Commentary on 1 Peter 3:13-22
Suffering and harm are not the most popular topics when it comes to discussing the Christian life.
The sufferings of the early Christ-believers
In our society of instant gratification, it is not easy to seriously consider the idea that there is merit in facing difficulties for the sake of an idea or a belief. Depending on when one dates 1 Peter, the situation referred to in 1 Peter 3:13-22 could range from mild abuse and mockery at the hands of the families of these new Christ-believers, to open, official, harsh persecution by Roman officials under Domitian (81-91 CE). In reflecting upon the message of the epistle, it is not necessary to know for sure what kind of suffering the early Christ-believers were facing. Clearly, identifying one’s self as a Christ-believer in the first century CE was not something as common and mainstream as it is in certain places of the world today. Christianity as one of the leading world-religions did not yet exist as such.
Why one should accept to suffer
In this context, the addressees of 1 Peter had to prepare themselves for the consequences of their belief. The author of 1 Peter 3:13-22 uses several strategies to encourage his addressees to being willing to suffer for their faith.
The first strategy he employs is to get the Christ-believers to focus on the future; both theirs and their attackers.
The passage has a strong eschatological flavor. Even if the Christ-believers experience difficulties in the days ahead, they should be assured that not only will they gain future rewards (1 Peter 3:13-14) but those who attack them will be punished (1 Peter 3:16). The language of blessing and the fact that those who are attacking the Christ-believers will be put to shame gives this passage a strong eschatological flavor. Being blessed (makarioi) happens in the end times for those who have followed God’s will. Knowing that their present suffering is not in vain is meant to give endurance to the Christ-believers.
The next strategy he employs is to remind them of the tools and resources available to them. They can defend their faith in respectful ways. Yet the author of 1 Peter goes further than that. He reminds his addressees that they have the necessary intellectual tools to take on those who might challenge them (1 Peter 3:14). Their faith might be mocked by others and derided as irrational, but the Christ-believers have tools and resources to give a reasonable and rational account of what they believe. Because of the assurance that the ultimate reward is not dependent upon them, the Christ-believers can defend their beliefs with integrity but they need not be aggressive or mean (1 Peter 3:16). They can argue in respectable ways.
The third strategy he employs is to give them comfort in the knowledge that Christ himself suffered. The author of 1 Peter uses Christ as an example that suffering can be a part of the path of a faithful Christ-believer. The story of Christ presents two comforts to the Christ-believers. It helps them understand that being righteous and obedient to God’s will does not provide a protection against pain and suffering.
In his perfect obedience, Christ suffered and died. It also helps them understand that suffering does not necessarily need to be seen as a sign of divine displeasure. Rather it can be and often is a part of a life that is lead righteously and respectably. While the Christ believers are not invited to seek suffering for the sake of suffering, they are encouraged to not shrink from their beliefs for fear of possible sufferings. Sufferings should be expected, and they are equipped to deal with them. Christ triumphed over them and they can hope to triumph over them as well.
Suffering in Present Christian Life
This understanding of suffering has interesting implications for the lives of present-day Christians. It invites them to reflect on the place of suffering in their own lives as Christ-believers. A good majority of Christians in the world today suffer little from persecution, at least, not as a direct result of their faith. In fact, at the beginning of the 20th century, it was quite common to equate a good Christian life with worldly rewards, in a prosperity theology that left little room for hardship. In such a context, what does suffering for one’s faith mean? How can one translate this suffering into one’s rather comfortable life in a prosperous country, where Christianity is one of the dominant religions?
Perhaps suffering in this case means being willing to renounce certain things in the name of Christian faith. Perhaps it means taking time away from other activities that one enjoys in order to serve the Church. Or perhaps it means accepting that the rewards of the Christian life may not be immediate, in the forms of more money, more friends, better status or a better job. But the “better life” might be hindered because one gives preeminence to one’s accountability to God rather than to the world. Perhaps suffering means pushing against the ways of the world in order to create a more just and more egalitarian society.
Conservatism of 1 Peter
Here we touch on the issue of 1 Peter’s conservatism. In 1 Peter, the acceptance of suffering in the hope of an eschatological reward means that one should remain in the situation in which one is found, even if it means being in the hands of a harsh master (1 Peter 2:18-19). In that context, acceptance of suffering means to endure what is, without trying to change it, because of a future reward that will justify the one who suffers.
This can be used to justify an attitude of quietism which refuses to take on the injustices of the world. It is important to remember that the situation of Christians today, especially in North America and in Europe is very different than the situation of the Christ-believers for whom the New Testament authors were writing. They were a minority, with very little power or money to change things, let alone challenge the dominant Empire. In contrast, Christians today are often on the side of the Empire. Perhaps suffering in this case precisely means challenging the established order in order to keep a clear conscience (1 Peter 3:21).