More than 4000 years ago, we are told, there was a great civilization in the far east that fell into civil war and began a long collapse into chaos.
But out of that chaos God called one particular man and his wife. God told the man to leave his father’s family, his father’s people, his father’s homeland, and travel until God told him to stop.
The man obeyed. He travelled westward and southward until God told him, “Okay, stop here. From this point I am going to make you the father of your own family, the father of a great nation, and this is going to be your new homeland. And through you all nations on earth will be blessed.”
This man’s name was Abraham. And if you are familiar with Christian scripture, then you know that the rest of the Old Testament — the rest of the bible, really — is the story of how God fulfilled all his promises to Abraham, how he has been fulfilling all his promises to Abraham over the last 4000 years or so.
But if you are familiar with the Book of Genesis, then you know Abraham did not have to wait thousands of years to experience God’s faithfulness: even in his lifetime he received the firstfruits of everything God had promised. He became the father of his own family when Sarah, his wife, produced a son for him. He became the father of a nation when his entire household — hundreds of men along with their households — was circumcized, set apart as God’s people. And he began to claim a homeland for his nation by travelling through that country from north to south, building altars and digging wells as he went.
And if you are familiar with the Book of Genesis, then you know that Abraham was also a blessing to the nations around him…sometimes.
If we were to go back and read the story of Abraham’s life we would see that, when he was faithful — when he was honest and put his trust fully in God — then the nations around him would either reject him or they would come and make a treaty with him. If a nation rejected Abraham, they fell under God’s judgement. If a nation entered into a treaty with Abraham, then they prospered under God’s blessing.
But there were other times when Abraham was not faithful: instead of trusting God to keep him safe, Abraham would lie. And every time he did this, bad things happened. Basically, Abraham would cover up his distinct identity as a son of God. He would try to protect himself by ”fitting in” with the greater nations around him. Those nations, not knowing that Abraham was under the special protection of God, would take advantage of him. And God, quite naturally, would begin to move in judgement against those people. At the same time, very graciously, God would tell the rulers of those nations why these curses were falling upon them, those rulers would come to Abraham and say, “Dude! What is your problem? Are you trying to kill us?” Then they would make a treaty with Abraham and the curses would turn into blessings.
And by the end of his life, Abraham had learned his lesson. When his wife Sarah died, he went to the local people and confessed, “I am a foreigner and stranger among you. Please, sell me some land so I can bury my wife.”
But the local people basically said, “No, you’re not a foreigner or a stranger to us! So, listen, why don’t you just join our nation instead. Then you can bury your wife wherever you want…for free!”
But Abraham trusted God. He refused to join his nation with their nation, even though that was a potential insult to them. He insisted on buying a tomb for Sarah, and he insisted on proper paperwork, so that even in death his people would be kept distinct from all the other peoples in the land. And God was faithful to him: the local people sold the land to Abraham, and that property became the seed of the homeland to come.
This is the history Peter has in mind today as he continues his letter to the Christians of Roman Asia.
Until now, Peter has been emphasizing the reality that being God’s chosen people comes with tremendous benefits! — but it also comes with a cost: these Asian Christians are called to live as foreigners among the rest of the nations of the world.
And we have been wondering, of course, what that means, practically speaking. What does it look like for these Christians to live as foreigners among the nations?
And Peter has made it clear that the first huge difference between the Christian nation and every other nation is how Christians treat other Christians. Every other nation in the Roman empire is sharply segregated between ethnicities, between sexes, between citizens and non-citizens, between masters and slaves. But the Christian nation is a nation of equals, where every member is just as valuable in God’s sight as every other member, regardless of ethnic background, sex, social status, or anything else. “Therefore,“ Peter said, “rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” In other words: “Stop treating one another as if you are members of different races, and start loving one another deeply, from the heart. Because you are, actually, one new race of people.”
