Think It Not Strange: Fiery Trials and the Testimony of Christ
Bethlehem 2016 Conference for Pastors and Church Leaders
One of the assumptions behind the theme of this conference is that Christianity in America is becoming “less nominal, more defined, and more outside of the mainstream of American culture.” That’s a quote from Ed Stetzer, President of LifeWay Research.
Notice that last phrase: “. . . more outside of the mainstream of American culture.” That’s not the same as saying true Christianity is declining in numbers or faithfulness. The statistics from the 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life are tricky to interpret. On the one hand, we are startled to read that in the last five years the number of Americans with no religious affiliation has grown by 25 percent. Today about 20% of adults in the United States claim no religious affiliation. That’s up from 7% in 1972. And most of those are younger — over 65 years of age, 9% of all adults are unaffiliated; under 30, the number is 32%.
But Stetzer is careful to notice something. Where does all this bleeding come from? For example, where do all these “nones” come from — the 25% increase in “no affiliation”? Answer: they mainly come from nominals. In fact, the title of Stetzer’s article is “Nominals to Nones.” For example, only 45 percent of those raised in the Mainline Protestant tradition remain in Mainline churches. These are people who once identified themselves as affiliated with the mainline churches, which gave inflated numbers of Christian Protestant strength, but who believed and practiced very little true Christianity. Stetzer adds, “If Mainline Protestantism continues its trajectory, it is only a couple of generations from virtual extinction.”
But, of course, there are nominal Christians in every church and denomination. And increasingly those who used to check “affiliated” on the surveys are now checking “none” — no affiliation. Here are Stetzer’s conclusions from the most recent surveys:
Americans whose Christianity was nominal — in name only — are casting aside the name. They are now aligning publicly with what they’ve actually not believed all along.
The percentage of convictional Christians remains rather steady, but because the nominal Christians now are unaffiliated the overall percentage of self-identified Christians is decline. This overall decline is what Pew shows — and I expect it to accelerate.
What we see from Pew is not the death-knell of Christianity, but another indication that Christianity in America is being refined.
From 2007 to 2014, the number of evangelicals in America rose from 59.8 million to 62.2 million.
Christianity isn’t dying and no research says it is; the statistics about Christians in America are simply starting to show a clearer picture of what American Christianity is becoming — less nominal, more defined, and more outside of the mainstream of American culture.
Now here’s the implication of this for the theme of our conference. The fact that evangelicals have maintained steady numerical strength does not mean that we have maintained a position inside the mainstream of American culture. On the contrary, the very forces that are making it desirable for nominal Christians to become non-Christians are the same forces that are making our culture increasingly inhospitable to true Christianity.
Stetzer puts it like this:
The cultural cost of calling yourself “Christian” is starting to outweigh the cultural benefit, so those who do not identify as a “Christian” according to their convictions are starting to identify as “nones” because it’s more culturally savvy.
Christianity is losing, and will continue to lose, its home field advantage; no one can (or should) deny this. However, the numerical decline of self-identified American Christianity is more of a purifying bloodletting than it is an arrow to the heart of the church.
The assumption behind this conference is not that the church today in America is weaker or less faithful than it was sixty years ago. Frankly, I doubt it. I grew up in the 50s and 60s. The nominalism and weakness and moral blind spots and cultural conformity, and the outright collusion with evil in the Jim Crow half of the twentieth century, were very widespread. But it gave the illusion of strength because there was still cultural capital to be enjoyed by millions of nominal Christians. It paid to have your name on a church roll. It worked culturally because there was a huge overlap between the moral convictions of the nominals and the moral convictions of their churches.
The assumption of this conference is that this overlap and this cultural capital is almost completely gone. There is little cultural advantage to calling yourself a Christian in America today. The “home field advantage,” that Christianity has enjoyed for three hundred years, is over. The worldview and the moral convictions of mainstream American culture are increasingly at odds with the worldview and the moral convictions taught in the Bible.
