Peter was writing to a group of persecuted Christians who had been converted to Jesus from a life of idolatry and superstition. They faced ridicule and defamation in society for their newly adopted faith, which discouraged participation in offering incense to the emperor in worship (the equivalent of the practice of saluting the flag in the United States). He encourages them to rejoice in spite of their sufferings (1 Pet. 1:6) and exhorts them, in a hostile environment, to “proclaim the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).
But how can they proclaim (announce publicly) when they have no voice in society, and those with whom they are to share “speak against you as evildoers,” “revile your good behavior” and “malign you” unfairly (1 Pet. 2:12; 3:16; 4:4)?
Peter was not saying they should set up a tent in the center of town, turn on loud speakers and preach about Jesus. Throughout his letter, Peter’s emphasis is on keeping “your conduct among the Gentiles honorable” (1 Pet. 2:12). In other words, Christians are to live as exemplary law-abiding citizens, which includes being “subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution [the emperor, governors, etc.]” (vs. 13). Slaves are to “be subject to your masters…not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust” (vs. 18). Christian wives married to non-believing husbands are to live peaceably with and in submission to their husbands so that “they [unbelieving husbands] may be won without a word by the [respectful and pure] conduct of their [Christian] wives” (1 Pet. 3:1-2).
Have you ever heard the famous statement made by St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” Some say that Francis’ actual words were, “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.” Whatever Francis’ actual words were, he seems to have captured well one of Peter’s main points. Ellen White expressed the same thought in the following words, “A kind, courteous Christian is the most powerful argument that can be produced in favor of Christianity” (Gospel Workers, p. 122).
Now don’t get me wrong. I believe that public proclamation of God’s goodness (the Gospel) is a powerful thing and should be done. I’m sometimes frustrated that we as a church don’t do enough of this. But what good is it to “proclaim” with words when our lives don’t reflect His life? I’m convinced that our connection with Jesus has to so radically transform the way we relate to one another that our lives will have an irresistible influence with people. Without this, our words are like “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1).