Fifth Lenten Midweek

March 13, 2024

1 Peter 4

Peter writes this letter to Christians, encouraging God’s people how we ought to be living as we journey through the wilderness of this world, headed toward our heavenly home. Specifically, in this evening’s reading we learn how we are to handle suffering—anything unpleasant or painful that happens to us. This can be any kind of suffering we endure, including the suffering of persecution and suffering that threatens to tempt a Christian away from Christ.

What makes Christianity unique from other world religions? We don’t have a God who is totally out of touch with our suffering. We heard last week: “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.” Christ Jesus experienced suffering, and He did so for our sins, so that through forgiveness He bring us back into a good relationship with God.

So, the thought then continues today, “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking.” The Word—God’s eternally begotten Son—became flesh and dwelt among us as a human being. When the cross of suffering was laid upon Jesus, He didn’t resist, lashing out in sinful ways. He bore the cross, despising its shame, and was obedient unto death on that cross. Through our faith in Christ and zeal for the Lord, we ought to have the same attitude toward suffering in willing endurance.

Then we hear something unusual. “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.” Different thoughts on this passage abound. Certainly, in this life we cannot cease from sinning. No sinner has ever accomplished such. If we belong to the Lord (and we do because Jesus bought us with His blood), then we live in service to the Lord and one another for the furtherance of His kingdom. Not that we are without sin, but the Christian who takes up the cross to follow Jesus does not sin in doing so. Christ Jesus has set you free from serving human passions—which ultimately seeks to please the flesh and avoid suffering. Instead, we seek the will of the Lord. Whereas our former focus was to sinfully serve ourselves in willful sinfulness, we have a new focus as God’s people—serving the Lord with gladness.

“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.” Peter describes the more obvious types of sins that wholly enslave a person in a total loss of self-control. The unbelieving world seeks to defy God by means of lawless idolatry, but it is not to be so among God’s people. The Christian, ransomed by the blood of Christ, has been redeemed from these sins and all others. As Paul says, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?”

Yet, as all Christians have experienced to varying degrees, “With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you.” The unbelieving world hates it when you refuse to join in with them. Certainly, we see this in the wider cultural context today with the way Christians suffer because so, so many of our beliefs are radically different from the world. The unbelieving world declares evil to be good and good to be evil. It declares light to be darkness and darkness to be light. It declares that which is sweet to be bitter and that which is bitter to be sweet.

You may have even experienced this personally when maybe a family member, friend, acquaintance or co-worker invites you to participate in something that you know is sinful. To their surprise you don’t participate and you are ridiculed, insulted, or called judgmental for not participating. One who is controlled by sinful passion may want to get even, but you have been redeemed by Christ Jesus. So, you don’t have to do that. If they don’t repent, which we should pray they do, “they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.”

We are taught, “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.” To help us understand what Peter says, it is helpful to listen to a portion of Ephesians two, “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked… But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.”

We were all dead in our sins—and the unbelievers of the world are dead in their sins. The same Gospel that was preached to you and me is preached to the world, that by the power of the Gospel—the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection—unbelievers in the world might live spiritually, as God’s children live spiritually even though this body is wasting away. Because of sin’s curse, all will die and face the judgment. Those who refuse Christ will answer to Christ. Yet, through Christ’s redeeming work, those who believe in Him, live spiritually and our bodies will be raised to life everlasting.

We are warned that the judgment is coming. We don’t know when, and so we should be prepared to meet our Maker and Redeemer. Through faith in Christ, we deny ourselves, take up our crosses daily, and follow Him.

Therefore, we are urged as God’s children to: “Be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.” Prayer is disrupted by a lack of self-control and clear thinking. Yet, as our minds are renewed and focused on Christ through the Word of God, our prayers benefit. “Keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” We should cut each other some slack. We live in a world that is so very sensitive and thin-skinned and it has dramatically affected congregations. If you’ve ever felt like you have to walk on eggshells around others, you know what I’m talking about. But just be aware that others may feel that way about you too! “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.” Be selfless rather than selfish. “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” God gives us all gifts to accomplish the tasks at hand. He equips us with certain skills and talents, and especially when He calls us to His service, He provides what we are lacking. For all this, the Lord is worthy of praise and thanksgiving.

