Monday, October 11, 2010

The Blessedness of Suffering for Christ - 1 Peter 3:13-18


It was about this time of year in 2002, I was on a mission trip in Salem, Massachusetts, sharing the gospel in the streets during a major Wicca festival. It was the fourth consecutive year we had done this, and it had always gone very well. This time, things got a little crazy. I had offered a man passing by a gospel tract, and he took it, and he went to sit down on a bench to read it. After reading it for a few minutes, this man began to scream loudly and profanely. He was shouting in the street, “Don’t take the garbage this guy is handing out! He thinks we are all going to hell because we don’t follow Jesus!” I just ignored him for a while and continued witnessing, and then he came up to me and got in my face and became really aggressive with me. I remained calm and tried to get a word in here and there to tell him that this was not my opinion, but it was what the Bible says. Suddenly, he began shouting for the police. I thought, “Thank God! The police will straighten this out, shut this guy up, and we can get back to what we are doing!” After all, I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I asked the guy if he wanted a tract, and he said yes, so I gave it to him, and then he flipped out. And that is pretty much what he told the police when they showed up. No problem, right? Much to my surprise, the police officer pulled me aside and said, “Listen, we have some pretty strict laws in this town about religious harassment, and if you don’t shut this down right now, I am taking you and your whole crew to jail.” When I tried to explain the situation, and that I wasn’t harassing anyone, the officer said, “Look, all is well here in this town. Everyone gets along just fine until people like you come along and disturb the peace, so shut it down, or I lock you up.” Well, we just decided at that point to do some prayerwalking, and we found another area of the festival and started witnessing again, and thankfully my criminal record is still clear.

It is a general rule that Peter states in verse 13 of this text: “Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good?” Generally speaking, that is true. Do what is right, and things will typically go pretty well for you. But, there are exceptions that arise occasionally. Sometimes, when we do what is good, we will suffer precisely for the fact that we were doing what was good. The way this is worded in the text, those should be rare exceptions. If you find that this is the case every day or relatively often for you, then you may need to consider some other things that may be going on. But on those rare occasions when we do face suffering for the sake of righteousness, Peter says that we are blessed. This word blessed has to do with being the “privileged recipients of divine favor.” That kind of takes us by surprise, doesn’t it? We typically don’t think of suffering and blessedness in the same sentence. And to be sure, not all suffering is blessed. But a particular kind of suffering always is, and that is suffering for the sake of righteousness.

What does it mean to suffer for righteousness? Jesus defined it for us in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me” (Matt 5:10-11). The key phrase here is “because of Me.” It is when we suffer because of our relationship with Christ, because of our service to Christ, because of our witness for Christ, that the Apostle Peter and the Lord Jesus Himself says that we are blessed. Consider the first generation of Jesus’ followers: In Acts 5, when Peter and some others were arrested, harassed, and flogged because they had been out preaching the Gospel, the Bible says that they were rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name, and that they kept right on teaching and preaching about Jesus (Acts 5:41-42). They actually rejoiced in the midst of this suffering, and considered it an honor that God deemed them worthy to suffer for Christ. We often speak of how blessed it is that we do not endure such suffering, but perhaps we need to wonder why it is that God does not give us this joyous privilege to suffer for Christ? After all, according to 1 Peter 3:17, here in our text, there are times when this suffering for righteousness is God’s will. Again, the language does not require us to believe that all suffering, or even all suffering for righteousness is God’s will, or that God wills for all of us to suffer for Christ; but it does suggest that some such suffering is within His will. After all, 2 Timothy 3:12 says, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” so we must expect this to some degree.

So, here we are presented with some facts that are, at first glance, difficult to swallow. God may will us to suffer for Christ’s sake, and when we do, we are blessed. So, the question we want to answer as we dive into this text is: In what way are we blessed when we suffer for Christ? And in this passage, we find several answers to that question.

