“He who is making confession to you is not instructing you of that which is happening within him. The closed heart does not shut out your eye, and your hand is not kept away by the hardness of humanity, but you melt that when you wish, either in mercy or in punishment, and there is ‘none who can hide from your heat’ (Ps. 18: 7).” —Augustine, Confessions
Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. —1 Peter 3:13–14a (ESV)
John Piper says that this is “the most perplexing verse in the book” to him. That’s the kind of statement made by a mature believer reading the book as a humble child seeking understanding. Unbelievers and the immature are offended by 2:18 telling slaves to be subject or 3:1 telling wives to submit. The immature are not perplexed when Peter tells them not to be surprised by fiery trials (4:12). If you are reading this letter in humility and maturity, it’s a text like this that puzzles you. Again and again, Peter, and the Bible, explain that being an exile, an alien, a pilgrim, a stranger on this earth entails suffering. So what do we make of this verse?
Is it speaking proverbially? Generally, it’s true, if you are zealous for good, no harm will come to you. Proverbs 15:1 speaks to this; “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” If you obey traffic laws, generally, the highway patrolman won’t pull you over. When citizens are subject to the state (2:13), when believing slaves obey their unbelieving lords (2:18), when believing wives submit to unbelieving husbands (3:1), when Christians don’t return reviling for reviling, but instead bless (3:9), generally, no harm will come to them.
Or, is this verse speaking eschatologically? Eschatology is the study of the end, the last things. So is this verse saying that ultimately no harm will come to the saints? The “now” at the beginning of v. 14 connects it back to the previous section which ended saying, “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.” So is this the reason that no one can harm us? Because God’s eyes are on us and are against the wicked so that in the end, we will be blessed and they cursed. To get the eschatological flavor that connects vv. 12 and 13 listen to a familiar passage from Romans 8:
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” —Romans 8:31–39 (ESV).
God’s face shines towards you and frowns on the wicked. Now, who is there to harm you? This fits the emphasis of our living hope, imperishable inheritance, future salvation, and the grace ready to be revealed that Peter has so stressed.
So, which is it? I think both of these ideas are here together in this passage, and what illumines them is the “but” in v. 14. The “suffering” of v. 14 is the “harm” mentioned in v. 13. Peter asks the rhetorical question “Who is there to harm you?” and then qualifies that question, “but, if you should be harmed…”. Verse 13 is a proverbial statement, and v. 14 is the contrasting eschatological qualification.
You might be harmed, but only in such a way that is eschatologically not harmful. Persecution tries to rob the saints of life, but only puts deposits in their bank. Their harm cannot ultimately harm us. God turns their curses into blessings. We’re in union with Jesus. Remember what happened when they tried to stamp out His life?
“I therefore decided to give attention to the holy scriptures and to find out what they were like. And this is what met me: something neither open to the proud nor laid bare to mere children; a text lowly to the beginner but, on further reading, of mountainous difficulty and enveloped in mysteries. I was not in any state to be able to enter into that, or to bow my head to climb its steps. What I am now saying did not then enter my mind when I gave my attention to the scripture. It seemed to me unworthy in comparison with the dignity of Cicero. My inflated conceit shunned the Bible’s restraint, and my gaze never penetrated to its inwardness. Yet the Bible was composed m such a way that as beginners mature, its meaning grows with them. I disdained to be a little beginner. Puffed up with pride, I considered myself a mature adult.” —Augustine, Confessions
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” —1 Peter 1:21–25 (ESV)
Peter calls on slaves to suffer for doing good, motivated by the exemplary and empowering suffering of Christ. As you read 1 Peter 2:21-25, it is clear that Peter is drawing from the most familiar passage in the Old Testament concerning the sufferings of Christ, Isaiah 53. When you read Isaiah 53, you must begin with Isaiah 52:13 where the one suffering is addressed by God as “my servant.” Peter then is telling slaves that they were called to suffering because of the suffering of the servant of Yahweh. Further, the letter makes it clear that this is not just the calling of these saints because they are slaves, but of these slaves because they are saints.
Jesus’ suffering stands underneath our suffering in two ways: it is exemplary and empowering. This isn’t multiple choice. This is all of the above. But one of the answers is foundational, standing underneath the other. If Jesus’ life is only an example, it is a crushing one, for none of us measure up. Worse, if Jesus’ death is only an example, then it is one of insanity. Tim Keller illustrates:
“Imagine that you are walking along a river with a friend, and your friend suddenly says to you, ‘I want to show you how much I love you!’ and with that he throws himself into the river and drowns. Would you say in response, ‘How he loved me!’ No, of course not. You’d wonder about your friend’s mental state. But what if you were walking along a river with a friend and you fell into the river by accident, and you can’t swim. What if he dived in after you and pushed you to safety but was himself drawn under by the current and drowned. Then you would respond, ‘Behold, how he loved me!’ The example of Jesus is a bad example if it is only an example. If there was no peril to save us from—if we were not lost apart from the ransom of his death—then the model of his sacrificial love is not moving and life-changing; it is crazy. Unless Jesus died as our substitute, he can’t die as a moving example of sacrificial love.”
