When the first Christians were in process of becoming something big, something substantial from the perspective of all around them, a Jew named Gamaliel stood up and gave this speech:
35 And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. 36 For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. 37 After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. 38 So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5:35-39)
From this it seems that there can be no “theories” of effective revolutions. They just are. They must just happen. The Holy Spirit either will or won’t blow with gale force strength in the direction he intends, carrying along the otherwise pathetic little boat, taking it to exactly the place he intends it. This is about absolute divine agency. Paul writes about this too by way of his strategy in evangelism:
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:2-5)
Note, however, there is still a strategy here, its just a strategy to focus on the right things, things that will rightly direct people towards God and his power, not towards human powers.
Not too long ago I was inspired by something I read in Fredrick Nietzsche. (I know, but stick with me….) It was in a section on how to learn from history. Nietzsche was walking a tight rope – on the one hand, as a true modernist, he wanted everyone to find their own way, not looking always backwards to tradition, yet on the other hand he recognized that to take a completely renegade attitude risked failing to learn good lessons from the past. So, Nietzsche advocated a balance, sifting through what is good and inspirational from the past and taking it on board, while at the same time never being bound by the parameters of the past. As an example of such inspiration, Nietzsche gave the Renaissance, a movement form the 13th century, predominantly in Florence, wherein roughly two hundred people had a common vision which they worked out together. Pause and consider! If one knows anything about the effects of the Renaissance on the history of Western Civilization, it is quite extraordinary to realize that it all started with roughly two hundred people.
Also not long ago I read Immanuel Kant’s little essay, Was ist Äufklarung? (“What is Enlightenment?”). In this powerful little essay Kant effectively warned that the Enlightenment would never become an effective movement while people in their enthusiasm were just dislocated, just running madly in their own individual directions. The world traditions, the systems of society, will take such enthusiasm and simply crunch it up, grind it to dust. So, in order to really have an Enlightenment movement, Kant argues, what is needed is group support, people striving together for the cause.
What both Nietzsche and Kant say is quite similar: we must all at least have a vision and know where we are going.
None of this will sound very novel. It is simply the stuff of good management. One needs to set a vision of which people can grab hold, and one needs to unify people around that vision. But missing are Gamaliel and Paul’s insights: respectively, things failing unless God is in them and making sure that God is at the center, not people.
The danger here is that we see both Gamaliel and Paul as presenting an alternative to what we learn from Kant and Nietzsche: worldly effective revolutions have vision and commonality, but Christian ones have neither, they are just carried by a force bigger than any human force.
In this essay I want to briefly explore 1 Peter, because it seems to me that 1 Peter presents us with something of a middle-ground in this whole debate (and possibly also then a middle ground between James Hunter and his critics). 1 Peter is a letter about a Christian revolution, a revolution that is anticipated and expected to impact the whole of society. What Peter touts is quite clearly a God-centered Christian revolution, but it is not at all “disorganized” in a kind of “let-go and let-God” kind of way. It has definite structure to it. It is also revolutionary in the truest sense of the word too. In other words, it is not just a benign kind of pattern being presented. Everything in 1 Peter shouts: “Here is how Christianity will turn the world upside down!” So what does it say? What is the message?
Ancient letters kept a standard form, a normal way to write them. Just as children in more modern times have been taught to start a letter with “Dear John” and finish it with “Yours Sincerely,” so in the ancient world letters had a form. What is often unrecognized is that this form included a section where the author was meant to tell the audience why they were writing. This is gold! This is extraordinary, because if we are able to learn to pay attention to this it will make it a whole lot easier trying to understand the purposes of the many letters in the New Testament of the Bible. 1 Peter was a letter, and it also followed the form-guide in terms of having a section intended to disclose the purpose for writing. Here is the relevant section, according to letter theory:
11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:11-12)
Three clues show the first readers (and us) that this is meant to be Peter’s statement for writing: the position of these verses (coming after the prayer of thanksgiving), the word “urge,” and the direct address to the readers.
So, what is the outcome Peter hopes to see? A revolution. He hopes that when God comes to visit an expansive number of people will glorify God. This sounds an awful lot like the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which asks: “What is the chief end of man?” The answer: “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” 1 Peter 2:11-12 is revolutionary in that it describes a movement throughout humanity, among not just Christians but the wider society, such that those who are not Christians will either become Christians or at least be directed towards God’s overall glory in the future.
Then notice here is what comes next. 1 Peter has much in common with other New Testament letters, especially Ephesians and Colossians. All these letters have large sections at the end where they go through different classes of people and tell them how they should behave. But interestingly in 1 Peter there is a difference. Whereas in Ephesians and Colossians the direction of discussion seems to be about unity of the body of Christ and also protection against future attacks—do these things and you will be an effective Church for effectiveness sake—in 1 Peter pretty much everything is directed towards the impact such behavior will have on the outside world.
