The online journal of Luke Dockery

Tag: Rome

The Very Political Book of Revelation

Recently at Cloverdale, our preaching minister completed an excellent series of lessons on the Book of Revelation. Not only was the series well done, it was also incredibly encouraging in a very difficult season (the worst statistical days of the pandemic and the bitter presidential election and its aftermath).

Revelation is somewhat of an infamous book: as an example of apocalyptic literature, to modern readers it comes across as strange, unfamiliar, and notoriously difficult to understand. Efforts at understanding the book have been further complicated by long traditions of treating Revelation as some sort of crystal ball that gives detailed geopolitical predictions about the time period of the interpreter in question. This has led to all sorts of fantastical claims—Christians needing to support the modern nation of Israel in building a third Temple to hasten the return of Jesus, references in Revelation to the USSR, or the COVID-19 vaccine being the mark of the beast—that would have been absolutely unimaginable to John, the author of Revelation, or the first-century Christians to whom he was writing.

Although the imaginative imagery and apocalyptic genre of Revelation are challenging to us as modern readers, it remains an intelligible book if we seek to understand it on its own terms. John is writing to seven congregations of Christians in Asia Minor about things that actually would have been relevant to them in their time and place. He peels back the curtain to allow his audience to see the spiritual realities that lay behind their daily experiences.

Specifically, he addresses the pressure that Rome, the great beast (itself under the influence of Satan, the great dragon), is placing upon Christians to deny their allegiance to King Jesus and instead succumb to the social, economic, and religious demands of Caesar. To those faithfully resisting Roman pressure, John encourages them to persevere with the assurance that Jesus has already claimed the victory over Satan, and that His followers will be vindicated. To those who have already compromised their faith and acquiesced to the demands of Rome, John’s message is one of warning and judgment: they must repent before they are destroyed along with the rest of God’s enemies.

The message of Revelation would have come across as strikingly political to the original audience. Click To Tweet

A third-century Roman coin (AD 244) depicting Emperor Philip II holding the earth in the palm of his hand.

Though challenging to us, this message would have been easily understood by John’s original audience(s), and it would have come across as strikingly political. After all, the Mediterranean world of the New Testament time period was all about Rome. Propaganda proclaimed that Rome was good news (“gospel”) for the world and the bringer of peace. Rome deified its emperors and depicted them as omnipotent rulers whose dominion extended over the entire earth. So interconnected was Roman government, Roman religion, Roman military might, and Roman society that it was impossible to be considered a good citizen or a good neighbor if one resisted the expectation to sacrifice to the gods or pledge allegiance to Caesar above all else. And in such a context, John depicts Rome as a hideous beast under the influence of evil spiritual forces! This is a deeply political text.

In light of this reality—the evil and corruption of the world around them, what are Christians to do? Before we answer that question, we should first note what they are not encouraged to do:

  • They are not encouraged to obsess over how beastly Rome is and constantly rail against it because of this. After all, it should be expected that beasts will act in beastly ways. Rome is a beast, not the Bride of Christ! 
  • Furthermore, they are not encouraged to “Make Rome Great Again”, hearkening back to some fictitious history when the beast was somehow not a beast. 
  • On the other hand, neither are they encouraged to revolt against Rome or tear down all the pillars upon which society is built and work to create a utopian society where justice reigns.

Instead, John encourages those to whom he is writing to remain faithful to Jesus, their Lord, at all costs. Keeping with the political nature of Revelation, as I have discussed before, the statement “Jesus is Lord” is an inherently political claim:

“Lord” is an interesting word; to us, it is almost exclusively a religious term. We tend to think of it as a synonym for “God”, but really, “Lord” was a favorite title of Jesus in the early church. And it’s not primarily a religious title, either; it was a title with distinctly political overtones. “Lord” was the official title for the Roman Emperor: laws, edicts and decrees were signed “Lord Caesar.” This means that when early Christians called Jesus “Lord”, they were making a political statement: by saying that Jesus was Lord, they were simultaneously saying that Caesar was not. Jesus was the One who had absolute authority over their lives, He set the standards by which they were to live, He was the One to whom they owed primary allegiance, and it was He who sat on the throne of the universe.

The Book of Revelation may not tell us when Jesus will return or what will happen in the Middle East next year, but it is incredibly relevant. It makes the striking political claim to Christians that, rather than worry about the kingdoms of this world—which are beastly and will one day come to nothing—we are to “return to our first love” and live out the confession that Jesus is Lord in our daily lives. Instead of trying to reform or uphold or overthrow the society in which we live in order to make it better, our focus should be on living as citizens of God’s kingdom, the better reality that already exists. It is a kingdom that will never be destroyed and will one day supplant and replace all earthly kingdoms. It is a kingdom that subverts worldly understandings of power and wealth, led by a King who laid down unparalleled power and unimaginable wealth to live as a servant and die as a sacrifice to save His subjects.

I have frequently said that I am not a very political person, but that is not technically accurate. Certainly, I am not very political in the sense that I do not focus on partisan loyalties in the American political spectrum, but I confess that Jesus is Lord, and seek to place my allegiance to Him at the center of my life.

As the Book of Revelation shows us, that is a very political claim.

