Jonah 1:17-2:2 — A Great Fish “Tale”

November 5, 2015

But Yahweh appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Jonah prayed to Yahweh, his God, from the belly of the fish, and said:

“Out of my distress, I called to Yahweh,

and he answered me.

From the womb of Sheol, I cried for help;

you heard my voice.”

(Jonah 1:17-2:2, my translation).

The sailors prayed, but Jonah did not. The sailors rowed toward land to save Jonah, but Jonah suggested they throw him into the sea. The sailors praised Yahweh, but Jonah did not. The sailors were rescued, and a “great fish” swallowed Jonah.

The Hebrew text has an accent in the middle of the first sentence (Jonah 1:17), which instructs the reader to pause. In other words, one follows “But Yahweh appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah” with a dramatic pause. Jonah’s life is in the balance. Is the swallowing a mercy or death?

“Swallow” has a long history in biblical narrative. For example, the earth “swallowed” Pharoah’s army (Ex. 15:12). Korah and his allies were “swallowed” up, and they went down to Sheol (Num. 16:30-32).

The most interesting example is Jeremiah 51:34 which pictures King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon swallowing Judah “like a monster” and then vomiting Judah out. Jeremiah and Jonah use the same language for swallowing and vomiting (Jonah 2:1, 10). Theologically, Jonah’s experience in the great fish is analogous to Israel’s experience in exile. It is God’s judgment but for the sake of mercy and salvation. Like Israel in the exile, God sent Jonah on a journey to Sheol to reorient his life.

The pause gives the reader time to anticipate–is it death or life? And it was life; the “great fish” is Yahweh’s deliverance.

The “great fish” rescues Jonah from death by taking him on a journey from Sheol. The fish saves Jonah from drowning in the “womb” of chaos or Sheol, the realm of the dead. Jonah is “swallowed up,” and it appeared Jonah was headed for death, sinking into the “deep.” However, God appointed the fish to save Jonah from the chaos, from Sheol. It was purposed for deliverance rather than destruction, for salvation rather than death.

The “great fish,” whatever that is and we can only speculate, is the vehicle for deliverance. While the ship took Jonah away from the presence of Yahweh, the “great fish” becomes a rescue vessel, which carries Jonah toward Yahweh and the safety of the land. The “great fish” is a grace in the midst of the chaotic sea; it rescues Jonah. Whether the “great fish” refers to one of the great sea monsters or not, this large animal—no doubt a terror to sailors—is Yahweh’s appointed means of deliverance. Chaos, sea monsters, or a “great fish” do not threaten Yahweh. On the contrary, they serve Yahweh, the maker of land and sea.

Jonah was in the belly of the fish for “three days and three nights.” In the context of the Ancient Near East, the temporal indicator assumes a particular kind of journey. George Landes (JBL [1967] 446-450) illuminates this language in significant ways. In the Sumerian myth The Descent of Inanna to the Nether world,  “three days and three nights” is the time it takes for “Inanna to arrive within the nether world” from the land of the living (Descent, 173-175) It is a three-day journey there and a three-day return trip. In this case, “the fish is assigned the same time span to return Jonah from Sheol to dry land” (Landes, 449). The “great fish” carries Jonah from Sheol to land in “three days and three nights.” As Youngblood notes (Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy, 103), this three-day journey motif is also present in Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:4) and Israel’s three days in the wilderness without water (Exodus 15:22). It also lies behind Hosea’s promise of restoration—though Yahweh has essentially killed Israel, nevertheless “on the third day” Yahweh will restore them (Hosea 6:1-2).

The “great fish,” then, is Jonah’s boat ride from the deepest parts of the sea (Sheol) to life on land. The “great fish” is a rescue animal rather than an “attack dog.” The “great fish” saves Jonah from death. Consequently, within the “great fish,” Jonah sings a thanksgiving prayer. He offers thanks for the rescue with his prayer in Jonah 2:2-9.

Jonah prays to God twice in this short book. The first time is Jonah 2:1, which highlights the fact Jonah did not pray in the first chapter though the sailors prayed. The second time is Jonah 4:2, which indicates Jonah’s heart has not changed since the opening of book. Jonah’s experience in Sheol did not transform Jonah’s heart, though he is thankful for Yahweh’s rescue from death.

