The founding pastor of one of America’s most infamous ‘churches’ died on the evening of Wednesday, March,19, 2014. The late Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist ‘Church’ left a legacy of hatred and bigotry that many (though not all) of his family now inherit. Their notoriety stems from their public vitriol—most famously directed at gay people, but also towards the American military, other churches, shops, and more. I bring up Phelps and his legacy because it raises a question for churches about issues of cultural engagement. How is the church to relate to people, communities, cities, even nations, with whom they disagree on significant or fundamental life issues? The answer for Phelps and his ilk was unadulterated hatred. But if 1 Peter is to be believed, there is a better way: ‘Bless, for to this you have been called’ (1 Pet 3:9).
The answer for Phelps and his ilk was unadulterated hatred. But there is a better way.
But how does Peter conceive of ‘blessing’? In its immediate context, Peter has stated just prior that the Anatolian believers are to ‘not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling’. Rather, they are to ‘bless’ in accordance with the call that God has placed on their lives. Through the strategic use of the OT, Peter calls on the Anatolian churches to actively seek the blessing and prosperity of their unbelieving neighbours—even as they face opposition from them—in three ways: refusing to retaliate (3:9); pursuing peace (3:11); and being willing to defend the hope of one’s faith (3:15).
Blessing as Non-Retaliation
The Anatolian church’s suffering likely included verbal and physical assault, legal action, potential domestic violence, economic oppression, social ostracism, and spiritual affliction. The temptation to revile in return for reviling would have been immense, and it is against this backdrop of what may be described as holistic oppression that Peter issues the surprising command to the churches to bless those who cause their suffering.
The language used echoes the earlier call to the gracious endurance of suffering (2:21). One of the central themes shared by 1 Peter 2:21–25 and 3:8–12 is the emphasis on the non-retaliatory behaviour of Jesus in the face of suffering that is likewise expected of those who follow him. In this sense, one might say that the first act of blessing is the (in)action of non-retaliation, i.e., a summons to actively absorb evil, thus preventing its perpetuation.
The first act of blessing is the (in)action of non-retaliation.
The grounds upon which they might do this is found earlier in Peter’s address to bondservants, which also presents the example of Jesus (2:18–25). It is no coincidence that bondservants are addressed first in Peter’s household code because it is they in the congregation who most closely resemble Jesus—the Suffering Servant—and who are together presented as prototypical examples for the whole church to emulate.
If Peter’s churches are to follow in the footsteps of their servant members (2:18–20) and Servant Master (2:21–25), then they must actively entrust their life and the lives of their enemies to the Judge (2:23) and enact blessing by refusing to retaliate.
Blessing as Seeking Peace
Peter builds his case for a lifestyle characterised by humility, unity, and blessing by grounding his exhortation (3:8–9) in Psalm 34. It is well known that Psalm 34 is about the Lord’s deliverance from suffering, making it especially relevant for the context of 1 Peter. Given the strong diaspora/sojourning motif found in within the letter, Psalm 34 is well suited to the narrative that Peter advances. The psalm is explicit in referring the reader back to David’s sojourning among the Philistines as he fled from Saul (1 Samuel 21).
However, the larger narrative of David’s relationship with Saul is just as important. In 1 Samuel 24, David—hunted by king Saul—is presented with the opportunity to kill his pursuer, yet does not. Rather, he says to Saul:
See, my father, see the corner of your robe in my hand. For by the fact that I cut off the corner of your robe and did not kill you, you may know and see that there is no wrong or treason in my hands. I have not sinned against you, though you hunt my life to take it (1 Sam 24:11).
David refuses to repay evil with evil but rather seeks peace and Saul, at least for a moment, acknowledges it :
You are more righteous than I, for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil. And you have declared this day how you have dealt well with me, in that you did not kill me when the Lord put me into your hands. For if a man finds his enemy, will he let him go away safe? So may the Lord reward you with good for what you have done to me this day. And now, behold, I know that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand. (1 Sam 24:17–20, emphasis added).
This neatly captures the thrust of 1 Peter 3:10–12, showing how David’s righteous conduct during a tumultuous sojourn ultimately led to his promised reward. And Peter invites the Anatolian Christians to understand their own lives in the same light: they also have been promised an inheritance (1:4; 3:9; 5:10); they also are to live righteous lives both within and without the church even as they suffer (2:11– 12, etc.); and finally, they too will receive their inheritance as they continue in righteousness (1:3–7; 5:10).
Blessing as Sharing the Hope of One’s Faith
Finally, Peter urges them to be fearless in their relations with those who oppose them (14b): to honour Christ as Lord ‘in [their] hearts’. There is a reference here to Isaiah 8:12–13 that, by extension, brings with it an indirect allusion to King Ahaz (cf. Isa 7–8; 2 Kgs 16, and 2 Chron 28).
Ahaz’s failure was one of fear. He sought the assistance of the King of Assyria instead of trusting the Lord (2 Kgs 16:7; 2 Chron 28:16). Ultimately, he fell into idolatry (2 Chron 28:22ff), while scores of Judeans were killed or taken captive. In contrast to Ahaz, the Anatolian Christians are commanded ‘Do not fear … and do not be troubled’ (1 Pet 3:14b, NASB).
Verse 15 then provides the positive counterpart to being fearless, exhibiting two key facets: (1) believers are to honour Christ as holy in their hearts; and (2) they must be prepared to speak of their faith when called upon to do so. For Peter, the heart is the source of one’s conduct which, for the believer, will be demonstrated in the pursuit of the calling to be a blessing by embracing non-retaliatory behaviour towards their adversaries, seeking their shalom, and being able to give a reason, or defence, for their hope.
The use of ‘hope’ throughout 1 Peter (1:3, 13, 21), suggests that the word revolves around eschatological inheritance, but the foundation of that hope is the death and resurrection of Christ. Christian life and conduct depends on both future and past aspects of that hope.
Peter calls on his readers to be a non-retaliatory community that seeks the shalom of its oppressors—expecting that such a way of life will provoke amazed questions about their faith. Thus, finally, he exhorts the community to be ready to defend the hope that they possess with ‘gentleness and respect’. Non-retaliation—seeking the peace of their enemies—will open ears to the resurrection hope of Jesus.
For those more academically inclined, a longer version of this essay was published as: Shaw, David M. ‘Called to Bless: Considering an Under-Appreciated Aspect of “Doing Good” in 1 Peter 3:8–17’. Biblical Theology Bulletin 50, no. 3 (2020): 161–73. The full article can be found here.