If you’ve spent any time at all studying apologetics, the practice of defending the Christian faith from all comers, you’ve certainly seen 1 Peter 3:15 used to defend the intellectual defense of the faith: “honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being ready to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.”
I have come to think we’ve seriously misused this verse to justify our intellectual games, and so to get at what Peter is really talking about, we’ve got to look at three areas. Which direction does the passage flow? What is it that these Christians were supposed to be defending? And why would someone have asked them for a reason?
Which Direction does the Passage Flow?
Too often Christian apologetics becomes a kicking, fighting, knock-down, drag-out battle to the death, the goal of which is to leave your opponent an intellectually smoking ruin. But the passage does not speak of any of this at all. It says that Christians in the particular circumstance of this first-century Asian church ought to be prepared to explain the reasons for their hope to any who ask.
This is why I asked which direction the text flows. Because so often, Christian apologists go out looking for opponents and debate any and all comers who challenge the faith. The entire field of apologetics has gotten the central core of this verse backwards. They are answering the reasons brought against the faith by enemies, not giving reasons for those with honest questions. The word for “ask” (aiteo) in the Greek refers to one who begs or craves; thus, those whom Peter says to answer are those who craves an answer with honest sincerity, not those who are militant enemies. I certainly don’t recognize this call in much of what passes for apologetics.
Likewise, the answer given to these genuinely curious is to be given in “humility and trembling” (1 Pet. 3:15), not in arrogance and aggression. Again, I recognize almost nothing of this in what passes for contemporary apologetics.
What was Being Defended?
Peter doesn’t just have any question in mind that these Christians were to respond to. No, the honest questions of the curious were to be answered concerning “the hope that is in you.”
Notice that Peter is not addressing certainties. Hope possesses no guarantees, otherwise it would not be hope, and would instead be certainty. Peter is fundamentally uninterested in syllogisms or the latest archeological discovery that “proves” the Christian faith. Rather, he is interested in the “hope that is in you,” and to discover this hope, we have to let Peter define it. And, in fact, he does define it in the rest of the epistle.
He opens his epistle by speaking about this hope, writing that God has, in His great mercy, “cause us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection,” and “to an inheritance that is imperishable” that is “kept in heaven” until the moment for “a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time,” (1:3, 4, 5). The saints of this church “have been grieved by various trials” by which the “genuineness of your faithfulness” has been “tested” for the “unveiling (apocalypse) of Jesus the Messiah,” (1:7). They are to “set your hope on the grace that will be brought to you at the unveiling (apocalypse) of Jesus Messiah,” (1:13). And the hope of these believers that Jesus would soon appear and deliver them from their enemies, vindicating them as the true people of God, is to be set upon the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. Foreknown from the beginning of the world, He was “made manifest in the last days for your sakes, who through Him are vindicated in God, Who raised Him from the dead,” so that “your faithfulness and hope are in God,” (1:20, 21).
So the specific issue at hand that Peter wanted these Christians to be able to respond to were outsiders wondering why the Christian community expected Jesus to come and vindicate them. The resurrection is only part of the answer, and the full answer was the whole scope of the gospel, not merely that Jesus died and was raised, but that He was enthroned in heaven and had departed them, leaving them the promise that He would deliver and rescue His people from their enemies and persecutors, a deliverance that would also vindicate the Church as the people God had allied Himself with and whom He would defend and protect, establishing them above the mountains.
Why Were They Asked for a Reason?
But why would an outsider be spurred to ask such a question anyway? What would make them curious about why the Church believed this? Well, because of the Church’s lifestyle. Already Peter acknowledges that “you have been grieved by various trials,” (1:6). The whole book was written in that light, Peter exhorting them to remain firm in their persecution, because it was the “tested genuineness of your faithfulness,” (1:7), encouraging them, “do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance,” and instead to “conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile,” (1:14, 17).
The rest of the epistle is written to justify Peter’s call to persevere in the face of persecution. “Beloved ones, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh,” and to “keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak of you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation,” (2:11, 12). His call throughout the rest of the epistle is the same. Be subject to all human rulers, so that “by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people,” (2:15).
It is here that we encounter Peter’s true apologetic. “This is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly,” for “when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God,” (2:19, 20). It is to this suffering that “you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps,” (2:21).
Peter’s interest is in behavior, not intellect. What will raise eyebrows and spur people to curiosity about the Christian community is its commitment to bearing persecution in the present with the hope in the promise that the enthroned Messiah will defend them for their faithful endurance. “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, so that you may obtain a blessing,” (3:9). And this brings us immediately to 1 Pet. 3:15. “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 for a reason for the hope that is in you,” (3:14-15). The whole matter of the question in the mind of the curious comes by the peaceful and non-violent suffering of the Church for the sake of the gospel. “Why do you not retaliate against those who rob and kill you?”
Peter even gives the answer the Church is to give when they are faced with these questions. “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God,” (3:17-18). So remember, when someone uses 1 Peter 3:15 as an excuse for apologetic ballistics, that Peter is speaking of a defense of the faith centered in behavior, and particularly, in a life of suffering for the sake of the gospel. This is a defense of the faith by holistic lifestyle.