Returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of Your Souls

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“[Christ] Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:24-25).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
I can understand why those who chose our pericopes (our assigned Bible readings for the week) might have decided to omit verse 18 from our Epistle today. They wished to avoid added controversy. But the verse does give us some needed context as to what kind of suffering Peter was calling these disciples to endure:
“Servants [or slaves] be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God” (1 Peter 2:18-20).
This paragraph has caused great consternation among certain readers and critics of Christianity, for it could seem as though Peter is endorsing the practice of human slavery. Actually, Peter (and Paul, in his letter to the slave owner Philemon, for instance) neither endorse the practice nor call for its violent overthrow. They simply worked with it as a feature of life everywhere in the Roman empire. Paul certainly did not approve of slave trade. In 1 Timothy 1:10, he lists “enslavers,” that is, those who kidnap people to sell them as slaves, along with murderers and the sexually immoral as “the lawless and disobedient.” In 1 Corinthians 7:21, he encourages Christian slaves to gain their freedom if they can, but not to worry if they can’t—those who are called by the Lord are His freedmen, even if not free.
It should also be noted that slavery as practiced in the first century was different from the ugly racial slavery of the Americas. Roman slavery was not race-based—people wound up in slavery as captives of war or by hard economic choice. In fact, Roman slaves were often better educated than their masters, could acquire property, buy their freedom, marry whom they wished, and had certain legal protections. In some ways being a slave was economically preferable to being a free laborer, for Roman slaves were guaranteed clothes, food, and lodging.
Christianity spread rapidly among the huge slave population of the empire. Peter counseled them to see themselves as free in the Lord, but to respect the obligations that their position in society laid upon them. He did not want the Christian faith to be seen merely as a revolutionary political or economic movement—what mattered was people’s faith in their Savior Jesus Christ, and in drawing other people into the faith. That would happen best by showing that Christians were model citizens (and faithful slaves). That is why he gives such high praise to people who bore up under unjust suffering rather than retaliate.
Peter’s instructions to the slaves could just as well be applied to modern employees as Luther does in one of his sermons for Good Shepherd Sunday.
Manservants and maidservants are Christians just as other people are; for they share the Word, faith, Baptism, and all blessings with everyone else. Therefore before God they are just as great and high as others. But according to their outward way of life and before the world there is a difference. They are in an inferior station and must serve others. Therefore since they are called to this estate by God, they must let it be their duty to be subject to their masters… God wants this. Therefore it should be done gladly. You can be sure and confident that this is pleasing and acceptable to God if you do it in faith. Consequently, these are the best good works you can perform. You need not go far afield and search for others. What your master or mistress commands, this God Himself has commanded you to do. It is not a command of men, even though it is given through men. Therefore you should not consider what kind of master you have, whether good or bad, friendly or irritable and angry; but you must think as follows: “The master may be as he wants to be, I will serve him and do his bidding in honor of God, because He wants me to do this, and because my Lord Christ Himself became a Servant for my sake.”[i]
Christians can live out their Christianity by the respectful and cooperative way in which they do their jobs, especially when they must work for a boss who is oppressive and unfair. Anybody can like a boss who is kind, complimentary, and fair all the time. It takes a Christian to work cheerfully for a mean one. Righteous living in the face of injustice demonstrates reliance on God’s grace. Who knows, that crabby boss might see your example and come to faith—or, if he is already a Christian, re-evaluate how he is living out his own faith.
Peter goes on to connect such suffering for doing good in one’s vocation to Christ and His suffering:
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:21-23).
Jesus suffered for doing good. He was reviled. Threatened. He ate meals with sinful tax collectors and repentant prostitutes, and He was slandered for keeping their company in order to teach them His Word. He healed people all the time, Saturdays included, and His miracles of mercy were used as a reason to accuse Him of breaking the Sabbath laws.
Jesus suffered for what He taught. He taught that works couldn’t save, which angered many of  the scribes and Pharisees. He warned people of sin, which always offends the self-righteous. And He taught that He is the Savior of the world, which earned Him the cross for His trouble. Jesus suffered precisely for being the Savior of the world.
Jesus endured the suffering willingly. He did it by choice. He did it for you. You needed a Savior who would bear your sins, die your death, and rise again. That is what Jesus has done for you. For the joy set before Him, He endured the cross, scorning its shame—so that you might be redeemed.
