Elect Exiles: Fiery Trials

Sermon by David Strain on February 9

1 Peter 4:12-19

Take your Bibles in hand once again and turn please to 1 Peter chapter 4 as we continue in our exploration of Peter’s teaching in this letter to the believers of Asia Minor. We are considering 1 Peter 4:12-19 on page 1016 in the church Bibles. Peter is offering a final word on a series of reflections we’ve been examining together for some time now on the reality of suffering in the Christian life, and here he’s bringing some of those reflections to a conclusion. And as we study it together, I want to highlight four themes, really four apparent paradoxes, that describe in verses 12 through 19 the Christian’s response to and engagement with suffering in their lives. 

Look at it with me please; verses 12 and 13 first. The first apparent paradox – joy in the midst of suffering. Joy in the midst of suffering. Secondly, verse 14 – blessing in the midst of insult. Thirdly, verses 15 and 16 – worship in the midst of stigma. And then 17 through 19 in the fourth place, the final apparent paradox – trust in the midst of judgment. So there’s the outline of the passage. Joy amidst suffering. Blessing amidst insult. Worship amidst stigma. And trust amidst judgment. As always, before we unpack those themes together, let’s pause and pray and then we’ll read the Word of God. Let us pray together.

You remember, O Lord, how our Savior said, “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” So, O Lord, now we pray, break Thou the bread of life, dear Lord, to us as we read and hear the message of Your holy Word in Scripture, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

1 Peter chapter 4 at verse 12. This is the Word of the living God:

“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. 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. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. 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 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 while doing good.”

Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy Word.

It’s a fun providence that Cory should advertise the forthcoming “Joni and Friends” event here at the church because the sermon this morning begins with a quotation from Joni Eareckson Tada about her own experience of suffering that I think, in some ways, helps set the stage and provide the tone for us to understand Peter’s teaching in verses 12 through 19. Back in 2011, she told an interviewer, “For more than ten years” – so that’s now about almost twenty years – “I have dealt with chronic pain; very unusual for a quadraplegic like me. Piled on top of my quadriplegia, at times it seemed too much to bear. So I went back and reexamined by original views on divine healing to see what more I could learn. What I discovered was that God still reserves the right to heal or not to heal as He sees fit.” And then she says this, and this is important; hear it carefully. “And rather than try to frantically escape the pain, I relearned the timeless lesson of allowing my suffering to push me deeper into the arms of Jesus. I like to think of my pain,” she said, “as a sheepdog that keeps snapping at my heels to drive me down the road to Calvary where otherwise I would not be naturally inclined to go.” “I relearned the timeless lesson of allowing my suffering to push me deeper into the arms of Jesus. I like to think of my suffering, my pain, as a sheepdog that keeps snapping at my heels to drive me down the road to Calvary.”

That, I think, is very much the attitude that Peter is writing to us in verses 12 to 19 to try to cultivate in all of our hearts and lives by means of these four themes, these four paradoxes. Peter is going to highlight for us God’s grand design in our sufferings, in our various trials. Here is the main use of suffering, Peter is teaching us. It is to push us deeper into the arms of Jesus. It is to be a sheepdog snapping at our heels to drive us down the road to Calvary. So let’s look at verses 12 and 13 first of all and the first of these paradoxes that capture the Biblical teaching on how we are to respond to suffering. 

Joy in the Midst of Suffering

The first of them has to do with joy in the midst of suffering. And before we unpack that together, I think it’s worth noticing at the beginning there in verse 12 how Peter addresses his original readers. You see how he speaks to them? He calls them “beloved.” “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes.” He only does that one other time in this letter, back in chapter 2 verse 11, and both there and here it signals to us that he is about to say some hard things. He knows what he is teaching is challenging and hard; not necessarily complicated to understand, but painful to perform and to obey. Difficult. Costly. And so he wants to remind us as we hear the teaching that he cares for us, that he loves us. This is not some exercise in abstract instruction like a lecture room. These are not the commands of a tyrannical taskmaster, demanding unthinking and unquestioned obedience. Peter is a moral disciple-maker. Isn’t he? Here’s how to make disciples. Here’s how to be faithful in Gospel ministry. Here’s how to be a faithful Christian friend. Here are the core elements of it. Speak the truth. Peter has, necessarily, some challenging things to teach us. Speak the truth. With love. “Beloved,” he says to them. He has hard things to say and he wants them to know as they hear it that he cares for them deeply. 

