By Christopher VanDusen
Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ live among people who are enslaved by God’s arch-enemy, Satan. Hence, unbelievers are rebels against God, and are therefore hostile to the main truths that believers live for, and live by. As a result, believers who live godly lives for any significant length of time among unbelievers will inevitably suffer for it. So what are they supposed to think of this suffering, and how do they endure it rightly? The apostle Peter answers these questions in 1 Peter 3:13-17.
1 Peter is a letter that Peter was writing to Jewish believers who were living among mostly non-Jewish unbelievers. Because of this, they were suffering persecution from their neighbors in what seems to be mostly social and verbal mistreatment. Peter knew of this persecution, and wrote 1 Peter to instruct these believers, whom he calls “aliens,” on how to persevere through it, and to respond to it in a way that pleases the Lord.
Peter begins the letter by describing the great blessings of salvation that they’ve all received from God. He includes what God has done for them in the past, what He’s doing in the present, and what He’ll do for them in the future. He notes that their present suffering is necessary to bring the most glory to God in the future, and that this future includes a perfect eternity living with Christ. Then, he remarks that this salvation was long prophesied by the Old Testament prophets, but never revealed until the gospel was preached to people like the aliens.
Well into the first chapter, Peter begins to explain to the aliens how they ought to live in light of their salvation. It’s by being hopeful, holy, and reverent toward God. Next, he describes how they ought to love one another, as a result of purifying themselves and being born again through God’s Word. To begin the second chapter, Peter commands them to stop committing certain sins against one another, so they can long to learn God’s Word, and grow in their salvation from sin. After this, he describes how this is happening through them seeking God’s Word from the Lord, and putting it into practice by being God’s priests. He says that the purpose of this on earth is their proclamation of God’s goodness to the unbelieving world around them. Next, he explains that they’re to do this by ignoring their sinful desires, and by living rightly in front of unbelievers. He applies this instruction in the realm of human authority by commanding them to submit to every human institution of authority, and to honor all people. Further, he explains to slaves and wives that they’re to submit to their masters and husbands. Finally, he instructs husbands to honor their wives.
To sum up this section about proclaiming God’s goodness to the world around them, he commands all of them to be unified, and to bless those who harm them, since this will lead them to be blessed by God at the end of their lives.
After this section, he begins verses 13-17 of chapter 3, which say,
“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, 15 but 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, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” (ESV)
In this passage, Peter has three main teachings on why and how to suffer for doing what’s right:
- Happiness Comes from Suffering for Righteousness (vss. 13-14a)
- Honor Christ as Sanctified to Give a Reason (v. 15a)
- Hold a Conscience that’s Sanitized to Rebuke (v. 15b-17)
Happiness Comes from Suffering for Righteousness
The first thing Peter teaches in verses 13-14a is that happiness comes from suffering for righteousness:
“Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.”
He begins his point with a question that he assumes the aliens will know how to answer. The question is “who will harm you if you’re passionate about goodness”? By “what is good”, he means doing what’s good according to God, and by “zealous”, he means being enthusiastic and devoted to it. The implied answer to his question is that there’s no one who will harm the aliens if they’re passionate about goodness. How is this possible? Because Peter’s not using the word “harm” in the ordinary sense, but in the eternal, and spiritual, sense. We can know this, since he just got done talking about how to be eternally blessed in the next life in verses 9-12. The opposite of this blessing is “harm”, which the Old Testament passage he quotes describes as “the face of the Lord” being “against those who do evil” (v. 12). This means that the Lord is ready to eternally punish those who do evil, and in so doing, he harms them in the way that Peter’s talking about. Thus, when Peter implies that there’s no one to harm the aliens if they’re passionate about doing good, he means that they won’t be harmed by anyone spiritually and eternally.
In the next sentence, Peter describes what will happen to the aliens if they’re passionate about goodness. First, if they’re like this, they’ll “suffer for righteousness’ sake”. The word “righteousness” means living in a way that pleases God, since it’s done out of love for, and obedience to, Him, and love for others. Peter says that if they suffer for living like this, then they’ll “be blessed”. The word “blessed” literally means “happy”, but can also refer to the reason why a person is happy. Obviously, Peter doesn’t mean that the aliens will necessarily be happy while they’re suffering, but that, for suffering for what’s right, God will reward them, if not in this life, certainly in the next. However, even if they don’t experience the reward in this life, they’re still blessed in this life for suffering like this, since God is pleased with them doing it.
Honor Christ as Sanctified to Give a Reason
In verses 14b-15a, Peter begins to explain to the aliens how to suffer for righteousness by saying,
“Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but 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 . . .”
First, Peter forbids the aliens from being afraid or anxious about suffering from people for righteousness. He commands them to neither fear those who mistreat them, nor to have mental, or emotional, distress, because of them.