Jonah 1-2

Jonah 4

Jonah prays (2:1) Jonah prays (4:2)
Jonah wants to die (1:12) Jonah wants to die (4:3)
Jonah resists mercy (1:2-3) Jonah resents mercy (4:3)

Jonah is still the same person with the same heart. He resists mercy for Nineveh by fleeing from the presence of Yahweh, and in the presence of Yahweh at the end of the narrative, Jonah resents mercy for Nineveh. As Bobby Valentine says, “Jonah sounds incredibly pious [in his prayer] but his heart is incredibly hard.”

What, then, did Jonah pray in the “belly of the fish”?

Though Jonah prays from the “belly of the fish,” his prayer recalls his experience in the deep, the chaotic sea. It is almost as if Jonah’s prayer has a flashback to drowning in the sea when he called upon the Lord and now gives thanks for his ride within the belly of the fish. He prays a thanksgiving hymn; it is not a prayer of lament or repentance (more on this in another blog post). Jonah is thankful but not penitent.

The first lines of the prayer parallel three ideas (Jonah 2:2):

  • Jonah called to Yahweh and cried for help
  • Out of his distress, out of the womb of Sheol
  • Yahweh answered and heard his voice

This language echoes the language of Israel’s prayer book, the Psalms.

  • “called…answered” appears in Psalms 3:4; 120:1
  • “out of my distress” appears in Psalms 118:5
  • “I cried for help” appears in Psalms 18:6; 28:2; 30:2; 31:22; 88:14
  • Shoel appears often, see Psalms 30:3; 88:3
  • “You have heard my voice” appears in Psalms 28:6; 33:22; 116:1

Jonah is well-versed in the prayer and liturgical language of Israel. He knows how to pray, and this prayer evokes the best of that language for thanksgiving hymns. Nevertheless, it is also specific to his circumstance rather than a generalized prayer from the tradition. It uses traditional language but it is crafted as an expression of Jonah’s experience.

While often translated “belly of Sheol,” as if this a reference to the belly of the fish, the word is different and it is feminine rather than masculine (the gender of “belly” of the fish is masculine). The “womb of Sheol” provides the “image of Sheol as an entity with a rapacious appetite that indiscriminately swallows everyone (Prov. 30:15-16),” and the “hyperbole is that Jonah wonders if he might be too far gone” and “so close to death that he couldn’t even tell whether he was still alive or not, whether he was still within YHWH’s reach” (Youngblood, 105).

Reeling in the chaos of the sea and sinking into the depths of Sheol (the realm of the dead), Jonah finally calls out to Yahweh, “his God.” While on the ship the captain pleaded with Jonah to “call” on Jonah’s God (Jonah 1:6), but he apparently refused. While the pagan sailors had earlier called on their own gods, they actually “call” on Yahweh as they throw Jonah overboard while Jonah did not (Jonah 1:14). Only in the depths of Sheol does Jonah “call” on Yahweh.

And, astonishingly, Yahweh hears and answers! Yahweh does not resent Jonah’s flight or his fight (resistance). Rather, Yahweh shows mercy and rescues Jonah from the sea.

Jonah’s boat ride in the belly of the fish returns him to land and life! The Lord God is merciful.

Jonah 1:7-17a – Salvation Through Judgment

October 29, 2015

Salvation Through Judgment and Mercy is the title of Bryan Estelle’s book in The Gospel According to the Old Testament series (Presbyterian and Reformed). Judgment for Jonah is not retribution or revenge; it is the means of salvation. Through judgment, God saves Jonah from himself and renews Jonah’s missional call. God is not punishing Jonah; God is pursuing Jonah.

God saves Jonah through the mediation of wind, storm, and fish….and pagan sailors who learn about Yahweh through Jonah. The narrator tells the story through the dialogue and interaction between the sailors and Jonah.

