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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

1 Peter 3

Verses 1-6

The Christian Wife’s Subjection to Her Husband (3:1-6)

In asking that the wife "be submissive" (vs. 1), Peter is asking no more than he does of all Christians (male and female) with regard to duly constituted authority and "every human institution" (2:13). And as in the case of all "good conduct" expected of the Christian generally (2:12), the motivation suggested is an evangelistic one — so that "some . . . may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives." The sort of adornment to which Peter takes exception in verse 3, having to do as it does with "braiding of hair, decoration of gold, and wearing of robes," is quite similar to that suggested in 1 Timothy 2:9. Isaiah had long before expostulated against just this sort of finery (3:18-24), and John in Revelation in somewhat similar terms describes the "great harlot" Babylon (18:7, 16-17). In estimating the value of such teaching on Peter’s part, we should bear in mind the fact that both rabbis and pagan moralists wrote in much the same vein, and that doubtless all four (prophet, Peter, rabbi, and moralist) had in mind the allurements practiced by profligate women in Jewish and pagan society.

The permanent value of Peter’s teaching, as of the others cited, is to be found not in its negations but rather in its affirmations. For certainly no exception can be taken to his suggestion that the adornment of the Christian woman is to be that of "the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit" (vs. 4). It is this "jewel" which God "who sees in secret" (Matthew 6:4; Matthew 6:6; Matthew 6:18) accounts "very precious."

Verse 6, alone in the New Testament, carries the implication that the wife is to "obey" as well as "be submissive" to her husband. It is to be noticed, however, that here the point refers to the fact that "Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord." It is noteworthy that Peter proceeds, "And you are now her children," not if you also obey, but rather "if you do right and let nothing terrify you."

Verse 7

The Christian Husband in Relation to His Wife (3:7)

This single verse of instruction to the Christian husband carries a great weight of responsibility. There is nothing quite like it elsewhere in the New Testament, the nearest parallels being found in Ephesians 5:25-33 and Colossians 3:19 (see also 1 Corinthians 7:1-7). In none of these passages are husbands enjoined to "be submissive" to their wives, as is the case in reverse. This is no doubt due to the fact that the submissiveness enjoined throughout from 2:13 onward and in the parallel passages cited is one which recognizes a duly constituted headship in each "human institution" (2:13). As in the state the emperor is head, so in the family it is to be acknowledged that the husband is head. Such headship in Christian circles is recognized as similar to that of Christ to his Church (Ephesians 5:23-24), a headship of love, for as Paul says, "the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior." Therefore, as he continues (Ephesians 5:25), husbands are to love their wives "as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her." Indeed, the husband’s headship is limited to his being "the great lover" in the family, even as Christ is the great lover of his Church and is its Savior.

There can be no doubt that Peter is here dealing with the same circle of ideas as he suggests to husbands, "Live considerately with your wives, bestowing honor on the woman as the weaker sex" (vs. 7). In the Greek, "considerately" is literally "according to knowledge." That "the woman" is to be honored as "the weaker sex" implies the sort of paradoxical reversal of values which carries through the whole of the Christian ethic and is akin to the suggestion already made at 2:17, to the effect that all men are to be treated as though they were kings! It is as though Peter were saying that it is in the woman’s weakness that her strength is to be found; not in physical prowess but in moral and spiritual (and no doubt also intellectual) qualities does her strength reside.

The ultimate reason for the Christian husband’s so treating his wife is found in the fact that they are equally "heirs of the grace of life," and its aim is that their "prayers may not be hindered." Wife and husband are, in other words, on a spiritual par in the sight of God and, therefore, should be so in the sight of each other. Though the phraseology here is different, this exactly accords with the teaching of Jesus and of Paul regarding the moral and spiritual equality of men and women (Matthew 5:27-32; Mark 10:2-12; 1 Corinthians 7).

