Relationships Under Stress

| 1 Peter 2:11-12; 3:1-12

Lesson Focus:  This lesson presents biblical instructions for maintaining right relationships during times of difficulty and stress.

Your Conduct Among Unbelievers:  1 Peter 2:11-12.

[11]  Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. [12]  Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.  [ESV]

A new section begins with Beloved, I urge. The emphasis now shifts to the relationship believers have with the world. Hence, they are identified as sojourners and exiles. This language of strangers and exiles signifies that the readers are like foreigners because of their allegiance to Jesus Christ. Exhortations to godly living are often communicated in the New Testament with the verb I urge. Such exhortations are always grounded in the redemptive work of Christ already accomplished for believers. They are exhorted to abstain from the passions of the flesh. The meaning here appears to be close to the Pauline understanding of the term “flesh.” These are the natural desires that human beings have apart from the work of the Spirit. In 1 Peter the flesh represents the weakness of human beings in this age. The verse is instructive because it informs us that those who have the Spirit are not exempt from fleshly desires. The depth of the struggle in which believers are engaged is explained by the words which wage war against your soul. Obviously the desires of the flesh that emerge in believers are quite strong if they are described in terms of warfare, as an enemy that attempts to conquer believers. Such desires must be resisted and conquered, and the image used implies that this is no easy matter. The Christian life is certainly not depicted as passive in which believers simply “let go and let God.” The soul here does not refer to the immaterial part of human beings. The whole person is in view, showing that sinful desires, if they are allowed to triumph, ultimately destroy human beings. One of Peter’s favorite words for expressing the new life of believers is conduct. The term is used broadly in Peter to designate the new way of life demanded of Christians. Unbelievers viewed Christians with suspicion and hostility because the latter did not conform to their way of life. Since believers did not honor the typical gods of the community, they were naturally viewed as subversive and evil in that social context. Peter did not summon believers to a verbal campaign of self-defense or to the writing of tracts in which they defend their morality. He enjoined believers to pursue virtue and goodness, so that their goodness would be apparent to all in society. The evident transformation of their behavior will contradict false allegations circulating in society. Peter’s hope is that unbelievers will glorify God because they see your good deeds, which refer to the good works of believers that permeate every dimension of life [see the words of Jesus in Matt. 5:16]. But what did Peter mean by the day of visitation? It could refer to God’s judgment or His salvation at the last day. Peter may have been saying that they will glorify God in the day when they are judged, acknowledging at that time the good works of believers and vindicating God’s justice. But there are good reasons to think Peter referred to present-day salvation in this verse. The reference to glorifying God suggests that the salvation of the Gentiles is in view. Typically in the New Testament people glorify God or give Him glory by believing. Peter exhorted believers to live noble lives because in doing so unbelievers will see their good works. Because they observe such works, some unbelievers will repent and believe and therefore give glory to God on the last day. The use of the verb see also suggests that salvation is in view, for the same term is used in 1 Peter 3:2, where the submission of wives is intended to lead to the salvation of unbelieving husbands. Peter was confident that some unbelievers will be saved when they notice the godliness of believers. The unbelievers may revile Christians, but as they notice the goodness in their lives, some will repent and be saved, and as a result of their salvation God will be glorified. In this sense the day of visitation would refer to when God comes with His saving activity in the hearts of unbelievers, opening their eyes so that they will see their need for Christ.

Your Conduct at Home:  1 Peter 3:1-7.

[1]  Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, [2]  when they see your respectful and pure conduct. [3]  Do not let your adorning be external–the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear– [4]  but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. [5]  For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, [6]  as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening. [7]  Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.  [ESV]

