Preaching to a Persecuted People: The Pastor as Leader, Comforter, and Guide
Bethlehem 2016 Conference for Pastors and Church Leaders
In the first message, we saw six things that Peter said would befall Christians in his day and six responses that belonging to Jesus Christ should produce in the Christians. I invite you to turn again to 1 Peter 4:12–19.
First, verse 12, “fiery trials” are coming on the Christians. Second, verse 13, they may “share Christ’s sufferings.” Third, verse 14, they may be “insulted for the name of Christ.” Fourth, verse 16, they may “suffer as Christians.” Fifth, verse 17, these things will be experienced as the “judgment of God” — not punishing, but purifying, his people. Finally, verse 19, these things are called “suffering according to God’s will.”
How were the Christians supposed to respond to this multifaceted pain that was coming on them? First, verse 12, they were “not to be surprised.” Second, verse 19, they were to “entrust their souls to a faithful creator.” Third, verse 16, they were not to be ashamed. Fourth, verse 14, they were to “rejoice” in their suffering. Fifth, verse 19, they were to press on and not grow weary in “doing good” to the very people who were causing their misery. Finally, verse 16, they were to glorify God.
Now, the question I am asking in this message is this: How do you lead people into this kind of response to this kind of suffering? How does a pastor, for example, preach, or a Sunday School teacher teach, or a small group leader lead, or a parent nurture, so as to bring into being a people — a class, a group, a family — 1) who don’t think suffering is strange, but 2) who entrust their souls to God, 3) despise the shame of insults, 4) rejoice in tribulation, 5) never stop doing good deeds, 6) and live utterly for the glory of God? How do you lead a people into that kind of miraculous and beautiful life?
One way to answer the question would be to say, Read 1 Peter. This is his answer. The letter is what Peter did in order to create churches in Asia Minor who would respond like that. But we can be more specific, because Peter was more specific. He didn’t just write the letter generically to all Christians. In chapter five, he addresses the leaders, the elders, the pastors, directly and explicitly. And so instead of just telling everyone how to respond to suffering, he also tells the elders how to shepherd the people in this situation of suffering. He tells them how to help the people respond with unshaken faith, and unashamed joy, and overflowing good deeds to the glory of God.
So what I would like to do is draw out of 1 Peter 5:1–4 the instructions for leaders, and then go back to 1 Peter 4:12–19 and apply them to each of the six responses Peter wants us to have when persecution rises against the church.
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
Instead of calling attention to his rank as an apostle (1:1), Peter humbles himself, and identifies with the elders of the churches. Verse 1: “I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder.” So he practices what he preaches in verse 5: “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’” He is going to say, lead by example (5:3). So he is doing just that.
The middle of verse 1: “. . . a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed.” This is exactly where all Christians live: suffering then glory. We have been drawn into the fellowship of a suffering Savior, and we wait for the hope of glory. That is what Christian living is. Suffering and then glory when Jesus returns.
So he has identified himself with the elders rather than exalting himself above them. And he has positioned himself with all Christians between the first coming of Christ followed by suffering, and the second coming followed by glory. Now how will he tell the elders to shepherd the saints in this situation?
He gives them four instructions. Starting in verse 2, he says, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight.” First, “not under compulsion, but willingly as God would have you.” Second, “not for shameful gain, but eagerly.” Verse 3, third, “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” And then fourth, verse 4, “And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.”
What’s the essence of those instructions? 1) Not under compulsion, not forced, not because you have to against your will, but willingly, because you want to. 2) Not for shameful gain, not to make money, not to get rich, not to make your place in the world more comfortable, but eagerly. 3) Not domineering over the people, not being a control freak, not micromanaging, not aloof, barking orders, but being examples, being on the ground, in the trenches with the soldiers. What’s the essence of all that?
Isn’t it that Peter means for elders to be “all in”? All in to loving and teaching and guiding the flock of God. By “all in,” I mean all in with your will, all in with your emotions, all in with your body. Isn’t that the point of these three instructions? Verse 2: “Not under compulsion, but willingly.” In other words, don’t be half there and half somewhere else — as if you really want to be doing something else, but there is some constraint that’s forcing you to stay in the ministry, when really if you could do what you want to do, you wouldn’t be here. Peter says, don’t be like that. Be all here, all in, with your will. Want this!
