The way to live the life of liberty is summarised by Peter in verse 17: ‘Honour everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor.’ We may find the list a bit unusual because it seems to indicate progression of respect, yet does not mention God as the climax. It is better therefore to see Peter using a literary technique which puts the two most important aspects within the two less important aspects. In this way, we can see that Peter puts one’s attitude to unbelievers and the emperor as less important as one’s attitude to fellow-believers and to God (when we say that the unbelievers and rulers are less important, we don’t mean that they are unimportant). Seeing the four commands as two groups of two is helped when we notice that Peter uses the same word to describe how Christians should react to unbelievers and to the rulers.
We honour all people when we treat them as individuals who are made in the image of God, to respect the contributions that they make through their creaturely endowments to the life of society. In this simple requirement, we see the sinfulness of any action or word that demeans any person. A Christian should never insult another human being. This requirement is basically a summary statement of the second table of the moral law, that we are to love our neighbours as ourselves. And from it we can deduce that the Christian should, above all people, see the value of each human being.
We are to love the brotherhood, that is, all those in the family of God. We love them because we have the same Father, the same Saviour, the same indwelling Spirit, the same interests, and the same destiny. How do we show love to them? By praying for them, by speaking well of them, by helping them in whatever way we can, whether in a spiritual or in a practical manner.
We fear God because of his greatness – everything about him is far above what we can possibly be. His power, his knowledge and his wisdom are infinite. We fear him because he is righteous, determined to punish justly all who disobey him. In a sense, we fear him most of all because he is gracious and we do not want to lose what his grace has for us by any sinful action on our part. We show that we fear him by thinking about him, by admiring him, by loving him, and by obeying him.
We honour the ruler when we obey his laws, as long as his laws do not require us to disobey God. The ruler is to be honoured because he is a representative of God, and we show our respect by also praying for them. This means that Christians should be the best subjects in a kingdom.