Sailors Jonah
“Come, let us cast lots” The lot fell on Jonah
“Tell us why this calamity has come upon us” “I am a Hebrew and fear Yahweh”
“What is this you have done!” They knew he was fleeing from the presence of Yahweh
“What shall we do with you?” “Pick me up and throw me into the sea.”
They rowed hard for land. The storm grew in intensity.
“O Yahweh, do not let us perish…and do not make us guilty of innocent blood.” They picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea.
The sea ceased its raging and they worshiped Yahweh. A great fish swallowed Jonah.

The sailors move from terror to praise, and Jonah descends into the deep, into the belly of the great fish.

The sailors cast lots, which is a common form of discernment in the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 16:8-10; 1 Samuel 10:19-21; Proverbs 16:33; 18:18). Their prayers, obviously, were not effective, and their gods had not responded. They sense, however, their situation is connected to someone on the ship who has offended Yam, the great sea god. Astoundingly, as Brent Strawn has argued, these pagan sailors engage in the Hebrew practice of casting lots (Biblica [2010] 66-76). Casting lots is unknown among nations other than Israel at this time. As Kevin Youngblood notes (Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy, 77), the sailors have moved away from praying to their own gods and practiced Hebrew divination, including casting lots and later praying, sacrificing, and making vows to Yahweh.

Jonah did not volunteer he was the one responsible for this calamity (literally, “evil”). He was not, apparently, going to identify himself until he was discovered. He was hiding and waited to see what would happen. He watched as the lot was cast, and Yahweh singled out Jonah.

The sailors then bagger Jonah with a series of questions, probably frustrated by his silence.

Why has this “evil” come upon us?

What is your occupation?

Where did you come from?

What is your nationality?

Who are you?

The questions probe Jonah’s identity—vocation, movements, and loyalties. At the heart of the questions is the “why” and the “who”? Jonah’s occupation, origins, and nationality might contribute to their primary interest, which was the initial question out of their mouths and the last one.

The first question laments their current situation—they are in the midst of a traumatic storm, which threatens their lives. They want to know, what we all might want to know at that point, “why?” They need an explanation, a rationale. If they knew what was happening, they might figure out how to respond. And while Job’s immediate recorded response does not answer this question (the narrative is telescoped), apparently Jonah did answer it since it becomes evident they did learn about Jonah’s flight from God. Consequently, we might imagine Jonah answered all their questions:

I am fleeing from the presence of Yahweh (the problem).

I am a prophet of Yahweh (occupation).

I came from the land of Israel (geography).

I am an Israelite (nationality).

I am a Hebrew (ethnicity).

The last question probes Job’s identity, “Who are you?” He gives an ethnic answer, “I am a Hebrew.” This is how an Israelite would answer a foreigner, the term the nations used to describe Jews. More importantly, he gives a religious answer: “I fear Yahweh.” This is his religious loyalty; Yahweh is his God. And Yahweh is the “God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Jonah serves the Creator God who is sovereign over the sea and land, sovereign over Yam and Baal. In other words, Jonah serves the God who sent this storm. Yahweh wants Jonah!

Given Jonah’s responses (including what was not cited in the narrative), the sailors recognize their plight and their fear increases. Outraged, they exclaim: “What is this you have done!” Jonah has involved them in his disobedience to Yahweh. Jonah flees Yahweh, but Yahweh pursues Jonah, and the sailors are caught in the middle. Yahweh’s pressure on the sailors increases as the intensity of the storm increases. The sailors are at a loss as to what to do, and Jonah suggests they cast him overboard.

Why did Jonah offer this option? Jonah, we might say, is willing to die to save the sailors since he figures Yahweh will save the sailors if he is not on board. Jonah knows Yahweh is merciful, and he expected Yahweh would save these pagans just as Yahweh wants to save the Assyrians. Ironically, Jonah shows mercy to pagans even has he is running from proclaiming mercy to pagans (the Assyrians). This may indicate Jonah’s particular hatred for the Assyrians themselves.

However, Jonah could have simply prayed to Yahweh, accepted the commission, and Yahweh would have calmed the seas. Jonah, however, is not willing to accept the mission as yet. He would rather die than offer Assyrians mercy!

