The Incarnate Son Obeyed the Father by the Spirit

Posted by R. Fowler White

A friend emailed me recently to ask what I had meant when I wrote in a note that “the incarnate Son obeyed the Father by the Spirit.” So I offered the following explanation. It was a help to my friend, so maybe it’ll help somebody else too. Here goes …

God the Son became incarnate—took to Himself human nature—by the powerful work of God the Spirit. Conceived by the Spirit, the Son was born and lived full of the Spirit, anointed with the Spirit, empowered and equipped by the Spirit for the tasks He came to do.

He appeared before John the Baptist for baptism in the Jordan and was there identified as the Son by the Father’s words and by the Spirit’s descent upon Him (Luke 3). Full of the Spirit, He went on to stand His probation against the temptations of the devil in the Wilderness (Luke 4). Emerging from His probation, He introduced Himself in the synagogue at Nazareth as that Son of David who is first and foremost the Anointed One, “the man of the Spirit” (Luke 4). He proclaimed His empowerment for His mission, and His power was not merely because of His Davidic lineage. His power was in His anointing with the Spirit of the Lord, described in three pairs of attributes by the prophet Isaiah (Isa 11; Luke 4).

From the prophet, we learn that on Him rested the Spirit of wisdom and understanding for holy nation building and for governing, for discerning true from false, good from evil, right from wrong. Not fooled by appearances, He treated the socially marginalized and vulnerable with dignity and equity—and He punished the wicked. Moreover, on Him rested the Spirit of counsel and might for planning and carrying out holy warfare. Wonderful Counselor and mighty God that He is (Isa 9), He was empowered by the Spirit to destroy the wisdom of the wise and to thwart the discernment of the discerning (Isa 29; 1 Cor 1). Furthermore, on Him rested the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord for living a right and holy life with and before His God and Father, whose Person, work, will, and ways He knew so well. With all these attributes, Jesus introduced Himself as perfectly and permanently “the man of the Spirit,” the ideal King, who is delighted to live His life before God with affection and reverence for Him and who rules as the Anointed One because He is equipped by the Spirit with moral integrity and steadfast loyalty. In Him, by the Spirit, are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. The incarnate Son, then, had the sevenfold anointing with the Spirit, the fulness of the Spirit.

Endowed with the Spirit, we also see the incarnate Son going about in the Gospels waging His spiritual warfare with weapons of the Spirit. Baptized, tested, and introduced for public ministry, He entered into spiritual combat with those who occupied the Land. He engaged in battle with the rulers and powers, with the worldly forces of darkness, with those who are of the world, the flesh, and the devil. In the Land He went about delivering sinners through faith from all manner of illness, from disease and pains of body (Matt 4; Acts 10), so that they might learn that He also has the power to save them from the bondage of their sins (Mark 2; Luke 5). He found “lost sheep” in the state of sin and death, in the domain of Satan’s darkness, and He called them to repentance and faith in Himself alone. He delivered them from their sins by the Spirit and the Word to the kingdom of His marvelous light. Then, in His death, through the eternal Spirit, He offered Himself without blemish to God (Heb 9). Having done His Father’s will in life and in death, He was designated the Son of God in power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead (Rom 1). Enthroned in heaven, Christ now reigns, in and with the power of the Spirit, as Ruler of the nations, commanding sinners everywhere to repent and believe in Him as their only hope of salvation from the wrath to come (Acts 17).

Summing up, the incarnate Son was endowed with the Spirit to obey the Father, and by His obedience through the Spirit, He satisfied all the righteous requirements of God’s law and is now the source of eternal salvation to all who repent and believe His gospel.

On the Apostle Paul’s Above Reproach Criterion

Posted by R. Fowler White

1 Tim 3:2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach … (δεῖ οὖν τὸν ἐπίσκοπον ἀνεπίλημπτον εἶναι).
Titus 1: 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach … (δεῖ γὰρ τὸν ἐπίσκοπον ἀνέγκλητον εἶναι ὡς θεοῦ οἰκονόμον).

Introduction. While considering whether men who experience same-sex inclinations should be ordained to or remain in the office of elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), one focus of attention has been the Apostle Paul’s criterion in 1 Tim 3:2 and Titus 1:7 requiring candidates for eldership to be above reproach. To put that requirement in perspective, it is useful to observe that, in the commentaries on these texts, there is substantial agreement that the above reproach standard is most likely a summary of the specific qualifications listed thereafter. Granted that consensus, our question in the following post is this: does the criterion allow for variable assessment by sessions and presbyteries when applied to individual cases? Before we take up that question, let’s consider several preliminary stipulations.

Three means. First, we propose to stipulate that self-description is one of three parts that make up a man’s call to ministry. When elders, in their ordination vows for the PCA, “approve of [its] form of government and discipline …, in conformity with the general principles of Biblical polity” (BCO 21-5.3), that approval involves their affirmation that “ordinary vocation to office in the Church is the calling of God by the Spirit, through the inward testimony of a good conscience, the manifest approbation of God’s people, and the concurring judgment of a lawful court of the Church” (BCO 16-1). In this light, ordained PCA overseers have affirmed that there are three means through which “the calling of God by the Spirit” is realized. (Fittingly, Paul’s charge to Timothy in 1 Tim 4:12-16 with 1 Tim 1:18-19a; 2 Tim 1:6, 14 illustrates all three components.) We affirm, then, that, when it comes to making judgments about fitness for office, assessment will include but will not be limited to a man’s self-description. We follow the Apostle’s example as expressed in BCO 16-1 and stipulate that the Spirit of God gives His testimony that a man should be inducted into or remain in office through all three measures mentioned above.

A Good Reputation. Second, though the preceding summary may be agreeable enough, we suggest that it strengthens our consensus to fill in the picture in BCO 16-1 from the contexts of 1 Tim 3:2 and Titus 1:7. Factoring in the content of 1 Tim 1:3-11; 3:7; 4:12-16; Titus 1:10-16; and 2:7-8, we confirm that a candidate’s self-description is not the Apostle’s only or even primary focus. This is not to say that Paul advocates an approach of suspicion, but rather one of earned credibility. In a phrase, trust but verify. Why? Because Paul is eager to establish the necessary contrast between the church’s elders and false teachers when it comes to their self-description, doctrine, and practice. In doing so, he calls special attention to what the false teachers believe and declare about themselves: they profess to know God (Titus 1:16). We do not doubt the candidates for eldership also professed to know God. What is of interest to the Apostle, however, is not a man’s profession (self-description) as such, but rather the consistency of a man’s teaching and practice with his profession. In other words, a man’s self-description is of no interest to Paul if neither his doctrine (1:10-14) nor his practice (1:15-16) matches up to it. Even if a man believes and declares himself conscientiously to be above reproach, his open and honest self-description is not sufficient or conclusive to demonstrate that he is as he believes and declares himself to be. Transparency and authenticity, while praiseworthy, are, in themselves, inadequate to prove qualification or to protect against disqualification.

