Submission in the Workplace
(1 Peter 2:18–21a)
Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. For you have been called for this purpose, (2:18–21a)
Today postmodern culture seems to cling to only one basic moral obligation, the sacred duty to provide equal rights for everyone. No one any longer speaks of sacrifice or privilege—only rights, such as ethnic rights, reproductive rights, immigrant rights, homosexual rights, and workplace rights.
If people do not receive what they think personal freedom should give them, they express their grievances in the form of walkouts, strikes, boycotts, and political rebellions. Such protesters are usually motivated by the belief that everyone is equal in every way and entitled to exactly the same things as everyone else.
In the workplace, employees voice their grievances over a lack of “rights” through work slowdowns, “sick-outs,” protests, or all-out strikes that prevent management from conducting business. Management sometimes responds with lockouts or even termination of the striking employees. Job actions on occasion do result in salary increases and improved benefits for employees, or perhaps a compromise agreement that benefits both sides in the long run.
However, the focus on “rights” in the workplace, whatever the results, is incongruous with the Christian life. Believers are to be concerned instead with obedience and submission to God’s will. When they obey and submit to their superiors, as He commands, they prove that their real hope is in the world to come. David provides an excellent illustration of the submissive attitude God seeks in the context of serving under someone. Once God chose him to replace Saul as king, Saul sought to kill David. First Samuel describes what underlay Saul’s hatred:
It happened as they were coming, when David returned from killing the Philistine [Goliath], that the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tambourines, with joy and with musical instruments. The women sang as they played, and said, “Saul has slain his thousands, And David his ten thousands.” Then Saul became very angry, for this saying displeased him; and he said, “They have ascribed to David ten thousands, but to me they have ascribed thousands. Now what more can he have but the kingdom?” Saul looked at David with suspicion from that day on. Now it came about on the next day that an evil spirit from God came mightily upon Saul, and he raved in the midst of the house, while David was playing the harp with his hand, as usual; and a spear was in Saul’s hand. Saul hurled the spear for he thought, “I will pin David to the wall.” But David escaped from his presence twice. (1 Sam. 18:6–11; cf. 19:9–10)
In the face of such hostility, David rested in the divine promise that he would be king. Therefore he did not need to demand his right to rule; neither did he insist on vengeance against King Saul. Nevertheless Saul continued to seek David’s life.
Then Saul took three thousand chosen men from all Israel and went to seek David and his men in front of the Rocks of the Wild Goats. He came to the sheepfolds on the way, where there was a cave; and Saul went in to relieve himself. Now David and his men were sitting in the inner recesses of the cave. The men of David said to him, “Behold, this is the day of which the Lord said to you, ‘Behold; I am about to give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it seems good to you.’ ” Then David arose and cut off the edge of Saul’s robe secretly. It came about afterward that David’s conscience bothered him because he had cut off the edge of Saul’s robe. So he said to his men, “Far be it from me because of the Lord that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord’s anointed, to stretch out my hand against him, since he is the Lord’s anointed.” David persuaded his men with these words and did not allow them to rise up against Saul. And Saul arose, left the cave, and went on his way. Now afterward David arose and went out of the cave and called after Saul, saying, “My lord the king!” And when Saul looked behind him, David bowed with his face to the ground and prostrated himself. David said to Saul, “Why do you listen to the words of men, saying, ‘Behold, David seeks to harm you’? Behold, this day your eyes have seen that the Lord had given you today into my hand in the cave, and some said to kill you, but my eye had pity on you; and I said, ‘I will not stretch out my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord’s anointed.’ Now, my father, see! Indeed, see the edge of your robe in my hand! For in that I cut off the edge of your robe and did not kill you, know and perceive that there is no evil or rebellion in my hands, and I have not sinned against you, though you are lying in wait for my life to take it. May the Lord judge between you and me, and may the Lord avenge me on you; but my hand shall not be against you.” (1 Sam. 24:2–12)
Unbelievably, from a human standpoint, David again refused to harm Saul, even though he had another opportunity to strike back at the king. First Samuel 26:6–12 chronicles what happened:
Then David said to Ahimelech the Hittite and to Abishai the son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother, saying, “Who will go down with me to Saul in the camp?” And Abishai said, “I will go down with you.” So David and Abishai came to the people by night, and behold, Saul lay sleeping inside the circle of the camp with his spear stuck in the ground at his head; and Abner and the people were lying around him. Then Abishai said to David, “Today God has delivered your enemy into your hand; now therefore, please let me strike him with the spear to the ground with one stroke, and I will not strike him the second time.” But David said to Abishai, “Do not destroy him, for who can stretch out his hand against the Lord’s anointed and be without guilt?” David also said, “As the Lord lives, surely the Lord will strike him, or his day will come that he dies, or he will go down into battle and perish. The Lord forbid that I should stretch out my hand against the Lord’s anointed; but now please take the spear that is at his head and the jug of water, and let us go.” So David took the spear and the jug of water from beside Saul’s head, and they went away, but no one saw or knew it, nor did any awake, for they were all asleep, because a sound sleep from the Lord had fallen on them.
The apostle Paul more specifically articulated the divine principle of granting respect and not seeking retaliation: “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:17–19; cf. Luke 6:32–35; 1 Cor. 7:20–21, 24). As discussed in the previous chapter of this volume, neither Peter, Paul, nor any of the New Testament writers ever advocated that subordinates should rise up against their superiors.
In this section, Peter moves from politics to work and commands believers who are servants or slaves to submit to their masters. In broader terms, that means Christian employees are to respect and obey their employers. The apostle issued his command as both a mandate and a motive for submission.
The Mandate for Submission
Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. (2:18)
The workforce in the Roman world consisted of slaves, and the way they were treated was wide-ranging. Some masters loved their slaves as trusted members of the household and treated them like family. But many did not, because there were scant protections—and virtually no rights—for slaves, who were considered property rather than persons. Slaves owned little or nothing and had no legal recourse to which they could appeal when mistreated. For instance, the influential Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote, “A slave is a living tool, and a tool is an inanimate slave” (Ethics, 1161b). Writing about agriculture, the Roman nobleman Varro asserted that the only thing distinguishing a slave from a beast or a cart was that the slave could talk.
It is safe to say that as the gospel spread throughout the Greco-Roman world most of the converts were slaves. Paul told the Corinthians,
For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen. (1 Cor. 1:26–28)
That reality is the reason the New Testament addressed much teaching to slaves (1 Cor. 7:20–24; Eph. 6:5–6; Col. 3:22; 1 Tim. 6:1–2; Titus 2:9–10; Philem. 12–16). They made up a large part of the Gentile church and their place in society raised some important issues. First, believing slaves often assumed that since they had become free in Christ (Rom. 6:17–18; 7:6; 1 Cor. 7:22; 12:13; Gal. 3:28; Eph. 6:8; Col. 3:11, 24) they also had a right to freedom from their masters. Second, converted slaves sometimes assumed that certain societal elevation should be theirs because of their spiritual giftedness and leadership in the church. When a slave became a church elder and thus the spiritual overseer of his believing master, the issue of his subordination to that master in the workplace had to be addressed. Under apostolic teaching, the early Christians developed strong and correct convictions on the slavery issues. They did not seek to incite a slave rebellion, but focused on making sure Christian slaves’ attitudes were right. Paul’s letter to Philemon is inspired testimony to the divine will for a slave, who was a brother in Christ, to fulfill his duty to his master.
Servants (oiketai) is from the root meaning “house,” and thus is the basic term for household servants (cf. Acts 10:7). Most of those servants served in a home or under an estate owner with duties from being farmers who plowed the owner’s field to doctors who cared for his family’s medical needs. Peter’s basic command to them is be submissive (hupotassomenoi, a present passive participle with the sense of a present imperative, meaning “to line up under”). Slaves were to be continually submissive to their masters, the despotai (from which the English word despots derives), who had absolute ownership of and complete control over them (cf. 1 Tim. 6:1–2; Titus 2:9).
The submission of servants was to be rendered with all respect, that is, without bitterness or negativity, but with an attitude of gracious honor. That was a way to show respect to God Himself and to fulfill Peter’s teachings about the fear of God, expressed elsewhere in the letter (1:17 [see the discussion of this verse in chapter 5 of this volume]; 2:17; 3:2; 3:15). God designed the servant-master relationship to ensure safety, care, support, productivity, and the conduct of human enterprise. The earth yields its produce and material wealth to support and enrich mankind through the providence of work relations. This is an institution of God from the Fall onward (Gen. 3:17–19). God has designed a complex of abilities and opportunities, relations and experiences, to allow humans to draw the rich resources out of this planet.
Such a God-fearing attitude is to extend beyond the good and gentle masters even to those who are unreasonable. Good (agathois) means “one who is upright, beneficial, and satisfactory for another’s need.” Gentle (epieikesin) refers to “one who is considerate, reasonable, and fair.” Therefore good and gentle describes a magnanimous, kind, and gracious person, the kind of master to whom it is easy to submit. The kind to whom it is not easy to submit Peter called unreasonable (skoliois), a term that literally means “curved” or “crooked,” and metaphorically means “perverse” or “dishonest.” (The word is transliterated in medical terminology to describe a twisted condition of the spinal column [scoliosis].)
