1 Peter 2:13-17, “13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”
Many of us can remember a time when we did not know the Lord. Whether or not we were brought up in a Christian home, some of us lived many years before we trusted Christ alone for our salvation. Like the original audience of 1 Peter, we were “conformed to the passions of our former ignorance” (1 Peter 1:14) and chased after the “futile ways” of our forefathers (1 Peter 1:18). All of this changed when we were “born again to a living hope” of salvation guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus and guarded forever by the Father (1 Peter 1:3–5). This great hope in which we rejoice was eagerly anticipated by the prophets (1 Peter 1:6–12) and makes us into the true Israel of God (1 Peter 2:4–5). Now that we know, Christ, we have been fully incorporated into God’s people, and we must live lives patterned after His holiness (1 Peter 1:13–2:3; 1 Peter 2:9–10).
We live holy lives, first and foremost, by abstaining from the sinful passions of the flesh (1 Peter 2:11). One of the ways in which we can obey this command is to live honorable lives among non-believers so that they may see our good works and glorify God on the day of His visitation (1 Peter 2:12). 1 Peter 2:13-17 develops this theme further by explaining how to live honorably under civil government. Christians, we read, are to subject themselves to every human institution, including the emperor and those ruling under him (1 Peter 2:13–14).
The idea that submission to the civil authority is a manifestation of holiness is clear from Peter’s explanation that we submit “for the Lord’s sake” (v. 13). We know that the ruling authorities have been set in place by the Lord to punish evil and reward goodness (1 Peter 2:14; Rom. 13:1–7). When we submit to their just laws, we are in reality submitting to God since He has set them over us.
In 1 Peter 2:13-17, Peter is not saying that all authorities are godly; rather, he is merely pointing out that it is the government’s role to execute justice. Other biblical passages tell us that some authorities can become so corrupt that they cease to fulfill their God-given roles. If the civil authority does command us to sin, then we would submit to God’s rule instead by refusing to do evil (Dan. 3).
Scripture teaches God’s people they must not submit to ruling authorities when they command them to sin. With that said, there is a danger; we can take this principle too far. We might think for example that it doesn’t matter if we disobey tax laws since no one will find out. 1 Peter 2:13-17 teaches God’s people must submit to all governing authorities. We should endeavor to submit even to laws we deem foolish.
In the Early Church, as pagans converted to Christianity, accusations were often made against the Church. Non-Christians often misunderstood the purpose of the Lord’s Supper and the love Christians had one another. These claims led non-Christians to think the first Christians practiced cannibalism and incest. Many of these Christians were also accused of plotting against the Roman government.
Behind these claims were ignorance not facts, much the same as many attacks on the Christian faith today. As Christians today, we have no other response than to deal with ignorance by responding to it. 1 Peter 2:13-17 shows God’s people one way we can respond to our misinformed criticisms by living exemplary lives of submission to human authorities. It is through Christians subjection to rulers as good citizens that God’s people can silence many of the charges against us (1 Peter 2:15).
Christians should not only excel at citizenship but be model citizens in society. 1 Peter 2:17 says that Christians must “honor everyone.” Christians must not only be submissive to the laws of the land insofar as they don’t require us to sin. Christians must also show respect to people even if they are not in authority over them. We must treat everyone as imagers bearers, equal of dignity, value, and worthy, they possess on account of the Creator.
Submission to earthly authorities does not impugn our freedom. Peter reminds his readers and Christians today that they are free (1 Peter 2:16). The freedom Christians possess is one that non-Christians cannot enjoy until they are born again. In Christ, Christians are free from the curse that the Law brings to the disobedient (Gal. 3:13). Christians are also free from the reigning power of sin over them on account of sovereignly having their heart of stone replaced with a new heart with new desires and affections for Christ.
As a result, we see the freedoms we enjoy in Christ is not a freedom to do evil. Christians must never use their freedom in Christ as an excuse for disobeying authority (1 Peter 2:16). The Christian’s freedom is a freedom to serve. John Calvin said our freedom 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.”
1 Peter 2:13-17 can not only be applied to the civil authority but also to any institution that exercises authority over the people of God. Because Christians are to be subject to “every human institution” they must also obey their supervisors and anyone else with authority over them. As we close let’s ask ourselves a few questions, “Do you submit to your supervisors at work or do you grumble against them?” Lastly, “Do you secretly dishonor them before other employees by speaking ill of them to others?” As Christians, we are to honor our supervisors at work because they like us are image bearers worthy of dignity value, and respect. Please do what you can to honor your supervisors both publically and privately and work hard to the glory of God at whatever vocation the Lord has placed you at.