Sermon Text: 1 Peter 2:12–17
Preacher: Pastor Brian Sauvé

Emperors, Tyrants,
& Weaponized Honor

In the preceding verses of this letter, Peter soared to glorious heights in naming the people of God—in telling us who we actually are. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God’s] own possession! You are like living stones, being built up into a spiritual house for God to dwell in!”

And a very reasonable response for a Christian hearing this soaring rhetoric, say a Christian in Asia Minor, the original recipients of the letter, might be, “What is a holy nation to do in the midst of a wicked empire? What is a chosen race to do in subjection as citizens of Rome under delusional, tyrannical, wicked Nero—who claims to be a son of God?”

Or we, modern Christians reading this letter, which is as much to us as to those first-century Christians: “What is a royal priesthood to do in the midst of a nation with the blood of 60,000,000 aborted infants on her hands? What is a people for God’s own possession to do amidst a people abandoning all moral reason and unfazed by desperate acts of evil?”

Together, we might respond, “Peter, we believe we are what you say we are. We believe the gospel, our newness. We believe that we are God’s new creational people amidst the kingdoms of darkness. But what do we do with the collision of these Kingdoms? What do we do as the values of the Kingdom of God—where we anchor our true citizenship—collides with the way of the kingdoms of men?”

And what Peter is going to give us is essentially a not-that-way-but-this-way sort of answer. Because one of the ways this could work, one of the ways kingdom can work, is like it did several times in history with Islam. 

In several major periods, but especially in its early history, Islam spread behind military conquest. In contrast to this, the church spread rapidly through the Roman Empire—not behind military conquest—but at the other end of the sword! It spread, not by killing but often by dying! It spread through the activity of church planting and missionary work, not through conquest.

What Peter gives us this morning is what became the grand war strategy of the ancient church in the conquest of a wicked culture—not by might, nor by power, but by God’s Spirit. Not by violence or by swords, but by love and honor. By radical embodying of a better Kingdom and its better way, occupying the very heart and throne of a wicked kingdom and its deathly way like leaven occupies a lump of dough and transforms it.

And so I need to warn us: We may be tempted to desire “better” weapons than the ones we’re given. We may look at the culture of death we inhabit and say, “Don’t you see the power of this beast? Don’t you see its weapons and influence? Where is our power?”

Our brother Peter is going go put weapons in our hands today, weapons for Kingdom war—but not the kinds of weapons we are quick to reach for. Not violent revolution, but gospel-reformation. Not reviling, but honoring. Not killing, but loving. 1 Peter 2:12—17,

“Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”

-1 Peter 2:12–17

A Two-Part Passage

Now, there are two basic parts of our brother Peter’s instruction to us to focus on this morning:

1. Live honorably: Peter calls us to live as gloriously free men and women, freed by the grace of God and living under the freedom-bringing law of God—thereby displaying God’s better Kingdom and its better way.

2. Honor everyone and submit to civil authorities: Peter calls us to a gospel-weaponized honor. To honor kings and emperors and rulers. We’ll need to do some theological spadework, here, on civil authority, our duties as citizens, and also what Peter is emphatically not saying.

A Better Kingdom & Its Better Way

So first, Peter calls us to honorable living in the midst of the kingdoms of men. Verse 12,

“Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”

And verses 15–17,

“For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”

Three things to see here.

1. Honorable living is born out of verse 11.

You should ask, “Peter, what does it look like for our conduct to be honorable?” And part of his answer would be to say, “Look at verse 11.” 

As God’s beloved, renewed, reborn people, wage war against the flesh and its passions! And what happens when we obey that command? What was dishonorable is declared honorable by God through Christ, and then becomes and walks honorably in obedience to Christ.

And so as Christians do that very normal, very routine, very mundane, very day-to-day confession, repentance of sin, and walking in holiness, we put the better way of God’s Kingdom into bright neon in the midst of the kingdoms of men. 

We’re tempted often to think that God is looking for huge acts of glorious obedience once a year—Daniel going to the lion’s den rather than denying God sort of stuff—when the reality is that most of our honorable, Kingdom living is mundane and invisible. 

