April is L-Plate month, where I’ve turned over this website to my students. They are studying an introductory preaching subject this semester, and writing for this website is part of their assessment, as well as a learning exercise for them. I’m hoping you’ll interact with them a bit via the comments function at the bottom of each post, offering some feedback. (Particularly, feedback that’s constructive or affirming – they’ve got me to deliver the negative stuff! Remember, some of them will never have preached before, and some have English as their second language.) They will then incorporate this feedback in a sermon they present in class at the end of semester.
We continue today in 1 Peter.
1 Peter 4:12-19 | Davide Verlingieri
12-19 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15 If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. 16 However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” 19 So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.
I read this section of Peter’s letter and I ask myself, “Why on earth would any sane person ever rejoice when they suffer?!” Most of my life has been an endeavour to avoid suffering, if possible, at all costs. When I contribute to a charity, I do it, to help alleviate or eradicate suffering in whatever form it may be, eg. Hunger, poverty, slavery etc. The way I order my life, eat, sleep, work and play is aimed, in part, at preventing suffering. Think about it, the Panadol and Nurofen, that I carry with me everywhere I go, is not for the purpose of helping me become ecstatically happy without getting rid of the pain I’m suffering! Yet it seems that Peter is telling the recipients of the letter to do exactly this – to rejoice in their suffering.
Imagine the following scenario: You’re living in a country where Christianity is illegal. Because you’re a Christian you’ve received constant insults, threats and ill treatment. Eventually, this turns into a violent anti-Christian outburst which leaves you badly battered, bruised, and bleeding until you pass out. You wake up in a hospital bed and when you wake you see your pastor, sitting beside you, looking over you. You force a painful smile, grateful for the comfort and care of his visit, and then he speaks…
“Congratulations… – that this has happened is great! I’m so happy for you! I’m rejoicing with you at this moment! Praise God! God is good!”
What would you think? How would you feel hearing this? It sounds more like he’s congratulating you for the birth of a healthy child, not for being beaten almost to death for your faith.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting for a second, that we become masochistic and find some kind of twisted pleasure in suffering – this is definitely not what I believe this passage of divinely inspired scripture is talking about. But, I do believe there are definite truths to be found here that may not necessarily be our natural reaction towards suffering.
As Christians, we should expect suffering – from the world, and also as a result of dying to the world. Jesus made this quite clear to His disciples when He told them they would be persecuted just as He was (John 15:20), and to take up their cross and follow Him (Luke 9:23), and therefore dying to the world/self. Peter refers to this expected suffering as a test to prove the genuine nature of our faith (see also 1:7). But he goes on to explain that when we suffer as Christians, we are actually participating in Christ’s sufferings. And if, we participate in His sufferings, then we will also share in the joy of His glory. This doesn’t mean that by suffering we earn the right to this great promise. It simply holds up our sufferings as evidence of our inclusion into the promise. It was Jesus’ sufferings that did the atoning work that made it possible for our inclusion… and this is precisely why we should rejoice.
The reason we rejoice is that every time we suffer because we are Christians, (and not for other reasons such as our misdemeanours, or our own bad judgement – see vs15), this serves to heighten the promise that we hold on to. It’s not as though we are suffering for no reason – we endure suffering because we know the prize that awaits us! Thus we can rejoice – not for the experience of suffering in itself, but because we have the amazing privilege of being one of God’s chosen people. When we suffer because we bear the name of Christ, it serves to strengthen our identity in Him. After all, if we didn’t identify ourselves with Christ then we wouldn’t be suffering. A good way to illustrate this is when you consider racism. When a group of people are marginalised because they are a different race, even though they may live in Australia, they tend to group together and become even more patriotic to their nation of origin than they originally were. Also, consider the way Peter addresses this letter in 1:1-2, “…To God’s elect, exiles scattered… …who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God…” We are God’s elect!! We have been chosen by God! WOW! Hey, I reckon I can probably endure a bit of suffering in this world in light of this truth! When Peter uses the word “exiles” in reference to them, he reminds his readers that this present world is not their home. He reminds them that their future is not bound with the current world with all its sufferings and pain. Similarly with us; this present world is not our home – our future is bound with Christ where He will wipe every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more death, mourning, crying or pain. Therefore suffering seems to keep in the forefront of our minds, our identity in Christ, and our temporary sojourn in this world, and our election by God – which truly gives us reason to rejoice and praise God.
