We are to make our defense “with gentleness and respect.” These words are found in I Peter 3: 13ff in the text that has been and will be the focus of this blog. Different English versions of the New Testament provide different translations of the words under consideration. The Greek word, translated gentleness (ESV) in English, has also been translated as meekness (ASV, KJV) and humility (WEB and Word Biblical Commentary, I Peter). The word is translated gentleness in NCV and NIV, as well as ESV.
The noun, translated gentleness (ESV), is used in I Peter only in Verse 15 of Chapter 3. Another form of the word is used as an adjective in I Peter 3: 4, and only there in the letter, where wives are instructed, “Do not let your adorning be external–the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear–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.” (I Peter 3: 3-4 ESV) A woman who behaves in this way has the approval of God.
What can we say about the meaning of gentle/gentleness in I Peter? How we say what we say in the event of making a defense must be without harshness, contempt, courseness, rudeness, and violence. It would include mildness by our avoiding threat or anger and certainly avoiding profanity. Body language would conform to mild speech. Ad hominem arguments would be unacceptable. More on this later. Make no mistake gentleness does not mean a lack of determination to make one’s defense as a witness to the opponent. Gentleness does not mean giving up one’s conviction out of timidity. To accede to the others’ threat is to fail to make a defense.
In his commentary on I Peter, J. Ramsey Michaels observes, “Gentleness is “. . . an inward quality or attitude of mind (cf. 3: 3-4), a profound acknowledgement of the power of God, and of one’s own poverty and dependence on Him (cf. Matt 5: 5). Yet this God-centered quality of the heart finds expression also in one’s behavior toward others'” (J. Ramsey Michael. I Peter. Word Books, Word Biblical Commentary, Waco, Texas, 1988. p. 189).
The second word is translated respect in the English Standard Version. Elsewhere it is translated fear or reverence. Michaels raises the question of whether respect has to do with God or other people. Before citing his view, let’s see how the word is utilized elsewhere in the epistle.
The Greek word, phobos, means fear. We have borrowed it into English in many instances–arachnophobia-fear of spiders; agoraphobia–fear of open places; hydrophobia–fear of water. The noun is used five times in I Peter. Its first use is found in I Peter 1: 17: “And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (I Peter 1: 17-19 ESV). The fear is reference to the fear of God. The word is tranlated repect in our central text in Chapter 3 The “time of exile” is this earthly life.
The Greek word in I Peter 2: 18 is translated as respect in ESV, the same translation as in our primary text in Chapter 3. Servants are instructed to obey their masters with respect, whether good and gentle or unjust. Note that the antonym in this context for gentle is translated as unjust. In 2: 17., the verse immediately before this passage, the community is exhorted to “Fear God,” The word is a verb, used three times in the letter.
Michaels concludes that both words have a reference both to our relationship to God and also our relationship to our neighbors including the hostile ones. (Michaels, p. 189) Michaels’ own translation of these two words is “humility and reverence,” a translation that seems to emphasize our relationship to God. We are commanded to proper conduct with our neighbor but also proper attitude toward God. Proper conduct in making a defense applies both to formal debate as well as to informal encounters.
In our conversations with unbelievers we are always to be guided by a relationship with God that has certain ethical consequences., Unbelievers do not have the same foundation as Christians. However, even unbelievers may be influenced by factors leading to conduct similar to Christians, but not with the same motivation. We will follow this thought in future posts.
Michael G. Tavella
March 23, 2019