Do please take your Bibles in hand and turn with me to the first letter of Peter. We’ve been working our way through 1 Peter together on Sunday mornings. We’ve come to 1 Peter chapter 2, verses 13 through 17. You can find it on page 1015 if you’re using one of the church Bibles.
Through verse 12 of chapter 2, we’ve seen Peter give us, you might say, general theological and practical principles. And now, beginning in our passage this morning, he’s going to press some of those principles into the particular areas and contexts of our Christian lives. He will speak, for example, as we’ll see in a few weeks’ time, about slaves and masters, husbands and wives. Here, in verses 13 through 17, he’s going to speak to us about how Christians should relate to the civil magistrate, to civil government. And that of course makes 1 Peter 2:13-17 immediately relevant and full of some urgent contemporary significance.
Regardless of your party political convictions, I doubt any of us would deny that the political landscape today has become particularly seedy. Turn on CNN or FOX News, the standard of debate is low, isn’t it. It gets rather shrill, even vicious at times. The moral values embraced across the ideological spectrum by many of our highest leaders run far below if not directly contrary to the values we hold most dear as Christians living under the authority of the Word of God. It is becoming increasingly difficult to hold high public office in the United States without espousing a social agenda at odds with basic Biblical ethics. And in some places, statutory provision is being sought for laws that will discriminate against businesses and public figures who embrace what are often called “traditional Christian values,” especially in the areas of gender and sexuality.
And so that makes - that and a host of other related issues - makes it urgent for us to know how we should live faithfully for Jesus Christ in such circumstances. 1 Peter 2:13-17 can help us. I want you to think about the teaching of these verses under three headings. Peter offers us an attitude to adopt, a way of thinking about civil government - what it is, its character and its mission. An attitude to adopt. An approach to maintain - how we should behave in relation to civil government. And an agenda to pursue - a motive, a goal that we’re aiming at as we think and live in these ways. So an attitude to adopt, an approach to maintain, and an agenda to pursue. Before we consider those headings and look at the text, we’re going to pause and pray and ask for God’s help. Let’s pray together.
O Lord, we pray that You would take these verses and our lives and bring the truth to bear upon us in such a way that we are equipped, by Your Word and Spirit, to live for Your glory at our particular cultural moment. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
1 Peter chapter 2 at the thirteenth verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“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.”
This is one of my favorite Scottish-Presbyterian stories. You have a Scottish-Presbyterian pastor so you’re just going to have to put up with it! I’m sorry, every now and again you’re going to get a story like this! 1596, King James VI of Scotland has a private audience with one of the prominent Presbyterian pastors of the country, Andrew Melville. He has been sent, deputized by his colleagues, because of growing concerns that the royal policy was undermining the gains for the Gospel that had been made in Scotland by the Protestant Reformation. Eventually, Melville lost patience with King James, though not at all losing courage as we’ll see, he plucks at his sleeve and he calls him “God’s silly vassal.” That’s pretty bold. And he goes on to say, “There are two kings and two kingdoms in Scotland. There is Christ Jesus the King and His kingdom, the Kirk,” that’s the Church, “whose subject King James VI is, and of whose kingdom he is not a king nor a lord nor a head, but a member.” That’s a pretty gutsy way to walk to the king in a day when kings like James were invested with almost absolute power. “There are two kings and two kingdoms in Scotland. There is Christ Jesus the King and His kingdom, the Kirk, whose subject King James VI is, and of whose kingdom he is not a king nor a lord nor a head, but a member.” He was putting the king in his place. Wasn’t he?
Christ alone is King and Head of the Church and though King James is supreme in that place and time in the civil realm, in the Church of the living God, in the kingdom of Jesus Christ, only Christ may lay title to the claim of Head or Lord or King. King James has no more authority in the Church than any other ordinary church member. That was frankly a radical idea at the time, but Melville was giving voice to a growing, you might say growing reformed political theology based on passages, the teaching of passages like the one we’ve just read together in 1 Peter chapter 2:13-17. Melville, Samuel Rutherford, others saw in passages like this one that we have resources that will equip us to respond to the civil power with respect and honor, on the one hand, and courage and fidelity to the claims of the living God on the other hand. To neither capitulate in abject subjugation to the claims of a totalitarian state, for example, nor to withdraw from society into some sort of monasticism. There were plenty of reformation groups that thought that now that they are citizens of the kingdom of God, “we should have nothing to do with the kingdoms of this world.” Anabaptist movements, some of which the descendants of which are still with us today. But the teaching of this passage offers us a different approach as I hope to show you.
