Responding to Insults and Questions (1 Peter 3:9-16)Series: 1 Peter (Living in Exile)
Part of the message of the gospel is that the God who made the land, the sky, the sea, and the fresh waters is bringing his kingdom and coming in judgment. We are his delegates — priests of the king sent into the world with this warning and with terms of peace. As our neighbors, coworkers, family members, and friends find out who we are, some will be curious and some will even be excited because they have been praying for help. Others will be dubious or even hostile.
In the West, most people haven’t minded Christians for some time. Sometimes that’s because Christians have been co-opted by the culture. But I hope we have seen in Peter’s letter the need to lean into our “foreigner” identity. We should look different. To some we will be a breath of fresh air, to others we will appear goofy, and to others we will seem like a threat to their ways and worldview. Some will ask questions, others will insult and threaten us. How should we respond? Over the next few paragraphs, Peter warns us to be ready to suffer for doing good as Jesus did. Today, he instructs us to (1) repay with blessing and to (2) prepare to defend with gentleness.
1. Insulted? Repay with Blessing (3:9-14)
It is now a given we need to accept today: people will insult us and be evil toward us. But I don’t think it helps to only have extreme pictures in our head. Ashley and I used to suddenly shape our fingers into a gun and ask one another if we believed in Jesus. That’s typically not what happens. Even in the Roman Empire, the test was not only whether you professed to obey Jesus. If you would simply offer a pinch of incense and say, “Caesar is lord,” you could often avoid trouble — even if you kept worshipping Jesus. Similarly, today, many people may not mind if we give allegiance to Jesus, as long as we mimic acceptable right, left, or woke ideology. We must prepare to die for Jesus in an instant, but it is more likely that cultural powers will tempt us to gradually compromise by praising, accepting, and giving jobs to people like them while insulting, stripping community acceptance, and taking jobs away from followers of Jesus. Friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, or even others who claim to follow Jesus will turn on us — do evil and insult.
If we take our cues from the culture, we are going to get even. Yell, call names, publicly slander them. But Peter tell us to not repay evil for evil, insult for insult. Instead, we bless them. We speak well of them and kindly to them. Jesus instructs that we love, pray for, and even greet our enemies (Mt. 5). We want them to know God and repent. We want their family to be well. I read a story of a Christian soldier who prayed and read his Bible each evening in the barracks before going to bed. Another soldier often insulted him for this. One evening, the hostile soldier threw muddy boots at him. The Christian cleaned and polished the man’s boots and returned them (Jobes, 291).
It can be hard to act like this among our family, let alone our enemies. If someone gives us a dirty look, it can be difficult to not adopt an aggressive posture, let alone bless them with kind speech. But Peter motivates us: those who bless their enemies obtain a blessing from God.
Peter cites Psalm 34:12-16 as evidence. Saul was wreaking havoc on David’s life and on Israel, but it was not within David’s authority to deal with Saul (yet). He could have taken an aggressive posture towards Saul, led an open rebellion, or publicly reviled him. Instead, David sought peace by accepting exile: he fled Israel and ended up as a foreigner among the Philistines — at the mercy of the enemies God had charged him to destroy. And yet, David was a righteous man who continually sought and pursued peace. He cried to the Lord for help, and the Lord’s ears were open to his prayer. God delivered him from both the Philistines and from King Saul.
David’s experience highlights what is so challenging about repaying our enemies with kindness — the threats of evil people endanger our families and lives in large ways. That’s when the gloves come off, right? Handle things in secular ways, right? Insult, post about it, ignore them, slash their tires. No. We keep turning away from evil and doing good. We seek peace and pursue it. We walk by faith and not by sight. If so, God will keep his eyes and ears open to our cries.
If we don’t, Peter and David warn us that “the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” That should terrify us: the Lord will turn his face against us if we repay with evil! We signed up to follow the Lord who didn’t repay with evil when unjustly murdered, so no sin is ever excused!
