Saintly suffering - 1 Peter 3:8 - 4:19
Dick Barrett is a missionary scholar who publishes each year an update on the state of the Christian movement throughout the world. And amongst his many statistics is an estimate of how many Christian martyrs there are each year. In 1980 for example, he estimated that there were 270,000 Christians who were killed more or less directly because of their faith. The numbers are rising and are set to remain in the hundreds of thousands. You see, from its very beginning, which began on a bloody cross on a hill outside Jerusalem, Christianity has grown in soil soaked with the blood of the martyrs. Until the Emperor Trajan- AD 98, persecution was permitted but not legal. From Trajan to Decius- AD 250 persecution was legal, but local. But from Decius who hated Christians , until 311 AD persecution was both widespread and legal. So for three hundred years to be a Christian was a dangerous business not only for yourself but your family. It was a test of what you loved the most. And so it is with many of our brothers and sisters around the world today in Pakistan, Iran, the Sudan. To become a Christian there can seriously damage your health. And while I am no prophet or a son of a prophet there is no reason on earth why, within my lifetime, similar things should await Christians in this country. That is not being alarmist, it is a sobering fact of history.
So the question is; how are Christians to cope with saintly suffering-suffering for the faith? And to varying degrees we all have to face this question, whether it be difficulty from unsympathetic spouses, jibes from cynical family members or contempt in a hostile work place. Well, the apostle Peter tells us in chapters 3 and 4 of his first letter.
First, stand out, for Christ is our example 3:8-22. Look at verse 13 which in the original begins with the word ‘and’ better translated ‘then’ - ‘Then who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good.’, so this is linked back to vv 10-12 and the quote from Isaiah 8- ‘The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous but he is against those who do evil.’ In other words, no ultimate evil can befall the Christian even if you have to face persecution because God is on your side, his eyes are upon you Sure, you may be tried and condemned before a human court, and you may well be innocent of all that they accuse you of- as was Jesus- v 18, but you will be vindicated in the heavenly court by the only Judge which counts-God. And since Christ died for your sins, once and for all-the righteous for the unrighteous- in God’s sight you are already acquitted.' But even if you are being persecuted for doing good-remember, it is a blessing,- Jesus said so in the Sermon on the Mount- ‘Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me-rejoice and be glad because great is your reward in heaven.’ Now we tend to get terribly upset when we are put down as being Bible thumpers, members of the God squad and so on - but Jesus and Peter say, actually that is a good sign, at least you are standing out, there is at least something distinctive about you which draws such flak. And Peter encourages us to stand out all the more and not shrink back through fear- ‘do not fear what they fear’. How? v15 ‘But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have.’ Does that mean pinning someone up against the wall and hitting them with John 3:16? Not at all. ‘But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience ,so that those who do speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ might be ashamed of their slander.’
We are to literally ‘reverence Christ as Lord.’ That means seeing him as sovereign over all circumstances-not losing control for a single moment, as Peter says in v22 ‘ Jesus Christ who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand-with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him’ It also involves seeing him as the one we want to please above all else, even if that means, as it will inevitably mean, going against the flow of society, and so keeping our consciences clear. And with that determination we are to be ready to explain to anyone who asks why we believe what we believe and why we behave the way we behave. Certainly, this involves having some good Christian understanding under our belt. But it is more than being able to tackle the old chestnuts people throw at us, ‘Why does God allow suffering, what about other religions, wasn’t Jesus just a good man?’ You see, reverencing Jesus in our hearts means that emotionally and attitudinally we are ready and not fazed when the challenge comes- ‘tell me why are you a Christian?’ And sometimes we may not be able to say more than what the man born blind had to say whom Jesus healed, ‘ All I know is this, once I was blind, but now I can see.’ Yes ,I am still a learner in the faith, a novice maybe-and yes, I may not be the person I want to be, but thank God I am no longer the person I was once.’ But we are to say this with ‘gentleness and respect’ so that we can’t be dismissed as being hate mongers-those ‘know- it- all-Christians.’ Let me give an example of this in practice. There was a Christian doctor working in a Muslim country when a woman brought her son to him. He had a long gash in the calf of his leg and the doctor cleaned it up. He explained to the mother why it was important to clean up the wound before he bound it up. The woman listened and then she said this: ‘Sometimes I wish somebody could clean up my dirty heart.’ Now what would you say? ‘Well, to be frank the problem is that you are a Muslim. We Christians have a theory of atonement which can deal with moral dirt, but what have you Muslims got? You believe in the cast iron will of Allah who is supposed to be merciful ,but you cant be sure can you?’ Is that it? Let me tell you what he said, he replied : ‘ I know exactly what you mean. My heart was so filthy dirty. I was ashamed of it, then one day somebody came and cleaned it up, just like I am doing with your son’s leg. Do you want me to tell you how he did it?’ Isn’t that better? And that wasn’t learnt by attending an evangelism course, good though they are, it came because the doctor was setting Jesus aside in his heart as Lord, and he was out on the streets, in the hospital practising it. You couldn’t criticise that doctor for being insensitive and aggressive could you? But even so, if we have to suffer- v17, it is far better that it is for doing good and so follow the example of Jesus.
