God & Government

Because of Jesus’ kingship, we live as free people – people who are free to submit…

JDudgeon on December 31, 2023
God & Government
December 31, 2023

God & Government

Passage: 1 Peter 2:13-17
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1. Introduction: Why Are We Talking About This?

As we begin today we want to ask a question: why are we talking about this? And one of the reasons I ask this question is because, if I’m honest, I didn’t want to preach this sermon this morning. After everything we went though in 2020 and ’21, and all of the talking and writing and conversations we had to have about this topic, I did not feel like talking about this topic again for a long time.

But here we are. One of the huge benefits of preaching through books of the Bible is that you end up dealing with topics you wouldn’t have chosen otherwise. And I believe this is one of the ways that God shapes and leads us as a church. So to answer the question, “Why are we talking about this today?”, the first big answer is that that’s what our passage in 1 Peter is about so this is what God wants us to hear about today.

Now, there’s a second way we could ask that question “why are we talking about this?” And that would be to ask why Peter is addressing this topic at this point in his letter. Why did he think it was necessary to talk to his readers about their attitude and behaviour towards the government?

Let’s remember where we are in this letter. After a long introduction of unpacking the gospel for us, Peter has been helping us understand how to live in accordance with the gospel. Beginning in verse 22 of chapter 1, Peter has had his attention largely turned on our relationships with each other. Verse 9 and 10, which we’ve just read together, contain some of the strongest and most beautiful statements in Peter, and perhaps the whole New Testament, about our identity as the people of God.

And then, in verse 11 of chapter 2, Peter made what might have seemed like a pivot as he turned his attention to the inner struggle we each have with the passions of our flesh. “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11).

But this wasn’t really a change of topic. If we’ve been created as a new people in Christ, then we’re going to be strangers in this world. As we refuse to live in the darkness of lust that God called us out of, we’ll stick out as much as if we came here from another country—even an other planet. So verse 11 is not a subject change but is calling us to put our new identity into practice.

And then verse 12 just fleshes this out even further when it says, “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” (1 Peter 2:12).

Killing our sinful passions isn’t about us living little holy lives off by ourselves somewhere. It’s about living honourable lives in front of the world so that, like Jesus said, they would see our good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16). And this connects back to our mission to proclaim His excellencies.

So we can see that this is all connected. A new humanity, proclaiming God’s glory with our mouths, killing our sinful lusts so that we live in a distinct and honourable way that draws attention to God.

And with that in the background, what we get to in verse 13 we can see that it’s not a new topic. It’s not a change of subject. This is just one specific way that we put verse 9-12 into practice.

Peter tells us to submit to the authorities because it’s one of the main ways that we live honourable lives that silence slander and bring glory to God. Peter tells us to submit to the authorities because it’s one of the ways that we abstain from our sinful passions—particularly the sinful passion to do whatever we want without anybody else telling us what to do.

And Peter tells us to submit to the authorities because, after telling us that we are a chosen race, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, it’s a fair question as to whether or not we still need to submit to the human government structures of earth.

If Jesus is our Lord, and we’ve been made into His royal people, then why would we pay attention to merely human power structures anymore? Isn’t that kind of like still showing up for class when the bell rings after you’ve graduated from high school? You’ve moved on and those rules don’t apply to you anymore, right?

And you could think that the same is true of us as Christians. And that would actually show that you’re taking this seriously. You know that Jesus isn’t just your personal saviour but Lord of the universe, and you’re a part of a real kingdom under His command. And if that’s true, then just how important is it for us to line up for the bell of human government any more?

And so I hope you can see that, as we carefully trace Peter’s train of thought, there’s some good reasons why he talks about our relationship with the government in verses 13-17. And that’s why we’re talking about this today.

2. Submit to the Governing Authorities (v. 13-14)

And so he writes in verses 13-14, “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” (1 Peter 2:13–14).

