In the bible there is a story told of a young man who was sold into slavery by his own brothers. Granted, he was annoying. Still: he did not deserve that!
But this young man made the best of his situation. And the text indicates that, because of his honest service as a slave, his master promoted him from field work to house work, and then eventually promoted him to household administrator.
And that is a great story. We love those kinds of stories: the story of the self-made-man, the rags-to-riches story.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. Unfortunately, this kid was good looking, and his master’s wife tried to seduce him. And we might have expected him to go ahead. Because what better way to dishonour the man who enslaved you than by dishonouring his wife? You might get caught and killed, but what a way to go: knowing that your master will never get his honour back!
But the young man refused. And his reason for refusing was a strange one. Instead of saying, “No way! Your husband would kill me if he found out!” he said, “No way! My God is the one who promoted me to this high position, so how then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” This young man was conscious of God, he was aware of God’s hand at work in his life: lifting him up out of abject slavery into a position of trust and authority. He did not want to dishonour God’s work by turning aside into adultery and malice and deception.
And his master’s wife was so struck by the young man’s honesty and faithfulness that she repented. She and her husband went to marriage counselling and lived happily ever after. The young man married a princess. And there was a post-credit scene that was an obvious setup for a sequel.
…No. I made that part up.
Because I think most of you have figured out that we are talking about Joseph here. And so you know that his master’s wife actually trumped up some false evidence, accused Joseph of attempted rape, and had him thrown into prison.
And the text does not tell us that Joseph made any attempt to defend himself against this false accusation. Most likely he simply could not, dared not. Because, in order to defend himself, he would have to prove his master’s wife a liar. Which means that, even if he succeeded in proving himself innocent of attempted rape, he would forever be known as the slave who filed a court case against his own master’s household. Basically, Joseph knew he was screwed no matter what. So he entrusted himself to the God who judges justly, and went to prison even though he was innocent.
And it is only as the story goes on that we find out why God allowed all this to happen: it turns out that Joseph’s silent submission to injustice was God’s plan all along, a plan that resulted in the salvation of Egypt and all the nations of the world. Through Joseph’s sufferings he even ends up saving the lives of his own brothers — the same brothers who had sold him into slavery.
And this ancient history from the Book of Genesis set the pattern for the rest of the bible: this idea that God actually works to save people through the unjust suffering of his servants.
Which is a very strange idea, isn’t it? Not just strange: uncomfortable — especially if you are one of God’s servants.
And one thing that Peter made clear last week is that Christians are God’s servants. Actually, he used an even stronger term: he told Christians to live as God’s slaves.
Now, Peter wrote this letter to Christians in ancient Roman Asia, almost 2000 year ago. And in the Roman empire, a slave was a person — scratch that. In the Roman empire, a slave was not even a person. Because to be a person in the Roman empire was actually a legal status. Literally, the word “person” meant “face”. So if you were a “person”, then you had a ”face” — you had an identity.
Slaves in the Roman empire were not persons — they were, quite literally, the faceless ones. They had no legal status at all. They had no rights. They could be beaten, raped, dismembered, set on fire…their lives were completely at the mercy of their masters.
So, with all this in mind, it is a little bit shocking that Peter would write to his friends in Roman Asia and call them God’s slaves, God’s faceless ones: a people without rights. Because, so far, he has been calling them God’s newborn babies, God’s children. In fact, last week, in the same sentence where he called them God’s slaves, he also told them that they have now been reborn as “free persons” — people with faces, people with the highest status on earth.
But I think, by this point, we are starting to see a pattern in the way Peter likes to mess with our thinking. He likes to take two contradictory ideas and jam them together. For instance, he started his letter by calling these Christians ”God’s chosen…exiles”. He did that on purpose, in order to shatter the illusion of Roman reality and lead his readers through to a vision of God’s reality.
Well, that is what Peter is doing here again. He says, “Live as people with faces…live as God’s faceless ones.”
And we are supposed to say, “…what?!”