I. Suffering for Christ is a blessing because it purges our lives of idols (v15a)

It may seem odd to suggest that there would be idols present in the lives of those who are suffering for Christ. After all, if we were idolators, wouldn’t it be unlikely that our faith in Christ was the cause of our suffering? Most often when we think of idol worship, we think of someone bowing down in reverence before some kind of carved statue or image. But idolatry is much more subtle than this. It crops up in our lives sometimes unknowingly. And none of us are exempt from the temptation to commit this unthinkable sin. John Calvin said, “Every one of us is, even from his mother’s womb, expert in inventing idols.” He said, “man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”

When we talk about idols in our lives, we do not mean usually an exchange of Christ for an idol, but rather the addition of an idol to Christ. And that idol is not typically a graven image of some kind. It can be, but it can also be a habit, a hobby, a practice, a person, an idea, or an object. Usually what happens is that we have in our mind a notion of what some have called “false hells.” In other words, we imagine some state of being that is miserably unimaginable and we want to escape it or avoid it. For some, maybe it is being fat, or being poor, or being ugly, or being unpopular, or being ignorant. Those are just a few examples. And so, having identified a false hell that we want to escape or avoid, we begin searching for something that will deliver us from it. If our false hell is being fat, then we begin to look for some exercise regimen or diet that will deliver us; if it is being poor, then we begin to look at money or possessions; if it is being ignorant, then we begin to look toward education and information. And we begin to trust in these things to deliver us from our false hell and lead us into a corresponding false heaven: being slim, being rich, being smart, being popular, being attractive, etc. Usually, these fake heavens adorn magazine covers, and the articles inside present us with the path to attain that heaven. So that thing that we trust to take us out of our fake hell and into our fake heaven becomes a “functional savior,” or in other words, an idol. This is the way idolatry has always been. In ancient days, fake hell might have been infertility, so people worshiped fertility idols as a functional savior. It might have been crop failure, so there were functional saviors like gods of rain and gods of harvest. Today, it looks a little more sophisticated, but it is the same idolatry.

Now the problem is when people say, “I believe in Jesus, and I know I’m going to heaven. That’s great, and someday, that will be really precious to me, but right now I just don’t want to be poor, or sick, or fat, or dumb, or uncool, and Jesus can’t really help me out of that so I need something else to take care of that right now.” Having nice possessions, being healthy, being smart, being cool, these things aren’t necessarily bad. But when they become as important, or God forbid more important than being faithful to Christ and living for His glory, then we have an idol, a functional savior that we have put alongside of Jesus in our lives. And it happens to all of us on a pretty regular basis. In fact it happens every time we sin. We choose something other than Christ to provide us with ultimate satisfaction.

Now, we are going along with this little pantheon of Jesus and a couple of functional saviors in our lives, and we take a stand for Christ and begin to suffer for it. At this point, we begin to take inventory of our lives and we realize, “OK, it is time to choose what is most important in my life.” This is why persecution has always purified the church, and why the church always comes through persecution stronger than it was before. It is also why times of peace and prosperity have tended to corrupt the church. In times of oppression, people have to narrow down what they are willing to die for. So, in those areas where persecution of Christians is intense, there isn’t much debate going on about what kind of music is used in worship, or about which pet program gets the biggest budget line. The persecution wakes us up to realize that Christ, His Word, His Gospel are the things worth living for and dying for ultimately, and everything else can take a back seat to that.

So Peter’s readers are finding themselves suffering for the cause of Christ in Asia Minor. They are being slandered and mistreated. The persecutors think, “If we intensify the pressure, they will back down on all this Jesus stuff.” And that makes sense, right? We might even be tempted to think that ourselves. Like, “Wow, living boldly for Christ is getting me in trouble, so maybe I need to cool it a bit.” But Peter’s advice is actually the opposite. In the midst of this suffering, he says, “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.” What does it mean to sanctify something? We are used to hearing that word in the opposite context: Christ sanctifying us. We know that this means that He is making us holy, making us more like Himself, perfecting us, transforming us into His image. So, how can we sanctify Christ? We can’t make Him more holy than He already is. The idea of sanctification is that of setting something apart for holy use. In our sanctification, Christ is setting us apart for His own use. So when we sanctify Christ as Lord in our hearts, we are setting Him apart, and acknowledging His supreme holiness. We are taking a spiritual inventory of our lives, identifying and tearing down idols that have crept in alongside of Him, and recommitting ourselves to Him alone as Lord, because He alone is worthy.

So, the suffering that takes place because of Christ actually shows us how glorious Christ is, and how worthy He is for us to suffer for His sake, and it purges the subtle idolatry from our lives. We come through better off, because we have isolated Christ alone as Lord in our affections. And for that reason, it is a blessing for us to experience it.

