1 Peter 2:13-17 - Free Slaves

October 13, 2013 Speaker: Series: 1 Peter

Topic: Sunday Worship Passage: 1 Peter 2:13–2:17

[Text: 1 Peter 2:13-17] “Free Slaves”

Peter calls believers in Jesus the people of God – chosen, shown mercy, called as priests to serve God. So, as the people of God, what is our relationship to the civil authorities? In other words, what does the Gospel have to do with the government?

Before we get into this sermon, please keep one thing in mind. This issue has many facets and one sermon won’t be able to address every one. We won’t be able to talk about every possible subject and parse out what a Christian’s response to war or abortion or health care or immigration rights or partial government shutdowns.

But we will be able to talk about the will of God and what the government is supposed to do and what the response of Christians to government is supposed to achieve. So write down questions that get raised. If you want to talk about a particular issue, let’s talk about it! But for now, we’re going to listen to what the word of God says. Because He absolutely cares how we live in this place.

[Read 1 Peter 2:9-17 (for context) and Pray – Father, you reign over all times and peoples and places. And for that we are deeply thankful. Help us this morning to hear and understand how you exercise your rule so that we might live as your faithful people here. For the sake of the honor and name of Christ we ask this. Amen.]

In verses 9-12, Peter sums up the main idea of the letter’s opening – by faith in Jesus, Christians aren’t who they used to be. Christians are the new people of God, a people with “a living hope” (1:3) who have been adopted as children into the family of God (1:14) with all the benefits of Christ given to them with more to come when heaven and earth are one. (1:2-3, 13, 18-19)

And knowing that Christians are the new people of God, Peter summarizes our mission in during this time of the Story. We are called to “abstain from the passions of the flesh which wage war against (our) souls.” (2:11) And we must “keep (our) conduct among [unbelievers] honorable.” (2:12)

The section we’re looking at today, vv. 13-17, is Peter beginning to focus on this issue of Christians conducting ourselves honorably in our relationships in the world. He gets very specific in this section. Now, in the coming weeks, we’ll hear him focus on other areas of life, listening to what the Gospel has to say about Christians as servants (vv.18-25) and as family members (3:1-7), but for now, he focuses on the relationship between Christians and the civil government.

And that’s where things get a little hard because you and I live in a time when faith gets conflated with political parties, when the righteousness of God is confused with the ideology of men. But then again, the very fact that Peter has to write about this topic tells us that the relationship between Christians and the civil government has always been difficult and full of questions.

That was certainly the case for the early church. While 1 Peter was written before the full-blown, institutional persecution of Christians had begun, it did exist on a smaller scale throughout the Empire. Already they were deemed dangers to society since they claimed there was “neither Jew nor Greek…neither slave nor free…no male and female” for they were all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28) Already they faced the anger of unbelievers, like we see in Acts 19 when the silversmiths of Ephesus nearly rioted over their shrinking incomes – shrinking because people were leaving their idols behind to worship the risen Christ. And so, beatings, imprisonment, economic mistreatment and even death were dealt out to Christians. All this happened under the reign of Nero, who could hardly be described as a top-class leader of men.

So, how were these Christians – citizens of a coming heavenly country that they were – how were they supposed to live in the “now”? Were they supposed to rebel like the Zealots, taking up swords? Should they give in and live like the unbelieving Romans? Or were they supposed to withdraw from society and wait for the Lord’s return as their numbers grew smaller and smaller? Peter already wrote acknowledging that they were “grieved by various trials” (1:6) so, what were they supposed to do?

Maybe a similar question has come into your head. We see the authorities which were rightfully elected (which is a little different than how it worked in Peter’s day), and maybe we start to wonder what we’re supposed to do. How are we supposed to live as the people of God during our time of exile in this place? Fight? Give in? Withdraw?

Into these questions Peter writes, giving an instruction that is both difficult and right. Peter tells the Christians, “Be subject…to every human institution….” (2:13)

“Be ‘subject?’ Really, Peter?”

“Really. Put yourselves under their authority.”


“For the Lord’s sake.”

To be honest, this is often the last thing you or I want to do. And that is sin for us.

Now, don’t misunderstand. There are times and places for civil disobedience (as it is now called). Peter himself chose at times to disobey the human authorities because they were in direct contradiction to what God had said (like in Acts 4:19 and 5:29). But Christians should be careful before we jump to that defense too quickly. We should be careful because although there are a few examples of this “civil disobedience” in the Scriptures, the overwhelming majority of the New Testament calls us to this same subjection to the civil government as Peter does.

Paul wrote, “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… Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” When asked, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Jesus replied, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” (We could go on to 1 Timothy 2 and Titus 3, etc.)

So, for you or me to fail to submit is certainly sin, deeply displeasing to God. If we set ourselves above the rulers to whom God has told us to submit (because we think our status as Christians sets us outside their jurisdiction), then we may actually be setting ourselves in opposition to God even while we think we’re honoring Him. That’s because the assumption beneath Peter’s instruction is that there is a sovereign God in the heavens who ordains all things – including who ruled Rome and who gets elected here. To fail to submit is to oppose the sovereign God.

