Persecution as Opportunity – 1 Peter 3:13-16

Persecution is therefore not a cause for fear, but rather an opportunity to honor Christ and revere him as Lord (as opposed to Caesar!) Peter is not commanding a completely passive acceptance of suffering. Rather, he tells the readers to be ready to give an answer when asked about their hope in Christ (v. 15b). Typically this verse is used to encourage people to know what they believe and why they believe it.

This is a good application (and it is true that you ought to know why you believe what you do), but Peter has in mind believers who are being unfairly harassed because of their faith in Jesus. Although it may not be the case than anyone has Suffering Churchbeen tried before a court on account of their faith in Jesus, the word Peter uses here is typically used for a legal defense (ἀπολογία, Acts 22:1, 25:16; 1 Cor 9:3). The believer is not to revile his opponent or repay insults with insults, but he is ready to give an honest answer when asked why he suffers for his faith.

The command is to be prepared, meaning that the believer has already knows why they are willing to put up with harassment for their faith.  To prepare something is to do the work ahead of time. The word “always” or “constantly” also implies that the reasons for one’s faith are prepared and always available. Peter does not envision a sudden rush of the Holy Spirit inspiring someone to give a good defense, rather the believer has ready an explanation for why they are humbly suffering for their faith.

By way of analogy, if someone is called into court on some charge, a lawyer “prepares a case.” this means there is some investigation of the evidence so that the lawyer can anticipate questions and give a good answer. A lawyer who comes into court without ever looking at the case ahead of time will fail and the person under arrest will be convicted.

This defense is to be “with gentleness and respect.” Since the Roman world was used to verbal abuse between philosophical schools, it would be very easy for the Christian to give his defense of his faith with the same sort of abuse the orator heaps on his opponents.

This is a very convicting verse since there are many Christians who have no idea what they believe, or if they do know what they believe, they are unable to give much of a reason for that belief. (The old hymn, I need no other argument, I need no other plea, it is enough that Jesus died, and that he died for me – that is a nice sentiment, but perhaps knowing a little bit of the “device or creed” will help confirm one’s faith when suffering does occur!)

The “hope we have” should be taken as eschatological. In the midst of suffering, the believer can know than Jesus is going to return at some point at render justice. For the believer, that means vindication (they were suffering unjustly) and reward, but for the persecutor, it means punishment.

The point of all of this is that the Christian ought to maintain a clear conscience so the outsider will be ashamed to slander the Christian faith (v. 16). This seems to me to be opposite of Christianity in recent years, or perhaps it only seems so because the media is able to broadcast a few particularly shameful examples of Christian hypocrisy. Think for a moment about presidential candidates claiming to be Christian yet giving hate-filled and vulgar speeches.

Rather than dwell on people who are shameful yet claim to be believers, what are some positive examples of Christians who are living out this “patient suffering” and have given outsiders no reason to slander them?

Suffering for Doing Good – 1 Peter 3:13-16

1 Peter 3:13 makes the simple point that no one usually attacks people for doing good things. As he stated in 2:13-14, people generally do not suffer insults and persecution for doing good things (although there are always exceptions). It is better to suffer for doing good even if it is unjust, than suffer justly for doing wrong things.

The verb “zealous” may have been chosen because at this point in Judea the Zealots were beginning to coalesce into an armed resistance against Rome. Even if the “zealous Jews” were rebellion against Rome Sufferingin Judea, Peter tells his readers to channel their zeal into a quiet life that is worthy of respect.

But Peter knows that “strangers and aliens” are not always fairly treated, and it is likely that they will be attacked unjustly (v. 14-15a). The syntax of verse 14 is very difficult, the ESV’s “even if you are persecuted” expresses the optative verb well. It is not that the readers are already facing regular persecution, but the sorts of slander that outsiders usually face when they live in another culture.  The verb is a present active optative from πάσχω, the verb Jesus used to describe his suffering in Luke 22:15, for example, but it also appears frequently for Christian suffering (1 Peter 2:21, Phil 1:29). Peter may allude to the teaching of Jesus when he says that the believer will be blessed when people persecute them. In Matthew 5:10 Jesus says much the same thing (in the form of a beatitude).

