We, who are African Americans, naturally bristle at texts like this. The suffering of our forebearers during America’s history of chattel slavery makes us uncomfortable with the subject of servants and masters. The matter is worsened by “slave theology,” in which slaveholders used passages like this to keep slaves in bondage. But we must not allow the difficulty of the subject or the misuse of the text to cause us to ignore, minimize, or reject what the Spirit says to the church.
2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Our text is God-breathed scripture. There is something profitable in it for us. In our text, Peter addresses a target group for the first time.
- In the previous text, Peter talks about those of high status: emperors and governors.
- In this text, Peter talks to those of low status: servants.
In the Roman Empire, slavery was status-driven, not race-based. One was born a servant. Prisons of war became servants. Unpaid debt also led to servanthood. Others were sold into slavery by kidnappers. But being a slave did not mean you were doomed to a miserable life. Many servants were more educated than their masters and were professionals with servants of their own. In the Greco-Roman world, slavery was not a permanent status. Through manumission, a slave could buy his freedom. But none of these “perks” changed the nature of their status as servants.
The term Peter uses here is not the typical word for “bondservants.” He uses a term that means “household slaves.” In contrast to servants who worked in fields or mines, some served the household of the master. It may seem to be a preferable role. In many instances, it was not.
- Servants who worked the mines did not deal directly with the master often.
- Household slaves lived under the master’s thumb, whether he was kind or cruel.
Peter instructs these elect exiles how to live with unjust masters who mistreat them. Paul’s letters always address servants and masters. Paul wrote to teach Christians how to treat one another, regardless of their social status. Peter wrote to teach Christians how to live in a hostile society. He does not give any instructions to masters. He focuses on how servants should treat their masters.
I wish the New Testament rebuked the institution of slavery or called for its abolition. It does not. The apostles wrote to new Christians in fledgling churches. And they did not write as social reformers or revolutionaries. They wrote as pastors-teachers. It was not their goal to overthrow cultural systems. They sought to teach believers how to live for Christian within the cultural systems. Yet the New Testament would undermine the cultural systems. It not only ended Roman slavery; it ended the Roman Empire. In the meantime, Peter writes our text to remind the saints that Jesus Christ is Lord where you work. What does it mean to serve the Lord on your job?
The Duty of Submission
Verse 18 teaches three lessons about Christian submission.
The Exhortation to Submission. 1 Peter 2:13 says, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.” First, Peter applies this principle to authority figures in government. Now Peter applies this principle to authority figures at work. Verse 18 says, “Servants, be subject to your masters.” The verb means “to place under.” It was a military term that described the obedience of a soldier to the officer who outranked him. Peter commands servants to submit to their masters willingly. The exhortation applies to all believers who are under the authority of another.
God is a God of order. For there to be order, not chaos, someone must be in charge. It would be wonderful if it did not have to be that way. But our fallen world and sinful nature necessitate it. Divine order requires submission to authority. Adrian Rogers said, “You cannot be over the things God wants you to be over until you learn to be under those things that God has set over you.”
The Essence of Submission. Verse 18 says, “Servants, be subject to your master with all respect.” “Respect” literally means “fear.” It is translated that way throughout 1 Peter. It means the same thing here. It is the fear of God, not the fear of man. We are to submit with all respect. Willing subjection to others is the result of holy reverence for God.
- Submission has nothing to do with that person.
- It has everything to do with your relationship with God.
Paul S. Rees wrote: “When motive is pitched so high that its ultimate quest is the approval of God, something happens to the drabbest job or the enduring of the meanest insult that gives it a touch of the sublime.” Submission is essential to godliness. Ephesians 6:5-6 says, “Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.”
The Extent of Submission. This call to submission is unconditional. It is not selective submission. William. W. Harrell wrote: “There are limits to the responsibility of believing slaves to submit obediently to their masters. This line is not drawn, however, where man would draw it.” Verse 18 lists two kinds of masters. The distinction has nothing to do with one’s profession of faith. It is about the character of their conduct. We are to be subject to masters who are “good and gentle.” This command is not difficult. It is easy and enjoyable to work for a boss who treats you right.
We are also to be subject to masters who are “unjust.” The term means to be bent or curved. The medical term “scoliosis” is derived from this Greek word. We are to submit to those who are morally crooked. We must not obey any command to sin. But the character of the master must not be an excuse to disobey. You have options the recipients of this letter did not. You can quit and work somewhere else. You can also report illegal, immoral, or unethical behavior. It is not God’s will for you to work there and have a rebellious attitude toward those in authority.
