1 Peter 3:13-22
Recipients of this letter are experiencing trials, harsh treatment, and suffering (1:6-7; 2:18-20; 3:13-17; 4:1-4, 12-19; 5:10). Peter encourages them with a vision of “an incorruptible and undefiled inheritance that doesn’t fade away, reserved in Heaven for you” (1:4), and calls them to live holy lives (1:15; 2:9). He holds up the prospect of the rewards that they will experience in the future (1:8; 4:13ff)—and encourages them to stand fast in their faith in the midst of adversity.
The immediate context for verses 13-22 is a series of household codes, where Peter instructs these Christians on issues of personal holiness. He starts with their relationships to other people—”Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Honor the king” (2:17). He tells wives how to relate to their husbands (3:1-6) and husbands how to relate to their wives (3:7)—as well as giving more general instruction to “be like-minded, compassionate,” etc. (3:8-12). He closes the household code section with the assurance that “the face of the Lord is against those who do evil” (3:12).
1 PETER 3:13-17. WHO WILL HARM YOU?
13 Now who is he who will harm you, if you become imitators of that which is good? 14But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you are blessed. “Don’t fear what they fear, neither be troubled.” 15 But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts; and always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you a reason concerning the hope that is in you, with humility and fear: 16 having a good conscience; that, while you are spoken against as evildoers, they may be disappointed who curse your good way of life in Christ. 17 For it is better, if it is God’s will, that you suffer for doing well than for doing evil.
“Now (Greek: kai) who is he who will harm you, if you become imitators (Greek: zelotes) of that which is good?“ (v. 13). The word kai connects this verse with the previous verse. Since “the face of the Lord is against those who do evil,” (v. 12), then “who is he who will harm you?” (v. 13). Peter’s assumption, of course, is that the Christians to whom he is writing are at least making an effort to lead moral lives—that they are, indeed, “putting away…all wickedness” (2:1).
Throughout the Bible, we find the idea that God’s people have nothing to fear from foes, because God will protect them (Psalm 56:4; 91:7; 118:6; Isaiah 50:9; Matthew 5:10-12; 10:28-31, 39; 16:25-26; Luke 12:4-7; 21:17-18). Paul asked Christians in Rome, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). In other words, if God is for us, it really doesn’t matter who is against us. God’s opponents don’t have the power to thwart God’s purposes.
However, this doesn’t mean that Christians are immune to suffering in this world. Early Christians suffered many forms of persecution because of their faith, but Jesus promised, “He who seeks his life will lose it; and he who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39; 16:25). The hope of persecuted Christians, then, would appear to be eschatological (to be experienced in the last days—at the end of time). They might suffer now, but God will vindicate them in the end.
But God’s people also experience vindication in the here and now. David, who trusted Yahweh, won the victory over Goliath (1 Samuel 17). Gideon, who obeyed Yahweh, led his tiny band of soldiers to achieve victory over the much larger Midianite army (Judges 7). Peter, guarded by four squads of soldiers, was led by an angel to freedom (Acts 12).
People of faith also experience less dramatic blessings on a day-by-day basis. As we try to do what Jesus would have us do, he helps us to bypass countless potholes and minefields. When we live by faith rather than fear, we experience benefits ranging from more joy to less anxiety and improved health.
“if you become imitators (Greek: zelotes) of that which is good?“ (Greek: agathos) (v. 13b). The Greek word zelotes means zeal. A literal translation would be “if you are zealously devoted to that which is good.”
Zeal can be good or bad. Obviously, a passion for revenge would not accord with Jesus’ call for forgiveness, but even a passion for God has the potential to go awry. Saul of Tarsus was “zealous for God” (Acts 22:3; Galatians 1:14), but his zeal drove him to persecute Christians “to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women” (Acts 22:4; Philippians 3:6). The challenge for Christians is to be zealous for God, while obeying Jesus’ Great Commandment to love God and neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39). Obedience to Jesus’ commandment will keep our zeal within Godly bounds.
“that which is good?“ (Greek: agathos) (v. 13b). The Greek word agathos speaks of that which is good, virtuous, or benevolent. While it can be used in a multitude of ways, in this context it refers to that which is morally upright—in keeping with God’s will.
“But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you are blessed“ (v. 14a). Jesus stated this principle in the Sermon on the Mount:
“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are you when people reproach you, persecute you,
and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven.
