Strangers And Aliens (16a): Defending The Faith (1 Peter 3:13–17)

13Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.
17For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. (ESV).
13 Καὶ τίς ὁ κακώσων ὑμᾶς ἐὰν τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ζηλωταὶ γένησθε 14ἀλλ᾿ εἰ καὶ πάσχοιτε διὰ δικαιοσύνην, μακάριοι. τὸν δὲ φόβον αὐτῶν μὴ φοβηθῆτε μηδὲ ταραχθῆτε, 15 κύριον δὲ τὸν Χριστὸν ἁγιάσατε ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις ὑμῶν, ἕτοιμοι ἀεὶ πρὸς ἀπολογίαν παντὶ τῷ αἰτοῦντι ὑμᾶς λόγον περὶ τῆς ἐν ὑμῖν ἐλπίδος, 16 ἀλλὰ μετὰ πραΰτητος καὶ φόβου, συνείδησιν ἔχοντες ἀγαθήν, ἵνα ἐν ᾧ καταλαλεῖσθε καταισχυνθῶσιν οἱ ἐπηρεάζοντες ὑμῶν τὴν ἀγαθὴν ἐν Χριστῷ ἀναστροφήν. 17κρεῖττον γὰρ ἀγαθοποιοῦντας, εἰ θέλοι τὸ θέλημα τοῦ θεοῦ, πάσχειν ἢ κακοποιοῦντας.

vv.13–14: Our First Defense: Righteousness
These verses, and particularly v. 15, are frequently invoked in discussions of apologetics or the defense of the Christian faith. In our late-modern context and perhaps especially in Reformed circles, where apologetics are highly valued, to speak of apologetics is to think first of a reasoned defense of the Christian faith. As sometimes happens, however, these verses are not always read in their original context. Peter thinks differently about defending the faith than we sometimes do.

Peter was writing to Christian congregations in Asia Minor (Turkey) c. 65AD. These congregations were most likely suffering informally. In other places, e.g., in Rome, in the same period of time, Christians were suffering actual bodily harm for the sake of Christ. Nevertheless, the situation of the churches in Asia Minor was serious enough to warrant a response from the Apostle Peter. In the passage just previous he has been exhorting believers to conduct themselves appropriate within the congregation but here he again turns his attention to the question of how the Christians are regarded by the watching pagan world. He is anxious that believers should give a good defense of the faith but he begins differently than we might. In this respect, inasmuch as world increasingly looks like that of the 1st century, dominated by pagans who are largely ignorant of Christianity, we do well to pay attention to the way Peter speaks to the early Christians and to follow his instruction.

To this point Peter’s argument has been that it is is one thing to suffer for the sake of Christ (1 Peter 2:20) but quite another to suffer because of wrong doing. He will return to this theme again (4:15). If Christians are worried, as they might naturally be, about suffering, Peter says, “who will doing you evil if you become zealous for good?” It is a rhetorical question. The expected answer, of course, is no one. Peter’s first response to the problem of potential persecution is: be good. This is a feature of the early Christian defense of the faith that we might overlook but we should not. The same argument was prominent among the apologists Justin Martyr (c. 100–65), Irenaeus, (c.130–202), and Tertullian (c.160–220). They consistently argued to the civil authorities (1) that the Christians were no threat to the existing social order; (2) that the authorities should investigate the Christians for themselves, to see that the rumors about them were false; (3) that the Christians were, in fact, model citizens. The Christians asked only two things of the authorities: first, that they be granted the same liberty as the Jews, that they should not be required to swear an oath to Caesar as god nor make offerings to the gods or renounce Christ and second that they should not be arrested and killed for being Christians. The letter (or better perhaps treatise) to Diognetus (c. 150AD) summarizes this line of defense well:

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric way of life…For while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. The live in their own countries but only as nonresidents, they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh. They live on earth but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted (5:1–11).