At the same time, Jonah is not willing to throw himself into the sea. He asks the sailors to oblige him. Perhaps this suggests Jonah will not act to save the sailors himself—he will wait it out on the boat until there is no choice. Perhaps Jonah still thought he could escape with the sailors. Whatever the case, the sailors do not immediately hurl Jonah into the sea.

Apparently, the sailors did not want to do that. They continued to row in an attempt to reach land, but their efforts were futile. The storm continued to intensify. The more they attempted to save themselves—and Jonah—the more the storm increased. Ultimately, if they were to secure their own salvation, they had no choice but to hurl Jonah overboard just as they had previously hurled cargo over the sides of the ship.

Reluctantly, they threw Jonah overboard, praying Yahweh would save them and forgive them. They held Yahweh accountable for this person’s blood rather than themselves; it was Yahweh’s storm. Yahweh had left them no choice. In this way, as at other times in Israel’s history, the nations became God’s instrument to discipline Israel—this time in the person of Jonah.

In the end, the sailors (the nations) praised Yahweh and offered sacrifices and vows to the God of heaven. Jonah’s sacrifice redeemed the sailors. The pagans were, in some sense, converted, and this is something Jonah refused to help the Assyrians to do.

Jonah, no doubt, expected to die. Surely there was no hope in the raging sea.

But, scandalously and despite Jonah’s persistent resistance, God showed Jonah mercy. God rescues (saves) Jonah through judgment (discipline). A severe mercy keeps Jonah alive.

Undeserving of mercy and not seeking any mercy, Yahweh, nevertheless, showed mercy. This is who God is.

Missional Exiles–A Word from Jeremiah 29:4-7

October 27, 2015

In 597 B.C.E. Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, exiled Jehoiakim, the King of Judah, along with some 3,000 others to Babylon. This was the second deportation from Judah (an earlier one was in 605 B.C.E.) and it would not be the last (another when Jerusalem is destroyed in 587 B.C.E.). This was the first to include the King himself and his family. Though Jehoiakim lived in Babylon, he was the legitimate King of Judah despite the fact Nebuchadnezzar had appointed Zedekiah, Jehoiakim’s uncle, King in his place.

[Interestingly, The Babylonian Chronicles, discovered in the early 20th century at the Ishtar Gate in Babylon, describes some rations provided to the King of Judah, Jehoiakim, and these date from 592 B.C.E.].

These exiles probably thought they were deported for only a short period of time. Some prophets assured them they would return to Jerusalem before long. Jeremiah, however, thinks otherwise. Yahweh exiled them in Babylon, and there they would stay for a long time. Jehoiakim, in fact, would die in Babylon (2 Kings 25:27).

In the light of this reality, Jeremiah, as a word from the Lord, offers this counsel (Jeremiah 29:5-7)

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find welfare.

The text comes in two sections.  The first encourages a proactive approach to life in exile.  The second orients the exiles to their relationship with the city in which they are exiled.

The first reflects a common pattern within the Hebrew Bible. For example, it describes those who are excused from serving in the active militia (Deuteronomy 20:5-7), and it describes a blessed state (Deuteronomy 28:3-4).  Further, Isaiah 65, envisioning the new heavens and new earth, uses this language to describe the bless of such a life. In a series ten rapid-fire imperatives, the Lord calls the exiles to flourish in their new setting.

  • build houses and live in them.
  • plant gardens and eat their produce.
  • marry and have children
  • give your sons in marriage
  • give your daughters in marriage
  • multiply and do not decrease

The language echoes what God envisioned for Israel in the land of promise. Yahweh settled them in that land and intended they would flourish as if in a new Eden. Israel’s mandate was to live in the land so that its peace and rest would draw the nations to Yahweh.

The language also echoes God’s purposes in creation where God intended humanity to settle the earth, build their lives, enjoy the fruit of the garden, and multiply. Humanity’s mandate was to expand Eden into the whole earth, fill the earth, and extend God’s peace to all creation as they subdued the chaos.

In this case, however, Israel is an alien in a foreign land; they are exiles, immigrants. They are a transplated people, deported from their homeland by hated enemies. They do not want to be there, and peace is not exactly uppermost in their minds. They want, we might presume, revenge (Psalm 137 reflects such, though it is placed in God’s hands).

