11. Submission to Civil Authorities (1 Peter 2:13-17)
13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, 14 or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.
15 For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.
16 [Act] as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but [use it] as bondslaves of God. 17 Honor all men; love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.
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 (see Genesis 15:12-16; Exodus 12:40-41). Later God gave the Jews over to Gentile rule as a consequence of their rebellion against Him (see Deuteronomy 28:64-68; Nehemiah 9:26-37; Daniel 9:4-19). 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 (see 2 kings 24-25; 2 Chronicles 36). 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:
36 “Behold, we are slaves today, and as to the land which Thou didst give to our fathers to eat of its fruit and its bounty, behold, we are slaves on it” (Nehemiah 9:36).
31 Jesus therefore was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you abide in My word, [then] you are truly disciples of Mine; 32 and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” 33 They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s offspring, and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You shall become free’?” (John 8:31-33).
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). When unbelieving Jews tried to legally disown Christianity, Gallio, a Roman proconsul of Achaia, rejected their claims, which set a legal precedent and gave `Christianity the same rights and protection as Judaism (Acts 18:12-17).
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.
Many of the same dangers present at the time of Peter’s writing exist today in a slightly different form. Increasingly, Christians are looked upon with suspicion as those opposed to civil authority. David Koresh and his followers in Waco, Texas, may seem to be totally “unchristian” to evangelical believers, but there are those outside the faith who see little difference between them and evangelical Christianity. This is partly due to some Christians who are becoming increasingly militant and apparently more willing to break the laws of our land. An abortionist is murdered by a man whom some would view as little different from many other anti-abortionists. If the evangelical pro-life movement is willing to break laws in order to save the lives of the unborn, which laws are they not willing to break? Are they willing to kill in order to save lives? Some would like to think so. And some would like others to think so.
We see then just how vitally important the Christian’s relationship to civil government is. We are “aliens and strangers” on this earth; our citizenship is in heaven. But this does not mean we are somehow less obligated to obey the laws of the land. Unlike those who exploded a bomb in the New York World Trade Center, we dare not view our foreign citizenship as a license to break the laws of the land in which we live. Peter’s words are not easy to swallow, and they may be less than easy to obey. Peter will inform us that we have the same obligation to obey our government as do unbelievers living in this nation, but the Christian has an even higher obligation than unbelievers.
The Context of Our Text
Already in chapter 2, Peter has laid the foundation for the instructions he now gives concerning our conduct. Our relationship to Christ determines our identity. By faith in Him as the “living Stone,” we become living stones built up into a dwelling place of God where He abides, where priestly ministry is performed, and spiritual sacrifices are offered up. In Christ, we have become “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who belong to God, so that we may proclaim the excellencies of the One who called us from darkness into His marvelous light” (2:9). Our task is not only to be God’s possession but His dwelling place and a demonstration of His nature.
Verses 11 and 12 spell out in general terms the way we should fulfill our calling. We are to abstain from fleshly lusts which are “foreign” to our calling and destiny. We are to conduct ourselves in a godly fashion, so that while men may accuse us falsely for doing good in this life, they will give praise to God for these same deeds when they stand before Him at Christ’s return.
Beginning at verse 13, Peter becomes more specific about the ways in which we abstain from fleshly lusts and exhibit excellent behavior before men. Submission to others is the first specific manifestation of godly conduct. Since Peter is writing to the saints about Christian suffering, he addresses submission in the context of suffering. He writes about submission to those who may be the cause of our suffering. In 2:13-17, he speaks of submission to civil authorities and in 2:18-25 of the submission of slaves to cruel masters. In 3:1-6, he writes to wives who may be married to unbelieving, even unkind husbands. Finally in verse 7 of chapter 3, he speaks to husbands about submission.
Probing the Passage
Verses 13 and 14
13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, 14 or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.
The command is given to submit ourselves to every human institution.64 The word “submit” is almost always taught and understood in terms of authority. Submission is the proper response of the Christian to those in a position of authority over us. In secular thinking, this may be as far as submission will go, but this is not so in the Bible. In addition to being a matter of authority, submission is also a matter of priority.
