Christian Slaves, 1 Peter 2:18-25


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1 Peter 2:18-25

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Before reading this evening’s text or beginning this evening’s sermon I need to say something about last Lord’s Day evening’s sermon. I take some comfort from the fact that John Chrysostom, the great 4th century preacher of Constantinople, had on a few occasions to begin his sermons either apologizing for something he had said the previous week or adding further explanation to correct misunderstandings of what he had said. I find myself in a similar situation. Last Lord’s Day, in expounding and applying Peter’s remarks about Christian submission to an unbelieving and even hostile government, I should have made clear that this certainly does not mean that, in a situation such as ours in the United States – when we have the power to vote as citizens, to exercise influence upon the government in other ways, and even to serve as officers of the government – that we are not to make the most of every opportunity to shape public policy and so direct the government’s efforts in ways that are just and merciful. Obviously in a republic such as ours, the situation of citizens is hardly as it was for Christians in the first century. Surely, we are to do good as we are able and in every dimension of our lives. And if citizenship is one of those environments in which we are to honor the Lord, the Christian’s business is to seek the Lord’s will there too and to foster the welfare of others. In the same way, as the Gospels and Acts make clear, military service, like most occupations, provides opportunity for honorable Christian service. As a result, the military of many countries has provided a place where Christians have a special opportunity to bring righteousness and justice to bear on an important dimension of public life. That should have been made clear in the sermon and it was not. I apologize for that. Now, to our text this evening.
Text Comment
v.18 The word the ESV translates “servants” is the word for domestic workers, oiketai, formed from the Greek word for house (oikos). He is thinking, then, primarily of domestic servants. Of course, most of them would, in the nature of the case, be slaves. One highly interesting feature of Peter’s instruction here is that he speaks only to the slaves, not to the masters. Paul, remember, in both Ephesians and Colossians, has a word for both slaves and masters, but Peter speaks only to the slaves. Why? It is, of course, possible, that at the time he wrote there were no masters, or at least very few wealthy homeowners, in the congregations to which he sent his letter. Those congregations had plenty of slaves but few or no masters. But, as Peter develops his point in the verses that follow, it may also be that the lesson he is teaching the slaves is an essential lesson every Christian must learn, no matter his or her station in life. Peter never forgot that the Lord had washed his feet! And, in this respect, every Christian is a household slave in the household of the Lord! “Jesus, master whose I am…” Someone has suggested that the heraldry or the coat of arms of the Christian church should be a basin on a field of towels!
Hard as it may be for a modern American audience to accept, we are to submit ourselves to this text and this teaching as to any other in the Word of God. Indeed, we are to love this text, as we ought to love every line of the Word of God. Think of it as the Lord’s direct speech to us, as if he were saying these words and we were hearing him say them. And if it seems odd to you that we should love a text about slaves obeying their masters, hear me out. Non-Christians in our time will be disgusted with Peter, even contemptuous. In our “rights-conscious” culture, this is a text that cuts across the grain and offends our conventional ways of thought, our confident sense of right and wrong. But, remember, nowadays a great many texts in Holy Scripture produce that offense in the American mind. So, before we chide Peter for not knowing what we know and not having our exalted moral standards, let’s consider what in fact he says.
First, take note of the obvious. Peter is speaking here to slaves. No wonder the NT so often addresses the situation of slaves. Slaves were everywhere in the Roman Empire and in the fledgling Gentile church. They were not only the domestic help and laborers of the empire, they were the clerks, the teachers, the doctors, and the professional people generally. Economically and politically the Roman Empire rested on the institution of slavery and in some places slaves would outnumber freemen upwards of ten to one. It is quite possible, perhaps even likely, that more of the people in the churches to whom Peter wrote this letter were slaves than were not. Now, it is important to remember, that Greco-Roman slavery was not, as alas it was in our land, further corrupted and dehumanized by racism. In Peter’s day slaves were not of one race and race had nothing to do with distinguishing slaves from freemen. It was a political and economic status, not a racial one. That horrible and indefensible feature of the American institution of slavery has, rightly, deepened our visceral hatred of the institution itself and, of course, visited upon our country a deep and seemingly ineradicable wound.
