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 reminds us that, even in the worst circumstances, the Christian discovers comfort in who they are and what they are called to do. Whether we find ourselves suffering with a bad spouse, a bad boss, or even a bad government, we can and should live above the world in our attitude and our actions.
The early church is struggling. The world is full of persecution and government sanctioned murder. Nero, has declared that Christians are public enemy number one. He has unjustly blamed them for a crime he committed, while stripping them of their dignity and human rights. Some of Peter’s recipients have lost everything, while others are about to. These believers desperately need the comfort of encouraging biblical truth. For more backstory and context, please refer to the previous folly, Honorable Duty, Part 1.
Peter has already outlined what we do and why we do it in verses 13-15. He concludes this section on government with how we do it and who we do it to. The primary command driving his argument is found at the beginning of verse 13, Be subject. This imperative initiates each new block of thought (1 Peter 2:13, 18; 3:1) in support of the call to pursue holiness and maintain a good witness in the world (1 Peter 2:11-12).
How We Do It
After encouraging believers to subject themselves to every human authority (on both national and local levels) in order to please God and maintain a good witness, Peter effortlessly transitions to the manner of Christian submission. What does the attitude of a humble, submissive, Christ-follower look like? Verse 16 contains three phrases, providing three attitudes of Christian submission. How should we approach this command?
First of all… we submit…
Verse 16: Live as people who are free. At first glance, this statement might appear out of place for Peter’s overarching argument. He has been telling us to submit and will continue to do so for the rest of the chapter. So, how are Christians to live in freedom while submitting to the wicked leadership of an evil government?
Peter is answering the obvious objection to the call of submission. As children of God, we might be tempted to appeal to the higher authority of our heavenly Father as an excuse to ignore the edicts of men. After all, our King transcends every earthly authority (Isaiah 40:21-24). What clout does the godless world have over those who have been set free by God Himself?
We need to remember what Christian freedom looks like. Christ-followers have been set free from the power of sin (Romans 6:7, 18; 8:1-2), the power of Satan (Colossians 1:13, Hebrews 2:14, 1 John 4:4), and the power of death (1 Corinthians 15:54-55). The Christian is free indeed (John 8:36). It appears as though Peter wants us to devote our lives to the exercise of freedom. However, this is one of those rare instances where the English rendering of the text is not helpful.
The word “live” does not exist in the Greek text. Our English translators have added this verb to help smooth out the translation, but verse 16 is completely devoid of verbs. All three of these phrases are modifying the primary verb found at the beginning of verse 13, Be subject (ὑποτάσσω). Peter is not saying to live as people who are free. He is saying to submit as people who are free.
We also submit…
Verse 16: not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil. Just because we are free does not mean we are free to do our own thing. Cover-up (ἐπικάλυμμα) means “to cover, to veil, to put a mask on.”
Peter is saying not to use freedom in Christ as a covering or excuse for evil. In the context of his argument, the evil referred to is a lack of submission for the Lord’s sake. We should not dress our rebellion in Christian virtue. Rather, we are to remain faithful to the clear commands of Scripture by properly applying our freedom through submission.
Finally, we submit…
Verse 16: but living as servants of God. Once again, the verb “living” has been supplied by our English translators. A more accurate translation of the phrase reads, “but submitting as servants of God.”
Peter is not talking about a life of service, but how to submit as a slave (δοῦλος) of God. Everyone is a slave of someone or something (Romans 6:16-22). The slave of sin is free from righteousness, but the reverse is true for God’s slave. We are obligated to obey God from the heart, free from the demands of sin. Thomas Schreiner writes…
True liberty, according to the New Testament, means that there is freedom to do what is right. Hence, only those who are slaves of God are genuinely free.
Who We Do It To
In quick, staccato fashion, Peter concludes this section with a comprehensive crescendo of application. Who should we apply these principles to and how should our relationships with others be affected? He provides four commands regarding four groups.
First, Peter directs our attention to…
1. Those Around Us
Verse 17: Honor everyone. Notice, this list is bookended with an attitude of honor. We might be tempted to think that “honor” means “to treat people well” or “to be nice to.” However, the word encompasses more than a few verbal niceties. Honor means “to show high regard for, to revere.” It carries the idea of value and worth. Peter applies this term to everyone.
Next, Peter directs our attention to…
2. Those Beside Us
Verse 17: Love the brotherhood. Whereas, we are to honor everyone, we have a higher obligation to our fellow Christians. We must love each other deeply and selflessly. “Brotherhood” (ἀδελφότης) is a rare word, appearing only twice in the New Testament (1 Peter 2:17; 5:9). Peter uses this word to remind us that through it all we are not alone. We have each other and need to love each other (even when we drive each other crazy). We are a family, a brotherhood of believers, united in Christ and bound by love.