Then, verse 2b: “not for shameful gain, but eagerly.” Eagerly is a step beyond “willingly.” Be all in with your emotions. Be eager for this. Love this. Enjoy this. Make this your life. Be all in with your heart. Which means you are not in it for the money. Ministry is not about money. It’s about human souls, hearts, lives, faith, hope, holiness, love, courage, eternal glory. To be in the ministry as a mere livelihood is shameful. Be in it eagerly. Be all in with your emotions because you love the Lord, the people, the work.
And third be all in with your bodies — your whole being. Verse 3: “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” Being examples is a step beyond willingness and eagerness. Now your whole body is involved. You’re not just going to teach them willingly about suffering. You’re not just going to teach them eagerly. And you are not going to be on a power trip, getting your strokes from lording over the flock. No. You are going to stand with them, suffer with them, and show them with your body that you are all in for the glory of Christ.
So elders are to shepherd the flock of God 1) willingly and freely, 2) eagerly and joyfully, 3) by example, not control. Which means that we are to be all in with our will, all in with our emotions, all in with our bodies.
And then, because this will be very costly, especially in times of persecution, Peter adds, in verse 4, “And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” In other words, no matter how hard, how dangerous, how painful it may be to join the people in the trenches of sorrow, your reward when Jesus comes will be spectacular. Everything you have ever sacrificed will be made up ten-thousand-fold. Every cross you have borne, every shame you have despised, will be compensated beyond imagination. You will be crowned — crowned like a king, with a crown of glory. Every adversary who thinks they have gotten the last word of scorn in your life will see it. They will see you crowned by the king of the universe. Elders need to believe this.
So the four instructions for elders are: 1) shepherd your people willingly and freely; 2) shepherd them eagerly and joyfully; 3) shepherd them humbly through example; and 4) be this radically different from the world because your hope is not in this world, but in the Savior and Ruler of this world, Jesus Christ in glory.
Now back to 1 Peter 4:12–19. How does this hope-driven, free, joyful, humble example help the suffering Christians respond with unshaken expectancy of fiery trials, trust in a sovereign creator, freedom from shame, joy in sorrow, overflowing good deeds, with a passion for the glory of God? Let’s take them one at a time.
Teach Them Not to Be Surprised
Response #1. Our people should respond to the fiery trials without surprise. 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.” How do hope-driven, free, joyful, humble pastors help Christians not be surprised when suffering comes?
The main thing we do is show our people over and over from the Bible that fiery trials of all kinds are normal and not surprising. We do it, first, by pointing to those straightforward passages that tell us this is so.
We quote Jesus, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Matthew 10:25). “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Mark 13:13).
We quote Paul, “If we are children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17). “You yourselves know that we are destined for these afflictions” (1 Thessalonians 3:3).
We quote Luke, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
We quote Peter, “You have been called to suffer unjustly because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).
And then we move from the sheer fact that Christians are appointed for afflictions, as part of our calling, to the question why? and we take our people down into the mysteries of God’s ways for his people. We don’t take them deeper than the Scriptures take them. We are not presumptuous to plumb all the depths of God where he doesn’t take us. But shepherds take the flock as far as the Bible takes the flock.
And Peter gives us an example in 1 Peter 1:6–7. He tells us that when sorrows come, it is because God has sees them as necessary. And he tell us why. “In this [inheritance] you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials . . .” Necessary. Not random. Not accidental. Not unplanned. But divinely necessary. Why?
He continues, verse 7, “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.” God plans that the genuineness of our faith be refined like gold in fire. And the aim is that its purity might be praised and glorified and honored when Jesus comes. And yes, I do think those words apply to us. God is refining our faith so that our faith, as a reflection of his own glory, may be praised and glorified and honored.
God ordains, God plans — it is his calling — that the followers of Jesus move toward glory the same way he moved toward glory — through suffering. His suffering for us takes away the suffering of our punishment, but it calls us into the suffering of purification. His suffering blocks the path our damnation, but calls us into the path of purification.
So pastors freely, and joyfully and with their own hope-filled example, teach their flock that fiery trials are not surprising. They are part of God’s wise and good plan to bring us to glory.
Teach Them to Trust God
Response #2. Our people are supposed to respond to the fiery trials by entrusting their souls to a faithful creator. Verse 19: “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator.” How do hope-driven, free, joyful, humble pastors help Christians entrust their souls to a faithful creator as they suffer?
The first thing we do is point our people to the word “therefore” at the beginning of verse 19. This is God’s word. It is precious beyond measure. It is written to help us trust God as a faithful creator. That’s why this verse is here. That’s why this verse begins with therefore. The call to trust our faithful creator is based on something. It’s an inference from something. It follows from something Peter just said. What did he say? He said (verses 17–18),
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 . . . .
