RPM, Volume 16, Number 19, May 4 to May 10, 2014

Living Through Suffering

1 Peter 4:12-19

By D. Marion Clark


We look now at a passage, which is startling in both its sobering and exalted view of Christian suffering. Recall once more the context of the letter. The Christians of the scattered churches in northern Asia Minor are facing trials placed on them by their neighbors. Some form of persecution is taking place. Slander is one, and it probably leads to other consequences. Slaves are being beaten. Wives are probably being abused in some way. They are all being ostracized in society and being harassed in various ways.

And these troubles are taking place precisely because they have become Christians. While their new moral lifestyle offends their old partying neighbors, their new religion offends everyone's conventional religious sensibilities. They don't fit in anymore. They're suspect. They irritate the partiers, shock the religious, and arouse the suspicions of the authorities, and all because they embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let's see what Peter has to tell them and us.

First, he tells them not to be surprised: 12 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.

There is a bit of irony here. Peter had noted back in verse 4 how the nonChristian neighbors thought it was strange that the Christians did not join them in their sinful activities. Now the Christians are thinking it strange that they should suffer for not joining in. "Something's wrong here. We leave behind the lifestyle that offends God, and we get suffering in return. What gives?"

They are offending their neighbors; that's what gives. The partiers think they are judgmental and self-righteous since they won't join with them anymore. The religious think they are sacrilegious since they reject the old ways, and that they are intolerant since they won't try to assimilate their practices with the other religions. And the authorities are suspicious of them since they won't turn their religion into a good civil religion that endorses the government.

Peter had already heard the explanation from Jesus. The night before he died, he told his disciples: "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you (John 15:18-19). Why expect to be treated differently than Jesus?

Indeed, being treated in the same manner as was Jesus, far being a cause for alarm, should be a cause for rejoicing: 13 But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.

This is an important insight that Peter is giving and essential to being able to find joy in the midst of suffering. In our sufferings for Christ, we participate in the sufferings of Christ. In our sufferings we are given the privilege of identifying with Christ in the suffering he underwent for our salvation. He gives us the honor of being fellow participants with him. As we identify with him in his sufferings, how much more will we rejoice at the time his glory is revealed and we share in his glory!

Isn't this what we want - not just to be spectators watching the redemption drama being carried out for us, but to be brought on stage and included in the play? Our Lord allows us to be his brothers and sisters sharing in his suffering that we may all the more share in his glory. Paul caught the wonder of this participation, and it was the motivating force that caused him to embrace suffering for Christ. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:10-11). That resurrection takes place the same day that Christ's glory is revealed. Remember, the return of Christ in his glory is our one true hope.

Our sufferings, meanwhile, further attest to our faith being real. 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. Our sufferings attest to the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that rested upon our Lord Jesus Christ. Isaiah 11:2 prophesied of the Messiah, The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him. That Spirit now rests on those who suffer for his name.

Think about the wonder of it all. When do we read of the Spirit coming on Jesus? It is when he is baptized. Mark reports it this way: As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased" (1:10-11). Jesus received baptism that he might identify with us in the sufferings we bear under sin. That very act attested to the anointing of the Holy Spirit and favor of God the Father. Now we receive our baptism of suffering for his name, that we might identify with him in his sufferings for our sin. As such, our identification in suffering attests to our anointing by the same Holy Spirit and to the favor of God. How mysterious and wondrous are the ways of God!

Peter then goes on to reiterate a point made several times before: 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. He states the point most concisely in 3:17: It is better, if it is God's will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. Simply put, make sure that our suffering is indeed unjust suffering. We certainly have nothing to be surprised or shocked by if we are bringing on ourselves what we deserve.

Note the examples of behavior Peter gives for just suffering. Most of us would cross them off regarding ourselves. Most of us have not committed criminal acts. But that last behavior is an interesting one that he has tossed in. It is a rare term found nowhere else in the NT, nor in any earlier Greek manuscripts. It combines two words - allotrios, meaning "belonging to another," and episkopos, meaning "overseer." The basic meaning is "watching over what belongs to another." Or to use a term we well understand, it means to be a busybody.

