As Christians, we are to be the best citizens of the land. We are to lead the way in abiding by the laws of the land, fulfilling our civic responsibilities (such as voting and paying our taxes, to name a few) to the best of our abilities.

“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.”

Honor the emperor? That doesn’t sound strange, until you realize that the emperor Peter was referring to was probably the cruel egomaniac named Nero. Then you wonder if this is the same Peter who stood up to the Jewish authorities and told them “We ought to obey God rather than men.”

To be sure, the biblical account affirms that both statements came from the apostle Peter. At the same time, the entirety of biblical teaching recognizes the truth of both statements. The challenge for us is recognizing which truth applies to the proper situation. This is particularly true today, when government policies often seem to favor not so much what is right and moral but what suits the interests of the loudest and most obnoxious voices (who use volume and persistence to cover up the wrongness of their position).

Peter commands us to honor the emperor because he understands that the sovereignty of God extends even over the affairs of men. This means that the emperor, whoever and whatever he might be as a person, is in that position because God, in his wisdom and grace, has put him there to fulfill God’s sovereign purpose. This is not to say that the emperor is consciously obedient to God. Neither does this mean that everything he does is right and pleasing in God’s eyes. Rather, this means that God is in such control over the king that even when the king does what is right in his own eyes, he cannot help but ultimately bring to fruition God’s purposes.

To cite a case in point, in Isaiah 44:28, God says of Cyrus the Persian “He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose” because Cyrus was going to be used by the LORD to restore his exiled people to the land of Judah and cause the temple to be rebuilt. This doesn’t mean that Cyrus was a believer, because in 45:4 the Lord speaks to Cyrus and says “For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me.” Cyrus was a pagan ruler who made it his policy not only to allow people exiled by the Babylonians to return to their homelands, but also to respect the religious beliefs of his subjects. In other words, though Cyrus was acting out of political expediency without regard for the LORD or even awareness of his purposes, all he was doing was superintended by God to fulfill his purposes.

In the case of Roman rule, Peter recognizes that the emperor and his imperial representatives were God’s instruments for the maintenance of law and order. In this, his perspective is the same as that of the apostle Paul. Even today, we need to recognize that part of the reason why we have governments is to enforce laws that punish evil and reward good. Whether or not the government is successful or consistently righteous is beside the point. No government will ever be perfectly righteous because it is always composed of sinful men.

Our responsibility as believers is clear: we must submit to the authority of government and give honor to its officials. We are not to do this merely out of fear of punishment; rather, we are to do this for the Lord’s sake. In light of the previous discussion, this means we must submit to government as an act of submission to the Lord who put the officials in their positions of authority. Furthermore, we are also to do it as part of establishing a good testimony before all men. This was particularly true during those times, when Christians were accused of being “atheists” and “haters of mankind” because they refused to bow to the pagan gods, thereby risking reprisals on the community from these gods (or so the pagans thought). By living in obedience to the laws of the land, they were to make people recognize the foolishness of these accusations. They were to live such lives of exemplary uprightness that they would be beyond reproach.

This didn’t mean that Christians were to compromise their faith by engaging in pagan worship. Notice that Peter tells the believers to live as servants of God. This is important, in light of the fact that a Roman citizen had to offer incense to the emperor at least once a year to be in good standing as a citizen. (They were even issued certificates attesting that they had performed this civic duty.) As servants of God, their ultimate allegiance was to God, not to men, so that when a conflict arose between God’s commands and human regulations, they were to obey God rather than men, regardless of the cost. As Christians, their freedom in Christ was experienced by submission to God.

In our day and age, the principle remains the same. As Christians, we are to be the best citizens of the land. We are to lead the way in abiding by the laws of the land, fulfilling our civic responsibilities (such as voting and paying our taxes, to name a few) to the best of our abilities. This doesn’t mean that we blindly support government policies when they are unjust or immoral. We have a responsibility, as servants of our righteous Lord and for the common good, to speak out against these policies. And it is as people recognize our record of good citizenship and striving for the common good that our voice becomes more readily heard. May we, as God’s people, truly serve our Lord and bring glory to his name through responsible citizenship that makes a difference in our society.

Topics: Christian Living