Serving God in an Unbelieving World

1 Peter 2:13-17

December 5, 2004 | Ray Pritchard

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king. – I Peter 2:13-17

What is the hardest doctrine in the Bible? I think the answer is, it depends. If you mean, “What is the hardest doctrine to understand?” I would nominate the doctrine of the Trinity. If you mean, “What is the hardest doctrine to believe?” I might suggest the doctrine of eternal hell. But if you mean, “What is the hardest doctrine to obey?” I think it’s the doctrine of submission. The problem is not hard to see. Most of us don’t like giving up the right to make decisions for ourselves. And we don’t like the idea of someone else telling us what to do. We don’t much care for rules and regulations, and we don’t like restrictive laws. I was going to say that’s an American trait, but it’s really a human trait. To paraphrase Isaiah 53:6, we’ve all gone our own way, and by nature we are rebels at heart. And even when we obey, we often don’t like it. Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the little boy who disobeyed his mother. As punishment, she told him to sit in a chair in the corner. After a while, she asked him, “Have you learned your lesson yet?” With a look of defiance, he replied, “I’m sitting on the outside but I’m standing on the inside.” When I mentioned this story on Sunday, there were a lot of knowing chuckles throughout the congregation. We laugh because we’ve all been there—sitting on the outside but fiercely standing up on the inside.

This text is God’s answer to the anti-authority spirit of this age. These five verses give us a framework for understanding how Christians should relate to the various “circles of authority” in which we live. By “circles of authority,” I’m referring to the different spheres of life. There is an authority structure (a “circle of authority”) in the home and in the church. And there is an authority structure in the school system, in the classroom, on the job, in the office, in the shop, in the factory, and at all levels of human government. We can expand it to say that wherever you find a human institution, there you will find people in authority and people under authority. People cannot work together in any endeavor without some system of authority. Peter writes to help us know how we should relate to the various “circles of authority” in our lives. Sometimes those circles intersect and overlap. Often we will find ourselves dealing with people over us who lack wisdom, discretion, prudence and foresight. Sometimes we will serve under those who are fools. And occasionally the situation will be even worse than that. We need to know how to respond—and why. And we need to see how God relates to all the “circles of authority” that he has placed over us.

Here’s a simple five-part outline to help us understand this passage.

I. The Principle—Submit to All Human Authority 13-14

Peter begins with a simple, clear statement: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men” (13a). Don’t let the wording mislead you. Peter’s focus is on people, not just on “institutions.” We are to submit to all those in authority over us. As Americans, when we read that we are to submit to the king, we tend to dismiss that thought since we haven’t had a king since 1776. So let me rephrase it to make more contemporary: “Submit yourselves to George W. Bush, and to the Supreme Court, and to the federal judiciary system, and to the Congress, and to Governor Rod Blagojevich and the Illinois state legislature, and to the state police and the local police, and to the principal at the school your children attend, and if you live in Oak Park, to Joanne Trapani and the Board of Trustees.” That list could be greatly extended. Pretty soon it would make you gag. Some people might be gagging already. The truth is, we all live under multiple layers of authority, and it’s very likely that we won’t care for some of those people and for the laws they pass and the rules they make. There will always be:

  • Leaders we don’t trust
  • Laws we don’t like
  • Taxes we don’t want to pay

What do we do then?

Peter’s answer is very clear. We are to submit.

The word “submit” is a military term that literally means to “get in line.” Even if we don’t like the rules, we are to “get in line” anyway. Note how specific he is. We are not only to obey “the king,” but also any “governors” (referring to all the various levels of authority) sent by him. And there are no exceptions. That’s the part that gives us trouble. Most of us understand that lines of authority are necessary for the efficient functioning of society. But whenever we read a text like this, we almost immediately start saying to ourselves, “Yes, but.” And we quickly have a dozen “Yes, buts” that vitiate the meaning of Peter’s words. We must start with the command and get it clearly in mind. Only then will we be able to properly deal with the exceptions. If we start with the “Yes, buts” we’ll end up emptying this command of its meaning.

