We have often talked in this series in 1 Peter about the opposition Christianity encounters today. The first readers of this letter from Peter were enduring especially hard times because of their faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord. You will remember that after the great fire in Rome in 64 A.D., the Roman populace blamed the emperor, Nero. Needing to place the responsibility somewhere else, Nero had the word spread that it was the Christians who started the fire.
(13)Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? (14)But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. "Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened." (15)But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, (16)keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (17)It is better, if it is God's will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.
The Christians were a great target for him to turn to and blame for the fire, which destroyed several hundred acres of homes and shops in a densely populated and lower-class part of the city. Nero, as you will recall from our discussion, within a very short time had appropriated about 100 acres (some historians believe up to 300 acres) of the fire-ravaged land to use for a lavish new palace and grounds. Blaming the Christians appealed to an inherent bias among the Romans. Being monotheists, the Christians did not recognize the existence of the numerous pagan religions the Romans held to, including worship of the emperor himself as a pagan god.
The typical Roman saw the spiritual realm as inhabited by many gods who often competed for supremacy by influencing human events. Pagan temples and thousands of idols representing the pagan gods had been destroyed in the fire, diminishing the power of those gods in the peoples’ minds. With the people having that spiritual mindset, Nero’s accusation that the Christians were responsible was a highly effective tactic. Not only did it take the pressure off him, but also appealed to the need of the people to reassert their gods’ powers over the Christian God. At terrible, government-sanctioned persecution followed, with literally thousands of Christian families murdered by their neighbors or executed by the government. Christians fled the cities to more rural and distant parts of the Roman empire. The churches to which Peter addresses this letter were located in what is today northern Turkey, where they had fled for safety (see Peter’s salutation in 1 Peter 1:1: “To God's elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, . . .”)
We in the western church, of course, do not find ourselves in these circumstances, although in other parts of the world Christians are still subjected to persecution, prison, and death because of their faith. Persecution—or perhaps a better term would be bias—does exist in our culture, however, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. That is to be expected for a group of people who do not subscribe to many of a culture’s morals and ethics.
In the Bible, we can see a theme that believers are in a more or less constant struggle. The struggles people of the Christian faith face are inward, as we battle our self-centeredness, and also from outside, as we live in the world that is in rebellion against God. Both are spiritual struggles, trying to separate us from God and His will.
The Apostle Paul dealt a lot with the inner struggle, including his own inner frustrations, and I'll mention that a bit later. Peter, writing to Christians who had fled to escape Roman persecution, dwells in today's passage more with the conflict arising from the world around us.
In 3:13-17 Peter talks about faithful living in unrighteous, even hostile, surroundings; he give us five principles we can use to do so:
- Be eager to do good (13)
- Be willing to suffer (14, 17)
- Be devoted to Christ (15)
- Be ready to explain your faith (15)
- Have a pure conscience (16)
"Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?" (literally, “if you are followers [or imitators] of that which is good").
The expected response to this rhetorical question is “no one.” His point is that it seems to be unusual for someone to expect to come to harm because he or she is focused on doing what is good.
The phrase "that which is good" in the Bible is associated with such character qualities as generosity, unselfishness, kindness, peacemaking, and consideration for others. The expectation for believers to pursue that which is good is found in many passages. For example, Jesus tells His disciples in Matthew 5:16: "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." Paul adds in Romans 12:21: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." One writer I encountered this week puts it this way: "(The gospel) most read and commented on is the gospel according to you." The early 20th century evangelist Billy Sunday once advised “Preach the gospel, and if you have to, use words.” In other words, we are to show our faith primarily in our lifestyle, doing “that which is good” to use Peter’s words.
Our secular culture may reject our faith in the one and only God, but people are watching us and judge whether we are like most others or whether we are eager to do good. And while they may dislike and reject our faith, our eagerness to do good rarely results in anyone causing us harm.
Be willing to suffer (14, 17)
Verse 14 tells us "But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened," and Peter adds in verse 17, “It is better, if it is God's will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil."
Being eager to do good is not a guarantee against suffering. In Acts 10:38 we read, "(Jesus) went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him." Yet, we know He met hostility, hatred, and rejection, and He eventually was seized and killed by those opposing Him and His message. While we know Jesus died as the keystone of the plan of redemption, we also know how hostile the world was toward Him, and He is the example of perfect goodness and absence of evil. So we, seeking to be like Him in our core beliefs and our lifestyle, cannot expect to escape all suffering.
“Even if you should suffer for what is right" (verse 14) conveys the idea that suffering is contrary to what should be expected. The structure of the phrase leads me to paraphrase it something like "suffering for what is right isn't something sure to happen and in fact should be unexpected, but nevertheless, it may happen." And in the experience of Peter’s contemporaries, as well as in every era of the church since, Christians, indeed, have suffered for beliefs and lifestyles reflecting “what is right.”
Peter's first readers were quite familiar with the concept. They had scattered to the rural parts of northern Turkey to escape the persecutions after Nero blamed the fire that destroyed Rome on the Christians. Thousands of families were murdered because they were Christian. Despite their commitment to their Lord and living righteously, they suffered.
Peter writes in verse 14 "Do not fear what they fear"; a better translation is "Do not be afraid of their threats" (NKJV). "Do not be frightened," he continues, which means don't be shaken; i.e., be calm and unafraid. Continuing his thought, he tells us we are we blessed in the face of suffering. We are blessed in the face of suffering in that we demonstrate to ourselves, as well as to others, the strength of our faith in God's care.
