1 Peter 4:12-19 – Suffering as Trial, Fellowship, and Blessedness

September 6, 2015

This is the third movement of the letter. In the first Peter stressed the identity of believers as God’s chosen people whom God has loved from the foundation of the world (1 Peter 1:13-2:10). In the second Peter encouraged believers to live out that identity despite their difficult circumstances as witnesses to the grace of God in the world (1 Peter 2:11-4:11). Now, in this last movement, which begins like the previous one with the vocative “Beloved,” Peter commends their suffering for the sake of Christ.

  • Identity as God’s Rebirthed People (1:13-2:10)
  • Exhortation to Live as Aliens and Exiles in a Hostile Culture (2:11-4:11)
  • Perspectives on Suffering (4:12-19)

Peter commends their suffering by offering some perspective on it. He speaks into their suffering so that they might endure it with grace and witness. He offers a way of living through suffering, and this enables believers to see their suffering in the light of God’s blessed activity in the world.

Suffering, for example, is no surprise—it is no stranger to Christian existence. For “exiles and aliens” (1 Peter 2:11) it is an expected and normal way of being in the world, just as it was for Jesus the Messiah, whom Christians follow.

Peter identifies two kinds of suffering, though that does not exhaust all kinds of suffering. There are those who suffer because they are murderers, thieves, and criminals (or, more generally, “evildoers”), and there are those who suffer because they are “Christians.” The former suffer punishment, but the latter suffer because they are marginalized within the culture. They are reviled, insulted, and verbally abused….and more. Christians may even suffer governmental action against them (such as Nero’s persecution of Christians in Rome). Though this is not explicitly stated, it is probably implicit in the parallel Peter draws between those who suffer as murderers and those who suffer as Christians.

“Christian” is the name given to followers of the Christ by those who insulted and reviled them. It was, originally, a derogatory appellation. First applied to Jesus-followers in Antioch (Acts 11:26), the only other occurrence in the New Testament is found in Acts 26:28 on the lips of King of Agrippa, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” The name was more common on the lips of pagan opponents than it was among disciples of Jesus themselves in the early second century. Ultimately, however, Jesus-followers adopted the name as a badge of honor. Indeed, as Peter writes, the name (and the suffering attached to it) was an occasion of God’s glory rather than disgrace. Christians turned the derisive name on its head. They heard its shouts in the arenas—“Christians to the wild beasts!”—as honorable rather than shameful.

In addition to murder, theft, and criminality, Peter adds another occasion for suffering, and this is variously translated as “meddler” or “mischief maker.” This is the only time the word, allotriepiskopos, appears in the New Testament, and the first time it appears in Greek literature. A compound word, it literally means “bishop or overseer of another’s concern.” Or, perhaps another way of saying it is “people who makes another’s business their own business.”

This is not a criminal offense, but it is something for which someone might suffer some consequences. Christians, Peter thinks, ought to avoid this behavior. But what might Peter have in mind specifically? Or, what situation perhaps generated this additional comment? John H. Elliott (1 Peter, 788) offers an interesting suggestion. He believes some Christians may be “censuring the behavior of outsiders on the basis of claims to a higher morality, interfering with family relationships, fomenting domestic discontent and discord, or tactless attempts at conversion.” In other words, perhaps some Christians were obnoxious advocates for the faith in ways that subverted their intent and the divine mission. Peter cautions us to answer outsiders with “gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15-16), and meddlers certainly violate that advice.


Basic Response to Suffering (1 Peter 4:19)

Whoever “suffers in accordance with God’s will” are called to (1) entrust themselves to God and (2) continue to do good.

God’s will, in light of the previous description of two kinds of suffering, refers to righteous suffering—those who suffer for the sake of righteousness, those who suffer as “Christians.” Those who live by the will of God (1 Peter 4:2) will suffer because others find it “strange” and respond to such lives with hostility, insults, and sometimes violence.

What, then, should Christians do?

They entrust themselves to the “faithful Creator.” Peter’s description of God is important here: faithful and Creator. God is not absent, but faithfully present. God is not impotent, but the Creator. This is the only time Peter refers to God’s role as Creator. Significantly, “faithful Creator” reminds sufferers who is in control and whose purposes are not thwarted. This is the one in whom Christians trust, that is, they commit themselves to the care of the faithful Creator.

They continue to “do good.” Christians do not return evil for evil. They do not withdraw from culture. Rather, they love their neighbors, participate in public goods, and evidence the work of God in their lives through their ethical lives.


Suffering as “Judgment” (1 Peter 4:17-18)

Amazingly, Peter suggests the eschatological (last days) judgment has begun with the suffering of the people of God. Indeed, as many suggest, Peter refers to the historic Jewish understanding that “Messianic woes” will accompany the inauguration of the Messianic kingdom.

As the kingdom of God breaks into the world, the cosmos undergoes the throes of eschatological expectation, pain, and groaning. In particular—described in 1 Peter—the eschatological community, which is rebirthed Israel, experiences eschatological judgment. They experience the future in the present.

However, we must carefully note the meaning of this “judgment.” I remember hearing some describe it as the terror of the Lord judging the church, and the church is barely saved—saved, as it were, by the skin of its teeth. Salvation, therefore, is hard-won, precarious, and narrowly received.

Here, however, judgment is not about punishment or terror. It is a process of discernment. It is the eschatological distinction between authentic and inauthentic faith, or between belief and unbelief, between those who obey the gospel and those who do not. This is—even in the present—an eschatological separation of the sheep from the goats, much like the “last day” scenario in Matthew 25.

Now, in the present, judgment begins with the house of God because they are presently undergoing a fiery trial, which is a process of differentiation. The eschatological reality is breaking into the present and illuminating the current situation. The righteous are being distinguished from the wicked, even now.

The righteous, nevertheless, are saved “with difficulty,” or “it is hard for the righteous to be saved” (quoting the LXX version of Proverbs 11:31). This is not a statement about how difficult it is to be justified by the blood of Christ. Rather, it describes the difficult process of enduring the fiery trial; it won’t be easy and it isn’t easy. Living as a Christian in a hostile culture is a harrowing experience. Perseverance is a struggle, and those who persevere experience many hardships and difficulties. But their end (goal) is salvation, which is quite different from that of the “ungodly and sinners.”


Enduring Suffering (1 Peter 4:12-14).

What does Peter say about suffering? What is its function? How do Christians understand their predicament?

First, it is a “fiery ordeal” that tests faith. The reference to fire recalls the “refining” motif from 1 Peter 1:7 (cf. Zechariah 13:9; Malachi 3:1-3). Suffering refines and purifies to reveal authentic faith. This tests the reality of faith. Suffering, whatever its origin, is always a test.

Second, when Christians suffer, they participate in the sufferings of Christ. They suffer with Christ. This is a strong motif in Paul’s letters (cf. Romans 8:17; Philippians 3:10-11). Just as Christ suffered for us, so we also suffer with Christ. Our suffering does not stand alone. Rather, it is communion (fellowship) with the suffering of Jesus himself. Particularly, in the light of 1 Peter 2:21-25, as we follow the pattern of Christ’s suffering, we enact the same witness in the world as Jesus did.

In this sense, we may rejoice in our suffering. This does not mean “enjoy your suffering.” On the contrary, suffering is painful and it hurts. Yet, suffering–when viewed through a Christological lens–lends itself to joy when we see ourselves joining in the suffering of Jesus and recognizing the future joy we will enjoy with Christ when his glory is fully revealed on the last day.

Third, Christians are “blessed” in their suffering. This blessedness is not due to some kind of internalized positive thinking. Rather, it is an act of God. Sufferers are blessed, even when it does not feel like a blessing nor experienced as a blessing.

But what is this blessing? Peter identifies the blessing as the “Spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, resting” upon sufferers. This language comes from Isaiah 11:2, a Messianic text. The one who comes from the root of Jesse comes out in power, wisdom, strength, knowledge and godliness because the “Spirit of God will rest upon him.” On that Messianic “day,” the root of Jesse will dwell on the earth and assemble the remnant of Israel (Isaiah 11:10, 12). On that day, the remnant will become—as Joel Green notes (1 Peter)—“a reconstituted people” as the Spirit of God rests upon the remnant of Israel, which is new and living temple of God (1 Peter 2:4-9).

Sufferers are blessed because the Spirit of God rests upon them, and this is their glory. They share the blessed reality of the Messiah, the Christ, just as they share his sufferings. They share the trial of Christ as well.

So, suffering is Christological for Christians. They are refined in the trial, endure the ordeal as a fellow-sufferer with Jesus the Messiah, and are blessed with the Spirit of Glory in the midst of their suffering.


The contemporary world knows all too well Christians still suffer verbal abuse, marginalization, and governmental action, including martyrdom. The reports from parts of the Middle East confirm this on a daily basis.

Indeed, verbal abuse and marginalization are increasing in the West as well, though—thankfully—martyrdom is not on the horizon (in terms of governmental action). Nevertheless, cultural pressures are increasingly dismissive, perhaps hostile. When Christian morality, for example, is ridiculed, cultural pressure is apparent and it is applied through media and among peers.

While clearly Peter’s concern is hostile cultural pressure, his perspectives on suffering have wider application. This is evident when he identifies the suffering of believers with the suffering of Jesus. When believers suffer, they participate in the suffering of Jesus. Believers and Jesus share a common experience; they share a category of experience—they suffer. All righteous suffering belongs to the nature of all kinds of righteous suffering. What Peter says here about suffering in a hostile culture is equally applicable to all innocent suffering Christians endure. Peter applies the general principles to a specific situation, but the principles nevertheless have a broader application. Suffering is a means of “eschatological judgment,” as Peter assumes in this text.

For Christians, all suffering is Christological. All suffering is eschatological. All suffering is a fiery ordeal. All suffering is blessed.

1 Peter 4:7-11 — Communal Life in a Hostile World

August 29, 2015

Here is concluding counsel for a marginalized, victimized group. As exiles and aliens (1 Peter 2:11-12) within Roman society, Peter calls them to transcend their situation by living as an authentic community, which seeks only good for its surrounding culture.

This section concludes the major exhortation section of 1 Peter. It opened with the vocative “Beloved” (1 Peter 2:11), and Peter identifies the next movement of the epistle with another use of “Beloved” in 1 Peter 4:12. Also, the section begins with the purpose of faithful living—the glory of God (1 Peter 2:12) and ends with the goal of such a life—the glory of God (1 Peter 4:11). The glory of God functions as an inclusio, to which is attached a doxology: “To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:11).

Eschatological Horizon

Given we are “aliens and exiles,” how, then, should we live? Peter’s first summary point is:

The end of all things is near.

We live, Peter writes, in the light of the “end of all things.” But what does that mean?

Some suggest it means Peter believed the final revelation of the kingdom of God would soon arrive. In other words, the second coming of Jesus was “near,” that is, it would happen soon, perhaps within his own generation.

However, there is another way of reading this. The term “end” (telos) also has the meaning of “goal.” As such, Peter envisions the goal of the kingdom of God, which is the arrival of the fullness God intends for the creation. That is the inheritance God promised in Christ (1 Peter 1:4).