And last week Peter made it clear that this idea — this strange new definition of love, this strange new way of life — is going to result in rejection by the nations of the empire. He also made it clear that this rejection by the nations is all part of God’s plan to redeem the nations: the more these Asian Christians are rejected, the more tightly they are built together into a living temple, a kingdom of priests, a holy nation through which the rest of the nations of the world will be blessed, just as God promised Abraham so long ago.
And this is why, today, we are going to see Peter change the focus of his letter from: how Christians are supposed to love one another, to: how Christians are supposed to love the rest of the nations. He has just finished saying that the Church is at the center of God’s ancient plan to lead people out of the darkness of idolatry into the light of Christ. So now Peter wants to get into the details of how that is supposed to work.
And this is how Peter starts this new section of his letter:  Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.
And we can tell that Peter is thinking about Abraham when he writes this because he uses the same words here that Abraham did when he said, “I am a foreigner and stranger among you. Please, sell me some land so I can bury my wife.”
And seeing this connection helps us understand what Peter means when he tells his friends to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. When we read the story of Abraham, we see him struggling with a number of sinful behaviours — malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, slander — and most of those sinful behaviours were centered around his desires for safety, security, and acceptance. These desires, and the behaviours that came from them, waged war against Abraham’s soul: they had a corrosive effect on Abraham and on his family. And as we have already noticed, they also had a corrosive effect on Abraham’s relationships with the surrounding nations, bringing curse upon them instead of blessing.
Peter has the same concern for his friends in Roman Asia. He does not want their fear of rejection to result in sinful, self-protective desires, which will result in sinful, self-protective behaviours like malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, slander — everything that destroys lives, families, whole communities; everything that results in curses instead of blessings upon the surrounding nations.
Instead, Peter says,  Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
Peter wants his friends to realize that their situation is almost exactly the same as Abraham’s was. Just like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they have been called out of their previous nations, baptized, and set apart as God’s nation so that they might be a blessing to all the nations they were just called out of.
And just as in Abraham’s situation — and Isaac’s, and Jacob’s — the best way for these Christians to be a blessing to the nations is by living honest lives among the nations. Just like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, these Christians of Roman Asia are misunderstood by their neighbors; they are facing ever-louder accusations of being anti-social enemies of mankind.
And the temptation, of course, is to respond with counter-accusations: to respond with malice and deceit, hypocrisy and slander. But Peter is saying, “Don’t do that! Instead, let your community life speak for you. The best way to prove that you are not “anti-social” is by being “pro-social”: by being a better kind of society, a society where people are not biting and devouring one another, a society where people are not even biting and devouring their enemies!”
Peter is telling these Asian Christians to answer these false accusations with action: to prove their accusers wrong with the evidence of their lives. Then their accusers will be forced to make an honest decision to accept the evidence or reject it. If they accept, they will become God’s people, and there is no greater blessing than that! If they reject, they will be cursed to the exact degree that they cursed God’s people. But at least they will be choosing based on the proper data-set.
“So,” Peter is saying, “if you want to answer your accusers properly and perhaps even win them over to Christ, this is how you must do it: abstain from sinful, self-protective, self-serving desires, and live such good lives among the nations that their accusations are eventually proven ridiculous.”
That is the general principle Peter wants to teach his friends in Roman Asia.
But now Peter wants to get specific, because Christians are being accused of being anti-social in specific areas: people are starting to say that Christians are anti-family, anti-economy, and anti-government. So Peter wants to give his friends some tips to help them address these three specific accusations. Today he is going to talk about how Christians should respond to the charge that they are anti-government. Next week he will address the accusation that Christians are anti-economy, and the week after: the accusation that Christians are anti-family. So you’ll want to make sure to come back for those.
Okay. So Christians are being accused of being anti-government. How should they respond: with counter-accusations? With defensive malice? With deceit and hypocrisy?
No. They should respond by living such good lives in their relationship with government that these accusations are eventually proven ridiculous:  Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, 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 people.
