Practical Suffering, Part 1: Having the Right Perspective - 1 Peter 3:13-17

So who will do evil to you if you become zealots of the good? Yet, if also you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed! So do not be afraid nor be troubled by their fear. Rather, sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always ready for a defense to anyone who asks you for an account concerning the hope within you. Yet with meekness and fear, by having a good conscience, so that in which you are slandered they who abuse your good conduct in Christ might be shamed. For it is better, should the will of God desire it, to suffer doing good than doing evil.


Peter now arrives at the major point of his letter. Everything that he has said up to this point has been leading here. From 3:13-5:11 Peter will dwell upon and flesh out the various implications of Christian suffering. His observations regarding Practical Salvation (1:3-2:10) and his exhortations regarding Practical Sojourning (2:11-3:12) were laid as a foundation for his instruction of Practical Suffering.


The fact that his audience has already experienced some sort of suffering for the sake of the gospel goes without saying. They have already been exhorted on how to respond to those who have and continue to revile and slander them (2:12) and warned against unholy suffering (2:19-20). The kind of suffering has not likely reached a fever pitch, but it does not take a prophet or a son of a prophet to understand that, unless God intervenes, a trajectory is set for empire wide persecution. The more things change, the more they stay the same. There is nothing new under the sun. Peter turns to his main objective (preparing his readers to suffer well for the sake of Christ) by first helping these elect aliens to think rightly about suffering. They must approach the topic of suffering from a biblical perspective. In these verses, Peter answers three necessary questions that every believer must understand. Right action begins with a right understanding.


Whom Shall We Fear? (vv. 13-14)

The carnal response to suffering is incased in fear. Peter has already laid much groundwork regarding fear. Φόβος or fear, in Peter’s mind, is a reaction and response that is to be reserved exclusively for God. He has already commanded his readers to fear God because of their glorious salvation (1:17) and their status as elect aliens (2:17). He then used this fear to motivate godly conduct (2:18; 3:2, 6). Some translations obscure this connection be rendering φόβος/φοβέω as “respect” but, as we have already proven, the idea is always fear with God as the object of that fear. Christians do not fear man, nor what man can do but reserve this holy and healthy fear for God alone.


Who is able to harm us?

So who will do evil to you if you become zealots of the good?


This rhetorical question connects back to 3:12 where the promise of God’s providential care and sovereign judgment were plainly stated. For reasons unknown, the NASB does not translate the initial καὶ (and/so/then) and thus many English readers do not see this connection, yet this connection is necessary to understand the sense of the question. The question seeks to know the identity of those who are able to harm or do evil to the readers. Peter uses the participle ὁ κακώσων (evil doers/harm inflictors) which shares the same root (κακός) as those who work evil (κακά). Yet this participle is in the future tense (the one who will do evil) and thus indicates a future reality rather than a current one. If Yhwh sets His face against these workers of evil, then who is left to work this evil against the Christians of Asia Minor? Answer: no one!


If Yhwh watches over His people as David proclaimed and Peter affirmed (3:12), then there is no reason to fear these evil doers, for they cannot harm us. That is, if we become zealots for the good.


This conditional statement does not hold the readers captive by demanding certain behavior in exchange for God’s protection. Excellent and good conduct has already been presented as the result indicative of a life that God has caused to be born again. To be a zealot for good is the assumed mark of the redeemed.


The term ζηλωτής is a noun (zealots) rather than an adjective (zealous). Zeal may ebb and flow, but a zealot is one who is identified by such zeal as a character trait. This assumes so much more than being occasionally overtaken by doing good. Rather, it describes those who have given themselves wholly to a life of doing good. It is the business of every believer to constantly and ceaselessly be salt and light. That is the life of a good works zealot.[1]

The rhetorical question then works like this: If you are redeemed, caused to be born again as God fearers and transformed to be a holy people bent on good works that give glory to God, who is able to harm you? No one! God will judge them on the last day and will protect His people in the meantime.


