Servants, Masters, and the Example of Christ
Passage: 1 Peter 2:18–2:25
Servants, Masters, and the Examples of Christ
Have you ever faced a situation where you knew that if you did the right thing, you would suffer for it? Not a situation where you might suffer for doing something wrong, but a situation where you might suffer for doing something right. Maybe you have, maybe you haven’t. But I think we could all agree that it sounds hard, doesn’t it? The prospect of suffering for doing what is right – that’s a hard thing.
When you drill down into our passage this morning, that’s what these verses are about. This passage is about doing right even when it causes you to suffer. In that sense, this is a hard text. But the difficulty increases a little when we realize the context of the verses. Peter is writing to servants or slaves. You see it there in v18 – “Servants be subject to your masters.” Peter is telling Christian servants to submit themselves to their masters. Now, in God’s mercy, none of us are servants or slaves, so we might be tempted to think that this passage doesn’t apply to us. And we would be mistaken. Peter may be writing directly to servants, but his instructions to those servants apply to all Christians. All Christians – regardless of culture, regardless of position in life – all Christians are called by God to suffer for doing good. Don’t let the context of servants and masters obscure what God wants to say to you this morning. Don’t miss the awesome calling that Christ presents to us in these verses – the calling to make much of his gospel by being willing to suffer for doing good.
Before we get into the passage, I want to take a brief moment to address the issue of slavery and the NT. Again, I don’t want the context to obscure what God will say to us this morning. And many people in the past have gotten hung up on this issue. So I want to make a few comments that will help us better understand the context. Slavery was an established practice in the 1st century world. It was integral to the economic and social fabric of the Empire. That doesn’t make it right, but that was the reality of the NT world. As Americans, our idea of slavery is largely defined by the practice of slavery in the American South, most notably in the 19th century. We might be tempted to think that the two were the same. And at that point, we should be careful. Slavery in 19th century America was not the same as slavery in the 1st century. For example, in the 1st century, slavery was not based on race or ethnicity. Furthermore, slaves in the 1st century were often educated and had the ability to purchase their freedom. None of those things were true of 19th century American slavery. We shouldn’t project American history back onto the NT.
That being said, this is still slavery that we are talking about. These were servants who belonged to other human beings as property. They had no legal rights, and they were often brutally mistreated. Even if it was not exactly the same as 19th century America, it was still slavery, and it was an awful institution.
And that raises the big question. Why doesn’t the NT condemn slavery and advocate its abolishment? Why does Peter even give these instructions to servants in the first place? Let me make three points in order to answer that question. First, the NT never condones or approves of slavery. The NT may not expressly condemn slavery or call for its abolishment, but that is not the same as approval. Second, we must remember that Christianity is not a religion of social revolution. The mission of the church is not to overthrow every evil human institution. That is not to say that the church is unconcerned with social change. It is to say the church’s mission is not social revolution. The church’s mission is spiritual revolution in the hearts of human beings. As that happens, society and culture are changed. Third, we should realize that Peter gives instructions to servants because the NT is historically situated. The Bible is always relevant to all people, in all places, at all times. That’s certainly true. But the Bible is also historically situated. That means the Bible has to deal with the historical realities of its day, as things were being encountered by Christians living in that time period. Slavery was one such reality. There were Christians who lived as slaves, and Peter wrote to address that historical reality. Peter gave these instructions because the Bible is concerned with helping God’s people live in whatever situation they might find themselves, including situations that were morally evil.
However, even though Christianity is not a religion of social revolution, Peter is doing something quite counter-cultural here. He speaks directly to the servants. This was not the normal practice in the first century. In the Roman world, there were these documents called household codes; these codes prescribed how households should operate orderly. What was expected of husbands and wives? What was expected of masters? But those household codes didn’t address servants. When Peter speaks directly to Christian servants, he is doing something counter-cultural. He’s acknowledging their personhood and their full citizenship in the household of God. Remember, Peter has been at pains to establish the church’s identity as God’s people. When he speaks directly to Christian servants, he is acknowledging their full participation in that identity. He is saying that God is concerned with their lives and their situation. They may not have legal status in the Empire, but they are full-fledged members of the household of God. And that would have been quite counter-cultural.