II. The Inner Reason—For the Lord’s Sake 13a

What does Peter mean when he says we are to submit “for the Lord’s sake”? It means that there is a direct connection between the people in authority over us, and God who is the Ultimate Authority. We may tend to look at a teacher who frustrates us or a boss who seems like a doofus (to use a technical term) and think that they stand alone in the universe. But that is not true. They exist as they are and where they are by God’s permission. If God did not will it so, that teacher could not teach, and that boss would not be a boss. This is true in some sense even of those people who seem harsh and cruel. They could not rule apart from God. To say that is not to excuse sin or foolish behavior. It simply means that those in authority cannot exist apart from God. Romans 13:1 says it very plainly, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” We submit to authority because God has commanded us to do so, and because God established all human authority.

This means that submission to authority is really an aspect of our submission to Christ. Jesus himself said, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). In Acts 10 Peter had a vision of a sheet containing all sorts of animals being lowered from heaven—both clean and unclean according to the Old Testament Law. When the Lord told Peter to kill the animals and eat them, Peter replied, “No, Lord!” (Acts 10:14 HCSB). But those two words never go together. If you’re going to say no, don’t say Lord. If you’re going to say Lord, don’t tell him no.

We will never fully grasp the importance of submission until we connect it to our obedience to Christ. Once we see that the Lord is intimately involved in every detail of our lives, then we will understand that obedience to authority is really obedience to the Lord. And we will be able to give that obedience “for the Lord’s sake” because we know that he is with us and watching over us even when we think the command we are obeying is foolish and shortsighted.

III. The Outer Reason—To Silence Foolish People 15

One objection that might be raised to this teaching relates to unjust rulers. Submission is hard enough when you have a good boss, a wise teacher, an honest leader, a fair employer, or a compassionate police officer. But what do you do if your teacher is mean, your boss is unfair, the principal won’t listen, and you don’t trust the people in Washington? Surely Peter’s words don’t apply then, do they? May I remind you that when Peter wrote about “the king,” he was referring to Nero, one of the worst emperors ever to rule the Roman Empire. He was a cruel, wicked, vile, immoral, sadistic man. His hatred for Christians is well known. And Peter still says, “Honor the king.”

Rulers exist to reward good behavior and to punish evildoers. If you do what is right, you should have nothing to fear. And when you do wrong, you shouldn’t be surprised if you get in trouble. Case in point. Last August, Marlene and I spent a week at Mt. Hermon Conference Center in California, returning to Oak Park late Friday evening. That weekend over 300 Calvary folks attended Summer Breakaway in Indiana. So on Saturday we drove over to say hello to everyone. It’s quite a drive to the conference center—almost three hours. We stayed there for a little over two hours and then drove back home. After speaking all week, I was tired but it was worth it to spend some time with our people in a relaxed setting. At one point we were chatting with some folks at the boat dock near the main building. We watched as Don Kamm pulled the kids on the “banana” behind his own boat. Nancy Kamm was sitting there, Marlene was there, and Maisie Hanrahan was there. At one point, out of the blue, Maisie asked me, “Pastor Ray, do you ever do anything wrong?” I laughed and said yes. Then she wanted to know if I ever break the speed limit. Sometimes I do. Do you get caught? I told her that I hadn’t gotten a speeding ticket in many years. Why is that? I made some joke to the effect that I guess they can’t see me. Maybe the Lord makes my car invisible. It was a smart-alecky kind of reply. Everyone laughed and the conversation moved to other topics.

