Monday, November 22, 2010

The Right Way to Suffer (1 Peter 4:12-19)

Audio available here

After he had toured the United States extensively, the German theologian Helmut Thielicke was asked what he considered to be the greatest deficiency among American Christians. His response was that American Christians “have an inadequate view of suffering.” While I would agree with him that we lack a proper view of suffering, I am not sure this is our greatest deficiency, nor am I certain that we are unique in this inadequate view of suffering. Have Christians in other places had a far greater understanding of suffering than we do? Consider C. S. Lewis, a man of tremendous faith and intellectual prowess, who was no stranger to personal suffering. Lewis set forth one of the most intelligent and thorough discussions on the issue of suffering in his classic book The Problem of Pain. In that book he claims to solve the intellectual problem raised by suffering, and many have been helped by his reasoning in the book. But some years later, when C. S. Lewis watched his wife’s painful death through a battle with cancer, Lewis struggled to personalize the truths he had proclaimed to others. He journaled through his grief candidly and honestly, never intending for any other person’s eyes to see what he had written. When he was persuaded to allow it to be printed, he insisted that it bear the pseudonym N. W. Clerk. He did not want those who had read his articulate defenses of the Christian faith to know that he could be the same man who would write such things as this: “Meanwhile, where is God? … When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, if you turn to Him then with praise, you will be welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away.” It was only after Lewis died that his executors allowed A Grief Observed to be published in his name.

Suffering has a way of breaking in and ransacking an otherwise neat and tidy life. Philosophers have debated for centuries how a good God could allow it. Others have simply accepted the reality of it and focused instead on what to do about it. There is no more universal experience in life than suffering. All human beings suffer, but not all human suffering is the same. Some suffering is because of sin, both their own sin and its consequences, and the effects of the sins of others. Other suffering is the result of this fallen world which groans under the curse of sin. The human body is frail and corruptible (Gen 2:17; 3:19; Rom 5:12), the ground bears thorns and thistles (Gen 3:17-18), the fountains of the deep have burst open, and the floodgates of the sky have been opened (Gen 7:11), the land has been divided (Gen 10:25); the peoples have been scattered and their languages confounded (Gen 11:9). These realities make life in this world hard and dangerous, and it will stay that way until it is all restored when Christ returns (Rom 8:18-22). But then there is a category of suffering that is unique to the people of God, the followers of Christ. The Bible tells us that as disciples of Jesus, we can expect to suffer for the sake of His name. The world hated Him, and they will hate those who follow Him (John 15:18).

And it is that kind of suffering that Peter is addressing throughout this letter. While the Bible offers precious promises of God’s presence, comfort, and help to His people in all manners of suffering, Peter is focused on the harsh treatment and hostility that Christians are experiencing specifically because of their faith in Christ. To suffer in this way, Peter says, is to “share the sufferings of Christ.” Simply stated, this means that the way in which the world treated Jesus is the way we can be expected to be treated if we bear His name. He was hated, blasphemed, slandered, abused, and ultimately put to death, though none of it was deserved. In the same way, we who belong to Him by faith can expect to undergo these same sorts of unjust suffering in the world. As Christ’s representatives in the world, we become the proximate targets for the world’s hatred of God in Christ. Peter’s purpose in these verses is not to address the question of why. His purpose here is to address how. What is the right way to suffer when we suffer for Him?

I. When we suffer for Christ, we are not to suffer in shock, but with hopeful joy (vv12-14).

When Solomon was just a toddler, I used to play a little game with him where I would go hide, and he would try to find me. As he entered a room or rounded a corner, I would jump out from where I was hiding and scare the daylights out of him. I know that sounds cruel, but he absolutely loved it and we would laugh hysterically about it. But eventually we had to stop playing that game because he came to expect me to jump out and scare him. It wasn’t as fun anymore because he knew what was coming, and it didn’t scare him. By definition, a surprise is something we don’t expect to happen. If we expect it, it’s not a surprise. Peter’s point here in verse 12 is that our suffering for the name of Christ should not surprise us, because we should expect it. Though it may be intense, a “fiery ordeal” as Peter calls it, it should not be considered “a strange thing.” If we consider all that the New Testament teaches us about suffering for Christ, we should rather think it strange and be surprised if we do not face it.

