Peter now addresses a specific group, translated as ‘servants’ or ‘slaves’. One of the things that we should remember when reading the New Testament is that we no longer live in the kinds of society that existed then. The term that Peter uses was normally a description of household servants, and they could be employed in a wide range of work depending on the household.
When we think of household servants we may think about cleaners or cooks. In Peter’s day, a household servant could be a manager or a doctor or a musician. They were not slaves in the modern sense, because such household servants could purchase their freedom. Yet they were slaves in the sense that they were the property of their masters. Often they were ‘slaves’ because they were captured in war, but many also were in this category because they had been born into it. In a sense we can see that such a position in a wealthy household could be very secure.
There were strict Roman laws regarding the use of such slaves, so mistreatment of them would not be common. It would be the case that a lazy slave would be punished, and also there would be cruel masters here and there. Probably there would be suspicion of Christian slaves because they were followers of another Master. Their earthly masters would be puzzled by such loyalty to an invisible Lord, especially when they became aware that he had been crucified as a rebel against the government in Judea. The society as a whole had not been pervaded by Christian values and the teachings of Jesus would have been regarded as revolutionary and threatening. So Christians may have been beaten merely because they were different.
In such a scenario, Peter’s advice to his readers is that they should remember that they now serve God. This was a major difference between them and other slaves. Generally, slaves in a household would worship the gods connected to that household. Peter could not imagine his Christian readers participating in such rituals. Instead, what matters for them is what God wants them to do, and he will help them behave in such a way.