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honor the emperor?

Imagine your life has been difficult for a few years (that may not be all that hard to do for some). Government persecution has ramped up. The current ruling authority—the emperor—has been given absolute authority to govern as he sees fit, and part of how he sees the world is the official persecution of followers of Jesus. You’ve already seen many followers of Jesus lose their livelihoods and their friends and family. Many have lost their lives. Your own life is in danger, and you know this. Now imagine you felt compelled to write a letter to a group of Christians who are also suffering. What would you tell them?

If you were the apostle Peter, you would remind them that God is the one who caused them to be born again and who is guarding their faith for salvation (1 Peter 1:3–5). You would remind them that the trials they face are intended to result in praise and glory and honor (1 Peter 1:6–7). You would remind them to pursue holiness in their lives (1 Peter 1:13–25). You would also remind them that God is building them into a temple that they might be a priesthood, offering to God spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God (1 Peter 2:1–8). You could tell them this because though they are from the nations and have no birthright to claim on their own, God has chosen them and formed them into a holy nation, to be his people though they had not been his people (1 Peter 2:9–12). While we may not think of those things, when we read what Peter wrote in his first letter, we’re certainly not surprised, even though we know the level of persecution under emperor Nero, and even though we know from history that Peter would soon die under Nero’s command. When we get to verse 13, we are surprised at what Peter writes.

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.

1 Peter 2:12–17 ESV

Peter calls these followers of Jesus to be in submission to the government. This submission is not absolute, for it is “for the Lord’s sake.” The clear implication is that allegiance is to Jesus, for he is greater than any human government. Therefore, ultimate allegiance is given to him. Peter calls them to acknowledge the rightful role of government, for Roman order is greater than anarchy. God himself has established human government to “punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” Even this is not truly surprising. There is nothing written by any of the other apostles that suggest we refuse to submit to the government, unless the government orders us to disobey God. In that case, we ought to obey God rather than men, but in all other cases we are to obey the governing authorities (Acts 5:27–29). What is surprising is the attitude Peter instructs these persecuted believers to have toward the one authorizing this persecution.

Peter tells these persecuted believers to honor the emperor. He could have simply said they must obey him. He could have said they must not oppose him. He could have said they must tolerate him. Peter said they must honor the emperor.

The word he uses for “honor” means to place a high value on, or to esteem greatly, to show high regard for him—for Nero, the first emperor to persecute followers of Jesus as official policy. Peter, who would soon die at Nero’s command, says that he and the other followers of Jesus in the Roman empire must honor that man. Any student of history knows the depravity and wickedness of Nero. He was mean and vindictive and brutal and grossly immoral. That he would also persecute Christians simply follows from his great moral corruption. Yet Peter says to honor him. Though he was not the emperor God wanted him to be, he was the emperor and therefore Christians were to honor him.

We do not live in a nation with official persecution of Christians. We do not live under absolute rulers. Our mayor and senators and representatives and governor and president are all chosen by the citizens of this city and state and nation. Though the method for raising up those in authority differs greatly from the Roman empire, the importance of honoring the “emperor” does not. The call to be subject “to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors” or presidents and senators, etc., still stands.

The command to honor Governor Whitmer does not mean we must agree with her. The command to honor President Trump does not mean we must agree with him. The command to honor Senators Stabenow and Peters does not mean we must agree with them. The command to honor Representative Amash does not mean we must agree with him. The command to honor these governing authorities is a command from God to us to show high regard for each of them.

At a minimum this means we should not call them names and mock them, whether publicly or privately. It is not showing high regard for someone to call him or her names, whether you do it in front of a crowd (on social media) or you whisper it to a friend.

Today, let’s spend time in prayer for our governing authorities. Let’s pray for Mayor Bliss and for Representative Amash and for Senators Stabenow and Peters and for Governor Whitmer and for President Trump. Let’s pray that each would recognize his or her God-given responsibility to govern fairly and with wisdom. Let’s pray for each to submit himself or herself to the Lord in all things. And whether we voted for them or not, whether we would vote for them again or not, let us hold them in high regard.

Let us live as those who are truly the people of God, that holy nation, that priesthood who is to offer to God spiritual sacrifices acceptable to Jesus. Let us honor those God has placed in authority by praying for them today. Let us do so not because they are so great, but because God is so great.