Welcome, please sit down, open your Bible or use your device to find I Peter 2:9. We’re using the English Standard Version.
Imagine you’re playing some sport with your friends, maybe basketball or soccer or lacrosse, and it’s just something all of you are doing for fun. You want to do well for the fun of it, but you’re not really worried about it. If you have a bad day, you’ll get another chance.
But now imagine you’re playing with an official team. You’ve got friends on the team, but now you’ve got fans and parents and friends in the stands. Your awareness is heightened; you try to bring more intensity. Whether you win matters a bit more, doesn’t it?
Now imagine you learn that there are some college scouts watching the game. How do you think that would affect you? Being aware of your audience will probably make you up your intensity even more. You’ll want to do all that you can, really try to excel, because it will matter a lot to you and to those watching.
In our passage today, we’ll see Peter emphasize to the readers of his letter that there is a watching world, and they’ve been chosen by God for a purpose: their lives are meant to demonstrate God’s holiness, goodness, and love.
In other words, our behavior should be in keeping with our new identity because God intends our lives to be a demonstration to the unbelievers around us. Specifically, Peter wants his readers to be like Christ, especially with respect to humility.
We’re continuing our sermon series called “Perspective,” and we’re studying the first letter of Peter, who was one of Jesus’ Twelve Disciples and a significant pillar of the Early Church. Peter wrote his letter from Rome around 62 or 63 A.D., just a couple of years before being martyred there. Peter is writing to believers in several provinces, something like the northern 75 or 80% portion, of what is now the nation of Turkey. Many of these believers were in churches that were begun by Paul in his first, second, and third missionary journeys, places like Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, and Ephesus. And in many of these places, the churches had begun under significant opposition, and they still faced great difficulties.
Thus far in the letter, Peter has encouraged the believers to consider the amazing nature of God’s great mercy: through Christ’s death and resurrection, we who believe have been born again to a living hope. Yes, there are present sufferings, but God is powerfully guarding us through faith, so we’re able to have inexpressible joy. We are called to live holy lives, earnestly loving one another, because God has chosen us to be His people.
Today, we’ll see Peter begin a new section of his letter. In our first point, “Sojourners and exiles,” we’ll look at what Peter says about Christians’ identity and his summary for how Christians should behave.
Point #2, “Citizens,” will be our longest point as we think about how Christians should act towards the government. We’ll consider some truths about the government, some of the tensions we face, and ways that we can be faithful to God’s commands
In Point #3, “Servants,” we’ll briefly consider how Christians should think about their workplaces.
We’ll work through these three points by asking three questions each time: “Who are we?”: “What are we to do?”; and “What will be the effect?”
These questions will help us understand Peter’s chain of thought: Peter discusses the identity of his audience, he tells them how they should act, and then he tells them what impact their obedience will have. The key idea is that our identity affects our purpose.
So again, we’ll try to understand what this passage has for us by asking in each of our points: “Who are we?” (What does Peter say about our identity?) “What are we to do?” (What commands does Peter give to us?) and “What will be the effect?” (What impact will our obedience have?)
Point #1, Sojourners and exiles
First, let’s reread v. 11–12:
11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.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.
So our first question is, “Who are we?”
The first thing we see is Peter addressing the Christians directly by calling them “Beloved,” and then reminding them that they are “sojourners and exiles.”
We’ve seen some of this language before, especially at the very beginning of Peter’s letter. Peter’s use of “Beloved” seems to indicate a new section of his letter, as does his use of the word again in chapter 4:12. But more importantly, Peter reminds his readers that they are loved, by him and, more importantly, and as he has already said in his letter, by God.
“Sojourner” (or “foreigner”) reminds us of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their wanderings, or perhaps the Israelites, freed from slavery in Egypt and on the move to the Promised Land. Like them, we have been promised a land, a home, a new Jerusalem, a city not made by human hands. And if we’re sojourners now, that means we aren’t home yet, we’re still on the journey.
“Exile” is repeated from verses 1 and 17 of I Peter 1. In I Peter 1:1, believers are “elect exiles,” chosen by God, sanctified in the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ. And in I Peter 1:17, we’re reminded to conduct ourselves in a right fear of God during our time in exile.
