June 19, 2016
Everyone here has some kind of relationship with the United States government. You are either a citizen or not. If you work in this country you must pay taxes. There are laws that must be obeyed. If you are a citizen you can vote. There is no avoiding the government.
However, I don’t know if everyone here has a relationship with Jesus Christ. Why would a person desire to be in a relationship with Jesus? Well, it is because Jesus is the Jewish Messiah who has become Lord of heaven and earth. Jesus reigns in the Kingdom of God and is calling all men and women to embrace him as their Savior from sin and King of their lives.
In dying on the cross and rising from the dead, Jesus bore our sins and made it possible for our sins to be forgiven. To those who turn away from their self-centered way of living and embrace Jesus as Savior, Lord, and King, God will give them eternal living in his eternal kingdom.
As you might imagine, the ways of God and Jesus are quite different from the ways of living in this world. This world is driven by self-centeredness and selfish ambition. We are all sinful people who would rather live our lives apart from God and his good rule. But when a person begins to follow Jesus it impacts every dimension of life in this world. For example, our relationship with Christ shapes our relationship to government.
I. BE SUBJECT. 2:13-14
The question is what should be the overall posture of the Christian to government? The simple answer found in v.13 is to “be subject.” We are to live under the government order of whatever society we are a part of. When Peter was writing, Nero was the Roman Emperor. In fact, Peter was martyred under Nero. And since everyone basically lived in the Roman Empire you were stuck with the current emperor and whatever governors he appointed in your part of the world. Today there are many different forms of government that believers live under. Being subject will mean something different in each setting.
Now there are two thoughts in these verses we need to observe. First, you see in v.13 that believers are to be subject for the Lord’s sake. This tells us that our first priority is to Jesus Christ, our King. Our character and conduct in this world is to be patterned after the character and conduct of Jesus. His commands are to have first place over any other command. When we do something for the Lord’s sake we do it to honor, exalt and promote the Lord. It was the Lord who said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to the Lord what belongs to the Lord.” So in whatever form of government we find ourselves living under we must do our best to live for Christ and comply with the government.
The second observation is that Peter gives us a thought about one of the purposes of government. Government is meant to maintain moral order. It is the government that punishes those who do evil and praises those who do good. Of course government does much more than this, but this is foundational to good government. In Prov.11:10-11 we read, “When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices, and when the wicked perish there are shouts of gladness. By the blessing of the upright a city is exalted, but by the mouth of the wicked it is overthrown.” Or in Prov.29:2, we read, “When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan.” When government begins to punish those who do good and exonerate those who do evil it puts Christians in a very difficult position. We see what happens in countries in which oppression reigns. Those who seek to do good are often mistreated.
So how do we carry out Peter’s admonition? In the Roman Empire, the average person had no say in deciding the laws. If you held a prominent place in your village or town, you might have some input concerning local laws. But if you were a slave or poor, you had no input. So you do your best to comply as unto the Lord.
On the other hand Peter’s admonition looks very different for people who live under a form of democracy. Ours is a representational form of government in which we have the opportunity to elect our government leaders. Not only that but many of the laws which govern our states are laws that are voted on by the people who live in those states. There is a process for introducing new laws and for modifying existing laws. We have a constitution which protects the right to free speech, including public protest. The people Peter was writing to had none of these rights. I’m sure there was a great deal of government corruption just as there is today. If the people in Peter’s day had protested the government they were likely to lose their lives.
Today in the United States, if the federal or state government makes a law that is in direct conflict with what Jesus taught us to do, then we must disobey. If the government passed a law which required me to marry a gay or lesbian couple, I would have to respectfully disobey the law. So far, as Christians we do not have those kinds of laws, although it feels like such laws could come at any time. There are laws which are interpreted in ways that make it difficult for Christians in certain settings and so as Christians we must act according to our conscience, in keeping with Scripture, but always in a respectful and gracious way. As Christians we may not always agree on how to respond. We certainly cannot expect the world to conform to Christ or our particular way of thinking. Our primary citizenship is the kingdom of God, not the United States. In obedience to Christ, our general posture in society is to be subject to the government.
II. DO GOOD. 2:15-16
When you read the gospels you discover that Jesus does not spend a lot of time criticizing the government. He does call Herod a fox. He points out that in the world there is a me-first attitude, but he does not spend his time talking about governmental laws and policies. Jesus’ main criticisms are directed towards the hypocrisy of the Jewish religious leaders. Jesus was far more interested in seeing people enter into life in the kingdom of God by becoming his willing follower. He did not coerce people to follow him. Rather he lived and spoke in such a way as to attract people to follow him. His life and teachings were compelling. He went around doing good for people. Many did follow him and many others did not.
So we are not surprised to read Peter’s admonition to do good. Not only are we to be subject to the government, but we are to do good for others in our society. Today there is much written about human flourishing. What is the best kind of life one can live? Of course it involves virtue and wisdom, beauty, and health. All of these things help to bring happiness. For Christians, human flourishing begins with knowing God. When a person comes to know God through faith in Jesus, there is the highest potential for human flourishing. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for flourishing would be shalom. Shalom signifies, salvation, wholeness, integrity, soundness, community, connectedness, righteousness, justice, well-being. All of these things sound like human flourishing. In Phil.4:8 Paul writes, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Well, all of those things contribute to human flourishing.
In our daily living what can we do to help others flourish in life? How can we contribute to the well-being of others and society? The simple answer is by doing good wherever we can.
