The Command for Submission
submit yourselves (2:13a)
Although they are not ultimately under human authority, God still expects believers to submit to the human institutions He ordained. He wants them to demonstrate godly character qualities (cf. 2 Peter 1:5–7) and a genuine concern for society—a concern that seeks peace (3:11; cf. Ps. 34:14; Matt. 5:9; Rom. 14:19; James 3:18) and desires to prevent trouble and crime (cf. Rom. 12:14–21). To that end Christians will obey all laws and respect all authority, unless called upon to do something God forbids or not do something He commands (Acts 4:19; 5:27–29).
Submit yourselves (hupotassō) is a military expression literally meaning “to arrange in formation under the commander.” The Old Testament supports the principle of submission to authority (cf. Deut. 17:14–15; 1 Sam. 10:24; 2 Kings 11:12; 1 Chron. 29:24). Proverbs 24:21–22 says, “My son, fear the Lord and the king; do not associate with those who are given to change, for their calamity will rise suddenly, and who knows the ruin that comes from both of them?” Submission to rulers is right because God appoints them; therefore there is no place for supporting “those who are given to change,” rebels who might seek to overthrow the government.
Through the prophet Jeremiah, the Holy Spirit declared the following:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, “Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.” For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, “Do not let your prophets who are in your midst and your diviners deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams which they dream. For they prophesy falsely to you in My name; I have not sent them,” declares the Lord. For thus says the Lord, “When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans that I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,” declares the Lord, “and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.” (Jer. 29:4–14)
Although that passage was primarily a message to the Jews concerning their conduct while captives in Babylon, it has overtones for Christians, who should promote the welfare of their society and government while waiting for their eternal home (cf. John 14:2–3; Heb. 4:9–10; 11:13–16; Rev. 21:1–4).
Nearly a decade before Peter wrote his letter, the apostle Paul had already taught concerning submission to government:
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. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. (Rom. 13:1–4)
Although Peter and Paul both lived in the openly sinful, decadent Roman Empire—a society infamous for evil (homosexuality, infanticide, government corruption, abuse of women, immorality, violence), neither apostle offered any exemption by which believers were free to defy civil authority. Jesus Himself had commanded, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matt. 22:21).
Throughout history and presently there have been various violations of ordinances, acts of civil disobedience, insurrections, revolutions, and different subversive attempts to overthrow governments—all in the name of Christianity. Scripture nowhere condones such actions. On the contrary, the biblical command is simple—submit to civil authority, regardless of its nature (see the discussion of 2:18 in the next chapter of this volume). Even unreasonable, evil, harsh rulers and oppressive systems are far better than anarchy. And all forms of government, from dictatorships to democracies, are filled with evil because they are led by fallen sinners. Still, civil authority is from God, though the individual rulers may be godless.
The Motive for Submission
for the Lord’s sake (2:13b)
Peter stated the motivation for submitting to authority as clearly as he did the basic command to submit. It is for the Lord’s sake, making it obligatory to submit, as with all divinely inspired commands. Christians obey because they desire to honor the Lord (cf. Ps. 119:12–13, 33; Acts 13:48; 1 Cor. 10:31).
Believers actually obey earthly authority to honor God’s sovereign authority (cf. Pss. 2:8; 9:20; 22:28; 46:10; 47:8; 66:7; 72:11; 83:18; 96:10; 113:4). Of God’s sovereignty over all human authority, Robert Culver wrote:
God alone has sovereign rights.… Democratic theory is no less unscriptural than divine right monarchy. By whatever means men come to positions of rulership—by dynastic descent, aristocratic family connection, plutocratic material resources, or by democratic election, “there is no power but of God” (Rom. 13:1). Furthermore, civil government is an instrument, not an end. Men are proximate ends, but only God is ultimate end. The state owns neither its citizens nor their properties, minds, bodies, or children. All of these belong to their Creator-God, who has never given to the state rights of eminent domain. (A Biblical View of Civil Government [Chicago: Moody, 1974], 47)
Believers also submit in order to imitate Christ’s example of obedient submission to His Father. Verse 23 of this chapter reveals the Lord’s model behavior: “while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously.” Christ lived under the unjust and unrighteous rule of the Jewish and Roman authorities, yet He never opposed their right to rule. He denounced the sins of the Jewish leaders (Matt. 16:11–12; 23:13–33), but He never sought to overturn their authority. Likewise, Jesus never led demonstrations against Roman slavery and abuse of justice or engaged in any act of civil disobedience. He did not object even when those authorities unjustly tried Him and crucified Him (Matt. 26:62–63; Mark 15:3–5; John 19:8–11). Instead of being preoccupied with political and social reform, Christ always focused on matters pertaining to His kingdom (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:15; Luke 5:31–32; 19:10; Acts 1:3; cf. Matt. 11:28–30).