I confess that Jesus is Lord, and seek to place my allegiance to Him at the center of my life. As the Book of Revelation shows, that is a very political claim. Click To Tweet

A New Heaven & A New Earth Part 3: “Problem” Texts–1 Thessalonians 4.13-18


Last week, we talked about some “distractions”—different things that are not really related to renewed eschatology, but that people often think of and want to talk about when NHNE is discussed. First, we talked about some alternative visions of what the end times look like: historic premillennialism, dispensational premillennialism, and Jehovah’s Witness eschatology, and ultimately, I shared with you the problems I have with each of those perspectives, and insisted that renewed eschatology is not any of these views.

Then, we talked about the intermediate state, the time period between an individual’s death and the second coming of Christ. Ultimately, I did not come down strongly on what happens to us when we die, but I argued that this is not the basis of Christian hope. The Bible says that believers will be taken care of when they die and in some sense “be with the Lord”, but that this is not the focus. The Christian hope is not about “going to heaven when you die” (those words are never found in the Bible); rather, it is about what happens when Jesus returns—Satan, sin, and death are defeated, we are resurrected and given new bodies, and we live with God eternally. That’s where this series comes in: what does that look like? Do we fly off to heaven and live as spirits with God, or does God in some sense come down, heaven and earth unite, and we live eternally with Him in some sort of embodied existence?

“Problem” Texts

Today and for the next few weeks, we are going to be looking at texts that are often produced in an attempt to refute the renewed earth position. These three texts—1 Thessalonians 4, 2 Peter 3, and John 14.1-3—are ones that I thought of myself when I was first exposed to the NHNE perspective, and I have repeatedly witnessed them being produced in an attempt to refute it.[1] However, I consider these to be “problem” texts, with the quotation marks meaning that I don’t believe these texts, properly understood, oppose the renewed earth perspective at all.

The first text that we want to consider is 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18:

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Generally, this is read to mean that we will “meet” Jesus in the air (v.17) and then float away with Him back to heaven. But is this the best way to read this passage?

First, what is the purpose of this passage? Contextually, Paul is providing comfort to the Thessalonian Christians about their fellow believers who have died. The point here is really not to describe exactly what their current condition is, but rather to argue that they are taken care of by Jesus. They will rise first when Jesus returns. Paul’s words are meant to provide comfort and reassurance to the Christians in Thessalonica about their loved ones who have died.

Second, to interpret this passage properly, we have to see that this is a text with political overtones, and for us to pick up on this, we have to be familiar with the politics of the first century. Paul is writing to people living in a Roman colony, and the Imperial Cult was a major feature of their lives.[2]

There are several terms used in our Bibles that were actually very commonly used in reference to Rome. For example, we tend to think of the word “gospel” (ευαγγελιον) as a specifically Christian word that refers to the “Good News” of Jesus Christ. But before that, this same word was used in reference to Caesar Augustus, who was seen as bringing about an age of peace and prosperity. Similarly, we tend to think of the title “Lord” as a specific title for Jesus, but first, it was a title for Caesar. When early Christians referred to Jesus as Lord, they were actually making a very subversive claim, because they were stating that Jesus is Lord; Caesar is not. In a similar way, some of the language used in 1 Thessalonians 4 is technical language that Paul borrows from Roman political life.

In 1 Thessalonians 4.15, Paul uses the Greek word parousia (παρουσια; this is the word translated as the “coming” of the Lord). This word often referred to an official divine or imperial visit, the coming of a god or a king into a city. In ancient times, this was a matter of great ceremony and celebration (and, indeed, Paul mentions the voice of an archangel and the sound of a trumpet).

Then, in 4.17, Paul uses the Greek word apantesin, (απαντησιν) which is translated in our Bibles as “meet” the Lord in the air. In English, the word meet can mean different things. Consider three hypothetical scenarios between me and a friend:

  • Scenario 1: My friend calls me at my office at the church building. “Let’s go eat! I’ll drive. Meet me in the parking lot.” So in this instance, my friend comes, I go out to meet him, and then leave with him.
  • Scenario 2: My friend calls me at my office at the church building. “Hey, I have that document you needed, but I am in a hurry. Can you meet me in the parking lot?” So in this instance, my friend comes, I go out to meet him, and then we both go our separate ways.
  • Scenario 3: My friend calls me at my office at the church building. “Hey, I brought those books for you. There are several boxes of them, and I could use some help bringing them in. Can you meet me in the parking lot?” So, in this instance, my friend comes, I go out to meet him, and we both come back to where I am.

In English, any of these scenarios work, because the word “meet” has a range of meaning. The context is necessary to determine which meaning is the correct one. When we read 1 Thessalonians 4.17 and see the English word “meet”, we just assume that the word has the same range of meaning as our word “meet”, and then we have tended to interpret it as meaning that we “meet” Jesus in the air and then return with Him to heaven.

But the Greek word that is used here for “meet” (apantesin/απαντησιν) has an almost technical meaning: sending a delegation outside the city to receive a dignitary who was on the way to the town. So, if Caesar came to your city, you would apantesin him—the leading citizens of the city would go out to welcome him and escort him back. This is how the word is used in many ancient documents and inscriptions outside of the Bible, but is also used this way elsewhere in the New Testament:

  • Acts 28.11-15: In this passage, Paul is on his journey to Rome, and in verse 15, the “brothers” come out to “meet” Paul. When they “meet” him, did they go back with Paul to where he came from? Or did they welcome Paul and then accompany him back to Rome? Obviously, the latter.
  • Matthew 25.1-6: This is the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. In verse 6, when the wise virgins went out to “meet” the bridegroom, did they leave and go back with him? Or did they welcome the bridegroom into where they had been? Obviously, the latter.
  • John 12.12-15: A version of this same word (hypantesin/υπαντησιν) is also used in verse 13 of John’s account of Jesus’s triumphal entry. When the crowd went out to “meet” Jesus with palm branches, did they leave and go back to where Jesus came from? Or did they welcome him into Jerusalem where they had been? Obviously, the latter.