Who is able to revoke God’s blessing?

Yet, if also you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed!


Peter offers this statement to those who recognize that suffering is a reality in this world and some of those who suffer are indeed zealots for good. Was not our Lord a zealot for good? Did He not suffer? Surely Peter does not mean that all suffering is ever and only directed at those who rightly deserve it, does he? Peter by no means denies the reality of suffering but refuses to view suffering as the world does. If, like our Lord, we suffer because of (διὰ) righteousness we are not cursed but blessed!


Peter has in mind Jesus’ own words from His sermon on the mount. In Matthew 5:10, Christ clearly stated that those who suffer for the sake of righteousness are blessed because of their eternal reward: “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for this is the kingdom of heaven” (NASB). Peter does not deny suffering nor even the most evil kind of suffering, those who target the righteous for persecution. But he keeps his eyes on the upward call of God and thus points his readers to the reality that no man can separate them from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38-39). Peter echoes Paul here when he asked a similar rhetorical question: “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom. 8:31). It matters not that we suffer, nor even that we suffer because of righteousness. Our suffering does not remove us from God’s eternal protection, nor does it demonstrate a lack of saving faith. In fact, suffering for the sake of righteousness confirms these things. No amount of suffering can remove us from the love of God, nor can it deprive us from our rights of inheritance of Christ’s coming kingdom. Rejoice! You are blessed!


Whom shall we fear?

So do not be afraid nor be troubled by their fear.


Peter quotes from the LXX of Is. 8:12 here as a conclusion and explanation of his call for right thinking regarding suffering. The context of Is. 7-8 is important to understand. King Ahaz of Judah is threatened by Rezin king of Aram and Pekah king of Israel (Is. 7:1). Isaiah brings word from Yhwh that their plot will fail due to the coming Assyrian invasion. God will whistle for the Assyrians (7:18) and they will destroy both the northern kingdom of Israel as well as Aram, leaving Judah to be spared. It is in this context that Ahaz is commanded by Yhwh through Isaiah not to fear what others fear (8:12); namely, the threat of invading nations. This assurance does not indicate that Judah will be left unscathed (Is. 8:5-8), but that Judah is still in the hands of Yhwh. The foreign adversaries are unworthy of their fear.[2]


Peter uses Isaiah’s words to explain his own. The world fears the wrath of the world, yet Christians have no need for such fear. There is no guarantee that we will live out our days in our secure homes free from persecution. But this does nothing to rob us of God’s promise to us. The world fears persecution, plague, and invasion. The Christian fears none of these things. The world dreads public scorn and political oppression. These things have zero effect on the Christian. We reserve our fear for God alone. The first principle in a biblical perspective of suffering is to face it without fear.


Whom Do We Serve? (vv. 15-16)

In forming the perspective of his readers to a biblical frame of mind, Peter transitions from addressing how they are to think about suffering (vv. 13-14) to how that thinking is formed into action (vv. 15-16). If we are to fear no man but reserve our fear for God alone, what does that imply regarding our actions? Obviously, our service is reserved for God alone. But how should we enter this service? Peter has steered their thinking from negative ideas about suffering and here swings to commanding positive action.


How shall we serve Him?


After cementing his readers’ minds with a biblical way of thinking, Peter introduces a single imperative that demands action. The whole of vv. 15&16 hang off the command to sanctify Christ as Lord. This is also a reference to Is. 8, this time to v. 13: “It is Yhwh of hosts whom you should regard as holy. He shall be your fear, and He shall be your dread.” To sanctify (ἁγιάζω) means to consecrate or to separate as holy (ἅγος). There is some debate whether we should read this statement as Peter equating Christ of the New Testament to Yhwh of the Old (sanctify Yhwh, the Christ)[3] or whether Lord (κύριον) is what Christ is to be sanctified as (sanctify Christ as Lord).[4] If we recognize that Peter is pointing to Is. 8:13 and understand this particular use of Lord (κύριος) as standing for the Greek translation of the proper name of God (Yhwh), then the difference between the two amounts to very little. Peter’s point is to demand that his readers respond appropriately to Christ who is in fact the same Yhwh as Isaiah’s prophecy. How should Christians rightly respond to this Yhwh of hosts?


