This is the third movement of the letter. In the first Peter stressed the identity of believers as God’s chosen people whom God has loved from the foundation of the world (1 Peter 1:13-2:10). In the second Peter encouraged believers to live out that identity despite their difficult circumstances as witnesses to the grace of God in the world (1 Peter 2:11-4:11). Now, in this last movement, which begins like the previous one with the vocative “Beloved,” Peter commends their suffering for the sake of Christ.
- Identity as God’s Rebirthed People (1:13-2:10)
- Exhortation to Live as Aliens and Exiles in a Hostile Culture (2:11-4:11)
- Perspectives on Suffering (4:12-19)
Peter commends their suffering by offering some perspective on it. He speaks into their suffering so that they might endure it with grace and witness. He offers a way of living through suffering, and this enables believers to see their suffering in the light of God’s blessed activity in the world.
Suffering, for example, is no surprise—it is no stranger to Christian existence. For “exiles and aliens” (1 Peter 2:11) it is an expected and normal way of being in the world, just as it was for Jesus the Messiah, whom Christians follow.
Peter identifies two kinds of suffering, though that does not exhaust all kinds of suffering. There are those who suffer because they are murderers, thieves, and criminals (or, more generally, “evildoers”), and there are those who suffer because they are “Christians.” The former suffer punishment, but the latter suffer because they are marginalized within the culture. They are reviled, insulted, and verbally abused….and more. Christians may even suffer governmental action against them (such as Nero’s persecution of Christians in Rome). Though this is not explicitly stated, it is probably implicit in the parallel Peter draws between those who suffer as murderers and those who suffer as Christians.
“Christian” is the name given to followers of the Christ by those who insulted and reviled them. It was, originally, a derogatory appellation. First applied to Jesus-followers in Antioch (Acts 11:26), the only other occurrence in the New Testament is found in Acts 26:28 on the lips of King of Agrippa, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” The name was more common on the lips of pagan opponents than it was among disciples of Jesus themselves in the early second century. Ultimately, however, Jesus-followers adopted the name as a badge of honor. Indeed, as Peter writes, the name (and the suffering attached to it) was an occasion of God’s glory rather than disgrace. Christians turned the derisive name on its head. They heard its shouts in the arenas—“Christians to the wild beasts!”—as honorable rather than shameful.
In addition to murder, theft, and criminality, Peter adds another occasion for suffering, and this is variously translated as “meddler” or “mischief maker.” This is the only time the word, allotriepiskopos, appears in the New Testament, and the first time it appears in Greek literature. A compound word, it literally means “bishop or overseer of another’s concern.” Or, perhaps another way of saying it is “people who make another’s business their own business.”
This is not a criminal offense, but it is something for which someone might suffer some consequences. Christians, Peter thinks, ought to avoid this behavior. But what might Peter have in mind specifically? Or, what situation perhaps generated this additional comment? John H. Elliott (1 Peter, 788) offers an interesting suggestion. He believes some Christians may be “censuring the behavior of outsiders on the basis of claims to a higher morality, interfering with family relationships, fomenting domestic discontent and discord, or tactless attempts at conversion.” In other words, perhaps some Christians were obnoxious advocates for the faith in ways that subverted their intent and the divine mission. Peter cautions us to answer outsiders with “gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15-16), and meddlers certainly violate that advice.
Basic Response to Suffering (1 Peter 4:19)
Whoever “suffers in accordance with God’s will” are called to (1) entrust themselves to God and (2) continue to do good.
God’s will, in light of the previous description of two kinds of suffering, refers to righteous suffering—those who suffer for the sake of righteousness, those who suffer as “Christians.” Those who live by the will of God (1 Peter 4:2) will suffer because others find it “strange” and respond to such lives with hostility, insults, and sometimes violence.
What, then, should Christians do?
They entrust themselves to the “faithful Creator.” Peter’s description of God is important here: faithful and Creator. God is not absent, but faithfully present. God is not impotent, but the Creator. This is the only time Peter refers to God’s role as Creator. Significantly, “faithful Creator” reminds sufferers who is in control and whose purposes are not thwarted. This is the one in whom Christians trust, that is, they commit themselves to the care of the faithful Creator.
They continue to “do good.” Christians do not return evil for evil. They do not withdraw from culture. Rather, they love their neighbors, participate in public goods, and evidence the work of God in their lives through their ethical lives.
Suffering as “Judgment” (1 Peter 4:17-18)
Amazingly, Peter suggests the eschatological (last days) judgment has begun with the suffering of the people of God. Indeed, as many suggest, Peter refers to the historic Jewish understanding that “Messianic woes” will accompany the inauguration of the Messianic kingdom.
As the kingdom of God breaks into the world, the cosmos undergoes the throes of eschatological expectation, pain, and groaning. In particular—described in 1 Peter—the eschatological community, which is rebirthed Israel, experiences eschatological judgment. They experience the future in the present.
