Strangers And Aliens (11): Silencing Critics Through Submission (1 Peter 2:13–17)

NeroWhen, c. 64–66 AD, the Apostle Peter wrote to the churches in Asia Minor (the areas named cover most of modern Turkey) Christians were a small, minority religion in the Greco-Roman world. Nero was Caesar and his reign was shortly coming to an end (AD 68). His reign may have begun well enough, since he was advised by Seneca, but it was not long before his sexual adventures and immorality shocked even the hardened conscience of the pagan Romans. He murdered his mother and his wife. He used the minority status of the Christians to blame them for fires that swept through the city and initiated the first persecution of Christians. His last years were marked gross immorality and violence. Paranoid about plots against him, he murdered his opponents and even Seneca. Finally he committed suicide.

It is important to be reminded about the world in which the Apostle Peter wrote these epistles and to which he wrote them. The gospel was not preached and Christian ethical instruction was not given in a vacuum. The world in which you and I live seems to become daily more like that of the first century. Thus, the better we understand Scripture in its original context, the better we may be able to apply it to our own.

1 Peter 2:13–17

13Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor (ESV). 13Υποτάγητε πάσῃ ἀνθρωπίνῃ κτίσει διὰ τὸν κύριον, εἴτε βασιλεῖ ὡς ὑπερέχοντι, 14εἴτε ἡγεμόσιν ὡς δι᾿ αὐτοῦ πεμπομένοις εἰς ἐκδίκησιν κακοποιῶν ἔπαινον δὲ ἀγαθοποιῶν· 15ὅτι οὕτως ἐστὶν τὸ θέλημα τοῦ θεοῦ ἀγαθοποιοῦντας φιμοῦν τὴν τῶν ἀφρόνων ἀνθρώπων ἀγνωσίαν, 16ὡς ἐλεύθεροι καὶ μὴ ὡς ἐπικάλυμμα ἔχοντες τῆς κακίας τὴν ἐλευθερίαν ἀλλ᾿ ὡς θεοῦ δοῦλοι. 17πάντας τιμήσατε, τὴν ἀδελφότητα ἀγαπᾶτε, τὸν θεὸν φοβεῖσθε, τὸν βασιλέα τιμᾶτε.

vv. 13–14: Be Subject For The Lord’s Sake
The world in which and to which the Apostle Peter wrote was not unlike ours. Read a new site (or a newspaper). What do you see? Rebellion, of various sorts, is everywhere. University students are not writing papers trying to persuade others to think and act differently. Rather, they are marching in the library, shouting vulgarities, and demanding compliance through intimidation. Islamists do not seek to persuade through reason but rather they seek to impose upon the entire globe not only a religion but a civil order (Sharia) and they seek to do so through violence, fear, and chaos. We might be forgiven for thinking that some secular authorities in this world actively facilitate chaos and fear in order to cause citizens to turn to civil governments for safety and security, thus strengthening their hand. Certainly the citizens of the Roman empire had reason to suspect that the government was not serving their best interest.

Nevertheless, and quite remarkably, Scripture repeatedly teaches us to submit even to patently corrupt and wicked authorities such as Nero. Indeed, Peter intensifies the difficulty of this principle by using an inclusive category: “every human institution” (πάσῃ ἀνθρωπίνῃ κτίσει). In effect, wrote Peter, even though we have a heavenly citizenship we also have an earthly citizenship with genuine obligations. We are not free to say to earthly institutions (e.g., employers, civil rulers, families, and other social relationships) that we will not obey because of our heavenly citizenship. Rather, it is because (διὰ τὸν κύριον) of the Lord and because our heavenly citizenship that we submit to earthly authorities, even to corrupt institutions. We submit “on account of the Lord.”

This is a difficult teaching because, after the fall, submission (Ὑποτάγητε) is neither natural nor easy. After the fall, by nature, we are rebels. Our natural impulse is to resist any authority beyond our own intellect, will, and affections. That is why Peter presses the point. We must submit to the emperor (βασιλεῖ) or king. Given the pomp and earthly authority of the Roman emperor, we can perhaps see why Peter instructed us to submit to him. After all, what choice did a citizen have? Under Nero, the ordinary citizen had either to submit or face the ugly consequences. Yet again, Peter intensifies the teaching. We must also submit to petty regional governors. Some of these fellows, e.g., Pontius Pilate, were not serious people. Pilate himself was a cynical, calculating, climber—the very sort of person who makes one not want to pay attention to civil life.