I hope that helps us understand the historical context of the passage and answer any objections you might have about these verses. Now, let’s keep that clarification in mind and turn to our passage for the morning.
Subjection to Masters
The first thing we should note is that Peter instructs servants to be subject to their masters. Remember, Peter introduced the idea of submission in the previous paragraph, and now he’s applying the call to submission in different spheres of life. Peter’s instruction is straightforward. Look at v18, “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.” It’s not very surprising that Peter tells servants to be subject to their masters. Even non-Christians would have said that. What is surprising is that Peter tells them to be subject even to unjust masters. That’s the most striking aspect of v18. The word unjust could also be translated crooked or morally bankrupt. Peter says servants should be subject to even those kinds of masters. Now, just so we don’t misunderstand him, Peter is not saying that servants should do whatever a crooked master says. As with the governing authorities, if your master requires you to disobey God, you should not do it. Peter is saying that having a crooked master doesn’t exempt you from submission. You can’t ignore your master’s demands simply because he is a bad guy.
Let’s use a contemporary situation to illustrate the point. Say you work at a bank as a lending officer, and your supervisor is just a lousy guy. Cheats customers, dishonest with other employees, that sort of thing. Say your boss requires you to stay late one night and finish up some work before an early meeting the next day. As a Christian, you can’t ignore his demand simply because he’s a bad guy. Just because he is morally bankrupt doesn’t mean you can blow off what he tells you to do. He’s the boss, and you should submit yourself to his authority, even though he’s a crooked boss! That’s something of the scenario that Peter has in mind at this point. Servants should be subject to their masters, even the crooked ones.
Enduring Suffering as Evidence of God’s Grace
That brings us to v19 and our second truth – endurance of unjust suffering is an evidence of God’s grace. Peter writes, “For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.” In the flow of the passage, v19 supports v18. It helps us understand why servants should be subject to their masters – because it is a gracious thing in the sight of God to endure unjust suffering. Now, what is happening in v19? It appears that Christian servants are suffering when they don’t deserve to suffer. Why? The key phrase is mindful of God. That phrase means to conduct your life conscious of what God expects. You are mindful of God by living according to his word. Why are these Christian servants suffering? Because of their Christian faith. They are suffering for doing what is right in God’s eyes.
That’s an important point in understanding this passage. Peter’s not concerned with suffering in general. His focus is on suffering for doing good. He’s not advocating that Christians seek out suffering simply so that they can say they have endured hard times. There is nothing inherently spiritual or pleasing to God about suffering. Rather, Peter has in mind suffering for doing what is right. That is an evidence of God’s grace.
Let’s go back to our hypothetical example of the lending officer at the bank. In this instance, say your boss asks you to engage in dishonest practices that cheat the customer. As a Christian, you cannot engage in such practices. The gospel calls you to be honest and consider the interest of others as more important than your own. Mindful of God, you do not cheat your customer. What happens? Your boss punishes you, maybe even fires you! Did you deserve that suffering? No, it’s unjust. But you continue to do good anyway. You endure the suffering, and that endurance is an evidence of God’s grace. Now, the situation for the Christians in Peter’s letter was much more severe than our example. These Christian servants were not just losing their jobs. In many instances, they were being physically beaten. Our example doesn’t exactly do justice to their situation, but I think you understand my point. When we endure suffering for doing right, it is an evidence of God’s grace.
In v20, Peter gives a clarification, just so we don’t misunderstand his point. He writes, “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 wants us to understand that he’s not excusing sinful behavior or deserved suffering. If you sin and suffer for it, that’s no evidence of grace! Rather, Peter is encouraging Christians to endure suffering for doing what is right. That’s the evidence of grace.
But how is that an evidence of grace? It works like this. When we suffer for doing what is right, it reveals that the gospel is working in our hearts to bring about obedience to God. It reveals that you are willing to patiently suffer for doing God’s will. It reveals that you count God’s approval as worth more than earthly comfort and earthly treasure. It shows that your ultimate hope is in Christ and not in escaping present difficulties. It reveals that you are not relying on your own strength, but on God’s strength in the gospel to keep you going in the face of suffering. Such an attitude goes against our normal reaction. If you have done what is right and suffer for it, your natural reaction is to fight back and bring suffering on your persecutor. Peter says don’t do that. Be subject to your masters, even those who punish you unjustly. Endure that suffering as an evidence of God’s grace at work in your life.
