1 Peter 2:21-25: Jesus as Model for Submission

Imperial residents, submit to the empire.

Slaves, submit to your masters.

This submission, Peter tells us, is grounded in our vocation or calling. We are called into a life of submission because Jesus is our model (pattern, example). Our vocational mission as the people of God is grounded in the life of Jesus as the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, a calling he lived out in his own passion and death. Jesus, as the innocent or righteous sufferer, is a model for all believers.

While some think this Christological section only provides the ground for Peter’s exhortation to slaves, it is better to see it as grounding the lifestyle of all Christians who live as aliens and exiles in the world (1 Peter 2:11-12). When Peter writes, “into this you have been called,” he is not simply addressing slaves. Rather, he addresses the whole community. In other words, Peter’s exhortations to “submit” (explicit in 2:13, 18; 3:1, and implicit in 3:8) are modeled by Jesus and offer imperial residents, slaves, wives, and the whole community an example to follow.

Perhaps this is easier to grasp if we view this section (1 Peter 2:13-12) through the lens of a chiasm (as Joel Green, 1 Peter, suggests).

A – Submit to the empire (2:13-17)

            B – Submit to your masters (2:18-20)

                        C – Jesus as Model (2:21-25)

            B’ – Submit to your unbelieving husbands (3:1-7)

A’ – [Submit] to each other (3:8-12)

Even though the word “submit” does not appear in 1 Peter 3:8, the mutuality assumed there portrays a mutual deference and acceptance which is itself “submission” (much like Paul calls for mutual submission in Ephesians 5:21).

The suffering of Jesus is multi-dimensional. It has several layers. The suffering of Jesus is

  • shared suffering,
  • exemplary suffering, and
  • representative suffering.

Just as Christians—given their vocation—have suffered, Christ also suffered, that is, Jesus shared their suffering. Believers do not suffer alone. They suffer as a community. They also suffer with Christ, and Christ suffers with them. In this way, Jesus empathizes with sufferers; he knows what it is like. He is an insider to suffering rather than a distant God looking in from the outside.

Further, Christ does not merely share our suffering, he is also a model for how Christians live out their faith in suffering. Jesus set an example (hupogrammon) to follow, or he plowed a path upon which believers are called to walk. The Greek term behind the word “example” only occurs here in the New Testament, but in Hellenistic culture it often referred to a writing tool, which helped students learn to write. The lines on the page were their pattern. By following the lines they could write well rather than badly. Jesus is such a pattern for how Christians endure suffering well.

This pattern for suffering involves:

  • do no evil (sin) and tell no lies (deceit)
  • do not return evil (abuse, threats) for evil (abuse, threats)
  • entrust yourself to the righteous judge for justice

This pattern of suffering—do good rather than evil, return good for evil, and trust [fear] God—is characteristic of a righteous sufferer. The outcome is not in the hands of the sufferer, but in the hands of the just judge.

Suffering is not pleasant, but it is endured with grace, kindness, and goodness. Sufferers overcome through doing good, showing kindness, and trusting in God’s justice.

More than a shared suffering and more than an exemplary suffering, the suffering of Jesus is also representative. More specifically, Jesus suffers in the role of the suffering servant of Isaiah who intercedes for the transgressions of others and pours himself out in death for the sake of the sins of others (Isaiah 53:12).

The connections between 1 Peter 2:22-25 and Isaiah 53 appear on almost every line. Below is one way to represent them by paralleling verses in the two texts.

1 Peter 2

Isaiah 53

“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (2:22). “Although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth” (53:9).
“When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten” (2:23a). “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth” (53:7).
“he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (2:23b) “by a perversion of justice he was taken away…he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days” (53:8, 10)
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross” (2:24a). “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases…he bore the sin of many” (53:4, 12).
“by his wounds you have been healed” (2:24b). “by his bruises we are healed” (53:5).
“For you were going astray like sheep” (2:25) “All we like sheep have gone astray” (53:6).

Isaiah 53, as utilized by Peter, describes—in part—the atoning work of Jesus the Messiah as God’s righteous suffering servant. This work, of course, includes more than than his death. Indeed, involves God becoming human to suffer with us, reversing the effects of death and disease in the world, victory of the powers of evil, and resurrection.  Here, however, Peter focuses on  the representative function of the cross in that atoning work.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross [literally, tree], so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:24, NRSV).

“Tree” is a significant term theologically. For those soaked in the language of the Hebrew Bible, it would be difficult to miss the allusion to Deuteronomy 21:22-23 where those who are executed for a crime are hung on a “tree” as a symbol of God’s curse (cf. Galatians 3:13). The conjunction of “bear,” “sins,” and “tree” evokes a moment where, in some sense, the death of Jesus embodies the curse of sin and, in effect, removes that curse from us. The death of Jesus liberates us.

Through his death, we are “free,” but not simply free from guilt but free to live. This freedom calls us into a life of righteousness—it is our vocation in the world, that is, to live out the mission of God in such a way that we bear witness to the saving work of God in Jesus the Messiah. Consequently, we “submit” to the empire, masters, unbelieving husbands, and each other. We submit for the sake of God’s mission.

Recalling Isaiah 53, Peter then switches the metaphor to emphasize new life. Jesus’s wounds heal us. We are not simply forgiven, but healed; we are freed so that we might be transformed and made whole. This is new life; it is new birth.

Jesus’s representative atoning work is God’s way to move sheep back into the fold of divine protection. There God becomes the “shepherd (pastor) and guardian (overseer, bishop) of [their] souls” (1 Peter 2:25). The sheep have wandered away, but through Jesus, the Father brings them back, unites them with Israel, and forms them into a community shepherded and protected by God. Later, Peter will use similar language to describe not only Jesus the Messiah but also leaders within the Christian community itself (1 Peter 5:1-5).

Birthed into a new community with new life, Christians follow the model of Jesus as they encounter suffering. They submit and they suffer. They pursue good, eschew evil, fear God, and do not return evil for evil. They do this because they have redeemed by the Lamb, ushered into a new community, and live free as people shaped by God rather than by the dominant culture.

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