Sermon preached on 1 Peter 2:18-20 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 5/06/2011 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
1 Peter 2:18-20
“This is Commendable”
Today we resume our series through the letter of 1 Peter. Let me remind you of where we are at in 1 Peter. From the very start of the letter we’ve seen how Peter has called us pilgrims. Christians are in but not of this world. Peter turned to offer some practical application of this in verse 11 of this chapter. Particularly in the last few verses, he’s been dealing with how Christians interact with the authorities in this world. The last passage dealt with how we interact with the civil government. Today Peter addresses master-servant relationships. He describes how Christians are to submit themselves to their earthly masters. He describes how a Christian is to act commendably in their service to their earthly masters. And so that will be our focus today. First, we’ll consider this call to servants for submission, and apply that to our own circumstances today. Second, we’ll reflect a little further on what this commendable service will look like. That’s a key idea in this passage: commendable service, and so we’ll reflect on what is commendable service. Third, we’ll consider the reason for this commendable submission. This passage gives a uniquely Christian answer to why servants are to serve in this way, and it’s directly connected with the gospel. That will be our final point for today.
So, let’s dig in. Let’s begin by thinking about this call for servants to submit to their earthly masters. That’s the command right in the first verse; verse 18. “Servants, be submissive to your masters.” Now, I think it would be helpful here to give a basic definition of a servant back then. When we hear the word servant or slave in the Bible, a lot of us probably think back to our nation’s history, and the slavery of blacks. Well, slavery at the time of 1 Peter was not great, but it does not appear to be quite the same situation as the black slavery in our country. In the Roman world at that time, slavery was common place, but it was probably somewhere in between the slavery we had in this country, and the typical employer-employee relationship that we have today. They were often very skilled, many of them having very important jobs for their masters. They often lived in very good conditions as well. Yes, they were treated essentially as property, but at the same time, they could theoretically become free. They could purchase their freedom if they were able acquire the money needed; or sometimes the masters would set certain slaves free on their own. So don’t get me wrong, it was not a great situation to be a slave back then. But my point is that they had some amount of similarity to an employee today. Because of this, it’s typical for us to apply these kinds of passages to us as employees who work for employers. I think that is quite fitting and appropriate.
And yet one of the main differences between us as employees, and them as servants back then, is that the servants were not usually able to gain their freedom. Yes, it was theoretically possible, but practically speaking, unlikely. In other words, a servant who found himself in a bad situation, didn’t have a lot of recourse. A servant working for a bad master was probably stuck in that situation for the rest of his life. Theoretically, we as employees have more freedom than that. Technically, we could quit a bad job and move on to something else. And yet, often today when I find someone complaining about their job, I ask them why they don’t just quit, or find something else. Well, the answer is usually that they can’t. They can’t afford to just quit. And they haven’t been able to find other work yet. And so though theoretically employees today have the freedom to leave a difficult job situation, in reality that isn’t always so easy. In other words, we might find ourselves with a similar situation with a servant back then. And so, the same question is raised for a Christian today by this passage. How do you respond when you are stuck in a bad situation? That might not be the best way to put it, by the way. Christians should realize that God has providentially placed them in different places. Even in difficult places, God can use us. Even in difficult situations, we can live commendably before God, by his grace. But realize that this is what today’s passage is getting at – how do you submit to your earthly masters, even if your earthly masters treat you badly? Even if you have no way to get yourself out of a difficult circumstance?
You see, that is what this passage is addressing. Verse 18 says servants are to submit to both the good and gentle masters, but also to the harsh ones. The word for harsh is most literally the word for “crooked.” A servant back then might have the best master in the world. He might treat you so well, and just be an upright person himself. Or, on the other hand, he might be horrible. Horrible to you and a horrible person in general. Your master might be someone you really admire and naturally respect. On the other hand, they might clearly be an evil, immoral, person that you normally wouldn’t want to have anything to do with. And yet though this master might not be a very respectable person, Peter calls servants to submit with all fear. When verse 18 says with all fear, it means you respect them not for who they are, per se, but for their position of authority. They are in charge, and you are under them. And so, you submit with all fear. Earlier Peter told us to fear God. Now he tells us to fear our earthly masters. If we are under their charge, then they are in charge.
