Twenty years ago, Kenny Rogers released a song entitled “The Greatest.” It’s a delightful song about the innocent optimism of children. It describes a little boy out on a baseball field alone with his ball and bat, imagining the crowds cheering as he steps up to the plate. He says, “I am the greatest,” tosses the ball up, swings, and misses. Strike one. He says again, “I am the greatest,” tosses the ball up, swings, and misses. Strike two. And then we come to the third verse:
“Little boy, in a baseball hat picks up his ball, stares at his bat
Says, ‘I am the greatest. The game is on the line,’ and he gives his all one last time.
And the ball goes up like the moon so bright, swings his bat with all his might.
And the world's so still as still can be, and the baseball falls, and that's strike three.
Now it's supper time, and his mama calls. Little boy starts home with his bat and ball
Says, ‘I am the greatest. That is a fact, but even I didn't know I could pitch like that.’
He says, ‘I am the greatest. That is understood, but even I didn't know I could pitch that good.’”
Sometimes it’s just a little shift in perspective that can make all the difference. As we come to Peter’s instructions to slaves in 1 Peter 2:18-25, I want to invite you to shift your perspective on what constitutes the good life. As Americans, we are trained from birth to believe the good life is tied up with our circumstances. Do I have a good job doing something I am passionate about, where I get paid well and have good benefits? Is my marriage full of romance? Do I have 2.5 well-behaved children? Do we own a spacious home and have two cars in our garage? Do I have the privilege of seeing everyday how much I am influencing other people for good? For us, that is a picture of the good life. That is the American dream.
First century inhabitants of the Roman Empire also had a vision of the good life. Let’s call it the “Roman dream.” The Roman dream was not based on hard work, self-reliance, and achievement. The economy simply did not provide the greatest opportunities to the hardest workers. The Roman dream was a dream of being written into the will of a wealthy person so that you could receive an inheritance at his death. An inheritance provided financial security, social status, and a sense of belonging to the one who received it. Of course, the vast majority of people never received an inheritance, but in that cultural setting it was the dream, the good life for which most people yearned.1
Against that cultural background, we can understand why Peter tells his readers in 1:4 that they have been born again “to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.” Later in the letter he will tell Christian husbands that their wives are “heirs with you of the grace of life” (3:7). Peter tells believers in Asia Minor that they hold the promise of fulfillment of all that they yearn for through the gospel, because the gospel has given them an inheritance, a vast treasure of future wealth, honor, and acceptance in a true family. And yet, what do these heirs of the age to come experience in their day-to-day lives? They suffer. The group Peter addresses here in 2:18-25, namely, household slaves, probably suffered more than most. In these eight verses, Peter addresses people who were at the lowest level of society, most of whom had no hope of ever being written into a wealthy man’s will. The Roman dream, the good life, was out of reach for them. So Peter writes a letter, in part, to teach them how to shift their perspective on what the good life really is.
We who chase dreams in search of the good life need to shift our perspective. The good life is not about your circumstances. It is about the heart that you bring to your circumstances. Do you love God? Do you love your neighbor? Do you seek to grow in virtue as God makes you into what he designed you to become? Do you hold on to the hope of an inheritance to come that is far greater than anything you can imagine in this world? And—here we come to the main point of Peter’s instructions here—are you willing to suffer unjustly in this world as you follow Christ’s footsteps in the way of the cross? It is our knee-jerk reaction to assume that if we suffer (especially if we suffer unjustly), that must mean something has gone terribly wrong. God must be against us. Far from it, Peter tells us. Shift your perspective: the path of suffering is exactly what we should expect if we call ourselves followers of Jesus of Nazareth.
So as we unpack what Peter has to say to believing household slaves in the first century Roman Empire, I want us to draw out two main words of instruction that show us what the good life in this age really is. First,
I. Submit to authorities (even crooked ones) because you fear God (vv. 18-20).
Let’s bring the big picture in view for a second. Peter began a new section of his letter at 2:11-12, and verse 12 is the main point he unpacks throughout this section: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” So this section is about living honorably among unbelievers so that our lives adorn the gospel in a way that makes it attractive and draws some to faith in Christ. And Peter’s first point on how we live honorable lives is that we submit to authorities: governing authorities (vv. 13-17), slaves to masters (vv. 18-25), and wives to husbands (3:1-6). Peter makes it clear that Christians are not social revolutionaries whose goal is to break down the established order. They are to live within the order of society and bear witness to the power of the gospel as they do so.
