“Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” This saying has been attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, although there is no historical evidence that he actually said it. It’s a popular saying intended to communicate the fact that our actions and our lives matter far more than our words. Now, I have a quibble with the saying: I would argue that it is not possible to preach the gospel without words. The gospel is, by definition, a verbal announcement. The gospel is not anything we can “do.” God has already done everything outside of us by giving his Son over death, by raising him from the dead, and by enthroning him over the cosmos. Nothing that we do with our lives is the gospel. The gospel simply is the announcement of what God has done for our salvation, along with a call to repentance and faith unto forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
And yet, I do agree with much of what that saying affirms: indeed, our lives and actions do matter, and while we cannot “preach” the gospel with our actions alone, our lives can adorn and defend the gospel that we preach, making its power and attractiveness more evident among unbelievers. Think about how you yourself came to faith in Christ. I would guess that most, if not all of you, are thinking about the people in your life who played a role in leading you to faith: perhaps your parents, or Sunday School teachers, or pastors, or friends, or neighbors. How much did their lives, and not just their words, matter to you in that process of coming to faith? How much did it impact you, not only to hear the message about Jesus from them, but also to see them living as though what they told you was real? How thankful are you for the people whose lives adorned and defended the gospel before your eyes, which in turn helped bring you to faith in Christ?
That’s what this entire second section of Peter’s letter has been about: living lives that adorn and defend the gospel. The main point Peter makes in all of 2:11-4:11 is stated in 2:11-12: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 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.” In my sermon on those verses I argued that Peter is saying that one of the goals of our living honorable lives among unbelievers is so that some of them may be drawn to faith and give glory to God for his saving work in them on the day when Christ returns. The lives of believers who have been transformed by the gospel give tremendous power to our proclamation of the gospel, which in turn helps lead some unbelievers to faith.
But if we are going to live honorable lives among the Gentiles, we must keep a proper focus. Peter’s letter has been filled with references to the hope that we as believers have in Christ. In 1:4 he referred to our inheritance kept in Heaven for us. In 1:13 he commanded us to set our hope fully on the grace that will be brought to us when Christ comes again. Here in our text today he speaks of the “the hope that is in you” in 3:15. If we ever lose sight of this hope, as we are prone to do when our focus shifts to the concerns of this age, we tend to become self-focused. If you cannot see clearly the hope that is yours in Christ, you will seek hope elsewhere, desperately clinging to the things of this world out of fear of losing them rather than joyfully walking in the assurance that your security is in God’s promise, and thus you are free to live for the good of others and not yourself. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is precisely those who are most heavenly minded who are also of the most earthly good, because being heavenly minded frees you for so much earthly good.
And so as we walk through Peter’s instructions, I want to draw your attention to three ways that we are called to adorn and defend the gospel with our lives.
First, let us adorn and defend the gospel by
I. Loving the church as family (v. 8).
When he was in the upper room with his disciples, Jesus gave them a new command, a command that they love one another in the same way that he was about to demonstrate his love for them, namely, in a cross-shaped way. In John 13:35 he said to them, “By this all people shall know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Self-giving love is the mark of one who follows in the way of the cross. It is the mark of one whose hope is not in this present world, and who therefore sees the purpose of this life, not as self-advancement in brutal competition with others, but as a gift and an opportunity to seek the good of one’s brothers and sisters.
Peter begins verse 8 with the words, “Finally, all of you,” widening his address to all because he has just given specific instructions to slaves (2:18-25), to wives (3:1-6), and to husbands (3:7). What must we all do? Peter says, “have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” It seems that the first and last characteristics listed here—unity of mind and a humble mind—go together because of that common word “mind” (which is part of each Greek word). If we tie those two together, we also notice that the second and fourth terms—sympathy and a tender heart—seem to be tied together as well, since they both basically mean the same thing. If we put those links together visually, it looks like this:
A unity of mind
C brotherly love
B’ a tender heart
A’ a humble mind
Viewing the characteristics this way is helpful because it highlights some important connections. Let’s take the first characteristic: unity of mind. How can unity of mind be achieved in a church? Is it something that a group of people can simply will themselves to do? If we tie it to the last item on the list, the answer becomes clear: unity of mind among a diverse group of people requires that we approach one another with a humble mind. Humility was not an admired characteristic in Roman society at this time, but Peter tells his readers that the gospel demands that we live in a way that does not seek to exalt ourselves or impose our will, but to submit humbly to the truth God has revealed as we seek to maintain unity in the church. Humility is essential to unity.
