Bible Study | February 15, 2024

Defending our faith

Paper torn into the shape of a cross nailed to wood

1 Peter 3:8-17

There are two books in the New Testament that are considered persecution literature: 1 Peter and Revelation. The literary genres (or styles) of these two letters could not be more different. Revelation is a letter, but with wild and bizarre symbolism; it belongs to the genre called apocalyptic literature. First Peter is also a letter, but not in the apocalyptic style. Reading 1 Peter does not present nearly the challenge of the last book in the Bible.

Traditionally, 1 Peter is attributed to Simon Peter, the disciple of Jesus who was martyred during the Roman persecution of Christians under the emperor Nero. This would date the writing sometime before 65 A.D. when Nero’s reign ended.

However, the Greek in the letter is quite sophisticated, suggesting that it is not the work of a peasant whose first language was Aramaic. Therefore, many believe that 1 Peter was written anonymously under Peter’s name sometime after his death. Two other emperors are known for their persecution of Christians, Domitian (about 92–96 A.D.) and Trajan (about 112 A.D.). Either of those dates for the writing of the letter are possible, but not likely.

A fourth option recognizes there were sporadic periods of local or regional persecution that were not ordered from Rome, but that did, nonetheless, create suffering among some Christians. First Peter seems to have been a response to this kind of persecution. No one knows for sure, but a date in the 70s after the destruction of the Temple seems to present the fewest problems.

The teachings and example of Jesus

It is difficult to read verses 8-9 without thinking of the teachings and example of Jesus. There are many texts, especially in the first three Gospels, that portray Jesus as loving, having a tender heart, and being humble.

Many of the teachings of Jesus found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) fit naturally with the message of 1 Peter 3. Jesus taught people not to return evil for evil. He also embodied much of what he taught. Jesus met his own suffering and death with grace and forgiveness. Even when enduring abuse, Jesus offered blessing rather than retaliation.

The witness of the Old Testament

The author of 1 Peter connects the Christian witness of peace to the witness of the Old Testament by quoting Psalm 34:14, “Seek peace and pursue it.” The Hebrew word for “pursue” suggests a kind of chasing after. Seeking peace is not quiet or passive; it is active and bold (1 Peter 3:11).

There is significant continuity between the Old and New Testaments that should not be lost on the reader. Despite the influence of Greek philosophy
and culture on Christian thought from the late first century forward, it is important to remember the strong ties between Judaism and Christianity. Both envisioned a day when God’s reign would be fulfilled as all nations would “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah. 2:4).

Is it safe to follow Jesus?

“Now who will harm you for doing good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed” (vv. 13-14). Much of 1 Peter amounts to his encouraging Christians in times of danger and persecution. It is hoped that doing what is right or good will serve to protect people from harm. But there are no guarantees. It is better to suffer for doing good than suffer for doing evil.

Self-protection, while important, is not the ultimate goal in life. In the face of persecution, what is needed is courage not timidity, strength of character not expediency, the strength to do what is good rather than do what is safe. Therefore, “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and respect” (vv. 15-16a).

Making a defense for the hope that is in you requires much. Sometimes we avoid discussions of difficult issues because we fear that one or all sides might fail to exercise gentleness and respect. In American culture, and also in the church, there seems to be a tendency to feel victimized or disrespected. Too often the response to feeling victimized is the desire to turn the tables and attack in retaliation, which of course is like returning evil for evil.

The writer of 1 Peter reminds his readers that Christ embodied the endurance of suffering, not the inflicting of it. Unity, sympathy, a tender heart, and humility are not passive or timid. They represent the strength of the gospel and God’s power made perfect in weakness.

John Lewis, congressional representative from the fifth district of Georgia, died in 2020 at the age of 80. He was a lifelong activist for civil rights, even after his election to the US Congress. Having been beaten and arrested on numerous occasions, he came to be known as one who got into “good trouble.”

Good trouble happens not when people are looking for trouble but when they are simply seeking to do what is right. It’s making clear that our actions are motivated by values of justice, righteousness, peace, and following Jesus. This helps ensure that we will not try to antagonize others or grandstand in a bid for attention. Getting into good trouble is making a defense for the hope that is in us.

Is suffering inevitable?

Martyrdom was a real possibility, no matter where the persecution originated. Perhaps the chance of paying with one’s life was not as high when the suffering was local instead of when persecution of Christians was the official policy of the empire. Nevertheless, people did suffer; they did face great opposition and rejection. And sometimes that rejection came from neighbors once thought of as friends.

First Peter was written to avoid unnecessary trouble where possible and to bolster courage to endure when needed. Evidence to the contrary, persecution is not inevitable. We cannot avoid suffering and loss, but we can endure them without feeling persecuted. Perhaps the suffering of Jesus was inevitable. Or maybe it was a likely consequence of the strength of his character joined with his gentle heart and humble mind.

It appears that the author of 1 Peter is addressing at least two concerns in chapter 3. On the one hand, the author wants to comfort an afflicted group of Christians and to encourage them as they face danger and persecution. The author suggests that doing what is good or right increases the possibility that they will not come to harm.

On the other hand, the author cannot assure them that all will be well. The rhetorical question is proposed, “Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?” There is every chance that they’ll not be protected even after doing what is right. The author wants them to be safe—but also knows that, if they do what is right, they might not be safe, but they will be blessed.

When Jesus’ disciples were anxious and frightened, he comforted them: “So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered up that will not . . . become known.” Jesus continued, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:26, 28).

Blessings are possible even when they are beyond our sight. Love one another, be of tender heart, do not repay evil for evil, repay with blessing, do not fear, do not be intimidated, always be ready to defend the hope that is in you, and do it with gentleness and respect.

Michael L. Hostetter, a retired minister in the Church of the Brethren, lives in Manheim, Pa.