Of course, our world is filled with a great deal of sadness, sickness, violence and destruction. We live in a world that has lost its moral compass. People have competing views about what is truly good. And we may not always know what is the good to do in a given situation. But it is always good to help those who are poor and needy. It is always good to seek justice for those who are oppressed and mistreated. It is always good to lend a neighbor a helping hand. It is always good to care for those who are sick, disabled, and sorrowing. James tells us to care for the widows and orphans. The writer of Hebrews talks about visiting those in prison. I mean there is plenty of good that we can do.
Notice the reason Peter gives for doing good. In v.15 he says that we should do good so that we can put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Doing good is a way of making room for the good news of Jesus in society. When we are known for doing good it is difficult for others to speak against Christ. In other words we seek to do good in order to make the good news of Jesus attractive.
Mother Teresa was someone who went around doing good. She cared for the least of these. And there are many Christians who are seeking to do good in society. Some are involved in helping to create fair housing laws. Others are trying to protect abused children. Some are trying to rescue girls and boys from sex slavery. Some are working in our cities where there is much homelessness, poverty, violence, addiction. But all of us can seek to encourage and be a blessing to others. Frankly, it seems to me that seeking to do good in the name of Jesus holds far more promise for gospel witness, than taking public stands when it comes to our political preferences. Our hope is not in a political party or in the Supreme Court. Our hope for the present and the future is in the kingdom of God. And when the Christian left and the Christian right become an arm of a political party we lose our distinctiveness as Christians. We lose our ability to show the kingdom of God because the kingdom of God is not aligned with these political organizations.
It is interesting to see what Peter writes in v.16. He says, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.” To know Christ is to be set free from all bondage. We are set free from bondage to satan, sin, and death. Since our lives are safe in the hands of God there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. As Christians we may suffer in this world, but we know our lives are safe in Christ. That brings liberating freedom, freedom for good, not for evil. Our freedom in Christ is best enjoyed as we serve God. Doing good flows out of living the kind of life that naturally produces good works. It is Christ living in us.
III. HONOR EVERYONE. 2:17
We must remember that Peter is writing to believers who were experiencing various kinds of persecution. They were living under Roman rule and Nero, the Roman emperor did not look favorably upon Christians. In v.17 Peter writes, “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” What does this mean?
To honor someone means to value and have regard for that person. Again, this is our general posture as we live in society. Followers of Jesus Christ value people. We try to look at people, even those who mistreat us, through the compassionate eyes of Jesus. When Jesus was on the cross, he looked at those who were crucifying him and said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
Listen to this extended quote from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”
Now I believe that this kind of behavior is only possible as a person knows and follows Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. This kind of behavior is only possible as believers die to themselves and dying to self is difficult. This kind of behavior is only possible as believers keep the radiant goodness of Jesus before their minds by dwelling on Scripture and daily casting themselves on the care and protection of God.
In the next phrase we are told to love the brotherhood. Here Peter is talking about our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is interesting that when one reads the epistles of Paul it becomes clear that the burden Paul had was the mystery that in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself and people to each other. Constantly Paul is talking about how the church is the new people of God in which Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, are one in Christ. All humanity is leveled at the cross. And over and over again, Paul, taking his que from Jesus, tells us to love each other.
Brothers and sisters, it is true that each one who knows Christ is a new creation in Christ. In other words, the new heaven and earth that God is bringing about has already begun in the life of everyone who knows Jesus Christ. Every believer is living new creation life. But what we see in the New Testament is that every believer is part of the church of Jesus Christ. Every believer belongs to the people of God and the implication is that each believer will be a regular, active participant in a local congregation. In Paul’s day there wasn’t much opportunity for church hopping. There just were not that many local congregations. Nor was worship a time for congregations to compete with each other, trying to put on the best show. Worship involved singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, hearing the word of God, encouraging each other, drawing near to Jesus at the Lord’s Table, and prayer. The present day emphasis on prosperity, technical excellence, numbers, and marketing in the church of America is shameful for it detracts from Jesus Christ.
Now of course, we all want to do our best for the Lord in whatever we do. But when doing our best means that we cannot appreciate the contribution of another brother or sister, because it doesn’t quite measure up, then we have made an idol of doing our best. Our focus must be on loving one another with the love that God has poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit and the only way we can do this is if we are part of one another in the church.
Then Peter says, “Fear God. Honor the emperor.” The order is important. The last thing that Christians want to do is dishonor God. God is the One who gives us life in his Kingdom. God is the One in whose love we live. God is the One who holds our lives together in Christ. God is the One who has given us his good commands to obey. Our loyalty is to God and his Son, Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit. So we have a holy fear, a reverence for God.
We are also to honor those in government who have authority over us. In other words we are to respect and value them as long as we are not compromising our loyalty to God and his son, Jesus.
I am grateful for the privilege of living in the United States of America. And while I have never thought of our country as being a Christian country, I do believe that Judeo-Christian values found in the Ten Commandments helped to form the constitution that we live under. Jesus summarized the Ten Commandments in terms of loving God and loving one another. I am thankful for government leaders who seek to lead according to these values. My hope would be that many who run for office would embrace the values expressed in the Ten Commandments. But today, these values have fallen on hard times.
And so as our country becomes increasingly secular in its government we can learn from Peter how to live. We must be subject. We must do good. And we must honor everyone. Amen