I recall one occasion when I was at a training session at Augustine School, and our dean made a very insightful point about middle school boys. He said that boys at that age have a tendency to make light of things that are serious and to take seriously things that should be taken lightly. So you might spot a middle school boy cutting up during a chapel service when he should be considering the weightiness of worship. And then later that day, you might see that same boy arguing to no end about a dispute regarding something that happened during a football game with his friends out on the playground. Boys at that age must be taught to feel the weight of things that are weighty and to take lightly the things that are light. And so it is with us in the church. If we feel the weight of the glorious truths of the gospel, we will find that these truths unite us, and the things about which we may have different opinions—preferences regarding matters of wisdom such as when and how we schedule our gatherings, or how we organize smaller units of the church, etc.—don’t matter to any degree that should cause division. Humbled before the weightiness of the truth, we are free to have unity in spite of differences.
At the “B” level of Peter’s list of virtues, we see that Peter calls us to sympathy and tender-heartedness, which are basically indistinguishable concepts. Our hearts are to be shaped by genuine concern for one another, a concern that enables us to rejoice with those who rejoice as we draw true joy in their blessings and successes, as well as to weep with those who weep, determined that we will not allow our brothers and sisters to suffer alone. In order to do that, we must have hearts that sympathize, putting ourselves in the place of others; we must have hearts that are tender toward the circumstances that others face. And the root of all of these characteristics comes in the middle term: brotherly love, or the love that characterizes a family. Above all, the church of Jesus Christ adorns the gospel by the love that church members demonstrate toward one another in the life of God’s family. And the way you demonstrate that love is, first and foremost, by being here regularly. Church members who love their brothers and sisters don’t have to be harassed into coming to church. They come because they want to be here, sharing at the Lord’s table, joyfully proclaiming every Sunday, “This is my family!” If you go for any stretch of time without that experience, you should miss it because you miss being with your family.
If you look across the political landscape of our day, you can see an extreme individualism on one side, where the vision of the good life is one of maximizing your own potential by having nothing to hold you back from your personal dreams. You, the individual, are not invested in the church or in other people except insofar as they can help you on your journey toward personal fulfillment. On the other side, you see a call for collectivism, which reduces individuals to whatever class, group, or category they belong to. In a collectivist way of thinking, you, as an individual, do not matter. What matters is the category to which you belong: your ethnicity, your gender, your sexual orientation, etc. As part of that category, you are engaged in a struggle against the other categories of people whom you are trained to see as oppressors. Life is simply a fight for power.
The New Testament doctrine of the church cuts against both the individualism of the right and the collectivism of the left and tells us that we who are in Christ are members of a body. No member of a body can survive on its own. It must be connected to the body to have life that flows form the body. On the other hand, members of a body are not identical units of a particular class. They are different from one another; it is precisely their differences that enables them to function together as a body.i Against both individualism and collectivism, I propose a vision of what I call “localism,” the idea of finding your identity and living your life primarily in a local community, with real flesh-and-blood people whom you encounter daily or weekly. That is how families work, and that is how the church works. And when a world that is caught between the bankrupt philosophies of individualism and collectivism sees the powerful vision of a family in the local church, it will make the gospel appear more beautiful to them. May we love one another as family, so that the world may know that we are Jesus’ disciples.
Second, let us adorn and defend the gospel by
II. Doing good to our enemies (vv. 9-12).
Have you ever seen a Western movie in which a gunfight broke out because somebody called somebody else a liar? It was a serious matter in the Old West for a man to accuse another man of lying in a public place. Why was that a matter of life and death? It was because, in a setting in which law enforcement was typically weak, you couldn’t always count on the law to be there for you when you needed it. What then did you have to count on? Your own honor. If you were a man living in the Wild West, you had to prove that you weren’t somebody who could be run over by bullies. That would put you and your family in a dangerous situation, so if somebody challenged your honor publicly, you might think that warranted pulling out your gun and sending him to his grave. If your hope is in this world, it makes perfect sense to be deeply concerned with defending your honor. Without that, what else do you have?
