James Nisbet Commentary - 1 Peter 2:16 - 2:16

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James Nisbet Commentary - 1 Peter 2:16 - 2:16

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This Chapter Verse Commentaries:


‘As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.’


After affectionately enjoining upon his ‘dearly beloved’ the paramount duty of individual charity, the Apostle lays before them the importance of seeking to establish a reputation for goodness in the eyes of the heathen; ‘Having your behaviour seemly among the Gentiles.’ You can hardly exaggerate the amount of possible harm that inconsiderateness in this respect may work.

In the next paragraph he proceeds to deal with the civil duties of the Christian man. Let him not forget that he is a citizen, and even if he be a citizen of a corrupt heathen state, it is possible for him to bring the principles of the Resurrection into his civic life. Let him see that he is a law-abiding citizen, especially for the Lord’s own sake. ‘For this is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence’ (‘muzzle’ is the word in the original) ‘the ignorance of foolish men.’

I. While recognising the real nature of our liberty let us beware of misusing it, ‘not using our freedom for a cloke of maliciousness.’ The Revised Version has ‘wickedness’ instead of ‘maliciousness.’ The original word, though sometimes carrying that meaning, as, for example, in the list of vices in Rom_1:29, and also, perhaps, in Eph_4:31 : ‘Let all bitterness, and wrath, and clamour, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice’—and elsewhere, does not necessarily connote that specific idea, but has wider significance both in profane and ecclesiastical Greek. The Revised Version is certainly correct in this place. To limit the expression to that class of sin which can be embraced under ‘maliciousness’ is to weaken the force of the passage. ‘For a cloke of wickedness.’ That is as a cloke for wickedness. The meaning of cloke here is plain enough. Beware of making your liberty a pretext for any kind of doubtful action. It is an emphatic warning against every form of Antinomianism.

II. In what senses are we free?—Free from the curse of the law, free from its penalties, free from the thraldom of Satan, free from the inevitable operation of the law of sin and death, but in no respect free from obedience to the Divine laws of right and wrong. Just because we are Christians the obligation is all the more binding. If you were to forget this even for a moment you would be using your freedom as a cloke for wickedness of some sort or other. The argument is searching and absolutely conclusive. And lest there should be any doubt about it the Apostle adds, ‘but as the servants of God.’ ‘Slaves’ of God is the exact expression of inspiration. The slave has no will of his own, or at least if he has he cannot follow it, unless it happens to coincide with that of his master. It is a splendid paradox, finding its perfect embodiment in our Lord Himself. To do the Father’s will was what He lived for, His unswerving purpose from Nazareth to Calvary. How plainly this comes out in His two earliest recorded utterances: that of His boyhood (St. Luk_2:49), when Joseph and His mother found Him in the temple; and that at His baptism, when John would have refrained from administering the holy rite (Mat_3:15). And so throughout His sacred ministry His meat was to obey His Father and carry to its completion the work which had been given Him to do. No doubt it was the habit of obedience to this dominating principle which braced Him for the final conflict, which enabled Him to go through Gethsemane and Calvary. Thus He showed us what it is to be the ‘slave of God.’

III. Has this principle of Christ’s life found a place in your life?—Not is it operating in you without a flaw, as it did in His case (that is not the question), but is it operating at all? If not, the work of Christ is, as far as you are concerned, a matter of belief by which nobody can be saved, instead of the life-principle which God intends it to be. If not, the Atonement of Good Friday and Resurrection of Easter are to you dead letters, so to speak, because unfraught with vital force. St. Paul says that He counted all things but loss, not that he might know about Christ, but that he might have personal acquaintance with Him, and experience the power of His Resurrection. That is the point, that the Resurrection might be for him a moral lever. If it is that it cannot fail to flow into the life, and affect materially all the relationships of life, personal, social, and even civil. That is the drift of to-day’s epistle. ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’

Rev. J. A. Faithfull.


