October 16, 2016
This world is not a friend to grace. In the hymn, “Am I a Soldier of the Cross,” it asks, “Is this vile world a friend to grace, to help me on to God?” The implied answer is, “No.” This world will not help us on to God. Instead this world is aligned against God and his Son, Jesus Christ.
I have heard it said that there is more persecution of Christians today than in any other period of time in history. We in the United States have enjoyed some 250 years of religious freedom. You can believe and practice whatever religion you want as long as your beliefs and practices do not prohibit others from having that same freedom. We even have the freedom to publicly proclaim what we believe and to invite others to embrace Jesus Christ.
When we read a letter like the one Peter wrote, it is sometimes hard for us to relate. We have not experienced persecution. And we don’t want to experience it. But a day may come when we will and that day may be closer than we think. Peter’s letter to the church helps us think about persecution and prepare us for it. Today we learn from 1Pt.4:12-19 that believers have reason to rejoice when suffering for Christ.
I. WE ARE SHARING IN CHRIST’S SUFFERING. 1Pt.4:12-13
Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, lived from around 35-108 A.D. It is said that he was a student of the Apostle John. Most think he was martyred in Rome in the colosseum. The writings of Ignatius helped to develop a theology of persecution in the early church. Interestingly enough, there were actually many Christians who desired to be martyred. Why? Well listen to some of the ideas held by the church about martyrdom found in Everett Ferguson’s book on Church History. The word martyr comes from the greek word for “witness.” In martyrdom, the Christian gives a blood witness to Jesus Christ. Martyrs were said to be victors in the contest against the forces of evil. So martyrs were considered to hold a privileged position. There was also the thought that to be a martyr was a privilege granted by God. Because of this Christians were encouraged to not seek martyrdom. God was the one who granted that privilege.
Another idea was that Christian martyrs were sharing in the sufferings of Christ as well as his victory over the devil. And in these verses Peter says as much. “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” In Phil.3:10 Paul writes that he wants to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and…share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.”
Now, in no way would I ever wish such suffering on anyone. But there is something that we must not fail to consider. How important is Jesus to us and how well do we want to know him? We get to know Jesus by paying attention to his life and voice through the word of God, by spending time with him in prayer and worship, and by walking in his steps. Look at 1Pt.2:21. “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” Jesus came to this earth as a man identifying with us in every way. He knows exactly what it is like to live as a human even to the point of death. When we turn to Christ and receive the forgiveness of sins and his eternal living, we begin to identify with him as we live for him in this world. As we live out his values in our conduct and conversation we may very well suffer as he suffered in this world. We are sharing in his sufferings.
This should make it clear that following Christ is the opposite of the values of this world. The world seeks seeks to secure itself by gaining power, prestige, self-fulfillment, and having one’s own way. But followers of Jesus find their security in Jesus by embracing weakness, humility and selflessness in this world, entrusting their lives to him. The world seeks prosperity. Followers of Jesus seek poverty of spirit. In Mt.5:11 Jesus says, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” If the world treated Jesus in this way, we can expect no less as his followers. “O to be like thee, blessed Redeemer, This is my constant longing and prayer; Gladly I’ll forfeit all of earth’s treasures, Jesus, they perfect likeness to wear.”
II. WE ARE STRENGTHENED BY GOD’S SPIRIT. 1Pt.4:14
In the theology of suffering developed by the early church there was a belief that martyrs were able to endure suffering because Jesus was with them by his Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit gave strength and comfort in the midst of trial.
Today when we ask people how they are doing, it is very common to hear someone say, “I’m blessed.” We are not surprised when Christians say this, but there are even non-Christians who say, “I’m blessed.” When we say this it’s usually because things are going well for us. We feel good. We’re glad to be alive. We’ve got some good things “goin” on. “God is blessing me.” And the implication is, “I must be living right because God is blessing me.” When people win the lottery, “I’m blessed.” Well, I’m not saying that God doesn’t bless us. He does.
I just wonder if we would say this when facing persecution. I mean this is what Peter says. “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed.” My sense is that for many professing Christians, if they were insulted for Christ’s sake, they might be more apt to think that God is mistreating them. “Why is God doing this to me?” In fact they might be inclined to return insult for insult because, “No one is going to treat me like that and get away with it!” Peter says, “You are blessed.” How many want this kind of blessing?
Why is being insulted for Christ a blessing? It is because the Spirit of Glory and of God rests upon you. When we look at a bride who is dressed for her wedding, we might say, “There she is in all her glory.” What do we mean? Well we mean that the beauty of the bride is radiant in a powerful way. She radiates beauty and we all exclaim, “Isn’t she beautiful.” Glory speaks of all the marvelous attributes of a person on full display. When we think of the glory of God we cannot help but be overwhelmed. God is so glorious that Paul tells us he dwells in unapproachable light. The Holy Spirit is fully God.
Insults are designed to make us feel shameful in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. We heard two good examples of shaming at the last presidential debate. Being ashamed is not considered to be a blessing. But Peter says that when we are insulted for Christ, the Spirit of glory, of God’s glory, rests upon us. When I am insulted for Christ sake, I may be abandoned by people I thought were my friends. I’m left alone in shame. No I’m not. The God of glory is with me by the Holy Spirit. God has chosen to bestow his glory on me through Christ and the Holy Spirit. What is more, you notice in 4:11 that to Jesus belong glory and dominion forever. We may be shamed for Christ’s sake, but in Christ we are victorious and will reign with him.