Jeremiah says, settle into your new homes. Flourish in your new setting. Become in exile what you were intended to enjoy in your homeland; become what humanity was intended to be from the beginning.

In other words, your mandate–your mission–is still in place. Now, however, you must pursue it as exiles. The mission is still the same, whether in Eden, in the promised land, or in exile.

Flourish! Mulitply! Enjoy life!

God is still with Judah, and just as God blessed humanity in the beginning and blessed Abraham, so God will continue to bless Judah in exile. God will multiply them. God has not forgotten them. Quite the contrary, God renews the blessing of Abraham, even in their exile.

And Israel is still on mission…even in exile.

This includes seeking the peace of the city in which they lived and praying for it so that they might know peace in the city’s peace.

Flourish, but flourish in such a way that peace saturates and overwhelms the place where you are flourishing because human flourishing happens where there is peace. In other words, flourishing is not a selfless project. On the contrary, we only flourish when others flourish; we are only at peace when others at peace.

Exiles–aliens in the land–must look beyond their own self-contained communities. They must love the city in which they live and seek its peace.  They must orient their lives toward peace for the city and pray for it. They must not neglect others or isolate themselves from the city. They must engage it.

For Israel, this meant seek the peace of their enemies and praying for their enemies–something Jesus would call Israel to do as well in the Sermon on the Mount. Disciples of Jesus are peacemakers (Matthew 5:9) and they pray for their enemies (Matthew 5:44).

For the sake of mission, God scattered Israel among the nations, just as he scattered humanity at Babel and later scattered the church through persecution. Since Israel did not attract their nations by their godliness, God sent them among the nations.  God sent them as exiled missionaries. They live in Babylon because God sent them as exiles, and God sent them for the peace of the city, for the peace of the nations.

Jews have lived in the Euphrates river valley ever since the exile (over 2500 years), though they are now disappearing from that region due to instability and persecution. Judaism flourished there, and they were a light among the nations. Most Jews never returned to their homeland; they made Babylon their home.

The church is also an exiled people; light present in the darkness. Churches are missional communities, living in exile (1 Peter 2:4-10).

As such, the two basic directives from Jeremiah to exiled Jews in Babylon offer direction for the contemporary church.

  • Flourish! Live, multiply, and enjoy.
  • Seek the peace of the city and pray for it.

Enjoy life–build, plant, marry….  But remember we are on mission–seeking peace for the city with our lives and through our prayers.


Jonah 1:4-6 – A Severe Mercy, God Pursues Jonah

October 24, 2015

Jonah refused God’s commission, but that was not the end of the story. God pursued Jonah.

The narrative begins with God’s call (Jonah 1:2), moves to Jonah’s refusal by flight (Jonah 1:3), and now God pursues Jonah through wind, storm, and fish. Back-and-forth, God invites and Jonah refuses until Jonah, in the belly of the fish, accepts God’s call. God’s pursuit is God’s mercy, and the wind, storm, and fish are not God’s punishment but God’s discipline, a severe mercy.

Jonah’s downward descent is the primary movement in the opening scenes of the first chapter, also noted in the previous blog.

  • Jonah descends to Joppa, a city under Gentile control (Jonah 1:3)
  • Jonah descends onto a boat, which is piloted by Gentiles (Jonah 1:3)
  • Jonah descends into the bowels of the boat, the lowest part of the boat (Jonah 1:5)
  • Jonah descends, ultimately, into Sheol, the belly of the great fish (Jonah 2:6)

Jonah is descending into a pit, away from Yahweh, away from his commission. As Jonah descends, God pursues.

A Severe Providence

Youngblood (Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy) identifies this downward movement in Jonah 1:4-6 and also discerns another downward movement in the narrative, a movement from the heavens (sky) to the depths of the ship. This movement happens on the sea.

Sky – Yahweh hurls a great wind at the sea.

Sea – The wind whips a raging storm on the sea.

Ship – The ship threatens to disintegrate on the sea.

Deck of the Ship – Sailors are hurling cargo into the sea.

Bowels of the Ship – Jonah sleeps in the ship on the sea.

