Slaves are frequently mentioned in epistles (1 Corinthians 7.21-23; Ephesians 6.5-8; Colossians 3.22; 1 Timothy 6.1-2; Titus 2.9; Philemon). This seems to indicate that many of those who comprised the first century church were in a condition of servitude or were owners of slaves. In this section (2.18-25), Peter focuses exclusively on “household servants” to encourage those who perhaps needed the most encouragement to live godly lives while facing difficult circumstances.
Submission as Slaves (2.18-25)
18Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.
Servants: Gk oiketai, household servants. No comparable institution exists in modern Western society so it is difficult to accurately translate this word. However, “semi-permanent employee without legal or economic freedom” comes closest (Grudem 124).
Be subject…all respect: cf. v. 13. Present tense indicates these Christians slaves were to continue to submit themselves to their masters “with all fear” (NKJV). Fear (Gk phobo) is to be directed toward God, therefore, this is “for the Lord’s sake” (v.13), not out of fear of their masters.
Not only…the unjust: Generally speaking, slave (both in the house & out) were treated good & gentle by their masters. They were trained to perform important domestic, business, & public tasks. Doctors, teachers, musicians, & managers were slaves. Rome had passed much legislation protecting the 60 million slaves within her boarders. However, there was abuse by “harsh” (NIV) masters who lived in “pampered idleness” (Barclay 249). Some slaves were mistreated, denied pay, kept in awful conditions, etc. Even to these masters Christians slaves submit.
Submission to “unreasonable” (NASB) & “perverse” (NET) masters by Christian slaves is perhaps the most difficult instruction in 1 Peter. Obedience to harsh masters must have been somewhat deflating & disappointing to the Christian slave who had come to a Christian worldview where all men are equal in God’s sight. Of course, like with the government, submission of slaves had limitations; if a master ordered a slave to do something against the will of God, the slave should refuse in order to obey a higher authority. Nevertheless, short of sin, the slave was to submit & obey even dishonest & crooked masters in all things out of respect & fear of God.
19For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.
For this is a gracious thing: For signals that Peter is going to explain the reason for the radical submission of v.18. God looks with favor upon those who suffer unjustly while trusting Him.
When…suffering unjustly: The slave is mindful of God, that is, God’s will & presence, even his/her duty toward God. God approves of this because the slave chooses God’s authority over his own comfort & security, enduring sorrows & suffering unjustly (or wrongfully) for His will. Both the physical pain & mental anguish are in view here.
The Christian is to have a “trusting awareness of God’s presence & never-failing care” as they endure suffering, esp. when we suffer for doing the right thing, i.e. God’s will. Our faith is rooted in the knowledge that one day God will right all wrongs & vindicate the patient endurance of the Christian. This is what enables Christians to submit to injustice without bitterness and despair. It will also enable us to avoid improper responses like rebellion, revolt, hateful rhetoric, or misplaced fear.
20For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.
For what…you endure?: A rhetorical question—there is no honor in the patient endurance of rightfully deserved punishment for wrongdoing. Many who sin and do wrong expect some kind of punishment should they get caught. That’s why they do all they can to avoid getting caught!
But if…sight of God: It could be that they did the right thing fro their master & still suffered for it; more likely this has to do with doing the right thing as a Christian when their master wanted them to do otherwise & they were knocked about being beaten with the fist. Doing the thing that pleases God & suffering for it will open new avenues of “grace from God.”
Peter gives two reason for patient endurance through unjust suffering: 1) God’s grace (18-19) & 2) Christ’s calling (20-25).
21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.
For…been called: cf. 1 Thess 3.3. Christians are destined for wrongful affliction. Why? Because unjust suffering is at the heart of Christianity in the model of Christ whom Christians are to imitate. This is the example Peter focuses on for Christian slaves who serve unjust masters, even the servant of YHWH. His is the supreme of unjust suffering by the hands whom He came to serve.
Because Christ…in His steps: Christ’s example is proof positive that God looks with favor upon those who patiently endure through unjust suffering. Of course His example is even greater because it was for you (Gk uper umon, lit. on behalf of all you). Nevertheless, Christ also suffered for you even as now you suffer for Him. Christian slaves follow in His steps when they endure unjust suffering from their masters.
NOTE: While Peter is focused on Christian slaves, the instruction can certainly apply to every Christian. Christ is our example (Gk hupogrammon) over which our lives to be placed & traced.
22He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.
