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?