It was essential to this argument that what was claimed for the Christians be true, that they are quiet, law-abiding citizens. Were the Christians to behave badly by breaking the law or creating public scandals and the like, the argument would be without merit and the faith would be made to look foolish. Thus, the early Christians after Peter emphasized sanctity and consequent good behavior strongly, so strongly that they did not always make sufficient room for grace and faith.

Peter’s epistles are more closely and clearly grounded in the objective work of God in Christ for us than were the writings of some of the early Christians. Further, we should note that Peter does characterize what is done to Christians as “evil doing” (κακώσων). He also says, literally, that Christians are ought to “become” (γένησθε) zealous for good. Peter was not teaching Christian perfectionism.

In the case, however, that Christians suffer (πάσχοιτε) on account of righteousness (δικαιοσύνην), they are blessed (μακάριοι). As in the previous passage, this is a clear allusion our Lord’s saying in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed (μακάριοι) are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ (δικαιοσύνης) sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” If we are to find ourselves in conflict with the civil authorities, let it be (lit.) “on account of righteousness.” If conflict with the civil authorities must come, let it be be for saying and doing what is right before the Lord, not that which is sinful or unrighteous. Here Peter seems to be thinking of actual, inherent righteousness. He is not saying that we are justified (declared righteous) before God on the basis of inherent righteousness nor is he saying that Christians are saved by inherent righteousness but he is saying that those who have been saved, i.e., delivered from the wrath to come) are those who are being sanctified by the Spirit and that grace produces in us actual righteousness. Blessedness here and in the Sermon on the Mount is an objective state. It is not necessarily a subjective state of euphoria or even a sense of well being. We are blessed. It is a privilege to be identified with Christ and to suffer for his sake.

Peter is realistic about the difficulties associated with suffering for Christ’s sake. He quotes or alludes to Isaiah 8:12. It is useful to quote a bit more to see the language that Peter is applying to righteous suffering Christians:

“Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But Yahweh of Hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken” (Isa 8:12–15).

The early Christians were the victims of whisper campaigns and slanders. That was an uncomfortable in which to be. The right reaction, however, is not to fear the whisperer or even unduly to fear pagan governors. It was Peter who said in Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men.” Only a few years ago, upon his election to office, a politician declared, “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal….” However foolishly civil authorities may posture and brand themselves, none of them are gods and none of them are Saviors. Only the triune God is God and only Christ is the Savior. Nevertheless, neither Peter nor any of the other apostles organized resistance to the government. We have no evidence from the New Testament that either they or the churches ever spoke the government about policy matters. The Apostle Paul asserted his civil right to appear before Caesar but that’s hardly a policy or Kulturkampf.

Peter invokes Isaiah 8 and applies it to Christians because, though we live and serve in this life, in Christ’s twofold kingdom, we await ultimate institution righteousness at Christ’s return. We fear Christ the leader of the heavenly armies. Jesus is our refuge. He is our sanctuary but, in this life, he shall remain a “stone of offense and rock of stumbling” (1 Pet 2:8). Apart from the sovereign, electing grace of God in Christ, we are likely to be misunderstood both by Jews and Gentiles alike, who will sometimes seek to do us harm, but, as Isaiah says, “they shall fall and be broken…”. That outcome belongs to Yahweh. There is no expectation in Peter’s epistles of an earthly golden age of any kind. That is why he consistently invokes the Noah Paradigm to explain the Christian existence.

Peter has an apologetic for the Christian faith but it does not begin where we might assume. It begins with living, as Paul says, “quiet and godly” and “dignified” (1 Tim 2:2) lives. It begins with actual righteousness. Of what do pagans think of when the think of Christians? Do they think of works of mercy or do they think of scandals? Of course it is not fair but who ever said that life was fair? Why would we expect pagans be “fair” to Christians? They are blinded by unbelief and rage against God and his Christ? Our first defense should be that we are not hypocrites and a call to investigate us but before we issue such a bold invitation, let us be sure that we are prepared.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!