How do we live fearlessly? That’s how our week begins. The question today comes from a listener named David. Here’s his email: “Pastor John, hello. My question is about 1 Peter 3:15. Various translations say things like this: ‘In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy.’ That’s the ESV, and it’s pretty much the same as the HCSB, which calls us to honor Christ with our hearts. But the KJV translates it, ‘Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts.’ The NLT says, ‘Worship Christ as Lord of your life.’ The NIV, ‘In your hearts revere Christ as Lord.’ So, honor, sanctify, worship, revere. What does this Greek lemma, hagiázō, mean? And how would you apply it to our lives?”
This passage, 1 Peter 3:14–16, has a special place in my heart because I can remember preaching on it during my very first months in the pastoral ministry at Bethlehem in 1980. And the insight that I got then, when I was preparing for that message, I had never seen before. It was so significant to me that when I saw this question, I said, “I want to do that. I want to go back there and retell this story — retell this exegesis,” because what I saw there I’ve never forgotten. It relates directly to David’s question about how to translate verse 15, which in the ESV goes, “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy.” And David wants to know what that phrase means in this context and then in our lives.
So, let’s put the text in front of us. I’ll start with verse 14.
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 honor 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.
Three kinds of observations bring clarity to the meaning of verse 15 — the first part, which David is asking about: “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy.”
The first observation is about the words themselves and how to translate them. Here’s the most literal rendering I can give: “The Lord Christ sanctify in your hearts.” So, sanctify the Lord Christ in your hearts.
The word sanctify is the word that’s behind all these translations — worship Christ, revere Christ, honor Christ as holy — and all of them are trying to avoid the word sanctify in English, probably because we usually think of sanctify as overcoming sin and becoming more Christlike. That won’t work when we’re talking about sanctifying God. It’s just an odd sound, and so other words are chosen to try to make it more clear.
But the word sanctify, at root, means “set apart for some sacred purpose” or “consecrate.” And in God’s case, it certainly involves revering, honoring, worshiping, recognizing his holiness — his transcendent purity — and feeling the beauty and greatness and preciousness of that holiness. So all of these translations have elements of truth in them. And I think “honor Christ as holy” comes as close as we can get to sanctifying Christ — that is, recognizing God as supremely, transcendently pure and beautiful and valuable and (we’re going to see) dreadful in a good way. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
Fearless and Hopeful
Here’s the second way we get clarity with this phrase in verse 15, “honor Christ the Lord as holy.” Let’s see what’s on either side of it: what comes just before, in front, and what comes just after it, behind. So, just before are these words: “Have no fear of them,” referring to persecutors. Have no fear of them. Then comes, “but honor the Lord Christ as holy.” So, “honor the Lord Christ as holy” is somehow an alternative to being afraid, having fear of those who persecute.
Then after them, in verse 16, come these words: “. . . always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” So, it seems that in Peter’s mind the instruction to honor Christ the Lord as holy would be a means to helping you be prepared to give a reason for the hope that is in you.
So in front of the words, he says, “Have no fear of your persecutors,” behind the words, he says, “Be ready to tell why you are hopeful.” And in between, he says, “Honor Christ the Lord as holy.” So now, let’s hold on to that, and you’ll see why that fearlessness in the front and hopefulness in the back are significant.
So, here’s the third observation. And this was what in 1980 was new to me. I’d never made these connections, and they’ve stuck with me ever since. The key that I had never seen before when I was reading this text was that it’s a quotation from Isaiah 8:12–13. So, here’s what Peter read in Isaiah that was so relevant to his situation that he adapted it in this context. Here’s what Isaiah 8:12 says: “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread.”
Now in the Septuagint, in the Greek Old Testament, those last words are the exact words that Peter uses to tell his readers not to be afraid or troubled by your persecutors. So that’s a direct quote there. In verse 13 in Isaiah 8, “But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy,” we see the same word hagiasate in the Greek Old Testament. “Sanctify the Lord, Yahweh” — not Jesus, but Yahweh, which he’s going to apply to Jesus. “Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary.”
Now, Peter takes these words, “do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread,” and he quotes them in verse 14. “Have no fear of these vaunted persecutors around you.” And then he sees that the solution that Isaiah gives to fearing man is a holy fear of God: “The Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.” And in place of honoring the Lord Yahweh as holy, Peter says to honor the Lord Christ as holy.
“When you dread distrusting Christ more than you dread your enemies, he will be a hope-filled sanctuary for you.”
This is what the New Testament writers do repeatedly. Christ becomes the fulfillment, the incarnation of Yahweh, and what was true of Yahweh then is true of Christ now. And by implication, let Christ be your fear, and let Christ be your dread, as you regard him as holy.
Our Dread and Sanctuary
Now, that may seem a very odd way to combat the fear of man — replace it with the fear of God. But the next phrase, in Isaiah 8:14, just blew me away then, and it still does. It explains how this works. It says, “Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary.” Amazing. It’s amazing. God becomes a safe, hope-filled sanctuary from his own wrath and from our enemies when he becomes our dread. Now, how does that work? I think it works like this.
When it becomes more fearful, more dreadful to us to dishonor God by failing to trust his promises — when that’s more dreadful to us than being persecuted by our enemies — then those very promises of God become a sanctuary for us. They become our hope. So now the words “in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy” include the meaning, “Let him be your fear. Let him be your dread” — not your persecutors — “and he will become your sanctuary,” your solid place of hope.
“Don’t let men be your dread; let God be your dread.”
So, both the words in front of verse 15 and afterward get their meaning from the meat in the middle of the sandwich. The bread on top, the words in front, say, “Don’t be afraid of your persecutors,” and the meat in the middle explains, because when you honor Christ as holy — that is, when you dread distrusting Christ more than you dread your enemies — he will be a hope-filled sanctuary for you. And you don’t need to be afraid. And then the slice of bread that’s on the bottom of the sandwich — the words following, which say, “Always be ready to give a reason for your hope” — is explained again by the meat in the middle of the sandwich. When we honor Christ as holy, when we dread distrusting him more than we dread our adversaries, he is a reason for our hope that we can give to anybody.
I’ve never forgotten that key from Isaiah 8:12: don’t let men be your dread; let God be your dread — which at first doesn’t sound like a happy solution. Oh, but it is! Dreading distrusting God turns God into a sanctuary. He becomes a sanctuary. He will become your reason for hope, and he will become the ground of your fearlessness before your adversaries.