Living as Aliens Under a Foreign Power – 1 Peter 2:13-17
“Submit to every human creature, because of the Lord, whether to a king as one in authority or governors as being sent by him for the vengeance of evil-doers and the recognition of good-doers. Because such submission is the will of God, by doing good to silence the ignorance of foolish men. Submit as free men and not as a pretext using your freedom for evil but submit as slaves of God. Honor everybody. Keep loving the brotherhood. Keep fearing God. Continue to honor the king.”
These verses come immediately after a general statement of exhortation in vv. 11-12. There, Peter exhorted his readers to abstain from worldliness based on their status as aliens and for the purpose of demonstrating Christ’s work of regeneration in their lives so that those watching might repent and believe. The context of these verses remains in the realm of being faithful strangers and aliens and this is how we must approach them. It is here that Peter answers three questions regarding the status of Christians as strangers and aliens and the implications that status has on our society.
What Defines our Relationship to Civil Authority? (vv. 13-14)
Peter begins with the imperative submit (ὑποτάγητε). The aorist imperative is normally considered to be the strongest form of command in the Greek language because it does not take time into consideration. The idea is not “start submitting” (because you’re not) nor “keep submitting” (because you already are) but rather submit!
The basic idea of this verb is not difficult to grasp. To submit is to fall in line under the authority of another. There comes with this submission the assumption of obedience, though not from the standpoint of a people beaten into submission. This is not “a cringing obedience of spineless weaklings, but the free acceptance of the duty of submission.” Soldiers fall into formation under the submission of their commander because it is their duty and purpose, not because they have been abused to the point where no options are left to them. This command to submit governs this section and will direct our understanding.
Submission for the Lord’s Sake (v. 13)
“Submit to every human creature, because of the Lord, whether to a king as one in authority”
Most modern translations prefer to render κτίσις as “institution” or “ordinance” rather than “creature.” It would be difficult to explain why they do so, for the biblical use of this term exclusively describes God’s miraculous work of creation. Whether in reference to His original good creation of the heavens and the earth (Matt. 10:6; Mk. 13:19; Rom. 1:20, 25; 8:19, 20, 21, 22, 39; Col. 1:15, 23; Heb. 4:13, 9:11; 2 Pet. 3:4) or His marvelous work of recreation through redemption (1 Cor. 4:17; Gal. 6:15; Rev. 3:14).
Peter does not intend for his readers to submit to every creature under heaven. The last half of this verse and the beginning of the next verse fix parameters around this imperative so that the reader understands he is referring to civil government. But in phrasing his command in this way, he reminds Christians that all men in government positions are still men. It matters not if they are a king or governors that sit under the king, they remain creatures and are part of, not over, God’s good creation. It is necessary that Christians submit to these fellow creatures because of the Lord.
The reference to the Lord (τὸν κύριον) is undoubtedly to the Lord Jesus Christ. But in what way is this submission motivated by or for the sake of (διὰ) the Lord? If we remember that these verses do not appear in a vacuum, the answer should be obvious. In the previous verse, Peter exhorted good works (καλῶν ἔργων) so that the world might observe and glorify God. Christians must not rebel against those in authority in any way that would bring dishonor or disgrace to the name of Christ.
This does not mean that Christians are lemmings that must follow the edicts of kings into the pits of hell. There are times when God’s people must disobey civil authorities (Dan. 3:16-18; 6:1-10; Acts 4:19-20) and times when Christians must hold civil authorities accountable for their actions (Acts 16:37-40). But these times must be weighed and considered under the lens Christ’s honor. Will our actions glorify or impugn the name of Christ? After all, civil government does have its part to play in God’s divine design.
Submission within God’s Purpose (v. 14)
“or governors as being sent by him for the vengeance of evil-doers and the recognition of good-doers.”
Peter does not mention any specific form of government as being “the right” form but continues with the example under which he and his readers live. The Roman Empire was ruled directly from the throne of Caesar and his will was executed through provincial governors sent by Caesar for that very purpose. Biblically speaking, the government has only two jobs to play: (1) punish those who do evil and (2) reward those who do right. Would it not be in the best interest of Peter’s readers to submit to those who punish evil and reward good behavior?
Granted, this is selfish motivation. Yet, how would it reflect upon our Lord if His followers were constantly being punished by the government? Would this not imply that Christians are evil doers? This is the same term (κακοποιός) used in v. 12 to describe the baseless allegations of Christian opponents. If the Christians of Asia Minor throw Peter’s words to the wind, would they not be proving their accusers’ point? God intended mankind to be governed. The notion of anarchy is nothing less than the spirit of antichrist. For the Lord’s sake, it is necessary to submit to fellow creatures who have been placed in authority so that they can do His work.
