The Christian and Ungodly Authorities
Passage: 1 Peter 2:18-20
We all know that life sometimes requires us to do hard things. Sometimes we have to do hard things because there is no way to avoid it, and sometimes it’s simply the right thing to do. You might feel your hair stand on edge or your heart sink about something relatively minor like picking up a dead animal or killing a spider. Or you may have these feelings over something more significant. Maybe you have to make a difficult phone call, and either you don’t know what to say or you are relatively confident that the other person is going to blast you when they answer the phone. But you dial the number anyway because you know it’s the right thing to do. Maybe you’ve had this feeling over situation at work. Your boss is a jerk and you are more qualified than he is. Not only that, he is making you do things that are inefficient or unnecessary. Following his lead drives you nuts, but you don’t really have any other choice at least for the time being, so you just grin and bear it. Doing hard things is never fun. That’s why we call them “hard things.” Our text for today, addresses an incredibly hard situation that many of Peter’s writers were facing. They were slaves, and many of them were facing harsh, unjust treatment. None of us can truly relate to those kinds of conditions. It must have been very hard on multiple levels. How should Christian slaves respond to these hard circumstances? In our text for today, Peter challenges his readers regarding how God would have them respond (read).
There are several significant challenges that come with preaching this text. First, we are far removed from the circumstances of these slaves. Our culture is very different from their world; therefore, we need to do some work to understand their context. A second and related challenge is that our understanding of slavery is largely shaped by the history of our nation. We understand the evils of colonial slavery, and our culture continues to be shaped by the battle to overcome these evils. Because of our understanding of human rights, we may wonder why Peter and the other NT authors are not more resistant to the institution of slavery and why they don’t encourage slaves to rebel. These two challenges create a third challenge, which is that none of us are slaves; therefore, this text does not immediately apply to any of us. What this passage means for us isn’t as direct as the other passages we have studied. However, there are foundational biblical principles behind the applications Peter makes to slaves. It’s up to us to discover what those principles are and to discern their significance for us. We face some unique challenges in studying this passage, but if we can work through them, there is much benefit in this passage for us.
In light of that, let’s dive into what it says. Verse 18 begins the text with a command.
The Command (v. 18):
Peter commands the slaves in these churches to obey their masters whether they are good or evil.
Background: As I already acknowledged this command is very distant from our lives today and also troubling to our modern senses. Because of that, we need to take some time to understand the historical context. Slavery was a very significant aspect of 1st century Greco-Roman culture. In fact, it’s estimated that over half of the population was considered slaves. How did so many people become slaves? Well, there were a number of different ways that someone could become a slavery. With all the wars of the time, many slaves were people who had been captured in war. Then, the children of slaves would become slaves themselves; therefore, this large population of slaves continued to repopulate itself. Poverty was another major source of slavery. If an individual had a debt he was unable to pay, he might sell himself into slavery. Others who were enduring extreme poverty might willingly sell themselves into slavery in order to survive. Parents would sometimes sell their children into slavery if they could not provide for them or again if they needed money to survive. When poverty or debt was the cause, slavery wasn’t necessarily permanent. Slavery could be a temporary arrangement to pay off a debt, or slaves could at times purchase their freedom. Therefore, 1st century slavery was often quite different from colonial slavery, which was entirely involuntary and racially motivated. American slaves were kidnapped from Africa, and they and their children had no hope of gaining legal freedom. It’s also important to note that the living conditions of 1st century slaves varied greatly, which is why Peter mentions good and harsh masters. Some slaves were very skilled and well-respected workers. There were slaves who were doctors, teachers, musicians, and just about any other profession you can imagine. Many of these individuals were well cared for and had hope of being released. But it was not so good for many other slaves, and abusive treatment of slaves was deeply imbedded in Roman culture. Aristotle taught that it was impossible to treat a slave unjustly because they are mere property. It was largely assumed that slaves did not have full human rights. Because of that, many slaves lived in horrible conditions and endured tremendous abuse. And so much of the time 1st century slavery was more humane than colonial slavery, but at times it was not.
This raises another question. If Greco-Roman culture did not insure basic human rights for slaves, then why does Peter tell these slaves to submit rather than to rebel against the institution and to stand for their rights? At the very least, why doesn’t the NT command Christian slave owners to release their slaves? We can’t fully answer this question today, but I’d note first that the NT repeatedly affirms that all people are made in the image of God and are entitled to basic human rights. This is clear in the two passages that speak to slave owners (Eph 6:5–9). Paul forbids beating slaves, and commands slave owners to treat slaves with Christian virtue. And in Philemon 16, Paul challenges Philemon regarding how he should view a Christian slave Onesimus. He says to receive him “no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother.” It’s hard for us to appreciate how radical this statement would have seemed in Paul’s day. It establishes the importance of human rights, and prohibits evil degradation of slaves. Second, the ethic of Scripture doesn’t prioritize cultural revolution; rather, it emphasizes honoring God in the context where God has sovereignly placed you. This doesn’t mean Scripture doesn’t advocate for changing the culture, but it is certainly not our first priority. Third, it’s unrealistic to think that the early church could have changed the institution. Slavery was deeply imbedded in the culture without any serious resistance, and the church was small and on the edges of society. Any efforts to overturn slavery would have gone nowhere and probably would have ended with death and suffering for believers. Christians had no choice but to adapt to a difficult situation. In sum, the Scriptures teach that all people are made in the image of God and should be treated with dignity; therefore, it rejects the fundamental evil of most forms of slavery. They also teach that we need to embrace where God has placed us and that we need to obey him in that place.