So if you picture a continuum with the mere absence of cultural benefits for Christians on one end, and the aggressive persecution of Christians on the other end, Christianity in America is now on that continuum and is moving from indifference to derision to exclusion to hostility. Where we are on that continuum depends on where we are and whom you ask. Where God will take us — forward or back — I don’t know. He can do either. He is God.
One of the aims of this conference, in view of that assumption, and in view of the new position of the church in America, is that being on this continuum — whether at the indifferent end or the hostile end — should not be surprising, and is not strange. Nor is it a sure sign of failure. The condition of unbelieving culture is not the report card of the church. There are many biblical portraits of white-hot, faithful Christians surrounded by hostile and untransformed culture (for example, Revelation 13:1–10). And the resounding calling of the Christian church everywhere on that painful continuum is, Rejoice with joy inexpressible and full glory. And fill your lives with good deeds for people who don’t deserve them, in the hope that they might see the glory Christ and be saved.
So what I would like to do in the rest of this message is lay a biblical foundation for the aim of this conference — to strengthen your settled and peaceful conviction that living with cultural indifference or derision or exclusion or hostility is not strange but normal, that God calls in those many sorrows to live a life of overflowing and Christ-exalting joy and love.
Think It Not Strange
I invite you to turn with me to 1 Peter 4:12–19. Peter is writing to Christians scattered all through Asia Minor (1:1). Three times Peter refers to Christians as exiles or sojourners or refugees in this world the way Paul did in Philippians 3:21 (“Our citizenship is in heaven”). Which should alert us that normal Christian existence is lived away from home. And the lesson of these days is that the church (we) have been too at home in America. So that’s the backdrop of Peter’s words now in 4:12–19.
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. 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. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. 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?” Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.
Let’s walk through this text twice. The first time, let’s take note of what is coming upon the Christians in this life. What happens to exiles and sojourners in this world? Then the second time through, let’s take note how Christians who believe the gospel of God (as he calls it in verse 17) and who have the hope of seeing and rejoicing in the glory of Christ at the second coming (as he says in verse 13) — how such Christians should respond here and now to the hard things that come their way. He describes what’s coming six ways. And he describes how we should respond in six ways.
What Is Coming?
- 1) Fiery trials are coming (verse 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.
What is this fiery trial? Peter is writing from Rome (pictured as a great arch-evil Babylon in 1 Peter 5:13). And it could be that he sees on the horizon the horrible persecution of Nero when he lit Rome by burning Christians alive (A.D. 64). So it could be a literal fiery trial like that.
I’m inclined to think we are on safer footing if we take the one parallel we have in 1 Peter, namely the word fire and the word test in chapter 1:6–7:
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
So here we have “fiery trials” and instead of referring to one terrible thing, verse 6 (at the end) simply describes them as “various trials” — in other words, trials of all kinds.
Then if we look for examples of these trials in 1 Peter, what we find are trials that range from beatings to verbal abuse. 1 Peter 2:20, “What credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure?” Then in 1:21, Jesus’s sufferings are given as an example of what to expect. “To this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” And then 3:9 there is the trial of being reviled: “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling.” And then in 3:16, there’s the trial of being slandered: “Have a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” And then in 4:4, there is the being maligned for not partying the way you used to: “They are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you.
So we would do well not to interpret the fiery trial of 4:12 too narrowly. The trials of 1 Peter include being beaten, being reviled, being slandered, and being maligned — and the sufferings of Christ stand before the believers as a summary of what they can expect. When these kinds of things happen to you as Christians, they are not strange. This is normal.
Why are they not strange? Because, in God’s wisdom, he has planned that the sufferings of Christ save us from the sufferings of punishment, not the sufferings of purification. They save us from the fires of hell, not from the fires of refining. In fact, in 1 Peter 1:6–7, we are told that, far from being strange and surprising in God’s plan, these fiery trials are “necessary.” “For a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith . . . may result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
So in 1 Peter — as the rest of the New Testament — the fiery trials are not strange or surprising. They are necessary. “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). This is a divine “must.” This is the same word and the same idea as 1 Peter 1:6 — it is “necessary” that we suffer — it is a heavenly “must” (deon in 1 Peter 1:6, dei in Acts 14:22).
