How do citizens of a heavenly nation live faithfully as temporary citizens on earth? How can you survive the election without losing your faith, your friends, your witness, . . . or your mind? Those are the questions we’re answering this week by examining six truths about exile citizenship from 1 Peter 2:11-17.
Here’s the fifth truth: know your role. Peter wants his readers to understand that they have a unique role to play as temporary citizens in a hostile world. Look at verses 13-14—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.
Notice first the role of citizens. We’re called to “be subject” to our leaders. This means we must submit to them. Because they have authority over us, we obey them. We pay our taxes. We obey traffic laws. We wear masks inside public buildings. We secure licenses to drive our vehicles or own firearms. We submit. But who should we submit to? Peter is clear that we should submit to any government official who has authority over us. From the heads of state—like the emperors who reigned supreme in the 1st century—to local officials, like Roman governors.
Christian: this means that regardless of who gets elected in November, “Not My President” is not an option. “Well that candidate is evil!” Doesn’t matter. It does not matter. You must submit. “You don’t understand, pastor! If this guy gets elected or that guy gets reelected, he’ll ruin this country!” Submit. “But he’s not qualified!” Submit.
Remember, Peter is writing during the reign of Nero. Today Nero is universally known for his tyranny, extravagance, debauchery, and violence. At age sixteen he killed his own half-brother to ensure he had no rival to the throne. Although his mother helped him rule for a few years, they eventually had a falling out and he had her killed in A.D. 59. One historian wrote, “This was a crime that will have caused revulsion in the Roman world, for the mother was that most sacred of icons within the Roman family.”[i] Four years later (which was probably right around when Peter wrote this letter), Nero killed his first wife Octavia. Within a year or two after writing 1 Peter, Nero will blame Christians for the Great Fire of Rome (which many believe he started) and unleash one of the most violent persecutions in the history of the church. A persecution which would eventually lead to the upside-down crucifixion of Peter himself. And yet, notice what Peter says: Be subject . . . to the emperor as supreme. . . . Honor the emperor. Our role as temporary citizens is to submit to our governing officials.
Notice second the role of government. In verse 14 Peter says local officials are sent by the head of state to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. This doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about the role and purpose of government, but it’s a start. In some ways it echoes what Paul writes about the role of government in Romans 13:1-4—Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. (2) Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (3) For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, (4) for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.
In Romans, Paul is highlighting the fact that all government is appointed by God. But both Romans and 1 Peter mention one of government’s basic roles: to punish evil. Here’s a question I’d encourage you to ask as you think through the election. It won’t tell you everything you need to know how to vote, but it will help you think through the issues. Which candidate or platform is more likely to punish what God calls evil? Think of the social evils that all Christians should be against, things like abortion, racism, sexual immorality, sexual abuse, to name a few. What does the party or candidate punish? What does he or she refuse to punish? If both candidates fail to punish certain things that God calls evil, which failures are more egregious and foundational?
1 Peter 2:14 adds another responsibility of government: to praise those who do good. We often don’t think about governments as rewarding certain behaviors, but they do. Governments reward by the programs and policies they promote and the tax incentives they provide. Whether someone promotes the Green New Deal or a border wall, taxpayer-funded abortion or tax cuts for corporations, they’re rewarding the behavior that they believe to be good.
Here’s some questions to help you think through the election: Which candidate or platform is more likely to reward what God calls good? What does the party or candidate reward? What does he or she refuse to reward? If both candidates fail to reward certain things that God calls good, which failures are more egregious and foundational?
But here’s the deal, Christian. Your level of submission to the government does not rise or fall based on how well they fulfill their role. If the Oval Office is occupied by someone who rewards what God calls evil and punishes what God calls good, you still must submit to them. Why? For the Lord's sake. You submit to your government, insofar as you’re able, because you first and foremost have submitted to Jesus. As verse 15 states, For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.
How do citizens of a heavenly nation live faithfully as temporary citizens on earth? By knowing your role.
[i] David Shotter, Nero Caesar Augustus: Emperor of Rome (New York: Routledge, 2014), 74.