In this study we take up 1 Peter 4:12-19, which continues Peter’s exhortations regarding Christian suffering. Indeed he focuses quite sharply on suffering as a Christian. Peter shares at least six things about Christian suffering in these verses. First, he declares that it’s to be expected. He writes, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you.” Christians are different from unbelievers. We have different values; we behave differently; and we interact with others differently. Indeed our living for God tends to create animosity in some unbelievers and even in some religious folks.
To take an Old Testament example, in the earliest days of humanity Cain, who was a religious man, nevertheless responded to the righteousness of his brother Able by killing him in a jealous rage. Similarly, the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day responded to his righteousness by plotting against Jesus and crucifying him. And Jesus taught his disciples that they should expect opposition and persecution from the world (John 15:17-16:4). So Peter simply was reminding his readers that nothing had changed. They should not be surprised that they were experiencing a fiery ordeal. Indeed they should expect as much.
Second, persecution is a test: “do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you.” This was not the first time Peter used the image of fire to describe the testing of persecution. Back in 1:6-7 Peter had suggested that the fire of persecution was testing the genuineness of the recipients’ faith. He repeats that idea here. We use the image of fire in the same way today. We say of someone who is undergoing a severe trial, “He is really going through the fire.” So suffering for Christ is to be expected, and it is a test.
Third, we are to rejoice when we suffer for Christ: “do not be surprised . . . But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings so that you may be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.” I like the way the NIV captures the sense of the last clause: “so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”
A biblical example is found in Acts 5:27 and following, where Peter and the other apostles were hauled before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem because of their witness for Jesus. They had been forbidden to teach in his name. But when arrested for doing it, Peter and the others testified, “We must obey God rather than men.” They were severely beaten as a result. But as verse 41 says, “As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.”
Unbelievers can’t understand this at all. They want to know how anyone can rejoice in suffering. The answer to that question is seen in the experience of those apostles. Their love relationship with Jesus overpowered the pain of their suffering. And the reason unbelievers fail to understand is because they never have experienced the grace of God. So we are to rejoice when we suffer for our Lord Jesus.
A fourth thing Peter tells us about Christian suffering is that such suffering is a sharing in Christ’s sufferings: “rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings.” The main question here is, what sufferings of Christ? Although there is a bit of a mystical element in Peter’s statement, I am convinced (along with most scholars) that Peter didn’t mean that we somehow share in the sufferings of Jesus’ passion. Christian suffering certainly has no saving value. On the other hand, I believe Peter meant more than simply the sentimental idea that Jesus’ is present with us when we suffer for him (Wiersbe). That certainly is true, but Peter undoubtedly had in mind more than that.
Peter wants us to understand that when we suffer and sacrifice for Christ, we are suffering as he suffered. Thus we identify with his suffering. It is a way of taking up our cross and following him. As the apostle Paul puts it in Phil. 3:10, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” Thus Peter and Paul agree that by suffering for Christ we somehow mystically enter into his sufferings. That’s why we can rejoice in the midst of terrible suffering.
All right, Christian suffering is to be expected. It is a test. We are to rejoice when we experience it. And it is a sharing in Christ’s sufferings. Fifth, Christian suffering ultimately is a way to God’s glory. Peter declares that we are to share in Christ’s sufferings “so that” we “may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. He is talking about the end time. Jesus’ glory will be revealed in all of its fullness when he comes again in the end time.
As you well know, the second advent of Christ is the time of judgment. It is the time when evil will be destroyed, when justice will be done, and when rewards and penalties will be finalized for the righteous and wicked alike. And as Peter tells us here, it also will be the time when Christ’s glory will be revealed.
Peter doesn’t explain the connection he sees between Christian suffering and God’s glory; but he undoubtedly sees a direct connection, because he intertwines the two themes here. Notice that Peter goes on to say in verse 14, according to the NRSV, “If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.” The NIV translates the last part, “you are blessed, for the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” I believe either translation is legitimate. And either way Peter meant this: just as there is a mystical connection between our suffering and Christ’s, there is a mystical connection between our suffering and God’s glory. Just as Jesus’ suffering ended in glory, so will our own.
The final point, the sixth, is that Christian suffering is a blessing to the Christian. Peter says, “you are blessed because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, rests upon you.” It is true, as Peter mentioned in verse 13, that our suffering will be transformed into glory in the end time. That is a great truth. But there is another great truth here. We don’t have to wait until the end time to experience God’s glory. We can experience it in the present through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. When we are filled with the Spirit, we are blessed by his presence. And to be filled with the Spirit while suffering enables us to experience God’s blessing in ways the unbelieving world cannot fathom. The presence of the Spirit explains the calm bravery of Christians who sang praises to God while facing lions in the Coliseum, or while bound to a stake in the midst of a blazing fire. Glory to God!
After setting forth the six points about Christian suffering, Peter quickly reminds us in verses 15-16 that not all suffering is appropriate. We must not suffer for criminal acts, or for inappropriate meddling in the affairs of others. That kind of behavior isn’t Christian. But if we suffer because we are a Christian, that glorifies God.
Then in verses 17-18 Peter gives the reason for proper behavior. God’s judgment is coming, and it will begin with God’s own people. Sometimes I wonder if Christians in general ever give any thought to that fact. Throughout the New Testament we are taught that God will judge all of us. We believers will not be judged for salvation. We already are part of God’s family, because we have confessed our sins, repented, and believed in Jesus. Therefore our sins are forgiven, and we are reconciled to God. But our works will be judged. And we will be rewarded, or not, accordingly.
Then Peter states the obvious. If we are to be judged, “what will be the end for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” The implication is that their judgment will be severe. And Peter quotes Pro. 11:31 to support his contention: “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinners?”
Then in verse 19 Peter concludes the entire section by giving us two exhortations about what to do when under persecution. Notice that Peter addresses those who are suffering in accordance with God’s will. Of course he means God’s permissive will. And he offers two instructions. First, they are to entrust themselves to a faithful creator. In other words trust God no matter what happens. And second, they are to continue to do good, meaning good works.