Honor to All as God's Servants
Passage: 1 Peter 2:13–2:17
Honor to All as God's Servants
As we begin this morning, I’d like to ask you to engage in a little thought experiment with me. Let’s say that I asked everyone in the room to take out a pen and write a list of all the ways in which we can glorify God with our lives. As many ways as you can think of, write them down. Let’s say that goes on for about five minutes or so. Now, let’s say at the end of that time, we shared what was on our lists. What are some things people would say? I can imagine that someone would say something about evangelism or sharing the gospel. That certainly glorifies God. I can imagine that someone would say something about studying Scripture. Yes, that’s true as well. Someone probably would mention loving their family, teaching their children about the gospel. Someone probably would say something about working hard in their job. Maybe something about caring for the poor or going on a mission trip or giving money to the church or serving in the nursery or a whole host of other things. It would be a long list by the end of the exercise. There are many, many ways to glorify God.
But do you think anyone would say paying taxes? Do you think anyone would say obeying the laws of the government? Do you think anyone would say giving honor and respect to those who hold authority over us, even if we don’t agree with them? I don’t think so. We don’t normally think about paying taxes or obeying the state of Arkansas whenever we think about glorifying God. And I understand why. Those things don’t sound very spiritual. Mission trips? I get that. Income taxes and social security? Not so much. Those things just don’t sound very spiritual.
But surprisingly, our passage this morning deals with exactly that topic – how our submission to the governing authorities does, in fact, bring glory to God. Yes, evangelism and Bible study and hard work and love for our neighbors bring glory to God. But so does paying taxes. So does obeying the law of the land. So does honoring those who hold positions of authority with the state. Even those things, when done with the right attitude, bring glory to God.
That’s what this passage in 1 Peter is about – submission to the governing authorities.
But this passage is also about much more than just submission to the governing authorities. These verses also reveal to us how limited our scope often is whenever we think about glorifying God. In our text this morning, Peter teaches us that it’s not just the ‘spiritual’ things that glorify God. Peter makes clear that it’s often the ‘non-spiritual’ things that determine whether or not our lives are committed to God and his glory. It’s a passage about taxes and laws and government, but it’s also a passage about our hearts and our commitment to the glory of God.
The first thing we need to do is set the context for our passage. Where do these verses fit in the flow of Peter’s argument? If you remember from last week, we saw that Peter instructed believers to keep their conduct honorable among unbelievers. This week, Peter begins to teach more specifically what that honorable conduct looks like in the world. For example, in vv13-17, Peter says that honorable conduct means Christians should be subject to the governing authorities. Following that, he says servants should be subject to their masters. Then, in chapter 3, he instructs wives to be subject to their own husbands. What is Peter doing with all this social material? He is fleshing out what honorable conduct actually looks like. He is showing us how the gospel impacts society as Christians live faithfully according to Scripture. And over all of this, Peter is showing us how God is glorified as we conduct ourselves honorably in the world.
That is the context of our passage. What I would like to do this morning is carefully walk through these verses, paying attention to each point of Peter’s teaching. We’ll note Peter’s command in vv13-14. We’ll see the purpose of the command in v15. We’ll learn how to live out the command in v16. And then, we’ll end the passage by noting Peter’s summary in v17. It’s the command, the purpose of the command, how to follow the command, and then a summary. Once we have finished our study of the passage, I’ll close the message with three application points for us as Christians in 2013. With that, let’s get started.
The first thing we should note is Peter’s command in vv13-14. Peter writes, “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.” Peter’s first application of honorable conduct is that believers should be subject to all governing authorities. The word subject means to submit yourself to the authority of another, whether that be a person or, as Peter says here, a governing institution. The notion of submission doesn’t imply any hierarchy of value or status. Just because you are subject to another authority doesn’t mean that authority is more valuable or has more worth than you. Submission, both in this passage and in the ones that follow, has nothing to do with the value of persons; it has to do with function, how relationships should work to bring glory to God.
Peter says in v13 that God’s design is for believers to submit themselves to all governing authorities. That’s the idea when Peter mentions both the Emperor and those governors who are established by the Emperor. Believers are to subject themselves not only to the highest authority; in Peter’s case, that was the Emperor. Believers should also subject themselves to even the lesser authorities. In Peter’s case, this would be the local and regional governors of the Roman Empire. Whatever the situation, believers should submit themselves to the authority of the established government. This should be the usual or normal attitude of Christians toward the government. Yes, there are exceptions; I’ll talk about those later. But Peter doesn’t address any exceptions in this passage. He simply says, “Be subject to the governing authorities.”
