Another excerpt from the letter we know as 1 Peter is offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday (1 Peter 2:19–25). This letter as a whole envisages the community of faith in terms drawn from the household, and this particular passage sits within a section of the letter which is known as a “household table” (2:18–3:7).
Believers within the communities of faith which are addressed are said to comprise a “spiritual house” (2:5), the “household of God” (4:17), a “family of believers” (2:17) who are intimately related to their “brothers and sisters in all the world” (5:9). Hospitality is important (4:9), as was the case in all ancient societies. Both husbands and wives are “heirs of the gracious gift of life” (2:7); they are called to “inherit a blessing” (3:9) and have already been born into their inheritance (1:4).
As befits life in the patriarchal society of the day, there is also an emphasis on matters of honour and shame. Whilst honour is viewed as an eschatological goal, to be expected “when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1:7), it remains the benchmark for daily living, as the firm exhortations of 2:12 and 2:17, just before our chosen passage, clearly indicate. Shame is alien to the life of the believer (2:6) and even a husband must show honour to his wife (3:7)
These two features—the language of the household and the concepts of honour and shame— coalesce in the use that is made in this letter of the familiar household table, a form of ethical instruction which we have seen used in some of the debated letters of Paul. Here, the table is introduced with a programmatic statement about honour (2:12) and a series of general injunctions (2:13–17) which urge subordination to authority and the honouring of leaders.
The address then turns to slaves, but not masters (2:18–25), and then wives as well as husbands (3:1–7); however, it stops short of dealing with children and parents (which regularly figured in the typical household table form—see Col 3:18–4:1; Eph 5:21–6:9). The stance is clear: slaves are to “accept the authority of your masters” (2:18), just as wives likewise are to “accept the authority of your husbands” (3:1). Obedience is undoubtedly a quality to be emulated, both within the community of faith (5:5) as well as within society (2:13).
The people of Israel had maintained the daily offering of a lamb without blemish for centuries; each day, a lamb in the morning, another lamb in the evening (Exod 29:38–41). It sounds to us moderns like a terrible waste of good stock; to the ancients, however, it confirmed the covenant between the nation, Israel, and their God, the Lord (Exod 39:43–46). The writer of this letter can see Jesus taking the place of that daily sacrificial lamb, quoting from a well-known song (Isa 53:9) about his sinless nature.
For more on the way that the New Testament interprets the sacrificial death of Jesus as a means of atonement with God, see
In the Gospel for this coming Sunday, Jesus speaks about the shepherd (John 10:1–10). In the excerpt from this letter which is offered on this coming Sunday (1 Pet 2:19–25), Jesus takes on the role of the lamb, offered up as a sacrificial victim: “he himself bore our sins in his body on the cross” (1 Pet 2:24).
The language and concepts used here relate to ancient practices of sacrifice. They also undergird later Christian understandings of the significance of Jesus and the process of atonement that, it is believed, he effected through his death.
The humility of submission to the violence of sacrificial slaughter is central to the story of the death of Jesus. The lamb is unable to fight back. Chosen for this role, as one who was perfect, without blemish, the lamb can do no other than submit. That humble submission, evident in the lamb, is the vehicle for effecting atonement of sins and a life in righteousness, when found in Jesus—this is the understanding of the cross that has held fast through centuries of theological debate about the death of Jesus. It is an ancient custom, addressing a contemporary need, speaking to current concerns about the proliferation of violence in our world.
So slaves are offered the positive example of Jesus as the model for their submission (2:21–25), in a manner which picks up the cultural and religious Jewish practices of the day and adapts them into the developing Christian context. It demonstrates an awareness of how traditions can be adopted and adapted into new understandings.
By contrast, the instructions to wives are grounded in a reading of scripture which is thoroughly traditional and patriarchal (3:1– 6). In reality, the instructions to wives are based on the expectations of Hellenistic society: reverence, modesty, a quiet spirit, subdued external adornment. They are declared to be “the weaker sex” (3:7) and twice commanded to “accept the authority of their husbands” (3:1, 5).
In fact, the ethics of this letter frequently draw from many elements familiar to Gentiles in the Hellenistic society. Despite the rhetoric of holiness already noted, the believers are not encouraged to live a completely separate life, isolated from wider society. Continued interaction with Gentiles is envisaged at 2:12; believers are to “be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting of the hope that is in you” (3:15). The behaviour of believers should be honourable, and not draw shame upon them; on the contrary, appropriate behaviour will result in the aggressive non-believers being shamed (3:15–16).
In contrast to the letter of James, the brother of Jesus, the specific teachings of Jesus are rarely in view in this letter attributed to Peter, a disciple of Jesus. For James, Jesus taught the righteousness of God and the need for the followers of Jesus to live in a distinctive manner; “true religion” required them “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).
Rather, the ethics of 1 Peter reflect an ethos of temperate behaviour, moderated in a manner which is appropriate to the wider society: “Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor.” (2:7). Although there is a polemic against the base ways of the gentiles, a number of the positive characteristics which were valued within gentile society are also praised in this letter: discipline (1:13; 4:7; 5:7), obedience (1:14, 22; 2:8, 13–14; 3:1, 6) and reverence (3:2, 16).
In short, the ethics of 1 Peter reflect a process of adaptation, in which the Gospel has been accommodated to the cultural patterns of the Hellenistic world. It offers a useful insight into this process, which occurs in all places and all times, as received traditions are incorporated into the life of believers in varied cultural contexts. It is not something to be afraid of; it is something to be acknowledged, understood, and appreciated.