Now catch this – when we live this way, our lives proclaim God’s excellencies. Remember from vv9-10, our purpose as God’s people is to make God look great, to proclaim his excellencies. This passage is part of how we do that. When we suffer for doing good, we show the world God’s worth. We show the world that God is so valuable, so glorious, so satisfying that we would gladly endure suffering for doing what is right in his eyes. We show the world that the gospel is so powerful, it enables us to do what is right, and even submit ourselves to crooked masters and undeserved suffering. When we live like that, we proclaim God’s glory. And this gives us a whole new perspective on suffering as a Christian. When we suffer for doing good, that’s not just our cross to bear. It’s also our participation in magnifying Christ. The value of something is determined by what you would risk or lose or endure to have it or keep it. If my house were on fire, I would run through flames to save my children. Why? Because those boys are more precious to me than my own life. In the same way, when we suffer for Christ, it shows the world his true value. It reveals his worth.
When you are fired from your job for doing what is right, someone might ask you, “Why did they fire you?” And you tell them because you wouldn’t lie to your customer. And that person says, “Why wouldn’t you just lie and keep your job? Now you have nothing.” And you say in response, “You’re wrong. I have everything because I have Christ. And honoring him is worth more than any job or any paycheck.” That is radical Christianity. That’s what we need to see in our churches and in our neighborhoods – Christians who so treasure Christ that they would gladly suffer the loss of everything in order to do what honors Jesus. That is the kind of lifestyle that causes people to take notice and say, “This Christ must be some Treasure.”
You see now how Peter’s instructions apply to more than just Christian servants in the 1st century? The attitude Peter describes should mark the life of every Christian. We may not be earthly servants, but we are servants of God. And as God’s servants, we must be willing to do good, even if it means we suffer for it. We must be ready to follow God’s word, even if it brings much sorrow in our lives. That’s an evidence of God’s grace, but more than that – such an attitude is part of how we proclaim God’s glory to a world that so desperately needs to see and know God.
The Christian Calling to Suffering
That brings us to v21 and our third truth – Christians are called to suffer for doing good by the example of Christ. As we said before, what Peter describes here is a very difficult reality, which raises a pressing question. Why should Christian endure this kind of life? Answer – because it is part of our calling as Christ’s followers. That is Peter’s point in v21 – through the example of Christ, God has called his people to suffer for doing good.
The first thing we need to note in v21 is that word called. Note how Peter begins the verse: “For to this you have been called.” This is an extremely important point in Peter’s argument. He is reminding his readers of God’s purpose for their unjust suffering. It would be tempting for these Christians to see their suffering as pointless, or worse, to see their suffering as an indication that the promises of the gospel were not actually true. The fact that they are suffering for doing good might lead them to doubt the fact that they have received a future inheritance that is kept in heaven. If we are heirs of the kingdom, then why all this suffering for doing what is right, they might ask.
Peter answers by reminding them that their suffering is not pointless, but is part of God’s calling, God’s purpose for their lives. They are not at the mercy of fate, and they are not at the mercy of crooked masters. Rather, every aspect of their lives – even their unjust suffering – plays a part in God’s purpose for his people. These things are not beyond God’s control! No, it’s just the opposite. God is using even their submission to crooked masters to bring glory to Christ.
Peter goes on in v21: “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.” Christians have been called to this endurance through the example of Christ. Christ endured unjust suffering as an example for us, so that we might follow in his steps. Now clearly, there are some aspects of Christ’s suffering that we cannot imitate, because his suffering was unique. He suffered as the sin-bearer and as the Son of God. We cannot imitate those aspects of his suffering. But Peter’s focus is not on the unique aspects of Christ’s suffering. Peter’s focus is on the fact that Christ suffered for doing good. That’s what Peter calls these Christians to imitate. Really, that’s the whole point of v21. Peter wants to encourage Christian servants to continue doing good, even if it causes them to suffer because that is how Christ lived. And as his followers, we are called to walk in his same footsteps.
