Freedom and Servanthood
1 Peter 2:11-17
Jonathan Edwards is widely considered the greatest theologian the American continent has ever produced. He was born here, in what was at the time colonial America, in 1703, and he died in 1758. He was one of the most influential pastors in the colonies and a key figure in the spiritual life of colonial America. He is probably most viewed as a stern Puritan fire and brimstone type preacher. In fact, he is probably best known for his sermon, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” How many of you would have come this morning if you’d seen that sermon title advertised this past week in our e-newsletter? Probably not many of you! You’d be doing what I used to do in college – visiting Pastor Sheets at Bedside Baptist. Or attending the UMC church … not United Methodist either. Under My Covers.
Edwards could definitely be that kind of fire and brimstone preacher. Most scholars who have studied him have said that he, at the same time, possessed one of the most powerful and creative intellects on American soil at the time, rivaling or even surpassing the framers of the Constitution, and at the same time was probably happy to let the world go to hell – in both senses of that phrase. Funny, because he was at the same time a deeply compassionate man who worked tirelessly on behalf of the poor and for the protection and fair treatment of Native Americans. What really bothered him was people who claimed faith in Christ and lived in ways that were inconsistent with that faith – keeping slaves, taking advantage of others, mistreating Native Americans, and seeking power, wealth, and privilege.
He believed that government is a “great and important business” that was, in large part, charged with keeping us from “tearing one another apart.” He preached that as Christians we should be “greatly concerned for the good of the public community to which [we] belong.” At the same time, he warned that political leaders are prone to abuse power and encouraged Christ-following citizens to criticize “the management of public affairs, and the duty of the legislature, and those that are at the head of the administration …” And he wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power. More than once he used his pulpit to tell politicians how they ought to behave. One Sunday, knowing that his congregation included several local politicians who wanted to remove him as pastor of their church, he boldly proclaimed that bad politicians want only to “enrich themselves, or to be great, and to advance themselves on the spoils of others.” He went on to say that a good magistrate is not willing to “grind the faces of the poor, and screw their neighbors for filthy lucre.” The politicians in the congregation that morning soon conspired with others to fire him several months later.
So what IS the relationship between the church and the state? In America, we have the constitutional principle of separation of church and state, which says that as opposed to England, where the government established a state church, the Church of England, and heavily persecuted other forms of faith, in the United States the government would take a hands off approach to issues of faith and religion. The government won’t establish a state religion, will not prohibit the practice of any religion, and will not require its citizens to maintain loyalty to one denomination or religion, or to any faith at all.
As we continue our journey through 1 Peter, St. Peter’s letter to poor, persecuted, struggling Christ-followers in Asia Minor, on the fringes of the Roman Empire, Peter turns from the hope that we have in Christ’s – in his life, death, and resurrection and also his eventual return – to the practical outworking of that hope, the way our hope in Christ impacts the way we live every day. And he begins with our relationship to government and political rulers. Turn with me to 1 Peter 2:11-17.
Peter begins by giving some general principles for how Christ impacts the way we live. He reminds us that we are “sojourners and exiles” in this world. That truth, that this world is not our home, is foundational to the hope we have in Christ. We know that no matter how bad things get here, and they are capable of getting really, really bad, this world, with all of its injustice and pain and struggle, is not the end, and does not get the final say. As followers of Christ, we belong to Christ, we are children of God, and this world is not ultimately our home.
This doesn’t mean we aren’t engaged in real life here in this world. Sometimes we take this passage and use it to justify setting up our own little Christian club, a sub-culture of sorts that completely withdraws from the world and has nothing to do with the events of this world or the people living around us. That kind of seclusion isn’t what God wants or expects of his people. In John 17 Jesus prays for his disciples, and he then prays for us, those who would follow in their – and thus his – footsteps. In Vv. 14-15 he prays, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” We live IN this world. We engage in the issues that surround us. We work and we play and we worship and we pray IN this world. But as followers of Christ we do not belong TO this world. We belong to Christ.
Peter also reminds us that we are “sojourners and exiles” in order to hammer home the truth that our citizenship lies elsewhere. You and I, as followers of Christ – our highest loyalty lies elsewhere. “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ …” (Phil. 3:20). In a world that is so politically divided, AND in a world in which the body of Christ is in danger of losing itself in service to political goals, we need to hear that verse often. Because as followers of Christ, we do not need to lose our minds if the candidate from the other side of the political aisle winds up in the White House or the governor’s mansion. The church does not bow to the stars and stripes. We can thank and respect our veterans and are to love and support our country, but not with a rapid, blind loyalty. Why? Because our citizenship is in heaven.
