1 Peter 3:8–12
To sum up, let all be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil, or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing. For, "Let him who means to love life and see good days refrain his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking guile. And let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears attend to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil."
What Peter has been doing since 2:13 is to give special words of guidance and teaching and encouragement to various groups of Christians in the churches of Asia Minor. In 2:13–17 he addressed Christians as citizens and told us how to relate to those in authority. In 2:18–25 he spoke to servants and told them how to relate to their masters. In 3:1–6 he spoke to Christian wives of unbelievers and showed them a way toward winning their husbands. And in 3:7 he spoke to husbands about living wisely and considerately with their wives.
Peter's Words to All the Members of the Church
Now in today's text (3:8–12) Peter speaks to us as members of the church. We can see that in verse 8: "To sum up, let all be harmonious . . . etc." The "all" here means "all of you." Not: "all things," but all you Christians as you live together. As the NIV and RSV say, "Finally, all of you . . . " The issue here is not how to relate to civil authorities, or masters, or unbelieving husbands, or wives. The issue here is how to relate to each other in our life together as Christians.
This is especially relevant for this Sunday's focus because we are urging you to seriously consider being a part of a small group as a part of our life together at Bethlehem; and small groups are one crucial place where we minister to each other as members of the body. So this text tells us something about the heart of what goes on in a healthy small group.
Be a Certain Kind of People: Five Traits
Now of all the hundreds of things Peter might say to us about our relationships in life together as Christians, what does he say? The answer is that he calls us first to be a kind of people, not just to do a list of things, but to be a kind of people. And it is not a kind of people that you can be on your own. It is so against the grain of human nature that it is virtually impossible without the work of God's mercy called "new birth" referred to back in 1:3.
Let's walk through the five traits of this new kind of personhood that Peter calls us to have. Look at verse 8.
- He says first, all of you be "harmonious," that is, having a common mindset, not necessarily all the same tastes or gifts or habits, but the same thoughts and assessments of the essentials of life—God, salvation, virtue.
- Next, all of you be "sympathetic," that is, feeling what others feel so that you can respond with sensitivity to the need. People who have true "sympathy" generally do not say, "I know how you feel." Because since they know how you feel, they also know how unhelpful it is to hear someone say, "I know how you feel." True sympathy is a fairly quiet, time-intensive, presence-intensive way of being.
- Next, all of you be "brotherly," that is, don't view each other as strangers, or as mere acquaintances, or as distant relatives. View each other as close family. Family can have some pretty serious squabbles and exchange some very harsh words, but only in the rarest cases does the family break up over it.
- Next, all of you be "kindhearted." This not a word about conduct but about your insides—literally, your innards, your belly. The literal translation of the Greek here means "feel generous in your belly." Be well-disposed to each other in your deeps. It's exactly the opposite of hypocrisy that acts tender and feels malice.
- Next, all of you be "humble in spirit." Again, it's not just that we are to act the role of a servant, but that inside, with all authenticity, we are to have a lowly spirit. We feel that we are utterly dependent on God for life and breath and intelligence and emotional stability and faith and safety and the use of our senses; and we feel utterly fragile and vulnerable in ourselves. On top of that, we feel sinful and unworthy as we look at ourselves apart from the free grace of God. And this grace makes us wonderstruck that we are loved, not pushy and self-assertive.
All five of those words are descriptions of what we are on the inside, not primarily how we act. A common mindset, sympathetic in feeling, a family love, kindly disposed in the depths of our innards, humble in spirit. That's an unusual human being. This is why I said Peter's call to us is not possible without the miraculous new birth by the mercy of God described in 1:3.
Go On Trusting God and Become This Type of Person
We can imagine saying, "But Peter that's not the way I am. You're asking me to be something I'm not."
He would answer: if you are born again, if the Spirit of God really dwells in you, if you are the children of God by adoption, if Christ is now your treasure, and God is your hope, then the seed of all these traits is in you, and they will flourish if you go on trusting in God's future grace.
Like I read this week in Isaiah 26:3–4,
Thou dost keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee, because he trust in thee. Trust in the Lord for ever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock.
In other words, go on trusting God for his future, endless, rock-like dependability to meet all your needs (physical, moral, spiritual); and the Spirit will be released in you to work these utterly unnatural and wonderful traits.
According to 1 Peter 1:3 the mark of the person who is born again by the mercy of God is a "living hope" in God—an ongoing, vital trust in the future grace of God—the everlasting Rock.
So, even though our goal is to be what only God can make us, this does not mean that there is nothing we can do or that we can do for each other in our small groups to release this ongoing work of God in us.
