The Attitude of Submission
Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. (2:16)
The right attitude is imperative if submissive Christians are to maintain their credibility among unbelievers. They display that right attitude when they act as free men. They must realize that, as a result of Christ’s redemptive work (cf. 1:18–19), they are free from sin’s condemnation (Rom. 6:7, 18; 8:1–2), the Law’s penalty (Gal. 3:13), Satan’s bondage (cf. Rom. 16:20; Col. 1:13; Heb. 2:14; 1 John 2:13; 4:4), the world’s control (cf. 1 Cor. 9:19; Gal. 4:3–5; 5:1; Col. 2:20), and death’s power (Rom. 8:38–39; 1 Cor. 15:54–56).
But Peter cautions those who are free in Christ to not use that spiritual freedom as a covering for the evil of not submitting to rulers (cf. 1 Cor. 8:9; 10:32; Gal. 5:13). Covering indicates placing a mask or veil over something; evil (kakias) is a term that means “baseness” and arises from vengeance, bitterness, hostility, and disobedience (Gen. 6:5; 8:21; Prov. 6:14; Isa. 13:11; Matt. 12:35; 15:19; John 3:19–20; 7:7; Rom. 1:29–30; Gal. 1:4).
A truly righteous attitude will cause Christians to use their freedom as bondslaves of God. Paul exhorted the Corinthians, “For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave” (1 Cor. 7:22). Their freedom has delivered them from the bondage of serving sin into the privilege of being slaves of righteousness.
Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. (Rom. 6:16–22)
“Slave” (from the same word as bondslaves) defined the lowest level of servitude in the Greco-Roman world, yet for believers it described the joyous freedom to be servants of Christ and do what was right rather than what was wrong (cf. John 15:15; Gal. 5:13; Eph. 6:6; Titus 2:14). Freedom in Christ and citizenship in the kingdom of God in no way permit believers to abuse or disregard the standards of conduct God has established for them on earth.
16. As free. This is said by way of anticipation, that he might obviate those things which are usually objected to with regard to the liberty of God’s children. For as men are naturally ingenious in laying hold on what may be for their advantage, many, at the commencement of the Gospel, thought themselves free to live only for themselves. This doting opinion, then, is what Peter corrects; and he briefly shews how much the liberty of Christians differed from unbridled licentiousness. And, in the first place, he denies that there is any veil or pretext for wickedness, by which he intimates, that there is no liberty given us to hurt our neighbours, or to do any harm to others. True liberty, then, is that which harms or injures no one. To confirm this, he declares that those are free who serve God. It is obvious, hence, to conclude, that we obtain liberty, in order that we may more promptly and more readily render obedience to God; for it is no other than a freedom from sin; and dominion is taken away from sin, that men may become obedient to righteousness.
In short, it is a free servitude, and a serving freedom. For as we ought to be the servants of God, that we may enjoy this benefit, so moderation is required in the use of it. In this way, indeed, our consciences become free; but this prevents us not to serve God, who requires us also to be subject to men.
2:16 / Peter’s emphasis on submission—a theme he will repeat a number of times (2:18; 3:1, 5, 22)—is at once balanced by his reminder that paradoxically Christian believers should realize that they are to live as free men, for that is what they are, irrespective of their worldly status. They have been liberated by Christ from the bondage of past sin, and released by means of the new birth (1:3) into life on a spiritual plane which is in a different realm from that of the natural order.
The paradox of submission and liberty is brought out by Peter’s description of believers as servants (douloi, bondslaves) of God. Complete submission in perfect obedience to their Master results in complete freedom of spirit: “whose service is perfect freedom,” as the church collect puts it. Peter’s Jewish-Christian readers in particular would see his point. In the Passover-eve liturgy, which celebrates the exodus deliverance from Egyptian bondage, one emphasis is on a change of master which results in liberty. Israelites now enjoy freedom because they are bondslaves of God. The Passover meal is eaten lying at table, after the manner of free subjects in the Greco-Roman world, not sitting, as did slaves for their meals. “Even the poorest in Israel must recline on a couch” (m. Pesaḥ. 10.1). It was a note struck at the Last Supper, set in a room “with couches spread” (Moffatt; Mark 14:15; Luke 22:12).