Verses 8-12

Summary: Christian Behavior for All (3:8-12)

And now Peter summarizes for all his Christian readers the nature of the Christian ethic as it applies more particularly within the sphere of the brotherhood (vs. 8; see 2:17). In verse 8 he gives a comprehensive statement of Christian attitudes as these unfold from within and express themselves in outward action. It would seem that this verse should be read in reverse — the "humble mind," which realizes its own unworthiness in the sight of God and men, naturally expressing itself in "a tender heart" toward those who are in like fashion unworthy, such "a tender heart" finding room for "love of the brethren" as its normal expression, issuing in "sympathy," which in turn gives birth to "unity of spirit."

"Humble mind" represents an attitude which Peter considers basic to the Christian ethic, as is shown in the fact that in 5:5 he practically duplicates this comprehensive statement in 3:8. This "rock" man, whose spirit in the early days had been exceedingly hard to tame (Mark 8:31-33; John 13:8-9), had himself learned humility the hard way! But he had learned it

At this point Peter quotes from Psalms 34:12-16 (vss. 10-12). This Psalm as a whole serves as a definition of the "poor man" (see Psalms 34:6), or the humble person, who finds that his help lies only in God, not in other men nor in self (see Matthew 5:3).

Stated both negatively and positively, then, the Christian is not to "return evil for evil or reviling for reviling" (see Matthew 5:39; Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:28; Romans 12:14-21); rather he is to "bless" that he "may obtain a blessing" himself (vs. 9). Literally the Greek here reads "Bless . . . that you may inherit a blessing," which is much like the third beatitude — "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:5). And it is striking that this beatitude of Jesus is actually a quotation from Psalms 37:11 (a Psalm in which the "meek" man is defined), and that "poor" and "meek" in Hebrew are essentially the same word. It is, says Peter, to such a "humble mind" or to such meekness that the Christian is "called." Such humble-mindedness issues in blessedness both for the man himself and for all whom his life touches. Again, as we have seen previously (1 Peter 1:15; 1 Peter 2:9; 1 Peter 2:21), Peter thinks of all Christians as having received a vocation or "call" from God to lead the Christian life in its purity and fullness.

Verses 13-17

Sanctification Under Fire: Persecution for Righteousness’ Sake (3:13—5:11)

Making Christ Lord (3:13-17)

Peter now begins to deal realistically with the situation in which his readers are found. And, as we shall discover at 4:12, this involves the presence of actual persecution. To be sure, Peter approaches this realistic situation somewhat cautiously, so much so that some have imagined that it was during the writing of the letter that he heard of the "fiery ordeal" which his readers were actually facing at the moment. This, it is said, explains the fact that not until 4:12 is actual mention made of present persecution. It would appear rather that, as indicated in the outline, the thought of "persecution for righteousness’ sake" or of "sanctification under fire" is a major theme which Peter has had in mind from the beginning of the letter. It is because the Christian’s "holy life," like that of the prophets before him and of his Lord, is under fire that Peter finds occasion to write to his readers at all. The section before us serves as an introduction to the final major division of the letter, in which this climactic note of suffering for righteousness’ sake becomes the dominant theme.

As he opens this new theme Peter immediately strikes the highest note possible for the Christian who is faced with the necessity of undergoing persecution for his faith. Indeed, this note represents the only motivation that can find logical justification within the Christian philosophy of life. This motivation may be stated in either of two ways, both of them representing the very heart of the gospel message. These are — "suffer for righteousness’ sake" (vs. 14), and "in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord" (vs. 15). These two motivations can be traced back to the teaching of Jesus himself (see Matthew 5:10-12; Mark 8:34-38). Indeed, the first part of verse 14 sounds like a quotation of the eighth Beatitude (Matthew 5:10). Similarly, the first part of verse 15 is without doubt Peter’s version of the common Christian tradition which Paul voices in 1 Corinthians 12:3: "No one can say ’Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit."

