top of page

1 Peter 2:19-25

Culturally speaking, suffering seems to be the greatest evil. Our world is full of escapes and analgesic drugs, both legal and illegal. For some, too, religion is an opiate or an escape. Most of us do not want to suffer. And yet in this week’s passage Peter calls the dispersed Christians to endure unjust suffering. After all, Jesus’ example for us was one of unjust suffering.

Peter says,  “ ‘He committed no sin,    and no deceit was found in his mouth.’  23When he was abused, he did not return abuse;  when he suffered, he did not threaten;  But he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24He 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.  25For you were going astray like sheep, But now you have returned to the shepherd  And guardian of your souls.[1]

The example given to us by Jesus is one who endures suffering. Speaking about suffering, however, is a dangerous task for a preacher. We should not be unaware that this passage is one that has been abused by preachers and parishioners alike as a way to justify acts of great terror. Men and women have remained in abusive relationships because of this passage. Some women have endured their husband’s physical and verbal abuse out of duty to Jesus believing, ”Jesus suffered, I should too.” We would not want our preaching to result in women and men in abusive relationships to remain.

In order to preach this passage well, we must situate this passage within Peter’s overall letter. For that we may want to switch the 1 Peter passages from 4a and 5a as they would then follow the order of Peter’s argument. We should also remember that Peter is writing to a group of people who have been dispersed. Earlier in chapter 2 he notes that the dispersed Christians have been made into a royal priesthood, a holy nation, but that this nation is one in exile. They are aliens and strangers in this world who are called to live holy lives. And as exiles, they are not to be bound by their situation. They are to live as free people, regardless of who the emperor is.

After establishing this, Peter moves on to what are considered household codes. And he begins with slaves. We should note that slavery practiced in the 1st century CE was quite different than the slavery practiced in North America, but we may need to wrestle with the historicity of this passage. Regardless of the categorical differences, this passage was one used by Christians (In both the North and the South) to support the enslavement of black people. For some members of our churches this is a very difficult passage to hear. We should not easily dismiss our history as something excused because people in the past were ignorant. Nor should we simply use this passage to increase white guilt. Instead we would do well to proclaim,

“The suffering of slaves is evil. It is injustice. Neither Peter nor the entire New Testament offers any implicit of explicit justification of the system of masters and slaves, nor any other system of dominance, oppression, or cruelty. Whatever such system may be in place in the wider society, there is, in any case never any gospel warrant for such a system being repeated and maintained within the Christian community, even where the social titles (master, slave) might still be used. Whatever their status in the wider society, every person within the messianic social order of the body of Christ is called to conform to and participate in the pattern of Christ’s self offering love as set forth in the gospels, in Phil 2:5-11, in 1 Peter 2:21-24 and in many other New Testament texts.”[2]

Just as the suffering of slaves is unjust, “The crucifixion of the Messiah was the most unjust and wicked act the world had ever seen.”[3] Jesus is the suffering servant from Isaiah 53. He is the one who bore no sin. If one is treated unjustly, we can know that our God understands this type of injustice, for God suffered injustice.

Jesus’ suffering is “both exemplary and vicarious.”[4] Regardless of atonement theory, we cannot escape the fact that Jesus “died for us.” That death may not have been to pay God back the debt humanity incurred (as Anselm suggests in Cur Deus Homo) and it may be that Jesus suffered to take away our enmity. Regardless of where we stand with atonement theories, in 1 Peter Jesus is the only one who could bear our sins in his body. Peter refers to Jesus’ death as a ransom “from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors” in 1:18 indicating a ransom from slavery to both death and the law. His allusion to the “lamb without defect” makes clear that Jesus is the Passover lamb who liberates us from slavery just the Passover lamb liberated Israel from slavery. Peter clearly indicates that Jesus vicariously suffers for us, and “by his wounds we are healed.”

Jesus’ death is exemplary in that Jesus refused to participate in the injustice of this world. “He committed no sin.” Jesus could have liberated Israel from Roman oppression. Jesus could have saved himself while on the cross, but “the normal means (guerrilla warfare, armed revolt, overthrow, territorial control)… would have required humiliation, suffering, and death of others.”[5] Jesus’ example is one that seeks to save even the oppressor. As N.T. Wright puts it “[Peter] is urging them to realize that somehow, strangely, the sufferings of the Messiah are not only the means by which we ourselves are rescued from our own sin. They are the means…. by which the world itself may be brought to a new place.”[6] Christians are called to be like Christ, even in the face of suffering because by doing that we are participating in God’s new creation.

Through Jesus actions we are liberated from our bondages to sin and death. This is enables us to live as free people who can freely choose to suffer alongside our King.

“Christ reveals his ultimate freedom to be just; that is, in his own death, to honor, serve, and forgive the very agents of human injustice that murder him, rather than to inflict their just punishment upon them. The Father receives and honors this ultimate act of life-giving justice by giving life to the just one, raising him from the dead, revealing him as the one in whom alone true justice is eternally enacted. The Holy Spirit draws and bunds us to this just one and makes us participants in his justice as we both receive it and do it. We become a people who learn to forsake the false promises, practices, and protections of the rulers of this age and to dwell under the sovereign healing, guidance, and protection of Jesus Christ.”[7]

As we approach this fourth Sunday of Easter, we would do well to remind our people that Jesus has suffered for us. That God is present in our sufferings because of the suffering servant. And his suffering is something that we are called to replicate. As the royal priesthood we must mediate God’s presence in this world. That includes suffering injustices to receive commendation from God, and perhaps, we will be able to draw others to God’s love ending their unjust and evil behavior. By doing this we enter into that “new place,” we live as new creation, we enter into the free realm of holy, entirely sanctified living. [1] N.T. Wright treats this section of 1 Peter as a poem, so I have indented similarly.  [2] Harink, Douglas  1&2 Peter.  1st ed.  Brazos Press. Grand Rapids. 2009. 81.  [3] Wright, N T. The Pastoral Epistles for Everyone. Westminster John Knox Press. Louisvile. 2011. 70. [4] Harink, 83.  [5] Harink, 83. [6] Wright, 71. [7] Harink, 8.