With Christian liberty comes responsibility: do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil. It was evidently by no means a warning irrelevant even in nt times (Gal. 5:13; 2 Pet. 2:19). Christians are free solely because they are the bondslaves of God: they have been purchased by the price paid by his Son (1:18–19). Since they are now God’s property, they are to carry out God’s will. “Christian freedom does not mean being free to do as we like; it means being free to do as we ought” (Barclay [DSB], p. 207).
2:16. Submission to authority does not eliminate freedom from the believer’s life. Perhaps this concern prompted Peter to speak to the subject of freedom. The freedom of the New Testament is not political freedom but spiritual freedom. The great freedoms of the Christian life are: (1) freedom from the ruling power of sin in our lives; (2) freedom from guilt because our sins have been forgiven by God; and (3) freedom from the impossible obligation of attempting to earn favor with God through perfect obedience.
The Bible emphasizes that in those areas where the Word of God gives no command or primary principle, we are free and responsible to choose our own course of action. This is a freedom to choose what is right. Christian freedom does not allow us to do wrong. It does not permit us to disobey human laws unless these are in direct conflict with God’s ways. Nor does our freedom permit us to disobey God, because we are servants of God.
This word (doulos) literally means “a slave.” We are free, yet paradoxically we are slaves who serve God with our lives. Christian freedom is always conditioned by Christian responsibility. Christian freedom does not mean being free to do only as we like; it means being free to do as we ought.
16. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. 17. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.
- “Free men.” Peter concludes his discussion on submission to governmental authorities by telling the Christians how to conduct themselves in society: “Live as free men.” Although translators supply the verb to live to complete the sentence, Peter wants to stress the concept free. He realizes that people who suffer oppression and persecution long for freedom. Now he tells them: “Be free!” That is, he wants the readers to know that the Christian is free indeed because he has been set free from the power of sin (see, e.g., John 8:32, 36; Rom. 8:2; 2 Cor. 3:17; Gal. 5:1, 13).
- “Freedom.” Martin Luther explained the concept freedom in his characteristic pithy style: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” The Christian is free from enslavement that promotes evil; instead he uses his freedom to serve his God and to love his fellow man. The more he demonstrates his willingness to serve, the more he experiences true freedom (compare James 1:25; 2:12). The Christian conducts himself in public life as God’s elect. He is free, without any fear, as long as he serves God in absolute obedience.
Peter adds a warning: “Do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil.” He knows that the Christian is tempted to abuse his freedom. As soon as the Christian employs freedom to advance his own cause, he no longer obeys the law of love; in fact, he fails to serve God. “True liberty, then, is that which harms or injures no one.” For this reason, Peter admonishes the believers to remain faithful servants of God.
- “Servants.” The last exhortation in verse 16 is, “Live as servants of God.” The word servant in the Greek actually means “slave.” The expression servants of God appears a few times in the New Testament. For example, the slave girl in Philippi called Paul and his companions “servants of the Most High God” (Acts 16:17). Paul calls himself “a servant of God” (Titus 1:1); so does James in his epistle (1:1; also see Rev. 7:3; 15:3). The apostles demonstrate their complete freedom by wholeheartedly serving God.
- “Respect.” Peter sums up the duty of God’s servants: “Show proper respect to everyone.” The word everyone is all-inclusive, for it ranges from kings and governors to all others who have been entrusted with authority. The servant of God honors all men who are appointed to rule (see vv. 13–14).
How is the first sentence in verse 17, “Show proper respect to everyone,” related to the rest of the verse? Some translations make this sentence the heading for the next three clauses: “Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.” The objections to this arrangement are weighty. First, these three clauses fail to show balance. The only feature that binds them together is the present tense in the Greek, which can be best communicated with the term continue: the readers must continue to love the brothers and sisters in the Christian community, continue to fear God, and continue to have respect for the king. Next, the command to “fear God” is more important than the other two injunctions. And third, the last two clauses allude to Proverbs 24:21, “Fear the Lord and the king.”
