Exegesis of 1 Peter 3:8-17
1 Peter is one of the “catholic epistles” or general letters. That is, they were not written to a specific local church or person like most all of Paul’s were, but rather, they had a general audience in mind. Specifically, this letter was written to the Christians in what is now western and central Turkey (1 Peter 1:1-2). His specific interest, apparently, is to exhort the Christians there to keep the faith (1:3-5, 13-16) in the midst of persecution (1:6-7, 2:19-20) and to remind them of the glory that has been reserved for them through Christ (1:4, 9).
The letter touches upon several issues: a.) an exhortation to holiness (1:14-19) and love (1:22-23) because Christ died for them and the Holy Spirit renewed their souls (1:18-21, 23-25), b.) a reminder that God has purposed and will not fail to protect His church, his chosen people (2:4-10), c.) an exhortation to be on their best behavior before men and especially before governmental authorities even if they are unjust (2:11-20) for Christ, the perfect Law-abider, who Himself was unjustly punished, is our example (2:21-25), and d.) an exhortation for wives to submit to their husbands and husbands to love and honor their wives (3:1-7) which now brings us to our passage of focus.
“To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing.” (vv.8-9)
When he says “all of you,” he is referring to all of the previous hearers who were exhorted to be holy and reminded of God the Father’s will for them, Christ’s death and victory for them, and the Holy Spirit’s renewal of their souls (not just the husbands and wives of vv.1-7).
He calls them all to be holy and loving, repeating Christ’s teaching to return a blessing for every curse thrown at them. For by enduring the hatred of others for the sake of Christ, they will receive a reward in heaven:
“But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27-28)
“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-12)
“For, “THE ONE WHO DESIRES LIFE, TO LOVE AND SEE GOOD DAYS, MUST KEEP HIS TONGUE FROM EVIL AND HIS LIPS FROM SPEAKING DECEIT. HE MUST TURN AWAY FROM EVIL AND DO GOOD; HE MUST SEEK PEACE AND PURSUE IT. FOR THE EYES OF THE LORD ARE TOWARD THE RIGHTEOUS, AND HIS EARS ATTEND TO THEIR PRAYER, BUT THE FACE OF THE LORD IS AGAINST THOSE WHO DO EVIL.” ” (vv.10-12)
In some translations (as shown in the NASB above), Old Testament citations are placed in capital letters. Here, Peter is supporting his exhortation to holiness with a quotation from the Psalms (Ps. 34:12-16). By his use of it, Peter is showing that the LORD1 will bless and answer the prayers of those who practice and pursue holiness.
“Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed AND DO NOT FEAR THEIR INTIMIDATION, AND DO NOT BE TROUBLED,” (vv.13-14)
Peter teaches a general principle found throughout the Hebrew wisdom literature that those who do good are, in general, not hated or hunted as criminals are. However, the general principle does not always apply especially when it comes to unbelievers’ irrational hatred of God and his Anointed (Acts 4:25-26, cf. Psalm 2:1-6).
Again, we see that Peter is quoting the Old Testament, this time the Prophet Isaiah:
“For thus the LORD spoke to me with mighty power and instructed me not to walk in the way of this people, saying, “You are not to say, ‘It is a conspiracy!’ In regard to all that this people call a conspiracy, And you are not to fear what they fear or be in dread of it. It is the LORD of hosts whom you should regard as holy. And He shall be your fear, and He shall be your dread.” (Isaiah 8:11-13)
Against the cry of the Israelites to make an alliance with Assyria (lest, as it was feared, they be destroyed by it), God rebukes them and tells them not to fear Assyria, the greatest enemy of God’s people, but rather, they are to fear Him and regard Him as holy. Peter is making an analogy to his hearers’ own time in which the persecutors of God’s people threaten their very existence. He is exhorting his fellow believers not to fear their persecutors, but instead, they are to fear and sanctify2 Yahweh.
“…but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence;” (v.15)
This is a loaded verse, and so, we’ll take it one part at a time.