Allow me to explain. In addition to requiring us to submit to those in authority, the Scriptures also call for submission to those who are our peers:
21 And be subject to one another in the fear of Christ (Ephesians 5:21).
In the context of his teaching on submission, Peter calls upon the saints to “honor all men.” I believe this is a manifestation of submission. Peter commands the saints to submit to the king as the one “in authority” (verse 13). The Greek term rendered “in authority” is the same term Paul employed in Philippians 2:3:
1 If therefore there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, 2 make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. 3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; 4 do not [merely] look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. 5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:1-5).
While God has sovereignly ordained governmental officials to hold positions of authority over us, we are also to regard our fellow-believers as having a higher claim on us than our own selfish desires. Therefore, submission is not only a matter of authority but also a matter of priority.
So far, in verses 13 and 14, submission is viewed in the context of authority, and those to whom we are to submit are civil authorities. Submission is not only to be granted to the king, the ultimate authority, but to all of his agents. As I understand Peter, this not only means men in prominent positions of power such as governors but those who act on their behalf, the civil servants who carry out the functions of government on our level. Peter expects us to respond to these agents of authority as though they were the supreme human authority whom they represent.
The purpose of government and those who govern is completely consistent with Peter’s call for excellent conduct and submission to civil authorities: “the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.” While the form of government may differ, the task is the same. Even a pagan and corrupt government is better than none at all. As bad as communism may seem to us, the people of Yugoslavia were better off under communism than the people of Bosnia are today.
Governments punish evil-doers, and they also praise those who do good. As President, George Bush initiated the “thousand points of light” program to honor those making a special contribution to our society. Even in ancient times, heathen rulers recognized their responsibility to do the same. When the Persian king Ahasuerus could not sleep, he gave the order for the chronicles of his kingdom to be read to him, no doubt hoping he would be put to sleep by them. When the account was read of Mordecai’s disclosure of a plot to abduct the king, Ahazuerus immediately asked, “What honor or dignity has been bestowed on Mordecai for this?” (Esther 6:3). When told that nothing had been done to honor Mordecai, he made things right the next day. This heathen king understood the need to honor those who do well in his kingdom.
Government’s obligation is to praise the righteous and punish the wicked. Peter’s command to submit to civil authorities does not include a promise that we will always be praised by earthly authorities for the good things we have done. He does, however, infer that praise is certain for the Christian. We are not to live righteously primarily to obtain the praise of men. We are to live righteously in order to bring praise to God and to await His praise. And so Peter instructs us to submit ourselves “for the Lord’s sake” (verse 13). Submission is to be “as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22), “in the Lord” (Ephesians 6:1), and “for the Lord’s sake” (1 Peter 2:13). Our submission to civil authorities should be carried out as obedience to our Lord (see Romans 13:1-7). This is to be done in His strength and to His glory (see 1 Corinthians 10:31). If we submit in this way, we will receive praise from Him whom we serve, to whom we are ultimately in submission.
15 For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.
Submission is doing what is right. Submission is doing the will of God. Submission by doing right is the way that we may, in the will of God, see the ignorance of foolish men silenced.
The ignorance of foolish men is that ignorance related to man’s condition in unbelief65 (see 1 Peter 1:14). Man’s ignorance of God and His ways often results in foolish accusations against believers. They may see our good deeds as evil and accuse us for doing good (see 2:12). Because government’s task is to reward men for doing well and to punish them for evil, civil authorities must also determine whether our actions are good or evil. Often this is carried out through the court system. Sometimes it is done directly by the king.
