1 Peter 2:18-25
Selfridges is a high end department store in the United Kingdom. In fact, it’s been voted the best department store in the world. Makes Macy’s and Nordstrom look like Wal-Mart I guess. It was started by Gordon Selfridge, who was actually an American retail magnate. At one point, while Gordon Selfridge was still alive and running the London-based store, he had a young man working for him who went by the nickname Gibbo. I have no idea what that nickname means or how he got it, but that was the nickname everyone called him. And he was a follower of Jesus. Well, one day, when the owner Gordon Selfridge was there, the telephone rang and Gibbo answered it. The caller asked to speak to Gordon Selfridge. Gibbo passed on the message and Selfridge replied, ‘Tell him I’m out.’ Gibbo held out the receiver to him and said, ‘You tell him you’re out.’ Gordon Selfridge took the call, but was furious with him. Gibbo said to him afterwards, ‘If I can lie for you, I can lie to you. And I will never do that.’ From that moment forward Gordon Selfridge had the highest regard for and trust in Gibbo.”
Following Jesus is about more than just a couple of hours on Sunday morning. It is about reorienting your entire life toward him. Every part of it. If you’re a student, it changes the way you approach your studies, and the way you relate to your friends and your teachers and administrators. In the adult world, it changes the way you relate to your career and your work and your bosses and your coworkers. If you’re retired, it changes the way you manage your time and the way you volunteer and relate to your children and your grandchildren. The way you share the wisdom you’ve gained over your lifetime, and the way you approach the autumn years of your life.
Belief in Jesus isn’t just thinking the right things about Jesus. Oh, it includes that. But true belief, placing our trust in Jesus, causes us to refocus our lives on him. Through belief, we receive his forgiveness for our sin and his grace and mercy. We receive the gift of eternal life. And through belief, we begin to live that eternal life here and now. You see, Jesus came to establish a kingdom – the Kingdom of God. And when we place our faith in Jesus, we begin to live in his kingdom, under his authority, now. It isn’t something that happens only when we die. As followers of Jesus we are living in his kingdom now. And that impacts our day to day lives in extremely practical ways. Turn with me to 1 Peter 2:18-25.
This is, quite possibly, one of the most misunderstood and misused passages of Scripture in the entire New Testament. In fact, opponents of Christianity often site this passage as proof that Christianity is and was pro-slavery. And that’s because in this passage, Peter is instructing those in the churches he was writing to who were slaves on how they were to relate to their masters. And that just doesn’t sit right with us. So there are two things we have to understand about this passage and the people to whom Peter was writing.
First, the kind of slavery that existed in the Greek and Roman worlds was very different than the slavery that existed in England and the United States. Slavery in the Greco Roman cultures of the New Testament was more like indentured servanthood. It wasn’t what we think of as slavery. When you and I see the word “slave” in the Bible, we immediately think of 17th, 18th, and 19th century New World slavery: race-based, African slavery. When we do that, when we read it through that lens, we aren’t understanding what the Bible is teaching.
Historian Murray Harris wrote a book about what slavery was like in the 1st century Greco-Roman world. He says that in Greco-Roman times, number one, slaves were not distinguishable from anyone else by race, speech, or clothing. They looked and lived like everyone else and were never segregated off from the rest of society in any way. Number two, slaves were more educated than their owners in many cases and many times held high managerial positions. Number three, from a financial standpoint, slaves made the same wages as free laborers and therefore were not themselves usually poor and often accrued enough personal capital to buy themselves out. Number four, very few persons were slaves for life in the first century. Most expected to be set free after about ten years or by their late thirties at the latest.
About 1/3 of the population of the Roman empire were slaves. Some people were born into slavery because their mother’s were slaves when they were born. Others chose to become slaves because they owed a significant amount of money and needed to work it off, or because life as a slave, in the master’s house, was more stable and secure than life taking odd jobs wherever you could find them. Some chose to remain slaves after they had worked off their debt or made enough money to survive on their own because they loved their masters. Those were called bond servants. Doctors, teachers, writers, accountants, bailiffs, overseers, secretaries, and sea captains were all part of the slave class. And they were often paid.
This isn’t to say that slavery was a good thing. Some slaves were abused, and they WERE viewed as property, not people. Some were expected to be sexually available to their masters. But it was a far cry from slavery as we know it today.
In contrast, New World slavery – 17th, 18th, 19th century slavery – was race-based, and its default mode was slavery for life. Also, the African slave trade was started and resourced through kidnapping, which the Bible unconditionally condemns. Therefore, while the early Christians, like Saint Paul … discouraged 1st century slavery … saying to slaves, “get free if you can,” they didn’t go on a campaign to end it. But 18th and 19th century Christians, when faced with New World-style slavery, did work for its complete abolition, because it could not be squared in any way with biblical teaching.
So when you hear somebody say, “The Bible condones slavery,” you say, “No it didn’t – not the way you and I define ‘slavery.’ It’s not talking about that.”[i] In fact, in the Kingdom of God, slavery isn’t condoned in any way. Slaves were not viewed as second class citizens. In Galatians 3:28, St. Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” From the Jewish perspective, Jews were first class and everyone else was second class. And in the world at large at the time, slaves were viewed as second class and property, and women were viewed as second class, and often as property. But none of those cultural status indicators has any impact in the Kingdom of God. All are one in Christ. The cultures of this world may be marked by social distinctions and status-seeking, but the Kingdom of God in which you and I live is a counter cultural movement, and we don’t recognize those things as valid at all.