Then look at what he says. “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. But rejoice, insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed.” There’s an awful lot in there, isn’t there, but did you see the two main parts of what Peter is saying? Suffering is coming. There’s a fiery trial. It’s going to be hot and sore and difficult to bear. And yet in the midst of it, he says rejoice. Joy in the midst of suffering. 

And we need to try and figure out how those things fit together. This is what he says about the suffering. It is a fiery trial. That connects back, doesn’t it, to the very beginning of the letter – chapter 1, verses 6 and 7 – where he spoke of the testing of our faith, “like fine gold that is refined by fire.” Our faith is going to be tested by various kinds of trials that will grieve us, he has said. He’s echoing that same language now here at the end so that these two form almost bookends in his letter. And notice, he says, “when” it comes, not “if.” “Do not be surprised by the fiery trial when it comes.” This is the normal Christian life – fiery trials, so get ready. Don’t be surprised. Adjust your expectations accordingly. Following Jesus will not smooth out every bump in the road. It will not grease every wheel in the machinery of your life. Jesus never promised us a life of ease and pleasure and we have no right to expect that from Him. 

“Do not be surprised when the fiery trial comes” – and notice this next phrase – “as though something strange were happening to you.” We’re not exceptional. Our sufferings are not anomalous. We’ve not been singled out for special treatment. This is simply the normal, Christian life, as hard as it can be. Don’t be surprised. 

Well then, if not surprised, what should we feel when suffering inevitably comes? What should we feel? Peter says we should rejoice. There should be joy. So there’s the paradox. Can you see it? There’s the tension. It hurts. I am grieved by various kinds of trials. There are tears. I’m full of sorrow because of my sufferings and you’re saying rejoice? How do I make those things make sense? Well, Peter tells us, if you look in the text in verse 13, “Rejoice,” he says, “insofar as you share, participate in, have fellowship with Christ in His sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed.” That word, “insofar” there is important. Do you see it in the text? “Rejoice, insofar as you share in Christ’s sufferings.” It’s cluing us into an important principle. You see, a Christian can go through suffering and not use them well. Your suffering, Peter is saying, can become the occasion of coming to know Christ better, of deepening fellowship with Jesus. And so, insofar as you use your sufferings to press toward Christ and come to know more of Him, then there can be joy.

I think that’s what Joni Eareckson Tada was saying, wasn’t it, in the quotation I read earlier. “I relearned the timeless lesson of allowing my sufferings to push me deeper into the arms of Jesus.” That’s what Paul was saying in Philippians 3:10. He says that he “longs to know Him,” Christ, “and the power of His resurrection and share in the fellowship of His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death.” There is a fellowship with Jesus in suffering that opens to us, when we are led by our various trials, by our fiery trials, to love the world and the things of the world less and less and learn instead to be satisfied more and more with Christ alone. Suffering cuts the cord that ties us to temporary, fleeting pleasures and trains our hearts to find satisfaction in Jesus. 

That, I think, is what Peter means when he says that this sharing in Christ’s sufferings, this communion with Jesus in suffering, prepares us to rejoice and be glad when His glory is finally revealed at the last day. He’s saying your sufferings can train you to love Christ more and more and wean you from the world. Suffering teaches us Jesus can be our heart’s delight when earthly pleasures allude us and bodily pain or emotional trauma haunt our steps. Suppose for a moment that we could be free of suffering and free of sorrow and free of sin. Think of the day promised to every Christian, for which my heart longs – I’m sure yours does too – when we shall see glory and be at rest and peace at last in the garden city of the New Jerusalem. What a day that will be! All of that is promised to us, but suppose you could have it and Jesus not be there. Could we be happy in such a place? 