In each of these contexts, you can see that the word means precisely as we defined it earlier: apantesin refers to a group of people going out to meet someone special (Caesar, an apostle, a bridegroom, the Messiah, the Returning King Jesus), and then welcoming that person back to where you are.

1 Thessalonians 4 is a passage written by a Roman citizen (Paul), to Roman citizens (Thessalonian Christians) living in a Roman colony (Thessalonica) where he borrows politically-charged Roman words and applies them to the return of Jesus. Against this backdrop of what these Greek words actually mean, this text takes on a clear (but different than what we are used to) meaning: Jesus will return with great ceremony, and we will meet Him in the air to escort Him back here. And we will be with Him forever.[3]

I am going to share 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18 again, but now, instead of the words “Lord”, “coming”, and “meet”, I am going to replace them with what the words mean in their historical context:

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from [Our King, Jesus, the true Caesar], that we who are alive, who are left until the [royal visit from our God, King Jesus], will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For [King Jesus] himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet [King Jesus] in the air, [to welcome Him and escort Him back here], and so we will always be with [our God and King]. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

1 Thessalonians doesn’t argue against the renewed earth perspective. It doesn’t teach that we will meet Jesus in the air and then float off to heaven with Him. That is simply not what the word means. 

If you only know the English word “meet”, then the traditional interpretation makes sense. But once you know what the Greek word apantesin means, it changes everything. This is not a case of having different possible interpretations: in English, the word “meet” can mean a lot of different things, but the Greek word apantesin does not have that same flexibility. We have looked at it and it has a very specific meaning: the traditional interpretation does not work with the actual meaning of the Greek word.[4]

This passage tells us that we are going to meet Jesus in the air, and then come back here. It doesn’t tell us what “here” means exactly, or what it is going to look like (in other words, it doesn’t prove the NHNE case), but it does not refute it in any way.

When I was ignorant about the historical background of this passage and the specific meaning of the word, it was one of my top passages for “disproving” renewed eschatology. But when I studied it, I had to face the facts that it didn’t say what I assumed it said. So it forced me to reconsider my thinking: if I am going to be honest, I have to do something with this information; I can’t just pretend that it’s not there.

Excursus: How in the World are we Supposed to Know This?

When I first presented this material, one question I received was, “How in the world are we supposed to know this? Do we have to read Greek or be experts on ancient history to understand the Bible?”

That is a good and important question, and I understand the concern and confusion that underlies it. As Christians, we believe it is really important for us to understand the Bible, because it directs how we should live our lives. If mastery of ancient languages and obscure historical details is necessary to understand it, that is too high of a bar for the vast majority of us.

We need to remember, though, that Scripture was written for us, but it was not written to us. It is written for us in the sense that it has something to teach us, it applies to our lives, it gives us instruction and direction, etc. But it was not written to us in the sense that we were not the immediate, primary audience. In this case, that audience was the Christians at Thessalonica. Paul was writing to them about problems they were having, telling them things they needed to hear, and in ways that they could understand. When he talked to them and referred to concepts like parousia and apantesin, they would have absolutely understood what he was talking about without any trouble. But we are 2,000 years removed from that context and are products of a different culture who speak a different language.

Although it is a common assumption that we should be able to just read the Bible for what it says at face value and that it should be easy for us to understand, when you think about it, that’s really not a very reasonable assumption. I do think that Scripture is basically understandable and that we can learn what we need to know about the Gospel story and how to be saved by just reading the text without understanding much behind it. But the idea that we can basically read someone else’s mail—Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian Christians—from 2,000 years ago and easily understand everything that is going on without doing some extra work at times doesn’t make a lot of sense. Let me give an example to explain my point.

I live in Arkansas, in the Southern United States. Since we don’t write a lot of letters anymore, let’s say that I send an email or a text to a friend who lives in Alabama. While updating my friend on how things are going in my life, I say, “Oh, I burned my hand on the 4th of July; I was holding a Roman candle.” My friend in Alabama would know exactly what I was talking about: July 4th is Independence Day in the United States, and a common way of celebrating in the United States is by shooting off fireworks, of which Roman candles are one variety. Particularly daring (or foolish!) celebrants sometimes hold Roman candles in their hands to shoot them off, which can easily lead to burns. All of this background knowledge related to the celebration of American Independence Day would be easily understood by my friend.

If, however, I were to send an email or Facebook message to a preacher in, say, India or Uganda, and were to say, “Oh, I burned my hand on the 4th of July; I was holding a Roman candle,” that statement would likely require some explanation. What is special about July 4? Why am I holding a candle from the capital city of Italy, or, alternatively, some ancient Roman artifact? How did it come to burn my hand?

With this example in mind, I think it is easy to see how it would be necessary for us to do some additional work (through understanding historical background, cultural practices, and linguistic nuances) to come to a place where we can understand certain parts of the biblical text at a deeper level.[5]

All of that to say, it shouldn’t alarm us that studying the Bible on a deeper level yields new insights and understandings. Rather, it should fill us with wonder and praise that God’s Scripture can be so meaningful at different levels—providing comfort, guidance, and purpose for life at even surface-level readings, while also containing untold depths that keep scholars searching and learning for their entire lives.

