We’re working from the theme of Peter’s words in verse 11: Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world…”
As Christians, our focus in primarily on our future heavenly home, so we understand the idea that “I am not from around here.”
We are responsible for many things in our life, but it all revolves around the fact that we are Christians first! And our behavior is everything to us, since it is the way friends and family see Christ in us.
12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
The concept of “behavior” is used 10 times in this letter to Christians in Peter’s day.
The Roman historian Tacitus: “These are a class hated for their abominations, for incest, and cannibalism.” (choosing to label “love your one another” and “communion around the body of Christ” in false ways).
For centuries, the Christian’s relationship to civil government has been a matter of critical importance. In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel spent 400 years under Egyptian rule.
Later God gave the Jews over to Gentile rule as a consequence of their rebellion against Him.
The prophet Jeremiah spoke to the people of Israel, directing them to submit to Nebuchadnezzar and to Babylonian rule. They were to serve the king of Babylon and live.
The false prophets, however, promised the people that God would quickly deliver them from their bondage (see Jeremiah 27). As a result, over a period of time through a sequence of rebellions and defeats at the hands of the Babylonians, almost the entire population of those dwelling in Jerusalem and the territory of Judah were taken as captives to Babylon.
This same spirit of rebellion against foreign domination, even though divinely imposed, was evident in the Jews of Jesus’ day. Contrast their words with those of Nehemiah: Nehemiah 9:36 (NIV) “But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our forefathers so they could eat its fruit and the other good things it produces.”
John 8:31-33 (NIV) 31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”
In the New Testament, the Jews were once again subject to foreign rule though they refused to acknowledge their sin or their subjection. This rebellious attitude posed a danger for the Jews of Jerusalem and a danger for New Testament churches such as those to whom Peter had written.
As Peter has indicated, Christianity is the fulfillment of God’s Old Testament promises (1 Peter 1:10-12).
The problem was that Rome had become increasingly displeased with Jews and Judaism (see Acts 18:2, 14-17), and the Jews were persistently resisting Roman control. This led to the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus just as our Lord forewarned (see Matthew 24:1-2; Luke 19:41-44).
Since Rome viewed Judaism and Christianity as closely related, the church might be falsely accused of opposing Rome. Church history provides much evidence that Rome did eventually begin to accuse the church of crimes against the state.
Peter’s words in our text are meant to avoid any unnecessary charges against the church and to arm the church with attitudes and actions which would show these charges to be false.
We Americans live in a country that was founded on a revolution and in which defiance of government authority is viewed as a basic constitutional right.
Those to whom Peter wrote lived with a government and society that was not favorable toward the Christian faith. Both Peter and Paul were executed at the hands of the Roman tyrant Nero. It was not until the fourth century, under Constantine, that Christianity was afforded official legitimacy and protection by the government.
It would have been easy for his readers to conclude that we therefore have no civic responsibility here on earth. Perhaps they would have concluded that they could disregard and disobey human government, since they were citizens of heaven, not of this earth. So Peter anticipates and counters this wrong conclusion by showing how Christian citizens must live.
13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority…
Christians must live as good citizens by submitting to human government.
“Submit” is a favorite with Peter. In fact, it dominates much of the rest of this epistle. It is a military word, meaning to put oneself under another in rank. Submission is an attitude of respect that results in obedience to authority and positive good deeds.
- The purpose of human government: To promote justice and peace in society.
The government should promote justice and peace by upholding law and order and by maintaining reasonable national defense.
14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.
This points to the power of the state to bring about justice for all.
The government does this (in part) by legislating morality. Don’t let anybody sell you the idea that we shouldn’t legislate morality. Laws against murder and theft are moral and biblical. Laws against racial discrimination reflect the biblical teaching that God is no respecter of persons. Laws should protect citizens from sin (for example, pornography and prostitution laws, drug laws, etc.). The fact that something is illegal will restrain many who otherwise may be tempted to engage in the particular activity.
The real debate is, which morality should we legislate? We can work to legislate many biblical standards which have broad social value and can be argued for apart from an appeal to the Bible. Laws against abortion, laws protecting the handicapped and the elderly, laws against pornography and child abuse, and many other such issues, can be argued for on the grounds of basic human rights, apart from Christianity.