The job of the civil magistrate, as both Paul (Rom 13) and Peter teach, is to punish evil doers and to reward good behavior. In theological terms, civil life is a covenant of works. In the covenant of grace transgressions are forgiven for the sake of Christ. We stand before God on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed. In civil life, however, there is no one else to take our punishment. There is no imputed righteousness received through faith alone. In civil life, when we break the law, we alone must pay the penalty. Much of life is actually a covenant of works. Your employer may be merciful to you but he may not. We must show up to work. We must perform our jobs or we shall receive the penalty. Even Paul says “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess 3:10). That is a covenant of works: “do this and live” (Luke 10:28). Unlike God’s law, it is possible even for sinful people to keep the civil law well enough to stay out of jail. Most people never go to jail. Most never commit the sorts of crimes for which one is sent to jail. Most of the time it is not actually that difficult to stay on the right side of the civil law. For many of us it means lifting our foot just a bit from the accelerator. It means not picking up that recliner and trying to carry it out of the store without paying. To be sure, magistrates to enact unjust laws and they do sometimes enforce them unjustly. Nevertheless, Peter says that we must submit to them.

Here, Calvin’s doctrine of the “Lesser Magistrate” is helpful (Institutes, 4.20). Calvin’s great fear of civil life was disorder and mob violence. He was aware of the history of unjust rule by civil magistrates. He had seen plenty of it in his own life. His theory was that the people should not undertake on their own to rebel against a tyrant but rather lesser magistrates within the government might overturn a tyrant. Just who constitutes a “lesser magistrate” was expanded by succeeding theorists of this “resistance theory” (e.g., Beza) and it becomes even more complicated in a representative republic such as the United States but it does, at least, help us to see that there are ways of thinking about seeking justice in the civil realm without resorting to mob action and rebellion.

vv. 15–16: Christian Obedience As Apologetic
A Christian apologetic is a reasoned argument in defense of the faith. Our lives can be such an apologetic. The way we conduct ourselves says something to the world about what we really believe. The world draws inferences from what they see in us. By our conduct we can deprive them of the grounds of an attack against Christianity: hypocrisy.

In his mysterious providence the Lord sometimes sets over us unjust rulers, sometimes even through an electoral college and sometimes through other means. The Lord’s providence is his business. It is not for us to inquire beyond what he has revealed to us in his Word (Deut 29:29). His moral will (τὸ θέλημα τοῦ θεοῦ), clearly revealed in these verses, is that we ought to submit to even unjust rulers (hence the “lesser magistrate” doctrine) and that we should “do good” (ἀγαθοποιοῦντας) with the intent and the result—there is no great reason to distinguish them here—of silencing (φιμοῦν) the critics of Christianity. The verb Peter uses can also refer to muzzling an ox. Here it means to shut their mouths so that they cannot attack the faith by pointing to our hypocrisy. When we violate God’s moral law, perhaps especially in the 2nd table, in the civil realm, where pagans can see—people may guess about our hearts but they can see if we carry out of the grocery a steak for which we have not paid—we give opportunity to the pagan critics to attack the faith, our Lord, and the church.

One of the more effective arguments made by the early defenders of the faith such as Justin (mid-2nd century) and Tertullian (early 3rd century) was their invitation to the pagan authorities to investigate the lives of the Christians. They argued that Christians were blameless before the civil law, that the rumors and falsehoods spread about them were jut that: falsehoods and rumors and would be shown to be such. Further, they argued, should the authorities find a Christian breaking the civil law, such a Christian should be punished under civil law. Remember, the people to whom Peter is calling us to submit and thereby silence he characterizes as “foolish and ignorant” (ἀφρόνων ἀνθρώπων ἀγνωσίαν).

Implicitly they were asking to be allowed to distinguish between the sacred (i.e., that which is religious) and the secular (i.e., that which is common to Christians and non-Christians). The law required citizens to sacrifice to the gods and to Caesar and to say “Caesar is Lord.” The magistrate sometimes required Christians to say it and to denounce Christ. Of course, the Christians could not do that. As Peter himself said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). In those cases we faced persecution, i.e., civil punishment for refusing to perform or say idolatrous things. Our ability to silence critics is contingent upon our obedience to the principal of humble submission to divinely-established authorities.

In Christ we are free from God’s condemnation. We are free persons (ἐλεύθεροι). We are not, however, to use that freedom as a license or pretext (ἐπικάλυμμα) for immorality (κακίας). Rather, even though we are free, we live voluntarily as slaves (δοῦλοι) to God, for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, for the sake of Christ. We are free to submit because our self-image, our self-worth, does not depend on the approval of pagans but upon the approval of God, won for us by Christ, freely given to us for Christ’s sake by grace alone, through faith alone.

v. 17: Honor, Love, And Fear
Peter ends the passage where he began: “honor everyone” (τιμήσατε). As we submit to every human institution, so we honor everyone. In that regard we are not respecters of persons, i.e., we do not treat the socially important differently that we treat the socially unimportant because we do not see people as steps on a ladder to our own success. We see everyone as a fellow image-bearer and as a potential brother or sister in Christ. We do not know whom God will sovereignly, mysteriously bring to saving faith. Further, we love the brotherhood (ἀδελφότητα).

