Please open your Bibles to 1 Peter chapter 3 and look with me at the words of verses 1 through 7. You’ll find it on page 1015 in the church Bibles. We have been working through 1 Peter together as a church on Sunday mornings and we come to one of those passages that preachers often dread, and you’ll see why in due course. Peter is engaged in a practical section of the letter. He began by outlining for us the main contours of the Christian Gospel and now he is applying those truths to a number of practical areas. First, how the Christian should relate to civil government, then secondly, what do you do if you are a slave without any way of earthly redress or deliverance from your circumstances, and now that you follow Jesus it has set you on a collision course with your pagan master and now you are suffering for Christ’s sake. And now today we’re considering the dynamics of a Christian marriage, wives and husbands.
And if you are not a believer, you may find yourself really objecting to the teaching, at least as it initially appears, on the surface of 1 Peter chapter 3. But one of the things that’s important for us not to miss as contemporary readers, that often leads us to misunderstand Peter’s message, is actually how subversive his teaching here really is. You may know that in the ancient world there were a number of ethical codes of conduct that would speak to husbands and wives and servants and citizens and how they should relate within the web of their various relationships that were written by pagan philosophers and ethicists.
What is unique about the New Testament household codes, like the one before us in 1 Peter, is that the New Testament codes speak to not just about slaves and wives and children. In the pagan codes, they were all addressed typically to the pater familias, the head of the family, because wives and slaves and children were not considered generally to be human beings with the same moral agency and ability to weigh matters for themselves that the man was. And so the man would be addressed about these others but the others themselves would not be addressed. And that’s not at all Peter’s perspective or the perspective of the New Testament scriptures. The New Testament addresses men and women, wives and husbands, children and slaves as fully human, fully responsible, individual, moral actors in their own right. Which to us seems self-evident and obvious, but at the time would have been a rather shocking and startling approach indeed.
And the subversion continues when you notice the word, “likewise.” You see it in verse 1 of chapter 3 and again in verse 7. Do you see the word “likewise” in verse 1 and verse 7? It’s referring us back to what he’s already said when he addressed the slaves in chapter 2, 18 to 25. So he said to the slaves, “Here is how I want you to conduct yourselves if you find yourself in the situation where you have an earthly master who is an unbeliever and now that you are a follower of Jesus you are suffering unjustly for your faith.” And then, having applied the Gospel to slaves in the context of unjust suffering, he says, “Likewise, wives,” and “Likewise, husbands.” You see what Peter has done. It’s actually a rather radical thing. He’s made the slave the paradigm; the slave is the model of faithful suffering for Christ, which inverts the whole social order. Slaves would never be lifted up as a model of anything, certainly not for a husband and a master, nor for a wife for that matter. But the Christian Gospel loves to overturn the wrong thinking and the prejudices of the culture and to make the things that are not and the weak things of the world the instruments that God is pleased to use in His purposes; the supreme example of which, of course, is the cross of Jesus Christ. He makes His Son, crucified for sinners, the way of salvation for everyone who believes. So here he takes the slaves, the lowest of the low as it were, and he makes the slaves the paradigm for wives and husbands alike.
And I point all of that out here by way of preface simply to make the point that we need to take some care when we read texts like this one not to assume more than Peter is actually saying and that we don’t miss his real message because we’re reading it through the lens of our contemporary debates and preoccupations. We need to try and hold our fire. As we gear up to get mad at Peter because he says that wives should be subject to their husbands, we need to take a beat and not be so easily triggered by Peter’s message. I want to invite you instead to try and hear him in context because you might actually find that instead of patriarchal chauvinism, Peter offers a redemptive vision of the Christian home that we very badly need to recover in our particularly confused and chaotic cultural moment.
Now before we dive into the teaching of the passage, we’re going to pause and pray once again and ask for God to help us. Let us pray.
God our Father, please open our hearts, stiff and selfish and proud and vain as they are. We think we already know. Please show us that if anyone thinks he stands firm, let him beware lest he fall. Show us that we do not know as we ought to know. Humble us, and then instruct and guide us by Your holy Word, because we do want to live to please You. For we ask it then in Jesus’ name, amen.
1 Peter chapter 3 at verse 1. This is the Word of God:
“Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external – the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear – but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.
Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.”
Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.
So Peter is speaking to wives and to husbands. All we’re going to do is look at each in turn. I should say at the outset that I do not have any clever alliterated headings today for you. I really worked hard on it and all I could do, the best I could do is come up with two points. If you’re ready for them, here they are. First, a word to the wives, and then secondly, a word to the husbands. That’s all I’ve got!
A Biblical View of Marriage
And before we look at what Peter has to say to each of them, I do want to be sure we register the fundamental assumption that Peter is making about the normativity of marriage between one man and one woman for life as basic and constitutive of the family unit. Do you see that in the text? That’s his working presupposition. It may seem an obvious assumption to make for some of us, it may seem downright offensive to others of us, because we live in a time when to affirm one thing is often understood as the condemnation of its opposite. So if I were to post on Twitter, “I love Scottish people,” the angry retorts would begin to pour in, “You mean you hate English people? What about Americans and Chinese people and Mexicans? What’s wrong with you?” Or if I were to post on Twitter, “I love oranges,” they would say, “You mean you hate bananas? You’re a dreadful, fruitist bigot!” Right? That’s not at all the perspective of the New Testament. The New Testament scriptures celebrates marriage and views it as the building block of the family and one of God’s richest blessings for human flourishing. “It is not good that man should be alone,” the Scriptures say, and at the same time affirms that singleness can be fulfilling and joyful and that sometimes God Himself may even call us to a life of singleness in His service. And we believe both to be true.
And yet we also affirm that for most people the Bible prescribes the lifelong union of one man and one woman in the covenant bonds of marriage. And I am increasingly convinced that when Christians cling to that conviction and celebrate it as healthy and joyful, we are offering our contemporary world a challenging alternative to the narrative that is being constructed all around us right now. While the culture says to us that marriage is temporary, if it is necessary at all, and that a person’s biological sex should have no bearing on their choice of marriage partner, we affirm by contrast with the book of Genesis that “it is not good for the man to be alone,” that God has made us male and female in His image, and that “man should leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two should become one flesh.” We affirm with the Lord Jesus Christ that “what man has joined together no one should sunder.” And we affirm with the apostle Paul that a Christian marriage is a beautiful picture of the way Jesus loves sinners and makes them His bride by giving His life for them in the Gospel.
And then also notice one more thing before we dive into Peter’s word to wives here. One of the things I really love about Peter’s teaching on marriage in particular is his remarkable honesty and realism. Peter says some of the same things about submission and leadership that you find in other places in the Scriptures, but he is applying it here to a very specific pastoral problem. Peter is writing to Christian wives who find themselves in marriages where their spouses do not believe in Jesus. They both heard the Gospel but only one of them has been converted. They do not believe the Word, verse 1. And Peter knows that in all probability that’s going to mean living with incredible difficulties and tensions and sorrows in that marriage. And so there is no naivety here in these opening seven verses, no saccharine, sweet sentimentality as he talks to us about marriage. This is not a Hallmark Channel romance picture of marriage. If you like Hallmark Channel romances, tough! Okay, this is the real world; that’s not the real world! And because it’s the real world, he offers real world counsel for marriages under extraordinary pressure, and that makes this passage extremely important. It gives us a message that not a few of us badly need to hear.
A Word to the Wives
So let’s now turn to what Peter has to say first, to wives. Turn your attention to verses 1 and 2. “Wives,” he says, “be subject to your own husbands.” Let’s be clear. That is the universal teaching of the New Testament scriptures when it comes to the role of husbands and wives in the home. You find the same language in the apostle Paul as you find here in the apostle Peter. Men are to be the spiritual leaders in the home. The Bible is not ambiguous in teaching that truth. But don’t miss the purpose clause in our text here in 1 Peter. “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that” – so here’s the purpose of Peter’s particular exhortation – “so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.”
Now do you see Peter’s evangelistic edge? We’ve noticed it several times as we’ve worked through his letter. One of his major concerns is how the Christian church interfaces with an unbelieving world. He calls us to be on mission together, and that is still the case in 1 Peter chapter 3 verse 1. Whatever it means to be “subject to your husbands,” wives, Peter does not simply want the wives to endure passively. He wants them to become the instruments of their husband’s radical renovation and transformation through faith in Jesus Christ. This is not counsel intended to lead to oppression. This is counsel that leads to change. Of course it’s not merely behavioral change. Behavioral change will be an inevitable and necessary consequence, but the change in view is the husband’s conversion, his regeneration, his being brought out of darkness into Christ’s marvelous light through the witness of their wives.