That's a tough behavior to get a handle on. When does showing concern for our neighbor cross over to sticking our noses where they don't belong? When do prayer requests for others become gossip? And when have we crossed the appropriate boundaries for trying to limit the lifestyle of others? Our nonChristian neighbors would say that we cross the boundaries too many times. There is no easy answer to this, but Peter's admonition should at least cause us to examine our hearts and motives whenever we confront our neighbors or try to impose our values. Remember, we are capable of acting with selfish motives, and oftentimes we deceive even ourselves because we have the covering of Christianity.

It is an honor to suffer for the name of Christ, as Peter attests. But let us be careful not to confuse honoring with shaming Christ's name. Too often Christians have done shameful deeds and then protested that they were being persecuted for being Christians.

Our next two verses give a sobering perspective about suffering. Peter connects suffering with judgment. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; 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?"

Peter gives an image of God's judgment going forth through the world. It is a judgment in the sense of a "fiery trial" which was translated "painful trial" in verse 12. The trial purifies or burns up whatever it encompasses, and the trial includes Christians. We may escape condemnation; nevertheless, we are caught up in the judgment. Now, what we as Christians really need to be concerned about is not the outcome for us, but the outcome for our neighbors. Yes, the trials we are going through are tough, but consider the eternal trial that awaits our neighbors who refuse the gospel.

When we suffer, we are quick to say that it is not fair to suffer when our ungodly neighbors are at ease. Listen! Don't be angry that your neighbors seem to have it easy while you have it tough. Rather, be concerned for them. The fewer trials they face in this life, the more likely they will not sense their trouble and turn to God. Then what? Let your trials stir in you ever more concern for your neighbors. For if God does not spare his family, what judgment awaits those outside his family?

Peter then concludes the text with the theme of his epistle. 19 So then, those who suffer according to God's will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good. Remember how we've talk about this? Peter is writing to Christians going through trials in their communities. What is his message? Live in response to God, not to the world. Live according to what God wants of you. Do good trusting that God will take care of you. That's what matters. In the end, when all is said and done, what will matter is how faithful we have been to our God.


The Bible's view of unjust suffering can seem rather unreasonable. It's hard to see mistreatment as a joyful and honorable experience, and yet, at the same time, we can see the nobleness of such a view. God doesn't just pat us on the head and say "you poor thing." We are not regarded with mere pity. Rather, he gives us dignity in the midst of suffering and counts as worthwhile our bearing up under the pain. And as much as we desire comfort in our trials, even more so we desire purpose, to know that our struggles are not meaningless or without value, but that we are doing what pleases our Lord and is serving his cause. This is what so many of the early church martyrs understood and stirred them on to willingly suffer for their Lord.

One excellent example is Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna in the latter part of the second century, who had been a disciple of the Apostle John. During a wave of persecution, he at first hid in safety but his whereabouts was betrayed. When the soldiers came for him, he received them with hospitality, even providing a meal for them. After being granted an hour for prayer, he went with the soldiers, several times being advised by the captain of the guard to recant his faith that he might escape death. When he appeared before the proconsul, he was given opportunity once more to renounce his faith, to which he replied, "Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never once wronged me; how then shall I blaspheme my King, who has saved me?" He was then burned at the stake.

Persecution was a fact of life throughout the church's early history ever since the first wave of persecution began following Stephen's stoning. The church in Rome could have been named the Church of the Catacombs, the underground system of burial tombs. There, many of the early Christians were forced into hiding. Christians of the early age faced burning at the stake, crucifixion, being thrown to wild animals in the amphitheaters or made the victims of gladiators.

Pliny, a governor of one of the same territories that Peter's people lived in, wrote a revealing letter to the emperor Trajan in 112 A.D. According to the law at that time, he was executing nonRomans accused of being Christians. He wrote Trajan, asking for guidance about the procedure for dealing with Christians. Trajan replied that Pliny should not entertain anonymous charges or go out of his way to find Christians, but if a charge was made and the accused would not renounce Christianity, then he was to be executed.

But persecution has always been present for Christians throughout the centuries. It has increased and decreased according to the times and the locations, but it has always been present in some form and no more so than today. As Americans, we don't realize the severity of persecution that many of our sisters and brothers go through today.