But Peter doesn’t leave us hanging with v21. He goes on in vv22-25 to describe Christ’s suffering. These verses draw heavily on Isaiah 53, where the Prophet described the sufferings of the Servant of the Lord, whom we know to be Jesus Christ. Again, as you read these verses, clearly there are many aspects of Christ’s suffering that do not apply to our lives. We cannot imitate his sinlessness, and we cannot bear people’s sins in our body so that they might be reconciled to God. But that’s not Peter’s point. As D.A. Carson has said, what Peter is doing here is masterfully weaving together theology and ethics. He’s applying Christ’s example to our lives, so that we might follow in Jesus’ steps. As we look at these verses, I think we should take away two points from Christ’s example. There are other things we could learn from these verses, but these are the major points of application.
First, we should not return evil for evil. This comes out in vv22-23. When Christ was sinned against, he did not sin in return. He was meek; he was humble. He did not return evil for evil. In a similar way, as Christ’s followers, we must not return evil for evil. When we suffer for doing good, we should not respond with the same kind of evil intentions as those who persecute us. Think about our context in America. Whenever someone hurts you in America, what are you supposed to do? Sue them, right? Take them to court, and get what you deserve. I think that is contrary to the attitude of Christ. When Jesus was beaten and mocked before Pilate, what did he do? He stood silently, even though he could have called down a legion of angels to avenge him. Instead, he endured, and Pilate was amazed by it. That’s instructive for us. When we endure unjust suffering, yes, some people will mock us. Some people will question our meekness. But others will be amazed, and they will ask us, “Why didn’t you sue them?” And you can say, “Because of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” As Christians, we must not return evil for evil.
Second, we should entrust ourselves – and our suffering! – to the justice of God. This comes from the end of v23. How was Christ able to endure unjust suffering? Because he entrusted himself to the justice of God. He knew that every wrong against him would be made right by his Father, and that truth enabled Christ to suffer for doing good. In a similar way, whenever we suffer for doing good, it’s God’s justice that enables us to endure that suffering. We are not called to right every wrong done against us. That’s not our job; it’s God job, and he will do it more righteously than we could. Therefore, we can entrust our lives to him, even if that means we must endure unjust suffering in the present.
Christ’s Suffering Brought us Life
Let’s close this morning by looking at our final truth – Christ suffered for us so that we might live for him. It comes from vv24-25. Peter writes, “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.” These verses are some of clearest statements of the gospel in the NT. These verses remind us of the uniqueness of Christ’s work as our Savior. When Christ died on the cross, it was the ultimate display of unjust suffering. He bore our sins in his body on the tree. He did not die for his own sins because he was sinless. He didn’t deserve death, but he died anyway. He entrusted himself to the Father and took the road to Calvary, not returning evil for evil. He suffered for us, in our place.
And he did this so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. Christ endured our suffering so that we might live for him as his followers. It is Jesus’ unique work in the gospel that enables and empowers us to follow him. Christ is our example, but more than that, he is our Savior and our Hope. His life of suffering has become the wellspring of our lives as his followers.
Think of it like this. We are able to love our enemies because Christ loved us when we were his enemies. We are able to suffer for doing good because Christ suffered for our sin. We are able to not return evil for evil because Christ took God’s wrath against our evil. You see it!? The work of Christ creates, enables, and sustains our lives as his followers. What he accomplished for us is the ground of our living for him. We cannot take one step as his followers if he did not already completely walk the road before us.
This means that the way we endure suffering for doing good is by looking to the cross, where Christ suffered for us. The gospel is not just the message that gets us into the kingdom; the gospel is also the message that informs and sustains our life as citizens of that kingdom. And that message of the cross is so powerful, so radical, so transformative that it empowers us even to suffer for doing good, just as our Savior suffered for us. May God prepare us to suffer for doing good by rooting us in the gospel. And may he use our suffering to exalt and magnify the Suffering Servant, Jesus Christ.