Verses 17 and 18 warn the churches that God’s judgment, expressed in the fiery trials that are coming, is only endured by “obeying the gospel of God” (verse 17). And what is that? Obeying the gospel of God. The good news from God. What is obeying the good news from God? Obeying the good news is entrusting your soul to the faithful Creator. First Peter 1:21 says, “God raised Jesus from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.” God raised Jesus from the dead so that you would see the power of the creator, the faithfulness of his commitment to Jesus, and entrust your soul entirely to him.
So the therefore at the beginning of 1 Peter 4:19 means this: Since the only way to survive the judgment of God in the sufferings of his people is to obey the gospel of God, that is, trust your soul to the faithful creator who raised Jesus from the dead, “therefore” do this! Entrust your soul to him.
This is what pastors do to help their people suffer well. They unpack the glorious therefores of the Bible. God put that word there. We are not playing grammatical games. This is a matter of life and death. God is coming in judgment now in America — not just later, but now. Just like he came in first-century Asia Minor. And the righteous are scarcely saved (verse 18). That is, they are saved only by obeying the gospel of God (verse 17). Therefore. Therefore! When you suffer, this judgment trust God. Trust his creator power. Trust his covenant faithfulness to his Son and all who are in him. Pastors, the words of the Bible are of infinite importance. Especially the word “therefore.”
Teach Them Not to Be Ashamed
Response #3. Third, when the fiery ordeal comes, Christians are not to be ashamed. Verse 16: “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 . . .” How do hope-driven, free, joyful, humble pastors help Christians not be ashamed when they suffer as Christians?
The first thing we do is point our people to the word “for” at the beginning of verse 17. God put that word there. This is not man’s idea to argue like this for being free from shame. This is God’s way of overcoming shame. “For” means “because.” “If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. Because it is time for judgment to begin.”
Judgment is on the horizon. So don’t be ashamed of being a Christian. Don’t be ashamed of being a Christian, because judgment is coming. In other words, the truth about Jesus that you believe and that they scorn in unbelief will soon be revealed in judgment, and it will be plain to them and to the whole universe that it was they, and not you, who were fools. And they will go away into everlasting shame. And you will be revealed as the royal children of God. Therefore, don’t be ashamed. Judgment is coming.
Or a pastor might take his people to 1 Peter 2:6 and remind them that they have come to Jesus, a living stone rejected by men, but in God’s chosen and precious and that “whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” Why not? Verse 9: Because “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.” And this is the glorious truth about you that will thunder through the universe in the ears of your adversaries forever. So, we tell our people: If you suffer as a Christian, don’t be ashamed. All-revealing judgment is coming.
Teach Them to Respond with Joy
Response #4. Our people are supposed to respond to the fiery trials with joy. Verses 13–14: “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.” How do hope-driven, free, joyful, humble pastors help Christians rejoice when they share Christ’s sufferings?
This is the heart of the ministry. Because this is the greatest and most fruitful miracle of all: rejoicing as you suffer, as you are insulted. How can this possibly happen? And if it happens, is it any wonder that they would ask a reason for the hope that is you (1 Peter 3:15)? Because you are clearly not hoping for your joy in what they are hoping in. This is the great pastoral goal for our people: joy in Christ through suffering.
What shall a pastor do? O how many directions you could go in this letter. There is help everywhere. But given the limits of our time, let’s stay right here in the logic of the text. And I could linger over verse 13: “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” Your rejoicing here is the path to your rejoicing there. If Christ is not more precious to you here than life, will he suddenly be more precious to you there at the second coming?
But instead of lingering on verse 13, I want to commend verse 14 as a great help that pastors can offer to their suffering people. “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” We help our people rejoice in suffering by reminding them, the way Peter did, that when the time comes, God, by his Spirit, will draw near to them and rest upon them.
And he says that when that happens we are “blessed” — fortunate, happy. In other words, in verse 13 there is a great future reason to rejoice, for Christ is coming in glory to vindicate you. But verse 14 says, there is great present reason to rejoice because God going to be with you and on you with a very special manifestation of Spirit and his glory. I do not know all that this means: the Spirit of glory and of God resting on you as you are insulted for Christ. But perhaps some of you have tasted it.
And pastors, if you have tasted this, model it for the people, show it to them in the text, and show it to them in your life. What a great and precious promise: You will be blessed for the Spirit of glory and of God will rest on you in your suffering. Rejoice. Rejoice.