There is that general principle at work again: if you want to win your accusers to Christ, or if — at the very least — you want to silence the false accusations, then prove your innocence by doing good. And so, since these Christians are being accused of being anti-government, then “doing good” means submitting to every human authority, and proving that they are not anti-government.
…and we struggle to accept this, don’t we! Because to us, in our modern political climate, this talk of submission to government feels too passive. To our ears, it sounds like Peter is telling Christians to do nothing about systemic tyranny and abuse.
So, before we go any further, we had better pause and make sure, first: that we understand the ancient political climate, and second: what Peter actually means by the word “submit”.
So: in the ancient Roman world, when people accused Christians of being anti-government, they were mainly worried about two things: first, they were worried that Christians might simply be anarchists, people who just want to set the world on fire and watch it burn. Second, they were worried that Christians might be revolutionaries, people who want to take over the empire for themselves.
So: in order to silence both of these false accusations, Peter told the Christians of Roman Asia to submit to every human authority. And the word he uses for “submit” is a word that means “to consent to live under a proper order”. This is not a passive kind of submission, a submission without responsibility; this is a submission that means actively searching out one’s proper place in society and then taking up the responsibilities that come with it.
Peter’s goal was that, by consenting to live under the Roman political order, Christians would prove they are neither anarchists nor revolutionaries. Yes, Christians believe that the Roman empire is destined to self-destruct, but this does not mean they are trying to bring the empire down! — and they can prove this by trying to live orderly lives within the general structure of the empire. Yes, Christians are supposed to think of themselves as a new, distinct nation that will expand to fill the entire earth, but taking over the government of the Roman empire is not part of that plan! — and they can prove this by submitting to the general structure of the empire.
Are your neighbors calling you anarchists and revolutionaries? “Very well!” Peter says. “Then make sure to live such orderly, peaceful, submissive lives that, if they ever try to take you to court, they will be silenced by the lack of evidence!”
When Peter says submit yourselves to every human authority, he is not talking about some kind of passive submission where Christians “support” the government by just doing whatever the government says. He is talking about an active submission to the true source of all order. Because our Father is the God who created order, we Christians — as his children — are supposed to be a people who love order, who support order, who work hard to bring our own lives into proper order with the earthly political orders we live under — not because we believe that every human authority is uncorrupted and good, but for the Lord’s sake: so that we mght silence the ignorant talk of foolish people, so that Christ’s name might not be slandered among the nations.
So Peter is not telling Christians to do nothing about systemic tyranny and abuse. He is telling them that the best way to defeat systemic tyranny and abuse is by actively choosing to live within the system…but according to the values of a greater system.
This is why Peter goes on to say this very shocking thing in verse 16: Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.
This is shocking because being a “free person” in the Roman empire was not just an idea, it was a legal status. Even more importantly, it was a legal status that only came through birth. In the Roman empire you were born as a free person or as a slave. A free person could become a slave; a slave could, potentially, become a “freed person” who could pass on “free person” status to their children — but they themselves would never legally be known as a “free person”, because that status was hereditary.
But Peter has just waved his arm and said, “Ta daa! You are all ’free people’!”
Now, how can he dare to say this? Because they have all just been reborn as “free persons” through the sprinkled blood of Christ. Whatever status they used to have through their physical birth, that status has now been erased, over-written by their new born status: these are the “free people” of God! These are freest people on earth!
But Peter is not saying this just so they can feel good. The point of being a “free person”, born of God, is that now, as God’s children, these Christians live to serve their Father’s will, their Saviour’s will.
And what is God’s will for them? He wants them to stay back for a while in the Roman empire. They have been born again into a new race, a new nation, a new order. But it is God’s will for them now to continue to submit for a time within the old order.
So that, by living within the system but according to the values of a greater system — they will, first, silence the ignorant talk of foolish people, and, second, that their accusers and enemies might see their good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
In other words, Peter sees submission to every human authority as a kind of evangelism. When Christians do their best to bring God’s order into the world by living orderly lives within the world’s order, they are actually protecting Christ’s reputation, and winning their accusers to Christ.