Rather than shock, Peter says that the appropriate response to such suffering is joy. There is a proportional relationship between the intensity of our suffering for Christ and the magnitude of our joy. He says, “To the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing.” As those sufferings increase, so should our joy increase. Joy can be found in the midst of this suffering because it is evidence that we truly belong to Jesus. If that were not so, the world would not treat us as they treated Him. Therefore increased suffering for Christ’s sake provides increased assurance that we belong to Him, and results in increased joy. Peter says that this fiery ordeal comes upon us for our testing. The idea is that it is proving the genuineness of our faith, because in the midst of the trial, we demonstrate Christ to be a more precious treasure than safety, comfort, luxuries, or even life. And the more we treasure Christ, the more we find that He is all-sufficient and all-satisfying, and thus, the true source of all real and lasting joy in our lives.

Another reason we can rejoice in the midst of this kind of suffering is that we do not suffer alone. While all the world will experience suffering, Christians are unique for we have something, or better, Someone, helping us as we endure this suffering. Peter says that we are blessed when we are reviled for the name of Christ, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon us. When you gave your life to Jesus, God Himself took up residence in your life in the person of His Holy Spirit. Have you ever wondered how someone can endure intense suffering without the Lord? It seems unthinkable for us who know the blessing of the presence of the glorious Holy Spirit of God. But “the fact is, many do and move on with life.” Many have suffered and “become deeply embittered against God.” Others suck it up and press on with stoic determinism, or perhaps even unfounded optimism. But the Christian is able to endure suffering, especially the suffering that comes our way because of our faithfulness to Christ, with joy knowing that we are blessed with the presence, the power, and all the spiritual resources of the Holy Spirit of God in all of His glory. He is with us, empowering us, producing joy within us, and giving us a foretaste of the glory that we will witness, experience, and participate in eternity.

Thus, our joy is not temporal; it is everlasting joy. It is filled with the hope that, though these days may include the fiery ordeals of intense suffering for Christ, there is a better day coming. We rejoice as we await the revelation of His glory. While Christ’s glory is being made known every day, it is breaking through in shafts and glimmers. But a day is coming when there will be a full unveiling. That is what this word means. Peter uses the word apokalupsei, from which we get the word apocalypse. We think of that word as one that means ultimate destruction, but that is not what it means. It means “unveiling.” The Book of Revelation is more accurately called by its Greek title, “The Apocalypse,” or “The Unveiling.” And while many turn to it looking for symbols and mysteries about the antichrist and Armageddon and the great tribulation, John tells us in the opening verse that he is writing about the Apocalypse, or “Unveiling,” of Jesus Christ. He is the one who is revealed in the pages of that book, and He is the one who will be fully unveiled as the last things of the end times unfold. We are not looking for events, for creatures, for battles, beasts, or plagues. We are looking for Christ to be fully unveiled in all His glory, and when He is, the joy of those who have held fast to His name while undergoing suffering for His sake will abound exponentially. We will rejoice with exultation. The word Peter uses here describes a “deep spiritual joy, a rejoicing in God,” and in “what He has done.” Interestingly, this word is never found in any of the secular Greek writings. It is only used by Christians. Truly, “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him.” When Christ is fully unveiled in His glory, we will behold Him face to face as He truly is, and we shall rejoice like never before. We will behold Him whom we have trusted in the dark days by faith, there with our eyes in the light of His glorious presence forever!

Therefore, when suffering comes upon us for the sake of the Lord Jesus, we must not be shocked by it; rather we must rejoice in it. And one day we will behold His unveiled glory in a future home where there will be no suffering, no tears, and no death. Then we will rejoice with exultation forever. God has made it possible for us to begin rejoicing now even while we suffer for Him.

