The Blessing of Suffering 1 Peter 3:13–4:19
On April 18, 2007, German missionary Tilmann Geske, Turkish pastor Necati Aydin, and Turkish Christian Ugur Yuksel met at the offices of Zirve Publishing in Malatya, Turkey, for a Wednesday morning Bible study. Attending the study were 10 young men, five of whom had attended an evangelistic service on Easter Sunday the previous week. As Pastor Aydin began the study, praying no doubt that God would work in the hearts of these people, the men’s intentions became apparent.
Prepared with knives, ropes, and towels, they interrupted the study; bound the three Christian men; tortured them unspeakably; and ultimately slit their throats. When the police arrived and arrested the group, the men proudly declared that they had murdered the Christians to protect Islam.
Tilmann Geske, a 46-year-old father of three, was buried in an Armenian cemetery in Malatya. His wife, Susanne, told reporters she did not want revenge and quoted Luke 23:34: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”
Another Turkish pastor told the church at large, “Don’t pray against persecution, pray for perseverance.”1
When we in the West think of suffering, we think of illness, tragedies, and the horrors of war, not the intentional targeting of Christians. But the persecution of Christians simply because they are Christians is on the rise today in Muslim lands and has consistently been the case in China in recent years.
As we read the New Testament, we find the same was true from the beginning. The apostle Peter wrote to Christians living in pagan Rome who faced persecution simply for being followers of Christ.
How are believers to view this suffering?And, as God’s children, how should we respond? Peter essentially comforted his brethren with the reality that their suffering reflected God’s blessing on them, which should lead them to persevere in their faith and face persecution with joy.
The Defense of a Godly Life (3:13–22)
Peter accepted the fact that Christians will be persecuted, because Christ Himself died unjustly at the hands of men. Peter’s concern was that Christians suffer for the sake of righteousness, meaning “unjustly,” not because they broke a civil law (4:15).
By responding to unjust treatment with gentleness and reverence, believers demonstrate the truth about Christianity in the face of the lies that motivate our persecutors.
Unfortunately, a witness to Christ without a righteous life to back it up does not go far. Living for Christ requires a sure trust in God’s sovereignty and goodness on behalf of believers who are suffering. Citing Isaiah 8:12–13, Peter exhorted Christians not to fear men but rather to recognize Jesus Christ as the ultimate Judge. By so doing, we are blessed. The example is Jesus Christ Himself who, in obedience to God, “suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18).
To encourage suffering believers with Christ’s ultimate victory over evil, Peter introduced an analogy using Noah and the ark. This section has caused interpreters much trouble over the centuries:
Also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (vv. 19–21).
The passage, along with Ephesians 4:9, seems to imply (1) that Christ descended into hell and (2) that Christians are saved by baptism.
Concerning the first problem, it seems best to understand the preaching to the “spirits in prison” as Christ’s postresurrection declaration to the demons of His victory over evil and death, proclaimed as He ascended to take His position at the right hand of the Father in heaven as Lord of all. In this sense, the message to believers is that honoring Christ now, despite suffering, is not in vain because Christ’s victory over evil portends that we also will be delivered from evil at the end of the age.
Concerning the second problem, Peter compared Noah and his family’s deliverance through water to Christians ultimately being delivered from this evil world, as illustrated by baptism through water. Baptism visualizes the change that has already taken place in our hearts.
Again, the analogy seems to focus on the period of suffering that Noah had to endure before God judged the world and saved Noah’s family. The exhortation to believers is that we also are to persevere, looking forward to our final deliverance (1:9).
Suffering Separates One From Sin (4:1–11)
Peter made it clear that those who have identified with Christ to the point of suffering for their faith also have separated themselves from the lusts of the flesh and the world. Just as Christ suffered by doing God’s will, so, too, will believers.
In other words, Christians are those who separate themselves from the evil of this world and thus set themselves apart as followers of Christ. This separation often leads to persecution. In the first centuries of the church, before Christianity became a legal religion in the Roman Empire, the pagans’ primary complaint about Christians was that they were “antisocial,” meaning they did not engage in Roman society’s pagan revelries. Consequently, their neighbors distrusted them and spread all sorts of rumors about them, resulting in slander and persecution.
But by identifying with Christ, believers were able to separate themselves from the evils of the world. As a separated group, they were able to care for one another in true, divine love. Just as tragedies often bring families or communities together, so persecution should bring believers together since they belong to God’s new family. By sharing material goods, as well as by preaching and exhortation, believers do God’s will and glorify Him in the midst of a dark world.
Rejoicing in Suffering (4:12–19)
Like Job’s friends, we often associate suffering with divine retribution. The biblical teaching is, rather, that trials come from God to strengthen our faith and make us mature believers (Jas. 1:2–4). Peter again exhorted the suffering believers to rejoice because they knew what the future held: the return of Christ in glory.
The hope of glorification at Christ’s Second Coming is what gives suffering Christians present joy. By suffering righteously, Christians have confidence that they have done God’s will and so can look forward to Christ’s return with eager expectation and not shame (1 Pet. 1:6–7; cf. Mk. 8:38). Thus, by enduring affliction, we are blessed both now and in eternity since suffering demonstrates that God’s presence is with us.
Peter then quoted Proverbs 11:31 to show that our present suffering is God’s will to purify His church; but unbelievers can expect judgment in the future, at Christ’s return:
For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Pet. 4:17).
In the meantime, believers are to “suffer according to the will of God” (i.e., righteously) and “commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator” (v. 19). Enduring suffering is the greatest demonstration of our faith in God’s righteousness because it shows the world our faith in God does not depend on our circumstances. We do not follow God for our present good; but rather, as repentant sinners, we follow Christ because we want to glorify God in righteousness and holiness.
It is appropriate that Peter was the disciple who wrote about suffering. He no doubt never forgot he was the one who denied knowing Christ out of fear of men. Yet a few years after writing this epistle, Peter himself was martyred in Emperor Nero’s persecution in Rome. So Peter learned personally what it costs to follow Christ.
We Westerners rarely pay such a price. But is this circumstance for our good? In a pluralistic society, it usually is easier to blend in, become indistinguishable from everyone else, and join in the civic religion. But if we do so, how will we be distinguished from unbelievers or the church from the world?
Peter’s answer was that those who honor Christ as Lord and live accordingly will depart from evil. But in doing so, they must expect recrimination. Are we willing for such persecution to come to us?
Our brethren around the world truly suffer for their faith in Christ. And we must pray, as the Turkish pastor said, not that persecution ceases but that through it, believers are able to testify abundantly to the Lordship of Christ in love and righteousness. We may also pray the same for ourselves because in suffering, Christians receive God’s blessing.
- “A Letter to the Global Church From the Protestant Church of Smyrna,” (updated version), May 1, 2007 <izmirprotestan.org/docs/Letter_to_the_Global_Church.pdf>.