Living Now with Eternity in Mind #7: Living Subversively

Household slaves, submit to your masters with all reverence not only to the good and gentle ones but also to the cruel. For it brings favor if, because of a consciousness of God, someone endures grief from suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if when you do wrong and are beaten, you endure it? But when you do what is good and suffer, if you endure it, this brings favor with God. For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. He did not commit sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth; when he was insulted, he did not insult in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten but entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree; so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but you have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer[d] of your souls.

1 Peter 2:18—25

Have you ever heard someone say, “The Bible supports slavery”?And historically there have been those who have used passages in the Bible to support the practice of slavery. But this is a misreading and misuse of the Bible.However, even in the OT the people of Israel were instructed to deal with slaves much differently than the nations around them.

And in the Bible the practice of slavery was not about kidnapping people and enslaving them. Exodus 21:16 says: Whoever steals someone to sell them as a slave or to keep them for their own slave must be killed. Exodus 21:2 says: If you buy a Hebrew slave, then that slave will serve for only six years. After six years, he will be free, and he will have to pay nothing. Deuteronomy 15:16: But one of your slaves might say to you, ‘I will not leave you.’ He might say this because he loves you and your family and because he has a good life with you. And finally think about the central salvation motif of the OT: the exodus from Egypt, when God freed the Israelites from slavery.

In 1 Peter we’re talking about slavery in the 1st century Roman Empire, which wasn’t a pleasant form of slavery. Masters could beat and even kill their slaves. They were non-persons and had no status. The question is: how does the gospel change things? What about the slaves who are being mistreated and have come to faith in Christ? How should they deal with their circumstances?

Peter says to them: One of you might have to suffer even when you have done nothing wrong. If you think of God and bear the pain, this pleases God. So Peter is saying that slaves might be mistreated even if they’ve done nothing to deserve it. It was all up to the whim of their master. And he also says to them: If you suffer for doing good and you are patient, this pleases God. Not only might slaves be mistreated even though they’ve done nothing wrong, they might be mistreated precisely because they have done good.

Now, I will confess, when I first began thinking about this passage, this really bothered me. It really rubbed my 21st century enlightened sensibilities the wrong way. Shouldn’t Peter have told these slaves not to put up with such treatment? All I know is that reading the passage initially made me feel uncomfortable. But there’s a difference between being in a position to change an unjust system and knowing how to live in an unjust system while it’s in place.

And, of course, we need to keep in mind something important. Today if someone is being mistreated while working at Wal-Mart, they can leave and get another job. Most slaves in Peter’s day did not have that option. But procuring freedom from slavery was very difficult and not all slaves could do so.

In any case, notice that Peter tells them what their motivation ought to be no matter the situation. There’s a phrase he uses twice: this pleases God. The obvious question is: what pleases God? It’s not their being mistreated that pleases God. And this is so important to understand. But it’s how they bear up under such treatment.

Living subversively means living to please God first. Which of course also echoes what Paul says: you are now Christ’s slave. God paid a high price for you, so don’t be slaves to anyone else. What he means here is that even if you are a slave, remember that you’re called to please God first and foremost.

I think a lot of us could be described—at least at times—as people-pleasers. We want other people to be pleased with us. And this affects how we act, how we live in the world. Living to please God means whatever our circumstances, we will endeavor to live as people who love and follow Christ. It means that we seek to do right because of our love for God, not to avoid punishment for doing wrong and even if it may mean added difficulties for us.

But through all of this the motivation of the slave is to please God. How is this subversive? Well, maybe think of it this way: if the slave in question is motivated by a desire to please God above all else, then the master has no real power over the slave. In fact, when a slave is willing to do what is right and good even if it means suffering, what power does the master really have over the slave? The one we seek to and desire to please is the one who has power over us. Peter is addressing not the slave’s circumstances but the slave’s character. Note that Peter doesn’t say these circumstances shouldn’t change, but until they do . . . live to please God first and foremost.

So, what about us? Is our first desire to please God? What do you think pleases God? Who do you find yourself wanting to please besides God? Does trying to please them keep you from pleasing God? Are we willing to please God even if it means suffering?

Our passage in 1 Peter only deals with how slaves should respond to their circumstances once they become followers of Jesus. To help us out, I want to look briefly at another book: Paul’s letter to Philemon. Here we see a specific example of how becoming a Christian would affect you as a slave-owner.

Philemon was a slave owner. He was also a Christian. Paul writes this letter because Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, has run away. He ended up becoming a Christian and helping Paul who was in prison at the time. Paul has gotten to know Onesimus. He says, He became my son while I was in prison. Paul uses very affectionate language when he talks about Onesimus. He talks about how sending him back to Philemon is as hard as losing part of myself. Paul is legally obligated to send Onesimus back. But he’s looking to change how Philemon sees the relationship. Because, remember, slaves had no status. Masters could beat them as they pleased. And a runaway slave? I can’t imagine Onesimus looking forward to returning to Philemon.

So Paul says: Onesimus was separated from you for a short time. Maybe that happened so that you could have him back forever, not to be just a slave, but better than a slave, to be a dear brother. That’s what he is to me. And I know he will mean even more to you, both as your slave and as one who shares your faith in the Lord. If you accept me as your friend, then accept Onesimus back. Welcome him like you would welcome me. 