So, it surprises and disappoints the modern reader that the NT is not more overtly hostile toward the institution of slavery when we find it so repulsive. That is all the more so because we know that slaves then were like slaves of all other times and places: they longed for their freedom and for just conditions. The slave uprisings such as that under Spartacus are evidence of that. And, still more, even then voices were raised on behalf of the equality of all men. Stoicism taught such a doctrine. But in the NT you find instead such a text as we read this evening.
What Peter should have said, we think, is something about the equality of all men, of the vicious evil of slavery, of the natural hope of all slaves for their liberty. Even if, in the present circumstances, the slaves to whom Peter was speaking could do nothing about their predicament, surely Peter should have comforted them by emphasizing the injustice of their plight and by deploring the right of a master to own and absolutely to control another human being, even to the extent that he could punish him at a whim. But, though Peter acknowledges the injustice of the circumstances of many slaves, as he does throughout this section, he does not, nor does any other biblical writer, take the time to discuss the evil of slavery or even recommend its eventual abolition. Paul, you remember, encourages slaves to obtain their freedom if they can and refuses to masters an unfettered authority over their slaves, indeed, he says much that would eventually lay the axe to the root of the institution in the western world, but even he never condemns the institution as an institution outright.
However, we should certainly take note that there is a distinctive and significantly different approach to the question here than one would find in the Greco-Roman world generally. And that in two respects. The first is that here as elsewhere in the New Testament the slave is addressed as a free moral agent, a responsible human being in control of his attitudes and his behavior. You won’t find that in Aristotle or in a Roman moralist such as Seneca, a contemporary of the Apostle Peter. In that world, for example, wives enjoyed a large measure of authority in their household, over slaves, children, and property. But not slaves. But it is very different in the Bible. Slaves are addressed as human beings with moral responsibilities of their own and with the dignity that results from those responsibilities. Second, Peter, as Paul, completely rejects the cultural expectation that a slave will, in the nature of the case, worship his or her master’s god (just as both reject the cultural expectation that a wife will worship her husband’s god). [Jobes, 185] At the time and in that culture, those two perspectives were genuinely revolutionary! Taken together they form the foundation of slavery’s eventual abolition!
Still, Peter has the temerity to teach, as Paul did, that Christian slaves should accept their lot, serve their masters faithfully, even go the extra mile to demonstrate their faithfulness as workers, even to unjust and cruel masters. To be sure, the NT also lays Christian masters under strict obligation to treat their slaves with dignity and respect, to treat them as they would desire to be treated themselves. But, that hardly satisfies the modern American reader of the Bible.
We live in a culture that has been developing over hundreds of years an orthodoxy of the individual, a view of life that prioritizes the self-realization and personal fulfillment of the individual far more than love for God or sacrifice for others. It is, from time to time, tempered by impulses that call for very selective subordination of personal interests to the public good (e.g. health care or gun control), but by and large our moral vision as a culture still concentrates on an expressive individualism and an emphasis on individual liberty. We hear talk of this repeatedly these days, of course. We hear it said or written in Supreme Court deliverances: everybody has a right to be whatever he wishes or she wishes to be as a human being. What a person does in private is none of our business and matters not to his or her performance of public duties. It is under the onslaught of this expressive individualism that so much of the transformation of our social and moral landscape has occurred. Everyone should be free to do whatever he or she feels like and the culture must not put impediments in the way of an individual’s chosen way of fulfillment.
