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. – 1 Peter 2:18-20 ESV
Peter has encouraged his readers to view themselves “as people who are free” but also “as servants of God” (1 Peter 2:16 ESV). Because of their relationship with Christ, they had been set free from their old way of life. Through placing their faith in Christ, they had experienced the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit and been made sons and daughters of God. But their new status as God’s children required that they not “slip back into” their old ways living (1 Peter 1:14 NLT). They were no longer slaves to their old desires and passions. The Spirit of God living within them was a source of life-transforming power that made it possible to live distinctively different lives. That is why Peter charged them “you must be holy in everything you do” (1 Peter 1:15 NLT).
Peter knew that they needed a timely reminder of their new life in Christ because the difficult conditions in which they were living had begun to cast doubt on the efficacy of the “good news.” Their faith in Christ had actually produced some unexpected negative consequences that probably left them wondering where the abundant life was that Jesus had promised (John 10:10). Much of their trouble stemmed from the harsh treatment they received at the hands of the Roman government. Nero was emperor at the time, and he was cracking down on this radical and subversive sect that followed the martyred Jewish Rabbi. Christianity had begun to spread throughout the Roman empire and he viewed the growing number of its adherents as a threat to his power. The Roman historian, Tacitus, provided a graphic and unflattering description of Nero’s egregious treatment of Christians.
“Covered with the skins of beasts, [Christians] were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as nightly illumination when daylight had expired.”
Yet, surprisingly, Peter encouraged the Christians to whom he wrote to “submit to all human authority—whether the king as head of state, or the officials he has appointed” (1 Peter 2:13-14 NLT), and all for the Lord’s sake. Peter knew this admonition would be difficult for his readers to accept and even harder to pull off. It’s likely that these very same individuals had heard of some of the saying of Jesus and wondered if Peter was offering a contradictory form of teaching. After all, it was Jesus who had said, “if the Son sets you free, you are truly free” (John 8:36 NLT). They had accepted the truth regarding Jesus and Jesus had said, “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32 NLT). So, why was Paul now telling them to submit to an ungodly Roman government that treated them as worse than slaves?
So, what exactly did Peter mean when he told them to “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God” (1 Peter 2:16 ESV)? Were they slaves or freemen? The interesting thing is that Peter refers to them as “servants” of God. The Greek word is δοῦλος (doulos), which can be translated as servant, slave, or bondman. It was often used metaphorically to refer to “one who gives himself up wholly to another’s will.” In a sense, Peter was informing his readers that while they had been set free from slavery to sin, they had actually become slaves to God.
Their new relationship with God, made possible through the atoning work of Jesus Christ, had freed them from the condemnation of sin and death, but it had not released them from their worldly circumstances. They were still living under Roman rule. They were still surrounded by unbelieving friends and neighbors who viewed their faith as strange and even dangerous. They were still experiencing pain and suffering, just as they had before they came to faith in Christ and, in some cases, things had actually gotten worse. But now they answered to a different Master. They were free, but in a completely different sense. That is why Peter drops the non-PC directive, “You who are slaves must submit to your masters with all respect. Do what they tell you—not only if they are kind and reasonable, but even if they are cruel” (1 Peter 2:18 NLT).
This must have come across like a brick to the forehead. It would have been as shocking to them as it is to us living in the 21st-Century. How could Peter demand that slaves who had come to faith in Christ remain in their unjust and inhumane circumstances? Wouldn’t Jesus want them to experience the joy of physical as well as spiritual emancipation? And yet, what Peter was telling them was in keeping with the teaching of Paul.
Yes, each of you should remain as you were when God called you. Are you a slave? Don’t let that worry you—but if you get a chance to be free, take it. 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. God paid a high price for you, so don’t be enslaved by the world. Each of you, dear brothers and sisters, should remain as you were when God first called you. – 1 Corinthians 7:20-24 NLT
What both of these men were trying to convey was that freedom in Christ had nothing to do with earthly circumstances. Jesus had not come to set people free from physical, financial, or societal forms of slavery. In Christ, an actual slave was just as free as his believing master. His social status as a slave had no bearing on his standing before God. That is why Paul wrote:
For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Galatians 3:26-28 NLT
Earthly conditions and circumstances do nothing to change a believer’s relationship with God. He shows no partiality and offers His free gift of grace to all who will believe, whether they are enslaved or free. This is made clear in Paul’s letter to his friend, Philemon. It seems that Philemon had a slave named Onesimus who had run away. But in God’s providence, Onesimus had come into contact with Paul and come to faith in Christ. When Paul realized that Onesimus was actually Philemon’s runaway slave, he sent him back with a personal letter to his friend. In it, he pleaded that Philemon accept Onesimus back, not as a slave but as a brother in Christ.
It seems you lost Onesimus for a little while so that you could have him back forever. He is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. – Philemon 1:15-16 NLT
Technically and legally, Onesimus was still a slave and Philemon had a legal right to discipline him for having run away. But Paul was stressing the change that had taken place in their relationship due to their common faith in Christ. Philemon and Onesimus were no longer to view themselves from the worldly perspective of master and slave, but as brothers in Christ. From the worldly point of view, nothing had changed. Onesimus was still a slave. But from God’s vantage point, the relationship between these two men had been radically and permanently transformed – forever.
Peter wanted his readers to understand that their faith in Christ was not meant to be a panacea for all their worldly problems. They would still face trials and tribulations. If they were a slave, they would still remain so even after coming to faith. If they were poor, their circumstances were not guaranteed to change just because they had accepted Christ as their Savior. Regardless of their earthly circumstances, they were children of God and heirs of the Kingdom of God. And nothing could change that. And Peter reminds them that “God is pleased when, conscious of his will, you patiently endure unjust treatment. 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 2:19-20 NLT).
As long as they lived on this earth, they were to seek to live holy lives, regardless of their particular circumstances. Whether slave or free, they each had an obligation to live in a manner worthy of the gospel that had transformed them into sons and daughters of God.
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.