[1-6].  Because the call to faith in Christ is a call for life-changing, personal realignment, the conversion of either spouse in the Greco-Roman marriage held the potential for serious problems both between the couple and between the couple and society. Depending on how the believing spouse behaved, the situation could also provoke criticism of the Christian religion if its practices were perceived to subvert and disrupt the social order so necessary for the well-being of the empire. Converted spouses also no doubt experienced confusion about how their new identity in Christ should affect their relationship to their unbelieving spouse, and whether new life in Christ necessarily implied a change of one’s role within the social hierarchy. Just as Peter begins his instruction that slaves submit themselves to their masters in all fear of the Lord [2:18], he begins his instructions to believing wives with the same qualification: Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands. The wife’s reverence for God is her motivation for submitting to her husband, regardless of whether the husband is harsh or kind. The antagonism her faith might produce is to be endured for the sake of Christ and for the possible conversion of her husband. Why would a wife’s conversion likely provoke antagonism from her husband? In Greco-Roman society it was expected that the wife would have no friends of her own and would worship the gods of her husband. If this expectation is applied to a Christian wife, it might result in trouble for several reasons. First, the very fact that a woman would adopt any religion other than her husband’s violated the Greco-Roman ideal of an orderly home. Because prosperity and well-being were seen as dependent on religious forces, disorder in the home was a threat not only to the family but to society. Christians were frequently blamed as the cause of public calamity because they introduced a new god, upsetting the religious status quo of the empire. Second, the husband and society would perceive the wife’s worship of Jesus Christ as rebellion, especially if she worshipped Christ exclusively. If the wife persisted in her new religion to the extent that others outside the household learned of it, the husband would also feel embarrassment and suffer criticism for not properly managing his household. This could seriously damage his social standing, even to the point of disqualifying him for certain honors and offices. Third, the wife’s attendance at Christian worship would provide the opportunity for her to have fellowship with other Christians who possibly were not her husband’s friends. Depending on the specifics of social expectations, a wife’s conversion to Christ could potentially have far-reaching implications for her husband and family. It is significant that Peter does not directly address any of these particulars. For instance, he neither orders the wife to attend Christian worship nor gives her permission to stay home and worship privately in her heart. He instructs her simply to submit to her own husband’s wishes; depending on individual proclivities, the result may or may not have been the same as the expectations of society at large. It is an important point that Peter leaves the specifics of this matter strictly between husband and wife. The Christian wife is to submit not to the expectations of any and all men in general but to her own husband. Peter opens the door for social transformation by leaving it to husband and wife to work out the specific way her submission is to be expressed. The metamessage of Peter’s instructions is probably not lost on the husband, who could see in it two points: (1) This apostle of Jesus Christ instructs the Christian slave and wife, a role that is normally the prerogative of the master and husband. (2) This direct instruction to slaves and wives implies that both have a measure of moral responsibility and choice unprecedented in Greek thought. The husband or slave master cannot object, since Peter does indeed affirm the man’s authority. On the other hand, he also sees in this affirmation that his wife’s or slave’s submission is motivated no longer by the expectations of Roman society or the principles of Greek moral philosophy but instead by the authority and example of the crucified and resurrected Christ. In a masterful move, Peter both upholds and subverts the social order. Peter’s concern that Christian wives continue to submit to their own husbands not only shields Christianity from the accusation that it is a social evil but is also clearly motivated by evangelistic intent. The unbelieving husband observes virtues in the wife’s good demeanor that are motivated by her relationship with Christ, virtues not inferior to those motivated by Greek moral philosophy. Observing this, the man himself may be won to Christ without a word, for in that culture it is shameful for the wife to presume to instruct her husband. Here is a situation where silence is the more effective means of communication. Peter further instructs Christian women that their beauty is to be the inner quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight, and not the costly adornment of elaborate hairstyles, fine clothing, and gold jewelry, which are, of course, of great worth in society’s sight. Christian women married to unbelieving men are not to despise and reject their husbands, making the household climate one of hostility, but to subject themselves even to unjust treatment because of their faith in Christ, and in so doing accomplish God’s better way. But there is nothing in this passage that would either sanction the abuse of wives or suggest that women should continue to submit themselves to that kind of treatment. The nature of the suffering that Peter is addressing is primarily verbal abuse and loss of social standing. Peter is speaking specifically of suffering that may come from standing for an unpopular belief and doing what is good and right in the name of Christ. In fact, Peter delicately prohibits domestic violence in the exhortation to husbands that immediately follows.

[7].  In his household code, Peter addresses last those who have the most power and authority. The Christian conversion of a married man would have raised issues within the marriage relationship whether or not the wife also became a true believer, and Peter’s exhortation would be applicable in either case. Peter directly addresses the general Greco-Roman attitude of the inferiority of women by pointing out that the female also is a coheir of grace and therefore not excluded from the same privileges of grace enjoyed by the male. The reference to the wife as coheir of the gracious gift of life indicates that the husband is to treat his wife as if she were a sister in Christ. In the context of 1 Peter, the weaker vessel is primarily understood as physical weakness relative to men’s strength. However, the immediate context makes it clear that the female is also weaker in the sense of social entitlement and empowerment. Peter teaches that men whose authority runs roughshod over their women, even with society’s full approval, will not be heard by God. Peter points out that the well-being of the Christian household depends on the man recognizing the female as a coheir in Christ and living with her respectfully, even though he is the physically stronger and socially empowered male. In this way Peter delicately prohibits domestic violence in the Christian household.

Your Conduct Among Believers:  1 Peter 3:8-12.

[8]  Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. [9]  Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. [10]  For "Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit; [11]  let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. [12]  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."  [ESV]

The Christian community is to be an alternate society where believers should not have to face the same kinds of insult and hostility that come from those outside the church. However, in order for the Christian community to really be a place of support and refuge, certain qualities must characterize its members. In 3:8 Peter lists five adjectives that should characterize believers in their relationships toward one another: unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Peter calls the Christian community to a unity of mind that implicitly calls them to reject the religion and ethical tradition that has informed their former useless way of life inherited from their ancestors [1 Peter 1:18] and to embrace apostolic teaching. Unity of mind is perhaps the foundational value of the Christian community that unifies people from various races and religions joined together in belief in Christ. Unity of mind implies a willingness to conform one’s goals, needs, and expectations to the purposes of the larger community. In 3:9 Peter turns his attention to the reason that apparently has precipitated his letter: the relationship of his readers with hostile people outside the Christian community. He introduces the topic that extends through 4:19, how his readers are to live out the gospel in a world that is suspicious of Christians and even hostile to them. As a transition to the problem facing his readers, verse 9 is an important indication for the kind of hostility that must be characterizing Christians’ relationships with unbelievers. Peter instructs Christians to forgo the usual verbal retaliation that would be necessary to successfully defend one’s honor and the reputation of one’s community. Given the tendency of human nature to retaliate, coupled with the social expectation to do so, the Christian who refrains from verbal retaliation and instead offers blessing would give unbelievers pause. In 2:23 the example of Jesus’ refusal to retaliate for unjust accusations broke the vicious cycle of escalating conflict that is so familiar within communities, and provides the basis for a similar course of action by those following in His footsteps. While 3:9 is no doubt directed primarily to insult and abuse from outside the Christian community, it also answers to the problem of strife within the church when believers lodge charges and countercharges against each other. As he did within the household code, Peter here again subtly subverts first-century social expectations by showing that Jesus Christ opens a better way in which Christians are to follow. Peter’s exhortation of nonretaliation can be compared to what Jesus teaches His disciples about how to treat enemies [see Luke 6:27-28]. Peter applies Jesus’ general teaching to the specific situation where Christians face hostility for no reason other than that they are Christians. Peter clearly interprets Jesus’ command to love to refer not to emotions but to acting rightly toward one’s adversaries, regardless of whatever emotions may or may not be involved. Acting rightly toward one’s adversaries is defined in 1 Peter 3:9 as not responding in kind to their insults, slander, and evil intents. It means having the inner fortitude to break the cycle of evil that spirals ever downward. But as if nonretaliation were not hard enough, the Christian is to respond to evil and insult with blessing! The self-control implied in this command is truly a supernatural fruit of the Holy Spirit. For it is exactly when we are insulted and treated with malicious intent that we are most tempted to respond in kind by gossip, exaggerating the extent of the fault, or with outright slander. Those who are able not simply to clench their teeth and remain silent but to maintain an inner attitude that allows one to pray sincerely for the well-being of one’s adversaries, are truly a witness to the life-changing power of a new identity in Christ. Peter is teaching that those who have been called to return blessing for evil and insult have themselves inherited the blessing of life in Christ. Therefore, they are called to a course of ethical behavior that does not stoop to the level of pagans, even though pagan behavior constitutes the acceptable social norm. Those who resolutely refuse this call to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and continue to behave thereby call into question their new identity in Christ, on which their eschatological blessing (salvation) depends. Peter’s extensive allusions to Psalm 34 indicate that it is an important scriptural foundation for his thinking about Christian ethics, much as Isaiah 53 forms the basis of his Christology. The point of the psalm quotation is to show that people who have been born again into the good days of new life with God are called to bless when insulted and to return good for evil. Their calling does not assure them an exemption from insult and evil. The command to return blessing and good for insult and evil is truly a call to a transformed character. It is the character of a people who refuse to allow their enemies to define them but who seek their definition in Christ. It may be possible to clench our teeth and do something good for someone who has insulted and hurt us, all the while bearing ill will toward them in our hearts. But this would not be true obedience to 3:9, for one cannot truly bless while inwardly desiring someone’s hurt. The command of 3:9 calls us not to a legalistic and begrudging compliance but to a confidence in the transforming power of the new birth, which allows Christians in all sincerity to speak and act toward adversaries from a heart that truly desires their blessedness. When faced with unjust insult and evil, Peter’s readers must decide whether to respond in kind out of the old nature and perpetuate strife or to demonstrate the power of God’s grace through radically new conduct. Although Peter is primarily addressing insults and verbal abuse coming from those outside the church, sadly all too often members within the Christian community become entangled in the downward spiral of insult for insult and evil for evil. The psalm cited is a reminder that God’s face has always been against those who do evil, whether that evil is perpetrated by members of the covenant community or by those outside. Therefore, the Christian’s choice in how to respond to others in every situation is a choice whether to be blessed by God or opposed by God. Each such choice is a microcosm of life or death.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What does Peter urge his readers to do in 2:11-12? Why is this important?  

2.         Why does Peter instruct wives to be subject to their husbands in 3:1-6? What should be the wife’s motivation for submitting?

3.         What are Peter’s instructions to the Christian husband in 3:7? How are these instructions a radical change from the culture of that day?

4.         List all the commands in 3:8-12. Why does Peter give his readers this list of commands? What does Peter mean by unity of mind in 3:8? How is this a foundational value for the Christian community? Note the consequences of obedience to these commands for our fellowship with God and our prayers.


1 Peter, Karen Jobes, ECNT, Baker.

1, 2 Peter, Jude, Thomas Schreiner, NAC, Broadman.