1 Peter 2:18-21 ESV
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.
Submission and suffering
For our previous post we considered the “Who” and the “What”. For this post we are considering the “When” and “Why”.
The short answer to that question is; “always”! Notice that Peter goes on in verse 18 to say of this submission: “not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust”. That’s in the ESV and this time the NIV is also quite similar as it says: “not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh”. So, Peter recognises that masters or employers come in various types. Some are good, gentle and considerate and others are unjust or harsh. We mentioned earlier that there was legislation that covered the owning of slaves and that meant that, generally, slaves were well treated. But, Peter was realistic enough to know that some slave owners were unfair and abused their position of power and took advantage. No amount of human legislation provides any absolute guarantee. It’s exactly the same with employers in our society. Most are reasonable and responsible but some will see what they can get away with.
Our natural inclination would probably be to not be submissive to masters or employers who do not follow the rules and treat us unjustly. But, Peter makes it clear that Christian slaves or employees are to be willingly submissive to their masters or employers without exception. We’re not to pick and choose when to submit ourselves. We’re not to only be submissive if we deem our employers to be worthy of our submission. No, we are to be characterised by that spirit of submissiveness at all times and in all circumstances.
That same emphasis comes out in Titus 2v9-10 where Paul says: “Bondservants are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior”. You see, we’re not just to be submissive to employers when it suits us or when it’s agreeable to us. We’re to be submissive to them “in everything”. We find exactly the same emphasis again in Colossians 3v22 where Paul says: “Bondservants obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord”.
Last time we faced the question about whether we are to subject ourselves to the powers that be at all times – even if they are repressive and corrupt and persecute the church. Difficult though it is, we thought that Peter did mean exactly that. He didn’t actually spell it out but we inferred that it must be the case because we recognised that the Emperor that Peter was commanding his readers to submit to was none other than Nero. It’s hard to imagine a more unhinged and despotic ruler than Nero! Well, now, in connection with submitting to masters, Peter does spell out the fact that we are to submit even if we are treated badly and unfairly. That suggests that we were right in thinking we are to subject ourselves to the powers that be at all times.
The fact is that, as Christians in this world, we shouldn’t expect to be treated with justice or fairness. We’re very grateful for it if we are treated with fairness but we shouldn’t be surprised if we’re treated with harshness.
So, we’ve seen that Peter commanded slaves to be deliberately submissive to their masters – even when those masters treat them harshly or unjustly.
The obvious question that arises from that must be:
You see, if masters or employers treat us badly and make us suffer in some way or another, surely the natural response is to complain about it or object to it or even to retaliate. Yet, Peter commands us not to do that but to be submissive. Why? Well, verse 19 begins with the word “For” so Peter is going on to provide the reason for continuing to be submissive even to those who mistreat us. As he continues in verses 19-21 we find that the reason stems from the proper Christian response to any unjust suffering. He says in those verses: “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”. That’s from the ESV.
The NIV has “For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps”.
He’s urging his readers to endure unjust suffering of any sort and, of course, that includes suffering at the hands of masters who are unjust or harsh. From those verses we can pick out three reasons for enduring rather than retaliating when we suffer unjustly.
Firstly: because it’s commendable.
I’ve taken that from the NIV. Verse 19 begins by saying “For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering” Then, in verse 20, we read: “But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God”. However, the ESV has “For this is a gracious thing” and that sounds quite different doesn’t it?
Before we try to establish the correct sense of that phrase let us notice exactly what Peter is saying is “commendable before God” or “a gracious thing in the sight of God”. It’s not merely enduring unjust suffering or bearing up under it. Peter is not saying that there is any virtue in some sort of macho, stoical, heroic, British stiff upper lip type enduring or bearing up. No, what is commendable is enduring unjust suffering “when, mindful of God” or “conscious of God”. By that he means trusting in God and so pleasing God. He means being confident that, despite outward hardships, in the words of Romans 8v28: “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose”.
Why does the NIV say that this is “commendable before God” and the ESV say that this is “a gracious thing in the sight of God”? Well, the Greek word “charis” is used here and that is often translated as “grace”. We usually think of that as being undeserved favour but it can also mean approval or credit.
The word “charis” is used in that sense in Luke 6v32-34 where Jesus says: “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount”. There, “charis” is translated as “credit”. He’s saying there’s no “credit” in doing things that even sinners do. Then He continues by saying: “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful”. You see, the implication is that there is “credit” in going beyond the things that even sinners do. In fact Jesus parallels “credit” with “your reward will be great”.
