This folly has been derived from the following message:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
First Peter was written to comfort suffering Christians. It tells believers how to think and act in an evil society ran by an evil government. In the opening sentence, Peter addresses his readers as “those who are elect exiles” (1 Peter 1:1). He compares these New Testament believers to Old Testament Jews who were in Babylonian exile, because they are spiritual foreigners. The Christian lives beneath the authority of a country that is far from home. Throughout the letter, Peter calls them pilgrims, sojourners, aliens, and strangers.
Our text is the first of several points of application that flow from a larger argument. The central command for the heart of the letter is found in chapter 2 verses 11 and 12. Peter says…
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
Christians suffer well when they abstain from ungodliness on the inside while maintaining a godly witness on the outside. The unbelieving world watches us to see of our lives line up with our faith. The subsequent verses describe what a good witness looks like in relationship to government (1 Peter 2:13-17), work/employment (1 Peter 2:18-20), and family (1 Peter 3:1-7).
This letter was written in the early to middle AD 60s. On July 19, AD 64, the city of Rome caught fire. Nero remained safely tucked away in the tower of Messine, famously playing his fiddle, and admiring the flames as they ravaged his city. It was no secret; the emperor was cruel and insane. Those closest to him were certain that he was responsible for starting the fire.
Nero was obsessed with building projects and wanted to rebuild much of the city to his liking. Livelihoods were destroyed along with people’s possessions, homes, stores, and offices. The emperor didn’t care about the economy or driving his subjects into poverty or homelessness. As a result, his popularity plummeted. People were angry and he needed to figure out a way to get their anger off of him and onto somebody else. So he blamed the Christians.
The everyday Roman didn’t know much about this young religion and rumors were already circulating that Christians were cannibals. Supposedly, they drank blood and ate flesh at a secret ceremony called The Lord’s Supper. They believed in a resurrected King and looked forward to a day when the world would be judged by fire. By all accounts, the Christians were weird and made for an easy target.
Unfortunately, Nero’s lie set off a chain reaction of extreme persecution against the church that dragged on for centuries. When Peter sat down to write this letter, Christians were already suffering. Nero is known for smearing Christians with pitch, impaling them on stakes, and burning them alive to light his garden parties. He would have them drugged and sewn together in animal skins, just to watch his hunting dogs rip them to shreds.
Christians were beaten, tortured, disfigured, falsely accused, hunted, incarcerated, crucified, and publicly murdered without justice. These are the poor people Peter is writing to; Christians with missing limbs and missing relatives. The one thing these precious brothers and sisters needed most was comfort.
When it comes to bad government, our text tells us 1) what to do, 2) why we do it, 3) how we do it, and 4) who we do it to. The Christian’s witness is important to the Lord. He requires us to keep our conduct honorable among the Gentiles.
What We Do
When governments fail us (and even persecute us) what is our Christian duty? What does honorable conduct among the unbelieving world look like? Peter provides one command composed of three distinct parts.
First of all, we are given…
1. The Mandate
Verse 13: Be subject. Most translations say, “submit yourselves.” This word (ὑποτάσσω) means “to subject oneself, be subordinate, obey.” It is a word many today find ugly. In our modern American culture, we refuse to submit to anyone unless they beat us at something. We typically associate submission with domination or humiliation. However, that is not how the Bible uses the word. Throughout Scripture, submission is a very positive activity. It is a far cry from blind obedience. Biblically, the word means “to arrange one’s life under the authority or guidance of another.”
We all live under authority. Submission is simply recognizing our authorities and patterning our lives beneath them properly. A verse that has been abused often throughout New Testament history is Ephesians 5:24, where wives are encouraged to submit to their husbands in everything. Paul is aware of the potential for worthless husbands to abuse their wives through the abuse of such a statement. So he devotes the next eight verses towards the husband’s responsibility to love his wife with the highest of standards (Ephesians 5:25-33). Prior to this instruction, he commands all believers to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21). In chapter 6, he tells children to submit to their parents (Ephesians 6:1-4). Finally, he encourages bondservants to obey their earthly masters (Ephesians 6:5-9). This principle can appropriately carry over into the employee/employer relationship today.
