No one wants to suffer. When suffering comes to us for following Christ, we are surprised, even shocked and dismayed, especially when our lives have been comfortable. How could our communities or families consider us in the wrong? Why would they mistreat us? Why was it that those who love evil, and hate God, could harm us and our loved ones?
In 1 Peter 4:12 and following, the apostle Peter brings the Word of Christ with great tenderness to us: 'Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you, as though something strange were happening to you' (4:12). The tone is loving, gentle, and firm at the same time. Persecution, for some including literal fiery trial--Nero was emperor--was coming upon the church. But the fiery trial itself is not the problem Peter addresses. The problem he points out is a response of startled astonishment and fear (cf. 3:14). As a new wave of persecution was about to break on the churches of Asia Minor, the Lord steadies his church using Peter, who had himself both struggled (Luke 22) and triumphed (Acts 5:29) under the pressures of persecution. He reminds us that we should expect persecution in this present world.
Rather than being surprised by persecution and thinking it strange, the church is 'to rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed' (4:13). Peter is well aware of Jesus' teaching in the sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake... Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:10-12). Through Peter, our Lord reminds us that where we share in his humiliation, we can expect to share in his exaltation.1 The day of his return will be a day of exuberant joy for his people.
Peter encourages us further: 'if you are insulted for Christ's name, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you' (4:14). What the world hates is the sight of Christ in us: "because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you... if they persecuted me, they will also persecute you" (John 15:19-20). Where the church or an individual believer suffers for the cause of Christ, it is clear evidence of their union with him. Suffering mistreatment because of Christian faithfulness confirms a great reality: "the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you" (4:14). Peter draws on the language of Isaiah 11:2, with its prophecy of Spirit of the Lord resting upon the coming Savior. It also echoes Jesus' promise to his disciples of the presence of the Holy Spirit with them (cf. Matthew 10:20; Luke 12:12; John 15:16-17). The comfort is profound: the Triune God is for and with his suffering children (Romans 8:31).
Suffering for Christ, not because of sin (4:15-16)
The rich comfort of this passage of God's Word brings with it caution and a call to self-examination. Peter has already reminded the church that they can rejoice in suffering, "insofar as you share Christ's sufferings" (4:13) and "if you are insulted for the name of Christ" (4:14). There are sufferings that, though Christians bear them patiently, are not the result of praiseworthy causes. Peter exhorts 'but let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler' (4:15). Suffering for Christ's sake must not be confused with suffering as a consequence of our own sin, as becomes evident in the subsequent sentence.2 'Yet if anyone does suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name' (4:16). There is a close parallel to these verses in the previous chapter: "For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God" (3:20-21). Here, though, there is further instruction for the persecuted. While the world seeks to shame the Christian for their non-conformity to its pursuits, we are not to be ashamed of Christ, nor of faithfulness to him--even where we suffer for it. To be ashamed is to shrink back from giving God the glory due him.
Entrusting ourselves to God (4:17-19)
Suffering of any kind, and perhaps especially the suffering of persecution raises the question, why? Calvin states that if a comparison is made it may seem that God allows the reprobate to have a fairly easy life, while being severe towards his children.3 This troubles us, but the Word provides a humbling and good answer, placing suffering for Christ in the context of God's judgement: 'For it is time for judgement to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And "If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?"' (4:17-18).
God is perfectly holy, just, wise, and good. Whatever suffering we experience in this life, even the "injustice" of persecution, is far less than what we deserve as sinners. Yet, for those in Christ, his judging of his people "the household of God" (4:17) is not condemning, "but the purging, chastening and purifying of the church by the loving hand of God."4 It is for our sanctification, our present and eternal good. The contrast set before us in the text is that if God is so serious about our holiness that he allows hardships, even fiery trials of persecution, then what will happen to those who remain in sinful rebellion against him until they die? Spurgeon states, "if God puts even the gold into the fire, what is to become of the dross?"5 A comfortable life in sin is not better than a life of suffering for Christ: the former ends in judgement to never-ending suffering, the latter concludes in eternal joy, blessedness and peace.
This stark contrast brings us to Peter's conclusion: 'Therefore let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good' (4:19). Our lives, including our sufferings are in the Father's hands. The Son, as the captain of our salvation, has also suffered, for us (Hebrews 2:9-18). He has led the way, steadily doing good, through suffering, to glory, "entrusting himself to him who judges justly" (2:23). The faithfulness of God, the Creator of the heavens and earth, is sealed in Christ's suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension. He is ever faithful, "for he cannot deny himself" (2 Timothy 2:13). We have every reason for confidence in him as we follow in his steps.
You and the Word
Have you ever suffered as a consequence of faithfulness to Christ? If you never suffer for Christ, why not? Is it because of complacency or compromise? Is it because you love yourself more than you love God, and as a result there is little or nothing of Christ's character in you? When we suffer it is good for us to reflect on the extent to which our sufferings are because of faithfully following Jesus. When we do suffer for his sake, we have every reason to be profoundly thankful, rejoicing now and being glad when his glory is revealed.
1. Spurgeon, Kindle edition.
2. Dwight F. Zeller, 1 Peter: An exegetical procedure which explores the Epistle of 1 Peter (Westcliffe, Colorado: Sangre de Cristo Seminary, 2009), 211.
3. Calvin, 139.
4. John MacArthur, 1 & 2 Peter: Courage in Times of Trouble (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 47.
5. Spurgeon, Kindle edition.
6. Thomas Kelly, "The Head that once was crowned with thorns" in Trinity Hymnal (Suwanee, GA: Great Commission Publications, 1990), 298.
William VanDoodewaard is an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church who serves as Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. This article is an excerpt from his recently published "Feed My Sheep" A Commentary on 1 & 2 Peter. Welwyn Series Commentary (Evangelical Press, 2017).