By Christopher VanDusen
When God first created humanity, He did so by creating two genders — male and female. More than that, He began this relationship between them by establishing a marriage between them. In that marriage, or union, they would work together to fill the earth, subdue it, and cultivate it. Hence, marriage is one of the foundations of human living on this earth. As such, most adult Christians find themselves married to another person. Some even are married to a non-Christian, but all are responsible for treating their spouse in the way that the Lord Jesus Christ requires of them. So how do they live with their spouse in a way that pleases the Lord? The apostle Peter answers this question in 1 Peter 3:1-7.
Peter wrote the letter of 1 Peter to Jewish Christians — whom he calls “aliens” — who were living among mostly non-Jewish unbelievers. Because of this, not only were they different because of their Jewish heritage, but more importantly, they lived in a way that directly contradicted the pagan lifestyles and values of their neighbors. Therefore, they were experiencing mistreatment from their neighbors for their Christianity, and Peter wrote to help them live righteously in the midst of it.
To begin his letter, Peter first details the rich blessings of salvation that God has given them in the past, the present, and the future. He highlights their future hope of the return of Christ, and the completion of their salvation from sin, and also explains that their current suffering is necessary to bring God glory through their endurance of it. Then, he remarks that their salvation is of such great importance to God, that He foretold it to the Old Testament prophets for centuries, who were unable to understand it.
In the next section, Peter begins to instruct the aliens on how to live in light of their salvation. He explains that they need to be hopeful, holy, and reverent toward God. Then, he describes the way in which they ought to love one another, since they’ve purified themselves, and have been born again through God’s Word.
To begin the second chapter, Peter commands the aliens to stop committing certain sins against each other, and to long to learn God’s Word, in order to become more like Christ. Then, he explains how they’re doing this, and what their purpose on earth is. They’re becoming more like Christ by going to Him for His Word, and by living by it as God’s holy priests. As a result, they teach who God is, and what He’s done for people, to the world around them.
To conclude chapter 2, Peter explains to the aliens how they are to share who God is with the unbelieving world. First, they do this by ignoring their sinful desires, and by living righteously. Second, they do this by submitting to their government. Third, they do this by honoring every person in their lives. Fourth, he addresses slaves, who proclaim God’s goodness by submitting to their masters, and suffering like Christ.
When Peter gets to chapter 3, he now turns to wives and husbands, and explains how they are to proclaim God’s goodness to those around them, and to serve Him, in verses 1-7:
“Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, 2 when they see your respectful and pure conduct. 3 Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— 4 but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. 5 For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, 6 as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.
7 Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.” (ESV)
In this passage, Peter gives wives and husbands 4 instructions for how to be good spouses:
- Wives Submit to Their Husbands to Win the Disobedient (vss. 1-2)
- Wives Show Off Their Hearts by Wearing Devoutness (vss. 3-4)
- Wives Shadow the Holy Women by Walking in Duty (vss. 5-6)
- Husbands Show Honor to their Wives as the Weaker Vessel (v. 7)
Wives Submit to Their Husbands to Win the Disobedient
The first instruction Peter gives to Christian wives is to submit to their husbands:
“Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.”
Peter begins this command with the word “likewise”, which means “in the same way”. He’s referring back to the instructions that he gave to slaves at the end of chapter 2. In what way did he command slaves to submit to their masters? In verse 18, he said they were to do this “with all respect”, which literally means “with all fear” or “reverence”. Since the only other places where Peter uses the word “fear” before this is with reference to God, and he says that this fear is the basis for how the aliens are to live their entire lives, it’s clear that he’s referring to fearing God here. Hence, when he tells wives to submit to their husbands in the same way that slaves are to submit to their maters, he’s saying that they need to do this out of fear, or reverence, toward God. Of course, just as Paul teaches in Ephesians 5, they’re secondarily to have a lesser reverence for their husbands, since their husbands represent Christ. This makes sense, because to “be subject to” someone means you place yourself under their authority, and decide to obey their instructions insofar as they don’t lead you to sin.