Did you know that more Christians were killed and persecuted in the 1900s than in all the previous centuries combined? David Barrett, a leading statistician, estimates that in 1993 about 150,000 Christians died as martyrs and expects that average to move to 200,000.

Let me read recent reports (March 2000):

CHINA - Christians who worship in house churches are subject to imprisonment, harsh fines, property being confiscated, and public slander.

SUDAN - The government is repressing non-Muslims. Arab forces continue to enslave children, rape women, violently attack and bomb villages, and withhold food and medicines. More than 2 million people have died in Sudan over the past ten years, mostly non-Muslim black Africans.

SAUDI ARABIA - The practice of the Christian faith and the public display of any Christian symbol is forbidden. Evangelism and conversion to Christianity is punishable by death by beheading.

BURMA (Myanmar) - Buddhist monks backed by the military have been entering villages and forcing Christians to recant their faith. Buddhist leaders recently declared all Christian radio programs a threat to Buddhism and published a document suggesting how to eliminate Christianity from the country. Many Christians have been killed and forced from their homes.

NORTH KOREA - In May 1999, the government issued an open warning to all citizens that missionaries are "tools of imperialism" and must be "ferreted out." Between 1987 and 1992, former prisoner Soon Ok Yi says she witnessed monthly executions of Christians. Christians were asked to deny Jesus. If they refused, they were beaten to death.

INDONESIA - Christians have come under increasing attack from Muslims. Over the past four years, at least 300 churches have been destroyed . Christians are victims of a carefully-planned Muslim holy war that has resulted in hundreds of deaths and destruction to scores of churches and property.

INDIA - The rise in Hindu nationalism has resulted in over 100 acts of violence against Christians since June 1998. The escalation of persecution against Christians made headlines after Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons were mercilessly burned alive. Last year many Christian churches were destroyed. Several nuns have been brutally raped and Christian schools attacked.

Muslims who convert to Christianity sign their death warrants in many countries. Either it is literally a capital crime or the converts' families will kill them.

We may not face the same violent persecution, but it exists. It exists for the Christian in the workplace who must risk his job by not compromising the laws of God…the university student who must endure harassment for not endorsing immoral lifestyles…the high school student who is shunned because she will not go against the principles of her faith.

And who knows the time when even we may face death for our beliefs, as the killings at Columbine High School showed? It is evident now that some of the students killed were singled out for their open testimony. Would we, will we, stand the test how ever it may come?

It is not wrong to desire a peaceful life, but it is wrong to value personal peace and comfort over honoring our Lord Jesus Christ. Too many times we have all been guilty of making lifestyle choices based on our personal welfare and not out of desire to live to the glory of God. It is too easy to approach living for Jesus asking the question, "How much can I fit in with the world without compromise," rather than asking, "How can I stand out for my Lord and show my love for Jesus." Maybe we are afraid to ask the question because we fear God's answer, that he will test us with suffering for him?

Let me close with a recent story of a young boy who stood the test for his Lord. The report is taken from The Voice of the Martyrs, a ministry to support the persecuted church.

When James Jeda was 10 years old, he was playing outside his small village when the soldiers came. Being the first member of his family to notice the assailants, he yelled to his mother, "Run! Run as fast as you can!" Unfortunately, his warning came too late. There was no escape. Swords were drawn and James' mother became another victim of Sudan's National Islamic Front. His father and four brothers and sisters suffered the same fate.

For some reason James was kept alive. Later that evening the soldiers ordered their young captive to gather wood for a fire. James thought the soldiers were preparing to cook their food. He was mistaken.

After the fire had been burning for some time, the Islamic soldiers asked James if he knew any members of the opposition army. He did not. Then they ordered him to convert to the Muslim faith. James Jeda refused, simply stating, "That is not possible. I am a Christian."

Infuriated by his response, the soldiers picked up his small body and threw him on the burning flames. Although James Jeda managed to escape, the scars remain - a reminder of his faith.

It is also a reminder of his faithfulness to God and the honor that he has given to his Lord. It is a reminder that the Spirit of glory has indeed come upon him. May we have the same faithfulness and be able to say with the Apostle Paul, I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain (Philippians 1:20-21).

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