Back in the day, when I was doing my Maths GCSEs, I had two teachers. Both were great but they were very different. One was obviously a natural mathematician. I suspect she got a first at uni. And she was passionate about her subject and was head of the department. Let's call her Mrs Perfect. The second openly admitted she found maths at school really hard. She would quite often say things like, 'Ahh yes, when I was trying to get my head round that here's what helped me.' Let's call her Mrs Approachable.
I too loved Maths. But at times it was a struggle. When I did find things hard can you guess which teacher I went to? It wasn't Mrs Perfect – she would end up getting frustrated with me and say things like: 'It's obvious isn't it. Why can't you see it?' No, when I was struggling the teacher who had herself persevered through her own struggles was whom I turned to for help. She understood what it was to struggle. She was able to help me not to give up.
Tonight, in our series in 1 Peter we come to chapter 4, verses 12-19 which is all about how we should react when suffering for following Jesus, when we suffer because we are Christians. Peter, who had been one of Jesus' closest friends, and who was now the pastor of the church in Jerusalem, wrote this letter to Christians who were struggling. He wrote to teach them, to encourage them, to comfort them, and to challenge them. And it's worth remembering that Peter knew first hand both what it was like to suffer for being a Christian and what it was like to do that badly. All four gospels record his denial of Jesus. Here is Luke 22.54-62:
"Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest's house, and Peter was following at a distance. And when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat down among them. Then a servant girl, seeing him as he sat in the light and looking closely at him, said, "This man also was with him." But he denied it, saying, "Woman, I do not know him." And a little later someone else saw him and said, "You also are one of them." But Peter said, "Man, I am not." And after an interval of about an hour still another insisted, saying, "Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean." But Peter said, "Man, I do not know what you are talking about." And immediately, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, "Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times." And he went out and wept bitterly."
So tonight we hear not from Mr Perfect Peter, but from Mr Approachable Peter, how we can suffer well, when the need arises, for following Jesus. Look at 1 Peter 4.12-13:
"Beloved [he really does love and care for them], 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."
Don't be surprised, Peter says to his readers, at the fiery trial that you are experiencing. Don't think it strange that you are suffering. Don't expect that following Jesus will make you healthy, wealthy, and popular. God's work in and through Jesus is at the centre of 1 Peter's message. Jesus is the one through whose blood we have been ransomed (1 Peter 1.18–19) and through whose resurrection God gave us new birth (1 Peter 1.3). He is the living stone rejected by the builders but chosen by God (1 Peter 2.4), the cornerstone on which God's house is built (1 Peter 2.5–8). And he is the suffering Christ in whose footsteps we are called to follow (1 Peter 2.21). If even Christ suffered, it should come as no surprise that his followers suffer too.
This not talking about the problem of suffering in general. It is not a reflection on why good people struggle with physical or mental illness or die in car accidents or have their lives overturned by natural disasters. It's also not talking about the suffering that comes from departing from Gods ways: this isn't about suffering because (as it says in v.15) you are "a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler". It is a word of hope and reassurance for people who are facing abuse, social rejection, and public humiliation because they follow Jesus. You see that in verse 14:
"If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you."
This brings to mind Jesus' teaching recorded in Matthew 5.11, when he said:
"Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account."
You also see it in verse 16:
"Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name."
We know that for many Christians around the world, to follow Jesus brings suffering. Some are cut off from families, others face the loss of their jobs. Peter isn't making light of that – he calls what they are facing a "fiery trial". It's hard, painful, lasts a long time and may take our lives.
How about you? What has come to your mind as I've spoken about suffering as a Christian? Perhaps you remember a time when you received verbal abuse or were ridiculed in public. Perhaps that's happening right now – among your friends, in your family, with a boss or among colleagues or students. Perhaps even from your teacher. So let's look through these verses and see what Peter says about how we should face such situations:
1. Don't Be Surprised
"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." (v.12)
Imagine someone who moves to a different country for a time. An international student perhaps. Lots of things will be different – the language, the weather, everything is unfamiliar and confusing. They face culture-shock. It's tough but not unexpected, and most people eventually do adjust and adapt.
What is often worse is when the time comes to go back home. This time they face reverse culture shock. They have changed, life back home has moved on. Again things are unfamiliar and confusing. But this time it's worse – you did not expect it. This is home! Why should it be difficult? If that is coming up for you, then what will help is if you expect it.