In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul further stated God’s will on this issue:
Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free. And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him. (Eph. 6:5–9)
In the workplace, employees are to submit to employers as if they were serving Christ Himself. Such submissiveness precludes all rebellions, protests, mutinies, strikes, or workplace disobedience of every kind, even if the employer is unreasonable.
The Motive for Submission
For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. For you have been called for this purpose, (2:19–21a)
It should be of little consequence to believers what their circumstances are in the workplace, whether they are chief executive officers or custodians, whether they receive a substantial pay raise or settle for a salary cut so the company can stay solvent. The factor of overarching significance is that they maintain their testimony before the watching world of sinners (cf. Matt. 5:15–16; Mark 4:21; Phil. 2:14–16), and in the workplace that occurs when believers labor with an awareness of God’s glory. Such awareness is the motivation not only for godly behavior and submission on the job, but also for trusting in God’s sovereignty in every situation. Theologian A. W. Pink wrote,
As [one] sees the apparent defeat of the right, and the triumphing of might and the wrong … it seems as though Satan were getting the better of the conflict. But as one looks above, instead of around, there is plainly visible to the eye of faith a Throne.… This then is our confidence—God is on the Throne. (The Sovereignty of God, rev. ed. [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1961], 149–50; emphases in the original)
The motivation for believers’ submission in the workplace resides in the short phrase, for this finds favor, literally, “this is a grace.” God is pleased when believers do their work in a humble and submissive way for their superiors (cf. 1 Sam. 15:22; Pss. 26:3; 36:10; James 1:25). It is especially favorable to God when for the sake of conscience toward God a person [believer] bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. Whether it was a slave in Peter’s day patiently enduring brutal treatment, or whether it is a modern-day employee not retaliating against an unkind and unjust supervisor, God is pleased. This is what James referred to as a “consider it all joy” experience by which believers are perfected (James 1:2–4). The greater blessing is actually for the one who suffers.
Conscience toward God refers to the aforementioned general awareness of His presence, which again is believers’ main motivation for submission in the workplace. The word rendered bears up under means “to endure,” and the term sorrows implies pain, either physical or mental. The Lord wants believers, when suffering unjustly in the workplace, not to falter in their witness but humbly and patiently to accept unjust treatment, knowing that God has sovereign control of every circumstance (Pss. 33:11; 103:19; Prov. 16:1, 9; 19:21; Isa. 14:27; 46:9–10; Acts 17:28; Rom. 8:28–30; cf. 1:6–7; 2 Cor. 4:17–18) and promises to bless.
Undoubtedly many recipients of this epistle endured painful and unjust beatings as slaves. Their masters might have deprived them of food, forced them to work unreasonably long hours, or punished them unfairly in a variety of ways. Unlike modern-day employees in Western industrialized countries, those slaves had no one to turn to for redress of grievances—no union representatives, no government boards or ombudsmen to settle disputes, and no way to file civil lawsuits. They just had to endure whatever painful and difficult circumstances their masters imposed on them—and they did so, much to the glory and honor of God (cf. Matt. 5:10; 2 Thess. 1:4–5; James 5:11), which evidenced their heavenly perspective.
Peter pressed his argument with a negative rhetorical question, followed by a positive statement. The implied answer to his question, For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? is, “There is no credit.” Believers who sin deserve chastening (cf. Ps. 66:18; Jer. 5:25; Dan. 9:8; Heb. 12:5–11), and they ought to endure it with patience.
On the other hand, Peter offered the positive assertion, But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. When the believing slaves did what was right some still had to suffer for it, even to the extent of being harshly treated as if they really deserved punishment. This indicates that, among various forms, harsh treatment came physically, by means of repeated, hard blows with the fists or instruments (cf. Mark 14:65). Perhaps some were punished because of their Christian convictions. Again, those who endured such suffering patiently found favor or grace with God. It always pleases Him to see believers faithfully accept and deal with any adversity (cf. 3:14; 4:14, 16; Matt. 5:11–12; 1 Cor. 4:11–13; 2 Cor. 12:9–10; James 1:12).
Peter concluded this section with the amazing statement at the beginning of verse 21, For you have been called for this purpose. Have been called refers to the efficacious salvation call (1:15; 5:10; cf. Rom. 8:28, 30; 9:24; 1 Cor. 1:9; Gal. 1:6, 15; Eph. 4:1, 4; Col. 3:15; 2 Thess. 2:14; 2 Tim. 1:9; Heb. 9:15; 2 Peter 1:3). As soon as the Holy Spirit calls people from darkness to light, they become an enemy of the world (John 15:18–19; 1 John 3:13) and a target of unjust and unfair attack as they seek to obey Christ. Paul told Timothy, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12; cf. Mark 10:30; John 15:20; 16:33).
It is more important to God that those who are citizens of heaven display a faithful testimony, marked by spiritual integrity, than that they strive to attain all their perceived rights in this world. It is more important to God for believers to uphold the credibility of gospel power than to obtain a raise or promotion in their vocation. It is ultimately far more important to God that believers demonstrate their submission to His sovereignty in every area of life than that they protest against problems at their workplace. Martyn Lloyd-Jones illustrated the value of Christians’ submitting to God’s purpose—the rigor of discipline and trials in everyday life—as follows:
We are like the school boy who would like to evade certain things, and run away from problems and tests. But we thank God that because he has a larger interest in us and knows what is for our good, he puts us through the disciplines of life—he makes us learn the multiplication table; we are made to struggle with the elements of grammar. Many things that are trials to us are essential that one day we may be found without spot or wrinkle. (The Miracle of Grace [reprint; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986], 39)
Whenever believers encounter trials on the job, they ought to view them as opportunities for spiritual growth and evangelism. The chief reason God allows believers to remain in this world is so He might use them to win the lost and thereby bring glory to His name. Those who suffer with the right attitude will be blessed in this life and honored later in the Lord’s presence.
The Suffering Jesus
(1 Peter 2:21b–25)
since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls. (2:21b–25)
If one were to survey a typical cross section of people in Western society about who Jesus was, the answers would undoubtedly include the following accuracies: He was the Christmas child in the Bethlehem manger (Luke 2:15–16); He was the young man from the Nazareth carpenter shop who on one occasion confounded the religious teachers in Jerusalem (Luke 2:45–47); He was a humble and loving teacher (Matt. 5:1–12); He was a compassionate and powerful healer who cured diseases (Matt. 8:14–17) and raised the dead (John 11:1–44); He was a courageous and insightful preacher who stirred the multitudes as He explained God’s will (Matt. 7:28–29); and He was the perfect example and the ideal model of manhood (Luke 2:52; cf. Matt. 4:1–11; Phil. 2:7; Heb. 4:15).
Each of the foregoing images of Christ is true and instructive to some extent. But one could affirm all of them and completely miss the point of His life and ministry. One image of the Son of God supersedes all others in significance and is crucial to the purpose of His incarnation. It is that of Jesus as the suffering Servant and the crucified Savior. At the Cross He most clearly displayed His deity and humanity together and completed His redemptive work, the atonement for sin—the reason He came into the world. The apostle Paul summarized the supreme importance of His death and resurrection: “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).
This concluding passage of 1 Peter 2 presents the suffering Messiah and reveals three aspects of His suffering: He was believers’ perfect standard for suffering, their perfect substitute in suffering, and became their perfect shepherd through suffering.
Believers’ Perfect Standard for Suffering
since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; (2:21b–23)
As discussed in the previous chapter of this volume, Christians have been called to persecution and suffering, whether in the workplace or any other realm of life (2:20–21a). In all forms of suffering, they must look to Christ as their standard, their example. For Him, the path to glory was the path of suffering (Luke 24:25–26), and the pattern is the same for His followers.
Peter’s phrase since Christ also suffered for you certainly recalls the reality of His efficacious, substitutionary, sin-bearing death—His redemptive suffering (cf. the discussion in the next section of this chapter). His redemptive suffering as the one sacrifice for sin has no parallel in His followers’ sufferings. But there are features of His suffering that do provide an example for them to follow in their own sufferings. For instance, in a complete breach of justice and goodness, He was crucified as a criminal (Isa. 53:12; Matt. 27:38) even though He committed no crime (1:19; cf. Isa. 53:9; John 8:46; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 7:26). He was perfectly sinless. Life in this world has always been filled with such unjust treatment of God’s faithful (cf. 2 Tim. 3:12). His execution demonstrates that one may be absolutely faithful to God’s will and still experience unjust suffering. So Christ’s attitude in His death on the cross provides believers with the ultimate example of how to respond to unmerited persecution and punishment (cf. Heb. 12:3–4).
That is clearly Peter’s point, because he adds the words leaving you an example. Believers will never suffer for others’ salvation, including their own. But they will suffer for Christ’s sake, and His example is their standard for a God-honoring response. The word translated example is hupogrammon, which literally means “writing under” and refers to a pattern placed under a sheet of tracing paper so the original images could be duplicated. In ancient times, children learning to write traced over the letters of the alphabet to facilitate their learning to write them. Christ is the example or pattern on which believers trace their lives. In so doing, they are following in His steps. Ichnesin (steps) means “footprints” or “tracks.” For believers as for Him, the footprints through this world are often along paths of unjust suffering.