But according to Peter, we have much more than that. We have an inheritance that cannot be touched, kept in Heaven for us, so that no matter what happens to us here, our future joy is secure. The security that is ours in the coming age gives us the freedom now to be far less concerned about our public honor when our enemies seek to dishonor us. In verse 9, Peter says, “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling.” The flesh would tell us that, if someone insults you, you must even the score in order to prove yourself. If you don’t hit back, then everyone who sees that you took that abuse without retaliating will assume that you are a doormat to be run over at will. But the flesh is wrong. Peter tells us not to retaliate against those who wrong us. Instead, we must bless them. That means we must seek their good and pray for the blessing of God to be upon them. We must long for their repentance and forgiveness, being eager to count them as brothers or sisters should they come to Christ in faith.
Peter goes on to say toward the end of verse 9, “for to this [blessing your enemies] you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.” The logic works like this: God has called you to bless your enemies, with the result of receiving blessing from him. Peter then quotes from Psalm 34:12-16 in vv. 10-12. In this psalm, David expounds on what the fear of the Lord looks like. He says it is marked by speech that is good and actions that are good toward others, as opposed to speech that seeks to harm, destroy, and deceive, or actions that do the same. According to Peter, the one who pursues good is the one who will receive blessing from the Lord. One question that I noticed among commentators regarding this quote is whether or not Peter is speaking here of the blessing of eternal life or blessings upon us in this life. I don’t think we have to choose between those two options. On the one hand, Peter does speak of blessings that are given to us in this life. Notice verse 12: “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer.” That speaks of God’s watchfulness over us now and his eagerness to answer our prayers when we call to him, which is a blessing we experience in this life. But the verse ends by saying, “But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” To have the face of God set against you is, ultimately, to be condemned at the final judgment. Peter is saying that those who seek to speak and do good to others—including their enemies—will not face the wrath of God at the coming judgment as those who do evil will. And that’s not because our good works earn us favor with God. Of course, they don’t! But those who have been justified by grace alone through faith alone inevitably demonstrate their faith by their good works, and those who stand to inherit eternal life are those who seek to do good to others.
As we look at a passage like this one, it is worth recalling the parallel idea in Jesus’ teachings, where he told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Why? According to Jesus, there are two reasons. One is “so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:45). What he means is that, by loving our enemies, we reflect the character of God just as a son reflects the character of his father. Does God do good to those who are enemies? Does he make the sun rise on the evil and on the good? Does he give rain to the just and to the unjust? So let us love our enemies as well in order to be like him. Second, Jesus asks the question: If you only love those who love you, how are you any different from pagans? Don’t they do the same thing (Matt. 5:46-47)? What makes you distinct in this world if your love extends no farther than that of unbelievers? But if you love your enemies, doing good to those who revile you, you are demonstrating a love that goes farther than natural human affection. You are showing a love that is empowered by the gospel and that displays its beauty before an unbelieving world.
And now one final word of instruction. Let us adorn and defend the gospel by
III. Facing suffering without fear (vv. 13-17).
The question Peter raises in verse 13 is intended to strengthen our courage and alleviate our fears in this present age, but it’s important to read carefully here: “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?” If you think about the major themes of this letter and only read that verse at the surface level, that question could fall flat as a source of encouragement. Who is there to harm us? A lot of people, Peter! You yourself make that point! Even in this very paragraph, Peter speaks of “those who revile your good behavior in Christ” in verse 16. Peter, what is going on with this question? How can this be a source of encouragement?
