1 Peter 3:13-17 — When Suffering Comes

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.

Leave a Reply