And when subjected to suffering, how did Jesus react? He committed no sin. He did not respond to affliction by afflicting others. No deceit was found in His mouth: He accepted the suffering rather than deny truth for an easier life. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return: Instead, He prayed for His enemies. When He suffered, He did not threaten, but entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly: He commended Himself to His Father and His Father’s will, dying for the sins of His persecutors so that He might rise again to give them forgiveness.
Jesus endured suffering without sin. Many will hear this only as law—they will say, “Jesus set a high standard for His people, and as Christians we are to act just like He did.” And so we should—but that is Law. It is impossible for us to be sinless like Jesus when suffering. If it were possible, Jesus would not have had to suffer for us.
But there is better news here for you than that. You don’t need a good role model or life coach—you need a Savior. Because Jesus committed no sin, even when suffering, He remained the perfect holy Sacrifice for your sin. Because He didn’t have to die for Himself, He died for you. Because no deceit is found in His mouth, you can be sure that that He speaks the truth when He speaks of His love and forgiveness for you.
Furthermore, because Jesus does not revile sinners, He does not revile you. Instead, He gathers you to Himself: He calls you by the Gospel so that you might be His people. He feeds you His own body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. Although He has suffered for your sins, He does not threaten you: Risen from the dead, He speaks peace and forgiveness. Having entrusted Himself to the one who judges justly, He now sits as your Judge to decide your eternal fate, and He declares that you are not guilty anymore, because He has suffered the guilt of your sin, and heaven is yours.
How is all this true? Our text becomes very clear: “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:24-25).
Christ’s willing self-submission is important not only as an example. It was the way in which He redeemed us. Peter draws from Isaiah 53, the great story of the Suffering Servant, whose humble self-sacrifice bought life and healing to all who believe in Him. He bore our sins in His body on the tree—and this not only to secure our forgiveness but so that we might die to sin and live for righteousness.
Luther expanded on this theology of the cross and how it changes the way we relate to those who harm us:
Therefore if you are a pious Christian, you should tread in the footsteps of the Lord and have compassion on those who harm you. You should also pray for them and ask God not to punish them. For they do far more harm to their souls than they do to your body. If you take this to heart, you will surely forget about your own sorrow and suffer gladly. Here we should be mindful of the fact that formerly we, too, led the kind of unchristian life that they lead, but that we have now been converted through Christ.[ii]
Bearing a cross for the sake of the Gospel may be difficult, but it is a holy, precious, noble, and blessed calling. Christians face such suffering with God’s strength given in His means of grace, His Word and Sacrament. This is the mystery of the process of sanctification—as you grow in faith and understanding, your life become more Christ-like. Your own troubles and sufferings are transformed from misery into ministry. Your prayers shift from just your own needs to the welfare of others, including for those who are making your life difficult.
For Jesus’ sake, you’ve died to sin and live to righteousness. But don’t be surprised when sin puts up a fight, tries to make you suffer for being made righteous. When you suffer so, give thanks that you are counted worthy to do so. Give thanks that, while you suffer now, it is only a passing thing. Eternal life waits. In the meanwhile, your Shepherd guides, protects, and feed you. He is also your Overseer, the one who watches over Israel, who never slumbers nor sleeps, the one who will bring you from this sad world to a better one of His own making.
Dear friends, do not be amazed when you suffer for being a Christian. It will happen, and you may even be tempted to regard it as proof that the faith isn’t true. It is quite the opposite: the faith we believe says that suffering should come as no surprise. When you suffer for being the Lord’s sheep, you follow in the steps of Jesus who suffered even hell for you.
He is your Good Shepherd. He has in mind only what is best for you. Should our Lord tarry, those steps lead even through the valley of the shadow of death and the blackness of the grave, just like His. But you need not fear. Just like His steps, yours will lead you to the third day and the resurrection forever. Suffering will come, but it will also go away forever. Heaven and peace are eternal and yours in Christ Jesus, because you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 30: The Catholic Epistles. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 30, p. 82). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

[ii] Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 30: The Catholic Epistles. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 30, p. 86). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.


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