1 Peter 2:13-17
13 For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme,
14 or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.
15 For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish.
16 As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.
17 Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
It is easy for us to read over these words of Peter without really thinking through the impact the things he writes here must have had on the people of his time. Peter, as well as most of the early Christians, lived under the authority of the Roman empire of which they were not citizens and in which they had no rights. They were harassed and persecuted not only by the Roman government, but also by the religious authorities of their own people, the Jews. So it seems a little strange at first that Peter would say to accept the authority of every human institution.
It seems that Peter would have had every reason to say the opposite of what he writes here. After all, it was the leaders of the Jews, who were supposed to be the guardians of justice and righteousness who had arranged the crucifixion of his Lord in an egregious miscarriage of justice. It was the governor of the region of Palestine, Pilate, who had lacked the courage to do what he knew was right and had Jesus crucified just so he wouldn’t have to deal with the displeasure of the Jewish leaders. And yet Peter writes that believers should accept the authority of these people.
The words of Peter could be taken to be even stranger when he writes, “honor the emperor”. The emperor at the time of the writing of this letter was very likely Nero, the infamous Caesar who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of believers in Jesus and would eventually arrange the execution of Peter as well. Tradition has it that Nero even had fires started in the city of Rome so that he could blame it on Christians and have them executed. Was such a man worthy of honor? Most of us would say not, and yet Peter asks believers to do it for the Lord’s sake. Peter and other Christians had no voice in who would ascend to the throne of Rome. Most of the emperors such as Nero attained their position through violence and political intrigue. But Peter writes to honor them and respect their authority. It is likely something that he had been taught at the feet of Jesus.
As American Christians we have freedoms that Peter and the believers of his day could never have imagined. We get to go to the polling place and record our vote for the leaders we desire. We have a voice in local, state and national leadership. The person or person’s we vote for don’t always win. So how should we respond when a person we didn’t vote for is elected? I think Peter gives us a good answer. We should respond with acceptance of the authority that has been placed upon them and with the honor due the office.
I’m not sure why anyone would want to be President of our country. It’s a nearly impossible job due to the complexity and diversity of the population of our nation. It’s almost a certainty that what makes one half of the people happy will make the other half unhappy at the same time. But there are those who have been willing to take up the challenge. There will be Presidents we have voted for and agree with, and there will be those we didn’t vote for and disagree with. So how do we honor them? I think we do it by first accepting that, at least until the next election, they are the leader of our nation. The apostle Paul wrote, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment”. (Romans 13:1-2) Secondly, we can honor them by praying for them and their families. Jesus taught that we should even pray for our enemies. Those in leadership in our country certainly cannot be considered enemies. We may not like them, their views, their personality or the things they say and do, but we can accept them as the duly elected leaders and lift them to the Lord in prayer.
I think what Peter is saying is that believers as citizens should always seek to be the source of unification and harmony rather than the cause of division. Our number one loyalty is to our Lord. I’m convinced that when Jesus is truly Lord of our life we will also be better citizens.
Church of the Nazarene
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