But what does it mean to say it is “near?” This is the language Jesus himself used. For example, Jesus heralded the reality, “The kingdom of God is near” (Mark 1:14). Both Peter and Jesus use the same verb, eggizo (to draw near, come near). In the ministry of Jesus, the verb embraces both the present (the kingdom is “breaking into” the world) and future (what is not yet fully realized) kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is imminent and spilling over into the present even as we wait for the future to arrive.

Peter has something like this in mind. The goal of God is near. That future is already present but has not yet fully arrived. It is here in the lives of “exiles and aliens” who embody the glory of God within Roman culture but the goal of God is not yet fully here such that a new world has emerged where peace, righteousness, and justice fill the cosmos.

Christians live as if the new world has arrived because it has arrived in their lives. They live with the hope and expectancy of the fullness of that new world in the future. It shapes how they live now. They live in the shadow of God’s final and full eschatological reality, the kingdom of God. They live under an eschatological horizon, and this shapes their values, ethics, and communal life.

Communal Life

There are many ways in which we might understand and apply Peter’s exhortations in this section. His counsel has a wide application, and it may have no specific focus. However, I want to suggest a possible Sitz im Leben for this text, a specific setting for hearing it.

Since this section concludes with a liturgical doxology to which the congregation responds with “Amen” and, given the nature of circular letters in early Christian congregations, this letter is read in the midst of a gathered people, an assembly, we might hear this language in connection with a gathered community rather than simply in terms of broad relationships (though it has application there as well).

First, there is a contrast between Christian gatherings and pagan association gatherings so prevalent in Roman culture (see the previous section, 1 Peter 4:1-6). Drinking parties, excessive wine, and inebriating feasts characterized association meetings, but Christian gatherings are “right-minded” (self-controlled) and “sober-minded” (disciplined). The former are chaotic and often erotic but the latter are ordered though earnest. This contrast is probably what Paul had in mind in Ephesians 5:18-21. “Prayers,” in fact, may reflect a communal activity, and those prayers reflect order rather than pandemonium or confusion.

Second, Christian gatherings are shaped by love. Just as Jesus talked about his disciples loving each other while at table with them in John 13, so Peter stresses this as part of their assemblies. It is what, above everything else, should shape Christian life and relationships.

To reinforce this, Peter quotes Proverbs 10:12b: “love covers all offenses” (or multitude of sins). The best way to understand this statement is to see with what it stands in contrast. The first line of the parallelism in Proverbs 10:12 reads, “Hatred stirs up conflicts.” The contrast between “covers” and “stirs up” illuminates the contrast between “love” and “hatred.” Love covers a multitude of sins in this sense: love does not stir up strife or conflicts within the community. Instead, love overlooks faults, which lead to strife and interpersonal conflict. Such love brings harmony to a community and enables assemblies to gather in peace; it enables community despite each others faults.

Third, Christian gatherings are made possible by hospitality in the apostolic period. While Peter may have in mind a broad sense of hospitality such as caring for traveling strangers, evangelists, and prophets (which was necessary due to the lack of public Inns in the ancient world), he may have in mind—more specifically—providing space for communal meetings. Christians needed safe places to gather, and that may have involved some cultural risk for their hosts. And it may have provided an occasion for grumbling within the community (like no one has ever complained about how the small group meeting is at their house, right?).

Fourth, community means serving each other out of their gifts and speaking to each other in ways that reflect God’s own speech. This is the grace of God within a community. God gifts a community for speech and service, and those gifts are for the sake of the community. The divine grace present in the community is God’s own strength, and this enables the community to excel in their God-given gifts. As “good managers” of this grace, the community must serve each other and speak to each other in gracious ways, which reflect God’s own work in the community.

Purpose: the Glory of God

As in 1 Peter 2:11-12, the purpose for Christian community, the goal of all things, and the meaning of Christian “good works” within the world is the glory of God. This is achieved “through Jesus Christ” and in the sanctifying work of the Spirit (1 Peter 1:2; 4:6, 14). God the Father is glorified through the work of the Son in the power of the Spirit, which points us back to the opening salutation of the letter (1 Peter 1:2).

Responding to his own point, Peter concludes his exhortations with a doxology. He himself breaks out in praise.

To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever.

The church, listening to the reading of the letter and hearing the doxology, is given their cue. Peter writes: Amen!   And we might imagine that the congregation responded with an “Amen” of their own.

And we, too, say, “Amen!”

1 Peter 4:1-6 — They Think It Strange, But Follow Christ

August 21, 2015

     1 Peter 3:18a: Christ suffered for sins.
            1 Peter 4:1a: Christ suffered in the flesh

1 Peter 4:1 resumes the primary topic: the suffering of Christ provides a model for living in a hostile environment. 1 Peter 3:18-22 underscores the victory of Christ over suffering and his enthronement over the powers and authorities, which powers create a hostile environment for Christians.

Suffering will come, and Christians must prepare for it and accept it as Christ did (1 Peter 3:13-17). But Christians also know the end of the story. Though Christ suffered and was put to death, he was also made alive and exalted to the right hand of God (1 Peter 3:18-22). The path of suffering, therefore, leads to glory as we follow Jesus in that suffering.

1 Peter 4:1-6 calls Christians into that life.


Arm Yourselves

Because Christ suffered in the flesh,
            arm yourselves also with the same resolve
                        to live by the will of God while you remain in the flesh.

Following Jesus entails “arming yourselves” (a militaristic term) with the same mind (resolve, intention) as Jesus. As Jobes, 1 Peter, notes, the term ennoia (resolve) appears in Proverbs to describe the wise person who is dedicated to the godly path (cf. Prov. 1:4; 2:11; 3:21; 4:1; 5:2; 8:12; 16:22; 18:15; 19:7; 23:4, 19; 24:7). This mind has a proper outlook on the world and is resolved to pursue it.

In the midst of their suffering, believers must have the same resolve or intention as Jesus. But what is that? It is this: “the one who suffered in the flesh has finished with sin.” Just as Jesus’s resolve meant he would pursue the will of God rather than sin, so Christians who suffer are resolved to pursue the will of God rather than sin.

Christians, like Jesus, are “finished with sin.” This does not mean Christians no longer sin at all, but their resolve or intent is done with sin. They are committed to live by the will of God rather than by human desires throughout the rest of their lives (the time they have left in the flesh). This commitment means they are willing to suffer for the will of God rather than pursue their own desires. They are resolved to live according to God’s will, and consequently they are finished with sin.


They Slander You

You have already lived by the counsel of the Gentiles,
            which is an excessive manifestation of fleshly desires.
                        They are surprised by your non-participation,
                                    so they slander and verbally abuse you.

Peter characterizes Gentile excesses with a list of words, and these give us a picture of how early Christians viewed the “party life” of their neighbors.

  • Licentiousness, or sexual sensuality (cf. Romans 13:13; 2 Corinthians 12:21)
  • Passions, or lusts or desires (1 Peter 2:11; 4:2)
  • Drunkenness, or wine excess, that is, to overflow with wine (only here)
  • Revels, or inebriating feasts (Romans 13:13; Galatians 5:21)
  • Carousing, or drinking parties (only here)
  • Lawless idolatry, or abominable idol worship (phrase only occurs here)

Peter further characterizes their activities as “excesses of dissipation,” which is the only time this phrase appears in the NT. The term asotias, translated “dissipation” by the NRSV, is derived from the negative alpha (not, without) attached to the verb sozo, meaning to save. The word describes a kind of wasteful behavior, and here reflects an excessive sort of wasteful behavior. Some translations render it “debauchery” (as in Ephesians 5:18 where such behavior is contrasted with one “filled with the Spirit”). It is, in one sense, a dissolute or incorrigible life which revels in excess, a wasteful lifestyle.

Peter’s vice list is rather narrow when compared with others in the New Testament. Why is it so narrow? Perhaps it reflects a specific contrast, which results in the kind of hostility Christians experience from their neighbors. In other words, they no longer participate in particular kinds of activities, which were not only common but endemic to Roman culture. In fact, the language Peter uses describes such practices in the Greco-Roman world.

The Romans were known for their infamous drinking parties and excessive feasts, particularly in honor of Roman gods or at Roman temples. Typically, Roman associations—whether economic, social, funerary, or religious—would meet at temples for sacrifices, festivities, eating, and drinking. The term komoi (revelings) originally described a festive meal in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine. The last word in Peter’s list indicates how these drinking parties and feasts were shaped by idolatrous gatherings.

These associations were voluntary but they were important t0 social, economic, political, and religious life within Roman culture. Associations buried people, cared for families, regulated economic practices and trades, and provided occasions for civic and religious life. To abstain from these associations might result in exclusion, trading boycotts, and social marginalization. It would like if an American citizen refused to participate in 4th of July festivities, or refused to say the pledge of allegiance at the Lion’s Club.

Christians no longer attended these gatherings, and this created tension between them and their Roman neighbors. As Donelson (I & II Peter and Jude, 122) notes, “to withdraw from these crucial groups and events was seen as a rejection of Roman civilization itself, as hatred…They are indeed rejecting Roman society even if they do not hate their neighbors.”

Romans “slandered” or “blasphemed” Christians who no longer participate in their “parties” or association celebrations. This probably functions on two levels. At one level, the rejection of their gods is deemed anti-Roman, and at another level, the assertion of the truthfulness of the Christian faith is regarded as blasphemous. Roman pluralism entailed no one should make an exclusive claim in religion, and whoever made such a claim was arrogant and dangerous. They were dangerous because this subverted Roman culture itself by its failure to acknowledge Roman gods and civic or imperial virtues. Pluralism cannot tolerate such exclusive claims. Consequently, exclusivists are slandered or blasphemed.

When Christians no longer participated in the associations or their celebrations and separated themselves from the mainstream of cultural virtues or practices, especially Rome’s civil religion, their neighbors felt judged. This probably, at first, puzzled their neighbors and later angered them, which led to tension and sometimes hostility. Their neighbors probably expected them to “give an account” of their behavior (1 Peter 3:15). As Achtemeier (1 Peter, 277) comments, “It is a problem that will recur whenever Christians are forced by their faith to oppose cultural values widely held in the secular world in which they live.”

When Christians live according to their values, others think it strange and others feel judged. For example, when a famous entertainment person in the United States commits to a celibate life before marriage, others think it “strange.” When Christians give most of their wealth to the poor and decide to live simply rather than in luxury, others think it “strange.”

When Christians live according to their values, others feel judged. We cannot prevent such feelings, and those feelings may generate hostility or marginalization. This, however, is the lot of Christians when they live in a counter-cultural way.

Following Peter’s advice in this letter, Christians do not respond to evil with evil or abuse with abuse. Rather, they “do good” when they are treated in harsh or abusive ways. Consequently, Christians do not speak evil of their neighbors or judge them (as Paul said, it is not our role to judge the world, 1 Corinthians 5:12).

Nevertheless, when Christians live out their convictions and decline to participate in the cultural patterns and lifestyles pervasive in a culture, the culture feels judged. They perceive judgment because Christians do not participate in such activities out of their ethical, Christ-like, and godly convictions. In such cases Christians must continue to embrace their commitments despite how others perceive them or how others treat them.

That commitment, however, means Christians do not judge their neighbors, they do not speak evil of their neighbors, and they do not abuse their neighbors. On the contrary, Christians–as Christ-followers–love their enemies, pray for those who abuse them, and leave judgment up to God, who alone knows the hearts and minds of people.