Don’t suppose that evangelicalism has somehow escaped the influence of this cultural orthodoxy of personal freedom. A sad example of this was the case of the late F.F. Bruce – an evangelical scholar of world-wide reputation, a man I have great respect for, who did yeoman’s service in defending the Christian view of the Bible as an internationally recognized scholar of the NT. As it happened, Prof. Bruce was the external reader of my dissertation and so may be said to have granted me my degree. Shortly before his death he published an article that seemed to me simply to cave in to the pressure to make personal freedom the fundamental ethical principle for Christians too. It was an article concerning the NT’s view of the relationship between men and women in particular, though it has implications for this kind of text as well, and Bruce began his discussion by saying that in facing such texts as we face in the NT regarding the particular duties and callings of women or, as here of slaves, we must separate the temporal husk from the enduring kernel of the Bible’s teaching. And how do we know what is permanent? Bruce replied, “Whatever in Paul’s teaching promotes true freedom is of universal and permanent validity; whatever seems to impose restrictions on true freedom has regard to local and temporary conditions.” Amazing! But what is freedom? Surely no evangelical can say that a modern conception of freedom is the enduring message of the Bible. Is it real freedom, authentic liberty that modern culture has granted human beings? Is true freedom to be found in living for what one wants, even if what one wants is perfectly proper? That doesn’t sound like the Bible to me! Where on earth does the Bible say such a thing as Prof. Bruce said? No culture that publicly sanctions seeking personal freedom as the highest good will long survive! According to Professor Bruce, Peter in this text must not be giving us the enduring message of the Bible, but only a temporary one that we can safely discard. Such, my friends, is the power of a culture to make unbelievable things Christians have, in faithfulness to the plain-speaking of the Bible, believed and practiced for 2,000 years. The fact is, can anyone with a Bible in his hand say that Peter was not speaking the truth for all times to those Christian slaves? And if he wasn’t, what were those slaves to do instead? Revolt and die? Accept that their lives were a meaningless waste? Wear a smile while cursing their masters in their hearts? What is left of the Christian faith and the example of Christ if we answer such questions that way?
Let’s be clear: this concentration on the rights of individuals to live unencumbered by the sins of others, to pursue their personal fulfillment, and to concentrate on their own self-realization cannot be found in the Bible. The Bible does present us with many wonderfully fulfilled people, but that fulfillment was not produced by teaching that emphasized the importance of self-actualization, of freedom from constraints, or of the injustice of confining human institutions or customs. These happy fulfilled Christians found their life in one way only, by losing it first for Jesus’ sake. There will always be slaveries of one kind or another; always a need to honor the Lord in a situation not of our own making.
So, let’s begin by noting that there is nothing temporary, nothing merely provincial, nothing impermanent in Peter’s argument here at all. I have no hesitation in saying that the principles of biblical ethics, if they take root in the hearts of people, must lead eventually to the end of slavery as a human institution, as indeed they did under the leadership of men like William Wilberforce. It was Christians who labored for the abolition of slavery. Alas, there were Christians on the other side, but it was Christians who led the way. But remember, the modern world has its own relationships that are very similar to slavery. Such is the human condition in this world of sin that none of the bondages into which men are cast by other men or into which they cast themselves are fundamentally different today than in Peter’s day. It is true that slavery in the strict sense does not exist in the United States, except illegally. The sex trade, as we know, has many thousands enslaved. Addictions of various kinds are likewise slavery in the worst sort of way, and there are a great many people who are in the business of keeping addicts addicted because they produce the wealth in the drug trade. Many of the women coming forward in the MeToo movement have, in effect, argued that the conditions of their employment made them virtually slaves, to be done with at their master’s pleasure. Moreover, what we ordinarily mean by slavery still does exist in many countries of the world. Further, while we rejoice that in our land it is forbidden for one human being to own another or to be completely subject to the authority of another, – though that is breaking down now with eggs that have been harvested and kept, and now often being sold, organs that are being sold and so on – how many multitudes of human beings know exactly what Tennessee Ernie Ford meant when he sang, “I owe my soul to the company store?” Still today, there are a few in charge and a great many who do their bidding, or suffer the consequences: the dole or the streets. Tolstoy saw this very clearly.
