By Christopher VanDusen
The Lord Jesus Christ promised His followers that they would suffer persecution for following Him. However, that persecution comes in many different forms, and can differ in intensity. Sometimes, Christians are just insulted for their faith. For a smaller number, they are tortured, or even murdered. Sometimes the persecution is such that it can be described as “fiery”, or “hot”. So, when Christians are burned by the flames of fiery persecution, how are they supposed to respond? The apostle Peter answers this question in 1 Peter 4:12-19.
1 Peter is a letter that Peter wrote to a great number of Christians who were living in a land that was foreign to them, since they were Jews living outside of Israel, among mostly non-Jews. Therefore, he calls them “aliens”. However, not only were they ethnically different from their unbelieving neighbors, but they were more significantly spiritually different from them. Before they were Christians, they had actually committed the same sins that their unbelieving neighbors were still committing. Now that they were Christians, however, they no longer lived sinful lives, but righteous lives, and so lived in a way that was directly opposed to their neighbors’ lifestyle. As a result, they were insulted, mocked, and criticized by the unbelievers. Peter learned of this persecution, so he wrote 1 Peter to encourage, comfort, and instruct them on how to please God while suffering persecution.
Peter begins the letter by describing the great salvation that they’ve received from God, and emphasizes the completion of it that will take place when the Lord returns to earth. Then, he looks back to the Old Testament prophets’ anticipation of this salvation, in order to highlight the great privilege that the aliens have to experience and understand it.
In the next section, Peter explains to the aliens how they need to live in light of the salvation that God has promised them. He says that they ought to be hopeful, holy, and reverent toward God. Then, he commands them to love one another, since they’re now God’s children. In order to to do this, he begins chapter 2 by instructing them that they have to stop committing certain sins against each other, and to instead long to learn God’s Word, so they can become more like Him.
In the next section, Peter describes how they are becoming more like God by speaking of them as God’s priests. As God’s priests, their purpose on earth is to serve God by proclaiming who He is to the world around them. Peter then explains how they ought to do this by instructing them to avoid giving in to temptation, and to live righteously in front of unbelievers. After this, he applies this principle to submitting to human authority, and to honoring everyone, which begins chapter 3. To conclude this section, he commands all of them to be united, and to bless their persecutors.
Peter closes chapter 3 by explaining how and why the aliens are to suffer persecution for living righteously. They need to do this because it’s the path to God’s blessing. Further, they ought to do this because it’s how Christ obtained victory over evil, their salvation, and God’s blessing. Peter begins chapter 4 by commanding the aliens to think about suffering in the same way that Christ did. He then explains that they can’t go back to their old ways of living, since they spent enough time in those ways.
Peter adds another section, in which he reminds them that the end of the universe is near. Therefore, they need to live soberly to pray, love one another fully, and serve one another.
To conclude chapter 4, then, Peter explains how the aliens need to respond to intense persecution in verses 12-19:
“12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. 16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And
“If the righteous is scarcely saved,
what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”
19 Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” (ESV)
In this passage, Peter gives the aliens six instructions on how to endure fiery persecution:
- Don’t Be Rattled by Your Fiery Trial (v. 12)
- Rejoice in Your Fellowship in Christ’s Sufferings (vss. 13-14)
- Run from Facing Trouble from Sin (v. 15)
- Reflect the Father by Suffering (v. 16)
- Realize the Fearfulness of Sinners’ Sentences (vss. 17-18)
- Rely on the Faithful God through Saintliness (v. 19)
Don’t Be Rattled by Your Fiery Trial
Peter’s first command for the aliens is to avoid being caught off guard by intense persecution:
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”
Peter begins this new section of the letter by calling the aliens “beloved”. This literally means “those who are loved”. In 1 John, John clearly uses this description to tell his audience that God loves them, and not him. In Paul’s letters, Paul sometimes calls believers “beloved of God”, which again speaks of them as those whom God loves. Peter’s audience knows that he loves them, but they need to be reminded that God loves them, since He’s allowing them to be persecuted. Thus, Peter must mean that the aliens are loved by God, and not necessarily by him.
Peter’s first command is a prohibition from being “surprised” or “shocked” “at the fiery trial when it comes upon” them. By speaking of this trial as if it will happen in the future, Peter’s implying that they don’t go through this all the time. Also, the fact that he calls it “fiery” emphasizes that it’s a particularly painful experience, since it’s hot, and can burn them.
The first reason the aliens shouldn’t be surprised at this trial is because it “comes upon [them] to test them”. By saying that this trial tests them, Peter’s teaching that God’s purpose for putting them through it is to strain their faith in Christ, and to prove that it’s real faith in Christ. The picture is that of metal that’s heated by a fire to prove that it’s the metal it looks like.
