By Christopher VanDusen
Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ live in direct opposition to the way that most people live. The reason for this is that believers do God’s will, whereas unbelievers do Satan’s will by satisfying their own sinful desires. As a result, unbelievers hate the way Christians live, and often criticize, insult, and mock it. This is especially true when those Christians used to do the very same things that those unbelievers do. When believers are in this position of being mistreated for doing God’s will, and are being insulted, criticized, and/or mocked for it, how do they seek to please God more, when they’re tempted to even go back to doing the evil things they used to? The apostle Peter answers this question in 1 Peter 4:1-6.
1 Peter is a letter that Peter wrote to many Jewish Christians living among a greater number of non-Jewish unbelievers. He calls them “aliens”. He had heard that they were suffering a great amount of mistreatment from their unbelieving neighbors, and wrote to encourage, comfort, and instruct them on how to please God while being persecuted. He begins the letter by describing the great salvation that God has given to them through the Lord Jesus Christ, focusing on the hope they have of Christ’s coming, which will result in the completion of their salvation. Then, he marvels at the fact that what the Old Testament prophets mainly predicted has been fulfilled in the gospel that the aliens learned, believed, and were saved by.
In the next section, he begins to instruct them on how to respond to their knowledge of God’s salvation. First, they’re to be hopeful, holy, and reverent toward God. Second, they’re to love one another as brothers and sisters in God’s family, since they’ve been born again into it. Third, they’re to stop sinning against one another, and to instead desire to learn God’s Word, so they can become more like God.
Part way into chapter 2, Peter explains how the aliens are learning God’s Word, and living out the purpose for which God left them on earth. He describes them as God’s priests, who are proclaiming who God is to the unbelieving world around them. Then, he describes how they’re to do this by submitting to their governments, and honoring everyone. He then applies this instruction to slaves, wives, and husbands. To conclude this section, he commands all of them to be united, and to bless those who persecute them, so that will God will bless them.
The rest of chapter 3 is devoted to explaining to the aliens why and how they are to suffer persecution for doing good. First, they’re to do so because their persecutors can’t truly harm them at all, since being persecuted for righteousness is proof that God has blessed them. Second, the way they’re to do so is by setting apart Christ as the Lord of the universe in their thinking, and by maintaining a clear conscience to shame those who slander them. The reason they’re to suffer for goodness is because it’s better to suffer for good than to suffer for evil. To conclude the third chapter, Peter explains that it’s better to suffer like this because Christ suffered for their evil, and by doing so, triumphed over evil, saved them from the punishment due it, and earned God’s honor as the Ruler of the universe, and of evil spirits.
Based on Christ’s suffering for sins that resulted in their salvation, Peter explains in the first six verses of chapter 4 how and why they are to suffer from people for doing God’s will:
“Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. 3 For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. 4 With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; 5 but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.” (ESV)
In this passage, Peter gives the aliens an instruction on how to suffer for righteousness, and gives them three reasons to do so:
- Arm Yourselves with the Aim to Suffer for God (vss. 1-2)
- You’ve Abandoned Your Old Sins of the Gentiles (v. 3)
- The Attackers will Answer for Sin to God (vss. 4-5)
- The Absent are Alive in Spirit to God (v. 6)
Arm Yourselves with the Aim to Suffer for God
In verses 1-2, Peter begins this passage with the command to think the same way that Christ did:
“Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.”
Peter bases this command on what he’s just said about Christ. Christ suffered for their sins by being put to death by people for doing God’s will. As a result, He let evil spirits know He had defeated them with spiritual life, saved the aliens from God’s wrath, and was given authority over all evil spirits.
Peter says that, since Christ suffered “in the flesh”, or in His “earthly body”, the aliens ought to “arm [themselves] with the same way of thinking”. What way of thinking is he talking about? Obviously, it’s Christ’s way of thinking about suffering. And how did He think about His suffering? He saw it as God’s will for Him, since God had sent Him to suffer for sins, in order to “bring” people “to God”. In the same way, Peter is commanding the aliens to see their suffering for doing God’s will as God’s will for them, and the way in which they will obtain God’s reward of eternal life on the new earth. Peter commands them to “arm” themselves because they are in a war against their sinful desires, which Peter earlier said “wage war against [their] soul”.