Now, we might be tempted to think that Peter wouldn’t have understood our context. He never lived in a government that was marked by Washington bureaucracy or wasted resources or whatever. We might be tempted to think Peter just wouldn’t understand how hard this command might actually be! But let’s not forget that Peter most likely wrote this letter during the reign of Nero, who was a wicked, awful Emperor. In fact, according to church tradition, Nero is the one responsible for Peter’s death! And Peter says subject yourself to that Emperor. We can’t wiggle out of this command by appealing to our context, as if it were any worse than Peter’s. As I said before, Peter doesn’t address the exceptions here; he simply calls us to be subject to the governing authorities.
As Christians, what is our motivation for submitting to the governing authorities? Peter says in v13 that our motivation is a desire to glorify God. Look again at v13. Notice the phrase for the Lord’s sake. This is our motivation for submission – we submit ourselves in order to please the Lord and bring honor to him. We do not submit ourselves for the government’s sake; we do it for the Lord’s sake. We do it not to please the President or Congress, but to please God! Our civil obedience has a divine dimension to it. We don’t obey the authorities simply because we want to be good citizens. No, we obey because we want to honor God. We obey out of submission to Christ. That’s how our submission brings glory to God. It reveals God’s lordship over our lives. It reveals that we count allegiance to God as so valuable that we would submit ourselves to the authorities he has established on earth.
In making this point, Peter takes our lives as citizens out of the merely political realm, and he places re-defines them in relationship to God himself. As one pastor has noted, this makes every act of civil obedience an act of worship. When we obey the laws of our country, we do so as an act of worship to God. When we pay our taxes, writing those checks can be a moment of worship and glorifying God, if we see those things in relationship to him. And that’s exactly the way that we must see such obedience – we submit for the Lord’s sake.
The Purpose of the Command
That brings us to v15, where we see the purpose for Peter’s command. Look there are v15 – “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” The purpose of submitting to the government is that it fulfills the will of God. What exactly is the will of God? V15 tells us. God’s will is that in submitting to the government, Christians might put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. The purpose of our submission is that God uses it to silence the ignorant accusations of those who speak against the church.
In Peter’s time, it was common for non-Christians to suggest that Christians were enemies of the state. Since Christians wouldn’t worship the Emperor, they were viewed as dangerous and subversive. They were viewed as a threat to the Empire! What Peter is saying here is that by submitting to the government, Christians silence such foolish talk. The church is not a rebel group that seeks to overthrow Caesar and tear down the government. How does the world know that? By seeing Christians submit themselves to the governing authorities. The purpose for Peter’s command is that it answers the false accusations of foolish people.
How to Live Out this Command
That brings us to v16, where we see how we should live out this command. Listen to v16 – “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover up for evil, but living as servants of God.” Christians should live as free people. We are free in Christ. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have been set free from slavery to sin. That’s the good news of the gospel – that everyone who repents of their sin and trusts in Christ’s death and resurrection receives freedom and forgiveness. If you want freedom this morning, that’s where to find it – in the sin-atoning, freedom-giving gospel of Jesus Christ.
But that freedom does not give us an excuse to pursue evil. Our freedom in Christ does not mean we have the right to throw off civil authority and live however we might please. It doesn’t mean we can ignore the civil authorities. It doesn’t mean you can skip out on your taxes and claim freedom in Christ to do so. That would be evil, and Peter says don’t use your freedom to engage in that kind of evil. Instead, as free people, we must live as servants of God. That seems strange, doesn’t it? To call Christians free people, and then tell those same people to live as servants or slaves of God. Which one is it – are we free, or are we servants and slaves? It’s both. We are free in Christ, but it is not an unrestricted freedom. Real freedom is the freedom to do what is right and good. It’s the freedom to be God’s servant. And as God’s servants, he calls us to be subject to the governing authorities.
