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1 Peter 2:18-3:12

Roger Hahn

First Peter 2:18-3:12 deals with Christian conduct in the main social relationships of the New Testament world. Several New Testament writings show that the earliest Christians were quite concerned about the right way to relate to the government, in slave-master contexts, and in the family. If one were to add in religious life, the totality of all relationships would be included for many people among the first readers of this letter. For many in the first century, family, religion, work, and government contained all the human relationships in which they would participate in a lifetime.

First Peter 2:11-17 raised the question of the way Peter's readers should respond to the government. In the context of a letter written to believers who were being persecuted it is remarkable that Peter commands submission to the governing authorities. Verses 18-25 begin with the subject of the relationship of slaves to masters, but the subject drifts into suffering. First Peter 3:1-7 present Peter's instructions on the marriage relationship and verses 8-12 provide a concluding overview.

Slaves and Suffering - 1 Peter 2:18-25

Verse 18 commands, Slaves, accept the authority of your masters. The fact that slavery is no longer an obvious part of the social world for most of us makes it more difficult for us to know how to relate to the material in this section. The closest parallel in our society is the relationship of an employee to his or her employer. There are a wide variety of contexts in which the employee - employer relationships function, including small businesses, large corporations, unions, self-employment, government work, etc. There was also a wide variety of ways in which slavery operated in the first century. (There were also free people in small businesses and big government employees in the Roman Empire.)

Many slaves worked as part of the household of the large estate of a wealthy owner. Their duties might be in the fields or in the house (male or female). There were also public slaves enslaved by the government. Such slaves rowed the famous Roman galley ships. In Asia Minor, the area to which 1 Peter was written, there were many temple estates on which slaves worked. New Testament times witnessed a general improvement in the lot of many slaves. Slaves often had enough freedom and ability to earn money that could be saved up. In this way a slave could purchase his own freedom. Sometimes such slaves would negotiate a contract with their former masters to continue to work for the master but with the status of free person. In spite of improvements slaves had no legal rights and were at the mercy of their owners. A hand or foot could be chopped off as punishment and a runaway slave could be executed by his master.

Peter Davids (p. 105) has pointed out that Peter (and other New Testament writers) had done a rather unusual thing in calling on slaves to make ethical decisions about the way they would live. Instructions in social relationships like government, family, and work were common among writers of the Greco-Roman world. Only the New Testament writers included slaves in their instructions. Roman and even Jewish writers did not consider slaves fully human and thus they had no moral responsibility. Within Christianity, however, the slave was regarded as a full participant in the life of the church and was considered responsible to make ethical decisions about his or her relationship with a master in such a way that would bring honor to the church and glory to God. In Galatians 3:28 Paul had declared that "in Christ there is neither slave nor free." Distinctions between Christians based on income or social status was not recognized in early Christianity. Any church that allows such distinctions (whether spoken or unspoken) to continue debases the gospel.

Peter addresses his instruction to "house slaves." He does not use the regular word for slave, but a specialized word referring to slaves who worked in and around the house of a large estate. The use of this unusual word suggests that some of the readers of 1 Peter were in the more privileged "jobs" within the slave system. As a result they also had more frequent contact with the owner, a group of people not known for their kindness and amiable character. Sometimes working in close contact with the wealthy owner created more stress than field work. These slaves are instructed to submit to their masters regardless of whether they were kind and gentle or harsh.

The instructions to slaves in Ephesians 6:5-9 and Colossians 3:22-4:1 are directed to slaves who have Christian masters and both books contain instructions to the masters as well. First Peter directs its instructions to slaves serving unbelieving masters, a rather different matter. (1 Peter has no corresponding instructions for masters since there were apparently none who were members of the churches to which he was writing. The reason may have been the behavior of the slaves.)

The Greek word for owners here is despotes from which we derived our word "despot." It is not necessary to conclude that all the owners in Peter's mind were despotic, but many of them would be. The word harsh practically means "crooked" or "bent" and was used to describe perverse people. The similar passages in Ephesians and Colossians show that Christians saw the submission of a slave to a master to be an expression of the slave's reverence and worship for God.

Though Peter acknowledged that some masters were good and gentle his real concern was with the slaves of harsh masters. Verse 19 turns the discussion to "the pain of unjust suffering." Aristotle had argued four hundred years earlier that injustice could not be done against a slave since the slave was property rather than a full human being. Peter rejects that view and acknowledges that the suffering of slaves was often unjust and brought tremendous personal pain. Nevertheless, the slave was to submit to that painful suffering at the hands of his or her owner.

