This passage is the concluding section of Peter’s ethical instructions that began in 2:11-12, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” The letter, from that point on, had addressed various societal relationships and how exactly Christians can keep their conduct among unbelievers honorable. That included being subject to the governing authorities “for the Lord’s sake” even when that meant “suffering unjustly” (1 Pet. 2:13-25). It included wives submitting to their husbands, even to unbelieving husbands, out of obedience to Christ, and husbands honoring their wives and living with them in an understanding, sympathetic way.
After addressing these relationships, Paul concludes by issuing a general exhortation to all believers in Verse 8 “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” The way Christians live with one another is an important aspect of our witness to the watching world.
Modern writers typically list things in descending order or importance, but ancient writers often used a sandwich structure, by putting the most important, climactic part of the list, the meat, in the middle between the pieces of bread. This is the case in Verse 8. The first and last demands talk about how we ought to think about ourselves in relation to other people, and the second and fourth commands talk about how we ought to feel toward other people, and brotherly love, sandwiched in the middle, sums it all up.
Recognizing this structure is helpful for understanding what these words are supposed to mean. We are to have “unity of mind,” have “one mind” or “think alike.” The word does not mean that we have to hold identical opinions, but that we ought to be sensitive and agreeable toward one another’s concerns. It is a call for unity, not uniformity. And the corresponding term, “humble mind,” confirms this. The word for “humble mind” has a derogatory meaning of “low” or “base” mind in all other Greek literature of the time (cf., e.g., Plutarch, Mor 336E; 475E), except Christian literature (cf., e.g., Ign Eph 10.2; Barn. 19.3; Herm. Man. 11.8). The ancient world saw humility as a vice, not a virtue, yet this was radically altered by Christians, who saw humility as the fountainhead and source of all other virtues, because they saw it embodied in their Savior, Jesus Christ.
The second word, “sympathy,” means to feel with, and it involves rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep. It involves suffering with one another, and corresponds to the fourth word, “a tender heart,” a compassionate heart. And “brotherly love” sums this all up. We are to love one another as brothers and sisters. This is a wonderful picture, because sibling love is unique. Most other forms of loving relationships are deliberately entered into. Generally, you choose your wife or husband, and choose your groups of friends, but you do not choose your siblings. You have no say in the matter, because you are siblings not by virtue of mutual interest, but by the virtue of having the same parents. Likewise, we are brothers and sisters in Christ, not by our choice, but by the choice of our heavenly Father. We share the same Father. So notwithstanding each other’s quirks, unusual habits, and odd opinions, we learn to enjoy, and, at times, endure one another. Even when we don’t like each other, we love one another. We suffer one another and suffer for one another, because no matter what people outside the family might say of our siblings, in Christ, they are our brothers, and they are our sisters. This is a way to keep our conduct among unbelievers honorable. This is one way to be suffering witnesses for Christ, because, as John 13:35 says, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
There is another way to be suffering witnesses for Christ, and that is by suffering at the hands of others. Verse 9 says, “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.” Now, Peter is turning his attention to our relationships to unbelievers. When people say an evil word to you, say a good word to them. When people malign you, slander you, curse you, bless them, and pray for them. Offering God’s blessing, the saving grace available through Christ, to them. This is an application of Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:44, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
And why should we do this? He says, “for to this you were called,” that’s the reason why we bless when reviled, “for,” “because,” we were called. Peter had spoken earlier about the Christian’s call in 1 Peter 1:14-19: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’ And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” Because we have been ransomed from our futile ways, because we were purchased not with silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, because we are now associated with and intimately related to our Father who is holy, bless, when you are reviled.