But the Lord knows how to even the score. A few minutes later we left to drive home. Because the conference center is located near some narrow county roads, we decided to drop down south to a larger road, Highway 30, which makes a straight shot east and west across Indiana. It was a beautiful day, the traffic was very light, and Marlene and I were just tooling along down the highway. I think at one point she asked me how fast I was going. It was late in the afternoon, I was tired but feeling good, and we had to get back home so I could get ready to preach the next day. And the road was straight and traffic was light. What I’m saying is, we weren’t going 55 miles per hour. Life was good. Then I looked in my rear-view mirror and saw two flashing lights atop a car coming up behind me. Looking around, there were no other cars near me. Busted! As I pulled over, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach, and I thought about that flippant comment I had made. To make matters worse, the officer had apparently had a bad day because he was in no mood for chitchat. I was going to get a ticket. There was no doubt about that. It was all “Yes, sir” and “No, sir.” I don’t even think he said, “Drive safely.” When he was done, we crept back on the highway and starting driving about 25 miles an hour. I felt stupid and upset with myself, but, really, what could I say? When I saw the lights and looked at the speedometer, the first number was not a five, and it wasn’t a six either. Three days later we put a check for $125 in the mail.

I was speeding. I got caught. I deserved the fine and I paid it. The fact that I had various silly excuses made no difference. And the fact that the police officer and I didn’t exchange Bible verses doesn’t matter either. He’s not there to chat with me. As Peter says, his job is to punish wrongdoers, which I was, and which he did.

When we obey the law, we have nothing to fear and we cannot be criticized. When we disobey, all the excuses in the world don’t matter.

IV. The Motivation—Submission Brings Freedom 16

Most people think that freedom and submission are opposites. We assume that if we choose submission, that means we give up freedom, and if we choose freedom, we won’t have to submit to anyone. But a moment’s thought shows the fallacy of that position. Suppose a young woman with a musical gift decides to take up the violin. Because she is gifted, she is allowed to study with a world-renowned violinist. He has but one requirement: “You must do exactly as I say. You must practice according to the schedule I set out for you, and you must learn the music I ask you learn.” So the young lady submits to the demands of her teacher. She spends untold hours practicing the same pieces over and over again. She works on her fingering techniques so that she can play extremely difficult pieces. In the process, most of her free time disappears. She isn’t like her friends at all and they don’t really understand her. But years later the day comes when she performs at Carnegie Hall. Was it worth it? For her the answer is yes. But the price was great indeed. She gave up her childhood freedom for the discipline of learning to play the violin at a high level. Years later she gained the freedom to play like her teacher. In any field of endeavor, including spiritual growth, there is no substitute for discipline, commitment, and personal submission.

But that’s a bit of a fanciful illustration. It’s true enough as it stands, but submission for most of us involves a struggle to do something we don’t want to do, or something we don’t think is necessary, or to follow instructions from a person we don’t trust and don’t respect. At that point, there are two dangers we face:

A) We will talk too much. Proverbs 10:8 declares, “The wise in heart accept commands, but a chattering fool comes to ruin.” How many times have we gotten into trouble because we didn’t like what we were asked to do so we just kept yapping? Go back to the Garden of Eden for a moment. How did the serpent get Eve to disobey? He got her talking and she talked herself into disobedience (Genesis 3:1-6). Sometimes we just need to shut up.

B) We will begin to make excuses. We’ll say things like, “I don’t agree so I don’t have to submit,” or “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” or more briefly, “That’s stupid!”

Peter warns us not to use our freedom as a cover-up for sin. Some Christians get so carried with the notion of freedom that they think they aren’t bound by any earthly laws. Such a view leads directly to spiritual anarchy. Are we free? Yes, we’re free from the guilt of sin and from the demands of the Old Testament legal system. But we’re not free to “do our own thing” as if no one else matters and we’re the center of the universe. We are free to submit to God and to serve him by serving others. Martin Luther put it this way: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” We are both free and bound at the same time.

What does this mean in practical terms?

