The Power of the Powerless

Joyce Sun 

Carver Yu Associate Professor (Biblical Studies)

 

Living in unprecedented times, we found our situations becoming ever tumultuous, amid palpable absurdity. People around us is trying to contemplate their own future, seeking a place to settle down with their choices. As Christians, where do we see ourselves in all these? Under the seemingly irresistible circumstances and amidst the feeling of powerlessness, how should Christians choose to hold fast to the good that we have identified, and be the best of ourselves in the worst possible world?

The first Epistle of Peter is a letter addressed to mainly Gentile believers living in Asia Minor (1:1). After these Gentile believers were converted to Jesus, their way of life has also changed accordingly. Instead of observing the practice of a pagan community, especially participating publicly in idol worship, they have now turned to believe in the one and only almighty living God. They have suddenly disengaged themselves from social activities such as major public shrines, festival parades and trade union banquets. Moreover, the mainstream culture at the time believed that worshiping their gods has an impact on the well-being of the city as a whole. Apart from disaster prevention, large-scale worship activities also served as a catalyst for the unity and sense of belonging of the urban people. It is no wonder the author said, “In all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them in the same excesses of debauchery, and they slander you.” (4:4, NASB)

The author began his letter by stating that Christians are “dispersed sojourners” (1:1). Wherever they live, they are only a group of outsiders and strangers on the fringes of society who are not understood. Their faith and their lifestyle is distinctively different from the pagan mainstream culture, which inevitably leads to ostracism and discrimination. Although the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, trying to intimidate believers, and luring them to give up their faith to God (5:8), the letter was written to navigate Christians’ understanding of their identity and perspective on suffering, so that they can stand firm in their faith and hold fast to the true grace of God (5:12), live out the power of the powerless in the days of their sojourn (1:17), and stand up to the threats and challenges around them courageously.

No one can take away my dignity

Besides “living as a sojourner”, the author began his writing with the paradoxical nature of Christians’ identity while living on the earth. Apart from being strangers and vulnerable second-class citizens excluded by the dominant culture, they are also “chosen by God” (1:2). The phrase “chosen” appears at the beginning and echoes at the end of the book (5:13), highlighting the essence of Christian identity. The identity and dignity of a Christian is not determined by other people, let alone by social interactions, but comes from a new birth as a child of the heavenly Father (1:3). This unique honour from God cannot be taken away by any suffering or human-made depreciation. Just as Christ, a living stone, though rejected by humans, is chosen and precious in God’s sight (2:4). Believers are also living stones (2:5), they must also experience what Christ has experienced: apparently they are rejected by humans, but deep down they are chosen by God and are precious in His sight (also see 2:7).

In fact, in 2:4-10, the author deliberately made use of the elaborate verbiage of the Old Testament in describing Israel as God's chosen people, in order to highlight the equally noble status of Christians as God’s chosen people. Some people may regard the powerless as bugs and trample on them. Christians though recognize that they are sojourners of the world, they are in fact “chosen people”, “royal priesthood”, “a holy nation” and “God’s own people,” and they have received mercy and are people of God (2:9-10). Regardless of circumstances or changes, Christians are always a group of priests with a mission to offer themselves as spiritual sacrifices (2:5) and determined to proclaim the mighty acts of him (2:10), a reality that is unshakable in the living God.

Be the best self in the worst world

Therefore, by offering behavioral admonishments in 2:11 to 4:11, the author repeatedly emphasized that Christians, as “foreigners and sojourners” (2:11) that are not recognized by the mainstream society, must “do good / good deeds” in front of unbelievers,1 so that those who slander Christians for doing wrong will eventually repent and know how to give glory to God (2:12). The author’s ideas of good deeds for the powerless are mainly in several aspects:

Obedience and Suffering

In 2:13 to 3:7, Christians “doing right / good deeds” are seen in their “submission to authoritative figures” (2:13, 18; 3:1) and “suffering” (2:19, 20; see also 2:21). As a minority that is not understood, Christians have no intention of becoming odd strangers in the society, and will not use the true freedom of being God’s children as an excuse to do “evil” (2:16). Instead, they respect the king, just as they respect others, and love the members of their Christian community. Most of all, they fear God in all circumstances (2:17).