God Judges the Living and the Dead

The slanderers will give account of their words
            to the one who judges the living and the dead.
                        Consequently, the gospel was preached to those (now) dead,
                                    so that those judged in the flesh might live in the Spirit.

While Christians were slandered and mistreated by the surrounding Roman culture, Peter assures his readers the slanderers will face their own judgment in the future. God judges both the living and the dead.

The living are judged in the flesh, and this is especially noted for believers. Their culture judges them by their values and standards. They are judged “according to human standards” while they live in the flesh.

Though judged in the flesh, they will live in the Spirit or in the “spiritual realm.” Like Jesus before them, they are judged in the flesh (Jesus was put to death!), but they live in the Spirit (like Jesus). They may die, even at the hands of their persecutors, they will live—as Jesus lives—in the Spirit. Death is not the end of their story. Rather, they will live in the Spirit.

This is why the gospel was preached even to those who are (now) dead.

This is a rather controversial statement. It cannot mean those who are “spiritually dead” since this would use “dead” in two different senses in 1 Peter 4:5-6 and the sense is the same because of the connection between the sentences (“for this reason”).

Some connect it back to 1 Peter 3:19, but there are some significant differences which make this problematic. First, “dead” here are clearly dead humans since they are judged “in the flesh.” But the “spirits in prison” in 1 Peter 3:19 are not called “dead” and neither are they humans. They are angelic spirits imprisoned since the time of Noah. Second, the verb “preached” is different. In 1 Peter 3:19 the verb means “herald, announce, or proclaim,” but in 1 Peter 4:6 is to evangelize or preach the good news.

So, it seems best to understand Peter’s point as something like this: since God judges the living and the dead, it was important to evangelize everyone, including those who subsequently die and are now dead. They are now dead, but when they were evangelized they were alive. That evangelism means that though they were judged in the flesh by their culture, they will be made alive by God in the Spirit. Death no longer reigns over them, and the culture no longer judges them.

Just as they followed Jesus in suffering—even dying, they will follow Jesus by living in the Spirit.

Judgment belongs to God–it does not rests in the hands of the associations within Roman culture and neither does it rest in the hands of Christians themselves. Both must leave judgment to God.

1 Peter 3:18-22 — Suffering and the Meaning of the Christ Event

August 10, 2015

Because Christ also suffered…

If one suffers for “doing good” as an expression of the will of God, Peter writes, it better to suffer for that than suffering for doing evil (1 Peter 2:17).

Why is that? Because Christ also suffered…

The Christ Narrative—the story of God in which Christ suffers for sins—is the reason why it is better to suffer for doing what is right than suffering for doing what is evil.

The Christ Narrative

Christ suffered for sin in order lead others to God,

having been put to death in the realm of the flesh,

having been made alive in the realm of the Spirit

having gone [and preached]

having gone into heaven

having subjugated all powers to his rule,

he announced his victory to imprisoned spirits.

While there are many difficult exegetical and theological issues within this text, the basic point is clear.

Just as righteous Christians suffer for doing good, so Christ also suffered for doing good, and just as Christ was raised and ascended to the right hand of God, so also Christians will be raised and exalted before God.

I will not take the time to rehearse all the subtleties of the debates surrounding this text. However one reads it, Christ is victorious despite his suffering, and this encourages Christians in Peter’s time to endure their unjust suffering. Christ is not only the pattern or model for how we suffer, but the one whom we follow into the heavens as victors over suffering and death.

My understanding of the text stresses the past tense participles (italicized above in the narrative) as a progressive movement of Jesus from death to resurrection to exaltation.

Having been put to death in the realm of the flesh – death

Having been made alive in the realm of the Spirit – resurrection

Having gone – exaltation.

Having gone into heaven — enthronement.

“Having gone” occurs twice—once in 1 Peter 3:19 and once in 1 Peter 3:22. Clearly “having gone” (poreutheis) in the latter text refers to the ascension, exaltation, and enthronement of Jesus at the right hand of God. In the history of the reading of this text, the former text is read in various ways. For example, some believe Christ “went” to Hades in his death to proclaim his victory to the imprisoned angels and/or human dead. Others believe Christ “went,” by the Spirit and through the voice of Noah, to preach to disobedient people at the time of the flood. Both of these views are strongly represented in the history of the Christian tradition.

However, I think it best to understand the second use of poreutheis (“having gone”) as resumptive, that is, he is continuing the story from which he digressed in verse 19. In other words, he uses poreutheis (“having gone”) in the same sense in verses 19 and 22. They both refer to the ascension, exaltation, and enthronement of Jesus at the right hand of God.

From there, Peter says, Jesus heralded his victory to the “imprisoned spirits.” The Greek verb here is not “preach the gospel,” but to announce, herald, or proclaim. His proclamation was not a evangelistic (revivalistic) sermon, but a judicial proclamation. Their fate was sealed, and it could not have been sealed until Christ was raised from the dead. (For a full defense of this understanding, see William J. Dalton, Christ’s Proclamation to the Spirits: A Study of 1 Peter 3:18-4:6 [Roma: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1989]).

Consequently, “made alive in the Spirit” is a reference to the resurrection of Jesus who entered into a new realm, a new existence. He became the standard of new humanity as the Spirit of God animates his resurrected body, just as Paul envisions in 1 Corinthians 15. Through death for sin and resurrection to life, Jesus becomes the pattern of new humanity, new creation.

But who are the imprisoned, disobedient spirits from the time of Noah? Some think this may include or specify human beings, but the contrast between “spirits” in verse 19 and “souls” in verse 20 suggests that “spirits” refers more to “angels” (verse 22) while “souls” refers to human persons. Nowhere in Scripture are postmortem human beings called “spirits” without qualification (and only once with qualification in Hebrews 12:23). “Soul” is Peter’s word for a human person, and here “spirits” most likely refers to disobedient angels in the time of Noah.

The backdrop is an ancient Jewish interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4. 1 Enoch elaborately describes this. There the “Watchers” (angelic beings) are sent by God to care for human beings but they rebel, marry women, and give birth to “giants.” This story was well known in Jewish circles in the first century. Imprisoned angels, who in 1 Enoch are assured of their eternal captivity, are also referenced in 2 Peter 2:4. The Watchers disobeyed God, and the work of Christ has sealed their fate.

Through his victory, Christ subjugated “angels, authorities, and powers.” Enthroned at the right hand of God, all powers and rulers—both spiritual and imperial—bow before the authority of Christ. The enthroned Christ proclaims (announces) his victory to the imprisoned spirits.


The Noah Typology

Inserted into the Christological narrative, almost as a digression but importantly as a typology of the circumstances of Christians within Roman culture, is the story of Noah.

Christ suffered for sin in order lead others to God,

having been put to death in the realm of the flesh,

having been made alive in the realm of the Spirit

having gone [and preached]

having gone into heaven

having subjugated all powers to his rule,

he announced his victory to imprisoned spirit

because they were disobedient in the days of Noah

when God waited patiently

when God saved eight souls through water

and now baptism saves you

not by the removal of dirt from the flesh

but by a pledge of a good conscience

 through the resurrection of Jesus Christ

The story includes God’s patience, “disobedient spirits” now imprisoned, the building of the ark, Noah’s family (“few, that is, eight souls”), and their salvation through water.

Noah’s circumstances parallel those whom Peter addresses. They both find themselves living amid a disobedient generation, and they were both minorities. They both suffer abuse from their contemporaries. They are both righteous sufferers. They both need deliverance/salvation. They both bear witness to the coming judgment of God and experience God’s patience toward their generation. They are both saved, and salvation happens in the context of or by means of “water.” In other words, Peter’s readers should see their own story in the story of Noah.

Jobes (1 Peter), citing Elliott, 1 Peter (2000, p. 669) offers this parallel.

Noah in 3:20 Readers in 3:21
Few You
Were Baptism now
Saved Saves
Through Through
Water Resurrection of Jesus

[The following is from John Mark Hicks and Greg Taylor, Down in the River to Pray, chapter 2.]

The succinct statement that “baptism…now saves you” is astounding. Indeed, it is scandalous for some. Peter attributes to baptism some kind of soteriological function, and his exact meaning has been the subject of considerable debate.

The Noahic Flood is typological of the saving function of baptism. The eight persons who found refuge in the ark from the destructive floodwaters were, in fact, “saved through water” (dieswthesan di’ hudatos), and this prefigured how Christians are also saved through water (that is, water baptism saves us). Baptism, just like the Flood, is a saving event. Just as God saved Noah through cleansing the old world with water, so God saves us from our old lives through baptism. In the Noahic Flood, water judged the old world and cleansed it, and baptism judges the old life and cleanses it. To use a Pauline metaphor, baptismal water (by the power of the Spirit, of course–not literally) kills the old person, buries it, and then renews it. Noah passed through the waters into a new world, just as Christians pass through baptism into a new life.

Peter, however, quickly qualifies his meaning. He does not want to foster a misunderstanding or misapplication of his point. The power of this salvation is not inherent in the water. The water does not literally save, but God saves through the water by the power of Christ’s work. The death of Christ, where the righteous died for the unrighteous, is the power of salvation. The resurrection of Christ, where life overcomes death, is the power of salvation. Baptism saves us, not by the power of the water, but “through the resurrection of Jesus,” just as—as Peter wrote earlier—God gave us a “new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus” (1 Peter 1:3).

Peter’s qualification points us to the significance of baptism. It is no mere cleansing of the outer person. It is not a ritual bath that only cleansed the outer person from ceremonial impurities or like an ordinary bath that only removes the dirt from the body. On the contrary, it addresses the inner person. It is the “appeal to God for a good conscience.” Baptism has an inner dimension—it is a function of conscience.

The exact nature of this function, however, is debated. The Greek term behind the word “appeal” (eperotema) is ambiguous. While the NRSV translates Peter’s phrase as an “appeal to God for a good conscience,” the NIV translates it “the pledge of a good conscience toward God.” In other words, is baptism the appeal for a good conscience (thus, a cleansing of the inner person) or is it the pledge of a good conscience (thus, a commitment of loyalty to God). Is baptism a “prayer” (Moffatt’s translation) for a clean conscience or a pledge of allegiance? Or both, perhaps an intentional ambiguity? Both fit the inner/outer contrast in the text—baptism is not simply an outer act like removing dirt from the body, but it is an inner appeal or pledge of the inner person, the conscience. Both suppose baptismal candidates actively appeal or commit themselves to God through baptism. This would seem to exclude those who cannot make such an appeal or commitment.

The term itself is problematic. It only appears here in the New Testament. In the second century the word commonly appeared in legal contractual documents. It referred to the practice of “answering” the question of whether one would keep the contract. Viewed in this way, baptism is the “answer of a good conscience” which pledges to keep the baptismal covenant. If, however, the noun is viewed through the lens of its verbal form (eperotao), which means “request,” then the word refers to the believers’ request through baptism for a good conscience. This may be a better fit with Peter’s contrast. Baptism is not the cleansing of the outer body, but rather it saves through the cleansing of the inner person as believers address God in that moment. Baptism is the sinner’s prayer for a good conscience; a prayer for the application of God’s saving act to cleanse the conscience.[i] As Colwell writes, “what is a sacrament if it is not a human prayer and promise in response to a promise of God and in anticipation of its fulfillment?”[ii] We go down in the river to pray for a good conscience. We go down in the river seeking transformation.

