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Perspectives on Suffering


Passage: 1 Peter 4:7-19

Speaker: Dan Doriani

Sermon for Sunday, January 18, 2009
Dr. Dan Doriani


1 Peter 4:12-19

1. Don't be surprised at trials (4:12)

1 Peter returns to the theme of alienation, persecution and trials again and again. Here, the last time he raises the subject, he states six principles, six ways to survive trials.

Peter opens with a bold, direct command: "Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you" (4:12).

"Don't be surprised," Peter says, because trials are not strange. Peter predicts them. Jesus often told his disciples to expect them: "In this world you will have trouble" (John 16:33). He said, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom" (5:10, English Standard Version).

Happily, Jesus also says, "Take heart, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). Further, in God's economy, the result of trials is positive: They proved we belong to and follow Jesus, our Master (Matthew 10:24-25), they secure our reward in heaven (5:10-12), and prove your faith is real.

This is Peter's third call to endure the trials and suffering that afflicted the first believers living in a hostile Roman Empire. The apostle warns of trouble because he wants to shepherd his people. If they are prepared for adversity, they can endure, possibly even thrive. As we read Peter, we listen to an urgent personal word. "Dear friends," he says, and then he warns them of imminent danger.

Since we still live in times of relative ease, we might feel that Peter's warnings are for other people and other times. When life is easy, who needs counsel about trials and suffering? So it's probably easier for us to hear Peter today than it was a year ago. It’s easier in hard times.

Not that we face genuine persecution. Whatever hostility Western believers endure, it barely compares to the troubles of believers in parts of Asia and Africa today or in Rome in Peter's day. They needed every word from Peter.

Yet our economic distress gives us an opportunity to identify with the problem of undeserved suffering. Many of us have lost jobs. Some lost substantial wealth and income. Why? Not because we did something wrong. We did not refuse to work or lose our skills.

No, we suffer because people in New York, Washington, California and Iceland made decisions. We reap the results even if we had little or no role in those decisions. Whenever we suffer due to actions beyond our control, we taste the life experience of the first Christians. They suffered even though they did nothing wrong. Indeed, they suffered because they did something right: they left the folly of pagan polytheism. So, let Peter teach us how to face adversity.

Peter says we must not be surprised at our painful trials. This world is full of tribulation of all sorts. Let's list some causes of suffering

We suffer because we live in a fallen world. We suffer brokenness even when no human does evil. A flock of birds strike a plane and send it down. We face illness, disease, storms and floods. Sadly, we sometimes compound natural disasters. We mismanage the land and our rivers so that heavy rain becomes a flood and a light harvest becomes famine.

We suffer because we get tangled up with evil men. We suffer under teachers, coaches and leaders who are careless or lazy or malicious. Foolish leaders start wars and the foot soldiers die. We suffer when friends and family say cruel things or break promises.

We also suffer due to our own sins. We suffer broken promises, but we also break promises and lose friends as a result.

Here Peter addresses the worst evil: deliberate malice. Some people will try to harm Christians simply because they trust Jesus and follow him.

We may never suffer direct persecution, but Peter's words about suffering speak to all. His first point is clear. Suffering is not strange. Don't let it surprise you. The world is a magnificent ruin, beautiful but ravaged by sin. Don't forget it.

I’ve been reading a book called “Shantung Compound.” It’s the story of fifteen hundred Europeans and a couple hundred Americans who were interred in about one city block in Japan from 1943 to 1945. They weren’t abused, but had scant food. Most were professionals that had to perform the most menial tasks. They had no health care. They were ten or eleven in one small room. It was a very difficult life. yet, as you read the story, they actually did OK. One reason is that a lot of the people were Christian missionaries, evangelists or mercy workers and they knew what the Bible says – don’t be surprised. They weren’t surprised and they made the best of it.

So: Don't be surprised. The more you expect trouble, the more you will be prepared for it.

Peter speaks to unjust suffering in each section of his letter. Chapter 1: Disciples must know that we will often be outsiders, strangers and aliens in this age. At best we should live an exemplary life so our good deeds silence false accusations (1:1, 2:12).

Chapter two: When mistreated, we must bear it patiently and entrust ourselves to God, the judge. We must never return evil for evil. If you must suffer, suffer for doing what is right (2:18-23).