The main command there is not hard to see: “Be subject.” We could translate this as “submit.” Peter uses this word six times in his letter. He’s going to use it again in verse 18 to talk about servants submitting to their masters, in chapter 3 to talk about wives submitting to their husbands (3:1, 5), of Jesus who has all angelic powers subjected to him (3:22), and in chapter 5 of younger people in the church being “subject to the elders” (5:5).

It’s a word that speaks about submission to authority. In the case of Jesus and the angelic powers, He subjected them to himself. But in each of these other cases, Peter tells us to willingly, voluntarily, be subject to these authorities.

And Peter starts out with a really broad phrase: “Be subject to the Lord’s sake to every human institution.” The sense we get from this phrase is that we are to be subject to whatever legitimate human authorities there are in existence.

The word for “institution” is an interesting word, because in the original language it basically means “creation” or “creature,” and it’s translated as either of those two words every other time it’s used in the New Testament. This word is always talking about the world or the people that God has made.

Now here in verse 13, most English translations use a word like “institution” or “authority” or “ordinance” because the context is telling us that Peter is talking about human governments or authorities. “Be subject to every human creation, whether it be to the emperor or to governors.” It’s pretty clear what he’s talking about.

Still, why does he use the word “creation” or “creature” to talk about these governments? There could be a few reasons, but one of points we can take from this is that, according to Peter, human authorities are just a part of God’s creation. Emperors, governors, presidents, prime ministers and premiers are just creatures.

And this is important when we remember that the Roman emperors were worshipped as sons of the gods or even as gods themselves. Temples were built in their honour and sacrifices were offered to them.

And when Peter refers to them as “human creations” or “human creatures,” he is putting them in their place. The Roman world thought that you should submit to the emperor because he was essentially divine. And Peter says, “no, he’s just a human creature, made by God like everybody else.”

Peter’s broad phrase here also shows that these words aren’t just for citizens of the Roman Empire. “Whether it be to the emperor” shows that Ceasar was just one example of a human authority that needed to be submitted to. Peter’s language here in verse 31 and his whole argumentation in this passage shows that all Christians everywhere should submit to any legitimate human authority.

a. Why? (v. 15)

Now, of course, we want to ask “why.” If emperors and governors or any other human authority is just that—human—then why should Christians submit to them at all? Especially if Jesus is our king and we’re a part of a new nation in Christ?

Peter’s answer comes initially right in verse 13. “Be subject for the Lord’s sake.” We can’t miss how this phrase, “the Lord’s sake,” undercuts the claims of Rome. The Roman empire claimed that “Caesar is Lord.” That was one of their catchphrases. But Peter steadfastly calls Jesus the Lord. When he says “for the Lord’s sake,” he is registering his disagreement with Rome and making the revolutionary claim that Jesus, not Caesar, is the Lord.

And yet, for the Lord’s sake—for Jesus’ sake—we must submit to human government, even if that human government is falsely claiming to be the lord. We submit, not because they’re right about that. Not because they demand it from us. We willingly submit to them because the real Lord, the Lord Jesus, tells us to.

Now why would the Lord Jesus have us submit to Caesar or his governors or to any other human authority? And the answer is unpacked for us in verse 15: “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.”

Foolish people, in their ignorance, are going to say things about God’s people that are not true. And submitting to the government is one of the ways that we “do good” and silence these people by proving them wrong.

Don’t forget that we’re not far from verse 12: “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” (1 Peter 2:12).

And Peter is showing us, here in verse 15, that submitting to the government is one of the ways that we do this.

Back in the Roman era, Christians had all kinds of wicked things said about them. They were called “atheists” because they refused to worship the Roman gods. They didn’t participate in the public religious festivals. They were accused of being against Rome, against the emperor. They were accused of upsetting the whole world, of threatening the peace of society itself (Acts 17:6). There is a reason that persecution against Christians broke out on an empire-wide scale soon after Peter wrote this letter. Christians were seen as a threat to the whole Roman way of life.