16 ὡς ἐλεύθεροι, καὶ μὴ ὡς ἐπικάλυμμα ἔχοντες τῆς κακίας τὴν ἐλευθρίαν ἀλλʼ ὡς θεού δοῦλοι, “As those who are free. without making that freedom an excuse to cause trouble, yet as God’s slaves.” The use of the nominative instead of the accusative (which would have agreed with the preceding ἀγαθοποιοῦντας and the implied ὑμᾶς) links this verse with the imperatives that dominate vv 13–17—either the ὑποτάγητε of v 13 or the series of four imperatives in v 17—and thus tends to confirm the parenthetical character of v 15. The tendency of most commentators is to link the sentence with ὑποτάγητε (e.g., Hort, 145; Selwyn, 173; Kelly, 111; Goppelt, 187; Brox, 122). Such a link is difficult to express in translation: Kelly’s “Live as free men” (107) virtually makes a new beginning, while Goppelt’s “(Tut dies) als die Freien” (180) links the sentence more to v 15 than v 13. Once it is recognized that the four imperatives of v 17 resume and expand on the single imperative of v 13, a better alternative presents itself. The connection of v 16 with the ὑποτάγητε of v 13 is most easily maintained not by suppressing its connection with v 17 but precisely by emphasizing it: “As those who are free … yet as God’s slaves, show respect for everyone.…”
ὡς ἐλεύθεροι … ἀλλʼ ὡς θεού δοῦλοι. Peter has in mind not political or social freedom (which for household servants [2:18–25] and wives [3:1–6] was limited at best), but freedom in Christ from the “ignorance” (1:14) or “darkness” (2:9) of paganism. The freedom of the epistle’s readers was the result of being “redeemed” (ἐλυτρώθητε, 1:18) with the blood of Christ. For Peter, as for Paul, this freedom is part of a paradox. Christians are free from all that bound them in the past, but at the same time they are slaves of God committed to full and unqualified obedience (cf. Rom 6:18, 22). The contrasting phrases with ὡς are more than similes, more even than metaphors; they express for Peter an “actual quality” (BGD, 898.2. la) of those redeemed in Christ—a spiritual and psychological state of freedom from the old “natural impulses” (cf. 2:11), and a firm commitment of mind and heart to God. The placement of θεού δοῦλοι last, to complete the contrast, accomplishes three things. First, it draws to that phrase the main emphasis, decisively qualifying ἐλεύθεροι. Second, it sets the stage for v 17 and establishes priorities among the four imperatives comprising that verse. Third, it anticipates 2:18–25, where the experience of “household servants” (οἰκέται, a synonym of δο͂λοι) becomes a prototype for the experience of Christians generally.
καὶ μὴ ὡς ἐπικάλυμμα ἔχοντες τῆς κακίας τήν ἐλευθερίαν. These words, sandwiched between “free” and “slaves of God,” state for Peter the practical implications of the paradox. In effect they interpret θεού δοῦοι in advance: precisely because Christians are “slaves of God” and have a responsibility to him, they must not use their freedom in Christ as an excuse to despise their detractors or retaliate with harsh words when they are slandered (cf. 3:9). No matter what the provocation, they must not lose respect for their fellow citizens or forget the common humanity they all share (cf. v 13). The kind of freedom the Christians possessed (i.e., spiritual freedom, new life in Christ) was obviously not something that could be used in Roman society at large as “an excuse to cause trouble” or as a justification for antisocial behavior, but it could be so used among Christians themselves. Peter’s urgent plea is that his readers never exploit their newly won freedom in this way, deceiving themselves and each other.
καί introduces a contrast (anticipating the ἀλλʼ of the next phrase) and is thus equivalent to “and yet.” ὡς is not to be taken with ἐπικάλυμμα alone, but with ἔχοντες and the whole accompanying participial phrase. Unlike the two uses of ὡς with participles in v 14, ὡς is not causal here (as Goppelt, 187, claims; cf. BGD, 898.3.1b); it is not even necessary to the sense of the sentence, and appears to have been included only to match the preceding ὡς ἐλεύθεροι and the concluding ὡς θεού δοῦλοι. The three successive ὡς phrases represent freedom, qualified or responsible freedom, and slavery to God, respectively.