[1]When I taught this material as a Bible class, I solicited additional texts from the class for us to consider, but these were the only ones that were really brought up. I am sure there are other texts that could be discussed as well; J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014): 179-237, discusses at length various texts that could be construed as presenting a perspective contrary to renewed eschatology, and I recommend his work.

[2]For more on the political background of 1 Thessalonians 4, see Bobby Valentine’s excellent post, “Paul, the Roman Imperial Cult, the Return of King Jesus and “Flying Away” in 1 Thessalonians 4.17”,; Also, Middleton, 222-25. These two sources lie significantly behind what I have written here.

[3]Michael R. Cosby, “Hellenistic Formal Receptions and Paul’s Use of ΑΠΑΝΤΗΣΙΣ in 1 Thessalonians 4:17,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 4 (1994): 15-34, argues against this technical meaning, saying that Paul’s description in this passage lacks many of the elements of Hellenistic receptions as seen in records from ancient papyri: “Instead of being a cipher for understanding what Paul meant through the supposed use of a technical term, they function more as a foil—a loose pattern to play against when describing the coming of the heavenly king” (31). Cosby’s analysis is flawed for multiple reasons, as Robert H. Gundry, “A Brief Note on “Hellenistic Formal Receptions and Paul’s Use of ΑΠΑΝΤΗΣΙΣ in 1 Thessalonians 4:17,”” Bulletin for Biblical Research 6 (1996): 39-41 points out: “Paul’s description of the Parousia in 1 These 4:15-17 comes closer to what we know of Hellentistc formal receptions than Cosby allows” (41). Gundry further states that all the imperial elements that Paul includes in this passage combine to render the connotation of απαντησις that I have set forth in this article. 

Additionally, Cosby’s analysis is problematic because, in his survey of relevant ancient texts, he acknowledges a diversity of practices in relation to Hellenistic Formal Receptions, but then conjures up some sort of standard set of practices against which Paul’s description supposedly comes up deficient. Finally, the notion that Paul is using the entire imperial imagery as a foil to lampoon imperial power and highlight the superiority of Jesus is surely correct; but such a comparison only makes sense if it is referring to the arrival of a conquering dignitary who is welcomed back to his rightful domain.

More recent commentators like Middleton and Valentine (mentioned above) and Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Leicester: Apollos; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 223-26, reject Cosby’s view as well. The scholarly case for the technical meaning of απαντησις as has been suggested here is solid. 

[4]A question I was asked when teaching this material is that if this is what the word apantesin means, why do all of our translations use the word “meet”? Why don’t they use something like “welcome” or “escort”? Well, in short, those words don’t really convey the meaning of apantesin, either. Again, this is a specialized technical word that simply doesn’t have a parallel in English. It conveys the meaning of “go out and meet a visiting dignitary, welcome him, and escort him back to your city.” We simply don’t have a word for that. “Meet” doesn’t convey all of that meaning, but it does as good of a job as any other English word we have.

[5]Valentine, “Paul, the Roman Imperial Cult, the Return of King Jesus and “Flying Away” in 1 Thessalonians 4.17”,  begins his essay by establishing this same idea, that we must within “Understanding Distance” of 1 Thessalonians.

The Trip of a Lifetime

Last October, Caroline and I went on a whirlwind trip to Rome and Florence (with an overnight stop in NYC on the way) to (belatedly) celebrate our tenth anniversary. Caroline has lived in Italy for two different stints in her life, and had wanted to show it to me for a long time. I am glad she did—London has been my favorite place in the world since visiting there in 2009, but Rome is right up there with it!

A view of the NYC skyline and Plaza Hotel from Central Park.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral is a stately and impressive church—until you visit Rome. 🙂

Ancient columns from the Roman Forum. I was overwhelmed by the history of Rome.

The Arch of Titus on the edge of the Forum, celebrating the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

A closeup of one of the reliefs of the Arch of Titus (note the Menorah).

A massive statue of Constantine, the “Christian” Emperor.

Caroline poses next to Constantine’s foot (ironically, she doesn’t like feet at all).

The Arch of Constantine, near the Colosseum.

The Colosseum was breath-taking and amazing—everything I hoped it would be.

Caroline walking along the Appian Way.

We got to spend one day in Florence (not enough time!).

The Duomo from Piazzale Michelangelo, above the city of Florence.

The Pantheon was another of my favorite places to go in Rome—we kept going back over and over again.

St. Peter’s Basilica was massive and impressive. I didn’t get a great shot of the exterior.

Looking up at the dome of St. Peter’s.

The Trevi Fountain was another of my favorites—always surrounded by happy tourists.

Michelangelo’s Moses has horns, based on a mistranslation of Exodus 34 in the Latin Vulgate.

Caroline and I greatly enjoyed our time in Rome, and I would love to return and explore more of Italy in detail. That will have to wait, however: we have already started saving up for our next trip, to a currently undisclosed location. 🙂

Be Subordinate for the Lord’s Sake: An Exegesis of First Peter 2.13-17


The epistle of First Peter was written to instruct and encourage Christians who were living in difficult circumstances in Asia Minor. Throughout the letter, Peter[1] consistently encourages his audience to live good and holy lives despite the persecution and suffering they are experiencing. This paper will look closely at the text of 1 Peter 2:13-17, where Peter instructs believers how to live in relation to their governing rulers and surrounding society.