For that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).
He also said, “He who seeks his life will lose it; and he who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39; 16:25).
“Don’t fear what they fear, neither be troubled“ (v. 14b). This alludes to Isaiah 8:12b, which reads, “Neither fear what they fear, (and) do not be terrified” (a literal translation). In that context, Judah was threatened by its opponents. Isaiah told the Judeans not to fear their opponents, but to fear God and to trust in his promises.
Christians need to avoid buying into the fears of the faithless—and to avoid being intimidated by their threats.
“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts“ (v. 15a). This verse alludes to Isaiah 8:13, which says, “Regard only the Lord of Hosts as holy. Only he should be feared. Only he should be held in awe” (a literal translation).
“and always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you a reason concerning the hope that is in you, with humility and fear“ (v. 15b). Jesus earlier stated this same principle: “When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, don’t be anxious how or what you will answer, or what you will say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that same hour what you must say” (Luke 12:11-12; see also Luke 21:14-15).
Peter has practiced what he preaches in this verse. When arrested for preaching in Jerusalem, Peter proclaimed Christ to the assembled Jerusalem ruler, to include the two high priests (Acts 4:5-20). Not long afterwards, he addressed the same Jewish leaders, saying, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29, 42). After the vision in which God instructed Peter to kill and eat animals that were considered unclean under Jewish law, Peter instructed the Gentiles, Cornelius and his friends, leading to their receiving the Holy Spirit and being baptized (Acts 10:26-48). When criticized for his association with Gentiles, Peter defended himself before the Jerusalem church leadership (Acts 11:1-18)—and later did so again (Acts 15:7-11).
“concerning the hope that is in you” (v. 15b). Biblical hope is akin to faith. It is based on God’s promises, and is also based on the believer’s experience of God’s faithfulness.
Earlier, Peter defined the nature of “the hope that is in you.” It is “a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an incorruptible and undefiled inheritance that doesn’t fade away, reserved in Heaven for you” (1:3-4). He then said, “Be sober and set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:13). So the hope of which Peter speaks here is the hope of salvation—based on the grace of God (1:13). It anticipates an “incorruptible and undefiled inheritance that doesn’t fade away” (1:4). It is also the hope of blessings in the face of persecution (v. 14a).
“with humility (Greek: prautes) and fear“ (Greek: phobos) (v. 15b). The NRSV places this phrase at the beginning of verse 16, but a number of translations place it here, at the end of verse 15.
Prautes (humility) has sometimes been translated “gentleness” or “meekness.” Meekness is not a good translation, however, because meekness has come to mean timidity or weakness. A prautes person, however, is neither timid nor weak. Instead, he/she enjoys the kind of self-assuredness that provides strength. We sometimes talk about “a strong quiet type”—by which we mean someone who has enough strength and confidence to be gentle in relationships but firm in convictions. That is a prautes person.
“and fear“ (Greek: phobos) (v. 15b). In other places, Christians are told, “Don’t be afraid” (Matthew 1:20; 10:31; 14:27; 17:7; 28:5). In those instances, they are told not to fear because God is with them.
But the Bible holds that “fear of the Lord” is entirely appropriate. That is the kind of fear that Peter is advocating here. Fear of the Lord is serving the Lord and the Lord only (Deuteronomy 6:13). It is observing God’s commandments (Deuteronomy 28:58). Fear of the Lord is “the beginning of knowledge,” in the sense that the person who fears God will be open to instruction by God (Proverbs 1:7). Fear is “the beginning of wisdom”—wisdom being the kind of understanding that enables a person to make good decisions and to avoid bad consequences (Proverbs 9:10). Fear of the Lord insures God’s mercy (Luke 1:50), and results in spiritual prosperity (Acts 9:31). “Behold, Yahweh’s eye is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his loving kindness” (Psalm 33:18).
“having a good conscience“ (Greek: suneidesis) (v. 16a). The Greek word suneidesis has to do with self-awareness—especially the kind of self-awareness that has a strong moral base and has the potential to keep a person on the straight and narrow pathway. Conscience is a good translation here. Peter is encouraging these Christians to keep their consciences clear so their detractors will find nothing to criticize.
A good conscience is an alarm system that signals us when we do something wrong. It encourages us to rectify the error, and will bother us until we do so—or until sufficient time passes that we no longer remember the sin.