Unmistakably, we anticipate that a man will humbly describe his character and conduct—personal, domestic, and public—as a fitting example for others to follow in their own profession, doctrine, and practice. Particularly in his self-description, we expect that a man will conscientiously describe himself in terms of his Christian experience and inward call to the ministry (BCO 24-1.a). We also expect that, in distinction from a recent convert, he will present himself as a man of mature profession, teaching, and practice, devoted to genuine experiential religion, including his ongoing crucifixion of indwelling sin and all its corruptions to our nature that incline us to evil. Overall, then, the contexts of 1 Tim 3:2 and Titus 1:7 provide us a synopsis of the point expressed in BCO 21-5 and BCO 16-1: a candidate’s doctrine and practice must bring no reproach on what he believes and declares himself to be, nor on what the church believes and declares itself to be. He must be above reproach—have a good reputation—not only with those inside the church, but also with those outside the church, including with the church’s opponents.

A Good Reputation with Outsiders? Third, though we can all agree that, for the Apostle, the above reproach criterion involves the specific qualification of a good reputation with those outside as well as inside the church (δεῖ δὲ καὶ μαρτυρίαν καλὴν ἔχειν ἀπὸ τῶν ἔξωθεν, 1 Tim 3:7; 4:12-16), we can also agree that a shared approbation from outsiders and insiders presumes a shared definition of the good, at least on pertinent issues. Clearly, however, we should ask, how can those outside and inside the church come to share a definition of what is good? Since we would all agree that Paul does not look to outsiders to define the good, we can surely agree that the good reputation qualification presumes that insiders know what is good from God’s revelation in the apostolic traditions (which included the law of Moses), in nature, and in conscience, and that outsiders know what is good from His revelation in nature and conscience (Rom 1:18-23, 32; 2:14-15). Accordingly, as Ridderbos reminds us, though Paul declares that outsiders are all subject to God’s wrath (Rom 1:18, 24, 26, 28; Eph 2:3), he also acknowledges differences among them. He knows that not all outsiders are guilty of the most heinous sins. Some show the requirement of God’s law written in their hearts, as their conscience, though defiled by sin, bears witness to good and evil as defined by God’s revelation (Rom 2:14-15). They are thus commendable, even if in a civic sense only, for their good conduct (Rom 13:3-5; cf. 1 Cor 5:1-2; 1 Tim 5:8).

Knowing, then, that outsiders vary in their judgments, it is for the church to accept the judgment of outsiders only when it accords with God’s revealed will (cf. Rom 12:17; Col 4:5; 2 Cor 8:21). Remarkably, this is what Paul himself does when he accepts as true the testimony of an outsider about the Cretans (whose reputation included the practice of homosexual religious rites) as he applies it to certain divisive teachers in the Cretan church (Titus 1:12-13a; 1:9-16; 3:10-11). Therefore, when it comes to the matter of sexual immorality and specifically homosexuality, we reasonably infer that Paul acknowledged differences among outsiders. Though some in Greco-Roman culture showed the requirement of God’s law written in their hearts, the Apostle well knew that, outside the NT church, homosexuality was widely tolerated or approved in that culture (e.g., Rom 1:32a), just as it had been tolerated or approved in Canaanite and other ANE cultures outside of the OT church. When it came, then, to the issue of a good reputation with outsiders, the Apostle does not require the church and its officers to gain the respect of all outsiders without exception. Instead, he requires the church and its officers to gain the respect of outsiders who by nature do what the law requires … [who] are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law … [who] show that the work of the law written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them (Rom 2:14-15). In this way, we get our bearings on our time. We see that it is not materially different from the ancient past. We know that outsiders today vary in their judgment about homosexuality and other sexual immoralities, but we also know that they largely affirm these vices in greater or lesser degree. Thus, when our congregations, sessions, and presbyteries come to Paul’s specific qualification that an elder candidate should have a good reputation with those outside the church, we should look only to those outsiders who share our definition of what is good. If, as a result, we lose the respect of other outsiders, we remain faithful to implore them to join us in acknowledging that we are all sinners in God’s sight, justly deserving His wrath and without hope except in His sovereign mercy, and in believing in our Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of sinners, receiving and resting upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered to us in the Gospel.

Variable Assessment. With the preceding stipulations in place, we take up finally the question of whether the Apostle’s criterion allows for variable assessment when applied to individual cases. In the context of our considerations, we submit that allowance for variable individualized judgments among the churches is plainly at odds with the deliverance of universally binding standards to the congregations and with the connectionalism of the NT church. The overt aims of the Apostles to prevent individualization and to promote standardization of profession, teaching, and practice in the churches meant that judgments in the churches would not vary without accountability. Particularly as that connectionalism stemmed from the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), the NT makes it explicit that the Council’s decisions were to be kept from one church situation to another, wherever the Gentile mission bore fruit (Acts 15:23; 16:4-5; 21:17-25). Moreover, there is evidence sufficient to indicate that to ensure the consistency of profession, doctrine, and practice in all the churches, the NT letters themselves, like the Jerusalem Council’s letter, were effectively open letters—hence official documents—for all the churches impacted by the Apostles’ Gentile mission (see, e.g., Col 4:16; Rev 2:1­–3:22). In general, from the earliest to the latest days of the Gentile mission, the NT bears witness that the Apostles set boundaries to prevent individualization of profession, doctrine, and practice among the churches by requiring them to implement the universally binding apostolic traditions delivered to them (2 Thess 2:15; 3:6; 1 Cor 11:2, 16; 1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 2:2, 14; cf. 1 Cor 7:17). Once delivered to the churches, sessions and presbyteries were to apply those traditions with a view to standardizing what was professed, taught, and practiced in the congregations. Furthermore, given our focus on the above reproach criterion, it is noteworthy that embedded in the traditions of the Apostles was the moral law of Moses (e.g., 1 Tim 1:8-11; Rom 13:8-10), including the specific provision in the official resolution issued by the Jerusalem Council: the requirement of sexual purity (Acts 15:19-21, 29), the terminology of which included homosexuality and other sexual immoralities. That being the case, the official ministry in the churches was (is) to be carried out to promote their purity, to prevent their impurity, and to hold them accountable for their judgments relative to those purity standards. In fact, the NT documents associated with the Gentile mission show that this requirement was an indispensable point of emphasis in the churches (Acts 15:23; 16:4-5; 21:25; Gal 5:19; Eph 5:3; Col 3:5; 1 Thess 4:1-8; 1 Tim 1:10; Rev 2:14, 20-21).

