Most of you know that the first century church was persecuted terribly.
After Rome burned to the ground (64AD), emperor Nero falsely accused the Christians of starting the fire and condemned all Christians to death on the grounds that they were guilty of “hatred toward the human race”.
Those who continued to profess Christ were rounded up, locked up, crucified, beheaded, sacrificed, dipped in oil and set on fire, or mauled to death by beasts in the colosseum. It was a life or death decision, literally, to live for Christ in Rome and her governed provinces, even as it is in many dark corners of the world today.
Having this context, I’ve found it especially convicting to read the encouraging letters Peter and Paul wrote to God’s people during that especially dark and anxious time for the church. For example, in 1 Peter 2:
“Submit yourselves for the LORD’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to his governors…” (v.13)
Surely the Christians wondered (understandably), “Why would we ever submit to an emperor who is clearly an evil maniac with the goal of exterminating all Christians? Isn’t it foolish to submit ourselves to this bad authority? Wouldn’t we be seen as severely lacking in discernment? Where is our witness and integrity as Gods people? Why would we bend a knee to an earthy authority so far removed from the righteousness, justice, and compassion of our God?”
“Submit for the LORD’s sake” Peter says.
Remember Jesus – God’s chosen one – who did not shout, or cry out, or raise his voice in the street. Remember Jesus who stood quietly before human authority as his people bore false witness and insisted he be put to death as a criminal. Remember Jesus who rose from the dead and will also raise YOU from the dead. Remember Jesus whose spirit in you is greater than he that is in the world.
All of scripture is a reminder for God’s people to remember that every authority, on earth and in heaven, is subordinate to the King of kings. Peter says we can submit ourselves to human authority because we are anchored to the Rock of all ages; the Cornerstone of the church: King Jesus.
“Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.” (v. 17)
Honor the emperor?! These must have been very challenging words for the church of Rome, and they are no easier to hear in 2017. It’s one thing to submit to authority, as we all know, and quite another to honor it. Why this instruction for the church?
Peter reminds the church that when she honors the emperor and shows proper respect to all, she honors the LORD. He reminds us that when God’s people bless those who deserve a curse; when they tenderly love and care for the body of Christ like they are members of their own family, that we are blessing and loving our LORD.
And then! There’s this from Paul in 2 Timothy 3:
“But mark this: there will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful and proud, ungrateful, unholy, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, conceited, rash, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God – having a form of godliness but denying it’s power…” (v.1-5)
Both Paul and Peter would suffer and die a martyr’s death at the hands of an especially evil tyrant. Terrible times would indeed lie ahead for the fledgling Christian church when these New Testament letters were written. BUT LOOK at what Paul warns will be a sign that the WORST days are here: People will be lovers of themselves.
People will be lovers of themselves. Lovers of their ideas and solutions and passions. Lovers of their systems, words, intellect and integrity. People will be lovers of their own way that seems right to them.
“Submit to you?” people will say incredulously. “Screw you!”
People being lovers of themselves – not submitting themselves – is a sign of terrible times, says Paul to Timothy. Ungrateful, unyielding, rash, and unforgiving people have forgotten they have a generous, suffering, patient, and merciful King who grants them life and holds them fast through this life and the next.
But all of this is encouraging, church. Because there is no earthly emperor (good, evil, or crazy) that can thwart the kingdom of God advancing to all nations.
There is no government or system on earth that can prevail against a humble and contrite heart that trusts in the work of Jesus.
There is no darkness that the light of God’s word can’t permeate and be made to be as bright as the noonday sun.
So take heart and remember Jesus. His will is being done through his people – his beloved church – not because she is especially strong, faithful, courageous, and wise – but because He is!
Peace to you and yours as you submit yourselves for the LORD’s sake.
Image: Jean-Léon Jérôme: The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, oil on canvas (1863-883). The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.