But then we come to one of the most difficult passages in the NT -v18 b- 21 ‘ He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also, not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.’ Now what is that all about? Well, let me tell you what I think Peter is getting at. Peter is drawing a parallel between what life was like during the days of Noah and what it is like in his own time-and- we might add -ours. For a start, both believers were minorities in a hostile culture. Noah was a godly man in the midst of a society going down the tube-morally and spiritually- he was different from those around him. And we too are to be different even though we may be few in number. In the second place, both witness to God’s truth. In his second letter, Peter describes Noah as a ‘preacher of righteousness’. He had to stand up and be counted-after all it is very difficult to hide an Ark isn’t it. People were bound to ask questions-what are you building that for? Who needs a boat out here in the middle of the desert?’ And you can bet they had a good laugh at his expense. And so he would have had to give an explanation for what he was doing-his hope. Well, so do we. Thirdly, in both cases judgement day was coming-sooner than folk realise. And fourthly in both instances Christ was and is at work making his appeal through the preached message for people to repent and believe. That is what this business is about in v 19 about Christ through the Spirit ‘preaching to the spirits in prison who disobeyed God long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah.’ Now in chapter 1 Peter has already told us that in OT times the prophets were speaking by the aid of the Spirit of Christ, pointing to Christ Well, that is exactly what he was doing through Noah, a kind of prophet, so that those who are now in ‘prison’- hell, heard a ‘Gospel’ when they heard it from the lips of Noah, inspired by the Spirit of Christ. But what they did was to turn their backs on it and that is why they are where they are. ‘So be encouraged Christians’, says Peter in effect, ‘as you find yourself out of sorts with the rest of the world, you will be saved, as was Noah and his family, for just as they were lifted out of the waters of the flood, so symbolically you are lifted from the judgement to come by your baptism, a symbol of the cleansing and rescue which Jesus brings as you put your trust in him.’ Of course, it is not easy sticking to God’s ways when everyone around you is leaving them. It wasn’t easy for Noah. But the same Spirit which enables Noah to stand and to witness is the same Spirit who dwells in you and me and enables us to witness. Do you see?
And that means that we are to change, for Christ is our Saviour which is the thrust of 4:1-6- look at v 1 ‘Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourself with the same attitude’- why is that? ‘because he who has suffered in his body has done with sin.’ The idea is this: the real sign that you have made a clear break with sin, that you a true believer is that you have been willing to suffer for righteousness sake. And to stand separate from the sorts of things Peter mentions here will cost you. Let me give you an example by way of illustration. It again concerns a doctor and former missionary whom we shall call Bill. Bill was brought up in a Christian family with three older sisters who doted on him. He turned out to be a really nice guy. He did all the right things, made a profession of faith as a child, became President of the University CU, went on to be a doctor, married the right girl, and went to Africa. Eventually he came back and became an elder of a church. That is when he left his wife and children and ran off with a nurse. And when he was challenged about this by the church leadership he said ‘ Who are you to tell me what to do? I determine my own course not you.’ As you can imagine everyone was devastated. One of the senior elders was asked why did he do this? His reply shocked the person asking him ‘ Well, he said. I don't think Bill was ever a Christian.’ ‘Don't get me wrong,’ he said. ‘I am not saying Christians cannot fall into adultery, but with Bill there was never a decision he made which was done simply because it was right and it involved submitting to Jesus as Lord-he just did what he wanted to do’ ‘What about his missionary work, surely that involved some sacrifice?’, the person asked. ‘No, that too .He was brought up so that he had whatever he wanted. He did what everyone else wanted, but it was still what he wanted. He went to University to study what he wanted .He became a CU leader because he wanted to. He married the girl he wanted. And even when he went to Africa it was because he wanted to go. I can’t find one instance in his life where there was an ounce of self-denial-suffering in order to do what’s right. And so when he saw a pretty skirt he wanted- he did not have the moral fibre to resist. It was all what he wanted.’ That is why he was offended when he was challenged about his behaviour- debauchery, lust- v3. And that is the real test isn’t it? Saying ‘ no’ to what we want to do simply because it is the right thing to do and it hurts. Could I ask: is that what we are teaching our children and young people about the Christian life and modelling it to them?’ Do they see us putting ourselves out-willing to suffer because it is right? Hardly, if all they see in us is a churchgoing when it is comfortable and convenient, when we are not willing to put ourselves out even for the smallest things if it will cost us.