Bow to Him

Rather, sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts


To sanctify Christ does not mean that we make Him holy but that we treat Him as holy. We must recognize that He is utterly separate from the common and profane on the basis of who He is; Yhwh in flesh. To sanctify Him in our hearts makes zero comment regarding our emotional attachment to Him but speaks to our attitude towards Him. The heart is the seat of a person’s decisions, the core of his personhood. It is from the heart that all actions flow. To sanctify Christ as Yhwh in our heart is a declaration of allegiance to Him. It is to set Him above everything else and bend our wills to His. If Christ is set apart, recognized as holy, sanctified because He is Yhwh, then we will bow to no one but Him and serve Him exclusively.


Identify with Him

always ready for a defense to anyone who asks you for an account concerning the hope within you


This is where v. 15 ends in the Greek text. Here we have the famous verse for apologists everywhere. The term defense (ἀπολογία) is the root of our English term apology and indicates a formal and logical defense of one’s actions. This is the speech one might expect of a defendant to his judge. Peter does not limit this defense to such a formal setting but opens it up to any and every time someone (anyone – παντὶ) makes inquiries about the Christian hope. Every Christian is called to know their faith well enough to present a clear defense of why they believe what they believe. This does not mean that every Christian is expected to answer the most obscure of questions, but every Christian should be able to stand as “exhibit A” when an unbeliever assumes the role of judge.[5]


It is interesting that Peter calls for believers to present a case for the hope (ἐλπίς) that is within them rather than the faith (πίστις) that they hold to. It would serve no purpose to drive a hard wedge between the two, but the assumption is that these questions arise after an unbeliever observes a Christian’s response to suffering (2:12). Why do they cling to hope when the world is set against them? They have done nothing wrong, yet they have no fear (3:14). Why? This hope is an eschatological confidence that this world will be made right. That Christ will return and set His face against those who do evil. There is no reason for a Christian to lose sleep over the injustice done to him, for Christ will render justice. This is a call for every Christian to stand and identify with Christ, to show his true colors as marked by the blood of the Lamb, and make his position clearly known to any who asks.


Rightly Represent Him

Yet with meekness and fear, by having a good conscience


The Greek text begins v. 16 at this point. These two phrases form a natural counterbalance to this defense. It is possible, maybe even likely, for a Christian to turn from defendant to accuser and begin an attack of his own. Meekness (πραΰτης) describes one who is not overly impressed with himself and is thus one who is humble, gentle, and considerate. Fear (φόβος) as always refers to the fear of God. The sense is then that this defense is to be mounted as if the Christian on trial presents himself as if Almighty God is watching, for He surely is. As Luther is reported to have said reflecting upon his defense at Worms, “Then must you not answer with proud words and bring out the matter with a defiance and with violence as if you would tear up trees, but with such fear and lowliness as if you stood before God’s tribunal…so must you stand in fear, and not rest on your own strength, but on the word and promise of Christ.[6]


To this Peter adds by having a good conscience (συνείδησιν ἔχοντες ἀγαθήν) and brings our minds back to so many previous verses regarding the Christian motivation. Citizens are to submit for the Lord’s sake (2:13) and slaves are to submit to their masters for the sake of their God-conscience (2:19). Is their defense delivered in content and in manner in such a way that God would approve of? Do they accurately represent the God of their salvation? This is the idea that Peter demands of his readers.


Objectively speaking, Christians positively respond to suffering by serving their God. They serve by swearing allegiance to Him, standing with Him, and rightly presenting Him to the watching world. What follows is the reason that Christians must take such action.


