June 13, 2004

The Church and Society: Our Response to Suffering for Doing Good
1 Peter 3:13-4:19

Putting yourself, as best you can, in the shoes of the original characters can be very helpful when you read through the Scriptures. I’ve tried to do that as I’ve read through 1 Peter during the last several weeks. I’ve certainly resonated with Peter’s pastoral concerns as he has sought to shepherd these early Christians, and I’ve related as well with some of the issues that this community had clearly been facing. I know, as do many of you, what it is like to feel discouraged and to conclude that we followers of Jesus are grossly outnumbered in the world. I know also the overwhelming sense of responsibility that comes in recognizing our call to be holy, and I certainly have experienced the tension between my natural instincts and Peter’s exhortation to repay evil, not with more evil, but with a blessing.

I find it considerably more difficult, however, to identify with the issue that Peter now addresses: suffering for being a follower of Jesus. While suffering for doing good was apparently common for these early Christians and many others throughout history, it remains largely unfamiliar to most of us. I suppose that the closest I’ve come to suffering for my faith, at least in this country, came during my senior year in high school when I wore my bright orange “Get Smart, Get Saved” badge everywhere I went. A few people laughed, but it was really no big deal. Wearing such badges was rather common during the Jesus movement in the 1970’s, and a lot of people thought it was kind of cool anyway.

Here in 1 Peter 3:13-4:19, Peter does not sort through the broader question of why bad things happen to good people, nor why there is so much seemingly senseless suffering in the world. He does not concern himself with car accidents and terminal illnesses and trees falling on little children. Rather, he focuses on the suffering that followers of Jesus sometimes experience as a direct result of their faith in Christ. Peter has just finished encouraging his readers, not to repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse, but with a blessing. He has similarly quoted verses from Psalm 34 in instructing them to “keep their tongues from evil and their lips from speaking deceit,” “turn away from evil and do good,” and to “seek peace and pursue it.” If they live this way, Peter clearly believes, others will see Christ in them and worship him for themselves. Some, however, won’t. They’ll make fun. They’ll get nasty. They might even get violent. Peter, therefore, tries here to help these marginalized Christians place the suffering that either they or their brothers and sisters were encountering in its proper perspective.

Peter does this by looking at the matter of persecution from two separate vantage points. He first considers such suffering in the light of Jesus’ own example (3:13-4:6). Jesus, Peter points out, experienced unfathomable suffering himself while he was here on earth. His suffering, however, was hardly in vain. In one rather short statement, Peter provides a wonderful synopsis of the reasons behind our Lord’s suffering (v. 18). Jesus suffered “for sins”—to deal with the evil that other people had committed. He suffered “once for all”—he won’t have to do it again. He suffered for “the righteous and the unrighteous”—no one stands beyond the possibilities of his grace. And he suffered “to bring people to God”—sinners of all colors, shapes and sizes can now come home to God’s embrace. Why, the implications of Jesus’ death are so far reaching that, in an admittedly difficult phrase in verse 19, Peter announces that even imprisoned evil spirits heard the news! Now, this suffering Jesus is our risen Lord, sitting at the right hand of God and exercising authority over all of this world and beyond (v. 22).

This suffering and ultimate victory of Jesus, Peter assures these believers, makes all the difference in the world when you experience suffering yourselves. For one thing, Christ’s followers need no longer fear what others fear. Jesus, after all, is Lord! Christians need not ultimately fear the laughter of neighbors, ridicule of classmates, disdain of employers, or oppressive policies of government officials. Christians need not ultimately fear intimidating letters or loaded guns. Jesus, after all, is Lord. Not civic magistrates. Not company officials. Not military commanders. Not ruthless terrorists. Not unkind neighbors. Jesus, Peter writes, is Lord, and the victory that he won through his death and resurrection makes earthly suffering far less worrisome.