The one that suffers for Christ’s sake has no reason for fear or trouble, probably an allusion to Isa 8:12-13. This is a significant because the original line in Isaiah referred to a time in Judah’s history when Jerusalem was threatened by the politics of the larger world. Isaiah is warned in 8:11 not to walk in the ways of the people of Jerusalem, who are afraid of the nations that threaten the city. In contrast, Isaiah is to not fear the things that the people fear, but rather to honor and fear the Lord alone.

The readers are living as strangers and aliens, among people that suspect them and will eventually begin to hate them and physically persecute them. The quote functions as an encouragement for the readers to fear what really needs to be feared, the Lord and him alone.  Fearing persecution is not necessary since the Romans cannot really harm the believers (Matt 10:28). Peter has just said this specifically to the wives in 3:6, now he repeats the command to the whole congregation.

Responding to Malicious Attacks – 1 Peter 3:8-12

Since Peter’s audience is about to face persecution, he tells them how they are to respond to attacks on their faith. Most scholars think that the kind of persecution that Christians faced in Asia Minor in the middle first century was the sort of insult and malicious character attacks that typically occurred in the Roman world (Jobes, 1 Peter 216; Elliott, 1 Peter, 607).

In order to build one’s own honor, it was sometimes necessary to attack an opponent in order to reduce their honor (i.e., to shame them). This is not unlike modern politics, where an opponent is often attacked publicly in order to “hurt them politically,” but it went far beyond that. In modern political cartoons some characteristic of the politician is over-emphasized (think of cartoons featuring political figures).

HIllary TrumpThe typical response to an attack on one’s character in the Roman world would be an equally spiteful attack in revenge. This sort of verbal “eye for an eye” was common and accepted as a part of society. One did not suffer insults quietly!

Peter’s command to not reply to insults with insults is therefore socially disruptive. The Christian community does not retaliate with the sort of verbal assaults common in the society.  Just as Jesus was silent, Peter said in 2:23, so too ought the Christian is not to pay back evil for evil.

Rather than reviling opponents, Peter tells his readers they are to bless those who attack them. Followers of Jesus are to be like Jesus and do good toward those who attack them, rather than follow the culture and seek revenge.  This non-retaliation is exactly what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 6:27-26, Matt 5:43-47, “love your enemies,” Matt 5:38-42, “turn the other cheek,” etc.). Paul teaches virtually the same thing in Romans 12:14, 17-21.

The real challenge is actually doing what Jesus, Peter and Paul all say that we ought not do. Not retaliating when we are attacked is difficult, but to actually do something that blesses our accusers is culturally shocking.

Christians sometimes reduce this “blessing” to prayer.  When we face persecution we pray for our enemy so that we can “heap burning coals on their head.” If you are praying to harm your enemy, you are not at all catching the spirit of this command, and are engaging in some sort of curse-prayer that seems inappropriate to Christians.

War On Christmas“Blessings” are tangible in this context, not simply prayers for the salvation of the bad people who are hurting you. If you are suffering abuse from someone. Peter says that it is not only inappropriate for the Christian to attack, but they ought to do some real, tangible action that brings some blessing on the attacker.  Imagine a politician who did not respond to some slander, but rather offered his attacker an opportunity to make his claim on national TV, tells people to buy the guy’s book, etc. That would be a shocking response!

But Peter is not talking to political candidates, but the church. How should Christians respond to someone who is attacking their faith? In America, the some Christians immediately go on the offensive against their alleged persecutors, claiming a a “war of Christmas” or using the Martin Luther Insult Generator to vilify them. Setting aside the question of whether this is real persecution or not, is this a proper response?

How can we “bless those who persecute” in a tangible way?

