1 Peter 2:18-20 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.
This morning we encounter the second of Peter’s four passages describing the nature and result of God-honoring Christian subjection to the four main human institutions (government, business, family, church). We looked at government last week. We’ll look at business this week. And then, after considering the ultimate reason behind all of this next week, we’ll get to family and church.
The simple message of our passage is this: Christians honor God, bring grace to unbelievers, and receive God’s pleasure when we submit to our earthly bosses, even when they act unjustly and even abusively toward us. To give it slightly more context, Peter writes that to honor God, Christians must walk in holiness. In particular Christians must be holy in the ways and reasons we interact with non-Christians. We must always do so graciously and with a longing that they would know the forgiveness and freedom found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. And one crucial way of acting graciously and evangelistically toward unbelievers is by subjecting ourselves to the various authorities over us—even, and especially, the bad ones.
For a number of reasons (our sinful desire to be ruler of our own lives, people abusing the authority God has given them over us, our love of comfort and ease, pride, ignorance, etc.), it is often difficult for us to joyfully subject ourselves to the best authorities in the best circumstances (which is proven by the fact that we often fail to subject ourselves to God). The fact that Peter calls God’s people to subject ourselves even to bad authorities in painful circumstances makes our passage for this morning even harder. And that means we really need God’s help if we are to obey.
So let’s thank God that we have in Him all the help we need. And let’s pray that the goodness of God’s design would become plain to us from Peter’s words and, therefore, that we’d all learn to joyfully obey.
FREED TO SUBJECT OURSELVES
Just like those in the early Church must have wondered if their freedom in Christ freed them from the need to submit to civil government, they must also have wondered if their Christian freedom freed them from the need to submit to their earthly masters. These are, in my estimation, very reasonable questions. But Peter’s answer is the same for both: freedom in Christ frees Christians from those institutions (along with every human institution) in order that we would freely subject ourselves to them in new ways and for new purposes.
In our passage for this morning, simply, Peter commands his enslaved readers to remain subject to their earthly masters because of their freedom in Christ. “Servants, be subject to your masters…” (2:13). From the outset, before diving into the text itself, I need to point out a few things.
First, Peter’s instructions to slaves are consistent with the rest of the NT. In particular, Paul consistently gives the same instructions (1 Corinthians 7:20-24, Colossians 2:22, 1 Timothy 6:1-2, and Titus 2:9-10). Consider how much our passage for this morning has in common with Paul’s words in Ephesians 6:5-8,
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, 6 not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, 7 rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, 8 knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free.”
Second, Peter’s instructions are not an endorsement of slavery. They are, as I’ll get to more in a bit, a different, more effective, and more comprehensive means of eradicating it entirely.
Third, many, perhaps most, of the early converts to Christianity were gentile slaves (1 Corinthians 1:26-28). It is important for us to not that this was an important passage for a large percentage of the early Church.
Fourth, we need to understand the distinction between Jewish slavery and Roman slavery, and which Peter had in mind. Slavery under the Mosaic Law (Jews serving as slaves to other Jews) meant, in large part, ensuring that people were paid what they were owed, and that protecting people from perpetual oppression. In the Jewish system, masters were commanded to be generous and just. Slaves were to be respected and treated with dignity. Slavery was temporary and primarily a means of repaying debt.
On the other hand, slavery under Roman law was very different. Slaves were captured, bought, and sold into slavery as property rather than people. Slaves had no rights and were permitted to be beaten and abused. The children of slaves belonged to their masters rather than their parents. Slaves could be freed, but that was entirely at the discretion of their masters (if, when, and how). Nevertheless, there was a wide range of treatment that Roman slaves endured. Some were treated horribly and some were treated very well, almost like family.
In our passage for this morning Peter was specifically (though not exclusively) addressing those within the institution of Roman slavery, on both ends of the spectrum (slaves treated well and poorly).
Finally, fifth, the word translated as “servants” in v.18, typically referred to a particular kind of slave: household slaves. Thephpse slaves were often doctors, nurses, artists, craftsmen, chefs, etc. And these slaves were often more educated than their masters. Again, Peter didn’t have these household slaves in mind exclusively, but the fact that he chose a more specific word does imply something significant; namely, although Peter was writing about a system that does not exist in our culture, properly understood it has clear implications for everyone involved in work as an employee. And more broadly understood it has implications for everyone under earthly authority of any kind.
With that, let’s consider the new ways and new reasons for Christian subjection according to Peter. And let’s do so with an ear, mind, and heart eager to learn, love, and live out what it means for us.
FREE SUBJECTION IN NEW WAYS AND FOR NEW PURPOSES
To understand the new ways and new purposes prescribed by Peter, consider with me, for just a moment, the old ways. We all know them because we’ve all experienced them—in others and in ourselves.
The old ways of submitting to earthly authority, the ways of the world and of the flesh, means doing so begrudgingly and selfishly. That is, apart from freedom in Christ, submission to masters is done reluctantly, in selfish ways, and for selfish gain. Even with good masters or bosses, where there is subjection, it is for personal gain or to avoid personal loss. And when it comes to bad masters or bosses the old ways lead to rebellion or escape.
