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)
This is the fourth post of five on this section that we’re looking at in 1 Peter 2v13-17. Before we continue let us once again remind ourselves of the preceding context so that we can see how it follows on from what Peter had just been saying.
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?
Peter begins to address that question in verses 13 to 17 where 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 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
Let us now consider:
The nature of this submission
We see that in verse 16 where we read: “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God”. As presented in our English translations, that sounds like another commandment. Peter has said “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” and now he seems to be giving an almost contradictory commandment to “Live as people who are free”. However, the word “live” is not in the Greek text. It has been supplied by the translators and that is really quite misleading. The phrase “as people who are free” actually refers back to the command to “Submit yourselves”. So the sense here really is “Submit yourselves to every human institution as people who are free”. This is not a new command. Rather, it’s telling us the nature of the submission that Peter has already commanded. It’s telling us the way in which we are to submit ourselves to the “powers that be”.
The fundamental truth that lies behind the way in which we are to submit is the fact that believers in Christ have been set free. We have freedom in and through the Lord Jesus Christ. Now Peter doesn’t specify what sort of freedom he has in mind here but remember that back in 1 Peter 1v17-19 he said: “And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot”.
That being ransomed from “the futile ways inherited from your forefathers” refers to having been set free from a way of life that once held us captive. Why did it hold us captive? It was because it was a life of rebellion against God. As such, we were guilty sinners and controlled by sinful desires. Being set free from that doesn’t mean we are now free to do whatever we please. In Romans 6v18 Paul says that “having been set free from sin” we have “become slaves of righteousness” and then in verse 22 he says that “having been set free from sin” we have “become slaves of God”. You see, the freedom that we have as believers in Christ is not licence to do as we please but freedom to do what is good and freedom to serve God.
Peter emphasises that by going on to say: “not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God”. You see, the freedom that we have in Christ does not mean that we are free to do evil; it does mean that we are free to serve God.
Even so, saying “Submit yourselves” to earthly rulers “as people who are free” still sounds bit contradictory doesn’t it? To be subject and to be free seem to be complete opposites don’t they? The idea is of exercising the freedom that we have in making ourselves subject to the “powers that be”. We’re not to submit because we’re too apathetic to do otherwise.
We’re not to submit because we’re coerced by any earthly power.
We’re not to blindly submit simply because it’s the done thing.
No, as believers in Christ, we have freedom and we’re to exercise that freedom in deliberately and willingly submitting to “the powers that be” “for the Lord’s sake”.
We do it for Him.
We do it because He wants us to.
So, all submission to earthly rulers is in the context of a life lived in submission to God.
That being the case, although we are to peacefully honour and respect the authority of earthly leaders, we are not to blindly obey all of their demands because we live under a higher authority. God’s requirements trump any contrary demands made by earthly rulers. Peter himself serves as an illustration of that. In Acts chapter 5 we read of the apostles being imprisoned by the ruling council for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Then, in verse 19, we read: “But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.” And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and began to teach”.
Reading on we find that they were quickly hauled before the council again and we read in verses 27 to 29: “And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men””. So, it is right to disobey the powers that be when to obey them would mean disobeying God. He is always our ultimate authority.
We’ll see that in our closing point.
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!