Chapter three: Peter warns about serious troubles, even persecution. He asks, "Who will do evil to you if you are zealous for what is good?" (3:13). The question is set up in Greek to invite the answer, "No one." Yet, he says you just might suffer because you are good. "But even if you should suffer on account of righteousness, you are blessed." The Greek of 3:13, 3:7 uses a rare verb form typically used for remote or theoretical possibilities. Yet he gradually moves his readers to expect trouble.1 It could just happen; be prepared if it does. Here: "Do not be surprised by painful trials (The Greek is xenivzesqe, a negative present imperative.) That form suggests that they are surprised, and should stop being surprised. Jesus both modeled and predicted this. It should not be a surprise. It is a result of our union with Christ.

Yet we see why it would be a surprise. Peter's people were never cultural outsiders before, so they never faced irrational prejudice. Recently they had turned to God; they could expect him to bless them for that, make their life better. But instead it got worse. Of course, they might be surprised.

Once I preached a guest sermon in the city of brotherly love. As always, a few people wanted to comment on the sermon afterward. One said it was the second-best sermon he had ever heard (I didn't ask about #1). Another told me the message was "a stench in the nostrils of God." I have to admit I was surprised.

Perhaps something similar has happened to you. You did something you thought was right – something that should please God and neighbor but you got blasted for it. Listen as Peter tells us how to respond to trials and challenges:

1 Commentators often speculate that the situation changed even as Peter wrote, so that his warnings grew more urgent. But, as Ramsey Michaels says, there is no real evidence for it.

But we must not be surprised at such events, for suffering is not strange. Jesus' life followed a pattern of suffering and glory (1 Peter 2:23-25, 3:18 ff., 5:1). If we follow Jesus, we should expect our life to resemble his, including suffering. Therefore, be ready for it!

This suffering has a result. The fiery trial "comes upon you to test you" (4:12 ESV).2 The phrase fiery trial is from Proverbs 27:21 which has a very interesting message: "The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and a man is tested [or "judged"] by his praise." Literally, the praise from his mouth. The focus is not on the praise we receive but on the praise we gave – literally a man is tested by the praise "from his mouth." So then, what do you praise? Are you able to praise God for unjust suffering?

2. Count yourself blessed for sharing in the suffering of Christ (4:13-14)

The Bible doesn't say we rejoice over all suffering. We rejoice "in so far as [we] share in Christ's sufferings." That is, we rejoice if and only if we suffer innocently, as he did. If we suffer because we follow him, then we "may also rejoice when his glory is revealed." That is, we will rejoice when Jesus returns and sets this world right and gives us a place in new creation.

Therefore, "if you are reproached [or "reviled"] for the name of Christ, you are blessed”, because it proves that "the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you" (4:14). It proves that God's Spirit lives in us. He is shaping us, making us his representatives. We transcend present pain and look to a great hope.

Jesus blessed those who endure insults and violence for him. The blessing is personal. He says, "Blessed are you when people persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me" (5:11). We should welcome the opportunity to suffer with Christ.

Character assassination is tragic and every sane person recoils from physical persecution. Yet we want to be like Jesus who loved us and gave himself for us on the cross. He became the supreme case of an innocent man suffering unjust persecution. Like Jesus, we neither seek persecution, nor retreat from it. We accept it if it comes and when we do, it proves that we have allied ourselves to the suffering Christ. Paul says, "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings…" (Philippians 3:10-11).

When we belong to Christ, we experience a real unity with him. We identify with him, so that our suffering is a recapitulation of his suffering. We need to see it that way. Our suffering proves that we belong to him now and will share in his victory to come. We rejoice now because we will "rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed" (4:13). If we share in his suffering we will share in his victory over death and enjoy God's reward in heaven (Matthew 5:12).

Peter says, "If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you" (4:14). Jesus likewise said his disciples are blessed if they suffer evil "because of righteousness" or "because of me" (Matthew 5:10-11). That is, we are blessed if we suffer for God's principles, and we are blessed if we suffer for God's Son.

Persecution also links us with the prophets who suffered the same thing. If we suffer for Jesus' sake, we are in good company. We also join the prophets who suffered because they challenged their age. Our convictions lead to action. When we engage the world, diverse values inescapably create conflict.

