One of the key passages that comes up when talking about apologetics is 1 Peter 3:15-16. Every apologist out there cites it at some point, and everyone has a pretty similar take on it (seeing that many use the text to justify their very existence). It’s apparently a divine command for every Christian to be continuously ready to let rip when someone challenges some aspect of Christian belief. Seeing that most Christians aren’t prepared to defend the Christian faith against the wide variety of attacks that come against it, the apologists are the big guns that are necessary to help defend the faith (and train others to do so).
Now I don’t doubt or question the value of apologists, but rather I do question the generally accepted interpretation of 1 Peter 3:15-16. Most apologists are decent enough theologians, but almost none of them are properly trained biblical exegetes. In other words, I can only think of a handful who know their biblical languages and have seminary training that’s relevant to exegesis. That’s not to condemn them but rather to recognize that there is an area of apologetic thinking that I can help with. I’m not a trained philosopher, historian or theologian (well, that last one is partially untrue) but I am a trained exegete and I’d like to walk through 1 Peter 2:13-3:16 an offer a little exegetical insight into a commonly cited text.
1 Peter 2:13 begins an extended passage on submission to “every authority”, which includes authorities in the government (1 Pet. 2:13-17), the workplace (1 Pet. 2:18-24), the home (1 Pet. 3:1-7) and the world at large (1 Pet. 3:8-22) in the specific context of submission in the face of suffering. The main thrust of the extended passage is on the necessity of holy living; that one’s life should be properly representative of one’s relationship with God, even when life is horribly difficult.
In the government, the Christian should submit to “every human institution,” including rulers (1 Pet. 2:13) or their subordinates (1 Pet. 2:14), and to do this for the sake of the Lord (1 Pet. 2:13). This submission is how the believer “should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men” (1 Pet. 2:15) and the believer should “not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil” (1 Pet. 2:16). Honoring those who rule is part of the proper manifestation of the fear of the Lord (1 Pet. 2:17).
In the workplace, the Christian should submit to both the righteous and wicked master (1 Pet. 2:18) and even do so when it is unjust suffering (1 Pet. 2:19). This is how the believer follows Christ’s example (1 Pet. 2:20-21); restraining one’s mouth (1 Pet. 2:22-23) and fulfilling the difficult duties that their masters require, for the sake of God (1 Pet. 2:24-25)
In the home, wives should “be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives” (1 Pet. 3:1-2). They should focus on beauty of character, not clothing (1 Pet. 3:4-5), and not live lives marked out by fear of that which is normally a source of anxiety (1 Pet. 3:6). Husbands should “be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers” (3:7).
In the world, Peter writes “all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.” (1 Pet. 3:8)
Is this meant to be a directive of behavior only between Christians?
Peter appears to make a broad application when he writes “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” (1 Pet. 3:9) It’s possible that Christians can treat other Christians in an evil way, but there’s no “between believers” specificity in the text.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that this is how believers should respond to non-Christians, right? A testimony from silence is not an admonition to anything at all, and Peter clarifies by quoting Psalm 34:12-16. There are only two people in that Psalm; the righteous and the wicked. “The Righteous one” must keep his tongue from evil and keep his lips from deceitful speech.
“For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” (1 Pet. 3:12)
Either one is acting in accord with “the righteous” or “the wicked”. One the Lord is for, and one the Lord is against, and they’re known by their words and the conduct.
Then Peter asks the rhetorical question “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?” (1 Pet. 3:13) The obvious answer is “nobody”, but Peter still recognizes that Christians will not be free from harm if they do good. He addresses this when he writes“But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed” (1 Pet. 3:14) and quotes Isaiah 8:12 to justify his point, saying “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.”
The Christian doesn’t fear harm from conspiracies of the wicked or those who hate him, ultimately since the Christian does not fear the grave. Nothing that anyone can do to a believer need be feared. The fear of the grave is something that marks the lives of the unregenerate and that fear is one of the things from which Christ has delivered believers (Hebrews 2:15).
Instead of fearing harm (and the threat of the grave), “in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.” (3:15). Instead of cowering under the fear of death (and losing all the things are treasured on earth), believers need to submit ourselves to Christ.
As well as re-orienting the believers’ fears from fearing the grave to fearing the Lord, Christians need to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”
What is it that believers are supposed to “give an answer” (this phrase is translated from the Greek term apologia) for?
Believers are supposed to apologia (give a speech in defense of) “the hope that you have”.
Hope. That’s one word that is thrown around rather flippantly these days.
What is that hope in the New Testament?
There’s an interesting answer to that question.
The term translated hope is the Greek term elpis. It appears 54 times in the New Testament.
In Acts 2:26 it appears and Acts 2:24-36 is a passage talking about one thing: Christ’s resurrection from the dead.
In Acts 16:19 it appears and refers to the “hope” of making money that was lost when Paul cast a demon out of a possessed girl.
In Acts 23:6 it appears and Acts 23:6-10 is a passage talking about the resurrection from the dead.
In Acts 24:15 it appears and Acts 24:15 is a passage talking about the resurrection from the dead.
In Acts 26:6-7 it appears and Acts 26:6-8 is a passage talking about the resurrection from the dead.
In Acts 27:20 it appears and the term is referring to the “hope” of being saved from being lost at sea.
In Acts 28:20 it appears and Acts 2:28:20 is a passage talking about “the hope of Israel,” but that phrase is not explained.
That is all the occurrences in the book of Acts.
In the preaching of Paul as recorded in Acts, there’s a very consistent pattern that emerges.
I’m not going to walk through the entire rest of the occurrences in the New Testament and pretend that the term “hope” always refers specifically to the resurrection, since that’s not the case (though the other occurrences in 1 Peter do: 1 Peter 1:3, 21…which is also worth noticing). What the term does refer to is a wide variety of specific and general events/experiences associated with the second coming of Christ. In the New Testament, the ‘hope” of the believer is specifically associated with Christ’s return (and I’d suggest that the resurrection is the event associated with that return that believers specifically look forward to). The “hope” of believers is those things that are a’ comin.
Unless I’m horribly mistaken, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” is in no way a command for every Christian to be able to deal with the cacophony of skeptical arguments coming from the world that is desperate to disbelieve the Scriptures and rebel against the God who wrote them.
Christians need to defend their hope.
That may involve any wide number of areas of knowledge, but the defense (at least in 1 Peter 3:15-16) is aimed at a specific target.
With regards to that defense of the specific target of “the whole that you have”, there is an caution:
“But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience” (3:15-16).
“So that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (3:16). When you set apart Christ as Lord in your hearts, you do so by giving Christ preeminence in your mind, even above your fear of death. You bear witness to your hope by explaining it and you conduct your explanation in a way that is marked by gentleness and respect, and the measure of what is “gentleness and respect” is the conviction of conscience…which confirms your claims of submission to Christ as Lord.
I can think of a rather long list of possible applications, but I’ll toss out two:
A. In the renewed passion for evangelism that has brought the evangel back to evangelicalism, our evangelistic efforts must get to the point of the resurrection of the dead. From what I see in Acts, Paul brought the matter up before every unregenerate person he talked to.
B. Eschatology is actually important. A proper understanding of your hope may very well be the missing driving element in your own pursuit of holiness(1 John 3:2-3).
If you have other thoughts, I’d love to hear them in the comments!