Life Underneath (I Peter 2:13-17)
Passage: 1 Peter 2:13–2:17
New Life in the Same Old Place
I Peter 2:13-17
April 5th, 2009
Way of Grace Church
I. Underneath the Neon
Underneath the hustle and bustle and who knows what of Las Vegas, there is a system of storm drain tunnels. And throughout this 300 miles of tunnel, hundreds of transients have made their home.
One report about this community underneath the streets highlighted Gary, a man who "steals to get money for food and drugs". The story goes on to describe how "Gary has a make-shift kitchen, with mustard and barbeque sauce and a place to heat things up. He's also got a make-shift living room with a couch and stereo and a bedroom beyond a curtain."
Residents of this ‘drain town' choose life underneath because it allows them to do what they want. To quote this man Gary again: "We're out of the limelight down here; people don't know we're here, so they leave us alone...Because down here we do what we want, when we want, anytime we want. It's hard to give that up."
This morning I'd like to talk more about life underneath by looking together at I Peter 2, verses 13-17 (pg. 1015).
II. The Passage: "Living as Servants of God" (2:13-17)
Last week we talked about how Peter, in verse 11, shifted his focus in this letter and is now eager to talk to his readers about everyday living in light of their salvation in Christ. Listen to what he writes here, starting in verse 13:
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.
Let me do this. Let's briefly talk about what Peter means here, and to do that, I'd like break this passage up into four ideas all related to the main idea of submission or subjection, the term Peter uses here in verse 13.
A. Submission to Human Structures (v. 13a)
First of all, look back with me at the beginning of verse 13. Peter writes:
Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution...
Remember what Peter has just done in the last two verses, in 2:11, 12. He has called them to be separate from the world, like the spiritual strangers and exiles they are, but also to be shining, that is, allowing their honorable conduct be seen by all people. Separate but shining.
What Peter wants them to understand here is that honorable conduct means subjection or submission "to every human institution".
The word "institution" here comes from a word that often has to do with building a building or establishing a town. By using this word, I think Peter is speaking generally about the structures that are a part of human life, specifically, structures of authority.
He begins this way, with a general instruction, because he will go on in the coming sections to give his readers some examples of the ‘human structures' that he has in mind. As we see here, he begins by talking about those who govern.
But he will continue in the final verses of chapter 2 by talking about servants and masters. In chapter 3 he will take about the structure we find in the home, in regard to wives and husbands. And in chapter 5, he will talk about submission or subjection in regard to elders and the church.
B. Submission to Earthly Rulers (vs. 13b, 14)
But if finish verse 13, as we talked about, his first example of a human or earthly structure in which we should be submitted is the structure concerned with citizens and rulers. He writes:
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.
The word translated "emperor" here is literally the word "king". But in the Roman world to which Peter and his audience belonged, only one king was in fact supreme, and that was the Roman Emperor. Specifically, when Peter wrote, it was the Emperor Nero. And remember, Peter is most likely writing from Rome, the capital of the Empire and home to this ‘king'.
But notice how Peter is quick to add the phrase, "or governors as sent by him". Those among Peter's listeners who intended to disregard or minimize local leadership in the name of allegiance to the Emperor needed to know that our submission includes all governing officials, since they themselves were under the Emperor's authority and serving his purposes.
If we were to ask, "Why should we be subject to or submit ourselves to human rulers, especially if we don't like them or some of their views?"
Well another Apostle, the Apostle Paul, in Romans 13, would explain it this way:
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.
Peter probably shared that viewpoint, but he doesn't express it here. Instead Peter explains, as Paul goes on to do in Romans 13, that our submission to government authorities should take into account the purpose of governing authorities.
Their purpose is "to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good." The issue here is not how well they carry out that purpose, or the form of this governance. The point is a general point that applies both to dictatorships and democracies.
As they French pastor John Calvin expressed it, "some kind of government, however deformed and corrupt it may be, is still better and more beneficial than anarchy".
But Peter is not writing these things to them because he wants to have an intellectual or simply conceptual discussion about politics. Peter wants his readers to understand that their submission to earthly rulers is simply an affirmation that they, as followers of Christ, are people who want to do what is right. As Peter asks later in chapter 3: Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?