An Ideal Christian Community – 1 Peter 3:8-12

Peter concludes the ethical section of the letter with a description of what the Christian community ought to look like (v. 8).  All five of these phrases are single words in Greek, and are rare outside of this passage. (The only exception is tender hearted, although it appears in medical texts to describe a physical condition.) The first and the last words refer to the mind (φρήν, φρονέω), and the middle three refer to some aspect of emotions. This implies that there is a conscious choice to have unity or humility, to control one’s passions so that they are sympathetic and loving. Peter is not commanding the Christians to be servile, trembling before their betters. Rather, they are making a choice to have unity and humility.

1 Peter BibleUnity of mind (ὁμόφρων). This word means something like “thinking the same things.” The Greco-Roman world appreciated traditions that held communities together, especially in families. It is shameful for families to disagree among themselves, or for brothers to fight among themselves. While the modern world commonly has families with several religions or political associations, that simply did not happen in the Roman world. Families were defined by their common beliefs that everyone held. For Peter, the Christian community has a set of beliefs and values that define it as a “family” so that outsiders can see that there is no discord within the family.

Sympathy (συμπαθής). This word does not mean “pity,” as it does in modern English. If “unity of mind” means thinking the same things, sympathy refers to “feeling the same things.” The passions of the Christian community are unified in the same way their beliefs are. Again, on the analogy of a family, the Christian community ought to respond to situations with a similar emotion (compassion on those who need it, encouragement to those who need it, etc.)

Brotherly love (φιλάδελφος). This virtue is found in descriptions of families, where the “brother” is literal (it appears on gravestones, for example, praising the person for being a good brother).  It is shameful in the Roman world for siblings to fight and feud among themselves.

A tender heart (εὔσπλαγχνος). Like sympathy, a “tender heart” sounds like “soft heart,” or even pity. A hard-hearted person never forgives or hears another person’s views, but a “tender heart” is open and teachable.  Quite literally the word refers to “good compassion. (It actually means “good bowels” and appears in medical texts referring to regularity).  Like brotherly love, the tender heart is a characteristic of a family in the Roman world (see f0or example, Pilch and Malina, Biblical Social Values and their Meaning).

A humble mind (ταπεινόφρων). Of the five virtues listed here, humility was the least likely to be considered a virtue in the Greco-Roman world.  The competition for honor in the Roman world made humility and humble service of others a liability. Imagine an athlete who humbly allows others to succeed without thinking about his own success, a rare thing indeed! But in a family, the other members of the family do what they can to help their brothers and sisters succeed because any success brings honor to the family.

These virtues are particularly applicable to the family, especially brotherly love and tender hearts (Jobes, 1 Peter, 214). The reason for this is that Peter sees the Church as a “real family” that deserves the kind of loyalty one finds in biological families.

The Church is supposed to be a place where the believer is free from the sort of hostile attacks that they face when they are in the world.  When the believers gather, they are coming from situations where they are the subject of malicious gossip or abuse on account of their faith in Jesus (the unsaved husband or the unsaved master in the previous passage).  Peter wants his churches to be like the proper family that the individual Christians have lost when they accepted Christ as savior.

Husbands, In the Same Way – 1 Peter 3:7

After lengthy instructions to slaves and wives, Peter simply tells husbands to “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.”

1 Peter 3_7Unlike the slaves and the wives, the husband is told to live with their wives in an “understanding way.” The way this is stated makes is sound as though the husband is to have a kind and tender heart toward his wife, and that is certainly part of the point. But Peter is saying that the husband must live with his wife fully aware of who she is and with full awareness of his responsibility toward her.

If the context throughout this passage has been living in a way that attracts an unbelieving spouse or master to Christ, then perhaps that is the case here as well. If a Christian husband is married to a wife who is not a believer, the culture would dictate that she ought to convert as well. But this might not be a willing submission to her husband’s new religion, the Christian husband has to be aware that his wife might not be fully in agreement with his religious choice!

The instructions are given to believing husbands, and it is at least possible “women” refers to all the women living within a household. If a man converted to Christianity, the whole household would be effected. Women typically “converted” with their husbands and slaves would now be working in a Christian household. But it is unlikely all members of a household were actually now Christians. A Christian husband must live his new life in a way which draws his wife and all others in his household to Christ.

