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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.

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.

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?

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.

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?

Peter has stated several times in this letter that the readers are living like “strangers and aliens” in this world. Since they are strangers, the world is watching them very closely. It is therefore essential that the Christian live life to a higher moral and ethical standard. In the first section, Peter said that the believer must be submit to all human authorities, even the Emperor of the Roman Empire.

Roman Slave and Centurion

While this seems like a shock from a modern, American perspective (where protesting the government seems to be a sacred right), Peter sees obedience to human authority as a way of showing the world that the Christians are honorable and our God is worthy of respect.

Peter treats slaves, wives and then husbands together as a “household.” This was the most basic unit in the Roman world and every Greek and Roman ethical writer had something to say about the proper roles within a household. In general, the husband was to be the authority in the home, wives and children were to be subordinate to the husband, and slaves were the lowest of all.

In the next two sections of the letter, Peter will give two additional examples that might cause outsiders to attack believers: slaves and wives. Both of these examples are more controversial than obedience to the government.

First, he commands slaves to be subject to their masters because Jesus himself suffered injustice with silence. That the Bible does not command the release of slaves is often a problem for the non-believer, and even for the Christian we struggle to apply texts about slavery in a modern context since we believe that slavery is morally repugnant. But by reading Peter’s words in the context of first century Rome, we will find that he is not endorsing this extremely common practice, but using it as an opportunity for the Christian slave to suffer like Jesus did.

Roman Wife and ChildrenSecond, he commands wives to be subject to their husbands and dress modestly. That Peter would move from slaves to wives is jarring from a modern perspective, and that he would have the audacity to tell the women how to dress is considered rude my many modern readers.

He even uses the same words for wives as he did for slaves (“be subject”)! Most husbands know that quoting this line out of context to your wife is not the best way develop a good marriage relationship! But again, context is necessary to avoid making rather sweeping applications that make no sense in the modern world.

In both cases, Peter urges Christians to observe their place in society and live honorably so that the outsider will see and perhaps praise God as a result of how Christians live their lives. In the next two posts I want to examine Peter’s comments about both slaves and wives in order to draw some application to church practice in a modern context.

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Christian Theology

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