1 Peter 2:13-17
by Jeremiah JohnsonTomorrow is Election Day in America, and I don’t know anyone who is looking forward to it. In fact, most people I talk to are aghast that it has come down to these two execrable characters, and that one of them will soon ascend to power.
Christians in particular are dismayed and distraught by the choices in front of us. Even down-ballot issues seem to have morality and personal freedoms in the crosshairs.
So as the church in America sees what little cultural influence it has fading fast, what should believers do? How do we make sense of a world—and in particular, a government—that appears to be overtly aligned against us?
Writing at the outset of a different period of persecution for the church, the apostle Peter presents this clear exhortation:
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king. (1 Peter 2:13-17)
That theme is consistently repeated throughout God’s Word. In Romans, Paul writes, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God” (Romans 13:1). The Psalmist says it this way: “The kingdom is the Lord’s and He rules over the nations” (Psalm 22:28).
No human authority exists outside of God’s sovereign oversight. No ruler—no matter how corrupt, wicked, or ruthless—has ever risen to power apart from God’s sovereign control. He’s not waiting to see what happens tomorrow—He determined the outcome before He ever created the world. And more than that, we can rest in the knowledge that whatever the outcome, He will be glorified and His redemptive plan will be unhindered.
However, knowing that God is in total control should not lead to a haughty attitude or a dismissive spirit. We might have legitimate concerns about the character, integrity, and suitability of those in authority. But Peter doesn’t tell us to overlook, ignore, or disdain hostile and unfit rulers—he tells us to submit to them. As they say in the military, you salute the rank, not the man.
And consider for a moment the circumstances under which Peter was writing. It was open season on Christians in the Roman empire. Faith in Christ could cost you your job, your home, your family, your freedom, and even your life. There may not have been—or ever will be—a more hostile environment for Christians than the earliest days of the church. And at the outset of that fierce, bloody season, Peter tells his readers to submit to the very authorities who were seeking to exterminate them.
Why? He explains in verse 15: “For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.” Rebellious, unsubmissive Christians give license and ammunition to critics of the gospel. Divided priorities, political motivations, and aggression toward authority all invite the wrong kind of attention and scrutiny for God’s people.
Put simply, insurrection and rebellion don’t adorn the gospel. On the other hand, through our good behavior and submission to authority, we can silence those who oppose God’s Word and His people.
In his commentary on Peter’s epistle, John MacArthur says, “the right attitude is imperative if submissive Christians are to maintain their credibility among unbelievers.”  John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Peter (Chicago: Moody Press, 2004), 151.
And what is that attitude? Peter says Christians are to “act as free men” (1 Peter 2:16). Commentator Peter Davids explains what that freedom looks like:
Christians are called to freedom, but it is not the political freedom of the Palestinian Zealots who recognized God alone as their Lord and King and therefore attacked the Roman occupation troops and Jews who cooperated, nor that of the Stoics who struggled for sovereign detachment from the pains and pleasures of life, nor the freedom of the antinomian who flouts social and moral rules to gratify his or her own impulses, but the freedom of which Paul wrote so eloquently, a freedom from sin, the law, and the world that released one not to independence, but to the service of God.  Peter Davids, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle of Peter (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1990), 102.
Peter’s point is that we are free in Christ, but that our freedom and our citizenship in heaven do not permit us to abuse or disregard the standard of conduct God has established for us here.
At the close of his exhortation, Peter gives us this simple instruction: “Fear God, honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17). The word fear indicates reverence reserved only for God. We need to respect the king, but ultimate reverence is reserved for the One who put that king on his throne in the first place. And if we keep that in mind, we shouldn’t have any trouble respecting the authority the Lord has put in place over us.
John MacArthur sums up Peter’s point this way:
When believers obey the principles of this passage, it gives genuine credibility to their faith. Submission to civil authority is an implementation of what might be called “evangelistic citizenship,” along the lines of Jesus’ declaration in the Sermon on the Mount: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16) The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Peter, 153.
We don’t have to like the state of the world around us—frankly, we’re right to be horrified as society sprints toward hell. But how we react to it—and especially to the authorities over us—speaks volumes about our faith, our confidence in the Lord, and our submission to His redemptive plan.
As you interact with family, friends, and coworkers in the coming days, how will your words and attitudes reflect what you believe?
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