On Wednesday morning of this past week, we woke up to the lame duck period of the 115th US Congress. That means we are in the period of time after a new Congress has been elected, but before that new Congress has been assembled and sworn in to office. The 116th Congress will begin on January 3rd, and so from now until then, any gathering of Congress is a lame duck session.
Lame duck officeholders play an important role in our society. It’s not important in the sense that they pursue any major governing agenda. They don’t have the political capital to do that. That’s why they are “lame” ducks. But they do perform the important function of holding and managing their offices until the time of transition occurs. If we didn’t have lame duck sessions, then the government would dissolve immediately at every election, and chaos would ensue before the new government could be established. Lame ducks have an important stewardship role, but they are not the ones who hold the real power.
When the risen Christ said to his disciples in Matthew 28:18, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” he basically said that all other powers and authorities in this world just became lame ducks. They no longer hold any real power, because the kingdom of God has begun through the reign of Jesus Christ. But his reign is not yet public. It is real, but it remains hidden from this rebellious world, glimpsed only in the gathering and witness of the church. One day, Christ will return to us from heaven, and when he does, all the authorities of this age will be relieved of their offices. But until then, they continue to hold their offices of authority in this present age, and whether they know it or not, they are stewards of a measure of divine authority entrusted to them for a limited amount of time.
We need to understand this biblical teaching because it will protect us from short-sightedness with respect to the powers of this age, either of thinking that the main focus of God’s work in this world comes through earthly governments or of thinking that the main focus of God’s work in this world comes through resistance to earthly governments. Both of those ways of thinking put too much focus on the politics of this age and lose sight of where the real power is. The main focus of God’s work in this world comes through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, through baptism, through sharing of the Lord’s Supper. These acts are actually the most political acts in which we engage, because week-by-week we declare to the world that Jesus is Lord, and all other powers are lame ducks.
What does that mean for how we should live, then, in this present age, where earthly powers continue to hold offices and to wield authority? I’ll tell you what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that should follow our culture’s lead and obsess over all things political. The current political and culture war that we are experiencing in this country has become an all-consuming reality. It dominates cable news channels, network news channels, radio, and social media. Americans have become deeply polarized over earthly politics because we have become so deeply invested in politics that without it, many of us wouldn’t even know who we are. Everything is now politicized. But this is a sign of an unhealthy culture, one that has no clear vision of the reign of Jesus Christ over all.
As Christians, we must respect and obey earthly authorities while also recognizing that they are not the ultimate powers in this world. We have to learn how to live in a lame duck session as we wait for the kingdom to come. Peter has already told us this in verse 12, which begins a new section of his letter: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” Immediately after saying that he goes on in the next three subsections to instruct believers to submit to authorities in the civil realm as well as in the household. We will look at the first of those subsections today as we learn how to navigate this time of the overlap of the ages. I want to break down Peter’s instructions here into two commands that we can learn and seek to follow.
Think about how important authority is to the order of society and the flourishing of life. There’s an interesting story in Acts chapter 6 where the early church in Jerusalem is the in the process of growing and becoming an established institution. One of the things they do in that process is begin to share their resources with one another so as to make sure all needs are met in the church. The way they do this is to bring donations of money to the apostles, and apparently by something of an organic process in the beginning, the apostles were helping make sure those resources were available to people who needed them. But it turned out that at some point, due to a failure in the system, some of the Hellenistic (Greek speaking) widows were not receiving the daily distribution of food. This was a problem, not only for the sake of the widows, but also because this matter could have ended up splitting the church between the Hebrews and the Hellenists. So the apostles asked that seven men be chosen and entrusted with authority to oversee the food distribution in order to make sure the system worked for everyone. But there had to be someone who took control of that process and exercised authority over all of the different components of it to make sure everything coordinated together. Rightly exercised, authority brings order, purpose, and life, and the Bible speaks to the importance of submitting to authority in our lives.
Peter has one main command in this section, along with a reason for the command and an explanation for how it is to be done. So we have in these verses what we are to do, why we are to do it, and how we are to do it.
The what is in verses 13-14: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.” Peter will go on to address the institutions of the state and the home (including slaves to masters and wives to husbands) from here to 3:7, so he opens here with a general command to be subject to every human institution. This means that wherever you find yourself under authority—authority of government, at your place of employment, at your school, in your home—you must be subject to that authority. Followers of Jesus must be people who respect and obey the authorities of this age. But then Peter immediately narrows his concern for this section to authorities of civil government: “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.” It is interesting that when Peter refers here to the emperor or to local governors as agents of the emperor, he was in all likelihood referring to the man who would eventually order his own execution: the emperor Nero. But his command is clear: be subject to all levels of government. Christians are not to be zealots or social revolutionaries who seek to overthrow the order of society.