What is the meaning of “now” in Peter’s statement? Some have thought that perhaps this was part of a baptismal liturgy so that at the moment of baptism this was the pronouncement over the candidate, that is, “baptism now saves you” as you are immersed. But it is better to see this “now” as a redemptive-historical term. It is an “eschatological” (or, apocalyptic) now where we experience the end-time salvation in the present. Just as the Flood was a cataclysmic event that destroyed the old world through cleansing, so the baptismal experience is a destruction of the old person through cleansing. Just as Noah and his family were “saved through water,” so we are saved through water. Just as Noah and his family transitioned from an old to a new world, so through baptism we move from an old world under judgment to a new beginning in a renewed life. The old passed away and everything became new—for Noah, and for us! Baptism is an apocalyptic, or eschatological, moment. We have been born anew (1 Peter 1:23).


Whatever we do with the subtle difficulties of this text, the gist seems rather clear.

Christ has suffered.

Christ has been raised.

Christ has ascended.

Christ has been enthroned.

Consequently, whatever “angels, authorities, and powers” might do to you–no matter how you suffer their abuse–Christ has won, and Christ will reign until, as Paul notes from Psalm 110, he has put all enemies under his feet (1 Corinthians 15:26).

[i] See the discussion by Wayne Grudem, The First Epistle of Peter, TNTC (Downers Grover, IL: InterVarsity, 1988), 163-64.

[ii] John E. Colwell, “Baptism, Conscience and the Resurrection: A Reappraisal of 1 Peter 3:21,” in Baptism, the New Testament and the Church: Historical and Contemporary Studies in Honour of R. E. O. White, JSNTSup 171, ed. Stanley Porter and Anthony R. Cross (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 227.

1 Peter 3:13-17 — When Suffering Comes

August 1, 2015

In 1 Peter 2:11-3:12 Peter addressed how followers of Jesus live as “aliens and exiles” within a Roman culture which often abused others under its authority. In 1 Peter 3:13-4:11, he turns his attention to how Christians suffer faithfully and with hope in that same culture. In both sections, “doing good” is the primary Christian response to marginalization, abuse, and suffering. No matter what happens, Peter counsels, always “do good.”

Aliens and exiles, live honorably among the nations for the glory of God (2:11-12).

1.  Submit to the dominant order for God’s sake (1 Peter 2:13-3:12).

2.  Suffer with hope for God’s sake (1 Peter 3:13-4:11).

In this second major section of the letter (2:11-4:11), Peter shifts from the question of “submission” within Roman order to living triumphantly within that order.  While “submission” entails locating oneself with the dominant cultural order for the sake of God’s mission, living triumphantly entails living with hope as blessed people despite suffering for the sake of God’s mission. Aliens and exiles, submit and they suffer, but they are also blessed and hopeful.

Under the heading of 2:11-12, 1 Peter 2:11-4:11 forms a single unit, indicted by how the vocative address “Beloved” begins 1 Peter 2:11 and 1 Peter 4:12. Further, the doxology of 1 Peter 4:11 signals the end of the section, just as the doxology in 1 Peter 5:11 ends the next section. In this unit Peter calls Christians to live well (to do good) among the nations for God’s sake.

If you suffer….

The text curiously moves from the assurance of God’s care for the righteous based on Psalm 34 (God’s eyes and ears are turned toward their prayers and God’s face is set against evil) in 1 Peter 3:12 to 1 Peter 3:13-17 where suffering is a real possibility, perhaps inevitability, for those who seek God. How does one reconcile suffering with God’s gracious attention to the prayers of the righteous?

This is, we should remember, a particular kind of suffering. Peter addresses those who might suffer for doing good or “doing what is right” (righteousness). I write “might suffer” because the Greek verb here is in the optative mood, which indicates a possibility or potentiality. They might not be suffering now, but that potential exists.

If Christians actually “do good” and live peacefully among the nations in righteousness, Peter suggests, they might not suffer harm (though that “harm” is no ultimate harm). Perhaps there is sufficient cultural overlap between Christians and Romans to avert suffering to some degree because there is some shared understanding of “doing good” or shared value of what it means to live a good life. However, when we consider what “righteousness” is to Christians and what it is for Romans (in general), suffering or harm is a real possibility, if not inevitable.

Righteous behavior attracts undesired attention from those who feel judgment from such behavior. Christians don’t have to verbally judge others (much less verbally abuse them) in order for others to feel judged. This is because their values are so radically different. Romans, most probably, felt judged by Christians simply because of their lifestyle. Their hostility, then, is not due directly to anything Christians have said or done as much as it is to the life to which Christians are dedicated. Non-Christians may feel judged simply because Christians live by a different set of values and those values seem strange to them.

Peter recognizes the problematic nature of the question raised above (how to reconcile suffering with God’s gracious attention) and moves to assure his readers of God’s interest, involvement, and purposes. Their suffering is not due to divine inattentiveness, absence, or forsakenness. On the contrary, their suffering happens in relation to God’s will, whatever that relationship is (1 Peter 3:17). Far from disinterested, the Father is intensely engaged with God’s people in the midst of their suffering. They are not alone.

Several indicators point to this assurance.

First, righteous sufferers are blessed. This echoes Jesus’s own beatitude in Matthew 5:10, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Blessed, of course, involves divine action. It is not simply a happy state, but it is a present divine activity, including presence, hope, and comfort. Righteous sufferers are blessed since God acknowledges them as participants in the mission of God and works in their lives to prevent ultimate harm. As blessed people, they belong to God.

Second, Peter recalls the language of Psalm 34 just as he did in the previous section. As Joel Green (1 Peter) notes, there are important thematic and linguistic connections between 1 Peter 3:13-17 and Psalm 34. In other words, the tension exists within Psalm 34 itself, and the tension is “resolved” (in some sense) by divine presence and commitment to the believer. Peter, as Green writes, “identifies his audience as the suffering of the righteous of the psalm, in this way encouraging them to persist in their engagement in the wider world as those who embody goodness in character and practice.”

Third, Peter uses language from Isaiah 8, and consequently draws us into that story, along with its assurances. Jobes (1 Peter) helpfully describes the fuller picture. Not only does Peter quote Isaiah 8:12 (“do not fear what it fears, or be in dread”) in 1 Peter 3:14b (“do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated”), he also echoes Isaiah 8:13a (“sanctify him as Lord”) in 1 Peter 3:15a (“sanctify Christ as Lord”). The resounding assurance within Isaiah 8 is the prophetic word:  “God is with us” (Isaiah 8:10), or “Immanuel.”

The context of Isaiah 8 is important as Peter locates his readers there. Judah’s King Ahaz, along with the people of Judah, refused to trust God in the wake of military threats from Israel and Syria. Instead, Ahaz sought the help of Assyria, and consequently God unleashes Assyria upon both Israel and Judah. God tells Isaiah, “Don’t be afraid, don’t fear what they fear.” Yes, the future is brutal, and Assyria will roll like a flood over the land. In response, Isaiah must trust God and “sanctify” God in his heart so that God is his fear rather than the dread of Assyria’s advance.

Situating his readers in that story, Peter identifies them with Isaiah who must learn to trust God in their suffering. Christians are not intimidated by power, particularly when power assaults the righteous. Christians do not fear what others fear. Rather, they fear (trust) God and invest themselves in the divine mission. They sanctify Christ in their hearts; they are engaged in God’s mission.

Fourth, Peter links their suffering to the will of God (1 Peter 3:17). Exactly how the “will of God” figures into their suffering is ambiguous. At the very least, we might say something like: those who suffer for doing good, suffer according to the will of God since it is God’s will to suffer for good rather than to suffer for evil. Others suggest God wills the suffering of those who “do good” for whatever reasons, perhaps as a refining process. Whatever the case, God inhabits this suffering in some mysterious way; in some way, God is “behind” this suffering. Perhaps God is not the cause (at least that is not asserted here), but God shapes its reality and purpose. Though suffering does not yet exist in some sense, when it comes (the optative mood indicates its possibility rather than actuality), it does not come outside of God’s will. Suffering does not exist outside of God’s sovereignty but under it.

In essence, suffering does not mean God is absent, and neither does it suggest sufferers have lost their relationship with God. On the contrary, when one suffers because of righteousness, there is no ultimate or real harm. There is suffering, to be sure, but there is also the assured presence and care of God in the midst of that suffering.

How Do We Respond to Unjust Suffering?

No fear, but a holy focus; don’t be intimidated, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your heart. Christians, from one point of view, have something to fear.  When they confess that Jesus the Messiah is Lord, this places them in tension with a Roman world that acknowledges Caesar as Lord.

That contrast is important. Who is Lord? To whom do we devote our hearts? Who is the Holy One? These are questions of loyalty, allegiance, and commitment. Whom shall we serve? The emperor or Jesus? Peter’s answer is clear—the Messiah is Lord, and we wholly separate our hearts for Christ’s service and devout our hearts to him. We honor the emperor, but we fear (worship) God (1 Peter 2:17).

So, in a world where these contrasting allegiances butt heads, how do Christians respond?

They are prepared. They know who they are, and they live out that identity. This preparation is not only intellectual, but also includes–even emphasizes–spiritual formation and life habits. It is a good conscience and a good life.

They answer with gentleness and reverence (fear). Gentleness stands in opposition to “a stick” (weapon or disciplinary instrument) in 1 Corinthians 4:21, and the word is sometimes paired with “kindness” (2 Corinthians 10:1) or humility and patience (Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:12). This is the only time the word appears in 1 Peter. Christians respond to questions and challenges, even hostility, with patient kindness. We do not use sticks or weapons. Instead, we respond in love, and we respond in the fear of God (though some regard this as “respect” for the other). Green writes, “Peter does not engage in invective rhetoric against ‘the world at large,’ as though the essence of Christian identity and behavior is to opposed those who reject faith.” On the contrary, gentleness toward others and a reverence for God characterize our apologia.

Our answer (apologia, defense or apologetic) is not so much the intellectual content of the response (though that is part of it), but it is the life with which we respond and how we respond. Intellectual content, the manner of our response, and the nature of our lives constitute our “answer.”

They maintain a good conscience and a good lifestyle. Abuse will come, and some will speak evil of the good others do. Our response is to persevere; we continue to pursue “doing good,” and we embody the life of Christ sanctified in our hearts. In this way, those who abuse us will be put to “shame,” which does not refer to some kind of public shame. Rather, it reflects the kind of “shame” reflected in the prophetic tradition. The enemies of God are “shamed” in that their way of life stands in strong case to the “good deeds” of God’s people. As Jobes notes, “this does not refer to emotion but to standing.” In other words, “shame connotes a social status, often in referenced to utter defeat and disgrace in battle.” The point, then, is the contrast between the eschatological triumph of the people of God and the “shame” (defeat and loss) of those who refuse (and even revile) the way of Christ.

Followers of Jesus respond to cultural marginalization and opposition with trust (fearing God), hope, and gentleness toward others.

