Christian Behavior in a Hostile Environment – An Excerpt from 1 Peter (SGBC)
In today’s excerpt from 1 Peter, the newest installment of the Story of God Bible Commentary series, Dennis Edwards teaches us about behaviors that foster Christian unity, and how we are expected to behave in a hostile environment.
First: LISTEN TO THE STORY
The sideways glances, insults, and dismissive attitudes that Christians sometimes face in our North American context are far from what might be called persecution, but they can still hurt. The way that we respond to those who demean us says much about the nature of our faith. When we respond well, we display the character of our Lord Jesus himself. Responding well means taking a “high road” when bullied and not retaliating in kind. Peter echoes the OT, which proves that God will bless those who pursue peace and refrain from vengeance. Such virtuous action is of course best modeled in the life and teachings of Jesus, particularly in his Sermon on the Mount.
But Peter would not have us think that we face opposition alone. Since we are part of a community, we are called on to do what it takes to enhance our unity as fellow disciples. And by developing the character of Christ, we will be better equipped to face opposition—and to do so with sisters and brothers equally committed to the same peacemaking goals.
We will also remember those sisters and brothers in faraway places who face actual violence and cruel opposition and who have little experience of the freedom we in the United States have to share in the life of Christian faith. Peter’s words are true for them as well, and if they are difficult for us, imagine how hard it must be for them and, for that matter, for Peter’s original audience. It is right and fitting for us to pause and pray for our sisters and brothers near and far and to honor the memories of those who have gone on before us.
EXPLAIN THE STORY
Peter begins to wrap up his exhortations regarding how Christians should behave within a hostile environment. He has discussed personal ethics (2:11–17), then the role of household members: slaves (2:18–25), wives (3:1–6), and husbands (3:7). Peter now returns to addressing the entire community (“all of you,” v. 8) with some pointed words in order to encourage unity and peacemaking in the face of persecution. Peter’s readers are vulnerable to the verbal and physical attacks of a society that hates Christians. Although some non-Christians will be appreciative of the fact that believers do not retaliate, others will not, and this latter group of haters will make life miserable for the faithful. In order for the Christian community to thrive it must grow in unity with one another, have a strategy for dealing with offensive people, and continue to look to Jesus for motivation.
Attitudes That Foster Unity (3:8)
Verse 8 focuses on those characteristics that promote unity. What appears in the NIV as a command (“be like-minded,” etc.) is in the original a string of adjectives that describe healthy Christian community: like-minded (homophrōn), sympathetic (sympathēs), mutually loving (philadelphos), compassionate about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you” (Phil 1:27–28a). As the Philippians stand together in unity, they are able to face their challengers without fear; Peter’s community must do the same. The next trait is sympathēs, which describes an understanding disposition or the ability to put oneself in another’s place. In 4 Maccabees the writer states that mothers have a higher degree of natural sympathy for their children than do the fathers since the mothers have given them birth: “In what manner might I express the emotions of parents who love their children? We impress upon the character of a small child a wondrous likeness both of mind and of form. Especially is this true of mothers, who because of their birth pangs have a deeper sympathy (sympathēs) toward their offspring than do the fathers” (4 Macc 15:4 NRSV). Peter urges that every member of the Christian community have that kind of affection. This sympathy is related to the next term, philadelphoi. The adjective philadelphoi, which literally means, “loving one’s sister/ brother,” echoes the description of purified, obedient believers, found in 1:22. Once again, 4 Maccabees may give us some background in its description of the noble Jewish mother and her seven sons: 4 Macc 13:19–24 NRSV
Just as blood-related siblings might develop an indissoluble bond that gets nurtured over time, Christians are to grow in their emotional connection for one another, one based upon their common faith (eusplanchnos), and humble (tapeinophrōn). Once again Peter uses words that are rare within the NT. His vocabulary is similar to Paul’s in Philippians, but the adjectives homophrōn and sympathēs occur only here. The former term describes unity of spirit or harmony and literally means “same-thinking.” Paul’s letter to the Philippians stresses similar themes: “then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind” (Phil 2:2). When the Christian community is united, it is better equipped to stand up against opposition, a point Paul also makes: “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear. Since emotional reactions, such as those described here in 3:8, are often accompanied by physical sensations, “gut feelings,” we can understand the Greek idiom that uses “intestines” (splanchnon) to denote feelings of great affection (here eusplanchnos). These are the kinds of feelings that the Lord Jesus had when he viewed the needy crowds (e.g., Matt 9:36; 14:14; 15:32); so too did the Good Samaritan who happened upon a victim of a violent assault (Luke 10:33). True affection is more than intellectual; it is felt. Those feelings of affection are part of what makes up compassion, and compassion results in kindly actions, and kindly actions will help foster unity.
The final adjective, tapeinophrōn, occurs only here in the NT but is one of a family of words that speak of humility (see 1 Pet 5:5). This is voluntary submission, and it stands in contrast to boastfulness or self-aggrandizement. “In the highly competitive and stratified world of Greco-Roman antiquity, only those of degraded social status were ‘humble,’ and humility was regarded as a sign of weakness and shame, an inability to defend one’s honor.” Humility was not a virtue in ancient Greco-Roman society, but it is trait that God commends. Such is the case in Proverbs 29:23 (“Pride brings a person low, but the lowly in spirit gain honor”), as well as in subsequent Christian literature, e.g., 1 Clement 21:8 (“Let our children receive the instruction that is in Christ: let them learn how strong humility is before God, what pure love is able to accomplish before God, how the fear of him is good and great and saves all those who live in it in holiness with a pure mind,”).
The great Old Testament hero Moses is described as “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Num 12:3) at a time when he faces criticism and his role as prophet is being called into question. The Lord Jesus himself is humble. For example, in the moving invitation that the Lord gives in Matthew 11:28–30, he describes himself as “gentle and humble in heart.” And returning to Philippians, a letter that encourages unity, the Christ Hymn (called Carmen Christi) found in chapter 2 offers Jesus as a model for the Christian community, the same Lord who “humbled himself” (Phil 2:8).
The constellation of adjectives Peter employs in 3:8 draws us inward to examine the types of character traits that promote unity within the Christian community. But Peter also urges right behavior toward those outside of the church, even to those who are downright hostile. His words are countercultural, urging nonretaliation in the face of insult and injury.