However, a clear conscience is no assurance that a person is innocent of sin. A great deal depends on how we have trained our conscience. Some people can do terrible things and suffer no pangs of conscience. The more frequently we do something wrong, the less likely we are to suffer pangs of conscience. Furthermore, most of us engage in a good deal of rationalization. If we work at it hard enough, we can make ourselves believe that almost anything that we might choose to do is justified.
“that, while you are spoken against as evildoers, they may be disappointed (Greek: kataischuno) who curse your good way of life in Christ“ (v. 16b). The Greek word kataischuno means to shame or to disgrace.
As noted above, the purpose of these Christians’ clear consciences is to prevent their detractors from finding anything to criticize. Those who try to besmirch these Christians’ reputations would be doomed to disappointment. Worse yet, on Judgment Day, they will find themselves standing before God trying to explain why they testified falsely against God’s people.
“For it is better, if it is God’s will, that you suffer for doing well than for doing evil“ (v. 17). A better word order would be “For it is better that you suffer for doing well, if that is God’s will, than for doing evil.” Peter made this same point earlier in this letter (2:20).
There is nothing masochistic about the Christian faith—nothing that encourages suffering for the sake of suffering. However, suffering endured in the line of duty—suffering with a purpose—suffering “for righteousness’ sake” (v. 14) is commended, and rewards are promised to those who remain faithful.
1 PETER 3:18-22. CHRIST ALSO SUFFERED
18 Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God; being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; 19 in which he also went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 who before were disobedient, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, while the ship was being built. In it, few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. 21This is a symbol of baptism, which now saves you—not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, angels and authorities and powers being made subject to him.
“Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God; being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit“ (v. 18). Peter stated this principle earlier in this letter. He said:
“For what glory is it if, when you sin,
you patiently endure beating?
But if, when you do well, you patiently endure suffering,
this is commendable with God.
For to this you were called,
because Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example,
that you should follow his steps” (2:20-21).
Peter’s point is that Christ endured the same kind of suffering that he calls Christians to bear. Christ was righteous, but suffered in behalf of those who were unrighteous “that he might bring (them) to God”—suffering with a redemptive purpose.
“in which he also went and preached to the spirits in prison (Greek: phulake), who before were disobedient, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, while the ship was being built. In it, few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water“ (vv. 19-20). Martin Luther, in his commentary on Peter and Jude, wrote of this verse, “A wonderful text is this, and a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament, so that I do not know for a certainty just what Peter means.”
After reading a number of scholars on this text, I have come to the conclusion that they don’t know “for a certainty” either—and neither do I. For the most part, I think the preacher would do well to avoid getting bogged down trying to explain this verse.
However, the Apostles’ Creed took a cue from this verse to include the words, “He descended into hell.” Because of that, some parishioners might ask for an explanation. While I can’t provide a definitive exegesis, I will offer what I have.
First, I will note that verses 19-20 don’t say that Christ “descended into hell.” They mention neither “descended” nor “hell.” The Greek word is phulake, which means prison—not hell. Ephesians 4:9 says that Christ “descended to the lower parts of the earth” (a literal translation). However, the meaning of that verse is also uncertain.
The phrase “descended into hell” was not in the original version of the Apostles’ Creed, but was added centuries later. Today, some versions of the creed substitute “he descended to the dead.” Some versions drop the phrase entirely.
We can look to three passages within 1-2 Peter for clues to his intentions:
• In 1 Peter 4:6, Peter says that “the Good News was preached even to the dead.” However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Christ did the preaching. A number of scholars believe that this preaching took place prior to these people’s deaths. Their response to the Good News while alive has determined their eternal destiny.
• In 1 Peter 3:22 (the last verse of this lectionary reading), Peter says that “angels and authorities and powers (have been) made subject to (Christ).”
• Later, Peter says, “For if God didn’t spare angels when they sinned, but cast them down to Tartarus, and committed them to pits of darkness, to be reserved for judgment, …the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptation and keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment” (2 Peter 2:4, 9). The word Tatarus comes from Greek mythology, and represents a great pit beneath the earth where the wicked will suffer.
“who before were disobedient, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, while the ship was being built“ (v. 20a). This verse alludes to Genesis 6:1-4, which says that “God’s sons saw that men’s daughters were beautiful, and they took for themselves wives of all that they chose…. They bore children to them.” Most scholars believe that “God’s sons” in that context were angels. That is, in fact, how the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament) portrays them, saying, “angeloi tou theou“—”angels of God.” These angels may have, in disobedience to God’s will, taken bodily form to mate with men’s beautiful daughters.