Thus, though sessions and presbyteries may have reached varying judgments in individual cases, this did not mean that the apostolic standards were inherently subjective. To the contrary, the connectional principles of biblical church polity—mutual accountability, mutual dependency, and mutual submission—constrain our conclusion that the Apostles took the necessary steps to ensure that their standards, including officer qualifications with the above reproach criterion, would not vary from one situation to another, and that judgments about fitness for office by sessions and presbyteries, while variable when applied to individual cases, would be subject to external official review and correction. Of these principles, the Apostles’ correspondence to the congregation in Corinth, to Timothy and Titus, and to the congregations of Asia Minor provide multiple occasions addressing standards of sexual conduct (1 Cor 5:1-13; 6:9-20; 1 Tim 1:3-11; Titus 1:9-16; 3:8-11; Rev 2:14-16; 2:20-24).

Conclusion. In summary, when weighing the question of whether a man who experiences same-sex inclination should be ordained to or remain in the eldership of the PCA, it seems prudent to begin with the premise that evaluation of a man for office will include but will not be limited to his self-description. In addition, his doctrine and practice will be consistent with what he believes and declares himself to be and with what the church believes and declares itself to be. In this way, a candidate will gain a good reputation with those inside and outside the church, with the church accepting the judgment of outsiders only when it accords with God’s revealed will. All of these factors work together to fill out the picture of how the Spirit of God gives His testimony that a man should be inducted into or remain in the eldership through the testimonies of the candidate himself, a congregation, and a church court. Against the preceding backdrop, when we consider whether the Apostle’s above reproach criterion allowed for individualized judgments about fitness for eldership when it came to men experiencing homosexual inclinations, we have to deny that claim and oppose those who affirm it. Such a claim is at odds with the connectional obligation of congregations, sessions, and presbyteries to promote the consistency of the church’s profession, teaching, and practice with the apostolic traditions in general and with the sexual purity standards of Scripture in particular.

What’s an Exile to Do? Trust in Your God, Stand Firm in His Grace

Posted by R. Fowler White

With this post we come to the end of our series on the Apostle Peter’s first letter, his survival manual for Christian exiles. His letter is as relevant now as it was in the 1st century because, in the ebb and flow of God’s providence, we Christians find ourselves increasingly pushed to the margins of public life, relegated to social-cultural, if not geographical exile. There’s little doubt that we who confess the historic Christian faith are increasingly viewed as terribly outdated by some and as simply insufferable by others. In that light, we ought to know how Peter would have us live life in this world. His closing message to us in 5:10-14 is as fundamental as it gets: mistreated by the world, embattled by indwelling sin, and threatened by the devil, trust in your invincible God (5:10-11) and stand firm in His grace (5:11-14). We should take a closer look at each of these closing exhortations.

First, continuing his theme of humility under God’s mighty hand (5:6-7), Peter urges us to keep trusting God, casting all our anxieties on Him, because He truly cares for us. Trials, even from the devil, are His “provide-ence” for us, meant to purify us, not damage us. Those whom our God calls to glory He brings through suffering. Our destination is not in the valley of the shadow of death. With Him, we walk through that valley, yes, suffering along the way but only for a little while. You see, our suffering is not eternal. It won’t last forever. Only glory is eternal; only glory is forever. Though we’re broken and hurt, stumbling, the God of all grace … will Himself restore us, putting all that was out of order in order, repairing whatever is damaged. He will Himself confirm us, placing us in a firm and fixed position, causing us to stay the course and remain constant in our faith. He will Himself strengthen us, making us courageous to endure all suffering without stumbling beyond recovery. He will Himself establish us, fortifying us to withstand whatever assaults may come. Peter knew this promise in his own life, for after the ordeal of his infamous threefold denial Christ had restored him, so that he reemerged as that first apostle, that rock of foundation, fixed and solid. No wonder Peter is moved to a doxology: to Him be dominion forever and ever! The promise that Peter had lived applies to us, his fellow exiles, as we make our way through this world. The God of all grace permits our suffering but overrules it to purify us. The God of all grace allows the devil to rage, but his rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure! The God of all grace is the Divine Warrior, not only gracious but also omnipotent. The power to accomplish His will is forever His. He will ultimately triumph over evil. What a promise this is from our God! How can we not trust in our invincible God and join Peter in his doxology?

Second and last, Peter exhorts us to stand firm in God’s grace (5:12-14). Here is Peter’s letter in one phrase. Through Silvanus (aka Silas), Peter’s courier, this letter would be circulated among the churches of the Roman provinces in Asia Minor as an exhortation and declaration to them of God’s true grace. As an apostle of Christ, he has laid out the doctrinal and moral truths we need as exiles. He has told us what God has graciously done for us in Christ. Based on Christ’s work, we’re commanded to live holy lives in keeping with that grace. And so, Peter exhorts us one final time to stand firm in grace, to resist all temptations to apostasy. Remember: despite suffering and trial, we’ve been born again to a living hope. We must live therefore in the holiness of that hope. Jesus, having Himself conquered all evil through His suffering, has called us to follow in His steps through suffering into glory. All who do so will be vindicated with Him. Stand firm, then; stand fast in the knowledge of His grace. As we do, we take courage from her who is in Babylon, that is, from our fellow exiles in the church-at-large throughout the known world (in Peter’s time, the Greco-Roman world). Peter may even be referring to the church in ancient Rome, the center of the then world empire and regime as ancient Babylon once was. But here’s Peter’s point: we’re not alone as we stand at the margins. While standing there, we do so firmly, taking courage from others, like John Mark, Peter’s son in the faith (5:13). Peter had known Mark from the earliest days of Jesus and His Church. This same Mark had traveled with Paul and Barnabas on their 1st missionary journey (Acts 13-14). Though Mark had turned back when they got to Asia Minor (Acts 14:24-28) and Paul had rejected him as a co-worker for the next journey, his relationship with Paul had later been restored for ministry together. Having learned of this reunion, Peter had seen the grace of restoration at work. We should see it too and be sure to take encouragement from it. Lastly, while standing firm, we should take courage from each other (5:14a). As we exchange the legendary “holy kiss”—here called the kiss of love, Peter’s point is not a kiss itself, but any outward expression of communion with and affection among us saints as we share in the love and peace of Christ. Fittingly, in that communion of love, we find peace in our God (5:14b). As Peter’s readers, marginalized or worse, we know ourselves to be under some stress, even in distress. How timely it is, then, to hear a benediction of peace from the Apostle who would have us persevere to the end.

So, what’s an exile to do when pushed to the margins of public life, relegated to social-cultural, if not geographical exile? Trust in our invincible God, and stand firm in His grace. The hatred of the world, the fleshly desires at war with our souls, the roar of that diabolical lion—all threaten to undo us. Did we in our own strength confide, we know our striving would be losing. But we’re assured of even more: the right man [is] on our side, the man of God’s own choosing. Christ, it is He, Lord Sabaoth His name, from age to age the same, and He must win the battle. So, again, what’re we exiles to do? We’re to listen to His benediction: Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. … Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid (John 14:27). We’re to read again—and again as needed—the words of His Apostle: Though you do not now see Him, you believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls (1 Pet 1:8b-9).