The word “exile” should make us consider the experiences of the people of Israel in exile, who were also looking for the restoration of a place for God’s people.
And of course, as we think about our identity, we should remember verses 9 and 10, which Mike discussed last week. Peter uses a variety of Old Testament terms to describe the identity of believers, both Jews and Gentiles, as being part of God’s family, of being God’s own chosen people, “called out of darkness into His marvelous light,” for a purpose: that they may proclaim the excellencies of God.
Peter reminding his readers that they are “sojourners and exiles” emphasizes Christians’ otherness, our difference as God’s chosen people.
Remember Jesus words in John 17, when he prayed to the Father. He said:
14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.[a]16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them[b] in the truth; your word is truth.18 As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. (John 17:14-18)
So we are “beloved” but also “sojourners and exiles.” This world, with its twisted values and false gods, is not our home. We are looking ahead to the place Jesus is preparing. In Christ, we are God’s chosen people, foreigners and strangers in this world, watching for the return of the King and the fulfillment of His promises.
That’s our identity.
Next, our second question: “What are we to do?”
In verse 11, Peter urges his readers to “abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against the soul.”
Back at the beginning of January, Brad taught us from I Peter 1:14: “Do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance.” Brad pointed us to the Apostle Paul’s description in the book of Philippians of enemies of the cross of Christ; for them, “their god is their belly.” We’ve already seen Peter warning Christians not to be slaves to our passions.
And last week Mike reminded us that our passions are our sinful desires. Yes, there are many good desires that we have, for example, for food. Yet we can be tempted to make idols of our appetites or our appearance and obsess about eating or not eating. Mike reminded us that we are called to be holy, which partly means having self-control: our sinful desires we put to death, and all of our desires we submit to the Lordship of Christ.
There are two more things to see in this verse.
First, Peter warns us that these passions of the flesh, our sinful desires, are waging war against our souls.
By describing our situation as warfare, he emphasizes how serious this really is. Thinking in these terms helps us not be complacent. Puritan writer John Owen said it this way: “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” And this is what Romans 8:13 says:
“For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
We must stay vigilant and keep fighting against our sinful desires. If you want to live, by the Spirit’s power working in you, you must take up your cross daily and keep killing your sin: your pride, your lusts, your anger, your selfishness.
And all true Christians are fighting this internal holy war. If you’re tempted to think that you’re alone, know for certain that all those whom God has chosen, all Christians, are in this battle until we breathe our last and enter our Sabbath rest. Your holy war is not against other people, but against the sinful passions in your heart. Thanks be to God we don’t have to fight this alone.
The second thing to see is that, yes, the word “abstain” tells us there’s a call to stop, to avoid, to turn away from. I really like a line I heard from Fred Wolfe: “Don’t feed the dragon.”
But Christian living isn’t only avoidance and abstaining. Repeatedly we see in Scripture, such as in Ephesians 4, the call to “put off” but also to “put on.” You stop thinking of something by turning your attention to something else. You stop loving lesser things, you put your passions to death, by loving greater things, by loving the One who is the greatest and most glorious.
God has taken us out of the darkness and removed the darkness from our hearts. So walk in the light of the King, if indeed you’ve tasted that the Lord is good, as verse 3 says.
The other side of abstaining, the doing side, we see in verse 12, where Peter instructs believers to “keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable” and then where he connects that honorable conduct with the Gentiles seeing “your good deeds.” (“Gentiles” here likely just means unbelievers.)
What should this honorable conduct look like? Well, Peter has repeatedly encouraged his readers to be holy. Christians’ pursuit of holiness, of being like God, will result in their doing good deeds and maintaining honorable conduct. When we love our Lord Jesus Christ, and seek to imitate Him, we will do good deeds.
So we’ve asked “Who are we?” and the answer is beloved sojourners and exiles. And we’ve seen what we’re to do.
Now our third question: What will be the effect of our obedience
Looking at verse 12, it seems Peter is clearly remembering what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. Here’s what Jesus said in Matthew 5:14–16:
14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that[b] they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14–16)
When God’s people obey Him, and when unbelievers see their lives and the genuineness of their love, God is glorified.
