It is astonishing to hear Peter say, “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?” (1 Peter 3:13). What could he possibly mean?
No other book in the Bible addresses the issue of Christian, non-retaliating, unjust suffering more than 1 Peter. For example,
This is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. (2:19)
When you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. (2:20)
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. (3:9)
If you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. (3:14)
It is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. (3:17)
Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:13)
If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed. (4:14)
If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. (4:16)
Let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. (4:19)
The same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. (5:9)
Peter is intent on preparing Christians to suffer well. He does not want them to be surprised when it comes: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (4:12). It is not strange. It is part of the expected end-time judgment.
The end of all things is at hand. . . . It is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (4:7, 17)
In other words, the fiery trial purifies Christians and punishes those who do not obey the gospel.
A Surprising Statement About Christian Suffering
Therefore, in the context of this book, it is astonishing to hear Peter say, “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?” (1 Peter 3:13). This is a rhetorical question. No answer is given. He expects us to supply the answer. And the answer he expects is, “No one.” The question implies, “There is no one to harm you, if you are zealous for what is good.” That’s the way rhetorical questions work.
What does he mean? Bore in with me on the context.
Just before this surprising statement Peter quoted Psalm 34:12–16 (in 1 Peter 3:10–12). He gives this quotation as an argument for why we will inherit a blessing if we bless those who revile us. “To this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. For . . .” (3:9–10).
The argument in support of our being blessed for blessing those who revile us is, first, because we will “see good days if we turn from evil and do good” (3:10–11); and, second, because “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous. . . . But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil” (3:12).
Now here’s the surprising thing. That very argument for why we will inherit a blessing for blessing those who curse us is also the basis for what Peter says next: “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?” (3:13).
So the very same argument is given for saying seemingly opposite things:
- “You will be blessed for blessing those who revile you.”
- “You will not be harmed by any one if you do what is good.”
The essence of that argument is that the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous. Peter’s insistence that no harm will come to the righteous is based on the fact that God’s eyes are on them. So his point is not that good deeds prevent others from abusing us. But that God’s people are doers of good deeds, and he is vigilant to watch over them.
So Peter infers, “If God’s eyes are on us, no one can harm us.” Has he somehow lost the conviction that pervades the whole book — that suffering for doing good is to be expected? No. For the next verse says, “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed” (3:14). Why? Because “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous” (3:12).
It seems to me, therefore, that what Peter is saying is: “When you are under my sovereign watch-care, those who cause you suffering do not bring you harm, but blessing.” Peter is differentiating between temporary harm and ultimate harm. Under God’s watchful, loving, sovereign care, those who are zealous for good deeds will only endure what leads to greater blessing. No ultimate harm.
This is confirmed as we keep reading. The next words go like this: “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled” (3:14). But he has just said, “Even if you should suffer.” So why should we not fear? It is going to hurt. That’s what “suffering” means. We should not fear because Peter believes that this hurt is not ultimate hurt. It is ultimate blessing. “If you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed” (3:14).
Safe and Fearless with Jesus
There’s more — at least three more clues that when Peter says, “Who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?” he means: No one can ultimately harm you.
If we look carefully, we realize that in 1 Peter 3:15, Peter is giving a loose quotation from Isaiah:
Do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary. (Isaiah 8:12–14)
Peter adapts this amazingly, and substitutes “the Lord Christ” for “the LORD of hosts.” Instead of saying, “Honor Yahweh as holy,” he says “Honor Christ the Lord as holy” (3:15). In both 1 Peter and Isaiah this is given as the alternative to fearing the enemy:
Isaiah: “Do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread.” (Isaiah 8:12)
Peter: “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled.” (1 Peter 3:14)
And Isaiah supplies the reason they don’t need to fear what others fear: “And he will become a sanctuary” (Isaiah 8:14). That is, no matter what happens, Yahweh (and now Christ the Lord) will surround you so that no ultimate harm will befall you.
I say not ultimate harm because Peter has already said in 3:14 that the ones we are not to fear are the very ones who in fact are harming us — “Even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them.” Why not fear those who are harming us? Because Christ the Lord is your sanctuary, where no ultimate harm can befall you.
Then Peter adds that instead of fearing man, you should “always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (3:15). Why “hope”? Why not “faith” or “love”? Because hope in the promised blessing is precisely the ground of our fearlessness. This is what makes our adversary wonder. And that hope includes the promise that no ultimate harm will come to you when you suffer for doing good. Our hope is not that people won’t persecute us and hurt us. He just said they would. Our hope is that this hurt is not ultimate hurt. It leads to blessing.
He Watches Over You
Finally, Peter ends the paragraph with these bold words: “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (3:17).
Now we see why it makes all the difference in the world that “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous” (3:12). He does not watch over them to spare them suffering. Rather in his sovereign watch-care, the all-good, all-wise God decides when his children will suffer for doing good — “if that should be God’s will” (3:17).
So the whole section ends on a note of God’s sovereignty over Christian suffering. The sovereignty does not mean he spares us harm, but that he spares us ultimate harm. This is what I take Peter to mean in 3:13 when he says the astonishing words, “Who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?”
Which puts Peter’s words in the same stream as the apostle Paul’s who said, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). Answer: No one. That is, no one can be against us with any ultimate harm. And, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?” (Romans 8:33). Answer: No one. That is, no charge will stick in the end. No final harm will be done.
So Peter gives wisest of all counsels: “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:19). Such suffering will not harm you. Not ultimately.