In view of the suffering they were enduring (1:6–7; 2:20; 3:14, 17; 4:12–19; 5:9) and would yet endure, Peter wanted his readers to look closely at how their Lord responded to His suffering. Since Christ endured unequalled suffering when He went to the Cross, Peter, to set forth the example, focused on that event as the ultimate experience. The apostle examined Jesus’ response to intense suffering through the prophetic words of Isaiah 53, the most significant Old Testament chapter on Messiah’s suffering.
Peter first borrowed from Isaiah 53:9 to describe Christ’s reaction to unjust treatment. The phrase who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth is a close parallel to the prophet’s words in the second half of that verse, “Because He had done no violence, nor was there any deceit in His mouth.” Isaiah used “violence” not in the sense of a single act of violence, but to signify sin, all of which is violence against God and His law. The prophet indicated that the Suffering Servant (the Christ to come) would never violate God’s law. The Septuagint translators understood this and used “lawlessness” rather than “violence” to translate the term. Peter chose the word sin because under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration he knew that was Isaiah’s meaning.
Peter further drew from Isaiah, affirming Christ’s sinlessness by declaring that there was no deceit found in His mouth. The heart of man expresses sin most easily and often through the mouth, as the prophet made clear even in documenting his own experience: “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isa. 6:5; cf. Matt. 15:18–19; Luke 6:45; James 1:26; 3:2–12). Jesus’ mouth could never utter anything sinful, since there was no sin in Him (Luke 23:41; John 8:46; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 7:26; 1 John 3:5). Deceit is from dolos (see the discussion of that word in 2:1, chapter 8 of this volume), which here is used as a general term for sinful corruption.
Peter then describes Christ’s exemplary response to such unjust torture by saying while being reviled, He did not revile in return, again echoing the prediction of Isaiah 53:7, “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth.” During the cruel hours preceding His actual crucifixion, Jesus suffered under repeated provocations from His accusers (Matt. 26:57–68; 27:11–14, 26–31; John 18:28–19:11). They tried to push Him to the breaking point with their severe mockery and physical torture but could not (Mark 14:65; Luke 22:63–65). He did not get angry at or retaliate against His accusers (Matt. 26:64; John 18:34–37).
Being reviled is a present participle (loidoroumenos) that means to use abusive, vile language over and over against someone, or “to pile abuse on someone.” It described an extremely harsh kind of verbal abuse that could be more aggravating than physical abuse. But Jesus patiently and humbly accepted all the verbal abuse hurled at Him (Matt. 26:59–63; 27:12–14; Luke 23:6–10) and did not return abuse to His tormentors. That He did not revile in return is all the more remarkable when one considers the just, righteous, powerful, and legitimate threats He could have issued in response (cf. Matt. 26:53). As the sovereign, omnipotent Son of God and the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, Jesus could have blasted His cruel, unbelieving enemies into eternal hell with one word from His mouth (cf. Luke 12:5; Heb. 10:29–31). Eventually, those who never repented and believed in Him would be sent to hell; but for this time He endured with no retaliation—to set an example for believers. While suffering, He uttered no threats; instead of giving back threats for the repeated, unjust abuse, He chose to accept the suffering and even ask His Father to forgive those who abused Him (Luke 23:34).
Jesus drew the strength for that amazing response from His complete trust in His Father’s ultimate purpose to accomplish justice on His behalf, and against His hateful rejecters. He kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously. The verb for entrusting (paredidou) means “to commit,” or “hand over” and is in the imperfect tense signifying repeated past action. With each new wave of abuse, as it came again and again, Jesus was always “handing Himself over” to God for safekeeping. Luke records how that pattern continued until the very end: “ ‘Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.’ Having said this, He breathed His last” (Luke 23:46). Undergirding Jesus’ peaceful, resolute acceptance of suffering was an unshakeable confidence in the perfectly righteous plan of Him who judges righteously (cf. John 4:34; 15:10; 17:25). He knew God would vindicate Him according to His perfect, holy justice. Alan Stibbs comments,
In … the unique instance of our Lord’s passion, when the sinless One suffered as if He were the worst of sinners, and bore the extreme penalty of sin, there is a double sense in which He may have acknowledged God as the righteous Judge. On the one hand, because voluntarily, and in fulfillment of God’s will, He was taking the sinner’s place and bearing sin, He did not protest at what He had to suffer. Rather He consciously recognized that it was the penalty righteously due to sin. So He handed Himself over to be punished. He recognized that in letting such shame, pain and curse fall upon Him, the righteous God was judging righteously. On the other hand, because He Himself was sinless, He also believed that in due time God, as the righteous Judge, would vindicate Him as righteous, and exalt Him from the grave, and reward Him for what He had willingly endured for others’ sake by giving Him the right completely to save them from the penalty and power of their own wrongdoing. (The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, The First Epistle of Peter [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971], 119)
He is believers’ perfect example in suffering for righteousness’ sake and sets the standard for them to entrust themselves to God as their righteous Judge (cf. Job 36:3; Pss. 11:7; 31:1; 98:9; 119:172; Jer. 9:24). Though saints are not sinless, they are righteous in Christ and have the promise of God’s vindication of them. Such hope undoubtedly prompted Stephen to fix his eyes on the exalted Christ and ask God to forgive his murderers (Acts 7:54–60). Paul wrote,
For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:17–18; cf. Rom. 8:18; 2 Tim. 2:12; Heb. 2:10; James 1:2–4; 1 Peter 1:6–7)
The apostle suggests that the intense but comparatively trifling amount of suffering believers experience in this life will result in an infinitely greater weight (lit., a “heavy mass”) of glory in the life to come.
Believers’ Perfect Substitute in Suffering
and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. (2:24)
Peter then moves to the essential reality in the Lord’s suffering—His substitutionary death (Mark 10:45; Rom. 5:8; Eph. 5:2; cf. Heb. 2:17). Leon Morris comments,
Redemption is substitutionary, for it means that Christ paid the price that we could not pay, paid it in our stead, and we go free. Justification interprets our salvation judicially, and as the New Testament sees it Christ took our legal liability, took it in our stead. Reconciliation means the making of people to be at one by the taking away of the cause of hostility. In this case the cause is sin, and Christ removed that cause for us. We could not deal with sin. He could and did, and did it in such a way that it is reckoned to us. Propitiation points us to the removal of the divine wrath, and Christ has done this by bearing the wrath for us. It was our sin which drew it down; it was He who bore it.… Was there a price to be paid? He paid it. Was there a victory to be won? He won it. Was there a penalty to be borne? He bore it. Was there a judgment to be faced? He faced it. (The Cross in the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965], 405)
Paul, like Peter, placed supreme importance on Christ’s substitutionary atonement. To the Galatians he wrote, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’ ” (Gal. 3:13; cf. 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Peter 3:18). The significance of Christ’s substitution cannot be overstated:
To put it bluntly and plainly, if Christ is not my Substitute, I still occupy the place of a condemned sinner. If my sins and my guilt are not transferred to Him, if He did not take them upon Himself, then surely they remain with me. If He did not deal with sins, I must face their consequences. If my penalty was not borne by Him, it still hangs over me. (Morris, 410)
Peter explained Christ’s sacrifice in believers’ behalf with additional allusions to Isaiah’s familiar description of Messiah’s death (Isa. 53:4–5, 11). He Himself (hos … autos) is an emphatic personalization and stresses that the Son of God voluntarily and without coercion (John 10:15, 17–18) died as the only sufficient sacrifice for the sins of all who would ever believe (cf. John 1:29; 3:16; 1 Tim. 2:5–6; 4:10; Heb. 2:9, 17). The very name Jesus indicated that He would “save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Bore is from anapherō and means here to carry the massive, heavy weight of sin. That weight of sin is so heavy that Romans 8:22 says “the whole creation groans and suffers” under it. Only Jesus could remove such a massive weight from the elect (cf. Heb. 9:28).
Anyone who understood the Hebrew Scriptures, as Peter did, and experienced the sacrifices in the temple, would have been familiar with the truth of substitutionary death and thus grasped the significance of Christ as the full and final offering for sin.
That Jesus bore believers’ sins means that He suffered the penalty for all the sins of all who would ever be forgiven. In receiving the wrath of God against sin, Christ endured not only death in His body on the cross (John 19:30–37), but the more horrific separation from the Father for a time (Matt. 27:46). Christ took the full punishment for saints’ sins, thus satisfying divine justice and freeing God to forgive those who repent and believe (Rom. 3:24–26; 4:3–8; 5:9; 1 Thess. 1:10). Explicit in the pronoun our is the specific provision, the actual atonement on behalf of all who would ever believe. Christ’s death is efficacious only for the sins of those who believe, who are God’s chosen (cf. Matt. 1:21; 20:28; 26:28; John 10:11, 14–18, 24–29; Rev. 5:9; see also the discussion of election in chapter 1 of this volume).
When Christ died, He died so that believers might die to sin and live to righteousness. This is Peter’s way of saying what the apostle Paul says in Romans 6:3–11,
Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Union with Christ in His death and resurrection does not change only believers’ standing before God (who declares them righteous, since their sins have been paid for and removed from them), but it also changes their nature—they are not only justified but sanctified, transformed from sinners into saints (2 Cor. 5:17; Titus 3:5; James 1:18).
