1 Peter 3

Icon of St. Peter
by the hand of David Clifton

The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your Holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

BLESSED BE THE GOD AND FATHER of our Lord Jesus Christ!
According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again
to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ
from the dead (1 Peter 1:3).

The Sermon on the Mount makes no sense:

Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the sad, the despised, the spurned.

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who despise you.

When struck, do not retaliate, but rather open yourself to further abuse.

Give to anyone who asks something from you, even to your enemies.

And so on. The Sermon on the Mount makes no sense…unless you are a disciple of Christ and are convinced that he was God incarnate and now rules over all. To deny his divinity and yet to say that he was a good, moral/ethical teacher is to me one of the most bizarre things I’ve every heard. No! If he was not and is not God, then he was a fool who died for a delusion or else a liar who died for his blasphemy; there is no justification for living the life he proposed apart from his divinity. We try to live according to the Sermon on the Mount not because is it sensible ethical practice, but in spite of the fact that it is not sensible by any earthly standard. We try to live according to the Sermon on the Mount solely because Jesus is Lord and he said this is the way to live. The Sermon “makes sense” only in that context; it makes sense only for Christians.

But, it did something else important in its first-century Jewish context also. It was offered to the am ha’aretz, the poor of the land, those most likely to be abused by the rich and powerful, those for whom these instructions were matters of life and death. These instructions, I think, were intended in part to give these people agency — the ability to act rightly — and dignity. What do you, a Jewish peasant in an occupied land, do when a rich man or a Roman soldier shames you by slapping you in the face? You do not resort to violence, which might well result in your death. Instead, you turn the other cheek — an act of agency and dignity, a refusal to be shamed. You are, after all, a son of Abraham, equal to the rich Jew and elect beyond the imagining of the Roman. It is heaping coals of fire on the head of the rich and powerful; the shame redounding to them. It is precisely what Gandhi and his followers did to shame the British authorities and to free India from colonial rule. What do you do when a poor man asks you for something? You share what you have in solidarity with his plight — an act of agency which brings dignity to both parties. And so on throughout the Sermon. It elevates the disciples of Jesus by giving them a new identity as the blessed of God, by giving meaning — agency and dignity — to their daily suffering, and by promoting praxis that engenders solidarity with their community. Identity, suffering, and praxis: that brings us back to the themes of 1 Peter, which will play out in chapter 3 first in Christian homes, particularly in the marital relationship.

Wives and Husbands
Let’s begin by reading 1 Peter 3:1-7 with this single question in mind: To whom is Peter giving these instructions? It is important to be thorough in our answers to this question.

1 Peter 3:1–7 (ESV): 3 Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, 2 when they see your respectful and pure conduct. 3 Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— 4 but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. 5 For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, 6 as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.

7 Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.

To whom is Peter addressing these instructions?

First, Peter writes to wives, not to women in general, but to wives. More specifically, he writes to Christian wives, some of whom are in mixed marriages: Christian wife, pagan husband. Second, Peter writes to husbands, specifically to Christian husbands with Christians wives.

So, this is not generic marital and family advice; this is directed to Christians. The context of Christian faith and obedience is the context in which these instructions “make sense.” If you don’t have Jesus as Lord, if you are not striving for life in the kingdom, this teaching well well seem like foolishness. Certainly, it is foolishness to modern, Western culture — which has largely abandoned Christian discipleship — and not just foolishness, but profoundly offensive foolishness.

Let’s begin with Peter’s word to wives: “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands.” What associations do we make with the word “subject”? What does it connote to us?

What does Peter have in mind when he uses the word “subject”? Well, we are not left to wonder; Peter specifies what he has in mind. In 1 Peter 3:2 he specifies that to “be subject” means to “be respectful and to behave purely.” He goes further in 1 Peter 3:5-6 by using Sarah as an example of a wife being subject to her husband. Think about the story of Abraham and Sarah. Do you see Sarah as a doormat or a shrinking violet? Or do you see her as fellow worker with Abraham struggling together with him toward fulfilling the covenant? Sarah is not lost in the story; she is an integral part of God’s redemptive work, precisely by being subject to her husband: respectful and pure. Peter is doing something profoundly important here: he is placing Christian wives into the New Covenant — not on the periphery but in the center — just as Sarah was placed in the Old Covenant, making their marital relationships part of God’s redemptive work in the world. This is the greatest possible elevation of the “status” of a Christian wife.

