Previously I wrote about how 1 Peter 3:15, often the flagship Bible verse about Christian apologetics, should be read closely to inform us about what apologetics is about, particularly the end of the passage, “yet with gentleness and reverence.”
In this post, we will examine the verse as part of a broader passage on hope. Let us consider 1 singular verse, 1 Peter 3:15, in the context of the broader passage (chapter 3).
After offering instruction for citizens, employed persons, and married spouses, Peter addresses the entire church to “have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” This is a culminating thought for all members of every congregation, and for the Church as a whole. It should define all of our interactions and thoughts toward and about one another. There is no room for pettiness, deceit, or uncharitable speech. This isn’t just about when we’re together, but when we disagree. Even when someone believes something wrong. Our mannerisms should be seasoned with salt and full of grace.
Peter transitions by simplifying: Do not castigate anyone in return, or do anything wrong in return for a wrong done to you. What is our option? To bless. But for what reason? Peter quotes a psalm of David, which informs us that having a full life in God means we must keep our tongue from evil, our lips from deceit, to seek and pursue peace (Ps 34). There is no verse in the song giving us an exception.
This does not mean that any time we see someone commit a wrong that we just smile and say “bless you.” Neither as if nothing is wrong, nor with condescension as if we are better than someone because we have “blessing power.” Rather, it means that even as we contend with someone over truth we show that we wish the best for them, and hope that the best comes to them.
David writes in his song that we must seek peace and keep our mouths clean. While we often think of a “dirty mouth” as one that tells dirty jokes and swear words, filthy speech also involves slander, lying, gossip, humiliation, self promotion, and bullying. We are not to treat one another in this way. But Peter’s next transition also tells us that we cannot treat anyone in a wrong way, whether they be Christian or otherwise.
If we are zealous for the good, Peter asks, who will harm us? That is a rhetorical question, not meant to lead us to believe that the righteous never suffer, but that doing no wrong will bless us by saving us from much of the retaliation of others. He qualifies that even if we do suffer, we will be blessed, because if your suffering is not your fault, you are sharing in the suffering of Christ by suffering innocently. Christ knew what it was like to be maligned and slandered. The more innocent our behavior, the more Christlike we will be, and sometimes that means suffering like Christ.
Peter does not distinguish here between suffering at the hands of Christians or of non-Christians, and as we move into verse 15, the distinction doesn’t seem to matter. Doing good, not returning evil for evil, blessing those who revile you—all these apply to others, whether they call themselves Christian or not.
Peter supposes that his audience will face persecution from non-Christians. At the same time, he supposes that Christians will face division and pettiness from within, and possible even persecution towards one another. While the scenarios differ, our response must be the same: Loving, peace-seeking, humbled zeal.
“Have no fear of them,” Peter commands us, “nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to give a defense.”
Now we see this call for apologetics in its immediate context. Peter’s audience was vulnerable to very real and dark persecution. This wasn’t a culture like 21st century America in which, at worst, someone might call you stupid or bigoted, or say you can’t lead a public prayer to a mixed-religion audience, or remove a copy of the Ten Commandments from a courthouse lawn display that wasn’t even on your property anyway. This is a world where people could be fined, jailed, beaten, or executed just for practicing their faith at all.
Even in a world that threatening to believers, we are to have no fear, no petty words, no damage dealing, but love and peacemaking. We are to genuinely wish blessings even on the people who seek to do us the worst harm. So when we are questioned and threatened, we must be able to respond by demonstrating our hope, in both word and deed. That is what Peter means by apologetics.
It’s not easy, but it’s our calling.
If God seeks to avenge his people for wrong done to them, he will do it by his hand, on his time, in his fashion, and he alone is in charge of it.
We have to have a good conscience as we give answers to questions about our faith, says Peter. It is not our place to put others to shame. Rather, they will be put to shame for slandering us. If we are innocent of wrongdoing, then our innocence will slander them, not our combative words.
Rubber v Glue.
This is difficult, requiring that honed spiritual skill of being clever as a serpent, harmless as a dove. It requires being Christlike to the fullest. Having the best kind of intellectual answer to puzzling questions? Only some are blessed with the abilities to do that. But everyone is provided with the raw materials for submitting themselves to this humble attitude. Even if you lack the gifts of skillful dialogue or logical reasoning, in a pinch you can still express one very simple idea: hope.
Peter’s pointed illustration of what Christ did for us brings this home to the core of what our faith is in, about, and for. “Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous and the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.”
We will suffer when we proclaim our faith and answer for it. But Christ died for the other person as much as us, no more, no less. And our work is not to prove who we are or what we are, but to bring others to the Christ.
“The patience of God kept waiting,” Peter reminds us. We must be patient with others as we earnestly hope they will come around, just as God is patient with us.
Reading 1 Peter 3:15 in the context of the entire chapter teaches me that our apologetics must be harmonious, sympathetic, loving, kindhearted, and humble. It teaches me that being willing to give an answer for our hope is less about canned answers to debate questions and more about showing that hope triumphs any threat against our faith in Jesus.
But of course, we must be zealous, or our apologetics is no apologetics at all. Notice, at the end of the passage (v.21-22) the certainty with which Peter declares that baptism saves us, that God changes our character, and that Jesus resurrected and now sits on his throne.
That’s passion. We want to share it. We want to express our reasons for believing it. So that others may be brought to it. Bless them. Bless them with turning around to that amazing resurrection.
In Part 3 I examine 3:15 in the context of the entire letter of 1 Peter.