1 PETER #17: REMEMBER YOUR TRUE AUTHORITY

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Many of Peter’s first readers were living in a time when they didn’t have much control over their own lives. They had almost zero influence on what the Roman government did, and almost as little over their own local governments. Peter says, “Don’t worry about that. Obey the government, and entrust yourself to God.”

Now, he is writing to those who have even less control over their lives – slaves. He gives the same advice. We need to remember that there is something much more important here than the twisted natures of those who are in charge. This is a chance to show people what Jesus is like. This is a chance for Jesus to manifest his life through you.

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1 PETER #17: 1 PETER 2:18-25

Peter is flowing through a series of thoughts, each one connected to the one before. So, after talking about how God has made us his people, he then encouraged us to act like the people of God, citizens of heaven. Next, he explained that, as citizens of heaven, we should live peacefully and respectfully with regard to governments here on earth, submitting to them not because of any inherent goodness found in any particular government, or any kind of government, but rather, submitting for the sake of the Lord.

Peter now expands on the theme of submitting for the sake of the Lord, and he takes us to the case of slaves. I want to remind us a little bit about slavery in that time and place. There were two kinds of slavery in the ancient Roman empire. One kind involved slaves who served on Roman warships and in Roman mines, and a few other places. These were generally prisoners of war, or condemned criminals, and they served lives of hard labor and incredible suffering until they died. It would have been more or less impossible for this type of slave to be part of a Christian house church, because they generally lived their entire lives chained up like animals either on the ships, or in the place where they were used for hard labor. It’s just an unfortunate historical reality that we don’t have much information about whether or not the gospel spread to these types of slaves.

The second type of slavery was much more common in populated areas of the Empire, and it was very different from the slavery that existed in the American south until the mid nineteenth century, or anywhere else in the world, for that matter. Slaves could be of any ethnicity – that is, slavery wasn’t race based. Most slaves in the Roman empire were not slaves for life. Some of them sold themselves into slavery in order to pay their debts, or to avoid starvation. Even while they were slaves, they were paid wages, in addition to being given food and housing. Slaves could conduct business in their own names, and own property – though many did not have much free time for such activities. In fact, some well-off slaves even owned other slaves themselves! Slave owners could not break up, or sell off, the family members of slaves. Most slaves in the Roman empire eventually became free again, either by gift from their master,  or by contract, or by saving up their wages and buying back their freedom. The average length of time most slaves spent in slavery was about twenty years. Some had the chance to be free, but instead made a deliberate choice to serve beloved masters for life.

Peter uses a specific term in Greek to show he is talking to the second type of slave, not the slave-laborers who were effectively prisoners with no rights. Though the typical Roman slave was better off than most slaves elsewhere in the world for most of history, we should remember that Roman slaves did not have the same freedoms as totally free people. Though they were paid, they worked for their masters, not themselves. Their time was not their own, unless they were given free time by their masters. They had to do what they were told to do, even if it was unpleasant or dangerous, and masters had wide latitude to punish slaves who displeased them.

Maybe the closest thing we have today to New Testament-times slavery is military service. When you join the military you receive some clothing, housing and an income, and even food. In return, you place yourself at the service of the military branch that you joined, for example, the Army. You can’t leave your Army post without permission. You can’t live just anywhere you want to, and you must do what the Army tells you to do, and you can be punished, even imprisoned, if you refuse to obey. Until your term of service is over, you are not entirely “your own person,” so to speak. Yet, there are limits to what the Army can make you do. That’s a pretty similar picture to slavery in the world of the New Testament. Let’s remember, however, though it was far better than what we might normally think of when we hear the word “slavery,” it was not usually a cushy, sought-after position. Maybe it would be useful to adopt the ESV’s translation of “servants,” rather than slaves. With that understanding, let’s get into Peter’s words.

18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

(1 Peter 2:18-25, ESV)

Peter is telling us that because we are the people of God, we see all human relationships through the lens of our position in God’s kingdom. So, in the normal course of the world, you respect people who earn your respect, and grumble about people who mistreat you. Peter says, however, that Christians are different: “slaves, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to the good, but also to those who are unjust.” Actually, the literal translation of “unjust” in this verse would be “twisted.” Peter is saying, “Your master might be a severely twisted individual, but you submit to him, and serve him, not because of him, but because of the Lord.”

Now, if we talk of submitting to someone who is twisted, how far should we take that? Last time we considered the exceptions when it comes to submitting to government. We don’t submit when the government tells us to sin. We don’t agree to sin either by doing something wrong, or by not doing something we are supposed to do. The same principles hold when we are talking about submission to any authority less than God. However, when there is no conflict between following Jesus and submitting to proper authorities, we submit, and we do so, not because the one we submit to is worthy in some way, but rather, for the sake of the Lord Himself.