In light of that, Peter challenges slaves regarding…
How They Are to Obey: This is the same verb that is used in v. 13 for submission to government. Peter commands the slaves among his readers to obey their masters. These slave masters were authorities within their context, and so they needed to do what they asked. They were to do so “with all fear.” Verse 17 commands us to fear God, and every other use of fear in 1 Peter is directed toward God; therefore, the fear Peter has in mind is the fear of God, not of man. And so Peter commands slaves to obey their human masters out of fear or reverence for God. As we saw regarding government, God is our ultimate authority, and our submission to human authorities isn’t ultimately rooted in the authority or character of the authority but in God’s authority over our lives. As I said last week, our obligation before God to obey authorities obliterates many of the reasons we sometimes use to excuse disobedience. We’ve all probably used the character of the authority or the foolishness of his rules to excuse disobedience. But since submission is grounded in God, not the man, these excuses don’t hold water. We must do what is right before God regardless of what a human authority may say. As well the fact that our ultimate submission is to God not man means that if a slave master asked a Christian slave to do something that violates God’s Word, he must maintain his ultimate allegiance to God. Ultimately, God is the Lord of the slave, not the human master. This is a theme that runs throughout these verses, and again, it undercuts the Roman belief that slaves were property of slave owners and were subhuman. And so how were these slaves to obey? They were to obey their masters out of fear of God. They must obey because God had commanded them to obey.
Verse 18 also answers the question…
Who are they to obey? The end of v. 18 notes that not all slave masters were equal. Some were “good and gentle.” The word “good” came up several times in the previous passage, and in this context it describes moral uprightness or ethical behavior. Some slave masters were just in their treatment of slaves and in the general dealings of life. Not only that, some were gentle. This describes masters who treated their slaves with kindness. They cared for their needs, they were patient, and, based on what follows, they did not abuse their slaves unjustly. Peter assumes that these masters weren’t that difficult to obey, but he also adds that they were to submit to harsh masters. This word means moral perversity and can refer to all sorts of sins. Based on v. 20, these masters may have sometimes beaten their slaves unjustly. They may have also been dishonest, and they probably didn’t compensate their slaves appropriately, care for their needs, or provide safe work and living conditions. As I mentioned earlier, slaves sometimes endured awful conditions. This is where submission became very difficult and where slaves may be tempted to rebel or run off. But God commands them to submit out of fear for God. They were to continue doing the right thing even when their masters were cruel and wicked. This is a difficult command.
Application: But what does this mean for us, since none of us are slaves? I think we see in this verse that God has ordained authorities, and he expects his people to honor and obey God-given authorities regardless of their character. If God expected slaves to obey masters, he certainly expects us to obey employers, schoolteachers, landlords, parents, and any other authority he has placed in our lives. And he is opposed to us using the faults of these individuals as an excuse for disobedience. We all know how difficult this can be. I’m sure all of us at some time have had our blood boiling over what we perceive to be a ridiculous demand of an authority. Teenagers, it doesn’t matter how much you disagree with the rules of your teachers or parents; God expects you to obey. I’m sure some of you have employers that drive you nuts, but you still have to obey them even when it is very difficult. If you are someone who struggles to submit, I want to urge you to stop making excuses and to do what is right before God even if it is hard.
Submission is hard, and Peter recognized that; therefore, he follows this difficult command with two reasons why we must obey. The first reason is…
God is our ultimate authority (v. 19)
This reason already came up in v. 18 where Peter grounded submission in the fear of God. Verse 19 develops it further through the statement that we are to endure even when we suffer unjustly “because of conscience toward God.” This phrase in context refers to an awareness of God and his authority over our lives that ought to be the ultimate force in shaping our conduct. This is a crucial reality for us to consider. Verse 20 notes that sometimes these people’s slave masters would cause them to suffer wrongfully. Since most slaves and slave masters weren’t governed by a strong ethic, their relationship to each other was governed purely by power and fear. Therefore, some masters would randomly beat their slaves on a whim or do other harsh acts just to remind them who was the boss. Imagine working hard all day and coming back to the house and the slave master happens to be in a bad mood. You forget to do a small task, and he looses it, and refuses to let you eat that evening. It would be very hard to obey at that point. But as a Christian, it’s never merely about me and the one wronging me. We must live with a constant consciousness of God that drives all of our actions and reactions.