Most unbelievers recognize the inherent “rightness” of the Golden Rule. We can use this biblical ethical standard as the basis for legislating proper morality in our democratic, pluralistic country.
What does it mean to submit to human government? Peter includes three elements:
SUBMISSION MEANS OBEDIENCE TO THE LAWS OF THE STATE.
The basic meaning of the word “submit” is “obey.” Christians must obey the laws of their government unless those laws force them to disobey God. “Kings” we can apply to federal laws; “governors” we can apply to state and local laws.
SUBMISSION MEANS SHOWING RESPECT TO GOVERNMENTAL AUTHORITIES.
You can’t obey with a rotten attitude. Peter says that we are to “honor all men,” and specifies, “Honor the king” (2:17). Since God ordained government authority, to despise such authority is to despise God Himself.
SUBMISSION MEANS POSITIVE GOOD DEEDS.
15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.
Peter is not referring to the government leaders as “foolish men,” but rather to the willfully ignorant who slander Christians as evildoers (2:12). “To silence” means, literally, to muzzle. The idea is that by our active good deeds, we take away the basis for criticism of Christianity from those who oppose it.
When Christians live like that in the midst of a pagan culture, it is a powerful testimony. On the other hand, when professing Christians disrespect authority, when they disobey the law, or when they just withdraw from society and live unto themselves without doing good deeds, it leaves a bad taste in the mouths of those who are prone to criticize Christianity.
When Israel was sent into exile in Babylon, their situation was parallel to that of Christians today, in that they were strangers and aliens in a foreign land, looking to be restored to their promised land.
God told Jeremiah (29:5-6) to “tell the exiles to build houses there, plant gardens, take wives and raise children. Then He added, “And seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have peace”.
That’s good counsel for Christians who are exiled as strangers and aliens in this wicked world: Build houses, live in them, plant gardens, raise families, seek and pray for the welfare of the cities where we live. Buy property, work to improve the schools, help out in community projects, be good citizens. Submitting to government means that we obey the law, respect authorities, and do good deeds in our communities.
- The reason for submission to government: For the Lord’s sake.
“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake” (2:13). There are at least two ideas inherent in this phrase.
SINCE GOD ORDAINS CIVIL GOVERNMENT, BY SUBMITTING TO IT, WE SUBMIT TO HIM.
Both Paul and Peter wrote when the debauched, godless Nero was on the throne. Daniel lived under the ruthless Nebuchadnezzar. Since both rulers obviously fell far short of the ideal, we must conclude that we cannot make exceptions to the biblical principle of obedience to government authority based on how bad the ruler may be.
Peter knew that his readers (including us!) would not inherently gravitate toward the idea of being submissive to pagan rulers. He could hear us object, “But we’re free in Christ! We don’t have to obey a pagan tyrant!”
16 Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.
17 Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.
SINCE CHRISTIANS ARE IDENTIFIED WITH GOD, OUR SUBMISSION TO GOVERNMENT BEARS WITNESS FOR GOD.
Peter singles out our love for the Christian brotherhood because if Christians fight among themselves, the watching world shrugs its shoulders and says, “Why become a Christian? They’re no different than anyone else.” The same is true if we do not show proper honor to all men, including those in civil authority.
Our love for fellow Christians and our submission and honor toward government officials is a powerful witness. Thus we submit “for the Lord’s sake.”
- The limits of submission to government: When honoring the government violates the fear of God.
Peter differentiates between God and the king: “Fear God, honor the king.” The emperor deserves appropriate honor, but he is not on the same level with God.
There is a fine balance that Christians must maintain, between respecting the man and his office, but not respecting him more than God. If it comes to a tug of war between God and government, we must follow God.
If the government forces us to disobey God, we first appeal to the government, if possible. If we have opportunity, we confront the government with its wrong. But if all that fails, we disobey the government and submit to our punishment.
J. I. Packer wrote, “It is a paradox of the Christian life that the more profoundly one is concerned about heaven, the more deeply one cares about God’s will being done on Earth.”
Christian citizens should be good citizens. The main way we do that is by submitting to our human government.