The second reason, which is implied from the first, that they shouldn’t be surprised, is that suffering a “fiery trial” isn’t “something strange”. Rather, it’s something that they should expect. One reason for this is that God has promised them “trials” that test their faith, and make it known that it’s real.
Rejoice in Your Fellowship in Christ’s Sufferings
Peter’s second instruction for the aliens in verses 13-14 is to rejoice when they suffer like Christ:
“But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”
First, Peter commands the aliens to “rejoice insofar as [they] share Christ’s sufferings”. When he says “rejoice”, he means to express a feeling of happiness that’s based on what they know, rather than what they’re experiencing. When are they to rejoice? When they “share Christ’s sufferings”. This refers to the persecution that Christ suffered, which was persecution for pleasing God by obeying Him. When they suffer for this, they’re experiencing Christ’s sufferings.
Second, Peter explains that they ought to rejoice when they experience Christ’s sufferings so that they “may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed”. In the Greek, Peter actually said “that you also rejoice with exultation“. The word “exultation” refers to expressing happiness over winning a victory by boasting about it. Hence, Peter’s saying that they ought to rejoice when they suffer like Christ, so that they can joyfully boast “when his glory is revealed”. Christ’s glory, or the display of His character and nature, will be fully revealed when He comes back to earth in bodily form to give His people their new, sinless, bodies.
In verse 14, Peter names a specific example of the persecution that the aliens are suffering, and reminds them that they’re blessed. He says that if they’re “insulted for the name of Christ, [they] are blessed”. When he says this, he means that people are harshly criticizing them for claiming to believe in Christ, and for obeying Him. One reason they should rejoice for suffering this is because they’re “blessed”, which literally means “happy”. This doesn’t literally refer to happiness, but to the reason to be happy. They ought to be happy because they’re experiencing the same thing that Christ experienced. Therefore, they can know that they’re pleasing to God, and are loved by Him.
Peter finishes this section by explaining that the reason they’re blessed is “because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon [them]”. This means that God the Holy Spirit has rested upon them, just as He rested upon Christ at His baptism, and upon the tabernacle in the wilderness. Therefore, they can know that the Spirit is with them, and lives inside of them. Peter calls Him the Spirit “of glory” to tell them that they share in Christ’s glory, and the Spirit “of God” to say that God the Father gave them the Spirit to give them spiritual life and fellowship with Him.
Run from Facing Trouble as Sinners
Peter’s third command, and second prohibition, is for the aliens to avoid suffering as sinners, which is found in verse 15:
“But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler.”
Although the aliens should rejoice when they share Christ’s sufferings because of His name, they need to avoid suffering as sinners. First, they need to avoid suffering as murderers, or those who kill out of hatred. Second, they can’t suffer as thieves, or those who wrongfully take others’ property. Third, they must not suffer as evildoers, or those who generally practice any form of evil. Finally, they need to avoid suffering as “meddlers”, or those who wrongfully trouble others, and prevent them from doing what needs to be done.
Reflect the Father by Suffering
Peter’s fourth command for the aliens in verse 16 is to avoid being ashamed by glorifying God while suffering:
“Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.”
In contrast to suffering as sinners, Peter says that those who suffer as “Christians” ought not be ashamed, but ought to “glorify God”. The term “Christian” was first used by unbelievers as an insulting term in Antioch, which is recorded in the Book of Acts. It literally means “follower of Christ”, so it implies that the suffering experienced by a Christian should be the same suffering that Christ experienced. Hence, Peter forbids the aliens from being ashamed of suffering as followers of Christ.
Rather than being displeased at suffering as Christians, the aliens ought to “glorify God in that name”. By “glorify God”, Peter means to bring attention to God, or to make Him known more. They’re to do this “in” the name of “Christian”, or by letting those who know of their suffering know that they’re followers of Christ. In other words, because they put Christ on display while suffering for living like Christians, they put God the Father on display, since He’s revealed through Christ.
Realize the Fearfulness of Sinners’ Sentences
In verses 17-18, Peter explains why the aliens need to expect fiery persecution, and ought to rejoice and glorify God through it:
“For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And ‘If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?'”
The main reason that the aliens ought to calmly rejoice because of their persecution is because it’s “time for judgment to begin at the household of God”. By “judgment”, Peter means punishment in general. By “the household of God”, he means the family of God, or the church. The judgment that’s being inflicted on the church is the judgment of people, who punish believers for living righteously.
