By Christopher VanDusen
In the thirteenth verse of chapter 2 of the apostle Peter’s first letter, he says that the Lord Jesus Christ commands all of His people to submit themselves to every human institution of authority, since He is the One who established them. But how do believers submit to those in authority when they are mistreated by them? Peter answers this question in 1 Peter 2:18-24.
1 Peter is a letter that Peter wrote to Jewish Christians who were living far from their homeland, and among people who were vastly different from them. Not only that, but they had begun to be persecuted for being faithful Christians by their unbelieving neighbors. Because Peter knew of this persecution, and he knew that these Christians needed instruction on how to live the Christian life, he wrote 1 Peter to encourage and teach them.
In the first chapter of the letter, Peter describes the great blessings of the salvation that God has given them in its past, present, and future forms. He focuses on their future hope of obtaining new, perfect, sinless bodies, and of living on a new earth with Jesus for eternity. Also, he points out that their current suffering is necessary to bring God more glory through their perseverance in trusting Christ as Savior and Lord.
In light of the great salvation that God has given them, Peter commands his audience, whom he calls “aliens”, to be hopeful, holy, and reverent toward God. Then, he instructs them on how to love one another, since they’ve purified themselves, and have been born again through God’s Word.
To begin chapter 2, Peter directs the aliens to stop committing certain sins against one another, and to long to learn God’s Word instead, so they can become more like Christ. Then, he describes the process of how they’re becoming more like Christ, and explains what their purpose on earth is. Their purpose is to live as God’s holy priests, so they can proclaim who God is, and what He’s done, to the unbelieving world around them. After this, Peter gets into the details of how they’re to do this. He begins by addressing what their duty is to institutions of human authority in their society, beginning with their governments. Further, he commands them to honor every person in their life, which includes fearing God.
After this instruction on how and why to submit to government, and to honor the persons in their lives, Peter specifically addresses servants, and how they’re to submit to their masters who mistreat, them in verses 18-25:
“18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For 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. 21 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. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 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. 24 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. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” (ESV)
In this passage, Peter gives servants 3 essential facts about suffering from their masters, and 3 facts about Christ’s suffering to explain to them how and why they’re to submit to them:
- Slaves are Subject to their Bosses (v. 18)
- Suffering Sinlessly Gives them Benefit (vss. 19-21)
- Slaves Have Been Summoned to Be Christlike (v. 21)
- The Savior Suffered Blamelessly (v. 22)
- The Savior Suffered Beautifully (v. 23)
- The Savior Suffered Beneficially (vss. 24-25)
Slaves are Subject to Their Bosses
In the first verse of this passage, Peter instructs servants on how to submit to their masters by saying,
“Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.”
First, what does Peter mean by “servants”? This is the only place in the New Testament letters where this Greek word translated “servants” is used. The word is oiketai, which comes from oikos. Oikos means “household”, so when it gets its ending changed like this, it literally means “members of a household”. However, since Peter says that these members have “masters”, which comes from a word from which we get “despot”, or “absolute ruler”, they’re clearly either servants or slaves. The reason that they should be viewed as slaves is because the word for “masters” was used of those who owned people as slaves, and this kind of household slavery was very common in that society. Hence, although these people are members of the household, they’re still owned by “masters”.
So, what does Peter command these slaves to do? To “be subject” to their masters. This means recognizing the authority of their masters over them to command them to do things, and being willing to obey their commands as those in a lower position. However, Peter tells them to do this “with all respect”. The Greek word translated “respect” is phobo, which literally means “fear”. He’s already used this word twice in the letter to refer to fearing God, and the last time he did it was two sentences ago. So, is he talking about fearing the masters, or fearing God? At the least, he’s referring to fearing God, since this is one of the reasons that slaves are to submit to the masters that God has placed over them. This doesn’t refer to being afraid of God, since they know that God is their Father, and loves them. However, it’s such a respect and recognition of who God is as their Creator, Savior, and Ruler, that it gives them a sense of awe and worship that motivates them to obey Him. If Peter’s also including respect toward the slaves’ masters, as Paul does in Ephesians 6:5, then he obviously doesn’t mean worshipful respect, but respect that is motivated by the knowledge that God is the One who has given their masters authority over them.
To conclude this command, Peter specifies that he’s not just telling slaves to submit to masters who are “good and gentle but also to the unjust”. By “good”, he means “kind”, and by “gentle” he means the quality of controlling oneself, and being considerate toward others. The Greek word for “unjust” literally means “crooked” or “warped”, so it conveys the idea of being unkind or harsh.