So, in Ephesians 5 it speaks to wives:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” (Ephesians 5:22–24)
In a similar way 1 Peter speaks to wives, but the entire focus is upon how a wife married to a man who is not a Christian might have a revolutionary impact on them:
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, 2 when they see your respectful and pure conduct. 3 Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— 4 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. 5 For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, 6 as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening. (1 Peter 3:1-6)
Likewise, in Ephesians 6, there is discussion of slaves:
Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.” (Ephesians 6:5–9)
But in 1 Peter 2 the focus is all upon how these slaves might be appropriate and persevere before an unjust master, i.e., an evil one, one not a Christian:
18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Peter 2:18–25)
But there is more too. At the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans, there is the famous section of Romans 13, which speaks of how Christians are meant to function in the world. And there is an equivalent section to this in 1 Peter. But while in Romans there is no real application in terms of spelling out the revolutionary effect right behavior will have on people, 1 Peter spells it out:
13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13–17)
1 Peter is about creating a revolutionary impact in the world, as Peter says yet again in chapter 3:
13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. (1 Peter 3:13–17)
At this point, Peter’s purpose seems rather clear.
I am well aware how many Bible passages I have quoted so far, all without specific discussion of content. We have breezed over a lot of information. But this has been deliberate because the medium is the message. If we are now convinced that 1 Peter really is a letter about how Christians can create a revolution in the world, the way we achieve this revolution should also be clear—provided we have simply read the content of the verses above. Peter’s vision presented for revolutionary impact in the world is a life of love and godliness.
Consider the (not uncontroversial) section of 1 Peter 3:1-6, the section on wives with non-Christian husbands. This is, in fact, a very controversial section (of course) because it seems to encourage wives to be doormats. Probably a full half of my readers immediately bristled. How could we not?
But again, notice the context. In the Roman world man absolutely ruled the roost. Such was the power of fathers over their own sons that there was a special punishment for sons who killed their fathers, to try and dissuade them from doing so. The punishment—perhaps worse than crucifixion even—was to be sewn into the carcass of a large dead animal with a live dog, a live rooster and a live poisonous snake and thrown into a Tiber River. Not pretty! But the screams of the person as they were floating down the river that wound through the city of Rome would serve as a warning to other sons: don’t kill your father! This context helps us see the kind of oppression that could exist in that day, and it shows us how men of that day would easily see a woman simply as an object of beauty and for pleasure. Peter does not tell women to dress shoddily. But he does tell them to not let dress be their focus for winning their husbands over. The point is not simply that he would like you and respect you as his “trophy.” The point is that you might win him over! And so, inward purity and true godliness are to be the focus.
This is very instructive, because it highlights that a true revolution comes one person at a time, one step at a time, one long process at a time, a heart change, not simply an external conformity of behavior. It is not just about a flash in the pan change of social opinion, brought on by lobbying and by making use of media to argue one’s position. In fact, it is very pointed that he will be “won without a word by [your] conduct” (1 Peter 3:1).
This is revolutionary, the opposite of how we want to think today in our quick-fix society. We are all about superficial appreciation, just like the Roman wife who might seek a glamorous appreciation from her non-Christian husband. Such a Roman wife is a perfect parody of what Christians so often seek by way of revolutionizing their societies, a glamourous, externally perfect society. But Peter calls for something much more substantial, something truly revolutionary. He calls for husband to be truly won over from the heart, by seeing a person with a transformed and beautiful heart!
The famous verse, “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15) might be coupled together with the verses making up Peter’s “disclosure” for writing: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable” (1 Peter 2:12). The spirit presented here, not unlike the mentality already noted for the wife, is one which many Christians would do well to note. We think the way to win people over is to speak and to speak louder, and to speak and act more forcefully. These are one way to win a person over, by asserting one’s will over another, by being more powerful than them, by domination. But that was the Roman way. Peter’s language here is radically different. It is the language of a transformed life being so transformative that it will make people want to ask what our hope is!
Let’s then get down to brass tacks in applying Peter’s words. What does this mean for the Christian living in a given neighborhood? What does this mean for a Christian going to work? What does this mean for a Christian taking their child to soccer practice and how they mix with other parents? What does this mean for the children themselves and how they act towards their friends on the team who are not Christians? This is where the rubber meets the road, isn’t it? And from 1 Peter the answer should be quite obvious.
The kind of true revolution we are talking about, the one that Paul himself spoke about in 1 Corinthians, where it is truly a work of God in people, not just a work of humans, is one where the Holy Spirit transforms lives and those lives shine out to others. No gimmicks, no shortcuts.
This is about the businessperson working hard and showing integrity, even having joy and contentment when they are overlooked for a promotion, being the one to pick up the extra load. It is about that person not being divisive and not throwing their weight around to manipulate others. For the neighbor, it is about being a good neighbor, having people over, connecting and becoming friends, being considerate and helping out. For the soccer carpool driver, it is about not just mixing with the other Christian parents but hanging out in real ways with others, so they can see your light. For the soccer player it is a disarming sportsmanship combined with a deep work ethic to play up to our potential.
This is not rocket science. But it is rather revolutionary in the current climate, a climate where Christians often want to take the short cut to genuine revolution. How was it that God turned the world upside down in the first couple of centuries of Christianity? We really do not know. Yes, we have the stories of Acts and the revolutionary work of the Spirit through the apostles and first leaders, of miracles being done wowing the world. But what we see from 1 Peter is also the miracle of a changed life impacting others. This, we suspect, is where the real revolutionary change happened, real people having real transformed lives impacting people around them. This is, we suspect, what made the gospel run through its Roman world like wildfire.
May it be so that we see the same kind of revolution afresh in our own day! What might change in each of us to make it so?