First-century slavery in the Roman Empire was temporary, that is, most slaves could expect to purchase their freedom within 10–15 years. By contrast, American slavery was typically for life. Slaves were regarded as property, without social status or human rights.
Slavery has always been an unjust social institution, but knowing this cultural distinction helps us better understand Peter’s command that slaves submit to their masters, even harsh ones (v. 18). This follows his command to all Christians to “live as God’s slaves” (v. 16). For slaves to submit to their masters was this command’s highest degree of difficulty. Such submission is also taught in the other household codes of the New Testament (see Eph. 6:5–8). The motive is the same—”reverent fear of God” (v. 18).
Make no mistake. This does not mean God endorses slavery! Since it was possible at that time to be a slave and live as a Christian, questions of justice were left in God’s hands. Believers were to live out the gospel before a watching world. If slaves could gain their freedom, they should, but Peter makes it clear that they were already free in God’s eyes (1 Cor. 7:21–22). Peter’s words turn the understanding of slavery upside down. Christian masters were to treat their slaves right and told they would be held accountable before God for doing so (Eph. 6:9). And who ever heard of a slave who’d been promised an eternal inheritance (Col. 3:22–24)?!
Any believer who suffers for doing good, including slaves, is following in Christ’s steps and earning God’s commendation (vv. 19–21). Jesus also suffered unjustly. He was ranked not among the privileged and the powerful but among the slaves and the lowly (Mark 10:42–45).
>> In a world focused on asserting our own rights with goals of attaining wealth, power, and social status, Peter’s words may seem challenging. As we follow Christ’s example of humility, we might need to rethink our personal goals!
Your Son, whom we worship, is the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53). We are called to be like Him, and You promised us we would have trouble (John 16:33). Give us humility and strength to endure the trials You have ordained.