I want to make a side note along the way here. At some point in your life, if it hasn’t already happened, you may find yourself in a situation where the issue of slavery and the Bible comes up. It might go like this. In conversation with someone who doesn’t hold the same view as you, the issue of the Bible’s controversial teaching on sexuality may come up. When you make the argument that you stand by what the Bible teaches regarding manhood, womanhood, sex, and marriage, the response may come, “Well, do you also hold the Bible’s view on slavery?” And the assumption will be that the Bible endorses slavery, and the image of African slaves being kidnapped, sold, and abused will hover in the background of the discussion as you struggle to justify why you trust the Bible on sexual issues, but you don’t seem to want to follow it on the question of slavery. And that’s because we live in a society in which slavery was abolished 150 years ago, and virtually everyone agrees that ending that institution was ultimately a good thing.
So, what do we do with the question of the Bible and slavery? I can only briefly address it here, but I would make four points. First, recognize that the Bible does not present slavery as an ideal feature of God’s creation. When God created the world, the institution of marriage was there in the beginning, but the institution of slavery was nowhere to be found in the Garden of Eden. Nor will it be present in the new creation. God did not design us for that institution, and Scripture makes it clear that, where the institution exists, it exists as part of a fallen world. Second, where God gives laws pertaining to slavery in the Old Testament, those laws do not establish the institution, but they do regulate it in ways that offer protections to slaves. In the ancient world, if your people were defeated in a war, or if you ended up with a debt that you could not pay, slavery was often the best option available to you. The alternative was often death. So the institution served an important function, but God gave laws—such as mandatory Sabbath rest or limited terms of servitude—that regulated slavery in the Old Testament in humanitarian ways.
Third, the commands of the New Testament to slaves say nothing about whether slavery itself is good or bad. Those commands simply direct those already living within the institution on how to live godly lives, given their situation. And fourth, while it is true that no New Testament author commands masters to free their slaves, we need to understand that in the first century Roman context, freed slaves were often no better off than they were when they were slaves. In fact, they could often be worse off. Freed slaves were not automatically granted the privilege of Roman citizenship, which in turn would have granted them the protections of due process. So a freed slave could end up being no better off socially, in addition to being cut off from the social unit (the household) that had formerly given him protection, provision, and at least some sense of belonging. Slavery is a complex issue, and that makes the Bible’s various teachings on it complex. So don’t let someone shake your confidence in the Bible by raising the slavery objection.
So, let’s get down to what Peter says here to household slaves. Verse 18 says, “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.” Structures of authority in society matter, and Christians must not be social revolutionaries who seek to burn them all to the ground. And so Peter commands submission to household authorities, even if those authorities are crooked and unfair with them. One implication of this command is that, if you do indeed submit to a crooked master, you will likely suffer unjust treatment from him. So Peter’s command here is not merely to submit, but to endure unjust suffering willingly if that is the price of submission to authority.
I need to offer a caveat here just to avoid misunderstanding. Especially now that we are in the “me too” age, I want to make it clear: if you are suffering unjustly, and you have available to you legal channels through which to pursue justice, the Bible does not forbid or discourage you at all from pursuing them. When Paul had run-ins with authorities in the book of Acts, we see examples where he appealed to his Roman citizenship in order to gain legal protection. In 1 Corinthians 7:21, Paul tells slaves not to be concerned about their status as slaves, but if they have the chance to obtain their freedom, then go for it. Nothing in Scripture forbids us from addressing injustice through the legal channels available to us.
But even with that in mind, the fact remains that we can’t escape all injustice. Peter is writing to a class of people who had virtually no options before them to escape unjust treatment, and he tells them to shift their perspective and understand that the way of the cross actually is the good life. How does he get there? Why would anyone willingly endure unjust suffering? There are a few indications in the text about motivation. Verse 18 tells slaves to be subject to masters “with all respect” (ESV), but the Greek word translated “respect” actually means “fear.” Is Peter telling slaves to fear their masters? No, he is telling them to fear God, and because they fear God, they should submit to their masters. Having just made the point that God alone is worthy of fear in verse 17, Peter now says, “Slaves, submit to your masters because you fear God, and God, who has all authority, has delegated a measure of authority to your master. Even if your master is a crooked man, recognize the fact that rebelling against his authority is rebelling against God’s authority.” That seems to be the same point he makes in verse 19, where he says, “For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.” That phrase “mindful of God” could be translated, “for the sake of conscience toward God.” Submit to authorities, even if you are not particularly fond of those authorities, because you have a conscience that wants to obey God above all. That’s your motivation to suffer unjustly if you have to. Children, this applies to you as well with regard to your parents. Even if you think your parents are being unfair to you (which is usually not the case, but sometimes it is), the Bible is still clear: submit to their authority because their authority comes from God. If you defy their authority, you are not really sinning against them. You are sinning against God and telling him that he has no authority over you. Is that really something you want to say to God?
