August 16, 2008

In Your Hearts, Set Apart Christ as Lord: 1 Peter 3: 13-17

(13)Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? (14)But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. "Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened." (15)But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, (16)keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (17)It is better, if it is God's will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.
We have often talked in this series in 1 Peter about the opposition Christianity encounters today. The first readers of this letter from Peter were enduring especially hard times because of their faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord. You will remember that after the great fire in Rome in 64 A.D., the Roman populace blamed the emperor, Nero. Needing to place the responsibility somewhere else, Nero had the word spread that it was the Christians who started the fire.

The Christians were a great target for him to turn to and blame for the fire, which destroyed several hundred acres of homes and shops in a densely populated and lower-class part of the city. Nero, as you will recall from our discussion, within a very short time had appropriated about 100 acres (some historians believe up to 300 acres) of the fire-ravaged land to use for a lavish new palace and grounds. Blaming the Christians appealed to an inherent bias among the Romans. Being monotheists, the Christians did not recognize the existence of the numerous pagan religions the Romans held to, including worship of the emperor himself as a pagan god.

The typical Roman saw the spiritual realm as inhabited by many gods who often competed for supremacy by influencing human events. Pagan temples and thousands of idols representing the pagan gods had been destroyed in the fire, diminishing the power of those gods in the peoples’ minds. With the people having that spiritual mindset, Nero’s accusation that the Christians were responsible was a highly effective tactic. Not only did it take the pressure off him, but also appealed to the need of the people to reassert their gods’ powers over the Christian God. At terrible, government-sanctioned persecution followed, with literally thousands of Christian families murdered by their neighbors or executed by the government. Christians fled the cities to more rural and distant parts of the Roman empire. The churches to which Peter addresses this letter were located in what is today northern Turkey, where they had fled for safety (see Peter’s salutation in 1 Peter 1:1: “To God's elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, . . .”)

We in the western church, of course, do not find ourselves in these circumstances, although in other parts of the world Christians are still subjected to persecution, prison, and death because of their faith. Persecution—or perhaps a better term would be bias—does exist in our culture, however, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. That is to be expected for a group of people who do not subscribe to many of a culture’s morals and ethics.

In the Bible, we can see a theme that believers are in a more or less constant struggle. The struggles people of the Christian faith face are inward, as we battle our self-centeredness, and also from outside, as we live in the world that is in rebellion against God. Both are spiritual struggles, trying to separate us from God and His will.

The Apostle Paul dealt a lot with the inner struggle, including his own inner frustrations, and I'll mention that a bit later. Peter, writing to Christians who had fled to escape Roman persecution, dwells in today's passage more with the conflict arising from the world around us.

In 3:13-17 Peter talks about faithful living in unrighteous, even hostile, surroundings; he give us five principles we can use to do so:

  1. Be eager to do good (13)
  2. Be willing to suffer (14, 17)
  3. Be devoted to Christ (15)
  4. Be ready to explain your faith (15)
  5. Have a pure conscience (16)
Be eager to do good (13)

"Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?" (literally, “if you are followers [or imitators] of that which is good").

The expected response to this rhetorical question is “no one.” His point is that it seems to be unusual for someone to expect to come to harm because he or she is focused on doing what is good.

The phrase "that which is good" in the Bible is associated with such character qualities as generosity, unselfishness, kindness, peacemaking, and consideration for others. The expectation for believers to pursue that which is good is found in many passages. For example, Jesus tells His disciples in Matthew 5:16: "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." Paul adds in Romans 12:21: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." One writer I encountered this week puts it this way: "(The gospel) most read and commented on is the gospel according to you." The early 20th century evangelist Billy Sunday once advised “Preach the gospel, and if you have to, use words.” In other words, we are to show our faith primarily in our lifestyle, doing “that which is good” to use Peter’s words.

Our secular culture may reject our faith in the one and only God, but people are watching us and judge whether we are like most others or whether we are eager to do good. And while they may dislike and reject our faith, our eagerness to do good rarely results in anyone causing us harm.

Be willing to suffer (14, 17)

Verse 14 tells us "But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened," and Peter adds in verse 17, “It is better, if it is God's will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil."

Being eager to do good is not a guarantee against suffering. In Acts 10:38 we read, "(Jesus) went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him." Yet, we know He met hostility, hatred, and rejection, and He eventually was seized and killed by those opposing Him and His message. While we know Jesus died as the keystone of the plan of redemption, we also know how hostile the world was toward Him, and He is the example of perfect goodness and absence of evil. So we, seeking to be like Him in our core beliefs and our lifestyle, cannot expect to escape all suffering.

