Sixth Sunday of Easter

The perplexing, redemptive power of the cross of Christ embodied in our gracious defense of the gospel speaks louder than any argument

stained glass artwork of Jesus with His arms outstretched
Photo by Paul Zoetemeijer on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

May 14, 2023

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Peter 3:13-22

The contemporary church can often be quick to apologize on behalf of the gospel but slow to be apologists for the gospel. An offended crowd protests: “the exclusivity of Jesus Christ is not inclusive enough for our pluralistic, multi-faith world.” “We apologize,” says the church. The crowd continues, “The ethical demands of Jesus and the Bible are out of step with the dominant views of our political parties, our sophisticated post-Enlightenment societies, and the favored theories of our academic elites.” “We apologize,” says the church.

Apologies, it turns out, are thoroughly biblical, even if they come in a very different form than the cultural capitulations and theological equivocations of the contemporary church. Our impulse to apologize, though often well-intentioned, usually comes from a desire to rebrand Jesus so that he might perform more successfully within the parameters and preferences of the present day religious free market. “If the church were just a bit more ____________, then people would be interested in Jesus.”

Such an approach, however, is the contemporary equivalent of attempting to smooth out the stone that the builders rejected so that it doesn’t prove to be such a “stone of stumbling and rock of offense” (1 Peter 2:7-8).  The problem, of course, with an attractional apologetic in which our primary aim is to present a well-behaved Jesus who looks a lot like us, is that by chipping away at the uniqueness and offense of the solid rock of the gospel, Jesus inadvertently becomes less like a cornerstone and more like a common seaside pebble. Great for collecting, alongside the countless thousands of other stones you might find on the shores of religious pluralism. But it’s not a stone that would function suitably as a foundation for saving faith. After all, when the cornerstone has become so smoothed over that the “builders” would no longer reject it, is there really anything left to the gospel that would even require an apologetic?

In 1 Peter 3:15, giving an apology (gk. apologia) is not about maintaining a perpetually penitent posture toward the culture and instead about being ready to give a “defense” for the reasons that we hope in the gospel. Peter’s apologetic exhortation comes in the context of Christian suffering “for righteousness’ sake” (verses 13-14). Instead of responding in like manner to harsh treatment, Christians are to sanctify—to set apart or consecrate—Christ in their hearts as Lord (verse 15). This consecration empowers Christians to be ready to give a defense for their faith. Apologetics in 1 Peter comes not in the midst of a neutral, cordial, ecumenical coffee shop conversation that is relatively warm to the things of Christ; but in the context of religious persecution, perpetrated by people who are inclined to belittle believers and reject Christ.

Peter’s apostolic instruction here is profound. He insists that our response must be to contend for the gospel in hostile situations like these, with “gentleness and respect” maintaining a “good conscience” even when we are “maligned (verse 16). The logic that follows, however, would be surprising to a good many Christians today. We might expect Peter to say: ‘be gentle and respectful, because your persistent, Christlike good conduct will eventually win over your detractors to Christ.” Yet, the logic of Peter’s apologetic does not follow such a clear and rosy path. For Peter, the purpose of Christlike behavior in the midst of suffering is that those who abuse believers for their good conduct in Christ “may be put to shame” (verse 16). Before glory there will be suffering (1 Peter 1:11; 4:13; 5:1,10), and before salvation must come an awareness of sin and shame. The initial grace of an apologetic carried out in the crucible of cruciform suffering will therefore be a kind of efficacious gospel shock; the shock of having one’s sin exposed by the power of the pattern of non-retaliation expressed through a good conscience that is governed by and consecrated to Christ. In that sense, Peter’s is an apocalyptic apologetic: it unveils the previously hidden futility of the flawed pseudo-power of human persecution, unrighteousness, and sin.

Verses 17-18 then provide a sequence of clauses that ground this apologetic approach. To suffer for the good is rooted in the reality of Christ’s suffering and death for the unrighteous—ourselves included. In verse 18, Christ is portrayed as having been put to death in the flesh and made alive by the Spirit, a reference, of course, to the inseparable saving couplet of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Peter points us to the purpose for Christ’s death in verses 17 and 18, namely, that “he might bring us to God.” Just as the death of Jesus on the cross was a saving act that brought us to God, so too an apologetic that embodies the cross functions as an instrument—not of defeat—but of salvation. Verses 19-20 extend the reach of Christ’s saving work even further, to those humans (and perhaps also angels) who had perished before the coming of Christ.

Finally, in verse 21 Peter concludes by linking baptism with salvation, noting that its effect is generated “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (verse 21). While surely focusing on the salvation of individuals, the sacramental function of baptism as “an appeal to God for a good conscience” is a fitting soteriological bookend to the earlier missional marker of a “good conscience” as an instrument for the winsome defense of the faith (verse 16).

Apologetics that exist for the sake of others will reveal the shame of sin by embodying the cross and it will defeat the wages of sin by baptizing new believers into the power of the resurrection. The perplexing, redemptive power of the cross of Christ embodied in our gracious defense of the gospel speaks a better word than the most astute apologetic argument delivered in the retributive spirit of the Roman crucifiers. The true power of conversion resides in an apologetic marked not by vengeance but by sacrifice.