1 Peter 4:1-6 — They Think It Strange, But Follow Christ

     1 Peter 3:18a: Christ suffered for sins.
            1 Peter 4:1a: Christ suffered in the flesh

1 Peter 4:1 resumes the primary topic: the suffering of Christ provides a model for living in a hostile environment. 1 Peter 3:18-22 underscores the victory of Christ over suffering and his enthronement over the powers and authorities, which powers create a hostile environment for Christians.

Suffering will come, and Christians must prepare for it and accept it as Christ did (1 Peter 3:13-17). But Christians also know the end of the story. Though Christ suffered and was put to death, he was also made alive and exalted to the right hand of God (1 Peter 3:18-22). The path of suffering, therefore, leads to glory as we follow Jesus in that suffering.

1 Peter 4:1-6 calls Christians into that life.

 

Arm Yourselves

Because Christ suffered in the flesh,
            arm yourselves also with the same resolve
                        to live by the will of God while you remain in the flesh.

Following Jesus entails “arming yourselves” (a militaristic term) with the same mind (resolve, intention) as Jesus. As Jobes, 1 Peter, notes, the term ennoia (resolve) appears in Proverbs to describe the wise person who is dedicated to the godly path (cf. Prov. 1:4; 2:11; 3:21; 4:1; 5:2; 8:12; 16:22; 18:15; 19:7; 23:4, 19; 24:7). This mind has a proper outlook on the world and is resolved to pursue it.

In the midst of their suffering, believers must have the same resolve or intention as Jesus. But what is that? It is this: “the one who suffered in the flesh has finished with sin.” Just as Jesus’s resolve meant he would pursue the will of God rather than sin, so Christians who suffer are resolved to pursue the will of God rather than sin.

Christians, like Jesus, are “finished with sin.” This does not mean Christians no longer sin at all, but their resolve or intent is done with sin. They are committed to live by the will of God rather than by human desires throughout the rest of their lives (the time they have left in the flesh). This commitment means they are willing to suffer for the will of God rather than pursue their own desires. They are resolved to live according to God’s will, and consequently they are finished with sin.

 

They Slander You

You have already lived by the counsel of the Gentiles,
            which is an excessive manifestation of fleshly desires.
                        They are surprised by your non-participation,
                                    so they slander and verbally abuse you.

Peter characterizes Gentile excesses with a list of words, and these give us a picture of how early Christians viewed the “party life” of their neighbors.

  • Licentiousness, or sexual sensuality (cf. Romans 13:13; 2 Corinthians 12:21)
  • Passions, or lusts or desires (1 Peter 2:11; 4:2)
  • Drunkenness, or wine excess, that is, to overflow with wine (only here)
  • Revels, or inebriating feasts (Romans 13:13; Galatians 5:21)
  • Carousing, or drinking parties (only here)
  • Lawless idolatry, or abominable idol worship (phrase only occurs here)

Peter further characterizes their activities as “excesses of dissipation,” which is the only time this phrase appears in the NT. The term asotias, translated “dissipation” by the NRSV, is derived from the negative alpha (not, without) attached to the verb sozo, meaning to save. The word describes a kind of wasteful behavior, and here reflects an excessive sort of wasteful behavior. Some translations render it “debauchery” (as in Ephesians 5:18 where such behavior is contrasted with one “filled with the Spirit”). It is, in one sense, a dissolute or incorrigible life which revels in excess, a wasteful lifestyle.

Peter’s vice list is rather narrow when compared with others in the New Testament. Why is it so narrow? Perhaps it reflects a specific contrast, which results in the kind of hostility Christians experience from their neighbors. In other words, they no longer participate in particular kinds of activities, which were not only common but endemic to Roman culture. In fact, the language Peter uses describes such practices in the Greco-Roman world.

The Romans were known for their infamous drinking parties and excessive feasts, particularly in honor of Roman gods or at Roman temples. Typically, Roman associations—whether economic, social, funerary, or religious—would meet at temples for sacrifices, festivities, eating, and drinking. The term komoi (revelings) originally described a festive meal in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine. The last word in Peter’s list indicates how these drinking parties and feasts were shaped by idolatrous gatherings.