“Even if you should suffer for what is right" (verse 14) conveys the idea that suffering is contrary to what should be expected. The structure of the phrase leads me to paraphrase it something like "suffering for what is right isn't something sure to happen and in fact should be unexpected, but nevertheless, it may happen." And in the experience of Peter’s contemporaries, as well as in every era of the church since, Christians, indeed, have suffered for beliefs and lifestyles reflecting “what is right.”

Peter's first readers were quite familiar with the concept. They had scattered to the rural parts of northern Turkey to escape the persecutions after Nero blamed the fire that destroyed Rome on the Christians. Thousands of families were murdered because they were Christian. Despite their commitment to their Lord and living righteously, they suffered.

Peter writes in verse 14 "Do not fear what they fear"; a better translation is "Do not be afraid of their threats" (NKJV). "Do not be frightened," he continues, which means don't be shaken; i.e., be calm and unafraid. Continuing his thought, he tells us we are we blessed in the face of suffering. We are blessed in the face of suffering in that we demonstrate to ourselves, as well as to others, the strength of our faith in God's care.

Note in verse 17 that Peter acknowledges two possibilities about why we may suffer: (1) for doing good and (2) for doing evil. Suffering for doing good, as Christ suffered for doing good, means we accept negative circumstances rather than yielding to evil. Suffering for doing good may mean refusing a supervisor’s instruction to lie to a customer, it may mean not participating in some activities you know are sin despite the social or family pressure to do so, or it might mean telling the whole truth when not doing so would have worked to your advantage. In the case of Peter’s 1st century readers, many felt threatened physically, even with death, because they were Christians. In our 21st century western culture, while the threat is not nearly so physically severe, we still can suffer consequences for doing good.

The other kind of suffering Peter mentions is as the result of doing evil. He is careful to draw the distinction between suffering due to the culture’s rejection of believers because they follow their Savior and Lord and suffering as a consequence of evil. Examples would include acting selfishly, lying, arrogance, or having to suffer legal consequences for breaking the law.

Peter tells us the first—suffering for doing good—should be seen as God's will. His will is not that we be harmed or suffer for the sake of suffering, but that we do good regardless of the consequences, even when the consequences include suffering.

Be devoted to Christ (15)

“But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord"; (literal translation: "sanctify the Lord God in your hearts").

In other words, separate ourselves from evil and dedicate the very center of our existence to God. Peter is telling us to set ourselves apart from everything else and give the very essence of our being to the Lordship of Christ. He is not Lord of our life if we fear others more than we revere Him.

Be ready to explain your faith (15)

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

In other words, always be ready to defend your faith, what you believe and why you believe it. The term "an answer" means a reasoned statement or defense.

It is not just endurance in times of opposition or suffering that our Lord wants us to face with faith and courage, but also we are to be prepared to explain, even defend, our faith when asked or when challenged or persecuted. The term "answer" or "defense" is the root word for the English word "apology," which comes from a transliteration of the term from the Greek language. “Apology” is rarely used in the sense of “reasoned defense” today. Apology meant a formal defense as in a judicial proceeding; that is, the reasoning or testimony that would find one guilty or innocent before the judge.

A good example of the use of the term in legal proceedings is found in Acts 25:1-16, which gives the account of Paul facing charges brought by the Pharisees against him in the court of the Roman governor Festus:

Three days after arriving in the province, Festus went up from Caesarea to Jerusalem, where the chief priests and Jewish leaders appeared before him and presented the charges against Paul. They urgently requested Festus, as a favor to them, to have Paul transferred to Jerusalem, for they were preparing an ambush to kill him along the way. Festus answered, “Paul is being held at Caesarea, and I myself am going there soon. Let some of your leaders come with me and press charges against the man there, if he has done anything wrong.”

After spending eight or 10 days with them, he went down to Caesarea, and the next day he convened the court and ordered that Paul be brought before him. When Paul appeared, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many serious charges against him, which they could not prove. Then Paul made his defense: “I have done nothing wrong against the law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar.”

Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, said to Paul, “Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and stand trial before me there on these charges?” Paul answered: “I am now standing before Caesar's court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!” After Festus had conferred with his council, he declared: “You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!”