Let’s look beyond the surface and think of it this way: what if the question Peter is asking in verse 13 is basically the same question that Paul asks in Romans 8:31: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Well, of course, we know a lot of people are against us. Paul knew that well (see Rom. 8:35-39). His question actually means, “If God is for us, who can prevail against us?” And the answer, of course, is no one. Let’s apply the same logic to Peter’s question in verse 13: “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?” That is, who will be able to harm you in any ultimate sense if you are zealous for what is good? Following right after the statement in verse 12 that “the face of the Lord is against those who do evil,” we see that what Peter is telling us here is that God has set himself against our enemies, that he is sovereign over all things, and that therefore, in the end, no amount of persecution, reviling, or suffering at the hands of our enemies will have any lasting impact. It will all come to nothing because of who God is. That is reason to take courage in the face of opposition.
So Peter is not denying the reality that we will suffer in this life. In verse 14 he acknowledges it clearly, but he shows us how to interpret it in light of the truth that God is for us: “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.” Having just said that no one will be able to harm us in the end, Peter now tells us that we must not interpret our sufferings in this age for the sake of righteousness as anything other than signs of God’s blessing. The days may be coming when Christians in America have to suffer more than we have ever before since this nation was founded. You may face a situation in which you have to decide whether to change the way you talk about men and women or lose your job. You may receive an invitation to a same-sex wedding of a loved one, at which point you face the decision of giving your implicit blessing to the union or risk deeply offending people you love. Children and youth, you may face a situation at school or among your friends, or maybe in the future on a college campus, where you will be expected to give approval to practices that the Bible clearly condemns, and if you don’t give your approval, you will find yourself ostracized as a hater and a bigot, no better than an outspoken racist. Don’t wait until these moments come to decide whether you are willing to pay the price to be faithful to Christ. Make your decision now: I will stand with Christ no matter what the cost. And then be encouraged with Peter’s message here: when that day comes and you are reviled, slandered, ostracized, or fired because of your commitment to Christ, you are blessed. The world may hate you, but the favor of God rests upon you. And whose approval really matters in the end?
And so, from this assurance of God’s sovereignty and favor upon us, Peter gives two commands, and both of these commands echo the words of Isaiah 8:12-13. In context, the people of Judah were facing the danger of an invasion from an alliance between Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel. The prophet Isaiah proclaimed to King Ahaz of Judah that such an invasion would not happen, and that he needed to trust in the Lord to defend Judah. Ahaz did not trust in the Lord; he trusted in his political alliance with Assyria. It is in this setting that the Lord said to Isaiah, “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear [human kings and invading armies], nor be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.” In context, these verses call upon Isaiah to fear God, not man.
Peter takes the same idea and applies it to his own readers’ situation. In verse 14b he writes, “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled.” They may oppose you, revile you, and persecute you, but have no fear of them. Then the second command comes in verse 15: “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy.” Peter has taken the word to Isaiah to honor the Lord of hosts as holy and has inserted the name of Christ into it, clearly demonstrating his affirmation that Jesus Christ is himself God. What Peter says we should do is essentially this: instead of attributing to our enemies a power and significance that they do not have, we must reorient our hearts to the truth that there is one King over the cosmos, and his name is Jesus. He is Lord of all, he will prevail in the end, and when that day comes, we will want to be among his people.
As we honor Christ the Lord as holy in our own hearts, Peter tells us we must be ready to give an answer for our faith. Verses 15-16 read, “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” Peter envisions believers living with such hope in the face of suffering that it would draw questions from unbelievers. And he tells us that when those questions come, we must be ready to give a defense of our faith. The fact that we are expected to be able to give a reason for the hope that is in us indicates that defending our faith with rational arguments (what is called “apologetics”) is not only possible, but commanded of us. This is different from how Mormons, for example, defend Mormonism. If you ask a Mormon for a defense of Mormonism, he or she will often appeal to a subjective experience: “I prayed and asked God to show me the truth, and when I read the Book of Mormon I felt a stirring in my heart. If you will do the same, you will have the same experience.” I don’t deny the value of subjective experiences, but I don’t believe subjective experiences alone can make a case for religious belief. What if it was the devil who stirred in your heart? How would you know the difference? Peter tells us to be ready to give a reason for our faith. That doesn’t mean we all have to be highly trained experts, but I do think it means we ought to be able to draw basic contrasts between the Christian faith and the bankrupt alternatives of this world. And in our setting, we seek to train you in the ability to do that primarily through our Sunday School classes, not only the class on apologetics that we have offered in the past, but especially our theology classes. Prepare yourself to defend the faith.
