As we have seen, Peter applied his exhortation in 2:11–12 (to pursue honourable conduct before unbelievers) to specific situations: Christian citizens before an unbelieving government (2:13–17), Christian employees before unbelieving employers (2:18–25), Christian wives before unbelieving husbands (3:1–6), and, in a slight digression, Christian husbands before believing wives (3:7). His final application is broader as he exhorts every church member to behave honourably to those who oppose them (3:8–17).
I will consider these verses in two separate sittings with a focus on vv. 8–12 this morning and then vv. 13–17 tomorrow morning, even though the verses form a unified thought.
The question before us today is, how should Christians respond generally to unbelievers who oppose and oppress them? South African Christians in 2021 may not know the sort of oppression that Peter’s readers were facing but, even if we are not under this sort of pressure right now, the lessons we learn here will prepare us well for any suffering we might face for our faith in the future.
The goal of honourable behaviour, you will remember, is to allow no hindrance to the work of the gospel. Specifically, Peter wants unbelievers to have no justification for rejecting the gospel “on the day of visitation” (2:12), but honourable behaviour also has the benefit of positively modelling gospel grace in a winning way (3:1). To allow the gospel to do its work, Peter offers two pieces of advice.
First, respond to opposition by pursuing unity in the church. “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (v. 8). While the church should certainly pursue unity for its own sake in the face of diverse opinions and minor doctrinal differences, Peter does not have that in mind here. He is not concerned, in this context, about the church’s harmony in the face of differing opinions about masking mandates and vaccines. The unity he envisions here is not primarily for the harmony of the church but for the witness of the church. Unity in the face of opposition displays a consistent gospel witness to a watching world.
It is a sad reality that disunity within and between churches tends to flourish in times of peace. When there is no major enemy threat, Christians frequently find ways to divide themselves, quibbling over minor doctrinal and practical differences. Churches under the fire of affliction have a way of uniting under the essential truths of the gospel. This provides consistency of witness to an unbelieving world.
Preparing for persecution means, in part, pursuing unity within and among churches. It means understanding that there are core truths to unite around as Christians. It means embracing the truth that “there is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:4–6). Maintaining a faithful gospel witness in affliction means, in part, pursuing unity and brotherly love and tenderness and humility in the church.
Second, respond to opposition by avoiding a vindictive response to your opponents. As Peter writes, “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” (v. 9). Giving into the passions of the flesh will result on a vindictive response. A Christlike response avoids vindictiveness and thereby brings no reproach upon the gospel.
Peter argues here that churches under affliction will have an easier time if they are humble and gentle than if they push back vindictively. While there is a time to protest and push back, gentleness in the fires of affliction is usually more effective than retaliation, particularly for the church’s gospel witness. Churches that are known for fighting and retaliation may lose out on gospel opportunities.
The motivation for a unified, non-retaliatory response to opposition is the divine gaze (vv. 10–12). Peter is less concerned about a watching world than he is about a watching God. God watches how we respond to opposition, as he watches those who inflict opposition. He calls us to respond in a way consistent with the gospel and to leave matters of judgement and correction to him.
As you reflect this morning on 1 Peter 3:8–17, ask God to help you to respond in a gospel-appropriate way to the affliction you may face. Learn to model these attitudes and actions now so that, if persecution does arise, the Lord’s ears will be open to your prayers.