So now, let’s let Peter explain…
Last week, Peter did something truly remarkable, truly seditious. His Christian friends were accused of being anti-government. They were accused of being anarchists or revolutionaries. So, he told his friends to defeat these false accusations by submitting to government; showing proper respect to everyone — but he also introduced a world-changing virus into this code of submission. He did not question the Roman ideal that honour should be given where honour is due…but he questioned how honour is to be measured and defined. Peter agreed that honour should be given where honour is due! — but then he went on to point out that God’s children — because they are God’s children — are actually worthy of greater honour than any emperor.
The Romans believed the emperor was divine, descended from the gods, while everyone else is just human. Peter said no. He pulled the emperor down to the level of “just human”, and lifted Christians up to divine status as God’s children. “Rich or poor, slave or free, male or female, Roman citizen or refugee: none of that matters anymore to us,” Peter said, “because you are all free people now — !
“…and you are God’s faceless slaves.”
Why is he suddenly talking about slaves?
Well, because his Christian friends are also being accused of being anti-economy, and the economy of the Roman empire ran on slave labour. There were millions of slaves that worked in fields and mines and factories, and there were millions of slaves that worked within every Roman household as well. That is why Romans were so excited about this idea that everyone should show proper respect to those in authority: because if their slaves all decided to stop showing proper respect, the entire economy of the empire would crash.
So Romans did not like it when people started messing around with their slaves — and this new Christian religious movement was messing around with their slaves. Christian teachers, like Peter, were going around saying that slaves are people too: they are not just faceless biological robots, they are creatures with souls that are just as valuable as the emperor’s soul. And the Roman response was, “Hey, stop telling my slaves that they are human beings! Once they get that idea in their heads, they are going to start questioning why they are the slaves while we are the masters, and once they start doing that our entire society will fall completely apart.
“You Christians are encouraging my slaves to rebel against me. Stop it!”
So this is why, today, Peter is suddenly talking about slaves. His Christian friends are being accused of being anti-social, anti-economy, because of their radical beliefs about the equality of all people. So Peter says, beginning in verse 18, slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.  For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God.
Now, knowing what we know about the potential horrors of Roman slavery, this sounds like very bad advice to us. We hear this and we think, “Wow: Peter wants Christian slaves to submit to such things as being beaten to death, or sexually abused?”
But we are thinking as tremendously empowered 21st century people living in a very modern city full of abuse hotlines and services of almost every kind. The laws of our modern world do not — publically — permit systems of faceless slavery.
Peter’s world was very different. If a Roman master decided to abuse his slaves, there was no choice of “submit or not”: it just happened. And if a slave tried to run away, the penalty was death by crucifixion.
So if we are sitting here thinking, “Wow, did Peter just tell Christian slaves to submit to beatings and sexual abuse?” the answer is: No. He did not just command Christians to submit to beatings and abuse. Because if a Christian was a slave, they simply had no choice. Their submission or non-submission to beatings was totally irrelevant, because they were powerless. Commanding powerless people to submit to their powerlessness makes no sense at all, because a powerless person — by definition — lacks even the power to submit to their powerlessness.
The answer is: no. Peter is not stupid or cruel. If a young slave girl comes to worship in tears and confesses that her master and his friends abused her all week long, Peter is not going to say, “Well, you know, now that you are a Christian you really should not submit to that kind of treatment anymore!” That kind of pastoral response would add a weight of guilt to that girl’s shame that would just destroy her soul along with her body!
And Jesus Christ would never do that. He would never say that to someone in such a powerless position.
Neither does Peter.
So instead of telling Christian slaves to submit to things they have no power over anyway, Peter is telling them to submit in the areas in which they do have power.
This is what he goes on to explain in verse 20: How is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.
Christians are being accused of being anti-social, anti-economy. So just like he did last week, Peter is saying, “If we are going to defeat these false accusations, we are going to have to prove it through our lives, through our actions. They are accusing us of encouraging slaves to rebel. So: Christian slaves, make sure you do the exact opposite. Shock your masters by being even more humble than you were before you were a Christian.”
