Breakfast with the Bible, Chelmsford Cathedral 16 October 2016, on 1 Peter 2:13-25.
Conduct yourselves honourably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honourable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge. (1 Peter 2:12)
In particular Peter lists four ‘duties’ for the Christian: “Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor” (2.17)
“Honour” or “respect everyone” (GNB) – Peterson: “Treat everyone with dignity”.
It doesn’t matter who people are – what their race, religion, sex, or social class is – they should be honoured. In the words of the UN Organisation declaration of 10 Dec 1948: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” – and are therefore all equally deserving of honour and respect.
All this may seem self-evident to us living in a day where there are commissions for racial, religious & sexual equality. But in Peter’s day, this was quite revolutionary stuff.
You have to remember that in the 1st century AD there were 60 million slaves in the Roman empire – everyone one of them was considered in the eyes of the law to be, not a person but thing, with no rights whatever.
In secular lst century society it would have been a nonsense to say “Honour everyone”.
But the Christian faith turned the values of the world upside down. For the apostle Peter, for the apostle Paul, indeed for Christians in general, nobody was without worth, for each one of us is a person for whom Christ died.
Wow! What a revolution would take place if these words were taken seriously.
It would mean that nobody could become a means to an end – nobody could be treated as a doormat – people would be valued as people – they would all be honoured!
Love the Family of Believers
Peter then moves up a gear. From honouring everybody in general, we are now called to “love the family of believers”.
I am reminded of Jesus’ words to his disciples: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13.34).
Do note: we are not called to like all our brothers & sisters – that is an impossibility.
We are called to love them – and loving is very different from liking.
Loving in the first place involves seeking the very best for the other.
Loving involves acting like Jesus – giving ourselves for the other.
In preparing for this session I came across some perceptive words of GK Chesterton: “Love is not blind; that is the last thing it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind”. How true that is. We are bound to love one another.
At this point Peter moves up into an even higher gear – “fear God” (NRSV).
GNB translation “honour God” loses the sense of ‘awe’ which is present in the original Greek. We are called not just to “honour God”, but to “revere” God (Peterson), to have “reverence” for God (REB).
In the Book of Proverbs: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (9.10), or as the GNB reads: “To be wise you must first have reverence for the Lord”
Why should we “fear” or “revere” God?
- Because God in his wisdom and by his power has created this vast universe in all its complexity.
- Because God is a holy God in whose presence sin can as much exist as a block of ice in a fiery furnace. The writer of the Hebrews was right when he said: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”
Honour the Emperor
All of a sudden Peter moves down a couple of notches.
Peter does not say “Fear God and fear the emperor”. No, only God is to be feared.
The emperor is only to be “honoured” – i.e. he is to be treated on the same level as everybody else. “Honour every one – honour the emperor”.
At a time when people were increasingly giving divine honours to the emperor, Peter cuts the emperor down to size – he is just a man and is to be treated as a man, but with respect, just as one would treat everybody else with respect.
The emperor in question, however, was Nero. Nero, who became an arch-persecutor of the church – Nero who ended up torturing Christians because of their faith. Yet far from demonising Nero, Peter recognised that he too had worth and dignity.
In today’s terms who is the Emperor? The Queen? Theresa May? Probably it is best to go with Peterson’s more general translation: “Respect the government” (Peterson).
What does this mean?
- The government is not to be reverenced, but neither is it to be rubbished. Honour is due the government, albeit not uncritical adulation
- On the other hand, even those with whom we may fiercely disagree are not to be scorned. What a difference that would make to the political process if people were to treat even their enemies with respect.
An Exemplary Saviour
At the time when the Apostle Peter was writing, it has been calculated that there were as many as 60 million slaves in the Roman empire. Many of the slaves were engaged in the most menial of tasks – but many doctors and teachers, musicians and actors, were also slaves. For some life could be relatively pleasant, for others life be brutish beyond.
None of them, however, had any rights.
• Their marriage had no legal force – their children belonged to their masters.
• When they were old or sick, and so no longer useful, they might be left to die of exposure.
There was no such thing as justice for a slave. In the words of one Roman: “Whatever a master does to a slave, undeservedly, in anger, willingly, unwillingly, in forgetfulness, after careful thought, knowingly, unknowingly, is judgment, justice and law” (Peter Chrysologus).
This was the context in which Peter wrote: “If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, where is the credit in that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet 2.20-21).
Peter here doesn’t tackle the rights & wrongs of slavery – nor does he tackle the rights & wrongs of the way in which people abuse one another. For him that is a given.
Rather, he says, when life is unfair, when people treat you unjustly, remember Jesus.
