Commentary on 1 Peter 2:19-25
The lectionary text for this week provides a compelling commendation to Christians to do what is right even if it brings suffering.
Part of the power of this text is its Christological grounding — it is Jesus who has gone before and whose footsteps we attempt to follow (1 Peter 2:21).
Before we hear this passage for us today, we need to hear it in its first-century context; when it would have been read aloud to small, house-church communities scattered across Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Particularly, what we need to reckon with is the specific audience of 1 Peter 2:18-25, referenced in verse 18. Peter addresses slaves: “Household slaves, submit by accepting the authority of your masters…” (Common English Bible).
What do we do with this artifact of the text? If we are convinced slavery is an inhumane institution, can we take these instructions from the author to Christian slaves and simply apply them to ourselves, especially since the writer seems to encourage harshly treated slaves to submit to this treatment? Can the rest of his words to slaves speak to us at all, given this cultural accommodation on the author’s part?
A few cultural realities of the author and audience of 1 Peter can help us here. First, we should note that Christians were a small struggling messianic sect of Judaism in the first century; they would likely have had no pretensions of ridding their world of slavery, or patriarchy for that matter (3:1-6). Their calling was to live out the gospel as those without much cultural power. In fact, across 1 Peter we hear how their attempts to live out Christian allegiance are bringing these people no small measure of verbal slander for their ‘anti-social’ behavior (see 4:3-4). As John Elliott notes, these Christians were susceptible “to charges of wrongdoing and conduct injurious to the well-being of the commonwealth and the favor of the gods.”1
Second, the balance the author calls for — a balance between Christian distinctiveness and cultural accommodation — comes through in his adaptation of a household code in this part of the letter (2:13-3:7) which is a commonplace genre in the Greco-Roman world of his time (for example: Aristotle, Politics, 1.2.1). Noteworthy in this adaptation of the genre is the shift of its typical addressee. Ancient writers addressed the entirety of household codes to the person with the power — the male head of the household referred to in the Roman world as the paterfamilias. The household code would instruct the paterfamilias to rule his household well, including his wife, slaves, and children.2 So then, what is out of character about the Petrine code is its direct address to those with lesser (wives) or no power (slaves of unbelieving masters), thereby encouraging a great sense of agency for these more vulnerable members of the household.
Finally, the author of 1 Peter hits some of the same notes for the entire Christian community as he does for the slaves. These themes include suffering for doing good not evil (2:19-20; cf. 2:11-12; 3:13-17; 4:14-16) and Christ as exemplar (2:21-23; see also 4:1) and shepherd (2:25; see also 5:4). In these common themes, we can see that how Christian slaves are to live out allegiance to Christ is actually paradigmatic for other believers in their community — a powerful commendation of their influence in “God’s own household” (4:17).
Peter is intent on ensuring that any suffering that comes to believers comes because they are pursuing good — allegiance to Christ Jesus (3:15) — and not because they are doing evil. This repeated refrain across the letter presses its readers to examine and reexamine their ways of living in their world. It can be easy to give oneself a pass and think that any criticism from outsiders in unfounded. But Peter wants his readers to take a deeper look (3:13-14a).
Such careful self-examination will guide them to live out what Miroslav Volf calls a “soft difference,”3 a Christian distinctiveness that sits between the extremes of simply capitulating to culture and unnecessary distinctiveness (a brittle difference). By living a soft difference, their more vulnerable members would actually be protected. “Readers were instructed to comply with the standards of popular society as a way of preserving the basic safety of the most at-risk readers; yet, in each case, social conformity was balanced by some form of resistance which cautiously challenged existing social structures”4 (Williams, 277).
The address to slaves is the longest of the Petrine household code because Peter provides them with the example of Jesus himself as an extended word of hope for all those in dire situations (2:21-25). Jesus is the example to follow for these slaves but also for other believers. Jesus did not retaliate when he was maligned. He was innocent though insulted, and, even then, he did not respond in revenge (2:21-23). Instead, he entrusted himself to God, the final judge of all injustice (2:23) — something Christians are exhorted to do at 4:19.
And for all the beauty of the reality of Christ as example for his followers, Peter is not satisfied leaving his Christological portrait there. Jesus suffered not only as example but also “on your behalf” (2:21). This truth leads the author to reflection on the servant of the Lord figure from Isaiah 53. He cites Isaiah 53:9 in 1 Peter 2:22 and adapts phrases from Isaiah 53:4-6 (from the Septuagint) in the subsequent verses: “he himself bore our sins” (53:4) “by his wounds we were healed” (53:5); and “we had all gone astray like sheep” (53:6). As the Isaianic servant of the Lord took on Israel’s plight and represented Israel’s vocation and mission to the nations (compare to Isaiah 49:6), so Jesus has taken on the plight of humanity. In the cross, he has brought healing (1 Peter 2:24) and the possibility of “living in righteousness” (2:24).
We have just recently celebrated Easter, and it can be tempting to land on a single lens for viewing the meaning of Jesus’ life and death. Yet Peter leaves us with a multifaceted vision of Jesus as example, healer, and restorer — he is the one who has turned us back “to the shepherd and guardian of [our] lives” (2:25).
1. John H. Elliot “1 Peter.” Anchor Bible Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 94.
2. Jeannine K. Brown “Silent Wives, Verbal Believers: Ethical and Hermeneutical Considerations in 1 Peter 3:1-6 and Its Context.” Word and World 24 (2004): 395-403.
3. Miroslav Volf. “Soft Difference: Theological Reflections on the Relation between Church and Culture in 1 Peter,” Ex Auditu 10 (1994): 15-30.
4. Travis B. Williams. Good Works in 1 Peter: Negotiating Social Conflict and Christian Identity in the Greco-Roman World (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 277.