An Attitude to Adopt
We said earlier there are three things to notice here - an attitude to adopt, an approach to maintain, and an agenda to pursue. First of all, Peter says then there is an attitude that we are to adopt. He’s talking to us about what government is; how we should think about it as Christian people. Notice what he says about the character of civil government. Look at the text. Verse 13, Peter says we are to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.” That last phrase is significant. Civil government, Peter says, is a human institution. The language he’s using really speaks to something of human ordination according to the normal rules of commonsense and prudence. We’re being taught that apart from the nation of ancient Israel in the Old Testament era, which received its constitution by direct inspiration of God in holy Scripture, a constitution now rendered obsolete by the cross of Jesus Christ, apart from ancient Israel there is no “thus saith the Lord” about how any particular nation should govern or guide its affairs. There’s no Biblical political system that we can point to as universally binding on all people everywhere. It is of human institution; it is to be arranged according to prudence and wisdom given the circumstances and situation.
And so as we look around the world even today, we see different forms of government in different countries. I come from the United Kingdom and so I am a citizen under a limited monarchy with a parliamentary democracy. You are citizens of the United States which is a republic. Other countries have a single party system; some have absolute monarchs and there are other systems as well. We might find ourselves agreeing with Winston Churchill, that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” So we might be persuaded that democracy is the best - I hope we are, frankly - but the fact remains that there is no “thus saith the Lord” from the Scriptures that we can force the conscience of any other people to obey when it comes to the form of government. Democracy might be the healthiest system we can devise, best suited to maintain order and protect freedom, but we can’t say that God has ordained democracy for all people in the Scriptures. Forms of government are human institutions, Peter says.
But then alongside of that he also mentions another set of convictions to hold on to. Look at 13 and 14 again. “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 praise those who do good.” So the subjection of citizens to the emperor in Peter’s time to supreme authority is to happen “for the Lord’s sake.” It’s a matter of obligation to God that Christians submit to the civil magistrate, both to the emperor as supreme and to governors as sent by him. That’s last phrase is also important - “as sent by him,” maybe better translated “sent through him.” Peter’s acknowledging that there are regional governors that the emperor deploys throughout the empire to extend his rule and to implement policy and law. But ultimately behind them, behind the emperor himself, there is the living God who upholds and makes provision for government in the world.
Put all of that together - what are we being taught? We are being taught that the form of government may be a matter of general prudence and commonsense as circumstance and wisdom dictates and it means that we can have legitimate, frank, fruitful debates about which approach to government best serves the common interests and so on, the form of government is open for discussion. It is a human institution. But the fact of government, Peter wants us to see, is a token to us of the sustained kindness and goodness of God who, despite the sinfulness of human beings in all places and at all times, limits the chaos and the wickedness of our hearts in His common grace and makes provision to ensure there is some order and stability to society. Paul says in Romans 13:1, very much a parallel passage to this one, “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.” Government - we need to be reminded of this, don’t we? How cynical and jaded we can be in these days as we see the many and varied failures of our officials paraded in technicolor every single day on all our various media platforms. We need to be reminded, don’t we, that government is a gift of God. It’s a gift of God. It reminds us He cares, He cares about society, about the fabric of civil society. He doesn’t want it to descend into absolute anarchy and chaos. He retrains sin in us by His common grace and ensures there is some persistent order that upholds the rule of law. So the character of civil government is here.
He also tells us something about the mission of civil government. Why has God ordained that there should be civil government? What is government for? Look at 13 and 14 again. “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.” Now remember Peter’s context. It’s remarkable when you think about this in light of Peter’s context. He’s likely writing some time in the early years of the reign of the emperor, Nero. And at this point, Christians are facing social exclusion and verbal slander and assaults, verbally mostly, from their peers in the society because of their faith in Jesus. Verse 15, for example, reminds us that Christians are to silence foolish people who are speaking against them for their faith. Verse 12 says that if you stand up for Jesus and live for Him, you’ll be spoken of as evildoers by the society. So the opposition that the church is facing is mainly verbal and social.
But we know that things will decline from this point very rapidly as Nero’s reign progresses until the widespread persecution, dreadful persecution that the church endured for which Nero’s reign is so famous began to sweep through the empire. And yet Peter is still saying, isn’t he, that in some sense even Nero, even Nero, even the governors - wicked, sometimes despotic that rule under him - even they are sent to punish evil and to praise the good. They are, as Romans 13:3 puts it, “God’s servants,” or literally, “His ministers for our good.” So the function of civil government, Scripturally understood, is the maintenance of the common good and the punishment of evil. And we have to acknowledge that even in terrible, tyrranic regimes around the world - both then and today - there remain laws against murder and theft and things that threaten the most basic fabric of our relationships in society - to protect the citizenry. And that is the most basic mission of civil government and God preserves it in the world.