Because Daniel was faithful by diligently carrying out his duties in serving King Darius, God blessed his work. As Daniel was promoted by the king, his peers began to resent him, seeking to find some area of failure or wrong-doing in his life. They concluded they would only be able to accuse him in connection with his faith (Daniel 6:24-27). When the king was tricked into passing a law which was certain to make Daniel a law-breaker, the king reluctantly cast Daniel into the den of lions hoping that his God might save him. And his God did save him! The king joyfully received Daniel back alive and hastened to “silence” Daniel’s false accusers:
24 The king then gave orders, and they brought those men who had maliciously accused Daniel, and they cast them, their children, and their wives into the lions’ den; and they had not reached the bottom of the den before the lions overpowered them and crushed all their bones. 25 Then Darius the king wrote to all the peoples, nations, and [men of every] language who were living in all the land: “May your peace abound! 26 I make a decree that in all the dominion of my kingdom men are to fear and tremble before the God of Daniel; for He is the living God and enduring forever, and His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed, and His dominion [will be] forever. 27 He delivers and rescues and performs signs and wonders in heaven and on earth, who has [also] delivered Daniel from the power of the lions” (Daniel 6:24-27).
Our Lord was vindicated by Pilate although Pilate was pressured into executing this One whom he had just declared innocent:
14 “You brought this man to me as one who incites the people to rebellion, and behold, having examined Him before you, I have found no guilt in this man regarding the charges which you make against Him” (Luke 23:14).
Paul was likewise vindicated by Roman officials:
30 And the king arose and the governor and Bernice, and those who were sitting with them, 31 and when they had drawn aside, they [began] talking to one another, saying, “This man is not doing anything worthy of death or imprisonment.” 32 And Agrippa said to Festus, “This man might have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar” (Acts 26:30-32; see 23:29).
Submission to civil authorities facilitates the task God has given to those who govern—to punish the wicked and reward the righteous—and expose and silence false charges against the righteous.
Verses 16 and 17
16 Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. 17 Honor all men; love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.66
Recently, I saw this bumper sticker on the back of a pick-up: “Obey God’s Laws, not man’s.”
This has a kind of pious ring to it—at first glance. But a serious problem exists in the thinking which underlies this proposition. The error is in assuming a significant conflict between man’s laws and God’s laws. Paul did not think so; neither did Peter. The biblical perspective is this: “Obey man’s laws as God’s law” (see Romans 13:1-7). Being citizens of the heavenly kingdom does not exempt us from our obligation to the laws of the land in which we live. Being “free” in Christ is not freedom from obedience to civil authorities.
To what “freedom” then is Peter referring in verse 16? Many think it is our freedom in Christ (see Luke 4:18; John 8:32, 36; Acts 13:39; Romans 6:7, 18, 22; 7:3; 8:2; 1 Corinthians 9:1, 19; 10:29; Galatians 5:1, 13). This “freedom” may be included in what Peter is talking about, but I believe he is also talking about one’s freedom as a citizen, as opposed to being a slave (see 1 Corinthians 7:21-22; 12:13; Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 6:8; Colossians 3:11). Peter addresses slaves in 1 Peter 2:18. In verse 16, he is speaking to free citizens, urging them to use their freedom for the progress of the gospel and the glory of God rather than for selfish ambitions. Everything legal is not necessarily moral or godly or profitable to others (see 1 Corinthians 6:12).
Paul often surrendered some of his freedoms for the good of others and the advance of the gospel. He was free to marry, but he chose not to do so (1 Corinthians 9:5; 7:8). He was free to be supported in his ministry, but he often chose not to be (see 1 Corinthians 9:1-18). His liberties were not exercised at the expense of others; they were employed in ministry to others. Paul’s submission to others caused him to view and use his liberties in a very different way. Peter calls on us here to do likewise.
What are some of the freedoms we may use as slaves of Christ, or abuse as slaves of our flesh? We have the liberties of our American citizenship and the rights we are granted by our Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We should use these submissively to the benefit of others. There is the freedom of our personal liberties in Christ, within the confines of God’s Word and our personal convictions. These should be employed as slaves of Christ and as the servants of others. There is the “freedom” of retirement. Do we use this for fulfilling our own selfish desires or for serving Christ and others? For some, there is the freedom to remain single. While Paul advocates remaining single so that we may more devotedly serve our Lord (1 Corinthians 7:25-35), most of those who remain single today do so to devote themselves to the pleasures of single life (I am not quite sure what these are, especially if we limit them to what God permits).
