A Radical Call to Civil Obedience | 1 Peter 2:13-17

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  • A Radical Call to Civil Obedience | 1 Peter 2:13-17
  • Local churches scattered throughout the Roman province of Asia Minor faced growing cultural hostility. The Roman government would soon ban the practice of Christianity. It would lead to genocidal persecution that would last for centuries.

    • How should these Christians face the current opposition? 
    • How should these Christians face the coming persecution? 

    Peter wrote this letter to answer these questions. This middle section of the letter addresses how Christians should live in a hostile society. 1 Peter 2:11-12 says, “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.” After this general exhortation, Peter gives specific instructions for how Christians should live in society, at work, and at home. 

    These instructions are called “Household Codes.” Paul gave similar instructions in Ephesians and Colossians. Paul gave mutual instructions to husbands and wives, fathers and children, slaves and masters. Except for directives to married couples, Peter does not. Paul’s focus was on how believers should relate to one another. Peter’s focus was on how believers should relate to unbelievers, particularly those in authority. The instructions narrow from the government to the workplace to the family. Our text begins these instructions with a radical call to civil obedience.

    • We hear a lot about civil disobedience. 
    • We hear little about civil obedience. 

    There are many illustrations of civil disobedience in the Bible. In Exodus 1:17, the Jewish midwives refused to abort the male children as Pharoah commanded. In Daniel 3:16-18, the three Hebrew boys refused to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image. In Daniel 6:10, Daniel openly prayed in God in violation of Darius’ edict. Peter himself was involved in civil disobedience. The authorities ordered the apostles to stop proclaiming Jesus. Acts 4:20 says, “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” Acts 5:29 says, “We must obey God rather than men.” 

    The Bible records times when civil disobedience was deemed necessary. But it never instructs us to practice civil disobedience. Francis Schaeffer said, “If there is no final place for civil disobedience, then the government has been made autonomous, and as such, it has been put in the place of the living God.” But civil obedience should be the default position of Christian citizens. 

    1 Peter 2:13-17 does not say everything about the relationship of church and state. But it teaches an important point: We should practice devotion to the Lord by submitting to the government. What does it mean to practice civil obedience?  

    The Principle of Civl Obedience

    The principle of civil obedience is stated in verse 13: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.” This principle governs this section of 1 Peter. 

    • 1 Peter 2:18 instructs servants to be subject to masters. 
    • 1 Peter 3:1 instructs wives to be subject to their husbands. 

    Adrian Rogers called submission the incredible power of kingdom authority: “You cannot be over the things that God wants you to be over until you learn to be under those things that God has set over you.”

    The Spirit of Christian Submission. Verse 13 says, “Be subject.” The verb means “to place under.” It is a military term that means that pictures a soldier’s submission to a commanding officer. Submission is virtually a synonym for obedience. Charles Swindoll said, “Our problem is not understanding what submission means. Our problem is doing what it says.” Submission has become a bad word. But it is a biblical word. God commands us to submit. The grammar indicates willing subjection, not coerced submission. 

    Submission to others is not absolute. And it is not for their sake. Verse 13 says it is “For the Lord’s sake.” This is the theological basis for submission to civil authority. Romans 13:1-2 warns: “Let every person be subject to the government authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” 

    • Anyone can obey the law to avoid punishment. 
    • Christians obey the law for the Lord’s sake. 

    We submit to follow the Lord’s instructions. Matthew 22:21 says, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” We also submit to follow the Lord’s example. There is no record of Jesus organizing, leading, participating in any political campaign, rally, march, protest, or sit-in. There are only two recorded political statements Jesus made; Matthew 22:21 and John 18:36: “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” 

    The Scope of Christian Submission. “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” is a non-partisan command that transcends government systems, cultural ideologies, and political parties. We are to subject ourselves to every duly constituted office and ordinance. Verses 13-14 present the scope of Christian submission by describing two levels of government. 

    Submission to National Leaders. Verse 13 tells us to submit to the “emperor.” Literally, the word is “king.” It was understood to refer to the Roman emperor. Peter calls the emperor “supreme.” The Roman emperor was the most powerful man in the world, an overlord who ruled with full and final authority.

    The United States has presidents, not emperors. Every four years, we vote for a new president. Within those four years, we can legally remove a president from office for crimes and misdemeanors. But our democratic system does not diminish the call to submit. It emphasizes and enforces it. At the time of Peter’s writing, the emperor was Nero, who burned the city on Rome He would blame Christians and launched the persecution of the church. Nero executed Peter. Here is the dilemma of Politics. The best person for the office may not be God’s choice for the time. Yet Peter instructs the saints to be subject to the emperor as supreme. What’s our excuse? 

    Submission to Local Leaders. Verse 14 tells us to submit to “governors.” These local magistrates ruled over a providence on the emperor’s behalf. Jesus was condemned by the governor, Pilate. Paul stood trial before the governors Felix and Festus. A citizen of a Roman province would not encounter the emperor. But he lived daily under the rule of the governor. Peter is saying we are to submit to national and local leaders. We are to submit to Supreme Court rulings and local traffic laws. 