Which should tell us, by the way, that we should be thankful. We should be thankful for our elected officials. All of them, even the ones you don’t agree with, because they have been ordained of God for your good. You should be grateful as a Christian for our federal, state and local law enforcement officers. God has given them to us for our good. Well okay - so what? This is a sermon after all and not a high school civics lesson. So what? What difference should all of this make to us as Christian believers?
An Approach to Maintain
Look at the text again. Peter first tells us there is an attitude to adopt, but now in the second place he says given that this is how we should think about government, understand its mission and its character, there is an approach we must maintain, a stance and a way of living and behaving in light of those convictions that we must maintain. He spells out the basic stance of a Christian pretty clearly in verse 13. Look there again. “Be subject, for the Lord’s sake, to every human institution,” whatever rank of authority they may possess. That’s, I hope, not an ambiguous statement. I don’t think I need to unpack it terribly carefully. We don’t need to flog a dead horse. “Be subject to human authority.” Be a good citizen, in so far as earthly laws do not require you to break the law of God, keep the law. Be a law-abiding citizen. “Be subject, for the Lord’s sake, to every human institution.” It’s not a complex command.
But do notice how marvelous balanced Peter is as he spells out how we are to do that; how our duties as believers in society should look. You will remember that Peter has described his first readers as “elect exiles of the Dispersion,” chapter 1 verse 1, as “exiles” or “sojourners,” chapter 1 verse 17. He’s called them, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession,” in chapter 2 verse 9. He’s called them “sojourners,” chapter 2 verse 11; just passing through. This is not our home. We are temporary residents here. That’s how he describes the people of God and he knows that it might be tempting for some of his readers to derive from that and deduce from that that they are now free as citizens of the kingdom of heaven from any obligation to earthly kingdoms and earthly rulers. Since this is not our home, after all, they might have withdrawn from society or even rejected civil authority altogether and denied the rights of any human magistrate to exercise the rule of law over them.
But Peter has been consistent. We’ve seen this over and again, haven’t we? He’s been consistent in insisting that we must neither withdraw nor capitulate. We mustn’t follow the path of cultural accommodation or cultural isolation. We can’t form societies of our own cut off from the world, and neither must we assimilate into the world, embracing all of its values and norms as our own. Instead, we must take a third way. And so he says in verse 16, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.” Now there’s good news in this text. If you are a Christian, you are free. You’ve been set free. What from? From a number of things. We can list a few of them. You’ve been set free from the burdens of the Old Testament civil and ceremonial law. You’ve been set free from the dominion and power of sin in your life. You’ve been set free from the tyranny and domination of the devil. You’ve been set free from the condemning wrath of God. You’ve been set free from the commandments of men that are contrary to or beside the Word of God. You are free if you are a Christian. Christ has died for you. He’s born the penalty for you that your sin deserves. He was bound and chained and beaten and killed for you. And in doing so, He has set you free from the law of sin and death by the law of the Spirit of life. And so now if Christ has set you free, you are free indeed. Free from condemnation, free from spiritual bondage, free from guilt, free from the fear of death. Praise God for the great privilege of Christian liberty - blood-bought, won for you at the cross. There are no people so free as those who put their trust in Jesus Christ. You are free.
And yet, Peter says, don’t use your freedom as a cover-up, a cloak for evil. We are free, but that doesn’t mean you are free to sin. You are free, but not free to ignore common decency. You are free, but not to live without regard to the law of the land. Do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but live as servants of God. What is he saying? He’s saying don't back off from society and don’t accommodate society. Be a better citizen than anybody else because Christ has set you free indeed. Cherish your freedom and cherish the Christ who secured your freedom by refusing to abuse your freedom. That’s his message. You see, people in Peter’s day were suggesting that to follow Jesus made you anti-social, made you anti-social. It made you suspect, both culturally and politically. In those days, politics and religion and economics and culture, they were all intimately interwoven. And here are Christians and they are not participating in the cult of the emperor. They don’t worship the emperor like everyone else. They don’t eat in the pagan temple dining rooms like everyone else where so much business was conducted day after day. They don’t participate in the trade guilds where businessmen would cooperate. But they would also invoke their pagan patron deities. They were different, and so they became accused of being bad citizens and bad people.