“…but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts”
The apostle calls upon his hearers to sanctify, i.e. separate from all else, regard as holy, and revere above all else, Christ in their hearts. It is a call to fear Christ in holy and humble reverence as the Lord who has begun His reign with His triumph over death and the powers of darkness and will consummate His reign when He returns. By commanding Christ to be sanctified “as Lord” after his citations of the Psalm and Isaiah, Peter is meaning to connect the LORD of Psalm 34 and Isaiah 8 with the Lord Jesus:
“Come, you children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD. Who is the man who desires life and loves length of days that he may see good?” (Psalm 34:11-12)
“It is the LORD of hosts whom you should regard as holy. And He shall be your fear, and He shall be your dread.” (Isaiah 8:13)
“…but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts” (1 Peter 3:15)
We are to hallow and fear Christ through both thought and deed for He is Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel. In order to withstand the attacks of the world, whether physical, spiritual, or intellectual, the Christian must start by fearing God:
“And to man He said, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.’ ” (Job 28:28)
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do His commandments; His praise endures forever.” (Psalm 111:10)
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7; cf. 20-29)
“In addition to being a wise man, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge; and he pondered, searched out and arranged many proverbs…The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person.” (Ecclesiastes 12:9, 13)
“…always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you…”
The words Peter uses here for “a defense” are “pros apologian” from which we get the term “apologetic” and “apologist”. It is a legal term for a defendant’s rebuttal against charges in a court of law. Likewise, the term, “logos”, or “account,” is also a legal term which refers to a defendant’s testimony and reasons for not being guilty. Peter calls upon the believer to defend the faith when someone asks you why you believe in your hope that is Christ. The role of apologetics was considered by the apostles to be essential:
“And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; so we want to know what these things mean”…So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you…” (Acts 17:19-20, 22-23)
“When he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the stairs, motioned to the people with his hand; and when there was a great hush, he spoke to them in the Hebrew dialect, saying, “Brethren and fathers, hear my defense which I now offer to you.”” (Acts 21:40, 22:1)
“For the overseer must be above reproach as God's steward...holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict. For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach for the sake of sordid gain.” (Titus 1:7, 9-11)
“Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints. For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” (Jude 3-4)
To the apostles, apologetics (i.e. the defense of the gospel) and Scriptural knowledge go hand-in-hand with evangelism and proper behavior:
“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you…For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of grace with me. For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God…Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel;” (Philippians 1:3, 7-11, 15-16)
“For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light.” (Colossians 1:9-12)
“Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.” (2 Peter 1:2-3)
“…yet with gentleness and reverence…”
The apostle tells our ancient brethren to perform their defense of the gospel in kindness (“gentleness”) toward those who ask, and as we shall see, also toward those who persecute the saints. Lastly, our defense is to be such that it honors God (“reverence”). In short, we are to be gentle in manner but strong in defense. As the Apostle Paul said:
“As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ…” (Ephesians 4:14-15)
“…and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame. For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong.” (vv.16-17)
Peter keeps emphasizing the necessity for holiness in the Christian life. By being persecuted and punished unjustly for the sake of the Kingdom of God, the persecuted saints bring glory to God and fulfill their appointed role on earth.
Two authors commenting on Peter’s words write:
“[T]here is a three-step progression in this passage, a three-step approach to apologetics that Scripture gives us and that is absolutely essential. (1) We are first to have firmly resolved in our minds that even though there may be attacks and persecution, Christ is on the throne. Jesus is Lord, and we must establish that in our own hearts. (2) We are to do apologetics in the context of those attacks; we are to defend the faith, making plain the truth of the gospel, the hope that is in us. This can be done only as we explicitly rely on Scripture. This will, inevitably, take us beyond and around issues of bare theism3, to the centrality of Christ. (3) We are to do this with gentleness and fear. That is, we should not be threatened, nor will we be, if we remember who is in charge of the universe, who is really in control.” (emphasis in original)4
Along with faith and holiness, theological knowledge and apologetics are a necessary part of the Christian life mandated by the apostles and in desperate need in this day and age. These things need to be taught in our churches and in our homes so that we may glorify God through the proclamation of His Word just as the Apostle Peter commanded the ancient Christians.
[All Scripture quotes are from the NASB, emphasis mine.]
For Further Reading:
1 i.e. Yahweh, the covenant name for the God of Israel
2 i.e., “regard as holy”
3 More on “bare theism” in later lessons.
4 K Scott Oliphint and Lane G. Tipton, editors, Revelation and Reason (P&R: Phillipsburg, NJ, 2007), p.9.