A meditation on 1 Peter 2:4-25.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.-Ps 23:4

This passage continues today where we left off, with the assurances that encourage the faithful even when facing earthly trials, and the last assurance is that Jesus is a stone the world stumbles over and rejects, but he is the cornerstone upon which we are built up. It then moves on to discuss how we are to relate to two particularly inconvenient and uncomfortable human institutions: government and slavery. Rounding out todays reading Peter will tell us, and I know this is hard to hear, that in the face of suffering we should be either submissive or joyful.  

In these first few verses where Peter is talking about the stone, he is bringing three Hebrew poems into dialogue with each other. Remember he is giving them assurances that will help them let go of the things of this world and hold on to the promises of God. Remember he is telling them this to encourage them to hope in the return of Jesus, to live as foreigners in reverent fear, and to love one another deeply from the heart. He tells them as an assurance that God has a project with the Christians in Anatolia, that God’s purpose is to build them up into a spiritual house on the cornerstone of Christ Jesus. First, he quotes from a poem in Isaiah 28, saying that in the holy city God will lay a cornerstone and whoever believes in this cornerstone will not in the end be put to shame and disgrace. This poem on its whole is about the marriage between this world and the cult of death and how God is building a firm foundation of life in the midst of everything that he is overturning. Second Peter quotes from Psalm 118 which I talked about extensively on Palm Sunday. This Psalm foretells and forthtells Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem, his purification in the temple, his being handed over to death, and his victory over the grave. Peter brings all that to mind when he quotes it saying, “the stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” The third poem Peter quotes is from Isaiah 8. It is an admonition originally to the people of Judah not to fear the heathen superpower nations around them, but to fear God, for God is the stone that will cause the rebellious nations to stumble and to fall.

To try to state everything Peter is saying here concisely, let me paraphrase in my words what I am hearing. Christians of Anatolia, God has a purpose with you to make you into a shelter that will last even while everything else fades away. God has set Jesus in Jerusalem as the cornerstone upon which you are being built. Remember how he was betrayed and destroyed by oppressive worldly powers but rose victorious from the grave. It was God who was sovereign over all the bustling of the chief priests and the Pharisees and Herod and Pilate. Remember what God has always told you, fear him and cling to him, do not fear the heathen powers. For upon Christ all heathens will stumble and fall, into his arms as a new creation or under his feet.

Then Peter turned this assurance to the very real sufferings these Anatolian Christians were enduring. We have a letter between the senior governor of the region and the Roman Emperor Trajan from the late 90s to early 100s AD which exemplifies policy in the region towards Christians. They were not deliberately hunted but if they were found out they would be beaten until they worshipped the emperor as a god or were martyred.

One of the most difficult things I find in this passage is Peter’s treatment of human authority, to which we now turn our attention. He tells us to honour and submit to the Emperor or local governors. He is talking about pagan men, lustful men, violent men, pagan men that would have us worship them and not worship God. I tend to like my freedom, and I tend to dislike authorities inserting themselves into my daily life. I tend to think of Psalm 2 when God laughs at the might of worldly princes and promises to overturn and crush them. When Mary is pregnant with Jesus she sings of a day when every tyrant will be toppled from his throne. Ours is the God who delivered Israel from slavery and from a pharaoh. Ours is the God who overturned Ahab and Jezebel’s tyranny. Ours is the God who overturned death and is reigning the universe from eternity So why is God’s holy apostle telling us to submit to emperors and if we are slaves to submit to our masters?

The Homily Against Rebellion deals with this topic quite thoroughly. It starts with this passage from Peter and another from Romans 13:1- which explains the reasoning a little differently from Peter. Paul puts it this way: \’Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For 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. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore, one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” Now Paul is talking about the same self-aggrandizing sodomizing genociding powers that Paul is but he is reasoning that there is no power that can exist lest it be permitted by God. So even this Roman power is an instrument of God’s power, and he will use it to punish the evil and it can do no real spiritual harm to those who do good. In fact, this evil power is God’s servant for the good of God’s people. This is being said about Rome, but it is being said in a way that could apply equally to Fascist Italy, to Robespierre’s France, to Soviet Russia, to Trudeau’s government. How are these God-hating, rebellious powers supposed to be God’s instrument for our good?

