Reflection | We are starting a new section of Peter’s first letter to the scattered Christians throughout Asia Minor. As he prepares to both sum up as well as add to what he has previously shared about our posture towards suffering as a follower of Jesus, Peter begins with a word of endearment. “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” (verse 12).
Peter repeats an earlier point – that we, as Christians, should not be taken aback when we face hardships due to our faith in Jesus. It is a message that bears repeating because still today there are false teachers within the Church who insist we should expect nothing but health, wealth, and prosperity so long as we have faith and make God-pleasing choices. Peter, however, continues to counter any such teaching, telling those who follow Jesus to anticipate tribulations along the way.
As previously presented, Peter’s view of suffering for the faith is pragmatic. Suffering had been predicted by Jesus. Enduring affliction has been modelled to us by Christ. Therefore, encountering adversity is to be understood as part and parcel of being a follower of Jesus. This time around, however, Peter frames such struggles as trials or tests.
He is not suggesting that God somehow orchestrates the sufferings we encounter in order to assess the validity of our faith. The key to Peter’s meaning lies in his use of the picturesque phrase “fiery ordeal” to portray the troubles we face as believers. He is invoking a common biblical image for describing how our faith in refined and strengthened much like the process for purifying gold, silver, or other precious metals. God does not turn up the heat in our lives in order to test us, but God can and will work through the fires we go through in order to hone and mature our faith in Him.
It is with this understanding of the crucible of our faith that Peter offers the following instruction: “But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (verse 13). For most of us, rejoicing is the last response we would associate with the troubles we undergo as believers. Peter’s words here may seem to be an oxymoron at best, and unrealistic in actual practice. His counsel to us only makes sense and is feasible on the basis of our identification with Jesus.
Christ suffered on our behalf. His afflictions were not in vain or for naught. This is proven through the victory of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Therefore, as we suffer for Christ, our afflictions are not without meaning or significance either. In sharing in the sufferings of Jesus – as we endure the slings, arrows, and wounds borne of humbly serving others and even daring to gently love our enemies – we also will experience both the redemption and vindication of Christ as well. As Peter already has advised us, there will be redemption in that such goodness in the face of such evil will reveal the truth of the Gospel to a broken world. There will be vindication as well because like Jesus, thanks to Christ, we will rise to a better, future glory – life everlasting.
Peter expresses it this way: “If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.” (verse 14). Peter is repeating words that first came directly out of the mouth of Jesus during his famous Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5:11). In his own life as he has contended with his own share of difficulty and opposition for following Christ, Peter has experienced the truth of what he is asserting. Again, in associating God’s blessing with suffering for Jesus, Peter is not urging us to seek out pain and hardship in order to gain some sort of divine merit badge. Rather, Peter is testifying that we are not alone or without resources when we stand firm in the faith.
Others may insult or ridicule us, but God’s Spirit rests upon us. The Greek word translated as “rests upon” conveys the idea of relief, of renewal and refreshment. The blessing or the benefit we will receive when we suffer is that we will be strengthened not only to endure but to see beyond our present circumstances and into the promise of our future glory in Christ. In one sense, we draw the closest we possibly can to Jesus on this side of eternity when we share in his sufferings for this world.
A biblical example of what Peter is invoking here would be Stephen, the first martyr for the faith. Recounted in Acts, chapter 7, Stephen became surrounded by an angry and violent mob that was out for blood. And yet, in the midst of all the insults and threats he was facing, even as this murderous crowd began to stone him to death, two significant details about Stephen’s point of view are shared. First, we are told that Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit. Second, we are told that Stephen could visibly perceive the glory of God, Jesus before him. Stephen died not in despair or uncertainty but emboldened by the Spirit and perfectly clear in terms of into whose hands his life belonged.
Peter goes out of his way to clarify that not all suffering is the same. “If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name” (verses 15 and 16). Sometimes we convince ourselves as believers that we are not doing wrong when it is for the sake of something that we believe is right. In facing the consequences for acts of violence, appropriation, and interference done “in the name of the Lord,” we can attempt to portray these consequences as suffering for Christ.
Peter refutes any such claim. He cautions us that we should not confuse well-deserved penalties for crimes with genuine suffering for Jesus’ sake. No follower of Jesus has justification for doing anything immoral or evil. Peter has been repeatedly clear on this point. Even if we, as Christians, are being wrongfully persecuted, insulted, or falsely accused, we are called to good and not to retaliate or respond in kind.
