RENDER UNTO CAESAR; 1 Peter 2:13-17, August 25, 2020
Reflection | In verses 11-12 of his letter, Peter has reframed our perception of who we are as followers of Jesus on this earth – namely, to view ourselves as “foreigners and exiles” or resident aliens. Our true home is in heaven – not in this world as it is, but in the world as it wasalways intended to be, as it is becoming thanks to the Gospel. Therefore, while we are to actively engage all creation, we are not to be ultimately shaped by the values and practices of the world around us. Instead, we, as Christians, are to live lives that reflect the character and habits of Christ and in so doing, to draw and lead people to Jesus.
Given that Peter has declared our primary allegiance is to the Kingdom of God, there might be the temptation for some to conclude that we, as Christians, can claim immunity from the laws and judgments of human governments. Such an argument would be compelling in the face of any mistreatment and persecution by pagan authorities. These were indeed the circumstances of those to whom Peter first wrote – Christians living in the Roman Empire under the reign of the Emperor Nero. Particularly towards the end of his reign, Nero was capricious and violently savage towards anyone who followed Jesus.
And yet, rather than indulge any rallying cry of resistance or rebellion, Peter directs those to whom he is writing to “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority (verse 13). Submission is both the word and the theme that will mark the next section of this letter. It’s a word that, for many, brings an immediate, clenching reaction of discomfort and disapproval. Increasingly we live at a time when submission is considered an offensive word. No one wants to submit to anyone – ever.
But let’s be clear what Peter is and is not saying here. The Greek word he uses here, which we translate into English as “submit” or “be subject to,” literally means “to arrange things in an orderly manner underneath.” In other words, Peter is calling us as Christians to be subject to the God-given work of governing authorities to establish and maintain the order and functioning of society. We can see this is exactly what Peter is getting at as he also calls for our submission “to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (verse 14).
The creation, articulation, and enforcement of laws – rules and regulations – are necessary to prevent anarchy and to promote mutual flourishing. When we are driving, we all submit or stop when there is a red light before us in order to ensure that we each can get to where we are going rather than to end up in traffic pile-up or crash and thus, end of nowhere. As Peter alludes to in this verse, all such civil law is to be a reflection of the character of God – a God of order – of right and wrong, and not chaos – of every person for him or herself.
Submission, as Peter invokes it is, however, not necessarily obedience. Peter in this passage could have used the Greek word for obedience – a word that unambiguously means “to conform, to follow a command, or to yield as a subordinate.” But he does NOT choose to use this word. The point is this, biblically, submission and obedience are two related but separate actions or postures.
Throughout Scripture we have countless examples of believers who engaged in acts of civil disobedience when the laws or commands of those in authority directly contradicted and violated the clear teachings and directives of God. The Exodus of Israel from Egypt is one long story of resistance against an ungodly empire. In the book of Daniel, we witness acts of civil disobedience as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refuse to bow down before King Nebuchadnezzar’s golden idol and later as Daniel defies King Darius’ decree to not pray to anyone other than the king. Peter himself, along with John, disobeyed laws against preaching about Jesus as they healed a man unable to walk since birth (see Acts 3 – 5).
Christians can and should resist any government that commands or compels evil or injustice. Such resistance, as modeled in the Bible, should be non-violent and, if possible, working within the laws of the land to bring needed change and reform. In addition, and this is VERY important, when we disobey, we must still submit to governmental authority. In other words, if we break an unjust law to highlight and protest its injustice, we should be willing to submit to the punishment for breaking such laws, so that we demonstrate our respect for the role of government in general. Biblically, we witness Paul, Peter and other followers of Jesus, even as they deliberately disobeyed laws that were in conflict with God’s commands, still submitting to the authorities by accepting the legal consequences of their actions.
In summary, as followers of Jesus, we need to use wisdom and spiritual guidance in deciding when to submit and when to resist. Peter advocates that our first and default approach to governmental authority ought to be one of respectful submission – positive cooperation for the safety, health, and well-being of all persons. No doubt all of this brings to mind the debate that is currently taking place within the Christian community.
Many people now are understandably uncomfortable with the government placing restrictions on faith communities meeting together in person for worship. There are those who argue that the biblical importance of physically gathering as a people for worship overrides any mandates by the government. As a result, many faith communities are choosing to engage in an act of civil disobedience by continuing to worship in person.
My view as your pastor is that while we may question the motives and worldview behind the decisions being made by state and local authorities, we cannot equate their orders as objectively evil. While we may question their appreciation for the unique and vital role that the church serves in society and the unique aspects of a religious assembly, they are not forbidding us to do what God commands in principle. While the case can be made that the Bible calls for the people of God to gather regularly for worship (see Hebrews 10:24-25), the Church is still able to gather for worship – albeit in other ways and means.
