I have lived under the authority of 12 Presidents here in the United States, beginning with Harry S. Truman up through Barack Obama. As bad as some of these Presidents have been, and I won’t identify which ones I have in mind, the worst among them was probably more tolerable than the best Roman Emperor or Jewish King under whom the apostle Peter lived. Continue reading . . .
I have lived under the authority of 12 Presidents here in the United States, beginning with Harry S. Truman up through Barack Obama. As bad as some of these Presidents have been, and I won’t identify which ones I have in mind, the worst among them was probably more tolerable than the best Roman Emperor or Jewish King under whom the apostle Peter lived.
Let me explain. Peter knew what it was like to live under tyranny and barbarism. He was born under the rule of the Emperor Augustus. But the more direct authority over his life in those early days in Galilee would have been King Herod the Great who ordered the slaughter of the male infants in and around Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the new born Jesus.
Peter would also have experienced the rule of Herod Antipas who executed John the Baptist and not only presided over the mock trial of Jesus but joined with the soldiers under his authority to torment and ridicule our Lord. Peter would have known Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea, who washed his hands of Jesus' murder, had him beaten, and delivered him over to be crucified. Peter was especially acquainted with Herod Agrippa, who executed James, the brother of John, and arrested Peter with the intent of doing the same to him.
Then, of course, Peter lived under the tyrannical rule of Nero.
Nero was born on December 15, a.d. 37, and ascended to the throne as Emperor in 54 a.d. The first few years of Nero’s reign were remarkably good and productive, but he soon became extremely paranoid of all the rumors about plots to kill him. In 55 he had his stepbrother Britannicus killed. In 59 he had his own mother executed. And in 62 his first wife was executed. And Seneca his former counselor was forced to commit suicide.
In the early hours of June 19, 64 a.d., a devastating fire broke out around the Circus Maximus and spread north through the valley between the Palatine and the Esquiline. Unable to silence rumors that he himself had set the fire, Nero found a scapegoat in the emerging Christian community, which he persecuted with intense cruelty. Whereas most of you plant flowers in your gardens, Nero crucified Christians in his. He would often sew their bodies into the skins of wild beasts and feed them to the dogs, or alternatively would drench them in flammable oil and lift them on poles to burn as torches in the night.
Nero was eventually declared a public enemy by the Roman Senate in mid 68 a.d. and troops were sent to arrest him. On hearing this, he fled to the villa of his ex-slave Phaon where he committed suicide by thrusting a dagger into his throat.
I’m not telling you about Herod Antipas and Agrippa and Pilate and Nero in order to draw parallels between them and those who rule over us. My point is simply to argue that Peter wasn’t naïve about the potential for corruption and evil in those who held governmental and political power. He didn’t live in a Christian nation. He knew all too well about the depravity of these men who wielded authority in Rome and Palestine. And yet here he tells us in 1 Peter 2:13 and 17, to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution,” whether emperors or kings, and to “honor” them. Let’s look at the entire paragraph.
“Be 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 to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:13-17).
When you think about the sort of men under whom Peter lived, as well as the tyrants whom we see in our world today, would it surprise you to learn that no one was ever elected to political office whom God didn’t appoint and ordain to that position? Would it surprise you to know that every king and president, every prime minister and potentate, that ever exerted rule over the lives and affairs of men received his or her power from God?
Nebuchadnezzar was a pagan king. He was ruler over the Babylonian empire in the late 7th and early 6th century b.c. Nebuchadnezzar had no regard for the Lord God of Israel. He was an unregenerate man, a totalitarian tyrant who ruled with an iron fist. And yet Daniel said of him, to you “O king . . . the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, and the might, and the glory” (Dan. 2:37). Into your hand, said Daniel to Nebuchadnezzar, God has “given . . . the children of man, the beasts of the field, and the birds of the heavens, making you rule over them all” (Dan. 2:38).
Daniel believed this was important for us to know. “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,” he declared, for “He [that is, God] changes times and seasons; he [God] removes kings and sets up kings” (Dan. 2:20).
We need to know this before we ever turn our attention to a passage of Scripture like 1 Peter 2:13-17. Whatever else you may believe about government and politics and election campaigns, you and I must come to grips with the fact that God is sovereign over the affairs of man and that he has ordained human government for his own good purposes.
Does God care about human government and politics and party platforms and the laws that we pass and then either choose to obey or violate? Does it matter that much to him how his people respond to those who are in power? In the final analysis, what is the responsibility of the individual Christian and the Church itself to the state and its laws?
As we will shortly see, “God expects Christians to be subject even to human authorities who are neither believers nor morally upright” (Wayne Grudem, 119). We can’t pick and choose which authorities in government we will obey, as if we are required to submit to Christian Presidents who endorse our beliefs but rebel against non-Christian ones.
In the next article we’ll look at why Peter issued this command at this particular point in his epistle, as well as the first of four observations on the meaning and implications of his teaching.