Last week Mike taught us that “the day of visitation” in verse 12 can be understood in a couple of ways. One way is that the “the day of visitation” refers to what the Old Testament calls “the Day of the Lord,” when Jesus returns again in power as the triumphant King to gather His people and bring judgment on the rebellious.
This phrase can also be understood as the day when God shines His light in someone’s heart and they have faith and believe and then glorify Him for His goodness, and grace, and salvation. If “the day of visitation” has this more immediate meaning, then it reminds us that God is expanding the number of His people, that there are more of His sheep that must be brought into the fold.
Our proclamation of His excellencies, by our words and deeds, will be used by God to accomplish this. The Master is returning, and if we are His, we should want Him to be glorified in that day by all who are appointed to that priestly office.
Let’s move on to our second point, “Citizens.” Again, we’ll ask our three questions to help us understand these verses: “Who are we?”, “What are we to do?”, and “What will be the effect?”
Point number 2: Citizens
As we look at this together, I should say that I find these verses particularly relevant because of my work. I’m an attorney and for the last several years I’ve worked for an elected official, the State Treasurer. Most of my work activities relate to supporting the Treasurer’s objectives and helping the Department of State Treasurer carry out its responsibilities. So that simply means that thinking rightly about government matters to me every day!
Let’s reread verse 13 through 17:
13 Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution,[b] whether it be to the emperor[c] 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[d] of God.17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Let’s start with our first question, “Who are we?”
Part of the answer to that is implied by Peter’s first instruction. Peter sees his readers where they are: yes, in an ultimate sense they are sojourners and exiles, but they also live within a specific political situation under an established government. They were subjects within the Roman Empire and, depending on their station, either had great rights and privileges or none at all.
But the more important answer to the question is found in verse 16: “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.”
This Greek word for “free” refers to a freedom that’s much deeper and more profound than mere political freedom. In John 8, Jesus uses the same term (John 8:31–36):
31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave[b] to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:31–36)
This freedom, the freedom from sin, means that, despite one’s station in life, even if you were a slave, there is something truer and deeper about your identity and destiny. That truer and deeper thing is the redemption from slavery to sin and self that was bought by the blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And when He sets us free, we are free indeed! And this isn’t just freedom from the guilt of sin, but it is freedom from trying to earn God’s favor through your own perfect obedience. And it is the freedom from the power of sin over a Christian’s life, so that, by the Spirit working in us, we really can abstain from our passions.
This is profoundly uplifting, and, as the history of the West has played out, profoundly subversive to any notion that slavery of another human should be permitted. So the slaves who would have been part of the congregations that received Peter’s letter would have been encouraged: their true identity, and all Christians’ identity, is that of free people who are bond-servants (slaves) of God. And a slave in His service will be more glorious than any earthly king.
The important thing to understand here is that Peter does not mean political freedom or a modern notion of freedom that seems to be everywhere today, a so-called freedom that’s unattached, uncommitted, unburdened by responsibilities, unsubmitted, and, truth be told, untethered from reality and deeply unsatisfying. No, the freedom Peter means is one that connects you to your rightful place as a servant of God, with all of its responsibilities but also its future glorious rewards. That is who we are as believers: a freed people.
Let’s now look at the next question, “What are we to do?”
As we’ve seen already, the first command is to “Be subject” or “submit yourselves,” to every human institution, and then Peter mentions governmental authorities, the emperor and his governors.
But there’s a crucial phrase “for the Lord’s sake” that we shouldn’t miss. The word “Lord” that Peter uses is “kyrion,” which means “master” and is probably referring to Jesus Christ as the person exercising absolute ownership rights. This term “for the Lord’s sake” emphasizes Jesus’ supremacy.
Before we look more closely at Peter’s instructions for what we are to do, we need to see four true things about government to orient us.
First, God has all authority, rule, and dominion. All authority is God’s and His alone.
This truth is proclaimed over and over again in the Scriptures. For example, in Jeremiah 10, Jeremiah compares mere idols to the one true and living God, and he emphasizes God’s rulership of all people:
6 There is none like you, O Lord;
you are great, and your name is great in might.
7 Who would not fear you, O King of the nations?
For this is your due;
for among all the wise ones of the nations
and in all their kingdoms
there is none like you. (Jeremiah 10:6–7)
God has all authority as the Creator and Sustainer of all things. And the Son exercises the rule and authority of God. In John 12:49–50, Jesus says:
49 For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak.50 And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.