Second, he tells them what to do instead of being afraid or anxious. They’re to “honor Christ the Lord as holy” in their “hearts”. The Greek literally says “set apart Christ as Lord in your hearts”. Two Bible words that mean “set apart” or “separated” are “holy” and “sanctified”. So, Peter’s commanding the aliens to treat Christ, or “the Anointed” Prophet, Priest, and King of God, as Lord, or “supreme in power”. In other words, instead of being afraid of their persecutors, Peter’s telling the aliens to treat Christ as the One who’s in control of everything, including the persecution they’re suffering. And they’re not just to acknowledge this, but to act like it, since they’re to do this in their hearts.
Next, Peter explains what setting apart Christ as the Lord in their hearts will require them to do. They’ll “always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks [them] for a reason for the hope that is in [them]”. By “the hope” that’s in them, Peter doesn’t mean a wish, or desire, but a certain expectation that what God has promised He’s going to do for them, He’ll do. This hope is summed up in the return of Christ, and the completion of their salvation at that time. Peter says that the aliens need to always be ready to “make a defense” to “anyone” who asks them to explain why they have this hope. By “a defense”, he doesn’t mean an apology, or an excuse that will satisfy the demands of their questioners, but the proof, and reasoned argument, that their hope is true hope, and they have good reason to have it. This defense is best summarized in the good news of Christ’s coming, death for sins, resurrection from the dead, and ascension into heaven.
Hold a Conscience that’s Sanitized to Rebuke
In verses 15b-17, Peter finishes this passage by explaining how the aliens are to make a defense for the hope that’s in them, and why they’re to do this:
“. . . yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.”
The first way in which the aliens are to make a defense for their hope is “with gentleness”. The word “gentleness” means self-control and humility that’s respectful toward others, and is willing to patiently endure mistreatment from them. Another word for “gentleness” is “meekness”.
The Greek word that Peter uses for the second way in which the aliens are to make a defense to their questioners is phobos, which literally means “fear”. However, the idea behind Peter’s use of the word isn’t “being afraid”, but “reverence”, or “worshipful awe”. I say this because everywhere Peter’s used this word thus far in the letter, he’s always meant reverence toward God, beginning with the first chapter, where he commands the aliens to “conduct” themselves “in fear” toward God.
And how do they give a reason for their hope to those who ask them for it? By “having a good conscience”. The Greek literally says “keeping” or “maintaining” a good conscience, so they’re not just to simply have it, but to keep it. By “a good conscience”, Peter’s referring to their knowledge of the way they’re living, which is “good”, or “pleasing”, to God, and to them. Put another way, they’re to keep living in the way that they know pleases God, and not allow themselves to have any habits that they know displease God, without making every effort to stop them.
The purpose Peter gives for maintaining a good conscience while making a defense for their hope is “so that, when [they] are slandered, those who revile [their] good behavior in Christ may be put to shame”. The word “slandered” means “to falsely speak evil about” or “to lie in order to ruin someone’s reputation”. Those who do this are those who “revile”, or “harshly criticize or insult”, the aliens’ “good behavior in Christ”. By “in Christ”, Peter means actions that are done because of one’s loving relationship with Christ. So, the aliens are to maintain good consciences, so that those who lie about their good behavior by criticizing, or insulting, them, will be “put to shame”, or proven wrong, and hopefully ashamed for their slander and reviling.
Finally, Peter gives the aliens the reason they ought to maintain a good conscience, even though they’re slandered and reviled. The reason is it’s “better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil”. Here, Peter sums up his main argument in this passage, which is that the aliens ought to suffer for doing what’s right, rather than do what’s wrong in order to avoid the inevitable suffering.
Suffer for Righteousness, Sanctify Christ, and Keep a Good Conscience
So, if you’re a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, how does this passage apply to you?
First, if you’re passionate about doing good, then there’s no one who can really harm you, since God loves you, and has promised you eternal life.
Second, if you suffer for doing what’s right, then God has blessed you, and will bless you at the end of your life.
Third, are you afraid of, or troubled by, those who mistreat you because you do what’s right and good? If you are, then you need to set apart Christ as Lord in your heart, so you’ll always be ready to answer anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.
Fourth, when you give this answer, do you do it gently and reverently toward God?
Are you maintaining a good conscience, so those who slander and revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame?
Finally, remember that it’s better to suffer for doing what’s right, than to suffer for doing wrong, and it’s God’s will if it happens.
If you aren’t passionate about doing good, but are passionate about doing what’s wrong, then you are on the path to being eternally harmed by God, since you’re rebelling against Him, and He’s angry with you. The good news is that He sent His eternal and divine Son to earth to become a man, Jesus, to live the perfect life, to suffer and die on a Roman cross to take His punishment for our rebellion, to rise from the dead, and to go to heaven as our King. He commands everyone to change their minds and trust in Jesus as their Savior from sin and King to receive His forgiveness, since He’s going to judge everyone perfectly through Jesus, and punish His enemies with eternal torment. Please make sure you’ve repented of your rebellion against Him, and are trusting only in Christ as your Savior and Lord for God’s mercy, forgiveness, and peace. If you’ve done that, then Christ commands all His people to be baptized in water by one of His people as an appeal to God for a good conscience, and a profession of faith.
All Scripture quotations are from the: