One thing for sure about the believers to whom Peter was writing is that there was suffering in store for them. Listen to what the apostle says in verses 12-19 of chapter 4. Just ahead is a “fiery trial” – they will “share Christ’s sufferings” – they may be “insulted” – hopefully none will be suffer as “murderer . . . thief . . . evildoer . . . or meddler” – but some will suffer “as a Christian” – as members of the household of God, “judgment” will begin with them – even though they are “righteous” they will be “scarcely saved” – they are to trust God and do good since they “suffer according to God’s will.”
Not a bright picture, you say. True in one sense, but let’s look at what else is being said about suffering in the same sequence of verses. In v. 13 they are told to rejoice so that when Christ’s glory is revealed they may enjoy an even “greater gladness” (NJB). If they are “insulted” for believing in Christ they will be blessed because God’s glorious Spirit” will rest on them (v. 14). They are not to be “ashamed” but to “glorify God” (v. 16). Now the picture is brought into balance; there is suffering ahead but there are also rewards for enduring trouble with a happy heart.
Why do Christians suffer? And there are a number of places in the world right now where believers are suffering for their trust in Christ. According to the Voice of the Martyrs (founded by Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian Jew who converted to Christianity during the Marxist regime), Christians in Mindanao are being killed by terrorists who believe that killing a Christian will guarantee them entrance into heaven. Only a few months ago in Columbia, Alicia Castilla was killed by assassins in front of her children during a visit from the family pastor. And North Korea is the most oppressive regime in the world, imprisoning, torturing and murdering Christians for the ”crime” of believing in Christ.
It seems that Christians suffer because they have accepted a way of life unacceptable to others. It has boundaries. But why should that bother others? If I understand from Scripture that a certain lifestyle is contrary to God’s will, why should that make a difference to someone else? Isn’t it a private decision? Years ago on a ”champaign flight” from Minneapolis to Chicago I turned my glass upside down indicating that I didn’t care for wine. My seatmate, after his second glass, caught my attention and remarked, “There’s one thing about the teaching of Jesus, you’re not supposed to judge.” What? I hadn’t said a word. But obviously my decision not to drink bothered him. Perhaps he caught himself acting against his own conscience.
Obviously being killed is a long way from being considered a bit strange, and it doesn’t take long to decide which you would prefer. But in both cases the opposition arises from the Christian’s decision to believe and order his life according to the teaching of Scripture. Why does that bother the outsider? Perhaps because deep down the other senses that by not believing he will ultimately find himself on the wrong side and have to suffer the penalty. The struggle against God’s “inner call” leads people to react in many ways, from quiet opposition to killing. Isn’t it remarkable that suffering “according to God’s will” provides an occasion for rejoicing!
In the early 60s of the first century the apostle Peter wrote a letter to some Christian believers who were beginning to suffer persecution. In the 4th chapter of 1 Peter the readers are told that “the end of all things is near,” but now, some 2,000 years later, the end has not yet come! Was Peter wrong or is there some way to explain his position that doesn’t undermine the reliability of scripture?
It doesn’t help that other New Testament writers seem to hold the same position. Writing to the believers in Thessalonica, Paul said that he expected to be alive when the Lord would return (4:15) and later to the church in Corinth that “the time is short" (1:7). Then, three times in the Apocalypse John quotes the risen Christ as saying, “I am coming soon” (Rev 22:7, 12, 20). What do we make of this?
One answer is that the three sources quoted were simply wrong. Perhaps their desire morphed into reality. For the person who doesn’t believe that the scripture is trustworthy, that is a perfectly acceptable solution. However the historic Christian church has always held that God was perfectly able to reveal himself through scripture in a dependable fashion. He does not lead the faithful astray. So for God, through his spokesmen John, to say that Jesus would return “soon” means . . . well, just what it says – soon, not in the distant future.
Another answer is to rely on 2 Peter 3:8 where we read that “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years.” That would validate “soon” because from then until now would be only a couple of days. But the instructions that follow depend upon the nearness of the end. Why get ready for something that is so many centuries away?
Still another way to solve the problem is to hold that the end is always near for everyone. Who knows about the car accident that’s just around the corner? Christ returns “soon” for each of us when understood in this way. While that is perfectly true, had that been the writer’s intention, there were numerous ways he could have stated it with clarity. It doesn’t necessarily honor God to dream up some way to let him off the hook.
The most satisfactory explanation is that the “last days” began a long time ago with the resurrection and ascension of Christ. After casting a demon out of a man who couldn’t speak, Jesus said, “If I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you (Luke 11:20). The author of Hebrews speaks of “these last days” in which God has spoken to us by his Son (Heb. 1:2). So Peter, Paul and John are right in their statements about the end of all things being in the very near future; the last days had already begun with the advent of Christ and with his second return the “end” will have been completed.