God is pleased when unsaved people associate Christians with spiritual virtue, righteousness, love, graciousness, humility, and the gospel of salvation (Phil. 2:14–15; cf. Prov. 4:18) rather than protests against human institutions. Paul also had the single-minded, undivided commitment required for believers as they minister: “When I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:1–2). He would only engage in the spiritual war for the souls of sinners, as explained in the following text:
For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. (2 Cor. 10:3–5)
The “fortresses” are described as “speculations.” The Greek is logismes, meaning “ideologies.” The real war saints must wage is against the deadly ideas, ungodly ways of thinking, and any religious or philosophical systems “raised up against” the truth of God. All unbiblical systems of thought that hold people captive must be smashed by the Word of truth and captive sinners set free to obey Jesus Christ. When the Lord said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), He defined the sphere of believers’ calling and duty—to focus ministry efforts only in matters related to His spiritual and eternal rule.
The Extent of Submission
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. (2:13c–14)
In reviewing the foundational and detailed teaching on believers’ responsibility to civil authority, one can see three essential purposes for government:
For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. (Rom. 13:3–4)
Those purposes—the restraint of evil, promotion of the public good, and punishment of wrongdoing—stemming from the overarching truth that God establishes all authority (Rom. 13:1), explain why Peter’s command extends to every human institution. To maintain peace and order in society, God has ordained them all; thus to limit or make exception to the command to submit to every authority would condone disobedience and disrespect for God’s plan. (For a more complete, biblical analysis of government’s purpose, see chapter 3 of my book, Why Government Can’t Save You [Nashville: Word, 2000].)
The Greek word ktisis (“foundation”), from which institution derives, always occurs in the New Testament in connection with God’s creative activities (cf. Rom. 1:20, 25; 8:39; 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15; Col. 1:15, 23; 2 Peter 3:4). (In fact, the second lexical meaning generally given for ktisis is “the act of creating,” or “creation.”) God has created all the foundations of human society—work, family, and the government. Peter designated society human not as to its origin, but as to its function or sphere of operation. The apostle’s intent was therefore to command submission to every human institution because every one is God ordained. Believers submit to civil authorities, to employers (2:18; Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22), and in the family (Eph. 5:21–6:2). In the latter two areas, the motive is also for the Lord’s sake (Eph. 5:22; 6:1, 5–6; Col. 3:18, 20, 22–24).
That command does not exclude authorities who make bad or unjust decisions. The Old Testament acknowledges the existence of corrupt rulers (cf. Dan. 9:11–12; Mic. 7:2–3) but recognizes God has the prerogative to judge them. Despite the evil that occurs because authorities are fallen and institutions are imperfect, believers must trust that God still exercises sovereign and perfectly wise rule over societies and nations (cf. Gen. 18:25).
Peter elaborates on the extent of believers’ submission by noting that it applies to all levels of authority. Breaking authority down to specific categories, he speaks of the highest level of the one in authority, the king. Obviously this recognizes the legitimacy of one-man rule as a form of God-ordained government. Monarchy, or its parallel, dictatorship, is a form God uses in the world. It was especially a challenge for believers in Peter’s time to obey this part of the command because the king (caesar) was a deranged tyrant, the Roman emperor Nero. But even he was divinely ordained for his leadership role of carrying out the fundamental purposes of government. Governors is a term referring to a lower level of authority (cf. Luke 2:1–2; 3:1; Acts 7:10), officials under the king who might be sent by him.
Peter echoed Paul when he said that ruling officials have been designed by God first for the punishment of evildoers. Years earlier, at His betrayal and arrest, Jesus taught Peter the lesson that the responsibility for capital punishment (Gen. 9:5–6) is required for and reserved to government:
Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and seized Him. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus reached and drew out his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:50–53; cf. John 18:10–11)
Jesus was affirming the Roman government’s right to use the sword against Peter if he used it on anyone. Only the government has been given that right to bear the sword to punish lawbreakers (Rom. 13:4). Therefore believers must never engage in acts of vigilante justice.
