Our text is today’s Epistle (1 Peter 3:8-15): 8 Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9 Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. 10 For “Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit; 11 let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. 12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”
13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts regard 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. (ESV)
“Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” I would counsel you never to pray the first half of St. Peter’s prayer, for I suspect that as Peter matured in the faith, he himself realized that this was not quite the right thing to pray. It is one thing to say with the prophet Isaiah: Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts! (6:5). Until our dying day, we should—we must—confess that we are lost, unclean sinners who deserve God’s condemnation. But it is quite another thing to ask the Lord to depart from you because of your sins. Now, it is true—you are a great sinner; you are by nature unclean and thus you sin daily, in thought, word, and deed, by the evil you do and by the good you fail to do. But no matter how far from the Lord you may have fallen, you should never ask the Lord to depart from you. Rather, you should take refuge in the Lord, knowing that you have no good apart from your Saviour Jesus (see Psalm 16:1-2).
On the night our Lord was betrayed, Peter fell rather far from the Lord; three times he denied knowing Jesus. As Peter was still speaking his third denial, the rooster crowed. And then something marvelous happened: the Lord turned and looked at Peter (Luke 22:61). The Greek says that Jesus looked intently at Peter. Do you see what our Lord is doing? Awaiting trial at the high priest’s house, Jesus may have overheard Peter’s denials. At the very least, Peter could see Jesus from the courtyard. And now, what Jesus had prophesied at the Last Supper has come true: Peter, who had boasted of dying with his Lord, now had denied his Lord. And what does Jesus do? He comforts Peter. Jesus is bound in custody, and so He is not free to walk over to Peter and place a hand on his shoulders. Jesus instead speaks to Peter with His eyes, His eyes that penetrate into the depths of Peter’s uncleanness. With His eyes, Jesus says: “Peter, remember how I had proclaimed that I have come to go after lost sinners and find them. Well, now I have going after you, not to condemn you, but to find you, to call you to repentance, so that you may be saved. And remember, Peter, how I had proclaimed that there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:8). Peter, tonight, you are that one sinner.” When Peter’s eyes met Jesus, he did what the Lord was calling him to do: he left the courtyard of denial and wept bitterly in repentance.
At the Last Supper, Jesus had said to Peter: Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers (Luke 22:31-32). By God’s grace, Peter did turn from his sins. And at Easter, the risen Christ absolved Peter, saying Peace to you (Luke 24:36). How gracious is our Saviour Jesus, that He picks up Peter, who had fallen so far into the depths of sin, and He forgives Peter and gives Peter the grace to strengthen his brothers and sisters in Christ.
That brings us to today’s Epistle, which God has used mightily to strengthen the faith of Christians not just in Peter’s day but today as well. Peter is writing to Christians scattered throughout the Roman Empire. Today, Christians are scattered throughout the world. Peter is writing to Christians living under the threat of persecution from the Roman emperor Nero. Today, too, Christians are being persecuted. In some countries, the lives of Christians are not safe; they never know when they might go to church one Sunday and be bombed or gunned down; even in their homes and businesses, they are not safe—they live under the threat of violence because of their faith in Christ. Even in the supposedly free West, Christians are being cast out of the workplace and schools for confessing what Scripture teaches about gender, sexuality, marriage, and the sanctity of human life from conception to death. And the government is increasingly dictating that the Church of Christ abandon her beliefs and practices and bow at the altar of government policies.
We are living in a time of open and subtle persecution. And in our struggles, we see that our Lord’s prayer for Peter is continuing to bear fruit. For Peter—who turned from his sin and who was absolved by his Lord—Peter has written an epistle that will strengthen his brothers and sisters in the faith until our Lord returns.
Today, we consider these words of Peter: Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts regard 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.
Now, if you are eager to do what is right and to live out your faith in humility, you would think that no one would want to harm you. But think again. The twentieth century was a century of law-abiding, devout Christians having their property confiscated and being banned from certain professions and banished to such places as Siberia and tortured and killed. And thus far, the persecutions seem to have continued into the twenty-first century with no let up. But St. Peter is telling you that even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, for the sake of Christ, do not be afraid of your tormentors.
Actually, it is more than not being afraid of the people—the judges, politicians, and other agents of the state—who want to squash Christianity. The Greek says: do not fear what your tormentors fear. These words echo what the prophet Isaiah said long before: do not fear what [unbelievers] fear, nor be in dread (8:12). Those who would torment us for being Christian, what is it that they fear? Well, they fear the very things which we Christians are quite content to suffer for Jesus’ sake: the confiscation of our property, the loss of our jobs, the threat of being tortured and killed. Unbelievers fear losing what they cannot keep, but Christians cling to the Lord even in the greatest of losses: And take they our life, / Goods, fame, child, and wife, / Though these all be gone, / Our victory has been won; / The Kingdom ours remaineth (LSB 656.4).
Living under the threat of open or subtle persecution, we Christians are not to be afraid, for we know that we are blessed in Christ and that no one can take that blessing from us. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on [Christ’s] account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:10-12).