Paul tells us in Colossians 1:15–18 about the preeminence and authority of Jesus:
15 He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.16 For by[f] him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.
At the end of Matthew’s gospel, in the Great Commission, Jesus says that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28:18)
God’s supreme authority is also important in Peter’s letter. Speaking of baptism and Jesus’ resurrection, Peter says in 3:22 that Jesus “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” And in 4:11 and in 5:11, Peter twice jumps into doxology: “To [God] belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (4:11)
So, truth #1, God has all authority.
Truth #2: God delegates authority to human governments.
One way we see that God has delegated authority in various contexts or spheres is simply by looking around. We see all around us structures and organization, and various businesses, associations, and governments.
And then we look to God’s Word, and we see that God tells us specific ways that He has granted different types, or spheres, of authority. For example:
The clear testimony of Scripture is that the authority exercised by human governments has been given by God.
Jeremiah, in a warning to the nations around Judah, says this in Jeremiah 27:
4 . . .‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: This is what you shall say to your masters:5 “It is I who by my great power and my outstretched arm have made the earth, with the men and animals that are on the earth, and I give it to whomever it seems right to me. 6 Now I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, my servant, and I have given him also the beasts of the field to serve him. 7 All the nations shall serve him and his son and his grandson, until the time of his own land comes. Then many nations and great kings shall make him their slave. (Jeremiah 27:4-7)
Jesus also made it clear whence authority comes when he stood before Pilate, the emperor’s governor of Judea. Here’s what we find in chapter 19 of John’s gospel:
9 He [Pilate] entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer.10 So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” 11 Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above….” (John 19:9-11)
Jesus knew that HE himself was, and IS(!), the King over all of creation. Yet He acknowledged that God had given authority to that government, and then He submitted Himself so that the will of God would be accomplished.
Finally, here’s what Paul says in Romans 13, beginning in verse 1:
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.2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. (Romans 13:1–5)
Paul makes it clear: the authority exercised by governments is delegated by God. And refusing to be in subjection doesn’t just provoke the human authority, but that will provoke God’s wrath, God’s judgment.
So all authority is God’s, and He delegates authority to the government.
#3 The third truth is that God has done this for our good.
Peter says in verse 14 that governors are there “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” We saw in Romans 13 that Paul provides a similar description of government’s purpose.
From the beginning of the newly ordered world following the Flood, God has given authority to human governments to restrain and punish crimes. In the covenant that God made with Noah in Genesis 9, which extends to all people, God says this:
5 And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.
6 “Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.” (Genesis 9:5–6)
Scripture teaches (such as in James 4:1–3) that the deepest root of crime is actually our sin nature, our “passions of the flesh” that we talked about earlier. By holding before a person the threat of punishment, government can hold that person’s sin nature in check and can compel him to refrain from criminal acts. Imperfectly, of course. But this restraint on evil due to the threat of punishment is nonetheless real when government is fulfilling this God-given purpose.
A second purpose that God has given to human government is to preserve order. Driving on the left side or the right side is arbitrary, but that decision must be made and then enforced. In principle, this is a blessing to us all and promotes our good.
#4 The fourth truth is that God accomplishes His will in part through the government.
Athough God has delegated authority to government, He retains sovereign control over all things, and He uses human governments to accomplish His good purposes.
In our series on Daniel, Philip reminded us that God rules all of history, and He is accomplishing His will through all sorts of things. One of those things that God uses is the actions of those in government.
Proverbs 21:1 says: “The king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord;he turns it wherever he will.”
Proverbs says elsewhere that “As the heavens for height, and the earth for depth, so the heart of kings is unsearchable.” (Prov. 25:3). But not to God. He isn’t surprised by anything any human ruler may do, good or bad. Nor is the Creator of all things frustrated by the outcome of a particular election
Remember the familiar words from Psalm 2. Speaking of the rebellious kings of the earth, the psalmist says that “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.”
And lastly, the Christians, including Peter, praying together in Acts 4:29, acknowledged before God that King Herod, Pontius Pilate, and the Jewish leaders who were gathered together against Jesus were there “to do whatever [God’s] hand and [God’s] plan had predestined to take place.” God used the government’s unjust actions to accomplish His plan of salvation.