And then, in closing, Peter basically summarizes what he has said so far. In verse 17 he basically says, “so, if you want to know what I mean when I talk about living such good lives, practicing such good deeds, and submitting to every human authority, this is what I mean: show proper respect to everyone.”
This basically means: give everyone the respect that is due their position of authority. Different levels of authority come with different levels of responsibility, and Christians should honor that. A police officer has one level of responsibility; a governer carries a much greater responsibility. Even if we do not like the officer or the governor, Peter is saying, still it is only right for Christians to recognize the weight those authorities are carrying and respect them for it.
And this was the Roman cultural ideal! The Romans wanted nothing more than for everyone in the empire to recognize their proper place in society and at least be respectful toward those who ruled them. The attitude of the Roman government was, “You don’t have to like or agree with everything we do; all we ask is that you obey; that you try to fit in to the system.”
Peter has just affirmed this Roman cultural ideal!
But even as Peter affirms this Roman ideal, he cannot help but take that ideal and transform it with God’s values:
He goes on to say love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.
And this is very clever of him.
Basically, Peter has adopted the Roman logic, agreed that this is also God’s logic — and then extended that logic to its logical conclusion.
Because if it is true that we should give everyone the respect that is due their position, then the family of believers are actually due more respect than anyone else in the empire, because they are the children of God, and there is no higher position than that! And we should fear God! — but only honor the emperor. Because God’s position is obviously higher than the emperor’s: God alone holds the authority and the responsibility of power over life and death.
So even as Peter calls these Christians of Roman Asia to ”fit in“ to the general Roman order, he is also calling them to fit the Roman order into God’s greater order. Yes, Christians should respect to the governor, because of his high position. But they should love their brothers and sisters, because their position is even higher than the governor’s! Right? Being a child chosen by God is a higher position of authority than a governor appointed by men, right? And once we take this thought process to its logical conclusion, we realize that, under God’s order, a Christian slave girl is actually worthy of more honour than a pagan Emperor. Right?
With one sentence, Peter has taken a Roman ideal that was designed to make sure the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor, and he has turned it completely upside-down, so that it actually lifts slaves up to the status of God’s children, and brings emperors down to the status of mere human beings, just like everyone else.
With a single sentence, Peter has written a virus into his code of submission to authority: this insidious idea that all human beings are worthy of honour…yes, even the lowest of slaves; yes, even the most corrupt of emperors.
And that, friends, is truly subversive! There is a beautiful irony at work here in Peter’s instructions for his friends in Roman Asia: they are being accused of being revolutionaries…and it is actually true. No, they are not revolutionaries in the classic sense, using power to take over. They are revolutionaries in the Christian sense: using weakness and submission to transform the world.
And they did. History tells us that, by submitting to every human authority and showing proper respect to everyone, these Christians took over the Roman empire and changed the world forever.
And this should be a comfort for us as we try to accept Peter’s instructions. We really struggle with this talk of submission…because it feels ineffective to us, doesn’t it? And the reason it feels ineffective is because we have been raised in a world dominated by democratic systems. Through this, many of us have picked up the idea that, if we want to change the world we have speak up! we have to protest! we have to make sure our voices are heard. We are probably the most powerful generation that has ever lived, and — to be honest — we have gotten used to that power, we have gotten used to the idea that we can ”change the world!” and so we we are reluctant to accept any system that asks us to give it up and trust someone else to change the world. So:
The first thing we need to take to heart here is that Peter’s code of submission to government is not ineffective. The truth is, Peter’s code of submission has actually proven to be the most effective form of activism that has ever existed! So, if we actually want to go out there and “change the world”, if we really want to dismantle the corrupt power structures present in our government…then the most effective course of action we can follow is to show honour where honour is due, to submit where submission is due, to do our best to support order rather than disorder. History has proven that this strategy just plain works!