Christ’s suffering, Peter continues, ought to challenge his followers to prepare themselves for similar treatment (4:1-3). Jesus, you will recall, was able to endure such suffering, not simply because he was the son of God—a line of reasoning that all too often lets the rest of us off the hook—but because he armed himself. He stayed intimately connected with his heavenly Father, submerged himself in Scripture and other spiritual disciplines, and refrained from doing evil. If his followers hope to survive persecution if and when it comes, Peter argues, they must live the same way. “Arm yourselves,” he writes. “…live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God….”

And finally, Peter assumes that, given the suffering and victory of Christ, his followers should be continually ready to defend their hope in any and every situation. Peter, clearly, believes once again that a gentle and reverent response to suffering brings with it the possibility of kingdom expansion. In the same way that Jesus’ suffering led to the salvation of the world, so might his people’s gracious response to persecution inspire others to believe. One of the more memorable quotes from the Church Fathers comes from Tertullian, writing in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries. Tertullian lived for a time during a period of intense persecution, and he wrote to various government officials on one occasion in response to the many atrocities going on around him:
…your tortures accomplish nothing, though each is more refined than the last; rather, they are an enticement to our religion. We become more numerous every time we are hewn down by you: the blood of Christians is seed.
More than ten centuries later, the Count of Altzey wrote much the same thing as he grew increasingly frustrated when his efforts to annihilate our Anabaptist ancestors failed. “What shall I do?” he asked with obvious irritation. “The more I execute, the more they increase.”
“Give a defense of the hope that is in you,” Peter encourages these early Christians. State your case, and live your life for all to see. Even when you suffer for doing good, God will bless you and use your example for furthering the cause of the Gospel in the world.

In addition to looking at persecution from the vantage point of Jesus’ own suffering, Peter considers the matter in the light of the end of time and the coming judgment (4:7-19). Peter, as this letter clearly illustrates, believed that the end of the world was imminent. He expected Jesus to return at any time, and he further believed that all people—those within the household of faith and those without—would stand before God and be judged. If this is true, Peter, concludes, then our views of suffering for doing good should be further transformed.

An awareness of the coming judgment, to begin with, should once again alter our priorities. Time is short, Peter concludes, and we as Christ’s followers should be more concerned about the lives that we live than the treatment that we receive. Can you sense his urgency in 4:7? “The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers.” He further encourages this marginalized community—this group of aliens—to maintain the love and unity within the body. The responsibility for responding graciously to suffering and for modeling Christian faith in the world falls not only to the individuals who make up the church, but to the church itself. “Set your affections on things above, not on things of the earth,” is how Paul phrased it. Worry less about how people respond to you, Peter implies, and more about living for God while there is yet time.

And finally, this awareness of the coming judgment should inspire Jesus’ followers to remain faithful, even during the most difficult times. The scene depicted in 4:17-18, if you will forgive me, reminds me of a wrestling mat at the end of a demanding tournament. Hardly a day of practice went by when I was in college that I didn’t wonder why in the world I subjected myself to such grueling labor. Standing on the top step during the awards ceremony following a tournament, however, helps to put it all in perspective. So it is with suffering for doing good, Peter concludes. “Who will stand in the judgment?” people wonder. We who are righteous. And when we do, everything else, including whatever persecution we may experience during this earthly life, will fade away.

Most of us, as I suggested earlier, know little about suffering for doing good, at least in comparison to Peter’s audience and many other Christians throughout history. Yet this text has much to say to us, right where we live:
Pray for those who live in places where it is far more dangerous to be a follower of Jesus.
Use our freedom, not simply to make the most of life, but to be about God’s work.
Ask ourselves if we are bold enough in defense of our faith, or whether the relative lack of persecution has left us either indifferent or afraid of even the slightest degrees of rejection.
Remind ourselves, individually and corporately, that the passing centuries have not changed the fact that we will in fact stand before God one day.
Peter ends this section of his letter with a rather stunning thought. He encourages those who are experiencing suffering for doing good to continue doing good. Don’t let the unfriendly responses of the world deter you. But he also adds this line: “Entrust yourselves to a faithful Creator.” What it all comes down to is this—fall completely into the hands of God. Such advice, I believe, is crucial for all of us today, regardless of our specific situations and needs.