We must understand this point. Christian freedom, when properly understood, never leads to contempt for authority. Christians, above all people, should understand the role and function of authority, and the need to submit to properly established authority. It is an unbiblical attitude that denounces all authority and seeks some sort of personal liberty that answers to no one. The biblical attitude is to embrace your freedom in Christ as the means of submitting yourself to proper authority, and therefore ultimately to God’s authority. That’s the tragedy of rejecting Peter’s command. This goes so far beyond just obeying the government. When we refuse to submit ourselves to established authorities, we are really refusing to submit to God. True Christian freedom always leads to humble, joyful submission to rightful authority, because that’s part of how we display our submission to God, and thus glorify him.
Four Summary Statements
That brings us to v17, where Peter concludes this paragraph with four summary statements. Listen to v17 – “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the Emperor.” The first and last statements have the same verb – to honor. Christians are to honor everyone, and that includes the governing authorities. Everyone, whether the common man or the Emperor, deserves a certain respect. The other two commands address the Christian’s obligation to those within the church and to God. We are to love the brotherhood. That is, we are to love fellow believers. While everyone deserves honor, our brothers and sisters in Christ deserve our love. And we are to fear God. In some sense, this is the strongest verb of the four, because our obligation to God is the highest. While we honor the governing authorities, only God deserves our reverence and fearful devotion. And because we fear God, we should love one another and show honor to all, even the authorities.
As I read v17, my conclusion is that Peter wants to end this passage by summarizing his teaching and heading off a potential misunderstanding. His summary is that Christians are called to give their allegiance to God, and we are called to honor the governing authorities. The one does not exclude the other. We fear God, and we honor the Emperor. We are called to both.
This is true because we are, in some sense, citizens of two realms or two kingdoms. We are citizens of the kingdom of God, and that is our ultimate home. But we are also sojourners on this earth, living in the kingdom of this world. We must learn to live in both, being faithful to our identity but glorifying God in the world as well.
In making this point, Peter addresses a potential misunderstanding. Throughout the letter, Peter has clearly taught that Christians have a distinct identity as God’s people. Believers are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession. Based on that truth, there might be the temptation to think that we don’t owe this world anything. If we are sojourners and exiles on earth, they why should we subject ourselves to the institution of this world? Shouldn’t Christians just withdraw from the world or ignore what these earthly institutions have to say? Peter’s answer is a resounding, “No!” Our citizenship is in heaven, but our identity as God’s people doesn’t mean that we are free from this realm. It is precisely because we are God’s people that we are called to submit ourselves to the governing authorities! It is for the Lord’s sake. It is one of the means we pursue to glorify God.
I think we should end our time this morning by asking how these verses might apply to us, Christians who live in 2013 America. We don’t have an Emperor, and as of right now, we are not facing overt physical or political persecution because of our allegiance to Christ. But the time may be coming when Christians are viewed as enemies of the state, much as they were in the first century. If that day does come, how will we apply this passage? And in the meantime, how do we put Peter’s command into practice so that we are not just hearers of the word, but doers also? Let me suggest three points of application from this passage. These points are by no means exhaustive, but I do think they can give us a framework to answer the more specific questions we might face as Christians, both now and in the future.
We are Ultimately Servants of God, not the Government
First, we are ultimately servants of God, not the government. Peter has made this clear in our passage. We can live as free people because we have been given freedom in Christ. God is our ultimate authority, because he is above all human institutions. He is the One who ordains the authorities and establishes that they should punish evil and reward what is good. As such, he is our ultimate authority, not the government. This gives us the criteria by which we can discern what we should do in particular situations. Our standard response should be one of submission to the laws of the government. But if the authorities enact laws or require action that violates God’s Word, then we must not submit to them. As Peter himself said in Acts 5 when told to stop preaching Christ, we must obey God rather than men.
In such situations, it would need to be clear that the law required us to violate Scripture. We cannot refuse laws simply because we think they are bad ideas, which they might be. But if a law does require us to violate Scripture, then we must disobey. We are servants of God first and foremost.
Our General Attitude Must be Submission to the Governing Authorities
Second, with that said, our general attitude must be submission to the governing authorities. This should be our standard response, because this is what God calls us to as his servants. This means that we should obey all duly enacted laws. That is our duty as Christians, even if we don’t agree with the law. It means that we should pay our taxes. We may have legitimate concerns about tax rates and how the dollars are used, but we must still pay our taxes. These things are part of what it means to be subject to every human institution.
