“Honor the emperor.”
Those three words hang by themselves in 1 Peter 2:17. The verse makes four imperative statements, the first three being pretty run of the mill for the Scriptures, until we get to the fourth:
Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.
Honor the emperor? Really?
Earlier in the paragraph that the verse concludes, we read: Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right (1 Peter 2:13-14).
There’s a sense here that just as governors are an extension of the emperor’s authority, so the emperor is an extension of God’s authority. The basic purpose of these human politicians being to punish wrong and commend right.
Peter’s basic idea, starting in 1 Peter 2:11 and extending all the way through 4:19, is that those who follow the crucified and subsequently glorified Jesus should be willing to suffer in light of future glory/inheritance/commendation from God, making sure in the meantime our suffering isn’t for doing what is wrong and thereby damaging the reputation of Christ.
So, since human authorities are established by God to punish wrong and commend right, we ought to honor them. For they ought to be commending us (and, by extension, Jesus) as we continue to do what is right and avoid what is wrong.
That sounds pretty logical, right? There’s just one catch.
The emperor Peter was writing about was a certain caesar named Nero.
So, the emperor Peter was calling on the early church to honor was the guy who burned Christians dipped in tar in order to provide light for one of his parties. He didn’t just mistreat innocent people, he specifically mistreated followers of Jesus because of their faith.
Perhaps that hadn’t happened yet when Peter wrote this. We don’t know exactly. But we do know that Peter did write this in the verses following his “honor the emperor” statement:
For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:19-21)
Ouch! “To this you were called.” Really? We were called to suffer? Yep. And the suffering we were called to is unjust, undeserved suffering. It’s not a far stretch, since it’s the kind of suffering Jesus endured. But that doesn’t make it pleasant or welcome. Still, Peter wants us to make sure we’re not surprised by it.
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you (1 Peter 4:12-14).
Even though he doesn’t have a section in the letter about suffering at the hands of the emperor’s soldiers, I find it telling that Peter begins his dive into undeserved suffering immediately after his “honor the emperor” command. It’s as if he wants those words to be ringing in our ears as we read on about unjust suffering but doesn’t want to implicate the emperor directly to avoid any charges of treason if the letter were to land in the hands of the authorities.
What confirms this to me is the location of the letter’s writing, it’s provenance. In the second-to-last verse of the letter, Peter writes, She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings (1 Peter 5:13). The “she” is the local church and “Babylon” is code for Rome itself.
Peter is writing from Rome, the seat of the empire, and making a jab at this arrogant human institution, comparing it to the land into which God’s people had been taken into captivity during the Exile. (Remember, Peter starts the letter by writing to Christians throughout the empire whom he calls “exiles.” See the connection?)
Peter wants his readers to honor the emperor, with his God-given authority, while not growing cozy with the empire, with its God-defying arrogance. This is the tension we live in.
We are to live as exiles in the land we dwell in. This is not our culture. These are not our values and ways of living. So, by embracing our alien nature, we retain our distinctive identity as God’s people, refusing to lose ourselves to the pressures and lures of the dominant society around us.
At the same time, we are to live as almost model citizens, obeying laws and honoring our civic authorities, not because we’re in collusion with them, but because we don’t want a collision with them to damage the reputation of our Lord.
It’s a tough tension and one that Peter says we should be willing to endure as it is played out against us, even as we continue to choose to do what is right and lawful. It’s a tension we fail to maintain far too often.
I cringe whenever I see on Facebook or hear elsewhere Christians who bad-mouth our civic authorities. Too often, I’ve heard said, “I respect the office of the President, but I don’t respect the person in it.” Too often, I’ve heard Christians whining about those in office and how bad things are for us because of them. Stop it! It’s disrespectful to our leaders and disobedient to God.
In his call for us to suffer like Jesus, Peter wrote: When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23). But what do we do? We insult. We retaliate. We threaten. We grumble and whine and rant. In doing so, we take on the nature of our American culture, which was founded by a bunch of people who whined about their king, instead of taking on the nature of Jesus and entrusting ourselves to the God who judges justly.
As we head deeper into election season, let us commit to “honor the emperor,” especially when our leader is one we don’t like and don’t trust. And let’s just be thankful it’s not Nero.