Apogenomenoi (might die) is not the normal word for “die” and is used only here in the New Testament. It means “to be away from, depart, be missing, or cease existing.” Christ died for believers to separate them from sin’s penalty, so it can never condemn them. The record of their sins, the indictment of guilt that had them headed for hell, was “nailed to the cross” (Col. 2:12–14). Jesus paid their debt to God in full. In that sense, all Christians are freed from sin’s penalty. They are also delivered from its dominating power and made able to live to righteousness (cf. Rom. 6:16–22).
Peter describes this death to sin and becoming alive to righteousness as a healing: by His wounds you were healed. This too is borrowed from the Old Testament prophet when he wrote “by His scourging we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). Wounds is a better usage than “scourging” since the latter may give the impression that the beating of Jesus produced salvation. Both Isaiah and Peter meant the wounds of Jesus that were part of the execution process. Wounds is a general reference—a synonym for all the suffering that brought Him to death. And the healing here is spiritual, not physical. Neither Isaiah nor Peter intended physical healing as the result in these references to Christ’s sufferings. Physical healing for all who believe does result from Christ’s atoning work, but such healing awaits a future realization in the perfections of heaven. In resurrection glory, believers will experience no sickness, pain, suffering, or death (Rev. 21:1–4; 22:1–3).
In fair consideration of this explanation, it must be admitted that the apostle Matthew seems to relate Jesus’ physical healing ministry to Isaiah’s prophecy:
When evening came, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed; and He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were ill. This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: “He Himself took our infirmities and carried away our diseases.” (Matt. 8:16–17)
Some say that proves Christians can now claim physical healing in the atonement. However a more accurate understanding of Matthew’s narrative (8:16–17) reveals that Jesus healed people to illustrate the physical healing all believers will experience in the glory yet to come.
Disease and death cannot be permanently removed until sin is permanently removed, and Jesus’ supreme work, therefore, was to conquer sin. In the atonement He dealt with sin, death, and sickness; and yet all three of those are still with us. When He died on the cross, Jesus bruised the head of Satan and broke the power of sin, and the person who trusts in the atoning work of Christ is immediately delivered from the penalty of sin and one day will be delivered from the very presence of sin and its consequences. The ultimate fulfillment of Christ’s redeeming work is yet future for believers (cf. Rom. 8:22–25; 13:11). Christ died for men’s sins, but Christians still fall into sin; He conquered death, but His followers still die; and He overcame pain and sickness, but His people still suffer and become ill. There is physical healing in the atonement, just as there is total deliverance from sin and death in the atonement; but we still await the fulfillment of that deliverance in the day when the Lord brings the end of suffering, sin, and death.
Those who claim that Christians should never be sick because there is healing in the atonement should also claim that Christians should never die, because Jesus also conquered death in the atonement. The central message of the gospel is deliverance from sin. It is the good news about forgiveness, not health. Christ was made sin, not disease, and He died on the cross for our sin, not our sickness. As Peter makes clear, Christ’s wounds heal us from sin, not from disease. “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). (John MacArthur, Matthew 8–15, MacArthur New Testament Commentary [Chicago: Moody, 1987], 19)
If the atonement’s physical healing were fully realized now, no believer would ever be sick or die. But obviously, all do. The Lord’s substitutionary sacrifice on behalf of His own heals their souls now and their bodies in the future.
Believers’ Perfect Shepherd Through Suffering
For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls. (2:25)
As he concluded this passage, Peter once more alluded to Isaiah 53, “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him” (v. 6). If God had not determined that all believers’ sins should fall on Jesus, there would be no shepherd to bring God’s flock into the fold.
The phrase were continually straying like sheep describes by analogy the wayward, purposeless, dangerous, and helpless wandering of lost sinners, whom Jesus described as “sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). The verb rendered have returned (epestraphēte) carries the connotation of repentance, a turning from sin and in faith a turning toward Jesus Christ. But Peter’s readers had trusted in Christ’s substitutionary death and turned to Him for salvation. Like the prodigal son in Luke 15:11–32, they had turned away from the misery of their former sinful life (cf. Eph. 2:1–7; 4:17–24; Col. 3:1–7; 1 Thess. 1:2–10) and received new life in Christ (cf. Eph. 5:15–21; Col. 3:8–17; 1 Thess. 2:13–14). All who are saved come under the perfect care, provision, and protection of the Shepherd and Guardian of their souls.
The analogy of God as shepherd is a familiar and rich theme in Scripture (cf. 5:4; Ps. 23:1; Ezek. 34:23–24; 37:24). Jesus identified Himself as God when He took the divine title and named Himself the “good shepherd” (John 10:11, 14). Shepherd is an apt title for the Savior since it conveys His role as feeder, leader, protector, cleanser, and restorer of His flock. And believers as sheep is also an apt analogy because sheep are stupid, gullible (a sheep called the “Judas sheep” in modern times leads the other sheep to slaughter), dirty (the lanolin in sheep’s wool collects all kinds of dirt), and defenseless (they have no natural defensive capabilities). (See the discussion of shepherding in chapter 23 of this volume.)
The term Guardian (episkopos) serves as a synonym, another term describing Jesus’ care for His flock. It is the word usually translated “bishop” or “overseer,” which along with Shepherd also describes the responsibilities of the pastor or elder (cf. 1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9). Later in this letter, Peter uses both root words when he exhorts elders to “shepherd the flock of God … exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God” (5:2). By His death and resurrection for His flock, the Lord has become the Shepherd and Guardian of their eternal souls. In suffering, He became their example, their substitute, and their shepherd.
A Life Shaped by the Crucified Christ
1 Peter 2:18–25
Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God.… To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:18–19, 21)
From 1 Peter 2:11 to 4:11, the apostle Peter constantly instructs the faithful in their social obligations. Peter insists on giving this sustained attention for both pragmatic and intrinsic reasons. Pragmatically, his people were a tiny and nearly defenseless minority, a group of aliens and exiles in their own culture (2:11–12). Further, a pagan convert to the faith found that his contemporaries were surprised at his departure from their way of life and maligned him for it (4:1–6). So Peter foresaw that believers would be increasingly exposed to persecution in coming days and wanted to help them to minimize their exposure to trouble (3:10–17; 4:12–16). Perhaps that is part of the reason why Peter tells his people to submit to some authority five times in just thirty-five verses (2:13, 18; 3:1, 5, 22). But the call to submit is more than a survival strategy. God has woven authority structures all through society, indeed through all creation, and we needlessly harm ourselves and miss the blessing of walking in his ways if we ignore those structures. Social ethics are essential both to Christian living and to the cause of Christ. If a fleet is about to sail, the sailors need to know how to avoid bumping into each other. Peter’s social instruction enhances both the public reputation and the inner peace of the church.
Peter’s social teaching emphasizes submission to masters and governors. Because Peter’s people were aliens in their own culture and because they refused to worship the emperor, it was imperative that they submit to governing authorities wherever they were. Thus, they could “silence the ignorant talk” of their accusers (1 Peter 2:11–17). Still, apart from the social benefits, it is intrinsically good to yield to the authority that God establishes, “for he is God’s servant to do you good” (Rom. 13:1, 4).
The Duty of a Christian Servant
After describing the social obligations of all disciples in 1 Peter 2:11–17, Peter commands, “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh” (2:18). This is necessary “because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (2:21).
In order to apply Peter’s message, we need to know the status of slaves in the empire. Their life differed both from that of ordinary laborers today and from that of the slaves in the Americas in prior days. Roman slavery was not race-based. Slaves did not look, talk, or dress in a distinct way. Most slaves were poor, but almost everyone was poor.
The term translated “slaves” in 1 Peter 2:18 denotes household slaves. There were several kinds of slaves in the empire. People became slaves through war, poverty, or birth to enslaved parents. Slaves could be well educated. A slave might be a doctor, teacher, shipbuilder, or even city treasurer.3 But nobler tasks were exceptional. Most were household slaves, and their lot varied with the status and character of their masters and mistresses. Field slaves worked hard, and house slaves lacked freedom.
American slavery was worse than Roman slavery in most ways. Roman slaves could own property and follow their traditions. Although a slave’s life expectancy was short, many slaves gained their freedom eventually. American slavery was race-based, had limited paths to freedom, and rested on kidnapping, which is a sin—and a capital crime in Moses’ law (Ex. 21:16; Deut. 24:7). While the Mosaic law tolerated slavery, it regulated potential abuses. For example, if a master so struck a slave as to cause major injury, the slave went free (Ex. 21:26). The law also had several paths to manumission. For example, all slaves normally went free every seventh calendar year (Deut. 15:12–18). Roman slaves also had several paths to freedom.
Still, the life of a slave was difficult. Aristotle opined that slaves were inferior by nature. Since they were unable to govern themselves, Aristotle claimed, they were better off under a master, just as domestic cattle were better off than wild cattle. Further, he said, it was impossible to mistreat a slave, because slaves were mere property. This was the consensus, although Seneca observed that men “of distinguished birth” sometimes became slaves through war. Social rank, he said, “is only a robe that clothes us.” So someone could have slave status while “his soul … may be that of a free man.”6 But Seneca was the exception.
Legally speaking, slaves were not persons. They had virtually no rights. A slave was the property of his or her master. Therefore, a master could sell a slave at will, separating him or her from family and home. People said that “a slave is a living possession,” a “talking tool,” and “property with a soul.”
