|13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But 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.|
[There is a question as to where verse 15 ends and verse 16 begins. Remember that our verse designations and divisions are relatively recent. Robert Stephanus (Robert Estienne; 1503–59) first published a Greek New Testament (Novum Testamentum) with verse divisions in 1551. In that edition, he began v. 16 after “fear” (φόβου). The Majority Text (1982) follows this. In the United Bible Society’s 3rd edition (1968, 1975; my Greek NT since 1980) and the Nestle-Aland (Novum Testamentum Graece) 28 (published in 2012), however, begin vs. 16 after ἐλπίδος (hope). The English translations (e.g., Tyndale, the Authorized Version, the American Standard Version, the Revised Standard Version, The New American Standard Version, and the English Standard Version) all begin v. 16 with “having a good conscience” (or however they translate the Greek text). Further, the traditional Vulgate, as it stands now, and the Clementine Vulgate (1592) begins v. 16 after “hope” (spes). One solution is be to read vv. 16 and 17 as one verse, because it is one thought. This is how they will be treated here.]
vv. 15b–16: Manner Matters: How We Defend The Faith
Peter is as much concerned about how we defend the faith as he is about what we defend. He joins the phrase, “the hope that is within you” with an adversative conjunction “but” (ἀλλὰ) to the prepositional phrase “with meekness and fear” (ἀλλὰ μετὰ πραΰτητος καὶ φόβου) in order to qualify and characterize the way or the manner in which the faith should be defended. When the pagans ask if we believe that Jesus is the Savior (yes!) and the King over all things (yes!), we must answer them gently and with respect. We know that πραΰτης is well translated as “gentleness” since Paul uses it this way in 1 Corinthians 4:1 where he contrasts a rod of discipline with a “spirit of gentleness.” See also 2 Corinthians 10:1 where he says that his ministry among them has been characterized by meekness (πραΰτης). Gentleness or meekness is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:23). It is a mark of godly church discipline (Gal 6:1). Of course, Peter’s baseline here is, as we have seen already, the teaching of our Lord himself in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5;5 our Lord blessed the “meek” (πραεῖς). It is they, who shall inherit the earth. Our Lord was not teaching some sort of quid pro quo covenant of works: be meek, get the earth. Rather, Christians are the meek. We are characterized by gentleness but quite counter-intuitively, against all expectation, against all history heretofore, at the last day, it is not the strong and the bloody but the meek and the bloodied who shall inherit the earth. Jesus’ eschatology reverses our natural expectations.
So it is for Peter. As we encounter the pagans, as they query us about what we believe and why, our response must respect their persons and offices, even if we reject and even hate their ideas. They have no frame of reference by which to understand what we are saying. The Christian faith is a mystery. We claim that a Jewish rabbi was crucified and raised on the third day, that he was and remain, in fact, God the Son incarnate. There is nothing about paganism that prepares them to understand that. Further. the pagans think about religion as a matter of works, as a quid pro quo. They think that the gods are powers to be controlled and manipulated by us. They think that we make offerings and we perform duties and thereby we have obligated the gods to be good to us. That is not the Christian faith. We say that God has been gracious to us sinners in that, while we were sinners (disobedient and judgment deserving), God sent his Son to obey for us, in our place, and to die for us, as our substitute. We say that we are right with God not by anything we have done or can do but merely because God has credited to us who believe all that Jesus did for us. That is a supernatural religion. The pagan has a natural religion. He elevates nature (works) into a religion and seeks to use it to control the gods.
If we are disrespectful—φόβος— is well translated as “respectful” here—to the pagans they will not hear us about Jesus and about our truth claims. If we are rude or impertinent, the pagans will dismiss us as just another rebellious group of cranks. The manner of our defense of the faith matters.
This is what it means to have a “good conscience” (συνείδησιν…ἀγαθήν). It is not so much a reference to our subjective state of peace as it is a reference to the objective manner of our conduct before the pagans. It means that we have not, by our manner, contradicted our message. To that would be to act in bad faith or to sully our conscience. We are to speak the truth the powers of this age with a clear conscience. When we have acted consistently with our confession, then they may do to us as they will. We have given them no cause of action, no grounds for prosecution. If they choose to act unjustly that is, as people say, “on them.” That is their responsibility, not ours.
The purpose of our conduct (ἵνα), Peter says, is that when you are slandered (καταλαλεῖσθε), it is not you, the Christian who defended the faith gently and with respect, but those who abuse (ἐπηρεάζοντες) you over your “good conduct in Christ” (τὴν ἀγαθὴν ἐν Χριστῷ ἀναστροφήν), who shall be put to shame (καταισχυνθῶσιν). Again, Peter is commenting on the teaching of our Lord. In Luke 6:28, Jesus says, “bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” The participle that Luke uses for “abusing” (ἐπηρεαζόντων) is the same verb that Peter uses here.
Peter expects that Christians will be treated unjustly. His concern is that, when we are so treated, that there will be no cause for it in our conduct or speech before the pagans. Let our defense be gracious, clear, true, gentle, and respectful. Let the message be offensive—we cannot help that—but not the messenger. In the Reformed culture, because we are religious minority, it can be tempting to adopt a hostile stance not only to the prevailing neo-pagan, culture (see below) but also to religiously and theologically confused Christians. Of course, this tactic is bound to backfire. It has happened often enough, however, that some have even classified the reaction to American revivalist evangelical theology, piety, and practice as “the cage stage” because those who are in it need to be put into a cage until they get over it. Think of Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk. Everyone around him needs to clear out until he is done breaking things. Gentleness and respect, however, are incompatible with the cage stage.
More to Peter’s point, it seems evident that our surrounding culture is rapidly declining into a state not far distant from that in which Peter wrote. Most of Americans, even those who identify as Christians or even as “evangelicals” (perhaps as many as 60 million Americans are identified as evangelicals), have little idea of what Scripture actually says. Ignorance seems to sweeping over the country generally. Ivy League university students, who would once have been expected to be relatively fluent in Greek and Latin, are now unable to name the Secretary of State of the United States. If people do not any longer know, as it were, what day it is, how can we reasonably expect them to know the basics of the Christian faith? Indeed, a growing body of evidence suggests that they do not have any clear idea of who Jesus is, what he did, what he said, and why he did it and said it. In other words, we need not go looking for pagans. It is most likely that we live and work with them.
Let our message to them and our manner before them cohere that we may have a “good conscience.” May the Lord grant us the twin graces of mortification (putting the old man to death) and vivification (making alive the new man) as we strive toward bringing our manner into conformity with the Christian message for the sake of the message, for the sake of the souls with whom we have opportunity to speak a word in defense of Christ the Savior.