Peter addressed first century Christians facing the threat of persecution. The theme of suffering occurs in every chapter of the letter. Most likely, Peter wrote his letter before the official outbreak of persecution by the crazed emperor Nero in 64 A.D. The believers did, however, experience unofficial local harassment (5:9). Believers experienced ostracism because they no longer participated in the debauched behaviors of a pagan lifestyle (4:4). Non-believers ridiculed the Christians because of the name of Christ (4:14). Peter warned about an approaching “fiery ordeal” or “painful trial” (4:12).
Christians throughout the world today experience various levels of persecution from martyrdom to ridicule. In America, Christians do not experience the threat of official governmental persecution; yet, persecution may loom through the loss of religious freedom and may take a more active form in the near future. Most Christians have experienced ridicule, ostracism, and perhaps loss of promotions as forms of suffering because of the name of Christ.
How should Christians respond to overt and subtle forms of persecution?
First, Peter warns believers to expect suffering (1 Pet. 4:12). Peter noted “when” not “if” persecution arises. Persecution will come; therefore, Christians should not be surprised when persecuted. Peter called persecution, whether severe or mere ridicule, a “fiery trial.” In the first chapter, Peter connected the ideas of “fire” and “trial” (1 Pet. 1:6-7). Trials are times of purification by fire comparable to fire identifying and purifying precious metals.
Second, Peter encouraged believers to rejoice in persecution (1 Pet. 4:13-14). Rather than surprise or complaint, Christians can and should rejoice. Peter’s message is not a popular message in our Christian culture of easy believism. Peter outlined four reasons believers can rejoice in persecution. First, persecution allows believers to share (fellowship) in the sufferings of Christ. Throughout his letter, Peter highlighted the sufferings of Christ (1:19; 3:21-24; 3:18). Since Christ suffered on our behalf, why should we not suffer for Him? Second, Christians know they will experience vindication at the second coming of Christ, the revelation of His glory. Third, God blesses Christians in the midst of persecution. Peter recalls Jesus’ beatitude in Matthew 5:11. Fourth, the Spirit of God blesses and strengthens believers in the context of persecution.
Peter did not merely preach to other Christians the need of rejoicing in the context of persecution. He lived out the practice of rejoicing in persecution. “Then they [Peter and John] went out from the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to be dishonored on behalf of the name” (Acts 5:41 HCSB).
Third, Peter appealed to Christians to examine themselves in the light of persecution (1 Pet. 4:15). Be sure that suffering is because of the name of Christ. At times, Christians may use persecution as a rationalization for retaliation through murder, theft, or an opportunity to do evil. Some Christians experience suffering because they are meddlers. The term “meddler” describes an individual who acts as a bishop or overseer in the affairs of another individual. Peter did not mention another reason some Christians may experience persecution—they are obnoxious.
Fourth, Peter reminded Christians that persecution is an opportunity to glorify God. Peter’s letters contain numerous reminders for Christians to live in a manner in which God receives glory (2:12; 3:16). Christians glorify God through the proper use of spiritual gifts (4:10-11). The attitude of a Christian in the midst of persecution may glorify God. The martyr Stephen glorified God as the religious authorities persecuted Him. The death of Saul became an opportunity seized by other believers to proclaim the name of Christ (Acts 8).
Finally, Peter reminded believers to live by faith within persecution (1 Pet. 4:19). The object of the faith of persecuted believers is the faithful Creator—the one able to provide help and justice.
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