Given the huge cultural gap between us and the Roman Empire of the 1st century, I think it’s very easy for us to underestimate just how radical Paul is being here. Rather than telling Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery, he’s encouraging Philemon to see him as a brother in Christ. He wanted Philemon to see Onesimus through the lens of the gospel. And if Philemon really responds as Paul wants, this would radically reshape his relationship with Onesimus. He might even give Onesimus his freedom.

Even if, yes, we wish the early church had done more to challenge the institution of slavery, what Paul does is arguably even more powerful and profound. Let’s put it this way: The law can compel me to behave but it can’t motivate me to love. And sometimes the law can’t even compel everyone to behave! Paul wanted Philemon to be motivated by love, by the gospel. We could ask: what should Philemon do to please God in this situation?

So, Living subversively means seeing our relationships through the gospel. Think of Paul’s oft-quoted words from Galatians 3:28: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. In a culture where race, gender, and class determined your social standing and your economic prospects, these words are subversive. The gospel should change our relationships. Why? Because the gospel has changed our relationship with God!

So:Who are the ones we might see as second-class citizens? Who does our culture look down upon?Do we see people first according to their economic or social status or as how God sees them, as human beings created in his image?Does your relationship with and faith in Christ lead you to have a radical love for other people? How should the gospel change your relationships with the people around you?

What Peter goes on to say next is actually pretty incredible. He grounds his instructions to slaves in the person of Jesus. He says: Christ gave you an example to follow. He suffered for you. So you should do the same as he did . . . People insulted him, but he did not insult them back. He suffered, but he did not threaten anyone. No, he let God take care of him. God is the one who judges rightly.

I confess that this week when I began working on this I asked some pastor friends how they might preach from this passage. And one of my friends, Bob, wrote this to me and I think it’ll help us this morning. It helped me. He says: “Suffering for doing good isn’t being called fair . . . Suffering for sin is one thing, but when we live with and suffer injustice, we’re participating in the things of Christ. In the Roman world, what slave could participate in anything to do with the divine, or have access to any such dignity? But come Christianity, even the slave can be one with Christ, not by access to power—but by way of suffering injustice. That is the total opposite of ancient Pagan notions of the divine which was built on notions of blessings only for the powerful and victorious.”

In Peter’s day, slave were nobodies. They had no status, no rights. But here Peter is saying to them that because you’re suffering even for doing what is right you do have status, you do have dignity and value. Everything society withholds from you, you have in Christ: worth, freedom, personhood, identity.

Living subversively means learning to identify with Jesus in his suffering. Jesus was pretty clear that following him meant that we will also suffer. Because our world denies Jesus. It denies the way of Jesus.

Here’s our problem, though. We live in a culture that doesn’t want to put up with or experience suffering in any form. Even in the church. We only want good things, good experiences, good feelings. But Scripture has much to say about the role of suffering in the Christian life. Indeed, as we will see in the weeks ahead, 1 Peter has much to say about suffering.

We have to be careful. I don’t think it’s about inviting suffering into our lives. But I think we sometimes do everything we can not only to avoid suffering but to avoid being uncomfortable: including avoiding the call of Jesus on our lives. But a faith without suffering is a faith without cost. Now, I think we should advocate for religious rights and freedoms and work towards having more just communities. But I sometimes see believers in the media more concerned with and angry about the possibility of losing their privilege than with loving their neighbours and being gracious in the midst of adversity.

Speaking of Christ, Peter says, he let God take care of him. God is the one who judges rightly. Jesus knew he would be criticized, insulted, mocked, beaten, and killed. He knew he would arouse anger. He knew he had come into a world that for the most part would not welcome him. Why do we think—if we are truly following Jesus—that the world should treat us any better?

Peter ends this passage by giving us a powerful picture of Jesus. He says that Christ carried our sins in his body on the cross. He did this so that we would stop living for sin and live for what is right. By his wounds you were healed. You were like sheep that went the wrong way. But now you have come back to the Shepherd and Protector of your lives. I love that image of Jesus as the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls. Whatever else happens to us, he’s got us firmly in his hands. If God the Father took care of Jesus, he will take care of us.

Are you willing to be uncomfortable for Jesus? What might that look like for you?How might God want to use your suffering to help your faith become more mature? Is Jesus the Shepherd of your soul? As a sheep, are you now going the right way, toward Jesus?

Thetruth is that the abolition of slavery came about because of Christianity, because of what the Bible says about human beings. No, it didn’t happen overnight. But it did happen. The truth is, the slaves Peter is talking to already knew a deeper and more profound freedom: the freedom of being slaves of Jesus, of having him as their Master. And here’s the thing: we’re all slaves. We’re either slaves or servants of Jesus or we’re slaves of someone or something else. The Bible says that apart from Christ we’re slaves of sin. And that can take many forms.  

In 1 Corinthians 7:21—23, Paul says: If you were a slave when God chose you, don’t let that bother you. But if you can be free, then do it.If you were a slave when the Lord chose you, you are now free in the Lord. You belong to the Lord. In the same way, if you were free when you were chosen, you are now Christ’s slave. God paid a high price for you, so don’t be slaves to anyone else.  But what a master Jesus is! He is gracious, kind, patient, compassionate. And only if we become slaves or servants of Jesus are we truly free. What would it look like if you were to live to please God most of all? If you were to let the gospel change how you relate to all of the people around you? And if you learned to identify with Jesus in his suffering? How would that change your life here and now? More and more in our culture, living this way is the most subversive way of all. And it’s one of the ways we live now with eternity in mind.

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