Governing authorities are not banning our gatherings indefinitely. They are not denying any faith communities the right to assemble in principle. Governing authorities are executing measures out of a concern for the wellbeing of all citizens. This is not the imposition of an unrighteous law, therefore civil obedience, in my opinion, is not justified. Instead, we should be supporting the government’s efforts to protect the health and safety of not only us but our neighbors. For me, this is the more positive, the more compassionate, and the more glorifying witness that we can offer both to our faith and to Christ.
The first Christians in their attitudes and practices were perceived as subversive and dangerous by their neighbors. Often labeled as atheists (for worshipping the wrong god), as being incestuous (referring to each other as brothers and sisters), and even cannibals (eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ), Christians were viewed with suspicion and distrust. Given this, Peter, returning to a point he’s made earlier in the chapter, argues, why being submissive towards civic authorities ought to be our default approach. “For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people” (verse 15). In being model citizens – that is cooperative and respectful towards the government – Christians can refute rumors and slanders about Christianity and instead direct more attention to Christ.
Still, Peter wants to make it clear, our submission to human authority ought to derive not from compulsion but from our free will. Therefore, he writes, “Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves” (verse 16). We do not subject ourselves to governments and any other form of human authority out of fear or even a pledge of allegiance. God is the one to whom we belong. God is the one we are serving in our submission to any other authority. God is the one who has set us free to serve out of love and not compulsion.
Thanks to Jesus, we have freedom – the freedom of forgiveness, of the grace to mature into our best selves, and of living beyond our physical death. The Lord extends us this freedom not merely for our own benefit – as a way to justify our own bad or wrong choices – but for the sake of others. We are set free to be in full communion with God in order to become God’s means of reaching and drawing all of His children back home. To put this another way, through our submission to governmental authority we serve our neighbor.
How should a citizen of heaven live on earth? Peter summarizes all he has been saying in verse 17: “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.” Peter’s first instruction to treat everyone with respect was, in his day, both profound and radical. Much like our world today but more explicitly, the ancient world of the 1st century was hierarchal and based on socio-economic class. Who was worthy of one’s respect was a matter of one’s picking and choosing – often based on one’s personal interest and benefit. But Peter sets a different standard as he calls Christians to treat both those within and outside their community with equal dignity and even, love.
Notice, Peter isn’t telling us how to feel about each other. He does not direct us to “like each other.” No, Peter calls us to action – an act of the will to choose to honor and love each other. No doubt Peter was thinking of Jesus when he wrote these words – of Jesus who said the world around us would know we follow Him by our love for each other (see John 13:35).
If we are still struggling to show proper respect and to extend love to every single person, Peter reminds us to “fear God.” The biblical connotation of “fear” in relation to the believer and God is never one of shrinking dread or anxiety. It is a God of love – a perfect and holy love – who comes to us, who makes a way for us to be with Him. Peter’s reminder to “fear God” is an admonition to be forever in awe and wonder before the sovereignty – the power and the purity, the justice, the righteousness, and the love that is God. For it is only when we have a healthy respect and yield or submit ourselves completely to the Lord that we will truly and rightly honor and serve others.
Consider & Discuss | Often what is deemed unjust is not agreed upon. What checks or criteria can be implemented so that, if civil disobedience is sanctioned, this allowance does not result in “everyone disobeying as they deem right in their own eyes,” or people appealing to civil disobedience whenever they want to disobey a law with which they don’t agree or don’t like? How does one determine when a law is unjust enough to justify disobedience? In other words, if we allow civil disobedience in principle, what restricts, limits, or qualifies its use? Is civil disobedience only for when the government would tell us to do wrong (“sins of commission”), or also for when it tells us not to do right (“sins of omission”)?
Prayer Focus | Ruler of Heaven and Earth, we thank You for choosing us and making us royal priests. We praise You for giving us citizenship in Your Kingdom through the mercy and grace granted through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. We long for the day when this world will be made new – when there will be no more crying or sickness or pain or death. Until then, we recognize we live as resident aliens – pilgrims and sojourners both waiting and working for the dawn of Your Kingdom – walking by faith and following Jesus with every step we take.
Give us grace and courage to humbly submit to and serve each other. Empower and strengthen us to live lives that bring You glory and lead others to salvation in You. Help us to gratefully submit to the gift of human government. Afford us wisdom and guide us when we have been called by You and not our own egos or desires to resist or rebel against those who have been placed in authority over us. Remind and steady us when our righteous defiance still calls for our submission to the consequences of our civil disobedience.
Teach us to live as people who are free— free in Christ – but to never use our freedom as an excuse to do what is right in our eyes but wrong in Yours. Direct us to use our freedom in service to You through our service to others. Conform us to the image of the Chief Servant, who did not count freedom, power, or wealth as a reason to please himself, but laid aside his rights and preferences, becoming a slave to serve the interests of others. May such humility be ours as we honor our leaders and love our brothers and sisters. Amen.