Application: Do you live with this kind of consciousness where everything you do in life is governed by the fact that God is watching and you are accountable to him? One of the most convicting verses in all of Scripture is Colossians 3:23. Paul tells slaves to do all of their work “heartily as to the Lord.” Is this how you do your job or schoolwork? Teenagers, is this how you do your chores at home? Is this how you fulfill your ministry in the church? Is this how you do your job each day? We must honor God in how we obey authorities and in how we fulfill the tasks they give us. I know that can be hard when the authority is evil or unreasonable, but as Christians we can always rest in the fact that these authorities are not random. God put them there. You may not understand how in the world your boss ever became a supervisor, but you can rest in the fact that God had a reason. There is no chaos in the ultimate sense, and so you can obey, and you must obey out of fear for the Lord.
The first reason these slaves were to obey their masters was because God is our ultimate authority. The second reason is that…
Second Reason: God will reward our obedience (v. 20).
The concept of reward is present in the phrase “commendable before God” at the end of v. 20. The word translated commendable is the normal Greek term for grace. It is the word charis. The same word is used at the beginning of v. 19 where it is also translated as commendable. It’s translated as commendable because in context, the idea is that God is pleased with the kind of submission Peter is advocating. But the fact that Peter describes God’s pleasure in terms of grace indicates that God’s approval will be met with God’s reward.
Before we reflect fully on this reward, we need to notice when it is available and when it is not. Notice that…
God will not reward justified suffering. Verse 20 begins by asking a rhetorical question. This question pictures a scenario where a slave is punished for his disobedience. Both actions are presented as ongoing. Peter pictures a slave who repeatedly disobeys his master and as a result faces repeated beatings or other forms of suffering. Peter’s point is that if a slave was punished for actual faults or sins, he doesn’t get any credit or sympathy from God. This fits the tenor of this entire passage. God expects his people to honor the structures of society and to obey authorities. And if we do not, then authorities have the prerogative to inflict just punishment. We’ll see in a few weeks that the home is somewhat different. We shouldn’t be looking to inflict blind justice on our wives and children. But secular authorities have this right, and God will notreward justified suffering. In contrast…
God will reward unjustified suffering. The end of the verse describes a very different scenario. It speaks of slave who does what is good. He honors his master, he works hard, he’s honest, and he obeys. But despite all of this, he suffers at the hands of his master. He is beaten or suffers in some of the other ways we have mentioned even though he is doing what is right. It’s not clear whether Peter is saying that this slave suffers because he does what is right or if he suffers in spite of doing right. Peter might be thinking of persecution that is motivated by the slave’s faith, or he might be thinking of senseless cruelty. But regardless, the slave he has in mind does not deserve the suffering he endures. It is unjustified. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to live at the mercy of a cruel and unreasonable man and to suffer when you have done nothing wrong or to suffer simply because you believe the Bible and try to live it. This is very hard.
God’s Reward: But as Christians, we have a hope that is far bigger than what we are facing in the moment. We can have hope even in terribly dark circumstances because we serve a God who is good, kind, and just, and in this verse God promises that he will give justice to his people who suffer unjustly in the present. God will reward us, and his reward is far greater than any suffering we may face in the present. God will be faithful even when people are not. And so Peter encourages these discouraged slaves who were carrying a very heavy load to press on and to keep obeying God because he is our ultimate authority and because he will reward our faithfulness.
Faith: And so even though the word is never used, this passage is ultimately about faith. Peter challenges his readers not to live based on what they could see or based on their present circumstances. Instead, by faith they were to see that their human master or the structures of society are not ultimately in charge. No, this is God’s universe. He is sovereign over the circumstances of my life, and he is my ultimate authority. As well, by faith they were to see past their present suffering and human solutions, and they were to see that God’s reward for obedience would far exceed the reward of human solutions.
What then does this passage mean for us in our day and time. I’d summarize it by saying we must obey human authorities by faith. This means that sometimes we will make decisions that don’t make human sense and that are not natural to us. It means that sometimes we may have to endure hard things or uncomfortable circumstances that we could avoid by taking sinful steps. It means that we must obey God no matter the cost. This takes faith. We’ve got to believe that God is worth being mocked, taking less pay, working longer hours, having fewer things, and on and on we could go. Maybe you find yourself in a hard situation right now and doing the right thing feels so unnatural. I want to urge you to believe God and obey. All of us will face these questions at some point. We must choose to obey God no matter the cost because we believe him.
In a moment we are going to close with all three verses of “Still, My Soul Be Still.” This song is a plea to keep faith in God and his promises in the midst of difficulty. Let’s sing it as a prayer for ourselves that we would continue to trust the Lord amidst all of the chaos and noise of life.