Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul.
I think that you will understand the text, and indeed the whole of St. Peter's first Epistle, better, if I explain to you somewhat the state of the Eastern countries of the world in St. Peter's time. The Romans, a short time before St. Peter was born, had conquered all the nations round them, and brought them under law and regular government. St. Peter now tells those to whom he wrote, that they must obey the Roman governors and their laws, for the Lord's sake. It was God's will and providence that the Romans should be masters of the world at that time. Jesus Christ the Lord, the King of kings, had so ordained it in his inscrutable wisdom; and they must submit to it, not for fear of the Romans, but for the Lord's sake as the servants of God, who believed that he was governing the world by his Son Jesus Christ, and that he knew best how to govern it.
That was a hard lesson for them to learn; for they were Jews. This epistle, as the words of it show plainly, was written for Jews; both for those who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ as the true King of the Jews, and for those who ought to have believed in him, but did not. They were strangers and pilgrims (as St. Peter calls them), who had no city or government of their own, but had been scattered abroad among the Gentiles, and settled in all the great cities of the Roman Empire, especially in the East: in Babylon, from which St. Peter wrote his epistle, where the Jews had a great settlement in the rich plains of the river Euphrates; in Syria; in Asia Minor, which we now call Turkey in Asia: in Persia, and many other Eastern lands. There they lived by trade, very much as the Jews live among us now; and as long as they obeyed the Roman law, they were allowed to keep their own worship, and their own customs, and their law of Moses, and to have their synagogues in which they worshipped the true God every Sabbath-day. But evil times were coming on these prosperous Jews. Wicked emperors of Rome and profligate governors of provinces were about to persecute them. In Alexandria in Egypt, hundreds of them had been destroyed by lingering tortures, and thousands ruined and left homeless. Caligula, the mad emperor, had gone further still. Fancying himself a god, he had commanded that temples should be raised in his honour, and his statues worshipped everywhere. He had even gone so far as to command that his statue should be set up in the Temple of Jerusalem, and to do actually that which St. Paul prophesied a few years after the man of sin would do, 'Exalt himself over all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he would sit in the temple of God, and show himself as God.'
Then followed a strange scene, which will help to explain much of this Epistle of St. Peter. The Jews of Jerusalem did not rise in rebellion. They did what St. Peter told the Jews of Asia Minor to do. They determined to suffer for well-doing,--to die as martyrs, not as rebels. Petronius, the Roman governor who was sent to carry out the order, was a strange mixture of good and bad. He was a peculiarly profligate and luxurious man. He wrote one of the foulest books which ever disgraced the pen of man. But he was kind-hearted, humane, rational. He had orders to set up the Emperor's statue in the temple at Jerusalem; and no doubt he laughed inwardly at the folly: but he must obey orders. Yet he hesitated, when he landed and saw the Jews come to him in thousands, covering the country like a cloud, young and old, rich and poor, unarmed, many clothed in sackcloth and with ashes on their heads, and beseeching him that he would not commit this abomination. He rebuked them sternly. He had a whole army at his back, and would compel them to obey. They answered that they must obey God rather than man. Petronius's heart relented; he left his soldiers behind and went on to try the Jews at Tiberias. There he met a similar band. He tried again to be stern with them. All other nations had worshipped the Emperor's image, why should not they? Would they make war against their emperor? 'We have no thought of war,' they cried with one voice, 'but we will submit to be massacred rather than break our law;' and at once the whole crowd fell with their faces to the earth, and declared that they were ready to offer their throats to the swords of the Roman soldiers.
For forty days that scene lasted; it was the time for sowing, and the whole land lay untilled. Petronius could do nothing with people who were ready to be martyrs, but not rebels; and he gave way. He excused himself to the mad emperor as he best could. He promised the Jews that he would do all he could for them, even at the risk of his own life--and he very nearly lost his life in trying to save them. But the thing tided over, and the poor Jews conquered, as the Christian martyrs conquered afterwards, by resignation; by that highest courage which shows itself not in anger but in patience, and suffering instead of rebelling.
Well it had been for the Jews elsewhere if they had been of the same mind. But near Babylon, just about the time St. Peter wrote his epistle, the Jews broke out in open rebellion. Two Jewish orphans, who had been bred as weavers and ran away from a cruel master, escaped into the marshes, and there became the leaders of a great band of robbers. They defeated the governor of Babylon in battle; they went to the court of the heathen king of Persia, and became great men there. One of them had the other poisoned, and then committed great crimes, wasted the country of Babylon with fire and sword, and came to a miserable end, being slaughtered in bed when in a drunken sleep. Then the Babylonians rose on all the Jews and massacred them: the survivors fled to the great city of Seleucia, and mixed themselves up in party riots with the heathens; the heathens turned on them and slew 50,000 of them; and so, as St. Peter told them, judgment began at the house of God.
Whether this massacre of the Babylonian Jews happened just before or just after St. Peter wrote his epistle from Babylon, we cannot tell. But it is plain, I think, that either this matter or what led to it was in his mind. It seems most likely that it had happened a little before, and that he wrote to the Jews in the north-east of Asia Minor, to warn them against giving way to the same lawless passions which had brought ruin and misery on the Jews of Babylon.
