1 Peter 2:13-3:7
In today’s world of information we have access to a broader perspective than ever before in history. Our perspective is both wide and deep. It is wide in that we can look at the entire globe in a single glance. At one time we are aware of the many, many cutures that pepper the face of the planet and the various perspectives on the fundamental elements that comprise society itself. We observe the dramatic contrasts that each people group have in the subjects of government, religion, societal strata, gender issues, morality, etc.
Our perspective is also deep in that we can look into the records of history and realize that within the historical substrata of each of these myriad cultural perspectives there has been a continual shift and evolution of attitudes toward the aforementioned cultural issues.
For example, today, in some parts of the world, to be a woman is to be covered from head to foot and held as virtual property by your husband. To challenge the desires of your husband is to face certain punishment. While at the same time, in other parts of the world, to be a woman is to be offered the opportunity to rule a nation, own a business, or raise a family.
In some countries the people are ruled by the fear of a powerful military leader and the martial law that he wields over the citizens. Other countries are ruled by the religious leaders who mediate their interpretation of God’s relation to humanity and extort religious fervor in the name of holiness. Still other countries wrestle and pine over political power through the democratic process of persuasion and election.
Throughout history the value of human life has changed. For the vast majority of human history the powerful people have justified themselves in feeling the right (even the divinely instituted right) to own human life and traffic slaves as common chattle. Today overt slavery has been abandoned, yet human trafficking of various degrees is alive and well in every strata of society.
What is the point of all this? As we look at this deep and wide perspective that we currently experience we can make some observations:
- In the totality of human experience there is not one system of government that has been universal.
- While every culture does share the common idea of morality, the expression of that morality differs across a wide spectrum.
- The roles of gender, power, and servitude differ from place to place and from time to time.
Given these observations we are left with three possible conclusions. The first two conclusions describe the current polarity that is happening in our own culture. On the one side there are those who say that, based on the diversity of systems and mores in human experience, everything is relative. There is no such thing as right and wrong in the world. Unltimately, each system is the product of its own evolution and it is what it is. This view is often called relativism in that the value of one thing is not based upon a standard, but is simply compared in relation to everything else, thus rendering it valueless in the end.
On the other hand, the other conclusion to the observation of diversity is the idea that one of the human systems is the correct one, rendering the rest substandard and in need of reformation or annihilation. Typically, those who come to this conclusion believe that their own system, by virtue of God’s direct revelation, is the superior one that must be propogated and forced upon all others. This view is often called absolutism because it believes that God’s standards for human systems of government and interrelations have been clearly and absolutely articulated through specific revelation. This view tends to lead to radical fundamentalism and a need to colonize ones beliefs into every other human system. This is sometimes done through gihads, other times through radio and television broadcasting.
I realize that the above descriptions are caricatures of these perspectives, and in such a short space of time do no justice to the nuances of both relativism and fundamentalism, yet in the end I think the logical conclusion of both systems stand. Relativism leads to anarchy and the self-destruction of might-makes-right and do-what-you-want mentality. Fundamentalism leads to the self-destruction of hatred and violence that must occur to impose systems of thought upon other human beings.
Perhaps there is a third conclusion that finds a middle, or alternative way. In fact, I believe that this alternative way is exactly what Peter was presenting in his letter. Let’s look at verses 13-17. Verse 13-16 is actually one sentence. Its literal translation reads like this:
Submit to human creation on account of the Master, whether to the king as supreme or to leaders as through him being sent to judge the bad doers but praise the good doers, because thusly it is the will of God by doing good to muzzle the ignorance of unthinking men, as free men and not as having the freedom to cover over badness, but as slaves of God.