So, whether it’s about paying taxes or paying respect; whether it’s about denying the power of the civil government or mocking government officials or (as we’ll see shortly) failing to actively contribute to the good of our society, the fact is that we probably have some repenting to do. Because I often really don’t want to submit like we’re called here to do.

But this is where we have to keep going back to the Gospel in repentance and faith once again to hear how Jesus still gives us grace and hope. We have hope because if we have set our hope on Christ, then our failure and sin no longer defines us. Our new identity in him as the people of God – a people for his own possession – is what defines those who believe.

So, with the hope we have in Christ, let’s look again at this passage to hear what our Lord would have of us. Because if we confess ourselves to have failed in this point (among others) and we’ve run back to Jesus, then the next thing to do is to pursue new obedience to him.

Peter says, “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.”

Again, the call to obey the civil government here is grounded in the clause “for the Lord’s sake.” We’ll talk more about that in just a moment, but for now we have to understand that Peter isn’t rooting his argument in some sort of pragmatic appeal. In other words, we don’t submit because it is advantageous to us. We don’t submit because the government is doing the right thing. We don’t submit because then everything will be as it ought to be. No, we submit because it is pleasing to our Lord because our submission to the civil government is actually submission to Him and His sovereign rule over all things.

That’s important to recognize because when we understand Peter’s instruction here, we have to see that the end result of such submission could actually be suffering rather than social acceptance.

When he says that the civil authorities “punish those who do evil and…praise those who do good,” the good and the evil, in this context, are “good and evil” as defined by the civil authorities. While we would want the civil government to define good and evil the way God does, we know that was not the case in Peter’s time and it isn’t always the case in our time. So, while there are sometimes remnants of true good and beauty in human justice, there remains the fact that God has ordained authorities who often define good and evil on their own terms.

And so, for these Christians, they had to submit even though the emperor and governors called them “evil.” It wasn’t right. It isn’t right now when Christians are maligned. But even so, we’re still called to submit. Peter says, “For this is the will of God….”

Again, we’re called back to the sovereignty of God and we see His plan at work, His glory being revealed through His people. This is a living out of 2:12 where God said that our honorable conduct would be evidence against the accusations of evil against us so that unbelievers would see our good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation (which is talking about either the day they come to repentance and faith or the day of final judgment when every knee will bow to God and to Christ – possibly both).

He says, “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” Notice that “doing good” is held in parallel with the first call to “be subject.” That means that when we submit ourselves, obeying and giving honor to those whom God has appointed to be over us, we are both “doing good” that will be recognized by others and we are doing the will of God. (And that is a comforting thought.)

But there is more to this idea of “doing good.” It certainly looks like submitting to the civil government, but that is often a passive thing. That is submitting ourselves beneath the things the government mandates for all its citizens. But in Roman culture “doing good” included an active element, usually expected of the wealthy. For a citizen to “do good,” it meant that they actively worked for the good of the society in which they lived. It looked like contributing to the city’s coffers and sponsoring civic events.

Peter doesn’t elaborate here on what “doing good” would look like for a Christian, but there is one thing we can say; Peter closes the door on the solution some Christians have employed to solve the issue of living as the people of God in this world. We cannot retreat into a holy huddle. We cannot pull back from society or neglect the world with an “us versus them” mentality. It is disobedient to do so and for such actions we must repent. And with gratitude to Christ we must seek the good of the city in which we live as exiles (Jeremiah 29:7), knowing that as we do good here, God will make His glory known (2:12) and accusations against us will be shown to be empty. (2:15)

This is on the mind of the elders here at Grace as we’ve been thinking about where we’re going as a church. For a long time we’ve had that land outside of town. But our vision is for us to be a part of this community and live out our calling to do good here. So, as we run out of space here, pray that the Lord would lead us to a space that would enable us to worship Him well and facilitating ministries to this town. And pray for yourselves, too, that the Lord would help you use the gifts he’s given you for His glory and for the good of others, both inside and outside of the church.

With all this talk of being “subject,” verse 16 may seem contradictory. How can we be subjects and free at the same time? Well, understanding the answer will actually help us hold together our earthly callings and heavenly citizenship together.

Peter says, “Live as people who are free…” because we are absolutely free in Christ. One writer put it this way, “When we are separated (“freed”) from God we are enslaved to our culture and its values and traditions. But when we are enslaved to God, we are freed from the society [in which] we find ourselves.”[1] When God chose us and rescued us – not for anything good in us, mind you, but out of His mere good pleasure – when He rescued us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, He saved us to be His special people. But included in that is service to God as “a royal priesthood.” (2:9; see also Hebrews 9:14) So, when Peter says to “live as people who are free” he also says to live “as servants of God” (or more literally, slaves).

