“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. 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 1:21–25 (ESV)
Peter calls on slaves to suffer for doing good, motivated by the exemplary and empowering suffering of Christ. As you read 1 Peter 2:21-25, it is clear that Peter is drawing from the most familiar passage in the Old Testament concerning the sufferings of Christ, Isaiah 53. When you read Isaiah 53, you must begin with Isaiah 52:13 where the one suffering is addressed by God as “my servant.” Peter then is telling slaves that they were called to suffering because of the suffering of the servant of Yahweh. Further, the letter makes it clear that this is not just the calling of these saints because they are slaves, but of these slaves because they are saints.
Jesus’ suffering stands underneath our suffering in two ways: it is exemplary and empowering. This isn’t multiple choice. This is all of the above. But one of the answers is foundational, standing underneath the other. If Jesus’ life is only an example, it is a crushing one, for none of us measure up. Worse, if Jesus’ death is only an example, then it is one of insanity. Tim Keller illustrates:
“Imagine that you are walking along a river with a friend, and your friend suddenly says to you, ‘I want to show you how much I love you!’ and with that he throws himself into the river and drowns. Would you say in response, ‘How he loved me!’ No, of course not. You’d wonder about your friend’s mental state. But what if you were walking along a river with a friend and you fell into the river by accident, and you can’t swim. What if he dived in after you and pushed you to safety but was himself drawn under by the current and drowned. Then you would respond, ‘Behold, how he loved me!’ The example of Jesus is a bad example if it is only an example. If there was no peril to save us from—if we were not lost apart from the ransom of his death—then the model of his sacrificial love is not moving and life-changing; it is crazy. Unless Jesus died as our substitute, he can’t die as a moving example of sacrificial love.”
Jesus’ death was not a meaningless suicide. Jesus death is more than a sign telling us to go this way. It is gas burning in our tanks.
You can only follow Jesus because of how you cannot follow Jesus. The empowering aspect of Jesus’ death stands under the exemplary aspect of His death. As James and John learned, there is a way that we can drink from the cup of Christ’s sufferings, and there is a way that we cannot—that we dare not.
When Jesus died on the cross, He did so as our substitute, accomplishing what we could not. He bore our sins, cursed of God in our place on the tree (cf. Deuteronomy 21:23; Galatians 3:13). His death not only delivered us from the guilt of sin but also from the bondage of sin. Our sins were born by Christ, so that, in union with Him, we might die to sin and live to righteousness (Romans 6:4–7). When one suffers for righteousness’ sake, living honorably, and then endures that suffering not reviling but trusting God, all this righteousness is empowered by Christ’s substitutionary wrath-bearing suffering in our place.
It is only because of how you cannot follow Jesus, that you can follow Jesus. Christus exemplar flows out of penal substitutionary atonement. Because Jesus suffered in a way we can’t, we can suffer like Him. And if we suffer with Him, we will also be glorified with Him (Romans 8:17).