FOCUS ON CHRIST RATHER THAN YOUR FEARS, 1 Peter 3:13 – 16, September 10, 2020
Reflection | Peter just provided us, as followers of Jesus, with the road map for living a life that is both fulfilling and makes a positive impact. When we live in unity, with sympathy and compassion for each other, along with humility and brotherly love, we bear faithful witness to the Gospel of Christ. Practically, living like Jesus means that we bless rather than curse others – specifically and especially, blessing those who do wrong by us. The way of Christ is taking the high road that rises above the cycle of violence and vengeance that marks this broken world. Evil is defeated by goodness – not by returning in kind.
With verse 13, Peter asks a seemingly odd question: “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?” We can hear what he is asking in two ways. On the one hand, Peter could be suggesting that no one mistreats people for doing good things. While certainly this is generally true in most times and places, it is not always the case. Earlier in his letter, Peter pointed out just such a possibility (see 2:20). And in verse 14, Peter follows his question with the acknowledgement that Christians may very well suffer for the sake “of what is right.”
Peter knows that being well-behaved doesn’t always protect Christians from persecution. Jesus, our leader and teacher, in ministering to tax collectors and sinners, foreigners, the sick, and the dying, suffered for daring to cross socially defined lines of class, ethnicity, morality, and public safety. As followers of Jesus we too may suffer for going beyond or above the standards of whatever is defined as civil behavior in order to do what is right.
If Peter’s question isn’t declaring some sort of general rule that troublemakers find trouble and those who behave rarely are hassled, what is he trying to say? Peter, while not denying the very real possibility of harm that can come to those who walk the same road as Jesus, is declaring, at the same time, such harm can only reach so far. In other words, those opposed to Christ may inflict suffering on the body, even death itself, but they cannot destroy the spirit or the soul of a Christian. Our salvation is safeguarded in the hands of our Father in heaven.
As God’s saved, set-apart children, secured by Jesus for eternity, we are, we remain, an indefatigable people of the Resurrection. Before every threat and every persecution borne of the Gospel, our God always gets the last word. And that word is redemption. It is because of this hope, this truth, that Peter boldly asserts we are “blessed” if we suffer for doing what is right. He is echoing one of Christ’s proclamations from the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus declares blessed are those who suffer because of righteousness (see Matthew 5:10-12).
Peter addresses our potential rebuttal to this claim as he quotes from Isaiah 8:12, telling us, “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened” (verse 14). These words spoken by the Lord to Isaiah come against the backdrop of the combined armies of Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel having destroyed much of Judah. As this hostile confederacy is now circling the city of Jerusalem, God is encouraging both the prophet of Isaiah and the inhabitants of the city not to waver in the face of the opposition they are facing.
How can they possibly do this? The answer is to fear God rather than human beings. Fear is being invoked in the biblical sense — not in terms of dread or terror but of reverence, awe, wonder. Hence Peter adds, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord” (verse 15).
We all experience fear in the face of suffering or loss. The key is what we do with our fear. If we give into to our fear, then our attention and our energy becomes focused on avoidance or appeasement towards whatever is threatening us. Inevitably, such fear turns into anxiety – anxiety which preoccupies and paralyzes us. Peter’s counsel, born of a word given long ago to Isaiah, is not to fixate on what we fear but to focus on the One whom we revere as our Savior.
To revere or honor Christ as Lord in our hearts is to consciously and purposefully remember who Jesus is and what He has done and continues to do for us. It is to look to the Cross and hope in the Resurrection of Christ. It is to recognize that Jesus is more than our Savior. Jesus is the King of all creation – sovereign over all existence, all things are subject to Him. When we choose to direct our attention on Christ, we find and are strengthened by hope. This hope as Peter reminded us earlier is a living hope (1 Peter 1:3-4) – the living hope of the God whose love for us is stronger than death, whose victory of Resurrection over the Cross testifies to the power of this God to bring triumph out of suffering.
When we set apart Christ as Lord, the hope we receive from Jesus will change us. Peter says those who observe us will notice the difference – the difference of our hope. Thus, he instructs us, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” The Greek word translated as “give an answer” or “make a defense” is from the root word apologia. However, the meaning of this word is not like our English word “apology,” where one expresses regret or remorse for something. No, the meaning of the word Peter uses here is to “answer back,” to “offer a justification or a reason.” When we talk about apologetics or being a Christian apologist, this word is in view as we are speaking of providing a defense – a rational or reasonable account – for our faith in Christ.