After giving the command, Peter next explains why these wives need to submit to their husbands. It’s so that “even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct”. The goal of obeying this command is evangelistic.
Apparently, Peter knew that there was a significant number of Christian wives who were married to unbelievers, since this is who he’s referring to. When Peter speaks of obeying “the word”, he’s using the same language that he used at the end of chapter 1. There, he said that the aliens had purified their souls by obeying “the word”. Then, he says that “this word is the good news that was preached to you”. Thus, “the word”, or “message”, that he’s talking about is the good news of Christ’s coming, death for our sins, resurrection from the dead, ascension into heaven, and the promise of God’s forgiveness for all who change their minds and trust in Christ as King and Savior. Those who don’t obey this word are those who don’t believe it, and are therefore still enemies of God, and subject to His wrath.
By submitting to their husbands, Peter says, the wives of unbelievers will be in a position to “win” their husbands by showing them their “respectful and pure conduct”. When Peter uses the word “win”, he’s referencing the Old Testament concept of “winning” souls, which is found in Proverbs 11:30. For Christians, it means to persuade people to trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior. And how can these wives do it? “Without a word”. In other words, they can do this — assuming the husbands already know the gospel that saves — by being “respectful and pure”. Again, the word “respectful” comes from the Greek word that means “fearful” or “reverent”, so Peter is mainly talking about reverence toward God. By “pure”, he means goodness and holiness that is untainted by noticeable sin. Peter tells these wives that if they act in these ways, they’ll be in a position to persuade their unbelieving husbands to trust in Christ. Peter’s unspoken assumption is that they’ll only be able to do this through God’s will and power. However, he’s implying that if they don’t act reverently and purely by submitting to their husbands, so they see it, it’s unlikely that they’ll be saved through them.
Wives Show Off Their Hearts by Wearing Devoutness
The second instruction that Peter gives wives in verses 3-4 is to show off their hearts by wearing their devoutness:
“Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.”
First, Peter forbids Christian wives from “adorning” themselves with things that are on the outside. These are the things that women wore in those days to make themselves look more beautiful to people. It included braided hair, gold jewelry, and dresses. He’s not forbidding them from wearing these things, since that would mean that they couldn’t wear the clothes that almost all women wore back then! Rather, he’s forbidding them from presenting themselves to people — especially to their husbands — so they notice and are impressed with their physical looks. Rather, they’re to focus on presenting their character to people, so they’re impressed with that.
What kind of character are they to show off? First, Peter says that it’s the character of their “heart”. This refers to the core, or control center, of a person. It includes the affections, desires, emotions, and will. Peter describes their hearts as displaying “a gentle and quiet spirit”. The word “gentle” describes those who have a proper view of themselves and others, so they recognize that they’re not the most important person in social situations, but that others are. Therefore, they’re patient and kind with others, even when others mistreat them. By a “quiet spirit”, Peter means the characteristic of a wife who doesn’t proudly assert herself, or unnecessarily make people focus on her, but is willing to submit to her husband’s acceptable instructions without protest or complaint. Peter says that this spirit has “imperishable beauty”, or beauty that will be appealing in the same way forever. Why? Because it’s “very precious” in God’s sight. In other words, it’s beautiful and valuable to Him.
Wives Shadow the Holy Women by Walking in Duty
In verses 5-6, Peter gives his final instruction to Christian wives by giving them another motivation to submit to their husbands, and to be gentle and quiet:
“For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.”
Why does Peter begin this section with the word “for”? Because he’s proving that adorning themselves with “a gentle and quiet spirit” is “very precious” in God’s sight. The main proof is that “the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands”. Who are these holy women? Well, one of them is Sarah, who was Abraham’s wife in the Book of Genesis. Hence, at the least, Peter means all the women who were “holy”, or “set apart” for God, in the Old Testament. Why does he say that they “hoped in God”? Because that’s one of the first things that he began this letter with — hoping in God. To hope in God means to believe that He’ll do what He’s promised to do.