Peter is saying it is God’s design, part of His design in our suffering, to teach us to love Christ more than ease and comfort and any bodily rest here so that we can be endlessly happy face to face with Jesus hereafter. Or, so that we could never be happy were we to have rest and peace and release from pain and reunion with loved ones and the sight of glory itself if Jesus wasn’t there. Suffering here is meant to cut the bonds that tie us to earthly blessings and to teach us, as Samuel Rutherford put it, “The Lamb, the Lamb is all the glory of Emmanuel’s land.” The thing that makes heaven, heaven, is face to face with Jesus. It’s the sight of His glorified wounds, not just reunion with loved ones, not just the glorification of our bodies, not just release from pain and sorrow. All of these things are promised to us, wonderfully, but none of these things in themselves will fuel everlasting joy. It will be the sight of His lovely face. It will be nearness to Him as He sits on the throne. It will be seeing Jesus, communion with Jesus that will make our hearts burst with gladness when He comes. Until then, God deploys suffering in our lives to train us for that great day, to make us say as Cory helped us pray earlier, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus! How I long to see You and to be with You forever!” Joy in the midst of sorrow. Not because of sorrow, but through sorrow, training us to cling to Christ, to find our joys not in our comforts but in our Savior.

Blessing in the Midst of Insult

Then secondly, Peter calls us to blessing in the midst of insult. Look at verse 14. Blessing amidst insult. “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” You might remember the story Luke records in Acts chapter 5 where the apostles are arrested and forbidden to preach the Gospel. And upon their release, Acts 5:41 tells us, when they left the presence of the counsel, they did so “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name,” for the name of Jesus Christ. They were full of joy that they could share in the sufferings of Jesus Christ. I think Peter here in verse 14 is telling us part of the reason why they’re so blessed, they know themselves to be blessed if they are suffering for Jesus’ sake and being insulted for His cause, Peter says you are blessed if you suffer insult for Christ because it is a mark, an evidence that the “spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” The reaction of your hostile persecutors is actually an assuring testimony to you that the Holy Spirit is at work in your life. Or let me turn that around a little bit. The Holy Spirit’s work is to make our lives and our witness pungent with the aroma of heaven so that people around us start to notice, they start reacting. 

And so Peter is saying to the church that is beginning here when he is writing to them to face real persecution, he’s saying, “Take heart. You don’t think you have great gifts. You don’t know what difference, what contribution you can make to the kingdom. You’re quiet. You’re seeking simply to be faithful as you plod on each day seeking to be godly at home and at work and at school. And people mock you and they think you are weird and they leave you out and they shut you out and they say mean and hurtful things and they make life hard. Don’t you see what’s really going on? The spirit of glory and of God has begun to make your life fragrant with the aroma of Christlikeness and it is provocative. So you see, you are blessed! Plod on in quiet faithfulness. Keep going in service to your Master. The Spirit of Christ Himself is at work in you and through you in ways perhaps you did not know.” 

Worship in the Midst of Stigma 

Joy in the midst of suffering. Blessing in the midst of insult. Thirdly, worship in the midst of stigma. Worship in the midst of stigma. Look at verses 15 and 16. “But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” So he’s saying not all suffering is persecution. We live in an age where people are so easily triggered, where we take offense and we play the victim card at every provocation. But Peter is saying you can’t claim all suffering as persecution. If you break the law, he says, if you’re a busybody meddling uninvited in the lives of others, well then, when people react badly when official sanction falls, that’s not persecution. You’re simply getting your comeuppance. Right? That’s how it goes. Stop playing the victim card. Let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or a meddler, but if you suffer because you follow Jesus, he says, therefore, then, well then, therefore glorify God. 