The second reason that the aliens ought to rejoice for suffering for Christ is because the fact that they’re being judged in this life shows that the judgment of their persecutors will be worse in the next life. That’s what he implies when he asks what the outcome will be “for those who do not obey the gospel of God” if judgment begins with God’s family. The Greek translated “do not obey” literally says disobey, so he’s referring to those who refuse to obey the good news of God’s salvation in Christ through faith in Him. He speaks of unbelievers disobeying the gospel because God’s message of salvation includes the command to “repent”, or change one’s mind, and to trust in Christ as one’s Savior and Ruler, to receive God’s forgiveness.
Peter further explains the comparison between the judgment of the church, and the judgment of the disobedient by quoting an Old Testament passage that says, “if the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” By saying that the “righteous”, or Christians are “scarcely saved”, it means that in order to reach the end of their lives to be finally and completely saved from their sins, they need to go through “troubles” and “trials” that test their faith by hurting them. In this context, Peter’s referring to the persecution that the aliens are enduring. The question that’s quoted implies that if the righteous are saved through great suffering, then the suffering of those who are un-Godlike (or ungodly) and condemned as sinners will be far greater.
By telling the aliens that their suffering of people’s hatred shows that the suffering of sinners from God will be far greater, he’s assuring them that although they’re on the receiving end of judgment now, their persecutors who don’t obey the gospel will be eternally judged eventually.
Rely on the Faithful God through Saintliness
Peter’s final instruction for the aliens in the last verse is to rely on God by suffering righteously:
“Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.”
By using the “therefore”, Peter means that because the judgment of the aliens’ persecutors will be far worse from what they’re now suffering from their persecutors, they ought to suffer in the way that Peter now says. First, he says that this command applies to “those who suffer according to God’s will”. By “God’s will”, Peter means God’s commands or demands for His people that express how they please Him.
Second, he explains that the aliens ought to “entrust their souls to a faithful Creator”. The word “souls” simply refers to the “lives” of people, such as when Luke uses the word in Acts 2 to say that 2,000 “souls” were added to the church on the Day of Pentecost. In other words, the word doesn’t just refer to the non-physical part of people, but to the whole of a person. Peter tells the aliens that they need to entrust themselves to “a faithful Creator”. He calls God “a faithful Creator” to emphasize that their God first of all created them, and therefore cares for them. In addition, He’s “faithful”, so He can be trusted, and He will keep all the promises He’s made to them.
Finally, Peter explains how the aliens are to entrust their souls to their faithful Creator while suffering persecution for Christ. It’s by “doing good”. Peter needs to say this because suffering for doing good will tempt them to stop doing good, and to do evil to make their persecutors stop mistreating them. However, by doing good, they’ll show that they’re trusting their Creator to see them through to the end of their lives, when they’ll be finally saved, and that He’ll will eventually punish those who don’t repent of their mistreatment of Christians.
Expect Fire, Rejoice in It, and Glorify God by Trusting Him
So, if you’re a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, how does this passage apply to you?
First, are you surprised when you go through fiery trials of persecution? You shouldn’t be because God sends these to test us, to refine us, to strengthen us, and to prove us.
Second, do you rejoice when you share Christ’s sufferings, so you can rejoice and boast when His glory is revealed?
Third, do you know that you’re blessed if you’re insulted for the name of Christ, since you can know that the Spirit of glory and of God has rested upon you?
Fourth, do you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or a meddler? You ought to avoid suffering as any of these things, or anything like them.
Fifth, are you ashamed when you suffer because you’re a Christian, or do you glorify God by bearing that name?
Sixth, do you realize that it’s time for judgment to begin with God’s household? And do you realize that God’s judgment will far worse for those who disobey the gospel of God, and are ungodly and sinners?
Finally, do you entrust yourself to your faithful Creator by doing good while suffering for Christ?
This passage teaches that all Christians who follow Christ for any significant length time will suffer persecution. If you don’t occasionally suffer persecution of any form whatsoever, then you’re either sinning, or you’re being disobedient to the gospel of God. If you’re being disobedient to the gospel, then you’re heading for God’s eternal judgment at the end of your life. That good news is that God sent His eternal and divine Son to earth to become a man, Jesus of Nazareth, to live the perfect life, and to suffer and die on a Roman cross to take the punishment we deserve from God for our rebellion against Him. 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 to trust in Him as their Savior from sin and Ruler to receive His mercy, forgiveness, and peace, since He’s going to judge everyone perfectly through Jesus, and punish all His enemies with eternal torment. Please make sure you’ve repented of your rebellion, and are trusting only in the Lord Jesus to save you from your sins, and give you forgiveness. If you’ve done that, then Jesus requires all of His believers to be baptized in water by another believer as an appeal to God for a good conscience, and a profession of faith to others.
All 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.