At this stage of the letter, Peter’s tone changes. There is a far more severe suffering approaching. This letter was likely written not long before the executions of Peter and Paul under emperor Nero. The attitude of Rome toward Christians was growing more and more hostile. Just thirty years after the writing of this letter, Christianity was an illegal religion in the Roman Empire. Waves of persecution struck the Church throughout the Roman world. How would God’s people handle it? “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”

Truthfully, Jesus has warned God’s people then and God’s people now that we should expect these things. We’ve had it pretty good, and so in some ways we are deceived into thinking times of persecution are rare. We might think a lack of persecution is normal, but history reveals that the opposite is the case.

Persecution isn’t rare. It’s all around us. There’s smaller scale persecution of individuals who might mock or make fun of you for being a Christian. Then there’s large scale societal persecution of the Church in many, many places around the world. This persecution is rising in our own land. People can lose (and have lost) jobs and opportunities because of their faith in Christ and confession of God’s Word. This shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus says we should expect these things. He says, “Rejoice and be glad for great is your reward in heaven.”

As strange as it may sound and as hard as it may be to hear, God’s children are encouraged to meet suffering with rejoicing. “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.” We rejoice because Christ brings us through suffering into His eternal glory to receive the crown of life.

Notice that the sufferings endured by God’s children—whether persecution or otherwise—are Christ’s own sufferings. He has suffered with us and He suffered for us. He bore our shame in His humiliating death on the cross.

God’s children may suffer persecution because the world hates Jesus and His Word. God may allow it to happen in order to test His people and strengthen our faith. Yet, we know that in suffering we share in Jesus’ sufferings.

The world can’t possibly understand this: sharing in Jesus’ sufferings is a great honor. We don’t seek out sufferings, but should it happen, we rejoice in the greatness of our Savior. When the apostles were beaten for preaching Christ Jesus as recorded in the Book of Acts, “They went home rejoicing” because they were counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus. When Paul and Silas were jailed in Philippi, they joyfully sang hymns to God.

God’s people can have a confidence—a borderline arrogance—when it comes to suffering. We can be so sure and certain that our life is in Jesus, that we kind of don’t care what others do to us because of our faith in Christ.

St. Lawrence is said to have been condemned to die on a large gridiron with hot coals underneath. As he was dying for the sake of Christ, he declared, “I’m well done on this side, turn me over.”

May God grant us all such courage in faith should we ever be called to a similar cross, knowing that we have been given the gift Holy Spirit—with forgiveness, abundant life, and eternal salvation promised us. When Christ is revealed in all His glory on the last day, it will also be revealed that you—God’s adopted children—share in the glory of God’s Son. So, if and when the cross of suffering is laid upon us, let us take it up with courage and bravery, without shame—trusting in our Lord Jesus, our Redeemer.

However, we ought not think that all forms of suffering are because we are Christians. There are ungodly ways to suffer. “Let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler.” These sufferings could be imprisonment or execution for actual wrongdoing. God’s children should not suffer like that, and it is not persecution for the sake of Christ when this happens. These sufferings are punishments for sin that does bring shame.

We might be tempted to feel ashamed to suffer for the sake of Christ. Peter encourages, “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” Christians who are arrested or imprisoned for their faith in Christ, have not sinned and have no shame in their suffering. 

Then Peter teaches us something to ponder: “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?” God’s children are not without suffering. You endure various kinds of sufferings each and every day. As you focus on Jesus, through these sufferings God produces repentance and faith that clings to the forgiveness of sins in Christ. God produces endurance, character, and hope. God disciplines you in love, such as when Paul was told: "My grace is sufficient for you.”

If those inside God’s household endure suffering, what kinds of sufferings will be brought by God upon those who reject His Gospel and persecute His Church? In other words, “If the righteous is scarcely saved [after enduring sufferings in this world we enter the world to come by the grace of God through Jesus], what will become of the ungodly and the sinner [at the judgment after they have rejected Christ in this world]?”

This, then, is the aim of the believer: “Let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” We know that there is suffering in this life. We know that God is using it for our good. We know that God loves us and desires our eternal salvation. Therefore, we can as God’s children commit ourselves to His care as we do good to others who might not do such good to us. We don’t need to seek to make others suffer because we suffer, we rejoice that we share in the sufferings of Jesus our Redeemer.

In our lives we share in Christ’s sufferings as need be while we serve the Lord and one another imitating Christ’s way of thinking. Amen.