As we continue this week in our series, Standing Firm, through the New Testament letter of 1 Peter, it seems like the apostle is going off the rails. He’s been preaching a consistent and powerful message, but here it looks like he’s switching gears entirely. If you look closely, though – as we’ll do in this message – he’s being perfectly consistent with the theme he’s had running from the start. Although it looks like this passage is about wives submitting to their husbands and is thus terribly controversial, it’s about something much more important than that. Lean in with me and let’s see what Peter has to say here.
Faith at Home
You all know what a Chinese finger trap is, yes? A few months ago, I gave one to everyone in the room. Naturally, everyone who was here kept theirs in a treasured spot as you do with all your sermon freebies. I don’t suspect I need to explain to you how they work. You put your fingers in and when you try to pull them out, you discover they are trapped. The harder you pull, the more thoroughly you find yourself trapped. The trap works by taking your natural inclination—to pull harder when you’re stuck—and makes it work against you. The design tightens more the more it is stretched. In other words, when it comes to escaping from a Chinese finger trap, force isn’t going to do the trick. So, what does? Gentleness.
Gentleness is a hard word for us. In fact, gentleness has long been a hard word for people to try and get their minds around. When we hear the word “gentle,” what kinds of images immediately come to mind? We think of things like holding a baby, carrying a container of eggs, running a marathon while toting a jar of nitroglycerin. Okay, maybe you don’t think about that last one, but it came to mind for me. Gentleness is all about being soft and easy. Because of this, while there are certainly situations that call for gentleness—again, holding babies being among the most obvious of them—we don’t generally think of gentleness as a good thing. We think that the opposite of gentleness is strength. Thus, gentleness is a synonym for weakness, another opposite of strength. And in nearly all situations, strength is preferable to weakness.
The trouble is, all of this thinking about gentleness is almost entirely wrong. Gentleness and weakness are not synonyms. As a matter of fact, they are opposites. Gentleness is strength. It’s just not the kind of strength we normally think of when we think of strength. Gentleness has nothing to do with being particularly soft or weak in our approach to something. Instead, it has everything to do with using the right strength for a given situation.
For example, let’s say I was carrying an egg. Now, I have sufficient strength in my hand such that if I wanted to, I could smash that egg with my hand. Honestly, it really wouldn’t even be very difficult. I have far more strength than is necessary for such a task. I could just pick up the egg and squish it. Job done. But let’s say I don’t want to squish that egg. Let’s say I want to successfully carry it from the fridge to the stove so I can cook it for breakfast. I don’t want it to break until it is over my pan that is ready for cooking a perfectly over-easy fried egg. Assuming this is the case for the moment, when I pick that egg up, what am I going to do? When I go to grab that egg, I’m going to pick it up…gently. Now, does that mean I’m being weak with the egg? No, if I was weak with it, I might drop it on the way to the stove and then I wouldn’t be any better off than if I squashed it. In being gentle with the egg, I’m using just the right amount of strength for the task at hand. I’m wrapping my hand around it firmly enough to successfully move it from point A to point B without dropping it, but not so firmly that I smash it along the way. That is gentleness. With this in mind, gentleness is something we can (and should) bring to bear in every single situation we are in, it’s just that sometimes the strength in question is not physical strength, but the strength of our words or of our emotions.
So, why am I thinking about gentleness this morning? Because the next stop on our journey through 1 Peter is all about gentleness. It doesn’t look that way at first, but stick with me this morning and you just may leave here seeing what may be a familiar passage in an entirely new light. This morning finds us in the fifth part of our teaching series, Standing Firm. Over the course of these nine weeks, we are talking about how we can stand firm in our faith without sacrificing our Gospel witness. The reason for this is something we’ve come back to again and again as we’ve moved forward together. We live in the midst of a culture that is leaving behind its Christian worldview foundations with blinding speed. Everywhere we look we are faced with yet another story about yet another segment of our culture embracing worldviews that are not simply non-Christian, but anti-Christian. And the folks holding to these anti-Christian views are showing themselves a whole lot more willing to be forceful in their application than anything we’ve experienced in our nation’s past. In the face of these rapid changes, it’s easy to get angry and to give into the temptation to push back with the same ugliness we are too often facing. We have seen believers walk that before, though, and have witnessed the damage it wrought to the church. When we respond to worldly power with even more worldly power, we may hang on to some corner of society we have declared to be “ours,” but the kingdom won’t advance. And if the kingdom isn’t advancing, then we’re not doing our job. What Peter offers us is a better way.
He started by giving us a firm foundation to stand on. We lean hard on a hope in Christ that is big enough to hold us. We demonstrate our reliance on this hope with a lifestyle that matches our confession. And we do this with the confidence that we are being built by this courage, along with all our brothers and sisters in Christ, into someone entirely greater than we could ever manage to be on our own. Once we are rooted in this foundation, we can start to talk about how we actually do it. Peter set that before us last week in a way that was challenging and more than a little uncomfortable. It all hinges on a single, powerful idea: When the world strikes hard, love back harder.