Now that is a radical idea in Peter’s time and context. You see, wives back then were expected to embrace the religions of their husbands. To do otherwise would have been profoundly embarrassing for him and socially problematic indeed. And Peter is saying to these Christian wives, “That is just not an option for you, now that you follow Jesus. No, in fact, now that you follow Jesus, you must work for the conversion of your unbelieving spouse so that they come now to share your religion.” That swaps everything around. Doesn’t it? And that is a subversive idea.
And as he writes that to these Christian wives, he is a remarkably wise pastor. He knows full well that the hardest people in the world to share your faith with are the members of your own family. Haven’t you found that to be so, Christians in the room if you have unbelieving family members? It’s really tough sharing your faith with your family members, not least of all because they know exactly which buttons to press and they’re so good at it and so are you. And that thing that anyone else might do or say and would never for a moment cause you pause, when you meet it in your spouse, it just drives you crazy. And even though you’d never dream of passing comment on those behaviors in anybody else, when you see them in your spouse you just can’t seem to manage to keep your tongue behind your teeth. And then pretty soon, there’s tension and there’s hurt feelings and there’s anger and there’s distance and there’s pain. It all sounds familiar. Doesn’t it? And Peter knows all about it.
And so look at his counsel to these Christian women as he calls them to be witnesses to their husbands that their husbands might be won to Christ. He says to them, “Please don’t try, don’t set out to persuade first with words. Instead, I want you to persuade with a changed life.” And boy, isn’t that a challenging exhortation because talk is cheap. Isn’t it? Talk is cheap, but walking the walk, that’s another thing entirely. And that is our calling as Christians. If your husbands don’t obey the Word, he says, “win them without a word.” Of course he’s not saying you should never open your mouth to talk to them about Jesus. That’s not his point. But he is saying, “Don’t lead with that. That’s just going to create further friction and tension between you. Instead, I want your life to open a door for your witness, for your words. I want your life, your demeanor, your character, your attitude, your bearing to be a living demonstration as you live every day under the gaze of the One who knows you better in this world than anyone else. I want your life to be a demonstration to them of the transforming, redeeming power of the Gospel at work. That’s what I want you to aim at.” Aim at respectful and pure conduct, verse 2.
His point is, there really is no argument that can effectively disarm objections and undermine opposition to the Christian Gospel as effectively as the beauty of real godliness. That’s a principle for all of us in every situation and circumstance. There is no argument we can ever hope to make that will silence objections to the Gospel nearly as effectively as the beauty of real godliness lived out day by day.
And speaking of beauty, that brings us neatly to verses 3 and 4. If you’d look there with me please; verses 3 and 4. “Do not let your adorning be external – the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear – but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious.” And again, let’s apply some commonsense here. Peter isn’t saying we shouldn’t want to care and look nice and be attentive to our appearance – that we should all leave our hair, you know, a tangled mess, and show up in whatever’s lying around – which is, by the way, counsel some of you need to pay attention to. I’m kidding! You look beautiful! You look lovely! But he’s not saying, “Look, don’t pay attention to the way you’re dressed.” But he is saying stop focusing on externals. Don’t prioritize mere appearances. Beauty isn’t about shapes and colors and how much money you spent and whether you’re wearing the latest thing or not. Real beauty, he is saying, that will attract and join and cement a couple together comes from the inside, not the outside.
And it’s certainly not about seduction. A lot of scholars think that part of the background to the particular adornments that Peter mentions there in verse 3 have to do with dressing for seduction in this particular cultural time and place. But that’s no way to win your spouse to your Savior. That’s not even really the way to win your spouse to yourself. The hidden, imperishable beauty of a gentle, quiet spirit, Peter says, that’s what God finds beautiful. He defines what true beauty is and that is what is precious in His sight and that is what you must strive to display.