Then, Peter offers a few more encouragements to motivate us for this difficult task, “that you may obtain a blessing,” it says in verse 9. By doing this, we will obtain blessing from God. Then, Peter continues by quoting Psalm 34:12-16 in Verses 10-12, “For ‘Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit; let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”
This is almost a word-for-word quotation of Psalm 34:12-16, but he interestingly leaves the last part of verse 16 out. Verse 16 is supposed to end, “The face of the Lord is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth.” Peter intentionally leaves the last part of the verse out, because he knows that the time of judgment of the ungodly is not yet, and he doesn’t want his readers to put their hope in divine vengeance and vindication in this life. Now, is the time of divine patience, not vengeance. As Peter says in his second letter, Chapter 3, verse 9, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
Maintaining “peace” with everyone (Rom. 12:18) and non-retaliation are important principles in Christian ethics. This is why Martin Luther King Jr., a leader of the Civil Rights Movement and a pastor said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can. Hatred cannot drive out hatred, only love can.”
Of course, generally speaking, when you do good and speak well of others, people are not going to be antagonistic and hate you. So peter says in verse 13, “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?” But Peter also recognizes that sometimes even good deed and speech will meet with hostility. So he adds in verse 14-17 “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” Sometimes we will be persecuted for righteousness’s sake, but this is when we are called to be suffering witnesses for Christ, by suffering at the hands of others.
When we suffer at the hands of others, instead of having “fear” in our “hearts,” we should “honor Christ … as holy” in our “hearts.” These two things are directly related because it is fear of God that drives out the fear of man. Most people in this world live with the fear of man. They are controlled by whatever and whoever can give them, or deprive them of, what they need. But when we see God as he really is, when we see that Christ is the holy Lord, whose “eyes … are on the righteous … but [whose] face … is against those who do evil” (verse 12), we see how small and insignificant men are by comparison. Those who have swam in the ocean waves are not afraid of the splashes in the kiddie pool. Those who have witnessed the grandeur of the Grand Canyon are not impressed by a neighborhood gorge. In the same way, those who have been in the presence of God, fear no man. And by refusing to buckle and fight back when suffering at the hands of others, we honor Christ because we are trusting that though people may be against us, he is for us, because our abiding trust declares that we care more about what Christ thinks and wants than what people think and want. That brings honor to Christ and makes him look precious! When we obey with our hope set on eternity, it shows to the watching world how valuable, how precious, and how real Christ is to us!
Peter continues that we ought to honor Christ as holy, not only by suffering at the hands of others as a demonstration of our hope, but also by being prepared to make a defense of our hope. Verse 15 says, “in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” “Make a defense” is a legal terminology that refers to a formal defense. This means that we must think our response through. Yet we must “always” be prepared to make a defense to “anyone,” so this is not only in the court of law, but a command for everyday and everywhere. We, as Christians, are in some respects always on trial. We can’t just tell people “this is just the way it is” or “just believe and don’t ask questions.” We must give a reason. When we do a good work and someone asks us why we did so, saying, “oh it’s nothing, it’s simply the right thing to do” is not humble and self-effacing, that is prideful and self-exalting! It’s taking credit and glory away from God! Are we so righteous that it is obvious and natural for us to do the right thing? No! As Christians, we know better than that. Any good that people are able to do is due to God’s common grace, and as Christians, those who have received God’s special grace, we recognize that we are desperately wicked sinners who have been saved by a gracious Savior. We do the right thing because of who God is and what he has done for us.
The fact that we are “always [to be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks [us] for a reason for the hope that is in [us]” means that, in an important sense, we are “on trial” every day as we live for Christ in an unbelieving society. Do we live every moment of our days as if we were on trial for our faith? The world is watching…
So when a friend informs us that a neighbor has been gossiping about us and slandering us, we refuse to gossip and slander them, but instead graciously admit our shortcomings, because we know that our ultimate judgment is rendered by God and not by men. When our neighbor bumps our car and causes a small damage, instead of insisting that he pay for it, we tell him not to worry about it, because our hope is not in our possessions here and now but in our inheritance in eternity. When a waiter or a hostess at the restaurant is rude toward us, instead of glaring at them and leaving a terrible tip, we smile at them and leave a generous tip, because our hope is not in our pride but in the glory of our God.
