Elect Exiles: The Past Suffices

Sermon by David Strain on January 26

1 Peter 4:1-6

Well do please take a Bible in hand and turn with me to 1 Peter. We’ve been slowly working our way through 1 Peter. We’ve come this morning to the first six verses of chapter 4. First Peter chapter 4 on page 1016 if you’re using one of the church Bibles. As we continue to sit under the teaching of the apostle Peter here, we have been wrestling with his emphasis on suffering. It’s a thread that runs throughout the book. Peter, remember, calls Christians “elect exiles.” We are outsiders, marginal people, minority folks. That’s what following Jesus will do to us. That’s Peter’s message. And with a few exceptions here and there, for the most part, if you want cultural power, if you want to be an influencer and an opinion leader out there in the world, you’re going to have to compromise your commitment to living for Jesus because the world demands conformity to its norms and standards as the price we pay in return. There simply is no way to live in obedience to Christ and in conformity to the world at the same time. 

And that one hard reality is very much at the forefront of Peter’s thinking as he pens the passage before us at the beginning here of 1 Peter chapter 4. He wants us to understand and to embrace the character, the cost, and the calling of Christlikeness. The character, cost, and calling of Christlikeness. That’s the outline we’ll be using as we work our way through the passage together – 1 Peter 4:1-6. Before we read it, let’s pause and pray.

O Lord, we pray for the ministry of the Holy Spirit to take up the sword of the Spirit that is the Word of God and to wield it in our hearts, to subdue us to Yourself, to slay sin, and to make us more like Jesus. Do heart surgery in us by Your Word, for Your praise and glory, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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

“Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.”

Amen. We praise God for His holy, inerrant Word.

Fatima had lived in Iran all her life. Her earliest memories were of being sexually assaulted by members of her own family. At age 11, she was sold into marriage to a young drug addict who abused her and then divorced her when she was 17. She returned home and there was assaulted again. Fleeing her home, she heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ on the streets and believed. In time, Fatima married a Christian man and together they began to receive training in evangelism and church planting. It wasn’t long before Fatima believed she was being called to take what must have felt to her like an enormous step, an enormous risk. She resolved to go back home to her abusers and to witness for Christ to her family. When she did, her entire family repented and came to faith in Christ so that the first church that Fatima and her husband planted was in her own formerly abusive childhood home.

What is particularly striking about that story, about Fatima’s story, so remarkable to us, is that it’s not particularly remarkable for the Iranian context. You may know that the Iranian church is widely regarded as the fastest growing in the world. The second fastest is Afghanistan, largely because of new converts in Iran witnessing to their Afghan neighbors because their languages are so close. In 1979, there were just 500 persecuted and suffering Christians in Iran. Today, the precise number is unknown, but the Iranian church easily numbers in the hundreds of thousands. And if you were to ask, “How is it that the church has grown?” you could probably not do any better than to look at Fatima’s story and the stories of countless others like her. That’s how the church has grown – bold, godly, humble, courageous, suffering servants of Christ. That’s how the church has grown. And that is precisely what Peter is calling us to in 1 Peter 4:1-6.

The Character of Christlikeness 

Let’s look at the teaching of the text together. Shall we? Notice in verse 1 the character of Christlikeness. The character of Christlikeness. “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking.” The same way of thinking, or perhaps, the same resolve we see in Christ who faced suffering as He obeyed the call of His Father, is to be mirrored in us who will likewise be called upon to suffer for Him. That is Peter’s basic exhortation, and I want you to see two things about it. 

First, Peter is writing in anticipation of suffering he expects to come as a normal part of the average Christian life. It’s who he wants to forewarn us and forearm us, to prepare us, to get ready, because suffering is coming. “Arm yourselves,” he says, “for the struggle of faith, for obedience in the battleground of suffering. Don’t be surprised when it comes. To follow Christ is to take up your cross and to go in His footsteps to the place of crucifixion.” 

And secondly, notice in this text that the preparation he is calling us to takes place particularly in the mind, in the way that we think. “Arm yourselves with the same way of thinking.” So it’s not just a matter of behavior, but of outlook and perspective and attitude and conviction. That’s who many of us, I think, struggle with suffering as Christians, to understand suffering as Christians because we really think ourselves entitled to a comfortable life. Don’t we? I do. Let me confess that. We think that our comfortable lives are ours by right. We may not buy into the crass “name-it and claim-it” lies of the televangelists who are hawking their wares of health, wealth and prosperity in exchange for some donation or other. We don’t buy that, but don’t we slip rather easily into a subtle version of the same error when we begin to believe that if we just read our Bibles and pray enough, if we raise our children with high moral standards and a good work ethic, if we are decent, hardworking church folks, well then God essentially owes us a generally happy life. 