Do you know the story of Jeremiah? He was a prophet at a time of great corruption in Israel. Sad but true, the priests, who were supposed to be the spiritual leaders, were the worst of the lot and were saying, “We are immune from God’s judgment because we take care of God’s temple. He would never allow anything to happen to his temple, so he would never allow anything to happen to us.” Jeremiah said, “Well, yes, if it’s truly God’s temple, which it is isn’t. You are corrupt. You’re misleading people,

2 The New International Version (NIV), inexplicably and contrary to all major translations and the Greek, omits this phrase.

Worshiping false gods and getting rich at the expense of your people. Judgment is most certainly coming upon the temple and upon you.” Because he said this, he was mocked, scorned, starved, jailed and tossed into a pit and left for dead. It cannot be otherwise when God’s truth clashes with the view of this world.

We are blessed because we "participate in the sufferings of Christ" (4:13). We are blessed if we are persecuted for righteousness' sake" (5:10, ESV) and blessed if walk the path Jesus walked. Jesus said, "A servant is not above his master." If opponents slander the master, they will also slander his disciples (Matthew 10:24-25).

Jesus never hides bad news: If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. "No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also" (John 15:18-21).

The Bible never blesses suffering per se. Peter never says it is pleasant or "no problem" to suffer. By definition, suffering hurts; it is perversion to take direct pleasure in pain. It is misery, in the short term, to face threats or to be forced flee to avoid violence. It is painful to suffer insults and slander, whatever the source.

It says, "If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you."

3. Never suffer for evil deeds. Avoid "well deserved" suffering (4:15)

Peter blesses all who suffer persecution for the name of Christ. "If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler." It is both assumed and required that we avoid criminal acts that beg for punishment and foolishness that earns us displeasure. And don't interfere or meddle or scheme to usurp the roles of others.

No murder also means no displays of anger, no resentment. Don't be harsh in judgment. Don't despise and belittle them.

No theft also means no envy, greed, manipulation, misuse of funds, failure to pay debts. No inconsistency with money. And we should avoid all criminal activity. This is obvious. Then Peter adds that none of us should be meddlers.

"Meddler." The original is very rare and somewhat literally means "overseer of another's affairs." That is, it's someone who puts their nose where it doesn't belong, someone who interferes in the affairs of others. By doing what? Offering unwanted opinions or diving into family affairs. In the past, it was making speeches in front of pagan temples. What would that be today?

I said things usually went well in the Shantung Compound. There was one episode that makes us uneasy at best with being Americans. The American Red Cross just happened to send fifteen hundred crates with food and goodies, all kinds of food they really needed but also some luxury items such as soap and chocolate. So it was very obvious to everyone – fifteen hundred crates, fifteen hundred people – everyone gets a crate. But the Americans said, “This comes from the American Red Cross. Therefore, we all get seven crates and the rest of you can divide up the rest of them.” They insisted and almost forced the commandant to do it their way. They were meddling in other people’s affairs. They were trying to pass judgment when it was not their place. Needless to say, they were not loved for that.

There is no blessing for Christians who violate reasonable social standards. There is no blessing in tactlessness or folly, even if you can connect your folly to their faith. A student cannot claim persecution if he failed a test because he was comforting a sad, beautiful classmate the night before the test.

You are not "blessed for suffering persecution" if you bark at people every time their language violates your standards and have no friends as a result. If you are leaders, you have a right to set standards. Otherwise, it's probably best to keep your judgments to yourself. Let your life and your silence

speak. God does not bless you if you promote the faith in tactless or angry ways. It is not blessed to endure rejection because you are obnoxious.

When someone seems too abrupt or harsh with us, it's our first instinct to ask what is wrong with them. The Bible teaches us to ask, "Have I played the fool, sinned, been abrasive?” David and Peter both say that, ordinarily, we suffer no harm if we do what is good (Psalm 34:1, 1 Peter 3:10-13).

4. Don't be ashamed of Christ (4:16)

"Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name". In the early days, "Christian" was a slur, an insult. It mocked the idea that believers follow Jesus Christ. Today: Fundamentalist or Puritan are definitely slurs. Puritan was coined by mockers of English believers who tried to live with integrity and purity. If someone calls you such names, don't be ashamed. Take your eyes off yourself.

Suppose someone calls you a fundamentalist. We hate the label, but to secular people, every conservative Christian is a "fundamentalist." My friend wants to put the "fun" back in fundamentalist. I want to put the "mental" back in fundamentalist. But in both cases our little jokes distance us from the concept. Don't!

