Sermon Text: 1 Peter 2:18–25
Preacher: Pastor Brian Sauvé
The Crumbling Walls of Castle Dover
In this sermon, we’ll take up the from 1 Peter 2:18–25 as a whole, getting us to the end of the the chapter, then next Sunday, we will most likely circle back and take a closer look at the second half of this section, which really bears a close look.
In the late 90s, when I was just a wee lad, my family lived in England while my dad worked for the Royal Air Force in an officer exchange. Some of my favorite memories of our three years in the UK revolve around castles. In America, there’s virtually no such thing as a thousand-year-old structure. But in England and Scotland and Wales, you can visit many castles that are still standing from that long ago.
One of the most impressive castles was built by Henry II in 1180, today called Dover Castle. It was one of the most strategically important castles in England and is today the largest castle in the country.
During the First Barons’ War in 1216, some of the barons of England joined with King Louis VIII of France and attempted to overthrow King John of England, laying siege to Dover. Though they were ultimately unsuccessful, they nearly managed to take the castle by digging tunnels under some of the key defensive walls and then collapsing those tunnels.
This is actually where we get our word “undermining,” from Middle English in the 1300s. Undermining was originally a tactic to dig underneath a battlement or defensive wall and then collapse the tunnel, bringing down the structure with it. Attackers would undermine structures that were too solid to knock down with siege engines and catapults.
In our text today in 1 Peter, we run into a structure built into fallen human society that’s like that—a feature of fallen man that was too strong, too flinty and thick and well-defended to knock down by frontal assault in the 60s AD when Peter wrote his letter. Like many of the culturally acceptable evils of the time, it was an institution that seemed at the time to be invincible to attack.
I’m talking about slavery. As the apostle writes his letter to the saints in Asia Minor, many of those the Lord has saved and brought into his church are slaves. At the time Peter wrote, upwards of one in five, or about 12,000,000 people in Rome lived in slavery.
In our text this morning, Peter will address a group of Christians who bear the label oiketes, which is similar to the word doulos, another word for slave. Oiketes were household slaves, often skilled workers like doctors, teachers, musicians, and stewards—but these were no less slaves; they didn’t have rights or true freedom.
And we are this morning very likely to find Peter’s instruction to Christian household slaves to be somewhat shocking. You may wonder why the New Testament never cries out for the abolition of slavery, but instead calls slaves to humble submission to their masters—even explicitly, as we’ll see, to unjust masters!
Is the Bible pro-slavery? We’ll find it’s not that simple. We’ll find that the principles built into the leaven of the gospel, worked out to their logical end, radically dissolves the bonds that hold wicked institutions like slavery together. John Piper puts it like this, “The New Testament does not engage in a frontal attack on slavery, but a very powerful undermining of the roots of slavery…”
Our Approach to the Text
We’ll sift through Peter’s words in three parts:
1. First, we’ll try to understand who Peter is talking to and what he wants them to do.
2. Second, we’ll see why Peter wants Christian slaves to submit to their masters—that what he’s asking of them is fundamentally a kind of imitation of their Lord and the pattern of his ministry. And in the midst of this second part, we’ll see one of the greatest and clearest explanations of the gospel in the entire New Testament.
3. Third, we’ll see the power of this gospel pattern—that though it looks like defeat, it is actually the pathway to ultimate and massive victory.
Slaves & Submission
So first, let’s make sure we understand who Peter is talking to and what he wants them to do. As I said already, he’s addressing household slaves whom the Lord has saved. And what does he tell them to do? What would you say? Revolt? Burn it all down?
No, he calls them to, out of fear of God and in imitation of Christ, submit to their masters. The ESV translates verse 18 as, “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect.” The phrase “with all respect” there is literally in Greek “with all fear.” So the question we should ask is simply: Who are they fearing?
And in light of the context, where Peter just told all Christians to “be subject” to civil authorities and to “Fear God,” it seems really clear that this fear is directed towards God. Their submission to masters isn’t in fear of their masters—a non-Christian slave could do that—but in fear of God. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
So he calls them, not to revolution, but to love, good works, and humble, God-fearing submission. We’ll talk in a moment about why this is, what they’re doing when they obey this command. But I first want to make it clear that the Scriptures aren’t pro-slavery. That’s not the motive, here. Peter’s goal isn’t to protect or preserve the institution of slavery.