Peter goes even further. I want to come at this in a roundabout way. What is the image of the “ideal woman” in our culture today? To answer that, you have only to look at the women you see in advertisements, on social media as influencers, as box office stars. Who are these people? They are typically young and beautiful, sophisticated and elite, overtly and often aggressively sexual. They are blandly interchangeable: Madonna in one generation, Beyoncé or Jennifer Lopez or Shakira in another. And, when youth and beauty fade, what happens? The cultural worth of these women diminishes, and we search for a new crop of the young and beautiful. In this disposable culture, worth is external and transitory. It is to this perversion that Peter speaks so powerfully writing to Christian wives. He says, in paraphrase:

You are more than external beauty: braiding of hair, expensive jewelry, luxurious clothes. Your worth and real beauty is internal; it is in the recesses of the pure heart, in the presence of a quiet and gentle spirit. That is imperishable beauty, precious to God.

Can you see, yet again, how Peter elevates the status of wives, by recognizing their true worth and value in God’s redemptive story? The idea that the New Testament or Christianity itself is somehow misogynistic is the farthest thing from the truth; no one in the first century — or in any century since — maintains such a high view of marriage or the Christian wife.

We can envision these instructions working well in a Christian marriage. But, what of a mixed marriage: Christian wife to pagan husband? It may be more difficult for a Christian wife to live as Peter instructs in a mixed marriage, but it is no less important, and no less a matter of the wife’s dignity and agency. In that context, she is called to mission; she becomes an evangelist. Look again at 1 Peter 3:1-2; the behavior of the Christian wife is testimony to her pagan husband and may win him to the faith. Being subject is being radically subversive; it is an act that contrasts the beauty and truth of the Kingdom of God with the shallowness and emptiness of the kingdoms of the world. The woman is not merely a wife, but a witness, and evangelist.

And what of Christian husbands? Peter devotes a single verse to Christian husbands, but it has enormous impact.

7 Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.

Do you sense there any hint of a domineering patriarchy that Christianity is so often accused of promoting? That is simply anathema to the Christian concept of marriage. Husbands, be understanding, i.e., be reasonable, empathetic, and compassionate toward your wives. Husbands, honor your wives as weaker vessels, that is, support, protect, strengthen, encourage, lift up your wives. Husbands, respect your wives’ identity in Christ, their identity that is of equal value as yours, joint heirs as they are in this gracious life. Husbands, pray with and for your wives.

I read recently that one of the great predictors of the success and fruitfulness of any society is the stability of families within it. As goes the family, so goes the culture. That is why Peter’s instructions here were — and are — so important, so foundational to the culture of resident alien Christians in the midst of pagan cultures. That is also why our enemy is currently so focused on the destruction of family: the attacks on sexual and gender norms, the demonization of patriarchy and fatherhood, the interference by the secular state in the care and raising of children. It’s an old story that has come back around with a vengeance. We need to be aware. We need to pattern our families differently as witness to the world.

A Word To All
Thus far Peter has spoken to dichotomous pairs: subjects/citizens and governments, slaves and masters, wives and husbands. While his instructions are specific to each context, there are general principles that apply to all. He summarizes those as he begins to transition to another of his themes;

1 Peter 3:8–12 (ESV): 8 Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9 Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. 10 For

“Whoever desires to love life
and see good days,
let him keep his tongue from evil
and his lips from speaking deceit;
11 let him turn away from evil and do good;
let him seek peace and pursue it.
12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”

The way to navigate all these difficult relationships is to exercise a few fundamental Christian dispositions: unity, sympathy, brotherly love, tenderness, humility. As I wrote this, I was reading a book on the origin, dogmas, and indoctrination of the woke culture (Awake, Not Woke). It was a deeply disturbing book, because the philosophy it analyzes is deeply disturbing. It is a movement that stokes division, placing everyone in one of two categories — oppressed or oppressor. The primary mode of interaction is blame. The most common attitude is suspicion, and the dominant emotions are anger and hatred. It hardens peoples’ hearts against one another. And, it encourages an “arrogance of innocence” in those who consider themselves the oppressed. It is a devilish seed that, planted and firmly rooted, will produce poisonous fruit — is, even now, producing poisonous fruit. It is ugly and cold and hard. How different that is from what Peter offers to groups that are, not infrequently, actually oppressed: unity, sympathy, brotherly love, tenderness, humility. I felt a bit “soiled” and depressed when reading that book. Then I turned to Peter and I felt cleansed and lightened. There is a better way to be human than woke philosophy propounds, a way that allows us to love life and see good days, a way to turn from evil and do good, a way to pursue peace in all our relationships. There is a way of life, and there is a way of death. Peter lays out the way of life for us: unity, sympathy, brotherly love, tenderness, humility.