On the other hand, God has appointed civil officials for the praise of those who do right. The authorities generally reward good citizenship with fair and favorable treatment (Rom. 13:3; cf. Gen. 39:2–4; 41:37–41; Prov. 14:35; Dan. 1:18–21). The role of government is clear—to create fear that restrains evil, punish those who do wrong, and protect those who do right.
- 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.
Here Peter introduces the verb to submit, which is a key word in this passage. The verb itself can be translated “be subject” (in the passive sense) or “submit yourselves” (in the reflexive sense). The word basically means “to place under; to subordinate,” and in this passage is a synonym of the verb to obey. The implication is not that a person who submits to authority loses his dignity, but that he recognizes authority that God has instituted.
Peter begins by mentioning authorities in general. Thereafter he specifies and refers to kings and to governors.
- “To every authority.” If the Christians in Peter’s day had refused to obey Roman law, they would have given their opponents the necessary evidence to accuse them of lawlessness. Even though they desire freedom from Roman servitude, Peter admonishes his readers to obey the magistrates “for the Lord’s sake.” With this phrase he implies that God is sovereign in every area of life and in full control of every situation. Therefore, Peter encourages Christians to submit to instituted authority and to fulfill God’s purposes in the world. Unfortunately, text and context are of little help in determining whether Peter understands “Lord” to mean “God” or “Christ.” Because God has established governing authorities (Rom. 13:1), the reference to God seems quite appropriate.
What is the meaning of the clause “to every authority instituted among men”? Literally the Greek text has, “to every human creation.” The term creation, however, refers to an “act by which an authoritative or governmental body is created.” It denotes, then, the creative act of instituting authority, presumably by a legislative body. Peter speaks in general terms to avoid the charge that he prefers one type of government to another.
Furthermore, human efforts to build a structured society do not run counter to, but are in harmony with, God’s creative plan. Kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, dictators and despots rule by the grace of God (see Prov. 8:15; Dan. 2:21; Rev. 1:5).
- “To the king.” Peter wrote his epistle in the last few years of Emperor Nero’s wicked rule. Nero came to power in a.d. 54 at the age of seventeen and committed suicide fourteen years later. During the reign of this emperor, Peter himself met martyrdom outside Rome. Yet the apostle tells the readers to submit themselves to the king [emperor], “as the supreme authority.” The title king was often used for “emperor” in the Mediterranean world of the first century (e.g., Luke 23:2; Acts 17:7). Because of his conduct Nero was not worthy of the highest office in the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, Peter recognizes him as supreme authority and exhorts the Christians to obey him.
- “To governors.” The New Testament lists the names of three governors of Judea: Pilate, Felix, and Festus. These three governors were appointed by the Roman emperor and were directly responsible to him. They governed in behalf of Rome. Peter writes that the governors “are sent by him” and thus indicates that the emperor repeatedly commissioned governors. However, Peter uses the term rather loosely. He makes no distinctions between governors who were sent out by the Roman senate and governors who were appointed by the emperor for an indefinite period of time. Governors commissioned by the Roman senate served for a stated interval as “legates” or “proconsuls” (Quirinius [Luke 2:2]; Sergius Paulus [Acts 13:6]; Gallio [Acts 18:12]). Governors sent out by the emperor usually served in troublesome areas. However, Peter is not interested in the rank of governors but in their function.
The task of governors is “to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (v. 14; compare Rom. 13:3). As the representative of Roman authority the governor had the power to inflict punishment on condemned criminals. The governor received this power from the emperor and the emperor received it from God. Thus Jesus said to Pilate, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:11). Paul parallels Peter’s teaching on the role of government, for he points out that rebelling “against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted” (Rom. 13:2). Paul adds that the one in authority is “God’s servant to do you good” and “an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4). The role of the magistrate, then, is to restrain evil, maintain law and order, and promote the welfare of the people.