And so the way that Christians were to combat that was not by fighting for their rights or launching public relations campaigns, but by doing good. By doing good, they’d silence the ignorance of foolish people. And one of the ways they were to do good was by being good citizens and willingly submitting to the governing authorities.

Similarly, Christians today are accused of all kinds of un-true things. We’re accused of hatred, and bigotry, and all kinds of phobias. And Peter tells us to deal with this barrage of slander not by getting into arguments with the world, not by making up memes about them, but by doing good. And one of those main ways we do good is by being subject to the government.

Now just a quick word here—I think it goes without saying here that Peter is not just telling us to submit to the government when the  government is telling us to do things that God has already told us to do. I say this because this is an idea that started to gain some traction during the Covid lockdowns. The government’s job is to punish evil and reward good, like verse 14 says, and God is the standard of what’s good or evil. Therefore, governments are supposed to enforce God’s standards. And when they don’t—when they tell us to do things that aren’t in God’s word—we don’t need to listen to them.

This kind of reasoning might make some logical sene, but it wanders pretty far from what Peter is telling us. Just think: if Christians only had to obey the government when they were telling us to do stuff we find in the Bible, then why would the Bible ever have to tells to submit to the government in the first place? If they’re just telling us what God has already told us, of course we’re going to go along with it.

See, Peter has to tell us to submit because he knows that the government tells us to do all kinds of things that are unpleasant and inconvenient. Like pay taxes. Or travel to Bethlehem for a census. Or carry a Roman soldier’s load for one mile. That’s what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 5:41. It was a Roman law that a solider, at any point, could force any civilian to carry their baggage for mile. That was unfair and oppressive. And Jesus says to go two miles.

So Peter is telling us we need to submit because naturally we’re not going to want to. We’re going to think, “I belong to king Jesus; do I really need to go along with this or that law that just seems silly to me?” And he says yes, because by doing good in this way you’ll silence their slander and bring glory to God.

b. How? (v. 16)

So that deals with the “why?” question. Peter next answers another important set of questions, dealing with “how.” How should we approach this issue of submitting? What frame of mind should we be in? How should we see ourselves?

Peter answers this question for us in verse 16: “Live as people who are free.” Right away we need to understand that Peter has not changed the subject. He’s still talking about submitting to the government. And in fact, in the original language, this first phrase is only made up of two words: “as free.” In other words, “as those who are free.”

And Bible translators like the teams behind the ESV or NIV put the word “live” in there to help us see that Peter is telling us how to live. Those words “as free” apply to our whole lives. We are to live as those who are free.

But I’ll be honest—I’m not sure this is the best way to translate Peter’s words. I think it’s better to see the words “as free” as connected to the main command in this passage—which is that we’d submit to human authority. And so I really like how the CSB translates this verse: “Submit as free people” (1 Peter 2:16, CSB).

Yes, Peter is telling us how to live, but more specifically he’s telling us how to submit. We are to submit as those who are free.

Does that seem strange to you? In our modern way of thinking, “submitting” and “being free” are usually seen as opposites. In our modern world, we so often think that freedom is the ability to do what you want, to direct your own affairs, to make your own decisions, to be the captain of your own fate, without anybody—especially the government—interfering in your life.

But this is not what the Bible means when it talks about freedom. The Bible nowhere tells Christians to expect, let alone demand, political freedom. The Bible never promises us we’ll all get to live in a properly-functioning democracy. Rome had been far more democratic until just a few decades before Jesus was born, and nowhere are Christians told to bring those days back. Nowhere are Christians told to “defy tyrants.” Caesar was a tyrant and Peter tells Christians to submit to him.

And that’s because Christian freedom is not about being able to do what we want without government interference. Christian freedom is about being released from slavery to sin and the devil so that we’re able to do what God wants.

We could go all over the New Testament to see this, but one of the best places is right here in verse 16, when Peter says submit to the government as people who are free. Clearly, the freedom he’s talking about is not freedom from the government. It’s recognizing that we’ve been freed from all other lords, and we belong to Christ alone, and in Christ we freely submit to the authorities as he’s told us to.

