In just a couple of days, the Obama presidency will end and the Trump presidency will begin. What will not change is the primary loyalty of Christians. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” says Paul in Philippians 3:20, and no election can change that. By the same token, no election can fundamentally alter the hostility the world feels toward the lordship of Christ. And while the new administration may be less prone to use the levers of government to limit religious freedom, there is no doubt that the broader culture’s hostility toward the faith is only going to intensify.
In other words, we have come to the very circumstance facing the readers of Peter’s first letter. These Christians were not yet in the crosshairs of the government, but they were on the receiving end of growing social hostility against the church. The pagans “speak against you as evildoers,” Peter says in 2:12. The Christians were “slandered,” and their good behavior was “reviled”(3:16). He goes on to say that the unbelievers “malign” (4:4) the people of God, and that his readers are “insulted for the name of Christ” (4:14).
So these disciples were scorned by the pagans around them for the moral commitments they made. The civil government, however, was not yet involved. In fact, Peter says that under ideal circumstances the government will protect Christians from anything worse happening (2:14). But it is clear that Peter sees trouble on the horizon, a time when even doing good would not spare Christians from harm (3:13-14a).
We are facing much the same situation today. Anyone who publicly challenges the prevailing dogmas of our decadent culture on issues like same-sex marriage can expect ridicule, insults, and contempt. A pleasant fellow on Twitter once told me he was praying for me to break my neck! And the power structures of the media, academia, and big business have made no secret of the social pressures they seek to accelerate against us if we openly stand for the gospel.
So how should we respond? Here’s what Peter says to these Christians headed into troubled waters.
1. Don’t be afraid. “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled” (3:14b).
As Peter encourages his readers not to be frightened or intimidated, he draws from Isaiah 8:12, where the prophet encouraged Judah not to fear the allied powers of Syria and Israel. The Lord wanted Judah to realize that while it seemed like the situation was hopeless, that great powers seemed poised to overwhelm it, that He was still Lord, and there was no need to fear their intimidation. Peter wants his readers to know the same thing.
This is a time that is easy to be fearful. Schools that maintain codes of conduct could lose accreditation, and with that, federal aid money for students. Churches could soon lose tax exempt status unless they permit their facilities to be used for same-sex weddings. And the level of social stigmatization is only going to increase.
But Peter says, “Have no fear”!
Why? Because “you will be blessed” (3:14). Where did he get that idea? From Jesus, who taught His disciples that persecution and insults are not signs of humiliation but signs of citizenship in His kingdom, and “to rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great” (Matt. 5:10-12). Christians have no reason to be afraid because love has already won through Christ’s death and resurrection. He overcame all the powers arrayed against Him, and through faith in the conquering Christ we will overcome (1 Peter 3:18, 21b-22).
That’s why we must…
2. Keep Jesus first. “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy” (3:15a).
This also comes from Isaiah 8 (verse 13). Judah is not to fear others because it only fears the Lord. Peter applies this statement to Jesus. We are to set Him apart above all human authority.
Now at one level this means that if I have to make a choice between Jesus and the government, I choose Jesus (2:13). But I have another application in mind. It is easy in times like this to be so caught up in the political aspects of issues that we lose sight of our fundamental mission, which is not social reform, but spiritual reform. If we see issues primarily in political terms, we will view those with whom we disagree as political opponents, objects of scorn and targets for defeat.
But Christians must see issues primarily in spiritual terms, in which the answer is not the Constitution but Christ. And those who do not submit to His Lordship must not be seen as opponents but precious souls loved by God, wounded by sin, and in need His gracious healing, as we all are (2:24-25). And if we keep Jesus first and preach the gospel, then whatever the courts and legislatures decide on any issue, we can still change peoples’ lives in the only way that really matters.
But to do this we need to be ready to articulate our faith.
3. Be ready to defend what you believe. “Always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (3:15b).
There was a day in our culture when issues could be decided simply by appealing to Scripture. Those days are long gone. Many people don’t believe the Bible, and others have manipulated the meaning of the Bible to match the times. But the silver lining in this is that we are now going to be forced to learn how to make the case for the lordship of Christ, the authority of Scripture, and the incoherence of the pagan worldview.
This is no time for intellectually flabby Christians. As Peter says in 1:13, we must prepare our minds (“gird up the loins of our mind”) for action. Look at the example of Paul. He knew how to reason with pagans (Acts 14, 17; Romans 1). When Paul engaged the philosophers in Athens, he knew their writings, he knew how they thought, and he knew how to find enough common ground to praise what they had right but then expose what they had wrong. That’s what it means to “be prepared to make a defense.”
But notice – the specific thing that Peter wants them to be able to defend is their hope. Let’s not forget that what we believe and defend is not just a dry theological system, but what Peter says in 1:3 is a “living hope”. Christians who present a snarling, angry, panicky presence to the world will never be asked about their hope, and never have an opportunity to defend it.
So don’t be afraid, keep Jesus first, and be ready to defend your beliefs, beliefs that are ultimately about hope. That grounding will enable us to have the right attitude, so that we are sure to make our case with the right demeanor.
4. Defend your faith with the right attitude. “Yet do it with gentleness and respect” (3:15c).
“Gentleness” refers to “the quality of not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance,” and could be translated as “courtesy, considerateness.” And “respect” could refer either to reverence for God (2:17) or respect for that person. In other words, we are to be winsome and well-mannered.
The contemporary political climate is one in which it is so easy for us to let emotions run away from us, to respond to the barrage of insults and vitriol in like manner. But as a wise man named Yoda said, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” An even wiser man said this – “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Do remember the next verse? “And give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:27). The evil one can exploit anger and use it to discredit Christians.
We must speak up, but we must do so like people who know they are loved eternally, who have a living hope, and who have compassion on those who need the grace of God as surely as we do. Let me be clear – no matter how kind you are, if you declare that Jesus is Lord and that He calls sinners to repent, you can expect the slander, maligning, and reviling that Peter says his readers are facing. But you should be courteous simply because it is the right thing to do. We must hold our convictions with the cheerful courage of Christlikeness in not only in what we say but how we say it.
But maybe even more important is how we live.
5. Practice what you preach. “Having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (3:16).
We must live in a way that is consistent with our beliefs so that we have a good conscience. How can we explain the hope we have in Christ while living in a way that flatly contradicts that hope?
We cannot teach about the way God has ordered male/female sexual nature toward marriage and family if we are living impure lives. We cannot hope to show that marriage is the union of a man and woman if we are defying that union by infidelity and broken promises. We cannot teach about the sanctity of marriage if we are treating our spouse in an unholy way.
Peter exhorts his readers in 2:11 to abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul. But many professed Christians have simply surrendered, utterly compromising the ability to stand against the progression of depravity we now see. If you want to stem the tide, then begin first by drawing a line in the sand of your own heart and say that the tide stops here, that you will “keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles” (2:12).
These are dark days, but not the darkest. Christianity was born in a world far more decadent. Christians then were called to respond with faith in Christ, hope for glory, and love for all people. And with that kind of faith, hope, and love we can withstand the battering waves of our degenerate culture with cheerful courage.
If you have ever read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, you know that as Tolkein’s heroes would go off to fight they would often sing songs. We have our battles to fight, our dragon to slay. But let us be joyful warriors who sing the songs of Zion along the way, and fight with cheerful courage.