And if you think about it, increasingly, isn’t that the accusation leveled against the church even in our own day as well? “If you do not embrace our view of tolerance, we cannot tolerate you.” Right? “If you do not affirm the LGBTQI agenda,” for example, “we will refuse a platform for you to speak at a university. We will boycott your business. We’ll bring civil lawsuit against you. We will attempt to revoke your charitable status. We will bring all the coercive powers we can - both legal and social - to bear upon you until you conform.” Haven’t you heard that? In the eyes of the liberal elites of our society at least, to be a Bible-believing Christian today makes you a bad neighbor and a bad member of society and a bad person. And here is Peter and he wants to train us to defy those expectations.
So look at the summary he gives us in verse 17 of how we should behave as followers of the living God and the risen Christ in these dark days. He says, “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” That’s a fascinating sequence. One of the startling things I think his readers would have noticed immediately is that it begins and ends with honor - “Honor everyone. Honor the emperor.” And the way we treat everybody else and the way we treat the emperor is the same. That’s revolutionary. This is a time when people worshiped the emperor as god. It was part of your civic duty as a citizen, like children saying the pledge of allegiance at the start of their school day every morning or a crowd singing the national anthem at a ballgame - it was just normal; part of your civic experience. You burn incense to the emperor as to a god. And Peter says, no, fear God, not the emperor. Fear God. Worship God. But honor the emperor. Honor him in the same way as you honor everyone else because all people everywhere are made in the image of God. And if you fear God, you will honor them. Honor all people, including the emperor who is just a man.
That was then - it still is now, actually - a profoundly challenging message. Think about it. Peter’s society was a highly segregated, class-oriented society and he is now requiring the church to honor everyone. That’s shocking. Including the emperor among “everyone” would have been particularly shocking. Is it really any less shocking for us? We are being called to honor people who don’t look like us. To honor them. To sit gladly at their feet and learn from them. People who don’t look like us, share our ethnicity, our educational background, our class, our economic or social status. That’s still a challenge for a lot of us. Isn’t it? Honor everyone.
And at the level of ethics, think about how people operate at the level of ethics in our culture. Honoring those with whom we disagree - that’s virtually incomprehensible to very many people in our society. We live in a time when, “If you disagree with my worldview or my lifestyle choices, you are mean! You’re not loving; you’re mean!” But Peter calls us to a different standard. Doesn’t he? We are to honor those with whom we differ. We don’t back away from our convictions. We don’t relativize our ethics to accommodate those who might take offense. But neither do we fail to honor those who reject our point of view. We speak respectfully to those in authority, even when - listen - even when we don’t like their policies or their personalities. We do not parrot, as Christian people, we do not parrot the sneering contempt with which the TV pundits traffic so glibly. We do not capitulate to the temptation to mock those with whom we differ on the political landscape. We don’t need to demonize or belittle. We may differ and show honor at the same time, even if that means we ourselves will be demonized and belittled.
And so Peter seems to anticipate the stance that he is calling the church to take will expose them to real pushback, persecution, opposition, and suffering. And so he doesn’t simply call them to honor everyone, including the emperor. He also calls them to love the brotherhood, that is to say, the church. If we are going to do this, we are going to need each other. We are going to need fellows, brothers and sisters, submitting to God and standing firm for the cause of Christ in dark days - honoring everyone, and yet standing apart as necessary for the glory of Jesus Christ. We are going to need each other because it’s going to get hard. Love the brotherhood.
And do it all out of fear of God. If this was just a civics lesson, you could say, “Well that’s all very nice and interesting, but I just don’t agree,” and walk away and there would be - I’d have no recourse. But that’s not what this is. No, honor the emperor, honor your president, honor your political leaders of whatever party, honor those who are set over you in authority, honor them out of fear of God, for the Lord’s sake as a matter of conscience, that has to speak to our tone and our hearts and our attitudes.