Peter describes such suffering as "grace." English translations have tried a variety of ways to convey the meaning of the odd Greek construction. The King James Version describes this unjust suffering as "thankworthy." The NIV has "commendable," the NASB has "a favor," and the NRSV has "a credit." Though Best (p. 118) thinks the theological meaning of "grace" is impossible here, it makes perfect sense. Peter was saying that the grace of God would work in the lives of slaves as they suffered unjustly. Part of the meaning of that grace would be the ability to endure the pain. Part of the meaning would be simply awareness of God's presence and spiritual help. That is the meaning of the final phrase, being aware (conscious) of God.

Peter clarifies himself in verse 20. The grace of God works when the slave suffers because of doing good. The slave who does wrong and gets beaten for it is just getting what he deserved. A slave beaten for wrongdoing might well gain the praise of other slaves but he is no hero. It is very tempting to undermine the authority of an unpopular boss and to feel like a martyr when punished. However, Peter is not sympathetic to such manipulation. Regardless of the personality and character of the boss, obedience for the sake of the relationship is expected by Peter.

First Peter 3:21-25 turns to the suffering of Christ as an example of the right way to respond to unjust suffering. Verse 21 states that the readers were called to such suffering. The calling or vocation of Christians is to be Christlike. Since Christ suffered, Peter could conclude that part of the Christian calling is to suffer.

Verse 22 quotes from Isaiah 53:9. This is part of the song of the Suffering Servant that was widely used in early Christianity to explain the sufferings of Christ. Phrases from Isaiah 53 continue in the following verses. Negatively, verse 23 points out that Christ did not retaliate when he was insulted and mistreated. Positively, verse 23 declares that Jesus entrusted (or hand himself over to) himself to God, the one who will ultimately judge justly. It is not likely that a person can avoid some effort at retaliation when they have been hurt unfairly unless that person consciously places their life in the hands of God. This is precisely the point of Romans 12:17-19. Christ's suffering brought spiritual healing (verse 24 again borrows the language of Isaiah 53) and the possibility that we could live lives that are dead to sin and alive to righteousness. Isaiah 53 also provides the thought of straying sheep in verse 25. However, Peter turns the flow of thought to Christ's role as shepherd and overseer of the souls of his readers.

The Relationship of Wives and Husbands - 1 Peter 3:1-7

Peter's instructions regarding submission to government and the relationship of slaves to their masters dealt with areas of life that have not been controversial in late twentieth century Christianity. The meaning of Christian marriage and the appropriate relationship of husbands and wives has been the source of controversy among evangelical Christians in the final quarter of the twentieth century. The rise of the feminist movement, especially in North America, has forced Christians to confront the Biblical passages instructing us on marriage relationships in ways that we have not had to do with the passages on slaves and masters and relationship with the government.

Every reader of Scripture interprets Scripture. Reading is an act of interpretation if any meaning is to be derived. Whether a reader realizes it or not he or she develops a method of interpreting in which some verses become general principles and others deal with specific cases and exceptions. There are verses in the New Testament that suggest the equality in Christ of women and men, husbands and wives, and there are other verses that command submission of the wife to the husband. If both sets of verses are interpreted as general principles they contradict each other. It is possible that both sets are specific applications of some other general principle. It is most likely that one set of verses states a general principle and the other set gives specific instructions that are either applications and/or exceptions.

I believe that Galatians 3:28 is the general principle that should guide Christian discussion of marriage, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." This general principle receives a specific application in 1 Corinthians 7:1-16 where Paul carefully balances his statements to wives and to husbands. This general principle is also reflected in passages that speak of the ministry of women as equal to the ministry of men (such as Acts 2:17-18; Romans 16:1-2; and Philippians 4:2-3). First Corinthians 11:2-16 assumes that women will pray and prophesy in church. The question under discussion is the appropriate dress or head covering for them as they do so. There are five passages that speak in limiting ways of the role of women in either ministry or marriage: 1 Corinthians 14:34-35; Ephesians 5:22-24; Colossians 3:18; 1 Timothy 2:9-15; and 1 Peter 3:1-6. I understand these passages to be stating some exception to the general principle that husbands and wives are one and thus equal in Christ. The exception is based on some specific circumstances that require the special teaching of Paul or Peter.

