Fear of What People Can Do to You
1 Peter 3:13-22
Read 3:13-22 (NASB). It’s difficult to read this passage without getting stuck on 3:19-21. Who are the spirits now in prison, when did Jesus preach to them, and how does baptism save us? I’m not going to focus on this because these three verses are notoriously difficult to interpret. Even Martin Luther, a great scholar who was normally confident of his interpretation, said of this passage: “A wonderful text is this, and a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament, so that I do not know for a certainty just what Peter means.”1 I’d be glad to share my opinion during
Q & A or after the meeting—but I don’t want these unclear verses to distract us from the main theme of the passage, which is very clear.
The main theme is the fear of what people can do to you. See the phrases in 3:13 (“who is there to harm you”), 3:14 (“even if you should suffer... do not fear their intimidation... or be terrified”), and 3:16 (“you are slandered... those who revile you”). Peter’s audience was facing the possibility of mistreatment by others, and this possibility was producing fear. So Peter counsels them on how to deal with this fear.
The plausibility of this fear
Read 3:13. Peter begins by reminding them (and us) us that good deeds usually promote good will. If we are “zealous for what is good” (moral integrity and being a blessing to the community), people and governing authorities are not normally going to want to harm us because they value our contribution to the community. In fact, as Peter has stated (2:12), our good deeds will make the message of Jesus attractive so that many people may turn to him. We don’t live this way to avoid mistreatment, but to please God—but this is often a beneficial result.
But we should not expect to avoid all mistreatment (read 3:14a). Peter had modeled zeal for what is good, yet he was in Rome where he saw hostility against Christianity on the rise.2 He sensed that this hostility would soon erupt and spread, and it did—resulting in Peter’s execution and the first of several waves of vicious persecution over the next 250 years. Like an active volcano, overt and violent persecution against Christianity has erupted again and again over the last 2000 years—right up to the present day. 3
But nothing like that had happened yet in these churches. They were experiencing something much more similar to what we experience. I have never experienced violent persecution, and I don’t know how I would respond if I did (I hope I would honor the Lord by standing firm)—but the milder mistreatment I have experienced has still caused fear in my heart. I have experienced the scorn of friends for “turning into a Jesus freak.” I have had family members warn me not to “take this Jesus thing too seriously.” I have had academic advisors and employers tell me I was wasting my potential and my future by letting Christianity become more important than academic or business advancement. I have known the sting of having the “cult” label hung on the church I help lead, simply because we have insisted on telling people what Jesus claimed—that he is the only way to God.
The truth is that I wrestle with the fear of what people can do to me even when no one is mistreating me because of my faith. I have feared how my children would react to my insistence on biblical morality. I have feared how other Christian peers will react to me when I disagree with them on how to lead the church. I even fear how people will respond when they hear a teaching like this! I wrestle with fears like these on a regular basis—and my guess is that you do, too. It is because of this that Peter’s counsel on how to deal with this fear is universally relevant...
The key to freedom from this fear
You cannot avoid feeling fear when people may mistreat you—that is an involuntary reaction. But you can live substantially free from being terrified and controlled by this fear. And the key has nothing to do with being macho, or taking assertiveness training. It has nothing to do with how strong you are, but with how strong Jesus is. The key is that you “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts” (3:14b,15a).
What does it mean to “sanctify someone as Lord in your heart?” It means to personally attribute to someone the superiority that he actually possesses.
Every year, twice each fall, I have to “sanctify the Steelers as lord” after they beat the Browns. And in February, after watching the Super Bowl with Steelers’ fans, I had to “sanctify the Steelers as lord” over every NFL team!
Suppose you are walking down an alley with your close friend who is a black belt in every form of martial arts. Suddenly, you are confronted by a couple of thugs who taunt and threaten you. Of course you feel some fear—but what is the determining factor between a short-term rush of adrenaline and terror? It depends on who you “sanctify as lord.” If you wrongly attribute superior power to the thugs, you will fall prey to terror and panic. But if you rightly attribute superior power to your trustworthy friend, you will calm down and be productive.
This is what happens when you “sanctify God as Lord in your heart.” There is a great book on this subject, and it has a great title: When People Are Big & God Is Small. When you focus on people and what they can do to you, they “grow,” God “shrinks”—and your fears increase. But when you focus on the God of the Bible and how powerful and faithful he is, people “shrink” and he replaces your fears with security in him.
In fact, Peter is quoting from Isa. 8, which illustrates this truth in a beautiful way. Israel is terrified by the fear of conquest by a hostile super-power, the Assyrians (EXPLAIN). And because Isaiah is listening to his countrymen, he is becoming terrified also. In Isa.8:12b-14a, God counsels Isaiah concerning his fears (read).
“You are not to fear what they fear, or be in dread of it.” Don’t follow your fellow-Israelites’ focus on the Assyrians and all of their military might and notorious cruelty. This focus is what is causing them to be terrified.