So we are seeing that, just like last week, Peter’s goal is for Christians to silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. And since Christians are being accused of supporting slave rebellions, it makes sense that — in order to silence this false accusation — Christian slaves would have to work very hard to be as humble as possible.
…but still: we struggle with this whole idea. We hear this and we think, “This does not seem fair! These slaves are already carrying the entire weight of the economy on their backs: now they are supposed to just accept their place in society? These slaves are already so powerless! — how can Peter expect them to have the power to silence these false accusations? Why doesn’t Peter call upon the more powerful members of the Church to do something?”
But, again, we are thinking as tremendously empowered 21st century people. Our vision of reality is not the same as Peter’s vision of reality. When we look at the condition of ancient Roman slaves, we think of them as the most powerless people in the world, and we get upset with the pressure Peter is putting on them to conform, to accept their place in society. Peter tells them to submit in reverent fear of God, he tells them to bear up under the pain because they are conscious of God, and to us this sounds like a guilt-trip. To us, it sounds like Peter is saying, “Remember, God is watching!”
But that is not at all what Peter means!
When Peter talks about the reverent fear of God and being conscious of God, he is not telling these slaves to live in fear of God’s judgement, he is telling them to live in the light of God’s reality. Yes, these slaves are powerless under the Roman system — but the Roman system is not actually the reality these slaves live under. These are the children of the living God. These are actually the most powerful people on earth, greater even than the Roman emperor.
So if we are sitting here thinking, “Why doesn’t Peter call upon the more powerful members of the Church to do something?” — he is. These Christian slaves are every bit as powerful as the richest politician/businessman in the Church. That is God’s reality.
Actually, the truth is: these Christian slaves are more powerful than the richest politician/businessman in the Church! Because, under the Roman system, masters held the power of life and death over their slaves. But in God’s system, it is God’s slaves who hold the power of life and death over their human masters.
Allow me to explain:
Last week, Peter pointed out that these Christians of Roman Asia are in the same situation as Abraham was when he lived among the nations of the world: these Christians have the power, through their behaviour, to bring blessings or curses down upon their neighbors.
Remember how, every time Abraham treated the nations next door with malice and deceit, the nations next door would respond by treating him badly, and then God would respond by treating those nations badly? Well, the same principle is at work here: all these Christian slaves have to do is treat their masters with malice and deceit. Then their masters will respond by treating them badly. And God will respond by treating them badly. Because God’s attitude is always, “Hey, don’t touch my kids! I don’t care if they are misbehaving, that is my problem to resolve, not yours!”
In other words: if these Christian slaves want to destroy their masters, all they have to do is misbehave. Sure, their masters will destroy them — but at least they go to Paradise knowing that their masters will end up in hell.
In fact, if these Christian slaves want to destroy the Roman empire, all they have to do is rebel. The Roman empire will crush their rebellion, of course! — but then God will crush the Roman empire, just as he crushed the Babylonian empire in the Old Testament.
So: yes, these Christian slaves are actually the most powerful people in the Roman empire. They hold the fate of the empire in their hands. And this is why Peter gives them this particular responsibility of silencing these particular false accusations: that Christians are pro-rebellion, pro-chaos. These Christian slaves could silence the ignorant talk of foolish people by simply calling down God’s curse upon the foolish people. But this is why Peter tells them to submit in reverent fear of God: because God does not take pleasure in cursing people; therefore God’s children should not take pleasure in cursing people. As God’s children — conscious of their Father’s kind and gracious character — Peter is asking these Christian slaves to restrain themselves, to resist the temptation to use their powers for destruction.
Peter is asking them to be like Jesus:  To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.  “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”  When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.
Jesus, the Son of God, was also falsely accused. He could have called down his Father’s curses upon those who cursed him him. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly: he did not try to manipulate his Father’s powers of destruction, but left the decision about who to curse completely in his Father’s hands.