I think we can all relate to this line of thinking—even as Christians. It’s easy to think of our work exclusively in terms of self-fulfillment or self-provision. And it’s easy to feel justified in quitting as soon as we don’t like how things are going in our job. When we no longer feel appreciated, when we feel underpaid, when we feel unable to use our creativity, when we feel stifled, etc. we often deem it reasonable to cut bait and run. That’s what Onesimus did to Philemon and it’s what many around us do when things aren’t as we like.
But again, to people who are free in Christ, Peter talks of submission in new ways and for new purposes. Let’s consider three of them together.
First, as we’ve already seen, the new subjection is ultimately “for the Lord’s sake.” Peter’s instructions in this passage are a continuation of his thoughts which begin in 2:13 where he writes, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.” Among other things “for the Lord’s sake” means acknowledging that Christian submission isn’t ultimately to the human institution, but to God. It means that Christian submission points to something greater (which couldn’t be made more clear than it is in 2:21-25, which we’ll look at next week). And it also means that our aim in subjecting ourselves to human masters is for the Lord’s glory—not theirs or ours.
Peter picks up on this point again in v.18 when he says that servants are to be subject “with all respect.” There is certainly a sense in which servants are to subject themselves to their earthly masters with respect. That is implied throughout 18-20. And yet, that’s probably not what Peter had in mind here.
A more literal translation of the word “respect” is “fear”. Servants are to subject themselves with all fear. And that seems to be a continuation of Peter’s command in v.17 (“fear God”). In other words, the command in v.18 is for servants to subject themselves to their masters out of fear of God; in light of the fact that God is their ultimate master. And all of that is just another way of saying “for the Lord’s sake”.
We see this again in v.19 as well in the words, “mindful of God”. Submission to earthly masters must always be done for the Lords sake in that it must always be done in mindfulness of God. Every time you and I are faced with the opportunity to submit to our bosses we are ultimately faced with the opportunity to submit to God. This means, of course, doing so with a constant awareness of the fact that God has commanded us to submit to them. It means doing so with a constant awareness that God is concerned with our submission. And it means doing so not ultimately for a promotion or earthly favor, but for God’s glory.
Again, then, if we are to honor God (2:12), by living in holiness (2:11), by ministering to unbelievers (2:11, 15, 20) in our submission to our bosses, it is not enough to merely do what they say (half-heartedly or begrudgingly or selfishly), Peter says. Instead we must obey with “all fear/respect,” being “mindful of God,” “for the Lord’s sake”.
The second way in which Christian subjection is done in new ways and for new reasons is that we are to do so (subject ourselves) not only to good, kind, fair, gentle, worthy bosses, but also to those who are unjust, cruel, abusive, and otherwise unworthy.
In v.18 Peter writes, “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.” Again in v.19 he writes that Christians honor God when we willingly subject ourselves to our earthly masters even to the point where it means “enduring sorrows while suffering unjustly.” And a third time in v.20 Peter commands Christians to obedience even if we are “beaten for it.”
Because Christians are free in Christ and because our obedience is ultimately for the Lord’s sake, we submit not only when our bosses treat us well, but also when they treat us wrongly, in ways that produce sadness and suffering.
In Matthew 5:43-47 Jesus teaches this same principle, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
As a new Christian I was working in a finishing shop. I was very conscious of my witness and tried to have as many evangelistic conversations as possible. I still remember, all these years later (20+), the time when my boss sent me in early from my break because he said I’d been out there too long already. I hadn’t. I’d just gotten out there. I briefly protested, but he was sure in his own mind, so I went back inside. This is about the smallest example I can possibly imagine, but the fact that I still remember it and the feeling of injustice it produced shows the significance of what Peter is calling God’s people to.
The third way in which Christian subjection is different than non-Christian subjection is that it produces grace and credit. Christian subjection has new ways and new reasons. Why ought Christians be willing to subject ourselves even to injustice? “Because this is a gracious thing.”
When servants act in accordance to their slavery to sin rather than freedom in Christ, there is no grace and there is only tiny, temporary credit. Workers are commonly frustrated and unmotivated and bosses are frequently skeptical and discouraged.
We see this all the time. How many people do you know who are just putting in their time until retirement? How many of you are doing that? How many people do you know whose aim is to take everything possible from their company while giving as little as possible? How many of you are doing that? How many people do you know who are constantly grumbling about their bosses and looking for reasons and ways to get around doing what they’re told? How many of you are doing that?
There’s no grace there, and Peter says whatever you gain from work like that (your wages, pension, 401k) is your entire credit.
On the other hand, when Christians, mindful of God, freely subject ourselves to God by freely subjecting ourselves to our earthly masters “it is a gracious thing in the sight of God” (v.19, 20), Peter writes. It is gracious in that it is a gift of God to the worker to see the goodness of subjecting himself or herself in spite of mistreatment. And it is gracious in that it is a blessing to those around us—including our unjust bosses (even if they don’t immediately realize or appreciate it).