The Background of First Peter

The believers to whom Peter writes find themselves in difficult circumstances, the victims of persecution at the hands of the society in which they live.[2] That persecution is a dominant theme of Peter’s letter is undisputed, but the nature of that persecution is less obvious and has been frequently debated over the years. In the past, it was commonly believed that this was an official persecution sponsored by Rome,[3] but most scholars today have rejected this view.[4] There is no specific reference to state-sponsored persecution in 1 Peter,[5] and what seems to be described instead are persecutions that were “…sporadic, generally mob-incited, locally restricted, and unsystematic in nature.”[6] In the face of this persecution, Peter writes to encourage his readers to stand firm,[7] and to instruct them on how they should simultaneously live as members of society and faithful members in the community of God.[8]

The Context of 1 Peter 2.13-17

Having considered the historical background of 1 Peter and the purpose for which it was written, we now shift focus to 1 Peter 2:13-17, which occupies a central place in the letter, offering specific instruction as to how believers should live in society and interact with those who rule over them. These verses are generally grouped within a larger segment that extends from 2:11-3:12,[9] and are considered by many scholars to comprise Peter’s version of a haustafel.[10] Although the groups of slaves, wives, and husbands are addressed in this section, Peter is addressing the entire Christian community, and these specific groups are used as illustrative examples of the kind of behavior Peter is commanding.[11]

The Text of 1 Peter 2.13-17

First Peter 2:13-17 instructs the community of faith concerning the proper relationship to the governing authorities (vv. 13-14), a rationale for doing good in society (v. 15), a description of Christian freedom (v. 16), and then concludes with four brief statements which summarize the Christian’s responsibility to all people, the brotherhood, God, and the emperor (v. 17).

2:13a “Be subject for the Lord’s sake…”[12]

The Greek verb rendered “be subject” in the ESV is υποταγητε,[13] a form of υποτασσω,  which can be translated “subject oneself”, “be subordinated”, or “obey”,[14] but a majority of scholars seem to agree that “be subordinate” is the preferred translation because it emphasizes the recognition of one’s proper place in the established order of society[15] rather than an “absolute, slavish, uncritical obedience to the state.”[16] This command to be subordinate is justified not on the basis of the authority of the state, but as part of the Christian faith, regardless of whether δια τον κυριον refers to God or to Jesus Christ.[17]

2:13b “…to every human institution…”

To whom is Peter’s audience instructed to be subordinate? The words ανθρωπινη κτισει are translated here as “human institution,”[18] but this rendering seems to be called for more by the context of governmental authority than by the word itself, and most scholars suggest that a better translation would be “human creature.”[19] In addition to being a more natural translation of the word, “human creature” also provides a subtle judgment against any notion that the Roman emperor was divine—according to Peter, the emperor was a human creature; God is the creator.[20]

2:13c “…whether it be to the emperor as supreme…”

Following the introduction of the general idea of human creatures, Peter now goes on to give his readers specific examples. Bασιλει frequently means “king”,[21] but is sometimes used to refer to the Roman emperor as well, and this is clearly who Peter has in mind.[22] He is “supreme” in the sense that, “in the Roman world of the first century, the Roman emperor was the highest instance of human authority.”[23]

2:14 “…or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good….”

Of course, in an empire the size of Rome, the emperor did not rule over everything directly, so authority was delegated to provincial governors and magistrates who presided over the daily governing of the people.[24] Peter’s readers would be much more likely to come into contact with these public officials, and they are commanded to be subordinate to them as well.[25] As part of the responsibilities of rule, these governors have the task of keeping order by punishing those who do evil and violate the law and rewarding those who “do good.” In modern society, we are quite aware of the government’s role in punishing evil, but the idea of governing authorities giving “praise to those who do good” is less familiar to us.[26] To what does this refer?

One suggestion is that the praise talked about in 2:14 refers to the long established practice of governors bestowing public recognition on benefactors, or those whose good works benefitted the city in which they lived in some public way.[27] Those who disagree with this perspective argue that few of the Christians in Peter’s audience would have been in the social or economic position to practice public benefaction.[28] While this may be so, it does seem that “do good” must mean more than private acts of piety (which would have been unknown to public officials) or simple obedience to the laws of the land (which would have been taken for granted by officials and hardly deemed worthy of praise).[29] Peter was not instructing his readers to pull back from the world around them, but rather to perform good works in their lives in tangible ways that would have been readily observed and appreciated by their neighbors.[30]

2:15 “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.”

Continuing the thought from the previous verse, Peter provides additional justification for the public doing of good, and once again grounds his commands in God’s will.[31] Here, he suggests that the sorts of good deeds he has described will put a stop to one form of persecution they are facing, which is the slander of their foolish neighbors.[32]

2:16a “Live as people who are free…”

In the Greek text 2:13-16 is all combined as one long sentence with υποταγητε from 2:13 serving as the main verb. Thus, it would be preferable to repeat the main verb (“be subordinate”) rather than supply a verb (“live”) that is not actually present in the Greek text as the ESV does.[33] It is possible that the freedom discussed here is civil freedom,[34] but it seems more likely that Peter is referring to the freedom from sin, law, and the ignorance of paganism that believers enjoy in Christ.[35]

2:16b “…not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.”