What’s an Exile to Do? Resist the Devil

Posted by R. Fowler White

In our last few posts from First Peter, we’ve noticed that the Apostle has been focusing our attention on the type of people we need to be to assure our perseverance in times of persecution. In such contexts, we usually hear or read about our three chief enemies: the world, the flesh, and the devil. In that light, we notice that Peter has talked to us about the world and about the flesh (the sin that indwells us) in 2:11-12. It’s remarkable to realize, then, that in 5:8-9 he nears the finish line by talking about the devil. Peter’s exhortation brings to mind the words that someone has said: “One great error we make is to underestimate the power of Satan. We need a sober and a vigilant understanding of his person and work.” So ask yourself, as I ask myself: do I underestimate Satan’s power? Do I have a sober and vigilant understanding of his person and work? Some might ask, why think about these questions? Because the Apostle tells us that to assure our perseverance in times of marginalization and even persecution, we must resist the devil. To find out just how do we do that, check out the details that Peter provides.

The Apostle declares to us: be sober-minded; be watchful (5:8a). Twice before he has exhorted us in similar terms in chaps. 1 and 4 (1:13; 4:7). He does it again here in chap. 5, and his point is basically the same: “Don’t let the tests and trials of this life make you careless or make you lose sight of the goal.” In other words, Peter doesn’t want us living our lives with distractions or blurred vision. He knows, and we must know, that the trials of exile can divert our attention from our ultimate destination or distract us from the dangers around us. The right state of mind is, therefore, vital to our perseverance. So, he says, stay focused; stay vigilant.

In 5:8b-9, Peter turns specifically to one danger he has in mind, and it’s an enemy whose presence should rivet our attention. Why be sober-minded and watchful? Because your adversary the devil is on the prowl. This is the only place in First Peter where the Apostle mentions the invisible powers of this present darkness who threaten us. This particular foe often works through others whom he has influenced, attacked, or even indwelt. He is said here to prowl around like a roaring lion, looking for and stalking his prey. We hear his roar in the slanderer who undermines God’s word, in the deceiver who distracts us from God’s glory, in the tempter who corrupts our relationships with God and others, particularly His people. He’s a destructive predator whose roar is meant to terrorize us, to force us to cower or even to deny the faith. Don’t give in, says Peter. Resist him. Remain firm in your faith. Continue entrusting yourself to your faithful Creator and the righteous Judge. Through that faith He is protecting us (1:5). Through that faith our souls are on deposit with our trustworthy God for safekeeping (4:19). Clearly, the danger to us is not that we’re helpless; the danger is that we’ll fail to resist. So, Peter says, in effect, hold steady; watch and pray. Stand firm. Resist the devil, and do so knowing that we’re not being singled out. The same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. We’re not the only ones being verbally insulted or physically attacked for Christ. Throughout the world there are others going through exactly what we’re going through—and, yes, some are going through unquestionably worse than we are. So, resist the devil, recognizing that for all of us who suffer unjustly there’s a fellowship in Christ that binds us together. No, we’re not being singled out: the devil’s evil campaign is worldwide, and there are others just like us throughout the world.

Several decades ago, during a presidential campaign, a political ad ran with the following words: There is a bear in the woods. For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don’t see it at all. Some people say the bear is tame. Others say it’s vicious and dangerous. Since no one can really be sure who’s right, isn’t it smart to be as strong as the bear? If there is a bear. Fellow Christian exiles, marginalized or worse, the Apostle Peter reminds us that, unlike that bear in the woods, there’s no “if” about the roaring lion on the prowl. Some don’t see him at all, but there’s no doubt about his sinister presence in this world. He’s vicious and dangerous, seeking unsuspecting prey to devour. In that light, maturing Christians will be alert to the reality that lurking behind various powers and forces that dominate life in this world is a diabolical enemy who roams the earth, hunting for victims. Listen for his roars in those voices that slander God’s word, that distract from God’s glory, that corrupt your relationships. Even as you discern his presence, don’t underestimate his power or his purpose. Don’t be his unsuspecting prey. As the Apostle tells us, resist that lion-like devil, trusting in God’s mighty hand, and watch him flee (Jas 4:7). He’s powerful, but he’s not invincibleand he knows it. In doing so, gain the assurance that you’ll persevere to the end of these times of marginalization and persecution.

What’s an Exile to Do? Submission and Humility in God’s Sheepfold

Posted by R. Fowler White

In Peter’s first letter—his “Survival Manual for Marginalized Christians”—he focuses our attention on the type of people we Christians need to be to assure our perseverance through the time of our present exile (1 Pet 1:17). He’s exhorted us to pursue moral excellence as we deal with both the world and the sinful passions that wage war against our souls (2:11-12). He’s told us our duties to civil authorities, to bosses, to spouses, to our fellow Christians, and to critics and other persecutors. Having turned again to discuss life in God’s sheepfold in 5:1-11, Peter has talked to us about the ministry of discipleship that elders must perform to assure our perseverance (5:1-4). Now, in 5:5-7, he begins his final appeal to those in the flock whom he calls younger (5:5a) and to all of the sheep (5:5b-7).

When we turn to 5:5a, Peter issues a call to be subject that we’ve heard before (2:13, 18; 3:1), but translators and commentators differ as to who the younger and the elders are. Do both terms refer to men? Do they differ in age, or in Christian maturity, or in office? The Apostle’s immediately preceding reference to the elders as shepherds of God’s flock and the specific duty he enjoins on the younger (be subject) tell us that he’s shifting his focus from what the elders owe the flock to what the flock, particularly those younger in the faith, owe those installed as their elders. Presuming, then, that the flock has recognized their shepherds, Peter instructs us how we non-elders must respond to their ministry. He tells the younger sheep, likewise, be subject to the elders (5:5a; cf. 2:13, 18; 3:1). Clearly, the Apostle doesn’t look on the younger as mere consumers shopping for a church that meets their every preference. No, for Peter, church life is about entering a sheepfold in which there are shepherds qualified to care for God’s sheep. It’s about submitting ourselves to those overseers, placing ourselves in their care, taking our place responsibly under them (cf. 1 Thess 5:12-13; Heb 13:17). Furthermore, as Peter showed in 5:1-3 and will show again in 5:5b-6, the relationship of God’s flock to the elders is not about us non-elders adopting servile, much less rebellious dispositions and behaviors toward our shepherds. On the contrary, flawed and finite as elders are, our submission to them is conditioned first by our obedient humility before God. As such, submission in the sheepfold is, as in every other human relationship, an act of faith: we who are non-elders keep entrusting ourselves to God as we subordinate ourselves to elders, knowing that the Chief Shepherd holds them accountable.

