Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker; yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God. For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? And
"If the righteous man is scarcely saved,
where will the impious and sinner appear?"
Therefore let those who suffer according to God's will do right and entrust their souls to a faithful Creator.
In AD 202 the Roman emperor Septimus Severus issued an edict making conversion to Christianity illegal. The resulting persecution was felt most severely in Carthage, on the North African coast.
The Martyrdom of Perpetua
Vibia Perpetua, a 22-year-old mother of an infant son, along with her servant girl who was eight months pregnant, was arrested for joining a class of Christian believers. Perpetua nursed her child in prison and made arrangements with her mother to take him if anything should happen. The servant girl gave birth to her child in prison.
When Perpetua's father learned that she was to be thrown into the arena with wild beasts, he tried to get her out. But he was beaten instead. On the day of the execution the men were taken first. Among them was Saturus, the Bible class leader. He stopped at the gate for one last word of testimony with Pudens, the prison governor, who later turned to Christ and became a martyr himself. The men were sent into the arena with a bear, a leopard, and a wild boar. As Saturus was mangled by the beasts, the spectators shouted, "He is well baptized!"
Next Perpetua and her servant were stripped and sent into the arena to face a "mad heifer." The torture soon became too much for the crowd and they cried, "Enough, enough!" The women were taken to the executioner. Perpetua called out to some grieving friends, "Give out the Word to the brothers and sisters; stand fast in the faith, love one another, and don't let our suffering become a stumbling block to you." The first blow of the gladiator was not sufficient. Perpetua cried out in pain, took the gladiator's hand, and directed the sword to her throat. (For sources see Ruth Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, pp. 33–35.)
The Martyrdom of Chet Bitterman
On January 19, 1981, a group of terrorists called "M-19" broke into the S.I.L. residence in Bogotá, Columbia, and kidnapped Wycliffe translator Chet Bitterman. The communiqué from the terrorists read, "Chet Bitterman will be executed unless the Summer Institute of Linguistics and all its members leave Columbia by 6:00 PM February 19." Wycliffe did not budge. Brenda Bitterman and her two little children waited 48 days. On March 7 the terrorists shot Chet Bitterman through the heart and left his body on a bus in Bogota. More than one hundred Wycliffe members in Columbia were given the choice of a new field. None left. And two hundred candidates volunteered to take Chet Bitterman's place.
I have heard and read stories like these since I was a little child and my recurring thought has not been, Why does God let it happen? Jesus promised it would happen: Luke 21:16, "Some of you they will put to death." My recurring thought has been, Could I stand it? Could I take the pain? Would I try to rationalize a denial of Christ? "I don't mean it, Lord. I just want to get free so I can serve you more. My children need me, Lord. I can do more good alive than dead." Would I be a coward? Or would I have the courage of Vibia Perpetua?
Do You Have the Strength to Die for Christ?
I think it is very important for every one of you to think hard about what you would do if cultic terrorists hijacked your plane and before they blew it up offered to let everyone off who would say, "Jesus Christ is not my Savior and Lord." The reason I think it is important to think about this is that the resurgence of fundamentalist, anti-Christian violence in the world makes it very possible that it will happen. But more important is the fact that thinking about your own death for Christ will help you live for Christ as you should. A true Christian must be willing to say, "I will not renounce Christ, even if it costs my life."
But as soon as we say that, it makes a whole lot of things in our lives look ridiculous. I will die for you, but I can't find time to sit and read your teaching each day. I will die for you, but prayer doesn't seem real. I will die for you, but I can't talk to Jim about you at work. I will die for you, but I can't support your cause with more than 10% of my income. One of the best ways to bring wonderful Christ-honoring changes into your life is to measure your way of life by your willingness to die for Jesus.
But if you are like me, you sometimes wonder, "How would I ever have the strength and courage to die for Christ?" So I have chosen 1 Peter 4:12–19 to encourage you—not that you will escape hardship but that you will be strong enough to endure it. The Holy Spirit will see to it. He will help you die the way you should. First, let's clarify the situation the believers are facing. Second, we will see what Peter tells them to do in the face of this situation. Third, we will focus on the source of strength to do what he says.
1. What Are the Believers in Asia Minor Facing?
First, what is the situation these believers in Asia Minor are facing? In a word, SUFFERING, and possible death. Verse 12, "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you." Peter may well see on the horizon the persecution of Nero in which both he and Paul were killed and in which Christians were burned like torches to light up Nero's courtyard.