In the Greek text, the construction of three parallel clauses beginning with ως in 2:16 (“as people who are free”; “as a cover-up for evil”; “as servants of God”) serves to emphasize that the freedom discussed at the beginning of the verse is limited by the conditions given later on.[36] In other words, the freedom enjoyed by Peter’s audience was neither a liberty without bounds nor was it to be used as an excuse for lawlessness; rather it was precisely their status as servants of God that ensured their subordination to the state.[37] Ultimately, they had “…been set free from human rulers by acceptance of another Ruler. But that Ruler wants them to submit to human rulers insofar as they do not demand disobedience to his will.”[38]

2:17 “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”

This verse provides an excellent summary to 2:13-17, but scholars are divided as to how exactly it should be structured in English.[39] The first command in the verse (τιμησατε) is an aorist imperative while the final three (αγαπατε, φοβεισθε, τιματε) are all present imperatives, and the disagreement stems from whether or not this shift in tense was intended to convey some particular meaning. One perspective holds that the first clause, “honor everyone,” represents the main idea that is then more specifically explained by the following three commands.[40] Contrary to this perspective, most commentators hold that the verse is best rendered as four distinct short sentences as in the ESV.[41] This seems to make more sense in summarizing the passage as a whole,[42] and furthermore, these four statements form a chiasm which serves to place prominence on the relationships that Christians are supposed to have with other believers and God.[43]

Regardless of the correct punctuation of the verse, its overall message seems clear: Christians are supposed to honor the emperor[44] as they are to honor all men, and they are supposed to love their fellow Christians, but only God is to be shown reverent fear.[45]


The first epistle of Peter was written to believers who were facing persecution, but 1 Peter 2:13-17 allows no opportunity for Christians to use their suffering as an excuse for bad behavior. On the contrary, they are commanded to be subordinate for the Lord’s sake to those who are in authority over them, recognizing that those authorities have a role to play in maintaining societal order (2:13-14). This subordinate behavior, characterized by good deeds, will serve to earn the praise of those who are in authority while simultaneously silencing those who foolishly accuse them of wrongdoing (2:14-15). The Christians to whom Peter writes have been set free from sin, but they have willingly declared themselves to be servants of God (2:16), and he wills that they honor and respect all people including the emperor, while loving their fellow believers and reserving reverent fear for him alone (2:17).

The overriding message of the passage is clear. God is the ultimate authority, and to a significant extent, he wants his servants to also be servants of the society in which they live. They are to do good, to honor all people, and to be subordinate to their rulers, as long as that subordination does not place them in violation of his will.

[1] The authorship of 1 Peter is a much-debated topic, but is beyond the scope of this paper. I assume that Peter was the author, and write accordingly in this paper.

[2] See Allen Black and Mark C. Black, 1 & 2 Peter (Joplin, Mo: College Press, 1998), 18-19, Paul J. Achtemeier, 1 Peter: A Commentary on First Peter, Hermeneia (Minneapolis, Minn: Fortress Press, 1996), 33-36, and John H. Elliott, 1 Peter, The Anchor Bible, vol. 37B (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 98-100.

[3] Elliott, 98, lists several proponents of this view, who, as a result of this idea, try to date 1 Peter sometime during the reign of Nero, Domitian, or Trajan. However, as Elliott points out, “…the first worldwide persecution of Christians officially undertaken by Rome did not occur until the persecution initiated by Decius (249-251 CE) in 250 CE.”

[4] Ibid., 100, lists a host of commentators who share the perspective that the persecutions of 1 Peter were not state-sponsored. Instead, these commentators tend to believe that the persecution came at the hands of the believers’ neighbors and surrounding community who made accusations against them.

[5] Black, 19.

[6] Elliott., 98. Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 9, concurs with this view: “In general, the specific persecution referred to throughout the book seems limited to verbal slander, malicious talk, and false accusations (1:6; 2:12, 15; 3:9, 16; 4:12, 16).” On the other hand, just because the persecutions of 1 Peter were not state-sponsored does not mean that they were not widespread. David G. Horrell, 1 Peter (New York: T & T Clark Ltd, 2008), 53, arguing from 1 Peter 5:9, states that similar suffering was experienced by Christians throughout the world, making the persecution described in 1 Peter “no local aberration.” Achtemeier, 34, concurs.

[7] Black, 19.

[8] The exact nature of the strategy that Peter suggests for daily living in society is a topic of fierce debate. David L. Balch, Let Wives be Submissive: The Domestic Code in 1 Peter, Society of Biblical Literature Monograph Series no. 26 (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1981), 81, 87, suggests that Peter was urging his readers to accommodate to the norms of the surrounding Greco-Roman culture in order to reduce the suffering they were experiencing and improve the quality of their lives. Edgar Krentz, “Order in the “House” of God: The Haustafel in 1 Peter 2:11-3:12,” in Common Life in the Early Church: Essays Honoring Graydon F. Snyder, ed. Julian V. Hills et al. (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1998), 285, concurs, saying “Peter urges conduct that will make the nascent Christian community survive, even thrive, in the social structure of the time.” On the other hand, Elliott, 510, argues that such accommodation “endangers exclusive commitment to God, Christ, and the brotherhood and obliterates the distinctive identity and boundaries of the Christian community.” For Elliott, the entire point of 1 Peter is that, rather than conforming to society, Christians are to practice “holy nonconformity” (509). Horrell, 94-95, takes a helpful middle ground between the two extremes of conformity and resistance, stating that Christians should be “willing to be good and obedient citizens as far as possible, but [draw] a clear line of resistance at certain points.”

