1 Peter 2:13–17
Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bond-slaves of God. Honor all men; love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.
Nero's Rise to Power and His Reign
In AD 37 a boy was born in Italy named Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. His mother's name was Agrippina the Younger. She married the Roman Emperor Claudius who adopted her little boy and changed his name to Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus. The adoption and the name change were all part of his mother's plotting to see him, instead of Claudius' biological son Britannicus, become emperor of Rome.
In AD 54 when Nero was 17 years old, his mother arranged for Claudius to be poisoned to death, and the boy was proclaimed emperor of Rome. His reign would last 14 years, until he committed suicide at age 31.
In the first half of his reign there was relatively good government because as a youth he received good counsel from Burrus, the head of the Praetorian Guard, and from Seneca the famous stoic philosopher.
Nero was selfish and calculating and incapable of ruling well on his own. He became paranoid of all the rumors about plots to kill him. In 55 he had his stepbrother Britannicus killed. In 59 he had his mother executed. And in 62 his first wife was executed. And Seneca his former counselor was forced to commit suicide.
The Time of Peter's Arrival in Rome
The apostle Peter probably arrived in Rome some time around AD 63. The city had already become known as "Babylon"—the code word among Christians for the great urban embodiment of anti-Christian power and evil (cf. Revelation 16:19; 17:5; 18:2), because the ancient Eastern Babylon had been the place where the people of God were taken captive far from their true home. So Peter is in Rome when he writes his first letter: "She [the church] who is at Babylon sends you greetings" (1 Peter 5:13).
The Great Fire of Rome
In the night of July 19, 64, a fire broke out in the southern part of the city. It raged for six days, spreading far and wide. When it was about to die out, it suddenly broke out again in the northern part of the city and burned three more days. Ten of the 14 wards of the city were destroyed. The frenzy in the city was indescribable.
Rumors began to spread that Nero himself had started the fire because of his delirious craving for magnificence and desire to embellish and rebuild the city. To divert attention from himself, the historian Tacitus says, Nero blamed the Christians for the fire, who were hated anyway, and so were good scapegoats.
The effect was horrendous. There had been no persecution like it since the Lord had risen 30 years before. In the gardens of Nero the Christians were crucified, sewn into wild beast skins and fed to dogs, drenched in flammable oil and lifted on poles to burn as torches in the night.
Eusebius tells us that Peter was crucified "because he had demanded to suffer" (E.H. 3.1.2–3).
Peter's letter was probably written some time shortly before this terrible persecution. Christians were being slandered and mistreated (2:12, 15) as he wrote, but this was typical all over the empire he says in 5:9. The the great persecution was not there yet. But it seems that Peter could see it on the horizon with prophetic accuracy. For example, he said in 4:12, "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you."
Peter Was Well-Acquainted with Corrupted Leaders
Nero was not the only ruler Peter had known. He had known of Pilate, the governor in Judea, who washed his hands of Jesus' murder, had him beaten, and turned him over to be crucified with no grounds. He had known of Herod Antipas who executed John the Baptist as a dancing prize and later put his purple robe on Jesus and mocked him with his soldiers. Peter was probably a boy in Galilee when he heard that Herod the Great had killed all the children in Bethlehem.
So Peter was not naïve about the vicious world of government corruption and wickedness. He did not live in a "Christian nation." He knew the depravity of human nature and the utterly ruinous corruption that political power can bring. This was the world into which he wrote our text. Verse 13:
Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human institution whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him
And verse 17: "Honor all men; love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king."
The point of drawing attention to Nero and Pilate and Herod is not to say that there is a Nero or Pilate or Herod in power today in America. The point is to say that if Peter could command the Christian community to honor the king and the governor, knowing the wickedness of Nero and Pilate and Herod, then how much more must we honor the governor and the president who are not in that category—even though they may endorse and promote acts which we regard as immoral and even barbaric.
A Biblical-Theological-Ethical Question
My question today is: How can I as a pro-life Christian honor President-elect Bill Clinton when he supports the right to kill unborn children for any reason up through the age of viability (24–23–22 weeks and falling), and for emotional health reasons even after that. We know this because he has expressed his support for the Freedom of Choice Act which is before Congress and would give federal sanction to just those "rights" and would take from the states the right to make many laws protecting the unborn that are now being proposed.
This message does not aim to be political. But I realize that being a Christian today is increasingly putting us at odds with political positions. Just being an obedient Christian is increasingly becoming a social, political, legal issue. The aim of this message is to answer the biblical-theological-ethical question: How shall we obey God's command in 1 Peter 2:17 to honor the king—or the president, or the governor—when they promote dishonorable deeds?
What our future president endorses is not the right to scrape a few fetal cells off the lining of the uterus, but that human beings who have a beating heart, give an EKG reading, show brain waves, grasp with their fingers, suck their thumbs, respond with pain, and carry all the genetic completeness of a human—that those humans may rightfully have their life ended by dismemberment.
And what I just described is the human fetus at eight weeks, before which scarcely any abortions are done. To make the true position of the president-elect clear we need to see that not only that that little one will receive no protection from him but neither will this 12 week old, nor this five month old (show both models).