A household slave could hope for economic security, decent treatment, and a position as a leading slave in a great house. But a slave’s body belonged to his master. Demosthenes reported that slaves were “answerable in their body for all offences while freemen … can protect their persons.” That is, slaves were liable to a beating for all offenses.9 A master or mistress could take any slave, male or female, to gratify the owner’s sexual desires. How often this happened, we don’t know. We do know that some slaves endured terrible privation to buy their freedom.11
Given that slaves were barely regarded as human, we see that Peter elevates slaves simply by addressing them. Although some slaves were literate, most Greco-Roman writers thought it pointless to address them, since they didn’t see them as responsible moral agents.
Clearly, the status of contemporary employees is not the same as that of Roman slaves. Today’s workers can feel trapped by social and economic forces. While we should not minimize the resulting distress, our rights and freedoms keep us far from slavery. Nonetheless, millions are still enslaved throughout the world today. Most live in lawless countries, but they are scattered across the continents. Further, some people live in situations akin to slavery, even in the West. Children who suffer hidden abuse at the hands of violent parents and immigrants with no knowledge of their rights are like slaves if they are defenseless, powerless, and trapped.
Peter’s first word to slaves is: “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect” (1 Peter 2:18). Peter is not endorsing or blessing slavery. Rather, he tells believing slaves how to live within a pervasive, entrenched institution. Peter commands slaves to submit “with … respect”—literally, “with fear” or awe. Ultimately, the believer fears God, not man, Peter notes (3:14–15). But God appoints all human authorities, so we obey them for God’s sake. Our respect for masters is ultimately respect for God, who ordains and commissions all authorities (Rom. 13:1–4).
Even if there is no precise analogy between slaves and free workers today, Peter’s instructions do apply to all who serve harsh or perverse leaders. Evil authorities are not slave masters, but they can give harmful orders and can punish all who violate them. We should think this way: If God can command a harder thing, that slaves respectfully submit to harsh masters, surely we can submit to harsh superiors, since their power is more modest.
Nonetheless, we find the command daunting, possibly without fully realizing why. If we have an angry or unjust supervisor and feel trapped by him, we are tempted to return anger for anger, disrespect for disrespect. Yet Peter commands believers to submit, with respect, to difficult leaders at home and at work. We can extend the principle to schools, churches, and governments. We obey if we can. If we must disobey, we do so humbly and respectfully, and we bear the consequences (Acts 5:17–33).
Most citizens of Western countries resist Peter’s teaching. We treasure our independence, criticize our authorities, and honor our rebels. We don’t like to submit to leaders unless we think they are worthy.
In college I worked at a resort hotel as an assistant to “George,” who supervised all food operations. George was a hardworking, shrewd, witty, but flawed man. He could be loud and critical, he was faintly awkward, his clothes were out of style, and he played favorites. He divided the world into two camps: his friends and his enemies, whom he regarded with constant suspicion. The chief baker was an enemy. Nothing she did pleased him. One day she made apple cinnamon pancakes. George sent me to requisition a taste of the batter. He took a spoonful. “Not sweet enough,” he thundered. “Send it back.” I hustled the batter to the baker, then brought a taste of the sweetened concoction to him. “Too sweet,” he fumed. “Send it back.” The third time, the baker got an idea. She noisily shook empty containers over the batter, waved her spoon around, and returned the batter unchanged. The boss sampled it again. “Perfect,” he beamed. “That woman wouldn’t do anything right if I didn’t keep my eye on her.”
George was competent and he treated most people fairly. His misdeeds were minor indignities and irritations, not grievous wounds. But the students judged him uncool and the pros judged him bombastic. Because of these petty flaws, people bristled at the thought of giving him respect. They seemed to think, “If I had his job, I’d treat people better and everyone would like work better.”
The root of discontent with people like George is a concept of work that is grounded in our culture, not Scripture. We believe work should offer more than tasks and income. We think work should be a place where we grow, find fulfillment, and find and develop our gifts, so that we flourish as individuals. In his monograph, Vocation, Douglas Schuurman writes that college students view work as “a realm for self-fulfillment” and “optimal self-actualization.” By working hard and consulting career experts, students think they should find fulfilling careers. As a result, they think they will never work for someone like George.
Schuurman calls this a myth that applies, at best, to people who already have the advantages of native intelligence, a network of supportive adults, and access to an elite education (by world standards). The middle and lower classes rarely have such opportunities, even in the West. In recent years (at this writing), the most common occupations in America are cashier and retail sales assistant. Neither post offers especially fulfilling work. Even upper-class adults are prone to exaggerate their options. Clearly, we should reconsider our concept of vocation.
The Gifts and Calling of a Christian Worker
All this does not mean that work should be miserable. God gives gifts to his people, and when we serve others out of the capacities that he has given us, we can expect to take pleasure in using our skills. Romans 12:6–8 tells us to exercise our gifts freely and cheerfully, which seems to imply joy in our work.
But Peter and Paul, along with Martin Luther and John Calvin, see our work, as well as our family relationships, “as domains not freely chosen, but providentially assigned to each person.” Sociologists call this ascriptivism. That is, a person’s significant social relations are not primarily matters of “individual choice, but are assigned based largely on class, parentage, and gender. One does not so much choose one’s callings as discover oneself within their network.” Vocation is not so much about choosing the right spouse, work, friends, and residence as it is seeing the web of our relationships “as divinely assigned places to serve God and neighbor.”
Of course, God still grants us freedom to escape oppression, if we can. Paul told slaves, “If you can gain your freedom, do so” (1 Cor. 7:21). Jesus told his disciples, “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another” (Matt. 10:23). But sometimes we can’t move. Then, Peter says, “submit yourselves to your masters with all respect” (1 Peter 2:18). Each word is instructive.
First, everyone must submit. The concept of submission assumes that this world has God-given structures and authorities. We must organize our lives within those structures. Even if we suspect that our leaders are wrong, we should subordinate ourselves to legitimate commands. We should yield to the authority and defer to it.
The niv, like some other translations, uses a verb and reflexive pronoun to translate a one-word Greek participle in the phrase “submit yourselves” in 1 Peter 2:18. The participle (hupotassomenoi) has the middle voice, which can be reflexive. The middle voice makes perfect sense in this case. It suggests that we act on ourselves: we tell ourselves to submit. Regardless, our submission should be voluntary. We should yield to leaders, rather than making them force their will on us. We yield to people, laws, and institutions that have authority because the Lord placed them over us. He ordains the leaders, teachers, and parents who govern the world under him.
We submit with respect. When people feel trapped at work, they obey the boss because they need to keep their jobs. But respect is more than obedience. We should respect leaders even when we disagree with their decisions. We should respect and pray for political leaders even if we voted against them, disagree with their policies, and doubt that they can govern well.
The early English Puritans lived in a hierarchical society, under often-hostile bishops and kings. They reflected deeply on the duties of subordinates to flawed superiors. All agreed that leaders gain their authority through their God-given positions, not superior character or achievements. William Perkins observed that master and servant may be equal in Christ, in the inner man, yet in the “civil order,” masters rule and servants “must be subject.” Speaking of marriage, William Gouge said that the principle holds even if the husband was “a beggar” before marriage and is, after marriage, “a drunkard, a glutton, and a profane swaggerer.” Even if the wife is sober, wealthy, and religious, she must respect her husband because of “the civil honor which God hath given unto him.”16 Further, her outward submission must be matched by an inward reverence. The mantle of authority for husbands, ministers, parents, and masters is bestowed by God, not earned, although a wise leader will strive to enhance his authority by using it wisely.
The term submit (hypotassō) requires definition. Submit ordinarily means “to subject, subordinate, or bring under control” (Acts 19:35; Phil. 3:21; Heb. 2:5, 8). Yet to submit is not precisely to obey. To obey is to do what is commanded, willingly or not. Submission can also be willing or unwilling, but the concept can be more nuanced. In Paul’s teaching, children obey their parents, and slaves obey their masters, but wives submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:22; 6:1, 5; Col. 3:18–22). To submit, in that setting, entails more freedom or latitude than obedience. Submission can include freedom to arrange affairs under general directions or principles, not necessarily under precise commands. So wives have freedom to consider how to follow their husbands, especially since marriage is a close relationship that is essentially parity-based. A worker, similarly, may have freedom in the way he gets things done, even while fulfilling tasks given by the authority.
The word submit implicitly refers to authority structures. The Romans believed that authority structures stretch up and down in a chain. In the chain, lower authorities had to yield to higher ones, ending with the emperor and the gods above him; a Roman centurion expresses this concept in Matthew 8:8–9.
Scripture says that all authorities are answerable to God, and must therefore be disobeyed if their commands contradict his. Because no human authority is absolute, no summons to submit to it is absolute. If an authority gives a wicked command, it must be refused. Peter himself made this point during a crisis in the first days of the church: “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29). The call to submit always has this caveat: We obey the authorities unless they contradict God.
Nonetheless, rulers have real authority. Peter tells slaves to submit to masters. Elsewhere, Scripture commands all believers to submit to authorities. If the term authority (exousia) refers to humans, it typically has the nuance of legitimate rule (Rom. 13:1–3). If we yield to authorities, we yield to rulers ordained by God. By contrast, we do not have to submit to every power, for a power can have brute strength—a gun, for example—and no legitimacy (Heb. 2:14). There is no moral obligation to bow to brute force.
