By Christopher VanDusen

Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ have a duty to live righteously in front of their unbelieving neighbors, so that some of those neighbors will be persuaded that the gospel is true, and repent and trust in Christ. But what exactly do believers have to do in order to show unbelievers that the gospel is true, and Jesus is the divine Lord of the universe, and Savior of sinners? The apostle Peter begins to answer this question in 1 Peter 2:13-17.

In the letter of 1 Peter, Peter is writing to Jewish Christians who had been displaced from their homeland of Israel to non-Jewish areas of what is now Turkey. He decided to write to them because they were facing persecution for being Christians, and because they lacked some essential teaching on how to live the Christian life. Thus, he wrote 1 Peter as a letter of encouragement, hope, and instruction.

In the first chapter of the letter, Peter begins by describing the great salvation that God has given to him and his audience, who he calls “aliens”. He does so by explaining its past, present, and future aspects, focusing on the hope of the completion of salvation that is before them. In the same section, he emphasizes that the trials they’re experiencing are necessary to bring God the most glory possible, since their faith is going to be proven as genuine.

In light of the salvation that he describes, Peter then commands the aliens to be hopeful, holy, and reverent toward God. He concludes the first chapter by instructing them on how to love one another, since they’ve purified themselves, and have been born again through the gospel.

To begin the second chapter, Peter instructs the aliens to stop committing certain sins against one another, and to long for God’s Word, so they can grow spiritually. Then, he explains what the purpose of their spiritual growth is, which is to be a priesthood that proclaims the goodness of God to the world around them. After this, he urges them to avoid temptation, and to live righteously in front of unbelievers, so some of them will be saved.

It’s at this point that Peter begins to explain how the aliens are to live righteously among unbelievers in verses 13-17, which say,

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (ESV)

In this passage, Peter gives the aliens three main instructions for how to live among unbelievers:

  1. Submit to Government for the Lord (vss. 13-15)
  2. Serve God in Liberty (v. 16)
  3. Show Gravity to All (v. 17)
Submit to Government for the Lord

First, Peter commands the aliens to submit to their government, in verses 13-15:

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.

The command that Peter gives to the aliens is to “be subject” or to “submit”. This means that they’re to recognize an authority that is higher than them, and be willing to obey its commands. However, they’re not to do this because of the authority itself, but “for the Lord’s sake”. This means that they’re only to submit to this authority because the Lord — the Supreme Authority — has put it over them.

The authority that Peter commands the aliens to submit to is “every human institution”. The Greek word translated “institution” literally means “creation”, but clearly Peter is referring to government in the context. This is clear because of the two examples of “human institutions” that he gives. The first one is “the emperor as supreme”. This refers to the emperor of the Roman Empire, who was “supreme” over the entire Empire. The next example is “governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good”. In the case of the aliens’ situation, the only reason they would have to submit to these governors is because they were sent by the emperor to punish evildoers, and to praise do-gooders.

Next, Peter gives the aliens the main reason that they should submit to the human institutions they’re under. He says it’s because it’s God’s “will”, or “desire”, that “by doing good [they] should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people”. By “foolish people”, Peter doesn’t mean people who lack intelligence, but those who deliberately choose not to think rightly. He’s probably referring back to the same people in verse 12 who are speaking “against [them] as evildoers”, even though they’re doing what’s right. Now, he says that, by doing the good thing of submitting to their governing authorities, the aliens will silence such slander, which he calls “ignorance”, or a lack of knowledge about they’re behavior, or what’s really good and evil.

Serve God in Liberty

In verse 16, Peter gives the aliens another reason to submit to their government by commanding them to live slaves of no one but God:

“Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.”

He first commands them to live like they’re “freemen”, or those who aren’t slaves. However, he’s not speaking literally, since he begins to address “servants” in verse 18, who weren’t completely free, and because he’s giving them the way in which they’re to submit to their government. They aren’t to submit as if they’re slaves of the government, or of any of its officials, but as those who are free from enslavement to the control of any human being.

So, rather than living as slaves of the government, they’re to live “as servants of God”. The word “servants” is an inaccurate translation of the Greek word douloi, since the word literally means “slaves”, or those who are owned by other people, and the context clearly shows that Peter’s talking about slaves. However, he says, the aliens are “slaves of God“. Therefore, they ought not to use their freedom from people as an excuse to do evil, but as the way in which they serve God.

Show Gravity to All

In verse 17, Peter concludes this passage by instructing the aliens to honor everyone, and then gives them the three main ways to do this:

“Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”

The first command he gives is a general one that seems to form the basis of the next three. The Greek literally says “honor all”. The word “honor” means to “value well” or “esteem” something or someone. In this case, it’s persons that the aliens are to value and respect. Since he’s just talked about honoring the emperor and governors by submitting to them, and about honoring God by serving Him as their Master, I take it that this command can encompass both people and God. In other words, he’s telling them that any person in their lives is to be honored, since they all have value and worth of some kind.

The first specific way they’re to honor people is by loving “the brotherhood”. The Greek word translated “brotherhood” is a modified form of the word elsewhere translated “brothers” or “brothers and sisters” in English translations. Therefore, Peter is referring to the “brotherhood” of God’s family, who are brothers and sisters in Christ. The Greek word translated “love” always refers to love that expresses itself in practical care and help, since it’s in the form of a command.

Secondly, and most importantly, Peter tells the aliens to “fear God”. Since God is their Father, and loves them as His children, he can’t be telling them to be afraid of God’s attitude toward them, or His plan for them. Rather, he means they’re to revere or worship God with awe and zeal, since they know who He is, and what He does.

Finally, Peter ends on the same subject that he began this passage with. In addition to submitting to the emperor, he commands the aliens to honor the emperor, or to place a high value on him, and respect him accordingly. However, they’re to do this because they fear God, who made the emperor in His image.

Submit to Government, Serve God, Honor All

So, if you’re a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, how does this passage apply to you?

First, are you submitting yourself to the human government over you because the Lord has put it there, and because it’s God’s will that you silence the ignorance of fools by doing good?

Second, are you living as a person who’s free from enslavement to human control and sin by serving God as His slave?

Third, are you honoring everyone?

Are you loving your brothers and sisters in Christ?

Are you worshipfully revering God?

Are you honoring your government?

If you’re a slave of sin and don’t serve God, don’t love other Christians, or don’t revere God, then you’re still a rebel against God, and are heading for His eternal judgment and punishment. The good news is that He sent His eternally divine Son to earth to become the man Jesus, to live the perfect life, to suffer and die on a Roman cross to take God’s punishment for our sins, to rise from the dead, and to go into heaven as our King. God commands everyone to change their minds and trust in Jesus as their Savior from sin and hell, and their King, since He’s going to judge everyone perfectly through Jesus, and punish all His enemies in a place of eternal torment. Please make sure you’ve repented of your rebellion against Christ, and are trusting in Him alone as your Savior and King to receive God’s forgiveness, mercy, and peace. If you do that, the Lord commands that you be baptized in water by one of His church members as an appeal to God for a good conscience, and a profession of faith.

All Scripture quotations are taken from the:
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.