Peter motivates us further in verse 13 with an optimistic outlook: if we are zealous for what is good, who is there to harm us? If we really love what’s good, it is less likely that people will hurt us. That’s no guarantee. Plenty of people suffer innocently. “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” (2 Tim. 3:12), but that doesn’t mean everyone all the time will hurt us.
With respect to this, Peter offers one final admonition in verse 14. If we do suffer, God will bless us. Don’t be afraid or troubled — thinking this isn’t supposed to happen, doubting whether we are on the right side, wondering if Christ really is the holy one we keep making him out to be. He is. Suffering for righteousness is standard fare. Fear is healthy, but we are prone to make the biggest mistakes when fear of evil people dominates our minds. Let us bless the evil and be blessed by God: God’s blessings are more powerful than their evil. Next, Peter tells us to prepare for questions.
2. Questioned? Prepare, Defend — with Gentleness (3:15-16)
We must keep honoring Christ as holy in hostility because it will lead us to prepare to answer people in a way that honors him. People should question us. We are confident in the kingship of Jesus. We are confident in our hope that he will one day come with the angels, raise the dead, punish, reward, and make all things new. We are confident in the victory of God’s kingdom over the kingdom of darkness and the kingdoms of men. We are certain of salvation. And this isn’t some private Sunday-only religion. This hope reorders how we live, work, and talk Monday to Saturday. And people will ask for an explanation, a reason, a defense of this hope we speak of.
Many of you may be like I was in the past: “Defending our hope sounds great in theory, but I’m scared I won’t know what to say. I’m scared they’ll get angry. Maybe they have better reasons for not believing than I have for believing.” Those are legitimate fears that Peter addresses here.
First, are you afraid you won’t be ready? Peter says always be prepared. So don’t be afraid that you won’t know what to say, because Peter says we can get ready to always be ready. Peter writes “be ready” because he knows some aren’t ready. (But, in reality, it is a lot less likely someone will ask us about a hope we don’t feel ready to defend. Our lives won’t be changed much by a hope we aren’t ready to defend. And we certainly won’t bring up a hope we aren’t ready to defend.)
How can we always be prepared? Well, how could we have a hope we aren’t prepared to defend? Maybe we are doing and believing good things without fully knowing why. Why do we go to work? Why do we do good? Have kids? Believe God will raise the dead? How does the message of God’s kingdom make sense of reality and of the world? If we aren’t prepared to answer those questions, it means we are doing and believing some things without much basis.
So, how can we always be prepared? We need to be more thoughtful as we study, believe, and apply the Bible to our lives. The Bible as a whole isn’t a how-to manual for everyday living or salvation (though it contains some of this). Good Bible study is not simply step-by-step instructions about the nuts and bolts of every-day godly living (though we should do this!). We don’t need to know simply what to believe and what to do — we need to know why we should believe it and why that makes sense. If we don’t know that, it is likely we will veer off-course anyway.
To always be ready to answer “why?”, we need to always ask “Why?” Think about how we watch any good series like the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Star Wars (or how we read a series of books). We watch (and read) thoughtfully. We ask why characters are introduced in certain ways at certain times. We propose theories about where its all going before the ends. And when a series like Star Wars goes off the rails and concludes in a way no thoughtful person would have ever imagined, we get mad because the writers didn’t create a cohesive story or message.
The Bible is cohesive and I fear sometimes we don’t read it like that, so we aren’t ready to answer questions. God planned general history from eternity and created the world with the end in mind. The Bible is a carefully crafted account of that plan and story and it has wide-ranging implications. We don’t have to become Bible scholars to get this — we just need to keep asking why? Why tell the story in this way? Why did God save Israel in this way? Why did John tell us that Jesus healed that person? Why does Genesis begin like that? Why does Revelation end like that? How does this make sense of everything in between? What really is the Christian hope? Why does God want us to be fruitful and multiply — have kids and go to work — until that hope comes? This will gradually build a cohesive worldview that will help us confidently walk in hope and understand why we do it. Keeping asking “why?” and we will always be ready to answer “why?”
