1 Peter 3:13-4:11
The outline of 1 Peter is not crystal clear. It is fairly easy to identify each paragraph and the contribution it makes to the overall argument of the book. However, scholars disagree about what paragraphs form the larger units of thought in the book (see Outline of First Peter). Nowhere is this difficulty clearer than in the central section of 1 Peter. There is a lack of agreement about the outline of the book, which tells us that Peter's thought flows easily from one section to another but not in the logical sequence that we might expect. It is difficult to discover when he is changing subject because his transitions are so smooth and his central concern is clear.
This lesson will deal with four sections. First Peter 3:13-17 deals with suffering for doing good. Verses 18-22 focus on the example of Jesus as one who suffered wrongly. First Peter 4:1-6 can be understood positively as a call to righteous living or negatively as a warning against unrighteousness. First Peter 4:7-11 then outline the meaning of mutual love and the demands of fellowship. The twin themes of the book, holiness and suffering, obviously are important in these sections.
Suffering for Doing Good - 1 Peter 3:13-17
In the preceding section Peter had addressed the church in terms of specific groups, citizens and governors, slaves and masters, wives and husbands. In this section he addresses the church as a whole. He believes that his readers are facing persecution that threatens the very survival of the church. The general thrust of his remarks is to urge the readers to maintain the highest standards of Christian living and to look for every opportunity to present a faithful witness to the gospel of Christ. Marshall (pp. 111-112) wisely points out that most of us who read 1 Peter do so in countries where there is official religious toleration. We are more likely to be ignored than to be persecuted. Even so, the message of this section applies to us. Holding the highest standards of Christian living and looking for an opportunity to witness effectively in our world is what we also need to do.
Verse 13 begins the section with a rhetorical question, And who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? The question is asked in such a way that the implied answer is, "No one!" This creates a problem since Peter has already pointed out in 2:20 the possibility of unjust suffering. The following verse (3:14) then proceeds to deal with unjust suffering. The apparent contradiction has led some scholars to conclude that Peter was speaking of inward harm at this point. Though outward persecution might come even when one does what is right, no spiritual harm can befall the one who trusts in Christ.
While such a statement is true it is not a natural way of understanding verse 13. The natural implication of "harm" is physical injury or hurt. It is likely that Peter is speaking in general terms. Generally speaking, it is not the people who seek to do good that end up being mistreated. It does happen sometimes, as verse 14 shows, but the general rule is that troublemakers receive trouble and folks who behave rarely are hassled.
Peter's point, however, is not just that bad things happen to bad people more often than they happen to good people. He wants his readers to be eager to do what is good. Whatever suffering comes their way the real reason must be their relationship with Christ not their failure to uphold all the standards of civil behavior. Though there were people who practiced gross immorality and lived very wickedly in the first century, many, perhaps most, were well behaved, quiet people. Christians will not often be conspicuously good among unbelievers who have high moral standards for living. In fact, Christians should not be conspicuously different from the highest ideals of behavior in most cultures. If we are to be conspicuously different it should be in comparison with the inconsistent and rebellious people of a society.
Though generally good people are not persecuted it does happen and Peter's readers knew that it could happen. Such persecution either was happening to them at the time 1 Peter was being written or close enough that they feared it could begin any minute. Verse 14 is constructed in the Greek text in a way that implies that Peter knew the persecution was possible, but not necessarily probable. However, should such suffering begin the readers would be blessed. Peter is not promoting suffering. Rather, he is echoing the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake," (Matthew 5:10). First Peter 4:14 further notes that the blessing of persecution is that the presence of the Holy Spirit rests upon the believer.
Davids (p. 130) argues that Peter's word for suffering used in verse 14 does not refer to illness or to official government persecution. Rather, it describes the abuse and verbal violence that comes from non-Christian masters, husbands, and neighbors. This pattern of insults and mockery is more like the rejection of Christianity that we are likely to face. Rejection of the gospel we present often feels like personal rejection. However, in most cases people who reject our witness do not "have it in for us." They are pressured by the call to holiness that overwhelms them. In some instances they lash out against us because we are the ones who carry the good news that feels like bad news to them.