But you see, when we begin to believe that – if not consciously, in some deep layer of our convictions – if we begin to operate on that basis and then suffering comes, as it inevitably will, we have no way to accommodate it into our thinking. Our faith takes a serious hit. “I prayed, after all! I gave! I was kind! I believe in Jesus, so I don’t understand why this is happening to me! I thought God was on my team!” “No,” says Peter, “I want you to arm yourselves with the same attitude, the same outlook that you see in your Savior, who understood that the path of obedience is the path of suffering. So get ready.” 

The Cost of Christlikeness 

That’s part of the message, which brings us neatly to the second thing I want you to see in these verses. First, the character of Christlikeness, then the cost of Christlikeness. The cost. Look at verses 1 through 3 again and follow the logic of Peter’s reasoning with me carefully if you can. He wants us to arm ourselves with a Christlike mindset that faces suffering with courage and humility, then he gives us the reason, the motivation for doing that. Why does it matter so much? Look at the text. Have this Christlike mindset “for” – so here’s the reason – “for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.”

Now a misunderstanding of that verse and several others in the New Testament that are like it have led some in the history of the church to propose the possibility that a Christian might be able to attain in this life to something like sinless perfection. “See,” they’ll say, “Peter says it right there. You can cease from sin in this life, so that’s clearly possible.” That’s the argument. 
A man once told Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher in the 19th century, that he was without sin. And Spurgeon, doubtless rather curious, invited the man home for dinner. And over the meal, during conversation, the man repeated his claim to be without sin several times. Suddenly, while they’re still dining at the table and the man is in full flow, Spurgeon reached over for a glass of water and threw it in the man’s face. He erupted, of course, in anger and began to use language that ought never to flow from the lips of a Christian. And Spurgeon sat rather meekly until the man finally gave him opportunity to speak. And then he said quietly, “Ah, you see? The old man within you is not dead. He’d simply fainted and could be revived by a cup of cold water!” First John 1:8, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” People who say that they have attained to some state of sinless perfection are self-deceived and are quite possibly seeking to deceive you too. Be careful.

No, Peter does not mean to suggest that it is possible to stop sinning. Rather, he is trying to highlight the options before us as Christians. He’s saying there is a connection between following Jesus and the suffering that will bring and progress in overthrowing the power and pollution of sin in your heart. There’s a connection between suffering and sanctification and turning away from the world and its standards to life on God’s terms. And he wants to highlight that. Faced with persecution – that’s the particular form of suffering Peter is highlighting in his letter; not just general suffering of any kind but especially persecution and opposition from those who reject the Gospel. Faced with that kind of persecution and opposition, Christians have to decide, “Is Christlikeness worth it? Is Christ Himself worth it? I can choose Jesus, I can choose a life on His terms, a life that says ‘no’ to sin, that turns its back on the pleasures of sin, that ceases from sin, or I can choose worldliness and blend right in. But if I choose the former, it’s going to hurt. It’s going to hurt.” That is what verse 1 is telling us. Isn’t it? “Whoever suffers for Christ has ceased from sin.” They’ve turned from it and they’ve said, over and over – to themselves, to the world – “I would rather have Jesus with trials than sin and friendship with the world. I’d rather have Jesus with wounds than sin with earthly praises. I’d rather have Jesus with suffering than sin with success.” They’ve resolved as verse 2 puts it “to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.”

If you think about it, there are people in this room who know a fair bit about this actually, because you have faced, at some point in your Christian pilgrimage, the painful choice between Jesus Christ on the one hand and some of your most cherished friendships on the other. You’ve loved your friends dearly, but you’ve found that the closer you stick to Christ the less they seem to like you. The more you conform your life to the commands of God in His holy Word, the less your friends seem to want to be around you and so you’ve had to decide, “Which do I love most? Is it Jesus or my so-called friends? If it’s my friends that I want the most, well then I have to embrace sin and worldliness they so delight in because that’s the price of their friendship. But if it’s Jesus that I want the most, I need to face the possibility that I may well lose my friends.”
Some of you have faced that dilemma precisely in the workplace. Some of you in your marriage. Some of you in your school. “Will I join in, blend in, fit in and be accepted or will I stand my ground – gently, lovingly, faithfully – but stand my ground and follow Christ nevertheless and be excluded and scorned and dismissed, maligned as Peter puts it?” “Whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.” Those are the choices – avoid suffering and embrace worldliness or endure suffering and avoid sin.