The second thing we MUST understand about this passage is that it WAS used by British and American pro-slavery pastors to keep slaves in slavery when the church should have been working to set them free. So when an African American encounters this passage today, they view it through a very traumatic lens that comes from centuries kidnapping and brutal slavery and being viewed as inherently less human that white people. That kind of historical trauma gets deep into the psyche of a people. So we need to understand that perspective and show empathy and compassion and kindness when someone sees in this passage a tool that was used to keep their ancestors in subjugation. Because that is how it was often used.
So, with those two things forward in our minds and understanding, what does this passage about slaves and masters have to say to us today? Look at Vv. 18-19. We are to do our jobs well and work hard for our employers. And this is true regardless of the kind of person our employer is. We are trustworthy and dependable, and we don’t do things that will damage the reputation of our employer. They may do things that harm their own reputation in the eyes of others, but we don’t do things to exacerbate that or make it worse. When someone employs us, we enter into an agreement with them in which they will rent our minds and bodies, in appropriate ways, our mental and physical capacities, for a certain number of hours per week, and they agree to treat us fairly and pay us a certain amount of money per time worked in return. As followers of Christ, we are industrious, we work hard, we are kind to our employers and our coworkers, we are loyal, we are fair, we are honest, and we refuse to compromise our witness for Christ in order to get promotions and raises. We don’t destroy coworkers or set them up to fail to get ourselves ahead. We absolutely and unequivocally refuse to do that.
You see, we also recognize that we belong first and foremost to Christ. Look back at V. 16. “Live as servants of God.” The word translated as “servant” here is the Greek word for “slave.” Live as slaves of God. Paul uses the word for “bond servant,” someone who has chosen to be a slave. As citizens of the Kingdom of God, with Christ as our lord and master, we are loyal and faithful to him above all else. So like Gibbo and Mr. Selfridge, we do not do things that bring disrepute on the name of Christ either, even if our boss requires or asks us to do something that would do that. Something dishonest or illegal. And of course a good boss won’t do that. But not all bosses are good bosses, and there are plenty of Christ followers working for bosses who do not themselves follow Christ, and who sometimes ask their employees to do shady things. When that happens, we refuse, and explain clearly why. But we also accept the consequences. Sometimes we have to be willing to accept getting fired for doing what is right.
You see, this passage gets at a much more significant principle, and that is our attitude toward and acceptance of unjust suffering. Look at Vv. 19-20. We live in a world that worships individual rights, and whenever we think that we’ve received even the slightest of slights, we’re quick to object, to fuss, to criticize, and if we deem it necessary, to sue in a court of law. In our culture, the self is seen as the highest value and the most important thing. But what did Jesus, the one who came to establish the kingdom in which we now live, say? “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). As followers of Jesus, we are less concerned with our individual rights and the slights we receive, and much more concerned with denying ourselves and following Jesus.
So when we’re passed over for that promotion or don’t get that raise, we don’t have to make a big stink about it. We move on. Now, in our politically free, free market society, we’re also free to move on to a better job if we think it might be a better situation for us, unless God absolutely says, “No. Stay.” When that happens, it’s because God is doing something in us or through us. There is either some formation he wants to do in us or someone he wants to touch through us. Probably both. And so we trust him and stay. Some of by deepest growth as a follower of Jesus came in situations where I felt disrespected, undervalued, and treated unfairly. And if we do get the green light from God to move on, we do so fairly, even if we aren’t being treated unfairly. We give plenty of notice, more than what is required, and we refuse to drag our boss or the business or organization through the mud.
Now look! Look at Vv. 21-25. It would be pretty easy today to divide the Kingdom of God into two camps, one that views the primary work of Christ as dying on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins, and the other viewing the primary work of Christ as giving us an example of how to live in the Kingdom of God. The truth of the matter is, Jesus did both, and they’re both important. In fact, they’re two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other.
Without Christ’s death and resurrection we cannot even enter into the Kingdom of God. It is not available to us outside of the mercy and grace of God we experience in Christ. But Jesus didn’t die and rise again so that we can believe in him, go on living as if nothing has changed, and then go to heaven when we die. That isn’t the good news of Jesus. The good news of Jesus is that he died your death and mine on the cross, died with our sin counted against him in place of us, and rose again in victory over death. SO THAT we can become citizens of the Kingdom of God and live our lives in that Kingdom NOW, and then in fullness when Christ returns. We are invited, called, to follow Jesus. To walk in his steps. We are to follow his example.
The word for example here isn’t the word that could be used of following someone who is a good example to imitate. It is the word used of pattern letters a child carefully traces when learning how to write. We are to carefully and painstakingly follow Jesus. Not just walk in his general direction. That’s how his followers first came to be called Christians. Christian means “little Christ.”
Jesus was misunderstood by his listeners. He was maligned by his enemies. He was forsaken by his family. He was betrayed by his friends. He was abandoned by his disciples. He was tortured by law enforcement. He was executed by politicians. And through it all, he refused to revile in return. He refused to threaten when he was threatened. And we are to follow in his steps. Jesus didn’t receive the crown of glory without first wearing a crown of thorns, and neither will we. And this is all for the sake of the Kingdom of God. For revealing to the world another way of being. A way that isn’t always popular or even viewed as right.
“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.” If we’re going to do that, we’re going to have to learn to die to the god of self when we are reviled, overlooked, and mistreated. Because the cross of Christ jolts us out of our self-centered life. Let us pray.
[i] Timothy Keller, in the sermon Literalism: Isn’t the Bible Historically Unreliable and Regressive?, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York, New York (preached 11-5-06); source: Murray Harris, Slave of Christ (IVP, 2001)