For “Christ also suffered”: He more than any other has experienced the unfairness and injustice of life.
In the words of Isaiah, he was “a man of suffering”, “a man of sorrows” (53.3).
This Jesus has set an example to us: “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps”.
Jesus has left an example. The underlying Greek word literally means “a pattern to be traced”.
- It was in the first place used of letters which had to copied out by children. I’m not sure how children are taught to write today, but children used to be given an exercise book in which at the top of a page there was a sentence to be copied. Teachers used to construct sentences containing all the letters of the alphabet which the children would have to copy out: e.g. “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”.
- It was also used of an outline sketch which an artist leaves for his pupils to fill in – the equivalent of a painting-by-number kit. I.e. Jesus has set the pattern for our living. He is to be our example – not least when we are wrongly treated by others.
We are to “follow in his steps” – literally in his footprints .
Peter goes on to mention two particular aspects of the life of Christ we are to emulate.
1. We are not to hit back “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten”
Our natural instinctive response as human beings is to get even with those who treat us unfairly. We seek to hurt those who hurt us. But not Jesus. Luke in his account of the crucifixion tells is how “the leaders scoffed at him… the soldiers also mocked him… one of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him” (23.35-39), but Jesus never hit back.
He did not threaten to get even at some later date. Instead he cried out: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (23.34).
When things get rough, says Peter, remember Jesus, and follow in his steps.
2. We are to ‘let God set things right’ (Peterson).: “He entrusted himself to the one who judges justly”. Peterson: “He suffered in silence, content to let God set things right”.
More accurately: “He kept on entrusting himself” to God, the righteous judge.
We have here an imperfect tense depicting an ongoing activity, rather than a simple past indicating a one-off act.
The implication is that it took repeated effort for Jesus to commit the situation into God’s hands. For Jesus was no unemotional robot. He was a man of flesh and blood like you and me. And yet he kept he refused to allow the hurt and the injustice of his treatment to gain the upper hand.
He entrusted himself to God, knowing that God would ultimately right all wrongs.
There may be little justice in this world, but there will be justice in the world to come!
A Life-Changing Death
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (2.24)
Here Peter spells out his understanding of the atonement. There on the Cross Jesus suffered not only the emotional and physical pain of crucifixion, he also suffered the dreadful spiritual pain of bearing in his body the sins of the world.
I.e. Jesus took our place: He suffered in his body the penalty of your sin, and of mine.
He went through hell in order that we might gain entry into God’s heaven.
But the emphasis here is not on the death of Christ itself – but rather the difference the death of Christ makes to the way we live, and in particular here in this context to the way we live when we are treated unjustly.
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness”. I.e. Christ died not simply that we might be forgiven – but that we might be set free to live life as God would have it lived, i.e. a Christlike life.
“Righteousness” here denotes a new standard of behaviour.
Christ’s saving act on the Cross leads to moral renewal.
Jesus died that we might be free from sins – the Greek word which Peter uses here (apogignesthai) literally means “to have no part in” “to cease from”.
Jesus died that we might be able to break away from the power of sin and instead begin to live a new life – a life patterned on the life of Jesus
A similar way of thinking is found in Rom 6.2-4, where Paul wrote: “We have died to sin – how then can we go on living in it? … By our baptism we were buried with him (Christ) and shared his death, in order that… we might live a new life” (GNB)
Although sin continues to rampage our world, its power in the life of a believer has been broken. For those who have committed their lives to Christ, a new way of living is opened up – the power of sin has been broken – we have been given the Spirit of God, who gives us the strength and motivation to go the way of Jesus.
Yes, when life treats us unfairly and we are tempted to hit back and to get even with those who have taken advantage of us, remember Jesus and the new way of life to which we are called.
What’s more, remember that Jesus offers us not only an example of how we are to deal with those who abuse us and misuse us, he also offers us new strength to “follow in his footsteps” – for through his death on the Cross he has freed us from the power of sin and opened up the possibility of living life as he lived it.
Questions for discussion:
- In a modern democracy is ‘respect’ for government (v17) best shown by our willingness to participate in the political process? How could we individually – and how could the Cathedral – be more engaged politically?
- Peter urges submission to “harsh” masters (v18) and instances the example of Jesus (v23). But is it always right to ‘grin and bear it’? Is there a point beyond which a Christian may rightfully reuse to submit to “authority”?
- Have there been times when instead of standing up for yourself, you have “entrusted” your cause to God? How did you feel then? How do you feel now?
- Sunday by Sunday we remember the Crucified Saviour as we break bread and drink wine. To what extent does this remembering make a difference to the way we live our lives? To what extent, for instance, does it strengthen you for service?