We are called to suffer at the hands of others for the sake of the credibility of our witness. This is precisely what some of the Christian Campus Ministries are doing throughout the colleges in the U.S. They are getting kicked off campus for upholding Biblical, sexual ethics and refusing to sign off on the college’s non-discrimination policies. Even though they could build a compelling legal case based on the First Amendment and the right to Religious Freedom, they are not suing the colleges, because, on principle, they don’t want to bring legal charges against the very people whom they are witnessing to. They’d rather forego the privileges of being an approved, campus organization with college funding and use of college venues, they’d rather suffer at the hands of others, than force the issue and lose credibility as witnesses on campus.
This doesn’t mean that we never stand up for our legal rights and get pushed around by everybody. Paul used his Roman citizenship to escape imprisonment and even demand an audience with Caesar in court. But the underlying principle is the same, Paul appealed to his legal rights for the sake of his witness, in order to gain a platform for his testimony. When faced with suffering at the hands of others, the question we need to ask is, not “do I have a case?” or “can I win?” or “what can I get by fighting back?” but “what would make me a credible witness?” “What course of action would best show the hope that I have in God?”
But suffering is tough, even when we have brought it upon ourselves. How, then, can we suffer unjustly at the hands of others? Knowing very well the difficulty of this command, Peter provides us with the resources that we need to suffer at the hands of others in verses 18-22, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
Before connecting the logic of these verses to Peter’s preceding statements, let me take a brief excursus here to explain what the allusion to Noah is all about. Peter is saying that while Christ was dead “in the flesh” but alive “in the spirit,” so in the intervening period between his death and resurrection, Christ went and proclaimed to “the spirits in prison.” These “spirits in prison” are those who “formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared.” If you go back to Genesis 6:1-3 to read about the days of Noah, it says, “When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, ‘My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.’ The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.” Nearly all ancient Jews who read Genesis 6:1-3 understood these “sons of God [who] came in to the daughters of man” as fallen angels. Jude 6 similarly mentions “the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, [God] has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day.” And 2 Peter 2:4 says, “God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment.”
In our present passage, Peter seems to be alluding to the same event, because the word “spirits” in the plural almost always refers to angelic, rather than human, spirits, except when explicit statements are made to specify that it’s a human spirit (e.g., Matt. 8:16; 10:1; Mark 1:27; 5:13; 6:7; Luke 4:36; 6:18; 7:21; 8:2; 10:20; 11:26; Acts 5:16; 8:7; 19:12, 13; 1 Tim. 4:1; 1 John 4:1; Rev. 16:13–14; cf. Heb. 1:7), and because the language of imprisonment is not used elsewhere in Scripture as a place of punishment after death for human beings, while it is used for Satan (Rev. 20:7) and other fallen angels as in 2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6 that I just quoted. An early Jewish apocalyptic literature called The Book of Enoch (6-7) identifies the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:1-4 as fallen angels, and claims that the fact that The Book of Enoch is quoted in Jude makes the identification of the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 with the fallen angels much more compelling.
So what does all this have anything to do with what Peter has been saying thus far? Peter is comforting believers who are suffering at the hands of others by reminding them first of Christ’s suffering at the hands of the unrighteous and his eventual vindication, and then, secondarily, of Noah’s suffering at the hands of the unrighteous and his eventual vindication. Noah was alone in his piety and ridiculed by those around him, and only eight persons, Noah and his family, were brought safely through the judgment of water. And to the fallen angels who had rebelled against God in the days of Noah, Christ went to announce their judgment and proclaim his triumph and vindication. This is a recurring theme throughout the entire book of 1 Peter—that even though shame, derision, marginalization, persecution, and suffering may be the lot of Christians now, they will ultimately be vindicated and receive “praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:7). And, conversely, though unbelievers may thrive in this life and experience praise, glory, and honor, on judgment day their lot will be shame and dishonor because they did not put their hope and trust in Jesus Christ. Just as Noah was saved through the judgment of water, Christians are now saved through the judgment of water in baptism, which represents our participation in the death of Christ.