And that gets clearer when we move into the next phrase where he says, “not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil.” That’s what so many people do with their so-called freedom, don’t they? They use it on themselves to do whatever they want. Like Simba’s fantasy in the Lion King: “No one saying do this, no one saying be there, no one saying see here. Free to run around all day, free to do it all my way.”

And according to God’s perspective, that kind of freedom is actually slavery. Peter writes in his second letter about false teachers who promise “promise … freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved” (2 Peter 2:19).

True freedom is not found in being able to do whatever we want. True freedom is found in being called by God out of darkness, into His light, so that we can do whatever He wants. As Peter says in the last part of verse 16, instead of using our freedom as a veil for evil, we’re to live “as servants of God.”

Once again, that word “live” isn’t there in the original language. It just says “as servants of God.” He’s still talking about how we’re supposed to submit. We are to submit as servants of God. Or, even more literally, “as slaves of God.”

What a profound way of saying that we belong entirely to God. We’re His. We’ve been set free to belong to him and do whatever He wants. Wouldn’t so many of our problems get cleared up if we saw ourselves this way: servants, yes even slaves, of God?

And Peter says: live like this and submit like this. Submit to the authorities as God’s free slaves. As people who’ve been ransomed from the futile ways inherited from our forefathers, who have been called out of darkness into light. As people who know that Caesar is not your lord, but don’t use that freedom as a cover-up for the evil of doing whatever we want. As free slaves of God, we submit freely to human authority because our true Master has commanded us to do so.

3. Summary (v. 17)

So, how do we sum this up? I think Peter sums it up for us really well in verse 17, with four pithy sentences that direct how we should think about our relationships as slaves of God.

First, “Honor everyone.” Yes, everyone. Even the people we don’t like. Even the people on the internet whose opinions we disagree with. Even the politicians whose policies we disagree with. Even the current prime minister of Canada. We must honour everyone.

Second, “love the brotherhood.” This is a great call-back to some of the wonderful passages we’ve heard from in recent weeks that talk about our relationship with each other. While we are to give honour to every person whom God has made, there is a special love that we will share as family in Christ. If you’ve been saved by Jesus, the people of God are your family and we must love each other.

Third, we’re to fear God. This isn’t the first time Peter has told us to fear God in this letter (1 Peter 1:17). The fear of God establishes all of our other relationships rightly. The secret to loving our brothers, the secret to honouring all people, is to be found in trembling before God our master.

And finally, moving back out to the main topic of this section, Peter says “honor the emperor.” Notice we’re not told to fear him. We fear God alone. But in the fear of God, we are to honour the emperor. In other word, treat him with the same basic respect that we give to everybody else. “Honor everyone… honor the emperor.”

As he says this, Peter upholds the rightful place of human government, even as he once again undercuts the claims of the Roman emperors that they were gods, supreme, to be feared and obeyed because they said so.

And Peter respectfully challenges that by saying that that no, we don’t fear them. We fear God. And because we fear God we’re to submit to human governors, treating them with the same honour we’d show to any other human.

4. More Questions: “But What About?”

Now, that’s the passage, and we’ve walked through the passage, and I think we’ve taken some big steps to understanding it. We know enough to be able to put it into practice.

But I know that at this point, some of us might be almost exploding with the “what about” questions. “Ya, but what about? What about if the government tells us to do something wrong? What if they tell us to stop worshipping God? What if, what it, what it?”

And there’s a few responses we can make to these questions. But first, before we do that, we want to notice that Peter doesn’t feel the need to qualify anything he’s said here. And that should tell us something important.

Peter thinks that it’s okay for him to say this and then move on to the next topic. I wonder if sometimes we’re in too big of a rush to find the exceptions. “Ya, ya, ya, obey the government—sure. But what about the times when I don’t have to do that?” I wonder if we need to just soak in Peter’s words for a bit, letting them shape our souls, and making sure we’re actually okay with what we’ve been told.