II. Suffering for Christ is a blessing because it offers us unique opportunities for witness (v15b)

In Jesus parable of the sower, He spoke about seed falling into four different kinds of soil. You recall that one of those soils was rocky, and there was quick growth, but the sun scorched the young plant and it withered away. Jesus said that this is like that person who hears the Word of God and receives it with joy, but their faith is only temporary. He said, “when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they fall away” (Mark 4:16-17). This person thinks that following Jesus will lead to a life of peace and ease, but when the Word of God begins to draw suffering into their lives, they abandon the faith, indicating that they were never true believers. Jesus became an inconvenience to their pursuit of happiness, and He had to go. How many so-called believers like this do you think the world has seen? I would guess that they have seen many. This is one reason why people are so seemingly uninterested in the gospel. They detect that it only makes a difference for a person in good times, but provides no real hope in bad times. But when a person suffers, and suffers particularly for the sake of Christ, and he or she holds onto Christ, even more steadfastly in the midst of their suffering, this captures the attention of those around us. It is not what they are used to seeing; it’s not what they expect to see. And Peter says that this makes people curious.

Don’t you find that one of the hardest parts about witnessing is finding someone who is even remotely interested in listening to the Gospel? They will talk to you about any subject under the sun except Christ, and when He comes up in the conversation, any excuse to get out of the conversation is welcomed. It is not that they are hostile to the faith, it is just that they think it doesn’t matter. But, Peter says that when we hold onto Jesus in the midst of suffering for Him, we don’t have to go looking for an audience; the audience will come to us with questions. There will be some, he says, who will ask you “to give an account (or a reason) for the hope that is in you.” There’s something different about that person. That person has something that the watching world immediately recognizes is missing their lives, and they want to know what it is. “How can you hold onto your faith in the midst of all this suffering?” they will ask. And you will no longer have to find a way to insert Christ into the conversation. The door is open now for you “to make a defense.”

The Greek word here for “defense” is the word apologian, from which we get the word apologetics. Apologetics is the term we use for defending the Christian faith against its critics. I was down on Tate Street one night, talking to some students about Jesus, and a guy was sitting there listening in on our conversation. When we wrapped it up, he said to me, “Hey, can I talk to you about something?” He said, “What evidence can you give me to believe in God?” And we had this long conversation about creation, intelligent design, moral law, aesthetics, and other things. And for every point I made, he made a counter-point. Mind you, I am convinced that my points were better than his, but nonetheless, it was a lot of give and take. And there, in that rather sterile environment of two intellectuals bouncing ideas off of one another, there was not much convincing going on. Finally, we ended on this note: I said, “Listen, Jesus said that no one can come to Him unless the Father draws him,” and that means that if He isn’t drawing you, then all the evidence in the world won’t convince you; but if He is drawing you, you will come with or without evidence.” But suppose for a moment that this young man had pulled a gun on me and said, “Now do you believe in Christ?” Do you think that he would be more interested in what I had to say about Jesus if I said “Yes”? Do you think that my defense would have been more convincing? I suggest that it would have, because now he has found that my faith in Christ is not just a subject I am willing to chat about over an espresso, but rather it is something that I am willing to die for.

I was a youth pastor when the Columbine massacre took place in 1999. I had been trying to teach these kids about the treasure of Christ for a year and a half, and they acted like that was the least important thing in the world. Columbine took place on a Tuesday, and when my high school students gathered on the following night, all of a sudden they were interested in Christ more than anything else. I didn’t have to try to lure them into conversation or convince them of anything. Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott, and other students in that horrific event, had presented them with the strongest apologetic possible. At the barrel of a gun, when asked if they would choose to live or follow Christ, they chose Christ and died. Since that time, there has been some question about whether or not these girls were actually killed for their faith in Christ, but 24 hours after the fact, the question that was on the minds of the students I ministered to was, “How can I have the kind of hope in Christ that can help me look death in the face and hold onto Him?” They had seen the tepid faith of their Christian friends and parents and responded with a yawn. But when they found someone who was willing to be faithful unto death, they wanted to know how it could be possible.

I would venture to say that we would find the same true as we suffer for Christ, even if it does not lead to our deaths. When people see us clinging to Christ even as we suffer for His name’s sake, they will wonder why and how it is possible. At that point, we must be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us. And this is one of the blessings of suffering for Christ – it provides us with unique opportunities to be His witnesses.