Whatever you believe about the state's motivation for installing speed cameras on our freeways, I think it's fair to say that a lot of people (not all, but a lot) do not want to be ‘subject' to these devices, and subjected to the state's authority to use these devices, because they are not "zealous for what is good" as defined by our speed limits. They are zealous for driving the speed they want to drive.
C. Submission to the God's Will (vs. 15, 16)
Peter's motivation is clear when you look at the next two verses, 15 and 16. He writes:
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.
Peter gives us some clues here into what was going on with these churches of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1:1), regions of what is day the country of Turkey.
As we saw last week in verse 12 of this same chapter, these followers of Christ were being "spoken against as evildoers". They were being slandered because they were perceived by some as a threat to Roman society and Roman religion (which was an important part of Roman society).
In 112 AD, the Roman leader in Pontus and Bithynia, a man named Pliny, wrote to the Emperor Trajan about trials he was overseeing, "trials of Christians". The believers that Pliny was interrogating and, in some cases, executing, were probably some of those who, as children, heard this letter from Peter when it was read for the first time.
And it's clear from the letter that the perceived problem with these Christians was that they were not loyal to the Emperor and were crippling the Roman temples by no longer offering sacrifices.
What Peter wants to confront here is the way in which these Christians were responding to the slander, to charges of subversion and wrongdoing. Maybe some of these believers were responding in like manner, speaking out against those who spoke against them. Maybe some were beginning to denounce the Emperor as a false king in light of the lordship of Jesus Christ. Maybe some were suggesting that since Christians were not ‘of this world', they had no obligation to this world. And so maybe they suggested isolation or refused to pay taxes.
However they were responding, Peter is very clear here. What God desires, His will is that "by doing good" you silence, literally, that you "put a muzzle on" the baseless accusations and speculations of people who think you are some kind of a threat because you follow Christ. Peter is saying that only by "doing good" will they put to rest charges that they are doing evil.
As one commentator puts it, "Peter wants his readers to make absolutely certain that no charges of misconduct leveled against them are ever actually true."
It appears that part of the issue was a misunderstanding of Christian freedom. Remember what Jesus said in John 8:36, "So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed."
But the freedom that Jesus Christ gives us is not a freedom to live as we please. It is the freedom to live as God pleases.
What's fascinating about that letter from Pliny to Trajan is what it tells us about how the Christians responded to Pliny. Listen to how these believers, under interrogation, described the "sum and substance of their...[so called] error": they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so.
You see, these Christians lived by what Peter, and their parents, and their grandparents had told them. "By doing good"; this, Peter writes, should be your response to those who would accuse you and slander you. This is how we live as people who are truly free.
D. Submission to Our Duty (v. 17)
And Peter goes on in verse 17 to describe that life of freedom in Christ. Look at verse 17 again. Peter instructs them to...
Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
So a life of genuine freedom is not a life free of obligations to others. In fact, it means that we are freed for a life of obligations to others. And here Peter spells out the obligations for a follower of Jesus Christ in regard to their different relationships.
In regard to all men and women, there should always be honor. No matter whether or not I like my neighbor or coworker or crazy uncle, God calls me to honor them. The Greek word here has to do with recognizing the value of something. We honor because we see from God's perspective that all human life has value.
In regard to brothers and sisters in Christ, we are called to love. Not that we do not show the love of Christ to all people, but in obedience to the new commandment that Jesus gave, we are called to love one another in the same way Jesus loved us. That love in turn bears witness to the world that we belong to Christ. Our love for one another, our unique love as the family of God, as brothers and sisters, that love makes an impact.
In regard to God, our obligation is fear. Is that our only obligation? Shouldn't we honor him as well? Shouldn't we love Him as well? Yes, but in this context, Peter is talking about duty and obedience and authority. And none of what he's saying has any grounding unless we recognize that God is to be feared, and feared in the sense of a humble reverence and recognition that God is God; that He alone is truly supreme; he alone is truly in charge.
This is why Peter follows his call to fear God with a call to simply "honor" the Emperor. "Do not fear the emperor, but 'honor' him as one in authority." If they feared the Emperor, they would be tempted to obey a man, even when that man called them to be disobedient to God.
So, as we read this, we have to ask, is this the grid through which we see our relationships? Do we seek to live in light of these duties? Or do we pick and choose who we will honor and love and fear? Do we pick and choose who, in terms of our leaders, we will honor and be subject to?
