“Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lords sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme;
Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evil doers, and for the praise of them that do well.
For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men:
As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. “
Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles!
That is the main exhortation in this section of the epistle, and it must be borne constantly in mind. Proceeding now to apply this truth, that we are to walk honestly in every department of life, the apostle calls attention to what our conversation is to be with respect to the government which is over us.
Not to the world is this exhortation directed, but to the church, to the elect strangers; who are in the world, but not of it.
The world of Peter’s day, as well as the present world, is characterized by lawlessness. Rioting and violence have become in our time a way of life. Disrespect for authority, and open rebellion and revolution are not a peculiarity one finds only in our own country, but this situation obtains in all nations and in every part of the world. This is understandable, for when men will not reckon with the law of God, neither will they honor the ordinances of men.
But, as we said, the apostle is not directing the words of our text to those lawless in the world. Rather he is writing to the members of Christ’s church. He has in mind those who are under the rule of Christ, Whose is all authority, power, and dominion in heaven and on earth. He directs the words of our text to those who are the citizens of a heavenly kingdom, yea, whose citizenship is in heaven, though temporarily they are required to be pilgrims and strangers in this world, and therefore also for a time must needs be in subjection to the rulers of this world. And, we hasten to add, in subjection to a government which, at the time of the writing of this epistle, was thoroughly anti-Christian.
And the question arises: but why should these heavenly citizens be exhorted to be in submission to these worldly governments? Perhaps this was the question which lived in the souls of them to whom Peter is writing, along with several other questions. If Christ is Ring supreme, would it not be sinful on our part to honor any other king or governor? If the government which imposes its rule over us is antichristian, should we not oppose it with all that is in us? If Christ has made us free from the law by His own obedience, are we not free from all laws? If the government persecutes us who are the children of God, is it not then an ungodly government whose laws we need not respect? Perhaps these and many more questions resided in the hearts of those to whom the apostle is writing. And with one sweep of the pen the apostle answers in the text: Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake.
Submit yourselves . . . !
Whether it be to the king, as supreme, or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evil doers, and for the praise of them that do well!
Shall we be able to understand this Scriptural mandate, it is necessary, first of all, that we have a clear, Scriptural idea of what government is.
It is a principle of the Word of God that all government is of God. It makes no difference what the form of government may be, whether it is a monarchy, a democracy, or a dictatorship that is in power. The powers that be are ordained of God, not of man.
Most instructive in this connection is what we are told in Romans 13:1-4. “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same. For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil be afraid, for he beareth not the sword in vain; for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”
There are three elements in this passage that are emphasized: “there is no power but of God,” “the powers that be are ordained of God,” and, “whoever is in power is God’s minister.” And we would remind you that the government, the power which the apostle had in mind, was the power of Rome, of which Caesar was the ruler.
Jesus, when confronted by Pontius Pilate, who was Caesar’s governor, and who boasted that he had power to crucify Him or set Him free, did not hesitate to say to him: “Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above.”
And Daniel in his prophecy (Dan. 2:21) declares: “And he (i.e., God) changeth the times and the seasons; he removeth kings, and setteth up kings.”
Clearly all these passages teach that both the king and his government are of the Lord. It is He that sets kings on their thrones, and it is He that takes them down from their thrones, in order to put others in their place.
How contrary to this principle is the modern conception of government! Today, the majority in our own country follow the philosophy that “the government of the people, by the people, and for the people” implies that the government is of man. In fact the term “democracy,” which means literally “the rule of the people,” also has come to imply that the government is determined by and has its origin in man. It should be plain from the Scripture passages cited above that this idea of government is contrary to the Word of God.
Moreover, still speaking of the idea of government, it should also be established that, though the government is by divine appointment, it is nevertheless limited in its sphere of authority. By this we mean that the government is not divinely intended to rule over everything. It should have no jurisdiction in our private affairs. Nor should it have anything to say in the church. Church and State should remain sovereign each in its own sphere.
And to this must be added that, whereas the government has authority only in the public sphere, it is the divine intention that it shall maintain the law of God. All the laws which the government enacts and enforces should find their basis in the Decalogue with its two tables. And for the enforcement of this authority God has given the government sword power, according to which it is to punish the evil doer, and to bless and protect the good.
There is also one more thought which should be injected here, and that is: God has exalted Christ to be King over all kings, dominions, and powers. Of this He was deeply conscious when He said: “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.” It is He, by divine right, Who places kings and rulers on their thrones, and through the governments of the world He rules over and over-rules all, so that they do His good pleasure. Though they generally do not recognize Him, and still more generally stand in open rebellion against Him,—for “the kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against his anointed,”—they nevertheless are obliged to be His ministers, and do Him service.