The Judgment of God
Verse 17 describes this fiery ordeal as God's judgment that starts with his own people, and then consumes unbelievers. "For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us what will the end of those be who do not obey the gospel of God?" This does not sound very comforting at first. When we are about to be arrested and killed for believing in Jesus, it is not encouraging to hear that he is judging us in wrath like unbelievers.
Not unto Condemnation but Salvation
But let's be careful; that is not what it says. Verse 18 makes it plain that God's judgment upon us does not lead to condemnation but to salvation. "If the righteous man is scarcely saved"—he is saved! What, then, does God's judgment mean? Verse 12 explains, "Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you." The judgment of God which comes upon believers is to test and refine their faith not to condemn them. It is an expression of his love not his wrath. 1 Peter 1:6–7 says we may have to "suffer various tests (same word) so that the genuineness of our faith . . . may redound to praise and glory and honor."
This is a very important distinction to make: the same act of judgment can be purifying love for believers and punishing wrath for unbelievers. There is no promise in Scripture that saints will escape all tribulation, not even the last Great Tribulation. What is promised is that when God's judgment comes upon the earth, it will begin with the church and end with the unbelievers. But for the church it will be the first of purifying love and for the unbelievers it will be the fires of punishing wrath. "The Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives" (Hebrews 12:6 where the context again is persecution, v. 4).
Sharing in Christ's Sufferings According to God's Will
In verse 13 the fiery ordeal is called "sharing Christ's sufferings." In verse 14 it is called being "reproached for the name of Christ." And in verse 16 it is called "suffering as a Christian." So the suffering that is coming is owing to the fact that the believers are living the way of Christ, identifying with him openly and being labeled "Christian." Peter sees that persecution is going to become severe simply because the believers are living like Christ and being open about their allegiance to him on their jobs.
Verse 19 gives the last description of the situation. Peter calls it suffering according to God's will. "Therefore, let those who suffer according to God's will do right and entrust their souls to a faithful creator." People who try to solve the problem of suffering by saying it is not God's will in any sense, must take a long detour around this verse. If the fiery ordeal is the judgment of God beginning at the church, then it is his will that we suffer. We must not dishonor God by thinking that every time we suffer, he has dropped the reins. His ways are strange, but they are his ways. And our duty is to trust that he is a faithful Creator who only has our best interest at heart.
2. What Should Believers Do in the Face of Suffering?
That brings us to our second question: what are believers to do in the face of this oncoming suffering? I see at least five admonitions which Peter gives to us as we anticipate the possibility of a fiery ordeal or suffering.
Do Not Be Surprised at the Fiery Ordeal
First, he says in verse 12, "Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal." This is an admonition to know what God is like. This is an admonition to have a true and deep theology. If you know that God sometimes wills for his people to suffer as verse 19 says; that God's judgment begins with Christians to test us as verse 17 says; and that if suffering befell the King, how much more his subjects as verse 13 implies; then when your fiery ordeal comes you will not be surprised. You will not raise your fist and say, "Where is God now when a young missionary and father of two children is shot through the heart?" You may weep for the pain, you may be angry at the sin of the killers, but you will not be surprised. Your knowledge of God, learned from 1 Peter 4:12–19, will not let you be thrown into confusion or uncertainty. God is the all-powerful Creator and God is faithful to his people. So the first admonition is, Don't be surprised at suffering. Know your God! Have a true and deep theology.
Entrust Your Soul to a Faithful Creator
The second admonition to focus on is in verse 19: "Entrust your soul to a faithful Creator." The purpose of good theology is to build and sustain great trust in God. In all Christian suffering Satan is seeking to devour faith (1 Peter 5:8–9). God is seeking to test and refine faith (4:12). God's great purpose in all our suffering will be accomplished when we do what Jesus did in the agony of the cross when he cried out (Luke 23:46), "Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit." He entrusted himself to a faithful Creator. According to 2 Corinthians 1:9 God's purpose in suffering is to cause us to rely no longer on ourselves but utterly on him who raises the dead.