But still we don’t like. Still, we resist. We really struggle with Peter’s talk of submission because it doesn’t accomplish what we want to accomplish in the time we want to accomplish it. Because, somehow, many of us have picked up the idea that it is our job to redeem the governments of our world, and we want this redemption to happen in our lifetime. Why? Well — to be honest — so we can live easier lives and enjoy the recognition and praise of mankind. So:
The second thing we need to take to heart here is that what Peter wants to accomplish is different from what we want to accomplish. And since Peter’s goals are aligned with God’s goals, we had better pay close attention to what he says we are trying to accomplish!
So what does God say we are trying to accomplish? Two things:
First, that we silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Because people lie about us, and they lie about our Saviour. They say that Jesus Christ is just like every other god: power-hungry, tyrannous, difficult to please. It is our job to silence these lies by being the opposite of power-hungry, the opposite of tyrannous, the opposite of difficult to please. May God forbid that on the Day of Judgement, we discover that all of our Gospel preaching was undone by our contentious behaviour, our argumentative attitudes, our persistent political discontent!
Second, it is God’s will that, by submitting to every human authority, our accusers and our enemies might see our good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. Submission to government is a kind of evangelism! Do you want to be a great evangelist, but you don’t know how? Well, now you do: live a life of order and cooperation with your local and national political structures; love the family of believers; show proper respect to everyone. And again, the ultimate timeline here — the ultimate goal — is Judgement Day. It is only on Judgement Day that we will find out how effective we were.
Basically, when we modern Christians read a passage like this, a passage that talks about how Christians should relate to government, we actually start by asking the wrong questions. We read this asking, “Peter, please tell us: what is the best Christian political strategy for changing the world?”
Peter just gives us a funny look and says, “You are not called to change the world through politics; that is going to happen on the day Christ returns. God’s will for you is that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people — to make ignorant people stop telling lies about Christ and his Church — so that — though they accuse us of doing wrong today — they may see our good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. That’s it!”
See, Peter is not interested at all in grand political strategies for improving Roman government or redeeming Roman society. When he looks around at the Roman empire, he does not see the potential for a ”redeemed Christian empire” or anything like that; he sees a great civilization that has just begun its long collapse into chaos. When Peter looks at the City of Rome, he does not see a potential City of God, he sees the Tower of Babel casting its long black tyrannous shadow across the history of mankind. Peter’s goal is not to redeem Babel, but to call a nation of slaves out of the collapse, out of the chaos, and baptize them into one new free people of God.
Peter is telling us that it is God’s will for systemic tyranny and abuse to be defeated little by little, piece by piece, person by person, as each slave is lifted out of darkness and worked into the walls of the living temple of Jesus Christ.
This is our application. This is why we are here as a church. This is why our Father has asked us to stay back for a while in the Malaysian empire: so we can redeem the name — the reputation — of Christ, and through this, redeem people from the inevitable collapse of the world order that will happen when Christ returns.
But, practically speaking now, what does this mean for us, here, today?
Well, now we know that “submit to every human authority” does not mean slavish devotion. We submit for the Lord’s sake, which means that God’s law is greater than man’s law, and when the two come into conflict, we obey God’s law.
But it is precisely because God’s law is greater than man’s law that we generally live in peace and proper order under our government. God loves order, not chaos, and so must we. And so, as Christians living in Malaysian society, we should not have a reputation as anarchists or revolutionaries: we should not give people the impression that we are completely withdrawn, that we do not care if society falls apart — that is anarchy; nor should we give people the impression that we are trying to take over and ‘Christianize’ society — that is revolutionary thinking.
We are called to live according to a third way, a way that is not open to people from other nations, other religions, because our third way is based on our new birth as free people. Like Abraham, we have been called out of the collapse of mankind’s civilization into the order and peace of God’s kingdom. We are safe in our Father’s hands, and our ultimate destination is guaranteed: a new heavens and a new earth, the home of righteousness.