[Now, this does not mean that baptism in and of itself saves us. When Peter preaches in Acts 2:38, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,” we see three distinct, yet inseparable, aspects of conversion: (1) repentance [and faith] by the individual, (2) baptism by the church, and (3) and regeneration by the Holy Spirit. The individual, the church, and the Holy Spirit each play a distinct, yet inseparable, role, in someone’s conversion. “Baptism” here stands for the whole complex of events associated with conversion. It’s an example of synecdoche, a figure of speech where a part of something refers to the whole. For instance, when we’re carpooling to go somewhere and someone asks, “How many wheels do we have?” That person is not asking how many wheels we have literally, but how many vehicles of transportation do we have? The part, “wheels,” refers to the whole, “cars.” In the same way, though “baptism” alone is mentioned, “baptism” also has in view the repentance and faith of the person and regeneration by the Holy Spirit.
For believers who have repented and believed, who have been baptized by the church, and who have been filled with the Holy Spirit, we can rest assured, because our ultimate vindication is guaranteed by “the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”]
It will be not unlike the vindication of a man like Keith Harward, who was falsely accused of murder and rape and was jailed for the last 33 years, but was declared innocent two months ago on the basis of new DNA evidence, tears streaming down his face as he hears his “not guilty” verdict after 33 years of unjust punishment. On the day of Christ’s return, just as Jesus declared his triumph to the fallen angels in prison, Jesus, our champion, will vindicate us and declare our triumph over all forces of evil that rail against us now. He will say of us, “Righteous Ones,” “the Children of God,” not because of our own merit, but because of what Jesus Christ has done for us.
If you are here today, but you have not experienced the new birth in Christ, let me warn you sternly and plead with you warmly, do not settle for the false sense of complacency now. Don’t settle for the riches of this earth and miss out on the riches of heaven! Don’t settle for health and longevity in this life and miss out on the vigor and vitality of eternal life! Don’t settle for the love and esteem of men, who are but dust and ashes, and miss out on the love of the glorious and perfect Triune God! Christians, though taken as fools in this world, will ultimately be vindicated! What will be your verdict on judgment day? Where is your source of hope?
There is only one, true source of hope for us all, and Peter concludes by reminding us of this, namely the suffering and victory of Christ himself. Verse 18 says, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God,” and it says in verse 22, “[Christ] has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” This is even more comforting than Noah’s vindication.
Christ, the Righteous One, also suffered at the hands of the unrighteous, and he suffered so that we might be saved. He suffered for our sins. And now, look at what has happened to him! He “is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” All authority in heaven and earth has been given to Christ. And this example of Christ’s suffering and vindication is the ultimate rationale for our suffering in this world. WE ARE TO BE SUFFERING WITNESSES FOR CHRIST, BECAUSE CHRIST IS THE SUFFERING SAVIOR FOR US. As Philippians 2:3-8 teaches us, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
As good citizens of a democratic, egalitarian society, we don’t seek preferential treatment. We don’t expect to be treated better than everybody else, only to be treated as well as everybody else. We want to be treated fairly, but equality and fairness don’t go far enough. We, by nature, are sinful humans who think more highly of ourselves than others and put our interests before that of others, and when we seek equality and fairness for ourselves, we will have attitudes of entitlement that, in the end, lifts ourselves above other people. So the Bible, knowing this reality, teaches a radical truth: consider others better than yourself, consider others’ interests higher than your own. It is quintessentially American to insist on our rights and demand equal treatment for all. It is quintessentially Christian to forfeit our rights for the sake of others, because that is precisely what Jesus did for us.
Christ did not have to suffer. Christ did not deserve to suffer. He was the Righteous One, the Holy One, the Glorious One who should bow before no one and suffer at the hands of no one, yet he chose the path of suffering so that we might be saved! If our king can suffer at the hands of others, can we, his lowly servants, suffer at the hands of others? Can we, too, suffer for the sake of others? Can we suffer so that we might be credible witnesses? Can we suffer so that we may give others a glimpse into the hope that we have in Christ? For whom is God calling you to suffer? At whose hands is God calling you to suffer today, at your work, in your home, in the church? Suffering is not a darkness that blankets or stifles our light of hope. Rather, suffering is a darkness that makes our light shine even more brilliantly. Let us suffer for one another. Let us suffer at the hands of others. Let us be suffering witnesses, because Christ is our suffering Savior.