A few days later King Agrippa and Bernice arrived at Caesarea to pay their respects to Festus. Since they were spending many days there, Festus discussed Paul’s case with the king. He said: “There is a man here whom Felix left as a prisoner. When I went to Jerusalem, the chief priests and elders of the Jews brought charges against him and asked that he be condemned. I told them that it is not the Roman custom to hand over any man before he has faced his accusers and has had an opportunity to defend himself against their charges.
The term also is used informally, as in Philippians 1:15-16: “It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.

Peter's instruction implies that every Christian should not just believe blindly or emotionally, but should know what and why he or she believes and muster the courage to defend our faith by reasoning and testimony when challenged or called on to do so. Our defense of our faith needs to be truthful and uncompromising, but it must always be spoken with gentleness and respect; i.e., a gentle spirit and not in a haughty or superior attitude toward the person to whom we are talking. Paul captures the idea very well in Ephesians 4:15, advising us to speak the truth in love. He also addresses the attitude expected of the Christian when speaking about his or her faith in 2 Timothy 2:24-26:

And the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.
Have a pure conscience (16)

“Keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”

Peter seems to be trying to put his preceding ideas about faithful living in context after reminding his readers to be ready to defend their faith. To “keep a clear conscience” alludes to a lifestyle free of sin. The life that the people around us observe us living should be so free of self-centeredness and sin that any charge against us for living a life of faith is inaccurate and untrue, amounting to slander.

A clear conscience results from thinking and living with righteousness as our guide; thinking and acting as Christ would, set apart from the world. This passage is kind of a progression of advice: be eager to do good; don't forget we are blessed as believers even when suffering or persecuted; don't be intimidated by those who criticize and belittle our faith; focus on Christ as the center of our being; be prepared to tell others what and why we believe, and tell them with gentleness and respect; and finally, anchor your life in righteousness. Nothing silences critics or witnesses to our faith more strongly than a righteous lifestyle.

Concluding thoughts

In the Bible, we can see a theme that believers are in a more or less constant struggle. Inwardly, we struggle against what Paul calls the old man-that self-centeredness that Paul himself described as terribly frustrating: “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do-this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:18-19). His answer to this struggle is that devotion to Christ rescues him.

Peter in 1 Peter 3 deals with both the inner struggle and the outward opposition: be ready to give an answer to our critics with gentleness and respect, keep a clear conscience with good behavior, and always do that which is good, even when we know we may suffer for it.

August 9, 2008

Harmony Among Christians: I Peter 3:8-12)

Few challenges or circumstances of life reveal us to ourselves as the experience of seeing how we react when faced with conflict.

In conflict, we can demonstrate the power of our faith or deny it by our actions, because the drive to win is a powerful force against the commitment to be Christlike. In situations of conflict, the struggle between responding in kind versus responding to evil with good is natural for the Christian.

While James and Peter often give us rules to live by-for example, "Do not repay evil with evil" (verse 9)-Paul describes the inner struggle: "For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do-this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it" (Romans 7:19-20).

Paul also tells us there can be ultimate victory in this inner struggle: "Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires" (Galatians 5:24). It's not that this victory over the old nature is automatic, but it is possible for us. Interestingly, it if virtually impossible for the unbeliever to habitually repress his or her sinful nature, because he or she is a servant of sin (Romans 6:17). Victory over this old nature of serving sin and not the Savior comes with our continuing maturity in the faith and, frankly, a lot of prayer and just plain effort to become the people God wants us to become.

In a sense, there are two of us: one being our efforts to think and live according to our convictions and commitment to holiness, and the other the continuing temptations from the old nature, which are driven by self-centeredness and emotion.

Robert Louis Stevenson describes the conflict in his well-known allegory of good and evil, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Stevenson, who in much of his writing was obsessed with the inner struggle between good and evil, developed the character of Dr. Jekyll, a well-respected London physician who has a split personality. Whenever the evil personality, Mr. Hyde, takes over, Dr. Jekyll takes a potion he concocted to drive away the evil Mr. Hyde. But he runs out of the potion. As the allegory ends, he fears Mr. Hyde is about to become his permanent nature, and the only question he has is whether he will end up committing suicide or be tried and executed by the authorities for the crimes Mr. Hyde is sure to commit.

Today, the phrase "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" describes anyone who demonstrated markedly different behavior from one situation to the next and is a phrase used to express sudden personality changes between doing what is good and what is evil.