So, how did these holy women adorn themselves, or make themselves beautiful? First, he implies that they did this by being “gentle” and “quiet”. However, they did this while they were “submitting to their own husbands”. He follows this fact with the example of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. He says that Sarah submitted to Abraham by “obeying” him, and by “calling him lord”.
First, Sarah obeyed Abraham. This can be seen in Genesis, where it’s said that Abraham commanded her to pretend to be his sister multiple times, so his neighbors wouldn’t be jealous of him, and try to harm him to get Sarah. In one instance, this resulted in Sarah practically becoming Pharaoh’s wife! In obeying this command of Abraham, Sarah demonstrated that she was submissive to him, even though what he wanted was very foolish, and required Sarah to do something that could be very uncomfortable. Second, she called Abraham “lord”. The word “lord” means “ruler” or “master”, so it indicates that she let Abraham know that she considered him to be the man in authority over her, as her husband.
Peter finishes this instruction by telling the Christian wives that they are Sarah’s “children, if [they] do good and do not fear anything that is frightening”. By “children”, he means that they imitate her, since the concept of “children” in the New Testament means that the children are like their parent. So, Peter encourages these wives by telling them that they’re like Sarah’s children if they are do-gooders, and don’t fear anything that their husbands may do to them. This is an honor, since God greatly blessed Sarah, and used her in the biological line of the Messiah. If they act like Sarah, then God has greatly blessed them, too.
Husbands Show Honor to Their Wives as the Weaker Vessel
In verse 7, Peter concludes this passage by commanding Christian husbands to sympathize with, and to honor, their wives:
“Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.”
Again, Peter begins this command by saying that he’s giving it in the same way that he gave the commands for slaves and wives. Just as they are to obey those commands “with all reverence” toward God, so also these husbands are to obey this command out of worshipful reverence for God. The main command is to “live with your wives in an understanding way”. The Greek literally says they’re to do this “according to knowledge”. In other words, they need to keep in mind who they’re living with, and treat them accordingly.
The way they’re to do this is by “showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel”. The phrase “showing honor” means to “esteem” or “value”. And how are they to value them? “As the weaker vessel”. By calling their wives “vessel”, Peter is comparing them to a household tool, such as a pot or pitcher, that’s used for the good of others. Therefore, when he says they’re “weaker”, he simply means that they’re physically weaker than their husbands, and ought to be treated as such. As a side note, Peter’s implying that the husbands are also vessels, but the stronger ones.
Next, Peter gives two reasons that husbands ought to honor their wives as the weaker vessel. First, it’s because they’re “heirs with [them] of the grace of life”. By using the word “heirs”, Peter’s most likely simply saying that by being married, both husbands and wives have obtained “the grace of life”. The word “grace” literally means “favor” or “benefit”, so Peter’s saying that this life together is a blessing from God. Since wives are just as much blessed by God as husbands are, they ought to be honored. The second reason Peter gives for husbands to honor their wives is “so that [their] prayers may not be hindered”. The implication is that, if they don’t honor their wives as the weaker vessels, and fellow heirs of life, then their prayers will be hindered. In other words, God won’t answer their prayers if they mistreat their wives by failing to honor them as weaker partners, and fellow heirs. Why? Because either their requests will be displeasing to God, or their motives for asking for things will be displeasing to Him.
Wives, Submit to Your Husbands, and Husbands, Honor Your Wives
So, if you’re a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, how does this passage apply to you?
If you’re a wife, are you submitting to your husband, even if he doesn’t obey the gospel, so that you can win him to faith with your reverent and pure behavior?
Are you adorning yourself with your outward appearance, or are you adorning yourself with the everlasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, since this is precious to God?
Are you doing good and being fearless in your marriage by obeying your husband, like Sarah?
If you’re a husband, are you living with your wife by recognizing that she’s the weaker vessel?
Are you honoring your wife as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so your prayers won’t be hindered?
All Scripture quotations are taken from the:
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.