RPM, Volume 16, Number 12, March 16 to March 22, 2014

How to Live

1 Peter 2:13-17

By D. Marion Clark


Peter is writing to several communities of Christians scattered about in northern Asia Minor, which today is the country Turkey. These bands of believers are living in precarious circumstances. They are a decided minority who are misunderstood, and, as a result, face slander and unjust treatment from their neighbors. Peter is writing to encourage them and instruct them how to live under their circumstances.

He encourages them by reminding them of who they are and what has been done for them. Who are they? They are God's elect, chosen by God the Father, redeemed by God the Son, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. What has been done for them? They have been given new birth into a living hope of an inheritance that cannot be lost. This inheritance is eternal life spent in glory. They are being protected for that day, and even their trials are only helping to prepare them for it. What they possess is so wonderful, the great prophets of the Old Testament who prophesied their redemption longed to see what they know, and even the angels yearn to know more about what they are receiving in Christ.

In light of their belonging to God and possessing the inheritance of salvation, they are to be holy and love one another. They should understand that they are being built into a spiritual house for God in which they may offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to him. They are a special people for the purpose of declaring God's praises to the world.

That is the encouragement Peter gives. We have now moved into the body of the letter in which he instructs them how to live in the world. He began the instruction in verse 11. Referring to them as aliens and strangers in the world, they are to abstain from sinful desires and to live good lives. He will now apply to their circumstances the general principle of living a good life. Verses 13-17 apply to civic life; 18-25 to the relations of slaves to their masters; 3:1-7 to the relations between wives and husbands, though mostly of believing wives to unbelieving husbands; and 3:8-12 to both Christian community and relations among neighbors.

Let's look at our text now.

Submission to Authority

Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.

I am well aware that as we move into this and the following passages, we are entering into minefield labeled "authority." The term itself immediately raises red flags when we hear it. A popular bumper sticker reads, "Question Authority." Perhaps that has always been the mindset of Americans; definitely so since the 1960s. In every aspect of society, the authority of institutions and officials has lost its aura. Ask doctors, judges, ministers, teachers, anyone with some kind of authority or in an institution of authority, and they will all concur. For good or bad, there is no longer a natural respect for authority. Our first reaction to these two verses is to question them: to every authority? To an evil king? But what if the governors punish those who do right and commend those who do wrong? In other words, our reaction is, "But wait." We immediately think of bad authority. That's how we are conditioned, right or wrong.

That's why my first reaction to this passage was, "Oh, no. Now I have to enter the debate on the relationship between church and state, the issues of civil disobedience and revolution, how to respond to tyrants and dictators, and means of protesting abortion, etc." I immediately thought of the controversies that arise out of abusive authority. I am a product of my times.

Fortunately, my approach to preaching helps me, which is this: The starting point in the preaching of Scripture is not to begin with my concerns or yours, but with the concerns of Scripture. Before we bring our issues to Peter, let's first explore the issues Peter brings to his churches, and, consequently, to us.

Now, back to verse 17: Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men. The term, authority, is actually not in the text. Every authority instituted among men is a translation of three Greek terms literally translated, "every human creation or creature." The word for creation, ktisis, was used outside Scripture for the act of creating a governmental body or founding a city, and so it seems logical in its context to translate it in terms of governmental authority. Thus, immediate reference is made to king and governors. The King James Version translates the word as "ordinance" and the New King James Version with "law." We are to submit to the laws of the authorities. The meaning is still the same — that we are to submit to authorities.

Whether to the king, as the supreme authority. Again, the word authority is not present, but is understood. The king is probably the emperor, in this case most likely Nero, who did not go down in the chronicles of history as a just ruler. As the head of human government, he is to be submitted to.

Or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right (14). These are the rulers appointed by the emperor to govern particular localities. They may be local rulers who would have been kings of their lands if not for the Roman empire, or they may, as in the case of Pilate, have been Roman appointees who were to exercise more direct Roman control.

The phrase, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right, is the key to understanding Peter's issue with his Christian readers. Of the various responsibilities of government and officials, he focuses on the role of government to enforce law and order. Note also that he focuses on government's relationship with the agents of right and wrong rather than the recipients. He does not describe the governors as men who "protect the innocent from wrong doing and promote their people's well being, but as the punishers of wrongdoers and rewarders of those who do right.

