The Right Fear - 1 Peter 3:13–18

by Daniel M Doriani

Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” (1 Peter 3:13–14)

A recent poll surveyed Americans’ greatest fears. They mentioned animals such as snakes, spiders, bees, bugs, bats, and mice. Some animals can poison us, so those fears make sense. People living in the wilder parts of Africa surely list lions, hyenas, crocodiles, and hippos, which are fond of upsetting boats and attacking the people formerly in them.

Most fears are more personal. We fear enemies, armies, strangers, death, and loneliness. We fear public speaking and public singing (especially solos) not because they are intrinsically dangerous, but because they can lead to public humiliation. We fear places and spaces. We fear enclosed places (claustrophobia) and open spaces (agoraphobia). We fear crowds, bridges, tunnels, and storms.

Fears vary over the years. After a serious terrorist attack, we fear terrorism. After a nuclear accident, we fear radiation. People who lived in Communist countries were, logically, afraid of the secret police, concentration camps, and starvation. In the West, people fear job loss and economic stagnation. Our fears of cancer, flying, war, and heights, among other things, manifest our central fear of death. But we also fear bullies, broken relationships, and embarrassment. We can be afraid of safe things, such as flying, and unafraid of dangerous things, such as addictive prescription drugs. We can shed a fear of public speaking when we try it and it goes well, and we can acquire a fear, perhaps if a spider bite sends us to the hospital.

Fearless in the Face of Trouble

Peter repeatedly addresses the question of proper and improper fears in the middle section of his epistle, in 1 Peter 2:17–23; 3:1–6; 3:14–16; and 4:1–6. For the first half of his epistle, Peter has stressed the necessity of an exemplary life in this hostile environment. As we saw, Peter alleviated the fear of persecution with a quotation from Psalm 34, “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech. He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it” (1 Peter 3:10–11). It was possible to lead a good life, even in that hour. Believers could still evade trouble and live in peace, by controlling the tongue, telling the truth, and doing good to others. Peter had enough confidence that justice prevails that he could ask, “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?” (3:13). If a man lives with zeal and devotion for all that is beautiful, just, and good, how many enemies can he have? The question might be translated: “Who is going to harm you if you are an enthusiast, a partisan, for the good?” Again, if you are passionately committed to what is beautiful, just, and good, how many enemies can you have? Few, if any. This note of optimism is found at times in the Bible:

•    Proverbs 16:7: “When a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, he makes even his enemies live at peace with him.”

•    Romans 13:3: “Rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you.”

As a practical matter, if a believer seems to have a number of enemies, persecution could be the cause, but it’s also possible that the “victim” is earning enemies the old-fashioned way, through selfishness or faithlessness. We must not confuse the trouble we deserve with the trouble we do not.

Nonetheless, Peter concedes, it is possible to suffer for doing good. At times oppression is commonplace. When corruption and deceit rule a society, the good are not welcome. For that reason, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10). Then the righteous should call to God for vindication. As David notes, “A righteous man may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all” (Ps. 34:19). First Peter 3 leads us through such a time.

The Wrong Fears

Peter intends to prepare the church for persecution. Ordinarily, he maintains, if we live well, life goes well. Yet he must concede that irrational persecution is possible: “Even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. ‘Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened’ ” (1 Peter 3:14). The phrase “even if you should suffer” has a rare grammatical feature. The verb is in the optative mood, which signals that the event—the suffering—is viewed, at least for now, as a remote or doubtful possibility.

Peter wants to prepare his readers for trouble by gently suggesting the possibility: “Don’t expect anyone to harm you if you are enthusiastic about goodness, but if it should happen, respond this way.” First, the mistreated should count themselves blessed. Second, we should neither fear the persecutors nor be troubled within. God rules the future—in the short term, at the midterm, and for eternity. If anything, we should fear God, not with craven fear, but with the fear of respect. We should fear disappointing One whom we love and revere. This is the fear that the Bible often commends. Moses said: “What does the Lord … ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve [him] with all your heart” (Deut. 10:12). Likewise, Solomon declared, “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil” (Prov. 3:7). We need to know what to fear and what not to fear, for the right fears bring sanity.

“Do not fear” might be the most common command in the Bible. The Bible tells us to shake off fear about a hundred times and gives a reason almost every time. It also tells us what not to fear. We should not fear conspiracy, shame, insults, financial loss, or loneliness. We should not fear enemies, hostility, or suffering. We should not fear death.

When Peter states, “Do not fear what they fear” (1 Peter 3:14), he means that we must question our fears. Some fears are sensible, such as the fear of heights or infections. Fear of public embarrassment drives us to prepare when we are scheduled for presentations. But, Jesus tells us, we should not fear those who slander and persecute us for our faith. In Matthew, he says that we should “beware of men” and yet “have no fear of them” (Matt. 10:17, 26 esv). Rather, we should fear him “who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (10:28).

Echoing the word of Jesus, Peter instructs his people to be fearless even if, by ordinary standards, they had cause for fear. Indeed, Peter’s people lived in a time and place—the Roman Empire, around a.d. 70—when a person could face loss of property, exile, prison, bodily harm, or even death for the faith.

The command in 1 Peter 3:14 bears close study. It has been translated several ways, and each reflects important elements of the Greek text:

•    niv: “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.”

•    esv: “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled.”

•    nrsv: “Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated.”

•    nasb: “And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled.”

•    cev: “So stop being afraid and don’t worry about what people might do.”

The key clause literally reads, “Do not fear the fear of them.” The niv, nrsv, and others take the phrase to mean that we should not fear the same things that they fear. That is, a disciple does not have the same fears as a secular person. But the esv, kjv, nasb, and others say that we should not fear them as they try to frighten or intimidate us.

Translators and commentators disagree because both translations (or interpretations) are grammatically and theologically plausible. That is, it’s true that we should not “fear them”—those who could make Peter’s people “suffer for what is right” (1 Peter 3:14). But it’s also true that we should not fear “what they fear,” that is, the same things that pagans fear. We should not be anxious about food and clothing, since God cares for us (Ps. 37:25; Matt. 6:25–34). We should not fear traps, plots, pestilence, or war (Ps. 91:2–6; Isa. 8:12; Jer. 30:10–11), since God cares for us. Society cannot decide what is frightening for us. We must choose our fears wisely rather than fearing what everyone else fears.

Both interpretations also make sense in context, too. We should not fear “what they fear” because disciples are “aliens” in this world and have different thoughts and different fears. Yet the idea that we should not “fear them” is even more prominent, as 1 Peter 3:15–4:6 prepares his people to endure suffering.

Even though both views have strengths, we conclude that Peter means we should “have no fear of them.” First, he is quoting Isaiah 8:13, where the prophet tells flawed King Ahaz that he should fear God, not an Assyrian invasion. Second, in the immediate context, fear of persecutors is far more prominent. So, then, Peter concedes that we can suffer “for righteousness’ sake” even if we are “zealous for what is good” (1 Peter 3:13–14 esv). But even if that happens, we should not be frightened by persecutors.

Rather, we should “set apart Christ as Lord” (1 Peter 3:15). “Set apart” translates the Greek word hagiazō. Hagiazō is normally translated “sanctify” or “make holy.” Since God is already holy, the word has the sense of setting apart or recognizing God as holy. To set Christ apart means, first, that since Jesus is sovereign over all, we should not fear whatever might befall us. Second, since Jesus is Lord, we should fear him, not what any lesser person or power can do (cf. Luke 12:5). If we have the right fear, the fear of the Lord, we can overcome lesser fears.

Peter hopes his people will not even begin to fear persecution. The threat is yet distant, so they need not worry about future possibilities. But even if persecution comes, they must not be intimidated or succumb to fear of possible harm.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who had the courage to speak out against Adolf Hitler, write about it, organize opposition against Hitler, and even join plans to assassinate him. He also helped Jews to escape from Germany. Bonhoeffer persevered in all this for a decade, even though he was engaged to a woman for part of the time. The Nazis imprisoned and finally executed him. He said, “Those who are afraid of men have no fear of God, and those who fear God have no more fear of men.”