1 Peter 3:8-12 — A Community Under Threat But Bound Together in the Fear of the Lord

July 27, 2015

As aliens and exiles, abstain from unhealthy desires and live among the nations as people who “do good” so that everyone may see your good life and glorify God (1 Peter 2:11-12).


Imperial residents, submit to political authority.

Slaves, submit to your masters.

Follow the model of Jesus in his suffering.

Wives, submit to your unbelieving husbands.

Everyone, [submit] to each other and encourage each other.

These are the basic elements of 1 Peter 2:11-3:12. 1 Peter 2:11-12 serves as a heading for the whole section and guides the rationale for “submission” when one is subject to abuse or hostile action by imposed power. We submit because we are aliens and exiles more concerned about the mission of God than a violent political or social revolution. We submit because we are disciples of Jesus who himself suffered for the sake of God’s mission.

The final segment, 1 Peter 3:8-12, does not begin with the word “submit” as previous sections did. I have supplied it in brackets even though the word is not actually there. However, the spirit is there. Perhaps Peter does not use”submit” because he has used it in the sense of “find your place in the dominant cultural order and live out God’s mission in that social location,” which is an accommodative sense. But he does not intend submission in an accommodative way in 1 Peter 3:8-12. Rather, submission, as articulated in 1 Peter 3:8-12, is a deeply Christian virtue, which Peter applied in a narrow sense in the previous sections. It is functionally equivalent to Paul’s call for “mutual submission” in Ephesians 5:21.

1 Peter 3:8-12 contains the essence of the submissive directives in the previous sections. Indeed, we may say 1 Peter 3:8-12 summarizes—in a general but pointed way—the broader and deeper meaning of submission. Imperial residents, slaves, and wives of unbelieving husbands each “submit” by “doing good” despite abuse, and this is exactly what 1 Peter 3:8-12 counsels and bolsters by quoting Psalm 34. And submission, as a Christian virtue, involves more.

Peter first addresses how the community should treat each other (1 Peter 3:8), and then reminds them how they should respond to hostility and abuse from outside the community or even from within the community (1 Peter 3:9), and then grounds these imperatives in Psalm 34 (1 Peter 3:10-12).

Communal Relationships

1 Peter 3:8 is a series of five adjectives introduced by a universal (“all”) address, and the adjectives state succinctly the meaning of “mutual submission.” “Finally,” Peter writes, “everyone” should share these values within the community of believers, not only or merely slaves or wives.

  • Unity of spirit (homophrones), that is, to have the same mind or way of thinking.
    • Sympathy (sympathies), that is, to share suffering together or to feel each other’s suffering.
      • Love for one another (philadelphoi), that is, to share a familial love one for the other, to live together as a caring, loving family.
    • Tender Heart (eusplagchnoi; literally, “good guts,” which is something like “good gut feelings”), that is, compassionate, or to have a good (tender) gut feeling toward each other, a soft heart for each other.
  • Humble Mind (tapeinophrones), that is, to have a mind or way of thinking where one considers oneself in a low position, or to take the humble approach rather than assuming everyone must agree.

The two bookends of the list share a similar idea, even using the same word in the compound term: phrones (way of thinking or mind). The first emphasizes “same” thinking, a kind of like-mindedness, and this points to the unity of God’s people. The fifth adjective expresses humility in our thinking; we do not approach each other in pride or arrogance. Rather, we live together in humble unity, a shared life with a shared mind. We have the “same mind” in the sense that we have the same goal, shared values, and are committed to living together in love. This does not entail uniform thinking, and certainly it does not entail an imposed uniformity since “humble mind” is also part of communal thinking as well.

The middle two—sympathy and tender-hearted—share a similar thought-world or semantic range. These words counsel compassion, sympathy, shared feelings, shared life, and openness to the other. We sympathize with each other; we approach each other and live together with “soft hearts.” We might imagine, for example, what it would mean for a congregation to sympathize or feel deeply for an abused slave or abused wife within the community.

The emphatic middle term is philadelphia (“brotherly love,” or familial love). Peter previously used this term in 1 Peter 1:22. It is a core value for community, especially as it comes under significant outside pressure and stress. Given the surrounding hostility, it is all the more imperative for love to abound within the community.

These words are rare or otherwise unknown in the New Testament: “same mind,” “sympathy,” and “humble mind” only appear here in the apostolic writings, and “tender-hearted” only appears elsewhere in Ephesians 4:32. However, they were common among moralists in the Greco-Roman world. This language is designed to secure familial bonds. This is communal language, and these virtues bind a community together in both mind and heart, body and soul. Peter, with good Greco-Roman rhetoric, seeks to build community.

Response to Abuse

Even if the Christian community displays the above virtues, Peter’s addressees find themselves situated in a hostile environment where believers are abused by governmental authority, slaves are beaten by their masters, and wives are controlled by unbelieving husbands. The community lives under a cloud of potential verbal and social abuse, even violence.

As followers of Jesus, however, believers are called into a different way of life then their surrounding culture. Like Jesus, they refuse to return evil for evil or abuse for abuse. This is our calling; it is our way of being in the world. We live nonviolently, without revenge, and without any need for “payback.”

Human beings tend to respond negatively to negativity. We tend to return abuse for abuse. We want to give people what “they deserve” and “return the favor.” This extends to the deep need many feel to “have the last word,” especially in a Facebook debate or in the blog comments. We don’t want to “let go” until people are “put in their place.”

Jesus models something else for us, and we are called to follow him. When we are persecuted, abused, or treated with hostility, we bless the other person. This does not mean we become doormats and take abuse when we have legal recourse, but it does mean we bless others when they mistreat us—even as we see legal justice or protection when possible.

If we want to “inherit a blessing,” we must bless others. Earlier Peter noted the future inheritance of believers, which is “kept in heaven for us” (1 Peter 1:4). Our future blessing empowers and expands our capacity to bless others in the present.

The blessed bless others, even when they are “blessed out” by others.

Psalm 34 as Peter’s Sermon Text

This “submissive,” non-retaliatory attitude is grounded in Peter’s reading of Psalm 34, and here he quotes Psalm 34:12-16. However, as is often the case, Peter’s interest is not limited to verses twelve to sixteen. In fact, Peter has not only previously alluded to Psalm 34 but quoted it (1 Peter 2:3, quoting Psalm 34:8). And, as Jobes points out, Psalm 34 provides an extensive background context for Peter: the people of Israel are exiles (paroikias in 1 Peter 1:17 and Psalm 34:6) who are ransomed (lutroo in 1 Peter 1:18 and Psalm 34:22), and they are people who hope in (elpizo,1 Peter 1:13 and Psalm 34:22) and fear (1 Peter 1:17 and Psalm 34:7, 9, 12) God. Consequently, we might think of Psalm 34 as Peter’s sermon text for this letter.

Psalm 34 is appropriate for Peter’s audience. As a didactic Psalm (it is an exhortation or teaching Psalm with no divine address), it testifies to how God delivers the righteous sufferer from the clutches of evildoers. The Psalmist, troubled by opponents and enemies, appeals to God, commits to a way of life, and God redeems the petitioner. It is as if Peter’s had written the Psalm for his audience since it so closely parallels the situation of his readers.

Particularly important for Peter’s extended quotation of Psalm 34 in 1 Peter 3:10-12 is the fear of the Lord, which is prominent in 1 Peter (1:17; 2:17, 18; 3:2, 6, 14, 16) in sections where Psalm 34 informs the letter. The “fear of the Lord” is prominent in Psalm 34. God delivers those who fear the Lord (Psalm 34:7; 33:8 in LXX). Those who fear the Lord will lack nothing (Psalm 34:9; 33:10 in LXX). The Psalmist intends to teach readers “the fear of the Lord” (Psalm 34:11; 33:12 in LXX).

Psalm 34:11 is particularly significant since it provides the purpose statement for the lines Peter quotes in 1 Peter 3:10-12. In other words, this is the fear of the Lord, that is, what is quoted (Psalm 34:12-16). What Peter quotes describes what it means, in part, to “fear the Lord.”

To fear the Lord is:

  • Control the use of one’s tongue, that is, tell no lies and abstain from speaking evil with it. We all know the use of the tongue is a major mode of “payback” in relationships, and its fire is difficult to put out.
  • To pursue a life of “doing good” rather than doing evil, that is, to turn away from evil and embrace the good. Psalm 34 highlights the contrast between two ways of life:  doing good and doing evil.
  • To seek and pursue peace, that is, to live peaceably with all people as much as it is within one’s power to do so. When living amidst hostility, seeking peace–becoming a peacemaker–expresses a trust (fear) in God.

It seems rather obvious why Peter quotes these verses from Psalm 34. They repeat the very counsel that Peter has given in 1 Peter 2:11-3:9—do good rather than evil, don’t speak evil when abused, and pursue peace. What Peter has counseled is essentially to “Fear God” (1 Peter 2:17).

Though Peter encourages peace, doing good, and blessing others, he also affirms—through this quotation—the prayers of the righteous who seek deliverance and justice from their God. God is listening, Peter reminds them in this quotation, and God—as Psalm 34 assures worshipers—will respond and deliver.

Their suffering is not interminable. It will end, and they will inherit a blessing. God will listen and ultimately God will put things to right. They suffer in hope, and they pray for justice in their suffering.

Those who desire life and “good days,” whether in the present or the future, will suffer in hope, pray for justice, do good, and return good for evil.



1 Peter 3:1-7 – Living as an Exile with an Unbelieving Spouse

July 19, 2015

Imperial residents, submit to the empire.

Slaves, submit to your masters.

Wives, submit to your husbands.

“In the same way” (homoios) heads the Greek sentence and connects Peter’s advice to the wives to the same ethic as his directives to slaves and imperial residents. This places the whole discussion under 1 Peter 2:12-13, that is, how to live as aliens and exiles among the nations so that the gospel has a witness within the culture.

Each of these “submissions” are shaped by the exilic and alien nature of the Christian existence within Roman culture. They submit as exiles and aliens (1 Peter 2:12-13). In other words, their lives respond to the imposed authority of emperors, masters, and unbelieving husbands over which they have little or no control.

Revolt was not an option in the empire for residents, slaves, or wives. Violence was not an option for Christians. What they could do—and did—was to “do good” and subvert the dominant culture by living exemplary, kind, and gentle lives without returning evil for evil. Since, generally, they had no legal recourse, Christian residents, slaves, and wives suffered abuse and they could not escape their circumstances. Instead, they suffered, following the model of Jesus.

Peter, is important to note, addresses key stress points for Christians living in a hostile environment. This is probably why normal “Household Code” elements are missing here–he does not address parents, children, or masters, and even husbands only get a brief word. He addresses groups who are living under particular stress given their powerlessness within the culture.

The Social Circumstance of Wives with Unbelieving Husbands

Within Roman culture, the general expectation was this: the household (including wives, children, slaves, and even employees) would follow the religion of the head of the household. The husband set the boundaries of acceptable faith and religion. When a wife converted to Christianity, for example, outside of her husband’s permission or authority, this generated an unacceptable circumstance, or at least it created tremendous tension within the household.

As Karen Jobes notes in her commentary on 1 Peter, Romans generally believed it violated good order if a wife “adopted a religion other than her own husband’s,” and the adoption of Christianity also involved conflict with the husband’s allegiance to the state where Caesar is Lord. Further, her association with other Christians in their familial community would probably violate standards of propriety where, as Plutarch advised (Advice, 19, writing about 90-100 A.D.), wives should have no friends independent of her husband and worship no gods but those of her husband (cf. Balch, Let Wives Be Submissive, 99ff).