Note in verse 17 that Peter acknowledges two possibilities about why we may suffer: (1) for doing good and (2) for doing evil. Suffering for doing good, as Christ suffered for doing good, means we accept negative circumstances rather than yielding to evil. Suffering for doing good may mean refusing a supervisor’s instruction to lie to a customer, it may mean not participating in some activities you know are sin despite the social or family pressure to do so, or it might mean telling the whole truth when not doing so would have worked to your advantage. In the case of Peter’s 1st century readers, many felt threatened physically, even with death, because they were Christians. In our 21st century western culture, while the threat is not nearly so physically severe, we still can suffer consequences for doing good.
The other kind of suffering Peter mentions is as the result of doing evil. He is careful to draw the distinction between suffering due to the culture’s rejection of believers because they follow their Savior and Lord and suffering as a consequence of evil. Examples would include acting selfishly, lying, arrogance, or having to suffer legal consequences for breaking the law.
Peter tells us the first—suffering for doing good—should be seen as God's will. His will is not that we be harmed or suffer for the sake of suffering, but that we do good regardless of the consequences, even when the consequences include suffering.
Be devoted to Christ (15)
“But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord"; (literal translation: "sanctify the Lord God in your hearts").
In other words, separate ourselves from evil and dedicate the very center of our existence to God. Peter is telling us to set ourselves apart from everything else and give the very essence of our being to the Lordship of Christ. He is not Lord of our life if we fear others more than we revere Him.
Be ready to explain your faith (15)
“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”
In other words, always be ready to defend your faith, what you believe and why you believe it. The term "an answer" means a reasoned statement or defense.
It is not just endurance in times of opposition or suffering that our Lord wants us to face with faith and courage, but also we are to be prepared to explain, even defend, our faith when asked or when challenged or persecuted. The term "answer" or "defense" is the root word for the English word "apology," which comes from a transliteration of the term from the Greek language. “Apology” is rarely used in the sense of “reasoned defense” today. Apology meant a formal defense as in a judicial proceeding; that is, the reasoning or testimony that would find one guilty or innocent before the judge.
A good example of the use of the term in legal proceedings is found in Acts 25:1-16, which gives the account of Paul facing charges brought by the Pharisees against him in the court of the Roman governor Festus:
Three days after arriving in the province, Festus went up from Caesarea to Jerusalem, where the chief priests and Jewish leaders appeared before him and presented the charges against Paul. They urgently requested Festus, as a favor to them, to have Paul transferred to Jerusalem, for they were preparing an ambush to kill him along the way. Festus answered, “Paul is being held at Caesarea, and I myself am going there soon. Let some of your leaders come with me and press charges against the man there, if he has done anything wrong.”The term also is used informally, as in Philippians 1:15-16: “It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.
After spending eight or 10 days with them, he went down to Caesarea, and the next day he convened the court and ordered that Paul be brought before him. When Paul appeared, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many serious charges against him, which they could not prove. Then Paul made his defense: “I have done nothing wrong against the law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar.”
Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, said to Paul, “Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and stand trial before me there on these charges?” Paul answered: “I am now standing before Caesar's court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!” After Festus had conferred with his council, he declared: “You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!”
A few days later King Agrippa and Bernice arrived at Caesarea to pay their respects to Festus. Since they were spending many days there, Festus discussed Paul’s case with the king. He said: “There is a man here whom Felix left as a prisoner. When I went to Jerusalem, the chief priests and elders of the Jews brought charges against him and asked that he be condemned. I told them that it is not the Roman custom to hand over any man before he has faced his accusers and has had an opportunity to defend himself against their charges.
Peter's instruction implies that every Christian should not just believe blindly or emotionally, but should know what and why he or she believes and muster the courage to defend our faith by reasoning and testimony when challenged or called on to do so. Our defense of our faith needs to be truthful and uncompromising, but it must always be spoken with gentleness and respect; i.e., a gentle spirit and not in a haughty or superior attitude toward the person to whom we are talking. Paul captures the idea very well in Ephesians 4:15, advising us to speak the truth in love. He also addresses the attitude expected of the Christian when speaking about his or her faith in 2 Timothy 2:24-26:
And the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.Have a pure conscience (16)
“Keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”
Peter seems to be trying to put his preceding ideas about faithful living in context after reminding his readers to be ready to defend their faith. To “keep a clear conscience” alludes to a lifestyle free of sin. The life that the people around us observe us living should be so free of self-centeredness and sin that any charge against us for living a life of faith is inaccurate and untrue, amounting to slander.
A clear conscience results from thinking and living with righteousness as our guide; thinking and acting as Christ would, set apart from the world. This passage is kind of a progression of advice: be eager to do good; don't forget we are blessed as believers even when suffering or persecuted; don't be intimidated by those who criticize and belittle our faith; focus on Christ as the center of our being; be prepared to tell others what and why we believe, and tell them with gentleness and respect; and finally, anchor your life in righteousness. Nothing silences critics or witnesses to our faith more strongly than a righteous lifestyle.
In the Bible, we can see a theme that believers are in a more or less constant struggle. Inwardly, we struggle against what Paul calls the old man-that self-centeredness that Paul himself described as terribly frustrating: “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do-this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:18-19). His answer to this struggle is that devotion to Christ rescues him.
Peter in 1 Peter 3 deals with both the inner struggle and the outward opposition: be ready to give an answer to our critics with gentleness and respect, keep a clear conscience with good behavior, and always do that which is good, even when we know we may suffer for it.