[9] Elliott, 484-85, takes the standard viewpoint that 1 Peter 2:11-3:12 should be treated as a unit and states that this passage shifts the focus “from an affirmation of the dignity and favored status of the believing community before God (1:3-2:10) to the conduct of the community in society and its interaction with hostile outsiders. Further, he delineates 2:13-17 as a self-contained unit (485). Krentz, 281-82, offers a helpful summary of different ways in which this section of 1 Peter has been divided, one of which is exemplified by Balch, 125, who believes that there is no shift after 3:12 and that the entire section ranges from 2:11-4:11. Eugene M. Boring, 1 Peter, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 102-03, and Mary H. Schertz, “The Easter Texts of 1 Peter,” Word & World 24 (Fall 2004): 431-32, both support the separation of 2:11-3:12 as a distinct segment, and identify a chiasm contained in those verses which emphasizes the innocent suffering of Christ as an example for all Christians.

[10] Haustafeln, or “household codes”, were prevalent in the Hellenistic world and contained instructions for living and duties within the domestic setting. Boring, 105-06, states that this section of 1 Peter was likely composed and read in light of the prevalence of such codes, and lists Pauline haustafeln in Eph 5:22-6:9; Col 3:18-4:1; 1 Tim 2-3; 5:1-6:3; and Titus 2:1-10. See also J. Ramsey Michaels, 1 Peter, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 49 (Waco, TX: Word Books Publisher, 1988), 121-23. Other sources which take for granted that 2:11-3:12 is a haustafel include Mary H. Schertz, “Nonretaliation and the Haustafeln in 1 Peter,” in The Love of Enemy and Nonretaliation in the New Testament, ed. Willard M. Swartley (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), 258-86, and J. de Waal Dryden, Theology and Ethics in 1 Peter: Paraentic Strategies for Christian Character Formation, (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2006): 152-56. In opposition to this idea, Elliott, 504-05, rejects the theory that 2:11-3:12 is a haustafel because it “fails to explain the close relation of instruction concerning both civil and domestic duties.” See also Reinhard Feldmeier, The First Letter of Peter: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2008), 156, “…[O]ne is not dealing here with a “Haustafel” in the normal sense.”

[11] Boring, 106-07.

[12] The text cited here for 1 Peter 2:13-17 comes from the English Standard Version.

[13] Greek citations come from the United Bible Society Greek New Testament.

[14] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., rev. and ed. Frederick W. Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1042; KJV, NASB, NIV (2011) “Submit”; NLT “Respect”.

[15] Achtemeier, 182; Elliott, 486-87; Boring, 108-09; John W. Kleinig, “Ordered Community: Order and Subordination in the New Testament,” Lutheran Theological Journal 39 (August and December 2005): 198-200; Raúl Humberto Lugo Rodríguez, ““Wait for the Day of God’s Coming and Do What You Can to Hasten It…” (2 Peter 3:12): The Non-Pauline Letters as Resistance Literature,” in Subversive Scriptures: Revolutionary Readings of the Christian Bible in Latin America, ed. Leif E. Vaage (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997), 200-01. Norman L. Geisler, “A Premillennial View of Law and Government,” Bibliotheca Sacra 142 (July-September 1985): 262, sees a significant difference between submission and subordination: “[Christians] can be insubmissive, but they must not be insubordinate. Even when a believer cannot submit to the law he must be willing to submit to the consequence of that law.”

[16] Arnold T. Monera, “The Christian’s Relationship to the State according to the New Testament: Conformity or Non-Conformity,” Asia Journal of Theology 19 (April 2005): 121. See also Boring, 108, “What is called for here is not mindless robotic obedience or servile cowering that denies one’s own identity and sense of worth….”

[17] Elliott, 489, and Achtemeier, 182, both hold “Lord” here to be referring to God as creator, but Michaels, 124, noting that o kυριον ”refers to Jesus quite consistently in 1 Peter,” sees it as a reference to Christ, and that it anticipates the words about Jesus in 1 Peter 2:21-25. Peter H. Davids, The First Epistle of Peter, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 99, agrees. Although the argument that κυριον refers to Christ rather than God the Father seems better to me, ultimately, either viewpoint leads to the same conclusion: the subordination commanded to Christians is based on authority from heaven, not from the state.

[18] This translation is supported by BDAG, 573.

[19] Black, 71-72. Mark Dubis, 1 Peter : A Handbook on the Greek Text (Waco, Tex: Baylor University Press, 2010), 65, “Elsewhere in the NT, κτισiV refers to the world or beings that God has created. Here it is frequently rendered as “institution”… although evidence is lacking for this usage in ancient Greek literature.” Michaels, 124, “[T]he examples immediately introduced—the emperor and the local magistrates—are persons not power structures.” See also Achtemeier, 182; Elliott, 489. On the other hand, Edward Gordon Selwyn, The First Epistle of St. Peter: The Greek Text with Introduction, Notes and Essays (London: Macmillan, 1955), 172, supports “institution.”

[20] Elliott, 489, “In contrast to devotees of the imperial cult who render obeisance to the emperor as “Lord and God”…Christians respect the emperor and his representatives only as human creatures….” See also Achtemeier, 182-83; Black, 72. Related to this idea, Elliott, 492-93, Boring, 116, and Davids, 100-01, are representative of many commentators who feel the need to distinguish between Peter’s thoughts on government here and those of Paul in Romans 13.1-7, specifically in the sense that Paul refers to governing authorities as “God’s servants” while Peter makes no such explicit claim. Ultimately, though, 1 Peter 2:13-17 is more like Romans 13:1-7 than it is different. After all, Peter describes human rulers as being tasked to keep societal and moral order, which can be assumed to be what God desires. Is this so very different than Paul calling them “God’s servants” in Romans 13? Black, 70-71, recognizing the similarities between the passages, states that both “should be understood as general truths: on the whole governing authorities are a good thing, and Christians should submit to them.”

