us truly understand and apply it, then, it seems best to approach the text catechism-style. That is, I mean to explain what Peter meant in 2:13-17 by asking and answering a series of questions (three this morning and then another two or three next week). The first question is…
What does it mean to “be subject”?
An important key to understanding this passage is the first term, “be subject”. What, exactly does that mean? The word translated literally means “to arrange in formation under the commander.” This, of course, is a military expression. And all who have served in the military know that arranging themselves in formation under their commander is not a casual, optional decision to be made each day. In short, then, “to be subject” means to obey; to place oneself under the authority of another. Christians were (and are still are) to truly—not symbolically—place themselves under the authority of every human institution.
Peter charged his readers to subject themselves in this way as ministry to unbelievers, which is an expression of holiness, which is a means of honoring God in their hardship. But that leads to another question, “To whom, specifically, are Christians to “be subject” in this way.
To whom are Christians to “be subject”?
Again, we can’t understand this passage without understanding that ultimately, as I’ve already said, 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).
Christians are free from allegiance to employers. In Galatians 3:28 Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Christians are free from allegiance to family. In Luke 14:26 we read Jesus’ words, ” If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
And Christians are free from allegiance to civil and religious government. In Acts 5 we read a story of the apostles which took place after Pentecost. They had been proclaiming Jesus Christ to all who would listen, but the governing authorities (both religious and civil) commanded the apostles to be silent concerning the gospel. They were even put in prison. After being miraculously rescued from jail, the apostles continued to preach the good news of Jesus. The civil officers brought the apostles back to the Jewish leaders who reminded them of their earlier rebuke. “But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”
Because of the cross of Jesus, God’s people are freed from all allegiances other than God.
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. That is, they are to freely choose to use their freedom in Christ to subject themselves to the very institutions Jesus freed them from (government, boss, family). Peter’s point here is that submitting to the government (“subjecting ourselves”) is ultimately about submitting to God.
Kids, do you see what this means for you? It means that obeying or disobeying your parents is never mainly about obeying or disobeying your parents. It is mainly about obeying or disobeying God since God has commanded you to obey your parents. You can’t disobey your parents without disobeying God. Likewise, every time you obey your parents, you’re really, first obeying God.
Concerning the nature of the government to which Christians are to submit, Peter clarifies what he means. He calls his readers to submit to the “emperor” and to “governors as sent by him”. In other words, we are to submit both to our highest governmental ruler (“as supreme”)—which for Peter’s readers would likely have been Cladius or Nero, and for us would be President Trump—and to each governmental ruler under him (governors, mayors, the IRS, local police, etc.).
To be subject to human institutions (v.13), then, is really to be subject to God (v.16). And Christians are called to freely subject ourselves to the human institutions ordained by God (as a means of ministering to unbelievers, as a means of obeying the call to holiness, as a means of glorifying God in times of difficulty).
Again, though, that leads to another question, “In what things are Christians called to be subject within the human institutions?”. There must be limits, right?
In what things are Christians called to “be subject” within the human institutions?
We’ll consider the answer to this question to each of the human institutions Peter mentions in the coming weeks. However, they all fall closely in line with the answer I’ll give today for government.
The key to answering this question is the word “as”. Under God, for the glory of God, in holiness, as a ministry to unbelievers, suffering saints are to freely subject themselves to the governing authorities as ordained by God. Both the subjection and the nature of our subjection are established by God. And Peter helps us understand the nature of our subjection in 13-14.
13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution…to the emperor as supreme… 14 [and] to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.
I’m going to say this briefly now, then in a simple diagram, and then in greater detail in the coming weeks.
Briefly, Peter told his readers that they honor God 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; which, in this passage, is to “punish those who do evil and praise those who do good.”
By God’s design, we honor God when we submit to governmental commands that don’t contradict God’s higher commands. We are never called to disobey God for the sake of obeying the government. That would not be a ministry to unbelievers because it would not be holy because it would not honor God.
In what things are Christians called to be subject to government? In all things that the government has a God-given authority to command.
Let me show this to you in a simple diagram.
Christians are charged to submit to God in all things (light tan area). And Christians, as charged by God, are to submit to their governments wherever their governments are submitted to God (overlapping gray area). And yet, it’s not hard to see that the kings and governments of the world ebb and flow in aligning themselves with God’s will for their rule (this was evident in dramatic ways even among God’s own people, Israel). And so, our submission must ebb and flow accordingly. In cases where Christians find themselves under well-ordered governments we joyfully submit in every way. Where Christians find themselves under disordered governments we submit only where we can do so in holiness.
You and I may not like having to pay taxes as high as ours, but the government is within its God-given authority to demand them. Therefore, just as Jesus himself did, we willingly pay (subject ourselves to this human institution), and therein demonstrate the goodness of God and God’s design to the watching world.
Again, please don’t forget the context of Peter’s command. All of this is, according to Peter, is a ministry to unbelievers, which is an expression of holiness, which is a means of honoring God in times of suffering. And all of this is possible because of the gospel. That is, all of this is possible because we have been set free in Christ. We are able to endure mistreatment—being given by our government, at times, things we don’t deserve—because in Christ we’ve truly been given what we don’t deserve. Amen.