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. – 1 Peter 2:18-25 ESV
There are two ways to approach the content of this particular passage. First of all, as modern Americans, we can become incensed over the fact that Peter addresses slaves, but fails to make any statements regarding the unacceptable nature of the institution of slavery. And among the authors of the New Testament, he is not alone in his silence. He and Paul spoke frequently to slaves, but said very little about the moral nature of the institution of slavery. So, when we read a passage like this, it can come across as a subtle approval of slavery. And when we read the following passages, it would be easy to reach that conclusion.
21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22 For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. – 1 Corinthians 7:21-22 NIV
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. 6 Try to please them all the time, not just when they are watching you. As slaves of Christ, do the will of God with all your heart. 7 Work with enthusiasm, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. 8 Remember that the Lord will reward each one of us for the good we do, whether we are slaves or free. – Ephesians 6:5-8 NLT
22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything you do. Try to please them all the time, not just when they are watching you. Serve them sincerely because of your reverent fear of the Lord. – Colossians 3:22 NLT
1 All slaves should show full respect for their masters so they will not bring shame on the name of God and his teaching. 2 If the masters are believers, that is no excuse for being disrespectful. – 1 Timothy 6:1-2 NLT
Where is the moral indignation? Why do Paul and Peter seem to act as if slavery is just a normal part of everyday life? Because it was. Slavery was entrenched in the culture of their day. Even Jews had slaves. The failure of these men to speak out against slavery should not be construed to be some king of tacit approval of it. From our own sordid history as a nation, we know that our ancestors attempted to use the Scriptures to justify their unwavering determination to maintain the slave trade and to rationalize their inhumane treatment of millions of fellow human beings. But the presence of slavery is the result of the fall. It is a symptom of man’s sinful state and has been around since the beginning. It was alive and well when Jesus came to the earth. It was a normal part of the social fabric of the day. But this does not mean it was right or acceptable in the eyes of God.
When we focus on this passage with a sense of social outrage, we miss the point of what Peter is trying to say. He was not speaking into the culture at large, but into the context of the local body of believers. He was addressing Christians living within a non-Christian society where moral, social, and civic codes would be diametrically opposed to their new way of life as followers of Christ. Remember, Peter has addressed them as chosen by God. They are a holy nation. God has called them out of darkness into His marvelous light. That does not mean God has changed any and all circumstances surrounding them. They are still living in a pagan culture. They are still living under the auspices of a pagan government. Immoral institutions like slavery still exist. In fact, some of them are actually living as slaves in that system. Peter’s interest was not in overthrowing the government of his day, anymore than Jesus was out to overturn the rule of the Romans while He was alive. Peter is addressing Christians who find themselves living in a culture that hates and despises them, and he is calling them to be beacons of light in a dark world. Any change that was going to take place in the culture was going to come from Christians living as citizens of the Kingdom of God and emulating the character of Christ among those who were living in darkness.
So, Peter addresses those in the church who had come to faith in Christ while living as slaves. This is an important point that often gets overlooked. The New Testament church was a literal melting pot made up of people from all walks of life. There were the rich and poor, the influential and the seemingly unimportant, women and men, as well as slaves and freemen. Not only that, there were congregations where masters and their slaves attended the same worship services together. This was unheard of. It was antithetical to the culture of the day. But it reveals that the gospel was for anyone and everyone, regardless of their social or economic status. Peter talks to the slaves just as he would anyone else. He did not see them as second-class citizens. He fully understood their situation and spoke into it. He didn’t minimize it, but he also did not offer them the hope of freedom from the current condition as slaves. His concern was that they live our their new identity in Christ, right where they were. Paul addresses this in his letter to the believers in Corinth, including those who happened to be slaves.
21 Are you a slave? Don’t let that worry you—but if you get a chance to be free, take it. 22 And remember, if you were a slave when the Lord called you, you are now free in the Lord. And if you were free when the Lord called you, you are now a slave of Christ. 23 God paid a high price for you, so don’t be enslaved by the world. 24 Each of you, dear brothers and sisters, should remain as you were when God first called you. – 1 Corinthians 7:21-24 NLT
Paul uses that phrase, “remain as you were” repeatedly in his letter. If they were uncircumcised when they came to faith, they were to remain so. If you were married to an unbeliever when you came to know Christ, remain married to that person. Paul makes it clear: “Each of you should continue to live in whatever situation the Lord has placed you, and remain as you were when God first called you. This is my rule for all the churches” (1 Corinthians 7:17 NLT). Their goal should not be to change the circumstances surrounding their life, but to live out their new life in Christ differently in the midst of those very same circumstances. We tend to look for changes in our circumstances, while Peter and Paul are demanding a change in heart, which will lead to a change in behavior – regardless of our circumstances.
And Peter makes his counsel to the believing slaves in his audience very specific and applicable to their situation.
19 God is pleased when, conscious of his will, you patiently endure unjust treatment. 20 Of course, you get no credit for being patient if you are beaten for doing wrong. But if you suffer for doing good and endure it patiently, God is pleased with you. – 1 Peter 2:20-21 NLT
He knew their status as sons and daughters of God was not going to change the way their masters treated them. In fact, it might make things worse for them. They were going to face unjust treatment. After all, they were slaves. It came with their position as slaves. But now that they were believers, their reaction to that unjust treatment was to be different. They were to patiently endure. They were to suffer for doing good. And in doing so, they would have the pleasure of God. That needed to be their focus. They were not out to please their human masters, but God Himself. They had a new motivation and a new incentive for living. And Peter gives them Jesus as their example to follow. He reminds them, “He is your example, and you must follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21 NLT). Then, he provides them with a succinct, yet beautiful summary of Jesus’ life.
22 He never sinned,
nor ever deceived anyone.
23 He did not retaliate when he was insulted,
nor threaten revenge when he suffered.
He left his case in the hands of God,
who always judges fairly.
24 He personally carried our sins
in his body on the cross
so that we can be dead to sin
and live for what is right.
By his wounds
you are healed.
25 Once you were like sheep
who wandered away.
But now you have turned to your Shepherd,
the Guardian of your souls. – 1 Peter 2:22-25 NLT
That is the model we are to follow, whether slave or free. His example is the one we are to emulate, regardless of our circumstances. Jesus was not born into wealth and comfort, but obscurity and relative poverty. He wasn’t born in a palace, but a cattle stall. He wasn’t highly esteemed, but regarded as a lowly carpenter from an obscure backwater town called Nazareth. When Phillip told Nathanael that he had met Jesus of Nazareth, Nathanael sarcastically responded, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46 NLT). God didn’t send His Son into the best of circumstances. He sent Him into the midst of darkness and sin. He sent Him into a culture mired in moral decadence and spiritual darkness. But Jesus was the light and He lived as a shining example of godly obedience and submission to the will of His Father in the midst of all the moral mess of His day. He didn’t attempt to change the government or fix all the social ills of His day. Jesus described His ministry as bringing Good News to the poor, proclaiming that captives will be released, that the blind will see, and that the oppressed will be set free (Luke 4:18). For Jesus, like Peter and Paul, the problem wasn’t a social one, it was spiritual. Human slavery wasn’t the real issue, slavery to sin was. And nothing is going to truly change in our world until the hearts of men and women are transformed by the message of salvation made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Like Christ, we are going to suffer in this life. But other question is whether we will face our suffering like Christ.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.