It is perhaps suggestive of the dual character (Gentile and Jewish) of his Christian readers’ backgrounds that Peter at this point employs in the Greek two words of an abstract sort to suggest the ideal for which Christian suffering is undertaken — "what is right" (vs. 13) and "righteousness" (vs. 14). The two terms, expressing respectively the Greek and Hebrew conceptions of the ideal for man, are intended to stand for the same thing and both together represent the holy life which all along Peter has been setting forth as the Christian ideal. The Christian is not to allow any secular phenomenon to "terrify" (vs. 6) him or to fear lest it may "harm" (vs. 13) him. Those who are terrified and fear the harm which the world can do to them usually indulge in "reviling" (vs. 9), as our modern psychology now agrees. Neither the inner fear nor the outward expression of returning "evil for evil" and "reviling for reviling" are to be the Christian’s attitude.

Peter has already drawn upon Isaiah 8:14-15 — a messianic passage — for his reference to "a stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall" (2:8). He now calls upon verses 12-13 of the same chapter in Isaiah as he says with regard to what the world can do to the Christian: "Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord" (vss. 14-15).

The Christian then is always to be "prepared to make a defense to any one who calls . . . [him] to account for the hope that is in . . . [him]" (vs. 15). As we have already observed (1 Peter 1:3; 1 Peter 1:13), this is the eschatological "hope" relating to the Final Coining, as the passages cited indicate. It is by no means an uncertain or weak element of the Christian faith; rather, it is "a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul," since it rests upon the saving activity of the incarnate Christ (see Hebrews 6:19-20 and the comment on 1 Peter 4:18-19). The Christian’s "defense," however, is always to be "with gentleness [meekness] and reverence," not with arrogant self-assertiveness (vs. 15; see Matthew 5:5; 2 Corinthians 10:1; Galatians 6:1).

The proper armor of the Christian who is reviled by the secular world is "good behavior in Christ" (vs. 16), for there is nothing short of this which will make it possible for the Christian to keep his "conscience clear" (literally, "a good conscience"; see Acts 23:1;ITim. 1:5, 19; 2 Timothy 1:3;Hebrews 13:18; and 1 Peter 3:21). As before at 2:15, behind the Christian’s conscience stands "God’s will" (vs. 17). That "will" stands as the Lord of the conscience; it alone is the standard for what is "the good" or "righteousness."

Verses 18-22

Example of Christ’s Suffering and Resurrection (3:18-22)

This section contains what is probably the most difficult problem of interpretation in the entire letter. The general teaching of the section, however, is clear enough. Employing some of the same terminology as at 2:21-25 (a passage which in turn employs the phraseology of Isaiah 53 relating to the Suffering Servant), Peter points out that Jesus Christ is at once Savior of and example to Christians, inasmuch as he "died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God" (vs. 18). This death was followed by "the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God" (vss. 21-22). The passage has numerous other New Testament parallels (for example, Acts 2:22-36; Romans 6:1-11; Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 2:10-18).

Possibly in verse 18, instead of "died," we should read "suffered" (see margin). The passage would then parallel 2:21 and would correspond to the phraseology in 3:14 immediately above. This reading, if correct, has the advantage of stating explicitly that Christ’s sufferings are to be an example to us, who like him are called upon to "suffer" and thus fulfill "God’s will" for our lives (vs. 17), even as Christ was himself doing in dying for our sins (2:20-21). Peter’s suggestion that Christ died "that he might bring us to God" approximates the thought of Paul (Romans 5:2; Ephesians 2:17-18; Ephesians 3:12), and that of the author of Hebrews (4:16; 7:25; 10:1, 22). Such phraseology suggests that the end and aim of the Christian faith is to restore that fellowship with God on man’s part which was broken by man’s rebellion in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:22-24).

Jesus is able thus to "bring us to God" (vs. 18), because his death was followed by resurrection and ascension to "the right hand of God" (vss. 21-22), where "angels, authorities, and powers" have become "subject to him." This again is the same teaching as that found in the passages cited above — Jesus’ death is followed by resurrection, a resurrection which implies his acceptance by God and his assumption of God’s power. Needless to say, the assumption of such power on Jesus’ part results in the salvation of the people for whom he died.