Well, last week, as we started digging into our text together, I told you that Peter opened that section with a banner statement before going on to apply it to a number of different situations in the next several sections. That banner statement was this: “Dear friends, I urge you as strangers and exiles to abstain from sinful desires that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that when they slander you as evildoers, they will observe your good works and will glorify God on the day he visits.” We went on to talk about his application to our relationship with people who are in positions of authority over us. This morning, we are going to at yet another application of that same idea. If you have a copy of the Scriptures with you, find your way with me to 1 Peter 3.
Sometimes when you read something in the Scriptures, at first read, it seems to offer up an easy application. Our passage this morning is one of those. We’re just going to look at seven verses and six of them are all about wives submitting to their husbands. The application, at first read, seems obvious. Wives should submit to their husbands. Peter is writing about marriage here. That’s nice of him to take a break from everything else he’s been talking about to offer up some counsel on how to get marriage right. Let’s all go home and take this clear application with us and get to work on obeying the commands of our Lord given through His servant Peter. Amen, let’s pray. Except…Peter isn’t taking a break from everything else he’s been talking about at all. He’s staying right on topic. When you really spend time with the context of these words, all of a sudden, we see that Peter’s original audience would have heard him offering up a very different message than the one we are inclined to hear today. I’ve written papers on this passage and preached it several times. When I came to it this time, I saw something I’ve never seen before. His words still very much apply to us, but we’re going to have to do just a bit more critical thinking together to understand exactly how.
That’s plenty of setup. Look at what Peter writes here with me in 1 Peter 3:1: “In the same way, wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, even if some disobey the word, they may be won over without a word by the way their wives live when they observe your pure, reverent lives. Don’t let your beauty consist of outward things like elaborate hairstyles and wearing gold jewelry or fine clothes, but rather what is inside the heart—the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. For in the past, the holy women who put their hope in God also adorned themselves in this way, submitting to their own husbands, just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. You have become her children when you do what is good and do not fear any intimidation. Husbands, in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with a weaker partner, showing them honor as coheirs of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered.”
So, there’s a lot going on there. It would be very easy to get all caught up on what we see here and run completely off the rails with our approach to it. Certainly that’s happened in the past when churches and individuals have approached this passage. Let’s hit the pause button here for a minute, though, and think through the situation of Peter’s audience. Like I’ve told you before numerous times: Context is king when interpreting the Scriptures. A text cannot mean for us something it never meant to its original audience. Okay then, what were they hearing Peter say?
We are very familiar today with the idea of a Christian couple. In fact, not a few couples in church today are couples because they met in church. Lisa and I met working at a church camp. For a certain segment of our population and for a very long time, the church has been one of the primary matchmaking bodies in the world. Couples fall in love while serving Jesus, get married, and have a long, happy life serving Jesus as husband and wife. It makes for a great story that we know well.
Not so in Peter’s day. Joining the church then was not a means of social advancement. It was a fairly likely means of social ostracism. The church hadn’t been around for more than about 30 years at this point in history. The idea of two young people being raised in the church really didn’t exist then. Instead, the members of the church ministered to the world around them and made converts (well, the Spirit made converts, but you get the point), wherever they could. It was not at all unusual for a one member of a couple (often the wife because of the incredible equity with which the church treated women then relative to the rest of the culture) to become a follower of Jesus, but not the other. Well, do the math here. If one spouse—especially the wife in a culture that viewed women in general and wives in particular as objects to be controlled by their husbands—became a follower of Jesus and the other didn’t, how do you expect that was going to go? Think there might be any pressure or persecution to give up that faith in favor of what your spouse says you need to believe? I’d say that would probably have been a certainty. Imagine the fear in the heart and mind of a wife going home to her still-pagan husband to tell him she had become a follower of Jesus. The prevailing cultural wisdom then was that Christians and their Christianity were a seditious movement aimed at undermining the virtues that held society together. Christians and their atheistic cannibalism (they ate the body and blood of their god, after all), were a threat to all normal people held dear. It would have been one thing to have to get close to one of these weirdos in public, but to have to live under the same roof as one? That would have been a bridge too far for most people.
Given that, don’t you think new believers preparing to reveal their faith to their family for the first time needed a bit of encouragement to stand firm without sacrificing their witness? Peter absolutely had to address this issue in this letter. Given what we talked about last week, though, and what we’ve talked about so far in this series, what kind of advice would you expect him to give them? Just think again about that banner statement from 1 Peter 2:12 I read to you a minute ago. “Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that when they slander you as evildoers, they will observe your good works and will glorify God on the day he visits.”
Well, what do you think counted as good works in that day? To a certain extent—and this is the case for any culture—toeing the line of what counted as “normal public behavior” is what counted as good works. Now, this certainly didn’t mean believers were to sign off on all of the various pagan rituals and practices going on around them so as to avoid offending their neighbors—or family members. They were different now and were going to look different because of it. But where the expectations of their culture actually lined up a bit with the life of Christ? They needed to be fully on board with that.