Also, of course, this applies to proper authorities. So for example, I don’t have to obey the instructions of an Army officer, because I am not in the Army. But I do have to obey the lawful instructions of a police officer who is within jurisdiction. I don’t have to pay property tax in California, but I do have to pay taxes in Tennessee, and so on.

There is another important point to be made, which Peter himself makes. He is not talking about cases where a servant is being punished for doing wrong. He comments: “How is there any credit to either you or God if you endure punishment for doing wrong? The situation here is when a master is twisted. The master is likely going to be unfair to the servant, no matter what the servant does. So, the servant might be tempted to think: “Why should I bother doing the right thing if I’m going to be punished anyway? Why not serve badly? If he treats me badly, I will return that injustice with bad service.” This kind of thing, says Peter, gives the servant no credit, and brings no glory to God. Anyone in the world, whether Christian or not, can take that attitude. No, says Peter, Jesus so transforms everything about us that we can patiently endure injustice without doing wrong in return. In fact, he says, twice, that to endure suffering for the sake of God, with the grief that often entails, is a gracious thing to God.

All of this lays the groundwork for some important principles of Christian suffering. First, our suffering for Christ need not be the direct result of persecution. Peter is not suggesting that the master might be mistreating the servant because the servant is a Christian. Instead, the problem is the master is twisted – he’s generally just a nasty sort of person. Because it is not about persecution, this means that whatever suffering we endure can be redeemed as suffering for and with Christ – which, difficult as it might be, becomes a thing of grace.

So, for instance, you might think that having a nasty boss could not be considered “suffering for the sake of Christ.” But Peter says: “It can be.” If we endure while still working as if we are working for Christ, (even though in reality we are working for a twisted jerk) our trials bring glory to God. If we can get free from such a situation, there is nothing wrong with doing so. In writing to slaves, however, Peter is talking to people who are stuck, at least for a couple of decades.

If we encounter any kind of undeserved hardship, and endure it as we look to God, bearing up under it the way Jesus did, it becomes a thing of glory to God and grace to us. Peter says we have been called to this, because we are followers of Christ who suffered when he did not deserve it.

That brings us to an uncomfortable thought. We follow Jesus. What was the earthly life of Jesus like? He lived on this sin-corrupted earth as if he was a citizen of heaven, which, of course, he was. That meant he did not live for temporary pleasure, temporary riches or temporary glory. He lived in the light of eternity, which meant he was willing to endure suffering here and now.

Our lives will not exactly look like that of Jesus. Most of us will not be itinerant rabbis in the country of Israel. But the qualities of Jesus should be manifest in us. The way we handle various situations will remind other people about Jesus. They might think: “I don’t know why, but something about the way she responded makes me think of Jesus.” Some people might not even recognize it as a  quality of Jesus, but merely something that impresses them and appeals to them somehow.

In any case, one of the characteristics of Jesus was that he endured suffering patiently, entrusting himself to God. We Christians ought to approach suffering in the same way. When we endure suffering while also holding God in mind, and our citizenship in heaven, there is grace.

Many of Peter’s first readers were living in a time when they didn’t have much control over their own lives. They had almost zero influence on what the Roman government did, and almost as little over their own local governments. Peter says, “Don’t worry about that. Obey the government, and entrust yourself to God.”

Now, he is writing to those who have even less control over their lives – slaves. He gives the same advice. We need to remember that there is something much more important here than the twisted natures of those who are in charge. This is a chance to show people what Jesus is like. This is a chance for Jesus to manifest his life through you.

I believe this extends to any situation where we might be suffering, and where we have little control. In fact, I think it even extends to situations where you might have some control. After all, Jesus certainly could have destroyed his evil enemies with a mere wink. And yet, aware of God’s will, he chose to suffer in order to bring glory to God.

All of this would be incredibly difficult, except for two things. First, we need to remember, and remain aware of, something Peter has already explained:

Now we live with great expectation, and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay. And through your faith, God is protecting you by his power until you receive this salvation, which is ready to be revealed on the last day for all to see.

So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world.

(1 Peter 1:3b-7, NLT).

Second, we need to remember that it is not up to us to endure suffering graciously through our own difficult effort. Instead, we rely on the Holy Spirit to manifest the nature of Jesus in us and through us. Practically, what that means might include praying something like this: “Lord, I cannot face this situation with grace or patience. But I know that you can. Would you please live through me right now, so that your grace and your patience are evident to everyone around me? Would you please sustain me through this? I have no other hope but you.”

Some of the trials might include the necessity of dealing with someone in your life who is twisted. The trials will often be things over which we have little or no control. What we can control, is how we respond to them, and we can respond to them with the nature of Jesus, who lives within us. Again, we do that by asking, and trusting, the Holy Spirit to make it so. We have so much more waiting for us than anything that can be found in this life. Think of the very best life you could imagine having on earth, then multiply the goodness and joy of that by a thousand, and you still haven’t even begun to touch what it will be like when we come into our eternal inheritance.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you right now.