Ultimately, all of us (husband, wife, child, boss, employee, and church member) have someone to submit to. Wherever we fall, it is important for us to remember that submission has nothing to do with our worth or status before God. It has everything to do with the role God has assigned us to fulfill within His arrangement of stability.
Submission is an expression of God’s divine order and wisdom (1 Corinthians 11:13). Jesus Himself submits in everything to God the Father (John 5:30). The command for us to arrange our lives under the authority and guidance of another is good because God has designed it to be that way (Romans 13:1-2).
However, there is an exception to the rule of submission. When we are required to do something that God forbids or forbidden from doing something that God requires, we are not only free to rebel, we are obligated to disobey. This is true for husbands, wives, children, bosses, employees, church members, and all legitimate expressions of earthly authority. We should never counsel anyone to sin in the name of submission. At the same time, we should never counsel anyone to abandon their post for any other reason. To do so, would be an act of disobedience against God.
Next, we are given…
2. The Motive
What should motivate the Christian’s submission? What theological basis do we have for obedience to this command? Peter says to be subject for the Lord’s sake. We are not told to submit for the sake of our earthly leaders. Rather, we submit for the sake of Christ. We obey because we desire to honor the highest of all authorities (Psalm 22:28; 47:8; 72:11).
In his book, A Biblical View of Civil Government, Robert Culver helps us put God’s sovereignty into perspective. He writes…
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.
Peter rounds out the command by giving us…
3. The Magnitude
The remainder of verse 13 and 14: to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.
How far should submission go? Peter includes every human institution. All legitimate human authority is to be honored with submission. This includes teachers, judges, elders, policemen, business owners, government officials, and every other position. Wayne Grudem writes…
God has established such patterns of authority for the orderly functioning of human life, and it both pleases and honours Him when we subject ourselves to them.
The word “institution” (κτίσις) typically means “creature, thing created.” However, it commonly refers to the act of creating a governmental body or the founding a city in extra biblical literature. Josephus used this word to refer to Jewish settlements after the Babylonian exile. Peter uses this term with governmental bodies in mind because he clarifies his statement: whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him.
Notice the distinction between higher authorities and lesser magistrates. Peter does not tell us to defy the emperor by submitting to the governor, nor to defy the governor by submitting to the emperor. Rather, he commands us to subject ourselves to every authority we find ourselves under (both nationally and locally). Daniel Doriani points out…
When Peter wrote this, Nero was emperor. Few had less merit than he. Beyond his cruelties, he ruled poorly for most of his reign and, more than most other emperors, claimed deity. If Peter could command the church to submit to Nero, we can certainly submit if our governor takes a stand that we consider erroneous.
Finishing out the verse, Peter says to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. Daniel Doriani adds…
Failures notwithstanding, even flawed governors do much that is good. The threat of punishment of evil prevents anarchy. Governors defend a nation’s borders, build roads, and promote public order. Even if we disapprove of a governor’s goals or methods, even if a government is corrupt, we should respect it (1 Peter 2:17).
Despite their flaws, governments punish those who do evil and praise those who do good. We often focus on the negative side of human government and fail to thank God for the positive blessings of structure and stability. When people come into my office for counseling, I inform them that I will not hesitate to report criminal behavior to the proper authorities. The church does not have the right to step in and quietly deal with domestic abuse. God has given that responsibility and authority to the government. Thankfully, our government does a good job of stepping in when needed for such situations. According to Paul, they have been given the power of the sword (Romans 13:4). We have been given the power of the truth.
Why We Do It
Every believer has received this command to submit for the Lord’s sake to every human institution. It is a simple command, but hard to follow. Like Paul in Romans 13, Peter knows we need motivation. Whereas, Paul provided five reasons for obedience (Romans 13:1-5), Peter provides his readers with two (1 Peter 2:15).