It’s the tired mom waking up and determining to obey the Lord’s commands to rejoice at all times by the power of the Holy Spirit—to smile over her kids rather than storm over them on a typical Tuesday morning in March. It’s the 23-year-old single man determining that he is going to obey Jesus with his eyes and not look at the fit young woman at the gym in all her yoga-pantsed glory. 

Two-billion Christians obeying Jesus Christ in two-billion acts of honorable holiness in two-billion seemingly insignificant things is potent. Christian holiness is a leaven-and-mustard-seeds kind of potency—slow, small, powerful growth that changes everything around it.

2. Honorable living is living as free men and free women in an enslaved world.

Look at verse 15 again,

“For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”

-1 Peter 2:15–17

Peter literally calls us to live as doulos of God in verse 16, which the ESV incorrectly translates “servants.” It should read “slaves.” We are slaves of God, and that makes us free

In striking irony, the world shouts about its freedom—“No gods! No rulers! No rules! I am the captain of my destiny! My feelings determine reality! Do what you want and don’t let anyone hold you back! You do you! Get your religion out of my bedroom, my house, my world!”—they shout through chains.

Those who gladly submit as slaves of Christ find themselves free men and free women; those who shout about their freedom from all gods and rules are utterly enslaved by sin… by their own desires.

What happens when the church rises up in honorable obedience of her King and the way of his Kingdom—when they live as free men and free women? Number 3…

3. Honorable living opens and shuts mouths. 

In verse 12, Peter says that the result of our honorable living is that “…when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” And then in verse 15, he says “…that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.”

What does this mean? Our honorable living, on the one hand, serves to undermine the critics when they call us evildoers. When they call us bigots and hate-mongers and hypocrites, what more powerfully sweeps the rug out from under their criticism than Kingdom-of-God brotherly love, care for widows and orphans, and honorable uprightness? It shuts mouths.

And on the other hand, it will open mouths in praise of the glory of God when God arrives, on the day of God’s visitation.  

So Peter calls us to live honorably, God’s chosen race, occupying and colonizing the kingdom of darkness as God’s Kingdom people. And now, turning to the other side of his instruction in this text, Peter calls us to honor and submission to God-given civil authority.

Honor as a Weapon of Reform

What should all of this honorable living result in? Christians being model citizens wherever they are! Peter tells us to do two basic things about how we ought to relate to civil authorities: Be subject to them and honor them. Verses 13–14,

“Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” 

And verse 17,

“Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”

We will talk about the limits of this in a moment and make sure we understand what it is that Peter is emphatically not saying, but first, let’s make sure we understand what it is that he is saying. Follow his chain of thought with me:

First, this means that just because we are exiles and sojourners, citizens of some other place, we're not to be lawless anarchists. As far as it is possible within the bounds of holiness, Christians living honorably ought to make us exemplary citizens. The kind that make good rulers say, “Man, we need more of those Christians!”

But we are to be subject to those rulers, Peter tells us, “…for the Lord’s sake.” What does that mean? It means that we’re not being subject to them first for their sake, but for God’s sake. How does that work? 

It means that there is something we’re doing in worship to God as we submit to civil authorities he has called to govern. God has given them authority—authority to do some very specific things, as we will see in a moment—and therefore as we obey their authority, whose authority are we magnifying and submitting to? The Lord’s authority!

So we could put that first sentence, verses 13–14, like this, “In order to show that you are a people who love and trust and submit to the ultimate authority of God—his absolute crown rights over all of his creation—gladly, joyfully, and willingly submit to those lesser authorities to whom he has given sword-bearing, governing authority.

Do you see how that works?

Now, we need to talk about this, Refuge. Particularly three words in this command in verse 17. Honor the emperor. Do you know what that means God commands you to do? Honor the emperor! Do you know who Peter’s emperor was when he wrote this? Nero! The most wicked emperor in Rome’s history, by some accounts. 