In fact, Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 encourages anyone in slavery to seek freedom whenever possible. In this time, slavery wasn’t necessarily permanent; you could purchase your freedom or gain freedom through various means. So the Bible is pro-freedom if at all possible.
Additionally, it’s important to note that the “be subject” of the slave to the master has the same limitation that the “be subject” of the citizen to the state has: Never disobey God in obedience to authorities. So for example, if your master is commanding you to steal or murder, he is free disobey that instruction. That would be sin.
Peter isn’t concerned with preserving slavery, but rather advancing the Kingdom of God.
So we could summarize the command by saying that Christian slaves, are to, out of fear of God—trusting in God’s sovereign goodness and reverential awe before him—obey unjust masters and endure suffering with grace, insofar as they can do so without sinning against God.
A Word on Not Rushing to Application
Now listen, I understand that there’s application that can be made to all of us sitting here today, because all of us are under varying spheres of authority. We have bosses, managers, mothers, fathers, husbands, governors, police officers. But it’s probably possible to rush to apply this text to our own situations in such a way that patronizes the people it was directly written to.
Like, a slave might say to you, “Oh, tough day at work? Your boss only gave you half-a-percent cost of living raise this year. Sorry. My boss owns me.”
Let’s not patronize the men and women who initially heard this instruction. Let’s not minimize what must have been excruciatingly difficult instruction to receive. Let’s not pretend like this is a light, easy thing. Imagine hearing that instruction!
The Bible is not a book that shrinks from the sharp edges of reality. It doesn’t pretend; there’s no make-believe in this book. In his book, God paints not just with the brightest whites and golds, but also with the deepest blacks.
But it’s in the very heart of that difficulty that the glowing ember of glory flames up into fire. It’s in the seriousness of the submission and the pain of the suffering that the gospel is so powerfully adorned and preached. So before you rush to application to yourself, feel the heft of this passage in your hand.
And that will help us to see the full glory behind the why, which is what Peter will give us in verses 21–25. Because standing underneath this command, holding it up, there is a powerful logic. There is a powerful why at work here, a cosmically-significant why behind the command. Why ought they to do this? Verses 21 through 25:
A Cosmic Why
So there is Peter’s explanation as to why Christian slaves are to submit to their earthly masters. The passage follows the pattern of instruction/principle.
There is a “Thou shalt” moment at the beginning, followed by a principle that explains the why behind the command. Peter follows this pattern again and again in his letter; He’ll say next in chapter 3, for example, “In the same way, wives do this, husbands do this, all of you, in fact, do this.”
So what are the principles that the instruction to submission is bolted down onto? Let’s unpack his reasoning in 2 parts. The first reason why Christian slaves are to obey their masters—and this is the master reason—is that, #1…
1. Their submission to unjust masters puts flesh on a living parable of the gospel.
Verse 21 tells us that “…Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” So Peter tells his enslaved brothers and sisters, “Your suffering isn’t meaningless; it’s preaching. It’s a powerful, living, incarnated sermon of the gospel of God.”
“Why suffer?” Because Jesus suffered. “But I don’t deserve this!” Jesus didn’t deserve this. “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.”
“But Peter, this feels like dying!” Yes, it does. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”
And who is this living parable for? The very masters sinning against them. Just as Jesus’ suffering was for us, the very sinners who put him on the cross. The love-for-hatred, blessing-for-reviling, submission-for-subjection display of the gospel in the response of Christians slaves to unjust masters is for those masters!
This is one of those places where the Christian gospel does what nothing else does. Other ethical constructions have ideas about justice. Other religious ideologies can decry evil and demand payment. But it’s only Christianity, walking after a crucified Savior, that says, “Justice, yes—but mercy. Justice against wrongdoers, yes—but also dying for wrongdoers.”
So do you see the heft, the weight, the gravity in the instruction? Peter isn’t saying, “Do this, slaves; it’s easy.” No! But rather, “What you’re doing in obeying this command is like what Christ did. It’s like crucifixion.” It’s the exact opposite of easy! It’s excruciating—literally from the Latin, “from the cross.”
And it is the very grit and substance of that suffering that undergirds the second why behind the command:
2. Submit to your masters, because your hope in God through suffering magnifies the worth of Jesus.
Peter says that it is a gracious thing when God’s people endure unjust suffering with a godward hope. When Christian slaves return injustice for love and meekness and submission, they’re saying “My future glory in God, my hope in Christ, is so secure and good and full of joy that I can endure this momentary injustice with hope.” What more magnifies the glory of God, right?