He committed no sin: cf. Isa 53.9. Never once did Christ sin, a fact of the gospel strongly attested in the New Testament (2 Cor 5.21; Heb 4.15; 1 John 3.5) & earlier in 1 Peter (1.19). He was the sinless servant of YHWH (see Isa 52.13). He is distinct from believers in this & because of His sinlessness is able to be our vicarious sacrifice.
Neither was…His mouth: Deceit is something Christians are to put away (v.1). Here is why: Christ. “If Jesus as the servant of the Lord did not sin or use guile, despite suffering intensely as the righteous one, then believers should follows His example and refrain from sinning or using deceit when they are mistreated as Christ’s disciples” (NAC).
23When 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.
When…in return: A possible allusion to Isa 53.7. Jesus the “lamb without blemish” “led to the slaughter…opened not His mouth.” Though He was slandered & insulted He did not hurl invective back. He remained silent. Even those times during His ministry when He did defend Himself it was all spoken out of deep love for those who opposed Him.
When…threaten: It seems slaves were of a mind to be “argumentative” (Titus 2.9) & invoke divine retribution when caused to suffer. But not even Christ did this, choosing rather when the pain the worst to say “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23.34).
But…Him who judges justly: Peter has already spoken of God as the just judge (1.17). Himself is supplied in most English translations & appears to be correct given what Peter says in 4.19 (“those who suffer…entrust their souls” to God). At the same time, the imperfect tense & His example from the cross seem to indicate that every dimension of His life was entrusted to God by Christ.
Our natural response when someone has injured us or hurt us to even the score by hurting them back &, if possible, hurt them more. If we can’t get even right away, we may threaten with violence later. “I’m gonna get you!” Or if they’ve hurt & we know there is no way we can get a hand on them, we might threaten divine retribution – “God will get you for this!” But these are natural responses for natural people. Instead, we believe in a God who is in control of everything & we follow the example left by Christ who “kept on entrusting” not just Himself but also His followers and even the wrongdoers and the entire situation “to Him who judges justly.” The imperfect tense indicates this was the regular practice of Jesus throughout His ministry. His attitude was one of faith in the just, fair Father of us all.
At the same time, we as believers trusting in the just Judge know that God will vindicate & reward us while judging & punishing our enemies (see Romans 12.19-20). In fact, it is because we leave justice in the hands of the righteous Judge that we can live like Christ without engaging in or even threatening retaliation. Jeremiah is an OT example this very thing (Jer 11.18-23). “Let me see your vengeance upon them,” he says, “for to you have I committed my cause” (20b). So Jesus was God’s gentle lamb. And we too follow that gentle lamb example.
24He 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.
He Himself…on the tree: cf. Isa 53.4, 5, 6, 11 (“borne our griefs…borne our iniquities”). Here is the vicarious nature of Christ’s atoning work—Him in our place for our sins. While Christians are to follow Christ’s example in suffering, we must also remember His suffering had this unique quality as the basis for our salvation. The Lord “laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” This took place on the tree (Gk xylon), that is, the cross, Peter preferring “tree” to connect his audience to Deut 21.22-23 & the curse upon those hung on a tree for judicial punishment.
That we…righteousness: Here is the purpose for Christ bearing our sins—living to righteousness. A new kind of life is the goal of the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf & for our sins. This new life is marked by a cessation from sin which began at baptism (aorist).
By His wounds you have been healed: cf. Isa 53.5. By the wounds of Christ on the cross we have been healed of our moral wounds, i.e. sins. The punishment that was due us, that we deserved, Christ took upon Himself in the flesh to make us well. Sin is the disease, Christ the Cure!
25For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
For you were straying like sheep: Cf. Isa 53.6. For explains we deserved punishment for wandering. This was the past condition of these Christians, indeed, the condition of everyone before coming to salvation in Christ. We wondered off the path of righteousness & onto the way of sin.
But have now…your souls: Gk alla, strong contrast. But now our fortunes have changed because of Christ. We are no longer lost, wandering sheep. We have returned to our Shepherd and Overseer. In the Old Testament, YHWH is the Shepherd of the flock, i.e. Israel (Psalm 23.1; 80.1; Isaiah 40.10-11). In the New Testament, Christ is the Good Shepherd (Johhn 10.11) & the Chief Shepherd (1 Pet 5.4). Likewise, in the Old Testament, YHWH is seen as the Guardian (NASB) of His flock (see Ezekiel 34.11, where “seek them out” is translated episkepsomai). In the New Testament, Christ is the Overseer who “seeks out” His sheep. All of this is firm testimony that in Christ YHWH came near.