Suffering Sinlessly Gives Them Benefit
In verses 19-20, Peter explains that Christian slaves will actually benefit from rightly enduring suffering from their masters:
“For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For 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.”
Peter first describes what kind of action enduring unjust suffering is when one is “mindful of God”. The Greek word translated “a gracious thing” is charis, which literally means “benefit” or “favor”, and is usually translated “grace” in the New Testament. So, Peter is saying that the act of enduring unjust suffering because one is “mindful of God” is a benefit to those who do it.
But what does Peter mean by “mindful of God”? He’s saying that the kind of endurance of unjust suffering that’s beneficial is that which is done because a person knows that God has placed the person causing the suffering over him, and has commanded him to submit to the tormenter. The implication here is that the slaves’ submission to their unjust masters will make them able and willing to endure mistreatment from them, since they are doing it because of their recognition of God’s control and rule over them, and over the situation.
The second thing Peter tells the slaves is that there’s no “credit” when they “sin and are beaten for it”, and “endure”. The Greek word translated “credit” literally means “fame” or “praise”, so he’s saying that it isn’t praiseworthy for them to endure punishment from their masters for sinning. To sin means falling short of loving Christ and loving their neighbor as they love themselves, which here would usually take the form of being a bad slave.
Finally, he emphasizes that it’s a “gracious”, or “beneficial” “thing in the sight of God” when they “do good and suffer for it”, and “endure”. The fact that he says that God sees this as a beneficial thing tells us that Peter means that God will reward them for enduring mistreatment from their masters for doing what’s right. They may be rewarded in this life with the joy of knowing that they were suffering for God’s glory, but will almost certainly be rewarded on judgment day for their obedience to God in suffering for doing good.
Slaves Have Been Summoned to Be Christlike
The third essential fact that Peter tells Christian slaves is that God has put them in a situation in which it’s their duty to imitate Christ. Verse 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.”
By using the word “for”, Peter is explaining why slaves must endure suffering for doing what’s right, out of their recognition of God. First, it’s because they’ve been “called” to it. When he says this, he’s implying that God was the One who called them to it. In the New Testament, when God “calls” those He chooses to do something, they always end up doing it, since they always recognize His all-powerful call, and obey it.
Secondly, Peter says that God called them to suffer for doing what’s right “because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps”. The fact that Christ suffered for them means that He suffered on the cross in their place, to benefit them. Since He suffered for them, they now are to suffer for Him. Why? Because, by suffering for them, He left them an example to follow. In other words, God has called them to suffer as Christ suffered.
The Savior Suffered Blamelessly
In verse 22, Peter says that the first way in which God has called Christian slaves to imitate Christ is by suffering blamelessly:
“He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.”
Here, Peter’s describing Christ’s moral condition when He suffered crucifixion. He hadn’t committed any sin, even when his enemies arrested him, tried him for false charges, and sought to have a Roman governor crucify him. More than that, no “deceit” was “found in his mouth”. In other words, he didn’t lie about anything He had done, or who He was, either before His trials, or while He was being accused of so-called crimes. Even when He was condemned for claiming to be the King of the Jews, He didn’t deny it, but actually admitted it, thus yielding to the suffering that that admission would bring. Nevertheless, He had done nothing that deserved the whipping and crucifixion that He endured.
The Savior Suffered Beautifully
The second way in which Christian slaves are to suffer like Christ is by doing it beautifully, or rightly, described in verse 23:
“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.”
The word “revile” means to verbally abuse someone with harsh insults or criticism. Christ’s enemies did this when He was tried for false charges, and when He was suffering on the cross. For example, some of them said that, if He was God’s Son, that God should rescue Him from the cross. They, of course, didn’t believe that He was God’s Son, but they mocked Him out of hatred for Him. Despite all of the insults and criticism that He heard, Christ never responded with insults or harsh, abusive criticism in return. He didn’t repay evil for evil.
Further, Peter says that Christ “did not threaten” when He was suffering, “but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly”. He could have told His tormenters that God would punish them for what they were doing, but He refrained from doing this. Instead, He left their judgment and punishment to God, “who judges justly”. In other words, He didn’t presume to declare what God would do to His persecutors, since He wasn’t in a position to pronounce their final judgment at that time. He simply trusted God the Father to judge them for their actions as He saw fit, since He knew that His judgment would be just. Of course, Christ was acting here as a man without the authority of the Father to judge everyone that He now has. This is why Peter holds Him as an example for the Christian slaves in suffering in a way that’s beautiful to God.