I believe Peter is teaching that submission is not just for those who cannot avoid it, for citizens under the rule of government and slaves under the authority of their masters. Peter is teaching us that submission should be our mindset even when we are “free.” We are, first and foremost, servants of Christ. Submission is to be the dominant theme in our lives—submission to Christ, submission to governmental authorities, and even submission to our peers and subordinates. This becomes much clearer in verse 17.
Verse 17 greatly expands Peter’s teaching on submission. It covers the whole forest, from the king as the supreme human authority to those on the lowest levels of power or position. It also includes God as the ultimate and final authority over all creation. It covers both believers and unbelievers. And in the process, it shows certain crucial distinctions Christians must recognize and observe in their submission to others.
I am not altogether happy with the translation of verse 17 in the New International Version:
Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king (emphasis mine).
In the original text, it is the same term which is rendered “show proper respect” and “honor” in the same verse. This is not only unusual, it is misleading. The concept of “honor” is a fundamental and foundational part of submission. Peter is teaching that just as we must submit to those over us by honoring them, so we must submit to those under us with the same outlook.
Peter has not left the subject of submission here but rather has chosen to expand it dramatically. Now, submission involves not only submission to kings but to all men. Further, submission involves not just respect for higher authorities, but respect for all men because they are God’s creation.67
What do we honor in all men similar to the way we honor the king? The king is divinely appointed by God; thus, his authority and position are to be respected because God gave it to him (Romans 13:1). All men are created by God with a certain reflection (although distorted) of His image (see Genesis 1:26). To honor men is to honor the God who made them and to honor the dignity they have as God’s creatures:
3 When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, The moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained; 4 What is man, that Thou dost take thought of him? And the son of man, that Thou dost care for him? 5 Yet Thou hast made him a little lower than God, And dost crown him with glory and majesty! (Psalms 8:3-5).68
Thus we have the command of our Lord through Peter to honor69 all men.
All men are to be given honor. We are to recognize that they have been created by God and are to be treated as His creatures. To honor men is to respect their dignity and even their individuality (for each is uniquely created by God—see Psalm 139).
We may define what it means to “honor” men in terms of what it means to “dishonor” men. Consider these texts which speak of dishonoring men:
21 “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty [enough to go] into the fiery hell (Matthew 5:21-22, emphasis mine).
1 My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with [an attitude of] personal favoritism. 2 For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, 3 and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? 5 Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world [to be] rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? 7 Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called? 8 If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law, according to the Scripture, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin [and] are convicted by the law as transgressors (James 2:1-9).
We dishonor men by thinking of them or calling them fools, those whom the world would be better off without. God made them. They have value and a contribution to make to this world. We dare not think of them as a detriment or we dishonor the One who created them. We also dishonor men by discriminating against them, giving preferential treatment to those who appear to be of higher value while demeaning those who seem to have little value—little to offer us, little to contribute. Discrimination dishonors men. Honoring men requires that we not judge them on the basis of appearances. It means that we dare not treat some men with dignity and others without dignity.
I see several areas where the application of this command is apparent on the surface. Racial discrimination is wrong, because it honors some men and dishonors others. The prison system often dehumanizes men and women and robs them and their families of all dignity. Strip searches of male inmates by female guards, for example, dehumanizes men. Often we fail to treat the elderly with dignity, especially in some institutions which are responsible to care for them. The poor are often humiliated and stripped of dignity by the way in which our welfare and public services are provided. To treat men as less than human is to put people in a category under us. Submitting to others begins by regarding them as having a dignity and honor which sets them above us and makes us their servants.
The arrangement of the instructions in verse 17 is meant to be instructive:
- Honor all men; … love the brotherhood,
- fear God, … honor the king
In addition to the arrangement, the terms “honor,” “love,” and “fear” are carefully chosen and distinguished.