So, given this situation, what kind of “submission” does Peter intend? On the one hand, it is parallel to submission to the empire and masters. Given the cultural circumstances and mores, wives with unbelieving husbands must situate themselves appropriately within the cultural order. They “submit” in order to function within the prevailing order. This is not an endorsement of the prevailing order anymore than submitting to the emperor endorses imperial government or submitting to masters endorses slavery. Instead, it is a pragmatic, but missional, response within the system so that believers might bear witness to the reality of the gospel within the culture.

On the other hand, they subvert the prevailing order by how they live. Peter uses a key term, prominent in the first section of the letter and rooted in the paragraph heading this section. With their “lives” or by their “lifestyle” (anastrophes, 1 Peter 3:1-2; cf. 1 Peter 1:15, 18; 2:12)—their way of living within the culture—they will subvert the dominant “order” within a Roman household. In other words, their lives might even win their husbands to Jesus, even without words. They, then, might reverse the order within the household. Instead of the husband leading the embrace of religion, the wives will influence the husbands.

Peter’s exhortation is not absolute. Just as with the empire and slaves, so with wives, Peter is locating believers in their social situation. They submit for the sake of God’s mission, but they also live in such a way as to subvert the prevailing cultural expectations. In no way, then, does this legitimate male abuse or demand husbands force their wives into submission. Wives voluntarily submit for the sake of the gospel, but they do so in a subversive way.

In a different cultural setting, such as in the United States, women have more legal options and resources. They do not have to submit to abuse when they have peaceful and legal means to avoid such. “Submission” in 1 Peter does not legitimate abuse, and neither does it demand women to remain in abusive situations when they have other peaceful resources and legal options.

What does Peter expect unbelieving husbands to see (observe, or notice in a supervisory manner) in their Christian wives. He identifies two characteristics: (1) purity and (2) fear. A godly wife’s lifestyle is identified by these two particulars. It is a life “in fear [and] purity.”

Several translations render “fear” as respectful as if this is respect for the husbands. However, “fear” in 1 Peter is primarily, if not exclusively, directed toward God (cf. 1 Peter 2:17). It is reverential piety, a trusting disposition awed by God’s majesty. It is the path of wisdom in Hebrew literature. In other words, when a wife is both devout (fully surrendered to God) and pure (loyal to her husband, both emotionally and sexually), this kind of life has the potential to win the heart of an unbelieving husband.

Peter calls wives to live in such a way to win their husbands to faith is itself a rather significant confrontation with cultural expectations. Generally, such encouragement would have been regarded as subversive of the good order within a Roman household.

Peter Calls Wives to Inner Beauty Rather than Outward Show

Peter’s contrast between the inner life and touter appearance is fairly typical among Greco-Roman moralists as well as within the Hebrew scriptures (cf. Isaiah 3:18-26; Revelation 17:4; see also 1 Timothy 2:9-10). Gold, braided hair, and expensive clothing reflect one kind of “precious” commodity whereas a “gentle and quiet spirit” reflects another kind of “precious.” The former reflects ego, status, and power while the latter has “lasting beauty,” valued by God. The former assumes choices wealthy women enjoyed (unavailable to poor and enslaved women), while the latter assumes a pious devotion.

Some read this as a kind of absolute prohibition—Peter does use an imperative: “do not adorn yourselves outwardly” with braided hair, gold jewelry, or expensive clothes. However, that would absolutize what is actually quite contextual or relative to the situation addressed. These were symbols of wealth, power, and status in the Roman world. If they symbolize something else in another culture (gold wedding rings in Western culture or braided hair in many African cultures), then to apply the imperative without adjustment to the culture does not match Peter’s intent. The prohibition is relative to its cultural context. So, also, “submission” is relative to the societal order in which early Christians found themselves.

The true value is a “gentle and quiet spirit.” This is what is really “precious.” Indeed, this spirit is not unique to women, even submissive women. Rather, all believers are invited to pursue this lifestyle, especially those who suffer unjustly (1 Peter 3:160-17).

Like other moralists in his day, Peter invokes an example from an honored past.  Pete appeals to “holy women” in the past who hoped in God. Hope is an important feature here since the women Peter addressed were subject to significant fear (see the end of verse 6). God is our hope when injustice abounds and we have no resources of our own to address it. Sarah, the wife of the father of faith, is his example. She is the mother of women who live in a fearful and uncertain system or order.

Where did Sarah address Abraham as “Lord” in the Hebrew Scriptures? It is not there (though it is in the Testament of Abraham, 6). Sarah refers to Abraham as “Lord” (kyrios) in Genesis 18:12 (LXX), but she does not address him as such.

Why choose Sarah as a prime example? Other women might have suited Peter’s purposes better, if the point is submission in the abstract. But Sarah actually fits the circumstances of many women among the scattered believers in Anatolia.

Where did Sarah obey Abraham in circumstances where fear might have been a natural response (cf. verse 6)? Two occasions are rather obvious. Sarah obeyed when Abraham gave Sarah to two different rulers. He claimed she was his sister instead of his wife in order to preserve his own life. Those must have been frightful moments in Sarah’s life, but nevertheless she obeyed and followed Abraham’s lead, and she did this for Abraham’s sake, to save his life.

Sarah’s obedience in Genesis 12:13, when she cooperated with Abraham’s deceit, reflects her willingness to save her husband’s life even as Abraham fails to trust God with the situation. One can imagine Sarah, living as an alien and stranger in Egypt, was terrified by her situation, and this is exactly the sort of situation in which wives of unbelieving husbands found themselves. Though unbelieving husbands might abuse their wives or treat them in ways that demean them, Peter asks them to submit, and Sarah is their model.

Sarah’s example is not an absolute legitimation of a husband’s authority. Instead, it recognizes submission is a Christlike response, given certain circumstances. Just as Sarah submitted to Abraham, even when it was a fearful thing to do, so wives with unbelieving husbands, should do what is right despite potential fears. In other words, these wives should obey their husbands without fear in their circumstances because it is the right thing to do. They are to “do good” despite their fears, and they are called to act without fear because they are “doing good.” In this, they follow the example of Jesus.

Peter’s Call to Husbands

The primary burden of 1 Peter 3:1-7 addresses wives, and only a single verse addresses husbands. The relative space given to each identifies Peter’s focus.  Peter recognized the relationship of wives to unbelieving husbands as a significant issue among  “aliens and exiles” in Roman culture. Peter focuses on the potentially explosive situation of marginalized women in marriage relationships, but he does not ignore the responsibility of Christian husbands in relation to their own wives. Indeed, he reorients the cultural dominance of the husband toward mutuality within the relationship.

The cultural perception of a husband’s authority created the opportunity for spousal abuse, and few in the culture would question it. The husband, as the stronger sex (both physically and culturally), had the power to dominate and rule his wife.

Peter’s language, in its own way, subverts the dominant cultural perceptions of the relationship between husbands and wives.

  • Live in the house with (syn) your wife in an understanding way.
  • Show her honor as an heir with (syn) you in the kingdom of God.

Peter calls for shared life, that is, life together.

Two verbs describe Peter’s point. The first is “live with” (synvoikountes), which is derived from the combination of “with” (syn) and “house” (oikos). In other words, live in the same house with your wife, and treat her with honor as a “weaker” member. The description of women as “weaker” reflects ancient perceptions. Karen Jobes, for example, cites Xenophon (Oeconomicus, 7.23-28) who argued that men are stronger and more courageous. These attitudes are embedded in cultural expectations and traditions.

Peter’s specific point, however, is not to put down the woman by identifying her as weaker. In fact, he may mean it in a way that deserves quotation marks as if he is using it the way the broader culture does. Despite the denotations accompanying the word “weaker” within the culture, husbands should treat their wives “according to knowledge,” that is, according to what is true, real, and known within the Christian worldview. Marginalized, “weaker,” women should not be patronized as weaker, inferior humans. Instead, they should be treated according to the values of Christian ethics (“knowledge,” new life through new birth) so they are no longer regarded as “weaker” (inferior) or no longer marginalized in these relationships.

The second verb is “to show,” which means to apportion or to give. In other words, husbands are to honor their wives, to give them honor. The kind of honor is significant here. It is the kind of honor that entails a “withness” or “shared” reality because they are fellow heirs (sygkleronomois) of the kingdom of God. They are co-heirs. This kind of honor underscores their togetherness.

It appears Peter intentionally uses language to stress the shared life of husband and wife, that is, there is a “withness” in their relationship. Living with (syn) each other, they honor each other as co-heirs (syn). In other words, rather than the husband dominating his wife, he shares his life with his wife. This shared life, honor, and inheritance reflect mutuality. It transcends the expectations of Roman culture. Indeed, it actually subverts it!


Like imperial residents and slaves, wives are called to a submissive lifestyle where they accept their position within the prevailing cultural order for the sake of the gospel.

Likewise, holy women, according to Peter, do not adorn themselves with braided hair, gold jewelry, or expensive clothes in a culture where these are symbols of power and status.

Peter’s instructions are not absolute, timeless, a-cultural injunctions. Quite the opposite, they are pragmatic instructions for godly people living in a hostile order or environment. And his words are rooted in key theological values: inner beauty, the example of Jesus, and a missional motive.

1 Peter 2:21-25: Jesus as Model for Submission

July 17, 2015

Imperial residents, submit to the empire.

Slaves, submit to your masters.

This submission, Peter tells us, is grounded in our vocation or calling. We are called into a life of submission because Jesus is our model (pattern, example). Our vocational mission as the people of God is grounded in the life of Jesus as the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, a calling he lived out in his own passion and death. Jesus, as the innocent or righteous sufferer, is a model for all believers.

While some think this Christological section only provides the ground for Peter’s exhortation to slaves, it is better to see it as grounding the lifestyle of all Christians who live as aliens and exiles in the world (1 Peter 2:11-12). When Peter writes, “into this you have been called,” he is not simply addressing slaves. Rather, he addresses the whole community. In other words, Peter’s exhortations to “submit” (explicit in 2:13, 18; 3:1, and implicit in 3:8) are modeled by Jesus and offer imperial residents, slaves, wives, and the whole community an example to follow.

Perhaps this is easier to grasp if we view this section (1 Peter 2:13-12) through the lens of a chiasm (as Joel Green, 1 Peter, suggests).

A – Submit to the empire (2:13-17)

            B – Submit to your masters (2:18-20)

                        C – Jesus as Model (2:21-25)

            B’ – Submit to your unbelieving husbands (3:1-7)

A’ – [Submit] to each other (3:8-12)

Even though the word “submit” does not appear in 1 Peter 3:8, the mutuality assumed there portrays a mutual deference and acceptance which is itself “submission” (much like Paul calls for mutual submission in Ephesians 5:21).

The suffering of Jesus is multi-dimensional. It has several layers. The suffering of Jesus is

  • shared suffering,
  • exemplary suffering, and
  • representative suffering.