It is especially this last thought that the apostle has in mind when he exhorts his readers to “submit themselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake.”
Bearing in mind that the government may be and often is antichristian, such as it was when the apostle wrote these words, then the principle will be in reverse. Then the good, which should be praised and protected by the government, will be persecuted for their well doing; while the evil-doers, whom the government should punish, will be condoned, exonerated, and praised. Precisely what happened to Christ will happen also to the children of God. He Who did nothing but good, was maltreated, persecuted, and put to death by those in authority. And the Lord Jesus forewarned us that what they did to Him they will also do to us.
What then? Should we rebel?
Should we flee somewhere to form an underground movement, train guerrilla bands that will be bent on destroying those in authority? Should we start a revolutionary movement that will cast out those in power, and that will put in office those whom we will be reasonably sure will legislate on Christian principles?
The apostle answers all these questions with: Submit yourselves!
Mark well, he does not say: “obey!”
O, indeed, where it is possible to obey the government without violating any of our Christian principles, then obedience must be the rule of the day. Obedience is implicit in submission, yea, the very heart of it. But obedience and submission are always to be governed by our relationship to God and to Christ. We obey our parents, not simply because they are our parents who are older, wiser, and stronger than we, but for God’s sake. We obey the government also only for God’s sake. When we obey the government, we do so to show that we are in obeisance to Christ Who is our Lord. On the other hand, when the government or whoever is in authority over us commands us to do that which is contrary to the law of God, which would make us to be disobedient to Christ,—then we must disobey, while we remain in submission. A beautiful illustration of this we find in Daniel 3, where the friends of Daniel were required to bow before the image which Nebuchadnezzar had set up. Not only did these obedient children of God refuse to obey the king, but they signified their willingness to submit to the punishment the king had threatened for disobedience. Willingly they gave themselves over to the fire of the furnace. This is submission, which is obedience to God. The apostle Peter, when confronted by the authorities because he taught in the Name of Jesus (Acts 5), answered them: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” But before he was let go, he suffered severe beating by the authorities. This was submission, which is obedience to God.
Let it be established, then, that strict obedience to all authority is impossible, when that authority commands us to be disobedient to God and His Christ. But submission is always necessary. Then we honor authority, in loving obedience to God and to the Lord Jesus Christ.
The reason for this submission is two-fold. In the first place, “for the Lord’s sake.” We must remember that we obey Christ when we are in submission to human ordinances; and we are also in obedience to Christ when we disobey the human ordinance which is contrary to His will. We are to serve the Lord Christ, and seek the honor of His Name. In the second place, “we put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.” Also here we are to remember that the world of ungodly men, whether in the government or not, does not understand why the child of God does what he does. When the children of God disobey the authority, the world expects them to be revolutionaries. But when the child of God does not become a revolutionary, yea, rather gives himself over to the consequences of his disobedience, suffers willingly the inflicted punishment, then he puts the ignorant foolish to silence.
But why should the elect strangers be exhorted to be in submission to the government? If they truly love God, and know that they stand in loving service to their King, Christ Jesus; will they not then spontaneously do what the apostle urges in this exhortation?
There are especially two reasons why this exhortation is necessary. The first is the danger of antinomism. This is suggested in the last part of the text when the apostle writes: “as free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.” The antinomist is one who believes he is free, free from the law. Piously he points to the doctrine of justification, according to which Christ has fulfilled all obedience to the divine law for us, so that we are freed from the dictates of the law. We are now under grace, so he says. Therefore any attempt to live in conformity to the law is to deny the justifying grace of Christ. Consequently these apparently pious people live as they please, with no respect for the law of God or of man. They live under the slogan, “Not under the law, but under grace.” These antinominian sects have given the church no end of trouble, and also a bad name. The apostle would agree with them as to the freedom wherewith Christ has made us free, only he adds: “use not your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness.” He means to say, your liberty does not give you license to do as you please; but your liberty is also bound by law. True liberty is the freedom to walk in the light of the law, which you could not do when you were the slaves of sin. We are not to perform the law in order to be saved, but we honor the law because we are saved. And since the laws of government, and the government which imposes the law is ordained of God, therefore you are to live in submission to it.
But there is more. In the second place, as we already suggested, there is always the reality of antichristian government. It was there when Peter transcribed our text; and Scripture assures us that it is also future reality. What then? Shall Christians unite to overthrow such a government? When the government shall insist that you cannot buy or sell without the mark of the beast, shall we rush to obtain that mark lest we perish from the earth? The answers to these questions are negative.
Positively we shall honor Christ by being in submission to that evil government; and while we take the consequences of disobedience, death if necessary, we will commit our cause to Christ Who will surely justify us in the day when He shall judge also the government for all the ungodly deeds they have committed.