13 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. – 1 Peter 2:13-17 ESV
Peter continues to provide specific details regarding the behavior that should characterize those who have been chosen by God and who have been made a part of His family. They are a chosen people, a holy nation, a royal priesthood and a people for God’s own possession and, as such, they should “show others the goodness of God” (1 Peter 2:9 NLT). And now, Peter applies his calls for changed behavior to the relationship between the believer and the state. In these verses, Peter reflects the same thoughts as expressed by Paul in his letter to the believers in Rome.
1 Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. 2 So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished. 3 For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you. 4 The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong. 5 So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience.
6 Pay your taxes, too, for these same reasons. For government workers need to be paid. They are serving God in what they do. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: Pay your taxes and government fees to those who collect them, and give respect and honor to those who are in authority. – Romans 13:1-7 NLT
Both of these men are calling for a dramatically different outlook when it comes to the Christian and his ongoing relationship with the civil government. Peter says, “Be subject…to every human institution.” Paul says, “submit to governing authorities.” And they are both referring to the rulers and leaders who make up the local government. Peter says that it is to be done “for the Lord’s sake.” Paul says to not do so is to rebel against God, since He is the one who has instituted all those in authority. This has nothing to do with whether we think they deserve our submission. Neither Peter or Paul qualifies their statements with words like, “as long as they are Christians.” That doesn’t seem to matter. Peter simply says that these man (or women) serve under the sovereign will of God. Paul says they have been placed in their positions by God. And we must realize that this kind of talk was as difficult to accept then as it is now. We have a hard time seeing corrupt governments and despotic dictatorships serving at the whim and according to the will of God. But both men want us to know that government was God’s idea. He instituted it and has charged it with keeping the law and maintaining order among all men, not just Christians. And if you think about it, that is an extremely difficult proposition, because of the nature of the fall and the ever-present reality of sin.
Ultimately, human governments exist “to punish those who do wrong and to honor those who do right” (1 Peter 2:15 NLT). That is their God-given mandate. Paul makes it perfectly clear that governments exist to punish those who do wrong. If you are doing what is right, you have nothing to fear.
For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you. – Romans 13:3 NLT
Now, while we know that this is not always the case, it is the normal and natural role that civic government is to play in the lives of men. There will always be outliers and anomalies. There will be dictators and oppressive regimes that use their power and authority unethically and even illegally. There will be world leaders who abuse their people and their authority, punishing even those who do right. But in the normal scheme of things, government exists to provide order and protection, to enforce the laws, and to create an environment that fosters stability and encourages productive lifestyles among its people.
But neither Peter or Paul takes time to deal with the renegade rulers. They are more interested in dealing with the behavior of believers. What should our relationships with these authorities look like? Quite simply: Be subject, do good, and live as people who are free. Peter was a big fan of our new-found freedoms in Christ, but like Paul, he knew that those freedoms could be misunderstood and abused. Just was we can live as if we are free from the law and assume that we are released to live however we want, we can easily assume that, since we are citizens of God’s Kingdom, we are free from having to obey earthly kings and authorities. But that would be a wrong and dangerous assumption. Which is why Peter summarizes his thoughts with the short, but far-from-simplistic admonition: “Respect everyone, and love the family of believers. Fear God, and respect the king” (1 Peter 2:17 NLT). Notice the juxtapositions in this statement. We are to love the family of God, while we show respect to everyone outside the family of God. We are to show fear, awe and reverence to God, while we show respect to the king. Our status as children of God does not remove our responsibilities to the earthly authorities that God has established. We are are continue to pay our taxes. We are to support and pray for our governmental leaders. Paul put it this way:
I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity. This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth. – 1 Timothy 2:1-4 NLT
Peter wasn’t stupid. He wasn’t out of touch with reality. He knew that there were plenty of corrupt governments and officials. He knew that the believers to whom he wrote were going to find themselves persecuted for their faith by the very governments to whom he was calling these people to submit. Jesus Himself lived and ministered during the period of Roman rule in Israel, when the government hamstrung the people of God with exorbitant taxes and oppressive rules. And yet, it was Jesus who said, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 28:22 NLT). Jesus did not foster civic unrest or try to drum up rebellion against the Roman rulers. In fact, He allowed them to crucify Him on a cross, their preferred method of capital punishment. Jesus didn’t raise an army in response. He didn’t even raise His voice. He submitted, because He knew that, ultimately, He was submitting to the will of His Father.
And that is the attitude that we are to have. “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:15 ESV). When we live godly lives, even when surrounded by ungodly governments and oppressive circumstances, we are placing our faith in God, and that brings Him glory. We are trusting God and revealing to the lost world around us, that we truly believe nothing can come against us or harm us that God has not allowed. Which is why Paul told the believers in Rome:
38 And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. 39 No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:38-39 NLT
So, if we believe what Paul has to say, we must begin to submit like it. Because it reveals that we trust in God’s unfading, never-failing love and rest in the knowledge that when we submit to governments, we are really submitting to the sovereign will of God for our lives. He is in control, so what do we have to fear?
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.