All of this illustrates the fact that is a biblical truth: it is possible for us to experience a struggle between our biblical convictions and our emotions, or, as we often put it, the old man and the new. When I take stock of myself and how I react to conflict, the question is this: Shall I let my convictions, or my emotions, guide me?

Peter has been writing in his letter about relationships. In verses 8-12, he summarizes with three principles that are applicable not just in times of peace, but also during conflict.

Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. For, “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech. He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” (1 Peter 3:8-12; Peter quotes Psalm 34:12-16 in verses 10-12)

Our manner of living should promote harmony (8)

Peter begins with the simple instruction, "All of you, live in harmony with one another." So what is the reason for the instruction? The reason is that, indeed, conflict can occur among Christians and, we can assume, was occurring among the Christians and the churches to which he was writing in Asia Minor. Remember, the Christians had fled the Roman cities because of the government-sanctioned persecution of Christians, whom Nero blamed for the great fire in Rome in 64 A.D. It was a time of troubles as the fleeing Christians settled in the rural areas of what is northern Turkey today. Inevitably, conflicts among the people arose as the displaced Christians sought food and shelter and tried to begin making a living again for themselves and their families.

But conflicts are not unique to those times and circumstances. From our life experiences, we know that they have the potential of occurring anytime anywhere. Most of us have strong opinions. From the earliest days of the church until today (perhaps it would be more accurate to say especially today), doctrinal differences have threatened to divide us. Even in those early days of the church, there were doctrinal conflicts, many of which arose as some Christian tried to incorporate their Christian faith into cultural practices. We find that in the Corinthian church, for example, where Paul found sinful practices mirroring the culture’s sexual permissiveness and tolerating polytheism. There were doctrinal differences between those in the church who sought to accommodate the faith to the culture and those who sought purity of faith in the way Christians lived and worshipped. In the Galatian church, he addressed the doctrinal differences between those who taught strict adherence to the Jewish law and those who valued their freedom from the law. In the letters to the church at Thessalonica, Paul dealt with the doctrine of the second coming and the differences between those Christians who had decided to take it easy and live off the generosity of others while waiting for the imminent return of Christ and those who (correctly) held to the doctrine of Jesus, upon His return, should find them living productive and faithful lives of service.

Doctrine still tends to divide Christians and cause disputes. Right now, I have a friend who came to Christ in his 60s, about 20 years ago. He is now in his 80s. He serves on ministry boards and, since retirement, has worked and continues to work more or less, at no pay, in the administration of his church. He gives huge amounts of money to local ministries and to the church. He is a strict five-point Calvinist and ardent amillennialist, and he is always ready to argue the accuracy of his doctrinal views. But I don’t argue with him. There is plenty of common ground for us to have fellowship and serve together in Christian ministries, and in fact we have served together for years as board members of the local crisis pregnancy center.

Doctrine is not the only potential conflict among Christians. We often have conflicting personal and business interests and political differences. One believer might hold extremely conservative views as correct for the Christian, even to the point of oppression of the poor in the name of free enterprise. Another, equally dedicated to his or her faith, may hold progressive political views to the extreme of enabling capable but disadvantaged people to rely on government handouts in lieu of productive employment. On the personal level, Christians also experience conflicts with others because of jealousies, arrogance, selfishness, and greed.

Peter gives us the bottom line, no matter our doctrinal and political views and regardless of the inner conflicts with which we may be struggling: live in harmony. The phrase rendered “live in harmony" is literally translated "be of one mind" or "be likeminded"; that is, unified in thought and feeling. It does not mean to merely surrender or become a doormat. It means to find ways to be likeminded. Where there are possible or probable differences on issues, or where your own self-centeredness may result in or contribute to conflict, resolve it before it becomes conflict.

Living in harmony is a proactive concept. Our Lord expects us to initiate ways to be likeminded; to prevent conflicts from even arising.

In verse 8, Peter gives us some ways to promote harmony or likemindedness:

First, be sympathetic (literally "be of one mind, sympathizing . . ."). Sympathy means more than feeling sorry for. It means sharing a feeling and it implies some kind of remedial or pain-relieving action. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a great example. The priest and the Levite who crossed the road and passed the injured man perhaps felt sorrow or regret for the injured man's condition, but they did not sympathize; the Samaritan took pity (a synonym for sympathize).