How are we doing? Do your Facebook posts, your Tweets, your conversations with friends, give honor to President Trump? Did they give honor to President Obama? 

Not lying! Not pretending to agree with ungodliness! But do we pray for, honor, and act like we really, really, desperately want for our leaders to succeed in order that we might live peaceful and quiet lives and work with our hands, as Paul says? Or do we seem to find joy and glee in the failures of leaders that reinforces our tribe and tears down our enemy’s tribe?

Why does this matter? Because honor, love, and uprightness are fell weapons for the sake of our witness! Honor, godly submission is truly a weapon for reform! As we honor rulers, we are really honoring the God who sent them, and so our honoring of them shows that we are a people who love justice, love righteousness, a people who love good and hate evil. 

And what happens as the gospel works through a culture is that it even has the power to transform the polis, the culture, the laws, the rule of that people! We could give example after example of this, both in and out of the Scriptures. 

One will suffice. In India up to about the middle of the 1800s, it was a normal practice for widows to burn themselves to death on the funeral pyre of their husband when he died. This was a terrible cultural practice that had grown up—as all of culture always does—from the worship of that culture. This practice was the logical cultural conclusion of their cultus, their Hindu religious worship.

Why did it end? Because Christian missionaries like William Carey, William Ward, James Pegg, Abbee and Jean-Antoine Dubois, and others brought the gospel to India, put their hands to the plow of sowing the gospel-seed in the Indian people, and cried out against evil—all the while honoring, loving, and patiently living with the Indian people. 

The people of God living out the way of God’s Kingdom is a powerful force in evangelizing and discipling the nations, teaching them to obey all that Jesus’ commanded—in other words, a powerful force in fulfilling our God-given commission.

Civil Disobedience for the Sake of Divine Obedience

But there’s something we need to address. We need to talk through some principles concerning the authority of civil rulers and governors to make sure we thread this needle and understand what Peter is and is not teaching.

Let’s talk for just a few minutes about civil disobedience and the limits of our submission to rulers and kings. I’m going to list 7 places in the Bible where the people of God were right to say No! to rulers: 

1. The Hebrew midwives were right to disobey the Pharaoh’s command to kill all of the Hebrew male babies.

2. The prophet Nathan was right to rebuke King David for his wickedness with Bathsheba and murder of her husband, Uriah.

3. Daniel was right to pray in direct contradiction of the law of Nebuchadnezzar. Likewise, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were right to refuse to worship the golden statue.

4. John the Baptist was right to rebuke King Herod for his unlawful sexual sin and perversion.

5. Jesus was right to rebuke Herod by calling him a fox.

6. Peter and the other apostles were right to continue to preach the gospel even when the authorities commanded him not to.

7. Paul was right to rebuke the Roman authorities for violating their own laws by their conduct towards him, a Roman citizen.

Principles in Christian Civics

We could give more examples! Were these biblical figures in violation of Peter’s command to be subject to the Lord’s ministers? To civil rulers and magistrates? No! Why not?

What I’m going to do is shotgun some principles at you without a lot of commentary. And these principles, if you understand them all together, would show us why these acts weren’t sin, and why some of us won’t be in sin when we disobey the US government should it err grievously.

If you want to talk more about some of these principles and hear maybe more argument for them than mere statement of them, feel free to come talk to me and I’ll recommend some books and we can chat. 

That said, 9 principles with respect to God, government, and Christian civic engagement, and these are in no masterful or really particular order:

1. God has ordained human institutions and vested them with authority. Civil rulers were God’s idea. Anarchy is therefore unbiblical and government biblical.

2. All authority, save God’s authority, is a limited authority. No authority below God is free to do anything it wants. Angels become demons, fathers abusers, and presidents tyrants when they step out of the sphere of their God-entrusted authority or use it to sin.

3. Civil institutions will answer to God for how they use that authority. God will judge perfectly, righteously, and all-knowingly.

4. God will judge these institutions against his law, that is, his own character, not any man-made standard. Just because a king decrees it, a congress enacts it, a judge rules on it, or a people vote for it doesn’t make anything righteous. Civil authorities are therefore not free to invent their own standards for what the “evil” is they are to be punishing and what the “good” is they are supposed to be praising.