The next sentence extends from the final part of verse 14 through the first part of verse 15. Three commands are given. First, do not fear what they fear. Second, do not be intimidated. These words are a close paraphrase of Isaiah 8:12 where the prophet was told not to fear the Assyrian invaders like the Israelites were fearing them. Peter does not want his readers living in terror of either potential or real persecution. People of Biblical faith believe that God is in control of history. There is no need to be startled or terrified or intimidated. Persecutors do not have free reign to do anything they want to do. They are tools in the hand of God to move history toward its appointed end. The pain they inflict or the death they deal will be very real but our confidence in God always provides hope.
The third command is positive, Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts. The thought continues from Isaiah 8:12-13 where Isaiah is commanded to regard the Lord as holy. The word sanctify has several aspects to its meaning. It does not mean to make holy in this passage since there is no question of Christ's holiness. The meaning does include the act of setting Christ apart as Lord and some translations reflect that aspect. The word also includes the idea of continued response to Christ's Lordship and holiness. The concept is really one of the worship that is appropriate to Christ as our Lord. As a result several translations use, "reverence Christ Jesus as Lord."
This positive command is important in the context of suffering, especially unfair suffering. The meaning of the Greek word for Lord is Master or slave owner. When Christ is Lord of our lives we will not be terrified of unjust suffering. Since Jesus suffered and was crucified for us even though he had done nothing wrong, we should not expect a comfort he did not enjoy on earth. Comfort and safety cannot be lord for Christians. Setting Christ apart and above all rival lords in our lives is the first step. Then we worshipfully reverence him as our Lord. As we do so the influence of fear of others (their opinions, words, and actions) is brought below or under the lordship of Christ.
Peter concludes verse 15 by urging his readers to always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you about the reason for the hope that is in you. There are four important words in this sentence.
Peter commands us to be ready. Readiness includes preparation for explaining the faith to those who ask. Answering questions requires knowledge and thought. The Christian who has no interest in coming to understand logical and theological foundations of Christian faith will have little potential to be an effective witness.
The word reason shows that Peter was thinking of Christians who could give logical responses to the challenges to the faith. Contemporary culture tends to be anti-theological (and anti-logical) and many believers lack the proper motivation to better understand their faith. They are then surprised and often caught off guard when skeptics bring challenges and questions designed to undermine faith.
Peter also speaks of defense. The Greek word is apologia (from which we get the words "apology" and "apologetics.") The word was often used for a legal defense in a courtroom. While defense of the Christian faith in a court room may be necessary sometimes, more frequently we need to be able to make a defense of the faith in the midst of the insults and abuse that comes from unbelievers.
The final important word is hope. In the final analysis our ability to cope with abuse and suffering does not come from doctrinal head knowledge. It does not come from logic. Ability to endure the pressure of unjust suffering ultimately arises from our faith that we serve a risen Savior who intends to raise us from the authority of death someday too.
It is not enough to give a correct logical and theological answer to those who oppose the faith. We must also live out the live of Christ before them. That is why verse 16 points out that with meekness and fear we are to have a good conscience. The result that Peter hopes will be accomplished will be that the accusers will be ashamed of their slander. He then concluded in verse 17 by returning to his original premise from 1 Peter 2:20 that it is better to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.
The Example and Victory of Christ - 1 Peter 3:18-22
Peter's argument that it is better to suffer for doing good … than to suffer for doing evil turns to the example of Christ in verse 18. The paragraph of 1 Peter 3:18-22 has received considerable attention from scholars. Part of the reason is the puzzle of the meaning of verse 19. Part of the interest has been in the question of whether or not Peter was using an early Christian hymn as the outline for his remarks in the paragraph. Several scholars have argued in favor of the hymn theory and have re-constructed what they believe the hymn originally said. It looks remarkably like the hymn of 1 Timothy 3:16. The most recent commentary writers have not accepted the hymn theory for these verses. Rather, they correctly point out that Peter has used phrases that were common in the theological language of early Christians.