ἐπικάλυμμα, lit., “covering,” is used here metaphorically in relation to evil or misconduct (κακία; cf. Menander, Fragments 84 , ed. A. Koerte [Leipzig, 1953], 2:41: ἐπικαλυμμʼ ἐστὶ κακῶν). The expression could refer either to something before the fact (i.e., an excuse or pretext for evil) or after the fact (i.e., a cover-up). The context supports the former; Peter’s assumption is that his readers have put aside the κακία of their past life (cf. 2:1), and his concern is that they not take it up again. On κακία, see above, p. 85.
With the imagined situation of 2:12 still in mind, Peter wants his readers to make absolutely certain that no charges of misconduct leveled against them are ever actually true. When freedom becomes the believer’s watchword there is as much danger of antinomianism in relation to the laws of the state or the customs of Roman society as there is in relation to the laws of God. Paul, who gained and defended the freedom of Gentile Christians from the burden of the Jewish law, warned his readers against the latter danger (Gal 5:13; Rom 6:15–22). Peter fears rather the possible assumption by some of his readers that because they are free from the ignorance and darkness of their pagan past, they are free also of their legitimate obligations to the pagan empire and household. Such an attitude would be disastrous because it would bring needless suffering on the Christian community, and yet ironically it would be suffering richly deserved (cf. 2:20; 4:15).
Ver. 16. As free…God.—ὡς ἐλεύθεροι may best be construed as the antecedent of the next verse, but only of its first member, πάντας τιμήσατε. To construe it with v. 15 would require ἐλευθέρους. [But even this limitation to the first member of v. 17 renders such a construction hardly tenable. The supposition of the contrary seems to establish its untenableness. Does my freedom absolve me from the obligation of honouring all men? Am I not bound, on the general ground of Christian duty and equity, to give to all their due? On the whole, I consider the explanation of Wiesinger, adopted by Alford, the best, viz.: to regard v. 16 as an epexegesis on v. 15, not carrying on the construction with an Accusative, but with a Nominative, as already in v. 12, and, indeed, even more naturally here, because not the act consequent on ἀγαθοποιεῖν, as there on ἀπέχεσθαι, is specified, but the antecedent state and Christian mode of ἀγαθοποιεῖν. For arguments see Wiesinger and Alford.—M.] It is different with v. 12. Such subjection and true Christian liberty are not irreconcilable antagonisms. For the latter, founded on the redemption through Christ, is spiritual in its nature; it delivers us from sin and error, from the world and the devil, and unites us to God and His word by the bands of love, cf. Jno. 8:32; Rom. 6:18, 22; Gal. 5:13; 2 Pet. 2:19. In the sequel Peter cuts off all misunderstanding and abuse of liberty. The Gnostics abused Christian liberty by the commission of all kinds of infamous and criminal indulgences. The Jews, on the plea of being the people of God’s inheritance, claimed to be free from the laws of the heathen. On this account we read: “and not as having [=not as those who have—M.] freedom for a cover of malignity.” It is uncertain whether (as Cornelius and others suppose) there is here an allusion to the white baptismal robe, which was also a symbol of the liberty obtained through Christ.—ἐπικάλυμμα = παρακάλυμμα, something spread in order to cover a thing, hence, a cloak, a cover, a veil. Luther says: “If Christian liberty is preached, godless men without faith immediately rush in, and claim to be good Christians because they do not keep the laws of the Pope.”—κακία should not be explained with Wiesinger in the restricted sense of disobedience to the magistrate, but in a wider sense, just as the antithesis ἀγαθοποιεῖν is a more general ideal—δοῦλοι Θεοῦ.—To serve God, says Augustine, is the highest liberty. What was expected of Israel as a nation (often called the servant of God, Is. 44:1, 21; 48:20; Jerem. 30:10); what Jesus was in a peculiar sense (and Peter calls Him so by preference, Acts 3:13, 26; 4:27, 30), should be realized in every believer of the New Testament.
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