Jesus’ death was not a meaningless suicide. Jesus death is more than a sign telling us to go this way. It is gas burning in our tanks.
You can only follow Jesus because of how you cannot follow Jesus. The empowering aspect of Jesus’ death stands under the exemplary aspect of His death. As James and John learned, there is a way that we can drink from the cup of Christ’s sufferings, and there is a way that we cannot—that we dare not.
When Jesus died on the cross, He did so as our substitute, accomplishing what we could not. He bore our sins, cursed of God in our place on the tree (cf. Deuteronomy 21:23; Galatians 3:13). His death not only delivered us from the guilt of sin but also from the bondage of sin. Our sins were born by Christ, so that, in union with Him, we might die to sin and live to righteousness (Romans 6:4–7). When one suffers for righteousness’ sake, living honorably, and then endures that suffering not reviling but trusting God, all this righteousness is empowered by Christ’s substitutionary wrath-bearing suffering in our place.
It is only because of how you cannot follow Jesus, that you can follow Jesus. Christus exemplar flows out of penal substitutionary atonement. Because Jesus suffered in a way we can’t, we can suffer like Him. And if we suffer with Him, we will also be glorified with Him (Romans 8:17).
“If physical objects give you pleasure, praise God for them and return love to their Maker lest, in the things that please you, you displease him.” —Augustine, Confessions
“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution…” —1 Peter 2:13 (ESV)
What kind of earthy citizens should we exiles be? Keeping our conduct among the Gentiles honorable means submitting to the authorities we are under. It means paying taxes, driving the speed limit, and not ripping those tags off of sofas until we’ve bought them. You cannot proclaim submission to one authority while displaying a disregard for another. Don’t deny Jesus’ Lordship by rebelling against the powers He’s established. We who have a higher citizenship should be the best citizens of the low countries.
Yet, it should be clear that we obey “for the Lord’s sake.” When you are subject to the state, do so knowing that the state is subject to Christ. Obey as free men. This means obeying in fear of God (2:17), and not of men (3:14).
But if the saints are the best of citizens, the salt of the earth, the light of the world and such, abounding in good deeds, why are they persecuted so? Because their obedience is done in such a way that the state is not seen as supreme. Be we as wise a counselor as Daniel, should we insist on worshipping our God, to the lions we go. If we don’t bow to the god of the state, they ready the furnace. The state would rather have disobedient slaves who bow in fear when caught, than righteous free men who stand in confidence. What the rulers of this world really want is not free men who obey, but slaves who fear. If you don’t think such tyranny exists in our democracy, may I propose to you that a dependent woman is a more secure vote than a free man. The state isn’t trying to act as “father” and “husband” purely out of benevolence.
Submit, but do so declaring, “Jesus is Lord.” This was a radical political statement in the ancient world. The Romans were cool with you worshipping your gods, as long as you said, “Caesar is Lord.” The saints replied something like “We will be your best citizens, but we will not say that.”
The only reason to disobey a lesser authority is obedience to a higher one. At the top, every time, is God. We never have permission to be rebels in the absolute. All our acts are to be acts of submission in the ultimate sense. Live are free men who are slaves of God (2:16). Every righteous rebellion is first an act of obedience to Christ as Lord.
When the state calls evil good, do not submit. When the state calls a homosexual relationship “marriage,” do not submit. When the state says gender isn’t biological, don’t submit. When the state calls for you to bow in fear to them and disobey your Lord, stand in confidence before men, bowing in heart to Christ.
Some laws are good. Obey them gladly.
Other laws are dumb, but not immoral. Mock them, then obey with a jolly heart. Laugh at such rules as though you are a foreigner from a country where there is no such folly—for you are. Laugh like you have a King who makes such laws appear petty and go along unflustered, for you know that your King is Lord even over such nonsense. When the speed limit is 60 mph in New Mexico on a stretch of highway where you can see the only other car on said highway approximately two counties away, drive the speed limit joyfully obeying your Lord and labor to end such stupidity as a way of honoring others (2:7). But until the law is undone, submit.
Other laws are are evil. Say they are such. Disobey them. Work against them. Subvert them. But do this in glad-hearted obedience to God.
Submit as far as you can, so that when you do disobey, it is clear that it is not for selfish reasons. The state is used to selfish disobedience. Obey when it costs you and disobey when it costs you even more. If you go to jail, may it be not for tax evasion, but for sharing the gospel at an abortion mill. If the state ever punishes you, may if be for your obedience to Christ.
“This experience sufficiently illustrates the truth that free curiosity has greater power to stimulate learning than rigorous coercion. Nevertheless, the free-ranging flux of curiosity is channeled by discipline under you laws, God.” —Augustine, Confessions