Submission has a universal dimension which includes all mankind, without exception. All men are to be honored. The brotherhood of believers is to be loved. There is a greater degree of intimacy and contact, and relationship, between one believer and other saints. Thus, in Scripture, the believer has a higher level of obligation to believers than to unbelievers:
So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith (Galatians 6:10).
The king is to receive honor as the ultimate human authority over men. He is to be honored as a man, the “head man” we might say. But there is a limit to the “honor” he receives. He is only to be honored as a man and never to be worshipped as a god. For allowing others to worship him as such, Herod was put to death by God (Acts 12:20-23). And so Peter distinguishes between the “honor” the king is to be given and the “fear” God alone is to receive from the saints.70
In many ways, Peter is teaching the same things Paul teaches elsewhere (see Romans 13:1-7; Titus 3:1-2). There are some unique areas of emphasis we would do well to focus on in concluding our study. To begin, I call to your attention some significant things Peter does not say in this passage.
(1) Peter gives us no exceptions concerning submission to authority. Peter mentions no exceptions or instances in which one might be required not to submit to civil authorities. Amazingly, while Paul could claim that he never violated a Roman or Jewish law (Acts 25:8), Peter is the one who broke the law. Twice he escaped from jail (Acts 5:17-21; 12:1-17), and twice he informed the Jewish ruling body, the Sanhedrin, that he and the apostles could not obey their commands:
18 And when they had summoned them, they commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; 20 for we cannot stop speaking what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:18-20).
27 And when they had brought them, they stood them before the Council. And the high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and behold, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered and said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:27-29).
How then do we square Peter’s practice with his teaching? We must first recognize that these two “escapes” were not made by overpowering the guards or sawing through the prison bars with a concealed file. In both instances, an angel released Peter (and John), and in the second incident through most of the escape, Peter thought he was dreaming. In addition, the angel who set Peter and John free gave them a specific command about where they were to go and what they were to do. To obey the command of the Sanhedrin would require Peter and John to disobey the angel and God who spoke through the angel. Peter saw that his choice was one of obeying God or men, and there was little doubt as to whom he would obey.
Having said this, it should also be suggested that even when we are forced to disobey a governmental authority, we should not cease to be in submission to them. While this sounds strange, it is important. When Daniel and his three friends disobeyed in Babylon, they still treated their governing authorities with respect. Their disobedience was not general but specific. They refused to obey only that law or command which would have forced them to disobey God. The same can be said of Peter and John. The only examples we have in Scripture of civil disobedience are those where obedience to God is directly forbidden by a human command.
Some of the civil disobedience practiced in our country and defended by citing the precedent of Daniel and Peter misses this point badly. The assumption seems to be that a Christian can disobey any law with which he or she disagrees. The Bible speaks of the disobedience of those laws and commands which directly contradict God’s commands or laws. Cruelty, and even unjust suffering at the hand of civil authorities, are not cited as a legitimate basis for civil disobedience by Christians. Today Christians who are (rightly) distressed over laws which permit (not command) others (not us) to do wrong (abortion) feel justified to selectively violate other laws. This goes beyond any biblical example of legitimate civil disobedience. It also makes the blowing up of abortion clinics or the murder of abortionists a more extreme disobedience of the same kind. The difference between the civil disobedience of some anti-abortion protesters and others who would kill or injure abortionists appears to many to be just a matter of degree and not of kind.
In our text, Peter gives no reasons for civil disobedience, not because there are none, but because he does not want the exception to become the rule. Jesus did not wish to engage in dialogue over the various legitimate reasons for divorce because even the most legalistic Pharisees of His day were too lax on this matter. He did not want the exception to overshadow the rule (see Matthew 19:3-12).