Having called us non-elders to take our place under our elders’ care, the Apostle moves promptly to call all of us to clothe ourselves with humility toward one another (5:5b). Interestingly, Peter’s command is for us all to put on one and the same garment, and not just any garment: he specifies that we put on humility. Perhaps Peter here is thinking of what Jesus did (John 13:4-15) when He girded Himself with a towel and taught the disciples—Peter in particular (John 13:6-11)—the lesson of humility (John 13:15). Why humility? Because, as Peter has already told us (3:8), in a colony of exiles, competition for privilege or power is toxic; commitment to the common good is essential (cf. Phil 1:27–2:5). In times of social marginalization or even persecution, then, mutual humility within the sheepfold is an indispensable virtue. We must mortify dispositions and behaviors that domineer, usurp, or withdraw, and instead find our places in honoring and serving others according to our gifts (4:10). But there’s something even more fundamental that lies behind Peter’s exhortation: God’s actions toward the proud and the humble. The former He resists; the latter He favors (cf. 2:19-20). Once again, Peter engages critically with the world’s expectations: he shows us how God deals with the proud and the humble and, in the process, he reforms how we should order our social relationships.

The truth that it is God’s prerogative to apportion honor leads Peter to reassert his call for humility in 5:6-7, but now he underscores that God’s actions toward the proud and the humble require our humility under His almighty hand. Peter has told us that suffering comes to faithful Christians and is part of God’s providence. He’s told us that painful trials are part of the normal Christian life and are the way God purifies us. It is for us, then, to bow ourselves low before Him and to entrust ourselves to Him. If we confess that He really does use even unjust suffering to accomplish His refining purpose in our lives, we must also confess that He has it under His control and us under His care. Our mighty God is more concerned about our welfare than we could possibly be: after all, both His glory and our good are at stake. What greater incentive could there be for us to cast all our anxieties on Him?

So, fellow exiles, do we wish to assure our endurance throughout this time of our present exile (1:17)? Then we must heed the pointed word that Peter has for us in 5:5-7. He would have us recognize what social marginalization and even persecution do to us: they tempt us, out of pride and its fruit anxiety, to compete for the privilege and power denied to us. But such carnal competition has neither efficacy nor place in God’s sheepfold. Why? Because God resists the proud and favors the humble. The Apostle, therefore, commands us to mortify all desire to domineer, usurp, or withdraw and to take our places in honoring and serving others according to our gifts, whether we’re elders or non-elders. He commands all of us in God’s flock to humble ourselves before Him, because His hand is mighty to bring down the proud and to raise up the humble at the proper time. These are our duties, says Peter, because God has made submission and humility twin means of our perseverance in this time of our exile.

What’s an Exile to Do? Elders, Shepherd God’s Exiled Flock

Posted by R. Fowler White

For well over a year now, the congregations of Christ’s church in our nation and world have been dealing with fast-developing, stress-producing changes in public health, economics, politics, and culture. In more ways than we Christians may realize, this current season of testing has offered us a trial run for future times when our marginalization may worsen. If that’s the case, we elders ought to ask: how’s it gone for us and the sheep in our care? Constrained by recent providence, have we elders learned what’s required of us, particularly in seasons of harder trials? Do those in our care regard us as examples to emulate in times of difficult testing? It’s not too late to examine ourselves in light of the instruction Peter has for elders in 1 Pet 5:1-4.

As the Apostle has worked through his plan for “the perseverance of the exiled saints,” he reminded us in 4:12-19 that trials of suffering for righteousness are part of the process by which God removes sin and its impurities from His church and ultimately the world. Following the order of Ezekiel’s prophecy, Peter addresses the church’s elders first, commanding them to shepherd the flock of God in their care (cf. 5:1-4 with Ezek 9:6). As we read these words, let’s recall that the eldership is one of two special offices in God’s house (the other being deacons; cf. Phil 1:1). Pointedly, elders are not a board of directors among whom one is a paid chief executive officer accountable to the others. No, the context in 1 Peter shows us that the terms elder, overseer (bishop), and shepherd (pastor) are essentially interchangeable titles, referring to all those men who by their example and instruction distinguish themselves as those who live a life of faith and practice worthy for others to emulate and who are therefore set apart for the ministry of discipleship, whether they make their living in that ministry or not (1 Tim 3:1-7; 4:12, 16; 5:17-18; 2 Tim 2:2, 24-25; Titus 1:5-9; Eph 4:11; Heb 13:7, 17 with 1 Pet 5:1-3). Having been recognized by congregations for their qualifications, Peter presumes that the non-elder members will submit themselves to their elders’ care, holding them in high esteem because they keep watch over them, give them instruction, serve as judges on their behalf, and otherwise manage the flock’s affairs (1 Thess 5:12-13; 1 Tim 3:5; 5:17-18; 1 Cor 6:4, 5 with Exod 18:21-26; Num 11:16-17). Given their responsibilities, it’s easy to see why Peter addresses the elders first.

Interestingly, to start off his exhortation, the Apostle Peter (1:1) cites his own qualifications as a fellow elder (5:1). He acknowledges his official connection with the other elders in the Dispersion (1:1) and presumably elsewhere. He also reminds readers that he’s a witness of Christ’s sufferings. Though Peter did not see Jesus’ crucifixion, he did remain with Jesus during the trials of His ministry (Luke 22:28) and certainly did know about the crucifixion and proclaimed it to others (Acts 2:23; 5:30; 10:39). Faithful, then, as a witness of and to Christ’s sufferings, the Apostle is assured that eternal glory will be his reward (5:1, 10). With his own qualifications laid out, Peter has now let his fellow elders know that he’s not asking them to undertake a ministry that he himself hasn’t undertaken. The particular tasks he has in mind follow.

Knowing that sheep need shepherds to keep them from straying as they suffer unjustly, Peter exhorts us who are elders to give a shepherd’s care to God’s flock among us (5:2a NET). As shepherds, we’re obligated to know, feed (teach), guide, and guard the sheep under us. To clarify what he means by shepherding, Peter adds exercising oversight (5:2a), that is, watching over or supervising the sheep whom God has assigned to our care. As overseers, we’re stewards and guardians of the flock (cf. 2:25b), particularly as we defend them against any teaching, belief, or behavior that threatens to scatter or devour them (5:2a). But what attitude and approach are we to take in our work? Peter tells us, first negatively, then positively (5:2b-3). “Shepherd God’s flock,” he says, “not reluctantly or against your will, not because you’re coerced into doing it; but voluntarily, in keeping with God’s revealed character and will. Watch over His sheep, not to get money (like Judas) or influence, but to give care with a holy zeal. Exercise oversight, not by treating the sheep as your subjects or slaves, certainly not by bullying or intimidating them or by being abusive or harsh to them (2 Cor 1:23-24 with 11:20), but by setting an example for them to follow.” In sum, just as Peter framed husbands’ authority within limits defined by obedience to God and by Christ’s example, so he does the same with us who are elders. The Apostle emphatically forbids us shepherds from adopting ways that marginalize or otherwise injure the flock of God in our care.