Calling women the “weaker vessel” is troublesome to many modern readers, and sometimes Peter is dismissed as a pre-modern he-man woman hater. But Peter’s words here are in keeping with the Greco-Roman belief that woman are weaker than men, both physically and sometimes emotionally. Tacitus called women “a sex naturally weak” and if left to themselves will be “at the mercy of its own voluptuousness and the passions of others” and a marriage is preserved only by a “husband’s personal vigilance” (Annals, 3.34).

Wife Working Lazy HusbandPeter’s words cannot be taken as an endorsement of misogyny, however. In fact, Peter tells the husbands to honor (τιμή) their wives, the same word he used for “honor the emperor” (τιμάω) in 2:17. Imagine that a husband gave his wife the same honor demanded of the Roman emperors!

As Karen Jobes concludes on this section, Peter’s purpose in the whole household code is evangelistic and apologetic (1 Peter, 210). Peter recognizes the common problem of one member of a household becoming a Christian. If they are slaves or wives, then submission to a non-Christian master or husband is required in order to draw them to Christ. But if the head of the household has become a Christian, then he must live even more carefully in order to bring those who were part of a Christian household unwillingly to Christ.

Jobes also points out this is a different strategy than Paul, who rooted his similar teaching in the order of creation (see Eph 5:21-33, and my comments on 1 Timothy 2:11-15 here). Peter is thinking of the practical ramifications of the conversion of members of a household, Paul’s teaching is rooted Jewish wisdom thinking that bases behavior in the orderliness of creation. This is why Paul is far more difficult than for modern readers than Peter!

The problem is how this teaching is applied in a modern context. Modern Christians look to these kinds of passages for guidance for modern marriages between spiritual equals in the Body of Christ. Our marriages are made because of love not arranged for social or economic reasons. Peter is not thinking of a couples retreat in a modern mega-church! Imagine how a Muslin woman who converted to Christianity might read 1 Peter, or a Buddhist husband, or a child in a Hindu family?

1 Peter is far more applicable in those situations, but how can 1 Peter 2:18-3:7 be used in a Western Christian context?

Slaves and Wives – 1 Peter 2:18-3:7 (Part 3)

When Peter begins to address wives in the congregation, his focus is on how the outsiders understand the Christian wife. The situation in view in 3:1 is of a wife who has come to Christ, but her husband is not a Christian. While there are many examples of this sort of thing in our modern experience.

In the Roman world, the wife is expected to adopt the gods of her husband’s family when she marries. The same would be true of a Jewish family, although it is less likely that a Jewish man would marry a Gentile woman. In either case, the ancient world did not really have religiously “mixed marriages.” If a husband became a believer, then the Roman world would have expected the wife to also convert. It is possible that a husband converting was not as socially disruptive as a wife.

Messalina, Roman Empress, Wife of Claudius

Messalina, Roman Empress, Wife of Claudius

Like the slave, the wife is to have respectful and pure conduct so that an unbelieving husband may believe (v. 2). The same language is used for the wife as for the slave (ὁμοίως, likewise). This does not mean that the woman is socially like a slave, but within the Greco-Roman or Jewish household, the wife did in fact defer to the husband.

Peter has already commanded the reader s to live honorable lives so that the Gentiles will see and honor God (1 Peter 2:12), but here he narrows the application to a believing wife who is under the authority of her husband.

The goal of this respectful behavior is missional. Perhaps the husband will be “won” to Christ. This is a common way for modern evangelicals to express evangelism, but the use of this verb (a future passive form of κερδαίνω) is unique in the New Testament.

As Karen Jobes points out, if a woman began to worship Jesus and reject her husband’s family gods, she would be in a socially dangerous position (1 Peter, 202-3). Both Greco-Roman and Jewish society would see this as a kind of rebellion against proper family values. Since she is rejecting the family gods, she would be seen as a rebellious wife, and perhaps could be seen as a kind of “home-wrecker.” The husband could potentially find himself in socially embarrassing situations. A wife that rejected the community gods would be a shame for the husband to bear.

