Summary: How are we as Christians to live under nonChristian authority?
Peter is writing to several communities of Christians scattered about in northern Asia Minor, which today is the country Turkey. These bands of believers are living in precarious circumstances. They are a decided minority who are misunderstood, and, as a result, face slander and unjust treatment from their neighbors. Peter is writing to encourage them and instruct them how to live under their circumstances.
He encourages them by reminding them of who they are and what has been done for them. Who are they? They are God’s elect, chosen by God the Father, redeemed by God the Son, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. What has been done for them? They have been given new birth into a living hope of an inheritance that cannot be lost. This inheritance is eternal life spent in glory. They are being protected for that day, and even their trials are only helping to prepare them for it. What they possess is so wonderful, the great prophets of the Old Testament who prophesied their redemption longed to see what they know, and even the angels yearn to know more about what they are receiving in Christ.
In light of their belonging to God and possessing the inheritance of salvation, they are to be holy and love one another. They should understand that they are being built into a spiritual house for God in which they may offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to him. They are a special people for the purpose of declaring God’s praises to the world.
That is the encouragement Peter gives. We have now moved into the body of the letter in which he instructs them how to live in the world. He began the instruction in verse 11. Referring to them as aliens and strangers in the world, they are to abstain from sinful desires and to live good lives. He will now apply to their circumstances the general principle of living a good life. Verses 13-17 apply to civic life; 18-25 to the relations of slaves to their masters; 3:1-7 to the relations between wives and husbands, though mostly of believing wives to unbelieving husbands; and 3:8-12 to both Christian community and relations among neighbors.
Let’s look at our text now.
Submission to Authority
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.
I am well aware that as we move into this and the following passages, we are entering into minefield labeled “authority.” The term itself immediately raises red flags when we hear it. A popular bumper sticker reads, “Question Authority.” Perhaps that has always been the mindset of Americans; definitely so since the 1960s. In every aspect of society, the authority of institutions and officials has lost its aura. Ask doctors, judges, ministers, teachers, anyone with some kind of authority or in an institution of authority, and they will all concur. For good or bad, there is no longer a natural respect for authority. Our first reaction to these two verses is to question them: to every authority? To an evil king? But what if the governors punish those who do right and commend those who do wrong? In other words, our reaction is, “But wait.” We immediately think of bad authority. That’s how we are conditioned, right or wrong.
That’s why my first reaction to this passage was, “Oh, no. Now I have to enter the debate on the relationship between church and state, the issues of civil disobedience and revolution, how to respond to tyrants and dictators, and means of protesting abortion, etc.” I immediately thought of the controversies that arise out of abusive authority. I am a product of my times.
Fortunately, my approach to preaching helps me, which is this: The starting point in the preaching of Scripture is not to begin with my concerns or yours, but with the concerns of Scripture. Before we bring our issues to Peter, let’s first explore the issues Peter brings to his churches, and, consequently, to us.
Now, back to verse 17: Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men. The term, authority, is actually not in the text. Every authority instituted among men is a translation of three Greek terms literally translated, “every human creation or creature.” The word for creation, ktisis, was used outside Scripture for the act of creating a governmental body or founding a city, and so it seems logical in its context to translate it in terms of governmental authority. Thus, immediate reference is made to king and governors. The King James Version translates the word as “ordinance” and the New King James Version with “law.” We are to submit to the laws of the authorities. The meaning is still the same – that we are to submit to authorities.