If you are sitting there this morning and thinking that the presidential endorsement of the right to take the lives of babies like this is an honorable thing to do (either because you don't think they are babies or you think it's the lesser of two evils), then your struggle is going to be different from mine. I struggle with the command, "How shall I honor a president who endorses the right to kill the unborn?" You must struggle with the command in the same verse, "How shall I honor people like this pastor who preaches what is false?" For the text not only says, "Honor the king," it says, "Honor all men." So it may be that in the answer I suggest for my struggle there will be something of use for yours.
Here is my answer to the question, "How do pro-life Christians honor a pro-choice president?"
1. Humbling Ourselves
We will honor you, Mr. President, by humbling ourselves under the mighty hand of God (1 Peter 5:6) and acknowledging that we are ourselves sinners and in need of mercy and forgiveness from God. We are not infallible. We are open to new light on this and every issue. We are not the final judge in this matter. God is. We stand before the cross of Christ on level ground with you, not above you, utterly dependent on mercy and seeking to live by the will of Christ.
2. Acknowledging God's Image
We will honor you by acknowledging that you are a man, created in the image of God, and distinct among all the beings in the world (as it says in James 3:9). You are not a mere animal. You have the glorious potential, like all humans, of being a child of God (if you aren't already) and shining like the sun in the kingdom of God forever and ever. We honor you as an utterly unique, human being created in the image and likeness of the living God with untold potential.
3. Acknowledging God's Institution
We will honor you by acknowledging that government is God's institution. He wills that there be leaders like presidents and governors. You are in power by God's appointment and we honor that. In Romans 13:4 the Bible even calls you, "God's servant for our good." It grieves us that you do not intend to enact laws to protect the good of the unborn the most innocent, weak, and helpless group of Americans. But we have seen from Somalia that bad government is better than no government. The absence of some laws to protect some people is better than the absence of all laws to protect anybody. We honor your stabilizing role in this sense as a blessing from God.
4. Honoring Laws Not Conflicting with Christ's Lordship
We will honor you by submitting to the laws of the state and the nation wherever they do not conflict with our higher allegiance to Christ the King of kings and Lord of lords. We will submit to the laws that take away
- our "right" to choose to go 75 miles an hour,
- our "right" to choose to keep our lights off when our windshield wipers are on,
- our "right" to choose to drive without a seat belt,
- our "right" to choose to fish without a license,
- our "right" to choose to make loud noises in the middle of the night,
- our "right" to choose to keep our kids out of schooling,
- our "right" to choose to send them to school without DPT shots,
- our "right" to choose to use leaded gas,
- our "right" to choose not to pay taxes,
- our "right" to choose to smoke on the other side of the restaurant, etc.
We submit to the right of government to limit our right to choose in hundreds of areas, especially when the good of others is at stake. We understand that governments exist to limit the right to choose and we submit to that.
1 Peter 2:13 says that we are to submit not for your sake but for the Lord's sake. Verse 16 says that we are free in respect to you but slaves of God. We will submit not because you have power, but because our King commands it for the honor of his institution of civil government. Yet our submission is an honor to you because under God and from God you bear the authority to enforce the laws of the land.
5. Not Withdrawing into Isolation
We will honor you by not withdrawing into little communes of disengaged isolation from American culture. But according to 1 Peter 2:15, we will honor you by trying to do as much good as we possibly can for the unborn, and for unwanted children, and for women in distress, so that we will not be thought insolent or inconsistent in asking from you what we are not willing to do ourselves. We do this because the Bible says, "It is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men" (1 Peter 2:15).
6. Opposing with Non-Violence
We will honor you by opposing your position as long as we can with non-violence instead of violence, with reasoning instead of rocks, with rational passion instead of screaming, with honorable speech instead of obscenities, with forthright clarity of language instead of dodging the tough realities and tough words, with evidence instead of authority, and with scientific portrayals of life instead of authoritarian blackouts (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:2). We will honor you by a relentless effort to put truth, and not mere emotion, before you in the White House.
7. Expecting Straightforward Answers
And we will honor you by expecting from you straightforward answers to straightforward questions. We would not expect this from a con-man, but we do expect it from an honorable man.
For example, are you willing to explain why a baby's right not to be killed is less important than a woman's right not to be pregnant?
Or are you willing to explain why most cities have laws forbidding cruelty to animals, but you oppose laws forbidding cruelty to human fetuses? Are they not at least living animals?
Or are you willing to explain why government is unwilling to take away the so-called right to abortion on demand even though it harms the unborn child; yet government is increasingly willing to take away the right to smoke, precisely because it harms innocent non-smokers, killing 3,000 non-smokers a year from cancer and as many as 40,000 non-smokers a year from other diseases?
And if you say that everything hangs on whether the fetus is a human child, are you willing to go before national television in the oval office and defend your support for the "Freedom of Choice Act" by holding in your hand a 21 week old fetus and explaining why this little one does not have the fundamental, moral, and constitutional right to life? Are you willing to say to parents in this church who lost a child at that age and held him in their hands, this being in your hands is not and was not a child with any rights of its own under God or under law?
Perhaps you have good answers to each of these questions. We will honor you by expecting you to defend your position forthrightly in the public eye. You have immense power as President of the United States. To wield it against the protection of the unborn without giving a public accounting in view of moral and scientific reality would be dishonorable. We will honor you by expecting better.
8. Trusting the Sovereign, Loving Purpose of God
Finally we will honor you by trusting that the purpose of our sovereign and loving God to defend the fatherless and contend for the defenseless and to exalt the meek will triumph through your presidency. And to that end we will pray for you as Christ our King commands us.