But if any of us do endure unjust suffering, Peter says that God’s favor is upon us. Verse 19 says it is “a gracious thing” to endure suffering unjustly. Verse 20 calls unjust suffering “a gracious thing in the sight of God.” There is no credit or honor in suffering for doing wrong. If you break the law and go to jail for it, your suffering is not praiseworthy. God may still use it for your good, but it is not “a gracious thing” in his sight. By contrast, suffering for doing good is “a gracious thing” before God, Peter says. This means that when you endure suffering that is undeserved, you are storing up reward for yourself in the age to come. This is because God is using that suffering to refine you more and more into the image of his Son, and in that very work he is preparing you to receive the inheritance for which he has appointed you with greater and greater joy. The New Testament makes clear repeatedly that suffering is the means by which we reach our reward of eternal life. In Acts 14:22 Paul and Barnabas told the new believers at Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch: “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” And in Romans 8:17 Paul says we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” God has so appointed it that we will not inherit our eternal reward apart from the endurance of suffering in this world. So let us endure suffering willingly, trusting that the day is coming when God will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” and he will so crown our suffering with glory. Suffer willingly for doing good because you fear God, and, fearing God, you believe him when he says that this is the pathway appointed for your glory.
Of course, none of us are slaves today, and that is a blessing. But do you interact with authorities who don’t always treat you well? Are you perhaps a wife who feels stuck in a difficult marriage with a husband who doesn’t use his authority for your good? Or do you feel stuck at a job where your boss or supervisor makes things miserable for you? Where is your heart in that situation? Do you daydream about yelling, “Take this job and shove it!” because you are fixated on the injustice and misery? Change your perspective. That situation is not denying you the opportunity for the good life. The only thing standing in your way of living the good life right where you are is the condition of your heart. If Peter could tell slaves who performed mundane tasks for sometimes crooked masters, and could even be abused while doing so, that the way they lived their lives right where they were could be pleasing to God, then I know he would say the same to you. And if you are able to say that your life is pleasing to God, isn’t that ultimately what matters? So submit to authorities in your life, even the crooked ones, because you fear God.
But Peter is not done. He’s about to launch into an extended argument to say more about why we should be willing to suffer injustice in this world, and he points us to the greatest act of injustice ever committed in order to do so. So here is the second word of instruction:
II. Suffer willingly for doing good because you have been called to follow Christ’s example (vv. 21-25).
As Americans, we focus a lot on vocation. “What do you do?” is the question you can ask almost anybody at anytime to break the ice and begin a conversation. Because we find so much of our identity wrapped up in the notion of vocation: I’m a teacher, I’m a homemaker, I’m a salesman, I’m an investment banker. But the word “vocation” itself actually means “calling,” and if we ask Peter to tell us how we should understand our vocation as Christians, he makes that clear in verse 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.” For Peter, vocation is not so much about what we do from 8 to 5. It is about following in the footsteps of our Master in the pathway of suffering, regardless of what our 8 to 5 looks like. Vocation is primarily about discipleship, and the cross of Christ is the pattern that we follow in the pathway of discipleship.
And so Peter goes on to tell us how Jesus Christ is an example to us. Verses 22-23 describe his sinlessness. He did absolutely nothing wrong; he committed no sin, allowed no deceit to come from his mouth. So we know that he did not suffer for his own sins, and thus he did not deserve to suffer at all. The verbal and physical abuse he suffered is the very definition of injustice, but he endured it willingly. More than that, even while he was being unjustly abused, he did not retaliate. He did not revile in return those who reviled him in an attempt to even the score, nor did he speak threatening words of coming judgment to those who made him suffer. At this point in the passage Peter begins to pick up a number of themes from Isaiah’s suffering servant song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12). Although Peter doesn’t say it in so many words, he seems to echo Isaiah’s word about the suffering servant, “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (v. 7).
How did Jesus do it? How did he refrain from lashing out against those who abused him? Where did he find the strength to endure this kind of suffering? It was not from a kind of Stoic philosophy, prominent in first-century Rome, which said, in effect, “This is the way things are, so we just need to deal with it.” Not at all. Look at verse 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.” Jesus endured unjust suffering by looking in faith to God the Father, the one who judges justly. He knew that his Father would vindicate him and judge his enemies in due time, so he left the matter alone.
I like the cartoon I have seen of a man sitting at his computer, and you can see the speech bubble representing the words of his wife coming from the next room. “Are you coming to bed?” she asks. “I can’t. This is important,” he responds. Confused, she asks, “What?” And then he responds, “Someone is wrong on the internet!” So, of course, he is going to stay up to make sure he sets the record straight. Have you ever felt that way? Especially when reviling or slander is aimed at you, there is a strong temptation to assume that you must be the one to justify yourself. After all, if you don’t speak up for yourself, who will speak for you? Well, as Christians, one of the central confessions of our faith is that God will. As Paul says in Romans 8:33-34, “It is God who justifies? Who is to condemn?” Yes, in this world we will be condemned. The media are having a field day condemning Christians right now. Our brothers and sisters in China are being condemned by the Communist government. Peter himself would go on after writing this letter to be condemned to death by the Roman emperor Nero. And yet, Paul’s point in asking “Who is to condemn?” is that no condemnation will stand because it is God’s verdict that will stand in the end. So the real question for you when you face the temptation to justify yourself before the world is this: Do you have enough faith to let your name be reviled without retaliating, because you are secure in the knowledge that it is God’s job, not yours, to set the record straight? That lesson of growing in faith can change your entire life. Follow the example of Christ by forgiving others and leaving it to God to deal with sins committed against you.