The apocryphal books, 1-2 Enoch, taught that evil angels were imprisoned for their disobedience. Some people think that Christ descended into hell to preach the Good News to these fallen angels, but I am not convinced that this is true.
“In it, few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water“ (v. 20b). The eight people were Noah, his wife, their three sons, and their sons’ wives (Genesis 6:10, 18; 7:13). They took refuge in the ark during the flood, and so were saved (Genesis 7:7, 23). The phrase “saved through water” alludes to the passage of the ark through the flood waters. As we will see in the next verse, Peter mentions “saved through water” in this verse to set up an analogy with Christian baptism in the next verse.
This is where I would ordinarily state my opinion about the meaning of verses 19-20, but I am sufficiently uncertain that I am not going do that. If you would like to study this verse further, I recommend consulting half a dozen commentaries to see where they lead you. See the bibliography below as a starting point.
“This is a symbol of baptism, which now saves you“ (v. 21a). Having established the first part of the analogy in verse 20—that the inhabitants of the ark were “saved through water”—Peter now connects that image with the salvation power of Christian baptism. Both the ark and Christian baptism are expressions of God’s saving grace. The analogy isn’t perfect, of course, because the inhabitants of the ark weren’t saved by immersion in the water, but by being raised above the water and kept from contact with it.
“not the putting away of the filth of the flesh“ (v. 21b). While baptism constitutes a kind of washing in water, it doesn’t cleanse the physical body, but the soul.
“but the answer (Greek: eperotema) of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ“ (v. 21b). The Greek word eperotema is usually translated “question” or “inquiry.” In the early church, candidates for baptism were asked questions, such as, “Are you committed to follow Christ?” Only after answering affirmatively were they permitted to be baptized. Peter might have that process in mind when he writes this verse.
The Christian’s salvation is the result, not of a moral life, but of the saving grace of Jesus’ resurrection.
“who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven“ (v. 22a). This alludes to Psalm 110:1, which says, “Yahweh says to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool for your feet'” (see also Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; Hebrews 8:1). Now Christ sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven.
“angels and authorities and powers being made subject to him“ (v. 22). While authorities, and powers are not necessarily bad, they often operate in rebellion to God.
The Apostle Paul uses similar language to talk about authorities and powers (1 Corinthians 15:24-25; see also Ephesians 1:21).
Paul also gave the clearest statement of Jesus’ position in the heavenly kingdom. He said:
“Therefore God also highly exalted (Jesus),
and gave to him the name which is above every name;
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth,
and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: The Letters of James and Peter (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003)
Bartlett, David L., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude and Revelation, Vol. XII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
Boring, M. Eugene, Abingdon New Testament Commentary: 1 Peter (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999)
Cedar, Paul A., The Preacher’s Commentary: James, 1, 2 Peter, Jude (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1984)
Craddock, Fred B., Westminster Bible Companion: First and Second Peter and Jude (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Davids, Peter H., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle of Peter(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990)
Gaventa, Beverly R., in Brueggemann, Walter, Cousar, Charles B., Gaventa, Beverly R., and Newsome, James D., Texts for Teaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Grudem, Wayne A., Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: 1 Peter, Vol. 17 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1988)
Holladay, Carl R., in Craddock, Fred B., Hayes, John H., Holladay, Carl R., and Tucker, Gene M.,Preaching Through the Christian, Year A (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Jobes, Karen H., Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005)
MacArthur, John, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Peter (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2004)
Michaels, J. Ramsey, Word Biblical Commentary: 1 Peter, Vol. 49 (Dallas: Word Books, 1988)
Moritz, Thorsten, in Van Harn, Roger E. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts: The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001)
Perkins, Pheme, Interpretation: First and Second Peter, James and Jude (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995)
Schreiner, Thomas R., The New American Commentary: 1, 2 Peter, Jude, Vol. 37 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003)
Vinson, Richard B., in Vinson, Richard B., Wilson, Richard F., and Mills, Watson E., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: 1&2 Peter, Jude (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2010)
Waltner, Erland , Believers Church Bible Commentary: 1 and 2 Peter (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1999)
Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan