Key Verse: “Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands….Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding…” I Peter 3:1,7
Pilgrims among pagans – at home!
When we study the Bible it helps to know something about the cultural, social and religious situation of those to whom the Bible was first written. We must be careful to use this knowledge not in order to eliminate what the Bible says as though it were irrelevant to our own day, but to illuminate what it says for obedience in our day.
Here is one example: when the gospel was first preached by the apostles, it happened rather frequently that married women came to know the Lord apart from their husbands who remained indifferent or hostile to the gospel. (The book of Acts tells us of this in 13:50, 16:1,13–14, 17:4,12, and 24:24).) A believing wife who wanted to practice her new faith within her home faced difficult challenges that may be quite foreign to some of us who have always lived in Christian homes.
Should she remain married to her unbelieving husband? Or should she divorce him? How should she respond to his hostility toward her new religion? What was the best attitude to take toward his continued pagan practices and loyalties? How must a new Christian wife handle other family relationships, how could she nurture her (their) children to marry in the Lord, or how could she arrange to gather weekly with fellow believers for worship?
Living as “pilgrims among pagans” affects the home, where believing wives and husbands express and cultivate the attitudes, virtues and disciplines necessary to survive “out there” in the world.
Let’s listen, then, to what the Holy Spirit teaches through the apostle Peter about putting the pilgrim style into practice in this most intimate and fundamental of all human relationships.
Winsome ways for believing wives (read 3:1–2)
The word “likewise” ties together those sections of exhortation where various classes of people are addressed. The example of Christ, which Peter had held before Christian household slaves, provides direction to others in the church: wives and husbands.
The central exhortation to believing wives is that they “be submissive” toward husbands who had not listened to the gospel. By means of her respectful attitude, a Christian wife could translate the gospel into a walk that might serve to convict and “win” her husband.
Such winsomeness depends on Christian character. If God requires holiness of every believer (1:22), then from wives He expects purity. The apostle Paul expected older women to teach younger women in the church “to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed” (Titus 2:5). This purity refers not only to sexual purity, but also to modesty and sobriety, motivated by respect for God. (Question 1)
Choosing her make-up (read 3:3–4)
With a change of metaphor Peter reinforces the need for Christian character by instructing believing wives about two kinds of cosmetics, the one external, the other internal.
He mentions three kinds of outward decoration: braided hair, gold jewelry and fancy clothing. These examples emphasize the painstaking care devoted to outward appearance. But a Christian wife enjoys a much prettier elegance: not what she makes of herself, but what she has become by God’s Spirit. The external must reflect the internal, the “hidden person of the heart.” Believing wives must cultivate that character whose depth often lies beyond human observation. Respectful submission to her husband arises from a gentle and quiet spirit. Such a spirit seasons a marriage relationship by reflecting the character of the Lord Jesus Christ. (Its opposite is an insulting, bitter attitude so often displayed in verbal aggression and emotional blackmail.) Such inward beauty never goes out of style (unlike clothes), never fades (unlike jewelry) or needs redoing (unlike hair). It is incorruptible and precious to God. (Question 2)
Sarah’s secret (read 3:5–6)
To fortify his exhortation Peter calls to mind the example of holy women, matriarchs, believing wives of an earlier era.
Their inward beauty and adornment consisted in trust.ing in God as they submitted to their husbands out of respect for God.
One of them is mentioned by name, Sarah, the wife of Abraham. She submitted to her husband with all respect and honor. Peter’s formulation is quite strong for our modern ears: “as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose children you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror” (1 Pet. 3:6). Most translations have “daughters” instead of the more accurate “children.” Peter emphasizes that whIle Abraham is the father of all believers, Sarah is the mother of all who obey.
Such respectful submission produces two results one positive, the other negative. By obeying their husbands believing wives can thereby (1) do good and (2) avoid being paralyzed by fear.
From one (inspired) husband to other husbands (read 3:7)
From other parts of Scripture we know that Peter himself was married, and had lived with his wife in their home at Capernaum (Matt. 8:14). His life also accompanied him on his distant missionary journeys (1 Cor. 9:5). So this exhortation from the apostle Peter, besides coming from the Holy Spirit, comes from an experienced husband.
Notice that the apostle does not instruct husbands to submit to their wives, but rather warns them not to deal tyrannically or scornfully with their spouses. The husband’s attitude must correspond to his wife’s attitude of quiet gentleness. Only within this balance can a marriage relationship endure.
The key phrase in this exhortation is, “dwell with them with understanding.” Dwelling together in Christian marriage requires the husband to treat his wife knowledgeably, intelligently and sympathetically. A husband must know his wife well in order to know how to respond to her in love and gentleness.
Peter’s description of the wife as “the weaker vessel” is best understood this way. The wife’s feminine qualities deserve the greater honor and tenderness, emphasized as well by Peter’s use of the metaphor of “vessel.” Rather than describe the content of the vessel, Peter points to the character of the vessel: the wife is the weaker of the two vessels. In general she is physically weaker, with the result that often she suffers a psychological disadvantage, since the danger is that her husband could threaten to use his physical advantage against her. Husbands must therefore not handle their wives with bitter roughness (Col. 3:19), but as the stronger partner they must shoulder more responsibility for the well-being of the marriage relationship. (Question 3)
But there is another reason a spiritual reason for husbands treating their wives with understanding. As fellow heirs of the grace of life, their mutual prayers would be obstructed by the husband’s careless disregard. A marital communication breakdown inevitably disturbs communication with God. Mutual respect enables marital piety. Husbands and wives must regularly pray—and live out of the petition our Savior taught: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” This prayerful humility will sustain that foundational dimension underlying their husband-wife relationship, namely, being brother and sister in Christ. (Question 4)
Questions for Reflection and Reply
- Illustrate ways in which a wife’s behavior in the home can cause God’s Word to be blasphemed. Mention some ways in which a wife can be submissive in a biblical way. Is there an unbiblical submission?
2. What are some ways in which a Christian wife can cultivate a quiet and gentle spirit? How can a believing husband help his wife do this?
3. Explain why today’s unbelieving feminist movement is a reaction against the failure of husbands to follow 1 Peter 3:7.
4. Explain ways in which Christian spouses can cultivate their “brother-sister relationship.”