So our freedom, then, is the freedom to serve God, not to serve ourselves. It isn’t political freedom or freedom from persecution or freedom to do whatever seems right to us. That’s why Peter says we aren’t supposed to use our new freedom in Christ “as a cover-up for evil.” Our freedom in Christ can’t be an excuse to set ourselves above the authorities God has set in place. Our freedom in Christ can’t be an excuse to deny their power or mock them. To do so would be an act of rebellion against our sovereign God. To do so would be to say that God has made a mistake and we know better than Him.

Instead, Peter sums up what we’re supposed to use our freedom in Christ to do. In v. 17 he creates a literary building to underscore what he’s already said. It begins and ends with a call to honor as its foundation. Then brotherly love among Christians is laid on top of honor like one brick on another. Finally, the capstone of the fear of God is laid to finish the building.

In brilliant and subtle style, Peter writes, “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”

“Honor everyone” because each human being is made in the image of God, broken though that image may be. Honor everyone because our God is in business of rescuing broken and rebellious people like us and He usually uses us to accomplish His purposes. As we seek to do good in this town and in this country, God will be at work, too. He will silence the accusations of some by leading them to repent and believe in Christ for themselves as they see us submitting and doing good. For others, their accusations will only be silenced on the Last Day, when God fully vindicates Himself and His people. But in the meantime, you and I are called to honor everyone as we serve our God, even if it means we suffer for it. This really is a form of evangelism.

“Love the brotherhood” because we have been called together as the people of God, born of the “living and abiding word of God” (1:23) that never fades or perishes but remains forever. Jesus said, “…just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35) This, too, implies living in community with one another; spending time encouraging one another, forgiving one another WHEN we wrong each other and serving one another with our gifts – even giving one another our presence here as we worship together is a tangible way of loving one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.

We “fear God” because He is both our Father and Judge, dealing with us as His children and disciplining us in love when we stray (1:17). We stand in worshipful awe of the One who chose us and cleansed us by His Spirit and brought us under the good rule of His Son, Jesus, through his blood. (1:2) In fear and gratitude to Him we pursue holiness (1:14) and patiently entrust ourselves, like Christ did, to God’s sovereign goodness and justice (2:23).

Finally, Peter comes back to where he started this paragraph – the question of our relationship as the people of God to the civil authority. “Honor the emperor,” Peter says, because although God is the First Cause of all things, He often works through secondary causes. The civil government is one of those secondary causes and to cast aspersion on it or its leaders is not becoming a follower of Christ.

Please don’t misunderstand. We’re not talking about embracing every law passed or policy made. Laws protecting abortion are absolutely abhorrent to God. We’re not talking about turning a blind eye to sin. The pride that exists in Washington and the pride that exists in my own heart are both deeply offensive to God. The call here is to obey in all things that are not contrary to God’s law and to honor those whom God has set in authority over us.

Now, the beautiful thing is that you and I live in a time when we, unlike our brothers and sisters in the Roman world, can effect change in our government. And it is perfectly permissible for the Christian to work toward greater justice and love for life; to work to change laws and policies to fall in line with what God says in right and good and true. And at the same time we must be willing to submit, remembering that we are ultimately submitting to God and living as free slaves to Him.

And in this it will help us to remember that there was never a freer human being than Jesus. Free from sin. Free from anything that controlled him except his loving devotion to his Father. So, when His Father called him in eternity past to die and to rescue the people of God from sin and death, Christ submitted and came willingly.

And during his time here, he continued submitting himself not only to God but to the civil authorities – from the illegal, midnight meeting of the Jewish Sanhedrin to the godless Roman governor, Pilate. He submitted to them and stood silent against their accusations because he was entrusting himself to the God who judges justly (2:23) and because he was doing the will of God. And through his submission to God that led to his death, he ransomed you from sin and brought you into his marvelous light.

We, too, can entrust ourselves to such a God and rest by faith in Jesus, knowing that the same God who raised Christ from the dead will take care of us, too. So, we submit and do good and honor everyone and love one another, all while fearing God. And we pray that God would use us in the place to make His glory known and draw others to Himself.

[Transition to Lord’s Supper]

Peter would have us follow the example of Christ in this way (and in other ways, which we’ll see in the coming weeks). But Jesus is not merely an example. He is the Savior. In Peter’s language, Jesus is “the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (2:25) who knows his own and knows how to take care of his own.

And in this meal we celebrate that he took care of us in his death on the cross. In this meal we celebrate our freedom in Christ; freed from sin and eternal death and given the righteousness of Christ and eternal life – ours simply by faith in him. So, come and eat, Christians, believing that Christ’s submission to His Father to the point of death is your hope for life. And because he is your risen King, you have nothing to fear from men.

[Benediction, from 1 Peter 5:10-11]

“And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.”



[1] From notes on 1 Peter 2:13-17 by Rev. Christopher Vogel, pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Delafield, WI.

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