“The narrative,” Youngblood notes (p. 72), “descends, pulling the reader down to the depths with Jonah.” Entering the world of the narrative, we are caught in the descending cycle of Jonah’s flight. Though headed to Tarshish, he is actually going nowhere.

The sea is harsh place. Even the most experienced mariners faced the dangers with great anxiety. Ezekiel 27:25-36, describing the “ships of Tarshish,” provides a harrowing account of sea travel and its dangers. Life, wealth, and futures “sink into the heart of the seas on the day of your ruin” (Ezekiel 27:27). Rowers on an ancient ship were no match for an angry sea (Ezekiel 27:26).

Jonah’s ship faced such an angry, even raging, sea (Jonah 1:15). The narrator calls it a “storm,” which describes something akin to hurricane (Psalm 83:15), and such storms are often associated with divine activity, even wrath (Amos 1:14; Jeremiah 23:19). Indeed, the storm arises from a great wind Yahweh “hurled” across the sea. The storm is a divine act—it begins and it ends when Yahweh decides. The winds and the waves obey Yahweh, even though Jonah does not.

The “sea,” of course, is a dominant theme in chapter where the word yam (sea) occurs nine times. And this is more significant than mere vocabulary. The word also has a mythological background in Canaanite culture. Yam is the god of the sea, the chaos God, who battles Baal, the fertility god of Canaan. In ancient myths, Yam and Baal represent water and land, or sea and the earth.

This is why the sailors are crying out to their own gods, perhaps the gods of their homeland. Ancient deities were often local, regional, or national, and sometimes they were even personal or vocational (e.g, sailors, artisans, etc.). Even ships would have their own protectors, as their decorations sometimes indicated.

When Yam, it appears, as the god of the sea, threatens the ship with a storm, the sailors pray for their gods to rescue them. But, generally, upon the sea, they are impotent. They cannot fight Yam on that god’s own territory.

Yam, however, is not the source of this storm. Quite the contrary, neither Yam nor the chaotic sea is a threat to Yahweh who hurled the wind upon the sea to create the storm. Yahweh created the land and the sea (Jonah 1:9), Yam and Baal are nothing to Yahweh. God uses chaos, even Yam (as the sailors believed in such), as a tool of God’s own purposes. God uses wind, storm, and eventually a fish to pursue Jonah.

The storm, then, is God’s act; it is an act of divine providence. Providence is not always blissful; it is often disciplinary. Providence is not always “friendly,” though it may be misinterpreted as such at first. For example, Jonah had the money to hire a ship and he found one. We might wonder whether such “luck” (or providence) might have encouraged Jonah to flee. But even that providence becomes part of a larger story where God pursues Jonah’s flight. It is not so much a function of divine wrath as it is divine discipline, a severe mercy.

The Renewed Call

Jonah descended into the bowels of the ship, that is, to the furthest reaches of the baot. Perhaps Jonah is hiding, or perhaps Jonah is simply escaping—going to the extremities available. It is like going into Sheol, the place of the dead. The word here is found in parallel with Sheol in Isaiah 14:15 and Ezekiel 32:21. Whatever the case, there Jonah goes to sleep and in such a deep sleep, the storm does not awaken him.

How can Jonah sleep, or why is Jonah sleeping? Perhaps Jonah was content to die, content with his decision; perhaps Jonah was exhausted from stress. Or, as some have suggested, Jonah has fallen into a deep sleep occasioned by God. The Hebrew word may indicated a deep, hypnotic-like sleep (Genesis 2:21; Job 4:13), and often people, including prophets, receive revelation in their sleep or dreams (Genesis 15:12; Job 33:15; Daniel 8:18: 1 Samuel 25:12-25; Genesis 28:16; Zechariah 4:1). Perhaps in this moment God is once again bring a “word” to Jonah. Youngblood (p. 76) suggests the sleep is “preparation for his second calling.” Perhaps this is why the storm did not disturb Jonah’s sleep—God was coming to Jonah once again.

This is confirmed by what the captain says when he awakens Jonah. The commission, announced in Jonah 1:1-2, is renewed through the captain’s words.