Particularly worth noting is that, the Greek noun ὑπακοή, which means “obedience”, appears three times in 1 Peter (1:2, 14, 22), and the object is related to God and faith. On the other hand, the verb translated as “submit” (ὑποτάσσω appears in the form of middle voice) has the meaning of voluntarily submitting to others. And it is in this way that Christians willingly submit to the human institutions and authorities (2:13-14), while the king and his officials perform their normal function of rewarding good and punishing evil (2:14), are to be the best citizens in civil society, and to make visible contributions to the common well-being of the city.2 The purpose of “doing good/good deeds” is to silence the ignorant talk of foolish people (2:15). The focus, therefore, remains on the testimony of Christians in the community.

The most vulnerable slaves and women were generally expected to adopt the pagan beliefs of the householders. They likewise are to “voluntarily submit” as the best wives and slaves, in order to gain the greatest room to hold fast to their Christian faith and continue to bear witness. Wives would win over their unbelieving husbands to faith through good deeds (3:1). Slaves when submitting to their perverse masters, do so only with the fear of God and a conscience that is right with God (2:18-19). All in all, the suffering of the powerless is inevitable, for “suffering for good (not for sin/evil) and enduring it” (2:20) is in itself the call of the powerless. The most powerful powerless Jesus Christ, has left an example for the believers of “being the best self in the worst world”. (As the author put it in 2:21, “It is for this that you were called”).

Never repay evil with evil

Just as when Christ was crucified, “he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten,” (2:23) Christians should demonstrate their good deeds by “their refusal to repay evil with evil (3:9-12). As the children of God who will inherit eternal heavenly blessings, Christians are called to “bless others” (3:9: “It is for this that you were called”), in addition to enduring the sufferings of injustice.

“Seeking justice and feeling vindicated” indeed sounds appealing, and “punishing the wicked” makes people feel justified and that truth is on their side. Besides, “letting others slap you on the face without taking revenge” may seem cowardly. However, Christians must look upon God, whose “eyes are on the righteous”, but His face is “against those who do evil” (3:12). In the same way, Christ on the cross entrusted himself to the one who judges justly (2:23).

Good deeds and suffer

By pointing out the “eschatological reversal” of the destiny of the one “doing good” versus “doing evil” in 3:13-22, the author teaches that it is better for Christians to suffer now for doing good than to be punished by God eventually (“to suffer”) for doing evil now (3:17). Hardship now is not the end. Suffering also has no final say. Those who slander Christians for good deeds will eventually be ashamed (3:16).

Therefore, the obedience of the powerless should not be seen as cowardly silence. When they need to defend their faith (“an accounting for the hope”), they will uphold their fear of God and keep a clear conscience. They will also insist on demonstrating the proper demeanor as the children of God and His priestly people by doing it with gentleness and reverence (3:15-16).

Conclusion

Someone once wrote, “The life of a Christian in history is to embrace failure and frustration. As long as his mission endures, embracing failure is not a failure and living with setbacks is not a setback. More defeats breed more strength. More frustrations breed more perseverance”.3

The Christian saints and predecessors through the ages have walked the path of powerlessness as sojourners on earth with faith and sense of mission through the power of God’s words. Today, this great cloud of witnesses are watching Christians to continue finishing off their life sojourn faithfully to the very end (Hebrews 12:1).

 


Reference:

  1. From 2:11 to 4:19, the author used Greek words representing “good/good deeds” 10 times to highlight the characteristics of Christian social behavior [καλός, 2:12 (x2); ἀγαθοποιέω, 2:15, 20; 3:6, 17; ἀγαθός, 3:11, 13, 16; ἀγαθοποιΐα, 4:19].
  2. Some scholars have given examples, even including selling wheat to the public at prices below the market. See Bruce W. Winter, “The Public Honouring of Christian Benefactors,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 34 (1988):88.
  3. Thanks for the permission to quote. The translation is the author’s own.

 

 

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