Peter explains why we should be subject to governing authorities in several places throughout verses 13-15. I will list three reasons here. First, notice the wording of verse 13: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.” We are to submit to authorities, not for their own sake, but because for the sake of Jesus Christ. All authority in heaven and on earth belongs to him, and when he comes he will sweep away all of the governments of this world. But for now, he intends that they remain, and he taught us to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. And so it is for his sake, not for Caesar’s that we submit to Caesar’s authority in this present age.
Second, we are to submit to authority because governing authorities serve a good purpose. Peter speaks of governors in verse 14 as those “sent by him [the emperor] to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” Governing authorities serve the purpose of restraining evil in society and promoting the common good. Without government, the human race in this fallen world would consist of warring tribes constantly battling each other for supremacy, and the only supreme law would be that might makes right. We need governing authorities to restrain the wickedness to which we are prone and to create a context in which society can be ordered. Christians should be models, then, of those who submit to and respect the authorities of this age, because we of all people know the depths of sin in the human heart and the need for measures of restraint that God, in his common grace, has given us.
And then third, we are to submit to authorities in order to defend the gospel that we proclaim. Verse 15 says, “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” That sounds very similar to verse 12: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” Because they proclaimed that Jesus is Lord, Christians in the first century were often suspected of wanting to overthrow the government. Peter calls this notion “the ignorance of foolish people.” This was slander, pure and simple, and Peter wanted his readers to make clear to their suspicious neighbors that, far from wanting to overthrow the order of society, Christians were among those most concerned to seek the good of their communities. And in making this point clear through their lives, Christians would defend the gospel from slanderous attacks against it.
When I read verses 12 and 15, I am drawn to ask this question: are my neighbors glad to have me among them? Do they see me as one who is invested in the well-being of my neighborhood, my community, my city? Do they see me, not only as a law-abiding citizen, but also as one who actively seeks to promote their good? That’s a tough question for me, because I tend to be more reserved, and keeping to yourself is much more the American way now than it used to be. But this kind of teaching, which appears in a number of places in the New Testament, challenges me to recognize that I have been placed in my neighborhood and in this city in order to do good. Have I taken advantage of the opportunities to do good that God has placed before me? That’s a good question that we could all ask ourselves.
So Peter has given us the what—be subject to authorities—and the why—for the sake of Christ, for the common good, and to defend the gospel. In verse 16 he tells us how we must submit to authorities: “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.” We submit to governing authorities as free people in Christ, destined to inherit the kingdom that is coming. That means we do not submit to authorities as slaves to them, cowering before them in weakness and fear. The authorities of this age are lame ducks. They don’t own us, but we honor their temporary stewardship by our obedience.
But don’t take this idea of freedom in the wrong direction, says Peter. Don’t use it as a cover-up for evil, as if your destiny to inherit the kingdom frees you from any present obligations to the order of this world. It’s not hard to imagine, because it has happened before, that certain groups claiming to be Christian have denied that any present authorities have any rightful claim over them, and they have become social revolutionaries, using their claim to freedom as a justification for evil. For example, as much as we might share the goal that abortion should be eliminated from our society, we cannot and must not align ourselves with those who would set bombs to abortion clinics. We cannot advance the cause of justice by perpetuating violent acts of revolution against the order of society. Do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but instead see your freedom as slavery to God, who commands you to do and to seek good for your city.
Instead, look to Jesus before Pontius Pilate as your example. In John 19:10, Pilate said to Jesus, “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus didn’t cower in fear. He didn’t plead for his life. He didn’t compromise his mission. He didn’t even blink. He said in response, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” Jesus knew where the real power is, and it wasn’t with Pilate. Nevertheless, Jesus submitted to Pilate’s temporary, measured authority. He had no interest in trying to overthrow the Roman governor, because his kingdom is not of this world, and overthrowing Rome was too insignificant a goal. We must submit to the authorities of this age, but do so as free people who are destined to sit in judgment over them in the age to come.
You may read this passage and ask, “Peter, aren’t there times when we should resist what governing authorities tell us? Isn’t there a place for civil disobedience?” In fact, it was Peter, along with the other apostles, who said to the high priest who had charged them not to preach in the name of Jesus, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). When told to stop preaching the gospel, Peter and the apostles engaged in non-violent civil disobedience, and they went right on preaching, deciding that God’s authority was greater than that of the high priest. And though you may think Peter doesn’t indicate the possibility of civil disobedience in this passage, if you look closely you will see that he does. Look again at verse 13: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.” If a human authority commands you to sin or forbids you from doing good, could you honestly obey that command “for the Lord’s sake”? No, you couldn’t. Look also at verse 15: “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” Peter makes it clear that he is talking about doing good here, and so he does not include doing evil. Finally, verse 16 concludes by commanding that we live as servants of God. Can you obey a command to sin and do so as a servant of God? Of course not. So while Peter instructs us to submit to earthly authorities and institutions, he gives multiple indications throughout this passage that our submission must never conflict with obedience to our Lord.