No, Christians are meant to be different for they have a different future. Non-believers are going to have to give an account for the way they have lived- v5, and while it is true that Christians suffer death like everyone else- v6, they have a future unlike anyone else- they live eternally in God’s presence in the spiritual world. That is what we should be living for because that is where we are heading. The question is: are we?
If so then that shows itself in love, for Christ is returning -vv 7-11. This is the positive counterpart to what Peter has just been saying. Christianity is not just a list of don’ts, it is a positive change in lifestyle worked out in the rough and tumble of congregational life. That means we are to pray undistractedly, (v7), love profoundly (v8-9), serve unselfishly ,v10, speak God’s word faithfully, v11, and do all of these things in God’s strength and for God’s glory (v11). Do you see the difference? The Christian does not ask: what do I want, but what does he want? And what he wants is a Christ- like life and he offers the power to supply it.
The result? We are to rejoice, for Christ is reigning vv 12-19. ‘ Dear friends do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering- or as it would be better translated- at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.’ Let me tell you something. In the village of Miango, Nigeria, there is an SIM guest house and a small church called Kirk chapel. Behind the chapel is a small cemetery with 56 graves. 33 of them hold the bodies of missionary children. Some of the stones read: ‘ Ethyl Arnold: Sept 1,1928- Sept 2 1928; Barbara Swanson: 1946 -1952; Eileen Whitmoyer’ May 6 1952-July 3 1955.’ Charles White told of his visit to this graveyard and ended his account with these powerful words: ‘The only way we can understand the graveyard in Miango is to remember that God also buried his Son on the mission field.’ You see, when Christians suffer for their faith ,they do not do so alone, they participate in the sufferings of Christ, says Peter .So closely identified is the risen Saviour with his people, so bound up is he with their welfare and they with his purposes that when they suffer for the faith their sufferings count for something-its all part of the sign that his kingdom is growing-a kingdom which is always accompanied with difficulty and opposition. That is why Peter says we should rejoice now because one day we shall be overjoyed when Christ returns for then we shall actually see that is has all been worthwhile. If you are insulted because you are a Christian ,says Peter. you are blessed-not cursed. Though we tend not to think so. If we suffer for being a Christian ,then that is a badge of honour not a cause for regret- v16.
So what is happening when Christians are put through the mill? Peter tells us in v 17 ‘for it is time for judgement to begin with the family of God; and if it begins there what will the outcome be for these who do not obey the gospel of God?’ Now when Peter speaks here of judgement amongst God’s family, it is not in terms of condemnation, it is to be understood in terms of evaluation- sifting, sorting out the authentic from the inauthentic, like when we say that an art dealer judges between a real Renoir and a copy. That is what is going on now in the church. Profession of faith is one thing, purified faith something else. But what this judgement of Christians in the present does have in common with the judgement of non-Christians in the future, is that both involves evaluating what we have made of our lives-is it for God or is it for self? Also both involve suffering. The difference is that whereas for the believer the suffering is creative, as we are put under pressure we rely more and more on Christ as so become more and more like him, for the unbeliever, the suffering they will receive is punitive- ‘what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’ There is nothing remotely envious of the position of those who reject Christ, they should call from us not our envy but our pity. In the meantime, v 19 we are to commit our cause to God and get on with doing good.
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