Allow me to paraphrase in order to get at the heart of what Peter was communicating to his suffering readers…
Here’s the bottom line: even though you are living under the oppression of the Roman Empire and harsh social structures, you are, in truth, liberated free people in Christ. Live as freemen, but don’t use your freedom to do stupid things that end up making it worse for yourself in society. If you want to stump your oppressors and ignorant accusers then play by their rules. You know that God is the only authority in the universe that has the right to judge humans, but humans tend to create systems to govern themselves. That’s OK. Submit to the king and his appointed governors. In doing this you will bring peace and demonstrate God’s love. After all, you serve God, not man, so submitting to these artificial titles and systems of authority is no big deal.
You see, when people in the first century encountered the risen Jesus they were set free. As Paul said in
Colossians 3:11 Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
and again in
Galatians 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
The gospel is a liberationist movement. It liberates the oppressed from oppressive systems. It liberates the sinner from the oppression of sin and shame. It liberates the slave from the degradation of being devalued and treated as an animal. It liberates the woman from being dominated by men and treated as a sex object and a household servant that is good for nothing more than making male heirs. It liberates the child from being nothing more than a household servant and constricted to doing nothing more than carrying on the family name and trade. It liberates the man from being bound by duty and honor and exluding himself emotionally from women, children, servants, and himself.
Yes, the good news of Jesus is that the Kingdom of God does not conform to the systems of man. The Kingdom of God is not another alternate human system on the smorgasbord of human systems. This is an important point. This is the error of the fundamentalist. Jesus did not come to establish another human system of government and socio/economic/gender structures to be forced upon the planet through political, military, and propagandistic methods. No. The Kingdom of God is a counter current to ALL human systems.
Human systems deal with externals and measurables: men are different than women, blacks are different than whites, the United States is more powerful than Venezuella, Billy is smarter than Susie, laws are objective and are to be enforced by means of power and intimidation, rich and powerful people wield the control over the weak and uninformed masses, the people and the countries that have the most money and the most force will win the power and the right to make the decisions for the masses. Societies set up these external benchmarks of success and the individuals who achieve those marks are lauded as special and are handed the authority. That is the way of human systems — both secular and religious.
That is not the way of the Kingdom of God. Jesus came to bring about the transformation of the heart. He came to demonstrate complete and utter love for the other. In His Kingdom the first shall be last. In His Kingdom the least is the greatest. In His Kingdom what is done for the least of these is what matters. Why? Because all the externals lend themselves to selfishness, self-righteusness, self-protection, and self-promotion. It is only when we die to the externalized self-aggrandizement (no matter how subtle and “religious” they may appear) — die to self — and live for the good of the other, that we can actually become fully alive and realize the Kingdom of God.
It is with these lenses that I believe we must read our current section of 1 Peter. As you approach this passage it is possible to wear a very different set of lenses than this. Many people read this passage and say, “Aha! See, the Bible says that slavery is OK. The Bible says that women MUST submit to men because they are the weaker vessel. It is the man’s job to dominate his slave and his woman, to thus keep his house in order so that he can pray to God and be heard.”
This very dangerous interpretion has led to a great deal of pain for slaves, workers, women (and ultimately the men who propogated the system) over the years. Perhaps it would be better to understand Peter’s words in the context of the 1st century. Slavery was a given in society. It was so entrenched that it wasn’t going anywhere in the near future. Women were regarded as ignorant, weak, and good for nothing more than making babies and keeping house. Those were the accepted ways of life in Judaic-Graeco-Roman society.
Peter’s message was one of liberation and revolution within the accepted norms of society. To the slaves he gave them the idea that they were just as valid as their masters. As a child of God they now had a duty to present the love of Jesus to the world by loving the master even when the master was cruel. Enduring this kind of injustice through love instead of retaliation and vengeance was exaclly the model that Jesus set for us. The slave had the greatest opportunity of all to reflect the love of Jesus in society. In the long run, when slave masters saw this kind of relentless love, perhaps their hearts would soften and the love of Jesus would overtake them and true social reform would take place.