Living by the Right Fear

Instead of living in fear, therefore, we set Jesus apart as the One to fear. As we consider the prospect of persecution, we should not fear it, but prepare for it. We should always be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15 esv). Of course, believers should always be ready to make a case for the faith, but Peter’s term for defense suggests a formal event, in court, answering charges. We can prepare to defend the faith in several ways.

Peter assumes that the saints are willing to be known as God’s people. Further, we should know that the way to “always be prepared” is to prepare continually. My family goes hiking in the Rockies most summers. One year, we hiked to a lake at 12,500 feet on the first day. Just as we arrived, it began to snow. We had to leave soon, but one daughter spotted a rocky promontory that promised a panoramic view of a vast valley. Although we had had no time to adjust to the altitude, she began dashing uphill, toward the rock. How could she dash uphill at that altitude, when she had lived in the flatlands all year? She had been running seven to ten miles daily for weeks, so she had the capacity to meet the challenge. So it is with us.

We prepare for unforeseen challenges by preparing daily for what we can foresee. The path is obvious. We read Scripture daily and meditate on it so that its truth sinks into mind and soul. We listen to our secular friends and to our culture. How do they object to the faith? What offends or seems senseless to them, and what resonates? We also look for answers to the objections as we read, converse, and listen to Christian teaching. Finally, while we must not fall into mere subjectivism—who Jesus is for me and what he does for me—we should be ready to speak personally and tell people why we hope in Jesus.

The answer we give can be a formal self-defense; Peter’s term fits a hearing, whether before Roman authorities, Communist officials, secular scholars, or neopagans. Yet we should also be ready to defend the faith informally, with friends.

Jesus supplements Peter’s point in Matthew 10. As he sends his disciples out to proclaim the kingdom, he knows they are too new in the faith to prepare for every possibility. So he makes a promise: “But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matt. 10:19–20). This is an immense comfort and a good word for those who are prone to dream (or worry) that the success of God’s cause depends on the quality of their performance. Yet the promise that the Spirit will speak through us in crisis does not abrogate the demand that we prepare when we can, as best we can.

Peter urges disciples to be prepared both to defend themselves and to present the faith, to turn the tables from defense to evangelism. We see the apostle Paul doing this in his trial before King Agrippa (Acts 26:19–29). At the start, Paul defends himself as an accused man must. But by the end, he dares to question the king: “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.” Agrippa felt the pressure, responding, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” (26:27–28). Evangelism is a gift of the Spirit, but every believer must be ready to present the reason for faith and hope. The task is by no means easy. There have been societies in which most people had a broadly Christian worldview. Even if people did not follow Christ, they knew the content of the faith. They believed that God exists and that he is personal, holy, loving, triune, and redeeming—that he is offended by sin, yet sent his Son Jesus to redeem his people. Evangelists could assume that people knew and perhaps concurred, intellectually, with leading tenets of the faith. But today, biblical ideas are largely unknown to most people, even in formerly Christianized nations. It takes time to explain the faith in terms that people can grasp, and our lives had better adorn our words.

Peter further describes this defense or answer to accusers in a second way: we should “be prepared … to give the reason for the hope that [we] have” (1 Peter 3:15). Hope does not have the sense of a wish—“I hope this storm won’t spoil our picnic.” For Peter, hope means the sound expectation of eternal life. Pagan views of the fate of the dead varied at that time, but many expected either to cease to exist or to live in a misty abode of the dead (Hades). The apostles link hope to the resurrection of Christ and his people. We rejoice and reign with Jesus, spiritually and physically renewed, in a restored creation, called the new heavens and new earth (Isa. 65:17; 66:22; 2 Peter 3:13; Rev. 21:1). Peter says that believers are reborn to “a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3) and connects this to Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13–14, Paul proclaims:

Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.