Attendance at Christian worship would mean that the wife had social connections outside of her husband’s friends and family. This too was a strange behavior in that culture and would be viewed suspiciously by Romans or Jews. This would be the case for a Jewish woman as well, especially if Jewish followers of Jesus were being persecuted in the synagogue.

To avoid the appearance of rebellion, the godly wife should strive to maintain a true, “imperishable” beauty (3:3-4). For the most part there is nothing unusual about this description of true beauty even in the Greco-Roman world. Similar statements are made in secular Greek concerning modest dress and appropriate adornments. The principle is modesty; a woman would not want to be confused with a courtesan!

The temperate, freeborn woman must live with her legal husband adorned with modesty, clad in a neat, simple, white dress. . . She must avoid clothing that is either entirely purple or is streaked with purple and gold, for that kind of dress is more by a hetarae (courtesan) when they stalk the masses of men . . . You should have a blush on your cheeks as a sign of modesty instead of rouge, and should wear nobility, decorum and temperance instead of gold and emeralds. (Pseudo-Melissa, Letter to Kleareta, 160-162, Witherington, Letters and Homilies, 2:164)

True beauty is a gentle and quiet spirit, not unlike the woman described in Proverbs 31. In contrast, the woman who has an obnoxious, loud spirit will not be a good witness to her unbelieving husband.

Slaves and Wives – 1 Peter 2:18-3:7 (Part 2)

A third century mosaic from Uthina, Tunisia

A third century mosaic from Uthina, Tunisia

The relationship of a slave to his master must be “respectful submission” (1 Peter 2:18-19). The word translated “be subject” or “submit” (ὑποτάσσω) carries more negative connotations in English than in Greek. The word has the sense of being subordinate to someone or something for legitimate reasons. This is the same word he used in 2:13 to command the believer to submit to the government. In this case, a government official has been appointed to an office that has some authority, so an honorable person obeys that authority.

This is the word regularly used for the relationship of the slave and master. A slave is subordinate socially and legally in the Roman world to the master and must obey the commands of the master. Slaves did not obey everyone’s orders, but those of their master.

In the Roman world, slavery was often different than slavery in a modern sense. While it could be just as cruel and harsh, many slaves were well treated. Slaves were often educated and given responsibilities that were far beyond the modern, Western idea of a slave. In fact, slaves were the backbone of the Roman economy, the wealthy never worked since they had people working for them (the slave).  Slaves were sometimes compensated for their work and could look forward to being set free. In fact, some slaves refused to be set free since they were more socially advanced as a slave of a wealthy, well-placed citizen that as a free (but poor) individual.

In addition, Peter uses the word “household slave” (οἰκέτης). This might be understood as a domestic servant rather than a “field slave.” He is not talking about the slave who is laboring in the salt mines, or being whipped in the fields, but the slave who has responsibilities in the household and is often treated as though they are part of the household.

Peter adds “with all respect.”  It is possible for a slave to obey, but not respectfully. The Greek here is not “with all due respect,” but literally “in all fear” (φόβος). Fear is one of those words that can mean “for fear of getting a beating” in this context, or it can mean out of respect for the social standing of one’s master.

All three members of the household are told to act with respect (slaves, wives and husbands). This mutual respect is a subtle counter-cultural maneuver in the Greco-Roman world where a husband/master would not really have to respect their wife or slave.

The Christian slave is to submit to their master whether they are good and gentle, or unjust. As with any master/slave relationship, it is possible that a master could be unjust and cruel.  The same is true for a boss/employee relationship (good boss vs. bad boss). However, the attitude of the slave ought not to depend on the personality or behavior of the master, they always are to be obedient and respectful regardless of how they are treated.

Although some disrespect is “socially acceptable” for a non-believing slave, Peter’s point here is that the Christian slave must respect their master more other slaves because a Christian slave is a “stranger and alien” in this world. But this sort of humble submission is seems rare in modern, western Christianity. Perhaps this is a result of affluent Christians who are quite at home in this world – how do we get back to Peter’s ideal of living out a Christian life that treats non-Christians with respect so they might honor God as well?