These associations were voluntary but they were important t0 social, economic, political, and religious life within Roman culture. Associations buried people, cared for families, regulated economic practices and trades, and provided occasions for civic and religious life. To abstain from these associations might result in exclusion, trading boycotts, and social marginalization. It would like if an American citizen refused to participate in 4th of July festivities, or refused to say the pledge of allegiance at the Lion’s Club.

Christians no longer attended these gatherings, and this created tension between them and their Roman neighbors. As Donelson (I & II Peter and Jude, 122) notes, “to withdraw from these crucial groups and events was seen as a rejection of Roman civilization itself, as hatred…They are indeed rejecting Roman society even if they do not hate their neighbors.”

Romans “slandered” or “blasphemed” Christians who no longer participate in their “parties” or association celebrations. This probably functions on two levels. At one level, the rejection of their gods is deemed anti-Roman, and at another level, the assertion of the truthfulness of the Christian faith is regarded as blasphemous. Roman pluralism entailed no one should make an exclusive claim in religion, and whoever made such a claim was arrogant and dangerous. They were dangerous because this subverted Roman culture itself by its failure to acknowledge Roman gods and civic or imperial virtues. Pluralism cannot tolerate such exclusive claims. Consequently, exclusivists are slandered or blasphemed.

When Christians no longer participated in the associations or their celebrations and separated themselves from the mainstream of cultural virtues or practices, especially Rome’s civil religion, their neighbors felt judged. This probably, at first, puzzled their neighbors and later angered them, which led to tension and sometimes hostility. Their neighbors probably expected them to “give an account” of their behavior (1 Peter 3:15). As Achtemeier (1 Peter, 277) comments, “It is a problem that will recur whenever Christians are forced by their faith to oppose cultural values widely held in the secular world in which they live.”

When Christians live according to their values, others think it strange and others feel judged. For example, when a famous entertainment person in the United States commits to a celibate life before marriage, others think it “strange.” When Christians give most of their wealth to the poor and decide to live simply rather than in luxury, others think it “strange.”

When Christians live according to their values, others feel judged. We cannot prevent such feelings, and those feelings may generate hostility or marginalization. This, however, is the lot of Christians when they live in a counter-cultural way.

Following Peter’s advice in this letter, Christians do not respond to evil with evil or abuse with abuse. Rather, they “do good” when they are treated in harsh or abusive ways. Consequently, Christians do not speak evil of their neighbors or judge them (as Paul said, it is not our role to judge the world, 1 Corinthians 5:12).

Nevertheless, when Christians live out their convictions and decline to participate in the cultural patterns and lifestyles pervasive in a culture, the culture feels judged. They perceive judgment because Christians do not participate in such activities out of their ethical, Christ-like, and godly convictions. In such cases Christians must continue to embrace their commitments despite how others perceive them or how others treat them.

That commitment, however, means Christians do not judge their neighbors, they do not speak evil of their neighbors, and they do not abuse their neighbors. On the contrary, Christians–as Christ-followers–love their enemies, pray for those who abuse them, and leave judgment up to God, who alone knows the hearts and minds of people.

 

God Judges the Living and the Dead

The slanderers will give account of their words
            to the one who judges the living and the dead.
                        Consequently, the gospel was preached to those (now) dead,
                                    so that those judged in the flesh might live in the Spirit.

While Christians were slandered and mistreated by the surrounding Roman culture, Peter assures his readers the slanderers will face their own judgment in the future. God judges both the living and the dead.

The living are judged in the flesh, and this is especially noted for believers. Their culture judges them by their values and standards. They are judged “according to human standards” while they live in the flesh.

Though judged in the flesh, they will live in the Spirit or in the “spiritual realm.” Like Jesus before them, they are judged in the flesh (Jesus was put to death!), but they live in the Spirit (like Jesus). They may die, even at the hands of their persecutors, they will live—as Jesus lives—in the Spirit. Death is not the end of their story. Rather, they will live in the Spirit.

This is why the gospel was preached even to those who are (now) dead.

This is a rather controversial statement. It cannot mean those who are “spiritually dead” since this would use “dead” in two different senses in 1 Peter 4:5-6 and the sense is the same because of the connection between the sentences (“for this reason”).

