“Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.” (1 Peter 2:17)
Peter’s letter to the elect children of God (1 Pet. 1:2) is a letter of encouragement to faithfully persevere in the faith, even in the midst of persecution, tribulation, and suffering. The readers of this epistle were facing persecution from without, even from the government under which they were under authority. The Roman Emperor Nero had begun a severe persecution of Christians in 64 AD near the penning of this letter. Nevertheless, in 1 Peter 2:13-17 these believers are instructed to be obedient unto the governmental authorities, and verse 17 is a brief four sentence summary of the attitudes that God’s children must have towards all men, the church, the Lord God, and the ultimate governmental authority.
Disciples of Jesus Christ are commanded to be respectful to all men, regardless of whether we happen to agree or disagree with that person on religion, politics, etc. We are to love “all men”, and even commanded to love our enemies, and pray and still do good to those who don’t treat us right (Matt. 5:44). One chief reason of this higher standard is alluded to in 1 Peter 2:12: so that we will have a good conversation and reputation that men may see our good works and glorify God because of it (also see Matt. 5:16). We are commanded to pray for all men, particularly for those in the highest levels of authority in our government (2 Tim. 2:1-2). The church is the salt and light in a culture, and we must do good to all men in spite of how we are treated in return. This requirement to honor and respect all men is emphasized over and over in the scriptures.
The believer is commanded to do good to all men, but especially to care for those of the household of faith (Gal. 6:10). There is a special kinsmenship and bond between members of the Lord’s church. We are to care for other children of God in a special manner when they are in need. Notice the distinction, between “honor” for all men, but “love” for our fellow brethren in the church. We have a responsibility to care for and honor the culture at large, but we also have a special obligation to love and care for other disciples of Christ in the church.
The child of God’s first responsibility and affection is to the Lord God. We have a requirement to “fear” God, or to ensure we render due honor and reverence unto our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ our Savior. Scripture is replete with admonitions to fear Almighty God. Again, the distinction in these verses for the believer’s attitude and conduct towards others are clearly defined. We honor and respect all men and the government. We love the church. Then, above all we fear God. We do not fear man – whether it be all men, the brotherhood, or the king – because that fear of man will ultimately quench our profitable service unto the Lord. “The fear of man bringeth a snare: but whoso putteth his trust in the Lord shall be safe.” (Prov. 29:25)
The Christian is also commanded to “honour the king”. In the context of 1 Peter, the king (the highest authority of the applicable government) was the Roman Emperor Nero. In an effort to shift blame for the Great Fire of Rome, Nero blamed Christians and began a severe, systematic persecution of the church. This epistle was penned in the midst of that severe persecution where many in the church were martyred for their faith. But yet Peter instructs for the Christians to “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme: Or unto governors…” (1 Pet. 2:13-14). To make sure we emphasize this point, Peter instructs the church to submit to the emperor and governors that are attempting to martyr believers. Romans 13:1-7 gives very clear teaching on the responsibility of the believer in submission to government as well. Government was instituted by God to be a terror to evil, and to protect and even praise those who do good. And the conclusion in Rom. 13:7 reads much the same way as 1 Pet. 2:17: “Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear unto whom fear; honour to whom honour.”
At the end of the day, while we are to render due honor and respect unto the king (or the highest authority in our government), our foremost responsibility is to be faithful to God alone. When Peter and the other apostles were prohibited from teaching and preaching the gospel in Jerusalem, their answer sets the scriptural precedent for the responsibility of the believer when the laws of our government defy the commands and the word of God. “Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)