Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Many today simply assume that governments are not to be trusted. It’s the belief of many North American Christians that governments are corrupt and dehumanizing, and they think that Christians should offer the government serious criticism and opposition, even, if it ends up costing them. We live in a world where every individual or group demands their ‘rights’ and liberty is understood as freedom to do whatever you want. This suspicion, cynicism, and sometimes outright antagonism to government, has increased of late. With government lockdowns in place throughout North America for over a month, some people, including Christians, have strongly opposed the government’s course of action. They may feel like their liberties and rights are being trampled by a power hungry government, and voice their complaints, dissatisfaction, and disrespect for the government. Some may even believe that the only course of action left to them is blatant civil disobedience. When we face these very real issues, and look to God’s Word for guidance, we may find ourselves a bit taken aback by St. Peter’s admonition. Our epistle raises some questions: What is the Christian duty toward government? What is Peter actually requiring us to do? What did Jesus do for us in that regard?
What are we required to do?
St. Peter is saying clearly that we are required to submit. That means we must be subject and obedient to every human authority and their institutions. Peter is saying that “we should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger the authorities, but honour them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.” (Sm. Cat., I.4). This is the fourth commandment. Especially in our context, this goes against the grain. The old Adam in each of us is a natural born anarchist who wants to the rule the roost for himself. We will not submit to God’s rule, and we certainly won’t submit to the rule of law. We have no king but ourselves. We hate order, government, submission, duty, all the words associated with authority. We want to write our own rules, determine what is best for us. We don’t like being told that we have to submit, subject ourselves, obey, the government. We like even less that we are to honour, love, and cherish them. It is your Christian duty to honour, love, and cherish Justin Trudeau and Doug Ford. God requires you to not despise them but to obey their governments.
Do you understand what that means? That means while we may indeed disagree with the government on policies, laws, or even their entire approach to government, our disagreement with them does not give us a license to disrespect them. It doesn’t give you the freedom to insult them to your friends or on social media. People are used to disrespecting and insulting their governments if they disagree with them. That is not how Christians behave. When we dishonour and disrespect the governing authority, we dishonour and disrespect God, whose authority it is.
Besides giving them the honour and respect their office deserves, as Christians we are required to actually obey them. We don’t have to like or agree with the laws, but we do have to obey them. Governments are a gift from God, and they serve his purpose in the World. Gift? Yes, a gift. They put a curb on our sin. They keep temporal order, they provide protection, they judge disputes, keep us from infringing on our neighbours peace and liberty. God uses government to punish evil, reward the good, to keep order and preserve bodily life. They are a gift, and when we reject and disrespect them, we are rejecting and disrespecting God’s gift.
Now, this doesn’t mean we should keep silent in the face of injustice. Although we should be willing to endure injustice ourselves, it’s our duty to our neighbours to denounce injustice wherever we may find it. Also, if the government tells you to do something that is against the law of God, or if they try to outlaw what is commanded by God, “we must obey God, rather than men,” (Acts 5:29). But if the government is not commanding what God has forbidden or forbidding what God commands, we must respect the law, even if we don’t agree.
Serving the true God by living a peaceful, submissive, visibly good life is, in the end, far more revolutionary than simply overthrowing one corrupt regime and replacing it with another. Christians work for the public good. Christians are required to serve others, to go the second mile, to suffer injustice without demanding their rights. In this, we have are simply following Jesus Christ our Lord.
What Jesus did for us?
Peter addresses Christians who suffered under tyrannical, dictatorial. Caesars. Many of whom were slaves. Instead of telling them (as we might prefer) that they should rise up in revolt against Rome or their masters, he tells them to obey, and to show respect. And he stresses this, not only when they are being treated kindly and fairly, but also when they are being treated unjustly. Christ is our example in this and we are called to follow him, and to make his life the pattern for our lives. Anyone who has watched a little boy trying to follow his father’s footprints in the snow or soil knows what Peter means. As that little boy carefully avoids stepping outside the print of his father’s shoe, so Christians will try to match exactly the life and footsteps of Christ.
Jesus was subject to the government of His day; He obeyed the laws of His land. He perfectly honoured father and mother and every temporal authority that in His humility was placed over Him. He did that for you. He became a citizen of this world, under a less than perfect government, for you. He stood before Pontius Pilate, Caesar’s local representative, the governor of Judea, falsely charged with treason. He reminded Pilate that his authority to judge Jesus, either to free Him or crucify Him, came from God. Christ’s suffering was undeserved. He was innocent of any crime. Never did he dishonour, despise, or disrespect the authorities. He was subject when you rebelled. He honoured when you disrespected.
Even though he was the victim of gross injustice, God used it all for the salvation of the world, for your salvation. Christ is more than just an example to follow; he is our sin-bearer. Isaiah foresaw it, and Peter witnessed it. Jesus is your Savior. Jesus suffered to deal with your stubborn refusal to honour and submit to the authority which God has put in place. With its terrible weight on his shoulders, Jesus carried your sin up to the wooden altar of the cross. There, upon the cross, Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice for your sins. Jesus, the Messiah, took upon himself the punishment that his people deserved. As the Messiah, he alone could represent all the others. He alone could, completely appropriately, stand in for you. The Good Shepherd was stricken with death for the transgression of his sheep.
“By his wounds you have been healed,” says Peter (v. 24). It’s like you are suffering from an illness but are now restored to health. Your illness is your weakness, your constant desire to disrespect, disobey, and not submit to the authorities. But a person who is healed is not only delivered from illness—and possible death—but has the strength to overcome sin and to do good. Your healing is brought about by the wounds of Jesus. As a result of His sufferings you have been healed, you have been restored to health from the wounds which your sins had inflicted.
By faith we are united to Christ, who carried the burden of our sins in our place so that we would die to sin. When he died to sin, so did we. Christ received the beating, and you receive the healing. When he rose, we rose with him. Now that we have been given new spiritual life, we recognise government is a gift from God and it rules only by his authority. Since Christ has borne the penalty of your sins, repent. Give up your previous ways and reorient your lives. As Christians, we have been given the desire to obey government out of fear, love, and trust in God. When we submit ourselves to those in authority, we are not bowing to men but kneeling before our Savior God. We are recognising his protecting love and thanking him for his unfailing mercy. It is Jesus’ bloody death on your behalf which now enables you to live a new life, a righteous life, that imitates his own. Our lives now begin to mirror his life because by faith we have been connected to Christ’s death.
Like the Israelites in Babylon, we live as exiles, going home but not yet at home. This country is our temporary home, and we pray for it, we participate in it, we honour and respect its government. We are required submit to it. We are good citizens. This is our home away from home. We do so because we recognise that Government is a gift from God. Jesus Christ our Lord has given us an example to follow. More than that, He carried our sins to the Cross and died in our place. It is because we have been forgiven, for Jesus sake, that God helps us to look at government not as our enemy, but as the gift that it is. In whatever country we live, we pray for and submit to the governing authority, yet always recognising that the King of all kings and the Lord of all lords is Jesus, who died and rose to rescue the world from its own destruction, and who now reigns as Lord of heaven and earth.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.