“A thing that helps people today to misunderstand their position in this matter is the fact that we have, in Russia and America, only recently abolished slavery. But in reality, the abolition of serfdom and of slavery was only the abolition of an obsolete form of slavery that had become unnecessary, and the substitution for it of a firmer form of slavery, and one that holds a greater number of people in bondage.”
In other words, enslaving social orders have by no means disappeared in our modern world. [The above several paragraphs indebted to R. Yarbrough, “The Hermeneutics of 1 Timothy 2:9-15,” Women in the Church, 155-196]
But, again, relevant as that makes Peter’s remarks for us today, Peter is not primarily talking about the nature of slavery or of proper social relations, how a society ought to be organized. That is not his interest. What he is saying, rather, is that being a Christian invests life with wholly different interests, purposes, principles and motives than non-Christians have; that the Christian life is radically unlike the life of unbelief. And nothing illustrates this distinction more starkly than his counsel to Christian slaves. There is nothing of the vanilla Christianity that so many in our culture think of when they think of what it means to be a Christian: go to church, be nice to people, visualize world peace, and, if you screw up in some way, comfort yourself with the fact that you’re forgiven. Nothing to worry about in any of that; nothing so unconventional about that; nothing controversial about that. And nothing particularly difficult. Nothing that would take the Holy Spirit of God in the heart, nothing that would require one to take up his cross daily, nothing that would utterly require that a Christian repudiate the world and the love of the world, nothing that would bring down persecution and hatred upon one’s head.
But Peter’s Christianity is something starkly, bracingly different. It makes unbelievers angry, offended, or bitter. Peter’s Christianity is the fundamental repudiation of a worldly viewpoint about human life and its meaning and purpose. What is more, it requires more bravery, more concentration of mind and will, more willingness to endure the reproach of men, more heartbreak, more loss, more sacrifice than any human being is capable of apart from the gift of God and the work of God within his soul! But, and this is very important, it is perfectly obvious that Peter’s view of the Christian life is exactly that view that is consistent with the Christian faith itself.
If you look at what Peter actually says to the slaves here, it is clear that what he is telling them to do is to live their lives in their particular situations in a manner that is consistent with what they know to be true as Christians and with what they consider of the highest importance because they are Christians. I see at least three separate arguments that Peter uses to persuade these Christian slaves that willing submission to their masters – even the cruel ones – is more important than their own deliverance from slavery.
First, he says, the obedience is really being offered to God and for God. Their slavery is an important occasion to serve God. He speaks in v. 19 of them acting in a certain way, a very definitely unusual and unexpected way “because they are mindful of God.” And, then, in v. 20, he speaks of such behavior – behavior the world might well regard as servile, weak, or simply strange – as being “gracious in God’s sight,” or, as one commentator translates the phrase “a fine thing in God’s sight.” [Kelly]
The questions that determine the conduct of a genuinely Christian life are not: what do I want to do, what would bring me pleasure, what do I think is fair, and so on. The question is this and this only: what does God want of me? What does he approve? What will please and honor him? Non-Christians do not think this way. Survey our culture from stem to stern and you will find hardly anyone making choices for such reasons, especially making choices against the grain of our social thought for these reasons. Whether it is abortion, or sexual purity, or taxes, or divorce, or what a woman should do with her life, or how a man should treat a woman, or how parents should raise their children, or how people should spend their money, or how we should think about other people, and other classes or races of people or a thousand other things – the world asks many questions, but not the question the Christian asks or ought to ask: what would God have me do? What would be a “fine thing in his sight?” A Christian, a true Christian, is someone who is alert to the presence and the will of God and cares to please him. That vast difference of motivation must make an immense difference in behavior! If it doesn’t, what then? And who, with a Bible in his or her hand, can deny that God often commands his children to do what the world will not do, even to do what is punishingly difficult to do. Love one’s enemies; bless those who curse you; give up many worldly pleasures and stations for his and the gospel’s sake; and so on.
But a Christian is someone who has seen God! And he or she, for that reason, does not hesitate to accept that the Holy One, the All-wise God has an absolute right to command his children however he sees fit. All real Christians understand that we have an absolute duty, cheerfully, willingly, enthusiastically to obey! As C.S. Lewis famously says it: “I was not born to be free; I was born to adore and obey!”