If a newly Christian wife went home to her husband and boldly announced that because of her new relationship with Jesus she didn’t have to do anything he said or respect him and his paganism any longer, maybe she would have been able to stand firm in her faith, but was that kind of thing going to advance the kingdom of God? How likely do you think that pagan husband was going to be to ever show even the slightest interest in embracing the faith himself? I’d say the odds would have been about zero. Or, if a newly Christian woman, knowing her husband was not going to be really happy about her faith tried to make herself over externally in the image of the world around her so as to distract him from her faith, perhaps that would draw him to her in a way he wouldn’t have been so drawn otherwise, but it wouldn’t have drawn him to Jesus and thus she wouldn’t have been doing herself any favors over the long haul. Or still, if a newly Christian husband went home and forcefully announced—as would have been his cultural right—that his still-pagan wife who had no interest in this Jesus nonsense was now going to be baptized as one of His followers, and that he would have her beaten until she submitted her will to Christ, do you think her heart was ever going to make it to the right place?
This is what Peter had in mind when he was writing this. His goal here was never to sternly shake his finger at Christian wives of Christian husbands to tell them to roll over and play dead before their husbands and to neglect all cultural forms of external beauty and to call their husbands “lord” from this day forward. He was saying to them, “Look, you’ve got a hard road ahead of you. You need to behave in such a way that all your husband’s negative assumptions about this new-fangled religious movement are proven false. If you can show him that your relationship with Jesus makes you a better wife, then just maybe he’ll embrace Jesus so he can be a better husband. Is this going to potentially make your life a little more difficult in the short term? Possibly, but the end result of doing this well is going to be worth it.” He was saying to husbands, “Look, if you go home and lord your faith over your wife, she’s going to recoil from it and you. Instead, be gentle with her and honor her. Show her the change Christ has made in you and by that invite her into the same thing. In fact, because you’re the husband, to do anything less is going to imperil your own relationship with Jesus.” And he was saying all of this in ways that were culturally significant for them.
So, yes, Peter says “submit” here, but not in the terms you might have been thinking at first. Does this mean submission is irrelevant in marriage after all? No, and Paul deals with it in Christian marriages in Ephesians. That’s a whole other sermon. That wasn’t Peter’s point here. Peter wanted to give Christian husbands and wives with unbelieving spouses counsel on standing firm in their faith without sacrificing their witness…just like he’s been doing all along. In fact, did you notice that he started his counsel to wives and husbands both with the same phrase? He said they were to do these things, “in the same way.” That phrase is like a “therefore.” It forces to ask the question: in the same way as what? In the same way as he wrote in the last section of the letter. “Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentles, so that when they slander you as evildoers, they will observe your good works and will glorify God on the day he visits.” Why will they glorify God? Because they’ve become His followers because you have stood firm but not in such a way that you sacrificed your Gospel witness in the process. “For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”
Here’s the thing to not miss here: How we live matters. Everywhere. It matters at work. It matters at school. It matters in public generally. But it matters at home too. If you are a follower of Jesus, it is really easy to get fixated on how you are behaving where everyone can see you. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to make sure your public image matches your private confession. But if we’re not careful, it’s so easy to put on a really good show of righteousness and then go home to the place we can let our hair down and slip back into one of those “desires of our former ignorance.” What Peter wanted his audience to know was that living out the character of Christ wasn’t just something to be done in public—although it certainly did matter there and a great deal. It needed to happen at home as well. We are to live out the character of Christ everywhere we go, even at home. Live out the character of Christ even at home.
And the way we do that is so often characterized by gentleness. It’s incredibly tempting to throw gentleness to the wind at home. Those people are the ones who have accepted us even with our warts, and so we’re comfortable letting those warts show. Having warts is part of life, but that doesn’t mean we need to live through them. Rather than choosing gentleness and kindness to adjust things how we want them to be, we choose force and anger. We demean and demand because there’s nobody to tell us not to. Whether we are deacons or Sunday school teachers or kids who’ve been raised to know better, home is too often the place where we put down our faith and pick up our flesh. That’s not how the kingdom gets advanced. You very well may not be experiencing any kind of pushback for your faith at home like so many in Peter’s audience were, but that doesn’t make your full and consistent embrace of a Christlike character any less important. Live out the character of Christ even at home. Gentleness, humility, kindness, submission, are all things that will enable you to do it. Live out the character of Christ even at home.
What if all of our homes were places where faith was nurtured and encouraged? What if, instead of being places where faith was abandoned and hated, they became the primary places in our lives where it was embraced and grown? If we are going to stand firm against a world pushing back, we need more of an enclave where we can be restored and built up for more Gospel action than the church can provide on its own. The home can be that place. Live out the character of Christ even at home. This isn’t always easy, but it is an investment you’ll never regret making. Live out the character of Christ even at home. I can guarantee you this: You’ll be glad you did.