Knowing that God has blessed you with forgiveness, life, and salvation in Christ, and that no one can take that blessing from you prepares you to do two things. Let’s consider the second thing first. Knowing that you are blessed forever in Christ, you are prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. God prepares you to proclaim your faith to those tormenting you. This means confessing the Creed—I believe in God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who created, redeemed, and sanctified me. And it would also be good for you to learn by heart the Small Catechism, which is a sound summary of the faith which you can use when someone asks you why you are a Christian.
But there is more. Making a defense of your faith in Christ also has to do with how you suffer. Unbelievers will take note and watch how you endure suffering, especially when you are being tormented for being a Christian. An early church tradition has it that when Peter was being led off to be crucified, he said to the soldiers: “would you please nail me to the cross upside down because you see, I consider myself unworthy to die in the same manner as my Lord.” You can just picture the soldiers scratching their heads in amazement. Do you see what Peter was doing? He was showing the soldiers that he did not fear what they feared and that his hope was in the Lord.
And the same is true with you. Unbelievers are watching you to see how you respond to suffering. They will recognize by the way that you respond to difficulties that your hope is in God rather than in pleasant earthly circumstances. Often, the way Christians respond to suffering preaches a stronger, more powerful sermon than one preached with words. For the way you endure suffering proclaims to the world that your hope is in the Lord and in His promise of the resurrection of the body to life everlasting.
Knowing that God has blessed you with forgiveness, life, and salvation in Christ prepares you to do two things. To make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. And then, also, in your hearts [you are to] regard Christ the Lord as holy.
In your suffering, regard Christ the Lord as holy. Or perhaps a better translation would be:
Sanctify the Messiah, the Christ as Lord in your hearts. Now, what does it mean for us to sanctify God? How can we sinners sanctify God? Must not God sanctify us? Well, the answer is found in Luther’s explanation to First Petition to the Lord’s Prayer:
Hallowed be Thy name.
What does this mean?
God’s name is certainly holy in itself, but we pray in this petition that it may be kept holy among us also.
How is God’s name kept holy?
God’s name is kept holy when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we, as the children of God, also lead holy lives according to it. Help us to do this, dear Father in heaven! But anyone who teaches or lives contrary to God’s Word profanes the name of God among us. Protect us from this, heavenly Father!
To sanctify Christ Jesus as Lord in our hearts has to do with the purity of our faith. Of course, it is God Himself who gives us His grace to teach His Word in its truth and purity and to lead holy lives according to it. Your sanctifying Jesus in your heart is not your work but God’s gift to you. And what’s more, sanctifying Jesus in your heart is something that God gifts you to do in the context of suffering.
We have been talking about enduring persecution, for that is the context of Peter’s epistle. But God is calling you to sanctify Christ in your hearts in the face not just of persecution but of all suffering. Martin Luther has this to say about how you are to sanctify Christ when suffering: You must sanctify [Christ] in your hearts…when [y]our Lord God sends [you] something—whether good or bad, whether it benefits or hurts, whether it is shame, honour, good fortune, or misfortune—[you] should consider this not only good but also holy, and [you] should say: “This is pure precious holiness, and I am not worthy of being touched by it.”… If [you] sing “Thanks be to God” and “Thee, God, we praise,” and say “God be praised and blessed” when misfortune strikes [you]—that is what Peter… call[s] sanctifying the Lord properly (Luther’s works, vol. 30: The Catholic Epistles, pp. 103–104).
Dear brothers and sisters, how are you doing at sanctifying Jesus in your hearts in the face of suffering? God has given you the privilege of showing unbelievers that you do not fear what they fear and of proclaiming the hope of the resurrection of the body to life everlasting and also the honour of sanctifying Christ by thanking God for whatever He sends you—good or bad. The day may come when you are actually persecuted for being a Christian—your home may be confiscated and you may be imprisoned, even tortured and killed for confessing Christ. But for now, your calling is to endure the everyday sort of suffering with a grateful, thankful heart that trusts God to keep His promises to you in Christ. So how are you doing? In truth, you and I have joined Peter in the courtyard of denial. And there, in that courtyard of sin, something marvelous happens. Our Lord Jesus turns and looks intently at us. And this time, He speaks to us with not His eyes but with His Word of Absolution—I forgive you all your sins. And He comforts us not by placing His hand on our shoulders but by placing in our mouths His true Body and Blood, so that we may be renewed in the faith and in our calling to sanctify the Lord Jesus in our hearts.
In Psalm 16, we read these words: [O God,] you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. These words express the faith of Jesus, who knew that His Father would not abandon Him to hell or let His Body decompose. This is our Lord’s own confession of His Easter resurrection and His victory over sin, death, and the devil. And baptized into Christ, you and I share in the new life and victory of Jesus, God’s Son, who died in our place for all our sins and denials, that we may live in His blessing that sustains us in our suffering and in the face of persecution, His blessing that keeps us in the faith to life everlasting. Thanks be to God! Amen.