It might help you to understand some of what Peter is saying to know that at the time he was writing, the name “Christian” in verse 16 was not a word, it was not a name that the believers themselves used to describe themselves. If we were alive reading Peter’s letter back in those days, we would not call ourselves Christians. That was the name the pagan people around us used, usually dripping with contempt. It was a name freighted with social stigma, you see. To be a Christian was a shameful thing. You get a sense of the attitudes of the ancient world toward Christians. There was a graffito that was found in the first part of the 19th century, scratched into the plaster of a building that dates from about 200AD. It was used as a sort of boarding school for imperial page boys just at the end of the reign of Caligula, the Roman emperor, found on the Palatine Hill in Rome. And the graffito depicts a young man worshiping a crucified figure and his name is Alexamenos. And the inscription reads, “Alexamenos worships his god.” And the crucified figure has the head of a donkey. 

You see what’s going on in this boys’ school, this boarding school? One of those boys is a Christian, he worships Jesus, and the others are mocking him and leaving graffiti on the walls to make a fool of him, to laugh at him, because to be a Christian was a shameful thing. There was massive social stigma attached to it. You get mocked for it at school. People ostracize you in society. Business gets harder if people know you are a follower of Jesus. Well then, what should believers do when faced with hostility like that? Peter says, “let them glorify God in that name.” He says wear the name “Christian” proudly and adorn it with a life that glorifies God. Worship Christ, work for Him, exalt Him in your devotion and in your daily duty. Instead of backing off and running scared when your faith gets stigmatized, press towards your new identity in Christ and so glorify Him that those who mock you for your faith are left without excuse. 

Trust in the Midst of Judgment

Joy in the midst of suffering. Blessing in the midst of insult. Worship in the midst of stigma. And finally, verses 17 through 19, trust in the midst of judgment. And again, there’s a lot to unpack in these concluding three verses. Let’s be clear again on the two main parts of the paradox, as Peter presents it. Part one, verse 17, “it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God.” Actually, it’s “the house of God.” It doesn’t mean the family; it means the building. He’s thinking, actually, of the temple. It’s the metaphor we’ve seen Peter use again and again in his letter for the church. Judgment will begin in the house of God, the temple, the church of Jesus Christ. That’s part one. But then the other part of the paradox, part 2, verse 19, “Therefore,” – since judgment begins in the house of God – “Therefore, let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” So judgment and trust in the midst of judgment. Do you see the paradox, the tension in Peter’s teaching? 

That word “entrust” – “entrust your souls,” he says – that word “entrust” means “to deposit.” A bit like what you would do with your money at a bank, except in those days there really weren’t banks like the banks we have, and so if someone was going on a trip they would deposit their treasured possessions into the care of a trusted friend who could look after them. We might do the same today with our young children. If, as parents, we have to go on a trip without them, we would entrust them, wouldn’t we, to valued friends or to close family to care for them, knowing that because of their character they are safe and we can entrust them to them. That’s what Peter is saying we must all do as the judgment of God begins with the house of God, the church of Jesus Christ. We must run to Him, not from Him, when suffering comes. 

To help us understand what he means by “judgment on the house of God,” it’s important to recognize he’s using language borrowed from the prophecy of Malachi chapter 3, verses 1 through 3. The prophet is speaking about the coming of the Messiah, of the Lord Jesus Christ, and he says this. “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. But who can endure the day of his coming and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire” – there’s Peter’s image – “and a fuller’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord.” So Christ will come to the temple, which in 1 Peter is the great image of the church. And He will come like a refiner’s fire. That’s, again, the language he’s used both in chapter 1 and here again in chapter 4 to talk about suffering, to talk about God’s design in our suffering – to strengthen and purify and teach us to hold the world loosely and to cling tenaciously to Christ. And he will refine, Malachi says, the sons of Levi, the priests. Peter has described us all as a “royal priesthood…to declare the praises of Him who called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light.” 