“It is the LORD of hosts whom you should regard as holy, and he shall be your fear.” Focus on the one true God—the God who is in command of millions of angels (“of hosts”), and the God who has kept all of his promises to Israel (“the LORD”). Replace your fear of them with this proper fear of God.
“... Then he shall become your sanctuary.” When you attribute ultimate power and faithfulness to the one true God, and entrust yourself to him, then your fears will subside and he will give you security in the midst of the danger.
Peter applies Isa.8:13a to Jesus (3:15a)—he substitutes “Christ” for “the LORD of hosts.” Jesus is “Immanuel”—God with us (Isa.7:14; 8:10; Matt.1:23). He is the Lord, and he has already conquered enemies far more formidable than the Assyrians—the guilt of all human sin (3:18), the power of physical death (3:18b,21b), and Satan and his demons (3:22). Jesus is Lord—he has all authority in heaven and on earth, and he is with his people always. We are never out of his sight or away from his care. Nothing comes into our lives except that it first passes through his mighty and faithful hands. He delivers us from evil and/or sustains us through it and uses it to advance his purpose and make us stronger. Because of who he is, Jesus can free you from the fear of what people can do to you. But in order to experience this freedom, you must personally (“in your heart”) acknowledge him as your Lord.
This begins by making the decision to personally entrust yourself Jesus as your Lord (Rom.10:9). I have seen people, crippled for years by fear of people, spirits, etc., experience dramatic liberation when they initially entrust themselves to Jesus’ authority. His love and power become experientially real, and this “casts out fear” (1Jn.4:18). Have you ever personally bowed to him as your Lord?
But Peter is addressing Christians in this passage—and that tells us that Christians must continue to “set him apart as Lord.” This is because old fears creep back and new threats arise, so we must continue to sanctify him (rather than the threats) as Lord.
This is why it is so important to “live in the environment of the Bible”—not just read it occasionally and/or hear Bible teachings, but take note of and affirm what it says about God’s power and faithfulness. This keeps God “big” and people “small.” The Psalms and Revelation are especially effective in helping me to do this. Scriptural songs that emphasize God’s sovereign faithfulness are also very helpful (e.g., “A Mighty Fortress;” “You Are Lord”).
This is why it is so important to nip fear of people in the bud by being honest with yourself and God and Christian friends as soon as you become aware of this. “Fear is like fungus: it grows most rapidly in the dark. It is essential, therefore, to bring our fears out into the light and look at them, especially in the light of the victory and supremacy of Jesus Christ. For he who died and rose has also been exalted to his Father’s right hand, and everything has been put ‘under his feet.’ So where are the things of which we were previously afraid? They are under the feet of the triumphant Christ. It is when we see them there that their power to terrify is broken.”4
Free from this fear to share your faith
Notice how Peter connects “sanctifying Christ as Lord in your heart” with sharing your faith (read 3:15). Most American Christians rarely or never share their faith—and the main reason for this is fear of how people might react to them. But when you “sanctify Christ as Lord of your heart,” he frees you from this fear to be open about your allegiance to him. You let people know that you follow Jesus—it comes up unavoidably. And this will raise questions, which create opportunities to explain why you believe in Jesus!
Sure, some people will be bothered by your allegiance to Christ, perhaps because of their pride, or perhaps because of misconceptions about Christianity. They will put you on the spot—e.g., “How can you believe in that crap?” But this is a great opportunity to explain why! And the answer you give often has more impact than you might think (DEN WITH ME).
But others will see your “hope” in Christ, and this will stimulate positive curiosity—e.g., “How does Jesus make this positive difference in your life?” And this provides an opportunity to share more about your faith—so be ready!
Being “ready to make a defense” does not require being an expert in theology or apologetics. This kind of knowledge is sometimes helpful—but the best “defense” is normally to share your own story of how you came to Christ and how he has changed your life.5 You are the expert of your story, and your story is the most powerful “defense” you have!
And remember that how you share is just as important as what you share. Never be combative or nasty—even if the person asking you is. Don’t fear them or take their attack personally—you have Jesus. Always speak “with gentleness and respect.” Never allow this to become an argument that you must “win”—remember that you are interacting with a person that you must love because Jesus loves him.
GUESTS: You are probably here because you see this hope in the Christians God has placed in your life. Ask them to “give you an account for the hope” they have. Now you know how they should answer you!
1 Martin Luther’s commentary on 1 & 2 Peter & Jude
2 Christians were beginning to be slandered as traitors (because they refused to worship Caesar as Lord), atheists (because they didn’t worship Roman gods), and incestuous (because they called each other “brothers and sisters” and attended “love feasts” with one another).
3 For more information on current persecution of Christians, see “Voice of the Martyrs (http://www.persecution.com) and “Open Doors (http://www.opendoorsusa.org/).
4 John R. W. Stott, The Contemporary Christian (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), p. 51.
5 When Paul gives his “defense” (apologia) Acts 22:1; 26:2, he does so by sharing how he met Christ.