One last comment about this: look at a list of ethical virtues from the classical cultures, Greek and Roman. You will recognize them: prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance. But something is missing from that classical list: humility. That is a uniquely Christian contribution to virtue that was foreign to even the greatest classical Western civilizations. To put the needs of the other above one’s own, to seek out the lowest place of service, to count others better than oneself: all of that is uniquely Christian and images in us the mind and character of Christ. That, alone, puts us out of step with the dominant culture.

Suffering for Righteousness’ Sake
Peter transitions to his next theme — suffering — with a rhetorical question. I can’t help but think it asks it tongue-in-cheek:

1 Peter 3:13 (ESV): 13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?

This from a man who was beaten publicly by Jewish authorities, arrested and imprisoned — pending execution — by Herod, forced to flee Jerusalem, and who will finally be executed by Roman authorities — and all for doing good. So, who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? Well, lots of people and institution actually. And Peter knew this. His question is not naïve; it is rhetorical. That he recognizes the reality of persecution is obvious, because he turns his attention to how to deal with it.

1 Peter 3:14–17 (ESV): 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 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, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.

It seems to me that one of the most oft repeated commands in Scripture is “fear not — do not be afraid,” perhaps because fear is such a common human response to threat. If left to your own devices, fear might be the only appropriated response; it prepares you to flee or fight. But, there is a better way precisely because we are not left to our own devices. I don’t know that Peter had Psalm 118 in mind when he wrote this, but he might have done.

1 Give thanks unto the Lord, for he is gracious;*
his mercy endures for ever.
2 Let Israel now confess that he is gracious,*
that his mercy endures for ever.
3 Let the house of Aaron now confess*
that his mercy endures for ever.
4 Indeed, let those who fear the Lord confess*
that his mercy endures for ever.
5 I called upon the Lord in trouble,*
and the Lord heard me and set me free.
6 The Lord is on my side;*
I will not fear what man can do to me.
7 The Lord takes my side with those who help me;*
therefore shall I look in triumph on my enemies.
8 It is better to trust in the Lord*
than to put any confidence in man.
9 It is better to trust in the Lord*
than to put any confidence in princes.
10 All the nations encompass me,*
but in the Name of the Lord will I cut them off.
11 They hem me in on every side; indeed, they hem me in on every side,*
but in the Name of the Lord will I cut them off.
12 They come about me like bees, and blaze like fire among the thorns,*
but in the Name of the Lord will I cut them off.
13 I was thrust aside so that I almost fell,*
but the Lord was my help.
14 The Lord is my strength and my song,*
and has become my salvation.
15 The voice of joy and deliverance is in the dwellings of the righteous;*
the right hand of the Lord brings mighty things to pass.
16 The right hand of the Lord is exalted;*
the right hand of the Lord brings mighty things to pass.
17 I shall not die, but live,*
and declare the works of the Lord.

The remedy for fear is memory and the trust that comes from it: memory of the Lord’s past faithfulness and trust that he will do likewise in the future. So, Peter says, don’t be afraid or troubled, but rather honor Christ as Lord. For many of us, this will always be a work in progress; worry is a besetting sin. Worry is like weeds in a garden, you don’t just pull them once; you weed over and over again. That is one reason that daily immersion in the Scripture — and particularly in the Psalms — is so important: it is a constant reminder of God’s constant faithfulness.

With persecution there often comes the opportunity for apology, i.e., for providing a defense for one’s actions and beliefs. And, we should be ready to do so. Why do you live the way you do? Why do you believe the things you do? It is important to think through some brief answers to those questions, to have them ready if and when asked. As our thoughts and deeds diverge increasingly from those of the prevailing culture — and that’s clearly happening — having answers ready grows more important. But as important as having answers is the spirit in which we offer them. I’ve noticed a disturbing trend over the past few years. A lot of the people with whom I agree doctrinally alienate me with the manner in which they express themselves. The mind is right, but the heart seems hard and cold. I don’t think it’s the case that defending right doctrine turns you into a jerk, but I see lots of examples of that. That’s not what Peter says: always [be] 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. It is that gentleness and respect that I often see lacking and that I struggle to maintain myself. Here, I editorialize a bit. I think our culture has lost its grasp on truth; it really doesn’t know how to think critically any longer, it doesn’t know how to recognize truth, and it’s not sure that truth really exists. Where we might have appealed to reason before, I think we must appeal more to goodness and beauty now, both in what we say and in how we say it. There is a goodness and beauty to the story we have to tell that surpasses that surpasses the character of every other story; it is winsome, attractive — but only if told in a good and beautiful manner, not shouted, not argued, not used as a bludgeon. So, be prepared with a good and beautiful answer offered in a good and beautiful spirit. That is what we are to do in times of persecution.

