Key Verse: “Therefore let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator.” 1 Peter 4:19
The theme of suffering trials at the hands of unbelievers is one of the central topics in 1 Peter. Already in 1:6 the apostle had mentioned having been “grieved by various trials,” and ever since 3:13 he bas been developing the calling to endure in this suffering.
Every Christian following in the Master’s steps can expect abuse and affliction for His sake. Experiencing pain simply because you are a Christian can take the wind out of your sails. Believers who become the target of angry chants and hateful opposition can easily lose their confidence, if not their composure. A personal encounter with an unbelieving attacker may leave a Christian breathless with fear, wondering bow to behave and respond.
To that fear and perplexity Peter now turns.
Not surprise, but joy (read 4:12–13)
With tenderness the apostle begins a new section in his letter, addressing his readers in pastoral affection with the term “Beloved.” The deeper comfort behind this address is that his readers are the Beloved of the Lord!
Both the pain and the purpose of the abuse they are suffering Peter describes as “the fiery trial which is to try you.” The figure of purifying metal by fire clearly fits with God’s design in permitting this suffering. He wants to refine and discipline the faith-life of believers.
Rather than being surprised or bewildered, persecuted Christians should practice joy. Their continual joy will increase as they realize the degree to which they are sharing in Christ’s sufferings. Any one who is persecuted for Christ bears within himself the dying of Christ, so that Christ’s life may be manifested (Calvin). The basis for this joy is not persecution in itself, but participation and bonding with Christ. Moreover, our present joy at suffering for Christ prepares for an even deeper jubilation when later we will behold His glory. (Question 1)
Many today cannot live in terms of delayed gratification. People want instant answers and solutions; they are used to immediate purchases and pleasures. Relationships and customs and institutions that fail to provide immediate satisfaction are abandoned. Politics has become the art of legalized pandering lobbyists and legislators cooperate in securing as much as possible as quickly as possible for as many as possible. The ability to postpone gratification is essential to suffering persecution with joy. This spiritual ability is essential for all of life. Something better and more glorious is on the way. Therefore, endure! (Question 2)
Unashamed of Suffering (read 4:14–16)
In the beatitude that Peter pronounces upon those who are insulted because of the name of Christ we hear the echo of our Savior: “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad…” (Mt. 5:11–12).
Why are those who suffer abuse for Christ’s sake blessed? Because the Spirit of glory, who is in fact the Spirit of God, rests upon them. If there is any feeling that accompanies being treated like dirt for Christ’s sake, it is un-glory, disgrace. What a comfort to know that God’s very Spirit—a Spirit whose essence is glory—rests upon such believers, even as He once descended to rest upon Christ! In their suffering God’s children experience His presence, not His absence. The privilege of those who taste reproach for Christ is that they are covered by the Spirit through whom they share in the glory of God the Father.
With deep insight Calvin remarks, “[Peter] mentions reproaches [insults). because there is often more bitterness in them than in the loss of goods, or in the torments or agonies of the body….We see many people who are brave in bearing want, courageous in torments, and bold in the face of death, who yet succumb under reproach.”
Most modern versions omit the last sentence of verse 14: “On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified.” The slanderous effect of unbelieving persecution is offset by the surpassing glory given to God by His children.
But there is a difference between suffering as a wrongdoer and as someone who is innocent. If you suffer. it should not be as a murderer, a thief, and evildoer or as a meddler (v. 15). Two groups comprise this list, one with three members (murderer, thief and any other kind of wrongdoer), the other with a special category (busybody). We don’t know precisely what this latter involves, but we may be sure that it was disreputable and inconsistent with the Christian walk. Christians must mind their own business and not try to manage everybody else’s.
Yet, if anyone suffers for the name of Christ: as a Christianos, don’t be ashamed. The name “Christian” appears here and two other times in the Bible (Acts 11:26 and 26:28). It began to be used as a nickname (“Christniks”), probably as a term of contempt. Don’t be ashamed to wear the name, to be so bound to Jesus Christ that His name becomes the brand with which unbelievers mark and mock you. Rather, give glory to God in such circumstances. (Question 3)
Judgment for believers now, for the rest later (read 4:17–19)
Here is another reason for Christians to shoulder their sufferings without complaint. The season for divine judgment has arrived, and God’s house is first in line for cleaning. This notion of divine judgment among the covenant people was familiar from the Old Testament. God, who judges without partiality, will not spare His own people, but begins with the holy city and the holy temple. Prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Malachi preached forcefully that God will come to cleanse the priestly house, after which people will be permitted to bring before God fitting sacrifices. The Christian congregation is where the lightning of God’s judgment strikes first (Van Houwelingen).
But how does all this relate to Christians suffering persecution?
Believers suffering for Christ must realize that this purifying experience is a harbinger of the coming judgment of the world. This Peter emphasizes with two rhetorical questions, moving from the lesser to the greater. If believers suffer this way now, what will happen to unbelievers? If the righteous one is barely rescued, what will befall the ungodly?
What does it mean that “the righteous one is scarcely saved”? Calvin understands the apostle to mean that the way to salvation is thorny and difficult for God’s elect. We should not carelessly indulge ourselves, but travel very carefully as we pick our way through obstacles to faith and holiness. Our course in this world is like sailing between rocks in the middle of a storm; anyone who arrives safely in port has escaped a thousand deaths.
The passage concludes with the exhortation which forms the key verse for our lesson: “Therefore let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator” (v. 19). To suffer according to God’s will can mean two things: first, that suffering is part of God’s plan, His permissive will, for believers; and second, that believers must undergo suffering according to God’s will of precept.
It is good to emphasize this second sense, namely, that while we suffer we must obey God’s Word. For under persecution we may tend to excuse impiety and bitterness on account of ill treatment at the hands of the godless. The spirit of revenge may creep upon us, so that we exchange insult for insult and injury for injury.
The antidote to revenge is for Christians suffering for the faith to commit themselves into the hands of the faithful Creator. If their suffering lies within God’s permission, certainly they may count on His protection! Let them hand the reigns of their lives over to Him. Such trust is far from passive, for by surrendering themselves to this kind of Creator, believers are empowered to pursue good works, as the apostle reminds with his final words: “commit their souls to Him in doing good.” (Question 4)
As you read 1 Peter 4:12–19 once again, reflect on the many encouragements to persevere under persecution. Suffering Christians need not be discouraged, but may be filled with jubilation because they are sharing in the sufferings of Christ Himself. They need not be embarrassed or ashamed of their suffering, but may glory in their opportunity to glorify their God and Savior. They need not flee the pain and discipline of persecution, but may prepare themselves for deliverance by the hand of their faithful and powerful Creator who one day will call everyone to account for their conduct. “Blessed are you when men revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt. 5:11–12).
Questions for Reflection and Reply
1. Mention several reasons why believers might be surprised by persecution. What are some ways in which Christians try to insulate themselves from or avoid persecution for Christ’s sake?
2. Someone who yearned for entertaining worship and enthusiastic church life said, “After all, we should be able to enjoy our religion.” Why is this kind of enjoyment incompatible with suffering persecution? How does this “en-joy-ment” differ from the kind Peter is describing?
3. “Sticks and stones may break my hones, but words will never hurt me.” Is this entirely true, partially true or entirely false? Explain why.
4. In the light of verse 19, explain the connection between your view of creation and your view of Christian suffering. How does belief in evolution affect a person’s ability to handle suffering generally, and persecution in particular?