Commentary on 1 Peter 2:19-25
“Resist the social order!” and “Take down the patriarchy!” are cries that inspire protest and challenge the status quo.
You will hardly find crowds rallying around the call to “Submit to your masters” or “Endure unjust suffering.” The modern West’s concern for being one’s own master and protecting one’s personal rights are vastly different from the concerns expressed in 1 Peter 2:19-25. Here, the letter urges believers in subordinate positions to endure pain for doing what is right in order to gain God’s approval. How can we preach an empowering message on a passage that seems to sanction and even spiritualize suffering?
In order to preach from what is known as the letter’s “household code” (1 Peter 2:18-3:7), it helps to understand the socio-political structure of household relationships in ancient Roman society. A large Roman household might comprise of parents and children, extended family members, and other dependents, such as slaves, who engaged in household related activities. Because the household involved a vast array of roles and activities to function, it was understood as a microcosm of the larger society. Subordinates such as slaves and wives who threatened the stability of the Roman household also threatened the stability of the Roman state.
Throughout the letter, 1 Peter’s main concern is not that believers appease the Gentiles who mistreat and malign them, but that believers actually live in a way fitting to the people of God while living among those who mistreat and malign them (1:14-18, 2:9-12). The letter’s household code offers a realistic strategy for how Christians can honor their socially prescribed roles within the Greco-Roman household, while finding a separate system of honor in the household of God (2:5; 4:17).
As a result of their new birth, Christians have a radically different set of values and behaviors and a new eschatological orientation that puts them in more contact and conflict with the world rather than removes them from it. As subordinate members of the household, slaves were expected to participate in the worship of the household gods and even help their master conduct certain rituals. The mere suggestion that slaves could refuse to worship the gods of their masters grants the slave more moral agency than their masters would have permitted.
The letter assumes that Christians, slave or free, possess the moral discernment and agency to do what is right, and endure unjust suffering as a result. Although a convert’s social circumstances may not change, their consciousness of God changes their perception of their situation. The main thrust in 2:19-20 is not pleasing one’s master but gaining God’s “approval” (“grace”) by doing what accrues “credit” or is commendable in God’s sight.
Because the author of 1 Peter knows that what pleases God will not always please one’s master, he is at pains to encourage slaves to patiently endure the pain (“beating”) that results from righteousness’ sake, not from their own mistakes (verse 20). Suffering and endurance have no value in and of themselves (see also Romans 5:3-5) as evident in how 1 Peter distinguishes in verses 19-20 between deserved and undeserved suffering. Getting one’s just desserts has nothing to do with being Christian. Suffering unjustly for doing right by God, however, is decidedly Christian in character.
First Peter presents suffering as the inevitable result of a transformed Christian life that is holy and obedient to God in a world that is hostile to the Christian way of life (1:6; 2:12; 3:14-17; 4:12, 16; 5:9-10). Perhaps because slaves had so little socio-political power and bore the brunt of undeserved suffering in the Roman household, 1 Peter addresses them first in its household code. The Christian slave’s response to affliction is instructive for all members of God’s household, who must also find the courage to remain faithful to God even if they are abused for it (3:9, 16-17).
“For to this you have been called” in verse 21a points back to the behavior encouraged in verse 20b, making it applicable to all believers, and connects that behavior to its Christological motivation: Christians are called to suffer for doing good in order to gain God’s approval “because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (verse 21b-d). The language of “example” or “pattern” (hypogrammos), which is to be copied, and “steps” or “footsteps,” which are to be followed, paints a tangible picture of discipleship. Christ leaves his followers with a moral paradigm and a previously trodden path to take that will not lead them astray (2:25), although it may put them in harm’s way.
Drawing from Isaiah 53, 1 Peter identifies Jesus as the Suffering Servant in order to show how Jesus models innocent suffering in ways that are both paradigmatic (verses 22-24) and atoning (verses 24-25; see 3:18).1
Notice how 1 Peter concentrates on the verbal aspect of Jesus’ exemplary suffering (verses 22-23): Christ did not commit sin and no deceit was found in his mouth; he did not return insult or suffering with insult or threat; rather, he entrusted himself to God who judges justly. This strategy is one of resistance, not passive resignation or suppressed indignation.
Resistance to sin and enduring trust in God is possible because of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross (verses 24-25). Although disciples are not capable of emulating Christ’s suffering when he “bore our sins in his body on the cross,” his atoning activity enables us to bear the wrongs done against us in ways that please God, if not those with political and socio-economic power over us.
First Peter’s strategy for coping with unjust suffering continues to remain troublesome for readers, particularly African Americans and women. It does not question the legitimacy of the Roman Empire’s slave economy nor attempt to take down the patriarchal structure of the household. It does not address the sanctity of free speech and the prophetic role of speaking truth to power. Instead, 1 Peter offers a strategy of nonverbal resistance that is patterned after Jesus. It speaks to the power of non-retaliation and the strength required to wield our words in ways that honor God. The substance of our response is not reflected in how quickly we can manipulate language to get what we want or hurl insults back at those who insult us or speak ill of those who are ill-treating us. Rather, it is reflected in the integrity of our actions and our awareness that we live in service to a God who will have the last word.
- Steven Bechtler, Following in His Steps: Suffering, Community, and Christology in 1 Peter, SBLDS 162 (Georgia: Scholars Press, 1998), 192-194. See also Joel B. Green, 1 Peter, THNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 85, 88.