What is on Peter's mind? The behavior of God's people and specifically their behavior before the world. His concern is not merely how to cope in the world; it is how to influence the world. Here is what seems to being going on in the minds of the Christians. "We are God's elect belonging to him, not to the world. We are inheritors of the kingdom of God, and we are under his authority, not the authority of unbelieving pagans. Therefore, we do not have to submit to pagan authorities, especially the ones who are unjust. We are free from their laws; and, if they should mistreat us and show us no respect (we, the elect of God), then we owe them no respect."

It is this mindset that Peter is addressing and here is his argument. Yes, Christians are under the authority of God, and, precisely because we are, we should submit to the various forms of authority in this world. Paul gives a more extensive treatment to the subject in Romans 13:1-7, where he points out that all persons in authority have been placed there by God; for that reason, obey them. Peter, however, appeals to the Christian desire to please God. For the Lord's sake, submit. God has ordained the system of authority; it is his means of providing order and well being to his creatures. Yes, it can be abused, but even pagans understand that submission to authority is part of the natural order and in essence is good.

God does not want to unnecessarily offend those who have some form of authority over us, because such offense is a poor witness for him. What kind of ruler is the Christian god whose followers will not respect the laws of the land in which they live?

Remember, these Christians were the targets of slander. They were being accused of being subversive with their radical religion. Peter does not want his people, through their disrespectful behavior, to give their pagan neighbors and government legitimate cause to disparage God and the gospel. They are not to use their special status with God as an excuse to ignore and subvert the common laws and authority structure where they live.

Thus he goes on to write: For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. What kind of ignorant talk is going on? It is the slander against Christians. One in particular would be that Christians are poor citizens who disrupt civic order. There was no such thing as a secular society in which the government was separated from religion. Government was strengthened and legitimized through religious rites. Here is a new religion whose followers worship an invisible God and a new king who rose from the dead. They have secret rites that involve eating flesh and drinking blood; their morals are questioned, and their allegiance to Roman authority is certainly at question. This religion is especially dangerous because it is crossing geographical, national, social, and class boundaries, again encouraging the breakdown of society's structure. How are Christians to counter such slander? By doing good. By living such morally good lives they reveal the foolishness of such ignorant talk.

He goes on in verse 16: Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil. Peter acknowledges Christian liberty. We do have freedom. We are citizens of the kingdom of God; we are free from the demands of the law in regard to salvation. Yet, we are not free to do evil, and it is especially offensive to use our spiritual freedom as a cover-up or excuse to do wrong. This is what he fears may be happening. Christians are using their religion to legitimize unlawful behavior.

He further writes: live as servants of God. Peter's point is that we are not set free in Christ to become our own masters, but to become servants of God. Before Christ, before the gospel, we were slaves to sin and to the law, which crushed us with its demands that we could not satisfy. As a result we were not free to live to God's glory. Now we are. Now we are free to serve God in a way that will glorify him. That is what freedom is for — to be free to serve God.

This is the basis for Christians to show proper submission to authorities. We do so "for the Lord's sake" (13); it is "God's will" that we do good. That's what we need to know. Whatever political or theological argument we want to pursue regarding Christians' responsibility towards the government, the bottom line is that God wants us to be obedient, and we are his servants.

Now that he has established the guideline of servanthood, Peter summarizes Christian response to different parties and levels of authority. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.

For some reason the NIV puts a colon after "everyone," giving the verse this meaning: "Show proper respect to everyone. Here is to whom and how respect should be shown…" I'm not sure why it does that. All of the verbs are imperatives and most translations do not group the last three verbs as explanations of the first one.

Thus we have four commands. Show proper respect to everyone. Everybody should receive respect, whether or not they have authority, whether they are high on the social rankings or low. Love the brotherhood of believers. Peter talked about this before in 1:22. There should be a special bond among Christians. Fear God. Again, he spoke of this in 1:17. Beyond meaning reverence for God, it means to regard God as the ultimate authority over us and who alone possesses power to control our eternal destinies. Do not fear what they fear he will later tell his readers in 3:14. Finally, honor the king. This is actually the same word as used for show proper respect. Peter doesn't mean treat the king like we would treat anyone, but rather sets apart the king or emperor as specifically requiring due honor.

