Several years ago I was invited to travel to Australia to do some preaching. To many people around the world, Americans are loud, brash, shoot-from-the-hip cowboys (you are already thinking that it was a mistake to send me overseas!). So while I was in Australia, I was very conscious of how I presented myself in a foreign land. I guess I was somewhat “successful” – a couple of times I was asked if I was from Canada!
First Peter is addressed to “sojourners and exiles,” Christians who live in a world that is truly not their home. And just as I was sensitive to the way in which I came across as a visitor to a foreign country, Peter wants his readers to think about the way they will come across as spiritual sojourners and exiles. In First Peter 2:13-3:7, he discusses three relationships in which the social order of the first century often meant exploitation and oppression, and urges Christians to subvert the values of the corrupt age by displaying Christ-like, hopeful subjection.
Subjection to the Government (2:13-17)
Peter begins with the relationship of Christians to governmental authorities, “to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him” (2:13-14). And what he says is that Christians are to “be subject for the Lord’s sake” (2:13). Indeed, “this is the will of God” (2:15). This doesn’t mean that Christians owe absolute obedience to the government –Peter had earlier declared that “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). And when earthly governments depart from their divinely sanctioned work of punishing evil and praising good (2:14) and bring pressure and persecution upon God’s people, Christians must follow Jesus above all else.
But aside from that extreme circumstance, Peter’s point here is that by submitting to the government, Christians can subvert the slanderous reports that their opponents make about the lawlessness of the “sect of the Nazarenes” (2:15-16; see Acts 24:4-21 for an example of such subjection). And just as Christians are to “honor everyone,” they are to “honor the emperor” (2:17). In a day in which it seems like some Christians are eager to pass along the most scurrilous forms of abuse against elected officials on the internet, we need to be reminded that Peter called upon his sojourners to show honor to pagan leaders as a part of their duty to “fear God” (2:17).
Subjection to Masters (2:18-25)
A second aspect of the social order that Peter addresses is the slave/master relationship. First century slavery was much different than the institution of slavery practiced in America. It was not racially based, and in some cases people voluntarily sold themselves into slavery (cf. 1 Cor. 7:23). But slavery in any age could be a brutal affair.
Submission is the theme of Peter’s instructions here as well. “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust” (2:18). Just as he called upon citizens to be submissive in the face of slanderous abuse, here he calls upon slaves to be submissive in the face of physical abuse (2:19-20). Why? “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” (1 Peter 2:21).
It is interesting that in the rest of his paragraph directed to servants who suffer that Peter drew upon the classic description of the Suffering Servant – Isaiah 53. Notice these allusions:
-“Neither was deceit found in his mouth” (2:22; cf. Is. 53:9).
-“He did not revile in return” (2:23; cf. Is. 53:7).
-“He Himself bore our sins” (2:24a; cf. Is. 53:12).
-“By his wounds you have been healed” (2:24b; cf. Is. 53:5).
-“For you were straying like sheep” (2:25; cf. Is. 53:6).
This subjection even in the face of oppression was not easy. But it would be rewarded. Christ “continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (2:23b). What Peter calls these slaves in impossible circumstances to do is to take up the cross and follow Jesus, trusting that God will some day set things right. And the great motivation to follow the “Shepherd and Overseer” of our souls is what He has suffered – unjustly and unbelievably – for us straying sheep.
Subjection to Husbands (3:1-7)
The third area of social order Peter addresses is marriage. And here again he focuses on a tough situation – a wife’s relationship to an unbelieving husband (3:1). But just as Christian citizens and servants can subvert the evil-doers by Christ-like subjection, so can Christian wives. “Even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct” (3:1b-2).
This sort of conduct can only come from the right heart, and so Peter urges Christian wives to focus on the beauty of the “hidden person of the heart” (3:3-4), following the example of the holy women of the past (3:5). Many husbands like to joke about 1 Peter 3:6, which refers to the episode in which Sarah called Abraham “lord.” However, guys may not keep laughing if they remember the context of that story. That’s because it happens as Sarah laughs to herself upon overhearing the angels say that she and Abraham would have a child within a year, which she can’t believe since “I am worn out and my lord is old” (Gen. 18:12). I think Peter’s point is that even when Sarah is thinking to herself about her husband, and even when she is acknowledging his limitations, she is still respectful. And that kind of respect – the inner attitude reflected in submission – is what can change the heart of an unbelieving husband.
But there’s more to this story. Peter does not address government officials or masters, but in 3:7 he does address husbands. And to these husbands who are obedient to the word, Peter offers two important imperatives to steer them from an abusive and degrading exercise of leadership. First, “live with your wives in an understanding way.” Husbands are to be thoughtful and considerate of the needs of their wives. And second, they are to do this “showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel.” All things being equal, men are physically stronger than women, and can simply run roughshod over them if they choose. Peter says that instead, men are to “treat them with respect” (TNIV).
And to encourage husbands, Peter offers two reasons they should be so considerate and respectful. First, “they are heirs with you of the grace of life.” As heirs of eternal life, men and women share equal standing in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:28-29), and husbands have no right to abuse or mistreat their spiritual equals. And here’s a second reason: “so that your prayers may not be hindered.” Jesus taught that interpersonal conflicts could impair worship (Matt. 5:23-24). If that is true of our relationship with our brethren, it is even more true of our relationship with those with whom we are “one flesh.”
As we look at Peter’s instructions in this section, one point that immediately stands out is that God expects our faithfulness in all areas of life. This is true of our obligations as citizens, in the home – even in marriage itself. And by living lives of hopeful subjection to His will, we can testify to the corrupt values of our own age as we look forward to the life of the age to come.