Honor the Emperor

The Roman emperor Nero inspects the burning of Christian martyrs. Wood engraving, published in 1862.

By Michael Brown Published on May 12, 2023

The words are simple, clear, and easy to understand. The apostle Peter exhorted his fellow-Christian believers living in the Roman Empire to “honor the emperor.”

But it’s one thing to hear these words and say, “All clear!” It’s another thing to implement them. What if the emperor is downright wicked? Are we still to honor him?

Let’s look first at the larger context to Peter’s words.

Submit Yourselves … to Every Human Authority

He wrote, “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. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:13–17)

So, as the supreme earthly authority, believers were to submit to the emperor as well as honor the emperor, showing him the respect he was due. (Paul discusses this as well in Romans 13.)

The problem with this exhortation is that the man who was most likely emperor at that time was Nero.

That’s right, Nero, the sexually-debased madman. Nero, the sadistic mass-murderer. Nero, the forerunner of the Antichrist.

Submit to Nero. Honor Nero. And show Nero the respect he is due.

Seriously? Respect? Honor? For Nero?

Believers Will Endure Suffering If They Follow Christ

The Lexham Bible Dictionary notes that, “The intended recipients of 1 Peter appear to have been facing significant hardships as a result of social and governmental opposition to their faith in Christ (1 Pet 2:19–20; 3:14–17; 4:16; 19). The author advises believers to endure suffering, following the example of Christ (1 Pet 2:21).”

So, despite the “significant hardships” the believers were facing “as a result of social and governmental opposition to their faith in Christ,” they were called to be submissive and respectful of governmental authorities. The exception, of course, would be when the authorities required them to act contrary to their faith.

When to Disobey Authorities

At such times the right response would be, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to Him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” And, “We must obey God rather than man!” (Acts 4:19–20; 5:29)

The authorities, in turn, might crack down even more, putting the believers in jail, torturing them, or even killing them. But there was to be no capitulation here at all, as submission to the highest authority — for us, always the Lord Himself — was and is the ultimate guiding principle. When ruling authorities order us to disobey God or violate our divinely-guided conscience we choose to obey God instead.

Yet there is a way in which we are to disobey, recognizing that at all times we are witnesses for the Lord.

‘For the Lord’s Sake’

Commenting on the words, “for the Lord’s sake” in 1 Peter 2:13, Matthew Henry writes, “For the Lord’s sake, who had ordained magistracy for the good of mankind, who has required obedience and submission (Rom. 13), and whose honour is concerned in the dutiful behavior of subjects to their sovereigns.”

Our conduct must always be Christian, since, as Peter wrote, “it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people.”

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It is our good deeds and our godly conduct that will silence the mocker and the critic, not our brilliant rhetorical flourishes laced with nastiness and self-righteousness.

And even when we reply to our critics and questioners, there is a way in which we do this. To quote Peter again, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” (1 Peter 3:15–16)

Honor All People

Interestingly, there is also some irony in Peter’s exhortation to honor the emperor, as theologian Wayne Grudem notes:

Peter now returns to ‘honor,’ the same word with which the verse began: Honor the emperor. In what is apparently mild irony Peter has put the emperor on the same level as ‘all people’. The progression seems to be as follows:

  • Fear God.
  • Love the brotherhood.
  • Honor all people. Honor the emperor.

While positively affirming the obligation to honor the emperor (consistent with vv. 13–15), he also subtly implies that, contrary to the claims of Roman emperors to be divine, the emperor was by no means equal to God or worthy of the fear due to God alone. Christians have obligations to the state, but their obligations to God and to the brotherhood of believers are higher.

And New Testament scholar Thomas Schreiner adds that, “The first imperative is the call to ‘honor everyone’ (NRSV). Believers are to treat every person with dignity and respect since all human beings are created in God’s image (Gen 1:26–27). Even sinners are to be accorded respect and honor as human beings.”

Who is ‘Everyone’?

Yes, “even sinners,” like the pro-abortion activist and the angry atheist and the gender-bending trans-identified school teacher and the Hindu idolater. Even they “are to be accorded respect and honor as human beings.” (If you have a problem with this, don’t argue with Prof. Schreiner or me. Take that up with Peter, or, better still, with the Lord.)

We can attack someone’s ideologies in the strongest of terms and expose the bankruptcy and even danger of their worldviews without ridiculing them as less than human. Peter says we should still “honor them.”

Christians Must be Different

The bottom line is that followers of Jesus should be different.

We should sound different and look different than the world does, not conforming to our fleshly impulses or to the spirit of the age.

That means that we show respect to those in authority, even if we despise their policies or their personal example, always recognizing that: 1) all human beings, however fallen, are created in the image of God; 2) it is God who puts people in places of authority (or, at the least, establishes those structures of authority); 3) our goal, above all, is to point people to Jesus.

Let the world see something different about us as we live rightly, stand for what is right, and love our neighbors. That is how we change the world.

 

Dr. Michael Brown (www.askdrbrown.org) is the host of the nationally syndicated Line of Fire radio program. His latest book is Why So Many Christians Have Left the Faith. Connect with him on FacebookTwitter or YouTube.

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