  1. We pay taxes because in the ultimate scheme of things, money doesn’t matter. God matters!
  2. We vote but we don’t lose our spiritual equilibrium if our candidate doesn’t win. Politics is not the final measure of life. Candidates come and go. No one serves forever. In the ultimate scheme of things, politics doesn’t matter. God matters!
  3. We obey the speed limit not because it’s the most important thing in the world but because compared to big issues, it doesn’t matter. God matters!
  4. We obey those over us not because we like them but because they are only here temporarily and they don’t matter that much anyway. God matters!
  5. We follow dumb orders cheerfully because they don’t matter. God matters!
  6. We submit to decisions we disagree with because their opinion and ours don’t matter anyway. God matters!


V. The Application—All People Deserve Respect 17

These four commands show us what submission looks like in practical terms:

Honor everyone.

Love your Christian brothers and sisters.

Fear God.

Honor the king.

Some people are not honorable. Honor them anyway.

Some people are not loveable. Love them anyway.

There is no escape clause attached to this verse. These commands show us that submission is first and foremost a matter of the heart. How much honor have you really given if you obey someone but only through clenched teeth?

And we cannot say, “Jesus, I answer only to you.” That’s not a Christian way to talk. We do answer to the Lord Jesus, but we also answer to a whole host of people in those “circles of authority” that touch all of us. We are to submit graciously, to obey willingly, and to honor always. We don’t have the right to pick and choose when we will submit to authority.

Five Key Statements

Let’s sum up this passage with a series of statements:

1) The authority structure in the universe was established by God. That includes the system of authority (the various “circles”), the positions within those circles, and the people who fill the various positions. No president or mayor or foreman or judge or scout leader or basketball coach or traffic cop can serve apart from God’s will.

2) All of us are both in authority and under authority at the same time. All of us are over some people and under others in those “circles of authority” that surround us. For instance, a man may be at the same time a father, brother, son, husband, friend, teacher, employee, leader, boss, and team member. And he will have differing responsibilities and privileges in all those relationships.

3) God has placed us where we are for a reason. This is the central theological truth behind the doctrine of submission. Let me make this very personal. I was born in Memphis, Tennessee. I happened to think about that because we had some visitors from Memphis in our first service on Sunday. I was born in Memphis in a particular year to a particular mother and father. I was raised in a particular town in northwest Alabama. Later I went to school in Chattanooga and Dallas, and since then I have lived in Downey, California; Garland, Texas and Oak Park, Illinois. Along the way I met Marlene, we got married in 1974 and had three sons—Josh, Mark and Nick. That’s pretty much my whole life right there. I wasn’t born in Denver or San Jose, and I didn’t grow up in Ecuador or Gambia or Belgium or Laos or New Zealand. I have three brothers and no sisters, and three sons and no daughters. And so it goes. As I look at my life, I conclude that I am what I am by the grace of God, and I am where I am by the grace of God. If God has willed otherwise, I might have been born in Calgary in 1912, to Russian immigrants, and had six sisters, gotten married in 1934, and by now I would probably be dead. The world would say, “That’s the luck of the draw,” but I say it is the sovereign hand of God. We are all what we are and where we are in life because God has willed it so.

4) God continually puts us in uncomfortable places because that’s the only way we learn how to grow. Sometimes we don’t want to face this truth but it is entirely true. If God only put us in comfortable easy places, we would never be stretched, we would never be pushed out of our comfort zone, we would never fall on our faces in desperation before the Lord, and we would never stay up late wondering what will happen next. Those uncomfortable places sometimes include being under the authority of those whom we do not like and do not respect. If you find yourself in such a place, remember that you are not there by accident.

