In preparation for a particular study I was doing recently, I found myself reading John Calvin on 2 Peter 2. In that chapter, the apostle writes of the character of false teachers, and pulls few punches in doing so. In v. 10, he writes of the fact that the false teachers, in their embrace of wickedness, “despise authority” and “do not tremble as they blaspheme the glorious ones.” The NKJV reads, “They are not afraid to speak evil of dignitaries.”
The word translated “authority” is a pretty standard Greek word, which speaks quite generally of rulers. The word translated “glorious ones” (ESV) or “dignitaries” (NKJV) is a quite different word. It speaks of glory. The ESV’s translation hints strongly that this is a reference to celestial beings (which is exactly how the NIV translates the word), and most commentators seem to follow this pattern of thought. Edwin E. Blum observes that the term has been interpreted variously as “the imperial and magisterial power, rulers of the church, good angels, or fallen angels.” He concludes that the Greek word “seems highly unusual as a term for church leaders or magistrates” and that “most interpreters think it refers to celestial beings of some kind.”1
Because I typically use the ESV, I am familiar with the “glorious ones” translation (though I am also familiar with “dignities,” having been raised in a staunch KJV-only church context). It was interesting to note, as I read Calvin, that he interpreted the “glorious ones” specifically as human civil authorities. Calvin argues that the word “authority” in v. 10a is a clear reference to government authorities, and that the word translated “glorious ones” must be understood, in the context, to speak of the same:
These words refer to the same thing, for after having said that they held government in contempt, he immediately points out the fountain of this evil, that they were “presumptuous,” or audacious, and “self-willed,” or refractory; and lastly, that he might more fully exhibit their pride, he says that they did not fear nor tremble when they treated dignities with contempt….
But there is no doubt but that in these words he refers to the imperial and magisterial power; for though there is no lawful station in life which is not worthy of respect, yet we know that the magisterial office excels every other, because in governing mankind God himself is represented. Then truly glorious is that power in which God himself appears.2
Calvin, then, in contrast to many contemporary interpreters, thought that Peter’s point was that the false teachers were quite willing to speak evil of governmental authorities. And the language he employs is particularly significant, for if “they do not tremble as they blaspheme the glorious ones,” the implication is that they ought to tremble. To adopt the NKJV’s rendering, “they are not afraid to speak evil of dignitaries,” but they should be afraid to do so.
Peter’s point appears to be this: We should be afraid to speak evil of our rulers. To be unafraid in this regard is to adopt the character of the false teachers, who stand in danger of God’s judgement.
Now, perhaps you would argue that the verse does not, in fact, speak of human rulers, that the word is better translated in the ESV as “glorious ones,” and that Peter is in fact warning against blaspheming (fallen) angels. But even if that is the case, there are plenty of other injunctions in the New Testament about believers treating governing authorities with respect.
Peter wrote in his first epistle: “Honour everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17). Peter clearly intended his readers to understand that they should “honour” even godless leaders because (1) the reigning emperor when he wrote was Nero, one of the most godless emperors in Rome’s history, who actively persecuted Christians; and (2) he points, as our example, to Jesus Christ who did not speak evil of the authorities who ultimately crucified him (vv. 21–23).
Paul spent a little more time in his letter to the Romans explaining the reasoning behind the biblical injunction to respect governing authorities.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honour to whom honour is owed.
The reasoning here is important: “Whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.” Those who speak evil of—or “resist” in any other way—governing authorities have good reason to fear, because they “will incur judgement.” We should respect and obey governing authorities because the authorities stand in the place of God. To resist the authority is, in fact, to resist God, who appointed the authority to rule.
Jesus similarly exhorted us to pay taxes to the government (Mark 12:13–17). We know that the tax collectors in those days abused their position for personal gain (see Luke 3:12–13), but Jesus still exhorted the people to pay.
The testimony of the New Testament is consistent throughout: The authorities that exist are put there by God and Christians should think very carefully how they talk about and behave toward those authorities. In fact, we should be afraid to blaspheme those authorities; not afraid of the authorities, but of God who has put the authorities in place.
Even if 2 Peter 2 is speaking about angels rather than human authorities, that surely only strengthens the case, for God has not placed angels in authority over us, whereas he has placed governors over us. Assuming the “glorious ones” are, in fact, fallen angels, how much more afraid should we be to speak evil of legitimate God-appointed authorities than of those who have no such divine authority?
There are far too many Christians who are far too blasé in the way in which they speak about governing authorities. This is certainly true in the current South African context. Far too many Christians are willing to hurl all manner of insults at President Jacob Zuma and the ANC government, and to do so without trembling. But we would do well to heed Peter’s exhortation—and the consistent testimony of the New Testament. For, as Calvin says, “it is a monstrous arrogance to regard as nothing the glory which shines forth in dignities appointed by God.”3 And such “monstrous arrogance” will no doubt invite God’s displeasure.