Next, Peter gives the aliens the first main reason they ought to determine to suffer for righteousness — “whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin”. Earlier, Peter said that Christ died for sins, so that they “might die to sin, and live to righteousness”. This is what he’s referring to here. The words “die” and “cease” mean basically the same thing. Because Christ died for their sins, they have “died” to the control of sin over them, and now are “righteous”, or pleasing to God, and live righteously. Therefore, by suffering for righteousness like Christ did, they’ll prove that they’ve “ceased” from living lives of sin. This doesn’t mean that they cease to sin, but that sin no longer has control over them, and they now live lives that are characterized by righteousness.
Finally, Peter gives the aliens the purpose of their cessation from sin. They’ve stopped living in it “to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God”. By “human passions”, Peter means strong desires that come from the evil nature that people are born with. As such, these desires are evil, and clearly opposed to “the will of God”. The aliens no longer live to satisfy those sinful desires, but live to do “the will of God”, or what God commands them to do, and what pleases Him. In verse 17 of the last chapter, Peter said that sometimes it’s “God’s will” that they “suffer for doing good” (ESV), and that’s the case in this passage.
You’ve Abandoned Your Old Sins of the Gentiles
Peter’s second point in this passage is to give the aliens yet another reason why they ought to determine to suffer for righteousness, rather than give in to the temptation to sin, in verse 3:
“For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry.”
Peter begins this reason by saying that some past time “suffices”, or is enough “for doing what the Gentiles want to do”. In context, the “time that is past” refers to the time before the aliens “ceased from sin” and began to live “for the will of God”. In other words, he’s talking about before they became Christians.
And what did they do during that time? Peter calls it “what the Gentiles want to do”, or what “non-Jews” want to do. However, it’s not just what they want to do, but what they live in.
And what did the aliens used to live in? First, they lived in “sensuality”. As the word suggests, this is a life consumed by using the “senses”, but in the context of the Gentile unbelieving lifestyle of that time, it mainly meant indulging in sexual sins. Second, they lived in “passions”, which is the same word that Peter has just used, referring to evil desires. Third, they lived in “drunkenness”, or getting drunk from alcoholic drink. Fourth, they lived in “orgies”, or unrestrained sex between multiple people, often done as part of a religion. Fifth, they lived in “drinking parties”, which could also include orgies. Finally, they lived in “lawless idolatry”, or the worship of false gods that’s completely contrary to God’s laws for people.
Peter’s point in this verse is that the aliens ought not to do these things again, even though they may be tempted to, because they’ve “spent enough time” doing those things. This removes the thought of “maybe if I do those things again, the Gentiles will stop mistreating me”. If they’ve already done those things, then they can’t go back, since they’ve ceased from sin, to live “for the rest of the time” for God’s will.
The Attackers will Answer for Sin to God
In verses 4-5, Peter gives his second reason that the aliens ought to determine to suffer for righteousness, and not go back to their old sins:
“With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.”
First, he describes the reaction of their unbelieving neighbors to their abandonment of sinful living, and their practice of God’s will. They’re “surprised” when the aliens don’t “join them in the same flood of debauchery”. By “debauchery”, Peter means unrestrained, sinful, living, that’s so prevalent and gross that it’s like a “flood”. But why are the Gentiles surprised that the aliens don’t live like this? Because they know that they used to.
The second reaction of the Gentiles to the aliens’ righteous lifestyles is that they “malign” them. This means that they “speak evil” of them, or “harshly criticize or insult” them. The reason they do this is because they’re surprised that the aliens are living righteously, rather than how they used to. They actually believe that the aliens are doing what’s wrong, rather than doing what’s right!