Jesus restrained himself, and used his power to save and not destroy:  “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”  For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
Jesus, in reverent fear of God, submitted himself to betrayal, slavery, abuse, and death. He bore up under the pain of unjust suffering because he was conscious of God: he did not want to dishonour his Father’s work by turning aside into violence and revenge.
And it was only as the story went on that we found out why God the Father allowed all this to happen to Jesus the Son: it turned out that Jesus’ silent submission to injustice was the plan all along, a plan that resulted in the salvation of people from all the nations of the world.
Peter is telling these Christians that Christ suffered for them, leaving them an example, that they should follow in his steps…in other words: these Christian slaves do not just have the power to destroy through rebellion, they also have the power to save through submission. Just like Abraham, by entrusting their lives completely to God’s care, these Christian slaves have the power to pour out God’s blessings upon those who are cursing them. Just like Abraham, these Christian slaves have the power to live such good lives among the nations that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
So now we are discovering that, just like last week — when Peter was talking about how every Christian should live in submission to the government — Peter actually wants these Christian slaves to accomplish two things. First, it is God’s will that they silence the ignorant talk of foolish people: that they prove that Jesus Christ is the God of submission and order, not chaos and destruction. Second, it is God’s will that, through their submission, they might even lead their masters to the ultimate blessing: salvation in Christ.
So, to summarize Peter’s message so far:
Living as a slave under a non-Christian master can be pretty horrible. Depending on how horrible your master is, some of those horrors simply cannot be avoided.
Now, clearly, you cannot make your masters less horrible by rebelling against them — though you could potentially condemn them to hell.
However, your masters would certainly be less horrible if they were born again into Christ’s new people. And since you are conscious of God’s desire to save rather than destroy, you could potentially bless your masters with salvation by showing them the respect and honour that is due their position according to the system that they live in.
In essence: if these Christian slaves want Roman masters to learn to treat them with honour as human beings created in God’s image, then these Christians slaves need to lead by example by treating Roman masters with honour as human beings created in God’s image. This strategy will, at least, open up the doors of evangelism so that God’s Word and God’s Spirit can do its work among those God has decided to redeem.
In any case, whether your masters are destined for salvation or not, when you submit, you are playing a role in God’s great plan of redemption by — first — silencing the false accusation that Christians are encouraging slaves to rebel and destroy society, and — second — by helping our churches preach the Gospel among the nations.
But something interesting has just happened in this text:
Peter began this section by talking to Christian slaves in particular. But in the middle he changed to talking to all Christians. The switch happened in verse 24; “Jesus himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness.
And this is where our application comes in. Every week we like to ask the question, “So what?” What difference is this ancient letter, to ancient people, supposed to make in our modern lives? None of us here today — thank God — are slaves in the Roman sense, so these instructions are not intended for us, right?
But here we find out that Peter is writing to all of us, not just to those who are literally slaves. He set us up for this last week, when he told us all to “live as free people”, and then, in the very next breath: “live as God’s slaves”. And we were wondering why Peter is jamming these two contradictory ideas together —
This is why:
Last week, in Peter’s instructions about how Christians should relate to government, he wrote a world-changing virus into his code of submission: he reached down and lifted up the lowest people in the Asian Church — the slaves, the faceless ones — and told them that they are equal with the highest people in the Asian Church.
Well, this week, in Peter’s instructions about how Christian slaves should relate to their masters, he has written another world-changing virus into his code: he has just reached up and pulled down the highest people in the Asian Church — the wealthy, the powerful, the masters — and told them that they are equal with the lowest people in the Asian Church.
Last week, Peter told the Christians of Roman Asia that they should all consider themselves as more valuable than the emperor; they can do this because they know that their true value comes from God. This week, he has told them that they should all think of themselves as less valuable than the faceless ones of their world. And he is saying, “You can do this because you know that your true value comes from God. You know that our identity is not assigned to us by the world, it is assigned to us by God. Who we are cannot be shaken by false accusations, by insults, by abuse.”
