When Peter wrote his letter, many in the community believed Christians were law breakers, opposed to the government. To counter this Peter wrote, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, …. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.” (1 Peter 2:13–16)
Peter’s examples are difficult for us to hear because his words reflect the realities of a society very different from ours. He speaks of slavery in a context we haven’t experienced and don’t understand. Slavery is wrong and we shouldn’t misapply Peter’s words to support slavery. In Peter’s day slavery was taken for granted as part of the natural order. The few human rights that existed applied only to citizens, not to slaves.
With our modern mindset we fail to even notice that simply writing to slaves, addressing them in a letter as Peter does, bestows a dignity on them that was not typical of the day. He was treating them as human beings and asking them to use their freedom for the glory of God. It is very significant that Peter links their circumstances as slaves, to the Suffering Servant, Jesus Christ who suffered for doing good, saying, “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:21) It is hard for us as modern people to grasp how radical this teaching is – Jesus had died for slaves. Slaves were called by Jesus. Slaves could follow in his steps. Imagine the dignity this offered to those who in the eyes of society had no dignity. Even slaves were loved by God, called to be his children, and adopted to be heirs of salvation. Considering the suffering of slaves inspired Peter to offer one of the most wonderful pictures of our suffering saviour. Drawing on Isaiah 53 he described Jesus saying, “‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. ‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed.’” (1 Peter 2:22–24) Slaves – your saviour knows what it is like to be mistreated, to suffer unjustly without retaliation. Slaves – by his wounds you have been healed.
In light of this Peter calls slaves to live a good life and to follow the example of the suffering servant. He invites them to use their spiritual freedom to glorify God by living an exemplary life, even within the confines of slavery where a master might treat a slave unjustly. While from our perspective this looks oppressive, from the ancient perspective this introduced hope, a freedom and liberty that was unknown, a new order that seemed unnatural at the time.
This is not to say slavery is right or can be justified from Scripture. Within the fledgling church there was a more equal society with the wealthy, high officials, trades people, merchants and slaves all equal in the eyes of God. This small group of Christians would infiltrate society at every strata and bring about change.
What issues do these verses raise for you about slavery in ancient or modern times?
Take a moment to consider John 15.15, 1 Corinthians 7.21-24, and Galatians 3.28 – what do we learn from these verses?
How do you balance your freedoms with your responsibilities?
Is it possible both to “submit” and “be free”?
What does it mean to you to follow in the steps of the suffering servant?
Rev John Malcolm