It is necessary to understand that Peter does not claim that government regularly fulfills their purpose very well. In fact, it could be said that our own government refuses to punish those who do evil and instead attempts to rehabilitate them. Meanwhile, no one is held accountable for their actions and justice is seldom served. Likewise, our government goes out of their way to reward those who leech off society rather than those who benefit society. In the end, there is no motivation to avoid evil and do good. Yet even thoroughly wicked governments tend to hold off evil to some degree.
This is a general principle and not a “one-size-fits-all” answer. There are times when the government must be disobeyed and times when they must even be removed from their position. But under ordinary circumstances the Christian’s knee-jerk reaction must be one of submission for our good and God’s glory.
What Motivates Our Submission? (vv. 15-16)
This is where the rubber meets the road. In these two verses Peter tells us the practical benefit of submission as well as helping understand the right mindset of this submission. In other words, here Peter reveals the “why” and the “how” of biblical submission.
God’s Will (v. 15a)
“Because such submission is the will of God”
The Greek conjunction ὅτι (because/for) and adverb οὕτοως (thus/so) introduce the reason for such submission. The adverb reaches back to the initial command in v. 13 (submit) and brings it forward only to declare that it (the submission) is the will and desire of God. God did not make a mistake by regenerating us in the context we find ourselves. It is part of His plan that we be aliens and sojourners in the lands which He found us and transferred us into the Kingdom of His beloved Son. Therefore, when He calls us to submit to the authority that is over us, it is not an oversight on His part. This is part of God’s will.
This exhortation should be sufficient for us to immediately obey. But our God is a good and gracious God who reveals Himself to His people. Rather than worshiping a capricious god who is untrustworthy and unpredictable, God the Father always has a reason and a purpose behind every command.
Silencing Opposition (v. 15b)
“by doing good to silence the ignorance of foolish men”
The same root is used here of doing good (ἀγαθοποιέω) as the object of the government’s recognition in v. 14. It may be noteworthy to know that Peter uses good from ἀγαθός here rather than from καλός as in vv. 11-12. Governments are looking for pious righteousness that is inherent to God’s good creation (καλός) but judge according to what is pleasing and beneficial (ἀγαθός). What God commands as good (καλός) the unregenerate should recognize as good (ἀγαθός). So, in submitting to the governing authorities, it is God’s will that this apparent good (ἀγαθός) is seen by men to muzzle their foolish ignorance.
This ignorance (ἀγνωσία) describes the state of all men who have no eyes to see nor ears to hear nor a heart to believe the truth. They reason as if they lack mental sanity, yet their problem is spiritual more than intellectual. This ignorance is “a failure to perceive the true nature of the Christian faith and life.” Christians are commanded to submit to the government within the government’s role of rewarders of good so that these ignorant men have nothing to condemn them for.
The idea is like this: Do what is good under the authority of those whose job it is to reward those who do good and abstain from what is evil under the authority of those whose job it is to punish evil. The good deeds of Christ’s church function as a muzzle to shut the mouths of these fools. Submission does not dictate blind adherence to tyrants so much as it indicates a recognition of God’s good design.
It is important to understand that Peter does not assume that the government will always (or even often) side with Christians who do what is right and good. Unregenerate man would not know good (καλός) if it hit him in the face. The only good (καλός) man to ever walk the face of the earth was convicted of no crime and yet sentenced to execution. From their ignorance, evil men speak much. But in general circumstances, our good deeds will only exonerate us with nothing concrete to condemn us.
Exercising Freedom (v. 16)
This is where the passage at hand begins to join the larger context of aliens and strangers. Should we be exempt from governmental authority on the basis of our citizenship of Christ’s kingdom and as subjects of King Jesus? Are we not free from submission? Contrary to what we may think, submission is not at all in opposition to our freedom. Peter reveals three perspectives from which Christians must submit.
Freedom to Submit
“Submit as free men”
Peter does not compare his readers to free men as if they are not actually free, but states that their submission is from the perspective of free men. In what way are they free? They are free from the power of sin (Rom. 7:24-8:1) and free from the dominion of darkness and the power of the devil (Eph. 2:1-3). The fact that God the Father has caused all believers to be born again (1:3) and has elected us to be aliens in this world (1:1) makes us completely free of any bondage the world’s ruler may have over us. Yet, we are still to submit to our governing authorities. Not as their slaves, who cower under their dominion, but as free men who submit in honor and out of duty.
Freedom to Do Good
“and not as a pretext using your freedom for evil”
The second perspective is one that does not use this newfound freedom as an excuse to do evil. If anarchy is prohibited by God and curbed by the use of government, then the Christian cannot go over to the other extreme of antinomianism. Our freedom in Christ is freedom from sin and to righteousness. Christians are the only truly free people on planet earth for they are the only people who are able to do what is good. Christ has freed us from the chains of sin so that we would do good works (Eph. 2:9-10). If we submit to the government as a covering for evil (We can’t disobey the government. Might as well just go with the flow…) we are acting in a manner that is counterproductive to the gospel that set us free.
