We are living in a world filled with fear. Last year the Islamic extremist group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, invaded Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, and cut off transportation, power and water to the city, releasing over a thousand prisoners, and causing thousands to flee. After the conquest the terrorist group proclaimed itself “The Islamic State,” or “The Caliphate,” a term meant to link their organization to memories of the great Muslim era of the prophet Muhammad. Their leader was declared caliph, a term meaning “successor to Muhammad.” As caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi now claims the allegiance of all Muslims worldwide, and has called upon all Muslims to come and defend the Islamic State.
In the second week of August, 2014 rumors began circulating that ISIS was mercilessly persecuting Christians in Syria and Iraq. In the city of Mosul, Christians were given an ultimatum: convert to Islam, pay a heavy tax, leave the city, or die. The homes of Christians were seized by the Islamic State, who marked the homes with the Arabic letter “N,” for “Nazarene.” In an interview with Fox News, Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham and CEO of Samaritan’s Purse, told of receiving reports of Christians in the region being beheaded, crucified, even buried alive for refusing to convert to Islam.
The threat of ISIS may seem a half a globe away, but their spokesmen have promoted jihadist attacks in the western world (France, San Bernardino), stating that Muslims worldwide needed no permission to attack soldiers, military personnel, law enforcement officials, and other authorities even within our own country. We have seen individual jihadist attacks like the beheading in Moore Oklahoma in late September 2014, the Parliament shooting in Canada, and the man who attacked police officers in broad daylight in NYC. While both politicians and the media have been slow to accept these acts as terror, citizens in the western world have begun to realize that is exactly what they are. These jihadists have been spawned by the supreme caliph proclaiming that all Muslims everywhere are under his authority and should fight not only to defend but also to advance the Caliphate, the Islamic State. They despise western society, and when it comes to the people of America, ISIS has promised openly and repeatedly that they “will drown us all in blood.”
We are living in a world filled with terror. There are those, like the Islamic State, who would see every believer in Christ eradicated from this planet, and as recent jihadist attacks have shown, we are not even safe in our own country! When we see and hear about the barbaric practices of these radical Muslims, perhaps our most natural response is fear. That is exactly what they want! The merciless brutality and reputation of ISIS wages a psychological war on their enemies before they ever set foot on the battlefield. Fear can be paralyzing. It has caused many to forsake the name of Jesus, and turn from the faith. But as Christians we are called not to live in fear but to redeem fear from being something paralyzing to becoming something powerful in our lives.
Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence. (1 Peter 3:13-15)
The main reason that Peter wrote this letter was to encourage believers in Jesus Christ who were beginning to feel the heat of persecution, and in this passage he offers his readers three reasons why they were to live without fear.
First, he writes in verse 13, “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?” In verses 10-12, Peter quoted from Psalm 34:12-16, where the Psalmist talks about how those who would love life and desire to see good days must practice righteousness. They must do good and not evil. Why? Because, “The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their cry; the face of the LORD is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth.” In other words, the LORD Himself supports those who do righteousness (His eyes are on them and His ears are attentive to their prayers), but He is against those who do evil.
So when Peter asks the question in verse 13, we might clarify as, “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good, since God has promised to support those who do good?” If God has promised to watch over and hear the righteous, no one can ultimately harm them! This verse is not solely speaking about harm in this life, because we know human beings can harm one another. We see many Christians being persecuted, injured, even killed today. Yet Peter’s words are not false here because he is thinking about not merely this present life, but the ultimate reality of our eternal life that can never perish, spoil, or fade, and is being kept by God in heaven for us.
The first reason Peter gives us for living without fear is that God is supporting us! If there is one lesson I have learned repeatedly this past year it is that parenting is hard! My son is starting to learn to walk (he took his first steps alone this week), and has his mother and I literally chasing him all over the house in an attempt to prevent him from hurting himself when he falls. There have been a few near misses, and a few times that we just weren’t fast enough. But you better believe we do everything in our power to support him and keep him from harm. God supports those who believe in Jesus Christ, and He is never too slow when it comes to supporting one of His children in need. Psalm 34 reminds us that His all-seeing eyes are on us, and His all-hearing and all-knowing ears are attentive to our prayers. Who is going to harm us if we are eager to do good? The answer is no one, because God holds our eternal lives in His hands, and He is protecting and supporting us, and will not let us fall.
Second, in verse 14 Peter further explains that even if one should suffer for righteousness on this earth, blessing will come as a result. He writes, “But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed.” We’ve already seen that God protects and upholds the righteous. Peter now tells us that if we do suffer for doing what is right, God will bless us. There is no doubt that sometimes even the most righteous people suffer wrongly. Right now we have brothers and sisters in Christ in Iraq and Syria who are facing great hardships on account of their faith in Jesus. James Dau, president of Voice of the Martyrs, tells the story of “Liena,” a Christian witness who desired for the Lord to use her to reach Muslims in Syria, despite the fear of persecution from ISIS. The article says:
[Liena] told the Lord that she was willing to put her own life at risk, and she accepted that it could also cost her husband’s life. But she knew the Lord was telling her one more thing: her children could also be killed. She wrestled with this, as any parent would… Liena and her husband decided to talk to their children. They told them that men with beards might someday force their way into their home and demand that they convert to Islam. They told them not to deny Christ. They told them that they might feel some pain and see some blood but soon would be in the presence of Jesus. After that conversation, radicals broke into their apartment while they were away and wrote a very clear message on a mirror: “We came to slaughter you.”