Thirdly, Peter narrows our attention to…
3. The One Above Us
Verse 17: Fear God. Here we have an even higher obligation. Christians are never told to fear unbelievers. Rather, we are told to not fear them (1 Peter 3:14). All throughout the Bible, we are told to fear God.
Unfortunately, many Christians today dismiss fear as an Old Testament concept. Fearing God is held up as a positive thing all throughout the New Testament (2 Corinthians 7:15; Colossians 3:22; 1 Timothy 5:20). In the book of Acts, fear of divine discipline is presented as an appropriate attitude for believers (Acts 5:5, 11; 9:31). Throughout the epistles, fear is a sign of maturity and connected with holiness (2 Corinthians 7:1; Philippians 2:12; cf. Romans 3:18).
Robert Leighton observed…
This fear is not cowardice: it doth not debase, but elevates the mind; for it drowns all lower fears, and begets true fortitude and courage to encounter all dangers, for the sake of a good conscience and the obeying of God.
Fear is higher than respect, honor, and love because it is a combination of all three. It is the expression of ultimate loyalty and single-minded devotion. We are not to fear the world, each other, or our governmental leaders. God alone deserves our fear.
Peter might have stopped there, but he doesn’t. Instead, he brings the argument around full circle with one final governmental exhortation.
Finally… he brings our attention back to…
4. The One Over Us
Verse 17: Honor the emperor. Notice, the massive step downward from fearing God. Peter puts the emperor (or king) on the same level as everyone else at the start of the verse. Nero was one of the worst emperors to demand worship as a god. It is possible that Peter is emphasizing the fact that Nero is just a man like anyone else. However, his readers would not have benefited from such a cue (having already submitted to the lordship of Christ).
This final exhortation is likely a closing reminder that the entire block of thought has been about government. As awful as Nero was in his persecution against the Christians, Peter commands them to both submit to his leadership and hold him in high regard.
Free submission is a difficult choice, but one Christians are called to make. Unbelievers have two options. They are either forced into submission or they rebel, win the day, and force others into submission. Unlike them, we are free to choose submission for the Lord’s sake (or as unto the Lord). Rather than defend our rights, we give them up freely in the name of choosing obedience.
It has often been said that if you want to win an argument, the first person you have to convince is yourself. Most of us have no trouble justifying our desires. We can easily build an entire theology around our own presuppositions and predispositions. If it sounds good to us, it must be true.
In reality, our feelings and our commentary on life have zero bearing on the truth. That is why we must turn to God’s Word for real answers and real understanding. The Christian’s duty to submit to wicked men (especially bad government) is not isolated to an obscure passage, riddled with interpretive issues. Scripture shouts this command across several writings from several writers.
We must be careful not to justify a lack of submission in the name of freedom. Clever arguments might carry a ring of truth, but will cause much damage when applied incorrectly. Our calling is to remain faithful to the Word of God for what it actually says, not what we want it to say.
Submission that is freely and faithfully offered to bad leaders needs to be fully given as a slave of God. He expects His slaves to commit themselves to the task of accomplishing His will. As those who have been set free from sin, it is important for us to use our freedom correctly. Redeemed sinners are not to pull rank on government officials. Rather, we should serve them for the Lord’s sake because our Master has told us to be subject to every human institution.
Martin Luther summarized the enigma of Christian freedom and subjugation well. In the same breath, he said…
A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
As Christians, our daily goal is to think and act more like Christ. On one occasion, during His earthly ministry, He and Peter were stopped by the temple tax collectors (Matthew 17:24-27). At that time, a half-shekel tax (or 2 days wages) was collected annually for the upkeep of the temple. Every man over 20 years old was required to pay the tax since God had commanded Moses to initiate the practice in the wilderness (Exodus 30:13, 14; 2 Chronicles 24:9).
When the tax collectors rudely asked if Peter’s teacher intended to pay them or not, Jesus turned an awkward situation into a teaching moment for Peter. Since earthly kings do not require their sons to pay taxes, why should the Son of God be taxed for the sake of His Father’s temple? Truthfully, Jesus was exempt. He had the freedom to go about His business. It was well within His rights to refuse the collectors. Surprisingly, He chose not to offend these offensive taxmen, but told Peter where to get the money and pay for both of them. He used His freedom to submit.
Is it any wonder that thirty-plus years later, Peter (under the power of the Holy Spirit) would write such a bold command for Christians to use their freedom in submission to godless men as slaves of God? After all, Jesus had modeled this command for him time and time again. When it comes to authority, Jesus had it all. And yet, He…
…did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. ― Philippians 2:6-8
Jesus is our ultimate example. No one has ever gone from so high and free, to so low and enslaved, as the Lord Jesus. Aren’t you glad this is the way He chose to use His freedom?
Peter is simply encouraging all Christians to be like Christ. If we follow His example of submitting freely, faithfully, and fully, all of our relationships will be affected. We will honor everyone, love the brotherhood, fear God, and honor the emperor.