Lastly, as if his qualifications weren’t enough to motivate us, Peter urges us elders to comply with his directions by pointing us to the future reward for faithful shepherds (5:4). It’s true, of course, that Paul requires elders who do their work well to receive a reward matching their labor now (1 Tim 5:17). Peter, however, looks to the future: if we elders do our work as undershepherds accountable to Jesus the Chief Shepherd, we who have shepherded as God would have us do it (5:2) will receive the unfading crown of glory. The Greco-Roman world rewarded athletes, soldiers, and politicians with crowns of unfading flowers. Peter, however, like Paul, sees God Himself granting that special reward on the last day (e.g., 1 Cor 9:25; 2 Tim 4:8). His point is clear: when Christ returns, God will openly acknowledge and honor faithful elders, even though the world may reject and vilify them now (2:4-8; 4:12-19).

According to Peter, God’s process of purifying the church and the world of sin and its impurities has begun with fiery trials at His house, and first in line for purification are the elders. And so our assignment is set before us: would we who are elders show others the lessons of perseverance that we have learned during recent providence? Would we prove ourselves worthy to be emulated by others moving forward? Then, following Peter’s example, we must devote ourselves, as the Chief Shepherd’s undershepherds, to knowing, feeding, guiding, and guarding the sheep in our care. Only then will we show that we’ve made good use of the current season of hardship and are worthy of emulation by others, particularly exiled (i.e., marginalized) saints.

What’s an Exile to Do? Brace Yourself to Face Fiery Trials with Joy

Posted by R. Fowler White

The sobering truth from Peter is that suffering for what’s right as God defines it is an essential part, an indispensable part, of the normal Christian life. So intent is the Apostle on getting this message across to us that he mentions it in every chapter of his first letter (1:6-7; 2:19-20; 3:13-17; 4:12-16; 5:8-10). This is his message because he’s well aware that, according to many in this world, Christians should be shamed and pressured to conform or be canceled. Peter says, “Don’t give in. Brace yourself to face whatever trials come your way with joy.” Wait, what? Please elaborate, Peter. He does in 4:12-19.

First, he wants us to understand that for Christians, fiery trials are normal, not strange (4:12). He begins the final section of his letter by returning to that theme he’s mentioned over and over: don’t be shocked by fiery trials for Christ; anticipate them; expect them. At the same time, bear in mind that as even the Prophets of old (like Malachi; Mal 3:1-5) teach us, there’s a central principle in the life of saving faith: God uses suffering to test, refine, purify His people. Knowing that truth, Peter exhorts us to face our fiery trials with joy: they’re normal, not strange for Christians.

Second, be sure to appreciate that fiery trials are a privilege now and a promise of joy to come (4:13). Perhaps Peter is remembering the day that Luke recounts in Acts 5:27-42. On that day Peter and the rest of the Twelve were brought before the Sanhedrin and accused by Israel’s high priest of disobeying that Court’s strict orders not to teach in Jesus’ name. Though the Apostles’ response provoked the Sanhedrin to have them flogged and to repeat their orders not to speak in Jesus’ name, they left court that day, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the name of Jesus (5:41). We should realize what the Apostles realized: present suffering for Christ points to future glory with Him. Appreciate this then: fiery trials are a cause for joy right now and a promise of greater joy to come.

Third, realize that fiery trials for the right reasons say that we’re blessed (4:14-16). For example, have we been insulted for Christ? Remember this: verbal abuse for bearing Christ’s name shows that we’re the resting place of the Spirit of glory and of God (4:14)! Don’t make the mistake of thinking, however, that all suffering says that we’re blessed. Suffering for the wrong reasons—say, for being a murderer, thief, evildoer, or troublemaker—is no cause for thinking we’re blessed, much less for being joyful (4:15). Make sure, then, that you do the right thing and suffer only for that. No shame there at all. In fact, our God gets glory when we suffer for what’s right (4:16). As Jesus taught us, Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account (Matt 5:11). So, brace yourself to face trials with joy: when you suffer for what’s right, you’re blessed.

Fourth, recognize that present trials are the beginning of God’s judgment process to purify the world of sin and its effects (4:17-18). Recalling that the church is God’s house (2:4-8), Peter reminds us that it’s time for judgment to begin at the house of God. Drawing primarily on Malachi’s prophecy (2:17–3:5, 4:1; see also Jer 25:29, Ezek 9:5-6, Amos 3:2, Zech 13:9), the Apostle emphasizes that the fiery trials of those in God’s house signal, not His absence from their midst, but His presence among them to refine them, both collectively and individually. Admittedly, the fire that comes first to test and prove the righteous is hard. How much harder, however, will be the fire that comes later to punish the wicked forever? Rejoice in the truth, then, that we have suffering only now and only glory later. By contrast, the lost have glory only now and only suffering later.

Fifth and finally, Peter exhorts us to follow in Christ’s steps when He suffered (2:21): entrust your souls to your faithful Creator as you do His will (4:19). Boiling down his teaching, the Apostle uses a banking term—entrust—to describe what we’re to do as we suffer. Basically, he tells us to leave our souls on deposit with our trustworthy Creator for safekeeping. God has made it so that trials do to faith what fire does to gold (1:7). Since He sends fiery trials to burn away impurities in His house, we should commit ourselves to Him for safekeeping, knowing that He cannot and will not fail us. Refuse to take a kind of health-and-wealth approach to Christian living: “do good to avoid suffering.” Know that our God has His good purposes in our suffering for His will, and that He sets the limits of how intense our suffering is and how long it lasts. Take the Apostle’s approach: do good and, if suffering comes, trust God to refine you and confirm you through it. Trust Him because He is trustworthy. Have faith in Him because He is faithful, both to His promises and to His people.

In 1 Pet 4:12-19, the Apostle reminds us as God’s exiles: don’t be surprised, confused, or ashamed when fiery trials come our way as we do what’s right. Suffering, he tells us, is an essential part, an indispensable part, of the normal Christian life. We, therefore, brace ourselves and face the fiery trials that come on us. And we even do so with joy, because we know that suffering while doing God’s will is His refining fire, and He is so radically in control of all things—even of our suffering—that He has made it so that trials do to our faith what fire does to gold.

What’s an Exile to Do? Live Your Life Now with the End in View

Posted by R. Fowler White

Martin Luther is quoted as saying, “There are two days in my calendar. This day and that Day.” Several texts in Scripture express that sentiment, but few are quite as clear as 1 Pet 4:7-11. Here the Apostles tells us explicitly to live now in view of the end of all things. As we look closely at the details, Peter’s remarkable vision for us exiles emerges.

He told us earlier that Christ appeared in these last times for our sakes (1:20), and now he tells us that the end-goal toward which all historical events are headed is at hand (4:7). We live at the culminating point—a point of unparalleled privilege—in the history of revelation and redemption. Though we’re exiles in this world, we’re to live as those upon whom the end of the ages has come (1 Cor 10:11). We live in the final phase of God’s redemptive process, in the days of Christ’s reign from heaven on earth. Because we benefit now from His past victories (3:18–4:4) and we’ll be vindicated in the future (4:5-6), our past conversion to Christ and our future vindication by Him reshape our present attitude and actions. In that light, Peter exhorts us: take seriously, right now, four duties that will ensure your endurance as the colony of exiles in these times of test and trial.