Some people quickly ask, “So when is it time to rebel?” The question is common in nations born in rebellion against colonial powers and in nations that currently suffer oppression. People ask, “Did God really appoint all authorities?” Authorities and powers take their place by many means. Emperors claim power through conquest, intrigue, murder, and inheritance. A master might gain his place by inheritance, bribery, or merit. If an authority was hired or appointed, we can ask whether the decision was based on skill and training or favoritism.
But in the final analysis, the Lord appoints all authorities. He even has purposes for evil leaders. Consider the words of Daniel, who long served a flawed monarch: “The Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of men” (Dan. 4:17). Paul stated, “He who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Rom. 13:2).
Calvin said that there is a magistrate who is “a father of his country, … [a] shepherd of his people, guardian of peace, protector of righteousness, and avenger of innocence—he who does not approve of such government must rightly be regarded as insane.” We must submit to deserving authorities. We should resist the inclination to second-guess everyone and everything. It is easy to criticize and hard to remember how readily we err.
Some authorities are careless, self-indulgent, and corrupt wastrels. These, too, are ordained by God. Speaking through the prophet Daniel, God told ruthless, egotistical Nebuchadnezzar, “The God of heaven has given you dominion and power and might and glory; in your hands he has placed mankind and the beasts of the field.… Wherever they live, he has made you ruler over them all” (Dan. 2:37–38; cf. 5:18–19).
Other Scriptures teach that there is a time to resist evil authorities. If possible, the Reformers knew, the righteous will not simply rebel, but ally themselves with other authorities, with “lesser magistrates,” whether civil or ecclesiastical. If we must stand against “the fierce licentiousness of kings,” we should do so not as private individuals, but through the authority of “magistrates of the people [who were] appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings.” Thus, the Christians who attempted to assassinate Hitler did so in allegiance with faithful German military leaders.21 So there is a place for godly rebellion, but too many people are quick to doubt authorities and to declare that they have a right to rebel.
Peter declares, “It is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God” (1 Peter 2:19). The phrase “it is commendable” literally reads “this is grace.” Grace here does not mean “unmerited favor,” but “that which counts with God” and with which he is pleased. (Jesus said something similar in Luke 6:32–34. There the Greek word grace is usually translated “credit” [niv, rsv, nasb].)
No one likes to suffer unjustly. Still, the Lord is pleased when we endure unjust suffering, for it is a form of imitation of Christ. But there is no glory or praise if a slave endures punishment for doing evil: “How is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it?” (1 Peter 2:20a). Peter does not say that anyone deserves a beating. (Scripture tells masters that they should not threaten. If it is evil to threaten violence, surely actual blows are a greater evil [Eph. 6:9].) Peter is simply stating the obvious: We have no right to complain if we are punished for misdeeds. God is not impressed when we endure well-deserved punishment. It is praiseworthy if we, like Jesus, quietly endure injustice.
The Model of Christlike Service
The exceptional case of justified rebellion is not Peter’s main concern. The Romans were already suspicious of Christians for refusing to worship the emperor. If Christians commonly rebelled, it would exacerbate the suspicion that all Christians were seditious. Beyond that, rebellion misses a vital lesson from Jesus’ life.
According to Peter, slaves please God when they endure “unjust suffering” (1 Peter 2:19). Why? The believing slave did not live on naive hopes that his master would reform. Slaves follow the life and teaching of Jesus.
Slaves are to endure mistreatment: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth’ ” (1 Peter 2:21–22). There are two lessons here. First, almost unbearably, Peter tells those who suffer abuse to follow Jesus’ “example” or pattern, and to “follow in his steps.” We should walk in his very steps, as he silently bore unspeakable hatred and violence.
Second, Jesus is our example because he “committed no sin” (1 Peter 2:22). Peter lived with Jesus all day for three years. If Jesus had grabbed tasty morsels of fish for himself or exploded in frustration at his thickheaded disciples, Peter would have known. But Peter never saw Jesus stray in deed or word. He never got upset unjustly, never made a bad decision, never got a laugh at another person’s expense. His proper self-interest was never tainted by selfishness. Echoing Psalm 34:13 and Isaiah 53:9, Peter says that no “deceit was found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22). So Jesus is holy even in that realm where holiness is most elusive for humans: in our speech (James 3:8).
Peter focuses on Jesus’ exemplary suffering. Blind, vindictive authorities killed Jesus. Passersby joined in as they mocked and reviled him even as he suffered the most wretched death. Yet “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” (1 Peter 2:23). Jesus’ patience and calm in suffering is our model. There is no glory in calmly receiving deserved punishment, but there is glory in bearing insults silently and committing ourselves to the Father to judge and vindicate us. That is precisely what Jesus did and what we should aspire to do.
The Pharisees accused Jesus of serving the devil (Matt. 12:22–26). On the cross, Jesus suffered taunts: “He saved others, … but he can’t save himself!… Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him” (27:42). Yet he endured in silence, and entrusted himself to the Father to exonerate him.
The Greek verb translated “he entrusted himself” is paradidōmi. It most commonly means “hand over,” and it is often used of Jesus. Strikingly, Jesus was handed over for ill again and again, but he handed himself over to the Father, for good:
- Judas handed Jesus over to the priests out of greed (Matt. 26:14–49).
- The priests handed Jesus over to Pilate out of envy and self-righteousness (Mark 15:10).
- Pilate handed him over to the soldiers out of cowardice (Matt. 27:26).
- On the cross, Jesus handed himself over to God for vindication as he endured the mockers’ taunts (1 Peter 2:23) and anticipated his final vindication in the resurrection (Rom. 1:4).
For disciples, Jesus is the supreme example of the man who suffered patiently because of confidence in God. Like David, we receive thoughtless praise; like the Lord, we receive groundless scorn. Church leaders are criticized for sound decisions that we cannot fully defend, lest we reveal confidential matters. People condemn us for telling hard truths that people need, but do not wish, to hear. They blame us for failing to salvage a collapsing marriage. One pastor has said, “I spend half my time apologizing for words I never said and for actions I never took.” There is a time to defend our reputation (“A good name is more desirable than great riches,” Prov. 22:1). Yet we must also be willing to trust God the Judge for our vindication.
Let us notice that the imitation of Christ is a common New Testament theme. Some Protestants are wary of this. They fear that an emphasis on imitating Jesus’ life might lead to neglect of his atoning death. But Jesus repeatedly presented himself as an example, especially in his endurance of unjust suffering: “Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20; cf. Matt. 10:24–25; Luke 6:40). Paul tells us that we should love as Jesus loved (Eph. 5:2), forgive as he forgave (Eph. 4:32), and put others first as he did (Phil. 2:3–8). Peter instructs elders to be “examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3).
Yet Jesus is more than an example. Because we neither heed God’s commands nor follow Jesus’ example, we stand guilty before God. But, Peter says, Jesus “suffered for you” (1 Peter 2:21). More than that, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (2:24).
Jesus’ suffering is unique, for his death, and his death alone, is an atoning sacrifice, a penal substitution for sin. First Peter 2:24 quotes (and slightly rephrases) Isaiah 53, taking readers to the Old Testament prophecy that so clearly foretells Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice:
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Isa. 53:5–6)
Perhaps Jesus himself pointed the apostles to this passage after his resurrection, when he “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” that foretold his suffering and resurrection (Luke 24:44–46 esv). The Westminster Confession of Faith 11.3 summarizes: “Christ, by his obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father’s justice in their behalf.”
The concept of penal substitution is under attack today from liberals and even from so-called evangelicals. They claim that it is barbaric for God to punish sin by death. Worse, it is “cosmic child abuse” for God to kill his Son for the sins of others. These criticisms pervert both the problem of and the cure for sin. Sin leads to death intrinsically, not arbitrarily, because it separates us from God, the Author of life. Further, the principle of substitution is not strange or cruel; it is a common element of human life. Lawyers speak on behalf of others. Family members offer to pay each other’s debts. And Jesus offered to pay our debt to God. God’s justice requires that sin be punished, and Jesus chose—as an abused child cannot—to pay for our sins, as 1 Peter 2:24 makes clear.
Above all, Jesus is not an arbitrary substitute. There is a real relationship between us. If a member of my immediate family fails another person, it is sensible, not arbitrary, for me to pay what my spouse or child owes. Similarly, it is sensible, not arbitrary, for the traits of one family to be ascribed to another. For example, people regard me as a warm person, even if I might convey a touch of professorial detachment, because my wife is so warm. Similarly, people assume that she can answer almost any question about the Bible because she is united to me. By faith, the Christian is united to Jesus. Because of our relationship, it is sensible to ascribe his traits to us.
First Peter 2:21–24 is one highly structured, quasi-poetic sentence. A series of dependent clauses explore the master concept: “Christ suffered for you” (2:21). Peter says that he “committed no sin.… When he was reviled, he did not revile in return … [but] bore our sins in his body” (2:22–24 esv).
See how the passage interweaves truths about the person and the work of Christ. In his person, he is sinless and morally perfect. In his work, he atoned for sin. His work brings us salvation. Jesus is our trailblazer; he opened the path to life. By the same work, Jesus redeems us and sets us an example.