Some connect it back to 1 Peter 3:19, but there are some significant differences which make this problematic. First, “dead” here are clearly dead humans since they are judged “in the flesh.” But the “spirits in prison” in 1 Peter 3:19 are not called “dead” and neither are they humans. They are angelic spirits imprisoned since the time of Noah. Second, the verb “preached” is different. In 1 Peter 3:19 the verb means “herald, announce, or proclaim,” but in 1 Peter 4:6 is to evangelize or preach the good news.

So, it seems best to understand Peter’s point as something like this: since God judges the living and the dead, it was important to evangelize everyone, including those who subsequently die and are now dead. They are now dead, but when they were evangelized they were alive. That evangelism means that though they were judged in the flesh by their culture, they will be made alive by God in the Spirit. Death no longer reigns over them, and the culture no longer judges them.

Just as they followed Jesus in suffering—even dying, they will follow Jesus by living in the Spirit.

Judgment belongs to God–it does not rests in the hands of the associations within Roman culture and neither does it rest in the hands of Christians themselves. Both must leave judgment to God.



2 Responses to “1 Peter 4:1-6 — They Think It Strange, But Follow Christ”

  1.   Chris Pierson Says:

    Thanks for the teaching. Really insightful considering the cultural pressures the early Christians were facing and the courageous choices the Spirit allowed them to make.

  2.   Robert Holland Says:

    Dr. Hicks,
    One of your former students from many moons ago here…Great article on 1 Peter 4:1-6, especially the cultural background and ethical teachings that placed Peter’s teachings in clearer context. I certainly agree with 99% in what you wrote. However, the 1% is a point made in your article that I do disagree with regarding the phrase, “he preached to the spirits in prison” in 1 Pet. 3:19, referring to angels, and not to human spirits. Wayne Grudem in his insightful and detailed article, “Christ Preaching through Noah: 1 Peter 3:19-20 in the light of Dominant Themes in Jewish Literature,” in Trinity Journal 7, no. 2 (1986): 3-31, is one of many articles I have read that have my interpretative position leaning towards “the spirits in prison” to be human spirits in the Hadean realm (“place of torment”-Luke 16:23-24, dead since the Noahic flood who are “now spirits in prison,” who beforehand were embodied humans, who disobeyed. And to be exact, the text says that it was during the 120 years while God eagerly waited (for the wicked generation then to repent, hopefully so, through Noah’s preaching) while Noah was completing the building the ark, again, as the text itself in 3:19 qualifies. In 2 Pet. 2: 4-9 (in contrast to wicked human spirits, the wicked angels were cast into and reserved for judgment, in “tar-ta-rόw-sas”-2:4) and Jude v. 6, those texts there, provide no chronological connections made with angels and Noah’s generation, but “simply selects three noteworthy examples of judgment from the OT”-pp. 11-12. Grudem also cited from 45 extra-biblical Jewish texts from every strand of Jewish tradition that supported the biblical texts just cited. In Genesis 6:1-7, I noted 8 uses of “man/men” with 2 uses of the term, “sons of Elohim” and one use of the term “Nephilim” (which should stay untranslated, but simply be transliterated since no one really knows what the term means). Yahweh told righteous Noah that He was going to “blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land…” No mention of angels. Human sin/disobedience was the culprit during the “days of Noah, when the patience of God was waiting during the building of the ark.” Also, I would take Dr. Gleason Archer, Jr.’s take that Gen 6:2 “sons of God…the daughters of men” refers to parallel development of the godly line from Seth (from which the Messiah eventually came), and the ungodly line of the rest of mankind. Finally, Grudem’s conclusion that “Christ–not the incarnate Christ, but Christ active in the ‘spiritual realm’–was also speaking through Noah the preacher of righteousness'”-p. 24 (cf., similar use in 1 Pet. 1:10-12). Christy through Noah preached to the spirits (now) in prison, but who were embodied human beings while on earth before the flood, in Noah’s day. Grudem’s translation which captures all his contextual and linguistic findings yields the 3:18b-20a as follows: “In the spiritual realm of existence Christ went and preached through Noah, to those who are now spirits in the prison of hell. He did this preaching when they formerly disobeyed, when the patience of God was waiting in the days of Noah while the ark was being built”-p. 30.
    Thanks again for what you taught me years ago, and again, for your thoughtful article!
    Robert Holland

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