Rejoice, for You Share in Christ's Sufferings
The third admonition, which flows out of a good theology and a great trust in God, is found in verse 13: "Rejoice in so far as you share Christ's sufferings." Or to put it negatively with verse 16, "If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed." When you suffer according to God's will, don't be ashamed, rejoice. This is amazing. The mark of a Christian is that he experiences deeper and greater joy in being dishonored with Christ than he does in being honored by men. Peter knew what he was talking about. He had experienced it. According to Acts 5:41, after being beaten with the other apostles, he "left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name (of Jesus)." If you admire and love someone tremendously, and you get lumped together with them and treated the same way, it is a great honor. There may be great pain as well. The deepest joys of life often grow in the soil of pain.
Do What Is Right from the Heart
The fourth admonition in these verses comes from verses 15 and 19. Verse 15 says, "Let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or a wrong-doer or a mischief-maker." Verse 19 says, "Do what is right." When you have a good theology, a great trust in God, and overflowing joy even in suffering, the obstacles to loving others and the incentives for abusing others are gone. People who kill and steal and trouble and annoy others are people who have not known God in his greatness, trusted him like a child, and found in him joyful fulfillment. So they try to satisfy the frustrations of their life by doing wrong. But those who know and trust and delight in God are free from the slavery of sin and their joy in God overflows in patience and love. They do what is right from the heart.
Glorify God in Christ's Name
Which leads to the final admonition in verse 16b, "Under that name ('Christian') let him glorify God." God gets glory from us when the way we speak and live shows that he is glorious. If you trust him, you show that he is gloriously praiseworthy. If you rejoice in suffering for his sake, you show that he is gloriously more valuable than the pleasures and approval of man. If you do good to your persecutors instead of retaliating, you show that he is gloriously sufficient to satisfy your longings. The one all-consuming desire of true Christians is that Christ be glorified in their bodies whether by life or death.
So far we have seen, first, that the situation facing the believers is one of imminent suffering—a fiery ordeal; and, second, that Peter admonishes us in the face of suffering to build a good theology, which begets great faith in God, which enables us to rejoice in suffering, which guards us from evil and frees us to love, which brings great glory to God as the sovereign, all-sufficient, faithful Creator.
3. Where Do We Get Such Strength?
The final question remains: where do we get the strength to be like this in the face of persecution and possible torture and death? There are at least four answers in the text (a good theology, v. 12; the hope of glory, v. 13; and the fear of what becomes of unbelievers, vv. 17–18), but we will only look at one found in verse 14. "If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you."
God Will Not Stand Aloof as You Die
Jesus said, "Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven." "Yes, Jesus, that hope will help me endure. But, Jesus, when there is pain and weariness, it is so hard to keep the heart focused on the worth of your glory. I don't know if I can keep my eyes on the reward. How can I be sure that in the moment of my dying I will have strength to see your glory and choose death?" Peter gives the answer in verse 14: in that moment the Spirit of glory and of God will rest upon you. God will not stand aloof as you die; like a skeptical schoolmaster watching you agonize over your final exam. He will come to you in his Spirit, and he will sustain you.
The Spirit Will Sustain You in Your Hour of Death
Corrie ten Boom tells how she worried as a girl whether she would be able to stand against the Germans if she was threatened. She felt so weak when she thought about what might happen. Her father, I think it was, gave her a great illustration. He said, "When you are going to take a journey on the train, do I give you your ticket three weeks early or just as you get on the train?" She answered, "As I get on the train." "So God will give you the special strength you need to be strong in the face of death just when you need it, not before."
I believe 1 Peter 4:14 promises that in the hour of greatest trial God comes to his children to give them courage and faith which they did not know they were capable of. The Holy Spirit will help you die.
Good tradition tells us that Paul was beheaded by Nero. Paul's last letter was probably 2 Timothy. His trial had already begun. Picture the old soldier, battle scarred for his Commander, in custody in Rome. He is called before the court. Everyone knows his days are numbered. He's a marked man. So none of his friends stand by him. He makes his defense. The decision is made to hear him once again—then the end. He goes back to his quarters and writes these words to Timothy (2 Timothy 4:16–17), "At my first defense no one took my part; all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength."
I pray that you will remember the words of this message. The Spirit will help you die. The Spirit will help you die. He will stand by you when there is no one else. He will sustain your faith. He will give you glimpses of glory. He will cause you to magnify Christ in your death. Courage which you never thought was possible will be yours. The Spirit of glory and of God will rest upon you and carry you home.