Ephesians 5:22-33 and Colossians 3:18-19 are similar to 1 Peter 3:1-8 in that both have instructions to both husband and wife. The instructions of Ephesians 5 place far more emphasis on the responsibility of the husband. Those of Colossians 3 are about equal and 1 Peter 3 gives considerably more attention to the responsibilities of wives. First Peter 3:1-2 shows that Peter was thinking of the relationship of Christian wives with unbelieving husbands. He presents a strategy that he hopes will aid the Christian wives in helping their husbands come to faith in Christ.

The first strategy is to be submissive. This is the same word that has described the response of every Christian to the government in 1 Peter 2:13 and of Christian slaves to their masters in 1 Peter 2:18. It is the same word used in Ephesians 5:21 to describe the attitude that every Christian should take toward any other Christian. There is no implication here that the wife should abandon her Christian faith or worship. Rather, as Marshall (p. 99) states she should "consider his needs and fulfill them."

An unbelieving husband will not be likely to grant his wife the freedom in Christ that a believing husband would. If the wife should attempt to demand that freedom from her unbelieving husband it is not likely that he will be attracted to the Christian faith. Marshall further notes, "She must exercise her freedom in Christ precisely by being willing to submit to the restraints imposed by her marriage to an unbeliever." The product of such submission is purity and reverence according to verse 4. The regular usage of the word reverence shows that it is reverence toward God (not toward the husband). The purity of her life will naturally include sexual purity but goes beyond that to encompass the whole range of Christian behavior and attitudes. Thus the motivation of the wife is obedience to God. Davids (p. 117) points out that the unbelieving husband will clearly notice his wife being subject to him whether he is nice or nor as long as the matter does not violate her commitment to God. He will also notice her willingness to risk his wrath to do the things that are necessary to maintain her Christian faith. Noticing such consistent living will more likely lead him to faith than servile subjection to his every demand even when it contradicts her religious convictions.

The strategy of submission is amplified in verses 3-6. Verses 3 and 4 specifically address the issue of outward adornment. Peter mentions three specific kinds of outward adornment that were characteristically a problem in the churches to which he was writing. Braided hair, gold jewelry, and fine clothes are mentioned. It has been too easy for American preachers unaware of the historical context of 1 Peter to condemn specific styles of hair and dress. In fact, several pagan and Jewish writers about the same time or before Peter had written very similar comments.

First Peter is notable for the fact that it does not harangue women for specific cosmetic efforts. Peter clearly wishes to contrast outward adornment with inner beauty. The reference to hair, jewelry, and clothing simply provided an illustration of areas in which a woman could be carried away in trying to create external beauty. These references are very general in nature. In fact, the third literally speaks of "putting on clothes." Biblical literalists who insist that this passage forbids gold jewelry and certain hairstyles must also demand that women go about in the nude if they are to be consistent.

The goal of the Christian wife is adornment of the hidden person in your heart, with that imperishable quality of a humble and quiet spirit (as Michaels, p. 154, translates it). In contrast to outward adornment, Peter calls for care of the hidden person in your heart. In contrast to specific hairstyles, jewelry, and clothing styles he calls for a gentle and quiet spirit. The words gentle (literally meek) and quiet are best defined in terms of Jesus. What Peter calls for is Christlikeness. That virtue for both women and men turns attention from the outward symbols of success to the heart issues of obedience.

Women who commit themselves to such inward beauty will not be pioneers or loners. Verse 5 points out that holy women of the past made themselves beautiful by trusting and hoping in God.

Verse 6 provides a specific example, that being Sarah, of an Old Testament woman who was submissive to her husband. Peter's specific argument, however, is most interesting. He states that Sarah called Abraham lord. Genesis 18:12 contains the sentence in which Sarah referred to Abraham as lord. The Hebrew word adon was used of property owners, husbands, and various gods. The rest of the sentence is most interesting. The context is the story of the three strangers who visited Abraham to foretell the birth of Isaac. Sarah had laughed to herself at the news and thought, "After I have become old will I have this pleasure, when my lord [Abraham] is old also." Many Jewish rabbis of Peter's time saw an insult in Sarah's words. They believed she was doubting his virility at such an advanced age. There is a bit of humor in Peter's reference, then, to Sarah calling her husband "lord" or "master" when he was so old she doubted his ability to perform sexually.