So, there are four true things about government for us to remember:
With this foundation, let’s look again at our text.
In verse 13, Peter instructs Christians to “[b]e 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 . . . .”
The word for “be subject” is the same word used by James when he says in chapter 4, verse 7 to “Submit therefore to God . . .” It means to place or rank yourself under. To “be subject” means, generally, to obey.
Next Peter says “every human institution,” which in the Greek is “every human creation,” or “creature,” which tips us off that (1) the form of the government doesn’t matter much to Peter and (2) those in government are merely human.
Also, Peter’s recognizes both the emperor and governors sent by him, which emphasizes the reality of delegated authority. You cannot sidestep the immediate authority over you by pretending allegiance to a higher authority.
So here’s the basic command: Peter is saying to believers, for the sake of Jesus Christ, their true Master who alone is Lord over all, place yourselves under and obey His servants, those who have been delegated authority in government.
That’s the basic command. But we feel tensions within this command, don’t we? Let’s consider several points of tension and then think about the right response.
First, “be subject” cannot mean “always obey everything that the government says.”
We know that, instead of punishing evil and praising good, sometimes those in authority in government try to compel behavior that disobeys God. But if we are to submit “for the Lord’s sake” then we must not obey commands from human authorities that cause us to sin. We’ll discuss this more in a moment.
A second place of tension for us is this: governmental authority might not be compelling specific sinful behavior, but our laws sometimes allow or encourage disobedience to God.
For example, abortion isn’t forced by our government the way it has been in China, but our laws have allowed and encouraged it. And slavery, and racial discrimination through the segregation laws, weren’t necessarily commanded, but these were allowed and enabled by the law.
So as Christians we feel a tension with the command to “be subject” because sometimes government compels sinful actions, and sometimes government allows or encourages disobedience to God, even if it isn’t compelled.
A third point of tension is that sometimes, perhaps often, it isn’t clear what we are to obey.
These days we have an astounding multiplicity of laws, regulations, and authorities. So much so, it is hardly possible to know with any confidence that you aren’t violating something. In 2011, a Boston civil rights attorney wrote a book called “Three Felonies A Day,” which is what he said a professional in America could be guilty of. That’s hyperbole, but it makes a valid point. It can be difficult and sometimes impossible to know all the laws that might apply to a situation. And then there are things like CDC “guidance,” which isn’t law at all, and yet other government agencies’ “guidance” really is treated like law. It can be bewildering. Despite your honest intentions to be subject to the government, you could be breaking a law. How is submission even possible?
Finally, we can feel tension with the command to “be subject” when governmental leaders exercise authority unlawfully.
In my own experience, I sometimes come across someone in government with a measure of authority who is intent on fixing some problem they see while casually ignoring whether they have any responsibility or legal authority to do so. This urge to fix problems while lacking lawful authority can be pernicious and very difficult to counter, especially when it is coupled with power and hidden from view.
For example, there’s an ongoing court battle over how to adequately fund public schools in poorer areas of North Carolina. This is a real question of public policy that’s going to require patience and cooperation to address. But last fall, a judge ordered several government officials to transfer money under their own authority, outside of the process that the law vests in the legislature. Do you remember your middle school government class, where you learned who has the “power of the purse”? Well, that basic idea is being fought over again in North Carolina, and I think that’s because there’s a desire to fix a problem but an unwillingness to do so within the boundaries of the law.
So the command in verse 13 is to “be subject” to the governing authorities, but we feel tensions with this. How do we resolve these tensions?
Peter himself provides a helpful example for us: in Acts 4, Peter and John healed a man and then were brought before the Jewish Council, the same Council that had condemned Jesus. Then they were commanded to no longer teach in Jesus’ name. Here’s what we read in Acts 4:18–21:
18 So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.19 But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, 20 for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” 21 And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way to punish them, because of the people, for all were praising God for what had happened. (Acts 4:18–21)
Later, in chapter 5, Peter and the apostles are more blunt: “’We must obey God rather than men.’” (Acts 5:29)
This is the same Peter who instructs us, for the Lord’s sake, to be subject to every human institution. So one basic principle is that when there is a choice between obeying God or obeying a human authority, we must take courage and obey God. The Hebrew midwives in Exodus, chapter 1, chose to obey God rather than Pharoah’s command to kill the Hebrew babies, and they were commended and blessed by God for disobeying the Pharoah.