The wording of the first phrase in verse 18 is uncertain. Some manuscripts state that Christ died for sins on our behalf. Other, equally ancient manuscripts read that Christ suffered for sins. English translations are almost equally divided between the two options and several "new" editions change from the old edition. The NASB, NIV, NEB, Good News, New Jerusalem Bible, and the RSV all follow the manuscripts that read that Christ died. The KJV, NKJV, REB, NRSV, and Phillips follow the reading, Christ suffered. The reading "suffered" fits the flow of the context better.
More important than whether Peter originally wrote "suffered" or "died" is the fact that Christ's suffering/death was for sins once for all. Peter does not develop the meaning of this statement but he is stating the same truths as are found in Hebrews 5:1, 3; 7:27; 9:12; 10:10, 12, and 26. No further sacrifice for sin is needed. Christ has already accomplished all that we need to be saved. The purpose of Christ's sacrificial suffering was to bring you to God. The Greek word translated bring had the root meaning of bringing forward as in an offering or gift. Christ suffered for our sins in order that he might offer us to God. We know from the Old Testament that such an offering to a holy God must be holy itself. Peter's assumption of holiness lies behind the phrase, bring you to God.
The final phrases of verse 18 are difficult to understand. Peter states that Christ was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit. Later Christians would interpret this in terms of Greek philosophy and conclude that Peter was referring to Jesus' body and soul. This led to the conclusion that Jesus died physically, but continued to live as a spirit. Other interpreters suggested that Jesus died in a physical body, but continued to live in a spiritual body.
However, recent historical study have shown that most New Testament writers did not think in terms of body and soul as two parts or body, soul, and spirit as three parts of a person (see Body and Soul). They thought of whole persons viewed from different perspectives. Peter here understands flesh and spirit as ways of existence. The flesh is the mode of existence for human beings on this earth and it includes our weakness, frailty, and susceptibility to sickness, death, and sin. As a whole person Jesus died in the fleshly or human way of existence. By the resurrection he was made alive with respect to the Spirit, which is the mode of existence of God and of those who are raised from the dead.
Verse 19 is one of the most difficult verses to interpret in the New Testament. In the Spirit mode of existence Christ went and preached to the spirits in prison. Several questions need answered. When did Christ go to these spirits in prison? Some believe that he accomplished this mission prior to the Incarnation. This view goes back at least to the theologian Augustine around AD 400. However, it breaks the sequence of thought in these verses. Some have argued that Christ went to preach to the spirits at the time of his ascension. This fits best with the text's indication that Christ did this in Spirit mode of existence, which is resurrection existence, but this view also breaks the sequence of thought. The more traditional view is that Christ preached to the spirits in the time between his death and resurrection. Scholars are divided between the opinion that the preaching took place between Christ's death and resurrection and that it took place at or after the ascension.
The question of the identity of the spirits in prison has led to even more theories. Some identified them as the souls of the obedient people of the Old Testament who were waiting for Christ to proclaim the message of salvation. Others argue that these spirits were the souls of the people who died in Noah's flood and who were kept in Hades until they heard the gospel. Others believe they are the spirits of the fallen angels mentioned in Genesis 6:1-4 and the prison is where they are bound until Christ could proclaim judgment against them. Others claim that Enoch (of Genesis 5:21-24) was the preacher. Finally, some argue that the spirits in prison were the demonic offspring of the fallen angels of Genesis 6:1-4 who had taken refuge in the earth and Christ's proclamation was an invasion of their refuge (see Sons of God and Giants). The options are confusing.