We submit because of…
1. God’s Will
Verse 15: For this is the will of God. This is what God wants you to do. He has clearly communicated His desire for all believers through His Word. No guess work is needed.
We also submit because of…
2. Our Witness
The rest of the verse explains that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. The ignorant chatter of verse 15 harkens back to the verbal accusations of verse 12. This world is full of foolish people who ridicule Christians. Many are quick to point the finger and cry foul. The best way to shut them up is to do the right thing. The verb “put to silence” (φιμόω) means “to restrain, muzzle, make speechless.” If you want to silence the ignorance of foolish men, you don’t need to raise your voice, fight back, or rebel. Rather, do good by pursuing the right thing the right way.
As a sojourner and exile, the believer’s witness to an unbelieving world is important. It angers us when foolish ignorant people speak evil against us. But how often have we invited their criticism by doing the wrong thing the wrong way? When Christians blow up abortion clinics, foolish ignorant men have every right to call us evildoers. When Christians refuse to pay their taxes, unbelieving taxpayers have every right to complain. When Christians are known for bending the rules and cutting corners to come out ahead, the watching world takes note.
Our witness matters. When we do bad, we give the Gospel a black eye. When we do good, the world closes their mouths to scratch their head with wonder. Why wouldn’t they cheat? Why wouldn’t they rebel? Why wouldn’t they defend everyone’s God-given right to pursue whatever makes them happy? When we do the right thing, the right way, it puts a muzzle on the flapping gums of foolish ignorant people.
This letter is here to provide calibration and comfort for the suffering Christian. Our theology informs our hearts and determines our actions. Often, God’s Word runs counter to our earthly programming. We must remind ourselves that God’s way is always better than ours. The call to submit to bad government is not confusing or ambiguous, but clear. He does not hide His expectations beneath the surface, but clearly communicates how we are to think and act when our government makes bad decisions or things don’t go our way.
God’s authority sits higher than everyone else’s. When we arrange our lives beneath His patterns of authority, it brings glory and honor to Him. This is the Christian’s life-goal. In everything we do, our desire should be to please and honor the Lord (1 Corinthians 10:31).
Men provide many reasons for submitting (and not submitting) to their governing authorities. Some will say that submission is vital for the common good. We all benefit when we work together. Others appeal to personal gain and the threat of punishment. Still, others, who often consider themselves the real American patriots, will encourage rebellion because our country was founded in rebellion. These groups have no desire to break away from the government they love to disagree with. Rather, they limit their obedience to the laws they deem reasonable or unpunishable.
The Christian’s motivation for submission transcends every earthly reason for obedience or rebellion. We do not submit to our leaders because we like them, agree with them, or elected them. We submit to them for the Lord’s sake. We do it to honor God because that is what He wants us to do.
This is also the example Jesus left us. He spoke out against the sins of the Jewish leaders, but He never opposed their right to rule. When the Roman authorities unjustly sentenced Him to public execution, He did not object or defend Himself. Throughout His entire ministry, He avoided political and social reform. Instead, He zeroed-in with laser-like precision on matters pertaining to the kingdom. The Son of God submitted to earthly authorities, not for their sake, but for the sake of His Father. As Christians, we should be like Christ.
Across the state, a minority of churches have decided to dismiss our state’s legislation and resume normal church business. They predictably fall into one of two categories. There are those who care less about submission and simply believe they have the right to do their own thing. (Those are the churches we would not want to be friends with.) But there are also those who are thinking through the issues, want to be obedient, and have chosen to submit to the president’s desire for religious groups to regather over the governor’s current restrictions. What should we do as a church?
Let’s apply the 1 Peter 2 worldview to our current situation. It has been argued that the president has a higher authority. He oversees the country while governors oversee the state. Therefore, his word takes precedence over the orders of our local officials.
