To be a Christian means to follow Jesus into the world as an ambassador of God’s reign. This involves our lifestyle and our language. There will be times when we will have to explain our ultimate allegiance to Jesus rather than to the many idols others are infatuated with. So what does it mean to always be ready to give an answer (1 Pet. 3:15)?
For a long time I thought the apostle Peter was issuing a mandate for aggressive apologetics—that we must always be telling people that “Jesus is the answer.” But then I looked at the verse’s context, and this helped me understand the snarky bumper sticker that asks Christians, “What’s the question?”
Peter quotes two Old Testament passages in this part of his letter: Psalm 34, which invites us to praise the Lord at all times because the Lord is the great rescuer, and Isaiah 8, which speaks about being faithful to God in the midst of rebelliousness that inevitably leads to suffering. Then I recognized it: Peter is writing to Christians suffering because of their unwavering loyalty to Jesus, encouraging them to have clearly sorted out the reasons why they’ve chosen their way of living out their faith.
Understood in this context, Peter is saying that when our faith in Jesus causes us to suffer for the good we persist in doing in the world, we will attract critical questions about why we continue to hope in Jesus when it looks like our faith doesn’t work in the real world. “Why endure unnecessary suffering for your odd faith?” is the question Peter says we should be ready to answer.
Peter knows there will be those who think, “Just go with the flow; your life will be easier.” Peter responds with encouragement to be clear—to ourselves and to others—how our countercultural lifestyle is part of God’s worldwide redemptive mission.
Often this advice comes from fellow Christians, not unbelievers. This is why Peter goes on in this passage to write about the importance of bearing with each other sympathetically and loving each other with compassion and humility. In closing this section, Peter reminds us that we all share a common baptism into one Lord. What—or who—unites us is far more important than our differences.
This passage becomes all the more relevant to our life and faith today when we recognize the situation Peter was originally addressing. We also live in a world with various ways of understanding and living out our faith. Some Christian lifestyles reduce the tension with the surrounding culture; others accentuate the differences. Within the Christian community today there are deep differences leading to mutual suspicion, and we question each other: “Why are you living out your faith like that?”
Our tendency is to split the church over differences, but Peter encourages unity through talking with each other through and about these differences. His words assume that each Christian will have done the difficult work of sorting out between themselves and Jesus how they’re going to live out their faith and why. Peter knows that our Christian unity does not depend on our complete agreement with each other. Our unity comes from our common baptism into Christ, which means that we are called—all the more when we encounter differences—to put love, compassion, and humility toward each other into practice. It is in how we respond to disagreements and questions, suffused with the fruit of the Spirit, that we can stand before the Lord Jesus with a clear conscience.