It is obvious from the passage that induction into Christ by "baptism" (vs. 21) is assumed by Peter as the visible and formal method through which the salvation offered in Christ’s death and resurrection is applied to the believer. It is clear, too, that for him such baptism is not to be conceived in any mechanical sense (the thought no doubt intended in the words "not as a removal of dirt from the body"); rather it is to be understood as "an appeal to God for a clear conscience," that is, as a rite signifying an inner or spiritual change in the life of the believer. Such teaching with regard to the significance of baptism as the initial sacrament of the Christian faith is also to be illustrated elsewhere in the New Testament (Acts 2:38; Acts 8:16; Acts 8:36-38; Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12). It is only, therefore, in this deep spiritual sense that it may be said that baptism "now saves you." For this rite signifies that the believer has been inducted into Christ and has "put on Christ" (Galatians 3:27; see Romans 6:4).

The portion of the passage which we have referred to as difficult of interpretation is that found between the phrases "being put to death" and "saved through water" (vss. 18-20). Various suggestions for interpretation have been made, as follows: (1) it is suggested that verses 18-22 constitute a baptismal hymn to Christ, and that Peter incorporated this well-known hymn into the body of his letter as he had already done previously at 2:4-10 with a Christian hymn in praise of the Christian Church; (2) in the Greek, the introductory words in verse 19 ("in which he") may with a slight change be made to read rather "Enoch," or perhaps better "in which also Enoch," and it is therefore suggested that Peter here is referring, not to something which Jesus did in the spirit, but rather to the work of the patriarch Enoch (see Genesis 5:21-24), as this is reported in the apocryphal work of First Enoch (ch. 6); (3) the alternative possibility is suggested that these words should read "in which Noah" on the basis of the fact that the incident referred to occurred "in the days of Noah" (vs. 20) ; (4) the usual interpretation is that Peter is referring to what occurred in our Lord’s experience between his death and resurrection; namely, that after his "death in the flesh," but while still "alive in the spirit" (vs. 18), he took occasion to descend, as the Creed suggests, "into hell" or alternatively "into Hades or Sheol," that is, into the abode of the dead, and that he there "preached to the spirits in prison" (vs. 19) ; finally (5) the suggestion is made that it is the pre-existent Christ to whom Peter refers as "alive in the spirit" and who "in the days of Noah" had "preached to the spirits" through his servant Noah — spirits who were incarnate or living men in Noah’s day but who had since become "spirits in prison," that is, in hell or Sheol, because they did not respond to the preaching of Christ through Noah.

All of these interpretations have, as may easily be seen, points to commend them, and all equally have others which may be cited against them. It is this which makes the passage so very difficult of interpretation. It may be remarked that there is no other passage in the New Testament quite like this one; those most nearly approximating to its teaching are Romans 10:5-7 and Ephesians 4:8-10. If we feel impelled by the evidence to adopt the more common interpretation outlined above under (4), then several observations may justifiably be made. First, it is to be noted that no doctrine of purgatory with attendant Masses for the dead, works of supererogation, and the like, intended to deliver "the spirits in prison" by mechanical means manipulated by an almighty church, can remotely be substantiated by the passage. Second, Peter introduced this difficult passage to indicate how "God’s patience" extends not only to the living but also to the dead "spirits in prison," a view which, although differently expressed, is in line with the gracious character of God as outlined throughout the Old and New Testaments (see, for example, Romans 5:15-21; 1 Corinthians 15:22; 1 Timothy 2:3-4). Third, Peter must have had the subsidiary motive of drawing out an analogy to baptism (vs. 21), which he finds strangely enough in the salvation accorded by the "ark" to "eight persons," who "in the days of Noah . . . were saved through water" (vs. 20). To our minds the analogy may seem far-fetched, but parallels for such analogies may be found in the teachings of the rabbis of the period and even in the writing of the Apostle Paul, who finds an analogy to baptism in the experience of Israel at the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10:2) and to the Lord’s Supper in the Israelites’ being sustained by "supernatural food" and "supernatural drink" during the period of the wilderness wandering (1 Corinthians 10:3-4). However we may interpret this difficult passage, we must agree that it lies on the periphery of Christian truth.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on 1 Peter 3". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/1-peter-3.html.