III. Suffering for Christ is a blessing because it proves the genuineness of our faith (v14b, 16)

We proclaim that following Jesus will transform a person’s life. Do we believe it? Have we experienced it? Can we prove it? One thing is certain, we don’t need to prove it to God. He already knows. But has the genuineness of our faith been proven to ourselves and to others? One way to know is to see how our faith holds up under fire.

In verse 14, Peter paraphrases Isaiah 8:12, and says to his readers, “Do not fear their intimidation and do not be troubled.” It seems only natural that if the people around us are intimidating us because of our faith in Christ, that we would be both troubled and afraid. Peter’s readers likely were, and that is why he tells them here to not be afraid and troubled. But it isn’t like there is some switch we can flip to turn off the fear and the anxiety. There has to be some deeply rooted truth in our lives that reminds us that the worst anyone can do to us is kill us, but that Jesus has conquered death and will welcome into life eternal with Him. And when a believer can face suffering for Christ and overcome all fear and distress, there is evidence that his or her faith in Christ is real.
He says in verse 16, “Keep a good conscience.” This takes us back to those statements in verse 9, where Peter said that we must not return evil for evil or insult for insult, but give a blessing instead. When we are being insulted and when evil is being enacted against us, the most natural response is to retaliate. But when we can overcome that tendency, and when we can stay in the right, keeping our conscience clear of any wrongdoing, and actually bless the persecutor in return, we are seeing evidence of the genuineness of our faith, and so is everyone else.

But there is an interesting twist here with the outcome. When we respond to suffering this way, demonstrating the genuineness of our life transformation in Christ, notice the effect that it has: “in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame.” The idea here is not to embarrass or humiliate our persecutors, but rather to demonstrate that what they have said about us or done to us has been without cause. They will be silenced in their slander, ceased in their evildoings, and perhaps even taken aback by the genuine faith they see within us, which may lead to them giving fresh consideration to the gospel for themselves. So, suffering for Christ is a blessing because it proves the genuineness of our faith, and silences our critics, and may even result in their salvation.

IV. Suffering for Christ is follows the example of Christ (v17-18)

You notice that verse 18 is inseparably connected to verses 13-17 by the conjunction for. This suggests that verse 18 is a basis or foundation for what preceded it. Just prior, Peter says that it is better for us to suffer for doing what is right than for doing what is wrong. That doesn’t seem better to us, does it? It seems like, if we suffer for doing wrong, at least we are getting what we deserve. But if we suffer for doing right, if we suffer for Christ, then it isn’t deserved. And this in part is why it is better. First it is better because it is no way better to ever do what is wrong. There’s no glory in suffering for wrong; it is justice. But more importantly, when we suffer for what is right, we are demonstrating the unjust and gracious suffering of Christ as we follow His example.

We may suffer for Christ, but if we do, we must remember that Christ suffered for us as well. He died for us, once for all, meaning that when we suffer, we are not bearing a penalty for our sins; Christ has borne it for us. And it was unjust suffering, the just for the unjust. He did not deserve such a horrific death, but it was for our sin, our evil, that He died. And it resulted in bringing us to God through faith in Him. He was innocent in His suffering, but He endured it because of His confidence that the Father was accomplishing His will, bringing salvation to us.

So, when we suffer for Him, we must not think it unusual that God would use something like this to accomplish His purposes. If Christ endured unjust suffering, then we can expect to as well. And also, we must remember that we are blessed, just as those early Christians in Acts 5 were, for being counted worthy to follow in His steps of suffering. And though our suffering does not bear sin for ourselves and others, it may be the result of others’ sins, and it may be the witness God will use to bring about their salvation that was accomplished in Christ’s sufferings. Our suffering becomes a visible “gospel in miniature” that may open their eyes to the glory of the gospel in full. What a privilege, that God would use the brief and momentary suffering that we may face in Christ’s name, to show someone the greater reality of Christ’s suffering and death for them!

And so, for these and perhaps other reasons, we can concur that if we suffer for Christ, for the sake of righteousness, we are indeed blessed. We may never experience it, but if we do, it will be under God’s perfect will. Our lives are purged of worthless idols; we are given opportunities for witness; we demonstrate the genuineness of our faith; and we follow in Christ’s footsteps. We may pray that it will never be, but if God should will it, we will endure it, we trust, in His power, knowing that we are blessed as we do.

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