These days, with COVID-19, racism riots, and a contentious election stirring our country, the concept of submission is hardly trendy. Why write about it? But, believers are not called to fashion their lives after the ebb and flow of culture, but rather to use the molds of God’s Kingdom to shape their lives. Scripture drives godly living. It always has and always will.
Submission appears several times in Scripture as one of the ideals of godliness. I recently re-watched a James Bond movie; such characters stoke popular ideas of courage and assertiveness. Beyond Bond lies the well-liked “terminator” and “nuke-em” style of problem-solving and rescuing people and nations. God does things differently.
Images like Stephen, the preacher in Acts, being stoned to death in the Bible perform poorly as entertainment. But, James Bond is still fiction. His character and movies will fade into the past. Stephen’s story is fact. Though tragic, it is continually read, told, preached and pondered more than 2,000 years after it happened.
Stephen did not survive, yet his impact lives. In his last crisis, the sky opened up, and heaven showed through. He saw Jesus. He saw God’s glory. He proclaimed truth boldly to his last moment without any daring survival, rescue or retaliation. He did not throw stones back at his attackers. The Bible says he was “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). He also had a good reputation. His fellow believers regarded him as wise. So, he asked God to forgive the men who were stoning him - while their stones were striking his body. Then, he died.
Stephen is a real hero who led people to Jesus, demonstrated great faith and spoke truth. He died serving Jesus. So, I named my son after him.
The Bible’s Stephen submitted to the system of government where he was preaching. That submission cost his life. Detractors and enemies co-opted that system to silence him. They stirred up people against him. They presented false witnesses about him - lies. In response, he preached the truth. His last sermon is in Scripture. God inspired it. Biblical truth promises eternal life, not long physical human life and comfort nor an “easy ride.” Submission wields great power, but it may not look instantaneously victorious.
1 Peter 2:13-15 says, “Submit to every human authority because of the Lord, whether to the emperor as the supreme authority or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do what is evil and to praise those who do what is good. For it is God’s will that you silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good.” Peter commanded believers to submit. So, the command deserves attention. And, Stephen showed the church how it happens in real life.
“Submit” describes something a person does not do, rather than some action he or she practices. It means to release or relinquish control of one’s life to an authority outside one’s self. Biblical submission requires extraordinary faith and vulnerability. It describes one person placing his or her life voluntarily under the control of another person’s will. At its core, submission represents self-denial. Another person’s influence, choices, decisions, instructions, demands and whims replace one’s own will at life’s helm.
The continued existence of one’s own will and awareness of its absent satisfaction poses enormous challenges to submission. People like their will. Submitting faces an uphill climb when a person believes his or her own convictions and passions are right and the other person is wrong - even morally wrong. Stephen faced that dilemma. His sermon makes clear the difference between his thinking and that of his accusers. To his trial, they brought lies. He brought truth.
In 1 Peter 2:13, the phrase “because of the Lord” is also translated “for the Lord’s sake” (most common translation) or “on account of the Lord.” The three Greek words that translate into those phrases reveal the driving force behind submission. God’s people submit to human institutions (governments) for God, for His sake, not for their own sake. Stephen’s story illustrates the possible cost. He did not submit so he could live. He submitted so that God would receive glory. God did. And, Stephen began his eternal life in heaven with God.
Submission may not appear to be advantageous from a human perspective. Some decry submission because of its inherent qualities of surrender, thinking it signals weakness. But, it means neither retreat nor fear. Biblical submission is a deliberate, purposeful act. It demands great spiritual strength and fortitude - faith - not human strength and fortitude.
Using Jesus as an example, Peter described how He submitted. He said Jesus “kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:23). He repeated the concept later. He wrote, “Let those who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right” (1 Peter 4:19). Christian submission demonstrates great faith, not great fear. When believers surrender control of life to others, they have already surrendered on a grander scale - to God. Submission reflects a person’s total transfer of life control into God’s hands.
Several questions swirl around the core of submission. Will I accept God’s plan for how I should behave, or will I embrace a human model instead? Am I willing to put my life at risk for God’s sake, for His name, for His glory, instead of using my energy to pursue my own reputation and recognition? Whom do I fear, and whom do I love? Who am I willing to trust more: the Lord or myself?