To the woman he said that they were valid children of God. It was only through authentic love for their oppressive husband that the love of Jesus would shine through. At that time, In Greek society, a movement of ‘women’s libbers” was raging in protest against male oppression. They were angry and violent. They were disruptive and anything but loving toward men. Peter reminded his female readers that revolution of that sort was not the way of God’s Kingdom. Love your husband, he told them, and through the purity of your heart you may plant the seed of God’s Kingdom in his life as well.
To the men he reminded them that, as the power brokers of society, it was their responsibility to love those placed under their supervision. If they lord it over their slave and wife then they are not following the example of THE Lord who gave up his rights to lay down his life for those under His care.
In its day, the New Testament was a liberationist manifesto, but it was not a battle cry for rebellion. It was a call to transformation from the inside out through a heart gripped by grace and love. When Jesus preached his good news of God’s Kingdom it was like a seed planted in the collective consciousness of humanity. It didn’t change the world overnight, but it did alter the course of history. That man hanging on a cross was an enigma that no political ruler could avoid from that point on. Why? People would ask. Why would Jesus willingly die? Every time a ruler passed a law that would hurt innocent people the face of Jesus would stare from the cross and question. Every time a man raised his hand to beat a slave or a child or his wife, the nail pierced hands would flinch. and conversely, every time a slave, or a child, or a woman, or an oppressed people group would suffer at the hands of evil, they would look into those same eyes and be reminded, this is not my Kingdom that hurts you. Be strong. Love through the pain. Give when you have not been given. It is only through your faithfulness that my Kingdom will prevail.
And so the faithful have persisted. In spite of the horrors propogated by religious systems, there have been those who have lived the love of Jesus in the real world. It took 1900 years, but slavery was eventually abolished. It took 2000 years, but women and minorities are beginning to find respect and freedom in the world. This is evidence of the Kingdom of God at work in the grass roots of society.
As we conclude this section Peter gives four imperatives:
- honor everyone
- love the brotherhood
- fear God
- honor the king
When you look at the great liberation movements in our recent history — specifically those led by Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. — what is significant about them? They were non-violent. They show honor and respect, and were motivated by love. When Martin Luther King proclaimed his dream for America he didn’t say he dreamed of a day when little black boys would grow up and dominate white folk and pay them back for all the evils they had done. No. He dreamed of a day when little children would not see the color of skin, but would live together in love.
As followers of Jesus we are called to do one thing. We are called to love the world the same way that Jesus loves the world. We are called to give with no respect of persons. We are called to show grace and mercy to all, even when we don’t feel they deserve it. We fear God because he is the only one who can judge the heart of a person. We are called to simply love.
So, no matter what system you find yourself in today, be careful about the kind of attitude you have toward it. Let me get really close to home for a minute (meaning that I’m preaching to myself) It may be easy to hear these words and say “oh, yeah, no problem. I can deal with American society and love “sinners” without judgment. I can honor the president even if I may not agree with the policies.” That’s fine. But there is one system that you may be struggling with. Perhaps you are finding it hard to deal with the church. Ever since the day Martin Luther (I’m referring to the 16th century German priest this time) nailed his 95 theses on the chapel door, Protestant Christians have been prone to whine and complain about their church system. Today, among “emerging” church people, it is popular to bash evangelical church systems and find all the faults. We like to run off and try new and “edgy” methods of ministry and church structure. As a guilty party, I offer a word of caution. Don’t be too quick to tongue lash. Weigh every word with this passage from Peter. Your senior pastor is, in some ways, a king. Your denomination is a human system just like any other human system. If your goal is to reform your system then the only way to do that is by following Jesus’ system — Love it. Love your church. Serve your church. Be Jesus to your church. Don’t leave it unless you either a) have their blessing (even if they may not completely understand you) or b) you are ABSOLUTELY sure that God has asked you to do so. In that event, do it gracefully and never, never, never bash that church within your new context. If you do, it will be your undoing. It is only when we function under the total other-oriented love of Jesus that we can truly bring about the Kingdom of God.
- honor everyone
- love the brotherhood
- fear God
- honor the king