Second, Peter argues, the obedience he is commending to these slaves is, after all, nothing else but an imitation of the life of Jesus Christ himself. This is the point of vv. 21-24. The only sinless man who ever lived; the one who loved us and gave himself for us, the one who saved us from death and hell, the perfect teacher and exemplar of the truly good life, lived in a certain way, and we are to live in the same way, not only because it is and must be the good way, but because there is no more powerful way for us to honor the Lord than by striving to imitate him, especially in those ways that most demonstrate the majesty of his character.
And, in particular, the Lord suffered unjustly at the hands of many. He was falsely accused throughout his ministry, he was condemned by men at his trial who were eaten up by their jealousy of him; he was cruelly tortured and then crucified though even his judge admitted publicly he had committed no crime. The Lord went to heaven with many wrongs that had been committed against him unpunished and unrighted. And, as he reminded us, if they hated and persecuted the master, they will hate and persecute his servants as well. Not every one of these servant’s masters was going to respond charitably, thankfully, gratefully for the obedience they received from Christian slaves. All his life he blessed those who cursed him, blessed and cursed not. He loved his enemies and loved them to the end. “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Is it then too much, could it possibly be too much to ask the same of those who follow him, who trust him as the Son of God, who have received from him the forgiveness of their sins and a citizenship in heaven? God forbid that any Christian should ever think so. Remember the early Christians, those in Jerusalem after Pentecost. They too were treated unjustly for doing right but they did not complain. Rather they rejoiced because they had been counted worthy of suffering for the Name. That is the Christian spirit and the Christian life – a life so thoroughly dominated by Christ – his life, his love, and his example that everything that brings me into conformity to him is good – however hard – and all that takes away from my devotion to him and fosters the love of myself, however comfortable, however in other ways right and proper – is bad.
And what power such a view of life gives to a man or woman. Listen to G.K. Chesterton on St. Francis, a man whose spirit was very much the spirit that Peter is after here in our text.
“It was the whole calculation…of that innocent cunning, that the world was to be outflanked and outwitted by him, and be embarrassed about what to do with him. You could not threaten to starve a man who was ever striving to fast. You could not ruin him and reduce him to beggary, for he was already a beggar. There was a very lukewarm satisfaction even in beating him with a stick, when he only indulged in little leaps and cries of joy because indignity was his only dignity. You could not put his head in a halter without the risk of putting it in a halo.” [Saint Francis, 103-104]
After all, isn’t that what Christ Jesus was for us and did for us? He was entirely willing to be abased, belittled, ill-used, because by that abasement he served his Father in heaven and saved his brothers! How can we then so strenuously object to injustices committed against us in the face of that? Especially when every opportunity to bear injustice cheerfully and meekly is an honor paid to the one who suffered injustice for our salvation, a chance, as Paul says, to enter into the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings.
And, then, in the third place, the obedience he commends here, so difficult as it was – don’t make these slaves into stones, they were human beings just like you and me, they would struggle to obey even as they worked to obey Peter here – it makes perfect sense what Peter was asking them to do in light of the Last Judgment. Is this not what Jesus thought? As we read in v. 23, in all of the injustices committed against him, in all of the terrible sacrifices his calling required of him, “he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” It does not say that God judges immediately, only justly!
It is servile and weak to accept injustice and to submit to others who are cruel or evil when that acceptance and submission is simply surrender. But it is brave, noble, and heroic to accept a personal injustice (I am not speaking, of course, of injustice committed against others), willingly to submit yourself to cruelty or thoughtlessness committed against you, precisely as an act of faith in the God who will someday judge the world! What will the unjust master think, and what will the Christian slave who spent his life as a slave whimpering about the injustices of his life think, when they both together stand before the Great White Throne?
