The Example of the Suffering Slave – 1 Peter 2:21-25
“For this purpose, you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving for you an example, so that you might follow in His steps. Who did no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth. Who, when being reviled, did not revile back, when suffering, did not threaten but continued entrusting to the One who judges righteously. Who Himself bore our sins in His body upon the tree, so that, being extinct to sins, we might live to righteousness, by whose stripes you are healed. For you were like wandering sheep, but now you have been returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
What are the odds of Christian’s suffering? To some degree, this depends on the context in which various Christians find themselves. There are many places in the world (and they are growing in number every day) where Christians are threatened with physical harm. Yet in the west, we sit in our cozy pews without much fear of suffering for the sake of Christ. Is this a realistic expectation? There are many questions we might ask about suffering, though Peter answers many of them for us. These verses answer three questions about Christian suffering that inform, comfort, and call Christians to action.
What is a Christian’s Attitude Toward Suffering? (v. 21)
It would be a mistake to disassociate these verses from the paragraph before it. When Peter says, “for this purpose” he points back specifically to vv. 19-20, the exhortation for slaves to patiently endure while they suffer for doing what is good. The immediate context must be read with suffering slaves in mind.
This is actually very informative, for even a causal reading of vv. 21-25 should bring the familiar text of Isaiah 53 to mind. Peter quotes Is. 53:9 in v. 22, alludes to Is. 53:7 in v. 23, hints at Is. 53:4, 11, &12 in the beginning of v. 24 only to quote part of Is. 53:5 at its conclusion, then borrows heavily from Is. 53:6 in v. 25. In order to complete his exhortation to suffering slaves, Peter holds up the suffering slave of Yhwh as an example.
Yet this example of Christ in His suffering is not an exclusive example to slaves. Slaves are not the only Christians who suffer (4:12-13). It is also noteworthy that by v. 25, Peter addresses these slaves, not as slaves, but as ordinary reprobates who have been redeemed. So, while this text primarily addresses Christian slaves, the implications are valid for all Christians and are therefore demanded of each one of Christ’s slaves.
Should a Christian Expect Suffering?
“For this purpose, you have been called”
As we have already stated, the demonstrative τοῦτο (this) points back to the slaves who suffer for good. Peter states quite plainly that they have been called for this expressed purpose: to suffer for doing good. There’s no reason to understand “called” (καλέω) in any other manner than to express God’s effectual call of salvation. This echoes back to Peter’s introduction as he addressed his letter to the elect (ἐκλεκτός) aliens of Asia Minor. They were selected, elected, and called for the purpose of suffering for what is good. In other words, every Christian should expect to suffer.
By way of reminder, it is not that Christians are called to suffer for the sake of suffering. Peter has already stated that random or deserved suffering brings no pleasure to God (2:20). But if we suffer for doing what is right and good, then this brings God pleasure.
This should test our theology. If suffering for the sake of suffering is of no interest to God, then how can Peter say that Christians are called to suffer? How can suffering be discussed with so much certainty? Because this world is fallen and is ruled by the prince of darkness (Eph. 2:1-3). Every unredeemed man, woman, and child on this earth lives in full rebellion against the God of heaven and earth and therefore despises all who serve Him. If we dedicate our lives to being salt and light, we’re bound to attract more hate than harmony. A Christian’s attitude toward suffering must first realize that suffering (in this world) comes as part of our birthright.
Why Should a Christian Expect Suffering?
“because Christ also suffered for you, leaving for you an example, so that you might follow in His steps.”
Christians are called to suffer because Christ suffered for them. There is so much wrapped up in that simple preposition for (ὑπὲρ). In the fewest words possible, Peter points to the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ for His elect. The sense must not be misinterpreted to mean that we owe Christ something, that because He suffered for our sake we are therefore obligated to suffer for His. Rather, it is because of what Christ accomplished when He suffered in our place. There was an actual transaction that took place when Christ bore our sins and received the Father’s wrath. We have been made new and reborn through Christ’s suffering for us. It is because of who we have been made to be because of Christ’s atonement that we are called to suffer. This suffering is based on what we have been made to be, not because we owe Christ. We can never repay what we owe. That is why we are saved through faith by grace alone (Eph. 2:8-10).
Yet in this anticipated suffering, we are not left without an example. Christ did not suffer for the single purpose of leaving an example. His death was a vicarious sacrifice that satisfied God’s wrath, not a humanitarian effort that demonstrates philanthropy. And yet, as Christ suffered, He left a blueprint for His people to follow in their suffering. This example was given with an obvious yet important purpose (ἵνα), so that we would follow in Christ’s footsteps.