For me, this opens up an interesting question about the extent to which we, as the Church, ought to be attempting to legislate morality for others. While, as Christians, we can and should seek to influence the society around us, how far is too far when we attempt to mandate or enforce Christian values in the effort to govern a world that is not entirely Christian? When exactly are we crossing the line Peter has laid out for us as we insist or demand for non-Christians to live by the values that we seek to push onto them without any sensitivity to their beliefs and practices?
Verse 16 is one of the few places in the New Testament where we find the term “Christian” being used. This designation only appears two other times in the Bible – in Acts 11:26 and Acts 26:28. More than likely this is because the origin of the word which means “little Christs” was an insult leveled by unbelievers to the first generation of believers. Peter’s encouragement to the Christians in Asia Minor is they should never bear any shame for being associated with the name of Jesus – especially when genuinely suffering for Christ. Evidently, this perspective was adopted within the early Church as, over time, those who followed Jesus embraced what was intended as a slur as profession of their faith in Christ!
Like them, we too ought to recognize the honor as well as the responsibility of bearing the name of Jesus. To call ourselves Christians is to indicate in whom we find our identity as well as to whom our ultimate allegiance belongs. At the same time, in professing to be Christians we need to be mindful of whom we are reflecting and representing through the words we say and the actions we take. Let us dare not give Jesus a bad name.
Peter concludes by asking us to step back and see the bigger picture. “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?” (verse 17). Right now, the Christians to whom he is writing are suffering for their faith in Jesus. To outsiders and especially to those who are persecuting them, it may appear as if these Christians are being judged by God. Peter however already has explained the Lord is not testing those who follow Him. No, the Lord is refining and steeling up their faith in the midst of what they are going through in order to increase their trust in and reliance upon Him.
And yet, Peter leans into this erroneous conclusion to suggest something disturbing. If an outsider wants to believe that those who seek to obey the Gospel are actually suffering the judgment of God, then those who reject Christ ought to expect much worse. To bolster his argument, Peter quotes from Proverbs 11:31: “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” (verse 18).
Peter further makes a sobering point regarding God’s judgment. God is willing to allow His dearly loved children to suffer under his judgment, in order to purify and rescue them. Consider then, that those who fully reject faith in Christ, declining the gospel, will experience far, far worse. Judgment is coming. God will reconcile all things in Christ. About this, Peter is clear. The question is, on which side of the ledger of God’s judgment does one choose to be? Through Jesus, God offers us grace – the grace of forgiveness, the grace of a transformed life.
Apart from Jesus, God has no grace to give. We stand before the Lord on the basis of our own record, the incomplete, inconsistent, and imperfect work of our lives. There is a difference between the kind of suffering that comes from learning, growth and character transformation in Christ and the suffering that results from disobedience, stubbornness, and pride. Given this, Peter finishes with this: “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (verse 19).
For Peter, the choice is clear. In this world we will have trouble. Better to face the trouble that comes from going the way of Jesus rather than going our own way. Rather than letting our outlook on life to be dictated by our circumstances which will change, let us fully and completely entrust our lives to God – the God who is unchanging in His love and mercy toward us. Instead of giving up and giving in to a spirit of vengeance, retaliation, and everyone for themselves, let us persist in doing good – doing what is right – being like Jesus, even when it hurts. For there will be a glorious answer to all our troubles in the name of Jesus.
Consider & Discuss | Have there been any instances where you witnessed others suffer for Christ with joy? If so, how were you impacted by their example? Have there been occasions when you were able to suffer with joy? If so, how did you do that? What were you doing that enabled you to get there? What was your mindset? What were the grounds of your joy? How has God used the pain and struggles of following Jesus with your life as means to refine your faith in Him? In what ways has the grace of God grown your trust in Jesus as well as your character in Christ? What hardships or suffering in your life right now is God working through for your refinement and maturity in Christ?
Prayer Focus | Gracious Lord, what our heads do not understand our hearts grasp, however weakly. As we look back on where we’ve been and how far we’ve come thanks to Your grace at work in our lives, we confess that You are always faithful and worthy of all our trust. Please remind us of this whenever suffering comes for Your sake. Continue to refine our understanding of the blessing and the privilege of becoming more and more like Christ. In the crucible of loving others – even our enemies – as You love us, we ask You to strip away everything that isn’t You. Redirect our focus away from the pain of the journey to Your presence with us every step of the way through the Holy Spirit. Strengthen our resolve to love like You love and to do good out of the goodness You impart into our lives. Open our eyes to see the big picture of what You are doing in this world and in us. And as we perceive Your glory being revealed both in us and through us, empower us rejoice – to rejoice in You. Amen.