Easter 4 · 1 Peter 2:19-25 · April 13, 2008
By David I. Lewis,
Introduction: In the three year lectionary the Fourth Sunday of Easter is also designated “Good Shepherd Sunday” with readings from John 10 as the Gospel text dispersed over the three years. Today’s Epistle is read on this Sunday perhaps especially because of verse 25 which does relate to this theme—”For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (ESV). Note, however, the purpose of the Epistle text is not so much to describe Jesus as the Good Shepherd, but rather it is a call for slaves to endure hardships because of the example of righteous suffering set by Jesus.
Literary context: The style of 1 Peter is marked by an ongoing cycle of exhortation given to the believers followed by descriptions of the Gospel reality in which these exhortations are based. The full context of today’s Epistle would embrace exhortations found in 2:11-20 followed by the Gospel basis for these in 2:21-25. The believers are exhorted as aliens here to abstain from the passions of the flesh (2:11) and to live honorably among the Gentiles (2:12). There seems to be a particular interest in avoiding wrongdoing/criminal activity so that any charge laid against a Christian would be unwarranted (2:12). In light of this a general exhortation is given to all believers in 2:13 that they be subject (υποτάσσω) to every human institution because of the Lord. A more specific example of this then begins in 2:18 where house slaves (οικέτης, in the same semantic field as δούλος, but referring more specifically to “domestic help”) are told to be subject to their masters. The text continues this exhortation, but 2:18 is not included in the pericope. Perhaps this is done in an effort to make this text appear more universal in scope. Nevertheless, today’s text is part of an exhortation to house slaves to submit to suffering and unfair treatment at the hands of their masters based on the example of Jesus’ own suffering. It is by analogy that this text would then apply to unjust suffering experienced by other believers in our relationship to human authority in any other situation as well. But such an extension could be said to follow given the more general exhortation to all believers in 2:13.
Details: Again, w. 13 and 18 should be kept in mind as part of the context for today’s text.
Verses 19-20: A distinction is made here between suffering unjustly and suffering because one has actually sinned: It is χάρις (“a gracious thing” in ESV) when one suffers unjustly, but there is no “credit” (κλέος in ESV and various translations) when one has brought such suffering upon himself because of bad conduct. Is the unjust suffering described here more specifically speaking about suffering because one is a Christian or is it more generally addressing any unfair treatment a house slave might endure? The more general sense could be meant here: House slaves perhaps had to experience unfair treatment regularly as part of their lot, but they are here called to endure it for the sake of their new status and identity as disciples of Jesus.
Verses 21-23: “For to this you were called.” The call of every Christian includes a call to be willing to suffer, especially for the sake of the Gospel (see Mk 8:31ff). And so the basis for the exhortation to submit to human authority (and here house slaves to their masters) and with this even to suffer unjustly is provided in the example of Jesus: Jesus also suffered unjustly. He did not sin, yet He was punished as one who had sinned. And why did He do this? He suffered on behalf of the believers. And in this He left them an example.
Verse 24: The Gospel reality underlying this exhortation is now made more explicit: Jesus Himself took up our sins in His body upon the tree. Note the allusion to Isaiah 53:9. He did this so that by dying to sin we would live for righteousness. As in Romans 6:1ff. participation in Christ’s death and resurrection is emphasized here as one result of the call to faith. Note the allusion to Isaiah 53:5 in the relative clause at the end of this verse—”by his wounds you have been healed” (ESV). The Gospel reality that Jesus suffered and died for us to give us new life becomes the basis for the exhortation to submit to human authority—even slaves to their human masters—and to endure unjust suffering.
Verse 25: This sentence now marks the conclusion of this exhortation to the house slaves (exhortations to wives and husbands follow in 1 Pe 3ff.) and shows once again the Gospel reality experienced by the believers. Their former status is described: “For you were straying like sheep” (ESV). Note the allusion to Isaiah 53:6. But their present status follows: “But [you] have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (ESV). Once lost and wandering sheep, the believers are now under the leadership, protection, and guidance of the Shepherd and Overseer. The purpose of the call to submit to human authority and to endure unjust suffering is so that no accusation of wrongdoing can be justly made against a disciple of Jesus. This provides a witness to the world. Such a witness is in keeping with being guided by this one Shepherd who likewise suffered death to bring new life to His once-wandering sheep.
Considerations for preaching.
I. Although verse 18 is not included in the pericope, the preacher should not shy away from the context that slaves are being addressed here. That slaves are exhorted on the basis of Jesus’ own example indicates a number of things:
A. There were probably a large percentage of house slaves among the believers addressed by this Epistle. The nature of the Gospel was such that it brought hope to those who had little standing politically or socially in the first century Greco-Roman world. The new life in Christ Jesus was such that it elevated their duties to that of both vocation and witness to Jesus. Any unjust suffering these believers may have had to endure at the hands of their masters became an opportunity to follow the example of Jesus and to provide a faithful witness.
B. Where we take it for granted that the institution of slavery should be done away with—and then may choose to fault the apostles for not calling for its abolition—the New Testament offers a more radical answer to the problem: A slave who became a Christian then had as his primary identity that of “disciple of Jesus.” This identity in the end is in no way is affected by the presence or abolition of the institution of slavery at any given moment in human history, and, in fact, it finally transcends this earthly life where we are really aliens and sojourners anyway.
C. The present day American preoccupation with seeking one’s rights, freedoms, etc. could be seen as the polar opposite of the attitude called for in today’s text. Because slaves are being addressed here, today’s text could sound very “politically incorrect” to many American ears. This shows how alien these teachings are in our own cultural context. Here one might expect exhortations such as “seek freedom,” and “exert your own will,” “seek blessings” over and against “be subject to.” To the degree that Christians are affected by the culture there is then the need for repentance and a return to the standard of discipleship established in the NT. When a Christian falls into the contemporary American habit of being over-preoccupied with his own rights and privileges—almost as if this earthly life is all there is—he provides a faithless witness to our Lord who gave up His rights to die in the place of sinners.
II. To preach this text faithfully, the preacher will exhort as does the text. But it is by analogy that the exhortations here apply more universally to other believers who are not slaves. We are all called to show excellent conduct (2:11) and to be subject to human authority (2:12)—and thus we may all have to endure unjust suffering at the hands of human authority.
III. To preach this text faithfully, the preacher will also base all exhortation in the example set by Jesus and thus also in the Gospel reality experienced by believers. Jesus willingly suffered, thereby giving us an example to follow of faithful endurance. But Jesus’ suffering was not pointless: In His suffering Jesus Himself carried our sins in His body thus to save us from the power of sin. We as sheep went astray and He (to continue the allusion of Isaiah 53) bore on Himself the punishment of us all. We have now returned to Jesus, who is the Shepherd and Overseer of our lives and to whom our lives now give witness.