It's the same with suffering. We need to be prepared for it or we will give up. You'll be confused. You'll wonder if God has abandoned you, or is punishing you, You'll grow angry and bitter towards God. You'll become anxious about your circumstance. Don't be caught off guard. Suffering will come but God is still at work bringing you to himself.
2. Rejoice Despite Your Suffering
"But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed." (v.13)
Peter tells us to rejoice. There are two reasons.
- Suffering because of him could drive us away from him. Instead it should draw us to him. We suffer with him; we suffer together. Jesus and I walk the same way. Our suffering brings us solidarity with our suffering saviour. So rejoice as you share in the suffering of Jesus. Just like we read Peter did in Acts 5.41 just after he had been arrested for speaking about Jesus: "The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name."
- God is using our suffering for good and for our godliness. He is testing our faith and refining our character. We share his suffering now, and we will also share his glory later. Remember 1 Peter 1.6-9?
"In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls."
3. Remember God's Spirit is with You
"If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you." (v.14)
This is a reference to Isaiah 11 – where it was promised that God's spirit would rest on the Messiah so he could carry out his mission. Don't gloss over this – it's incredible! Peter says the same spirit now rests on us, if we have come to trust in Jesus! How do we know? Because we are suffering in his name. That is a sign that we now belong to God. We have been given his spirit. God has not abandoned us. We belong to him, he is at work in us, he will comfort us and help us to live for him through our suffering.
4. Do Not Be Ashamed of Jesus
"Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name." (v.16)
When I started at Uni there was no social media. Paper was the main way of attracting attention. And I remember walking through halls on my first day here with someone who was also a fresher that had sat next to me on the train to Newcastle. Everywhere we looked there were posters about churches or the Christian Union. Obviously Christians were the only ones who cared enough to come back early and they'd covered the place with posters. I remember him launching into a huge rant about how much he hated Christians and what he thought of them.
He obviously then realised that he hardly knew me. He stopped and asked, 'oh – you're not religious, are you?' It's my first day at uni - was I willing to risk losing the best and longest lasting friend? After all I'd know him for all of three hours! Would I deny the one who loved me so much he gave his son to die on a cross so I could be forgiven? 'What me, no. No – I'm not really religious.' That was over 20 years ago. I think things are even harder now. Then, Christians ran the risk of being seen as strange. Now we're more likely to be perceived to be harmful.
But, Peter says we are not to be ashamed. He knows how hard that is. But he urges us to instead "glorify God in that name". In other words, to live in such a way that we reflect his character and take opportunities to speak of him when they come. If we are ridiculed as 'Christians', if we are mocked because we follow Jesus, we should not be ashamed. Being associated with Christ is not an insult, but a badge of honour.
5. Remember Jesus is Coming Again
"For it is time for judgement 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?"" (v.17-18)
What Peter says here is very powerful. This is how we can have the correct perspective in the middle of our suffering. He teaches us to allow the suffering we face to remind us that the end is coming and we will all then face God's judgement.
We don't like to think about judgment. But as Peter looked at the hardships and persecution suffered by God's people, he saw the first stirrings of coming judgement of God. This judgement will eventually spread to all the earth, but it begins with God's own house. This is a theme that has come up repeatedly through this chapter:
- "but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead" (v.5)
- "The end of all things is at hand…" (v.7)
- And verse 13 talks of the future day when Jesus' "glory is revealed"
For Christians, that judgement purifies – suffering for being a Christian proves and strengthens our trust in our faithful creator. They sober us up – and focus our minds on Christ – who has already faced and dealt with it for us. But at the end of the day, we will be saved. So, we can rejoice.
But for those who do not believe - there is little to rejoice about. When God's judgement comes, it brings with it everlasting ruin. So we must keep firmly in mind that God's judgement is near. And continue, undeterred, in doing good – and especially to speak about Jesus.
Let me read to you the opening lines of a book called 'The Shock of Your Life' by Adrian Holloway. That book brings home to its readers the reality that Jesus is coming back.
"'For heaven's sake, Daniel, come on, we're going to be late!' That's how my mum woke me up on 10th July 2012. Weird to think how normal a day it was. Mum was giving me a lift to college and I was always late getting up. It's the mind-numbing predictability of it all that still gets me. I've since thought that Mum probably said exactly the same thing the previous year at exactly the same time in the morning. You'd think the day you die would have some sort of spooky build-up with spooky music, but I got dressed watching breakfast TV… How did I die? In the back of the car, sitting next to my sister who was reading a Simpsons book, while I half-listened to some sad local radio phone-in my mum wanted on. Ten minutes into the journey – sometime after 8.30 in the morning – I was dead. We were hit by a lorry on a dual carriageway. I can draw you a map if you like."