Freedom to Serve
“but submit as slaves of God”
This third perspective reveals where our allegiance truly lays. Our freedom from this world and its ruler is bound to the fact that we are slaves of God. The Greek term δοῦλος is commonly translated as “servant” or “bondservant” but the idea of slave is much more accurate. We belong to God and are duty bound to serve Him. In this servitude is the only true sense of freedom that exists for mankind. “True liberty, according to the New Testament, means that there is freedom to do what is right. Hence, only those who are slaves of God are genuinely free.” For if we are slaves of God, then we are slaves of no other person or nation. We submit to the governing authorities because they are God’s tools, not because we belong to them.
How Do We Prioritize our Submission? (v. 17)
This path of submission may become confusing to some people. The lines of loyalty can be difficult to navigate if we submit to pagan rulers but also to God. How can we know how to prioritize our submission? Many men have offered their advice and council. Some of it has been good while others not so much. But Peter provides all the guidance we need in a single verse.
This verse begins with another aorist imperative (τιμήσατε) with far reaching implications. To honor (τιμάω) someone is to put a high price of value upon them. The word describes the action of estimation which concludes that great worth, and value are to be ascribed to the object. To honor everyone is to recognize the fact that every single human being upon the earth bears the Imago Dei or the image of God (Gen. 1:26-28). To belittle, abuse, neglect, or mistreat another human being is an attack upon the very person of God.
It matters not if a person is a pagan. It matters not where they are from or what they look like. They are still an image bearer and thus deserve to be valued as such.
“Keep loving the brotherhood. Keep fearing God. Continue to honor the king.”
Three more imperatives are introduced here, but Peter changes from the aorist tense to the present. Rather than a four-finger point to the chest, these commands carry the nuance of “continue doing…” The implication is that Peter’s readers already are doing these things.
The first command is to continue to love the brotherhood. The brotherhood is a reference to other believers who would certainly be included in the everyone that Christians are to honor. In commanding that they continue to love other believers, Peter raises the bar. It is one thing to esteem value on a person, it is quite another to love them. Out of all the peoples of the earth, Peter is commanding a priority of love to other Christians. Our greatest testimony to the watching world is our love for the brotherhood (Jn. 13:34-35) and is defined by objective action rather than sympathetic speech (1 Jn. 3:18). Our tangible love is not restricted to other Christians, but the brotherhood is prioritized.
The second command to continue to fear God places this whole discussion into perspective. The fear of Yhwh is the beginning of knowledge (Prov. 1:7), wisdom (Prov. 9:10), is the only appropriate response to His unveiled glory (Ex. 14:31) and defines those who belong to Him (Ex. 1:17-21; Lev. 19:14, 32; 25:17, 36, 43; 2 Chr. 19:7; Ps. 2:11; Ps. 19:9). The lack of fear defines those who reject God (2 Kings 17:25, 34; Ps. 36:1; Ecc. 8:13; Is. 57:11; Lk. 18:2, 4). As such, God is the only one to whom fear is due and expected as any other object of fear is prohibited (Deut. 1:17; Judg. 6:10; 2 Kings 17:35, 37; Is. 51:7). God is the apex of our priority, and we must continue to fear, worship, and obey Him.
The final command resembles the first imperative given. To honor (τιμᾶτε) the king is not much different than the command to honor (τιμάω) all people. The king is, after all, part of everybody and is therefore not exempt from the honor we bestow on all of God’s image bearers. But he is a creature (κτίσις – v. 13) and not a deity. Therefore, he is unworthy of our fear. We respect him as an individual who bears God’s image. We value the position of his office. But we do not fear nor worship him for he is no god. This is an important part of the puzzle for we who sojourn as aliens through this land. It is almost as if Peter is thinking of Proverbs 24:21: “My son, fear Yhwh and the king” (NASB), though he has changed this fear to honor.
In the context of Proverbs, the son of Solomon is exhorted to fear Yhwh and Yhwh’s representative on the throne of Israel, a seat that will culminate in Messiah. But the king of Rome, the emperor Nero, is no predecessor to Messiah. He is not to be feared or worshipped. He is to be submitted to as an earthly vessel that has been placed to do the will of God by punishing evil and rewarding the righteous.
Christians must submit to governing authority, for in so doing they submit to God and His plan to sustain a fallen world until His Messiah returns to undo and reverse the curse. But if there be any inconsistency between these human creatures and their Creator, Christians are given this simple paradigm to follow: love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king. May we never fail in our duty nor confuse our priorities.
Soli Deo Gloria!
 D. Edmond Hiebert, 1 Peter (Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 1984), p. 162-4.  Thomas Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2003), p. 127-8.  Hiebert, p. 168.  Schreiner, p. 131.  Schreiner, p. 131.  One might say that Scripture is sufficient.