‘Men are already prejudiced against you and your religious line, thinking of you as evildoers. Let them make the discovery that you are not. Nothing illustrates this state of things better than the well-worn missionary story of the Burmese opponent of a certain street-preacher. Judging of Christianity from the lives of the profligate soldiers and sailors he had seen in the purlieus of the city, he was casting obloquy on the Christian faith; and justly so from his only possible standpoint; but when the missionary happened to mention the name of Judson, the caviller replied warmly, “He wasn’t a Christian—he was a Jesus Christ man.” A son of the Resurrection indeed! Let us be that, and the world will believe in the Saviour that enables us to “walk in newness of life.” ’



The early Christians felt themselves to be subjects of a divine and glorious kingdom, which they could not but contrast with the powers of earth and with the all-controlling empire of Cæsar. They looked for a kingdom which should absorb the kingdoms of this world, and they needed therefore to be especially warned against rebellion and against discontent. Hence the frequent admonitions to civil order and submission to be met with in the apostolic writings. The language of the text has the appearance of paradox, but it embodies true and practical wisdom.

I. Christian freedom.—Whatever might be the estate, from a worldly point of view, of those who believed on Christ, whether freemen or bondsmen, all were free in Christ Jesus. They enjoyed a liberty of spirit which could not but impart serenity and dignity to their temper. Free from the Divine displeasure and condemnation, made ‘free indeed’ by the Son of God, they enjoyed, and all true Christians enjoy, ‘the glorious liberty of the children of God.’ Their actions may be in many respects controlled by men; their hearts turn with loving freedom to the God of emancipation, in whom they live.

II. Christian submission.—Liberty is not license. Man is not a law unto himself. We are subject to the law of God throughout the whole range of our being, and within a very wide range, to the law of man. There is a counterfeit of liberty; there are those who pride themselves upon an ‘Antinomian’ emancipation from the moral law, and there are those who disdain to render obedience to the civil magistrate, thinking that such obedience is incompatible with the exalted privileges of their condition. Now inspiration has forewarned professing Christians against these follies, and has bidden us, for the Lord’s sake, to be subject to every ordinance of man.

III. Christian service.—The happiest freeman is he who acknowledges and willingly obeys the law which is supremely good. He finds this service, which is spiritual and voluntary, to be—

(a) Honourable.

(b) Advantageous.

(c) Happy.

(d) Harmonious with true liberty.


‘The word which we translate “maliciousness,” is a large word. Sometimes it means “cowardice.” Sometimes it means “baseness.” It is elsewhere rendered “evil.” And, in the first chapter of St. James, “naughtiness”—which perhaps best conveys the whole sense. “As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of anything that is wrong.” “Anything that is wrong.” ’



The Apostle makes direct reference to a sad abuse of Christian freedom. Some professors had acted as if the liberty Christianity conferred upon them had freed them from all moral obligation and restraint. Their notion was that, being the children of God, they could do as they liked. So they gave themselves up to licentiousness, and indulged in all manner of carnal enjoyment. This, alas! is the tendency of human nature; but when Divine grace is master of the soul it is restrained, and behaviour practised which suits the servants of God.

I. What is this freedom?

(a) Social freedom. Christ has given Christians this freedom. But He has not drawn out a social scheme, and stamped it with His Divine authority, thus guaranteeing them social freedom; yet He has made it clear that they are entitled to it; and they enjoy it even when obeying the magistrate, honouring the king, and rendering unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s. They have freedom within, and this is independent of all that is without.

(b) Intellectual freedom. It were of little avail to Christians if their freedom extended to their social life only; mind must be emancipated also. This Christ has done for them. He has moreover given them His truth as His pledge of their freedom. Nay, it was by the power of the Truth and the Spirit that they were made free (Joh_8:32; Joh_16:13).

(c) Spiritual freedom. This is the cardinal thought of St. Peter, and this is the choice blessing of Christians. It includes freedom from the curse of the law, from the guilt of sin, from the tyranny of Satan, from the corruption of the world, from the fear of death, and from the wrath to come.

II. Servants of God.—The position is:—

(a) A rightful one. The Apostle named the Christians to whom he wrote ‘bond-servants.’ He takes his idea from the life of slaves who were the property of their masters. But in a far higher sense Christians are ‘the bond-servants of God.’ He has an absolute right to them and their services. Of His own loving will He created them; of His own loving will He preserves them; and of His own loving will He redeemed them by the cross of His Son. Hence Christians are bound to serve Him, and in nowise to violate any of His laws and thereby dishonour Him.

(b) A needful one. God Himself will do the impossible; the possible He leaves to us. To serve God, therefore, in such things is the grand characteristic of all true Christians. We may be neither prophets, nor priests, nor statesmen, nor soldiers, nor authors; but by a holy motive we may dignify the lowliest service and immortalise the feeblest action.