Teach Them to Do Good
Response #5. When the fiery trials come, don’t cease to do good, multiply your efforts of doing good to others. Verse 19: “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” How do hope-driven, free, joyful, humble pastors help Christians keep on doing good when they feel marginalized and scorned?
As always, you are a good example to the flock. But your main job is to preach and teach what God has told us about good deeds — especially right here in 1 Peter. What has God said about doing good that might keep us going even when we suffer for it? Four things.
1. Good Deeds Are Visible
He tells us that good deeds are visible, and he wants many of them to be public so that others can see them (even though our motives should never be our own praise but God’s).
In 1 Peter 2:14, Peter says that we should be subject to governors who are sent by the emperor “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” This is amazing. Governors praise the good deeds of Christians. This means they can see them. They are prominent. Public. Not that some good deeds aren’t quiet and unseen. But our aim should be that some are public. It also means that “doing good” does not just mean avoiding evil (adultery, lying, killing, stealing). It means being proactive and working in concrete, visible ways for the good of others.
2. Good Deeds Should Be Done Zealously
Second, Peter tells us that our engagement in good deeds should be passionate, zealous. In 1 Peter 3:13, he says we are to be “zealots for the good.”
Zealots don’t just casually do a good thing now and then; they look for good to do. This is how how they think about their lives. Their mindset has changed from seeing the world as a place to retreat and play, to seeing the world as a place to to do lots and lots of good for others. They think, This is why we are here.
3. Good Deeds Will Silence Some Critics
Third, Peter says we can have hope that our good deeds will put to silence foolish criticism and lead some to glorify God. He says in 2:15, “This is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” And three verses earlier (2:12) he says, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” So we do good deeds in the name of Jesus so that people might stop saying false things about Jesus and might turn and be saved and glorify God.
But Peter cautions us that, even though we hope for this, and pray for this, and aim at this, we should have no romantic notions that this is what good deeds always brings about. Right here in our text (4:19), it says that we are “suffering according to God’s will . . . while doing good.” Doing good has not changed the minds of our persecutors. And in 2:20 he says, “If when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.” Doing good doesn’t change everyone. It brings down hatred from some.
So the lesson is this: Aim at silencing unjust criticism by your good deeds and hope and pray that your persecutors will be changed and will glorify God. But don’t be surprised when it does not happen.
4. Good Deeds Will Be Rewarded
Fourth, Peter tells us that there will be a wonderful, all-compensating reward for every good deed we do for others. We just read in 2:20, “If when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.” God smiles with great favor and delight on the good deeds we do for others in the midst of suffering.
And in 3:14 he says, “Even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.” And that blessing is both present (as we have seen) and overflowingly satisfying in the future. Peter is alluding to the teachings of Jesus over and over again. For example, Jesus said in Luke 6:34–35,
Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.
And if someone asks how can you really be doing good for others if you are hoping for a reward for yourself, the answer is: Because in doing good you are hoping and praying that they would join you in the reward that you seek. God himself is our great reward, and when we do good for others, our passion, our zeal is that they would see his beauty, forsake their sin, believe on Christ and join us in everlasting joy. That’s what it means to love. It means to be so enthralled with God, that you will give your life to draw others into this joy.
Teach Them to Glorify God
Response #6. This leads now to the final and ultimate response Christians should have to the fiery trials that come, namely, we are to glorify God in our suffering. First Peter 4:16: “If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” How do hope-driven, free, joyful, humble pastors help Christians glorify God in the midst of fiery trials?
To glorify God means to act in such a way as to make God look glorious — that is, beautiful, precious, valuable, desirable, your supreme treasure. You feel things, and say things, and do things that show God to be your greatest Treasure, and greatest pleasure. That’s what glorify means.
And the key to this glorification of God in a life of sorrow is found back in 1 Peter 1:8. Peter has just said that if necessary we will “be grieved by various trials.” They will be like fire refining the gold of our faith. Then he says in verse 8: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” — unutterable and glorified joy in the One we cannot see with the eyes of our head, but whose glory we have seen with the eyes of our heart.
And what we have seen awakens in us joy that is inexpressible because it has actually tasted the glory of God — and hence is already now in part glorified. This is how he looks glorious.
Pastors, this is our aim. For ourselves and for our people. This is the work of a lifetime. This is a humanly impossible work. It is a glorious work. In the midst of suffering to lead your flock into this joy . . . “not under compulsion, but willingly; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2–3). In the new America that is less hospitable to our faith, a stage is being set as never before in our land for the display of the glory of God through the joy of his grieving people.