Let me offer at this point two qualifications to this. Then, we’ll dig into this submission further. As I said in the last passage from 1 Peter, if an authority asks you to do something that violates God’s Word, then certainly you must not submit. If your master, or if your employer asks you to break God’s Word, you must not. Yes, you’ll face the consequences, but it is better to obey God than man. But that’s the biblical precedence we see in the Bible, in books like Daniel. God’s authority trumps any earthly authority.
A second qualification is that if you can gain your freedom out of a difficult circumstance, then go for it. 1 Corinthians 7:21 says this is a biblical principle. Paul says there, “Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.)” In other words, a Christian can still be Christian, and a slave; even under a difficult master. But Paul says that if you can gain your freedom, then great, go for it. The problem for slaves back then, was that it was not that easy to gain your freedom. Well, by extension to us: if you are in a bad employment situation, today’s passage doesn’t say you have to stay in that situation. If you able to responsibly get out, say and get another better job, then great, go for it. But as long as you are there in that role of employee, you should recognize that you are under your employer’s authority during your time at work, and serve accordingly. And by the way, if you are to exit a role of authority, you have to do it biblically. The end doesn’t justify the means. Paul says elsewhere servants are to not steal from their masters. They shouldn’t steal from their masters so they have money to buy their freedom, for example. How we try to remove ourselves from a bad authority, must be done biblically, based on each circumstance.
And so to sum up this first point. Christians are called to submit to their earthly authorities, even to bad ones. This has application for us as employees serving under employers. But, I wouldn’t limit the application to just that. This principle would apply to any of those places of authority we find ourselves under. Life is full of places where we find ourselves under various authorities: In our government, in our church membership, in husband-wife relationships, in parent-child relationships, and others. So, not just employer-employee relationships. When we find ourselves under a bad authority, we either need find a biblical way to remove ourselves from that authority, or if we are to stay, then are we to submit with all proper honor to that authority. Sometimes there are not very many biblical options to remove yourself from under a particular authority, and this passage certainly is helping us to deal with those circumstances.
Of course, I’ve been a little bleak here too. Don’t miss that this passage says that we might have good masters to serve in life. That’s great when that happens. We should serve them faithfully too. But the challenge here is that we don’t just serve the good masters well. There shouldn’t be a noticeable difference how we serve a good master versus a bad one. If you want to commendably serve your earthly masters, you should be all that you can be to both good bosses and bad ones. We shouldn’t serve the good master with all that is in you, and just barely squeak by in your service to the bad ones. That’s not commendable service, as this passage describes it.
That’s what I’d like to turn to next. To think about what this passage says is commendable service. Verses 19 and 20 deal with this more specifically. The passage moves beyond a general call to submit to both good and bad masters. It then gives two examples of service. It says that one is commendable, and that the other is not. Both examples assume that a servant could be beaten or punished by their masters. But, it shows that just because you are beaten, doesn’t mean you did a commendable job. This is important not to confuse. Look at the first part of verse 20. It says that if you are beaten for you faults, it’s not to your credit for enduring the punishment. Yes, you should still endure the punishment, but there is nothing commendable about that. The word in the Greek for faults is literally the word about sin. If you sin in your service to your master, you should expect to be reprimanded. Back then, servants would usually get some sort of corporal punishment for their poor service. Today, at a job, you might get written up, or docked pay, or maybe just fired. If these punishments happen to you because you weren’t doing the right thing in your service, don’t go thinking you are a martyr. Receiving the consequences of your actions is not commendable in that case. Peter is clear about that.
On the other hand, Peter’s main point of commendable service is repeated in both verses 19 and 20. It’s real clear. If you do good in your service, and you are nonetheless punished, it’s commendable if you endure the punishment. It’s commendable if you bear the punishment you didn’t deserve. The language is powerful here. If you endure pain and sorrow by your earthly master, even when you were doing good; that’s commendable. If you do everything right in serving your boss, and in return they treat you in every wrong way, then that’s commendable if you patiently bear that. Someone could tell their boss off. Someone could look for revenge. But commendable says you don’t do that. This is another angle for Jesus’ teaching about loving your enemies. The language of Peter seems to be drawing from Jesus teaching on that in Luke 6. Our masters and bosses might set themselves as our enemy. We are to love them in return. We are to patiently endure the sufferings. That is commendable.