One more point should be made about civil disobedience. It is not civil disobedience to expect and even require that government officials abide by the laws they are appointed to uphold. At His arrest and during the trial which resulted in His death, our Lord pointed out that these men were acting outside the boundaries of the law they were appointed to uphold (Luke 22:49-53; John 18:19-24). Paul refused to allow the Roman officials to quietly release him after they had broken the law by illegally beating him (Acts 16:35-4). Those who are appointed to uphold the law must also abide by it. Christian submission to civil authorities does not necessarily prevent us from requiring authorities to act lawfully.
(2) No qualifications are made as to the kind of government to which we are to submit. We would most certainly prefer to submit to a democratic government, but Peter gives no qualifications of this kind. Whether the government be totalitarian or democratic, the Christian’s obligation to submit to it is the same.
(3) Peter does not make the performance of government officials the basis for whether we submit to civil authorities. Peter makes it clear that government’s responsibility is to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. He does not tell us that we must submit only to those who, in our opinion, are performing well at their task. Peter tells us what God expects of governing authorities, not as a standard for what we should expect or demand, but as the basis for our respect. We are to respect civil authorities because of the dignity of the task God has given them, not because of their success at carrying out these duties. How often Christians excuse their disobedience because their superiors do not meet their expectations. These authorities (including elders, see Hebrews 13:17), will give account to God for their faithfulness in carrying out their task. We will give account for our obedience to God’s command to submit to them, whether they are worthy of it or not.
Having considered what Peter does not say on submission, let us move on to what he emphatically says.
(1) Peter’s teaching provides a different perspective of government. Christians today are becoming more and more suspicious of government as it seems to encroach on our religious freedoms. When Christians (or conservatives) are dominant in government, Christians breathe easily, but when “liberals” or “secular humanists” take control, we suddenly look at government differently. Let us remember that the government of Peter’s day was Rome, and the emperor at the end of Peter’s life was Nero. And yet Peter speaks of government not as our persecutor but as our protector. He speaks not of civil disobedience but of submission. He does not speak of government as our accuser but as the instrument through which false accusations are silenced. Let us look at government and respond to it as God has intended it to be, not as we fear it will be.
We should remember that while the Roman government played a crucial role in the execution of our Lord, it was also the Roman government which protected Paul and the preaching of the gospel. The decision of Gallio in Acts 18 resulted in the protection of Paul throughout his missionary journeys. Sometimes Paul preached the gospel while in chains and often at the side of a Roman soldier, but Roman authorities protected Paul from the wrath of Jewish and Gentile unbelievers.
(2) Peter’s teaching concerning submission to civil authority is based upon the very crucial premise of the sovereignty of God. Government is divinely ordained and exists only by the will of God. Its authority comes from God (see John 19:10-11). It achieves God’s purposes even when it fails to carry out its divinely given task. When God allows government to persecute Christians for well-doing rather than to praise them, even then His purposes are being accomplished. This was the early church’s comfort which must also be ours.
23 And when they had been released, they went to their own [companions,] and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 And when they heard [this,] they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said, “O Lord, it is Thou who DIDST MAKE THE HEAVEN AND THE EARTH AND THE SEA, AND ALL THAT IS IN THEM, 25 who by the Holy Spirit, [through] the mouth of our father David Thy servant, didst say, ‘WHY DID THE GENTILES RAGE, AND THE PEOPLES DEVISE FUTILE THINGS? 26 THE KINGS OF THE EARTH TOOK THEIR STAND, AND THE RULERS WERE GATHERED TOGETHER AGAINST THE LORD, AND AGAINST HIS CHRIST.’ 27 “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Thy holy servant Jesus, whom Thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever Thy hand and Thy purpose predestined to occur” (Acts 4:23-28).
When the governing authorities incarcerated Peter in a way that would have hindered the accomplishment of God’s predetermined plan, an angel of the Lord arranged for Peter’s escape. And when Herod sought to kill Peter, the church did not arrange protest marches; they prayed. The result was that Herod was put to death not by the hands of an angry mob but by the hand of God—and not because anyone protested against him, but because men praised him as god (see Acts 12).