And it is this reality that actually allows us to live as foreigners and exiles…among the nations. We are different…but we are also involved. We are involved, but we are involved differently. Unlike everyone else in the world, we Christians are not constantly scheming for ways to gain earthly power, because we know that earthly power is strictly temporary. It is not worth the cost to our souls. So we leave it! Instead, we are constantly scheming for ways to express our submission to God’s greater order by finding our proper place in these lesser earthly orders, and then taking up the responsibilities that come with that position.
So, for instance, should a Christian vote against a ruling party and a ruling Prime Minister? Isn’t that a form of not submitting?
Well, in order to answer that question, we have to ask this one: does our society permit citizens to vote? If the answer is yes, then: yes, a Christian is free to vote for or against a ruling party. Because that is an expression of proper order and proper responsibility under that system.
But what if we live in a land where there is no vote, where elections are not free or fair? Should we be spending a lot of energy trying to bring a representative form of government to our land?
Well…if laws are being broken, and you as an individual are in a position that is called to address that sort of thing, then yes: it is your responsibility to pursue such things. But as a church, as a community? No: we Christians should not commit ourselves to promoting just one particular form of government, because we know that the true source of justice and mercy lies in Christ’s government.
Another example: should Christians participate in protests?
Well, are protests permitted in our society? If so, then: yes, Christians are free to participate in protests…as long as we do so in an orderly fashion, according to the laws of the land.
But what if we live in a land where protests are actually designed to bring anarchy, to burn and destroy as some kind of twisted call for fairness and freedom?
Then: no, Christians should not participate in that. Because we know that corrupt order is not improved by the introduction of chaos.
But what about systemic injustice, then? What about systemic abuses of power? What about being a voice for the voiceless? What about — ? What about — ? What about — ?
We have so many questions. We have so many things we want to do, so many things we think it is our responsibility to do! In the words of Jesus, we are “worried and upset about many things.”
Friends, we do need to seek more detailed answers to these questions. But that is the sort of thing that can only happen through community discussion — through our Q&A after the service, for instance. Life in society is often very complicated, which means that different responses are required by different people in different times and circumstances. So we should continue to talk with one another about these things.
But as we discuss these things we must be guided by the goals Peter has outlined for us here today: we are here to redeem the name of Christ, and to redeem people from slavery to the world’s system. That’s it.
And we must be guided by the general principle of submission that Peter has outlined for us here today — because this is how we are supposed to accomplish these goals: by abstaining from sinful, self-protective, self-serving desires. By submitting ourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority. By showing proper respect for everyone. By loving the family of believers, fearing God, honoring our rulers.
We who are so concerned about systemic tyranny and abuse would do well to pay careful attention to these principles. Because they are counter-intuitive. They make no sense in a world enslaved by the lust for power — and they will make no sense to people who are enslaved by a lust for power. So if Peter’s principles of submission make no sense to us, if we really struggle to see how this can be effective at all…then this could be a sign that we are still enslaved by worldly theories of societal transformation.
…I think I can safely say that we all fall into that category. Even the Christians of ancient Roman Asia struggled with this talk of submission. That is why Peter had to write these instructions: because submission does not come naturally to any of us.
So, since that is the case, allow me to close now by reminding us all of the Good News: we have been born again as free people. We are no longer slaves to a world system that tells us that governors are more divine than everyone else, that masters are more human than slaves, that men are more valuable than women. Woven into the Gospel of Jesus Christ is this radical idea that all people are equally valuable in the sight of God. This Gospel transformed the people of the Roman empire; and this Gospel is also transforming us today.
So, as we find ourselves struggling with Peter’s code of submission, let us not be discouraged by that. Let us continue to search scripture. Let us continue to ask the Holy Spirit to examine our hearts and reveal to us why we are struggling to let go of power. As the Holy Spirit reveals our idols, let us repent of those idols, and let us ask for our Father’s help as we strive to show proper respect to everyone, our brothers and sisters above all. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is at work among us, building us ever more securely into one living temple.
So let us continue to put our faith in his work until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.