Godliness, Persecution, and Fear
This last Sunday, we looked at a section in Peter’s letter where he addresses the fear Christians would normally experience in times of oppression. Of course, one of the big concerns for Peter’s first-century readers was persecution. Understandably, they experienced worry and fear over the threats of their day, and Peter wanted to encourage them as they faced those threats (1 Peter 3:13-17).
While we might not experience the threat of persecution in our culture today—at least not in ways Christians in other parts of the world do—Peter is nonetheless preparing us for the possibility of real oppression in our own time and place. As we will see, he is especially preparing us to not be afraid of those who might threaten us and do evil against us, all while encouraging us to continue in righteous, Christlike living.
Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened” (1 Peter 3:13-14 NIV).
A Motive to Persist in Doing Good
To start, Peter is encouraging us with a general principle: if we persist in doing good, we will likely not suffer negative consequences. Children who obey their parents will probably not get in trouble for disobedience. Drivers who don’t speed probably won’t get a speeding ticket. Employees who aren’t continually late to work probably won’t be fired for habitual tardiness. Generally speaking, doing good keeps us out of trouble. So Peter asks the rhetorical question, “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?” The answer, of course, is not many.
As Proverbs 16:7 affirms: “When the Lord takes pleasure in anyone’s way, he causes their enemies to make peace with them.” In other words, if our living pleases the Lord, even our enemies will potentially cease being our enemies. What a great motive for pursuing righteous living! When we commit to good and abstain from evil, it is more likely we will enjoy peace and “good days” (1 Peter 3:10-11).
The Possibility of Innocent Suffering
Nevertheless, Peter admits in verse 14, it is possible to suffer injustice even when you’re faithful in pursuing godliness. You can be a good Christian and suffer abuse from non-Christians, whether they are your governmental authorities, your employer, your spouse, or your neighbors (1 Peter 2:13-3:7). In our broken world, doers of good are, at best, not welcomed. Sometimes, they’re even oppressed for their faithfulness to Christ.
But if we should suffer innocently for doing good, Peter reminds us we are blessed. As Jesus informs us in his Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10). The blessing, of course, is everlasting life in God’s heavenly kingdom (1 Peter 1:3-4). Being mistreated for our faith simply means we are being treated as those who do not belong to this world. There is great comfort in knowing persecution comes because of our exilic condition. We are strangers in this world, and that means we have a blessed inheritance to look forward to with great joy (1 Peter 1:6). If you ever suffer persecution, rejoice, for it means the blessing of a heavenly homeland is waiting for you.
Reasons to Fear Not
This blessed assurance is enough to encourage us to persevere in faithfulness, but Peter goes further; he also wants to guard our hearts from fear, particularly the wrong kind of fear. So in the latter part of verse 14, he quotes Isaiah 8:12 to us. Hear those words again: “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.”
“Do not fear” is the most common command in the Bible. But God’s Word doesn’t just leave us with a command to follow, God also graciously gives us several reasons to not fear those who might do evil against us. Here are some of those reasons:
God is with you (Joshua 1:9).
God loves you (Romans 8:38-39).
God is for you (Romans 8:31).
God is your stronghold (Psalm 27:1).
God can be fully trusted (Psalm 56:11).
These all encourage us to face enemies of God with courage and trust in the Lord. They’re the reasons why Caleb and Joshua stood out as those who had full confidence in God, urging the Israelites to faithfully take possession of their Promised Land, even as the majority feared doing so (Numbers 13-14).
Of course, this does not mean we should stand against our enemies without thoughtful wisdom. When Jesus calls us to not fear those who might persecute us, he also tells us to be on guard—literally, to be cautious (Matthew 10:17, 26). In the same passage, Jesus goes on to say, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). The truths about God mentioned above give us great courage to persevere in faithfulness, but it’s also important to remember one important truth about those who might persecute us: they can never cause our souls to suffer for all eternity. Only the God of justice can do that; our enemies are not God. If anything, the Lord is the one we should fear!
It’s interesting that Peter quotes Isaiah 8:12 to encourage his original readers to face their oppressors fearlessly. The very next verse in Isaiah gives us more to meditate on. After calling God’s people to not fear hostile humans, Isaiah 8:13 tells us, “The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread.”
Peter does something similar in his letter. After quoting Isaiah 8:12 in verse 14, he then tells his readers in verse 15 to “revere,” or set apart, “Christ as Lord.” Literally, the command means to sanctify or make holy. Of course, Christ is already holy, so Peter isn’t instructing us to make him more holy. Peter is simply calling us to recognize and regard him as the holy one. Do you see the similarity with Isaiah 8:13? Because the Lord is the holy one—distinct from the rest of creation as the all-powerful one—we should reverently fear him with a healthy dose of respect. After all, only he “can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
Notice Peter’s full directive. He isn’t telling his readers to not fear, at all. He’s telling his readers to fear the right object. And there is good reason for doing so. When we properly fear the Lord rather than fellow humans, the right fear displaces the wrong fears and enables us to live in faithfulness to the Lord, no matter the threat. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor, once said, “Those who are afraid of men have no fear of God, and those who fear God have no more fear of men.”
As we consider the possibility of persecution, we should not fear it. Rather, we should prepare for it by setting apart the Lord as the one to fear.
An Open Door for Witness
And as we prepare for persecution by setting apart the Lord as the one to fear, Peter also calls us to prepare for the likely opportunities to share why our hope is in Christ. He tells us in verses 15 and 16:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
The language Peter uses here suggests this type of defense is a formal one, in a legal courtroom answering unjust charges. I know this verse is often used as a proof text for evangelism and apologetics, but given the context (righteous living in a hostile world), it is more likely that Peter intends for us to be prepared to explain why we are living with great hope while we experience suffering for our commitment to Christ. He knows people will be wondering why we patiently, meekly, humbly, submissively, and innocently endure the injustices of those in authority over us. When they ask, we should be prepared to gently and respectfully explain the reason for the hope that is in us. Doing so will allow us to hold our heads high before the Lord with a clear conscience, and those who accuse us of evil, even in formal court settings, will ultimately be exposed for their false accusations, even if we must wait for God’s final judgment.
In the end, if we must suffer, “it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:17). May we be committed to good, even if we must potentially suffer for it. And may we be prepared for the possibility of unjust persecution by fearing the Lord and by counting ourselves blessed. For our Lord himself suffered innocently to redeem us, blessing us with the assured hope of one day dwelling with him forever.
With joy in the gospel,