Obedience of God instead of men, when a choice is presented, also establishes a biblical case for civil disobedience. By “civil disobedience” I mean a refusal to obey certain unjust laws, and willingly accept the consequences, as a peaceful form of political protest.
I think Daniel’s willingness to openly pray to God by his window, after the command was issued that only King Darius was to be prayed to, is a biblical example of civil disobedience. Perhaps Peter and John preaching in the temple in Acts 5, after being commanded not to, is another example.
One model we have for responding to the sinful actions of governmental leaders is that of the prophets in the Old Testament. Repeatedly, God sent the prophets to speak against the sins of the people and the leaders of Israel and Judah. But remember: they spoke God’s words, not their own ideas.
As sojourners and exiles, we also have a model for positive actions: the Judean exiles taken to Babylon. Here are God’s instructions in Jeremiah 29:
4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:4–7)
If we, as sojourners and exiles, truly love our neighbors as God commands, we will seek their welfare. This means we cannot willingly go along with unjust laws. Instead, we work to undo man’s laws that violate God’s laws, that encourage harm to ourselves and our neighbors.
And love of our neighbors also compels us to participate and influence the government in a Godly way as much as we reasonably can, whether through voting, running for office, serving on a jury, or other things.
Elections aren’t the end-all, but they do matter a great deal. Voting impacts what laws are passed or repealed and how they are executed. Voting for the President influences what federal judges are appointed, which affects whether justice, such as for the unborn, is encouraged or denied. Lawsuits, or the threat of lawsuits, sometimes make government leaders back down from unjust actions. And serving on a jury, which is your Christian duty, will directly impact whether justice is done. All of this requires humility and wisdom, courage and steadfastness.
Throughout history there has always been this tug-of-war for God’s people: sometimes we experience hostility from governments and at other times God’s people are able to participate and influence that sphere for the good of all.
It has always been this way for God’s people. And as the day of the Lord draws closer, the hostility of the governments of the world may increase.
As we seek the welfare of the place where we are in exile, we must not lose sight of God’s authority and sovereign activity. When our vision of this grows dim, we can start caring too much or too little about the government.
We are not to be like the dwarfs in C.S. Lewis’ book, The Last Battle, who lost sight of rightful authority in their rejection of tyranny. Nor should we be like the tribes of Israel in the book of Judges, when “[e]veryone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 17:6, 21:25)
Knowing that we are a “free people” who are “bond-servants of God,” and steadfastly holding a right view of God’s authority and activity, will enable us to courageously humble ourselves, like our Savior standing before Pilate.
That was a lot. Let’s move quickly through verse 17 and finish answering our question, “What are we to do?” As sojourners and exiles, bond-servants of God, living under a particular government, Peter gives us four more short commands
First: “Honor everyone.”
This command is straightforward but impossible to do without God’s Spirit making us more like Christ. Here’s one practical help: ask God to help you see that other person as an eternal soul, bearing the image of their Creator. Imagine a person who hates God and you and everything you love and represent. And now imagine that person believes, miraculously saved (like you). Will you have reason to be ashamed of your prior attitudes, or your treatment of your now-brother or sister? Do you care more about being right or that this person be redeemed? Do you hide behind anonymity or the impersonal nature of online conversations? Jesus always spoke the truth, but always redemptively. We honor everyone because each person was created by God to bear His image.
Second: “Love the brotherhood.”
“Love” is a greater command than “honor.” This word “brotherhood” is also used in I Peter 5:9, where Peter writes that “the same kinds of sufferings are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.” One way to think of this word is that of “a band of brothers.” Peter is the only one to use this word in the entire New Testament; maybe he was remembering the sets of brothers in the Twelve Disciples: James and John, sons of Zebedee, and Peter and his own brother, Andrew. Regardless, Peter instructs us to love this Christian band of brothers and sisters of which we have been made a part. In the context of our struggles and suffering, this command makes sense. We tend to do better when we have a close brother or sister walking alongside us; this is true when we’re trying to do something like run a race, and it’s also true when we’re suffering. “Love the brotherhood.”