But with that being said, let’s acknowledge that, of course, Peter is operating with the assumption that if we’re obeying the authorities for the Lord’s sake, then when the authorities tell us to disobey the Lord, we can’t do that.

Peter knew that when Pharaoh told the midwives to kill the baby boys, they were right to fear God and disobey the king (Exodus 1:17). When Nebuchadnezzar said to bow down to his image, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were right to refuse (Daniel 3:18). When Darius said to stop praying to God, Daniel was right to keep on doing it (Daniel 6:10).

And when the Jewish rulers told Peter to stop talking about Jesus, he was right to look at them and say “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29, cf. 4:19). And when Herod arrested Peter, and the angel freed him from prison, Peter was right to slip away and lay low for a time (Acts 12:17).

And tradition tells us that Peter was ultimately arrested and crucified for his continued faithfulness to Jesus. Which suggests that he kept right on ignoring any command to disobey Jesus.

So our passage today is telling us that in the general course of things, we obey God by obeying the authorities. Even when those rules don’t make sense or seen unfair. But when there is a clear conflict between the authorities and God's revealed will, it’s clear who we listen to.

5. Afterword: What’s Next?

Now we know that everything I’ve just said here is not just theory. We know that, starting almost four years ago, we as a church were put through a major test as our obedience to God’s word on this very topic was stretched very thin. Without planning it, I preached on Titus 3:1—“Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities”—the week before we were all shut down. And at so many times along the way, it would have been so easy to just do what was convenient. To forget about the mask rules or the capacity rules. To have gatherings even if we weren’t supposed to. It would have been so easy.

But God told us to submit to the authorities. We do it all the time when it comes to matters of public health. We test our water here every week. We follow building codes, we have exit signs above the doors, we hire electricians instead of doing the work ourselves, we obey seating capacity restrictions.

And we followed that pattern right through Covid, as challenging and as frustrating as it was at times. And that doesn’t mean we just sat on our hands. We engaged in due process. We encouraged you to write our MLAs at one point when it seemed like churches were being disadvantaged in the reopening plan. And if you weren’t there throughout that time and want to know more about how we processed those years together, you’re free to check out our website where we did all kinds of writing during that time.

And here we are, almost four years after it all began. This is not just theory to us—it’s practice.

I don’t want to just rest on our laurels, though. I don’t want to just say “good job doing that well,” even though it’s true. I want to ask, “What’s next? What does 2024 hold for us?”

I wish I could predict what’s next. Back in 2020, we were talking about the so-called conversion therapy ban, and the way we were concerned the government was going to try to use that very poorly-written bill to muzzle churches from teaching what the Bible says about sexuality. Those storm clouds are still on the horizon, as far as I can see. We need to be prepared to say, at any point, “we have to obey God rather than man,” and we need to be braced for the challenges that may come.

But honestly, we don’t know what challenge is going to be next. We can’t predict.

What we can do, today, is make sure that we’re living as people who are free—not using our freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living, and submitting, as slaves of God.

A helpful exercise to make this real this week could be thinking about one place where you’re going to have a chance to submit to human authority. That might be as simple as looking down at your receipt and noticing the GST you’re paying to the government. Children or teenagers, maybe you apply this by submitting to your parents—maybe especially when they’re asking you to do something that doesn’t make sense to you.

And then take a moment, right as you look at your receipt, or right before you say “okay mom” or “okay dad,” to say in the quietness if your heart, “Jesus, this is for you.”

See, the good news of today’s passage is that every time we submit to the authorities, even in small ways, we have a fresh opportunity to acknowledge the dominion of Jesus over our life. We have a fresh opportunity to acknowledge that we’ve been freed to be God’s slaves. We have a fresh opportunity to not just mindlessly comply, but gladly submit for the honour of Jesus’ name.

And when we see it that way, we see that some of the most mundane events in our life are opportunities for worship. Opportunities to let Jesus reign over us.

Would you ask him for his help to do that today, and to enter this New Year with the banner of King Jesus flying high over your life?