    • It does not say we have to agree with what the government does. 
    • It does not say we have to like the policies that govern us. 
    • It does not say we have to respect the person who holds office. 

    Verse 14 states the purpose of government: “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” Government exists to administrate justice. It is to punish those who do evil. We are not to take vengeance in our own hands. But government exists to administer just retribution. Likewise, the government is to praise those who do good. The government cannot rehabilitate criminals. But it can promote moral behavior. No government reaches this ideal. But the goal of government should be to foster a just society. And we should be submissive. God is a God of order. Order requires submission. Insurrection brings anarchy, not justice. 

    The Purpose of Civil Obedience

    Why should we be subject to civil authorities? 

    Christian Apologetics. Christians often talk of finding God’s will. But God’s will is not lost. The will of God is revealed in the word of God. It is God’s will that you be saved. 2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” It is God’s will that you be sanctified. 1 Thessalonians 4:3 says, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality.” 1 Peter 2:15 teaches it is God’s will that you be submissive: “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” 

    Verse 12 says the church was called “evildoers.” They were viewed as criminals and accused of everything from atheism to cannibalism to incest. These wild accusations were “the ignorance of foolish men.” This phrase suggests a lack of morals, not a lack of intellect. Immoral people slander what they do not comprehend. We not to defend ourselves. We are to live apologetically. How we live influences what others think about Christ. We are to “put to silence” slander by doing good. The verb means to muzzle. Foolish men yap against Christianity like ravenous dogs… 

    • In university classrooms
    • In cable newsrooms
    • In liberal pulpit

    In books, music, art, movies, and news, foolish men bark against Christianity. But you can muzzle the criticisms of hostile unbelievers by doing good. 1 Peter 3:15-16 says: “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that ins in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” 

    Christian Liberty. Verse 16 says, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.” Submission is not bondage. Christians are free from sin, the law, and death. John 8:31-32 says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:36 says, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Galatians 5:1 says, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Christian liberty is spiritual freedom, not political freedom. We are not to use freedom as “a cover-up for evil.” 

    • Righteous acts can disguise sinful motivations. 
    • Political activism can be a veil to cloak a hidden agenda. 
    • Christian liberty can be a cover-up for evil intentions. 

    Charles Wright & the 103rd Street Band sung: “It’s not what you look like, when you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s what you’re doing when you’re doing what you look like you doing.”

    • Freedom is not free. 
    • Liberty is not license. 
    • Freedom from sin is not freedom to sin. 

    Galatians 5:13 says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Paul said use your freedom to serve one another. Peter says use your freedom as servants of God. What a paradox! Free people are bondservants of God. Liberty is found in joyful obedience to God. James 1:25 says, “But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” 

    Critics asked Peter if Jesus paid the temple taxes. Peter answered, yes. At the house, Jesus asked Peter who a king taxes, his sons, or the citizens? Peter answered the citizens. In Matthew 17:24-27, Jesus said, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.’”

    The Practice of Civil Obedience 

    Verse 17 says, “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” These four imperatives teach the priority of cultural engagement: Relationships. We do not change society through political campaigns, elections, or agendas. We make a difference by treating people the way Christ commands. Titus 3:1-2 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.” 

    Honor everyone. Romans 13:7 instructs us to give “honor to whom honor is owed.” Peter says honor is owed to everyone. We are to highly esteem all people. People may dishonor you because of your faith in Christ. Do not reciprocate their disrespect. It does not matter if they do not look like us, think like us, or live like us. Honor everyone – no matter their ethnicity, gender, or status, religion, or identity for two reasons: 

    • Every person is created in the image of God. 
    • Every person is a soul for whom Christ died. 

    Love the brotherhood. As we honor everyone, we have a higher obligation to one another. We must love the brotherhood. Peter does not use the word “church.” He calls it the “brotherhood.” This is the nature of the church. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. As a family, we are to love one another. John 13:34-35 says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” 

    Fear God. This command is climatic. We are to honor everyone. We are to love the brotherhood. But we are to fear God. If you do not fear God, you will not honor everyone or love the brotherhood. 1 Peter 1:17 says, “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.” The fear of God is the fear of divine displeasure, not the fear of cataclysmic wrath. It is reverence for the holiness of God. Fear God alone. To fear God is to fear nothing else. 

    Honor the emperor. Proverbs 24:21-22 says, “My son, fear the Lord and the king, and do not join with those who do otherwise, for disaster will arise suddenly from them, and who knows the ruin that will come from them both?” Peter does not tell us to fear the king. He tells us to honor him with our words, conduct, and attitude. Honor is commanded for the emperor and everyone. An emperor is just a man, like everyone else. Yet we should honor the office he has been given. The best way to honor the emperor is to pray for him. Christians have more power in the prayer closet than we do at the voting booth. Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord, he turns it wherever he wills.” 


    H.B. Charles Jr.

    Pastor-Teacher at the Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church of Jacksonville and Orange Park, Florida.