Peter next gives the aliens a reason that they ought not let the criticism of the Gentiles bother them. The reason is that “they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead”. The phrase “give account” means that the Gentiles will have to explain how they lived, and how they called the aliens’ righteous behavior evil. And to whom will they do this? To the One who is “ready to judge the living and the dead”. This refers to the Lord Jesus Christ, whom God the Father has appointed as Judge of those who are alive, as well as those who have died. The idea of the phrase “the living and the dead” is that no one will escape His judgment. Even those who have died will be raised from dead and judged, including the Gentiles who are living in rebellion against God, and maligning His people. When Jesus judges them, they’ll give an account of their lives to Him, and be sentenced to eternal punishment based on how they lived.
The Absent are Alive in Spirit to God
In verse 6, Peter concludes this passage by giving the aliens another reason why they shouldn’t let the Gentiles’ insults bother them, since they’ll be condemned for their evil lifestyles:
“For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.”
He begins this reason with the word “for”, showing that he’s giving a reason why the Gentiles are wrong to malign the aliens, and will have to explain it to Jesus. The reason is that “the gospel was preached even to those who are dead”, so that, “though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does”.
Now, who are “those who are dead”? First, it’s those to whom “the gospel was preached”. So far in this letter, the only people that Peter specifically says had the gospel, or “good news”, preached to them, are believers. Secondly, these people were “judged in the flesh the way people are”, according to the ESV. The Greek literally says “judged in the flesh according to men“. Thirdly, these people had the gospel preached to them, so that “they might live in the spirit the way God does”. The Greek here literally says “might live in the spirit according to God”.
So, where in this passage are people being judged “according to men”, or like they’re normal human beings? The aliens. The Gentiles are “judging” the aliens as if they’re just like them, and ought to live just like them. Hence, the dead people to whom the gospel was preached are believers who have died.
This verse has a couple of interpretations that are reasonable, but this seems to be the most likely meaning. Peter’s saying that the Gentiles are wrong to call the aliens’ lifestyles evil because, although believers who have already died were judged to be just like everyone else as just destined to die, and get nothing for their righteousness, they now “live in the spirit the way God does”. This last phrase means that they are now living as spirits, or without “the flesh”, as God is spirit, and without flesh. Why? Because the gospel was preached to them, so they would believe it, and receive spiritual life. Therefore, their righteous lives weren’t a waste of time, but rewarded with spiritual life with God.
At any rate, Peter’s main point in this verse is that the Gentiles are wrong to malign the righteousness of the aliens, since believers who have died haven’t wasted their lives by becoming Christians, but enjoy spiritual life with God.
Aim to Suffer, Forget Your Sins, and Brush Off Insults
If you’re a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, how does this passage apply to you?
First, have you armed yourself with the willingness to suffer persecution for pleasing God, since Christ suffered for righteousness, you’ve ceased from sin, and you’re living to do God’s will?
Second, do you consider the time that you spent as an unbeliever enough for living in sin?
Third, do you join with unbelievers in their sins, or do you refuse to? If you refuse to, do you let their insults or criticism bother you, or do you recognize that they’ll give an account to Jesus when He judges them?
Fourth, do you realize that, although unbelievers may think that there’s no eternal benefit in becoming a Christian, even dead Christians are spiritually alive with God?
If you haven’t ceased from sin, and are living for evil human passions, then you’re rebelling against God, and are heading for eternal punishment. The good news is that God sent His eternal and divine Son to earth to become the man, Jesus, to live the perfect life, and to suffer and die on a Roman cross to take God’s punishment for our sins. Then, God raised Him from the dead, and took Him into heaven as the Ruler of the universe. He now commands everyone to change their minds and trust in Jesus as their Lord and Savior to receive His mercy, forgiveness, and peace, since He’s going to judge everyone perfectly through Jesus, and punish all His enemies for their rebellion against Him. Please make sure you’ve repented of your rebellion against God, and are trusting only in Jesus to save you from your sins and God’s wrath. If you are, then Jesus requires all of His people to be baptized in water by another Christian as an appeal to God for a good conscience, and a profession of faith to others.
Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are taken from the:
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.