See, one of the principles behind this text is that ephemeral suffering can’t outweigh enduring glory. When the ephemeral suffering of a Christian slave—even if it’s a lifetime of suffering—makes contact with the enduring glory of eternity, it evaporates like a drop of water touching the surface of the sun.
Our hope isn’t in ephemeral comfort, but eternal glory. Our hope isn’t in present painlessness, but peace with God forever. This is why you can today suffering injustice and return hatred for blessing, slander for love, insult with meekness.
This is why you, Christian, can stare down suffering and smile. Its’ why you can endure the abandoning of a spouse, the corruption of a civil government ruling over you, and the hatred of the world. As Hebrews 10:34 commends the early Christians in the face their joyful submission to injustice,
“…you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.”
Think about how this sounds if you are just colliding atoms, doomed to eternal dark. If Christ isn’t King, this sucks. These are the kind of texts that show in sharp relief that Christianity isn’t some sort of safe, comfortable philosophy. No, it says, “If you want to live, you have to die.”
When Christ anchors our hope to an eternal mooring in himself, he radically reorients our ethics on earth, the way we related to suffering, the way we relate to injustice—everything!
The Deep Pattern of the Gospel
And to the world, this looks like folly, defeat—like losing. But before we leave this morning I want you to see the power of this gospel pattern—that though it looks like defeat, it is actually the pathway to ultimate and massive victory.
And to see that, it’s essential that we see that Peter’s unfolding of the gospel here isn’t a random side issue. It’s not like Peter was interested in instructing Christian slaves, then jumped randomly to the gospel. No, they are intimately connected.
Because on the cross, what it looked like is that Jesus was losing. Right? It looked like he was losing everything. On the cross, it looked like a failed teacher was dying, disproving his teaching. It looked like a failed shepherd was dying, leaving his sheep helpless. It looked like a God-forsaken criminal was getting ground to pulp by the merciless machine of Roman tyranny and Jewish hypocrisy.
But what was really happening? By his wounds, we were being healed. Hanging on the tree, he was bearing our sin in his body, that we might die to sin and live to God. The crucified shepherd was really gathering his straying and wandering flock. The crushed King was really reigning. The Father was really putting all things as a footstool under the Son’s feet.
If we understand what Jesus did on the cross, we will understand something important about the way that Jesus’ people approach evils and injustices like slavery. We’ll understand what happens to powers and principalities when the Church takes what looks like death with trial-enduring hope.
In the same way that Jesus’ suffering under powerful injustice ultimately ended the power of that injustice, so the God-dependent, Christ-imitating suffering of slaves under injustice ultimately results in the destruction of the powers of injustice.
When the enemy attacks the people of God, he always loses—and that even when it looks like the people of God are the ones losing.
This difficult instruction isn’t just that slaves are to live out this peculiar, enemy-loving grace—but that all Christians are called to the same! 1 Peter 3:9, “We don’t repay evil for evil and reviling for reviling, but instead return evil with blessing, reviling with good works.” 1 Peter 4:19, it’s not just slaves who ought not to suffer for evil but rather for good, but all of us!
The Play We’re Running in Suffering Injustice
Last week, in the immediately preceding section on submission to civil authorities, I said that this became the battle plan of the early Church to win a wicked culture. And here we get more details on battle strategy: We win by dying. We advance on blessing. The play we run against the other team is love. Radical, impossible, unbelievable, seemingly foolhardy, love.
The gospel shows us how to fight! It shows us that we aren’t in the business of toppling walls by frontal assault. And yet walls still come down… how? They collapse under their own weight as the countercultural love of the people of God tunnels under their defenses in enemy-love.
And what happens is that wicked institutions and wicked rulers and wicked masters convert to Christ and learn Christ. Or they die and rot and return to dust—as the people of God continue, triumphant. As King Jesus continues to rule—all the earth and its wickedness under his nail-pierced feet, a footstool.
And so listen, in your life, sometimes following Jesus will feel like losing everything. It will feel like laying down your rights, your comfort, your autonomy, your opinions, your philosophical certitude, your emotions, your right to self-determination—everything. It will feel often like loss.
And in this loss, here is our hope: There is no comfort, no right, no possession, no cherished thing that, if laid down in death with Christ, won’t be raised up to glory better. It is impossible. What rights are you clinging to? What cherished thing? What self-rule? What pride? What sin? Put it to death. Embrace the deadly cross and Christ will show you what it looks like to live.