Why should we serve Him?

so that in which you are slandered they who abuse your good conduct in Christ might be shamed.


The ἵνα clause (so that) presents the purpose of these actions. In brief, Christians must serve their God boldly and without reservation so that those who continue in their abuse will be judged. Here we have the other side of the coin from 2:12. It was there that Christian conduct was exhorted so that watching unbelievers might see the gospel on display and glorify God through their confession, repentance, and belief. But not all will do so. There will be many who continue to slander Christians for the very conduct that marks them as Christians. Notice that Peter marks this good conduct (ἀναστροφή) as being in Christ. What makes this conduct good is the fact that this conduct is marked by its relation to Jesus Christ. These slanderers are those who specifically hurl abuse at Christians for what they do as Christians. It is their identity as being sons and daughters of God and joint heirs with Christ that bring these abusive words upon them. These are those who have heard the word, seen the fruit, and hardened their hearts in unbelief. They will be shamed indeed. Not by Christians, but by the Lord when He judges the quick and the dead. Christians are called to faithfully follow Christ as they suffer so the gospel will do its work. To some, it will quicken their hearts to faith and life. To others, it will harden and confirm their deadness in sin. In either case, God gets the glory.


Whom Do We Aim to Please? (v. 17)

For it is better, should the will of God desire it, to suffer doing good than doing evil


Peter concludes this initial biblical perspective of suffering with this simple statement. Doing good does not prevent suffering. Yet, if suffering is going to happen, it comes at the will of God. The Greek emphasizes this by personifying the will of God (εἰ θέλοι τὸ θέλμαυ τοῦ θεοῦ), literally stating: “if the will of God wills it…” If suffering comes, it is because God had decreed it to be so from before the foundations of the earth. Is it not better to enter into that suffering as one who does good as opposed to one who does evil? Luther’s comments on this very verse captures it well, “Go on in faith and love; if the cross comes, take it; if it comes not, do not seek it.[7] But in what way is it truly better to suffer for doing good?


Within the context of Peter’s argument, doing good is necessary to clearly display the gospel to the heathen. Suffering proves that this conduct is genuine and runs through the marrow of our bones rather than only being skin deep. If we suffer, we suffer because God has willed it. There is no need to fear the suffering, for it is God’s will, nor those who inflict the suffering, for God is in control. But if we suffer well, doing what is good all the while, then we have an opportunity to be the most potent salt and most brilliant light that we are capable of being. Our aim should not be to please ourselves through our comfort nor please the world through our silence. Our aim should be to please God through our conduct, the product of our faith, as we persevere through suffering that He has ordained.


Conclusion


If every church in America began preaching a biblical theology of Christian suffering, my guess is that attendance would fall by at least 50% inside of a week. Nobody wants to suffer, but most are totally unprepared to suffer. Many churches are preaching that God desires His children to live warm, happy, and comfortable lives far from anything that could be considered suffering. Yet Peter’s main objective in this letter is to prepare Christians for the reality of suffering. While it is true that not all Christians suffer for the sake of righteousness all the time, the reality of the situation remains that all Christians will suffer for the sake of righteousness at some time. This suffering may not be at the hands of a government sanctioned pogrom or angry mobs in the street demanding Christians to be thrown to the lions, but rebellious men who hate God will not spare His children. We must face the fact that we can suffer safely in the hands of God for the sake of righteousness, or we can suffer eternally as objects of His wrath. There is no middle ground. May we accept this and repent of our rebellion against the will of God. May we be found faithful, suffering for the sake of righteousness, when He returns.


Soli Deo Gloria!

[1] Thomas Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2003), p. 170. [2] Ibid, p. 171-3. [3] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of The Epistles of St. Peter, St. John and St. Jude (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1966), p. 149-50. [4] D. Edmond Hiebert, 1 Peter (Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 1984), p. 125-6. [5] Ibid, p. 127. [6] Ibid, p. 228-9. [7] Ibid, p. 232.

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