It may actually help you – it helps me to remember – that a readiness to endure hardship and suffering, it helps me to endure hardship and suffering to know that my suffering is not simply a consequence of Christlikeness but is used by God as an instrument in promoting my Christlikeness. It helps me be willing to go through it if I know God intends my suffering to be productive of likeness to my Savior. C. S. Lewis writes, “Suppose that what you’re up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless.” And then he asks, “What do people mean when they say, ‘I am not afraid of God because I know that He is good’? Have they never even been to a dentist?” That’s a great way to put it. Isn’t it? What is God doing in our suffering? He’s teaching you to say “no” to sin and self and to cling to Jesus Christ. He wants you to see Christ is enough in your trials. He’s sufficient; He’s adequate for you. More than enough. And as you turn from sin to the Savior, you grow in Christlikeness. You are suffering because God is good, not despite it. He’s making you like His Son. He’s a surgeon, a good surgeon, doing heart surgery in your conscience, in your heart, in your character, to wean you from worldliness and make you like Jesus.

And so Peter tells us in our passage it’s time to get real about living for Jesus. So verse 3 – look at verse 3 – “For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do,” and then he gives us that long list of characteristic sins that marked his generation and frankly still mark ours. But you see what he’s saying. The past is where your indulgence in this kind of behavior really belongs because deferred holiness is disobedience; deferred holiness is disobedience. I think we often have a hard time embracing that – deferred holiness is disobedience – because we bargain with ourselves. Don’t we? “I’ll turn over a new leaf, tomorrow. I’ll be better, later. But right now, I’m going to watch this perversion on my laptop. After tonight, I won’t touch another drop. This is the last time, I promise, but right now let’s have a few more.” “Sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry” – those are not ancient sins. Those are a description of our society and they’re not only descriptions of the unbelievers. Peter says, “You Christians to whom I am writing, I am warning you that this behavior belongs in your past and never in your present any longer.” He wants us to know deferred holiness is disobedience and has no place in the Christian life.

But of course this kind of determined pursuit of personal Christlikeness is going to be offensive to some people. We live in a culture of niceness and we can be uncomfortable with the thought of being offensive to anyone. But we’ve got to get comfortable with it because if you put Christ first, look what happens in verse 4. Verse 4, “With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you.” The simple fact is, consistent Christians are enigmas to the world. We are very strange things. You’re going to surprise people. You’re actually going to offend people. They will feel judged by you, not because you said or did anything particularly judgmental, but simply because you won’t embrace their sinful choices as your own. And that will result, oftentimes, in open hostility. And these Christians to whom Peter was writing were already beginning to endure it. They were already beginning to receive opposition and they were suffering. 

So we can imagine them. I imagine them reading this part of Peter’s letter and thinking to themselves, “Wow, I could have really used a word of encouragement. Not much of a pep talk, this Peter!” They’re going to be surprised when we don’t join in and they’re going to malign you. But Peter wants to make sure we’re living in the real world and that we’re counting the cost of following Jesus carefully. He wants us to get James 4:4, “Do you not know? Friendship with the world is enmity with God. Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” 

But then do notice before we move on that Peter is equally clear if there is a price to pay for following Jesus here, there is also a price to pay for rejecting Jesus hereafter. Look at verse 5. “They will malign you because of your faith,” he says, “but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.” I find that phrase quite striking. He is ready – at the time Peter was writing, Jesus was ready to judge the living and the dead. Do you ever wonder why Judgment Day hasn’t happened yet? Is it because Jesus isn’t ready? Like He was changing His clothes for the special occasion and He isn’t quite ready? No, Peter says Jesus is ready right now. The reason Judgment Day has not happened has nothing to do with Jesus. There’s nothing in Him that is not yet ready for judgment. He’s poised, as it were, to bring the end to pass. So why the delay? 

The Calling of Christlikeness 

That’s the last thing I want you to see in the passage. The character of Christlikeness, the cost of Christlikeness, finally the calling of Christlikeness. The calling laid upon everyone as we seek to follow Christ is to make Christ known. It’s to proclaim the good news. Verse 6, “For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.”  Because Jesus is ready to judge the living and the dead, the Gospel is to be preached with urgency to everyone just like it had been preached to people who had died by the time Peter was writing. Peter’s readers, do you see, were beginning to experience the first generation to die as Christians after Jesus’ earthly life and ministry. Probably some of them thought that Christ would return and Judgment Day would be dawn while they were still alive and they were struggling – “Now people are dying. I thought Jesus was coming back!” And Peter explains, “Well yes, although they were judged in the flesh, that is to say they died, the way people do, because they heard the Gospel in life, because they heard the Gospel while there was yet time, and believed, even though they died, they live in the Spirit. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the life of God is their life.”

