Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 14, 2023

1 Peter 3:13-22 Commentary

One of Bob Dylan’s most famous songs begins, “You may be an ambassador to England or France/ You may like to gamble, you might like to dance/ You may be the heavyweight champion of the world/ You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.”

“But,” Dylan repeatedly adds, “you’re going to have to serve somebody, yes indeed/ You’re going to have to serve somebody/ Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord/But you’re going to have to serve somebody.”

Dylan’s lyrics show that he understands the human condition better than many of our contemporaries. Perhaps especially citizens of the Northern and Western hemispheres tend to think of ourselves as masters of our own lives. While we may be accountable to various bosses, we like to think of ourselves as largely our own bosses.

But, as Dylan sings, ultimately everyone has to serve someone else. In verse 15 of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, Peter invites his readers to in their “hearts (kardiais) set apart (hagiasate) Christ as Lord (Kyrion).” He echoes that call with verse 22’s profession that “angels, authorities, and powers [are] in submission” to the ascended Christ. So the apostle’s calls to submit to Christ’s lordship essentially bracket this text. It’s almost as if he is saying, to riff on Dylan’s lyrics, “You’re going to have to serve somebody. It may as well be the risen and ascended Christ.”

While at least some preachers prefer to preach through a text verse by verse, preachers might consider 1 Peter 3 to be a good time to begin their message with a text’s end. This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, after all, grounds Peter’s call to holiness in the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. Preachers who ignore that foundation or wait until their message’s end to explore it run the risk of turning this passage into yet another advice column with a spiritual flavor.

So preachers might first point hearers to verse 18’s, “Christ died for sins once for all (hapax), the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you (prosagage) to God.” It’s Peter’s reminder that Jesus’ friends set apart our righteous Friend \ as Lord precisely because Christ surrendered his life for unrighteous (adikon) people like us. Christ, in fact, suffered unspeakably throughout his life precisely in order to bring his followers into a faithful relationship with God.

Yet after Jesus’ death, adds Peter in verses 19ff., he somehow did even more than that. After the Spirit enlivened him, he “went and preached (ekeryxen) to the spirits in prison (phylake pneumasin).” This is, of course, perhaps the most mysterious assertion in all of the Scriptures. Preachers who exegete it will want to do so in the light of their own tradition’s understanding of it.

Yet whatever Peter precisely means here, he’s ultimately pointing to the waters of judgment in Noah’s day. The spirits of the disobedient people to whom the resurrected Christ somehow preached were those who had sunk deep into the floodwaters but never reemerged from them.

Their fate, however, in stark contrast to that of those who in baptism have sunk deep into the waters of death but were then raised by the Spirit to a new life of faithful obedience. Peter insists that just as their ask saved Noah’s family so that it might serve the Lord, the Spirit also uses the waters of baptism to equip God’s adopted sons and daughters for wholehearted submission to Christ’s lordship.

As Christians do so, we join what verse 22 calls “the angels, authorities (exousian) and powers (dynameon) in” submitting to the risen and ascended Christ’s loving rule. Preachers shouldn’t overlook the implied call to Christians’ own submission this verse implies. It’s almost as if the apostle claims that if even the powers and authorities that often resist Christ’s rule somehow submit to it, then Jesus’ followers in whom the Spirit lives and works can do so as well.

With this observation, preachers can return to a consideration and exploration of Peter’s call to Christians to in our “hearts set apart Christ as Lord” (14). The apostle doesn’t identify Christ’s rivals for Christians’ complete loyalty. Yet he alludes to things that might serve as our “lords.”

In verse 14, for example, Peter speaks of the “fear (phobethe) [of] what they fear.” He also speaks of being “frightened” (tarachthete). In doing so, the apostle alludes to the powerful influence, if not virtual mastery that fear that can exercise over those whose lives it invades.

In verse 16 Peter also speaks of another potential kind of lord over Jesus’ followers. There he describes people “who speak maliciously (katalaleisthe) against” Christians’ “good behavior (agathon anastrophen) in Christ (en Christo).” Few even saintly Christians enjoy the opposition of people to which the apostle alludes here. Such opponents may even have a kind of mastery over people who desire others’ approval.

Peter summons this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s readers to resist submitting themselves to such “lords.” Instead, he says, “set apart Christ as Lord” (15). In doing so, the apostle speaks of a commitment to a full-life worship of and service to Jesus Christ as the controlling influence of our lives. In fact, while he speaks of such lordship as being implanted in God’s people’s “hearts,” he’s actually summoning his readers to a full-body worship and service. Everyone, as Dylan sings, has to serve someone. Peter’s invitation? “Make it Christ!”

Such submission manifests itself in a number of ways. Peter implies that it includes being “eager (zelotai) to do good (tou agathou).” He’s not describing a grudging submission to Christ’s lordship. The apostle invites his fellow Christians to an all-consuming passion for honoring God and blessing our neighbor.

Such submission to Christ’s lordship, according to verse 14, even includes a willingness to “suffer (paschoite) for doing good (dia dikaiosynen).” Peter echoes this with verse 17’s reminder that it is better, “if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.”

Suffering for Christ’s sake is, of course, one of the main themes of Peter’s first letter to the Christian diaspora. It is a theme, however, that may resonate more with Third and Fourth World Christians than it does with some western Christians. So if preachers haven’t recently done so, they might consider adding modern examples of how Jesus 21st century followers are suffering for doing good.

However, Peter also insists that submitting to Christ’s lordship involves more than being willing to suffer for one’s faith. In verse 15 he calls his readers to “Always be prepared (hetoimoi aei) to give an answer (apologian) to everyone who asks you to give the reason (logion) for the hope that you have.” Christ’s servants are always ready, even eager to tell anyone who asks what animates our hope.

Yet it’s almost as if Peter recognizes that things like Christians’ fear or opposition to us may make us quick to share our hope in an angry or confrontational way. In verse 16, after all, he summons his readers to share the gospel with “gentleness (prautetos) and respect (phobou).” It’s an invitation to Christ’s servants to share our hope with inquirers with what The Message calls “utmost courtesy.” This, the apostle asserts, will help Jesus’ friends have a “good (agathon) conscience (synneidesin).”

It seems that more than anything else, 1 Peter 3 is summoning its readers to a certain posture towards an often-hostile world, culture and society. It’s the posture of the Christ who wishes to be his followers’ lord and master. So it’s not a posture of the kind of retaliatory hostility that sometimes mirrors opposition to the Christian faith. Nor does Peter invite God’s dearly beloved people to a kind of separation from a sometimes hostile society.

Instead, the apostle invites Christians to a cruciform engagement with those who surround us. Since Christ is Lord, his friends respond to sometimes painful circumstances and forceful opposition in ways that winsomely summon others to join us in loving submission to the risen and ascended Christ.


In an earlier sermon commentary on this passage, I noted that few things make at least some Christians more nervous than the prospect of giving “the reason for the hope that” we have (15) in winsome ways. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association once asked volunteers to identify the greatest hindrance they felt to talking about their faith.

9% answered they were too busy to remember to do it. 28% said they felt they lacked the necessary information to share their faith. 12% said the greatest hindrance to their witnessing was the poor quality of their Christian lives. However, 51% of respondents said their biggest problem with sharing their faith was their fear of how those with whom they shared it would react.


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