For they were in great danger of falling into the same misery and ruin. The Romans expected the Jews to rebel all over the world. And, as it fell out, they did rebel, and perished in vast numbers miserably, because they would not take St. Peter's advice; because they would not obey every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake; because they would not honour all men: but looked on all men as the enemies of God.
Good for them it would have been, had they taken St. Peter's advice, which was the only plan, he said, to save their souls and lives in those terrible times. Good for them if they had believed St. Peter's gospel, when he told them that God had chosen them to obedience, and purification by the blood of Christ, to an inheritance undefiled and that faded not away.
He said that, remember, to all the Jews, whether Christians or not. St. Peter took for granted that Christ was Lord and King of all the Jews, whether they believed it or not. He did not say, 'If you believe in Christ, then he is your King; if not, then he is not;' but--Because you are Jews, you are all Christ's subjects; to him you owe faith, loyalty, and obedience. It was of him the old Jewish prophets foretold, and saw that their prophecies of Christ's coming would be fulfilled, not in their own time, but in your time--in the time of the Jews to whom he spoke. Therefore they were to give up the foolish practices which had been handed down to them from their forefathers. Therefore they were to give up fleshly lusts, which warred against the soul, and would only bring them to destruction; therefore they were to be holy, even as God was holy; therefore they were to purify their souls in sincere brotherly love; therefore they were to keep their conduct honourable among the Gentiles, that, though they were now spoken against as evil-doers, they might see their good works, and glorify God in the coming day of visitation. Therefore they were to submit to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake; and trust to Christ, their true King in heaven, to deliver them from oppression, and free them from injustice, in his own good way and time. Free men they were in the sight of God, and unjustly enslaved by the Romans: but they were not to make their being free men a cloak and excuse for malice and evil passions against the Gentiles (as too many of the Jews were doing), but remember that they were the servants of God; and serve him, and trust in him to deliver them in his own way and time, by his Son Jesus Christ.
Those Jews who believed St. Peter's gospel and good news that Christ was their King and Saviour, kept their souls in peace.
Those Jews who did not believe St. Peter--and they, unhappily for them, were the far greater number--broke out into mad rebellion again, and perished in vast numbers, till they were destroyed off the face of the earth (as St. Peter had warned them) by their own fleshly lusts, which warred against the soul.
But what has this to do with us?
It has everything to do with us, if we believe that we are Christian men; that Christ is our King, and the King of all the world, just as much as he was King of the Jews; that all power is given to him in heaven and earth, and that he is actually exercising his power, and governing all heaven and earth.
Yes. If we really believed in the kingdom of God and Christ; if we really believed that the fate of nations is determined, not by kings, not by conquerors, not by statesmen, not by parliaments, not by the people, but by God; that we, England, the world, are going God's way, and not our own; then we should look hopefully, peacefully, contentedly, on the matters which are too apt now to fret us; for we should say more often than we do, 'It is the Lord: let him do what seemeth to him good.'
When we see new opinions taking hold of men's minds; when we see great changes becoming certain; then, instead of being angry and terrified, we should say with Gamaliel the wise, 'Let them alone: if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought; if it be of God, you cannot overthrow it, lest haply you be found fighting against God.'
If, again, we fancied ourselves aggrieved by any law, we should not say, 'It is unjust, therefore I will not obey it:' for it would seem a small matter to us whether the law was unjust to us, which only means, in most cases, that the law is hard on us personally, and that we do not like it; for almost every one considers things just which make for his own interest, while whatever is against his interest is of course unjust. We should say, 'Let the law be hard on me, yet I will obey it for the Lord's sake; if it can be altered by fair and lawful means, well and good; but if not, I will take it as one more burden which I am to bear patiently for the sake of him who lays it on me, Christ my Lord and my King.'
The true question with us ought to be, Does the law force us to do that which is wrong?
If so, we are bound not to obey it, as the Jews were bound not to obey the law which commanded Caesar's image to be set up in the Temple. But if any man knows of a law in this land which compels him to do a wrong thing, I know of none. And let no man fancy that such submission shows a slavish spirit. Not so. St. Peter did not wish to encourage a slavish spirit in Jews and Christians. He told them that they were free: but that they were not to use that belief as a cloak of maliciousness--of spiteful, bitter, and turbulent conduct. And as a fact, those who have done most for true freedom, in all ages, have not been the violent, noisy, bitter, rebellious spirits, who have cried, 'We are the masters, who shall rule over us?' but the God-fearing, patient, law-abiding men, who would obey every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake, whether it seemed to them altogether just or not, unless they saw it was ruinous not to themselves merely, but to their country, and to their children after them.
It is because men in their own minds do not believe that Christ is the ruler of the world, that they lose all hope of God's delivering them, and break out into mad rebellion. It is because, again, men do not believe that Christ is the ruler of the world, that, when their rebellion has failed, they sink into slavishness and dull despair, and bow their necks to the yoke of the first tyrant who arises; and try to make a covenant with death and hell. Better far for them, had they made a covenant with Christ, who is ready to deliver men from death and hell in this world, as well as in the world to come.
But he who believes in Christ, in the living Christ, the ordering Christ, the governing Christ, will possess his soul in patience. He will not fret himself, lest he should do evil; because he can always put his trust in the Lord, until the tyranny be overpast. He will not hastily rebel: but neither will he truckle basely and cowardly to the ways of this wicked world. For Christ the Lord hates those ways, and has judged them, and doomed them to destruction; and he reigns, and will reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet.