Standing in the True Grace of God, Lesson 12, Part 1

 

Originally posted January 25, 2018, at Women of Purpose.

This week we are studying 1 Peter 3:13-22, which begins with Peter’s instructions and encouragements for Christians who are suffering for their faith. He addressed suffering earlier in his letter in more general terms, when he wrote, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials” (1:6). He encouraged his readers in their variety of trials that, whatever the cause of their suffering, it served a higher purpose: to purify their faith and bring “praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (7). But now he narrows his focus to distinctively Christian suffering, because that is the cauldron in which they increasingly find themselves.

“Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” (1 Peter 3:13-18a)

Looking back in the letter, we see that Peter’s readers have experienced different kinds of trouble from unbelievers around them. They have been spoken against as evildoers (2:12), they have been recipients of evil and reviling (3:9), and they have been slandered (3:16). Despite all this, Peter states that even though they are being persecuted, as they suffer for what is right, they are blessed. He has already listed ways in which they are blessed: The eyes of the Lord are on them and his ears are open to their prayers (3:12), their imperishably precious faith is being tested and proven genuine and will result in praise and glory and honor (1:6-9), and they are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of God’s own possession, His people, recipients of mercy (2:9-10).

As Daniel Doriani comments, “These are not merely crumbs thrown to us for our obedience, but high, deep, and wide blessings which begin now and carry us into eternity.”[1]

Simon Kistemaker offers us further encouragement when he writes:

“The apostle is not blind to the possibility of physical or material attacks on Christians who are zealous to do good. He also knows that God does not forsake his children when they do his will. . . . he is teaching the readers that if they suffer physically or mentally for Christ’s sake, they will not lose, because God does not forsake them. . . . if you do good and receive harm, God stands next to you to strengthen you. . . . The possibility of suffering is rare but real. If Christians on occasion should suffer from doing what is right, they suffer for the sake of a righteous God. And God promises that he will bless them.”[2]

Jesus himself told us that persecution for righteousness leads to heavenly blessings:

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-12)

In verse 14 Peter says (depending on your translation), “Do not fear what they fear,” “Do not fear their threats,” or “Have no fear of them.” Whether he is telling us not to share their fears or to not be afraid of them themselves, his antidote applies to all fears of men that we may encounter: “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy” (15). Honoring Christ as holy is to regard him with reverent fear. He has, after all, “gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him” (22). Paul expands this picture when he writes that God exercised his great might “in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:20-23). Jesus Christ is our high and holy Lord, our Sovereign, our Savior, and it is he whom we are to fear, not mere men.

To honor Christ as holy is to inoculate your heart against fear of men. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Those who are afraid of men have no fear of God, and those who fear God have no more fear of men.” To fear God instead of men is not natural for us, and must be learned. Where better to learn about our Lord and to rightly prioritize our fears than in His Word?

“The word “fear” appears frequently throughout the Old Testament, often connected to wisdom as its source. Wisdom, in turn, is found in knowing who God is—witnessing His awesome power, coming to grips with His holy and righteous judgements, as well as understanding that He brings all things unto the ends for which He has appointed them”[3]

So, to learn to rightly fear Christ, we mine the Scriptures in Bible study, sit under the teaching and preaching of God’s Word in worship, pray for greater illumination and rightly-ordered priorities, and fellowship together with our brothers and sisters in the Lord. In short, we make use of the means of grace which the Lord has made available to us!

Peter next tells us to “always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks [us] for the reason for the hope that is in us” (15). To be prepared to share such a hope, we must first know what it is, and what it is not. My hope is not in the clemency of an earthly judge, the sympathy of governing authorities, the humanity of my opponents, or any goodness within my own heart. The content of my hope is Christ and what he has done for me. I find that the answer to the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism sums it up rather beautifully:

Q: What is your only comfort in life and death?

A: That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven: in fact, all things must work for my salvation. Because I belong to Him, Christ, by His Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for Him.

Peter goes on to exhort us to have an attitude of gentleness and respect when we share our hope. Doriani, commenting on this passage, gives two very good reasons for such a humble attitude: “Since Jesus is Sovereign over all, we should not fear whatever might befall us. Second, since Jesus is Lord, we should fear him, not what any lesser power can do.”[5] See how it all flows together? The right fear of the Lord undergirds all our lives and our interactions with unbelievers, enabling us to respond to questions and even threats, not with threats in return, but with gentleness and respect. We don’t want to confirm our opponents’ opinions of us and be “written off as nasty hate-mongers.” For, as Don Carson so poignantly says, “We are never more than poor beggars, telling other poor beggars where there is bread.”[6]

Peter couples our attitude of gentleness and respect with a good (or clear) conscience, and we have been given several scripture passages to flesh this out (2 Cor. 1:12; 1 John 1:6-9; 2:5b-6; Rom. 2:21-24). These passages speak of living with integrity regarding our profession of faith, and not being hypocritical about what we believe versus how we live. These are excellent definitions of conscience, and I believe they are involved in what Peter is saying, but in the context of persecution, I think Peter is driving at something more specific.

