Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. – 1 Peter 2:13-17
There are few people today who would claim that our current president is a paragon of godliness, virtue, and gentleness. But compare Trump to Nero and one might be thankful that we do not live in First Century Rome. The History Channel speaks of Nero’s proclivity to ungodliness:
Perhaps the most infamous of Rome’s emperors, Nero Claudius Caesar (37-68 A.D.) ruled Rome from 54 A.D. until his death by suicide 14 years later. He is best known for his debaucheries, political murders, persecution of Christians and a passion for music that led to the probably apocryphal rumor that Nero “fiddled” while Rome burned during the great fire of 64 A.D.
Peter, in the face of persecution, and certainly aware of Nero’s vices, even goes so far as to say, “Honor the emperor.” That might have been a tough pill to swallow for first century Christians. They certainly could point to many reasons not to honor such an evil cad.
BUt Peter is not trying to make a political statement, but putting forth a powerful Christian ethic. People do not assume roles of authority apart from God’s providential workings. Jesus tells Pilate as much at his mock-trial: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). God sets kings and kingdoms up as he wills. All people serve his ultimate purpose: to bring glory to his marvelous grace (cf. Ephesians 1:6).
Our submission to every human institution is not so that there is justice or peace, but so that God’s rule and reign can be further advanced. When the Christian missionaries were expelled from China the church grew greatly – even under persecution. When we are hard-pressed we are much more likely to lean into the promises of God and recognize the true riches of life, salvation, grace, peace, and forgiveness that come from Jesus.
The idea of being subject to every human institution, and honoring the emperor are thought by many to be misguided if not just plain wrong. But if we do so for the glory of God, and because we owe our allegiance to a higher God, we will do well. It may be that our godly behavior will one day silence the gainsayers and point people to true riches in Jesus.
I do not pray for persecution, trouble, or hardship of any kind. But I know as these things come into my life I have the opportunity to trust God and witness to his goodness.