The description of verse 19 is very similar to material found in an intertestamental book of Enoch. That book speaks of evil spirits or fallen angels from the time of Enoch and Noah being imprisoned in (or on) the earth. These beings were often the cause of disaster and evil. Peter seems to be saying that Christ went and proclaimed to these beings the end of their power. He had won the victory over them. We need not fear them nor the evil associated with them. Christ is the victor over all evil and we can claim his victory in our lives for a similar view from a different perspective, see Sheol, Hell, and the Dead).
Verse 20 supports this interpretation with the further remark that God did save eight people in the days of Noah by means of water. Verse 21 then applies the water that saved the family of Noah to baptism. Peter's language is very compressed at this point and it is often hard for evangelicals to understand what he is saying. Peter's words, baptism saves you, seem to run counter to everything we've been taught. However, he clarifies the statement in two ways. First, baptism does not save as a removal of dirt from the body. That is, the outward action, cleansing of the body, the ritual, the baptismal water - none of those things save. There is no magic in either the water or the ritual. Rather, baptism saves as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The basis of salvation is the resurrection of Christ. Baptism is an appeal to God to apply the saving benefits of the resurrection to the one being baptized. Theologians call baptism a "sign-act" which communicates reality in a symbolic way. The New Testament church believed that in baptism the believer was united to both Christ's death and resurrection (see Romans 6:1-5). The reference to the good conscience is a reminder that a person could go through the external act of baptism and not be saved. Unless in good conscience baptism signed union with Christ the saving benefits of the resurrection would not occur.
This brings us back to the point of verses 18-22. In baptism we are united with Christ. Christ suffered unjustly but fulfilled his God-given mission in the world in obedience. Therefore, we must obediently fulfill the task God has set before us regardless of whether suffering, even unjust suffering, comes our way. To do less shows that the union with Christ that was to be accomplished in baptism did not take hold.
Exhortation to Abstain from Evil - 1 Peter 4:1-6
Peter returns to a specific reference to suffering in 1 Peter 4:1. Here, again, Christ's suffering becomes the basis for his exhortation to his readers. Therefore since Christ suffered in the flesh believers must live a specific way. The command is to arm yourselves also with the same intention. This command reflects the language of Romans 6:13 where Paul commands the Roman readers to stop presenting their members to sin as weapons of unrighteousness. Rather, they are to present themselves to God and their members as weapons of righteousness. The word "weapons" in Romans (also translated instruments) is the noun form of the verb translated "arm" here in 1 Peter 4:1. The way one arms himself or herself is with the same intention that Jesus had. Philippians 2:5-8 is a commentary on the intention of Jesus.
Peter then notes that the one who has suffered in the flesh has stopped with sin. The attempt to take this phrase as a general statement or rule always applying everywhere in the same way has led to some strange interpretations. Some Christians, a few centuries later, concluded that martyrdom would save the martyr. It is best to remember the context of this statement. In this context the person who has suffered in the flesh is a reader who identifies with Christ and his suffering and so remains obedient under the pressure of real or potential persecution. Identification with Christ means dying to sin as Romans 6:2 makes quite clear. The verb "stopped" or "ceased" or "finished" was constructed in Greek to show an event with results that continue into the present. Union with Christ in baptism brings death to sin. That event has the on-going effect of no further relationship to sin.
The result of such death to sin is that we no longer live our earthly life by human desires but by the will of God. Second Corinthians 5:15 provides an excellent commentary on 1 Peter 4:2 when it states, "And he [Christ] died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for the one who died and was raised for them." One of the saddest facts about contemporary North American Christianity is its ignorance of this principle. We have so bought into the culture of this age that we even advertise the gospel as that which can help a person fulfill all their desires. Early Christians understood that believers made the will of God the basis of all life decisions, not comfort or fulfillment or any human desire.
