Friday, May 1, 2015

Rescuing 1 Peter 3:15 from Apologetic Ministry

Given the rise of Christian persecution around the world and our continued marginalization in the West, I think it's time we rescued 1 Peter 3:15 from apologetic ministries.

“ 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...” (1 Peter 3:15 ESV)

At first glance, you'd think there couldn’t be a more appropriate verse to use as a mission statement for an apologetics ministry. But there’s one problem. Peter isn’t actually telling anyone to give a defense of their Christian faith in the passage. Quite the opposite. Surprised?

Read the text, Peter isn’t saying that you need to provide unbelievers or skeptics with the reasons why you believe Jesus was an actual person who existed 2000 years ago, or why you're a 6-Day Creationist, or why the bible is a reliable source of revelation, or a thousand other things that need defending in Christianity. — We need to be prepared to defend those beliefs, but that’s not what Peter is after in his letter. — He’s telling the church that we need to be prepared to give a defense for the reason why we continue to live the way we live in the face of mounting persecution.

Here are a few questions that I suspect Peter would expect we’d be asked by outsiders if we lived according to the instructions he provides in the preceding chapters of his letter:

“Why do you people of the Way continue to submit to oppressive governments and kings (1 Peter 2:13–17); why do you slaves work so hard for your masters (2:18–25); why are your marriages doing so well (3:1–7); how do you and the people of your sect love one another so well (3:8–12); how do you suffer with joy when all you're guilty of is doing good (3:13–14)?”

And these are the answers to those questions that I suspect Peter would have us provide:

“Thanks for asking, let me tell you! I'm born again to a living hope (1:3–12), that's why I live a holy life (1:13–25); I'm one of many living stones who are being built into the temple of God, which has been built upon Jesus, the cornerstone (2:1–12). Let me tell you about him!”

So, contrary to it’s popular apologetics application, Peter isn’t telling us in 1 Peter 3:15 to be prepared to give an answer for our Christian beliefs, he's telling us to be prepared to give an answer for our godly behavior when living in an adversarial culture. And the reason Peter wants the Church to live holy lives and to live ready to give an answer for that holy living, is that he knew that a community of persecuted disciples living holy lives ultimately serves the mission of making disciples of Jesus. In other words, Peter understood that good works serve a missional purpose — particularly when the light emitted through those good works is contrast against the black backdrop of persecution.

When Peter wrote, "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.” (1 Peter 2:12 ESV), he wasn't teaching anything novel, he was repeating what he'd learned from Jesus years before. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14–16 ESV). And when Jesus gave his exposition of the Law on that mountain, he was directing his disciples back to an earlier point in redemptive history when Moses told Israel that their faithfulness to the Law would cause the nations to inquire about their wisdom and about the LORD (Deuteronomy 4:5–8).

Finally, in Peter's thinking, the greatest apologists in the Kingdom aren't necessarily the people who are skilled Greek and Hebrew exegetes, specialized theological scholars, or Christian philosophers, cosmologists and geneticists, whose names are adorned by multiple Ph.D.s. Nope. The greatest apologists are those who, with unwavering commitment in their obedience to God, give bold witness to Jesus when outsiders ask about the hope they have within them.  

And that's why 1 Peter 3:15 needs to be rescued from apologetics ministry.We need it now more than ever.

Recommended listening:

Todd Friel on Wretched Radio gives a fantastic exposition of 1 Peter, giving particular emphasis to the theme of suffering and the Christian response throughout. (Shows airing from 4/24–5/1/2015) 

Jeff Vanderstelt of Doxa Church (formerly Mars Hill Church Bellevue) recently began an expositional series on 1 Peter. —

Full disclosure here, I'm not overly concerned whether an apologetics ministry continues to use 1 Peter 3:15 as their mission statement (I actually think the principle can be stretched to accommodate their application). I used a provocative approach to put the context of this passage before you, the reader. Persecution of the American Church may be years away, if it ever happens at all. But there's no question, we have been marginalized. And Peter's instruction to the marginalized Church in America today is the same instruction he delivered to our triumphant brothers and sisters who suffered under the hand of Nero, nineteen centuries ago; abstain from doing evil, do good works, and be prepared to defend the reason why you're living such an extraordinary and unexpected life in an antagonistic culture.

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