[21] BDAG, 169-70.

[22] Davids, 101; Black, 72. Michaels, 125, notes that basileuV ”applied both to world monarchs…and to kings and princes of more limited domain,” but that only the emperor would be a basileuV both to Peter in Rome and his scattered audience.

[23] Elliott, 490.

[24] Black, 72.

[25] See Davids, 100, “Since [governors] at times had a direct effect on daily life and since their various evils were often well known, they would be much harder to submit to than the distant unknown Emperor,” and also Michaels, 125, “It is often easier to honor the emperor from a distance than to respect the authority of his local representatives.” This notion is also supported by the biblical account of Pontius Pilate, who would be an example of the type of “governor” mentioned by Peter here.

[26] Achtemeier, 184.

[27] Bruce W. Winter, “The Public Honouring of Christian Benefactors,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 34 (October 1988): 87-103, clearly establishes that it was common practice in Greco-Roman culture to publicly honor the benefactor of a city through public inscriptions. This provided both a reward for the benefactor, and also an incentive for would-be benefactors to do good deeds. Winter’s assertion that Peter is referring to this practice in 1 Peter 2:14 is more tenuous.

[28] See especially Elliott, 491-92. BDAG, 3, finds some support for αγαθοποιων referring to a benefactor in some extra-biblical materials, but suggests the more general “one who does good” or “is a good citizen” as better alternatives for the meaning in 2:14.

[29] Jobes, 175-76.

[30] See also Davids, 100-01.

[31] Cf. 1 Peter 2:13, “for the Lord’s sake.”

[32] Davids, 101. Geoffrey Wainwright, “Praying for Kings: The Place of Human Rulers in the Divine Plan of Salvation,” Ex Auditu 2 (1986): 119. Related to the earlier discussion on the persecution suffered by the recipients of 1 Peter, the indication here seems to be that if Christians were accused of wrongdoing and brought before the magistrates, their case would be improved if they had lived in such a way that they were praised for their good deeds. See also Davids, 101; Achetemeier, 185; Elliott, 495.

[33] Black, 73. Michaels, 128, translates 2:16 as modifying what follows in 2:17, but most commentators including Dubis, 68, and Achtemeier, agree with the explanation presented above. Achtemeier translates 2:16, “…(be subordinate) as free men and women…” to emphasize the connection to 2:13.

[34] Elliott, 496.

[35] Black, 73; Michaels, 128.

[36] Dubis, 68, “The recipients are free with respect to governing authorities, but their freedom has certain bounds determined by the ethical norms of the will of God, to whom they are ultimately subservient.”

[37] Selwyn, 174, “Christian freedom rests not on escape from service, but on a change of master.”

[38] Black, 73.

[39] Jobes, 177, has a more detailed analysis of the opposing viewpoints than is provided here.

[40] This is the reading found in the NIV. Scot Snyder, “1 Peter 2:17: A Reconsideration,” Filologia Neotestamentaria 4 (November 1991): 211-15, holds to this interpretation, and argues that the first part of the verse should not be rendered “honor everyone,” but rather, “give due honor to everyone,” and then goes on to describe what type of honor is due different groups and individuals in the next three commands (brotherhood, God, emperor).

[41] Ernst Bammel, “The Commands in I Peter II.17,” New Testament Studies 11 (April 1965): 279-80; Dubis, 69-70; Elliott, 497; Davids, 102-03; Michaels, 130-31; Wainwright, 117.

[42] If “everyone” is a general term which is then fully explained by the sub-categories of “brotherhood,” “God,” and “emperor,” then 2:17 leaves out the “foolish people” previously discussed in 2:15. What makes more sense is that “everyone” is a general category which covers those left out by the other terms. Literally, everyone is addressed by 2:17.

[43] Bammel, 280-81; Dubis, 69-70; Elliott, 497; Michaels, 102-03. The chiasm is marked by the repetition of timaw in the first and last clauses, and thus possesses an a-b-b’-a’ structure. Specifically on the last two commands, many commentators suggest that Peter is alluding to Proverbs 24:21 here (“My son, fear the Lord and the king…”), but intentionally changes verbs to emphasize that God alone and not the king is to be feared. See Davids, 103-04; Michaels, 131; Boring, 116; Achtemeier, 188; Feldmeier, 165.

[44] Warren Carter, “Going All the Way? Honoring the Emperor and Sacrificing Wives and Slaves in 1 Peter 2.13-3.6,” in A Feminist Companion to the Catholic Epistles and Hebrews, ed. Amy-Jill Levine and Maria Mayo Robbins (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2004), 14-33, makes the argument that in order to truly “be subordinate” and “honor the emperor,” believers would almost have to take part in imperial cult worship, and that without doing so, it would be impossible for them to be considered good citizens or to earn respect from their neighbors or praise from their rulers. This notion is a minority viewpoint, and seems to completely contradict 1 Peter’s emphasis on the ultimate authority of God. For arguments that the subordination and honor discussed in 2:13-17 was never to be in violation of God’s will, see Achtemeier, 185; Black, 73; Monera, 122-23; Davids, 99. For the specific argument that Christian faith required believers to withdraw from the very activities that Carter suggests they must have continued to participate in, see Boring, 103-04.

[45] Achtemeier, 188; Monera, 123; Boring, 116; Davids, 104; Horrell, 87.

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