Second, he tells us to love each other as brothers. So how do we do that? We share in other Christians’ lives. We aren’t too shy about sharing feelings and how we are dealing with the ups and the downs of life. We become friends and take the time and trouble to know about and care about each other’s welfare, and we try to help solve each other's problems if possible.

Next, he tells us to be compassionate (literally, tenderhearted). This is related to sympathizing. A compassionate person is gentle, helpful, and genuinely cares about the needs of others.

Peter also says we should be humble (literally, "humble minded" or even "courteous" or "kind"). His meaning is to not be self-centered or seek to meet our own needs and desires, but to have the interests of the brother or sister in mind.

Verse 8 is one continuous thought, first telling Christians to live in harmony and they explaining how. A literal translation of the verse would be: "Live in harmony with one another, sympathizing, loving as brothers, being compassionate, and being humble." All of those attributes (sympathy, love, compassion, and humility) together constitute the ways to live in harmony with each other.

Don't contribute to conflict (9)

Growing up, I was always the one with a smart mouth in our house. As a teenager, few corrections from my parents went unchallenged. Sometimes I created conflict; almost always I escalated any conflict in which I played a part.

Peter tells us the two ways to promote harmony and end conflict when it arises:

First, do not repay evil with evil. That is, don't be vengeful. Paul expands on this in 1 Thessalonians 5:15: "Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else."

Second, do not repay insult for insult, but (repay) with blessing. In the heat of the moment, how hard is that!?! Peter tells us why we are to do this: "because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing." That reminds me of what God did for me while I was still rebelling against Him: "God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). In other words, not repaying wrong for wrong or insult for insult is just repeating what our Father in heaven has done for us.

Pursue peace (10-11)

Peter repeats himself and expands on the thoughts of verses 8 and 9 in verses 10 and 11, quoting from Psalm 34.

Two marks of a growing, maturing Christian who pursues peace in his or her relationships are (1) that we do not speak evil and deceit and (2) that we turn away from evil and do what is good (righteous).

Once again, Peter's instructions place the responsibility directly on us. Not speaking evil and deceit and turning away from evil to do what is good are decisions we make. As usual, there are, in fact, practical benefits: we avoid saying things we later wish we had not, we avoid the messy entanglement that always comes after we lie, and we don't find ourselves paying the price for (unrighteous) conduct.

God does not want us just to live with or ignore conflict. He wants us to help solve it-calmly, lovingly, and honestly-and not contribute to it by our attitudes or unrighteous responses and actions. Note that Peter doesn't say be peaceful or avoid conflict. He says "seek peace and pursue it" (verse 11). In other words, make an effort; have a strong desire for peace (seek peace); and make it happen with a strong, unrelenting effort.

Righteous responses please God (12)

Verse 12 confirms the truth that God blesses us and our efforts to do His will. When we seek to live in harmony, be likeminded, love as brothers, show compassion, demonstrate humility, turn from evil and do good, and pursue peace, God blesses and even empowers our efforts. But when we do just the opposite-seek vengeance, trade insults, and speak deceitfully-we cannot expect Him to help us succeed.

Some concluding thoughts

When conflicts arise, Peter is telling us, we must choose righteousness. We need to remember who we are on those occasions and that we can control whether conflict arises or escalates or whether peace and harmony prevail. As fellow Christians, God expects us to be likeminded, which means we must continually seek like-mindedness in resolving conflicts rather than to ignoring or running away from them.

Finally, we must remember God's will for us when conflict arises: that our very lifestyle promotes harmony, that our relationships are characterized by brotherly love, sympathy for each other, compassion, and humility, and that rather than contributing to conflict, we pursue peace.

(Note: While I usually teach from the New King James Version [NKJV], I am teaching from the New International Version [NIV] in this study in the book of 1 Peter because the NIV so accurately renders the thought of the original text. Regardless of the English translation used, I also compare the English rendering with the Greek New Testament. For those not fluent in the biblical languages, a Greek-English interlinear Bible and Hebrew-English interlinear Bible can be of great assistance in revealing the original nuances of meaning of words and grammatical structure. Many of the interlinear Bibles also include Strong's numbering and Greek and Hebrew dictionaries keyed to the Strong's for concise definitions of the original terms. The most helpful Bible I have found is the MacArthur Study Bible, which is available in the New King James Version and the New American Standard [NASB] translation. The notations in the MacArthur Study Bible are extremely accurate in reflecting the literal meaning of the texts and are invaluable in providing the accurate scriptural backgrounds for the basic evangelical Christian doctrines derived from the literal view of Scripture. Another helpful Bible for English readers is the Hebrew Greek Key Study Bible, which is an NIV translation with numbering keyed to a Hebrew dictionary and Greek dictionary in the back of the book.)