Our hope is not disembodied life in the clouds. We hope for a perfect physical and spiritual life, with Christ, on a renewed earth. Romans 8:11 teaches that the Father “who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.” The model is Jesus’ body after his resurrection. “When he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

Experience teaches that physical things are corruptible and transitory. But Scripture states that we will have a renewed physical body, as Jesus did. Our present bodies get sick, grow old, and refuse to follow orders, but our bodies will be flawless, incorruptible, and perfectly suited to a new life. Jesus’ resurrection body had enough continuity with his first body that he was recognizable, yet it had enough discontinuity that recognition wasn’t always immediate. The form was similar and yet he had changed, as we will change (1 Cor. 15:51–52).

Like Jesus’ body, our resurrection bodies will have the capacity to walk, touch, and eat, yet we might have some of the new powers that Jesus showed. Hugh of St. Victor (ca. 1150) speculated that the resurrection body “will be immune from death and sorrow; it will be at the height of its powers, free from disease and deformity, and around thirty years old, the age at which Christ began his ministry. It will surpass anything we can imagine, even from the accounts of Christ’s appearances on earth after his own resurrection.”

This hope of eternal life liberates us from fear. David, a fearless man, said, “In God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Ps. 56:11). Good question; the answer is: “People can kill us.” But is that so bad? The killers will send us into God’s presence earlier than we had expected. As David declared, “The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?” (27:1).

So Peter teaches us to choose our fears wisely. We must not share the fears of our neighbors. There is a proper fear of heights and poisonous animals. But we must evaluate our fears, for many are misguided. We fear change and uncertainty, but are they bad? We fear the loss of health, wealth, and friends. It seems sensible to fear trouble, yet when we consider the heroes of the faith, we see that trouble was essential to their stories. As Abraham enters Scripture’s story, he gives up worldly wealth and security. Shortly before he exits, he gives up his treasured son. We love these stories “as long as they happen to someone else.” But they do teach us to live fearlessly.

Living Fearlessly

So we live in hope and we can explain that hope. But, Peter adds, we must do this “with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:15–16 esv). This statement merits close scrutiny. First, Peter says that we should live so well that even if we suffer slander, those who malign us will know they are lying and be ashamed. Specifically, Peter tells us to be gentle and respectful. Gentleness (or meekness) is humility, a refusal to use force or to demand rights. Respect is literally fear. Curiously, a disciple can show the right sort of fear to humans because we have greater respect or fear for God (cf. 1:17). So, then, when we suffer slander or false accusations, we can reply gently and meekly because we know that God, the Sovereign, will justify us (2:23). Therefore, while a good reputation is valuable (Prov. 22:1), it is not imperative that we vindicate ourselves in the courts of men.

This is important for Christian leaders who are the targets of unjust attacks that are actually directed at Christ and his church globally. (Lest we pity ourselves, let’s recall that we receive praise for things we didn’t do right as well as blame for things we didn’t do wrong.) Since righteousness seems bizarre to some people (1 Peter 4:4), it is impossible to silence every accuser. Therefore, sometimes it is right to stop defending ourselves and to follow Jesus as we entrust ourselves to God’s judgment (2:23).

It is our task to keep “a clear conscience,” a confidence that our behavior has been good (Acts 23:1; Rom. 2:15; Heb. 13:18). Our good behavior, Peter reminds us, is “in Christ” (1 Peter 3:16). Jesus defines good conduct by his commands and his example (3:18), and he is “the power and motivation for good conduct in even the most provoking situations.”

The disciple, wrongly accused, might suffer unjustly. Yet “it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:17). This restates, in broader terms, what Peter earlier told Christian slaves (2:19–20); he says it again in 4:13–15. If we suffer for doing evil, we merely endure just punishment. A believer cannot claim persecution when punished for wickedness or folly. But if we suffer for doing good, we demonstrate our union with Christ and can expect to join him in glory (4:13–14). Until then, we strive to live well and endure suffering “if it is God’s will.”

First Peter 2:12 directs us to live honorably and trust God to vindicate us if slandered. Here he notes that we live so well that slander is obviously false (3:16). First Peter 2:18–20 says that slaves follow Jesus’ example when they endure injustice. Here Peter explains why and how Jesus suffered. We know that Jesus’ suffering sets an example, yet 1 Peter 3:18 points out that we have more than just another case of a man who suffered for doing good.