Let's review. Peter has begun a section of the letter that addresses the issue of how Christians are to live in and before the world. His general principle is that, for the sake of God, our great authority whom we serve, we are to show proper respect and submission to governing and other societal authorities placed over us. By doing this we will give honor to God before the world and silence slander. We must never use our faith as a cover-up for wrongful behavior.


Let's apply Peter's teaching. Peter's message to his readers is the same as the message that I would give as school principal to my high school students each year at the beginning of the school year. I told them I knew they would break rules from time to time. They would get punished, but then we would move on. What I would not tolerate, however, was disrespect shown either to their fellow students or to teachers or to me. They did not have to pretend to like the rules; they could complain to me about rules or teachers or even about me, but what they could not do was speak or act disrespectfully.

Break down respect and a system of authority, and you will have a mean spirit that pervades the community that is affected — be it a school, a town, or a country. You will have a cover for wronging and hurting others, and destroying a sense of community. Consider what happens to the Christian faith when Christians act disrespectfully towards non-Christians.

By showing disrespect and subverting the authority of those over us, we dishonor God before the world. We have proclaimed the God who rules us to be a God of justice, but to break the laws of our society makes him out to be unjust. We have proclaimed him to be a God of love and mercy, and have claimed to have his love in us. To be disrespectful makes God out to be mean-spirited and the gospel an agent of hurt. But, on the other hand, showing respect even to those who mistreat us and abuse their authority over us, shows God to possess a higher standard of justice than the world and proves the gospel to be a powerful agent for love and peace.

And we need to examine our actions and attitudes to see if we promote honor or dishonor toward God. Let's do a little bit of examining. Know any president jokes? However we may feel about our president, we are to remember that he is our president. We can differ with him and any other government official. We can protest through the legal avenues at our disposal and make our views, even our anger, known. But we ought always, for the Lord's sake, to speak in tones of respect. Do we really expect any unbeliever who hears us mock a government official, say, "Tell me what it is that makes you so different. I want to know the gospel that gives you such a wonderful attitude."

Most of us in this congregation would consider ourselves law-abiding citizens with a good attitude towards the police. What about when we are in cars? How many parents have said to their kids, "Quick, put on your seatbelts or the police officer will give us a ticket." Are we aware that we are conditioning our children to regard police officers as ticket givers rather than men and women with the responsibility to uphold the law and protect us?

And what is it about cars that turn us into disrespectful people? If a driver cuts in front of us, we are furious. If we had been walking and they stepped in front of us, we would have smiled and not given a second thought. There is something about cars. I've seen numerous cars with Christian bumper stickers speeding, going through lights, etc. They are publicly testifying that as Christians they have the right to break the laws or that they lack respect for others on the road.

Christians do act badly. Somehow we think we are immune to doing wrong. But we are guilty of many offenses — speaking curtly to the waitress who gave poor service; mocking political officials who differ from our political views; abusing people of different lifestyles, such as homosexuals. We act, in other words, like the world and show that we are no different.

But we are intended to be different. The bumper sticker that says, "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven," is misleading. We may not be perfect, but there should be something about us that makes those who differ from us, and even hate us, pause. They should be saying things like:

"I know he disapproves of the president, but I've never heard him mock him or gloat over his sins. What is there about him that keeps him respectful of those he disapproves?"

"I've treated her badly at school, and, even so, she acts friendly towards me. What is there about her?"

"We teachers are always hearing complaints from the students, except certain ones. Why are they different?"

This is all that Peter is saying to his readers and what God is saying to us. You've got two choices in how you respond to the world and the bad stuff thrown at you. Focus on what you are losing and complain, or focus on the opportunity you have to serve God.

When I approached this text, I was somewhat unnerved by the moral complexities that would rise out of instruction to submit to authority and respect everyone. There are complexities to be sure, but the attitude Scripture is exhorting us to have is rather simple: show respect to everyone — to authorities above us and to everyone. Whatever our circumstances may be, that is how we are to live.

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