The past offered plenty of opportunity to indulge in all the human desires characteristic of the secular or Gentile world. Peter then lists several of those desires in verse 3. Sensuality, passions, drunken orgies, feasts, revelries, and lawless idolatry had been too much a part of Peter's readers' lives in previous days. Now was the time to make a clean sweep and turn away from any dabbling in such a life style. Gentile neighbors are now surprised that you no longer join them in the same excesses of wild living. Sin always seeks company as a way to relieve the guilt. The more "holy" a person the sinner can get to join him or her the more relief from guilt. Thus surprise that a former participant in sin wants to stop quickly turns to pressure (usually by slanderous or blasphemous talk) to keep that person involved in the sin.
For the readers of 1 Peter many of the dissipated activities mentioned in verse 3 occurred in the process of civic and national celebrations. To avoid such events left the believers open to the charge of treason or sedition. However, Peter's point is that his readers are not citizens of this earth but are resident aliens and citizens of heaven. As such they can resist the pressure of their neighbors. Furthermore, Peter notes, those neighbors will have to give an account for themselves to God at the judgment day.
Peter then makes one closing comment that has created considerable confusion. Because of the judgment that the neighbors will face, the apostle declares the gospel was preached to the dead. The relationship of this verse to 1 Peter 3:19 is much debated. It is best not to see the two verses as referring to the same thing. The proclamation of 3:19 was to spirits. The preaching of 4:6 is to human beings.
Further, 1 Peter 4:6 does not imply that the preaching was done while the people were dead. In fact, the opening words of the verse for this reason show the meaning of the verse. Verse 5 spoke of the reality of everyone giving an account before God of their lives. Since that is true, even those who have already died will have to give an account at the judgment (still future) of their response to the preaching of the gospel that they heard while they were alive (see Sheol, Hell, and the Dead). The purpose that God had in setting all this up appears in the final phrase of verse 6. It is so that they might live in the spirit as God does. The judgment and the fact of accountability before God should motivate people to turn from a life based on the flesh as mode of existence and turn to a life with the Spirit as the mode of existence.
The Demands of Mutual Love - 1 Peter 4:7-11
Talk about judgment was not an abstract idea that would never happen for Peter. He was convinced that it was near. In fact, verse 7 states that the end of all things is near. Peter believed that Christ would return soon. He gives no dates, but there is a sense of expectation. However, the point here is not how soon, but how to act since the second coming would be soon. The word therefore shows that the following verses express the logical conclusion of what should happen since Christ is coming soon.
Verses 7-11 contain a series of commands. If they are obeyed the need for mutual love among the readers will be met. The first command is to be serious. This is not a prohibition against laughter but a call to sanity and sober mindedness as we live in a sinful and dangerous world. The Christian should never be frivolous. Allied with the command to be serious is the command to discipline yourselves for your prayers. Lighthearted, frivolous prayer will not communicate with God. Lack of discipline and seriousness in prayer shows lack of respect toward God.
Verse 8 demands that the readers maintain constant love for each other. Here Peter reflects the common teaching of the New Testament that love is the supreme virtue. First Corinthians 13 powerfully makes that case, as does Colossians 3:14. The reason Peter gives for this constant love is that love covers a multitude of sins. These words are a paraphrase from Proverbs 10:12. They also appear in James 5:20. It is not clear whether the saying refers to the sins of the one who loves or the one who is loved. If it is the sins of the one who loves the obvious meaning is that love for God and love for neighbor will atone for variety of other spiritual or religious shortcoming. If it is the sins of the one who is loved that are covered then the love with which God loves covers the great multitude of our sins.
Verse 9 commands the practice of hospitality. This was a common concern in early Christianity as is evidenced by the widespread expressions of concern about it in Romans 12:13; 16:11; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8; Hebrews 13:2; and 3 John 5-8. The unusual aspect of 1 Peter 4:9 is that the readers are commanded to be hospitable without grumbling. Best (p. 160) points out that hospitality can be expensive and tiring as well as dangerous during times of persecution. An early Christian writing that did not become part of the New Testament, the Didache, points out that some people took advantage of early Christian hospitality.