In that novel, Daniel is a 17-year-old non-Christian. I won't spoil the story, but when he dies he discovers what happens to people when they die. He realises that God is real. That we are all accountable to him. That there is a final judgment for all – no matter who you are and what you believe. That Jesus Christ is the judge at this final judgement. He will know everything you've ever thought, said or done. It will be known that everyone has sinned and fallen short of God's perfect standard. Everyone deserves the punishment of death because everyone has sinned against God, but those whose names are found in the book of life will escape death. This is how the Bible describes that day, when Jesus will judge the living and he dead. This is Revelation 20.11-15:
"Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire."
The punishment for sin is death. That is the terrifying reality that confronts Dan. But he also discovers something else. God loves us so much, he sent his Son Jesus Christ to die in our place. He discovers that those who follow Jesus avoid the punishment of death and receive forgiveness. In fact, they are considered as blameless as Christ himself. These are the people whose names appear in the book of life. They go to heaven.
But Dan is not the only character in the book. There is also Becky. She too died in the same car crash as him. But she was a believer. Her name was in the book of life. Here is another quote from the book, when Becky watches Dan as he comes face to face with Jesus – his creator and judge:
"It was a bloke. Again a teenager. 'Hang on,' I said to the angel. 'That looks like… um… No! It couldn't be! It was a kid I knew from college… Daniel Adams! I looked at his face, which I'd seen all through school and college. Then a picture flashed into my mind… the sick, motionless boy in the car wreckage. Oh no! … That was him! That was Daniel Adams! Now I recognized him. It was definitely Daniel in the car and Daniel in front of me. It all fell into place – he'd died moments after I did, and now he was being judged. But was Daniel a Christian? Of course he wasn't! No, he was just a normal kid at school. Oh no! … He was going to go to hell. Why couldn't a Christian have told him about Jesus? A pause. I stopped.
I could have told him! I may have been the only person who could have told him! I could have told Daniel Adams about Jesus and forgiveness and judgement. I had the chance, and I didn't! Now, it was too late!
I screamed 'No!' and began running back towards Daniel. The angel grabbed me. 'Becky, Jesus will judge justly.' 'Please let me go, you don't understand!' I struggled, trying to get free. 'I knew this one. It's Daniel Adams. He's going to go to hell and it's my fault.' 'It's not your fault if he goes to hell. It's his own sin that will take him there if that's where he ends up.' 'Look, he died in the same accident as me. He wasn't ready. Please let me go.' The angel would not let me go back. …
How could Daniel have known about Jesus? He would never have seen anything distinctive in me. He would never have seen something authentic. He needed to see a clear line between a Christian and a non-Christian. He probably didn't have a clue about Jesus and the cross. I had failed him. I was so gutted. Of course I didn't go round telling people at school about Jesus. I wanted people to like me, I didn't want to be rejected. Besides I was scared. OK, that's not true; I wasn't scared, but I wanted to have respect. I didn't want people to think I was sad, or a pain. I just wanted to be normal. Incredible isn't it! Saved from hell by Jesus, but I told hardly anyone who needed to know. Now it seemed so stupid, yet on earth it was just the way I was. Somehow religious, spiritual things didn't seem real enough for me to talk about them."
Do you get the point? We may suffer now. But those around us face a suffering infinitely worse. That fact leads Peter to a final conclusion, and with this I will end.
6. Entrust Your Soul to Your Creator and Continue to Do Good.
"Therefore let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good." (v.19)
This verse is amazing. Summary of whole book. Worth committing to memory!
Jesus suffered. He entrusted himself to him who judges justly. When we suffer, we are to do the same. Peter talks of "the creator God" – reminds us that he is sovereign over all things and faithful in everything he does. We are to live as exiles – suffering exiles – without surprise or despair, and with a joy-filled, god-glorifying trust, doing good no matter what the world throws at us.
We are in a spiritual battle. The enemy aims to stop us talking about Jesus by throwing suffering at us. He wants to shut us up. But we have God's spirit and he will enable us to keep speaking about Jesus, because we know that the end of all things is at hand. We do need to expect suffering, but let's not get this out of proportion. For the vast majority of us in this country we still have huge freedoms and opportunities. We just do not use them. Suffering is to be expected. And when it comes, we should pray, as Peter prayed in Acts 4.29:
"Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness."