Commentary on 1 Peter 2:13-17

Notes (NET Translation)

2:13a Be subject to every human institution for the Lord’s sake,

Hypotagete (“be subject”) means to recognize and respect the authority and order imposed by one’s superiors, namely God and humans in positions of recognized authority (Elliott 487).

In regard to the civil realm, urging subordination is hardly a call to “loyalty” to the state as Reicke and others would have it. The verb hypotasso involves only a recognition of and respect for order and assuming one’s subordinate position vis-a-vis figures in authority. This is by no means equivalent to the emotional attachment that “loyalty” involves. In this context being subordinate to the emperor and his governors is to respect his authority and show him the honor due all persons (v 17) — nothing more and nothing less. Loyalty (pistis, pisteuo), on the other hand, is reserved for Christ and God alone (1:5, 7, 8, 9, 21; 2:6, 7; 5:9). Accordingly, it is reference to the latter (“because of the Lord,” v 13; “God’s will,” v 15; “as slaves of God,” v 16) that serve here to motivate subordination and doing what is right. (Elliott 493)

The Greek phrase pasei anthropinei ktisei (“to every human institution”) is unparalleled in secular and Biblical Greek and therefore it’s exact meaning is debated. J. H. Elliott states that the translation “institution” is inappropriate since the abstraction “institution” is a modern rather than an ancient concept. He favors the translation “creature” and notes that the creatures in question are explicitly said to be the emperor (“king”) and governors (489).

With this expression [“creature”], imperial power is subtly but decisively demystified, desacralized, and relativized. In contrast to devotees of the imperial cult who render obeisance to the emperor as “Lord and God” (dominus et deus, a title claimed by Domitian [Suet., Dom. 13.2]), Christians respect the emperor and his representatives only as human creatures, due only the deference owed to all human beings (stressed again in v 17). Ultimate supremacy is reserved for God the creator, and it is “because of him, the Lord,” that Christians are subordinate. (Elliott 489)

Whether the “Lord” referred to in this verse is God or Jesus Christ is debatable. “We have an implication here [“for the Lord’s sake”] that the ruling powers should be resisted if commands were issued that violated the Lord’s will. It is impossible to imagine that one would obey commands that contravened God’s dictates ‘for the Lord’s sake'” (Schreiner 128).

2:13b whether to a king as supreme

In the first-century Roman Empire the emperor was the supreme human authority. In the eastern regions of the Empire he was referred to as basileus (“king”). “No one other than the emperor would be [king] both to Peter in Rome (cf. 5:13) and his readers scattered in the five Asian provinces of the empire (1:1)” (Michaels 125).

2:14a or to governors as those he commissions

The term hegemosin (“governors”) can refer “either to legates of the emperor (legati Caesari) in charge of imperial provinces or to proconsuls who administered senatorial or ‘public’ provinces such as those in which the addressees resided, with the exception of Galatia” (Elliott 490). In this verse, it is the emperor, not God, who “commissions” the governors.

2:14b to punish wrongdoers

In this context, the “wrongdoers” (kakopoion) have done something of a criminal nature to be punished by the governors.

2:14c and praise those who do good.

Modern people are not familiar with governments praising those who do what is right. The Romans, however, would erect statues, grant privileges, or commend in other ways those who helped the community. Still, evidence is lacking that Peter encouraged wealthy readers to engage in public benefaction. He addressed all believers and did not particularly focus on the well-to-do. All believers should do what is right and strengthen the social fabric. Rulers help maintain order in society by commending good citizens. (Schreiner 129-130).

Peter’s instructions are firmly positive toward the Roman emperor and provincial governors. He seems to assume that if Christians live as good citizens, the ruling authorities will look with favor upon them — or at least not trouble them. His assumption must be considered in the attempt to date this letter. It is difficult to imagine such an irenic exhortation being issued during the time of Nero’s horrific persecution of the church in Rome or anytime after Christians began being martyred by state-sponsored persecution — especially in comparison with the attitude toward Rome presented in the later book of Revelation. The relatively optimistic outlook reflected here comports better with the earlier decades of the church, toward the end of the reign of Claudius or the very beginning of Nero’s. At that time Christians were socially and perhaps professionally ostracized in various ways, but they had not yet suffered state-sponsored persecution as a matter of policy. As long as the church enjoyed some protection from the state’s suspicion of new religions by virtue of its association with Judaism, Peter appears to be hopeful that it could maintain a measure of good relations with the state, at least to the extent Judaism did. (Jobes loc. 2771ff.)

2:15a For God wants you

Doing good is not merely a societal requirement, it is God’s will.

2:15b to silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good.

Recall from 2:12 that the “foolish people” are those who falsely accuse the readers of wrongdoing. The use of the word “silence” implies that the readers were dealing mainly with verbal abuse, not physical abuse.

2:16 Live as free people, not using your freedom as a pretext for evil, but as God’s slaves.

The freedom in this verse may be civil freedom or a freedom from the ignorance of paganism. Even free Christians are slaves of God, meaning they are bound by the will of God to not misuse their freedom.

When we consider the freedom of believers and their subservience, ultimately, to God alone, it is evident that the government does not enjoy cart-blanche authority. Peter did not envision Christians submitting to government regardless of the circumstances, even if ruling authorities prescribe what is evil. The ultimate loyalty of Christians is to God, not Caesar. They are liberated from fearing Caesar, and hence they do not feel compelled to do whatever he says. Believers are God’s servants first, and thereby they have a criterion by which to assess the dictates of government. Ordinarily believers will submit to the commands of ruling authorities, for in the normal course of life governments punish evil behavior and reward good conduct. The inclination and instinct of believers, then, will be submission to government. Peter wanted to avoid anarchy and a kind of enthusiasm that rejects any human structures. Nevertheless, if governments prescribe what is evil or demand that believers refuse to worship God, then believers as slaves of God must refuse to obey. (Schreiner 131-132)

2:17 Honor all people, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the king.

“To honor someone involves the showing of respect, acknowledgement of another’s status, and deference to authority” (Elliott 497-498). All people are to be honored. The emperor is to be honored just like any other person. He is not super-human. Only God is to be reverently feared (1:17).

Bibliography

Achtemeier, Paul J. 1 Peter. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996.

Elliott, John Hall. 1 Peter. Yale University Press, 2007.

Jobes, Karen. 1 Peter. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 2005.

Michaels, J. Ramsey. 1 Peter. Thomas Nelson, 1988.

Schreiner, Thomas R. 1, 2 Peter, Jude. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2003.

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2 thoughts on “Commentary on 1 Peter 2:13-17

  1. Pingback: September 2011 Biblical Studies Carnival Episode III: The Final Frontier as the Carnival Strikes Back | Exploring Our Matrix

  2. Pingback: Resources for 1 Peter 2:13 - 17

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