So, in saying that suffering unjustly “when, mindful of God” or “conscious of God” is “commendable before God” or “a gracious thing in the sight of God” Peter means that it is pleasing to God. It meets with His approval. He considers it a worthy and creditable thing and He will reward it. Now you might say “That might be so but doesn’t that mean that those who make us suffer are getting away with it? Where’s the justice in that?” Well, look at Colossians 3v22-25 where Paul says: “Bondservants obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality”. That covers a lot of what we’ve been saying about obeying earthly masters and fearing the Lord but besides saying that “you will receive the inheritance as your reward” it also goes on to say that “the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done”.
This is speaking of the final judgement and I suggest that, for the believer in Christ, it is very liberating to know that there will be a final judgement. Knowing that there will be a final judgement when perfect justice will be administered and every wrong will be righted should deliver us from any feelings of unfairness and dissatisfaction and wanting revenge in this world. That’s what Jesus kept in mind throughout His Earthly life. Looking forward to verse 23 we see that Peter remembered something about Jesus. That was: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten”. Why? How come? Well, Peter said that He “continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly”. He lived His life and endured all sorts of suffering in the knowledge that justice will be done. Paul exhorts us to have the same attitude. He says in Romans 12v19: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord””.
So, we’re to endure unjust suffering at the hands of employers or anyone else for the Lord’s sake because it is commendable.
Secondly: We’re to do so because it’s living out our calling.
Verse 21 begins by saying “For to this you have been called”. What does Peter mean by “this” in that phrase? It is surely the enduring of unjust suffering for the Lord’s sake that he’s just been talking about. We mustn’t be surprised by opposition and injustice. It’s par for the course. It goes with the territory. If you’re a believer in Christ it’s because God has called you. As Peter said back in chapter 1v15: ”but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct”. That results in us being sojourners and strangers in this world. Peter will go on to say in chapter 3v9: “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing”. You see, receiving evil and reviling is to be expected but we are called not to respond in kind but to bless. So, enduring unjust suffering at the hands of employers or anyone else for the Lord’s sake is not only commendable – it’s in keeping with our calling.
Thirdly: We’re to do so because it’s being Christ-like (v21b)
Peter continues in verse 21 by saying: “because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps”.
When we speak of the suffering of Christ we are usually referring to our Saviour’s death on the cross in our place. Of course, that is at the very heart of our faith and Peter will soon go on to refer to that. However, I don’t think that is what Peter has in mind here. If you’re using the NIV you’ll see that it says: “because Christ suffered for you” but the ESV has “because Christ also suffered for you”. Now, that is correct. The word “also” is in the text but, for some inexplicable reason, the NIV has chosen to omit it. The point is that, having spoken to his readers in terms of them being called to endure “sorrows while suffering unjustly” and suffering for doing good, he’s reminding them that Jesus also suffered in exactly same the same ways as they would and that their suffering was for Him just as His was for them.
Peter then says that in Christ’s suffering “for you” He was “leaving you an example”. Quite often we think of an example as being an illustration of something or representative of something. For instance, you might say something like “Neil Whitcombe is an example of a Welshman”. That is true and it might vaguely be of interest but it doesn’t impact you in any way. It’s purely academic. But, that isn’t the sense of the Greek word that Peter has used here. The word is hypogrammon and it literally referred to children tracing over the letters of the alphabet in order to learn to write the letters correctly. So, it referred to an exercise. It involved activity. It wasn’t just an example to note or be impressed by. It was something that was to be done. Perhaps you remember as a child, or may be with your own children, using a copy book when learning to write. The letters would be printed clearly on the page and there would be a blank line underneath on which the child tried to copy the letters as neatly as possible. Well, that’s the idea here. Just as the printed letters were the example to copy and follow so Jesus is the example we are to copy and follow. Peter makes that clear by going on to say: “so that you might follow in his steps”. Jesus didn’t merely leave us an example to look at and admire. He left us an example to follow and following that example means following Him. It means walking as He walked. It means being like Him. It means doing as He did and thinking what He thought and being motivated by the desire to please our heavenly Father as He was.
When your employer treats you unjustly, are you Christ-like? Are you following in His footsteps? Peter will go on to say of Him in verse 23: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten”. Can that be said of you?
The remaining verses of the chapter detail the example Jesus left us by speaking of His suffering and we’ll look forward to considering that next time.