Imagine Peter sitting in his cell. It had been a couple of years, now, that he had been imprisoned, and there was no doubt left he will be executed by Nero. The only question was by what gruesome means this sadistic emperor would choose. As Peter considered all that he had learned, the wisdom God had imparted, the long perspective of eternity gently resting across the earthly experience of the flock in Peter’s care, his letter began to take shape.
Not usually a prophet, but also not unaccustomed to visions from God, Peter must have seen the vast scope of horror that lay in store for his beloved church. Nero had unleashed an ugly kraken of deep-seated contempt, an evil so thoroughly human yet also fueled by demonic malevolence. The persecution of those who followed Jesus would be bitter and bloody, dragging on for centuries, and it would return at regular intervals, pogrom after pogrom against God’s people.
Peter’s vision saw far ahead as well, to the final days Jesus had described, when only a remnant of faithful would cling to a precarious existence among those who (at best) scoffed at God.
As he settled in, setting pen to papyrus, the Holy Spirit filled him and swept him along.
Simeon Peter, slave and apostle of Jesus Messiah, to those who have received (by lot) a faith of equal honor and value as ours in the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Messiah,
Grace to you and peace multiplied in discernment and recognition [ἐπίγνωσις, epignosos] of God and Jesus our Lord.2 Peter 1:1-2 (my translation)
As I thought about the first five words of Peter’s letter, my mind was drawn to his opening encounter with Jesus, when Jesus gave Peter his name of Cephas. He had been born Simon, a common Hebrew name meaning “listen” or “hearing.” The day Andrew met Jesus, he had run to his brother Simon and told him point blank, We have found the Messiah. Peter had lost no time in returning with Andrew to see Jesus, and Jesus, in turn, took one deep look into Peter’s heart and soul and said, You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas.
Throughout the gospels, Simon Peter was called by either and sometimes both, of these names. Some theologians have posited that “Simon” referred to his old nature and “Peter” to his new, redeemed nature.
Cephas is a transliteration in koine Greek of the Aramaic word כֵּיפָא, kepa, meaning stone, or rock, which in Greek is Πέτρος, Petros. I wonder if, when Jesus called Peter “Simon,” it was less a veiled criticism that Peter had reverted to his old self and more that Jesus was leaning on the meaning of Simon’s name, listen!
Simon, Simon, Listen! You need to really hear this. You need to take this in.
Now, Peter began his letter with this first word, his name, but also a call to be ones who listen, who hear.
His next word was also his name, also woven with meaning, for it was given him by Jesus. Peter carried within it the strength and weight and durability of stone. Listen, and become ones who are quietly powerful, who endure, who are immovable in Christ.
And then Peter moved to his third word, δοῦλος, doulos, born bondman or slave, one made a slave.
Immediately, our minds rightly leap to the degradation of enslavement, yet another horror humankind has dreamed up, a way to subjugate others, to conquer and colonize, a way to anchor unrighteous rule. Peter certainly may have thought about those things as well. Still, as the word flowed from his mind through his quill and onto the page, it took on new form. A doulos of Messiah, pared with Peter’s fifth word apostle, said something exactly right.
In Peter’s world, the first century GrecoRoman world, slavery was enmeshed with every level of life. There were slaves in Peter’s day who had a much higher rank than he did in society, who were far wealthier than most, who had slaves and property of their own, with political clout and powerful reach. For to be the slave of the emperor was to be of very high standing indeed.
What, then, to be the slave of Almighty God?
And there is more.
Slaves were not only selected for manual labor, they were also trained for highly skilled professions. It is possible the gospel writer Luke, for example, had been trained as a physician when a slave (who may later have earned enough money to manumit himself, or been released from captivity by the one who held him enslaved).
Peter was not only the slave of God, but a trained and highly skilled apostle. Here is lowest humbling and highest exaltation braided together.
For there is a third and vital component to these two words, written in this order and in this way. According to Roman law, slaves were considered property. Slaves did not enjoy “personhood,” slaves had no “rights,” and they could not make decisions about how they were to be employed. Their lives were literally in the hands of the ones who held them captive.
First Century Slavery
We need to see how dark this is before we can see the light.
- Enslaved people had to be sexually available to whomever wanted them, whenever they were wanted, to do whatever was wanted.
- Enslaved people were subject to every kind of corporal punishment, including torture and execution without trial.
- Enslaved people were required to perform every task set upon them, however filthy and demeaning, however exhausting and depleting, however life-threatening, or die trying.
- Enslaved people lived every day by fiat of their enslaver.
Every mouthful of food, every moment of rest, the most basic necessities of life, every smallest kindness was received with deep and heartfelt gratitude for none of it was to be considered deserved. Just being able to wake up the next day was granted by the gracious favor of the enslaver.
And now, you and I can begin to understand the perspective the apostles came from as they taught on gratitude and humility before God. In their world, slavery was so a part of their world it was unfathomable to imagine the world otherwise. Enslavement was part of life.
It therefore made all the sense to see oneself as redeemed from enslavement to the dark world of corruption and death to belong to God and God’s world of purity and health, light and life.
Even more so, the dream come true of belonging to gracious and loving God, who fills each of God’s own with the Lord’s majestic Holy Spirit, Who gives gifts to every single believer, and trains them in highly skilled professions exactly suited to them and to the gifts given them.
Such spiritual slaves live infinitely better than the hard scrabble of so-called freemen who may be free in the eyes of the world, who may seem to have rights in the world’s laws. But without Messiah’s redemption, such “freemen” are nevertheless actually enslaved to corruption and death (which would come quickly to them), to impoverishment and disease, to robbers and decay. And to the grave.
It may not be a metaphor that works well for you and me today.
Personally, I do not think we need to embrace this language for ourselves. We have other metaphors that can work within the cultures we now live in. It does seem best to retire the language of slavery to that history of awful and egregious wickedness practiced in our past. Nevertheless, let us seek to understand what that language meant in the minds of the apostles and their first century audience.
[Roman mosaic from Dougga, Tunisia (2nd century AD): the two slaves carrying wine jars wear typical slave clothing and an amulet against the evil eye on a necklace; the slave boy to the left carries water and towels, and the one on the right a bough and a basket of flowers | By Pascal Radigue – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4966082%5D