We honor all but we love (ἀγαπᾶτε) our brothers and sisters in Christ. We do have a different relationship with them than we have with the unbelieving world, as we ought. We regard our brothers and sister in Christ as those whom God has loved from all eternity, for whom Christ laid down his life. If they are beloved by God in Christ, if they are adopted by God, in Christ, if they have the Holy Spirit, how can we not love them?

Because we are sons, we have a filial (not servile) fear (φοβεῖσθε) of God. You may follow the link for more on this distinction. Suffice it to say here that the fear to which we are called is not the fear of demons, who know that they are already judged, or of unbelievers, or of those in a covenant of works. Rather, we fear God appropriately. We respect his majesty, his holiness, and his dignity. In our age we may have lost this category. We tend to bounce between chummy familiarity (radical egalitarianism) and servile fear. Peter here intends to communicate something of appropriate respect. Were you ever have opportunity to meet a president, you should not be afraid (after all, he is elected, he is not a tyrant) but you would certainly treat a president with respect because of the office. If that is so, how much more ought we to respect Almighty God who, in himself, is utterly beyond our knowing and who has freely revealed himself in nature and in grace?

Finally, Peter again exhorts us to honor the emperor. Christians are not to be known in the empire as conspirators or rebels. We are to be known as those who, in Paul’s words, “to live quietly,” who “mind” our “own affairs,” and who work to support ourselves—we are not a burden upon society (1 Thess 4:11). We are asking nothing of our pagan neighbors and rulers except to be left alone. In 1 Timothy 2:2 Paul was just as clear as Peter. We are to pray “for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (emphasis added). Living quietly is not “quietism” but it does pose a significant challenge to those who advocate the Christian “transformation” of society. Perhaps that is the right ethic but it must be shown from Scripture and certainly such language as we find here in 1 Peter and in Paul’s epistles cannot be dismissed as irrelevant since it is the Word of God.

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  1. Dear Prof Clark
    Thank you for the helpful and interesting article. You mention Seneca. May I ask if you know of any evidence that Paul and Seneca were contemporaries at university in Tarsus, that Paul and Seneca were imprisoned together in Rome and beheaded at about the same time, and whether Seneca became a Christian towards the end of his life. I ask because I heard these opinions the other day and wondered about the veracity of them. Or is it just interesting speculation?
    Thanks and grace to you.

    • John

      I don’t think those associations with St Paul are factual. Seneca was required to commit suicide in AD 65, and he did so by bleeding to death in a bath.

      Seneca has certainly been maligned as a sycophant, but it must have been impossible for him to have remained a close adviser to a monster like Nero once he decided to murder his mother in AD 59; it was a position he did wish to relinquish. He may even have been a restraining influence on Nero up to his eventual retirement in AD 62. The Neronian persecution of Christians began in AD 64 when Seneca was out of the picture.

      It may be that Seneca was present when St Paul first appeared before Nero around AD 61-2 (an appeal to the emperor did not guarantee an actual audience with him: the business was delegated to his close advisers) and may have helped obtain his discharge. But as Seneca retired that year, and was dead by AD 65, he would not have been present at Paul’s second appearance.

      Completely separate point, but I discovered this week that William Perkins held that Paul’s first appearance was in AD 61 but that he was beheaded after the fall of Jerusalem, years after his second appearance!! Perkins ascribes 10 years between Paul’s first appearance before Nero and his death; he dates his conversion as AD 35 and gives him 37 years of ministry, with a second appearance before Nero in AD 66, and 2 Timothy penned in AD 70. This is most surprising.

  2. RSC:“The magistrate sometimes required Christians to say it and to denounce Christ. Of course, the Christians could do that.”

    correction: Of course, the Christians could NOT do that ?

    RSC “We are to be known as those who, in Paul’s words, “to live quietly,” who “mind” our “own affairs,” and who work to support ourselves—we are not a burden upon society (1 Thess 4:11). We are asking nothing of our pagan neighbors and rulers except to be left alone. In 1 Timothy 2:2 Paul was just as clear as Peter. We are to pray “for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (emphasis added). Living quietly is not “quietism” but it does pose a significant challenge to those who advocate the Christian “transformation” of society. Perhaps that is the right ethic but it must be shown from Scripture and certainly such language as we find here in 1 Peter and in Paul’s epistles cannot be dismissed as irrelevant since it is the Word of God.”

    thank you. Also… from that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt 4:17) This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached (by disciples of the kingdom of heaven) in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come. (Matt 24:14).. preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered. Acts 28:31

    the kingdom of heaven is a hidden treasure, a pearl of great value, and like a dragnet cast into the sea;
    like a mustard seed that grows and becomes a tree and the birds nest in its branches; and like leaven hidden in flour until it was all leavened; Matt, Luke 13

  3. and …The Triumphs of Faith (Heb 11) 1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 6 And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible. 4 By faith ..(lots of stuff happened) ..(through faithful ones) 39 And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect. (They all) 26 considered the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward. 32 And what more shall we say? (alot) 33 who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises…. (and iterating) for we walk by faith, not by sight—(2 Cor 5:7)

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