We recently celebrated the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, marked by Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the All Saints Church at Wittenburg.  In the wake of the controversy stirred up by his theses and the questions they raised, Luther was called before the princes of the church and state, and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles, to be tried for heresy at the Diet of Worms. When he was commanded to repudiate his writings, he replied simply, yet boldly:

“Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”[7]

Driven against the wall by his persecutors who demanded that he denounce and abandon what he had written and taught, Luther held tightly to that which he most deeply believed to be true—he did not violate his conscience. His inquisitor could have had him thrown in jail, excommunicated, even killed. But to deny his belief would have been far more damaging still. As he later wrote in the hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God;

“Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still; His kingdom is forever.”[8]

This is, I believe, what Peter is urging us to do. We must know what we believe and not compromise when persecuted. We in America aren’t facing the extremes of persecution for our faith that Peter’s readers, and multitudes of our brothers and sisters throughout the ages have lived and died under—yet. But even still, we do have occasions when we face uncomfortable situations (at least), and we must stand true to our faith. Rather than withdrawing from the culture, let us take those stands with a firm gentleness which will speak to the depth of our belief.

When we hold firm to our confession, God himself will vindicate us. We maintain a good conscience, so that, as Peter writes, “when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (16). And later, “but they will give an account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (4:5).

After all, we are following the example of our Savior, because, “Christ also suffered for us” (18). Jesus suffered as an innocent victim, and so we too may be called to suffer, as innocent victims, “if that should be God’s will,” as we obey him in doing good (17).

The suffering of our Lord is never far from Peter’s mind, and it forms the ground upon which he anchors his exhortations for how we are to live. Looking carefully at the details of verse 18a, we find a wealth of theological treasure and comfort.

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.”

Christ suffered for sins, because, “Our sins were the obstacle preventing us from receiving the gift he wanted to give us. So, they had to be removed before it could be bestowed. And he dealt with our sins, or took them away, by his death.”[9] It took the death of the Son of God to deal with our sins, because, as the author of Hebrews points out, no amount of the blood of bulls and goats could wash them away (Heb. 10: 1-7, 10).

Christ’s once for all suffering was sufficient to cleanse our sins, and therefore no more sacrifices are needed; it is finished. No more temple rituals, no more sacrificial system (Heb. 9:24-28).

As our substitute, Christ the righteous suffered for the unrighteous. We are the unrighteous, sinful beings who deserve the death which is the rightful penalty for sin. But Jesus had no sins of his own for which death was due. He took our place in the great exchange of the cross, the sinless One dying for the sinful many (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 7:26-27).

And the reason he died for us? To bring us to God! Through his atonement made for us, we now have access to God. In Christ, every barrier to fellowship with the Father is thrown down and we are brought near to Him (Eph. 2:11-13; Heb. 10:19-22). As John Stott ably put it, “The beneficial purpose of his death focuses down on our reconciliation. . . . The salvation he died to win for us is variously portrayed: redemption, forgiveness, deliverance, new or eternal life, or peace with God and the enjoyment of his favor and fellowship.”[10]

We are now at the brink of what is arguably the most confounding passage of Scripture in the entire New Testament. The one thing that theologians down through the ages agree upon concerning 1 Peter 3:18b-22 is that they disagree about what it means. I certainly won’t be solving that riddle, but I will give you a few of the main interpretations, some clearly wrong when held up to the rest of Scripture, and some which are probable explanations of the text. I do have a ‘favorite,’ (but I probably wouldn’t hold it under persecution). Rather than squeezing it into the rest of this post, I will give it its own space in Part 2 of lesson 12. Stay tuned…


[1] Daniel M. Doriani, Reformed Expository Commentary, 1 Peter, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2014), 142.

[2] Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of 1 Peter, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1986/1987), 132.

[3] Kim Riddlebarger, The Blessings of Fearing God, Tabletalk, January 2018, Vol. 42, No. 1, p. 21.

[4] http://www.heidelberg-catechism.com/en/lords-days/1.html

[5] Doriani, 138.

[6] Don Carson, “Sharing Christ’s Sufferings; Showing His Glory,https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/conference/resurrection-life/

[7] Roland Bainton, Here I Stand (Nashville: Abington, 1950), 15. (quoted by R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 1985), 83.

[8] Martin Luther, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, 1529, Trinity Hymnal (Suwanee, GA: Great Commission Publications, 1990) 92.

[9] John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1986), 67.

[10] Ibid., 67,

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