Examples are useless unless they are imitated. Directions are only effective if they are followed. The example of Christ’s suffering is given for us to follow. The reference to Christ’s footsteps must not be taken to mean that we place our feet in the very impressions left by Him, for we cannot bear what He bore, nor are we called to. He bore the weight of God’s wrath so that we would not have to. Yet we follow His trail, so to speak. So often we desire and pray to be more like Christ, yet if we stopped to notice the direction Christ’s path is leading, instead of permanently gazing at the ground, we would see that His trail is leading into the glades of suffering. Will we follow Christ’s trail, or attempt to skirt the valley in search for a smoother path?
How Should Christians Suffer? (vv. 22-24)
The question that remains is how do we as Christians follow the path that Christ has set for us? What does this look like? Through a series of references back to Isaiah 53, Peter reminds his readers what Christ did and did not do as He suffered. The suffering mentioned here is true of the entirety of Christ’s incarnation on earth, but most specifically refers to His passion, the height of His suffering.
What follows are four examples of Christ suffering that must be imitated. The Greek uses four consecutive relative pronouns (ὅς - who) to introduce each example of Christ. This chain constantly points back to the One whose steps we are to follow (τοῖς ἴχνεσιν αὐτοῦ). The list begins (v. 22) and ends (v. 24c) with quotations from Isaiah 53, yet all the material in between is clearly drawn from the same passage. Peter’s focus is not so much to explain the doctrine of the atonement, but to present Christ’s suffering at the atonement as the example for all Christians to model.
Suffer as a Holy People (v. 22)
“Who did no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth.”
The One we are to follow is here described by Peter, a man who knew Jesus and spent many years at His side, as One who never committed sin in word or deed. This verse is significant for a couple of reasons. First, we should keep in mind that Peter’s testimony of Jesus’ conduct and speech is not based on theory but comes from objective first-hand observations. Peter never once saw Jesus sin with His hands nor heard Jesus deceive with His mouth. Peter’s personal testimony is not easily set aside. Second, by quoting Is. 53:9 and pointing these words directly back to Christ, Peter nakedly affirms that Jesus is the suffering slave of Yhwh as described by Isaiah.
The two-fold description of sinless hands and a sinless mouth is important. There are many things that we may never do and yet with our mouth we betray our heart’s desire. It is, after all, from the heart that we speak (Matt. 12:34). To stand with clean hands and a clean mouth can only indicate a clean heart as well. Jesus suffered as a holy and blameless individual. Can we say the same? Suffering for the sake of suffering brings no pleasure to God. But if we suffer for the sake of righteousness (Matt. 5:10), conscious of God’s presence (2:19), and for doing what is good (2:20), this pleases God. Christians must suffer as Christ suffered, as a holy people.
Suffer as a Trusting People (v. 23)
“Who, when being reviled, did not revile back, when suffering, did not threaten but continued entrusting to the One who judges righteously”
The focus here is not quite so much on Christ’s sinlessness but on His explicit trust in the Father. As Peter points back to Is. 53:7 (“He was oppressed and humbled Himself, yet He never opened His mouth”) he states that while Jesus was reviled (λοιδερέω – to verbally abuse), He never returned the abuse of His tormentors. While Jesus suffered, He offered no threats of retaliation or future judgment for His torturers. Of the three verbs used to describe Jesus’ actions ([not] revile back, [not] threaten, and entrusting), two describe what Jesus did not do while the third describes what Jesus did do. All three verbs are in the imperfect tense, stressing a constant and continuous action. Jesus continued to refrain from returning abuse and constantly withheld threats. This model of Jesus’ countenance is so much more than a stoic stiff upper lip or a self-willed suppression of anger. Christ had no need to return abuse because He repeatedly and constantly placed His trust in the Father’s hands.
Technically the verb παρεδίδου (entrusting) has no expressed object. While it is true that Christ continually entrusted Himself (NASB, NKJV, LSB) to the One who judges rightly (God the Father and judge of all creation), there is more at play here. It would be a mistake to think that Peter does not point to the totality of Christ’s situation to include those who abused Him. There is no point in threatening those who will be judged by the Father in His good timing. There is no need to return abuse when God is in control. Christian patience and perseverance are not based upon any inner strength or self-control, but on the knowledge that God is in full control and will certainly right every wrong. The question then is this: do we trust Him?
