The Christian Light in This Present Darkness
Headed into 2020, we knew this would be a trying year for America. A presidential election year is always contentious, but we knew this year would be uniquely so. Yet, little did we know that the year would include the #MeToo Movement, DACA, COVID-19, the deaths of Ahmad Aubrey and George Floyd, protests, and significant Supreme Court rulings. A difficult climate has become toxic.
How does our Christian faith come to bear on these circumstances? We could provide detailed specifics, but the list would prove endless. I would suggest that if we abide by four governing principles commanded by the Lord through the apostle Peter, our light would shine as Christians in this present darkness.
Peter instructs us, “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Pet. 2:17). Four imperatives. Four simple sentences. Four verbs. Four objects.
Honor everyone. “Everyone” is a word that is often translated as “all.” It is used to speak of “the whole,” the whole of mankind. Peter doesn’t shrink from difficulty at the beginning of these principles. He starts big. Dear Christians, you are to evidence love for all people. Whether that is in person, in our private conversations, or on Twitter or Facebook. All people. Let’s be abundantly clear in the midst of what should not be confusing for the Christian—“all” means “all.” We value people of both genders, every color of skin, nationality, ethnicity, language, and culture. All are image-bearers and thus are worthy of respectful kindness—honor.
If we all lived by this Christian principle—honor everyone—what a difference this politically charged climate would be. Disagreement wouldn’t disappear, controversy might still stir, passions would still exist, but the climate would be less toxic. And Christians would lead the way. We can and must stand out as salt and light in this world, looking and sounding wholly different.
And that’s possible for us because we are not of the world. Partisan politics is terrible at love. Parties are controlled by their coalitions and center their agenda upon meeting their coalition’s desires. But we don’t serve a coalition. We serve a God who is love. And so, of all people, we can honor everyone. That doesn’t mean we have to agree with everyone—in fact we shouldn’t—but we can honor everyone.
Love the brotherhood. Peter then carries us to a higher plane when he instructs, “Love the brotherhood.” This is an even greater obligation, isn’t it? Paul echoes this greater obligation when he says in Galatians 6, “So then, as we have the opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” Those in the church are to be recipients of our love unlike anyone else. They are our eternal family.
Though there may be differences between us—different issues that concern us, different agendas we desire to see passed, different politics—none should be allowed to rise to a level of importance that it diminishes our love for one another. Oh, may we remember that in the church today!
If my conviction regarding some issue clouds my love for you, then I’m worshipping my passion instead of the Christ who dwells in you. No matter how much I rationalize that I’m fighting for truth, justice, freedom, or mercy, as Christ would have me, if it disrupts my love for you then it is a lie. Because Christ dwells in my brothers and sisters, they are to be the objects of my love.
“They will know you by your love for one another,” Jesus said. J.C. Ryle wonderfully commented, “Let us note that our Lord does not name gifts or miracles or intellectual attainments as the evidence of discipleship but love—the simple grace of love, a grace within reach of the poorest, lowliest believer, as the evidence of discipleship.” The apostle John writes, “Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness” (1 John 2:10, 11). If politics is defined as the activities associated with the governance of an area, then love is the politics of the Christian life. Love is to govern.
It is our relationships in the church that bleed out and affect everything around us. You want to see change and progress in our society? It begins in the pew. Our politics begin here and are primarily informed here and work out of here—within the body of Christ. That doesn’t mean that we ignore engaging with politics outside the church. No, I would say it emboldens it. But we cannot talk about politics in the broader sphere without examining our own lives and how they are being lived out with one another.
Fear God. This leads us back to the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” The First Commandment provides the baseline for all our arguments in both theology and politics. It is inescapable.
It’s been said, “The issue for God’s people is characteristically wrong God and not no God.” When we go to the ballot box, we take our gods in with us. Religion always stands behind politics. As Jonathan Leeman has said, “Every government is a deeply religious battleground of gods. No one separates their politics and religion—not the Christian, not the agnostic, not the secular progressive. It’s impossible.” That is why it should not surprise us that politics often feels like battle in our society. The gods demand perfect obedience and conformity.
It helps to think about the context when God gave the Ten Commandments. The preface to the Ten Commandments is all-important: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exod. 20:2). God begins by reminding the Israelites who He is and what He did for them. He rescued them from an oppressive political entity: Egypt. He then commands them. He will not afford them the foolishness of attaching themselves to lesser deities. He is their Ruler and Governor. He is their God.
The relationship is political even as it is redemptive. He rules over them. And His will supersedes all other affiliations and interests. In fact, His will must dictate them. It is a matter of worship. Nothing before Him and nothing alongside Him. There cannot be multiple claims upon our affections, our worldview, or our obedience. His is the all-controlling and all-demanding influence.
This is why Romans killed many Christians in the first centuries of the faith. It was not the Christian’s devotion to God, but their exclusive devotion to God that proved offensive. There is always cultural pressure to worship other gods. Everyone is worshipping something and that shows itself at the ballot box and in what we advocate for. Let all our politics be shaped, motivated, and ruled by our faith. If your Christianity doesn’t affect your politics, then most likely the rest of your life isn’t governed by your faith either.
Honor the emperor. We may dislike a policy, a platform, or even a politician—we surely should at times. Some politicians may even be an outspoken opponent of the church, and yet, we are commanded to honor them. Honor the emperor is meant to remind us of the Fifth Commandment: Honor your mother and father. Why? Because they both contributed the genes that make up our person? No. We are to honor them because they were placed in this position of authority in our life. The same is true of the government. But we don’t worship parents and we don’t worship the government. So, when we are commanded by law to do what is against our conscience, we must fear God and not the government. As Peter informs the high priest, “We must obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29). But we are to show honor as much as we are able.
At times the person or people governing us are scoundrels. But Peter knows this. When he writes this command, Nero is emperor in Rome, the same emperor would become one of the great persecutors of the early Christian church. He would light the way into Rome with impaled Christians set on fire. They would be fed to beasts and nailed to crosses. This Nero, whose persecutions would take Peter’s own life, reigns as Peter writes, “Honor the emperor.” And if Peter could speak to us from heaven now, he would still say, “Honor the emperor.” We may not celebrate them, but we can respect them. Maybe the person as an individual seems beyond respect, but the office established by God is not. Thus, we can show honor.
At other times we adore the candidate or individual in office. And here is the other little treat about this verse: Peter uses the same word in relation to the emperor as he does all people. It is a chiasm in the text—an A–B–C–A pattern. Honor, Love, Fear, Honor. And in that organizational device, he reminds the reader that the emperor is, in one sense, no greater than all other people. Despite the claims of the Roman emperor to be a god, he is simply one of us. Our hope is never in the person on the throne or in the oval office, but the One who sits enthroned above them.
I don’t know all the answers to our current issues in America. If you are like me, your head is swirling and heart troubled. But I do know that these four ethical imperatives provide a framework by which we may engage, labor, pray, and seek the Lord during this time. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. Four simple sentences. Hard to do, but if we were governed by these principles, our world would be a better place and our witness would shine all the brighter.