Peter encouraged persecuted Christians to “be ready always to give an answer” for “the hope that is in you.” What does this mean for Christians today?
When I was 16, I found myself in a conversation with another teenager. It was a conversation that would change the course of my life.
Before we look at the conversation itself, though, you should know something of my background. I grew up in a family that believed in God, but without any strong convictions. We did not attend church, except on rare occasions. I never read the Bible, though I owned one. Like so many people, I did not place much value on organized religion.
What I did value was education. My parents stressed the importance of learning, not just to prepare for a future career, but to develop the mind. That desire to be educated made me view organized religion with suspicion, because I had met so many “ignorant” Christians.
My teenage friend (I’ll call him Jack) and I were on the high school debate team. We had traveled to another city to participate in a tournament. After we had finished our debates, we gathered in an auditorium to wait for the results. While waiting, Jack and I sat and talked.
I asked him about a new part-time job he had been offered. Rather than bagging groceries or flipping burgers, he would be teaching guitar lessons at a music store in the local mall. For a teenager in our community, that was an almost unbelievable opportunity.
Jack told me that he had turned down the job because the store insisted that he work on Saturday, the Sabbath. I was surprised to learn that he had religious beliefs, and even more surprised to learn that he was willing to stand up for those beliefs, even if it meant losing a great job.
One reason I was surprised is that he had never talked about his beliefs before, and he had never tried to convert me. Another reason, though, is a personal prejudice I held. I had come to believe that no intelligent, educated person would conform to such “rigid” practices. Jack, who later graduated as our high school valedictorian, was anything but uneducated.
I had lots of questions, and in my eagerness to learn, I pushed for answers. I asked questions no one else had been able to answer to my satisfaction. I was so tenacious in asking these questions that he believed I was attacking him. Even so, he politely, but firmly, stood his ground, forcing me to question my own assumptions.
Ready to give an answer
Jack had not set out that morning to “save” me or to convert me. That was never his objective in our conversation. Instead, he simply answered my questions. Whether or not he thought of himself at the time as fulfilling a scriptural admonition, he was.
However, this scripture tells us more than we might conclude as we first read it. Peter wrote his first epistle, according to most scholars, in the mid-60s, coinciding with the reign of Emperor Nero.
This Roman emperor is notorious because he was one of the most brutal. Although Christians had already faced persecution, the devastating fire in Rome in A.D. 64 made things worse. Nero blamed Christians, inaugurating three centuries of persecution.
We see persecution reflected in the statements Peter wrote immediately before and after directing Christians to be ready always to give an answer. Just before this instruction, Peter wrote about suffering “for righteousness’ sake” (verse 14), and immediately after, he wrote of Christians being defamed as evildoers (verse 16).
Could Peter have been alluding to future martyrdoms? Could he have foreseen witnesses marveling as they saw Christians still clinging to hope while facing death? In the context of the passage, that seems likely.
A crooked and perverse generation
Like Peter, the apostle Paul recognized the Roman world for what it was. Writing to the church at Philippi, he encouraged members not to live as the people around them, but to live exemplary lives. He charged them to “become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15).
God can use our conduct and inspire our answers to accomplish His purpose. For that reason, we must be ready always to give an answer.Before we are ready to give an answer, we must first live a life of integrity. If a person doesn’t stand out from the world, no one will have a reason to ask questions. I asked my friend Jack about his beliefs only after learning that he had refused to compromise on God’s Sabbath.
This charge to live with integrity in a corrupt world is at the heart of the Christian life. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told His disciples that they were “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-16). Both of these metaphors depict people who are in the minority and people whose lives stand in stark contrast to those around them.
And this brings us back to the idea of persecution. Although the persecution we face may not be as severe as what first-century Christians endured, it can still be there. The world around us does not want to be reminded of its sins, but takes “pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thessalonians 2:12).
It is this resistance that makes the gate that opens the way to life a narrow one (Matthew 7:14). For my friend Jack, resting on the Sabbath was not, in and of itself, difficult. What made this choice challenging was the resistance he met from a potential employer who would not honor the Sabbath.
When I had that life-changing conversation with Jack, he did not know the impact he had on me. I could not stop thinking about our conversation. Though I was embarrassed at holding religious beliefs, I had been convinced of some important biblical truths.
It wasn’t until a couple of years later, after we had both gone to college and returned for the summer, that I finally told Jack how he had changed my life. I had started attending church, and I had begun a lifelong journey of learning about God and His truth.
Jack was surprised, partly because I had been so tenacious in asking questions during our conversation years before. At that time, I had come across as hostile. He was also surprised because it was a couple of years before I had done anything as a result of the conversation.
And that’s important for Christians to understand. In our interactions with nonbelievers, we may not see the impact we have. Perhaps it seems as though the way we live and the answers we give make no difference to the people around us, except that we seem odd. But our perception does not change the fact that we are to be salt in an unsavory world, and light in the darkness.
In the day of visitation
Peter understood this, and he encouraged members of the Church to take the long view. When he instructed his readers to have their “conduct honorable among the Gentiles [that is, unbelievers]” (1 Peter 2:12), he explained that these people would malign them.
Even so, the honorable conduct of Christians would be remembered “in the day of visitation,” prompting these same people to glorify God. The “day of visitation” in this context refers to a time in the future when people will be granted understanding. The point is, they’ll remember the good examples they witnessed.
It is not our place to “save” the people around us. In fact, we are powerless to convert anyone. It is the Father who draws people to Him (John 6:44), and until He does so, no individual will respond. Yet, ultimately, God is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
So what does this mean for us? Even though we cannot convert anyone and even though it may seem that no one takes note, what we do and say now matters to the world around us. God can use our conduct and inspire our answers to accomplish His purpose. For that reason, we must be ready always to give an answer.
What still amazes me today is that it was a 16-year-old boy, not a minister or a theology professor, whose answers changed the course of my life. Jack did not try to save me. Instead, he did his best to obey God, and God used him to point me in the right direction, for which I am deeply thankful.