THE FIRST LETTER OF ST. PETER
Excellent Behavior in order to Win People
1 Peter 2:1-25
In the past 3 studies, Peter has been laying the groundwork for the specific conduct he says is appropriate for Christians living in the world. The 2 major characteristics Christians should display are holiness and love. Yet what does it mean to be holy and loving while living in this hostile world? Starting in this section, Peter spells out how to live holy and loving lives in the world, especially as it relates to relationships.
Peter follows in the steps of his fellow Christian writers who relate love and holiness to relationships. Many Christians claim to be in a right relationship with God and yet are horrible when it comes to personal relationships. Such conduct contradicts the NT idea of being in a right relationship with God. Being in a right relationship with God means that I am going to be in right relationships with other people, even with those people who persecute me. Holiness and love are relational terms.
Peter is not the only NT writer who emphasizes relationships as an indicator of a person's relationship with God. After his doctrinal sections in Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians, Paul explains how these doctrinal sections apply to everyday living. Doctrine—our relationship with God—should affect practical applications—our relationship with others.
There is a difference, though, between what Peter writes and what Paul writes. Peter focuses on relationships in which one of the persons is hostile to the other because s/he is a Christian. For example, in 1 Pet. 2:18-25 Peter does not focus on the relationship between masters and slaves as Paul does but only on the slaves who are being mistreated by their masters. He does not even mention the responsibility of masters because any of the masters he might address would have naturally been Christians; more likely the churches Paul is addressing did not have any slave-owners in their congregations. In 3:1-6 Peter focuses on wives who are in a hostile relationship with their husbands because whereas the wives are Christians, their husbands are not. He does not address husbands because if he did, then he would be addressing Christian husbands who would not be persecuting their wives because they were not Christians. There would be hostility, though, between the husband and his wife if his wife were a Christian and he not a Christian; the wives normally adopted the religion of their husbands, normally having little choice in the matter. Notice also that Paul does not address parent-child relationships which would naturally not be hostile relationships because the fathers determined the religion of the household.
REASONS TO LIVE RIGHTEOUSLY: RIGHT CONDUCT MAY LEAD TO THE SALVATION OF UNBELIEVERS (2:11-12)
Before Peter states how Christians should conduct themselves in a hostile society, he gives several reasons they should act accordingly:
"Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against
the soul. Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles so that in the thing in which they
slander you as evil-doers, they may on account of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify
God in the day of visitation" (2:11-12).
Peter encourages them to "abstain from fleshly lusts." Again, do not reduce this to sexual lust. More likely he is saying: "Do not give in to your natural impulses," that is, to your feelings. The Christians Peter is addressing are going through persecution. It is only natural that they would want to retaliate either with violence, with their tongue, or even with a passive type of civil disobedience promoted by Mahatma Gandhi. He does not want them to give into their feelings but rather to respond the way he is about to point out.
Why should they respond this way? First, if they gave into their feelings or natural inclinations, they would be reacting the way "the world" reacts. Well, they are not a part of the world, that is, mankind apart from Jesus Christ. On the contrary, they are "beloved" because they are recipients of God's great love shown them on the cross. They are also "aliens" and "strangers" because their citizenship is not in this world; their citizenship is in heaven because they are God's people. Well, God's people should not react to persecution the way the world does; they should react the way Peter will outline in the following verses.
Second, they should react by keeping their behavior excellent because their excellent conduct may actually lead to the salvation of those who are persecuting them. Peter leaves out a clause in the middle of v. 12 which would have made this verse clearer: "be saved." The verse probably means "so that in the thing in which the non-Christians slander you, they may on account of your good deeds as they observe them, be saved and therefore glory God in the day of visitation." The situation facing these Christians is that of persecution. The non-Christians accused Christians of atheism because they did not worship a physical idol; they accused them of cannibalism because they ate the body and drank the blood of Christ. They accused them of treason because they claimed that Jesus was Lord as opposed to Caesar. Well, the way Christians responded to these non-Christians determined whether or not any of the non-Christians would be saved. (Notice that Peter does not focus on their verbal response but on the way they live their lives in response to these kinds of accusations. By keeping their behavior excellent (which we shall see in the following verses), the non-Christians will be convicted of their own behavior towards the Christians, will be converted and will then join these Christians in praising God when Christ returns.)