The series of commands continues in verse 10 in the context of spiritual gifts. Peter assumes that every believer has received a gift. The purpose of that gift is to serve one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. Whatever the gift may be it is to be used in service to others in the body of Christ. That service is a simple matter of stewardship. God has given the gift to be used for the upbuilding of the body. To use it for oneself, or to fail to use it for the whole body of Christ, short-circuits the will of God. The purpose of gifts for service is an understanding that is often missing in our discussions of spiritual gifts.
Peter concludes this section on what is necessary for fellowship by mentioning two gifts in particular. The gifts of speaking and of serving are singled out as bearing special responsibility to accurately reflect the will and nature of God as those gifts are exercised. The result should be that God is glorified. No spiritual gift, no claim of grace, no acts of devotion have meaning or are authentic unless glory flows toward God through Christ. Our world has become media mad. We are being brain washed into wanting and we are teaching our children and young people to want attention, camera time, and honor. Attention to ourselves diminishes glory to God. We cannot have it both ways. First Peter calls us away from the influences of our culture to a life that glorifies God rather than ourselves in every moment at every turn.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to make his word come alive in your heart. Ask him to help you understand how his word should apply to your life.
First Day: Read the notes on 1 Peter 3:13-4:11. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Why were they significant?
2. Select a spiritual truth that has a special application to your own life. Describe how it applies to you.
3. Write a brief prayer asking God to help you identify your gifts and to show you some new ways they can be used for his glory.
Second Day: Read 1 Peter 4:1-19. Now focus your attention on 1 Peter 4:12-19.
1. Why do you think Peter tells us to not be surprised at painful trials and suffering? Why should we expect such things?
2. What reasons do these verses suggest for rejoicing when we share Christ's suffering? What other reasons do you think should be added to the list? Why?
3. What do you think Peter means in verse 14 when he speaks of the Spirit of God resting on you? Have you ever experienced that? Are you experiencing it now?
Third Day: Read 1 Peter 4:1-19. Now turn your attention to 1 Peter 4:12-19 again.
1. Why does Peter think it is not a disgrace to suffer as a Christian? Do you agree with him? Why?
2. Verse 18 quotes from Proverbs 11:31. Read some of the verses in the context surrounding Proverbs 11:31. What insight do you find that help you understand 1 Peter 4:18?
3. Summarize the meaning of verse 19 by paraphrasing it into your own words as a prayer offered to God.
Fourth Day: Read 1 Peter 5:1-14.Now focus on 1 Peter 5:1-5.
1. How does Peter describe himself in verse 1? How does that self-description support his credibility for giving the instructions he gives?
2. In your own words briefly state the purpose you think Peter hoped to fulfill by writing verses 1-5.
3. Describe the kind of relationship you would like to have with the leaders of your church. What do you need to do [differently] to bring about such a relationship?
Fifth Day: Read 1 Peter 5:1-14. Turn your focus to 1 Peter 5:3-11.
1. In what ways does Peter refer to humility in the focus verses? Why do you think it was important for him to communicate about humility?
2. The final part of verse 5 quotes Proverbs 3:34. Read Proverbs 3 and note the verses or phrases that seem especially applicable to your life.
3. Part of verse 7 comes from Psalm 55:22. Read Psalm 55 and list phrases that would have been especially meaningful to Peter's readers. How is the Psalm meaningful to you?
Sixth Day: Read 1 Peter 5:1-14. Focus your attention on 1 Peter 5:6-14.
1. List Peter's final commands to his readers. Which command seems most significant to you? Why?
2. What promises of God appear in the focus verses? Which is most important to you? Why?
3. Think of someone (or a family) you know that is under great pressure now. Write a prayer asking God to help them victoriously persevere under that pressure.