What’s more, Peter made clear that when God’s people continue in subjection, even when persecuted for doing good, our accounts are credited exponentially with things that last forever! “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…” there is the credit of the pleasure of God. Is there anything greater that could be added to our account. By grace, through faith in Christ, forgiveness and righteousness are added to our account. In addition, Peter writes here that by grace, through suffering injustice for doing good, God’s pleasure is added to our account. What a balance sheet!
Freedom in Christ frees Christians from every human institution in order that we would freely subject ourselves to them in new ways and for new purposes. In our passage for this morning we see this in three specific ways. First, the new subjection is ultimately “for the Lord’s sake.” Second, the new subjection is not only to good, kind, fair, gentle, worthy bosses, but also to those who are unjust, cruel, abusive, and otherwise unworthy. And third, it produces grace and credit.
Of course all of this all sounds fine in principle, but what does it actually look like in practice? I want to suggest just a few things.
First, as I mentioned at the beginning, neither Peter nor any of the rest of the biblical authors were endorsing slavery. Therefore, neither must you or I. Indeed, the NT authors had in mind nothing short of cultural transformation. And therefore, so must you and I.
However, their means of cultural transformation is not what most people might expect. Therefore, if we are to rightly apply this passage today, we must learn from them. As you read through this passage and listened to this sermon my guess is that alarm bells were going off in your head. What about my rights? What about justice? What about the work environment that I deserve?
Rather than focusing on the “rights” of individuals or groups, however, the NT authors, including Peter, focus on cultural transformation (and the ending of all injustice—not just slavery) by calling the people of God to act in ways consistent with the gospel. It is not right for bosses to be abusive and unjust. But, when it comes to overcoming this among unbelievers, the NT doesn’t model a frontal assult. Instead, it focuses on Christians acting Christianly in the power of the Holy Spirit with such consistency, regardless of its cost, that our faithfulness serves as irrefutable evidence of the truthfulness of the gospel.
It is God’s plan to use a constant barrage of inexplicable, but irrefutable Christian faithfulness as a means of humbling and saving watching skeptics through the gospel. Cultural transformation results, then, not from working for cultural transformation, but from the gospel spreading through Christians living faithfully to the gospel (especially in times of suffering and persecution for it).
Second, we must never follow those in authority over us into sin. As I’ve tried to make clear over the past few sermons, subjecting ourselves to every human institution does not mean subjecting ourselves to sin. Likewise, the type of subjection Peter calls for in this passage (the kind that is willing, even, to endure beatings) ends when the master commands that which is sin.
Your boss may order you to work long hours (even after promising you that he or she wouldn’t) and you should (probably) obey. But you should not obey if your boss tells you to lie on a report. Again, Peter means Christian servants (employees) to do good at all times, even when they are mistreated for it.
Third, none of this is to say that we shouldn’t use whatever legal means are available to us to protect ourselves. If your boss assaults you, you should call the police. If your boss illegally withholds your wages, you should report him or her to the authorities. According to Roman law at the time of Peter’s writing, slaves had no such recourse available to them (which is why Peter calls them to go as far as he does in subjecting themselves), but I’m confident that if they had Peter would have encouraged them to make use of it. And I’m confident of this because of the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, “Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity” (1 Corinthians 7:21).
Finally, forth, while this passage is focused on slaves/servants and what faithfulness to the gospel looks like for them. There are other passages (even a whole book in the NT – Philemon) dedicated to what it looks like for masters to live in gospel faithfulness. In Ephesians 6:9 we read, “Masters, do the same to them [look first to Christ, act with integrity, do good, know that you will receive a reward; from 5-8], and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.”
Bosses, look to these kinds of passages for instructions in honoring God as a boss. Workers, look to these kinds of passages for ways to pray for and encourage your bosses.
Let’s be honest, this is a hard passage. It calls us to submit in ways that no one wants to submit. It calls God’s people to stay in subjection in situations that could cause significant harm. If it were not for the next section (2:21-25), this might even seem cruel. But thanks be to God, in the middle of the four human institutions Peter calls his readers to subject themselves to—probably as the weight of his commands reached overwhelming proportions—Peter grounds all of this in the gospel. That is, Peter grounds his commands for Christians to subject themselves to every human institution in the perfect subjection of Jesus.
1 Peter 2:21 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.
If the point of all of this (or all of Peter’s commands) was individual justice, Peter’s words would be ridiculous. If the point was to draw attention to workplace atrocities, he probably could have come up with a much better plan. If the point was to teach Christians how to avoid mistreatment, his advice fails miserably. If the point was to allow the suffering saints to have their best life now, all of chapter two is pretty much a train wreck. But, if the point was to teach the elect exiles how to best reflect the gospel in their current circumstances—which it was—then he knocked it out of the park—which he did. Thanks be to God. Amen.