The Holy Spirit helps those who are persecuted for Christ. In Mt.10:19-20, Jesus says, “When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” Rejoice when you are insulted for Christ. You are blessed.
III. WE ARE BEING PURIFIED BY THE LORD. 1Pt.4:16-18
Throughout the New Testament we are told that each of us is going to give an accounting of ourselves before the Lord. In Mt.12:36 Jesus says, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” In Rm.14:12 we read, “So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.” In Heb.4:13 we read, “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Everyone is going to give an account of themselves before God.
Now I want to focus on v.17-18. The indication here is that persecution of believers is the beginning of God’s judgment. Peter says that God’s judgment begins with his own people. In 1Pt.2 we learn that the church is being built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood. This brings to mind the temple of God in Jerusalem. The church is the temple of God. Now some believe that Peter has Ez.9 in mind. There God takes note of the wickedness of his own people and determines to bring judgment. In 9:6 we read, “Kill old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one on whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary." So they began with the elders who were before the house.” In Mal.3:1 we read, “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.”
Peter says that this persecution is the beginning of judgement. It begins with the house of God. God is seeking to purify his people so that we will stand in the day of judgment. Peter has already told us in 4:1-2 that suffering helps us to abandon sin in our lives.
Now I don’t know why God permits the believers in the Middle East, India, China, and N. Korea to experience such persecution while the believers in the United States do not. Peter is saying that wherever such persecution exists God is using it for good to purify his people. I want to just add Heb.12:7 which says, “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?” God is working all things together for good to those who love him and are called according to his purpose.
But that said, Peter goes on to point out that if judgment begins with God’s house, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? If the righteous are judged by God, how will it be for those who don’t even care to know God? There is a great sadness in this verse. Many beautiful people are lost without hope in this world because they don’t know Christ. If that doesn’t bother us, something is wrong. It is just as important today as ever to live for Christ being willing to experience shame and suffering for his sake that we might show the world the reality of the gospel. We rejoice in suffering because God uses it to purify us.
IV. WE ARE LEARNING TO TRUST IN GOD. 1Pt.4:19
It has been said that the world is driven along by antagonism. Again, this is very apparent in the current presidential election. Unfortunately it is also apparent in the church of Jesus Christ, not just in the Evangelical sector, but in every sector of the church. And it is also a reality in our homes, our families. As I pondered this the other day it struck me that surely one of the primary evidences of our depravity is our inability to be at peace with everyone and ourselves.
Consider the church at Corinth. Christians were taking sides, aligning themselves with Paul or Apollos, Peter or Jesus. Christians were taking each other to court. Christians were acting selfishly even in the presence of the Lord’s Table. The more we have to have our own way, the more we seek to secure our lives by our own selfish means, the less we will entrust our lives to God, our faithful Creator.
In persecution a believer is often powerless to do anything to help himself. When we are powerless we entrust ourselves to God. We have no other alternative. Entrusting one’s soul to God appears to be an expression of weakness. Not at all. When we entrust our souls to God we cast ourselves on his strength, on God who created all things. If you know Jesus Christ you are safe in God’s hands at all times. Your body may suffer, but your life is absolutely safe.
Notice what happens when we entrust our souls to God. We are enabled to do good, even in the midst of persecution. Instead of feeding antagonism within our souls, we can give testimony to our faith in God by doing good. God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. In fact, it seems to me that whenever the church has had power in the world the results have not been very good. Power seems to be a breeding ground for arrogance and corruption. Power in this world seems to breed behaviors of domination and manipulation.
This is not to say that believers should avoid places of power. Joseph was put in a position of great power. Daniel was put in a position of great power. In both cases these men experienced persecution and they had learned to entrust their souls to God. In the church, in the home, in the world, the exercise of authority is important. But as Christians we are always at our best when we humbly entrust ourselves to the Lord recognizing that we are absolutely dependent upon him for everything. Jesus said that when you go to a banquet, don’t take the seat of privilege, but take the last seat. Jesus told us that greatness is found in being the servant of all. Peter tells us to humble ourselves because God opposes the proud.
The days that we are living in present many opportunities for learning to entrust our souls to God and do good. In every place of antagonism, whether it is in facing persecution for Christ, dealing with a divided country, or facing strife in your marriage and family or at work, entrust your soul to God and do good. This stance will help us be able to rejoice, even in persecution. O to be like Thee! lowly in spirit, Holy and harmless, patient and brave; Meekly enduring cruel reproaches, Willing to suffer, others to save.
We may not often be happy, because happiness has much to do with our circumstances and the condition of our physical, mental, and emotional health. But we can always be rejoicing because joy finds its source outside of oneself. Believers rejoice in knowing Christ. For believers everything is brought under the Lordship of Christ. We are always in the faithful presence of Jesus Christ and therefor even in persecution we rejoice in Christ. Are you rejoicing in Jesus Christ? Is Jesus Christ your life? Do you know Christ? Amen