The word of the Lord came… Arise! Cry out… 1:1-2
The captain came… Arise! Cry out.. 1:6

God calls. Jonah runs. God responds through wind and storm, and God renews the call through the captain. Jonah, however, continues to resist. As we will see, Jonah does not cry out to Yahweh. Instead, he runs again—this time he is “hurled” into the sea (Jonah 1:12, 15), just as Yahweh “hurled” the wind at the sea (Jonah 1:4) and the sailors “hurled” their cargo into the sea (Jonah 1:5).

The captain is astounded Jonah is sleeping rather than praying. The captain hopes for mercy, much like David hoped for such mercy when praying for his son (2 Samuel 12:22). Perhaps some god somewhere will show mercy and do something to help them.

Ironically, mercy is all Yahweh has shown and will show in this story.

Jonah refuses God’s call and flees from God’s presence. In response, God does not execute Jonah or zap him with lightning. On the contrary, God pursues Jonah! Through wind, storm, and tumultuous waves, God calls Jonah once again. Rather than punishing Jonah, God continues to invite Jonah into the divine mission. And Jonah continues to refuse. God, however, remains merciful, though it is a severe mercy.

The book of Jonah moves from one mercy to another, from mercy to mercy.

Mercy for Jonah.

Mercy for the sailors.

Mercy for Nineveh.

And mercy for Jonah again

The story of Jonah piles mercy upon mercy, which is God’s own identity (Jonah 4:3).



Reading Jonah

October 21, 2015

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai” (1:1)

Shipmates, this book containing only four chapters—four yearns—is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sealine sound! What a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand!

Herman Melville, Moby Dick, chapter 9

Many of us know the story from Sunday school, but it is also part of Western culture. Everyone, it seems, has some familiarity with “Jonah and the Whale, the Great Fish Tale.” The wide appeal of Jonah’s story is evident. It is laced through the great American classic, Moby Dick, and it is also a favorite children’s story. From classic novels to children’s Bible stories, Jonah’s encounter with the “great fish” peaks our interest even if some don’t swallow the story.

Who is Jonah?

The first line of the book, quoted above, tells us next to nothing about Jonah. That we would know little about a prophet is not unusual, but what is rather curious is how the book, which bears his name, tells us relatively nothing about him unlike other written prophets (e.g., Amos).

Apparently, however, he was a well-known figure in his day. It is simply enough to say, “Jonah the son of Amittai.” His fame is confirmed by 2 Kings 14:23-27, which is the only other record in the Hebrew Bible about Jonah. We learn Jonah is a prophet during the reign of Jeroboam II from the city of Gath-heper, which is located in the territory of Zebulun in the region of Galilee not far from what would become Nazareth in the Roman period.

In 2 Kings 14:23-27, Jonah affirms God’s intent to give Israel some rest in their land after several years of bitter suffering. The rise of King Jeroboam II (789-748 B.C.E.), the longest reigning King of Israel (the Northern Kingdom), would see the recovery of northern Israel’s Solomonic borders. Jeroboam II presided over prosperity and peace. Jonah is, according to the record in 2 Kings, a faithful prophet to whom the people listened during this period.

The literary work known as Jonah, however, is anonymous—no authorial credit is given, and it is undated. The composition may date anywhere from the 700s-300s B.C.E. Based on linguistics, many date the book in the post-exilic period, and that may be correct.


Jonah’s Context.

While there is no verifiable way to assign a date to the composition, the historical circumstances are firmly rooted in the eighth century B.C.E.

Jeroboam II was a fourth generation descendant of Jehu (842-815) who is mentioned in the Black Obelisk of the Assyrian Emperor Shalmaneser III (858-824): “I received the tribute of the inhabitants of Tyre, Sidon, and of Jehu, son of Omri.” This indicates Assyria was a dominant power about forty years before the reign of Jeroboam II. However, during the reign of Jeroboam II the Assyrian hegemony had receded due to internal strife though by the end of his reign the Assyrians were once again threatening the borders of Israel.

During the prophetic ministry of Jonah, it appears, Assyria was in a holding pattern, though its power was about to rise once again. We might imagine Jonah does not want to encourage them because they will oppress Israel. As 2 Kings 14:23-27 notes, God had renewed mercy and goodness toward Israel, and Jonah does not want to contribute to such a renewal of mercy and grace toward Assyria.