The command to honor everyone requires a change of heart. We are to treat every person with dignity and respect because every person has been created in God’s image.
Charles Spurgeon wrote…
Anything in the shape of a man or a woman deserves to be honored, for man was made in the image of God.
When you see another person, it doesn’t matter what they look like, what they smell like, what they do for a living, how old they are, or how much authority they have. It doesn’t matter whether they are rich or poor, fat or thin, happy or sad, angry or agreeable, obnoxious or pleasant. We are to honor them regardless of their skin color, political affiliation, behavior, and belief. As image-bearers of God Himself, they deserve your honor.
Most men will not act honorably and very few will earn your admiration. But every man, woman, and child possesses a high value and worth because of the reflection of God in their inner man. There is a dignity to human life that should affect the Christian’s attitude. We should be the last to lose our cool and give in to gossip, slander, or character assassination. We should be the only people online without a personal agenda.
Those who gleefully dishonor others, slander those they disagree with, or share personal attacks online should do the church a favor and stop calling themselves Christians. Such behavior is unacceptable for the household of God. Those who fling mud at others make themselves twice as dirty. We should correct error and speak against injustice while making it our goal to only say good things about others. Peter says to honor everyone.
In all things, we are to fear the Lord. It is appropriate for us to be afraid of disappointing Him or deserving His discipline (Acts 5:5, 11; 9:31; 2 Corinthians 7:1, 15; Philippians 2:12; Colossians 3:22; 1 Timothy 5:20).
One might argue that God’s hand of discipline would never strike a Christian since their penalty for sin has been paid for at the cross. Such thinking is completely backwards. It is because of the cross that God now disciplines us as sons (Hebrews 12:3-11). He does so because He loves us and we need it (Hebrews 12:10).
In our modern American context, our elected leaders change all the time. Pick your least favorite politician and write their name the place of “emperor” at the end of verse 17. Remind yourself that “honor” means “to show high regard for, to revere.” It also carries the idea of value and worth. It is human for our hearts to knee-jerk against the thought of honoring those we disagree with. However, such a reaction is not Christian. We must fight the urge to slander our governmental officials.
Thankfully, within our country, we are not required to remain passive or to blindly accept everything that happens. We have legal options afforded to us. Daniel Doriani writes…
If the constitution and the authorities tell us that we have a right and duty to choose our leaders by examining the qualities of the candidates and the content of their policies, then it is right for us to choose. If our critical analysis leads us to reject a governor’s policies, we should vote him (or her) out of office. But we must still honor that authority, even while we protest or vote against it.
Sadly, in democracies, too many people (even Christians) take pleasure in the harshest criticism of the authorities.
Our King has not promised us an easy life. We are told to expect suffering. He suffered and expects nothing less from those who desire to follow in His steps. It is our honorable duty to suffer well.
Charles Spurgeon was not only an incredible preacher, he taught others how to preach. One day, he was emphasizing to his class the importance of having your face match the content of your sermon. He said…
When you speak of heaven, let your face light up. Let it be irradiated with a heavenly gleam. Let your eyes shine with reflected glory. But, when you speak of hell…
Well, then… your ordinary face will do!
During the American Revolution, a man in civilian clothes rode past a group of soldiers who were repairing a small defensive barrier. Their leader was shouting instructions, but made no attempt to help them. The rider stopped and asked him why? To which, the man retorted with great dignity, “Sir, I am a corporal!” The stranger apologized, dismounted, and proceeded to help the exhausted soldiers. Once the job done, he turned to the corporal and said, “Mr. Corporal next time you have a job like this and not enough men to do it, go to your Commander-in-Chief and I will come and help you again.” Sure enough, the man was none other than George Washington.
There are several ways to fittingly apply this story to 1 Peter 2:16-17. It illustrates an appropriate use of freedom through submission and service. It highlights the necessity of honoring all men (and not just the proud corporals of life). But perhaps we should ask the question, “What have I done for my king today?”
Throughout this quarantine, some of us have become champions of international conspiracies. Others have become champions of the constitution. But how many us have become champions of the Gospel? Have we faithfully honored all men, loved the brotherhood, feared God, and honored our leaders?
What have you done for your King today? He left the glories of heaven to become a creature of dirt. He subjected Himself to an evil society and submitted to the authorities of a bad government until they unjustly crucified Him. He put on civilian clothes, got off the horse, and finished the entire job for you (a job you couldn’t do for yourself). What have you done for Him today?
By now you know what He wants you to do (particularly regarding government). You know that He desires more than obstinate obedience. He wants us to submit for His sake because we love Him and desire to maintain a good witness. It is our duty to pursue the right action with the right attitude. In God’s eyes, humility is not weakness, submission is not slavery, honor is not approval, and lip-service is not love. So let’s be men and women of honor.
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).
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).
Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003).
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).