And then quickly look at verses 5 and 6. In the pagan ethical codes in books like Plutarch's, Advice or Xenophon’s, Oeconomicus, when instructions are given, ethical instructions are given about how wives should behave, the exhortations were usually reinforced by appeal to the example of some admired Greek woman from history. And Peter is sort of copying that tradition only now the Greek speaking wives to whom he is writing have become Christians. They’re now members of the covenant people of God. And so Peter appeals not to some famous Greek heroine from history, but to the matriarch Sarah, wife of Abraham, who together with Abraham her husband, Peter says has now become your spiritual ancestor. You are her children, so do good and do not fear anything that is frightening. Don’t back off from your resolve to follow Jesus, even if doing so is tough and complicated and messy in your marriage. Don’t back off from following Jesus. Don’t be scared. You are a child of Sarah. Sarah is your mother and her God is your God. He who kept covenant with her, will keep covenant with you.
It’s really not a complicated message, after all. Is it? It is very wise, but it’s not complicated. Lead with a life of growing, transparent, repentant, humble godliness. Let transformed character open doors for Gospel words. And in the meantime, while conflict may be hard and scary, remember, you are daughters of Sarah. Cling to Sarah’s God who declared in His covenant to Abraham and to Sarah that in one of her seed, one of her children, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. He kept that covenant with her when He sent Sarah’s Son, her Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ who, by His obedience and blood, has secured salvation for the ends of the earth. Sarah’s child, the child of the covenant, the Lord Jesus Christ, is the Savior you need and the Savior your unbelieving husband needs. Have confidence in Sarah’s covenant-keeping God and in the covenant kept in the cross of Jesus Christ and see how the Lord works in your marriage for His glory and even if He wills the salvation of your unbelieving spouse.
A Word to the Husbands
Well so much for the wives. What about the husbands? Do you husbands get off scot-free? Take a look at verse 7. “Likewise, husbands” – stop there for a moment. Peter is addressing the heads of the household and the word “likewise,” remember, calls him to read everything that Peter has already said to the slaves and to the wives and to apply it as appropriate to himself as well, which is probably why he says the least of all to the husbands. It’s not because there aren’t many lessons husbands urgently need to learn, but because he’s already taught so much to the slaves and so much to the wives and now he’s saying, “So likewise, I hope you’ve been paying attention because all of this has to be brought to bear upon you as well.” He is to live a life of humble, costly, sacrificial obedience. In particular, he is to live with his wife in an understanding way. Do you see that in verse 7? The manner of your life, husbands, should reflect a commitment to knowing your bride well, responding to her sensitively, never simply imposing your expectations but making allowances, sacrificing your preferences, changing your priorities because you want to show honor to the woman, as Peter puts it. There’s no room here for abusive words or deeds, for controlling, manipulative, domineering behavior. Your whole life, men, should be shaped by a commitment to understanding and honoring your bride.
Well so far so good, but what about that pesky phrase, “as the weaker vessel.” We all sort of wince a little bit as we read it. “Show them honor as the weaker vessel.” Look, there are many ways in which my wife is a far stronger person than I am, far stronger than I am, and I praise God for it. So what does Peter mean, “the weaker vessel”? I think actually this is one place where the Bible is at odds with the prevailing opinion of our culture right now. We are told that maleness and femaleness are merely gender constructs that are imposed upon us, that biological sex and a person’s gender do not necessarily have anything to do with one another; that one’s gender can be fluid and plastic and maleable. So a person who is born male can become female or something in between or neither, should they so choose. The idea that men and women are fundamentally, essentially, and necessarily different, well that’s just plain wrong. That’s the received wisdom of our culture right now, but it just doesn’t work.
Maybe the easiest way I know of to demonstrate that is to talk for a moment about transgenderism and sport. I read in the U.S. edition of The Guardian newspaper that Martina Navratilova, the former tennis champion, recently got herself into all kinds of trouble when she said that transgendered women should not have automatic rights to compete in women’s sports. “They have an unfair advantage,” she insisted. The article went on with remarkable candor to say, “The International Olympic Committee allows trans-women to compete if they have been reducing their testosterone for twelve months. But increasingly, female athletes are saying that testosterone is not the only advantage. Boys start growing bigger bones, muscles, and greater heart capacity from puberty and no gender switch will undo that.”