(3) Peter’s teaching provides a different basis for submission. Peter instructs the saints to submit to governing authorities not because they are always right, or fair, or because doing so will always keep us from persecution. We are to obey for the Lord’s sake, in obedience to Him, and for His glory. Praise for well-doing may or may not come from earthly rulers, but it will come from God at the return of our Lord.
(4) Peter greatly expands our concept and practice of submission. The best any government can expect from its unbelieving citizens is obedience. Often that obedience is given only when under the scrutiny of those who enforce the laws. That is why people speed until their radar detector tells them to obey the law. Christian submission does not fall short of secular submission; it far surpasses it. The Christian is to obey civil authorities, whether they are looking or not. Beyond this, we are to give honor to civil authorities even when their performance does not seem to deserve it. We honor them for their position as given by God.
I must confess that I have fallen far short of Peter’s instructions in my own life. I have always had nicknames for people, particularly people in authority. I cannot give you an illustration of this without violating Peter’s command to give honor to those in authority. But one thing I know, God requires me to show honor to those in authority whether I voted for them or not.
May God grant us the ability to obey these instructions both in spirit and in truth, to the glory of God and for our ultimate good.
64 A number of commentaries note that the term “institution” is the unusual rendering of a Greek word consistently rendered “creation” or “creature” elsewhere in the New Testament. At least two meanings are inferred from this fact: (1) that the term refers to all mankind, not just to governing authorities, and (2) the terms emphasizes the divine origin and authority of human governments. The first is advocated by Kelly: “. . . the writer is laying it down that the principle of the redeemed Christian life must not be self-assertion or mutual exploitation, but the voluntary subordination of oneself to others (cf. Rom. xii.10; Eph. v. 21; Phil. ii. 3 f.).” J. N. D. Kelly, The Epistles of Peter and of Jude (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers), 1969. Harpers New Testament Commentaries Series, pp. 108-109.
The second is the position of Stibbs: “It is, therefore, probably truer to biblical usage to understand the phrase here as meaning ‘every divine institution among men’--thus ascribing the existence of such human institutions directly to the divine initiative . . . .” Alan M. Stibbs, The First Epistle General of Peter (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), [photolithoprinted] 1968. Tyndale Bible Commentaries Series, pp. 109-110.
New Testament theology and the context would support the emphasis of both, whether the Greek term requires it or not.
65 “Ignorance is not the more common term agnoia, used in 1:14, but agnosia, also used in 1 Corinthians 15:34, which does not so much denote intellectual inadequacy as a religious failure to perceive the true nature of the Christian faith and life. It implies a stronger sense of blameworthiness.” D. Edmond Hiebert, First Peter (Chicago: Moody Press), 1984, p. 157.
66 “The necessary stance of the Christian community is further described in vv. 16-17 with two corollary questions in mind: (1) What have the universal obligations of Christians to their fellow citizens to do with their particular obligations to one another? (2) What do their obligations to the emperor and civil magistrates have to do with their obligations to God? The answer follows in a terse four-part maxim in v. 17. The first two and the last two form pairs: respect is for everyone but love is for fellow believers--God deserves reverent fear while the emperor deserves respect.” J. Ramsey Michaels, 1 Peter (Waco, Texas: Word Books, Publisher), 1988. Word Biblical Commentary Series, p. 123.
69 “To honour, or to ‘esteem highly’, is the proper general attitude to adopt towards all men. It is due equally to all as God’s creatures, and as the objects of His peculiar love and care (see Gn. v. i, ix. 6; Ps. vii. 4,5; Pr. xiv. 31; Rom. xiv. 10; Jas. iii. 8-10). This principle condemns much of man’s treatment of his fellows both in the political and in the industrial world.” Alan M. Stibbs, The First Epistle General of Peter (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), [photolithoprinted] 1968. Tyndale Bible Commentaries Series. p. 112.
70 Paul does not make the same distinction between “fear” and “honor” that Peter does as we can see in Romans 13:7. Peter distinguishes between “honor” and “fear” because he has already commanded the saints to conduct themselves in fear in relation to God (1 Peter 1:17-21).