Just as Christians—given their vocation—have suffered, Christ also suffered, that is, Jesus shared their suffering. Believers do not suffer alone. They suffer as a community. They also suffer with Christ, and Christ suffers with them. In this way, Jesus empathizes with sufferers; he knows what it is like. He is an insider to suffering rather than a distant God looking in from the outside.

Further, Christ does not merely share our suffering, he is also a model for how Christians live out their faith in suffering. Jesus set an example (hupogrammon) to follow, or he plowed a path upon which believers are called to walk. The Greek term behind the word “example” only occurs here in the New Testament, but in Hellenistic culture it often referred to a writing tool, which helped students learn to write. The lines on the page were their pattern. By following the lines they could write well rather than badly. Jesus is such a pattern for how Christians endure suffering well.

This pattern for suffering involves:

  • do no evil (sin) and tell no lies (deceit)
  • do not return evil (abuse, threats) for evil (abuse, threats)
  • entrust yourself to the righteous judge for justice

This pattern of suffering—do good rather than evil, return good for evil, and trust [fear] God—is characteristic of a righteous sufferer. The outcome is not in the hands of the sufferer, but in the hands of the just judge.

Suffering is not pleasant, but it is endured with grace, kindness, and goodness. Sufferers overcome through doing good, showing kindness, and trusting in God’s justice.

More than a shared suffering and more than an exemplary suffering, the suffering of Jesus is also representative. More specifically, Jesus suffers in the role of the suffering servant of Isaiah who intercedes for the transgressions of others and pours himself out in death for the sake of the sins of others (Isaiah 53:12).

The connections between 1 Peter 2:22-25 and Isaiah 53 appear on almost every line. Below is one way to represent them by paralleling verses in the two texts.

1 Peter 2

Isaiah 53

“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (2:22). “Although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth” (53:9).
“When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten” (2:23a). “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth” (53:7).
“he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (2:23b) “by a perversion of justice he was taken away…he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days” (53:8, 10)
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross” (2:24a). “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases…he bore the sin of many” (53:4, 12).
“by his wounds you have been healed” (2:24b). “by his bruises we are healed” (53:5).
“For you were going astray like sheep” (2:25) “All we like sheep have gone astray” (53:6).

Isaiah 53, as utilized by Peter, describes—in part—the atoning work of Jesus the Messiah as God’s righteous suffering servant. This work, of course, includes more than than his death. Indeed, involves God becoming human to suffer with us, reversing the effects of death and disease in the world, victory of the powers of evil, and resurrection.  Here, however, Peter focuses on  the representative function of the cross in that atoning work.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross [literally, tree], so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:24, NRSV).

“Tree” is a significant term theologically. For those soaked in the language of the Hebrew Bible, it would be difficult to miss the allusion to Deuteronomy 21:22-23 where those who are executed for a crime are hung on a “tree” as a symbol of God’s curse (cf. Galatians 3:13). The conjunction of “bear,” “sins,” and “tree” evokes a moment where, in some sense, the death of Jesus embodies the curse of sin and, in effect, removes that curse from us. The death of Jesus liberates us.

Through his death, we are “free,” but not simply free from guilt but free to live. This freedom calls us into a life of righteousness—it is our vocation in the world, that is, to live out the mission of God in such a way that we bear witness to the saving work of God in Jesus the Messiah. Consequently, we “submit” to the empire, masters, unbelieving husbands, and each other. We submit for the sake of God’s mission.

Recalling Isaiah 53, Peter then switches the metaphor to emphasize new life. Jesus’s wounds heal us. We are not simply forgiven, but healed; we are freed so that we might be transformed and made whole. This is new life; it is new birth.

Jesus’s representative atoning work is God’s way to move sheep back into the fold of divine protection. There God becomes the “shepherd (pastor) and guardian (overseer, bishop) of [their] souls” (1 Peter 2:25). The sheep have wandered away, but through Jesus, the Father brings them back, unites them with Israel, and forms them into a community shepherded and protected by God. Later, Peter will use similar language to describe not only Jesus the Messiah but also leaders within the Christian community itself (1 Peter 5:1-5).

Birthed into a new community with new life, Christians follow the model of Jesus as they encounter suffering. They submit and they suffer. They pursue good, eschew evil, fear God, and do not return evil for evil. They do this because they have redeemed by the Lamb, ushered into a new community, and live free as people shaped by God rather than by the dominant culture.

1 Peter 2:18-20 – Living as Slaves in the Empire

July 12, 2015

Even “slaves” in the empire are “free.”

They are “free” because they are bound to no authority other than God (cf. 1 Peter 2:16). But they “submit” as “slaves” within the empire because they fear (worship) God. This is the mystery of exiles living for the sake of Gospel within an oppressive empire:

free from worldly authority,

            but enslaved to God, and

                        therefore, submissive within worldly structures

                                    for the sake of the gospel.

As noted in the previous post, however, “submission” is not absolute. It is limited by Christian profession (often we obey God rather than human authority), and it is circumstantial. Slaves, generally, could do little to change their situation. This submission is missional, that is, for the sake of God’s mission, given the circumstances in which people find themselves within human authority structures (empire, slaves, married to unconverted spouses).

Slavery comes in many different forms throughout history. Not all slavery was like what existed in the New World (17-19th centuries). Slaves in the Roman world might be born into it, or the result of imprisonment (including prisoners of war), or even voluntary (for economic reasons). And not all enslavement was the same in the Roman world. Household slaves (oiketai), whom Peter addresses in 1 Peter 2:18, were sometimes rather privileged persons, and they could be well-trained doctors or teachers. Slaves who worked in the mines, however, essentially received a death sentence.

Scott Bartchy (Abingdon Bible Dictionary, 6:66), as quoted by McKnight (NIV Application Commentary), identifies the following differences between Roman and New World slavery. Unlike New World slavery, the following was generally true of Roman slavery.

  • Racial factors played no role.
  • Education was often encouraged.
  • Many slaves carried out sensitive and highly responsible social functions.
  • Slaves could own property, including other slaves.
  • Religious and cultural traditions were the same as those of the freeborn.
  • No laws prohibited the public assembly of slaves.
  • Majority of urban and domestic slaves could legitimately anticipate being emancipated by the age of 30.

Nevertheless, slavery was often harsh in the Roman world, including beatings, sexual abuse, and restricted freedoms. Whether New World or Roman slavery, neither represented the freedom envisioned within the Christian worldview where people are “free” from human authority and enslaved to God.

Yet, Peter writes, submit to both kind and harsh masters, and they submit because the have no other legal or peaceful recourse in the situation. Violent revolt is not an option, and while some could pursue available peaceful legal options, those options were few. Consequently, unless one embraced violence, there was little option other than to “submit” until such time they could secure freedom.

So, the question becomes, “how do we submit?” I think Peter’s answer is something like “peaceful resistance” or “subvesive conformity,” perhaps even “kill ’em with kindness.”

One might regard Peter’s specific address to slaves as a subversive act itself. Slaves are addressed as responsible human beings who must decide how to act in their slavery and how they will relate to their owners and supervisors. When Peter calls slaves to submit, he addresses them as people with dignity and choice.

This is the substance of Peter’s counsel for slaves:

Situation: unjust, harsh, painful suffering, including beatings.

Response: they endure such treatment

Behavior: they are called to do good rather than do evil.

Motivation: they fear God and are conscious of God

Result: grace (charis) from God

Rationale: Calling to follow Jesus

Peter has no allusions.  Slavery is dangerous and often harsh, though not always (some masters were gentle and kind). In fact, the term “harsh” (skoliois) literally means bent or crooked; it has the connotation of cruel or inhuman. This treatment might include beatings (1 Peter 2:20), and Peter probably mentions this particular in the light of what happened to Jesus of Nazareth, who is his model for the endurance of suffering.

Their submission means they willingly (given their circumstances) endure such treatment. The word “endure” means to stand up under the pressure. They persevere under pressure and hardship.

They are empowered to do this because they “fear” God and they are aware of God’s presence in their lives. While some think the word “fear” refers to their masters (in the sense of respect for masters), every other use of “fear” in 1 Peter is directed toward God, including the contrast between “fearing God” and “honoring the emperor” in 1 Peter 2:17. It would be rather strange to draw that contrast, and then call slaves to “fear” their masters. “Fear” is Peter’s word for a submissive, reverent, trusting orientation toward God. It contributes to the sense of what it means to have a consciousness or awareness of God. Slaves live out their faith through the awe-inspiring presence of God rather than out of a terrifying fear of their masters. Their “subversive submission” is motivated by their trust in God rather than the lash of their masters.

Slaves are called to subversive behavior, that is, to do good. They are neither to wrong their masters nor do them evil. Rather, they embody goodness and kindness. In this way, they do good to overcome evil. “Doing good,” as slaves, is a subversive lifestyle against the unjust human system in which they find themselves. As righteous sufferers, as mistreated innocents, they bear witness to justice and goodness by their godly lives. This is itself a path to liberation, even if they cannot find legal means to secure their freedom otherwise. It is a leaven that will, eventually, leaven the whole lump. Unfortunately, that leaven did not fully displace slavery until the mid-19th century in the Western world, and still has not yet in many places in the world.

Even if they cannot eventually secure their freedom, they have God’s grace in their lives. Twice Peter uses the term charis or grace (1 Peter 2:19-20). This grace is divine favor, which is both present and future. Slaves, suffering unjustly, will experience God’s grace through godliness in the present, but they will also experience a future grace in the resurrection when their salvation is fully revealed (1 Peter 1:3-12).

Living in the empire, a slave’s options were limited. Some had the option to buy their freedom over time, but others had no other option than to stay and serve or revolt. Peter, we might surmise, would not dissuade a slave from purchasing their freedom if they had the resources to do so. In time, many “household slaves” did that, but not all. He might encourage the use of all legal means available to pursue freedom. But, given their gospel commitments, some options were not on the table (including violence).

Rather, given the inability to legally or practically change their circumstances, Peter calls them to follow Jesus who also endured unjust suffering for the sake of the mission of God (1 Peter 2:21-25). He calls them to “peaceful resistance” or “subversive conformity” shaped by the model of Jesus the Messiah (1 Peter 2:21-25).




1 Peter 2:13-17 — Living as Exiles in an Empire

July 5, 2015

How do “aliens and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11) live in an empire whose commitments and values are not their own?

Accept.  Honor.  Love.  Reverence.

Those are the imperatives in 1 Peter 2:13-17.

The first, “accept” (NRSV; usually translated “submit”), heads a long sentence that runs from verse thirteen to verse sixteen. The difficulty of accepting or submitting to a hostile empire generates a long sentence to contextualize or explain what Peter means. In other words, to tell a group of marginalized people to accept (or submit to) a generally hostile imperial power needs some explaining!


1 Peter 2:13-17 is the first section in a series of four that applies what it means to live as “aliens and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11-12) within the culture readers find themselves. The first three address specific concerns. The fourth is more general.

  • Residents, accept (submit to) imperial authority (2:13-17).
  • Slaves, accept (submit to) the authority their masters (2:18-25).
  • Wives, accept (submit to) the authority of your husband (3:1-6), and, husbands, accept (submit to) the relationship with your wife (3:7).
  • Everyone, accept (submit to) everyone in the community (3:8-12).