August 3, 2008

The Christian and Government: 1 Peter 2:13-17; Romans 13:1-7

All of us are aware that as Christians, we experience a continual tension between our commitment to righteousness and the pressures of our culture.

One of those tensions involves our role as citizens. The Bible tells us to be witnesses and examples, and one of the ways we are to be examples is to be good citizens, subjecting ourselves to governing authorities.

This can be an enigma. The governments which Peter and Paul instructed Christians to be subject to were harsh, authoritarian, and the government actively persecuted Christians. The Roman government, in fact, promoted polytheism and required its subjects to worship the emperor as a god. The Christians, being monotheists, were scorned and viewed as traitorous.

Yet through both Peter and Paul, the Lord tells us to submit to governing authorities. The only exception is when the government would require us to do something unrighteous in the judgment of God.

Two New Testament passages provide the principles we are expected to follow in relating to our government. The first is 1 Peter 2:13-17:

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.

The context of this passage is verse 12: we are to live such good lives among the pagans that even when they accuse us falsely they will know of our good deeds and glorify God because of us when Jesus returns.

The second is Romans 13:1-7:

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. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

The context of this passage is that Paul is explaining to the Roman Christians how to maintain their integrity as good citizens in a pagan and immoral land.

Governing authority (civil government) is established by God (Romans 13:1)

Since God alone is the sovereign ruler of the universe, he has instituted authorities on earth: government over all citizens, the church over believers, and parents over children.

Obviously, we know from history that civil governments usually have not acted as though they have been inspired by God. Generally speaking, governments in history up to the present usually have not turned out to be godly in their policies and decision-making. So the Bible is giving us the main principle here: God has established the institution of government is to rule the affairs of society.

When we look at history, we can see that God has accomplished His work and His will either through the actions of government or in spite of the actions of government. The main principle about government authority for the Christian is that the institution of government was established by God.

So that being the case, what is the purpose of government?

The purpose of government authority is to promote good and punish those who do evil (1 Peter 2:13-14; Romans 13:3, 4)

Romans 13:4 tells us that governing authority is God’s minister (“deacon”). That is, its purpose is to carry out the instructions of a higher authority; in this case, to act in God’s behalf in establishing and maintaining order in society and perform other works for society’s benefit. Governing authority is called here “God’s minister” to us “for good.” Literally, the text is telling us that government’s purpose is to promote what is good. That would include promoting righteousness, safety, security, and contentment.

The other purpose of governing authority is to punish those who do evil. Verse 4 is a revealing text. In punishing evildoers, civil government is God’s “avenger” against evil, and its purpose is to deliver wrath (punishment) to those who do evil. The literal translation of the phrase is: “for a servant of God it is, an avenger for wrath to the one practicing evil.” It should be noted that even the most wicked, evil, and godless civil governments we know from history did serve, in at least some measure, as a deterrent to crime.

Note in verse 4 that the text says the governing authority “does not bear the sword for nothing” (literal translation: “in vain”). This is sometimes cited as the New Testament authority for governments to use capital punishment for punishing the worst crimes and protecting society from those who would commit those crimes. That may be accurate, but this reference is far from a conclusive argument for capital punishment. Governing authority bears the sword—a weapon for cutting, thrusting, and killing—not “in vain,” which means not “without purpose” or not “without just cause.”

Remember from our visits to this topic in previous years that almost all government actions involve one or more of four social needs or principles: freedom, equality, order, and safety.

Freedom involves the personal rights of thought, speech, movement, earning a living, buying, selling, etc. God created humans with the ability to think and reason and make choices.

Equality describes the fact that all people are equal before God and not judged by characteristics such as race, nationality, poverty, or wealth. Governments, if they are truly acting as God’s servants, will promote equality, and equality is the biblical standard for individual human conduct. As we know from history, various governments have fallen on both sides of the equality issue and have instituted laws that guarantee, or restrict, equality.

Order is perhaps the overriding purpose God has for government, as Peter tells us in verse 14: “to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” In other words, to keep order among people whose natural or “old” nature is to act selfishly.

Safety involves the protection of the people governed from invasion and domination by other nations.