But as verses 15-16 indicate, it is not merely with your words that you defend the faith. It is also with your character. When you make a defense of the faith to an unbeliever, your goal is not to win an argument; your goal is to persuade him or her to come to faith. And so Peter says that when you give a defense, do it with gentleness and respect (which could mean “fear,” as in the fear of God). Live in such a way that you have a good conscience and that you manifest good behavior. Unbelievers who continue to revile and slander you will be shamed when the day of judgment comes, but along the way you may indeed win some of them over.
And I think that is what Peter is hinting at in verse 17: “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” Not only is it objectively more commendable to suffer for good than evil, but it actually has the potential to accomplish something better, namely, the winning of some unbelievers to faith. When we suffer for the sake of righteousness, when we patiently bear witness to the hope that is in us, when we respond to unbelievers with gentleness, when we manifest in all of our actions a deep and abiding fear of God, we cannot help but adorn and defend the gospel in such a way that makes it attractive and so brings at least some to faith. And that’s the point of the example that Peter gives beginning in verse 18: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” Christ suffered for doing good, ultimately for our benefit. Let us likewise suffer for doing good, for the benefit of others.
In order to do that, we must have the proper focus in view. And here let me remind you again of Peter’s command in 1:13: “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Hope is what keeps us alive. The only reason we are able to continue getting out of bed each day is because we have some sense that there is at least the potential for something good before us. Peter commands us to set our hope fully, not partially, not mostly, but fully on the grace that is to be brought to us when Christ returns. Live every single day of your life with the inheritance that is to come in view. Although you may have many good things to pursue here—family, career, owning a home, etc.—do not let these things become the hope for which you live your life. If they are, you will compromise your faith at the first sign of losing them. But if your hope is grounded in what this world cannot touch, you will have the resolve and the courage to suffer whatever price you have to pay to follow Christ. So set your hope fully on the grace to come, and face suffering without fear.
And what is the grace that is to come? It is an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. It is eternal life and unending joy. It is the hope that we will forever be living stones in God’s temple, that we ourselves will be the very dwelling place of God’s Spirit forever. It is that God himself will be our God, and we his people, and that he will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
We have no claim to these promises outside of Christ, for outside of Christ we are guilty sinners who deserve permanent exile from God’s presence. God will not compromise his holiness. He will not deny himself by ignoring our sin. And yet we have hope that is found in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Though he was fully God, he became a man and lived the life that we should have lived. He was the faithful Son who obeyed where Adam and Israel had failed. And he fulfilled his mission by giving himself over to death on a cross, where he hung under the curse of God’s wrath. But it was not wrath for his sins. It was God’s wrath against our sins, counted to him as our covenant head. On the third day, God raised him from the dead, declaring him righteous before the world, so that all who abandon hope in themselves and place their hope in him will be counted righteous as well. This is the gospel that we cherish, and it is the gospel that we remember every Sunday as we take the bread and the cup.
If you are not a believer in Christ, please let the bread and cup pass by today. You do not need the Lord’s Supper; you need Christ. Maybe you are visiting with us today, and you have come to see now that Christ is your only hope. Or maybe you are a child who has come with your family for a long time, and today is the day that you have decided to take hold of Christ as your own. If that’s you, I want you to talk to one of the elders after the service today, or to one of our members who can talk to us for you. We want you to be baptized as a profession of your faith in Christ. You don’t have to clean up your life before you can come to Christ. It is by coming to Christ that you turn away from your sins and trust him to clean up your life. So bring your sins to Christ, lay them upon him, and find freedom today.
If you are a baptized believer in Jesus Christ and a member in good standing with a local church, then we welcome you to eat and drink in remembrance of Christ. As we remember Christ again, may it stir up the hope that is in us. Amen.
iI am drawing here from C.S. Lewis’s excellent essay, “Membership,” in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 1980), 158-76.