1 Peter 2v18-21


Submission and suffering


Peter's first letter

Last time we looked at 1 Peter 2v13-17 and we saw that, although believers in Christ are described by Peter as “a holy nation, a people for his own possession” and as being “sojourners and exiles” in this world, we are, nonetheless, to relate to the earthly nation in which we live by subjecting ourselves to “the powers that be”. Remember that, in verse 13, Peter commanded Christian citizens to “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution”. We don’t do that simply in order to have a quiet life, or out of fear of “the powers that be” or even because we admire and have confidence in “the powers that be”. No, Peter says that we are to do so “for the Lord’s sake” because it is “the will of God” that we should do so.

We’re going to look at verses 18 to 21 today.

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.

As we move into verse 18 we find that Peter gave another one of his series of commands. According to the ESV the command was: “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust” and, according to the NIV, it was: “Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh”.

So, unlike the previous command that was for all believers in Christ to be submissive to “the powers that be”, this one is for a more specific group of believers. We’ll consider this command and what Peter went on to say about it under four simple headings: Who, What, When and Why?

For this post we are considering the “Who” and the “What”. Next post we will take up the “When” and “Why”.


That is: Who was this command addressed to? Well, in the ESV, verse 18 begins by saying “Servants” and, in the NIV, it begins by saying “Slaves”. To our 21st Century western minds they might seem to be two very different things. When you hear the word “Servants” you probably think of the household staff in TV programmes like “Downton Abbey” or “Upstairs, Downstairs”. When you hear the word “Slaves” you probably think of the 19th Century slave trade with its cruel and dehumanising treatment of Africans as they were forcibly taken from their homes, transported to the American colonies and then used as cheap and expendable labour. Such slavery was depicted in the TV series “Roots” or, more recently in the film “Twelve years a slave”.

The fact is that Peter would have had neither of those situations in mind. He actually used the Greek word “oiketes”. In the Roman and Greek world of Peter’s day, that referred to someone who served as a household slave. People came to be in that position in various ways. Some would have been captured as prisoners of war. Others might have found themselves in financial difficulty and so sold themselves into slavery in order to survive. By Peter’s time, the vast majority of slaves would simply have been born into slavery – that is, they grew up as slaves simply because their parents were slaves. Many of these slaves would have been well educated or trained as skilled craftsmen. Some would even have occupied positions of significant responsibility within the household. There was rigorous Roman legislation in place to regulate the keeping of slaves and that meant that, although there could be exceptions, they were generally quite well treated. In fact, they were normally paid for their services. Nonetheless, their service was not voluntary so they were not free. In a real sense, they “belonged” to their masters until such time as they might be able to buy their freedom through a process known as manumision. So, their status was really somewhere in between what we would think of as a servant and what we would think of as a slave.

Now, you might feel inclined to say that such people don’t exist in our society today so what Peter had to say to them then isn’t really of any relevance to us now. But, before jumping to that conclusion we need to recognise that, although the structure of society has changed since Peter’s day, there are recognisable parallels. You see, the servants or slaves of Peter’s day were the lowest economic level of society and they were by far the most numerous group of working people. The next level up the social ladder consisted of the freemen. They worked for others as day labourers. If you like, they were “private contractors” so their equivalent in our society would be those who are self-employed. That being the case, who in our society is roughly equivalent to the servants or slaves of Peter’s day? It is surely employees. It’s those who work for an employer. Of course it’s true that modern day employees have a greater degree of freedom but, like the servants or slaves of Peter’s day, they are the most numerous group of workers, they perform a similar array of functions and they have a similar economic status. So, it’s not unreasonable to take it that what Peter’s commanded to Christian slaves or servants in his day is also applicable to Christian employees in our day.

So, that’s who the commandment is addressed to. Next let us consider:


That is “What is the command” or “What is being commanded”? Well, just as we saw last time in verse 13, the command here in verse 18, as presented in the ESV, is again to “Be subject” or, as the NIV puts it, “Submit yourselves”. We said last time that the literal meaning of the Greek word that Peter used is to “order under” or to “place under”. We also noted that the two English expressions that we find in the ESV and NIV, although capturing the sense of the Greek quite well, differ from one another in that “Be subject” is passive whereas “Submit yourselves” is active. We decided that Peter had the latter sense in mind there. He was not calling his readers to be mere doormats. He wasn’t calling them to a blind, fatalistic acceptance. Rather, he was calling them to purposely, thoughtfully and deliberately be submissive.

In verse 13 you’ll remember that he was commanding such deliberate submissiveness to “the powers that be”. Now, in addressing Christian slaves here in verse 18 he’s saying to them to also deliberately be submissive “to your masters”. For us, from what we saw previously, that equates to a command to be deliberately submissive to our employers.

Notice that the command in verse 18 is not merely a stark requirement to submit to masters or employers. It has something more to say about it. What that something more is depends on which English version of the text best represents the sense of what Peter was saying. It could either be taken to be telling us something about the manner in which Christian slaves are to obey this command to deliberately be submissive to their masters or it could be taken to be telling us something about the motive for doing so. You see, once again, we find that there’s a difference between our English versions. The ESV has: “be subject to your masters with all respect. That seems to be saying something about our manner in being submissive to masters. We’re to be respectful towards them. The NIV has: in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters”. That seems to be saying something about the motive or reason for our submissiveness to masters. It’s saying that fear of God lies behind our being submissive to our masters. Which is right?

Well, the Greek word that has been translated here as “respect” in the ESV or as “reverent fear of God” in the NIV, is “phobos” and it does literally mean “fear”. Now, Peter often and consistently says that we’re not to fear men so we can’t realistically take it that the submissiveness that Peter is talking about here should be characterised by or motivated by fear of our masters.

The ESV has recognised that the text can’t be speaking of fear of masters, so it has opted to say that we’re to be subject or submissive “with all respect”. That neatly solves the problem but it seems to me that it has done so by significantly watering down the meaning of the word “phobos”. It’s most obvious and natural meaning is “fear”. The NIV has also recognised that the text can’t be speaking of fear of masters but it has retained the word fear and then overcome the problem by adding the words “reverent” and “of God” to avoid any suggestion that any sense of fear of our masters is involved. But, the words “reverent” and “of God” do not appear in the Greek text so is the NIV justified in interpreting this fear to be a “reverent fear of God”? I tend to think that it probably is.

Peter invariably uses the word “phobos” to speak of fear of God – in fact, he’d just done so back in verse 17 where he’d said: “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor”. Peter used the same word back in chapter 1v17 where he said: “And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile”. Now it’s some time since we considered that verse but we concluded that the fear mentioned there is a fear of God. That was not abject fear of condemnation or punishment but a fear of displeasing Him because He is our Father. It’s what He thinks and desires that motivates us because He is our Father.

So, the NIV is really saying that we are to submit ourselves to our masters because we fear displeasing God who is our loving heavenly Father. We get further support for the NIV’s interpretation if we consider Colossians 3v22-25 where Paul said: “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.

You see, we’re not to be obedient or submissive to masters or employers out of a desire to impress men but out of a desire to please God. So, the answer to the “what” question, is not merely to submit to masters or employers but to submit to them out of fear of God and with a definite desire to please Him.

Having considered Who and What, our next post and question will be When and Why.

~ Steve

Dr. Steve Orr
Dr Orr has served the Body of Christ in the United Kingdom for many years and in various capacities (preaching, teaching, etc.,). Steve is a regular contributor to the pages of Christ My Covenant. His insights into the Word of God will serve you in your personal study of God’s Word. Learn of Christ!