We are to be in subjection to government authority (1 Peter 2:13-14; Romans 13:1, 2, 5-7)

We are to be in subjection to governing authority; that is, submit to the control of government. To resist (Romans 13:2) is to oppose authority God has put over us. Romans 13:5 asserts that our subjection to governing authority should be not just because of its capacity to punish, but also (literally) “because of conscience.” I think this is part of the thought of verse 2: we should not oppose God by resisting authority He established.

Further, we should pay our taxes (Romans 13:7), be afraid of governing authority if we do wrong, and give respect (honor) to governing authority.

There is one obvious exception. When the governing authority wants to compel us to do something that is opposed to the character of God, we must disobey. A revealing example of this is found in Acts 5. The apostles were teaching so effectively in Jerusalem that the high priest had them arrested and jailed. (The high priest and the Sanhedrin were the civil government appointed by the Roman occupiers.) The apostles were released by an angel of the Lord, however, who told them to go back out and continue teaching at the Temple. Once more, they were arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin. We read their response when brought back before the Sanhedrin in Acts 5:27-32:

Having brought the apostles, they made them appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man's blood.” Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than men! The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead—whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

When considering disobeying the governing authority because of a law or regulation that would require us to act in an ungodly manner, we also usually think of Daniel.

Daniel was one of the young men in ruling families of Judah who was taken by the conquering Babylonians to Babylon. It was the practice of the Babylonians when they conquered a nation to take captive men such as Daniel to Babylon, and over several years to train them in government administration, after which they would be sent back to govern their native land as servants of the Babylonians. In Daniel 1, we read that Daniel, who was captive in Babylon, refused to eat what the king ordered the captives to eat because it would defile him. The food in the king’s court consisted of meat that had been sacrificed to Babylonian idols. Eating is was understood as an act of worship to those idols. Daniel negotiated a deal: let us eat vegetables for 10 days and see if we look healthy. The king’s steward agreed, and Daniel and his friends remained healthy and were able to circumvent this unrighteous requirement. This was serious business. To refuse an order from Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, was a capital offense.

We read in Daniel 3 that three of Daniel’s fellow captives (Shadrach, Mishach, and Abednego) refused Nebuchadnezzar’s command to bow to the golden idol and were thrown into the furnace and were delivered from the fire. The three friends’ response to King Nebuchadnezzar when refusing to bow to the idol as he ordered, is instructive to Christians faced with an unrighteous law or requirement: “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Daniel 3:17-18).

Later, in Daniel 6, we find Daniel serving under King Darius. A law had been passed commanding that Darius be worshiped as a god, and the law forbade worship of any other deity. Daniel was observed praying to God and was thrown into a den of lions, a capital punishment. After surviving the night, Daniel told Darius the king: “My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his sight. Nor have I ever done any wrong before you, O king” (Daniel 6:22).

So, while we are to be subject to governing authority, there are circumstances in which we are called to obey God rather than the governing authority. When this is the case, here are some guidelines to follow:

  1. Disobeying governing authority should be done in prayer.
  2. It should be a clear instance in which we would be compelled by governing authority to do something that is evil in God’s sight.
  3. It should not be done with a defiant or mean-spirited attitude.
  4. And it should be done in sorrow, because the civil authorities appointed by God are defying His purpose.
(Note: While I usually teach from the New King James Version [NKJV], I am teaching from the New International Version [NIV] in this study in the book of 1 Peter because the NIV so accurately renders the thought of the original text. Regardless of the English translation used, I also compare the English rendering with the Greek New Testament. For those not fluent in the biblical languages, a Greek-English interlinear Bible and Hebrew-English interlinear Bible can be of great assistance in revealing the original nuances of meaning of words and grammatical structure. Many of the interlinear Bibles also include Strong's numbering and Greek and Hebrew dictionaries keyed to the Strong's for concise definitions of the original terms. The most helpful Bible I have found is the MacArthur Study Bible, which is available in the New King James Version and the New American Standard [NASB] translation. The notations in the MacArthur Study Bible are extremely accurate in reflecting the literal meaning of the texts and are invaluable in providing the accurate scriptural backgrounds for the basic evangelical Christian doctrines derived from the literal view of Scripture. Another helpful Bible for English readers is the Hebrew Greek Key Study Bible, which is an NIV translation with numbering keyed to a Hebrew dictionary and Greek dictionary in the back of the book.)