Respectful Submission (verse 18)
The word used for “servants” is different than the common Greek word for “slave.” Here, it is the word for a house servant. A house servant was often a professional such as a doctor, teacher, manager, musician, or skilled tradesman. It was not uncommon for these servants to be more educated and well-trained than their masters. We must be careful not to impose our ideas of the awful atrocity of chattel slavery from our country’s past onto the relationship that Peter is here discussing. The horrible degradation of slaves in 19th-Century America gives the word slave a worse connotation than it deserves for the context in which Peter is writing. The Bible is not pro-slavery. In fact, the principles that led to the dissolution of slavery in our land are all found in the Scriptures (c.f. 1 Timothy 1:9-10; Exodus 21:16).
In these verses, Peter is not praising or condoning slavery, or even servanthood, but he is focusing on the importance of pleasing God in all of our relationships. The Apostle Paul did the same thing (c.f. Ephesians 6:5ff; 1 Timothy 6:1; Titus 2:9ff). Christian liberty does not exempt Christian servants from subjection to their masters, even if they are pagan. The most applicable correlation in our day is the relationship between employers and employees. It is not just the formalized worship of God that requires fear and reverence for Him, but our common daily duties must also be marked with fear and reverence for God. Christian liberty requires that Christian employees, in the fear of the Lord, obey all their lawful expectations as a service to God (c.f. Colossians 3:22-24). Even in the harshest conditions, children of God have the opportunity, and therefore the potential, to bring glory to God by their behavior. If you bear unreasonable treatment in God’s strength, with confidence in His justice, there is no need to avenge yourself—God your vindicator!
Responding to Suffering (verses 19-20)
If you endure suffering from masters/employers while doing what is good, you will be rewarded by God. If you endure suffering from masters/employers while doing what is not good, you will not be rewarded. What is the reward? It is “favor,” or commendation. Another way to translate the word is “grace.” Peter is employing the same principle that Jesus taught in Luke 6:32-36 to not only do good and to do what is right, but also to respond righteously when you are wronged. By being conscious and mindful of God, we have His grace at our disposal and He provides strength to bear the pain. A christian who is conscious of God in all employments elevates his calling, no matter how low that calling might appear. Such a christian is able to turn base metals into precious stones and earthly employments into heavenly ones. The work of a servant with his eyes on Christ is far more holy than the prayers of a hypocrite.
– Generally, when a Christian employee does his work in harmony with the desires and expectations of his employer, he is also in harmony with the will of God. Our vocational lives should be marked with biblical principles—justice and righteousness, honesty and integrity, consideration and concern for others, etc. All unjust disobedience to vocational authority is an insult to the One who is the source of all authority. Do you carry out your vocational responsibilities with an eye toward Christ and a conscience toward God? How does your relationship to Christ affect your work ethic and your submission to your employer, or others in authority? How do you respond when you are treated unreasonably? How does the promised reward of God’s favor affect the way you view and respond to mistreatment?