And, friends: I keep describing these as a world-changing viruses embedded in the code, because they are. Let’s just apply this thinking directly to our church community today: our little Modern Asian church strongly resembles the Roman Asian churches Peter was writing to so long ago: we have a number of ethnicities, a number of cultural backgrounds, a number of languages joined together here. In the ancient churches they spoke Greek with one another, even though Greek was not the native language for many of them; today we are speaking English, even though that is not the native language for many of us —
— and I want to say, on behalf of all of us who do speak English as a native language: thank you. Thank you to all of you who join us faithfully every week even though English is not your preferred language. Our community is richer because of your willingness to suffer in this way; the fact that you speak other languages that we do not speak at all means that we are also getting to learn unique perspectives from you. So again: really, seriously, thank you for your faithfulness to us.
And, just like in those ancient congregations, in our community there are many who truly are “free people” in the eyes of Malaysian society, in the eyes of Malaysian law: people who have the proper paperwork, the right ICs, the right passports, proper visas…people with legal status. But there are also some in our community who are faceless in the eyes of Malaysian law, in the eyes of Malaysian society: people without the proper paperwork, people without legal status.
So let us apply Peter’s revolutionary code to ourselves now. How much richer and deeper might our community become if we really began to see each person seated around us as worthy of greater honour than the most powerful politician in Malaysia? How might our behaviour toward one another change if we really began to see the glory of the fire of God shining through each one of our brothers and sisters sitting here?
I tell you, friends, that if our Father ever opened our eyes to see one another as we really are, we would all fall on our faces in reverent fear; we would perceive ourselves to be surrounded by creatures of such power and purity we would have to hide our faces from one another. We would cry out to God to make it stop!
On the other hand, how much richer and deeper might our community become if we really began to see ourselves as slaves for God’s sake: faceless for God’s sake?
A couple of weeks ago, Peter told us to get rid of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. All of those sins are motivated by the desire to preserve our own status, our own identity. When someone treats us as less than we think we deserve, we respond with malice and deceit. When someone else has a status we wish we had, we respond with envy and slander. How might our behaviour toward one another change if we really began to see the glory of the fire of God shining within ourselves?
Friends, if our Father ever opened our eyes to see ourselves as he sees us — as his beloved sons and daughters — our identity would be so secure that we would never envy anyone ever again. We would no longer care about insults, we would no longer care if we were treated like slaves or not…because we would know the truth.
Well, guess what: now we know this truth. We do not get to see it directly with our eyes in this life, because we could not handle it. But we know this truth because Peter has told us that this is the truth, this is the reality that underlies all.
So this is our application for today, this is God’s will for us, this is what we are going to do: we are going to accept that, in the eyes of this world, we will never be anything more than slaves, we will never be anything more than refugees, foreigners.
And this change in how we think about ourselves is going to have two profound effects:
First, it is going to strengthen the unity of our church.
As we have already noticed, we are a diverse group: ethnically, culturally, linguistically; we have rich and we have poor; we have people with legal status and people without. And what this means is that we are going to misunderstand one another a lot. Because a word or an action that is considered polite in one culture can be considered insulting in another culture. And Satan loves to take those little misunderstandings between brothers and sisters and use them to turn us against one another.
But if we can begin to think of everyone else in church as more glorious than any emperor, while at the same time thinking of ourselves as no higher than a faceless slave, then we will begin to treat one another more humbly. When our brother or sister says or does something that seems really insulting to us, we will say, “well, if I am a faceless slave, then I should expect to be insulted. And I can handle being insulted, I am able to forgive my brother or sister because I am conscious of my true identity in God.”
This attitude is what will give the Holy Spirit time to work in those moments right after we feel ourselves to be insulted. Instead of responding with anger and malice, we will take a moment to remember the truth…and this will give us space to cool down. Then, instead of saying, “How dare you say such a thing to me!” we will be able to say, “I’m sorry, can we pause for a moment, please? What you just said just now felt insulting to me. But I know that you are my brother, you are my sister, so I am certain that we share the same Holy Spirit, I am certain that you love me deeply, from the heart. And so I am certain that I must have misunderstood you just now. Can you help me understand what you really meant, so that Satan will not tempt me to malice and hypocrisy?”