Let’s keep in mind that Peter was most probably writing this letter during a time when Christians were being persecuted, thrown to wild animals in arenas, and were being used as human candles to light the Emperor Nero’s garden. Their suffering was very intense – and I’d be hard pressed to say that in Australia we experience any suffering remotely close to what the first century believers experienced. However, as I mentioned above suffering can also come as a result of us dying to the world – and this is what I feel is more relevant to most Christians in 21st century Australia. You see, to die to the world and live as foreigners in a strange land, we exclude ourselves (willingly), from all the world has to offer.
It is true that we may be discriminated against at work because we are Christian, or not get the promotion because we refuse to compromise, or even suffer the contempt of people who think we are close minded and in need of a “crutch”. Granted, none of these experiences are pleasant, however I think our suffering goes beyond this. Our suffering may mean that we are called to forsake the great Australian dream of owning our own house and land, and invest in things which have eternal significance – such as providing for the poor, hungry and homeless. Or, it may mean that we forsake the high paying executive position in order to donate our time and service to advocating for the oppressed. I’m not saying that these things are necessarily wrong, so please don’t misunderstand my intent and rush out as sell your homes. What I’m trying to say is that to truly follow Christ means that we ought to be prepared to give up everything. It requires us to lay down our desires in exchange for those which conform to the will of God. It requires us to keep from becoming choked in the “thorny” cares of this world, to weed the “soil” of our hearts and seek to bear good fruit. It is living through the daily grind of the world and its tide of influence, and not succumbing to it. This I believe is the suffering that afflicts us these days.
But as mentioned earlier, this suffering is the test to prove the genuineness of our faith, and Peter does warn about giving in to the overwhelming pressure we face. He writes that we should not be ashamed if we suffer as a Christian (remember what Jesus said about being ashamed in Luke 9:26). He then speaks of judgement which begins with God’s household, and this is clearly a reference to the body of believers – i.e. we, as the Church. This judgement can’t possibly refer to the wrath of God as punishment for sin as we know that Jesus took that upon Himself on the cross. Furthermore, if it was God’s wrath against sin, then how does that work in light of how verse 15 seems to work? It wouldn’t make sense. I believe that this judgement is more of a judicial decision rather than an outpouring of wrath. It seems that this judgement serves to separate those of genuine faith from those whose faith is not. (Think of Jesus discourse about separating sheep from the goats in
Matthew 25:31-46). After all, you wouldn’t give up your eternal security because of a temporary suffering, unless you either didn’t believe it to be real, or you despise it.
Perhaps it does help to think of rejoicing in our suffering similar to the congratulations received when someone discovers they are pregnant. After all, nine months of discomfort, constant nausea and vomiting, fatigue, random food cravings, cramping, dizziness, mood swings, and back pain, is only worthwhile enduring because of the joy of the child to be born. In fact, every ache, pain and discomfort suffered during that period is a reminder that the child is soon to come. The daily struggle is faced with the anticipated joy of what will be. A person will only persist through these suffering because they know a baby is on the way. If I person who is not pregnant suffers all these symptoms, I can assure you, they will do all they can to escape the suffering. Likewise, a person will only endure suffering for being a Christian if they truly have faith in the gift of God.
To stretch this metaphor even further, the only other instance in which a pregnant mother will not tolerate the suffering of pregnancy is if they despise the baby. (Be it for whatever reason; unwanted, endangers the life of the mother, etc.) In this case, an abortion is normally the result, (and please do not misunderstand me to be making judgements on the ethical questions surrounding abortion). I believe that in verses 16-18 Peter is also warning believers against ‘aborting’ the gift they have been given by succumbing to the pressures associated with suffering, and denying the faith they previously claimed, (think of the parable of the sower- rocky soil).
The good news is that God does not leave us to endure this suffering alone and without help – God gives us His Spirit, who rests upon us (vs 14). This serves to further heighten God’s grace upon us, because it gives us the assurance of knowing that even when our sufferings are more than we can bear, God is ever present with us to help us. Our confidence doesn’t rest on our own weak willed determination which all too often lets us down. Rather we rely on the grace of God to assist us in all our greatest hours of need, for He is faithful. Therefore, as we suffer we should give ourselves wholly in dependence to God, understanding that He is the all-powerful Creator of the universe. We are safe in His hands. With this assurance we can rejoice in our suffering while still continuing to do good.