Submission and freedom
1 Peter 2:13-17 ESV
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
(1 Peter 2:13-17 ESV)
For this post and the next four posts we’re going to look at 1 Peter 2v13-17. Before we do so, let us remind ourselves of the preceding context so that we can see how it follows on from what Peter had just been saying.
We read in 1 Peter 2v9-12: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 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”.
A lot is packed into those few verses but a couple of emphases stand out clearly. Firstly, there is the emphasis that, as believers in Christ, we are God’s people. We belong to Him and so we are to live for Him. Peter describes us as “a holy nation, a people for his own possession”. That begs the question “How are we to relate to the earthly nation in which we live?” Secondly, and as a consequence of that first emphasis, there is the emphasis that we’ve seen throughout the letter on the fact that we are “sojourners and exiles” in this world. Therefore, we don’t fit comfortably with the ways of the world and we face opposition from the world. Peter’s readers knew that all too well as they faced serious persecution from Rome. That really strengthens the question. It’s not just notional but of serious practical importance. Since we are God’s people, how does He want us to relate to a world in which we’re strangers and to a world that opposes us and even persecutes us?” We saw last time that Peter went on to say: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable” but what does that actually involve?
Well, Peter begins to address that question in verses 13 to 17 where we read: “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”.
We’ve seen that Peter has already given a whole string of imperatives or commands for the Christian life and his teaching in these verses begins with another command. In verse 13, according to the ESV, he says “Be subject” or, as the NIV puts it, “Submit yourselves”. The word in the Greek text is actually a compound of two words. One is hypo and that means “under”. The other is tasso and that means “to order” or “to place”. So, the literal meaning is to “order under” or to “place under”. The two English expressions that we find in the ESV and NIV capture the sense of the Greek and might seem to be quite similar to one another but there is a significant difference between them. “Be subject” is passive. It suggests lamely accepting subjugation. “Submit yourselves” is active. It suggests deliberately determining to submit.
Which of those two senses does Peter have in mind here? Well, as we go on to consider the following verses I think we’ll see that Peter has the latter sense in mind. He was not calling his readers to be mere doormats. He wasn’t calling them to a blind, fatalistic acceptance. Rather, he was calling them to purposely, thoughtfully and deliberately place themselves under authority. Believers in Christ are to be characterised by a deliberate submissiveness in every area of life. In verse 18 he’ll talk about the submission of slaves to their masters. Then, at the beginning of chapter 3 he’ll speak about the submission of wives to their husbands but today we’re going to look at verses 13 to 17 and we’ll consider the deliberate submission that we find there. We’ll do so under the following five headings:
The scope of this submission
The motive for this submission
The purpose of this submission
The nature of this submission
The perspective for this submission
So, firstly, let us consider:
The scope of this submission
Peter defines that by saying “Be subject ……… to every human institution”. The Greek, more literally says something like “every human creation” which sounds a bit strange to our ears. What does he mean by that? Well, he gives an indication of what he has in mind by going on to say: “whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him”. Clearly, he’s thinking of earthly rulers and authorities so “every human institution” conveys the right sort of sense. In exhorting his readers to “Be subject ……… to every human institution”, Peter was saying for them to not only submit themselves to the Emperor as the supreme earthly authority but also to submit themselves to all who were sent by him to act on his behalf, whether that be as local rulers or legal officials or tax collectors. He was speaking of the whole apparatus of the state as headed by the Emperor. In our present day society that would mean national government, local government, the judiciary and so on. It’s all who are in positions of civic authority. It’s what we might colloquially call “the powers that be”.
Such submission is perfectly in keeping with requirements that we find elsewhere in the New Testament. For instance, in Romans 13v1, Paul says: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God”. Then, in Titus 3v1, he says: “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people”.
So, believers in Christ are not to be rebellious.
We’re not to disturb or undermine the established order because we recognise that the government has been instituted by God. Peter goes on to tell us the purpose for which the Emperor should send his Governors. It is “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good”. So, its intended purpose is to maintain law and order and to encourage goodness.
For us as believers in Christ in 21st Century Britain, it isn’t too difficult to follow the requirement to be submissive to the powers that be. It’s relatively easy to do so in a mature, stable democracy. We might be dismayed by some of the things our leaders say and do. We might not like some of their decisions. We might not agree with all of their policies. But, we are relatively free to live out our faith and express our beliefs without fear of state persecution. Law and order is upheld and stability is generally maintained. That certainly isn’t the case in every part of the world.
We regularly hear of believers in Christ being subjected to serious persecution in some countries. Would Peter encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ to rebel against the powers that be in such circumstances? You might think so but remember that Peter’s immediate readers were in that precise position. Submitting to earthly rule was an extremely difficult proposition for them.
Remember that the Emperor that Peter’s readers were being encouraged to submit to was none other than Nero! So, we have to face the difficult, even unpalatable, fact that Peter was saying that believers in Christ are called upon to be good citizens even if the state is unjust and oppressive and causes them great suffering.
We find a similar emphasis from Jesus when He was answering a cunning question from the Scribes and Chief Priests. We read in Luke 20v21-22: “So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?”” Now, that wasn’t a sincere question. They weren’t genuinely interested in Jesus’ views on taxation and the relationship between His people and the state in which they lived. It was designed to trap Him. They thought they’d come up with a perfect “heads we win, tails you lose” question. If He said to pay taxes to Caesar they would have told the nationalists who wanted to overthrow the Roman invaders. That would have stirred up their wrath against Him. If He said to withhold paying taxes to Caesar they would have told the Romans who would have treated Him as an insurrectionist.
The account continues in verses 23 to 25 by saying: “But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s””. Now, clearly, that was a brilliant answer that silenced His opponents but we mustn’t think that Jesus was just being clever to get Himself out of a tricky situation. No, that was an honest expression of the way in which He viewed human rule and authority. He didn’t challenge “the powers that be” in civic matters.
So, Peter, Paul and Jesus would all have us to submit to “the powers that be”. Having noted that, we will consider in our next post: The motive for this submission
Dr. Steve Orr
Dr Orr has served the Body of Christ in the United Kingdom for many years and in various capacities (preaching, teaching, etc.,). Steve is a regular contributor to the pages of Christ My Covenant. His insights into the Word of God will serve you in your personal study of God’s Word. Learn of Christ!