III. The Only Reason to Be Underneath
By taking our time to talk about each of these verses, I hope that you've seen that the heart of this passage really does center on this idea of subjection or submission.
And as I mentioned earlier, as you continue on through this letter, you will discover three more specific examples of situations in which Christians should be submissive.
You see, for Peter, this kind of subjection or submission was one of the clearest indications of whether or not these believers really were "abstain[ing] from the passions of the flesh" (v. 11); that they really were "keep[ing] their conduct...honorable" (v. 12).
But let's face it, the idea of submission is not one that we generally find appealing. The Greek word for ‘submission' is the word "hupotasso". The prefix there "hupo" means "under". We find that prefix in English words like "hypodermic", which of course is a needle that goes "under" the skin. This word hupotasso literally means "to place under; to put underneath".
But we struggle with being placed underneath anyone, don't we? Life underneath is always a struggle when we are ultimate desire is to be on top.
So how can Peter call us here to a ‘life underneath'? Is our submission based on the absolute legitimacy of any human ruler? Is our submission based on an official's conformity to our ideals or morals?
Is our submission based on the reality that we are in some way inferior to another human being? Is our submission based on a belief that God simply prefers us to travel the path of least resistance?
Knowing what we know about the human heart, how could we ever choose life underneath?
Peter answers that question, doesn't he? Peter tells us here that there is only reason to be underneath. Verse 13: Be subject for the Lord's sake. In emphasizes the point again in verse 16: Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.
You see, the people who live life underneath the asphalt of Las Vegas might do so because they can do what they want, when they want, anytime they want. But to live life underneath as God defines it, to live a life of submission is to live for what God wants, when He wants, anytime He wants.
What Peter knows is that our failures to submit to the human structures, the human institutions that God has ordained to support life in this world, even though tainted by sin, our failures to submit come not from any intellectual misunderstanding or circumstantial excuse. No, our failure to submit to our leaders comes from our failure to submit first to God.
In the letter that James wrote we read, "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble." 7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. (James 4:6, 7a)
As Peter reminds them in verse 15, "Yes, you are free. But you have been freed in order to be a slave. God has freed you from sin and death in order that you might serve Him. That's why Peter wants to remind them in verse 15 that what he's telling them is "God's will".
Is that how you think of your relationship with God? Do you imagine that God is more like a buddy standing next to you, or maybe like a coach or mentor who is lifting you up from underneath, eager for you to succeed?
Or do you recognize that the word calls us to fear God and place ourselves underneath Him? Make no mistake, life underneath God is not a reality we create. It is the reality to which we conform. But life underneath God is a life of freedom. And when are underneath God, we are called to live underneath others as well.
One commentator writes, "the principle of the redeemed Christian life must not be self-assertion or mutual exploitation, but the voluntary subordination of oneself to others".
How much of what you do, how much of what you say, how much of what you think and how you respond is based simply on your desire to be on top? We live in a culture that talks a lot about your rights, and your dignity, and what you're entitled to. And there is a part of us that wants to hold on to that.
There is even a temptation to baptize those ideas and say that because we are God's people, because we have knowledge, that we can speak disrespectfully about our government leaders, about our employers, about our husbands, about our church leaders, or any who are in a place of authority.
But Peter responds: Live as people who are free [free from the mindset and human desire to be on top], not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.
Our only hope, of course, is Jesus. Paul tells us that apart from Christ, that "the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot." (Romans 8:7)
Submission or subjection to God or any human structure is impossible for us. It's not something we can choose in and of ourselves. As slaves to sin we must be freed in order to live life underneath. That's why Peter called them to action in chapter 1, to live life knowing that you were ransomed [set free] from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.
Only as we trust in and look to and depend on Jesus Christ, will we be able to live as servants of God in the freedom of submission. Only when we embrace the reality that Jesus lived underneath for us, even to the point of death, death on a cross.
And our life of submission will also be fueled by what Jesus has yet to do. Listen to what Paul writes here. Let God nurture a heart of submission in you in light of these words:
24 Then comes the end, when he [when Jesus] delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For "God has put all things in subjection under his feet." But when it says, "all things are put in subjection," it is plain that he [that God] is excepted who put all things in subjection under him [under Jesus]. 28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. (I Corinthians 15:24-28)