For the past eight months, a group of friends and I have spent two Tuesdays a month studying 1 Peter together. When we began our study back in the fall, I didn’t anticipate just how relevant Peter’s message would be for American Christians today. Peter penned the letter approximately three decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, addressing a Christian audience who found themselves ostracized by society at large. Because the Roman Empire didn’t share the early believers’ values or priorities, the prevailing attitude toward the Church ranged from skepticism to hostility.
Fast forward nearly 2,000 years and – barring a few cultural references – 1 Peter sounds like it could’ve been written yesterday to the Church in the United States. While the world powers have changed and the points of contention have morphed, we would be wise to heed Peter’s exhortation to conduct ourselves as citizens of the kingdom of heaven as we live in a world that is hostile to the faith we profess.
Because of the negative ramifications of following Jesus under Roman rule, Peter addressed suffering many times throughout his letter. Using Christ as an example, he reiterated the biblical theme that suffering precedes glory, and he encouraged godly conduct even when it would most certainly be costly.
In my opinion, though, the most surprising motif was Peter’s insistence that godly behavior would be a compelling witness to an ungodly world. For example, he wrote, “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” (1 Peter 2:12). He went on to add, “This is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (2:15). Later he noted the potential influence of a godly wife on her unbelieving husband saying, “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct” (3:1-2).
According to Peter, godly behavior will draw attention, but the responses won’t always be positive. For instance, he wrote that Christians will be slandered and reviled for their “good behavior in Christ” (3:15-16). Describing the change Jesus makes in Christians’ lives, Peter explained, “The time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you” (4:3-4).
With such a strong emphasis on godly behavior, I wondered if Peter had just forgotten to comment on the significance of our verbal witness. During the same time period, Paul wrote to the Ephesian church about the importance of “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Did Peter miss the memo? Let me say most emphatically, no he did not.
After seeing the resurrected Lord, Peter was empowered by the Holy Spirit to be a bold witness and spent the remainder of his life making audacious pleas to the Jews to repent and believe the gospel. In one such instance, he made the daring proclamation, “You denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead…Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:14-15, 19). Eventually Peter’s unapologetic proclamation of the gospel led to his martyrdom.
Knowing Peter championed the spread of the gospel, I wondered why he didn’t place more of an emphasis on sharing the faith through words when he wrote 1 Peter. For Peter and the other apostles, though, I think the either-or dichotomy between works and words would be untenable. The Christian faith requires both proclamation of a message and practice of behavior consistent with that message. The present-day application is clear: as the world becomes increasingly resistant to our message, they can still be captivated by our lives. Of course Peter didn’t mean we should only live godly lives; rather, he taught that we should live godly lives especially so that we will have a platform from which to point others to our Savior.
Our conviction that the gospel is “of first importance” is precisely why our godliness matters (1 Corinthians 15:3). Before we speak the truth in love and instruct in sound doctrine and do the other things we’re rightfully passionate about, don’t we want to make sure our audience is listening? And if our audience is paying attention, don’t we want to be careful to reinforce our words with consistent works? To the apostles, Christian witness wasn’t only words or only works – it was both. They understood the significance of living lives that were in conformity with the message they proclaimed.
Might I suggest that the American Church has a distinct opportunity to “make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” (Titus 2:10)? According to Peter, this is accomplished by living in obedience to God whether or not we’re in the majority. Let’s not forget that Nero ruled the Roman Empire during Peter’s lifetime, but his attempts to squelch Christianity had the opposite effect.
Sound doctrine is imperative. Fighting for truth matters. Standing up for the vulnerable is essential. There is indeed a war going on around us, but it’s not “against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). As we fit ourselves with spiritual armor, we will be equipped by the Spirit to walk in a way that reinforces our ever-so-important talk. And by the grace of God, perhaps our walk will allow us a receptive audience with whom we can talk joyfully and persuasively about “the reason for the hope that is in [us]” (1 Peter 3:15).