EXCELLENT BEHAVIOR TOWARDS GOVERNING OFICIALS (2:13-17)
The first category of persons Peter addresses is that of the government official. At the time that Peter was writing this letter, the main adversaries of the Christians were the Jews and not the Roman government. The Jews would trump up charges against the Christians (like those stated above) and drag them before the Roman officials; however, in most cases the Roman officials saw the actions of the Jews for what they really were—actions arising out of jealousy against the Christians. Some of these acts of jealousy successfully brought many Gentiles into Christianity instead of Judaism.
Like Paul, Peter is going to command Christians to show respect to government officials; however, he commands Christians to respect government officials for reasons different from Paul's. According to Paul, Christians should respect government officials because the government has been ordained by God (Rom. 13:1-7). Now Paul is not speaking in general terms; he is speaking about the Roman government in power at the time he wrote Romans. According to Paul, if a person rejects government authority, he is rejecting God.
Peter, on the other hand, says that we should respect government officials because they too are human beings created by God. The beginning of v. 13 literally says: "Defer to every human creature for the Lord's sake." Peter is stating that because of our relationship with the Lord, we are to defer to or to respect every human being. Every human being has been created in God's image, no matter how much that person has marred or perverted that image. Respect for other human beings is nothing less than respect for the God who made those people.
Right after Peter gives us the general principle of respect for all people, he then mentions right conduct towards government officials. By placing the 2 so close together, Peter is saying that since government officials are human beings, we should respect hem also. In Peter's day, the officials Christians should respect would be the emperor who ruled in Rome ("a king as in supreme authority") and to the local governors, prelates, proconsuls, etc. ("governors") who ruled at the local level.
Why should we respect these government officials? In order to show them how ridiculous are the charges our adversaries bring against us. Jesus is a prime example of how all this works. The Jewish religious leaders haul off Jesus to Pilate with the charge of treason. When Pilate investigates Jesus, Jesus responds in such a way that Pilate is utterly impressed by Jesus' words and conduct. In fact, he is so impressed that THREE times he declares Jesus to be innocent (John 18:38; 19:4, 6). He only caves in because of the intimidation of the Jewish religious leaders.
Peter also warns us against falling into the trap of unbridled freedom, that is, licentiousness. One of the great teachings of Christianity is that Jesus has freed us from the power of sin, Satan, and death. Freedom is a key word in Christianity; Christians, however, can misuse their freedom during times of persecution. Much of the persecution directed against these Christians took the form of slander: the Jews were slandering them before the Roman authorities and before influential people in the places where they lived. Well, the Christians might have thought that since Christ had freed them, they were free to respond in kind; they felt like they could retaliate by slandering their Jewish adversaries. Peter rejects this; we are not free to respond in kind. Christ may have freed us from the masters of sin, death, and Satan; however, He freed us so that He might become our master. Christian freedom has not gotten rid of masters; it has changed Satan as master for Christ as our master. Every Christian who is letting Jesus be master of his/her life will tell you that obeying Jesus is the only real way to experience genuine freedom. Christ who is our master commands us not to retaliate in kind but to respond to our persecutors the way Christ Himself responded to them.
EXCELLENT BEHAVIOR TOWARDS UNJUST SLAVE-OWNERS (2:18-25)
The second situation Peter addresses is that of slaves serving under unjust masters: "be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle but also to those who are unreasonable" (2:18). Apparently, most of the hardships they encountered involved verbal abuse and unrealistic expectations about their work performance. Overthrowing the Roman system of slavery or running away were not Peter's recommendations for resolving this issue. Peter's advice is that these Christian slaves "bear up under sorrows when suffering unjustly." No talking back when verbally abused but rather receiving the treatment quietly.
Now some of us who live 2,000 years removed from this situation might say that these slaves had no other option so that Peter's advice is not all that radical; however, Peter who lived at the time he wrote this letter did know the situation and knew that these slaves did not have to take this kind of treatment lying down. Yes, the slaves might have suffered severe consequences; however, they did not have to submit. Peter knows that retaliation is a real possibility; therefore, he commands the Christian slaves to receive this treatment quietly. Now Peter's advices does not mean that the slaves are to think ill of themselves, nor that they deserved such treatment. Rather, he has the bigger picture in mind. He knows that if these slaves respond properly, they just might be able to lead the slave-owners to Christ for salvation.