Above all, Jesus did not merely suffer; he suffered to the point of death, for our sins. That is, Jesus died a substitutionary death. He did nothing to deserve suffering or death. He was sinless and deserved nothing but God’s favor. Logically, since the Father would not let an innocent man suffer and die—for that would be unjust—Jesus suffered on behalf of another. Peter teaches that Christ suffered and died “for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous” (1 Peter 3:18). That is, we have a one-time, permanent, nonrepeatable substitution: Jesus, the righteous, died for us, the unrighteous. He bore on our behalf the punishment, the death that our sins deserved. As Isaiah had prophesied centuries earlier, “My righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11).

Furthermore, Jesus suffered “that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18 esv). He died to lead us from death to life, from slavery to freedom, from alienation to knowledge of God. So we passed from enemy territory into God’s presence. We crossed over from death to life (John 5:24). But Jesus’ death is not final. He was “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18 esv). Jesus’ death killed his flesh (for a time), but it did not kill him. When we are then united to him by faith, death will not destroy us either.

Careful readers notice that Peter draws on the example of Christ repeatedly—in 1 Peter 2:18–25; 3:14–18; and 4:12–14. Whenever Peter comments on injustice, the suffering of slaves, or the persecution of disciples, he turns to Jesus’ life to make sense of it. He decides that if Jesus could suffer unjustly, his disciples can, too. Indeed, the force of Jesus’ moral example might be more prominent in Peter than in any other epistle. Still, moral example is by no means Peter’s prime concept of atonement. Even if Peter turns to the cross for moral reasons, he begins and ends with the cross as the source of atonement and of grace. It is the foundation for the Christian life before it is an example. Thus, 1 Peter 1 says that believers are holy because they “were redeemed” from their futile life by “the precious blood of Christ,” God’s spotless Lamb (1:14–19). In chapter 5, Peter calls himself “a witness of Christ’s sufferings,” which offered the grace in which we stand (5:1, 10). So Peter establishes the atonement in 1:14–19, returns to it in 2:22–24 and 3:18, and then presents it as a pattern for disciples.

Peter reminds us that the starting point for every issue that the Christian faces can be found in the gospel:

•    If we commit sins, Jesus is our propitiation, our atoning sacrifice.

•    If we are condemned for sin, Jesus justifies us by grace through faith.

•    If sins and character flaws hold us captive, he redeems or liberates us.

•    If we are estranged, he reconciles us to himself and his people.

•    If we feel isolated, he adopts us into his family.

•    If we feel insignificant, the gospel unites us to him.

Beyond these spiritual and soteriological issues, the gospel also speaks to our moral life, our conduct, as Peter knows:

•    In society, we are humble, even as Christ humbled himself and made himself nothing.

•    In marriage, we love as Christ loved the church.

•    At work, like Christ, we do our duty and fulfill our calling.

First Peter 3:13–18 is a highly theological passage; nonetheless, it contains several suggestions about the conduct of life of the believer. First, 3:14 directs, we should live fearlessly. Or rather, a proper fear of God should drive out lesser fears—public opinion, human foes, tragedy, our own weakness. So we should choose our fears well. It’s sensible to fear snakes and heights, but the Lord, in his awesome goodness and justice, is the One to fear. Second, 3:16 urges, we should keep a clear conscience, so that if we face unjust attacks, we will be able to defend ourselves, with gentle self-confidence and reverence for God, our Protector and Judge. Third, when an opponent speaks, we should “be prepared to make a defense” and to give a reason “for the hope that is in [us]” (3:15 esv). This defense may be formal, in court, or informal, among friends. Finally, we remember that even if we suffer (or die!), the Lord vindicates his people. That liberates us even from the fear of death. For the love of God drives out all lesser fears, that we might live in reverent fear of him (3:15).


Daniel M. Doriani, 1 Peter , ed. Richard D. Phillips, Philip Graham Ryken, and Daniel M. Doriani, Reformed Expository Commentary ( P&R Publishing, 2014), 134–146.

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