I fear that there are fewer and fewer Christians in America today – I do not say that this is so in all countries – who think much at all about or who reckon much at all with the Last Judgment! They do not think of the Great Day as the true measure of their thoughts, words, and deeds, or as the vindication of the sacrifices they make for the Lord now. The divine judgment, the reality of it, the certainty of it, Peter says here, is what liberates a Christian to take such chances, to live a life of such daring self-surrender. The wicked will not get away with their wickedness because we bless them and do not curse them, and we will suffer no loss, indeed will gain a great reward because we lived before men the life of a man or woman who, instead of striving for his or her own welfare, “entrusted himself or herself to him who judges justly.”
Do you remember the Lord’s trial, that sham and mockery of a legal proceeding? The witnesses lied about him, the judges conspired to ensure a guilty verdict in defiance of the truth and the facts, and Jesus himself remained silent. He submitted himself to his enemies. And what was the result of that? The salvation of the world – your salvation and mine. And what will be the result of your living as he did, of resisting the powerful urge always to vindicate yourself, to serve yourself, to resist or retaliate against those who, in any way, offend or trouble you? Why, you will be more and more like Jesus Christ himself. And what will be the result of that? Only God knows what wonderful things will come of that for you, for your children, and for others!
You don’t want to live the least Christian life, the least Christ-like life you possibly can, do you? Tell me you do not! Not if you love God. Not if you have any inkling of Christ’s love for you and the sacrifices he made in service of that love. Not if you have ever, in your soul, caught even a glimpse of heaven or of hell. Not if the Holy Spirit is astir in your heart. You want to do and to be something for your Redeemer’s sake.
Some years ago this little paragraph appeared in the While We’re At It section of the journal First Things. Then editor, the late Richard Neuhaus, was commenting on a new series of books being published by an evangelical publishing house.
“I think I understand what they’re trying to do (aside from trying to sell books), but I am made uneasy by a new series from Hendrickson Publishers: The Bible Made Easy, Bible Prophecy Made Easy, Bible Study Made Easy. Presumably Bible study is part of the Christian life. It’s not supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to be hard. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in The Cost of Discipleship, when God calls a man he calls him to come and die. I do hope there is not a book in the works titled Discipleship Made Easy. [FT (Oct. 1998) 95]
What I hope we all want is not discipleship made easy, but true discipleship, true Christlikeness – and that, believe me, will cost you something.
Listen, brethren. If it is possible to know God and to know what he thinks to be a “fine thing;” if it is possible to imitate the life of Jesus Christ; and if it is possible to live now, in this world, in such a way as befits the soon-coming final judgment, then, surely, it isn’t hard to see why Peter should tell Christian slaves to submit themselves to their masters with all respect. Suddenly that makes all the sense in the world. Christians have very different lives to lead, for very different reasons, according to very different principles.
I said at the outset that I love this text. I want you to love it too and to embrace it for your life. After all, we are all slaves in many different ways. Life will make slaves of us in a hundred different ways. And at those moments we will either live as Christians or simply as human beings seeking something for themselves. Woody Allen once said, “To be an American is to take God and carpet with equal seriousness.” Peter’s view was very different! I don’t want you simply to agree with this text, I want you to glory in it and look every day for ways to put it to work in your heart and life. What is there in my life, what ought there to be in my life, in which or by which I might do what Peter told these slaves to do? How might I submit to others, even when poorly treated by them, and so fulfill the law of Christ? For a long time I’ve made it a practice to clean up as I can any mess I encounter in a public restroom. I do that to train my heart. I want to be the sort of slave Peter describes here; willingly doing for others what they should have done themselves. To do those things with enthusiasm that an unbeliever would resist doing with all his might, is the high calling of our lives. It is what is going to separate you from the herd.
For that is what Peter is really saying here. He’s not talking about the institution of slavery. The unjust master recedes quickly from view. What he wants the Christian slave to do is to walk to the Savior’s palace door, place his ear against the doorpost and have the Lord pierce his ear with an awl. If a man is Christ’s slave for love’s sake – he or she can be anyone else’s slave in the strength of that love.