Suffering and Submission
Formations: August 13, 2017
Scripture: 1 Peter 2:11-24
Suffering and submission are not popular ideas. Control, winning, success, power: these are the ideas driving our culture. Unlike the Roman Empire in Peter’s day, we have the privilege of expressing ourselves through voting and freedom of speech. Even so, our challenge is to face rhetoric that contradicts the word of God, coming from people who claim to believe in God! The voice of “the church” has too often lost credibility in the human desire to control. Verse 3 of today’s text presents the key to all of Peter’s advice: “For the sake of the Lord submit to every human institution.”
Unlike those early Christians (and most of our world), we have rights, checks and balances, and freedom of speech. But going against dominant political thinking can exact a price in your neighborhood. Early Christians were regarded as immoral and dangerous because they rejected the religions of the world and denied the emperor was a god. The world pointed to the Christian “love (agape) feast” as some kind of sexual orgy and the Lord’s Supper as some form of cannibalism! How do you counter such outlandish slanders? You begin by remembering that Jesus faced the lies of religious leaders who hounded him all the way to the cross. You continue by holding onto the love and grace God offers us every day. Hebrews 13:5-6 remind us: “He himself has said, ‘I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you,’ and ‘The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What shall man do to me?’” (ref. Deut. 3:16; Psalm 118:6).
First Peter 2:5 and 9 reminds us we are a “spiritual temple, a holy priesthood, a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who are God’s own possession.” Governments will rise and fall, politicians will fight for control, and human laws will change, but Christians are children of God no matter what happens in this world. Our text was probably written during the reign of Nero or Domitian when Christians were blamed for social ills, instability and political plots. In the face of very real threats Peter says to “live honorably among the unbelievers” even if they “defame you” (v. 11). “But in the day when God visits to judge they will glorify him, because they have observed your honorable deeds” (v. 12). Often the best argument against a lie or accusation is consistent integrity of language and lifestyle.
The human psyche is not naturally enamored by submission or tolerance. Peter’s counsel for submission draws our reluctance and protest. But submission does not mean accepting the thinking and immoral demands of our culture; it means to live honorably as God’s people and refuse to use strategies or the questionable tactics of unbelievers. Peter’s instruction to submit to an evil government may anger us, but in his context there is no real effective political or military option for Christians. They lived under oppression and had to use every day and every opportunity to model a different lifestyle and faith. When Luke was writing his gospel and account of the early church to Theophilus (Luke and Acts), he was presenting a true picture of the Christian faith – a contrast to the perception that these Christ followers wanted to take over the established government. Christians did not have the option of the ballot box or the organization to raise an army to defeat anyone.
We are startled when Peter uses the image of us being like a submissive slave before his owner, whether that owner is kind or harsh. What has happened to this apostle who cut off a soldier’s ear when they came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane? He learned from Jesus that the Kingdom of God is real and eternal . . . the kingdoms of this world are temporary.
But how can submitting to a government without a soul serve God? Slaves were the major workforce under Rome. There had been several slave revolts that all ended in bloody disaster. There was no immediate resolution to the powerful Roman government and its vast armies. Whether slave or free, the followers of Christ had to commit themselves to being a faithful witness whatever their position in life. I have known people who were rejected by their families when they declared their faith in Christ. Some fled their country to escape death. Some lost all their material possessions, were put in isolation camps, and finally came to America. They tried to live as good citizens and avoid conflict with a hostile government and neighbors but the result was rejection and threat of death.
Peter’s advice is the only option for not only surviving but for showing the world what it means to be a Christian. He writes: “Do this as God’s slaves, and yet also as free people, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil (v. 16). Don’t give your enemies ammunition against the Christian faith. Instead, show them by your honesty and diligence how a Christian lives. We should remember that the Apostle Paul often described himself as a “bondservant” or slave of Jesus. In Paul’s letter to Philemon he asks his friend to take back the former slave, Onesimus, whom Paul had won to Christ. Now the former slave and master would also be brothers in Christ! But they would still be slave and master (Philemon 8-17)!
Obviously we live in a different world. This text does not teach slavery is within God’s will or purpose; slavery was an established part of that pagan society. Peter is speaking to a people trapped in a pagan world where injustice and brutal power ruled. Much of our world is frightfully like that first century. We have our own injustices and tragedies to face. But Peter speaks a truth that does not change: “But if you endure steadfastly when you’ve done good and suffer for it, this is commendable before God. You are called to this kind of endurance, because Christ suffered on your behalf … follow in his footsteps” (vv. 20-21).
Our call to submission is not a call to give up, but to live faithfully as the people of God in adversity, to find ways to speak the truth and offer a better way. The freedom we enjoy as Americans does not excuse us from risk, ridicule and rejection. If we are true to Christ, like him, we will be rejected. Remember, the power of God is best seen in a Christ-like life, which is our ultimate power to bring change to our world.
Retired after 46 years in pastoral ministry, Michael K. Olmsted enjoys family, supply preaching and interim work, literature, history, the arts and antiques.
Formations is a curriculum series from Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc. through NextSunday Resources.
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