First of all, that’s not true. You might recall from fifth grade Social Studies that our government hangs on a system of checks and balances between three distinct branches. The president’s branch, the Executive branch, does not hold the final say for several noteworthy reasons. As Christians, we appreciate that fact. Every time we have a president we don’t like; we thank God for their limited power.
We get ourselves into trouble when we believe we have the right to pick and choose who is worthy of our submission and who is not. The churches holding this position would sing an entirely different song if we had a liberal president telling everyone to stay at home and a conservative governor telling everyone to regather. No one would appeal to the president’s authority if that were the case.
What does Peter say? He says to submit to every human institution, and he includes both higher and lower levels of government. Again, he does not say to submit to the leaders who are directly over you and ignore the big guy in the supreme seat. Likewise, he does not say to follow the emperor but take local legislation with a grain of salt. Rather, he says to be subject to them all for the Lord’s sake.
The day will surely come when we are commanded by our leaders to sin against God. When that day comes, we should be the first to rebel. Until then, we have an obligation to submit to the will of God and subject ourselves to the governing authorities He has appointed (Romans 13:1-2). This is our heavenly consideration. However, we must not forget our earthly responsibility as well.
First Peter 2:11-3:7 is all about maintaining honorable conduct among the Gentiles (the unbelieving world). We are duty-bound to uphold a good witness in our community.
Another popular argument says that our constitutional rights are being taken away from us. We should, therefore, assume the duties of the Judicial branch and uphold our constitutional conviction to worship unrestricted.
First of all, if that is true, we don’t get our freedoms back by breaking the law. Our country is structured better than that. Secondly, we should remind ourselves that the first amendment is simply the first of many. Currently, the law allows for temporary restrictions so long as the government’s orders pass a series of tests. This is what the law calls, “strict scrutiny.” For a simple explanation of this process, please refer to the following:
(This article is written by a trial lawyer and the Deputy General Counsel at First Liberty Institute. Prior to that, the Deputy General Counsel served as the Senior Advisor for Conscience and Religious Freedom at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.)
The day might come when the courts change their ruling. If this pandemic drags on for too long or it becomes clear that the government’s motive is to keep churches closed, the first amendment will certainly be cited at trial. But for now, the situation is far more complex than to warrant a simple appeal to the first amendment.
Ultimately, we should ask: What course of action will adorn the Gospel and bring the most glory to God? What good behavior will silence the ignorance of foolish people? To answer that question, we need to look beyond our wants and consider our witness to the unbelieving world around us.
Currently, we are in Phase 1 of our state’s plan to reopen businesses and public gatherings are not allowed. Outside of the church, we cannot meet at a restaurant, go to a movie, or do much gathering at all (unless we convene at a grocery store). In fact, the new guidelines for spiritual services are the only exception to the rule right now. Our salons and barber shops are closed. The Olympic Games have been canceled. For the first time ever, we will probably experience an entire year without baseball (how unAmerican)!
Here’s the point: everyone else is hurting right now. Our mission field is doing everything they can to follow the rules and survive this thing without being shut down for good. When Christians complain about their own rights, while breaking the rules everyone else is expected to follow, it does nothing for our witness. Instead of silencing the ignorance of foolish people, we give them reasons to needlessly despise us and the Gospel. When we place ourselves above the law, we send the wrong message.
Honestly, the regathering guidelines for churches are far from ideal. They require a lot of work for little payoff. However, until we are told to sin, we must practice 1 Peter 2. God’s will and our witness command us to do so.
It is hard for us to claim that we are being persecuted right now, when we are the only ones allowed to gather at all. But let’s pretend for a moment that we were being persecuted. Would injustice give us a license to do our own thing? What if persecution comes sooner than we think? How should we respond? The answer is found in 1 Peter 2.