Peter utilizes a common genre in ancient ethical texts called the “Household Code,” which lists the respective duties of people in a Roman household (including extended family, slaves, workers).  However, Peter’s interest is not an exhaustive delineation of roles and duties. Rather, he addresses “sore” points within the Christian community. In particular, how do members of a “household” (whether state or home) live within that “household” when the head of the “household” does not share their faith commitments?

  • How do we live in a hostile empire?
  • How do slaves live with hostile masters?
  • How do wives live with unbelieving husbands?
  • How do we live together as a marginalized community?

In effect, Peter does not offer a timeless set of immutable instructions to be reproduced verbatim across the history of Christianity. Rather, he answers this question–what does it mean for Christians to live in this moment in this situation? In other words, given the Christian narrative with its commitments and values, how does one relate to hostile authority (empire, masters, and unbelieving husbands)?  Given different circumstances, the answers might be different even though the same or similar principles would be employed, and given analogous situations, the meaning might be quite similar.  So, it is important to pay close attention to Peter’s advice for the “exiles” in Roman Anatolia in order to hear what the message might be for us.


The leading verb for the main sentence in 1 Peter 2:13-16 is hupotasso, which is usually translated “submit.” Etymologically, the verb means to “place under,” and carries a wide range of meaning including to yield, accept, defer, assume responsibility under another, or submit.

“Submission,” then, has a wide semantic range from absolute obedience to an imposed authority to deferential yielding to another. The former is often an external authority while the latter is voluntary submission for the sake of some greater purpose or interest. Its meaning, then, is shaped by both its literary context and the historical situation.

Padgett (As Christ Submits to the Church, Kindle location 1328) suggests Peter is operating in a social context where he calls for “a one-sided application of the ethic of servant leadership” present in the Gospels and Paul.  The external demands and expectations of empire, masters, and unbelieving husbands entail a deferential, accepting, and submissive attitude so that their “good lives” might receive a hearing and ultimately bring glory to God. Otherwise, overt resistance to these authorities would engender violence and subvert the gospel’s mission.  Nevertheless, though the term “submit” counsels against overt revolt, it does not preclude–as we will see–subversive, peaceful presence.

The NRSV renders hupotasso as “accept,” and this probably works best. In other words, given the situation, live under the authority of the empire or live within the established order. A marginalized community cannot change the reality, nor can they materially affect the situation. So, it is best for them to accept what they cannot change and to “do good” with their lives for the sake of the gospel.

This involves submission and obedience, that is, living as obedient people under imperial rule. This obedience, of course, is not absolute as if the well-being of the empire overrules their commitment to Jesus the Messiah. Rather, they submit “for the Lord’s sake.” In other words, they submit because they are committed to God rather than to the empire; they submit for the sake of God’s mission rather than to support the empire. There are limits to their “submission.”

Submission to Imperial Authority

Peter commands submission, literally, to “every human creation,” which probably means something like every human institution rooted in governmental or imperial authority. This “human creation” (or institution) is identified as “emperor” (basilei, or eing) or his “governors” (hegemon). Governors represent the emperor since they act “through him” (emperor).

Governments are human creations; they are social-political constructs. More specifically, the emperor is not God (whatever the Emperor might claim), and neither are his institutions cloaked in divine authority. They are human, and the Christian’s allegiance does not lie with human institutions. Whether constructed by autocratic power (like a Caesar) or democratic power (social contract theory), they are human creations or institutions. Given social realities, Christians “accept” this situation and live peaceably within it.

Government intends to praise those who “do good” and punish those who “do evil.”  Of course, the problem is that the government is not exactly working like that in this situation (is it ever?) as Christians are imprisoned, harshly criticized, and treated as criminals. Whatever their intent–and it probably reflects what God intends for human governments, that is, to restrain evil and promote the good, Peter’s readers do not have such assurances from Roman authority. Nevertheless, Peter counsels his readers to “do good” within the Empire and advert, as much as possible, any governmental action that is designed to punish those who “do evil.” They are to live within the order imposed by imperial authority.

This submission, however, is not resignation or acquiescence. Rather, it is a positive witness within the culture, and this is manifested by “doing good,” which has the potential effect of silencing ignorant fools (those who pursue folly in their lives). This positive approach–an approach which engages culture to one degree or another–offers a public witness in the presence of those who are invested in a different way of life than the wisdom God offers.  “Foolish” here does not mean “idiot” or “stupid,” but reflects Hebrew wisdom literature where the fool  chooses a path that leads to death in contrast to the wise person who chooses a path that leads to life. This is a moral rather than an intellectual characterization.

What does Peter mean by “doing good”? Some think that Peter is talking about public, cultural acts of benefaction where wealthy leaders of a community do something for the welfare of the city. They might lay a pavement, erect a gate, or fund a building for the benefit of the city. However, this is far too restrictive as this positive witness is also applicable, in principle, to slaves and wives who were impotent to do that kind of good.  Rather, “doing good” (like acting honorably in 1 Peter 2:11-12) describes a way of life that is salt and light in the community.  “Doing good” is the opposite of “doing evil” (1 Peter 1:14-15).

So, why submit? To potentially silence the critics, but also to pubically witness to their freedom.  They submit because they are free, which is paradoxical.

Grammatically, the verb “submit” from verse 13 should be supplied in verse 16 (which lacks a main verb) so that it reads: “Submit (or, accept) as free people and not as those who use freedom as a covering for evil.”

Christians, though slaves of God, are free from governmental authority, but they submit to governmental authority as a witness to what is good and right rather than using that freedom to hide in the darkness of evil. But they cannot be coerced into evil by governments since their allegiance is to God rather than the state, and God has freed them from such obligations. Christians are “free” of imperial authority, but they submit to it for the sake of God’s mission in the world.

Christians accept imperial authority because their public way of life is designed for good, not because they are enslaved to human authority. In other words, Peter’s claim is that imperial authority is something Christians freely accept for the sake of their public witness, that is, for the sake of the Lord’s mission in the world. Christians accept imperial authority in order to further God’s witness and goodness in the world. They do not seek chaos, and neither do they seek power (in the context of 1 Peter). Rather, they only desire to “do good.”

Accepting or submitting to the governmental authority in the present United States of America is much more empowering, of course, than submitting imperial authority. In principle, believers may use all legal and peaceful means to adjust the order, which is–in a democracy–part of the nature of the order itself.  However, when the order is adjusted in ways that disturb believers, Peter call’s them to submit (accept) rather than revolt or disturb the peace of the order.

Four More Imperatives

The first imperative is “submit” or “accept,” which Peter elaborates in 1 Peter 2:13-16.

The next four imperatives (1 Peter 2:17) summarize the basic orientation that shapes life in the empire.

  • Honor everyone.
  • Love the extended family (“brotherhood”).
  • Fear God.
  • Honor the emperor (“king”).

“Honor” is the same word in Greek, and it applies to everyone and the emperor. Green (Two Horizon Commentary) perceptively comments on this parallel: “It is hard to imagine a more devastating critique of the Roman way, for with pairing of these two directives Peter has flattened the status pyramid of the Roman world.” Honor belongs to everyone, whether emperor or not. This parallel is essentially subversive and points to this reality: the community of God honors the emperor no more honor than anyone else. Honor belongs to slaves as well as emperors.

Sandwiched between these two uses of “honor” are two directives that call the community to love each other and to worship (fear) God.

This is also an implicit subversion of the empire. Christians “honor” the emperor (as well as everyone), but they “fear” God. They do not worship the emperor; they worship (fear) God. As Horrell notes (1 Peter [NT Study Guides], see chapter five for a discussion of polite resistance), this language appears in the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs (8-9, ca. 180 A.D.):  “We have none other whom we fear (timeamus), save only our Lord God, who is in heaven…Honor (honorern) to Caesar as Caesar, but fear (timorem) only to God.” In the language of 1 Peter, the martyrs fear (worship) God, but honor the emperor. Peter’s address, then, is life and death. Honoring the emperor, but worshiping (fearing) only God could get you killed in the empire.

Believers function as an extended family, an adelpotetai (brotherhood). Peter has already called for a loving community earlier in the letter (1 Peter 1:22), which shares a common new birth, and thus are family. While everyone is honored (even loved–Christians love their neighbors), the Christian community is a family which fears God and loves each other (a familial love).

How do we treat everyone, including the emperor?  We treat them with honor, or we love our neighbors. How do we treat our own community? We love them as family. How do we treat God? We fear God, that is, we approach God in reverent awe, entrusting ourselves to God’s way of life. In other words, we love God. This is the way of wisdom since to fear God is the first step on the path of life (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10; Job 28:28; Ecclesiastes 12:13).

Contemporary Application

I find it rather distressing (saddened rather than distraught) that Christians in the United States live in such fear of the future, specifically the loss of a “Christian nation.” This fear generates anger, suspicion, hateful rhetoric, and despair. It is misplaced “fear,” and reflects misplaced allegiance (or authentic fear, the worship of God).

1 Peter called its first readers to live in hope, gentleness, love, and reverent awe among the nations. Without doubt, the imperial Roman culture was saturated with non-Christian values, commitments, and practices. These shaped every aspect of that culture–education, entertainment, and civic religion. Their children, nor anyone else, could escape that cultural reality and influence, and they won’t escape in our present culture. Yet, Peter–though realistic about the harsh criticism and hostility of that culture–calls believers to a way of life that is saturated with goodness and hope.

I suspect that the loss of the “Christian nation” within the United States of America (which was never “Christian,” since the church is God’s holy nation as a people rebirthed into Israel) has shocked some, generated fear among many, and led to despair for most.

We now live in a post-Christian culture, and this is an opportunity for believers to live authentically in the present as a people who bear witness to the future that God wants to bring into the present; that is, to bring heaven to earth. We find ourselves in an analogous situation as the original audience of 1 Peter, which Peter characterized as a fiery trial that will refine the people of God for the sake of authentic witness.

In some ways, we ought to welcome this. Christianity is exploding in China, and declining in the US. Perhaps the clarity of the cultural shift may help us refocus our message on what God has done in Christ. Perhaps Christians in China can focus on cross and community because they are truly “aliens” without the temptation to embrace political agendas. Perhaps we might consider such a focus and leave the political agendas to others. This is not a plea for withdrawal or isolation from culture, but the sort of presence within culture that bears witness to cross and community–including peace and justice–rather than a search for power and control.

Fellow Christians–let us pursue peace with all people, live lives shaped by the cruciformed God (the God who went to the cross for the sake of others), and bear witness through our good works to the coming future that God yearns to share with the creation.

Let us love God and love our neighbors.


So, how do “aliens and exiles” live in an empire whose commitments and values are not their own?

We accept or submit to human governmental authority for the sake of God’s mission in the world. We submit by “doing good.”

We honor both slave and Emperor; we honor everyone. We treat everyone with respect and dignity, which belongs to their humanity.

We love the family into which God has birthed us through the resurrection of Jesus. We are siblings who love each other.

We fear God. We reverently trust God and follow the path of wisdom, which Jesus has paved for us.

So, how do “aliens and exiles” live in an empire whose commitments and values are not their own?

We might call it “peaceful resistance” or “subversive conformity.”  But it is not so peaceful or conformist that Christian identity is lost, and it is sufficiently “resistant” and “subversive” that it does not escape suffering.

Peaceful resisters are still imprisoned, and subversive conformity is still “alien” to the culture.