First, be self-controlled and sober-minded (4:7a). Since you’ve left behind the passions and debauchery of your Gentile days (1:13-17; 4:1-4), stay vigilant with sound judgment and moral restraint. The Apostle’s exhortation here is almost the same as the one he gave us in 1:13. His point is, “Gear up and stay alert. Live intentionally. Lock in on the end-goal that’s approaching. Don’t let the tests and trials of this life make you careless or make you lose sight of that goal! Be vigilant, especially for the sake of prayers” (4:7b; cf. Acts 2:42). Come together to offer prayers of all kinds: of praise, petition, confessing sin, and thanksgiving. In this we’ll show that prayer is a means of grace that increases and strengthens our faith for this time of exile (3:12).

Second and above all, Peter urges us to attend to “the communion of the saints”: keep loving one another earnestly (4:8a). Strikingly, the priority (above all) within God’s household of shared truth is the Second Great Commandment: earnest love for each other. After the love of our God, there is no higher good. If we ask why love gets such high priority, the reason Peter gives here is that it covers a multitude of sins (4:8b). Notice: it’s not that love ‘covers up’ the sins of others; it’s that love covers them. It keeps personal and private offenses personal and private. It exacts no revenge for those offenses by making them public, and it keeps no running tab of them. In short, love forgives those who confess their sins (Ps 32:1; 85:2; cf. Prov 10:12; Gal 6:1; Matt 18:21-22). Just as the Apostle said earlier (1:22), so he says again: keep loving your siblings in the faith—and this time he reminds us that love forgives.

Third, Peter continues to focus on “the communion of the saints” by exhorting us to show hospitality to one another without grumbling (4:9). If we ask how we’re to show love, one way is by offering, without reluctance or complaint, the comforts of home to our fellow exiles, especially those traveling for ministry (e.g., 3 John). The WCF [MESV] summarizes the point for us: it’s our duty “as professing saints to come to the aid of one another in material things according to [our] various abilities and needs” (26.2). Particularly in times when Christians are being pushed to the margins of society, it’s vital that our fellow exiles have a standing invitation to make themselves at home among us for meetings, lodging, meals, and the like.

Fourth and finally, the Apostle completes his portrait of “the communion of the saints” by directing each of us to use our gifts for the church’s good and for God’s glory (4:10-11). Filling out the picture of how we’re to love each other, he reminds us that no believer needs to despair of usefulness in Christ’s church. Why? Because through the Spirit (1:2, 12; 4:6, 14) Christ distributes gifts among His people. In fact, the Spirit and the gifts are Christ’s enablements to unite His church in love through the ministries of word (speaking) and deed (serving). Each believer, then, has a stewardship from Christ to love others in keeping with his or her gifting. Matching our abilities in word or deed to our congregation’s needs, we devote ourselves to our common good. Thus, in everything our God will be glorified through Jesus Christ, with one resounding doxology (4:11): to Him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen!

The more we reflect on Peter’s instructions in 4:7-11, the more we see the ethos that he expects from us as a holy haven for marginalized exiles. In a phrase, he sets before us “the communion of the saints.” It is a vision in which we’re “united to one another in love,” so that we “participate in each other’s gifts and graces” and see ourselves as “obligated to perform those public and private duties which lead to [our] mutual good, both inwardly and outwardly” (WCF 26.1). It is a vision in which we “maintain a holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God and in performing such other spiritual services as help [us] to edify one another” (WCF 26.2). What beauty the world sees, what doxology the world hears, when “the communion of the saints” is ours as the end gets ever closer.

What’s an Exile to Do? Arm Yourself as Christ Did

Posted by R. Fowler White

In 1 Pet 3:18-22, Peter told us about Christ’s victory proclamation and specifically about the victories that are ours in His death, resurrection, ascension, and session at the Father’s right hand. With those victories in view, Peter calls on us to share his confidence that, even while we suffer unjustly, we’ll keep dying to sin and living for God (4:1-2; 2:21). But how does that dying to sin and living for God come about? In 1 Pet 4:1-6, the Apostle lays out the details.

To keep us dying to sin and living for God, Peter starts with a general exhortation: since … Christ suffered [for righteousness] in the flesh, arm yourselves [for suffering] as He did (4:1-2). The Apostle picks up the thread he put aside in 3:14-16. While telling us earlier how to handle anti-Christian foes, he had admonished us to be truly fearless despite unjust suffering (3:14, 17), to defend our hope in Christ (3:15), and, even when we’re defamed, to respond confidently, respectfully, and conscientiously to our accusers and thus expose their shamelessness (3:15-16). Resuming these themes in 4:1ff., Peter declares that since Christ is the supreme example of how God gives victory to all who suffer for righteousness, and we’re being conformed to Christ’s image, arm yourselves for suffering as He did. As you live righteously and suffer unjustly, adopt Christ’s way of thinking (4:1a). His attitude was summarized in the saying that whoever has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin. Christ’s suffering for righteousness throughout His earthly life showed that He was done with sin, indeed without sin. So, as Jesus prepared Himself by arming Himself with the right mindset, Peter calls us to arm ourselves with that same mindset. Here then is the content of the Christian’s attitude (4:1b-2): those who suffer for righteousness show that they have made a life-defining break with sin. In our case (not Christ’s), we’ve been converted from our old life of indulging sinful human passions (4:2a). We’ve been converted to our new life of fulfilling God’s will (4:2b). Those united to Christ have new affections to live new lives, not to please self with its sinful appetites but to please God. The Christian confesses, “I’m done with sin. I’ve set my mind on the things of God, not on the things of self.” So, Peter says, arm yourselves with Christ’s attitude, that is, with a resolve to suffer for doing God’s will and not to keep sinning.

What incentives do we have, however, to arm ourselves as Christ did? In 4.3-6, the Apostle gives us three motivations. First, we’re to arm ourselves because we’re done with the past (4:3). As the New Israel, we’ve cut ties with our Gentile past. It’s all behind us. We’re done with lives of license. We’re done living to satisfy our body’s appetites, engaging in self-destructive and even violent activities, throwing off self-control and moral restraint—all this is just lawless idolatry (cf. Phil 3:19). We’re done indulging vices that have wormed their way into our family celebrations, office parties, and national holidays. The past was more than enough time for that immoral nonsense. We’re done with all that, and it gives us motivation to arm ourselves as Christ did.

Second, we’re to arm ourselves because we’re now treated like outsiders anyway (4:4). Our former fellow partiers are surprised by our choices. It puzzles them that we don’t just dive into the same flood of debauchery as we once did. We’ve dropped out of our former lifestyle. Now we’re different. Now we’re even offensive to them, and they malign us. They’re now actually outraged that we no longer live for the weekend, that we’re effectively dead to the world. Now we’re too different, so they treat us like the outsiders we’ve become. In that light, we need to arm ourselves as Christ did.