In fact, Peter really drives home the fact that it is commendable. He says it twice; first in verse 19, and then again in verse 20. The structure of the passage here is really emphasizing the commendableness of this. The reference in verse 20 even tells us who is commending us. This action is commendable before God. God’s the one who commends this kind of action. God says this is the right response when we find ourselves in this situation in life. This is the same idea Peter has been developing already in this chapter. In verses 12 and 15, in two different ways, he said it was commendable when the world slanders you, that you still do good. Now, here he says it’s commendable that when you do good, and the world still treats you bad, that you still act good. And so this is a common theme in this chapter.
Now, I might note here that this shows our pilgrim nature as Christians. The response described here is not a typical response that the world gives. This is not how you’d expect the world to advise you. If you went to a secular counselor and described an abusive authority in your life, I wonder what kind of counsel you’d get? I doubt they would sound at all like this. If we live this passage out, this can be tough. Really tough. It will set you apart as a Christian. A non-biblical worldview may even have trouble understanding it. So Christians live this out because God call us to. He says this is commendable. But I think a fair question is, why? Doesn’t a strict sense of justice tell us that if someone treats me bad, I should treat them bad in return? Isn’t that just an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth? Isn’t that even a biblical principle?
This is the question I’d like us to turn to now. Why does God call us to this sort of service? Why is this commendable service to God: love our masters; even masters that are bad to us? Peter begins to give us the answer in verse 19. He says that we live this way because of our conscience toward God. Now, I know that only begins to answer the question. But let’s start there. There is something in God that would cause us to act in this way. Our conscience then before God would say that we ought to behave this way. Jesus explained some of this in his earthly ministry. When Jesus said in Mathew 5, to turn the other cheek, Jesus said it was because of who God is. God is merciful. God doesn’t strictly deal with mankind with the principle of an eye for an eye, or a tooth for a tooth. Yes, ultimately God will deliver strict justice. But right now in his every day actions toward humans, he is very merciful. God loves his enemies by giving them many good gifts, such as rain and shine so they can eat. Luke 6:35 says that God is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. And so the kind of commendable service that Peter calls us to here, is rooted in God’s character. Surely Peter had in mind this teaching from Jesus when he wrote these verses.
And yet Peter gives us an even more specific reason in verses 21-25. Peter applies Jesus’ words one step further. Peter points us to God’s mercy as shown in Jesus. In our next sermon from Peter, we’ll be studying verses 21-25 in more detail. But for now, I want to look at the big picture. I want us to see how Christ and the cross is the underlying reason why God has called us to love and obey even wicked masters and bad bosses.
You see, this was Christ’s experience on earth. Verse 22 says that Jesus came to earth and only did good. And yet was good given to him for his good? No. Verse 23 says he was reviled and that he suffered. Everything Peter’s been talking about in this chapter for us – that’s what Jesus experienced. Peter has said we might get inaccurately slandered. In today’s verses we’ve read how we might suffer unjustly. That’s what happened to Jesus. But verse 23 shows us how Jesus responded? He did not revile in return. He did not threaten revenge in return. No, he entrusted himself to God who judge justly. Of course, Peter then goes on to show what this ultimately meant for Jesus. It meant the cross. Verses 24-25 show us that he went to the cross in order to save us. To bring us to himself. On the cross, he died in the place of sinners, so that we who turn in faith to him would be saved. Forgiven and brought to new life in him. This is the gospel, and it is central to understanding how a Christian lives in this world. The reality of the gospel is the reason why we are to serve commendably even those earthly masters. Christ has set the pattern for us. He calls us to live the way he lived, verse 21.
But realize, Jesus isn’t just the model for how we live. This reason for how we live, is more than that just following Jesus’ example. You see, it is God’s mercy and love expressed in Christ that’s the ultimate reason. Realize why Jesus was slandered and beaten. Realize why Jesus was put to death on the cross. It was because of sin. Our sin. Our sin contributed to why Jesus had to endure all of this. Our sin was behind all those slanders and all the beatings, and all the pain, Jesus went through. Jesus endured these things so he could save us from our sins. And so how did he respond toward sinful humans who persecuted him? Did he respond and say, “Forget it,” save yourself? No. Did he command that fire fall from heaven upon those who beat him? No. Did he call for angels to rescue him? No. He endured the effects of our sin, in order to show us mercy. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. This is how Christ achieved our salvation. This is commendable before God.