Everyone needs Jesus the Redeemer. Slaves—and all others who feel trapped by toxic masters—need Jesus’ example. Whenever anyone in power makes life difficult, Jesus shows the way. He never returned insult for insult. He trusted God to vindicate him. There is a place for justice, and everyone deserves dignity and protection. But it can be futile to seek our rights. (If a public figure decided to defend himself from all false accusations, he might finally do nothing else.) Jesus’ example teaches us that it can be best to absorb a blow. Imagine the result if we laid down our rights. Marriage disputes would fade. How can two people quarrel if both give up their rights and live a cruciform life? Church life would improve if people refused to become angry when they (or their child) did not get their way. Peace would flourish if we refused to take offense.
The lessons are clear. First, let us submit to all God-given authorities. Almost everyone has spent time under someone who seemed to lack the qualities essential to good leadership. It seems natural to balk at the prospect of submitting to the unworthy. Besides, humans are prone to rebel, even against noble authorities. Notice, then, that Peter does not say, “Submit to good leaders.” If we follow leaders only if we concur with their directions, the descriptive term is agree, not submit.
Peter exhorts us to submit “with all respect” (1 Peter 2:18). Authorities deserve respect for the sake of God, who placed them in their role, if not for their merit. Sadly, it is typical, in Western cultures, to criticize a leader even as we obey, and to disobey if we can. Even if we labor under a flawed authority, Peter says that we should be governed by our obligations, not the putative qualities of the leader. Remember, Jesus submitted to his parents despite their limitations. When we honor flawed leaders, we follow Jesus. The Father notices when we yield to masters who seem neither wise nor good.
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul encourages us that we can be content wherever we are, without changing marital status, ethnic status, or economic status. We can remain in our place if we remain with God, since he provides for us there (7:1–24). This principle neither denies that some authorities are evil nor excuses their misdeeds. God’s capacity to override evil cannot remove their culpability. On the contrary, because the Lord cares for the poor, lesser lords should, too. All who exercise authority should recall that they have an authority and a Judge over them.
It is possible to live well under a bad master. Besides, everyone belongs to someone, and everyone is enslaved to something. Seneca observed that one man “is a slave to lust, another to greed, another to ambition, and all men are slaves to fear.” Believers, whom God “bought at a price” (1 Cor. 7:23), now belong to Jesus, and that is liberating. So our first thought is not to change masters or jobs but to remain faithful, whatever our bonds may be.
Jesus carries us through suffering under unjust masters. He set an example and, through his sacrifice, offers forgiveness when we fail. By his wounds we are healed, so we may live for righteousness, under the care of the Lord, the Good Shepherd and Overseer of our souls.
The new lifestyle’s motivation: Christ’s suffering (2:21–25)
- His saving example: in his steps (2:21–23)
To this you were called. Peter has shown the glory of God’s calling. Christians have been called out of darkness into God’s marvellous light (2:9). They are called as God’s elect, his chosen people, heirs of his blessing (3:9). But now Peter says, To this you were called. To what? To suffering, to unjust abuse, to patient endurance when they are beaten for doing right! Peter has described our heavenly calling; he does not conceal our earthly calling. ‘Many are the afflictions of the righteous,’ declares the psalm to which Peter often alludes in this letter. Clearly Peter is thinking not only of Christian servants who were subject to abuse. They have a particular duty to serve the Lord where he has called them; in this, however, they do not differ from their brothers and sisters in other situations. All Christians are called to suffer with Christ before they are glorified with him. Archbishop Leighton comments on the readiness of Christians to claim the peace of Christ while expecting no tribulation in the world. ‘They like better St. Peter’s carnal advice to Christ, to avoid suffering. Matt. 16:22, than his Apostolic doctrine to Christians, teaching them, that as Christ suffered, so they likewise are called to suffering.’
Peter does not ask us to view suffering as inevitable in the world under the curse. He does not ask for stoic resignation. A life of suffering is our calling, not our fate. It is our calling just because we are God’s people. It is our calling because it was Christ’s calling. He calls his disciples to follow him. To be sure, suffering is a flame to burn away the dross so that our tested faith may shine as gold (1:7; 4:12). Some of the suffering that we endure is the direct result of our own sin (2:20; 3:17). But our example in suffering is One who was totally innocent and free from sin (2:22). He suffered, not for his own sake, but for the sake of God’s purpose, and for the salvation of others. As we follow him, we suffer for his sake, and for the sake of winning others to his saving gospel (3:1–2; 4:13–16).
Two themes are woven together in this magnificent section of Peter’s letter. One is the theme of the example of Christ’s suffering: leaving you an example. The other is the more basic theme of the saving purpose of Christ’s suffering: Christ suffered for you. Some commentators suppose that the cadenced prose of this passage must reflect an early Christian hymn or a credal statement. It has been suggested that the references to the atoning power of Christ’s suffering are present here because they were in the source that Peter quoted. Kelly even speaks of ‘the stress of the vicarious nature of Christ’s sufferings, which is a theme that is strictly irrelevant to the conduct of slaves.’3
Far from being irrelevant to Peter’s exhortation, the atoning sacrifice of Christ lies at the heart of all that he has to say. The cadences of the passage could well reflect the eloquence with which Peter had preached Christ, the suffering Servant, from the prophecies of Isaiah. The example of Christ is a saving example. Peter does not hold forth the meekness of Christ simply as an abstract pattern, a pattern that might have been offered by any uncomplaining sufferer. Christ’s suffering is our model because it is our salvation. It does not simply guide us; it is the root of all our motivation to follow. Our ‘living to righteousness’ follows in Christ’s steps because we died to sin in his atonement (2:24). Remove Christ’s atonement from the passage and its point would be lost.
Knowing that we were redeemed by the precious blood of Christ (1:19), we take up our cross to follow him. He has left us an example, a pattern to follow. Peter’s word translated example refers to a pattern to be traced. Clement of Alexandria gives samples of Greek sentences containing all the letters of the alphabet (the Greek equivalent of ‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’). They were written out to be traced so that children would learn their ABC. The word could also apply to an artist’s sketch to be filled in (our painting-by-number kits).
To the vivid figure in his word for example, Peter joins another, the figure of footsteps to be traced. Peter, Christ’s disciple, had followed in his Master’s footsteps along the narrow paths of the hill country and through fields of grain in Galilee. No doubt Peter also witnessed the dreadful procession that led to Calvary. To save himself from that path he had sworn fearful oaths. Now he is ready to follow Jesus all the way. He calls every Christian to walk that path with him.
The path that Jesus took was the path of meek obedience to the calling of his Father. Peter now presents Jesus as the suffering Servant of the Lord, taking his language from the song of the Servant in Isaiah 53. Jesus advances toward Calvary as a lamb that is led to the slaughter (Is. 53:7). He is without sin or deceit; here Peter quotes directly from Isaiah 53:9. The sufferings of the Servant are not for his own faults, but for the sins of others. He suffers to fulfil the will of God: ‘It was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer’ (Is. 53:10). He is a willing sacrifice: ‘he poured out his life unto death’ (Is. 53:12). His meekness appears in his silence—before the high priest, before Pontius Pilate, and before Herod. On the cross he answered nothing to the mockery of his enemies as they cursed the King of the Jews, or to the taunts of the thief crucified with him. Peter had cause to remember all too vividly the silence of Jesus before the high priest. He can bear witness: When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate. Oppressed and afflicted, he was silent: ‘as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth’ (Is. 53:7).
The meekness of Christ not only showed his submission to his Father’s will; it showed also his confidence in his Father’s righteous judgment. He did not revile or threaten because he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He had no need to vindicate himself. Paul writes to Christ’s followers: ‘Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.’
Perhaps there is even a deeper sense to Peter’s description of Christ’s meek commitment to God. The verb translated entrusted is used twice in the Greek version of Isaiah to describe the ‘delivering up’ of the Servant for our sins (Is. 53:6, 12). It is also used in the gospels for the delivering up of Christ to Pilate. Stibbs says of the term, ‘Here in the phrase committed himself it is used to describe our Lord’s own surrender of Himself to bear the penalty of sin—not His own sin but ours (cf. Rom. 4:25), and not at the hands of men, but at the hands of God, the righteous Judge.’
Certainly the way of Christ’s meek suffering, so well remembered by Peter, is the way of redeeming love. By the welts of his scourging we were healed: Isaiah foresaw it, and Peter witnessed it. The very torture that Peter wanted Jesus at any cost to escape was the torture that Jesus came to endure. In Isaiah’s songs, the Servant is both identified with the people of God and distinguished from them. He suffers for them, stands in their place, and bears the judgment of their sins. The example of Christ’s meekness is drawn from the mystery of Christ’s sacrifice.
- His atoning sacrifice (2:24)
Jesus is far more than our example; he is our sin-bearer. As Leighton says, ‘This was his business, not only to rectify sinful man by his example, but to redeem him by his blood.’ In one brief sentence Peter uses the prophecy of Isaiah to interpret what he had seen: Jesus going to his death. Jesus’ predictions of rejection, suffering and death had contradicted the expectations of the disciples. But they did not contradict the words of the prophet. Isaiah had said, ‘He bore the sin of many.’2 Now Peter understands those words; they convey the heart of the gospel.