Even so, even doing all this, there exists the reality of suffering for the faith. Peter embeds our suffering in the suffering of Christ, and thereby gives it meaning:

1 Peter 3:17–22 (ESV): 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

For us, this is a strange passage, and it might be hard to understand just what Peter is getting at. But, Jewish readers were familiar with literature that we are not, cultural stories that we don’t share. They would have followed Peter’s train of thought quite naturally, while we have to work to do so. That’s one of the reasons I think Peter was writing to a Jewish “audience;” Gentiles would have needed much more explanation than he provides.

Let me try to summarize Peter’s logic here.

Christ’s suffering — his passion and death — was actually part of his victory, a victory fully realized in his resurrection. Taken together, these events — passion, death, and resurrection — were the proclamation of his vindication over his enemies and the great announcement of the redemption of the world. And, to whom did he first proclaim vindication and redemption? To the spirits in prison from the days of Noah. And, it is right here that we need to draw on the cultural memory of first century Jews. They heard or read, and certainly knew, the stories in the book of Enoch, stories that are referenced a few time in the New Testament literature.

Genesis 6:1-8 speaks of the sins of the sons of God with the daughters of man, resulting in mighty and wicked offspring that filled the world with evil in the generations immediately preceding the flood. These sons of God were fallen angels dedicated to the defilement and destruction of God’s creation. We are left with many questions by this brief account; the book of Enoch fills in the details. Time won’t allow me to explore it in depth here, but there is a brief passage that explains what Peter says. In it, the Archangel Michael is given instructions about the leader of these fallen angels, Samyaza:

To Michael likewise the Lord said, Go and announce his crime to Samyaza, and to the others who are with him, who have been associated with women, that they might be polluted with all their impurity. And when all their son [the mighty men in Genesis 6] shall be slain, when they shall see the perdition of their beloved, bind them for seventy generations underneath the earth, even to the day of judgment, and of consummation, until the judgment, the effect of which will last for ever, be completed.

Then shall they be taken away into the lowest depths of fire in torments; and in confinement shall they be shut up for ever.

This is the judgment of the fallen angels in the days of Noah: their offspring were destroyed in the flood and they themselves were bound pending judgment. These are the spirits in prison from the days of Noah that Peter alludes to. Through his suffering, death, and resurrection, Christ proclaims to them the vindication of God — that God has always been in the right — and Christ proclaims the redemption of the world that those spirits had attempted to defile and destroy. Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection is the proclamation of the judgment against the fallen power and the proclamation of his victory over them.

Now, we can begin to see what Peter is about. He writes to those who may well face persecution, and he connects their suffering to Christ’s suffering. Here is the point. Their suffering partakes of Christ’s suffering and serves much the same purpose: it proclaims to the powers that be — to the human social and political authorities who are persecutors and to the evil spiritual powers behind them — that Christ was right all along and that he has been vindicated through his suffering and resurrection. Those Christians who suffer are re-presenting in their own bodies the victory of Christ over all the powers; like Christ — through Christ — they, too, are victorious over the powers. And this story implies that, like Samyaza and his companions, the abusive powers are actually bound and awaiting judgment, though they think themselves free and powerful. This gives those who are suffering persecution a broad perspective and a deeper understanding of reality. A flood of judgment is coming, just as in the days of Noah, when the workers of iniquity will be swept away and the earth will be cleansed. But, just as Noah was spared and was saved from the proliferation of evil by the cleansing of the flood waters, so are the followers of Christ saved by the cleansing water of baptism. In baptism we are united with the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ, and also with his ascension to the right hand of God where all authority has been given to him. This is the meaning behind our suffering. It brings us fully into God’s redemptive story from fall — Genesis — to the renewal of all things — Revelation. It gives meaning to every moment in between.

BLESSED BE THE GOD AND FATHER of our Lord Jesus Christ!
According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again
to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ
from the dead (1 Peter 1:3).


About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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