But Peter’s overall point in verses 13-16 is that we should submit to the authorities of this age because they have an important stewardship as we await the public revelation of the coming kingdom. One more word of instruction is given in verse 17:
If it has not been clear so far, I want to make sure it is now: in referring to the authorities of this age as “lame ducks,” I don’t use that term to mock them. As I have said, what we call “lame ducks” have an important function in our society. None of us would want our government to dissolve immediately once we held an election before the new government was ready to assume office. That would result in chaos, and so, as I have said all along, lame ducks serve an important role as temporary stewards of office in our society.
Paul says in Romans 13:1-2, “…there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” All authority that exists comes from God, and all who hold authority in this age have their authority by God’s will. Therefore, we must not only obey authority, but we respect it and honor it as appointed by God. President Obama turned out to be a very polarizing leader, and President Trump has continued to do the same. With such polarization in our country, perhaps some of you wanted to say of President Obama during his terms in office, “He’s not my President.” Or perhaps some of you want to say now of President Trump, “He’s not my President.” Or perhaps you wanted to say that regarding President Obama and President Trump. I want to urge you not to speak that way. The truth is, President Obama was your President, President Trump is your President, and the next polarizing figure who comes into that office will be your President. You have no ground to claim otherwise, as much as you might disagree with the man who occupies the office, and making a claim like that is attempting to undo what God has established. Let me be very clear on this point, just to avoid any possible misunderstanding: when I say God has established the authority of the President of the United States, I don’t mean that God approves of everything he does. I’m quite certain God doesn’t approve of everything either President Obama did or that President Trump does. What I am saying is that God appoints, for his own purposes, sinful men to occupy offices of authority in society, and we have an obligation to honor that authority, because it is ultimately God’s authority. Please keep that in mind when you get into political conversations, especially on social media.
But the way Peter makes these four short commands in verse 17 gives a subtle indication that, while we must indeed honor earthly authorities, we do so all the while recognizing that they are not ultimate. Notice how the commands progress upward. First, Peter says, “Honor everyone.” That’s the most general command. Every human being you encounter is worthy of honor and respect, because every human being has dignity as one made in God’s image. Of all people, may we as Christians recognize the inherent dignity in every person and show honor in every appropriate way.
But then we take a step up in obligation. Second, Peter says, “Love the brotherhood.” Here we have moved beyond honor. We are to love our brothers and sisters in the church. But shouldn’t we love our neighbors, whomever they may be? Yes, of course. But Peter is speaking here of a deeper commitment of love within the family of the church. Peter here commands that we go above and beyond in sharing our lives with our church family, entrusting ourselves to our church family, and making sure that there is no need within the church that goes unmet. There is a wonderful statement in Acts 4:34 about the early church in Jerusalem: “There was not a needy person among them.” I think there will always be needy people in our society. In fact, Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you” (Matt 26:11), but in the church there should be no genuine need that goes unmet, because of what Peter says here: “Love the brotherhood.”
And then we take another step up in obligation: “Fear God.” We must not fear the ridicule of men, or even the power of men to do harm to us. Instead, let us fear God, reverencing his holy name, and carefully avoiding anything that would bring dishonor to him. When Lee preached through the book of Revelation several years ago, I recall him saying that it is better to face the wrath of the beast now than to face the wrath of the Lamb later. That’s the mindset of one who fears God.
Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. We have gone up a step each time. And then Peter does something remarkable with the last command: “Honor the emperor.” Our obligation to the emperor, the man whom many regarded as a god, is put on the same level as what we are obligated to do for everyone. We are not commanded to fear the emperor. We are most certainly not commanded to worship the emperor. In fact, we must not fear him, and we must not worship him. He is not worthy of what we owe only to God.
And so, even in the way he tells us to honor the emperor, Peter subtly puts the emperor in his proper place. He holds an important office, but he isn’t nearly as important as he thinks he is. So honor the emperor, but love the brotherhood, and above all, fear God. If you were to seek to apply verse 17 directly to your life, how might it change the way you think about earthly politics and the way you talk about political leaders? If you find the need to repent of some sinful habits, then I urge you to repent, trusting in the grace of God to forgive you and to empower you to walk in obedience.
So this is how we live during a lame duck session. We submit to authority, but for the Lord’s sake. We honor the authorities of our society, but we fear only God. And we live this way because we know where the true power lies: in the hands of Jesus of Nazareth, seated at the right hand of God. Amen.