Third: “Fear God.”
Several weeks ago, Phil taught us from I Peter 1:17: “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.” Remember what Phil taught us: this fear isn’t craven or cowering; it means to humbly revere, obey, and honor God. Yes, Christians are instructed to call God our Heavenly Father. But He is also our holy, righteous Judge who has compassion for His forgiven people but by no means acquits the guilty. In Luke 20:25, Jesus said to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” We should pay our taxes, but we are to fear only God. With this command, Peter places God at the top of the hierarchy; in ascending order of importance: honor everyone, love the brotherhood, fear God.
And the last command: “Honor the emperor.”
As Daniel pointed out when he preached on this text, with this instruction Peter places the emperor on the same level as…“everyone.” We are not to worship or fear those in authority in government. Here’s a question for us, though: do we struggle to honor those in government, whether they are elected officials, or the police officer who just gave us a speeding ticket?
In Luke 6:45, Jesus said this: “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” Our words reflect our attitudes. We should not speak, or comment online, or text, or forward an email, out of malice, unrighteous anger, fear, or bitterness. If we rightly fear God, who has all dominion and authority, we should also appropriately respect his human servants in government.
To finish this section, let’s answer our third question, “What will be the effect?” We’ve talked about our identity and what we are to do. So what will be the impact of our being subject to the governing authorities?
Verse 15 says “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.”
I think Thomas Schreiner’s commentary provides a good explanation for this verse:
By submitting to government, Christians demonstrate that they are good citizens, not anarchists. Hence, they extinguish the criticisms of those who are ignorant and revile them. Such ignorance is not innocent but culpable, rooted in the foolishness of unbelievers. . . . [Peter] did not envision society and governmental structures as always siding with believers or inevitably commending them for their good behavior. His point was that the good behavior of Christians will minimize slanderous attacks on believers, revealing that charges of moral debilitation have no basis. Opponents will be discovered to be animated by hatred, lacking any objective ground for their criticism of believers.
Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, 117–141
Remember that Peter is writing in a context where this new sect, called Christians, was provoking great confusion. They proclaimed that the man Jesus of Nazareth was also the Son of God and the King over all, but that His Kingdom was not of this world. These Christians were strange: gracious and loving, even to their enemies. But they were also turning the established order upside down, upending the old prejudices and divisions that everyone accepted.
Peter’s point is that faithful living by Christians in proper submission to the government demonstrates what is true and what is false. Christians will be of the light, and sinful foolishness will eventually be silenced.
Our own context seems similar to Peter’s. We can find ourselves speaking the truth lovingly and graciously, filled with kindness and compassion, and still be called hateful and subversive and destructive and harmful. This is because what we say and how we live tears down the idols of our age. Have no fear, no matter the accusations. God will silence the wicked, and He will open the eyes of His chosen people, some of whom will be observing you and me.
Let’s now turn to our third point, “Servants.” This will be a lot shorter
As before, let’s consider what Peter says about our identity, the command Peter gives, and the impact that is promised.
Let’s reread verses 18 through 20:
18 “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.”
So, who are we?
Peter addresses “servants” in verse 18, but obviously this comes on the heels of what we’ve been talking about: Peter’s description of Christians’ identity as beloved, as sojourners and exiles, as free people who are servants of God. Remember what we saw in verse 9 and 10, too: “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.” These describe the fundamental identity that empowers us to obey God, regardless of our station in life. For the slaves in the churches receiving this letter, who mostly likely would never be able to change their condition, the truth about their identity in Christ would have been profoundly encouraging.
Looking more closely at the group that Peter is addressing (“servants”), the word Peter uses is actually a different word for “slave,” a word that was used to refer to a person who worked in a household. This isn’t the same word that emphasizes complete ownership by a master, which is what Peter uses in verse 16 to describe Christians’ relationship to God.
Peter is talking to a group of people that would have covered a wide range of activities. These slaves could be anything from day-laborers to even doctors, teachers, and so forth. For this reason, it seems appropriate to apply these instructions from Peter to all of us who are employees.
A quick note about slavery: we’ve already talked about how Peter is mostly concerned with encouraging Christians in their current situation. But where the Christian faith takes root, it has a profound influence on the culture and society. Sometimes those changes are rapid; sometimes they take centuries. But God’s work through history is clear: as His people obey His Word and are led by His Spirit, they change all that is around them.