Peter concludes that the women who truly follow in Sarah's footsteps are those who do what is right and do not give way to fear. This is important culminating advice. The Christian wife who is married to an unbelieving husband has been counseled since verse 1 to do what is right since that will make her husband more open to the gospel. She is also advised not to fear. She must learn to trust God and not be intimidated by any threats her husband might make against her and the practice of her faith. Perhaps these words are more instructive for Christian marriages. Nothing Peter has said about submission was intended to authorize a Christian husband to do anything that would create fear in his wife's relationship with him. Domineering behavior destroys trust and creates fear. It is the opposite of what God wants for wives.

Verse 7 briefly describes the role of a husband in creating and maintaining the kind of marriage that God wills. At this point Peter shifts to address Christian husbands whose wives are also believers. The words in the same way or likewise show that the same general principles of inner beauty and submissiveness apply to Christian husbands also.

Further, husbands are to live together with their wives "according to knowledge." This somewhat strange phrase has been translated several ways: "be considerate" (NIV), "in an understanding way" (NASB), "show consideration" (NRSV), and "with understanding" (NEB). Husbands bear the responsibility of gaining insight into what will help their wives and themselves most fully share together a meaningful life.

The final motivation for constructing a mutually satisfying marriage is so that nothing will hinder your prayers. Relationship with God is always impaired when human relationships are out of order. The closer and more intimate the human relationship the more potential it has to disrupt relationship with God. A marriage in conflict, even if only one partner is actively pursuing conflict, cripples spiritual vitality and the ability to enjoy full intimacy with God.

Peter has promoted inward beauty instead of outward adornment. The instructions of verses 3-6 do not apply only to women. We live in a world that promotes external standards of beauty. The world defines both value and sexual attractiveness of women by outward attributes. That sinful way of looking at, thinking about, and defining women is created by and sustained by men. Christian men who value the instruction of 1 Peter 3:3-6 are therefore under obligation to reject worldly definitions of beauty. This is not a call to ugliness. It is a reminder that inner beauty will never commend itself to women whose husbands, fathers, and brothers who are obviously appreciative of the outward beauty promoted by the world. All Christians have a responsibility to value and to talk about inner beauty in a way elevates and encourages both women and men.

Harmony in Social Relationships - 1 Peter 3:8-12

After dealing with relationship with the government, relationships between slaves and owners, and relationships between husbands and wives, Peter offers some summary instructions in 1 Peter 3:8-12. These verses cover all relationships and apply to all Christians.

Peter begins verse 8 with the words finally or to sum it all up. The Greek could be translated either, "The end of all this," or "the goal of all this." We might well say, "To cap it all off . . ." Peter then lists five words that express, in various ways, the attitude that he believes the readers must develop if they are to have an impact for Christ on their world. They must be harmonious (NASB) or live in harmony (NIV) or have unity of spirit (NRSV). The Greek word literally says that they should be of the same mindset. Peter is not asking his readers to all hold identical opinions. Rather he is asking them to set their minds on the same goal. Likemindedness in commitment enables believers to work through their differences in methods and ideas in order to reach the common goal.

The second word is sympathetic. Michaels (p. 176) points out that this word means, "the sharing not just of grief or pain, but of a whole range of emotions and experiences." The ability to feel with another person in feeling and experiences you have not had can be developed. Paul expresses this idea in Romans 12:15 and 1 Corinthians 12:26.

Peter then mentions love for one another. He uses the adjective form of philadelphia. The early church believed that all believers should and would love each other with the kind of affection and friendly relations enjoyed by brothers and sisters. Paul commented in 1 Thessalonians 4:9 that he had no need to write them about this brotherly love because they were "taught by God" to love in that way. If such love in not present in our life or in the life of our church, we need to enroll in God's school of love.

The fourth word is kindhearted or tender-hearted. The Greek word speaks of a good-hearted generosity that arises from deep, gut-level compassion.

The final word in verse 8 describing believers in their relationships is humble or, more precisely, humbleminded. The secular Greek culture considered this a bad character trait, but the Bible treats it as a most valuable virtue. This does not mean that a believer must consider every one believer better than oneself in every area of life. I may be a better writer than Joe, but he is a better carpenter than I. Scripture expects us to acknowledge and delight in our gifts and graces. Marshall (p. 108) puts it well, "I may be a better mathematician than Y, but that does not entitle me to a better standing in life than her. I must love her equally as God's creation, equally as the object of God's love (he has no favorites) and equally as the object of my love."