Something that stands out in Peter’s directive here is the need to be prepared. Before the curiosity of others, we must be ready to offer a response as to why we can be so surprisingly hopeful in the midst of challenging circumstances and even difficult and threatening situations. There is a difference between an informed and thoughtful response to a question and a reactive or vacuous answer such as “Just because it makes sense to me” or “I don’t really know…”
If we know about Jesus but don’t know Jesus, if we not are regularly conversing, listening to, and learning from Jesus through His Word and Spirit, then we will not be ready to be an effective witness when the opportunity arises. Something crucial for us to appreciate here. The answer we need to be prepared to give is not a matter of personal study as if we were getting ready to take a test. Many of us worry that when the moment comes, we won’t have an answer to give because we won’t know what to say. But Jesus has promised us the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit whenever we are testifying about the faith (see Mark 13:11 or Matthew 10:19-20 or Luke 12:12). The answer we need to be prepared to give is a byproduct of both study and experience borne out of a relationship with the living God. If we abide in that relationship, we have everything we need when the time comes for us to speak.
In communicating a message, the adage goes that “It is not just about what you say but how you say it.” Likewise, Peter guides us to be mindful not only of giving the reason for the hope we have but also to share our answer “with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience” (verses 15-16). Sadly, many Christians tend to get too defensive when they are “defending the faith.” But Peter is charging us to be less reactive and combative and more considerate and deferential in how share the Gospel with others.
To adopt this approach, we must stop reacting to the questions we are asked about the faith like an interrogation. Sharing the Gospel is not about winning a debate. We lose more than we gain in defending the faith in the manner of a cursory, one-off disposition about what we believe. Instead, we need to perceive such questions as an opening for the start of an ongoing conversation wherein we can introduce those asking to the One in Christ whom we trust and follow.
And even when the questions put to us are done so out of a spirit of antagonism and hostility, Peter urges us to maintain “a clear conscience.” Meaning, we still need to remain calm and honoring in our response rather than insulting, dismissive, or vindictive towards those who disagree. This comes back around to the larger point that Peter has been trying to make in this chapter – how we respond is as much or more of an expression of the Gospel than the specific content of our reply.
Peter explains why it matters how we make the case for Christ: “so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” When we convey our relationship with Jesus without having done even the slightest hurtful thing, we make the light of Christ even harder to deny. Without any cause to accuse us, those who attack us will become aware of their own wrongdoing in censuring us in the first place.
Confronted with nothing but their shame, such persons will find themselves ideally positioned to receive the forgiveness and love of Jesus. Whether or not, they will recognize and respond to the gracious invitation of the Gospel is not for us to control. We are only witnesses. We can only point to Jesus in everything we say and do.
Let us not be tempted to hide our faith in Christ out of fear. Let us reject the cultural pressure to keep our beliefs to ourselves. Peter calls us to make the hope we have in Jesus evident to a watching world. Hopefulness and joy are starkly different from the typical human response to uncertainty and suffering. A posture like that turn heads, cultivates curiosity, and inevitably raises questions. We need to be ready when the moment comes to openly share the good news of the relationship we have with Jesus – with humble compassion and respect towards others. In responding this way, we get out of the way and leave room for the Holy Spirit to plant a seed of faith in a life of another person or perhaps even harvest a seed that was previously sown for the salvation of that individual and the glory of God.
Consider & Discuss | If someone asked you why you had hope in life, how would you answer them? Are you ready to give an explanation of the faith if someone asks? When was the last time you had the opportunity to do so? What is the difference between giving a defense and being defensive? Are gentleness and respect your usual demeanor when answering an opposing view about Jesus? How might both the answer you give and how you share it become different if you engaged Christianity more as a relationship with Jesus and less of a religion about Jesus?
Prayer Focus | Heavenly Father, illumine our hearts and minds through Your Word and Spirit. Redirect our vision and our focus away from what we fear, from what is unknown, and even from the pain we are suffering, and give us eyes to see Jesus more clearly. Nudge us forward in following Christ step by step and day by day. Spur us on to engage with You more regularly and more closely in every moment and situation we face. Out of this relationship You have graciously initiated with us, that You maintain even when we don’t, remind us of the hope we have in You and teach us to live out of that hope. And when others – others that You’ve drawn to us – notice the hope of You working in and through us even as the world around us in falling apart – as they ask and seek answers from us – inspire and shape the answer we give so that is fully, rightly, and gloriously reflects who You are and the life You extend to all through Jesus Christ. Amen.