Cornerstone EPC Sunday morning
Franklin, NC 28734 May 21, 2017
“Our Proper Relation to Authority”
Text: 1 Peter 2:13-17
Recall that last week we heard, in general terms, about looking like living stones (1 Peter 2:11-12). We do this by abstaining from the passions of the flesh and by keeping our conduct honorable. Today, and for some time, we shall consider looking like living stones in more specific terms. We today consider the Christian’s proper relation to human authority. In short, for the Lord’s sake, be subject to it. Let us hear God speak to us in this portion of His written Word.
(HERE READ THE TEXT)
The Apostle Peter, led by the Spirit, gives us the main thrust of his teaching with his opening command, “Be subject, for the Lord’s sake, to every human institution….” Peter then gives some examples of these human institutions. He first mentions the emperor as supreme—but we, in America, don’t have a perfect analogue to the Roman emperor. Nor do we have an analogue to Louis XIV, longtime king of France (1638-1715, r. 1643-1715), who said, famously, “L’etat c’est moi” (translated, “I am the state.”). Perhaps our best analogue may be our federal government, with the constitutional checks and balances between the three branches of government. We, then, must subject ourselves, for Christ’s sake, to our highest human authority.
Peter next mentions governors—a high official in our land, to be sure, yet not as high as our President, for example. Therefore, we subject ourselves for Christ not only to highest rulers, but to subordinate ones as well. We may think of subordinate rulers perhaps as subsets of federal government (such as agencies) or perhaps as exerting authority in smaller than national spheres (such as state governors, city mayors, and local law enforcement officers). To these officials falls the twofold function of punishing the ones doing evil and rewarding the ones doing good. Let us, by God’s grace, shun the former and embrace the latter.
Moreover, subjection to authorities, evidenced by doing good, is the will of God for us. There are others things expressly the will of God for us, such as our sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3) and giving thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18), and our subjection to authorities for the Lord’s sake ranks equal to these. This doing good while subject to authorities puts to silence the ignorance of foolish men. Notice, as we watch games from the stands, how opposing partisans are silenced—or at least considerably quietened—by excellence on the field or court. The same is true as well in Christian life. By doing good, the murmur against us is less from those hostile to us—and some of them, by God’s grace, He draws to Himself through our joint and several examples.
Yet, though in subjection to authorities for the Lord’s sake, we are free in Him. Our fundamental freedom is not in American citizenship, prized though that rightly be, but in right relationship with God through the Person and atoning work of Jesus Christ. There is, however, a proper use for this freedom—and, alas, a misuse which we must identify and avoid. We misuse our Christian freedom when we use it as a cover-up for evil. True, we have liberty in the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:17), but we do not have license in Him to commit evil. We shall not go on sinning—that grace may abound (Romans 6:1). Rather, we use our Christian freedom properly when we use it to serve God. The Apostle Paul, writing to the Roman Christian households and us, tells us that, though we once were slaves to sin, we now are freed to bond-service unto righteousness (Romans 6:15-23). Let us, the redeemed of God in Christ, use our Christian freedom rightly.
Peter closes this paragraph with multiple applications of today’s teaching. First, God calls us, through Peter’s pen, to honor everyone. This applies concerning people generally, but it applies specifically to our fellow believers in Christ. In humility, then, let us count others more significant than ourselves (Philippians 2:3)—and we do this by outdoing one another in showing honor (Romans 12:10). Second, God’s calls is to love the brotherhood. This appears to be euphemism for our fellow Christians, individually considered, and our church—and the Church—considered in the aggregate. We are called to love these with that high, sacrificial, other-centered love characteristic of God Himself (Greek agape [agaph])—and, by God’s empowering grace, we can.
Third, God calls us to fear Him. We may consider this fear in three senses. We may think of it as respect—a form of honor in itself. We also may think of it as reverence. To fear God, in a real sense, is to worship Him, as we read in Proverbs: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10). To fear God also is, well, to fear Him—not in the sense of abject fear, but rather in the sense of holy dread in view of His staggering, commanding majesty. When we, by His grace, fear Him to some degree in each of these senses, then we fear Him—and such pleases Him.
Fourth, to recapitulate, God calls us to honor the authority figure or figures. We receives additional Scriptural support for this in Paul’s remarks to the Ephesians about slaves and masters (Ephesians 6:5-9), which we apply to authority figures and structures generally. We also receive additional support from God’s Word in Paul’s remarks to the Romans about submission to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7)—much of which God reiterates in today’s text. This command, taken with the opening command to subject ourselves, form excellent bookends for the whole passage.
Yet two nettlesome questions arise as we consider all of this. First, we may ask, “What if the authority be ungodly?” Recall that Peter wrote to folk living under the domain of Nero Caesar—hardly a paragon of Christian virtue from all the available evidence. The Spirit led Peter to write this passage to them, in their situation, knowing full well that situation. We, as Americans, never have faced what the earliest Christians faced. Therefore, we can, by God’s power, comply. We can be subject to our governing authorities for Christ’s sake. After all, the ultimate Authority is God Himself. Never lost sight of this truth.
Second, we may ask, “What if the commands of authority be contrary to God’s Word—either expressly or by reasonable therefrom?” Here we have a different case. Should the situation demand—and I pray, in God’s good providence, it shall not—we must observe what Peter cried in the Sanhedrin, some thirty years before penning this letter, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Consider the example of Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives who saved the lives of many Hebrew boy babies when Pharaoh issued his cruel edict to kill them (Exodus 1:15-22). They defied the supreme ruler of Egypt to obey the sovereign Lord of the ages—and God indeed blessed them in the doing.
These special matters now considered, the general case still holds. Let us subject ourselves to authority, and let us do this in view of our subjection to God in Christ, by the Spirit. May He bless and empower our obedience, and may He make us salt, light, and leaven to a nation and world that sorely could use some.