Second, are you scared they will get angry? Peter says to answer with gentleness and respect. We aren’t gentle when our confidence goes overboard. We can be confident without being condescending or pressuring people. Someone at another church texted me yesterday heartbroken because she got her friend to study with her preacher, and her friend is avoiding her now because the preacher pressured her friend — he wasn’t gentle. But, on the other hand, we will fail to answer with respect when we aren’t ready to answer. There are holes in our reasoning, they can see it, we can see it, so we get defensive, attack, or make poor arguments. But, no, if Jesus really lives, reigns, and is coming again, his Spirit must be shine through in our gentle and respectful attitude as we defend our hope.
Third, do you fear they have better reasons for unbelief than you do for belief? Peter instructs that we make a defense for the reason for the hope in you. The danger today is that we mistake “gentleness” for not offering a compelling defense at all. Maybe we offer timid suggestions or hesitate to assert concrete facts. Satan won’t be timid. Let’s be ready with a real defense.
We must leave behind feelings-based answers. “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.” I’m not a fan of that line. There will always be intellectually dishonest people who will mock our hope, but we are asking for it if we reply like that.
If we are going to be ready with rational, authoritative, biblical answers, we need to study the Bible like that. Keep reading the Bible and asking why — but don’t settle for irrational, short-cut answers. I don’t mean we should study the Bible scientifically. The Bible is not an encyclopedia. The Bible is literature, theology, and history all-in-one, and each aspect much be appreciated to study it properly. But are we studying and drawing conclusions rationally?
One way to help with that is to read the Bible in community. This community can check us. On our own, you and I make bad Bible interpretations that lead to bad Christian living. However, even that isn’t fool-proof. We have all likely sat in Bible classes where, if a genuine seeker was listening, they would leave discouraged because no one was drawing rational conclusions from the text. The authoritative message of the text wasn’t communicated. Conclusions were drawn that were full of logical missteps. People wanted the text to feel relevant, they wanted it to say something, they wanted answers to the questions they superimposed on the text, so they cut corners.
If we are all going to make a defense for the reason, we must remember that Bible study is not only intended to impart hope and transformation — it is! — but it is also intended to inform. If we inform without transforming, we will be unredeemed Bible nerds. But if we aim for transformation without information, we are going to fall on our faces when people ask us why. If we open our Bibles only hoping for our heart, emotions, and daily walk to be impacted without our intellect, we won’t be ready with a real defense. Genuine seekers aren’t going to buy light, feelings-based arguments. And the secular world won’t come at our kids with anything less than powerful, seductive, “fact-based” reasons to leave behind Jesus. Biblical defenses and Christian worldviews can stand up to atheism and secularism, but only if we prepare to defend with reason.
Consider Paul in the last few chapters of Acts as a good example of defending our hope as Peter tells us. Paul was on trial, but he acted like the resurrection was on trial. He refused to treat the gospel as private truths rationalized by feelings. He fully expected the gospel to stand up in court. When he challenged powerful rulers with the gospel, he made them feel uneasy. Our hope rests on Jesus’ resurrection. This is an objective, publicly defensible reality. If he’s dead, everything falls. If he’s alive, everything follows. We must defend why we believe it actually happened in real history and why that makes rational sense within the story of the Bible, the world, and our place in it.
While there are many unhelpful religious books, there are good authors who have carefully considered the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection and who have carefully considered the Christian worldview and written well about it. I am happy to offer you recommendations if you want some. (Maybe I can someday lead a class geared towards preparing us to be ready to defend.)
If we will both bless those who insult us and respond to doubters with logical, respectful answers, people who revile us will be put to shame. They will see our cogent answers, respectful attitude, and godly lives and realize there’s nothing harmful about us. We are just zealous for what is good and for what is true for the glory of God. If we will have that attitude even when others are cursing us, God Almighty — who is more powerful than our enemies — will bless us.