Verse 8 applies especially to Christians. However, verse 9 shows that Peter has non-believers in mind as well. Verse 9 urges the readers to not retaliate. The wording is very similar to that of Romans 12:17-21. The ideas are very similar to the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5:38-42. Peter urges his readers to this life of non-retaliation because they were called to this so that they could inherit a blessing. The blessing is the gracious mercy of God granted to us instead of justice. We deserve death; God gives us grace. In response a believer can do no less to those who have insulted or wronged us.

Peter than closes this section with a quotation from Psalm 34:13-17a. The Psalm passage speaks against retaliation also. However, the Psalm promises long life and good days to those who seek good rather than returning evil. Peter reads the promise of long life and good days as a description of the heavenly blessing that will someday be enjoyed by those who discipline themselves to a life of harmonious relationships with the difficult people both in the church and who have not yet accepted Christ.

 Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion

These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.

As you study each day ask the Lord to make his word come alive in your heart. Ask him to help you understand how his word should apply to your life.

First Day: Read the notes on 1 Peter 2:18-3:12. Look up the Scripture references that are given.

1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Describe why they were significant to you.

2. Select a spiritual truth that has a special application to your own life. Describe how it applies to you.

3. Visualize the people with whom it is most difficult for you to get along. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to help you live harmoniously with them this week.

Second Day: Read 1 Peter 3:8-22. Now turn your focus to 1 Peter 3:13-17.

1. Verse 14 quotes from part of Isaiah 8:12. Read Isaiah 8:9-18. What do you find in the Isaiah passage that encourages you to not be afraid of what suffering might bring?

2. Verse 15 commands us to "sanctify" or "set apart" Christ as Lord in our hearts. What do you think Peter wanted us to do in fulfilling that command? How does it relate the context?

3. Verse 15 also tells us to always be ready to give a reason for the hope that we have. Briefly describe your hope and explain why you have made it your hope.

Third Day: Read 1 Peter 3:8-22. Focus in on 1 Peter 3:18-22.

1. What does Peter say about baptism in the focus verses? Is there anything you think he should have added to clarify the meaning of baptism? If so, what?

2. Compare verse 18 with Romans 6:10; Ephesians 2:18; Hebrews 9:28 and 10:10. What picture of Christ emerges for you from reading these verses? What vision of what you can become emerges?

3. Carefully read verses 19-20. Try to think of two different ways these verses could be interpreted. Which of the two ways seems most likely to you? Why?

Fourth Day: Read 1 Peter 3:13-4:11. Now make 1 Peter 4:1-2.

1. What goal do you think Peter hopes will be accomplished in his readers by suffering in the flesh according to verse 1? How does that goal relate to 1 Peter 1:15-16?

2. Verse 2 calls upon you to live the rest of your life for the will of God rather than for human desires. Given what you know about the will of God what do you think that Peter means? Does 2 Corinthians 5:15 add any new insight?

3. Verse 2 places the will of God in contrast to human desires. What human desires make it most difficult for you to do the will of God? Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to give you victory over those desires.

Fifth Day: Read 1 Peter 4:1-11. Focus your attention on 1 Peter 4:3-6.

1. Verse 3 lists a series of sin in which the readers of 1 Peter had previously done. If Peter were writing to the churches you know about in your state, what sins would he list now to describe a worldly life?

2. Verse 4 speaks of nonbelievers being surprised when that Christians do not join them in ungodly behavior. Have you ever experienced something like this in which your witness received surprise, or insults, or mocking? What happened? Was your witness effective?

3. What purpose does verse 6 give for the proclamation of the gospel? Why do you think we should proclaim the gospel? How important is it? How much should we invest to accomplish that task?

Sixth Day: Read 1 Peter 4:1-19. Now focus your attention on 1 Peter 4:7-11.

1. The focus verses have several commands from Peter. Which one do you think is the most important of those commands for the Christians you know? Why do you think they (we) need that command?

2. Verse 10 speaks of serving each other with whatever gift God has given. What gift or gifts do you think God has given you? How are you using them to serve others in the body of Christ?

3. Verse 11 can be understood as a prayer. Paraphrase that prayer into your own words and personalize it for yourself.

-Roger Hahn, Copyright © 2011, Roger Hahn and CRI/Voice, Institute
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