The first reason the slave should quietly bear up under unjust treatment is that this response "finds favor with God." The word translated "favor" in the New American Standard Bile literally means "grace." God's grace is upon the slave who responds to unjust treatment by quietly bearing up under such treatment. Today the world considers people who are wronged and yet do nothing about it as wimps; it extols those people who commit a crime and bear their punishment with great honor and dignity. Peter says there is no value in that—that person deserved the punishment. God values those who do not deserve harsh treatment and yet respond to it with meekness. What do I mean by God's grace or God's favor? An awareness of God's presence and favor upon my life. How many of us when growing up felt such a wonderful charge whenever our mom or dad told us that we were doing a great job? It's that same kind of feeling or awareness we get whenever we realize we are pleasing God.
The second reason is that when we respond like this, we are following in the steps of Jesus. Now following in Jesus' steps really is not an option for the Christian. Peter says: "For this reason you have been called . . . to follow in His steps." If we do not follow Jesus, if we do not imitate His life, we are contradicting the very purpose Christ saved us in the first place—He called and saved us so that we might follow Him. We're not just to follow Him in good times either; we're to follow Him in bad times also. What is He leading us to do during times when we are being treated unjustly? He's leading us to bear up under sorrows quietly.
First, notice that Jesus never asks us to do something He Himself was not willing to do. Jesus is not an aloof kind of God who toys around with us. Rather, because Jesus became man and suffered, and because He responded like a sheep led to the slaughter, He is justified in asking His followers to suffer in the same manner.
Second, how did Jesus respond when He suffered? We've been talking about following Jesus in His steps during times of persecution. So what kind of steps did He leave behind for us to follow? "Who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously" (2:22-23).
After Peter gives a general description of Jesus' response ("who committed no sin"), he then explains how Jesus committed no sin. First, Jesus did not deceive with His mouth. Jesus did not lie to the Jewish religious leaders; neither did He equivocate when asked if He was truly the Messiah, God's Son. He did not twist words in order to save His own skin; He spoke the truth even though it cost Him His life. Next, when He was reviled, He did not revile in return. The Jewish religious leaders and the soldiers mocked Him and demanded that He inform them of the identity of the ones who mocked Him even though they had blindfolded Him. Jesus did not lash out in anger. By quietly submitting to their reviling, He highlighted even more just how atrocious their actions really were. Neither did He threat them although they were threatening Him with scourging and crucifixion.
These are the ways Jesus responded negatively to their persecutions. How did He respond positively? By entrusting Himself to the Father who judges righteously. Quietly and in His Spirit He told the Father that He trusted Him that He would take care of the situation. If the Father wanted this to continue, then it would continue. If the Father wanted to stop it, He would send down ten thousand angels. No matter what he Father decided to do, though, Jesus would continue to respond to His persecutors the way the Father wanted Him to respond—with grace, dignity, love, and no hint of retaliation. He was going to let the Father retaliate if any retaliation was going to be done. In fact, Jesus knew that the Father was going to judge both Himself and these men for what they were doing to Him—He trusted the Father "who judges righteously" (2:23). In other words, the Father was going to vindicate Him, and if His persecutors did not repent, then the Father was going to condemn them.
Peter could have stopped here because by now he has given the reason Christians should passively submit to persecution—we should follow in Jesus' steps. He goes further, though. Look at what happened because Jesus did passively submit to persecution:
"And He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross that we might die to sin and live to
righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. And you were continually straying like sheep,
but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls" (2:24-25).
Because Jesus submitted passively, God used His persecution for our salvation. Peter in these 2 verses paraphrases Isaiah: "All of us like sheep have gone astray; each of us we has turned to his own way, and the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him" (53:6). Jesus' submission to persecution resulted in the salvation of untold millions. Peter is implying that our passive submission to persecution will result in others being saved.
(Notice that Peter is not talking about persecution by Christians, that is, responding passively to Christians whenever they mistreat you. The NT NEVER encourages this. It encourages submitting passively to persecution by non-Christians. When it comes to recalcitrant Christians, the NT says for us to take them to the woodshed.)
What is the main barrier to my responding properly to persecution? My rights. Today, we really stress the fact that people and even Christians have rights. I have the right to be treated civilly. I have the right to my own opinions. What prevents us, though, from responding properly to persecution is that sometimes I hold onto my rights too tightly. During times of persecution, Jesus asks us to give up these rights. He doesn't tell us that we don't have any rights. Rather, He asks us to give up those rights. Is that fair? Well, was it fair for the Father to ask Jesus to give up His rights for OUR salvation? Once again, the results of our giving up our rights will be the same as those when Jesus gave up His rights—the salvation of others. The question I have to ask myself is "What is more important? My insisting upon my own rights or else the salvation of somebody else?" Sometimes you can't have it both ways.