(c) A delightful one. Though Christians are ‘the bond-servants of God,’ the service is ‘perfect freedom.’ They should be so happy in it that they do not count attention to the daily activity or strictness of their life a bondage in any wise, but the sweetest liberty of all—a holy and amiable captivity of the Spirit.


‘Liberty is the essence of Christianity. It is not too much to say that no one knows what it is to be quite “free,” till he is a real Christian. Religion and liberty are the same thing. Take the map of the whole world. You will find them identically one among the nations. Examine your own heart, and you have only one and the same thing there. There has been a wonderful and perfect change in the use of the word “religion.” Religion is a Latin word, and its strict meaning is “tied, or bound down.” And so the religion of the Romans was. Every heathen creed is a creed of fear, and therefore a creed of bondage. We have loved to use the word “religion” in the very opposite sense. For the Christian religion takes off the bondage, because the Christian religion is love. So, by “religion,” we mean the very opposite of what the word meant at first. We mean unbinding. “Religion” almost, if not quite, is the only word in the English language which has improved its meaning as time goes on.’


‘Servants of God.’


I wish to set before you service as the great object and ambition of life. There can be no more princely motto than this ‘I serve.’

I. Service is the only true measure of greatness.—Run your minds over the good men of the world, and ask why it is that generation after generation has determined to stamp them as great. Why is it? Because they have done great service to God and to man. Think of any of the departments of life. Why do we call Shakespeare great, or the Duke of Wellington, or the man of science—Mr. Darwin, for instance—or our great musicians, Handel, and so forth? Surely because if you apply this test to them you will find that in every case the man whom we stamp as great has done good service. And need I remind you that the greatest Servant the world has ever seen was the Incarnate Son of God Himself, Who said of Himself, ‘I am among you as one that serveth’?

II. Society is bound up by, consists of, a texture of services, great and small, rendered to one another. And if you were to attempt to resolve society into a very simple condition, in which there was not this wonderful variety of interdependent and mutually contributory services, we should be going back at once to barbarism. It is civilisation, Christian civilisation, that has brought about this marvellous texture of mutual services. If you think for a moment of what we term domestic service, consider how absolutely necessary it is for the work of life. Take a very simple instance, a Cabinet minister. Let us imagine for a moment that owing to the annihilation of our necessary system of division and combination of labour, he was to find himself some day compelled to provide for himself, to do his housework himself, and so forth, how would it be possible for him to do his service to the nation? His service to the nation can only be rendered if there are other servants doing departments of work which must fall upon him, unless he is able to get it done for him, by our system of domestic service. And in this respect the body politic is like the natural body.

III. We cannot hope to render great service; but what can we all do?—There is no one who cannot have this ambition, and hope to realise it; we can all greatly serve; we can all serve magnanimously; we can all, according to our different circumstances and equipment, and opportunities and capacities, and so forth, we can all render to God and to man the very best that He has put within our reach. Are we doing so? That is the question. Are we attempting to slip through life, getting as much self-enjoyment out of it and shirking the service in which our true happiness should be found? or are we spending our very best selves, bringing to bear upon that particular part of service which, for the time being, God has committed to our hands, whether it be small or great, are we bringing to bear upon it, I say, all our equipment of mind, all our resources, material, or money, or property, or influence, station, and the like? This is the question that goes to the very root of our life, goes to the very root of social happiness and progress. And may I especially lay stress upon this aspect of the matter to any of those who may be present who may think that the work and service of life which God has bestowed upon them is a small and dreary and unsatisfactory one, those who have not yet learnt to see its possibilities and dignity.

Bishop Jayne.


‘I dare say you may have heard these lines, very very familiar lines, which we should write upon our memories and try to live up to, setting them before us, incorporating this high and generous ambition:—

“Teach me, my God and King,

In all things Thee to see,

And what I do in any thing

To do it as to Thee.

All may of Thee partake;

Nothing can be so mean,

But with this tincture—for Thy sake—

Will not grow bright and clean.

A servant with this clause

Makes drudgery divine;

Who sweeps a room, as for Thy laws,

Makes that and the action fine.”

Is that not true divinity? Is not that the secret of generous and high-minded life? Is that not the kind of spirit we all need in order to make us live worthy of our God and of ourselves, and of that human nature with which He has knit us together, so that it must thrive to some extent, or dwindle and decay, according as we are loyal or disloyal in our rendering of service?’