Peter also tells us to “abstain from the passions of the flesh” so that we can live in such a way that our lives will glorify God, and the body of Christ will ultimately be vindicated when Christ returns.
When we hear the phrase, “passions of the flesh,” we usually think of sexual passions, and those would certainly be included here. But when Peter and Paul use the word “flesh,” they aren’t talking about our physical bodies. They’re talking about that part of us that wants what it wants when it wants it. They’re talking about life apart from Christ and separated from God. So the “passions of the flesh” are anything that we put in a place of centrality over God. Wealth and riches, power and influence, possessions, security … anything.
And when we do that, when we “abstain from the passions of the flesh,” our lives are no longer in sync with our culture but they do glorify God, and eventually, either by coming to faith in Christ themselves or at least acknowledging it when Christ returns, others will see how we have lived, as citizens of heaven, and God will be glorified.
In the summer of 1805, a number of Indian chiefs and warriors met in council at Buffalo Creek, New York, to hear a presentation of the Christian message by a man named Mr. Cram from the Boston Missionary Society. After the sermon, Red Jacket, one of the leading chiefs, gave this response. “Brother, we are told that you have been preaching to the white people in this place. These people are our neighbors. We are acquainted with them. We will wait a little while and see what effect your preaching has upon them. If we find it does them good, makes them honest and less disposed to cheat Indians, we will then consider again what you have said.”
Now, Peter will take these two principles – that we are sojourners and exiles in this world and that we are to abstain from the passions of the flesh that ruled us before we placed our faith in Christ – and apply them to several, very practical situations: our work, our marriages, and within the church, but he starts by applying them to our relationship to human governments. Look at Vv. 13-15. Submit to authority. To understand this passage, and how to apply God’s truth here, we have to understand the “authority” Peter was talking about.
The supreme authority in that part of the world when Peter was writing this letter was the Roman Empire. And this government was no democracy. It was a monarchy in every sense of the term. Rome may have been led by the senate once, but she no longer was. Caesar was in complete control, using regional governors to exert that control at the local level. And the Roman army was dispersed throughout the Empire as a tool in the hands of the governors to maintain order and control.
Nero was Caesar, emperor, at this time. He is widely considered to be one of the most evil and insane people ever to rule. He murdered his wife and his own mother, aggressively persecuted and murdered Christians, including using them as human torches to light his gardens at night. He was impulsive and corrupt, and was accused by many Roman citizens and historians of being responsible for the great fire of Rome that destroyed large portions of the great city. It was said that he scapegoated the Christians, claiming they were responsible for the fire, and used it as an excuse for his intense persecution of them.
So as we bring the truth of this passage into our own context, we have to understand these two things: this was NOT a good, godly ruler and government, and this was NOT a democracy. Now, Peter has already made it very clear that as followers of Jesus, our primary loyalty is to Christ and his kingdom, not to an earthly government. The submission to government he commands is not total obedience. When the government demands of us something that is explicitly contrary to the law of God, we are to obey God, not a human government. In Acts 5, Peter and the other apostles had been told by the high priest not to speak about Jesus publicly, but they continued to teach in the temple courts, because Jesus had told them to go throughout the world telling people about him. And Luke writes, “And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:27-29). Peter made it clear, through his own actions, and in his letter of encouragement to these persecuted Christians, that there are times when obedience to the government is contrary to obedience to God, and when that happens, we obey God.
But, we also must be willing to pay the price for that. Both Paul and Peter, ALL of the apostles actually, were eventually executed by the government because they refused to obey human governments over God. When placed in a situation in which we must choose whom we will obey, we obey God, and then, if necessary, we willingly accept the consequences.
But when the things the government asks of us do NOT directly contradict the law of God, we submit. We pay our taxes, openly and honestly, even if we think the amount taxed isn’t fair. We respect our leaders and pray for them, even if we passionately disagree with them. We cooperate with government authorities. When the government institutes a policy, like, say, a mask mandate, we are the first to obey, even if we disagree passionately with the mandate. Why? Look at V. 12. And then down at V. 15. Because ultimately God is honored. In most cases, we are to submit and obey, even when it grates against us. And we are to do so willingly.
