A few weeks ago I gave a talk at a university Christian Union society on 1 Peter 2:11-3:7. It seemed to be well received but I came away from it dissatisfied. For while I had successfully taught through the structure of the passage, I felt I had failed to properly get to grips with its central theme – submission.
In this passage Peter tells us to submit ourselves to “every authority instituted among men” (v13) and to our masters, even those who mistreat us (v18).
At first thought, I found this idea of submission profoundly uncomfortable, particularly in the light of harsh treatment and unjust suffering. It conjured images of inaction and being a doormat for other people to trample.
But such passivity couldn’t be further from Peter’s point.
The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve seen that Peter is building on teaching from across the New Testament; from the life, ministry and death of Jesus to the writings of Paul. As I’ve knitted these thoughts together, it’s provided a depth of understanding to Peter’s words and a desire to apply them that I didn’t think I’d ever find.
It centres on verse 21: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”
I know what you’re thinking…”Surprise, surprise, it all comes back to Jesus”. But follow me on this train of thought…what is Jesus’ example to us?
Immediately after this verse, Peter quotes from Isaiah 53. It’s a majestic chapter of Old Testament prophecy in which Isaiah introduces us to The Suffering Servant. This will be someone who is led like a lamb to the slaughter, to take on themselves the sin of the many. Yet they are not forced to suffer against their will; there is an active decision to shoulder the burden of others. In verse 4 we read that “he took up our infirmities”, in verse 12 that “he poured out his life unto death”. It’s a chapter that foreshadows Jesus’ ultimate example of love in his decision to allow himself to be led to the cross to be crucified and there die in our place.
It’s not just in his death that Jesus models this type of self-effacing love. In John 13:1-17 we read the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. Perhaps more than any other example, this story has come to exemplify the biblical concept of servant-hood. The phrase “to wash someone’s feet” has become synonymous with acts of love and service, especially when that act requires the servant to be in a position of vulnerability and humility.
Similarly in Philippians 2:1-11 we read of Christ’s incarnate path – from humility to service to sacrifice.
It starts with Jesus, one with God in both his being and nature. Yet he emptied himself and made himself nothing. Instead of grasping onto divinity he deliberately, willing, knowingly and actively laid that aside, becoming a servant, taking on its’ nature, and modeled to humanity a life lived in service to God to the point of death, even death on a cross.
The one who is intrinsically worthy of creation’s worship gave everything to serve others. The one who could have rightly demanded creation’s adoration and devotion instead chose servant-hood and the nature of a slave.
Jesus did all of these things out of an active desire to work for the benefit of others, for us. It was his love that motivated him to exchange heavenly privilege for humiliating execution. He endured all of it with us in clear view, actively taking on himself our infirmities, sorrows, transgressions and iniquities so that we might instead enjoy healing and wholeness, joy and peace. His was a deliberate and conscious passion.
So we see that the submission Peter calls us to is profoundly active. To follow Jesus’ example of humility and sacrifice is to deliberately put ourselves in lowly positions so that we might serve others better. To go without so that others might have. To actively look for ways to bless others. To work for their good, encouragement and well-being.
Submission is a call to love those around us. It is a fulfillment of Jesus’ commands not just to love one another (John 13:34), but to love even our enemies (Matthew 5:43-44). To submit to others is to serve them and prefer their needs above our own. Just as he did for us.
This is how I should have landed my talk to that university CU. Defining submission as an active love that emulates Jesus’ conscious sacrificial example.