And just in case you missed it, Peter isn’t calling us to abject submission to every whim or decree of the civil power. Peter himself, remember, is a great model of civil disobedience when obedience to God is necessary. Think about Acts 4:19 when Peter and John are arrested and forbidden from preaching in the name of Jesus and they reply, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge. For we cannot but speak of what we’ve seen and heard.” The same thing happens in Acts chapter 5 verse 29. All the apostles are arrested. Peter is appointed, as it were, their spokesman. And when they’re forbidden to speak in the name of Jesus he says, “We must obey God rather than men.” So when the civil authorities require the people of God, the Church, to be silent instead of preaching Christ, we cannot and mustn’t obey. We must disobey. When the civil authorities require the Church to affirm sexual sin as a moral good, we cannot and must not obey. When the civil authorities forbid, as they do in many countries around the world right now, forbid the worship of God according to Scripture, the Church cannot obey. When the world, when the civil power requires the Church to call evil good and good evil, the Church cannot obey. And yet even in those moments when obedience to God requires disobedience to the civil power, even then we are to seek to express honor to those in authority out of fear of God.
It is, after all, precisely the model to which Peter will point in just a few verses, verse 21 for example, that we find in our Savior Himself. Isn’t it? Isn’t this how He responded to tyrannical and despotic civil authority in His own trial? Who, when He was reviled, reviled not in return. He did not compromise or waver or back down from the path of obedience to which He was called. Knowing that path set Him on a collision course with civil and religious authority. He did not waver or back down and yet never once did He speak with anything less than honor and respect to those whom God had placed in authority.
An Agenda to Pursue
So there’s an attitude to adopt and an approach to maintain, and finally and very quickly there’s an agenda to pursue. Why should you do this? Why should you live this way? Peter mentions two things are part of our motivation, our goal, our agenda in all of this. He wants us to live this way for the glory of God, doxology, and he wants us to live this way for the extension of the kingdom, mission. Doxology and mission. Notice verse 13. We are to take this stance, “for the Lord’s sake.” We are to do it, verse 15, because this is “the will of God.” We are to do it, verse 16, “as the servants of God.” We are to do it, verse 17, “fearing God.” Why should you live this way? Why should you show honor and respect, sometimes to dishonorable men and women in authority in the civil power? Why should you? Not because of them or who they are in themselves necessarily. You do it for the glory of God, for the honor of God, for the praise of God. You do it to show that because of who Jesus is in your heart, there is no fractious, seditious, complaining bitter spirit in you, even when you must differ and disagree, sometimes to your own great cost. You are willing to do it in humility with kindness showing respect. You do it for the glory of God.
And you do it for mission. Look at verse 15. This is a fascinating verse. Verse 15, “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” Peter, all the way through this letter, shows a concern for how the world is looking at the Church and what the world thinks about the Church’s words and works. And he sees here an opportunity for the Gospel as the Church relates to the civil authority. He wants believers - do you see this - he wants believers in Jesus to be better neighbors, more civic minded, more charitable, more compassionate, more engaged in the care of the poor than anybody else. He wants good works to be so on display in the lives of Christians that those who have been saying, “Those Christians are bigots, they’re narrow minded, they’re hateful people,” their mouths are stopped. He wants the impact that we make in our neighborhoods to be significant and observable against which no one can speak evil.
The word he actually uses there for “silenced” is a very strong word. It means “to muzzle” or “to gag.” He wants your goodness to render those who oppose the Gospel speechless, unable to open their mouths in opposition any longer. So here’s Peter’s perspective, I think. He’s saying even if your neighbors don’t become Christians, he wants them to open their mouths in praise to God and not in opposition to the call of Jesus Christ any longer. But even if they do not join you in following Jesus because of your example and witness, he’s saying, “I want you to live in such a way that they just can’t imagine life on your street without you around.” Live in such a way in Belhaven and Fondren and Midtown and Meadowbrook and Eastover and Flowood and Madison and wherever God has planted you, live in such a way in your neighborhoods, in your community that they would be poorer and they would feel themselves to be poorer without you there.
If we can slide in and out of our communities, if we as a church can be taken from Jackson and nobody notice and it not leave some gap, some hole, in terms of our impact for good, something is seriously wrong. That is actually what it means to be an exile and a sojourner, a citizen of the kingdom of heaven living in the midst of the kingdoms of this world. It doesn’t mean withdraw. It doesn’t mean backing off. It doesn’t mean anarchy. It means mission. It means engagement. Bearing witness to a different life and a different world that comes as a gift through faith in Jesus Christ. It means mission.
May God help us to be good citizens of the kingdoms of this world because we are first citizens of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Let’s pray together.
Father, we thank You for Your loving kindness, for Your grace in providing civil government for us. Help us to be better citizens in it. Help us to love our neighbors. Give us servant hearts. Help us to speak with honor and respect of those who are over us, out of fear of God, for the Lord’s sake. And help us, please, to do it for Your glory and for the good of the world, for the salvation of the lost, and for the praise of Your name. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
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