II. When we suffer for Christ, we are not to suffer in shame, but with glory (vv15-16).

Let’s face it: some people suffer because they deserve it. They have gotten what is coming to them; they have reaped what they have sown; they have made their beds and been forced to lay in them. And the suffering they endure is, in some cases temporarily and in others permanently, a mark of shame upon them for what they have done. Therefore Peter says that we must make sure that none of our suffering has come upon us like this—for deserving reasons. Notice in verse 15, he says, “Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer.” If you do these things, and suffer for it, well, you have just received justice, and you bear shame for your deeds. And we must remember that Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, broadened our understanding of these sins. According to Jesus, hatred is murder committed in one’s heart and mind; covetousness is stealing; lust is adultery; evil thoughts are evil deeds committed in one’s fantasy life. So, if these kinds of sins are leading to our suffering, there is shame to be borne, and justice to be meted out. There is no promise of blessing, no call to rejoice, no indicator of glory to be shared.

To this list here, Peter adds one more: “Make sure that none of you suffers as … a troublesome meddler.” That seems quite incongruous to the others doesn’t it? The other things seem a bit more severe than this, don’t they? Well, as we have already indicated, according to Jesus, there are no small sins. The word Peter uses here refers to one who becomes “inappropriately involved in another person’s affairs.” It may be that some of those early Christians had done this, thinking they were doing a good thing. One scholar has theorized that some of these believers may have been hypocritically condemning the behavior of unbelievers, interfering with family relationships thus creating tension between spouses or between parents and children, or even using manipulative tactics of evangelism. While we are right to be concerned about others, and right to offer advice or help in some situations (particularly where we are invited to do so), and right to seek to share the gospel with the lost (especially when they ask us about our hope in Christ, 3:15), it is not right to be nosy. If you are suffering for sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong, then there is shame to bear, and you got what you deserved.

But Peter says that we must see to it that we are not suffering for these reasons. But it may be that we will suffer for no other reason than that we are a Christian. Interestingly, the word Christian (Greek: CristianoV, Christianos) only occurs three times in the Bible: here; Acts 11:26 and 26:28. It means “follower of Christ,” much like a Herodian (Mark 3:6; 13:13) is one who follows Herod. And if we are following Christ, then we are walking on the road He walked. There is a road in Jerusalem called the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Suffering, which marks the path that Jesus walked to the cross. We may say that to follow Christ is to walk along the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Suffering. We are sharing in His sufferings, suffering for Him and suffering as He suffered. Therefore, since we are suffering with Christ and for Him, there is no shame to bear. The one who suffers as a Christian, Peter says, is “not to be ashamed.” Those who suffer as the evildoers described in verse 15 bear shame, but not the Christian who suffers for Christ. We bear no shame, but glory.

It is the name of Christ that brought us suffering, and it is the name of Christ in which we glorify God. We glorify God knowing that the suffering which Christ endured purchased our redemption, and our redemption is demonstrated through our willingness to suffer with Him for His name. And God is glorified as we endure it. If our suffering provokes us to retreat from following Christ and to engage in sinful acts of rebellion and retaliation, then there will be shame. But where suffering is endured patiently for the sake of Christ, God is glorified through the name of Christ which we bear as we follow Him. So we do not suffer in shame as the evildoers; we suffer with glory because of the name of Christ which we have been granted to wear as Christians.

III. When we suffer for Christ, we are not to suffer in fear, but in trust (vv17-19).

Several times in the surrounding context of these verses, Peter has indicated that there is a judgment coming. And perhaps the followers of Christ hear that and think, “Great! Bring it!” After all, we tend to think that judgment is something that only unbelievers will face. And knowing that it is coming soon, we can use the time we have left to share the gospel with them in hopes that they repent and believe upon Christ, all the while knowing that if they do not, they will be condemned in judgment, and we will go to heaven. But here in verse 17, Peter says that judgment is not just something that is going to occur in the future. He says “it is time for judgment to begin.” It has already started to happen. And he says that it does not begin with the unbelievers. It begins “with the household of God,” “with us first.” Now, are we still ready to say, “Great! Bring it!”? I would imagine that unless we have a mental disorder, the idea that judgment is beginning with us, the believers, here and now, probably provokes a sense of fear. In fact, if we understand our own sinfulness and God’s infinite holiness, that would be an understandable response. However, a judgment does not always result in condemnation. Judgment involves an evaluation, which may result in a good or bad outcome, in approval or discipline, in praise or condemnation. Additionally, very few English translations rightly express the Greek preposition found in verse 17, which would more literally be rendered that judgment is beginning from the household of God. That means that it is starting here, but then it is going out from here to everyone else.