The other five descriptions in this paragraph of what is coming are examples of this fiery trial.
2) In 1 Peter 4:13, it’s called “Christ’s sufferings”: “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings.” Calling them “Christ’s sufferings” probably means that they are the sort of things he endured and they are endured for his sake.
3) In verse 14, the fiery trial is called being insulted: “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed.”
4) In verse 16 it’s called suffering as a Christian: “If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed.”
5) In verse 17, it’s called judgment — God’s judgment: “It is time for judgment to begin at the household of God.” This fits with 1 Peter 1:6–7 because there the fires of suffering now are refining us so that we shine like gold at the last judgment. This is the beginning of the last judgment when we will hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You came through the test like gold.”
6) And finally in verse 19, the fiery trial is called suffering according to the will of God: “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.”
So we can say, after this first pass through 1 Peter 4:12–19 that the fiery ordeal of sharing Christ’s sufferings (verse 13), and the fiery ordeal of being insulted for his name (verse 14), and the fiery ordeal of suffering as a Christian (verse 16), and the fiery ordeal of refining judgment (verse 17) and the fiery ordeal of suffering according to God’s will (verse 19) are not strange. They are not surprising. What is surprising is a season of history in this age before the Lord comes when we are given a reprieve. But the mistreatment of Christian exiles and sojourners by those who live under the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4) is not surprising or strange.
How Should We Respond to What Is Coming?
Now, how should we respond to the fact that suffering is coming and it is not strange, but necessary? Let’s walk through 1 Peter 4:12–19 one more time and notice the six responses that Peter calls for. That’s what this whole book is about. But this paragraph suffices to point the way.
But this time through, I am not going to take the six responses in the order that they come in the text. I’ve thought about them a long time. And I’ve watched how they relate to each other throughout the book, and I’ve tried to bore in to what they are really like in real human experience. And I’m going to give them to you in the order that they come about in the human soul (even though some of them are simultaneous) — the order of how each gives rise to the ones after. From the most foundational to the most ultimate.
1) Do Not Be Surprised
The first response Peter mentions is in 1 Peter 4:12 that we should not be surprised. “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.” We have seen the fact that the trials are coming. They are not strange. They are not surprising. They are necessary in God’s plan. They are his refining judgment. Now respond to this fact by not being surprised.
We lose our equilibrium in life when we are constantly surprised by painful things that come at us. This book ends with the words: “This is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it” (1 Peter 5:12). This is the opposite of losing your equilibrium, your stability, your firmness. Peter is helping us stand. Settle it, he is saying, it’s going to be hard. Life is hard, God is good, glory is coming. So the first thing — the foundational thing is: Settle it in your sober mind, and in your heart — suffering is not strange. That’s where we start. We start with truth. Revealed truth about God and the way he runs the world. He is telling us: I do it this way. So don’t be surprised.
2) Entrust Your Soul to a Faithful Creator
Second, entrust your soul to a faithful creator. Verse 19: “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. This word “entrust” (paratithesthosan) is the same word used in Luke 23:46 when Jesus cries out at the moment of his death, “Father, into your hands I commit (paratithemai) my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.” It’s the same reality we find in 1 Peter 2:23 which describes what Jesus was doing all through his suffering: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” So Jesus showed how to suffer without retaliation, even when being treated so unjustly. We entrust the justice of our cause, and we entrust our souls to a faithful creator.
And probably Peter uses the word “creator” here because this will probably be a moment in our lives when it feels like God is least in control, and Christianity has the least possibility of survival. And precisely at that moment, we look up from our weakness and helplessness and suffering and see: The one who cares for us is the creator of the universe.
3) Do Not Be Ashamed
Thirdly, our response is therefore, not to be ashamed. Verse 16: “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed.” Oh how the human ego hates to be shamed! Little embarrassments are horrible, and big public shame is almost unbearable. It has cause thousands of suicides.