Christ suffered innocently, he suffered without retaliating, and, as Peter demonstrates in verses 24-25, he suffered and died for the good of others, and he has called us to do the same. How did Christ suffer for the good of others? Peter explains this in verse 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.” Notice the pronouns: He himself bore our sins in his body. Our sins were laid upon him, and through the suffering and death he endured, he bore them to their just penalty before God. Peter is echoing again Isaiah 53, which speaks of sins being laid on the innocent, suffering servant. And Christ bore our sins under the curse of God. Notice that Peter speaks specifically of “the tree” in verse 24. He does not say “the cross” but “the tree”. Why refer to it as a tree? Peter is consciously echoing Deuteronomy 21:22-23 here, Old Testament verses that pronounce a curse from God over all who are hanged on a tree. Peter is signaling to his readers his understanding of the death of Christ on the cross as a curse: the curse, or wrath, of God pronounced against sinners. Christ bore that curse, endured the wrath of God that was directed against us.
And why did he do it? “That we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” He did it so that sin’s power over us would be broken, that sin would no longer be our master, but that we would live for righteousness. As he goes on to say in verse 25, “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.” Again, these ideas come right out of Isaiah 53, which says “by his stripes we are healed” and “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned everyone to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
It is not just the manner of his suffering—unjust suffering of an innocent man without retaliation—that Peter calls us to imitate. I believe it is also the purpose of his suffering, namely, to seek the good of others. Of course, by dying as a substitute for our sins, Jesus did something that we simply cannot imitate. None of us are called to die as a substitutionary sacrifice, taking upon ourselves the guilt of others. But we are called to suffer unjustly while doing good for the good of others. Paul wrote to the Colossians in Colossians 1:24, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” Think about what Paul said! Paul himself is “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” through his own sufferings?! What in the world could that mean? It can’t mean that Christ’s afflictions are inherently lacking in value, as if to say, “Christ didn’t quite suffer enough for your redemption, so here I am to finish the job with my sufferings.” That would be blasphemous. John Piper raised this question in a message I heard years ago, and he pointed to a parallel statement in Philippians 2:30, where Paul says of Epaphroditus, “for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.” What he means there is that the one thing lacking the financial gift that the Philippians had set aside for Paul was someone to present it to him personally. So Epaphroditus, “filled up what was lacking” by risking his life to make the journey to Paul so that the gift could be complete. Now apply the same logic to Colossians 1:24: Paul completes what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ by presenting the gospel, not only through his preaching, but by putting it on display in his sufferings. Paul personally presents the gospel to the nations by the proclamation of Christ combined with a cross-shaped life of willingly enduring suffering.
At the end of it all, don’t you want to know that you lived a life that influenced other people for the sake of the gospel? We rightly say, then, that you should look for opportunities to share the gospel with others. But the other side of that coin is that you should also seek to live honorably among the Gentiles, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. Let unbelievers see you endure injustice and suffering with such grace that it befuddles them. When they see that, they will see all of your talk about Jesus being worth more than anything else in the world is not just talk to you. It is reality, and your life proves it. In doing so, you will follow Christ’s example of suffering willingly for the good of others.
Jesus of Nazareth did not achieve the good life from the world’s perspective. He never amassed wealth. He never gained acceptance among the elite of his society. He was not written into anyone’s will. He never even married or had children. In his thirties he was suddenly arrested, condemned by a sham trial, reviled, abused, and hung on a cross, a cruel instrument of torture reserved for those at the lowest level of society. And there he hung, bloody and naked, in shame before the crowds, until he could no longer push himself up to breathe. And in agony, he died. If a worldly perspective is all you have, that is the most pathetic excuse for a life that we could imagine. And yet we all know that no life was better lived in the history of the world. And his resurrection on the third day to cosmic reign that will never end is God’s testimony to that.
The gospel demands that we shift our perspective about Jesus of Nazareth, and we who are believers understand that. Now Peter tells us here to shift our perspective about ourselves and to understand that the good life is not found in either the Roman dream or the American dream. It is found on the pathway to a cross. Amen.
1 See Sarah Ruden, Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time (New York: Image Books, 2010), 34-37 for a discussion of inheritance in the Greco-Roman world.