“Liena,” her husband, and her children are examples of those who are suffering for the sake of righteousness, for doing good. Peter encourages us that if do suffer for doing good, we are blessed. The apostle echoes the teaching of Jesus from Matthew 5:10: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The blessing may not come during this lifetime, but it will far outweigh any temporal suffering that we as believers might endure in this life. The second reason that we should not be afraid is that even if we do suffer on account of righteousness, we are and will be blessed because of it.
The third reason why we can live without fear is because the things that we are afraid of do not deserve our fear. The second half of verse 14 quotes from Isaiah 8:12 which says, “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” In Isaiah 8 the people of the Judah were being terrorized by the apostate northern kingdom of Israel and its ally, Aram. Israel and Aram wanted Judah to join in a coalition against the mighty Assyria. When king Ahaz of Judah refused, Aram and Israel threatened to overthrow Ahaz’s rule.
Faced with losing his kingdom, Ahaz sent a message to the king of Assyria begging the king to deliver him from Israel and Aram. Yet Isaiah prophesied that while Assyria might be an ally at the moment, Ahaz had really made a deal with the devil. He predicted that the ally Ahaz thought he had in Assyria would one day betray and turn on Judah. Isaiah warned against fearing both the schemes of Israel and Aram and the danger of Assyria. The Lord told Isaiah in 8:12, “Do not call conspiracy everything that these people call conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it.” Though the people of Judah trembled with fear at Israel and Aram, and shook with fear at the strength of Assyria, God commanded Isaiah not to be afraid of them or their intimidation. They were unworthy objects of fear. They were not really worth being afraid of; they did not deserve Isaiah’s fear.
The same is true for believer in Christ today. Whether it is fear of persecution from ISIS, radical jihadist attacks in our country, or any other person or thing out to cause pain and suffering or the end of our lives, none of those things are worthy objects of our fear. The Islamic State does not deserve your fear. Radical Muslim jihadists do not deserve your fear. Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Iran, North Korea, it doesn’t matter! None of these deserve your fear. Why should we not be afraid of those who would persecute us? Because as fearsome as these forces might be, there is someone far more powerful than they are.
Who is this person? Peter tells us in v. 15. “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.” One of Peter’s main contentions throughout this letter is that fear should be reserved for God alone. Fear is like faith in the sense that we can place our fear in different people and things, just as we can place our faith in different people or things. Today many people place their faith, like their fear, in unworthy objects. They believe in success, wealth, fame, themselves. Those are all unworthy objects of faith. The Bible teaches there is only one worthy object of our faith, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. And just as there is only one worthy object of our faith, so there is only one worthy object of our fear.
This is what the Lord spoke to Isaiah in Isa 8:12-13: “Do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it. The LORD Almighty [lit. the Lord of angelic hosts] is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread.” There was no reason for Isaiah to fear Israel, Aram, Assyria, Ahaz, or the people of Judah; the LORD was far more powerful and terrible than all of them! Fear is to be reserved for God alone. Isaiah makes clear that the only worthy object of his fear was the Lord God himself.
Peter understands this, and he applies it to Christ. He says, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.” Just as Isaiah’s readers were to set apart the LORD of hosts as holy by reserving their fear for him alone, so Peter’s readers should realize that Christ is the Lord, He is God, and they should sanctify Him in their hearts by reserving their fear for Him alone. Jesus Christ, Peter says, is the only person you ever need to fear. Peter had learned this lesson the hard way. Fear had caused him to take his eyes off of Jesus and sink below the waves. Fear of persecution led him to deny his Lord three times on the eve of Christ’s crucifixion. Fear of the circumcision group caused him to separate from Gentile believers and eat exclusively with Jews in Antioch until Paul called him out on it. Peter knew from experience the failures of falling into fear.
What does it mean to fear the Lord? Many times we will downplay the idea of fear by identifying it solely as respect or reverence. Respect and reverence are byproducts or results of fear, but they should not be identified as equivalent to fear. Fearing the Lord involves not only respecting and revering Him but also standing in awe of Him, realizing His amazing power and holiness and seeing ourselves for who we really are as feeble, sinful human beings in the light of His indescribable glory. Fear, I am convinced, is a human emotion that has been hijacked by sin and feeds our insecurity. But if we could redeem fear and remove sin from its equation, what would remain would be an emotion that acknowledges and reveres the uncontainable and incomprehensible Almighty God and rightly trembles in humility before His holy presence.
Learn this lesson from Peter! Don’t ascribe to human beings what should only be ascribed to the Lord. If we fear the physical consequences of our faith in Christ more than Christ Himself, it shows that what we really think is that Jesus Christ and His awesome power are really not quite as awesome or fearsome as what enemies of the cross might do to us who believe. Jesus Himself said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell,” (Matt 10:28). We must fear the Lord Jesus Christ, and Him alone.
We are living in a world of terror. In a world of terror such as ours it is easy to fall into fear and even despair. But the Bible tells us our God is the only one who deserves our fear. Peter has argued that fear should be reserved for God alone, for only God has authority over the eternal lives of men and women. “Do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it. The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread, and he will be a sanctuary…” We must not allow ourselves to fear anyone but Jesus Christ.
We may live in a world of terror, but our Lord, Jesus Christ, is the only one we need to fear. May all our other fears melt away in the face of Jesus and may we be left with holy awe and a righteous fear of our incomparable and almighty Savior.