Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 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. 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. 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. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. – 1 Peter 2:18-25 ESV
Peter now turns his attention to those within the church who were servants. The actual Greek word he uses is οἰκέτης (oiketēs) and it refers to a household servant or domestic. In many, if not all, cases these people were actually slaves. Theirs was not a normal case of voluntary employment. Those for whom they worked were considered their masters. They were obligated by Roman law to obey their masters It is thought that as many as 1 in 3 of the population of Italy were slaves. In the rest of the Roman provinces it was as much as 1 in 5. So slaves were a major part of the Roman economy and social structure. The Ancient History Encyclopedia provides a glimpse into the Roman perspective on slavery.
Slavery, that is complete mastery (dominium) of one individual over another, was so embedded in Roman culture that slaves became almost invisible and there was certainly no feeling of injustice in this situation on the part of the rulers. Inequality in power, freedom and the control of resources was an accepted part of life and went right back to the mythology of Jupiter overthrowing Saturn. As K.Bradley eloquently puts it, ‘freedom…was not a general right but a select privilege’ (Potter, 627). Further, it was believed that the freedom of some was only possible because others were enslaved. Slavery, was, therefore, not considered an evil but a necessity by Roman citizens.(Mark Cartwright. “Slavery in the Roman World,” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified November 01, 2013. http://www.ancient.eu /article/629/.)
Peter does not address the institution of slavery. Instead, he speaks directly to those within the church who happened to be slaves or servants. That is the amazing thing. The very fact that these individuals were part of the local body of Christ speaks volumes about the church’s view of them as individuals. They were considered equal members of the body of Christ and were addressed as individuals with both responsibilities and rights. So Peter talks directly to them, giving them very personalized and specific instructions regarding their behavior. They were to “be subject” to their masters. He repeats the phrase he used when speaking to the church as a whole about their relationship to governmental authorities. These slaves had another issue. They were under the authority of their masters. They were obligated by law to obey. But Peter gives them a new way of looking at their role. In fact, he says that they were to treat their masters with all respect, whether they were good and gentle or unjust. And in Peter’s estimation, if a slave was suffering because of his faith in Christ, it was a “gracious thing.” The word he used was χάρις (charis). Charis was used by the New Testament authors to refer to God’s good will, loving-kindness, and favor. It was “the merciful kindness by which God, exerting his holy influence upon souls, turns them to Christ, keeps, strengthens, increases them in Christian faith, knowledge, affection, and kindles them to the exercise of the Christian virtues” (“G5485 – charis (KJV) :: Strong’s Greek Lexicon.” Blue Letter Bible. http://www.blueletterbible.org).
They were to view their suffering as a sign of God’s grace and a reminder of His ongoing transformation of their lives into the likeness of His Son. He reminds them that enduring suffering for doing wrong accomplishes nothing. But enduring suffering for doing what is right and good “is a gracious thing in the sight of God” (1 Peter 2:20 ESV). When we endure suffering for the sake of Christ, our actions not only please God, but God is pleased to use those times of difficulty to mold us and make us more holy. Paul told the believers in Rome, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5 ESV). Suffering that comes as a result of our faith is to be expected. For a slave in Peter’s day, the ridicule and shame that would have accompanied their faith would have been great. They were not viewed as people. They were property. Their masters would have seen their new-found faith in Christ as a threat. They had no rights. A master seeing their slave mixing in with other individuals of other classes of society as part of the church would have infuriated them.
But Peter reminds the slaves “to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21 ESV). Then Peter explains how the example of Christ applied to them. Throughout His suffering on this earth, Jesus “continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23 ESV). He kept His faith in God. He knew that His heavenly Father was watching and would reward Him for His faithfulness. He never took His eyes off His calling. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24 ESV). And it was the suffering of Christ that provided the means of salvation for mankind. By his wounds we have been healed. It was His suffering and death that made it possible for slaves, servants, masters, men, women, children, Jews, Gentiles and people from all walks of life to return to the Shepherd and Overseer of their souls. Christ’s suffering had a purpose. So does ours. It produces endurance, character and hope. And it reveals the grace of God as He uses anything and everything in our lives to produce in us the image of His Son.