Next, what are we to do?
First, Peter says to the slaves that they are to be “subject to your masters with all respect.” “Respect” is actually the word for “fear,” phobos. But Peter has stressed throughout this letter that we are to only fear God. Peter’s point is that, because we fear God, we are to be submitted to our earthly masters. This is similar to what we’ve seen with respect to the government; Peter is now applying it to the context of our regular work.
Second, verse 19 tells us that, if we find ourselves suffering unjustly from our master, we are to be “mindful of God.”
For most of us, our daily bread depends upon our work. Many folks spend a lot of time doing their work. And sometimes we can be trapped into finding our identity in our work. Perhaps for all these reasons, when you find yourself suffering at work, it can be extremely difficult. We can feel powerless, afraid, lonely.
But obedience as God’s bond-servant doesn’t depend on others’ actions or reactions. Whether our boss is kind and gentle or harsh and unfair, we are called to be good workers and to work as for the Lord and not as for men (Colossians 3:23).
Peter recognizes that sometimes we will suffer in our daily work, and he makes it clear that it is a lot better to suffer for doing good than for doing bad. Actually, he will make this point twice more in this letter, in 3:17 and in 4:15-16.
It is at these times that we must “mindful of God.” How?
One way is to remember that when we suffer unjustly, we are being like Christ. This will be the topic of the next sermon, but let’s look at verse 21: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.”
Jesus suffered on our behalf, and he has called us to follow his example. When we suffer unjustly, we are being like him.
The second way we can be mindful of God is to remember that He sees and He cares! Later in this letter, in 5:6–7, Peter will remind us of this truth: 6“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you,7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”
In our suffering, in our anxious moments, we must not look down or around but up to the One whose mighty hand is upon us. He cares for you.
Finally, let’s look at our last question: “What will be the effect?”
Verses 19 and 20:
19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.”
Peter repeats in these two verses the encouragement that enduring humbly like Christ, remembering that God is accomplishing His good purposes even in our suffering, is a gracious thing in the sight of God. The NASB translates “gracious thing” to say that this “finds favor” in God’s sight.
Again, we’re reminded that God sees and knows. In the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5, Jesus taught this to the disciples, including Peter:
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons[a] of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
There will be a great reward for those who endure sufferings, mindful of God, and still proclaiming His excellencies. As we saw in verse 12, God pours grace upon those around us when we do good deeds. He cares for us in our suffering, and He often uses our suffering mightily.
In closing, we’ve talked about how our identity as sojourners and exiles, as free people, is a call to holiness and humility as we submit to the government over us and as we submit in our work places. We are called to keep our conduct honorable, and Christ’s humility is our example. The world around us is watching, and God will use us to bring others out of darkness, and God will give grace to us when we suffer unjustly.
Here are three ways to apply this message:
Earlier, I mentioned William Wilberforce and his long campaign to end slavery in the British Empire.
His example is one of courageous faithfulness to his calling. In addition to fighting to end slavery, Wilberforce also tried to encourage Christians in Great Britain to live faithfully. Here’s something he wrote in his book, Real Christianity:
Let true Christians then, with becoming earnestness, strive in all things to recommend their profession [of faith], and to put to silence the vain scoffs of ignorant objectors. Let them boldly assert the cause of Christ in an age when so many, who bear the name of Christians, are ashamed of Him: and let them consider as devolved on Them the important duty of suspending for a while the fall of their country, and, perhaps, of performing a still more extensive service to society at large; not by busy interference in politics, in which it cannot but be confessed there is much uncertainty; but rather by that sure and radical benefit of restoring the influence of Religion, and of raising the standard of morality....[M]y only solid hopes for the well-being of my country depend not so much on her fleets and armies, not so much on the wisdom of her rulers, or the spirit of her people, as on the persuasion that she still contains many, who, in a degenerate age, love and obey the Gospel of Christ; on the humble trust that the intercession of these may still be prevalent, that for the sake of these, Heaven may still look upon us with an eye of favour.
William Wilberforce, Real Christianity
May we heed Wilberforce’s words and follow his example in our own age.
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