One of Peter’s main points in the letter is that as a Christian you are an alien in the world and so here is how you are to live. He starts 1 Peter 2 talking about our identity in Christ and finishes chapter two and into three talking about specific roles the Christians in his day might find themselves in and how to live in each role. The first role he covered was living as a Christian under the authority of the government (1 Peter 2:13-17). Now he turns his attention to slaves and non-Christian masters. From there he will move on in chapter three to women married to non-Christian husbands. Again, in each instance he is focused on Christian-non-Christian interaction and the role of the Christian to model Jesus for the world.
It seems to me Peter sees everything as an opportunity to live out your Christian identity. In doing so you have an opportunity in every relationship you are a part of to show people Jesus. This is especially true in the more difficult moments of our relationships, especially when suffering is involved.
First, it is important to understand slavery in the ancient world. It wasn’t a good thing (treating people as property never is) but it also wasn’t always what our culturally conditioned, historically specific definitions of slavery depict for us. You can read more about that here for some ideas of the differences. There were abuses taking place where masters were mistreating their slaves and Peter instructs them on how to endure through such a situation. He tells them to live in submission to their master. This is the same point Peter has been making all along, he just gets more specific in how this is played out in real life in these verses. Now, this is the same point Peter makes to everyone – to live in submission to whatever authority they have been placed under (I believe I heard a very similar phrase from Andy Stanley once – Peter makes that point here very plainly). If they suffer, let it be unjustly because the Christian slave has done the right thing and was punished wrongly. But if you are punished wrongly, remember you weren’t the first to undergo such a thing. Jesus did it first,
“But 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. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps..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. ‘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.’” – 2:20-21, 23-24
This is a hard teaching to be sure and the only way to get through it is to look at the larger purpose – that through difficulty, even injustice, there is an opportunity for Jesus to shine through. If a Christian slave responds through rebellion, his witness to Christ is compromised. This is a hard teaching because it is talking about how we stand up to injustice. Submission doesn’t sound like standing up to anything. It sounds more like giving in but I don’t think that is the case at all. First, I think Peter is saying if you continue to try to do what is right then less bad things are likely to befall you. Doing good never eliminates our suffering. Peter acknowledges that throughout the letter (suffering is mentioned over a dozen times in this short letter). But in principle you will have less trouble in the world when you try to do what is right. Some people are cruel enough to attack you anyway. What then? Look to Jesus’ example. Jesus blessed those who crucified him when he asked God to forgive them, even though it was all unjust. We don’t respond to injustice with injustice. We respond with blessing and submission. When we do that, there are some who will take notice and find Jesus through such actions. That is our higher calling. This takes trust in God (2:23) and God will judge all of this justly. This isn’t about letting evils go by unchecked. It is letting the proper person be the judge and that is God, not us.
This is probably the hardest teaching in the letter and embedded in these verses is a lesson for us all and here is what it is. Trust God enough to not have to take every matter into your own hands. Live a godly life even in suffering and trust that God will make everything right in due time. Justice is coming so do not sin when you go through hard times. God has this!