|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.|
v. 17: There Are Right Reasons And Wrong Reasons To Suffer
We might think about this passage relative to how to defend the faith. We might discuss it under the method of apologetics (about which Peter says nothing) or we might discuss it under the message to be defended. Again, Peter says relatively little about what is being defended. Of course, he has already addressed that earlier and he will return to it again but here it seems evident that he was at least as interested in how we defend the faith as what we are defending.
Peter returns to a theme he established in 2:20, “For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God” (ESV). The reminds us of the context for Peter’s instructions regarding giving a defense of the faith: formal (in Rome) and informal persecution of Christians (in Asia Minor). When Peter says “to suffer” (πάσχειν) he is not thinking of the general suffering that is a consequence of the fall (illness, broken relationships etc). He is thinking specifically of Christians who are being harassed and even punished simply because they have been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and because they gather with other Christians on the Christian Sabbath for public worship and to receive the means of grace (the preaching of the Gospel and the use of the Holy Sacraments).
We should be impressed by how strongly the Apostle Peter urges obedience to the civil authorities (see 2:20). As before, his message is that there is no honor in suffering for the sake of violating just civil laws. Of course, we know that the Apostles were prepared to disobey unjust civil laws (Acts 5:29) when laws call us to place the civil magistrate before God. Since he has repeated himself, in this context, it seems clear that he is envisioning a time when there will be civil persecution. We know that within 60 years the very thing for which he was preparing the Christians of Asia Minor did take place. Under Pliny the Younger (c. 112 AD), Christians were called by civil authorities to renounce Christ and to affirm Caesar’s deity. Those who refused were martyred for the sake of Christ. Some were tortured before death. At no time did anyone bring any civil charges against the Christians. Their only crime was serving the crucified and risen King Jesus.
Peter’s exhortation, his fervent desire, is that Christians should be prepared to give an account of their faith in such a context. Such a defense, such an explanation of who Jesus is, what he is, and why we are Christians requires preparation. No one makes a presentation to his boss’ without preparation. Lawyers do not appear in court without reviewing their notes and the relevant law. So it is with Christians who find themselves giving an account to civil authorities or to others (e.g., your company’s Human Resources Officer) of why we say and do what we do. This apology (defense) or account of the objective truths of the faith (e.g., the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed) and our personal, subjective appropriation of those truths is the “doing good” (ἀγαθοποιοῦντας) that Peter envisions. We must know what the articles of the Creed say and what they mean. What does it mean when we say, “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth” or “in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord”? Testifying (giving witness) to Christ before authorities is no time to begin one’s serious mediation on the basic truths of the faith.
Given that none of the Apostles ever instructed the first-century Christians to change or even challenge the existing government, we Christians may and should say to the authorities (be they public or private) that we are not seeking to overturn the social order. It is arguable that the inevitable consequence of Christianity that it changes the social order but that is not our intent. Of course as more people come to see other humans as the image of God, that will change the way they treat other humans. For example, chattel slavery (or modern sex trafficking) becomes incoherent and indefensible if the people who are being traded are fellow image bearers and all the more if they brothers and sisters in Christ. If the civil magistrate is recognized for what he is, a mere, fallible, sinful mortal, that has a consequence for civil life. If people are intrinsically corrupted (they are), that has consequences for the way laws are framed and society is organized. Nevertheless, what Christians were seeking to do was to proclaim a spiritual, eternal, transcendent, trans-cultural kingdom that arrived with the advent of Jesus, which is institutionally represented by the visible church, to which Christ gave the keys of the kingdom (the preaching of the gospel and the use of church discipline).
Finally, should suffering come to faithful, obedient Christians, despite their quiet obedience to the civil magistrate, we must recognize that it only comes according to God’s will. Peter adds an interesting expression, “should God will” or “if the will of God wills” (εἰ θέλοι τὸ θέλημα τοῦ θεοῦ). He puts the verb in a voice (optative) that does not occur with great frequency in the New Testament. This verb occurs in this voice only two other times (Luke 1:62; Acts 17:18) in the NT. For Peter there is no question that everything that occurs happens only within the scope of God’s secret providence or his sovereign decree. In other words, should Christians find themselves under persecution and, in such a circumstance, called to give a defense of the faith. It is all part of God’s will. It is not as if God has looked away or as if bad things are happening despite God’s will. No, it means that he is accomplishing his purposes through the very things we are suffering. This is how the ancient church grew. Paradoxically, however pleasant peace and prosperity may be (they are), historically, Christianity has flourished when it has been oppressed. For this reason, a dear friend who is serving in a dangerous part of the world, has urged me sternly not to pray that God would withhold persecution from them. That was a hard exhortation to hear. It is one I struggle to obey but historically he is right.
Peter is just as concerned about how we defend the faith as he is the faith that we are to defend. We must know what we believe and why and we must be prepared to given an answer to authorities who ask. We prepare to defend the faith for the sake of the glory of our Savior who was prepared to obey and die for us, who was raised for us, who is interceding for us before our heavenly Father. As we testify we should rest in the confidence that the Spirit is helping us and that he will use his truth to accomplish his purposes for his glory and for the gathering and encouraging of his people.