So what’s the message? The nature of this judgment on the house of God. He doesn’t mean the final judgment; he means discipline through fiery trials that refine us and sanctify us and help us become more godly and hate worldliness and sin that remains in our hearts and to become like Jesus so that we may offer sacrifices of praise, of lives consecrated to His service, in a way that is pleasing to Him. “Therefore,” he says, “when suffering comes according to God’s will, let us entrust ourselves.” Let’s not run from the One who disciplines us; let’s recognize that the trials that come into our lives come from the hand of a Father who loves us. And so let us endure hardship as discipline, remembering that God is treating us as His children, as Hebrews puts it. And run to Him, learning the lessons His discipline may teach, entrusting ourselves into His perfect care. When trial comes, don’t run away from the Lord, but run to Him. He will keep you. That’s what he’s saying. He will keep you. He is a faithful Creator. You can entrust yourself to Him in the midst of the storm and you will be safe. Trust in the midst of judgment. 

But it’s a call to faith not just for Christians. Look again at verses 17 and 18 and you’ll see there’s also a warning, a call to faith for non-Christians. If judgment begins with us, Peter says, what will become of those who do not obey the gospel of God? And if the righteous are scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner? He’s working with the Greek version of Proverbs 11:13. That word “scarcely” – “if the righteous are scarcely saved” – probably better translated, “barely saved.” In other words, if believers in the course of their lives undergo such discipline from God as He deals with sin that remains in their lives, how will He deal with those who do not repent of their sins at all when the final judgment comes? 

I want to speak directly and frankly to you if today you’re not a Christian. I want to be sure that you hear Peter’s alarm bell sounding. You are not safe. You will not find a loophole in God’s arrangements. Don’t say, “I hear what you’re saying, preacher, but I’ll take my chances.” Judgment begins with the house of God, and while salvation comes to us, Peter says it comes with much suffering as God takes our remaining sin so seriously. But if you reject Christ, Peter says, if you say “No” to the Gospel entirely, do you really think that you are secure? Given the discipline of God towards His beloved children, how will you escape who refuse to accept the Lord Jesus Christ as He is offered to you altogether? 

Maybe you think God doesn’t really care how you live. Maybe you think you can delay thinking through Christ and His claims on your life. Maybe you think the Gospel is just foolishness, a matter of just words and talk. Or the stuff of rules – the restrictive religion of your parents. Maybe you think you know a better way. Well Peter is saying, “These are delusions. I want you to wake up.” I hope you can hear the alarm sounding in Peter’s words. There is no escape unless you find it in Jesus Christ. Entrust yourself to a faithful Creator. That’s the only way. Deposit your whole self into the care of Jesus Christ. That’s the only way. There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved but the name of Jesus. Judgment is coming. There’s only one safe place of refuge for you – it’s Christ. And He invites you to come trust Him. 

Joy amidst sorrow because Christ is enough. Blessing amidst insult because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. Worship amidst stigma because the shame of the world is the Christian’s badge of honor. And trust in the midst of judgment. We do not believe in an absentee God. He is already at work right now as we feel His hand at work in our lives as He disciplines His people. And He will certainly come to judge us all. Only Jesus Christ is a refuge for us. Have you come to take refuge in Him? Let’s pray together.

O Lord, please train our hearts as Christian people who suffer to make use of our sufferings like that sheepdog nipping at our heels, driving us down the road toward Calvary, to make use of our sufferings, to prompt us to flee to Jesus rather than from Him. Forgive us when we have done that over and over again when, in fact, in our sufferings You have been inviting us to come to You for rest and hope and joy when all earthly comforts fail. And we pray, O Lord, for those here among us who know nothing of the fellowship of Jesus Christ, who are strangers to His saving love. Please, O God, help them feel the alarm of their condition, not to think themselves safe, not to delay or to hesitate, but as You invite them to Christ, please give them the grace to accept the invitation and flee to Him. Hear our cries. How we need You as we entrust ourselves to our faithful Creator while doing good, for Jesus’ sake, amen.

© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.

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