Peter cites a third incentive to arm ourselves: in the future we’ll all give an account to God (4:5-6). Our non-Christian pals are surprised and offended that we don’t join them in taking advantage of their “insider” status. They miss the point: those on the inside today won’t have the last word tomorrow. Not even death will have the last word either. The Divine Judge will, and His word will be the last word over the dead as well as the living (4:5). You see, some of the dead will believe the gospel and will be judged by “insiders” as having wasted their lives in this world. From God’s viewpoint, however, those dead will have lived their lives in this world in the Spirit, and they will live again in the world to come in the Spirit (4:6). And that, dear friends, is motivation to arm ourselves in this world just as Christ did.

In 1 Pet 4:1-6, the Apostle assigns determinative importance to our attitude as exiles, specifically to our attitude toward suffering for righteousness. He challenges us: have we armed ourselves for suffering as Christ did? Peter knew that our attitude in life, in the church’s life, is on display in seasons and moments of testing and even crisis. Those times show what preparations we’ve made—or not made. It’s a lesson impressed on Peter on the night of Jesus’ betrayal. Before that night, particularly before Peter warmed himself at that courtyard fire (Mark 14:54), he had not armed himself. And he fell apart. Christ restored him, however, and despite those shameful moments, Peter armed himself thereafter with Christ’s way of thinking. As exiles in this world, our life, in God’s providence, is made up of moments and seasons of testing and even crisis. To make sure that we keep dying to sin and living for God during our life as exiles, then, we must be sure to arm ourselves as Christ did.

What’s an Exile to Do? Husbands, Live a Holy Married Life

Posted by R. Fowler White

The Apostle Peter continues to exhort us Christian exiles from his “Survival Manual” as he works his way through God’s marriage ordinance in 1 Pet 3:1-7. Having addressed Christian wives (many with non-Christian husbands) in 3:1-6, Peter moves on to address briefly Christian husbands married to a Christian wife in 3:7. While still endorsing the household as “the center that shaped the world” with the husband’s place as one of head-stewardship (from which authority derives) and the wife’s place as one of submission, Peter takes on his culture’s expectation that a husband should both sympathize with and marginalize his wife. To husbands, then, the Apostle declares, “Live together with your wife, as I do my own (1 Cor 9:5), knowing and honoring her as both different from you and equal with you (3:7a). Here’s what I mean.”

“First, know and honor her as the weaker vessel (3:7b). No, it’s not what the ancient philosophers were thinking: she’s not intellectually, psychologically, and morally inferior to you. We did just mention the history of Sarah and Abraham (3:6), right? Sarah makes my point. We know the history of creation too. We read there that, as vessels fashioned by the Divine Craftsman-Physician (Gen 2:7, 22), both husband and wife have creaturely weakness, but her vulnerability as the female differs from yours. She’s weaker in that she’s ordinarily physically and maybe socioeconomically more vulnerable than you. But even those vulnerabilities aren’t where she’s most at risk. No, most importantly, she’s spiritually more vulnerable than you, husband. Again, we do know the history of the fall (cf. 1 Pet 5:8-9; Gen 3:1-13) and the pre-flood world (cf. 1 Pet 3:20; cf. 2 Pet 2:5; 3:4-6; Gen 5:28–6:12), don’t we? Because we do, we need to remain alert to the continuing threat that the devil poses in this world. His tactic is still what it was in the beginning: to go after the wife first to get to the husband himself. So, gents, reckon with the fact that your wife—your ally and companion in marriage—is a high-value, priority target, not a mere collateral casualty, in the devil’s war plan. Mindful of that reality, be vigilant in your resistance to his tactic, shoring her up with spiritual resources and remembering that, whatever the devil’s strength or your wife’s weakness, God’s omnipotence is able to overrule them both (5:6-7). Live together with your wife, then, knowing and honoring her as more vulnerable than you.”

“Second,” the Apostle says to husbands, “know and honor your wife, not just as different from you, but as equal with you: she’s an heir with you of the grace of life (3:7c), as Sarah was with Abraham. Together, you’re destined to inherit the resurrection life to come (1:3). Esteem her highly, then, in the way you think about her, talk to her, and act toward her. Like you, she’s one of God’s children. She has all the promises, liberties, and privileges of those born of Him (1:23). Like you, she’s under God’s fatherly care and bears His name. She has the Spirit of Christ and is a co-heir with Christ in glory. So, know and honor your wife as equal with you: yes, she’s submitted herself to you, but she’s submitted herself to Christ first as you have, and you’re both destined for eternal glory in Him (5:10).”

“One last thing,” Peter says: “don’t forget that your conduct toward your wife affects your own communion with God (3:7d). Husbands, if you’ve ever sensed that God’s not listening to your prayers, examine your relationship with your wife. You live together with your wife before your Lord, and He inspects the way you live even your married life. His face has always been set against those who do evil, whether Christians or non-Christians (3:12c). The ears of your Lord are open to your prayers (3:7d, 12b) that you might break any abusive patterns of speaking evil and doing evil in which you’re involved (cf. 3:10-11). So, husbands, know and honor your wife for all that she is. And never forget that you’re accountable to God for your words and deeds toward her.”

As God’s exiles, the Apostle commands Christian husbands to live lives of moral excellence. One of a husband’s duties is to respect God’s marriage ordinance by stepping forward to take his place responsibly within it. The reason for this is that, for Peter, the household is the basic unit of an ordered Christian life, and that a husband’s place in the household is one of head-stewardship, while a wife’s place is one of submission. Yet, once more, in issuing this directive, the Apostle makes it clear that he’s not just parroting and endorsing the marriage and family values of the ancient world. As his handling of God’s ordinances of civil government and labor (2:13-20) makes clear, he has a larger agenda. It’s an agenda in which we Christians are to be conformed to the example of Christ (2:21-25), following His path of obedience from suffering to glory, as we take our places within God’s ordinances. With specific reference to marriage, then, Peter again engages critically with his culture’s expectations, and the result is a reformation of conventional conceptions of a husband’s authority. While he continues to affirm that the positions of husband and wife are not interchangeable, he frames the husband’s authority within limits defined first by his obedience to God and the example of Christ. Clearly, his commands give a husband no right to adopt authoritarian dispositions and behaviors that marginalize or otherwise abuse his wife. A husband has a stewardship (responsibilities) to God and to his wife that he is not to abdicate; he has gifts and graces the benefits of which he is not to deny to her (or the church). Thus, a husband who’s a bully or a wimp before his wife will find no place in a rightly ordered Christian marriage. Rather, says Peter, “husbands, live together with your wife, knowing and honoring her as both different from you and equal with you. And don’t forget: doing the good that God requires of you in marriage will illustrate the holiness that He expects in every aspect of your life.”[i]

[i] The commentary by Joel B. Green, 1 Peter, The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans, 2007) was most helpful in developing this post.

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