5. God has entrusted civil magistrates and governing authorities with the task of “…punish[ing] those who do evil and prais[ing] those who do good,” Peter tells us in verse 14. This is why Paul calls them “ministers”—the same Greek word used for Deacons!—in Romans 13:4. They are servants under God’s mastery.

6. Christians are called to honor and submit to even unjust authorities. However, the obedience of Christians to unjust laws doesn’t preclude their political activity to change those laws. For example, it is possible to pay unjustly high taxes while rebuking the governing authorities for requiring them and working to align the law of the land with the justice and law of God.

7. However, some laws, rulings, or civil commands are so grievously sinful as to make civil disobedience not merely permissible, but righteous and even mandatory! Christians should never disobey God’s authority, even when the lesser authority of the state demands it.

8. As we see with Jesus and John the Baptist with Herod, Christians (and especially Christian ministers) ought to rebuke rulers when they violate the law of God. This is not opposed to honoring rulers.

9. Since the entire law can be summed up in the love of our neighbors as ourselves, it is contrary to righteousness for Christians to fail to fight for just rule over our neighbors. Christians ought to be civically engaged, even for the sake of justice now. This isn’t contrary to trusting in the power of the gospel or the future, perfect justice of God.

A Present-Day Example

I gave you an example of what civil disobedience and critical civic engagement looked like in the Bible. Let me sketch out a present-day example of this sort of thing that I think is helpful. 

Recently, a pastor in Arizona named Jeff Durbin of Apologia Church, stood before his City Council and rebuked them. He called them to repent for their failure to govern righteously.

And this was right and good for several reasons: One, some of the council members claim Christ. They ought to be called to repentance for sinning against the God they claim as master. Second, the non-Christian council members were using their God-given authority to attempt to overthrow God’s law. 

Rebuking rulers for this shows them their need for the gospel, shuts their mouth to the excuse that nobody told them the truth when they stand before God, and loves our neighbors by working for just rule over them. This is honoring, even as it is confronting, our rulers. May their tribe increase and may we, Refuge, walk in the same way. 

Now I want to leave you with a view of how God uses this in his church and for his glory from 30,000 feet, ok?

No Weak Thing

At the beginning of our time together, I contrasted the spread of early Christianity with that of early Islam; that Islam often spread behind military conquest, while the church advanced through the blood of the martyrs and the testimony of courageous missionary and church planting endeavors.

And what you may hear when you hear that is that our weapons are weak things. But what you find instead is that the weapons of our warfare—though they are not carnal, not of the flesh, not swords and steel and guns and bombs—have divine power to tear down strongholds.

In the 60s AD, when Peter wrote this letter, Nero would violently oppose the church. Persecution would wash over the Roman empire in waves over the next several hundred years. But do you know what happened? 

Though numbers are hard to pin down for this period, there something like one-hundredth of one percent of Rome was Christian when Peter wrote this letter. Over the next 150 years, that number shot up to a massive half of a percent. 

But guess what? By the early 300s, when the Christian faith would finally receive legal status in Rome, over 10% of the Roman Empire worshiped Jesus. And by 350, a mere 5 decades later?

Upwards of one-half of the Empire was Christian.

Did James, John, Peter, and Paul try to end the gladiatorial fights in the first-century. No. The lump wasn’t sufficiently leavened for the yeast to make that kind of change. But do you know what? Christianity absolutely did bring about the end of that and a thousand other atrocities across history.

This is what Jesus meant when he said that the Kingdom of God was like leaven hidden in a lump of dough. The slow, methodical, plodding cell-division-reform of the Church often looks laughably powerless against the powers of empire and king and congress—yet the lump gets leavened, and the dough rises. 

We may not have their weapons, Refuge—but that’s not the same thing as not having any weapons. Our weapons—the Spirit-indwelt and Spirit-empowered weapons of Word and sacrament and honor and love and holy freedom—are fell weapons. And they will win out.