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First Epistle of Peter 2: 13-17 (NIV)
13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. 16 Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. 17 Show proper respect to everyone. Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honour the king.
We know from earlier passages in this letter that Peter was writing to a scattered Christian Church that was already facing persecution from diverse sources for its faith in the resurrected Christ: “In this (God’s salvation) you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1 Peter 1: 6).
Suffering for Christ is more explicitly acknowledged in later passages too: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ …” (1 Peter 4: 12-13).
Peter knew that some of this suffering was at the hands of the Roman authorities and yet, in the passage above, he has commanded this scattered and suffering Church to “submit … for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king (read ‘Emperor’) as the supreme authority, or to governors …”. These same authorities, some 18 months after this letter was written, would execute Peter in Rome.
How was Peter able to reconcile enduring these “painful trials” with the apparently conflicting message he felt compelled to pass on to a suffering Church?
He knew well the teaching of his Master, for example during the “sermon on the mount” (Matthew 5) about being salt and light, about refusing to have anything to do with murder and anger and sexual lust, about turning the other cheek, about loving enemies and perhaps most significantly about “pray(ing) for those who persecute you”.
Peter was able to hold in tension these commands from Jesus and what he knew God would require of him in terms of obedience to the Father. Recall the situation described in the book of Acts where Peter and John healed a lame man in Jerusalem. The religious authorities were at a loss as to how to deal with Peter and John. The Sanhedrin called them in “and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, ‘Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard’” (Acts 4: 18-20).
For each of us there will be a time to remain obedient to God regardless of the instructions we receive from the civil authorities. We need to rely on the Holy Spirit (the source of Peter’s inspiration – see Acts 4: 8) and to continue to pray for those who may then be persecuting us.
By being obedient first and foremost to God we will be living as the free people that Peter referred to (verse 16). At the same time we will be demonstrating what it is to live as servants of God.