What is Peter’s point? Jesus has not yet come to judge the world, even though He is ready. People are dying before He returns, already, Peter is saying, because – what’s the delay? It’s because Jesus wants the Gospel to sound from this suffering church with such force and clarity and boldness that those who persecute and oppose and malign may have every opportunity instead to repent and believe the Gospel. 

I read a story from John Piper that I have no qualms at all about stealing because he stole it first from J. Oswald Sanders about an evangelist in India who, “trudged on foot to various villages preaching the Gospel. He was a simple man with no education who loved Jesus with all his heart and was ready to lay down his life. He came to a village that did not have the Gospel. It was late in the day and he was very tired, but he went into the village and lifted up his voice and shared the good news with those gathered in the square. They mocked him and derided him and drove him out of town. And he was so tired, no emotional resources left, that he lay down under a tree utterly discouraged. He went to sleep not knowing if he would ever wake up. They might come kill him for all he knows. Suddenly, just after dusk, he is startled and woken and the whole town has surrounded him.” I can’t imagine a more terrifying moment. It’s dark and there are these, all these faces all around you. And he thought, “This is it. This is the end.” One of the big men in the village stepped forward and said, “We came out to see what kind of man you are, and when we saw your blistered feet we know you were a holy man. And we want you to tell us why you were willing to get blistered feet to come talk to us.” So he preached the Gospel, and according to J. Oswald Sanders, the whole village believed.

I think that’s both a beautiful picture and an apt illustration of Peter’s teaching in our passage. The principle that Peter is trying to drive home in our hearts and heads – suffering for Christ is real, so get ready. Arm yourselves. But choosing Jesus first, even if it means suffering follows, also means progress in Christlikeness. It means ceasing from sin, more and more decisively, and Christlikeness like that is compelling. It was that kind of Christlikeness that opened the door for the Gospel for that suffering evangelist in India. Listen, Christ is ready to judge the living and the dead. That means the time is short. I was listening to the radio yesterday – actually no, I was listening to Al Mohler’s briefing yesterday and he was talking about the “doomsday clock” being set closer to midnight than ever before, the scientific predictions about how close we are to the annihilation of the human race. Whatever you make of that, there is a residual awareness in our culture, even amongst the most materialistic scientists in our society, that the end is coming. This is not going to last forever. Time is short. And so pour yourself out for the glory of King Jesus. Go and preach the Gospel across the street and around the world. Suffer for your Savior who calls you to walk in His steps. The day is at hand. So go with the good news to the ends of the earth while there’s yet time and rescue the perishing. 

That’s the fire that Peter’s trying to light under us. He wants us to be able to say with Martin Luther, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. This body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever!” Jesus is worth it and I’d rather have Jesus with suffering than sin with success. He’s worth it. And make much of Him as you suffer for Him before the eyes of the watching world. 

And before we’re done, let me say this to you if today you’re not a Christian. I don’t think I’d be faithful to Peter’s message if I didn’t. I want you to sense the urgency of Peter’s teaching. You do not have all the time in the world. You cannot afford to delay. Tomorrow will not do to get serious about Jesus Christ. He is ready right now to judge the living and the dead. No one knows the day or the hour. He will come like a thief in the night. The question is, “When He does, will you be ready?” The only reason He has delayed is that the Gospel might be preached, that you might be here listening to me saying to you, “There’s a Savior for you in Jesus Christ. Come and trust Him.” So now’s the appointed time. Today is the day of salvation. Flee the wrath to come and put your trust in Jesus Christ.

The character of Christlikeness. We need to be ready; suffering is coming. It’s part of the basics of Christian discipleship. The cost of Christlikeness. There will be opposition, but God is a good surgeon who wields the scalpel of suffering in your life to make you like Jesus Christ. The call of Christlikeness. Make Him known. He is gloriously worth it. Let’s pray together.

Our Father, we confess to You that our affluence and comfort and ease, mine, often blinds me, ours often blinds us, to the subtle ways in which we have made friends with worldliness. And we pray instead now that You would awaken us to Your radical claims in our lives. Help us to be willing to pick up the cross and to follow our Savior and to go, if need be, to a place of suffering that we might make much of Him. Show us how precious, how worth it He is, that we would, for joy over having the pearl of great price, sell all that we have that we may possess Him. Let everything else go, because to have Jesus is to have everything. Father, we pray also for those among us who are not believers, who don’t know Christ. And we ask that you would arrest them, take hold of them, awaken them to their precarious position; alarm them. Show them the urgency of their need for Christ and bring them to Him. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.

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