As Eli Wiesel wrote, Jonah “does not wish Nineveh to die, yet he does not wish Nineveh to live at the expense of Israel” (Five Biblical Potraits, 154). What Jonah perhaps feared is exactly what happened to Elijah. When Elijah was told to anoint Hazael as king over Aram (Syria), but Elijah did not (1 Kings 19:15). When Elisha, Elijah’s successor, finally did, Elisha wept (2 Kings 8:7-13), and Hazael ultimately did oppress Israel (2 Kings 13:22). This, perhaps, is what Jonah fears, as probably the whole nation of Israel fears the renewal of Assyrian power in the region.


The Plot of the Book

Kevin Youngblood (Jonah: God’s Scandalous Mercy, 45) helpfully suggests the book has three major movements: resistance to acceptance to resentment.

  • Jonah resists his commission to call Nineveh to repentance, fleeing in the opposite direction to avoid the mission (Jonah 1-2).
  • Finally, through God’s pursuit and discipline, Jonah accepts the mission and obeys with God’s call (Jonah 3).
  • Afterward Nineveh’s repentance, Jonah resents God’s mercy (Jonah 4).

These movements provide a way of reading the story, which highlights God’s mercy, both to Jonah and the nations represented in the book. God pursues Jonah rather than abandoning him, God heals the nations rather than abandoning them, and God comforts Jonah despite his resentments.


Theological Meaning

While the story of Jonah and the whale is popular, what is the meaning of Jonah’s mission to the nations in the light of Jonah’s resistance, God’s mercy, and Jonah’s resentment?

Jonah, as portrayed in the story, is not an isolated prophet on an isolated task. Jonah represents Israel, and Jonah’s commission is Israel’s commission. God intended to bless all nations through Israel, and God intended Israel serve as a model for the nations. Through their priestly service to the nations (“light to the nations,” Isaiah 42:6; 49:6), Yahweh would draw all the nations into relationship as well (Deuteronomy 4:6-8; 28:8-10).

God did not choose Israel to exclude the nations but to include them through Israel. The nations are invited to the temple (1 Kings 8:41-43, 59-61) so that they might know God. As examples of God’s love for the nations, the prophetic ministries of Elijah and Elisha include provision for the widow in Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-24) and the healing of Naaman, the Syrian (2 Kings 5).

Israel, however, failed to fulfill its mission. Instead, they warred with the surrounding nations, and the people and their prophets generally refused to herald the good news of the God of Israel to the nations. That this is a function of the prophets of Israel, as well as the people of Israel (who are royal priests among the nations, Exodus 19:6) is evidenced by the many addresses to the nations in the writing prophets (e.g., Isaiah 45:20-23) as well as the ministry of Elisha and Elijah among them.

Jonah represents Israel refusal to carry out God’s mission among the nations, and it provides the reason for their refusal. Just as Jonah resented God’s mercy to Nineveh, so Israel resented God’s mercy to the nations. Fearing the nations, they did not want them to know God’s grace, and when some came to know God’s grace, they resented God for saving them.

The book of Jonah, then, is a message about God’s mercy to both Israel and the nations. Just as Jonah was redeemed despite his refusal, so the nations are redeemed despite Israel’s failures. God’s mercy will win despite our stubbornness.


Youngblood’s Outline

I. From Silent Resistance to Jubilant Acceptance: The Compelling Nature of God’s Mercy (1:1-2:11).

  1. Silent Escape from God’s Mercy (1:1-4a).
  2. The Relentless Pursuit of God’s Mercy (1:5-2:1b).
  3. A Prayer of Praise for God’s Mercy (2:1c-11).

II. From Compliant Acceptance to Angry Resentment: The Offense of God’s Mercy (3:1-4:11).

  1. A Second Chance at Compliance with God’s Mercy (3:1-3b).
  2. Responsiveness to and Responsiveness of God’s Mercy (3:3c-10).
  3. Resentment of God’s Mercy (4:1-4).
  4. Object Lesson on God’s Mercy (4:5-11).

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.