I think we all have the imagination to realize how this humble attitude would change everything about how we live together as a family.
And as we practice this humility amongst ourselves, then the second profound effect will begin to be revealed: the way we respond to insults from outside will be transformed.
When we are slandered, when we are falsely accused, no deceitful response will be found in our mouths. When we are insulted, we will not retaliate. When we suffer unjustly, we will make no threats about Judgement Day. Instead, we will entrust ourselves to him who judges justly. We will continue to treat our enemies with the respect that is due to them as human beings created in the image of God.
If they refuse to treat us with the honour that is due to the children of God, then…that is between them and God, and God will hold them to terrible account for every insult, every abuse. But that is not our business. Our business is to live such good lives among the nations that perhaps, through our continued faithfulness even in the midst of unjust suffering, some among those who hate us now might even find themselves healed through the wounds of Christ, just as we have.
And friends, this is where we must take warning from Peter’s words. He says that Jesus left us an example, that we should follow in his steps. And the word he uses for “example” is actually a word from the ancient Roman school-system. Ancient students learned to write by tracing over the top of their teacher’s handwriting, so that they created an exact copy of the original. That is how closely we are supposed to follow Christ in this.
He is the only begotten Son of God — but he took on the faceless existence of a slave, and suffered a slave’s death in order to save those who hated him. We are the born again children of God — but we are called to trace over our older brother’s handwriting. We will not all suffer in the exact same ways Jesus suffered, but we are called to respond to our sufferings with the same humble attitude of Christ, for the same purpose. Now we, of course, do not save anyone directly through our sufferings — only Jesus can do that, because he was truly sinless. But as our sufferings trace over the sufferings of our Saviour, we become living testimonies to the healing wounds of Jesus.
So this is our warning: if we, as Christians, as a Christian community, continue to find ourselves responding to insults with malice and deceit, if we continue to be fixated on our own need to defend our own identities, our own reputations…then we are no longer tracing over our big brother’s handwriting. And Peter tells us very clearly, that “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness. Friends, if we claim to be Christians, but continue to delight in pride and anger and the need for revenge against those who insult us, then we are not living for righteousness! And that means that we are basically pouring the precious blood of Christ out upon the ground and saying, “No thank you, Jesus, I am going to be my own avenger. I am not going to wait for Judgement Day. I am going to save myself, thank you very much.”
Friends, if you are here today and this is true of you, then please take this warning to heart: according to scripture, the very worst sin you can commit is to call yourself a Christian and then publically despise the blood that was poured out for you. So if that is you: repent. Cry out! Ask the Holy Spirit to give you the heart and the humility of a slave. And he will.
This repentance is for all of us, to whatever degree we discover those dark corners of pride in our lives.
And this is our Gospel: we were like sheep going astray, but now we have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls, and our great shepherd is not going to lose a single one of his sheep. We find ourselves stuck in the thorns, powerless to free ourselves from slavery to our own pride — but he hears our cries, and lifts us up, and carries us home to safety.
Brothers and sisters, we are a completely new race of people. In the eyes of our Father, we are a race of kings and queens. In the eyes of the world, we are a race of slaves. We have the power to destroy those who despise us — but instead, our Father is asking us to restrain ourselves. We know the truth! They do not. And this give us all the power. Let us not abuse this power. Let us not set ourselves up as tyrants, directing the judgement of God against those we hate and fear. Those who abuse us are to be pitied, not despised, because if they do not repent, we know that one day they are going to face the wrath of the living God. So let’s not get in the way of that! Let us learn to use this power we have been given properly: not to crush those who are blind, but to give them sight, if it is God’s will to do so.
From the very beginning of his letter Peter has been telling us to live as foreigners. If we could develop a reputation in Kuala Lumpur as a community that voluntarily lives with the mindset of slaves, forsaking all pride, all ambition, all vengeance…well: ha! There is nothing more foreign than that!
May God have mercy upon us all.