5) Submission is first and foremost an attitude of the heart. Submission is not blind obedience. Because it is an attitude of the heart, sometimes we will disagree and will make our disagreement known forcefully. Submission doesn’t mean we don’t work to make the situation better. And it doesn’t mean you have to stay where you are indefinitely. You’re not morally obligated to work for a foolish boss forever. If you can change jobs and improve your situation, go ahead and do it. Sometimes we must speak out against those things that we know are wrong. I do believe there are times when as a last resort, laws may have to be broken. That’s a subject for another sermon, but it helps to remember that during the Civil Rights crisis in the ’60s, the protestors who broke the “Jim Crow” laws in the South did so openly and took the punishment that was meted out. If our Christian commitment causes to us protest an unjust law, we cannot turn around and claim divine exemption from punishment. Accepting punishment is part of the attitude of humble submission to authority, even authority we disagree with.

My Rebel Heart

Let me wrap up on a personal note. As I survey my own rebel heart, I find that I don’t like submission any more than anyone else. Even after preaching this sermon, I know that deep inside, there is a part of me that says, “Forget about the rules. Do whatever you want.” I definitely haven’t arrived in this area. But I have learned several things over the years:

Living under authority is the greatest freedom of all. It provides protection, direction and security.

2)Rebellion leads to anarchy and destruction. This touches the point that submission is an attitude first and foremost, and so is rebellion. If we must disobey, we are still to honor the king. That means obeying when and where we can, and not disobeying just for personal gain or personal convenience. These are difficult issues because they touch the heart, not just our outward actions.

Two questions arise at this point:

1)What do you do if those over you seem to be fools or worse? Pray for them. Support them. Work for change. Obey them as much as you can. Don’t speak evil of them. Show them honor in how you treat them.

2)What if you are told to do wrong? Don’t do it! Submission is not an excuse for violating God’s commandments. But just make sure it’s God’s commandments that are being violated, not your personal preferences.

Above all, avoid a rebellious spirit. These are the warning signs to watch for:

1)Talking too much.

2)Trying to pick and choose which orders you will follow.

It’s Not About You

Our text mentions God four times in five verses. Why did he feel the need to do that? The answer is simple:

It’s not about you.

It’s not about you boss.

It’s not about your teacher.

It’s not about anyone in authority over you.

It’s all about God.

Submission is about God. Until we grasp that, we will continue to struggle in this area. Here are two questions to ask yourself:

Do I believe God is in control of my life down to the tiniest details?

Do I believe God has me where he wants me to be right now?

If you can answer yes to those two questions, you can learn to submit to authority in your life. And until you can answer yes, you will struggle with this area. Here is the bottom line of all that I have said: Live for God. Show the world that true freedom comes from submitting to God. This week I read that Oswald Chambers, author of My Utmost for His Highest, often included a three-word phrase near the end of every letter he wrote. This little phrase summed up his whole life: “Be absolutely his.” And that’s really all that Peter is saying.

Be absolutely his at home. Not yours, but his.

Be absolutely his at church. Not yours, but his.

Be absolutely his on the job. Not yours, but his.

Be absolutely his in the classroom. Not yours, but his.

Be absolutely his in every relationship. Not yours, but his.

In the end submission is not about you obeying someone else, or about you following a set of rules. Submission is a spiritual issue between you and God. It touches every part of life because behind every human authority stands the Lord himself. And rebellion is like the sin of witchcraft (I Samuel 15:23 NLT). A rebellious spirit against authority is actually a form of rebellion against God. And that’s why this is the hardest doctrine to obey in the Bible. It runs counter to fallen human nature.

You may ask, “Is there anyone who ever lived this way?” Yes, there is. His name is Jesus. Peter mentions him a few verses later in I Peter 2. We are called to follow in his steps.

Though he was insulted, he did not retaliate in kind.

Though he was sinned against, he never sinned in response.

Though he was humiliated, he never threatened to get even.

Instead, he entrusted himself to his Heavenly Father. His submission led to his crucifixion, and his crucifixion brought salvation to the world.

Peter says, “Follow in his steps.”

And so we are driven back to the cross of Christ. Without the cross, this sermon makes no sense. But in the power of the cross, we can do what Jesus did. This is our Christian calling, our privilege, and our greatest challenge. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?