If called a fundamentalist – Yes, I believe the fundamentals of the faith.

If called a Bible thumper – Yes, I do read the Bible, God's word.

If called a Puritan – Yes, I do mean to live in purity and integrity.

If called a Christian – Yes, I do follow Jesus.

By this time Christians were sometimes arrested, jailed and hauled into court for their faith. In that case, hold your head high and know that your willingness to suffer for the Lord brings glory to his name.

You say, "This is irrelevant to me." Yes, and I always thought that those pre-flight instructions "In case of a water landing" were irrelevant too, because in case of a water landing, we're all dead. But no. Besides, these words speak directly to hundreds of millions of believers – and our church ministers to some of them.

5. Be prepared to meet the Lord (4:17-18)

Next Peter explains why all must be ready to live faithfully: Some day, all will answer to the Lord for their life and "it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God" (4:17). God told Ezekiel that he was bringing judgment on faithless Israel, beginning with the temple itself, for the priests had grown corrupt. And all would face the judgment, unless God marked them as believers (Ezekiel 9:4-10).

Amos said, "You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins" (3:2). Persecution and trouble purge sin and prepare us to meet the Lord. Yes! Paul says, "When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world" (1 Corinthians 11:32).

If judgment begins with the faithful who obey the gospel, "what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?" (4:17-18). Even the disciple must go through the narrow door.

Suffering clarifies things. Do we really believe, or do we run the moment our faith costs us something? Thus suffering prepares us for the day when each one meets the Lord and renders an account for his or her life.

So, are you ready for that day? Many call on the Lord, not all call sincerely. (Matthew 7:22). Suffering divides those who truly call on him from those who dabble in religion for a while. There is one way to be sure: Pray sincerely and say: "I do believe in you sincerely. I know I will fail at times, but I genuinely intend to love you, follow you and obey you, even when it is costly, for I know how much you loved me. I know you gave yourself for me."

6. Commit yourself to the faithful God (4:19).

"So then, those who suffer according to God's will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good" (4:19).

The final word is to those who suffer according to God's will, in two senses. We suffer while living obediently, according to God's revealed will. We don't suffer for sin and folly. Second, we suffer within the flow of history that God ordains. We may be tempted to deny it, but the world is still under God's control. Wars, economic crises, even persecution fall with the plan of God. We suffer according to his will. We must know that and find peace in it.

But see how Peter describes our duty. He does not say "Be faithful," he says we should continually entrust ourselves to the faithful creator.3 To entrust (parativqhmi) is to hand over something of great value to the care of another. We must commit our very life to God, for he is faithful. He is worthy of our trust. He created us – and created new life in us. That is why David said, "Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, O Lord" (Psalm 31:5, cf. Luke 23:46).

Peter's phrasing is we entrust ourselves to God while doing good.4 Now we must strive to be faithful, to do good, as He defines good. Obedience shows we trust him. But God is the one who is faithful! He is faithful when we are faithless.

I administer vows rather often: at weddings, baptisms, to new members and church officers. They are really strong vows. A few take vows in vain; they take them and begin to abandon them almost at once. But all fail – all but God. That is why we entrust ourselves to him instead of entrusting ourselves to ourselves!

We have considered the way to face and to remain true during suffering and persecution. Peter has given us some very concrete lessons: We must not be surprised when trials come. We should rejoice that we are united to Christ. We should avoid "well deserved" suffering. We should be prepared to meet the Lord. But above all, we should entrust ourselves to the faithful God.

I have given you a list, but you know the Bible is never essentially about lists of four steps for friendships and five ways to build a strong career. It isn't even about steps to stand in the trial – even if there are some. Such things are appealing as cotton candy is appealing – and just as nourishing.

The Bible always starts with the covenants and the character of God. He is our creator. He is worthy of our trust. Jesus is our Lord. If he was willing to suffer in the flesh, we should be willing, too. And if the Father God vindicated his Son by raising him from the dead, he will raise us up too. We are God's new creation; we can live this way, by his grace.

3 "Continually" because the verb is a present imperative. "Ourselves" translates hJ yuchv This is not meant to contrast with the body. It means the whole person, perhaps with the connotation that persecutors can harm the body but not the whole person cf. Matthew 10:28. Peter Davids, Peter, pg. 173.

4 Ramsey Michaels, Peter, pg. 274.