The Endurance of Injustice
The story of Joseph is a story of injustice. His brothers wronged him. Potiphar’s wife wronged him. Pharaoh’s cupbearer wronged him. Genesis does not dwell on the injustice Joseph endured. It traces how the Lord was with Joseph through it all. This is how Peter addresses mistreated Christians. He does not linger over the unfairness of their condition or circumstances. He encourages them to endure by, through, and for the gracious favor of God.
The Mindset God Favors. Verse 19 says, “For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.” In this verse, Peter shifts from the duty of submission. And he begins to wrestle with the difficulties of serving unjust masters. He uses two terms to describe the effects of working for oppressive masters: “sorrows” and “suffering.” You may work at a place where you suffer mistreatment. And it causes you stress, struggle, and sadness. Peter does not say escape it. He says endure it.
This does not mean to be a glutton for punishment, suffer in silence, and do nothing to address your situation. It means your job is about your sanctification more than your salary. Could God be using your workplace as a classroom to teach you to endure? If you endure sorrow while suffering unjustly, it is a gracious thing. To live and serve in such a commendable way, you must be mindful of God. Potiphar’s wife sexually harassed Joseph. In Genesis 39:9, Joseph asked, “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” We must practice the presence of God to experience the favor of God.
The Behavior God Favors. 1 Samuel 16:7 says God looks at the heart. That does not mean God ignores our ways. The Lord favors a godly mindset and behavior. Verse 20 challenges us to live in such a way that the suffering we endure is unjustified.
Enduring justified suffering. Verse 20a raises a rhetorical question: “For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure?” Peter does not downplay the severity of slavery in the ancient world. He acknowledges that masters would beat their servants. If it happens because of disobedience, rebellion, or pilfering, you get no credit for that. There is nothing praiseworthy about enduring the punishment you deserve.
Enduring unjust suffering. Verse 20b states a logical conclusion: “But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.” This scenario personifies injustice.
- It is one thing to do wrong and suffer punishment.
- It is another thing to do good and suffer punishment.
What do you do when bad things happen to good people? If you endure it, it is a gracious thing in the sight of God. Divine favor overcomes worldly injustice.
The Example of Christ
Charles M. Sheldon wrote a book, In His Steps, published in 1896. It is one of the bestselling books of all time. The plot revolves around a pastor who challenged the members of his church not to do anything of a year without first asking, “What would Jesus do?” The book started a craze in the 1990s. WWJD? Merchandise was everywhere.
“What would Jesus do?” is an excellent question. To answer correctly, you must know what Jesus has done. What did Jesus do? 1 Peter 2:21 says, “For to his you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” This verse records two reasons Christians should endure mistreatment.
God has called you. The Christian’s calling is a key theme of 1 Peter. 1 Peter 2:9 says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” 1 Peter 3:9 says, “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.” 1 Peter 5:10 says, “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” 1 Peter 2:21 says, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.”
Each of these references speaks of effectual calling. It is the calling of God in salvation that led us to saving faith. The God who has called you out of darkness has called you to endure mistreatment. The mistreatment you suffer is never random, accidental, or haphazard. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
We are living through the victimization of society. Remember that if the diagnosis is wrong, the remedy will not work. Christians must never view themselves as victims. Life circumstances are a part of a God’s holy vocation for you. 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 says, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.”
Christ suffered for you. Verse 21 says, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you.” Peter intentionally calls Jesus of Nazareth “Christ.” The blue-collar worker turned upstart rabbi was Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. Yet the chosen one suffered.
- The fact that Christ suffered is remarkable.
- The reason Christ suffered is more remarkable: “for you.”
1 Peter 2:22-24 says, “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” Christ did not suffer because he did anything wrong. He suffered because you did something wrong. He suffered as our Substitute. This is the foundation of Christian theology. It is also the foundation of Christian ethics. You can endure any mistreatment when you remember that Christ suffered for you.
The Pattern of Christ Sufferings. Verse 21 says, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example.” John 13:15 says, “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” Christ is our example in service. Christ is our example in suffering. “Example” translates word means “a writing under.” This is how children were taught to write and draw. They would trace the pattern of words and images written underneath.
When I was a boy, my mother would sew clothes. I remember going to the store with her to be material and a pattern. She would cut and sew until the fabric matched the design. This is what Christ is to us. He is our example, model, and pattern. No person has lived justly as Christ. No person has suffered unjustly as Christ. When you are troubled about what they did to you, remember what they did to Christ for your sake.
The Purpose of Christ Sufferings. Verse 21 says, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” New birth happens when you come to Jesus. New life happens when you follow Jesus.
Matthew 16:24 says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Follow in Christ’s steps intimately, diligently, and continually. John 21:18-19 says, “‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.’ (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God). And after saying this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” Christ may lead you where you do not want to go. But follow him wherever he leads.