Whether Christians received words of praise from Roman governors is inconsequential. Christians were a despised and persecuted minority. They tried to advance the cause of Christ, not their own name and interests. Indeed, the possibility is not remote that the words “to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” are instructions a civil magistrate received for keeping order in society. Whatever the source may be, Peter exhorts the Christians to do that which is good and right because this is the will of God.
13–14 Case illustration number one calls for subordination to “every authority instituted among men.” Some disagreement among interpreters exists as to how to translate ktisis. The NRSV renders ktisis hypotassō as “accept the authority,” a reading that has both strengths and weaknesses. To be commended in this reading is the extent to which “accept” entails the notion of recognition. The recognition underscored by Peter and reiterated by Paul in Romans 13 is that authority in its generic form derives from the Creator. The recognition that all authority is owing to God is not qualified in either Peter or Paul by those who exercise the authority, whether just or unjust. The prophetic viewpoint of the OT reminded Israel again and again that the Lord accomplishes his purposes through the existing powers (cf. Pr 21:1; Jer 25:9; 27:6; 43:10; Da 4:17). The reading of “accept” is weak to the extent that it does not do full justice to the nuances of the verb hypotassō. Lest the reader view Peter’s prescription as unquestioning obedience or spiritual compromise (a major concern of Achtemeier, 182; Michaels, 121; Waltner, 87), Peter’s exhortation is framed in terms of doing wrong and doing right. The context is guided by the issue of punishment for wrongdoing (cf. Ro 13:3–4). Thus this has to do with criminal justice.
2:13 The next five verses deal with the Christian’s relation toward government. The key word here is submit. In fact, the injunction to submit is found four times in the Epistle.
Citizens are to submit to the government (2:13).
Slaves are to submit to their masters (2:18).
Wives are to submit to their husbands (3:1).
Younger believers are to submit to the elders (5:5).
The ultimate Christian answer to persecution, detractors and critics is that of a blameless life, conduct beyond reproach and good citizenship. In particular … submission is a supremely Christlike virtue.
Human governments are instituted by God (Rom. 13:1). Rulers are God’s servants (Rom. 13:4). Even if the rulers are not believers, they are still God’s men officially. Even if they are dictators and tyrants, their rule is better than no rule at all. The complete absence of rule is anarchy, and no society can continue under anarchy. So any government is better than no government at all. Order is better than chaos. Believers should submit to every human institution for the Lord’s sake. In doing so, they are fulfilling His will and doing the thing that pleases Him. These instructions apply to the emperor or to whoever is the supreme ruler. Even if Nero happens to be occupying the imperial palace, the general exhortation is to be subject to him.
2:14 The injunction of obedience applies to subordinate officials such as governors. They are authorized by God to punish offenders and to praise those who keep the law. Actually, government officials have little time or inclination to do the latter, but that does not alter the responsibility of the Christian to obey! The historian Arnold Toynbee observed that “as long as original sin remains an element in human nature, Caesar will always have plenty to do.”
Of course, there are exceptions. There is a time when obedience is not required. If a human government orders a believer to act contrary to the revealed will of God, then the believer must disobey the government. In that case he has a higher responsibility; he should obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). If punishment is meted out for his disobedience, he should endure it courageously. Under no circumstances should he rebel or seek to overthrow the government.
Technically, those who smuggle Bibles into closed countries are breaking the law. But they are obeying a law that has precedence over any human law—the command to go into all the world with the gospel. So they cannot be condemned on scriptural grounds.
Suppose the government orders a Christian into the armed forces. Is he obligated to obey and to bear arms? If he feels that this is in direct violation of God’s word, he should first exhaust any options that are open to him in the status of a non-combatant or a conscientious objector. If these fail, then he would have to refuse induction and bear the consequences.
Many Christians do not have conscientious scruples about serving in the military forces. It is a matter in which each one should be fully convinced in his own mind, and allow liberty for others to disagree.
The questions as to whether a Christian should vote or engage in politics are of a different order. The government does not demand these things, so it is not a question of obedience or disobedience. Each one must act in the light of the principles of conduct and citizenship found in the Bible. Here too we must allow liberty for differing viewpoints and not insist that others see eye to eye with us.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2004). 1 Peter (pp. 145–150). Chicago: Moody Publishers.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Epistles of Peter and the Epistle of Jude (Vol. 16, pp. 98–100). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 Charles, D. J. (2006). 1 Peter. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, p. 322). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 2263). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.