This also means that we should participate in the governmental process in order to effect change. Under normal circumstances, we do not have the right to resort to rebellion, anarchy, or even apathy. Part of our submission to the governing authorities is that we participate in the process. We vote. Some of us may run for office. We write to our officials. We don’t withdraw in apathy; we participate in the process.
But we should note here that attitude plays a very important role in our submission. Jonathan and Perry and I talked about this during the week. The hardest application for us, I think, is that we should submit ourselves without grumbling. We should submit without a bitter spirit or bad attitude. If we obey the laws or pay our taxes, but do so by mumbling under our breath and grumbling on and on, we haven’t obeyed Scripture. It’s not just the outward action that matters, but the attitude of our hearts. To obey with grumbling doesn’t please the Lord. Our goal should be to submit ourselves joyfully, willingly, as unto the Lord, for his sake. It may not seem like that big of a deal, but we should be very vigilant against a grumbling, bitter attitude.
And this extends to how we talk about our governing officials. As a Christian, you do not have to agree with everything the government does. I certainly do not. Submission does not mean agreement in all things. But in our disagreement, we should not speak poorly or disrespectfully of those who govern over us. It is unbiblical to slander and defame our governing officials. It is unbiblical to call President Obama or Congressman Boehner ugly, disrespectful names. It’s unbiblical, plain and simple. Can we acknowledge our disagreements? Yes. Can we work to elect someone else when possible? Yes. Can we support those who want to enact more just and wise laws? By all means, yes! But does that mean we can disparage those we disagree with? No. Our tone and our talk about our governing officials should reflect an attitude of honor and respect.
Viewing our Submission as a Means to Glorify God and Commend the Gospel
This is the application that ties it all together. This is the point that we really need to grasp. We miss the whole passage if we miss this. We should view our submission as a means to glorify God and commend the gospel. Remember from last week, Peter said that our honorable conduct was a means of glorifying God? That’s still the overarching point here as well. We must learn to view our submission through the lens of God, his glory, and the gospel.
Look, the reality is that submission in all contexts, not just to the government, is hard at times. I don’t like to follow laws that I think are foolish. I don’t like to pay taxes that I think are wasteful. I don’t like watching government bureaucracy dehumanize people. Those things bother me, as I am sure they bother you as well. What enables us to submit to such authorities? Because we see it as a means to glorify God! We see it as a means to commend the gospel of Jesus Christ! How does submitting to the government glorify God? Because we do it for the Lord’s sake! We submit because we want to honor God’s authority and show the world that God is worthy to be trusted and obeyed! He commanded it, so we do it, for his glory. And that changes everything about submission to the government!
This is where we see that this passage isn’t just about obeying laws and paying taxes. This passage is about orienting everything in your life – including your taxes – around God and his glory! That’s deeper application for us, I think. It’s not primarily the ‘spiritual’ things that determine whether or not you live for the glory of God. It’s way you respond to all the other ‘non-spiritual’ stuff in life, like taxes or the DMV. How do you handle those situations? That’s what really determines whether or not you live for God’s glory. We are so prone to think that it’s the big things, the really spiritual things that determine whether or not we are committed to God’s glory. But my commitment to God’s glory is not measured by adding together the big, spiritual moments of my life. It’s measured by adding together the every day moments, the non-spiritual things. What do those things reveal about my heart and life? That’s where we see the real depth of our commitment to God’s glory.
I want to encourage us all to examine our lives and ask ourselves, “Am I living only for the big, spiritual moments? Or am I pursuing God’s glory even in the little moments, the non-spiritual things?” Examine your life, and seek to make any changes that will help you orient every aspect of your life around God and his glory. God doesn’t just want your ‘spiritual’ life; he wants your life, period. He wants you to glorify him with everything that you do, including how you pay your taxes.
But let’s make sure that we do that examination in light of the gospel. The reality is that every one of us will fall short of glorifying God with every aspect of our lives. We’ll all miss that mark. We all lack total commitment. But the good news of the gospel is that Christ was completely committed to the glory of God. The gospel reminds us that Christ completely submitted himself, even to the point of death on the cross. And through his glorious resurrection, we have a sure and solid hope that God is working in our lives for his glory and for our good. Our lives will bring glory to God because Jesus perfectly obeyed, died in our place, and rose again from the grave. His resurrection gives us a living hope that God is working and will continue to work in our lives. May we examine our lives in order to repent and change where needed. But may we do so with our eyes ever fixed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who became obedient even to the point of death on the cross.