Peter likely has in view several Old Testament passages. In the Old Testament, the house of God clearly referred to the Temple. We have no temple of brick and mortar as Christians; in 1 Peter 2, he says that we are the stones which are being fitted together in God’s temple. The temple, the dwelling place of God’s Spirit and His glory, is the church: not the building, but the people. Ezekiel 9 depicts a scene in which the Lord assembles six armed executioners, by whom He will destroy the wicked. But with them, He also calls a man who has a writing case. And the Lord calls out to that man with the writing case, from within the Temple, commissioning him to go through Jerusalem marking the foreheads of the faithful people of God. Then the executioners are told to go through the city and strike down all who do not have that mark on their heads. They are to begin at the Temple and go out from there, and this they did, beginning with the elders of the temple. The tragic calamity of that scene is that Ezekiel was apparently the only man in all of Israel who bore the mark of salvation. The rest were condemned. Similarly, in Malachi 3, we find a prediction that the Lord Himself will come to the Temple, and He will be like a refining fire, purifying the Levites so that they may present pleasing offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then, after these have been purified, the Lord promises to bring a swift judgment upon the unrighteous. And it is because of the faithfulness of God to keep His covenant promises that the people of God are not consumed in that judgment.

Now fast forward back to the New Testament: Peter says that it is time for judgment to begin with, or from, the house of God, with us first. If we understand these Old Testament images correctly, then we who truly belong to Christ have no reason to fear. The suffering is occurring, Peter says in v19, according to the will of God. It is accomplishing His sovereign purposes. It is marking us off as the ones who rightly belong to Him; as the ones who are safe from destruction. It is refining us in the fire of purification, the fiery ordeal of our suffering that is purging sin from our lives and proving the genuineness of our faith and our place in the covenant of Christ. Therefore, we need not be afraid of this judgment that is upon us in these sufferings. Rather we can entrust our souls to a faithful Creator: the God who made us, the Savior who saved us, and the righteous Judge who will vindicate us in Christ. We do not abandon our pursuit of Christ, but entrust ourselves to God and commit ourselves to “doing what is right” all the more. God will be faithful to His covenant promise, and we will be saved.

The process of proving and purifying is not an easy one. It is not for no reason that Peter calls it a fiery ordeal; it can be quite painful to endure. But the outcome is certain. The righteous is saved. None of us are righteous in and of ourselves (for we are all sinners), but those of us who have trusted in Christ have been covered in His righteousness. And it is in His righteousness that we are saved. But through the painful days of this life, it will appear that it is with great difficulty that we live out this salvation. Throughout this life, bearing His name is like carrying a lightning rod for suffering. If we persevere through the difficulties by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, we demonstrate the genuineness of our salvation.

But we are left to ask two questions with the Apostle Peter: If judgment begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? If it is with great difficulty that the righteous is saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner? The unbelievers, including those who are false believers, stand in danger of condemnation. In the patience of God, judgment for them has been put off for a season. He has granted an open window to hear the gospel, to turn from sin, and to call upon Christ for salvation. He died for your sins, that you might be reconciled to God; and He ever lives through His resurrection to secure eternal life for you. You may indeed suffer for Him as you follow Him, but the glory that is to be revealed will swallow it up eternally. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:17, “Momentary, light affliction is producing for us a weight of glory beyond all comparison.”

So, as followers of Christ we mustn’t be surprised, but rather, we can rejoice when we suffer for His name. We are sharing in His sufferings, we are filled with hope awaiting the day of His unveiling, and blessed because we are filled with His indwelling Spirit. We need not be ashamed, but rather we glorify God as we endure suffering for Him. We need not fear the coming judgment, for the present judgment of suffering is proving the genuineness of our faith; and in that we can entrust ourselves to God knowing that He is faithful to all of His promises. For all others, we echo the oft repeated warning of God’s word that a final judgment is coming, and only those who belong to Him in Christ will be saved. You can turn to Him today; indeed, you must if you would have any hope in that day.

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