If we’re perfectly honest with one another, 1 Peter 3 has some great but also uncomfortable content. Modern theology has no love of Peter’s words about men and women, suffering, or baptism. In fact, many of today’s theologians go to great lengths to prove Peter isn’t saying what you think he’s saying, or, more commonly, Peter should be kindly ignored as a product of his time and primitive thinking.
C. S. Lewis claims, however, that this kind of thinking about Peter is itself primitive; not a product of science, progress, and right thinking, but what Lewis calls “chronological snobbery.” Pride, not progress, is why we treat sacred Scripture as a common plaything that can be molded to fit politically and theologically correct agendas. But if our concern is time, Peter is not really a product of his own time. Throughout this chapter, we find Peter not quoting the poets and thinkers of his day, but the Torah of Moses and the Psalms of David. Peter goes back to Genesis, to the very beginning. So if this chapter should be “contextualized” it should be placed in the context of the Scriptures as a whole. It should be shaped by the word of God and not the word of man.
With this in mind, immediately in this chapter, Peter expresses a very unpopular opinion even in his day. “Wives be subject to your husbands” (v. 1). This unpopular opinion is the last in a string of unpopular opinions that closes out chapter two. First, citizens submit to the emperor; the same emperor who is currently seeking to kill Christians and use them as human torches in his garden at night. Be subject to that emperor. Second, slaves submit to your masters. Submit to them even though in Christ, you are equal and free from all bondage. Don’t repay wrong with wrong, but bear up under punishment as Christ himself did for our sake. And finally, wives be subject to your own husbands.
If this chapter should be “contextualized” it should be placed in the context of the Scriptures as a whole. It should be shaped by the word of God and not the word of man.
This command for wives to submit has its roots in Genesis 3 and 4, and the curse laid upon Eve. In Genesis 3, God curses Eve, saying that her pain in childbearing will multiply and that her “desire shall be for [her] husband.” At first glance, this doesn’t seem like too bad of a command. But Genesis 4 clarifies what this “desire” looks like. Here God warns Cain as he is plotting to strike down his brother saying, “If you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.” This “desire” is the desire of sin: to rule over, to conquer, to be a tyrant. In the same way, sin desires to rule over all humanity, the daughters of Eve are cursed with the desire to rule over the very person they were made to help. For this reason, the command in 1 Peter 3 is meant to bring peace and sacrificial love among men and women, not division or inequality.
To further remove any fears of sexism or misogyny, we can read more about what this submission looks like from Paul in Ephesians 5. Here, he sets this doctrine, not only in the context of the created order but also of Christ’s relationship to his church. How wives submit to their husbands is not meant to be abusive subordination. Instead, it is the same submission which the church gives to Christ her Savior and Head. In the same way, a godly wife’s behavior is patterned by Christ and the Church, godly husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church. Wives are to submit, but husbands are called to die and suffer every manner of abuse for their wives in a very cruciform way.
In chapter three, a general exhortation for Christians of all estates toward love, compassion, and long-suffering quickly follows this call to love and submission among husbands and wives (vv. 8-12). This, too, is rooted in the Old Testament and echoes the words of Psalm 34. Here, the psalmist expresses familiar truths of life as a Christian: in this world, affliction and heartache are many, but God has overcome them all. And it is through Christ’s suffering that God has conquered every pain and persecution, every wrong deed and misguided injustice. Peter reminds us of this, too, pointing his audience to the confident answer we have in Christ. So when people ask why we love and bear all things we have an answer for them: “My life is hid in Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me who died for my transgressions and was raised for my justification.”
In chapter three, a general exhortation for Christians of all estates toward love, compassion, and long-suffering quickly follows this call to love and submission among husbands and wives (vv. 8-12).
After hearing such good news, the Holy Spirit might just prompt a good and biblical question from an unbeliever: “What must I do to be saved?” Peter’s answer in Acts and Peter’s answer here are the same: be baptized. In the same way, the Old Testament prophesied a crucified Messiah, God also gave us a foreshadowing of baptism. God destroyed the entire sinful world by the mighty and terrible waters of the flood. With these same waters, he also raises faithful Noah and his family, eight souls in all so that they might live (v. 20). This was to prefigure the very real death and resurrection that happens in the waters of baptism which kill the old Adam and raise a new man to life in Christ. This washing of water is not an external washing of dirt from the body, but the creation of an internal, good conscience before God on account of Christ’s resurrection. Having been united to the cross of Christ in baptism, we now stand in the salvation and righteousness of God. We have been “begotten again to a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3) and not “of a corruptible seed, but incorruptible through the Word of God which lives and abides forever” (1 Peter 1:23) so that we are “a royal priesthood, a holy nation” and God’s own special possession (1 Peter 2:9).
When we read this chapter, we find that we are actually shaped by the word. In baptism, God has made us after the image of His own Son so that daily we die to ourselves and our selfish ambitions, and daily live in faith toward God and fervent love toward one another. We suffer all things, endure all things, and conquer all things because Christ has done so for us.