And yet Christianity is founded on a shamed Christ. Back in 1 Peter 2:4, Peter describes the Christian life as “coming to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious.” We have come to a rejected Christ. Thrown out. Despised. Hated. Slandered. Spit on. Mocked. Stripped. Nailed like a piece of meat to pole. And taunted. This is our forerunner. 1 Peter 2:21 says, “To this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” So objectively speaking, he was shamed, and we will be shamed. “Woe to you if all men speak well of you” (Luke 6:26). But subjectively what did Jesus do? What should we do. Hebrews 12:2 says, “For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, despising the shame.” He despised the shame. Shame soaked Jesus like sheets of icy rain. And Jesus looked to the joy over the horizon, and he entrusted his soul to a faithful creator, and he looked shame in the eye, and said, “Shame, I despise you. I despise you so much I will not give you the least place in my soul, and I will not give you the least satisfaction of stopping me from suffering and dying for my people.”
This is what Peter is calling us to be in our day: unashamed of Christ! Unashamed of ridicule, sarcasm, mockery, snubbing, abandonment, suffering. Objectively shamed, and subjectively unashamed.
And surely this possible because of the fourth response Peter calls for, which seems to me simultaneous with being unashamed, namely,
The response of joy in our suffering. Verse 13: “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” Jesus said it. Luke said it. Paul said. James said it. It was an utterly pervasive teaching of the early church: the Christian response to suffering is joy.
Jesus: “Blessed are you when others 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, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11–12)
Luke: “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” (Acts 5:41)
Paul: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” (Romans 5:3–4)
James: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” (James 1:2–3)
This is probably my biggest burden for this conference and this time in our history. So I will probably be back here tomorrow evening. If there is someone in your church clamoring for you to show them from the Bible how they have a right to carry a gun to save themselves and their family from suffering and death, by all means spend ten cents of your labor on that. And then spend a million dollars on this. You don’t need the Bible or the Holy Spirit to persuade human beings to protect themselves. But to bring into being a church of people who rejoice when they are treated unjustly — that is a miracle that you should give your whole life to. Nothing is harder. Nothing more amazing. Nothing more beautiful. Our Savior was beautified at that horrible mount!
5) Overflow in Good Deeds
This is true especially when this heart of joy in suffering overflows in good deeds to those who don’t deserve it. Verse 19: “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” Suffering. Entrusting your soul to God. Unashamed. Rejoicing. Doing good. This is not a mere private morality of avoidance — not doing bad things. This is a public morality overflowing with good works that help other people.
Suffering. Truth. Trust. Joy. Love. Is it any wonder that in 1 Peter 3:15, the adversaries ask a reason for the hope that is you? You are suffering their mistreatment. You are not retaliating. You are not self-pitying and miserable and moping. You are rejoicing. And more than that you are returning good for evil (1 Peter 3:9)? How could they not ask, “What are you hoping in?”
6) Glorify God.
Finally, by God’s grace in the power of the Holy Spirit, God may be seen as glorious in eyes of the adversary. Verse 16: “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” If, when you suffer, you are not surprised and you trust God, and despise shame and rejoice in your suffering, and overflow in good deeds, and you show that your treasure is not in this world but is in God, you show that he is glorious — gloriously satisfying. And perhaps, by God’s mercy, 1 Peter 2:12 will come true: “. . . so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”
So whatever form the fiery trial takes — the rolling of eyes or the rolling of heads — God calls his blood-bought, eternally secure people not to be surprised, but to entrust our souls to him, to despise the shame, to rejoice, and to overflow with good deeds, and thus to show your treasure is not in this world but in the all-glorious God.
So the fiery ordeal that is coming upon you to test you is not strange. It is necessary. It is God’s refining judgment so that your faith may redound in praise and glory and honor. Therefore, in whatever trials come don’t be surprised, entrust your soul to your faithful Creator, don’t be ashamed of Christ, rejoice in hope, fill your life with good deeds. And show the world that God is gloriously satisfying.
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