Peter’s exhortation to the “exiles of the dispersion” to be ready at all times “to make a defence (apologian) to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15) has been a key text for those wishing to promote either a rational apologetics or personal evangelism.
It suggests a slightly passive strategy—don’t push your views on people, but if they ask you to explain or defend your beliefs, make sure you’ve done your homework. Either pack your mental toolbox with some tried-and-tested logical rebuttals to flummox the atheists and evolutionists and secular humanists who push you up against a wall and call you an idiot. Or be prepared to share your formulaic personal testimony: my life used to be a mess, then I met Jesus, now everything is sweetness and light. Either way, do it all with “gentleness and respect”. In other words, keep smiling inanely….
We rarely stop to ask what exactly the “hope” was that these early Christians—probably Jewish-Christians—were supposed to give a defence of when asked. We take that for granted. Salvation? Heaven? That God will be there when we need him? We read back into the text the fuzzy, comforting aspirations of our modern spiritualities.
But if we take the trouble to read the whole letter and not just the proof-text, a dimension to the primitive hope of these believers emerges that is quite alien to the perspective of most evangelicals today.
The hope that Peter shared with his readers was unmistakably an apocalyptic one, firmly directly towards a decisive and impending future outcome. They were hoping that something convulsive, disruptive, revolutionary would happen in their world. Soon. Or at least, soonish. The end of all things was at hand (1 Pet. 4:7).
Peter asserts in his opening benediction that they have been “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance…” (1 Pet. 1:3-4). Here we have the basic narrative shape of their hope: because God raised his Son from the dead, they can expect eventually to inherit….
The inheritance was not heaven, but it was being kept safely for them in heaven, and they could be confident that they would get what they were entitled to at some point in the foreseeable future.
Paul makes a similar point in Philippians. When he says “our citizenship is in heaven”, he is not saying that we will all go to heaven when we die. He is saying that sooner or later their king would come from his heavenly capital city—in the way that YHWH might be said to come from heaven—to rescue his people and judge his enemies. He would come to establish his rule in the unruly provinces. “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven….”
Until that day arrived, however, the churches could expect to be persecuted. Paul reminded the Philippians: “it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29). It was part of the deal. In fact, it was the whole point.
Likewise, Peter was acutely aware that his readers had been suffering “various trials” for some time; they were being slandered and reviled publicly, unjustly accused of wrong-doing; a fiery trial was breaking out among them (1 Pet. 1:6; 3:16; 4:12). Their faith in the vision of a new future for the ancient world was being severely tested. But the outcome, if they remained steadfast, would be “praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ”—precisely because they were re-enacting in their own experience the pattern of Jesus’ suffering and vindication (1 Pet. 1:7-9; 2:21; 4:1, 13; 5:1).
In this period of apocalyptic disruption, of eschatological, end-of-the-age transition, being Christ-like was pretty much what it was all about. It was the route God’s people had to take to get from A to B—from crucifixion to kingdom, from persecution to parousia, from public shame to public vindication.
But eventually they would get there. The day would come. Jesus would be revealed—the word used is apokalypsis—to the nations (1:13; 4:13), who would then be held to account for their “sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry” (1 Pet. 4:3). In other words, it would finally become apparent to the hostile disbelieving pagan world that Israel’s God really had raised his Son from the dead and had given him all glory and authority; and the whole idolatrous, immoral and corrupt system would be judged.
Then with the revelation of the glory of Jesus—from the east to the west, from one end of the empire to the other—the persecution of the churches would cease, their exile would come to an end, they would be “exalted” and would share in the glory and acclaim that Jesus had received; the nations would publicly acknowledge their “good deeds” and would “glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:12; 5:6, 10).
What is being described here is not the end-of-the-world. It is the concrete victory of Christ over the pagan world, in the course of history, as a result of the faithful witness of the persecuted churches.
This concrete outcome is what the “elect exiles of the dispersion” were hoping for—to be vindicated and honoured for having believed in Jesus on the day when the eyes of the nations were finally opened to the glory of the crucified and risen Lord. And if they were quizzed by their neighbours or interrogated by the authorities, I guess that’s what they had to explain as best they could, in good conscience, with gentleness and respect.
Today, of course, the interrogation is a bit different. “Why do you still believe in this stuff? The world has moved on.”
I don’t think we have the same hope as Peter’s “exiles of the dispersion”. I don’t think we are waiting for the eyes of the nations of Europe to be opened again to the glory of the risen Lord. I don’t think we should expect every knee to bow and every tongue to confess that Jesus is Lord. We’ve been there, done that, built the cathedrals.
But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have our own story to tell—and I think we could do a much better job of telling it.