From their own experiences (Acts 4:5-22; 5:17-42; 24:1–26:32; Rev 1:9), Peter and the other Apostles knew well that life for Christian exiles in a highly partisan political environment is a high stakes drama. In that light, Peter requires us to give our fellow citizens no warrant to accuse us of being lawbreakers or worse. Rather, as good—holy!—citizens, we’ll take our place under earthly magistrates, commending to them and our fellow citizens the ultimate lordship of Christ and their accountability to Him.
“It is the duty of people to pray for those in authority, to honor them, to pay them taxes or other revenue, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority for the sake of conscience. Neither unbelief nor difference in religion makes void the just and legal authority of officeholders nor frees the people—church authorities included—from their due obedience to them” (WCF 23.4). In a partisan political environment, the preceding statement might appear as if somebody’s trying to pick a fight. Then again, others will recognize it as, essentially, the teaching of the Apostles Peter and Paul. In 1 Pet 2:13-17, specifically, we find Peter’s exhortation focused on the church’s civic life following on his general call in 2:11-12 for them to live lives of moral excellence in Gentile society. In fact, civic life is one of three spheres (state, family, and church) about which Peter will give God’s direction to Christians in 1 Pet 2:13–3:12. The big idea in 2:13-17 is this: live your civic life for the Lord’s sake. Notice how the Apostle breaks this down.
First, he says, be subject to human government—take your place under it, subject yourselves to it—for the Lord’s sake, that is, to commend the Lord Christ to others (2:13-14). Plainly, the starting point of Christian civic life is deference to the interests of our God, the ultimate Sovereign who puts earthly magistrates in place, both higher (here, the emperor as supreme) and lower (here, governors as sent by him), for His glory and for the public good. This is not to say that these authorities get to rule absolutely or lawlessly. Quite the contrary. No human authority is God or is outside of His control. Moreover, as sinful creatures, human rulers will sometimes contradict God. If these rulers command citizens to sin, let them be resisted or replaced by rulers who do not command sin. Christ and His Apostles certainly knew what it was like to live under magistrates who were neither Christians nor God-fearers. Their fellow citizens worshiped the Roman emperor as God and other gods too. If not that, then, they were counted as atheists. Knowing this larger cultural context, Peter’s message is forthright: church, take your place under human government to commend to others the ultimate lordship of Christ and, with that, their accountability to Him.