However, we must carefully note the meaning of this “judgment.” I remember hearing some describe it as the terror of the Lord judging the church, and the church is barely saved—saved, as it were, by the skin of its teeth. Salvation, therefore, is hard-won, precarious, and narrowly received.
Here, however, judgment is not about punishment or terror. It is a process of discernment. It is the eschatological distinction between authentic and inauthentic faith, or between belief and unbelief, between those who obey the gospel and those who do not. This is—even in the present—an eschatological separation of the sheep from the goats, much like the “last day” scenario in Matthew 25.
Now, in the present, judgment begins with the house of God because they are presently undergoing a fiery trial, which is a process of differentiation. The eschatological reality is breaking into the present and illuminating the current situation. The righteous are being distinguished from the wicked, even now.
The righteous, nevertheless, are saved “with difficulty,” or “it is hard for the righteous to be saved” (quoting the LXX version of Proverbs 11:31). This is not a statement about how difficult it is to be justified by the blood of Christ. Rather, it describes the difficult process of enduring the fiery trial; it won’t be easy and it isn’t easy. Living as a Christian in a hostile culture is a harrowing experience. Perseverance is a struggle, and those who persevere experience many hardships and difficulties. But their end (goal) is salvation, which is quite different from that of the “ungodly and sinners.”
Enduring Suffering (1 Peter 4:12-14).
What does Peter say about suffering? What is its function? How do Christians understand their predicament?
First, it is a “fiery ordeal” that tests faith. The reference to fire recalls the “refining” motif from 1 Peter 1:7 (cf. Zechariah 13:9; Malachi 3:1-3). Suffering refines and purifies to reveal authentic faith. This tests the reality of faith. Suffering, whatever its origin, is always a test.
Second, when Christians suffer, they participate in the sufferings of Christ. They suffer with Christ. This is a strong motif in Paul’s letters (cf. Romans 8:17; Philippians 3:10-11). Just as Christ suffered for us, so we also suffer with Christ. Our suffering does not stand alone. Rather, it is communion (fellowship) with the suffering of Jesus himself. Particularly, in the light of 1 Peter 2:21-25, as we follow the pattern of Christ’s suffering, we enact the same witness in the world as Jesus did.
In this sense, we may rejoice in our suffering. This does not mean “enjoy your suffering.” On the contrary, suffering is painful and it hurts. Yet, suffering–when viewed through a Christological lens–lends itself to joy when we see ourselves joining in the suffering of Jesus and recognizing the future joy we will enjoy with Christ when his glory is fully revealed on the last day.
Third, Christians are “blessed” in their suffering. This blessedness is not due to some kind of internalized positive thinking. Rather, it is an act of God. Sufferers are blessed, even when it does not feel like a blessing nor experienced as a blessing.
But what is this blessing? Peter identifies the blessing as the “Spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, resting” upon sufferers. This language comes from Isaiah 11:2, a Messianic text. The one who comes from the root of Jesse comes out in power, wisdom, strength, knowledge and godliness because the “Spirit of God will rest upon him.” On that Messianic “day,” the root of Jesse will dwell on the earth and assemble the remnant of Israel (Isaiah 11:10, 12). On that day, the remnant will become—as Joel Green notes (1 Peter)—“a reconstituted people” as the Spirit of God rests upon the remnant of Israel, which is new and living temple of God (1 Peter 2:4-9).
Sufferers are blessed because the Spirit of God rests upon them, and this is their glory. They share the blessed reality of the Messiah, the Christ, just as they share his sufferings. They share the trial of Christ as well.
So, suffering is Christological for Christians. They are refined in the trial, endure the ordeal as a fellow-sufferer with Jesus the Messiah, and are blessed with the Spirit of Glory in the midst of their suffering.
The contemporary world knows all too well Christians still suffer verbal abuse, marginalization, and governmental action, including martyrdom. The reports from parts of the Middle East confirm this on a daily basis.
Indeed, verbal abuse and marginalization are increasing in the West as well, though—thankfully—martyrdom is not on the horizon (in terms of governmental action). Nevertheless, cultural pressures are increasingly dismissive, perhaps hostile. When Christian morality, for example, is ridiculed, cultural pressure is apparent and it is applied through media and among peers.
While clearly Peter’s concern is hostile cultural pressure, his perspectives on suffering have wider application. This is evident when he identifies the suffering of believers with the suffering of Jesus. When believers suffer, they participate in the suffering of Jesus. Believers and Jesus share a common experience; they share a category of experience—they suffer. All righteous suffering belongs to the nature of all kinds of righteous suffering. What Peter says here about suffering in a hostile culture is equally applicable to all innocent suffering Christians endure. Peter applies the general principles to a specific situation, but the principles nevertheless have a broader application. Suffering is a means of “eschatological judgment,” as Peter assumes in this text.
For Christians, all suffering is Christological. All suffering is eschatological. All suffering is a fiery ordeal. All suffering is blessed.