The fact is that physiologically women and men are not the same. Much as we might wish in the culture at large that it were not so, it is so. And we also need to face the fact that women continue today to be preyed upon and abused and oppressed. The fact that we often struggle with Peter’s vocabulary in this text is testimony to us of our awareness of the vulnerabilities of women still in our society and we’re uncomfortable with anything that might seem to lend weight to anything that would support abusive behavior. We all know, in other words, that women are the weaker vessel. That ought not to offend us. It, rather, should remold and rewire and reconfigure how men think about women – not as objects to be desired or used, nor simply as interchangeable with men, but as human beings with dignity and value to be cherished and protected and defended. They are, Peter says, “heirs with you of the grace of life.” Men, if you have a Christian wife, wives, if you have a Christian husband, you’re going to spend eternity together. You are joint heirs of the grace of life. Your bonds, you see, are deeper and stronger than mere romance or anything signaled by the ring on the third finger of your left hand. Your bonds will last forever. So it’s time, isn’t it, to roll up our sleeves and recommit to our marriages here because they are God’s means, one of God’s means for preparing you, preparing you both for the life to come.
And before we close, do please be careful not to miss the last note that sounds in this passage. Look at the end of verse 7. He crowns all his exhortations to the man with this – do it all, he says, “so that your prayers will not be hindered.” A Christian marriage is supposed to be a bastion of Christ-centeredness and devotion. Husbands and wives are supposed to turn to one another before any other for prayer and counsel, brothers and sisters. Your first and your most intimate prayer partner is to be your wife, your husband. And I think it’s important that Peter addresses this point to the husband as he reminds the Christian marriage about what to do and gives them counsel in the midst of tensions and difficulties. He’s saying when that happens, prayer is hindered. When pride and unresolved anger seep into the home, prayer gets hindered. And he addresses that to the man because that’s how you’re supposed to lead, men. See to it, husbands, that nothing hinders your prayers. Be the one who guards the piety of the home – your own, your wife’s, your piety together. That’s your job, men. How are you doing with it? Honestly, I have some repenting to do in this area. Don’t you?
Well do please be careful to see the beauty of the picture that Peter is painting of the Christian marriage. Here is a wife who adorns herself with quietness and gentleness and purity and respect. She is a godly woman and she works hard at living it out. Here is the husband who has resolved to spend his life studying this mysterious, fascinating woman that God has brought into his world. He works every day to live with her in an understanding way. He knows how the world treats women and he wants to protect her as the weaker vessel. They are co-heirs of heaven, of the grace of life after all, and so he will not let the sun go down on his anger. There are no unresolved fights, no simmering resentments. He makes it his duty to pursue her, not just that they might be happy, but that they might be holy, that their prayers might not be hindered. Because in the end, do you see, your marriage isn’t about you. It’s not even about your spouse. It is about knowing God in Jesus Christ. That’s why he brought you together, you see. You are married – if you are married today – so that you can know more of and make more of Jesus Christ together than ever you could apart.
Now I don’t know about you, but I fall awfully short of that ideal. I have an amazing wife who strength and beauty I can’t live without. I’d be homeless or in jail or lost in the woods some place without her. But for all that she’s helped me, by God’s grace, I’m not yet where Peter calls me to be. What about you, ladies and gentlemen? Is this a picture of your marriage? Don’t you have work to do? I do. And so let’s turn to God now and ask Him to help us. Let’s pray together.
Lord, we live in a place and at a time when appearances and reality often do not correspond and we have become schooled at showing the world a happy, positive, unified face for our marriages when in truth the reality is often far more complicated and messy and sore. And so now, we want to be honest and real before You. We confess the pride and the entitlement that festers in our hearts that is so often the root of the wounds that continue to fester in our marriages. And we cry to You for grace to be men and women of God who humble ourselves and pursue one another in love and tenderness and attentiveness that our prayers may not be hindered, that You may be adored and made much of. And we pray for any marriage here that has one partner or the other that is not a believer. And we pray that You would grant to the believing spouse fortitude and endurance and grace to win their spouse who does not obey the Word, without a word, by displaying the godliness that grace generates. Do that please among us, not for our sake, not even so that we may have happy and quiet marriages, but so that You may be lifted high and displayed before the watching world as the Savior of sinners. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
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