The background for Isaiah’s prophecy and Peter’s teaching is the symbolism of sacrifice that God appointed for Israel. Sin was pictured as a burden to be placed upon the head of a sacrificial animal before it was killed. Death was the penalty for sin; the sacrificial animal died in the place of the sinner, who confessed his sin with his hands on the head of the animal. That action graphically pictured the transfer of the weight of his sin from himself to the substitute. The sprinkling of the blood of the sacrificed animal marked atonement; the penalty of sin had been paid.4 Isaiah describes the mysterious tragedy of the righteous Servant of the Lord: his astonishing agony, his scornful rejection, his submissive meekness. Then he discloses the meaning of the apparent tragedy. The suffering Servant offers himself as a sacrifice for sin. He was stricken with death for the transgression of his people. His soul was made an offering for sin. He bore the sin of the many.
We lack Peter’s preparation for understanding Christ as the sacrifice, the lamb whose precious blood redeems us (1:19). We have not witnessed, as Peter did, the offering of lambs, bulls and goats on the altar of sacrifice; the symbolism is not vivid in our minds. Yet Peter knew that the sacrifices at Jerusalem had not cleansed his heart from sin. Faced with the divine power of Jesus on the Lake of Galilee, he had fallen on his knees in his fishing-boat to cry, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!’
Peter, who had slept through his Lord’s agony in the garden of Gethsemane, now knows what cup it was that Jesus had to take; he knows why Jesus cried out in his abandonment, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ When Jesus went to Calvary, ‘he bore the sin of many’. The wood of his cross could be put upon another; the weight of sin was his alone to bear. Should anyone think lightly of his sin—and Peter could not—then to see the agony of the Son of God must call him to think again. Jesus bore our sins personally, in his own body. Only he could do so, for only he was sinless, God’s lamb without spot (1:19; 3:18). Only he could do so, for only he was who Peter confessed him to be: no mere man, not even the greatest prophet, but the Lord’s Anointed; indeed, the Lord himself, the Son of God, now crowned with glory (3:22; 4:11). If our death does not confront us with the wages of sin, then his death must. That such a price was paid, by the Son who gave his life, by the Father who gave his Son, is the measure of the measureless love of God.
The priests of old put away sin in the symbolic ritual of sacrifice; Jesus put away sin through the sacrifice of himself. The author of Hebrews reminds us of the words of Psalm 40:
‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
with burnt offerings and sin offerings
you were not pleased.
Then I said, “Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—
I have come to do your will, O God.” ’
The expression Peter uses seems to describe not simply Christ’s bearing of sin on the cross, but his carrying the burden of sin to the cross. In any case, it is the death of Christ, the shedding of his precious blood, that accomplishes our redemption. Peter’s expression emphasizes the dreadful extent of Christ’s sin-bearing. He suffered not only to the point of death, but to death as one accursed. Peter is well aware of the law’s curse upon one who died as a criminal on the tree. To Pharisees like Saul, before his conversion, Christ’s death on the cross refuted any claim to Messiahship. The Messiah could not die as one accursed of God. The astonishing prophecy of Isaiah shows the very opposite; only the One who becomes a curse for us can be the true Messiah, for his accursed death in our place paid the price of sin. Peter had proclaimed to the Sanhedrin the horror of their offence in killing Jesus, ‘hanging him on a tree’.2 Yet the wicked hands of men had fulfilled the counsel and will of God. God raised up Jesus, and by his death brought forgiveness of sins to all who trust in him.
By bearing our sin Jesus brings healing as well as atonement. The curse of sin includes suffering as well as death. From this, too, Jesus saves us. Peter again quotes from Isaiah: by his wounds you have been healed. Slaves who had been beaten bore the scars of the lash to which wounds (‘welts’) refers. Jesus had been tied to a post on the ‘Pavement’ of the palace where Pilate administered justice. There he had been whipped with the Roman scourge, a lash with multiple thongs, weighted with lumps of lead or bone. How did Christ’s wounds bring healing to slaves who might also have felt the lash? Did not Peter call them to follow in Christ’s steps, to imitate him in receiving wounds for his sake?
The apparent contradiction reveals the heart of Peter’s message. That which is to be feared is not the wrath of men, but the wrath of God. That which is to be desired is not the passing comforts of the world, but the blessing of God’s eternal inheritance. This is not just a matter of suffering now and glory to come: the promised blessing is already the possession of believers in Christ. They now taste the joy of heaven, for they taste the Lord’s grace (2:3). They know Jesus, the great Physician. Peter well knew the healing power of Christ. As an apostle he had power to declare, ‘Jesus Christ heals you.’ In hope of the resurrection, Peter could promise the final healing of all the people of God. But here Peter speaks of healing, not by the hands of Jesus, but by the wounds of Jesus. Christ’s wounds heal suffering at its root: the curse of sin. Not only do they plead the sinner’s case in the judgment; they transform his present suffering. No longer is it the bitter legacy of unrighteousness; it has become fellowship in the steps of Jesus. The pain that remains for the Christian is not the penalty of sin: Christ has suffered that in his place. The pain that remains is Christ’s calling to follow in his steps, sharing his reproach.
- His saving claim (2:24–25)
Christ’s atoning sacrifice has accomplished our salvation. We were like sheep going astray, but now we have been brought back to the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls. Jesus is not only the Good Shepherd who gives his life for the sheep; he is also the seeking Shepherd, the Lord who gathers his remnant flock. He bore our sins with a marvellous purpose: ‘that we, having died unto sins, might live unto righteousness’. (This translation in the asv is to be preferred to that in the niv.3)
Peter here speaks in a way that is close to the language of Paul. Central for Paul is the doctrine of union with Christ. We were united to Christ in his saving death; when he died to sin, so did we. When he rose, we rose with him. We are therefore to live in accord with our new position. Peter, too, stresses what Christ has accomplished for us. He makes Christ’s finished work the ground of his exhortations to live for righteousness. While he does not develop the theme of our union with Christ in the way that Paul does, he presents the same conviction from a different perspective, using particularly the Servant songs of Isaiah.2 In this passage he is showing us the meaning of the death of Christ from Isaiah 53, a passage in which the Servant suffers for the sins of the people because he is identified with them. In affirming that Jesus bore our sins, Peter teaches that Jesus is identified with us as our representative. That enables Peter to say that because of Christ’s sin-bearing in our place, we have died to sin. Peter makes it clear that Christ has done more in his death than enable us to die to sin. By his death in our place ‘once, the righteous for the unrighteous’, he has brought us to God (3:18). We have ceased from sin in Christ’s suffering and death for us, and therefore we are to live to God (4:1–2).
Peter had begun this section by addressing servants, speaking to them of their calling to follow Christ. But now he speaks in the first person plural, not ‘you’ only, but ‘we’. Peter’s hope is one with theirs, remission of sin through the death of Christ and freedom for a new life of righteousness.
By his atoning death Jesus puts his saving claim upon us. We have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls. The title Shepherd for the One who is the suffering Servant of the Lord is suggested in Isaiah 53:6, the passage that follows the statement that we are healed by his wounds: ‘We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’ David’s confession, ‘The Lord is my shepherd …’, presents one of the major images of the Old Testament describing the Lord’s care for his covenant people. The Lord, the true shepherd, promises to gather and care for his scattered flock. In the prophet Zechariah the figure of the shepherd and that of the sufferer are brought together. The shepherd, the one who was pierced, is identified with the Lord himself,2 yet distinguished from him as his ‘fellow’, the man close to him:
‘Awake, O sword, against my shepherd,
against the man who is close to me!’
declares the Lord Almighty.
‘Strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered,
and I will turn my hand against the little ones.’
Peter would well remember that passage. He had heard Jesus quote it as he led the disciples from the last supper to the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus used it to warn the disciples of their scattering, their falling away, when he, the Shepherd, would be struck down. Peter had replied, ‘Even if all fall away, I will not.’ Yet Peter, too, had forsaken Jesus and fled. When he later followed from a distance, he had been prepared to swear that he never knew Jesus. What joy filled Peter’s heart to receive forgiveness and blessing from his risen Lord! Peter had returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of his soul. His own calling as an apostolic shepherd had come from the Lord, the good Shepherd, who had reclaimed Peter from his desertion.5
The Zechariah passage goes on to describe how the Lord will purify his people, refining them as silver or gold in fire. This image, too, is in Peter’s thoughts (1:7; 4:12). The Lord who is now gathering his own from the nations of the world leads them through suffering to know him.
They will call on my name
and I will answer them;
I will say, ‘They are my people,’
and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God.’
Our Shepherd is also our Overseer, the ‘Bishop’ (av; Greek, episkopos) of our souls. The overseer is one who watches over a charge to protect and preserve it. A shepherd is the overseer of his flock. The elders of the church are to exercise oversight as they tend the flock of God (5:2). Yet the oversight of the ‘Chief Shepherd’ (5:4) has majestic breadth and depth; it goes far beyond the care of any under-shepherd. The Lord who knows the secrets of our hearts watches over our souls. So Jesus was the Overseer of Peter’s soul, warning him, calling him to watch and pray, praying for him that his faith should not fail, and searching his heart in order to restore him to his calling.2 Household slaves, designated as ‘things’ by the Romans and ‘bodies’ by the Greeks, are in Christ a kingdom of priests; Jesus the Lord is their Shepherd, the guardian of their precious souls.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2004). 1 Peter (pp. 155–174). Chicago: Moody Publishers.
 Doriani, D. M. (2014). 1 Peter. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (pp. 91–106). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Clowney, E. P. (1988). The message of 1 Peter: the way of the cross (pp. 116–126). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.