As Peter continues his letter (he is in what we call chapter 4 by now) he seems to be caught up by the Spirit and carried along in a cause-and-result sequence. Since the end is near (v. 7) we are to love oneother more and more (v. 8), which leads us to use our gifts for the benefit of the other (v. 10). His first example of this noble way of life is that we should “speak as though God himself were speaking through us” (NLT). Since Peter is discussing gifts of the Spirit, if follows that “speaking” undoubtedly refers to teaching or preaching.
The word “preach” can be used of a wide range of verbal activity all the way from a lofty oration on the righteous nature of a sovereign God to a verbal tongue lashing on failing to tithe. It is in the latter sense that some preachers seem to spend an exorbitant amount of time “preaching” at (not to or for) us. Preachers, almost by definition, appear to be experts in scolding. One day, after listening to his dad preach a fiery sermon, the preacher's son asked,, “Why are you always so mad in the pulpit?” The Greek New Testament has two distinct words that in earlier translations were both translated “to preach” – euangelizo, “to announce the good news,” and kerysso, “to proclaim” (in ancient days the town crier was a kerux.) The idea of belittling the conduct of others, especially from the pulpit, has no etymological sanction in the Greek text.
The best definition of “preaching” that I know is captured in the statement, “The role of the preacher is to lead people into the presence of God.” Peter would agree. We noted in the passage under consideration that when we speak it is to be as though God had put the very words in our mouth. And of course he does. The miracle of effective preaching is that although the minister provides the words as he explains scripture, it is the Spirit who invades the process and the words used by a man become the words of God. The preacher is the conduit through whom God speaks to the heart of the listener. God himself is the real “preacher” who becomes incarnate in words supplied by man. The preacher’s task is to study what God has already said through his spokesmen of old (that is, scripture), explain it as best he can, then step back and let God speak. He wants to use you but he is the real preacher.
Is anyone surprised about the way you live? Peter puts that question to the first century believers to whom he is writing. He has just described pagan conduct as “living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry” (4:3) and then speaks of their surprise that Christians didn’t “join them in their reckless, wild living” (4:4). Not only that, they heaped abuse on the believers for their sterile lifestyle. If Peter were with us today he might well ask if anyone has expressed surprise about the way we live?
I remember someone asking a similar question: “If you were in a dictatorial country and on trial for being a Christian, could they find enough evidence to convict you?” It struck me that I was sufficiently like my secular friends that I could probably get by. And that’s the problem. We weren’t called to be like the nonbeliever but to be transformed into the image of Christ. We are sojourners. We have the accent of heaven. The soldiers around the fire on the night Jesus was being examined by the high priest knew that Peter was a Galilean because he had the accent.
Some have solved the problem by dressing differently. The burka identifies the Muslim, the bonnet the Mennonite. Others have done it with a sort of religious rigidity; the kind of person to whom you want to say, “If you’re happy, let your face know it.” Certainly there is as better way. God doesn’t make people look different he makes them different. And that difference is the result of seeing all of life from a heavenly point of view. It is an inward transformation that permanently alters who we are and how we act. How then do people view us? Well, in Peter‘s case they were saying something like, “And what kind of a religious wall flower are you? Come on, the pub’s still open and the bawdy house never closes.”
So, from one standpoint it doesn’t look too good to follow Christ. It makes us different. Gives others the chance to feel superior. So? That’s their problem. We have the joy of joining the apostle Paul in his deep desire to know Christ and to participate in his sufferings (Phil 3:10, cf. Rom 8:17). No one knows exactly how that will work out on a personal basis but we are to embrace the future with enthusiasm because we are on the right side of history. Be different, I dare you.
From time to time in the history of biblical interpretation it has been thought that Peter and Paul were somewhat at odds in their theological positions. That such was never the case is clear when one compares 1 Peter 4:1-2 with Romans 6:-11. Both encourage believers to regard sin as belonging to the past and having no place in their new life in Christ. For the moment let’s look at what the apostle Peter has to say.
In verse 2 he points out two different ways of living. The first is not really an option although the marginal believer may consider it so. It is to be, as the NJB puts it, “ruled . . . by human passions” (the NLT puts it, “chasing your own desires,” not quite as interpretive as the NIV’s “evil human desires.”) Both Peter and Paul teach that being in Christ, that is, being identified with him in his death and resurrection, is to have been separated from sin. Living under the control of the old nature is not an option for those who share life with the resurrected Christ. That is the mindset that is to control the life and outlook of the believer.
