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Free Servants - 1 Peter 2:13-17

A great many of the problems that we run into as we try to live as elect exiles come about when we face the paradox of being free servants and say “Pick one.” Which is it? Am I free, or am I a servant? But our task as Christians is to cling to both truths, never letting our freedom keep us from serving our neighbors and being subject to the authorities, and never letting our service and subjection cause us to lose sight of the freedom we have in Christ.

Peter gives these instructions to people tempted to make mistakes in opposite directions: those who say “The Emperor is God!” and those who say “The Emperor is nothing!” They are both wrong: the Emperor is not your Lord; Jesus is Lord. But the Emperor is not nothing to you; you are subject to his supreme human authority.

And so as he addresses civil government, Peter is very careful in how he expresses these truths: You are subject to the Emperor’s supreme authority, whether from his mouth or through a deputy, but for whose sake are you to be subject? Not for the Emperor’s own sake, but for the Lord’s sake. You obey the emperor not because the emperor tells you to, but because Jesus tells you to. Who is your Lord? Jesus alone. This is your freedom. Whom do you obey? The emperor, because your Lord says so. This is your servitude.

Peter hints at the limits of your service to the Emperor in verse 13 when he tells you to be subject to every human institution. When the emperor makes laws about how human affairs work, that’s his job – rule over horizontal matters between human beings. So Christians, obey the laws that Congress passes. Submit to the judgments of the court system. Pay your taxes. But we need to see that the supremacy of the Emperor’s authority extends horizontally, not vertically. When the Emperor oversteps his bounds and attempts to command obedience in issues that are matters of divine institution (worship being the most obvious, marriage being the most pressing), then Christians assert their fundamental freedom by obeying Christ, not the emperor.

The reason Peter gives for being subject to the authorities depends on their role: emperors and governors are responsible to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. This means that their laws and judgments determine your reputation in the world. As Peter reiterates here in verse 15, your reputation as someone who does good is part of God’s plan for silencing the ignorance and slander of foolish people and bringing glory to Jesus through the good lives of His people.

On a human level, in terms of horizontal relationships and responsibilities, the civil authorities determine what’s good and what’s evil. And because living obviously good lives is something that Jesus wants you to do, you need to be subject to these authorities. Yes, there are limits, but the normal expectation for Christian behavior as it relates to civil government is obedient submission. Even when it’s annoying, even when it costs you, even when it’s unfair, Christians submit for Jesus’ sake. Adopting a rebellious attitude and choosing to ignore or skirt or fudge the laws of the land means that you are disobeying Jesus and bringing the reputation of His Church crashing to the ground.

And so Peter says: “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.” Servants of God are free to obey God, which is what true freedom is. Your Lord who set you free calls you to be subordinate to every authority system that has a claim on you. This is true freedom: live as servants of God, and obey Jesus when He tells you to be subject to those who are in authority over you.

Peter concludes this section with a tremendous summary of Christian social responsibility: Honor everyone – every single person on this earth is made in the image of God, and they deserve your respect and good treatment. In particular, love the brotherhood (1 Peter 1:20-23). Fear God (1 Peter 1:14-17). Finally – Honor the emperor. You aren’t called to love or fear the emperor, but you do need to honor him. The emperor is not god, and his word is not all-important, but he is supreme in human affairs, and so his word in not unimportant, even to Christians whom Jesus has set free. So because you are God’s servants, be subject to every human institution. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. For Jesus’ sake.

Posted on Thursday, August 18, 2016 by CJ Bowen