But we must also recognize that we live in a republic with a representative form of government. We elect our leaders, and we are charged with holding them accountable. If the Christians Peter was writing to engaged in even the slightest amount of civil disobedience, they’d pay for it dearly, and Peter was encouraging them not to draw UNNECESSARY attention to themselves. They weren’t to bow to Caesar and worship him, or do something directly contrary to the law of God, but they also were not to pick an unnecessary fight, because it wouldn’t end well for them.
We live in a completely different situation. So what does this passage have to say to us today? We live in a nation in which civil disobedience has been a major force for good. Slavery was abolished and continued racism was and continues to be combatted by civil disobedience. If you’re a woman, you have the constitutional right to vote today because of civil disobedience – contradicting the law of the land. As followers of Christ we can take an active role in society and make our voices heard and forcefully work for change. BUT, we remain civil, and we operate within the larger framework of the law.
And so, we can picket abortion clinics and seek to have laws enabling abortion changed, but we do not resort to violence. We don’t bomb abortion clinics or murder doctors who perform abortions. We refuse to resort to domestic terrorism and violence to get our way. We can write letters. We can picket. We can protest. We can make our voices heard in the voting booth. We control what causes we support financially and we can attempt to raise money to bring about change. But we DO NOT resort to violence. We defend ourselves so far as we can, but we do not become the aggressor. We choose to be orderly, not to cause chaos, even if that chaos might help our cause. In the body of Christ, the ends DO NOT justify the means. How we go about things is just as important as what we seek to accomplish. And we must remember that our ultimate goal is not to get our way, but for God to be glorified.
Now, look at how Peter concludes this section. Look at Vv. 16-17. Freedom is not license to do whatever we want. In fact, in the Bible, freedom isn’t political freedom at all. It is freedom from the influence of sin and the condemnation before God that comes from sin. We are free from condemnation and from the power of death, and we are free to choose not to sin, as the Holy Spirit works within us. We are free not to go with the flow of our culture. Martin Luther said, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” And the good that we are free to do is to lead not to our own glory or the accomplishment of our own agendas, no matter how much we might think they are in alignment with God’s agenda. The good that we are free to do is to lead to the glory of God. Period.
Peter concludes with these four rapid fire short commands. The word “honor” begins and ends the sequence, like parentheses around the whole thing. “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” We are to honor and work for the good of ALL people, even those we disagree with and oppose. And we are to honor government authorities, even if we must at times disobey them and suffer the consequences. And in between those honorings, two higher words. We are to love the brotherhood, our fellow Christians. And we are to fear God. We are to live in awe and wonder of God and give him our ultimate respect and loyalty and love, because only God, not any human leader, is worthy of these things.
According to Open Doors Ministry, Chinese government officials became so fed up with sky-high rates of crime, drug addiction, and sickness in the county of Lancan Lahu, Yunnan province, that in the mid-1990s they turned for help to the only model citizens in the area: the Christians.
“We had to admit that the Lahu people were a dead loss because of their addiction to opium,” confessed an official who did not want to be named. “Their addiction made them weak and sick. Then they would go to one of their “priests,” who required animal sacrifices of such extravagance that the people became poor. And because they were so poor, they stole from each other, and law and order deteriorated.” It was a vicious cycle that no amount of government propaganda could break.
“We noticed, however, that in some villages in the county, the Lahu were prosperous and peace loving. There was no drug problem, or any stealing or social order problems. Households had a plentiful supply of pigs, oxen, and chickens. So we commissioned a survey to find out why these villages were different. To our astonishment and embarrassment, we discovered the key factor was that these villages had a majority of Christians.”
Officials launched a daring experiment in 1998, the likes of which would have been unthinkable in China 10 years previous – they sponsored Christians to go into the troublesome villages and share their faith.
They started by picking out the worst village, which had 240 people, 107 of which were hopelessly addicted to opium. Christian Lahus were bussed into the village at government expense, and the villagers were herded together by the police and made to listen to the testimonies of the Christians.
A year later, there were 17 converts in the village, and they began to grow rich because they stopped spending money on drugs. Eight of the 17 converts even had enough to own sewing machines and start small businesses.
By early 2002, 83 of the villagers were Christians and the prosperity had spread. The government official said, “We are delighted with the results and have been extending the tactic to many other villages since then.” “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor … living as servants of God … so that they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation … and that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” Let us pray.