The other, and only, way of living for the believer is to be “controlled by God’s will” (TEV). Simply put, it boils down to this: the one who stands with the Lord against the world with its opposition to all that is good and holy, is to no longer have anything to do with those desires that controlled his pre-conversion life but to commit himself without reserve to the will of God. It seems strange to have to make this point. How could anyone who has tasted the goodness of God have any appetite for what he once was experiencing!
We have heard it said, “Try it, you’ll like it.” Perhaps that’s the answer to our conundrum. Have we ever really tried absolute surrender to the will of God? It has also been noted that all too often the average believer has just enough worldliness to take the pleasure out of his religion, and just enough religion to spoil the fun of his worldliness. You remember, I’m sure, the words of Christ to the church at Laodicea, that it would be better for them to be either hot or cold than to be, as they are, lukewarm (Rev 3:15-16). Scripture has a way of telling it as it is. Would it not be better to give God’s way a serious try rather than excuse ourselves on the basis that it demands too much?
I have always been told that the Christian faith is countercultural. Apparently that was in fact true in the early days of the faith. Believers were often excommunicated for refusing to revere the patron god of their family trade. In times of severe persecution they chose to die at the stake rather than to deny their Lord. Peter is certainly expressing a countercultural point of view when he writes, “It is better . . . to suffer for doing good than for doing evil” (3:17). That is certainly not the contemporary wisdom that says, “Suffering may be inevitable but it is never desirable.”
What puts the issue in another light for the believer is the clause I omitted from the above citation – “If it is God’s will.” Scripture teaches the beneficial role of suffering in life, specifically when God has willed it (cf. Job.) It isn’t all that important whether the suffering comes as the result of doing good or doing evil.
This brings up the question of why God does what he does. Why does he sometimes will what we simply do not want? Why doesn’t he tell us why? So we sit and grumble wondering why, or surrender in silence. I’ve got a suggestion: Why not have it out with him! He taught us to pray “Abba, Father,” so certainly as a father he’ll help us, if possible, to understand. What I’m suggesting is that we go to him as a child, one who genuinely wants to know. Take advantage of the intimacy he offers.
Psychology speaks of “levels of intimacy.” A relationship may be one of five different levels, all the way up from what you might expect in a weather report, to a closeness in which we discuss our thoughts and feelings about each another. Shouldn’t prayer be a level 5 experience? Are we not privileged to talk to God as Father? Won’t he understand? If the prophet Habakkuk can confront him with the challenge, “How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?” why would we think it wrong to adopt a similar approach? I’m not saying he would provide a complete answer, but at least we’d have the satisfaction of intimacy. Tell it like it is, say what you really mean, do your best to get an answer. He may respond by showing us that problems are intended for our good. So be it! In such a case, join with Job and declare, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.” At least we’ve talked it over, intimately.
One common view of the Christian faith is that since it is personal and subjective it cannot be verified in any objective way. Religion is something people feel, not something they can establish on rational grounds.
Peter would not agree. In chapter 3 verse 15 he counsels his readers to “make a defense” (the Greek is apologia) for all who ask about your hope. While the English cognate “apology” usually signifies an expression of regret for having insulted or injured another, it can also be used of a legal defense or justification. Plato’s Apology is his version of Socrates’ defense against the charge of “corrupting the youth.” You may be sure it was logical and persuasive!
Granted, when challenged to defend his faith the first century believer did not have the advantages of a 21st century apologist. By now, almost two thousand years later, the Christian faith has been defended by some of history’s finest minds. World-views have been clearly differentiated and the Christian understanding of reality is the most persuasive. No other frame of reference can handle the complexity of both nature and man. But that does not mean that early Christians were unable to articulate what they believed in a logical and cogent manner. They knew that a Jewish Galilean by the name of Jesus had come and lived among them. He taught them remarkable things not only about life but about his own identity. He was the Son of God, come down from heaven to fulfill God’s redemptive purposes by dying on a cross as a sacrifice for mankind’s sins. Granted, that is preposterous – unless, of course, it is true. For the early Christians it was true because this same Jesus rose from the dead and spent some 40 days with them.
And that is how first century Christianity “defended“ the faith to all who asked. They had no responsibility to convince others. Peter didn’t ask them to do that. The role of convincing belongs to the Holy Spirit. Our part is simply to tell the story, and we are to do it “with gentleness and respect” (v. 15). In one sense the Christian faith doesn’t need to be defended because like everything else that is genuine, it has “the ring of truth.” Both from without (world-view credibility) and within (personal dynamic) it transforms those who believe, and that is its ultimate validation.