Suffer as a Purchased People (v. 24ab)
“Who Himself bore our sins in His body upon the tree, so that, being extinct to sins, we might live to righteousness”
By alluding to Is. 53:4, 11, & 12 Peter points to Christ’s vicarious atonement to express His victorious results. The connection to Isaiah 53 is through the verb to bear (φέρω/נשׂא – to lift, carry, bear). Peter points to Christ’s substitution of taking on the sins of His people upon His own body so that His death would pay the price for us. Peter makes this point even more clear by referring to the place of Christ’s death as being upon a tree (ξύλον) rather than on a cross (σταυρός). This is another Old Testament allusion, but this time Peter goes to Deuteronomy.
“If a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God), so that you do not defile you land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance.” Deut. 21:22-23 (NASB).
This is the very point Paul made when he stated that Christ became a curse for us (Gal. 3:13) and that Christ became sin even though He had never known sin (2 Cor. 5:21). How does this help us understand Christ’s model of suffering? We cannot bear the guilt of others (or even our own guilt!) as we suffer. Peter points to Christ becoming a curse for us to emphasize the fact that we are a purchased people. If Christ became a curse for us, then we are no longer bound to this same curse. The term Peter uses here (ἀπογίνομαι) is so much stronger than to say that we are “dead” to sin, but that we no longer exist to sin. In regard to sin, Christians have ceased to exist. The purpose (ἵνα) of Christ becoming a curse for us is so that we might live in regard to righteousness, but this righteous living presupposes our cessation of existence under sin’s power. Christ’s atonement was a payment that transferred us from the domain of darkness into His kingdom (Col. 1:13-14). We suffer as a people purchased by the precious blood of Jesus (1:19) for good works (Eph. 2:10). If we suffer, let us not relapse into sin that no longer has any hold over us, but let us suffer as we live righteous lives.
Suffer as a Redeemed People (v. 24c)
“by whose stripes you are healed.”
Peter concludes just as he began, with a direct quotation from Isaiah 53, this time from v. 5. In doing so, Peter moves from the purpose of Christ’s atonement to the effect. It is true that Christ bled and died so that we would no longer be bound to the curse and that now we are free to live righteously. But it is also true that Christ’s death was effectual. In other words, Jesus did not die for the potential of redeeming His people. Rather, Christ’s death accomplished that redemption. Christ’s death healed us. This is no health and wealth false gospel, but a statement that Christians who have confessed, repented, and believed have been healed from the curse and have been made new.
This is a statement that would have been profoundly impactful among slaves hearing these words, as they likely had physical scars of their own stripes. Christ bore our stripes and healed us so that we are able to suffer in this life. We suffer because Christ suffered for us (v. 21), not because we owe Him our suffering, but because He has made us able to persevere in suffering.
Is Suffering Worth it? (v. 25)
“For you were like wandering sheep, but now you have been returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
Peter concludes with a brief explanation of the examples just given. The atonement drives everything, and our understanding of suffering is no exception. Peter now addresses these slaves, not as slaves, but as saints who were once strangers to Christ. The force of this verse reminds them of their gracious conversion and comforts them in their uncertain present.
As Peter reminds them that before they were called to Christ, they wandered like sheep. Each man doing what was right in his own eyes, void of direction and utterly without protection. But now they have been made to return. The verb is a passive (ἐπεστράφητε) indicating that they did not turn themselves but were turned by an outside source. God performed a blessed heart transplant and placed within them a heart to believe. In so doing, they were turned to the Shepherd and Overseer of their souls; namely to Jesus Christ. They are no longer wandering sheep but are under the care and protection of King Jesus. No matter what trials befall them or what suffering lies in store, their souls (ψυχή), the totality of their being, is being protected by the same One who accomplished their redemption.
Is suffering in this life worth it? Is it worth being saved from eternal damnation and living under the protection of the King of kings and Lord of lords? I should think so. It is for this suffering we have been called, and it is to this suffering that we must follow our King.
It is not accurate to say that we pursue suffering, but neither do we avoid it. What, or rather who, we pursue is Jesus Christ. If we follow Christ, then we follow Him into suffering. May we enter our suffering as our Lord entered. And may we please Him who called us by suffering well.
D. Edmond Hiebert, 1 Peter (Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 1984), p. 189.  Ibid, p. 182.  Ibid, p. 183-4. Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter, vol. 17, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2009), p. 138.