Peter presents three real world examples of practical submission (1 Peter 2:13-3:7). In each case, he describes the worst-case scenario. In verse 13, he says to be subject to the emperor (the guy who might kill you for fun). In verse 18, he writes, “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.” Even if your boss is awful, you must subject yourself to their leadership. In chapter 3 verse 1, he writes, “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives.” The “be subject” command is not for wives to subject themselves to godly husbands, but disobedient ones.
These are worst-case scenarios involving bad government, bad bosses, and bad husbands. With each example, he encourages the suffering Christian to subject themselves because it is the right thing to do.
This is a hard pill to swallow. When we are told to submit under the worst of circumstances, the first word to escape our lips is the word “but.” But… it’s not fair! But… you don’t know how bad it is! But… I shouldn’t have to put up with this or God would never expect me to ________! Peter has an answer for all those “buts.”
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps. ― 1 Peter 2:21
Peter says to look at Jesus. If you think submitting and suffering is hard, think about the steps Jesus took to save you. He has left us an example to follow. Here it is…
He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly. He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. ― 1 Peter 2:22-25
“But… I don’t deserve this!”
Jesus didn’t deserve His suffering either.
He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth.
“But… it’s killing me!”
He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.
“But… it’s not fair!”
Was Jesus treated fairly? How did He handle injustice?
When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly.
For the suffering Christian, Jesus sets the bar and we are called to follow in His steps. He didn’t rebel, retaliate, or revile in return. Rather, He continually entrusted Himself to the righteous God of all authority.
Let’s not forget that this God is still on the throne. He sees your bad marriage, bad job, and bad government. One day, everyone will give an account before the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Every bad politician, boss, husband, parent, teacher, pastor, and so forth (everyone with delegated authority) will stand before the Son of God Himself and answer for their stewardship.
We must remain focused. As those who are under authority, we will stand before Him too. Our King will not pass out medals for political activism or sticking it to the man. However, He will reward those who have humbled themselves, walked in His steps, and followed His example.
If you had a time machine, you would not want to go back for the early church experience. Nero was a tyrannical despot. And yet, you will not find one bad word written about him in scripture. Instead of complaints, both Peter and Paul encourage their readers to honor the man. If this is God’s command for them, what right do we have to complain in our present context? So long as we are not mandated to sin, the laws of the land require obedience.
R. C. Sproul illustrates rebellious reasoning well with a story about stop signs in his neighborhood. He writes…
We must not wait to be coerced into submission. Submission is something we are to initiate and are responsible to do. We are to submit ourselves to every ordinance of man.
In my neighborhood there are stop signs on every corner. Somebody spent a lot of money for nothing, because at least eight in ten people give a hint of slowing down but never come to a direct stop. They do not submit to the ordinance. A friend of mine—a Christian—ran a stop sign while I was riding with him, and I asked, “Didn’t you see that stop sign?” He replied, “Yes, but I’m not going to let a bit of tin and red paint control my behavior.”
There are signs we would rather not stop for, but we must. If our state and local authorities require us to wear a mask during this global pandemic, we should do so because it is not a sin to wear one. The God of all authority has commanded us to submit to all authority. Our submission has nothing to do with strength or weakness. It has everything to do with obedience as unto the Lord. We submit for the Lord’s sake.
Charles Spurgeon, Spurgeon Commentary: 1 Peter, ed. Elliot Ritzema and Jessi Strong, Spurgeon Commentary Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014).
Daniel M. Doriani, 1 Peter, ed. Richard D. Phillips, Philip Graham Ryken, and Daniel M. Doriani, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2014).
David Abernathy, An Exegetical Summary of 1 Peter, 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: SIL International, 2008).
Edwin A. Blum, “1 Peter,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews through Revelation, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981).
John F. MacArthur Jr., 1 Peter, MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2004).
Moisés Silva, ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014).
R. C. Sproul, 1-2 Peter, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011).
Robert Culver, A Biblical View of Civil Government (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1974).
Wayne A. Grudem, 1 Peter: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 17, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988).
William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).