The Savior Suffered Beneficially
The third and final way that Peter says Christ suffered was in a way that benefited those He suffered for, found in verses 24-25:
“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. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
Rather than suffering for His own sins, Christ suffered for the sins of Peter and his audience. He did this by “bearing” them “in his body on the tree”. By “the tree”, Peter of course means the cross of wood that Christ hung on while suffocating to death. By “bearing” their sins “in his body”, he means that Christ suffered on the cross as if He had committed their sins, and deserved to suffer and die for them.
Next, Peter gives the slaves, and the rest of his audience, a reason to suffer for doing what’s right, rather than doing what’s wrong. He does this by saying that the purpose of Christ suffering for their sins on the cross was so they “might die to sin and live to righteousness”. When he uses the word “might”, he doesn’t mean that Christ suffered to make it possible for them die to sin and live to righteousness, but so that they would die to sin and live to righteousness. Since Christ died to the punishment and rule of sin when He died, and He represented those for whose sins He died, they also died to the punishment and rule of sin. In this case, Peter is specifically pointing out that he and the aliens died to the rule or dominion of sin, so they’re no longer enslaved by it, and live in obedience to it. Since they’ve died to sin, they now “live to righteousness”. The word “righteousness” refers to the condition of being pleasing and acceptable to God. So, to “live to righteousness” means to live in a way that pleases God, since one has already been accepted by God as one of His children. Again, this life of righteousness is only obtained because one’s sins have been carried by Christ “in his body on the tree”. Peter sums all of this up by saying that the aliens were spiritually “healed” of their sins by Christ’s “wounds”, or suffering on the cross.
In verse 25, Peter explains how the aliens went from living to sin, to living to righteousness, and from being infected with sin, to being spiritually healed. He says that they were “straying like sheep” when they were living in sin. Without a shepherd, sheep will wander off to places where they can easily starve, be attacked by predators, or fall down and get hurt. In other words, they naturally take the path that leads to destruction. Like sheep, the aliens were once doing this, but “have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer” of their souls. This refers to Christ, who said He was the “the good Shepherd”, and leads His people as their King. He’s also the “Overseer”, or “Guardian” of the souls of the aliens, so that they’ll never be eternally destroyed, and will always be taken care of. Therefore, they ought to obey Him by suffering the way that He suffered.
Submit to Your Boss, and Suffer Like Christ
So, if you’re a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, how does this passage apply to you?
First, the relationship that Christian slaves have to their masters can be applied to the relationship that Christian employees have to their employers. Just like slaves did, employees serve their employers, and just like slaves did, they also have an agreement that they’ll be compensated for their service. Hence, both relationships are extremely similar, and can be treated as such. Therefore, if you work for someone, are you submitting to him, her, or them with all reverence toward God, even if they’re unjust?
Do you endure sorrows from your employer when they mistreat you because you know that God has placed them over you? This doesn’t mean that you don’t take action to solve problems when it’s right to do so, but when you have no choice but to suffer for doing what’s right, do you do so because you know God is in control, has commanded you to submit to your employer, and will reward you for it?
When you suffer for doing what’s right, do you imitate Christ by refraining from reviling or threatening, and by entrusting yourself to the One who will judge everyone justly?
Have you died to sin, and are you living to righteousness, since you’ve returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your soul? If you’re still enslaved to sin, and are still straying like a sheep, as if you don’t have a Shepherd and Overseer, then you’re still rebelling against God, and are heading for eternal judgement and punishment. The good news is that He sent His eternal and divine Son to earth to become a man, Jesus of Nazareth, to live the perfect life, to suffer and die on a Roman cross to take the punishment we deserve from God, to rise from the dead, and to go into heaven as our King. He commands everyone to change their minds about Him and Jesus, and trust in Jesus as their King and Savior from sin, since He’s going to judge everyone perfectly through Jesus, and punish His enemies forever with torment. Please make sure you’ve repented of your rebellion against Jesus, and are trusting in Him alone as King and Savior to have God’s mercy, forgiveness, and peace. If you’ve done that, Jesus commands His people to baptized in water by one of His church members as an appeal to God for a good conscience, and a profession of faith to the church.
All Scripture quotations are taken from the:
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.