I want to take a step back for a second to how this understanding becomes part of the mindset of God’s people because it is so very counter-intuitive. In Amos we hear how the Northern Kingdom of God’s people had turned into a jest of themselves. In God’s name they oppressed other nations, took their people as slaves, and abused them, they neglected the poor and built ivory palaces, they only listened to a version of God’s word that was comfortable and tickled their ears. In Jeremiah we hear how God’s patience ran out and the North was wiped out by Assyria, a militant nation that took pride in their violence descended upon them like locusts and utterly destroyed them. Judah said to herself God loves us more we are safe, his love will endure for us forever. But Jeremiah her prophet warned her that if she would continue worshipping other idols, if she would continue faithless to God, he would again bring judgment against them. And the armies of Babylon, another pagan kingdom came, to punish, rebuke and correct the people of God.

In Ezekiel and Daniel these events are processed. They look back at how God had used the twelve tribes to cast out the wicked in Canaan, God tells them in Deuteronomy it is not because Israel is so just, but because the Canaanites are so wicked, and they are his instrument against them. They see how they had become wicked and terrible examples of the holiness of God, and so God corrected them and cast them out. And they repented as exiles in foreign lands, and they prayed to the Lord. In the lands of their captivity, they found ways to bless their rulers. They obeyed them as much as they could without defying God. Daniel found ways to eat that would satisfy the King and the Law. Daniel did everything the king asked until he was commanded not to pray God, but to pray instead to the Emperor. Daniel could not submit to this, so instead submitted himself to the punishment for not being able to obey. And the Lord delivered him from the lion’s den and the furnace and used him to show Babylon’s king that even he had a King.

I really like the way Lord Acton puts the Christian understanding of government. Speaking of when Jesus talks about the denarius coin with the Pharisees and says, “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s”, Acton says Jesus gives to government a sacred ordination it had never before enjoyed, and limits which had never before prevented it. I think monarchy is maybe better suited for keeping clear for Christians their relationship to the passing states of this world. Because in monarchy’s everyone’s station is clear. It is for the Prince to learn whose minister he is, to learn who he is subject to, and become and under shepherd in preparation for eternity. The Lord of heaven can work this in the hearts of earthly lords. It is for Christian subjects to know who the King’s king is, but to let the King govern, our station is to pursue eternity and submit to the authorities God has chosen to permit insofar as we can without defying God.

Of course, Peter’s reason for obeying earthly authorities is different from Paul’s, though not so very different. Peter takes for granted that in being governed we are going to suffer. He does not talk so much about the blessings Paul sees. He sees only that since we will be governed by sinning men we are going to suffer. Peter seems to see this as a positive good. If we are unjust, we deserve to be punished, thanks be to God that he is just to punish us. If we rather are just and are being punished anyway then we are being punished because of Jesus. For Peter this is a good thing. Jesus says in the beatitudes:  “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Mttw 5:10-12). Peter sees this as something mystical and beautiful, he sees it as an assurance of our partnership with Christ, a fulfilment of the death of self and life of Christ such that our perishing selves have been raised into the Christian life. Let’s hear again exactly how he puts it: “To this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:21-24).”

This is not to say that we should all go get horse whips and beat each other or ourselves or start nailing ourselves to crosses or seek to deliberately to bring the wrath of the state or our teachers or our parents or our bosses upon us. It is to say that the right attitude when we suffer under authority is not complaining or blaming the authorities. The right attitude is to first ask inwardly if this is sent to correct something within you, if so repent and amend your ways. If not, we are to see such trials as an opportunity to be united with Christ in his sufferings, to be counted together with the prophets, to see it as a sign of a great reward prepared for you in heaven, and to count it all joy. Gratitude is the mark of the Christian, gratitude even for great loss and torment in this passing world. A gratitude we can only have because we know the stone upon whom we are founded, and we know everything else will in the end come to count as nothing.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.-Ps 23:4