And so Christ calls us to follow his example. His example would be good to follow even if we weren’t the beneficiaries of it. But especially since we’ve benefited by his actions, we should live out his example. How can we be unmerciful and unloving to our enemies, when Christ has shown us his love and mercy? That would be hypocritical to think we should respond with a demand for cold justice, when we’ve received such mercy from Jesus. We essentially treated Jesus unjustly, and yet he’s loved us. Well, Jesus wants us to learn that same kind of radical love and show it to others. Thus, we are called to love our enemies, even those evil earthly masters.
And so realize that God is not indifferent to your sufferings in this life. He doesn’t call you to go through this suffering because he wants you to suffer just to suffer. No, remember how we read Exodus today. God’s people were afflicted under Egyptian slavery. They cried out to him and he heart it. He saved them from that affliction and bondage. And certainly, when we find ourselves oppressed and afflicted by the world today, we ought to cry out to him. In the end, God will give us liberty. We won’t be persecuted by the evil masters of the world forever. But realize that until the day of that liberty comes, that you already have been given liberty. We are no longer slaves to oppressing master called Sin and Death. God has set us free. He did it through Christ’s suffering on our behalf. In allowing us to go through a little of that now ourselves, we can learn this love and grace first hand. God can teach us about Christ’s radical love and grace. He can teach us patience in all of this. Through this we can be a witness to others about the love of Christ. In all of this, we can see this radical Christ love beginning to form inside us. That we can learn to love as Christ loves, even as we love our evil masters in this life.
Saints, it would be easy to think this passage doesn’t have much meaning for us. We could think it addresses an institution of slavery that doesn’t even exist anymore. But, I hope you’ve seen that the substance of what’s addressed here is very applicable for us. The reality is that so many of us find ourselves in situations described by this passage. So many of us suffer in jobs, or in other relationships, where bad leaders afflict us. We do good, and evil is returned for our good, in one way or another. Many of us are in one way or another stuck in these situations, with no foreseeable way out. And this passage calls us to go the way of the cross. It calls us to patiently endure these sufferings. To bear them for Christ’s sake. There’s no simple way to say it. These sufferings will be painful. They will be sorrowful. This passage uses that exact language. 1 Peter is a book that address Christian suffering. Our theology has to have a place for this kind of suffering. Suffering that God might allow you to go through. Suffering that he may not have you removed from your entire life. Let me say it again. The only good way to explain this is the cross. I would not recommend anyone to endure godly suffering apart from passages like this. I don’t see the world giving you this advice. That means we have to be on guard against worldly wisdom in this area. If you are really suffering in life, you’ll probably seek lots of advice. Check it against passages like this.
As a Christian, we want to live commendably before God. Of course, that’s how most people live – they live so as to be commended by others. We serve, our earthly bosses hoping to be commended by them. This passage reminds us that we ultimately serve our earthly masters to be commended by our ultimate master – God.
And yet it’s amazing that we now have opportunity to do things that are commendable to God. God has done so much for us in Christ. This last part about Christ’s sacrifice is so amazing. That we’ve been forgiven because of it. After all our sin and rebellion against God, how could we ever hope to please God after that? After all Christ had to go through to save us, how could we even imagine living commendably before him? But this passage says we can. This passage says our living is to match our Savior’s living. But this is why our living can be commendable. Because what Christ did for us is the most commendable thing. His work was so commendable, that when we reflect it in our life, it’s commendable in return. This is what it means to live out Christ in our lives. We live the life he lived. His life was commendable. As we live out that life, we find that it is commendable before God. And so the Christian life is one of being united with Christ. As he lives in us and we in him, we will live out his life. This is our power to do what might seem impossible – to love evil masters in this life. It’s his commendable life and Spirit at work in us, that will enable us in this. Jesus knows how to love enemies. Trust in him to help you do the same.
The commendation he earned through the way of the cross, is the sort of commendation we have, even as we suffer now for a little while. He earned it for us; and we now live it out by his help. We look forward to hearing those words of commendation when he returns; well done good and faithful servant. Amen.
Copyright (c) 2011 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.