Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
“He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” For “you were like sheep going astray,”[b] but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls (1 Peter 2:18-25)
Some passages remind us of the distance between the biblical world and our own. New Testament passages dealing with the relationships between slaves and their masters often fall in that category, and this week’s passage from 1 Peter is a good example. Yet while these verses deal with social relationships we have rightly rejected and repudiated, they can still speak to us about our relationship with those in authority and how we respond.
As we look at this passage, we first need to understand what slavery was like in the Roman world. Slavery in the Roman empire looked much different than the slavery that is a tragic part of our own nation’s past.
In the Roman world, slaves came from a variety of ethnic groups and backgrounds. Some were born slaves, others became slaves as prisoners of war, and still others chose slavery as a way to get out of debt or because being a slave was preferable to the uncertainty of finding work as a free laborer. Some estimate that slaves made up as much as a third of the Roman population. Slaves served in a variety of occupations including doctors, teachers, accountants, overseers of estates, and private secretaries. Slaves could earn wages and hold property, and slavery was not always a permanent condition. Some scholars estimate that most slaves earned their freedom by age thirty (McKnight, Kindle Loc 2633-2732).
Was the system still exploitative? Yes. Slaves were at their master’s mercy and vulnerable to abuse. Yet slavery was the foundation of the Roman economy and Rome feared any hint of a slave revolt. New Testament writers did not call for an end to slavery, but they did bring slavery into an environment where it would eventually wither and die. How could master and slave worship together in a congregation where both are heirs of Christ without coming to understand that both are equal before the Lord?
And yet Peter urges slaves to submit to their masters, even those who were harsh. Peter was writing here to slaves whose masters did not follow Christ. Like Paul, who told slaves to work as if for the Lord rather than their human masters (Colossians 3:22-23), Peter reminds Christian slaves that they were ultimately accountable to God. If they suffered unjustly and endured it out of a desire to bear witness of Christ, God saw and commended them. And in suffering unjustly without retaliation or vengeance, they identified with Christ who suffered unjustly for us (1 Peter 2:18-21).
How then are we to apply this passage to our modern world? Thankfully, we no longer live in a world of slaves and masters. But we do sometimes find ourselves in situations where our obligations to a relationship outweigh the character or personality of the person we are relating to. Not every teacher is fair. Not every employer is kind. Not every client is a person we would personally choose to associate with. But in those situations we still have obligations to respect and honor those we are in relationship with. If we have an unjust and unfair supervisor, we may be justified in looking for other employment. But so long as we remain at that firm, we should do our jobs to the best of our ability. Likewise, a student with an unfair teacher might be justified in appealing her grade or seeking help through the appropriate channels, but she still is to show up to class, do her work, and be respectful in the classroom. Refusing to fulfill our obligations to the relationship does not show ourselves or the gospel in the best light.
And if we do suffer unjustly, we are to follow Christ’s example in rejecting retaliation and trusting God for justice. This does not mean that we should not seek justice or report wrongful actions where it is appropriate. But Jesus refused to return insult for insult and did not make threats in response to the abuse that was heaped on him. We are called to follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:21). Stand for justice? Absolutely? But extract personal revenge? No. Like Jesus, we can trust ourselves to the one who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23).
Our culture emphasizes personal rights. But there are times when it may be necessary for us to lay those rights aside for the sake of the gospel. What is most important is not our rights but our witness. And the gospel demands that we see those who oppose us not as enemies who need to be defeated but as people for whom Christ died who need to be saved. Christ died for us while we were still enemies of God, and we follow in his steps.
- How might your obligation to a relationship be more important than the character or personality of the person you are in relationship with?
- What is the difference between seeking justice and extracting revenge?
- Why might we be asked to lay aside our personal rights for the sake of the gospel?
- How can we best be witnesses for Christ in unjust and unfair situations
And before you go–I’m guest posting today for my friend Katy Kaufmaan as a part of her Door Post Verses series, talking about perseverance. Check it out!
Scott McKnight, 1 Peter, NIV Application Commentary Series, Kindle Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996).