Don't Return Evil for Evil—Bless Instead
Verse 9 helps us to see how this works—how we can help each other in our small groups. It says, out of all this inner transformation in verse 8 (oneness of mind, sympathy, brotherliness, kindheartedness, lowliness)—out of all that inner transformation—now act a certain way, namely, "not returning evil for evil, or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing."
To What Are We Called in This Verse?
Look carefully at verse 9. There is a crucial question to answer before we can apply this verse to ourselves and the habits of our small groups. Does the "calling" in verse 9 refer to our act of blessing those who insult us? Are we called to do this? Or does it refer to our inheriting a blessing? Both are grammatically possible. Let me paraphrase it both ways so you can see the choice.
Does the verse mean, "Bless those who insult you, because you were called to live this way; fulfill that calling so that you will inherit a blessing"? Or does the verse mean, "Bless those who insult you, because you were called to inherit a blessing"? Does the "calling" refer to what comes before (giving blessings to others) or to what comes after (inheriting a blessing)?
Why does this matter? Does it make any difference, since in both cases we are supposed to bless and in both cases we are to inherit a blessing? The difference is the relationship between our blessing others and the promise that we will receive a blessing. And this is utterly crucial.
If our calling is to bless others, then verse 9 teaches that this is a condition we meet in order to obtain our future inheritance. The verse means that our future blessing is conditional upon our blessing others. "You were called to bless so that you might inherit a blessing." If our calling in this verse is to inherit the blessing, then the verse does not teach this. There is no mention of conditionality. "Bless because you've been called to inherit a blessing."
We Are Called to Bless Those Who Insult Us
My answer is that the calling in verse 9 refers to our blessing those who insult us. We are called to live this way. The reason I think this is because of the close parallel in 2:21. Verse 20 says that it finds favor with God when we suffer for doing right and endure it patiently. In other words it's good not to return evil for evil or insult for insult, as 3:9 says.
Why? Verse 21 gives the reason: "For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ suffered for you." There's the key word "called" and it unmistakably refers back to verse 21 and says that our calling is not to return evil for evil but to bear it patiently, and, as verse 9 says, to bless those who insult us.
If you want to know your calling in life, here it is in two texts of 1 Peter (2:21 and 3:9)—to endure unjust suffering patiently and to bless those who do you evil and revile you. That's our calling. That's what small groups exist for—to help each other become a people who live that way for the glory of Christ who lived and died that way.
The Condition for Inheriting Our Blessing
But now we see how the last part of verse 9 fits in—that crucial last phrase. When Peter says, "You were called for the purpose [namely, the purpose of blessing others]," and he adds, "that you might inherit a blessing"—when he says that, he shows that our blessing others is one of the conditions we fulfill so that we inherit our blessing in the age to come. It's the same as Jesus' beatitude, where he says, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy." Showing mercy to others is a condition for the great final receiving of mercy from God.
This is not teaching that our future blessing is something we earn by doing meritorious works. Our blessing those who insult us does not earn our blessing from God. Peter says in 1:13 that the blessing that is coming to us at the revelation of Jesus is grace, not payment for works, but free grace. He says in 1:5 that we are "being protected by the power of God through faith [not works] for the salvation ready to be revealed in the last time."
The blessing will be "inherited," not earned (3:9). It is graciously given, not merited.
The Evidence of New Birth
But—and here many go astray, take heed—that blessing will be graciously inherited by those who are born of God. And the evidence of being born of God is a lively, vital hope in that future blessing. The evidence of being born again is faith in future grace. And the essence of this faith is that we embrace that promise of blessing as our treasure, and bank our hope on it, find our satisfaction in it.
And the evidence that this is happening in your life is that your life becomes a foretaste of the promised future that you cherish. If you cherish the future of God's promised grace above all things, then your life becomes a foretaste of future grace. You will not return evil for evil because the greatest hope of your life is that God will not return evil for evil to you. But you will bless those who insult you because the future blessing that you embrace as your treasure and bank on as your hope and find satisfaction in is precisely that kind of gracious blessing. The evidence that we are born of God and will inherit a future blessing is that our lives become a foretaste of the future we cherish.
Therefore when Peter says that blessing those who insult us is our divine calling, and that this calling is a condition of inheriting our future blessing, he's not saying that we earn our future blessing with meritorious works; he is saying you must truly be born again; you must put your hope and your faith so genuinely in that blessing that the quality of that gracious blessing is absorbed from the future into the present and shows in your life.
The Number One Function of Small Groups
Which means that the number one function of small groups at Bethlehem is to help each other maintain this full assurance of faith in future grace. To call each other back from false hopes and deceptive treasures; and to help each other—week after week—see the unparalleled value of Jesus and his future, so that we embrace him as our treasure, and become the kind of people only he can make us, and live lives that bring blessing to thousands.