Near the end of his first letter to the Christian diaspora, Peter returns to one of its main themes: suffering for the sake of the faith. But as he does so, he also both puts an eschatological “spin” on and offers a promise in regard to that Christian suffering.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson contains a number of ethical summons. In 4:12 Peter invites his readers to “rejoice (chairete) that” they “participate (koinoneite) in the sufferings of Christ.” In doing so, the apostle links their suffering for Jesus’ sake to Jesus’ own suffering. Because of that mysterious bond, he suggests, Christians can be glad to experience a bit of what our Savior experienced.
In 5:6 Peter calls his readers to, what’s more, “humble” themselves (tapeinothete) “under God’s mighty hand” (krataian cheira). It’s an invitation to his readers to submit themselves to whatever God chooses to allow to happen to them, perhaps including the suffering God’s people endure for Jesus’ sake.
In verse 7 the apostle continues with an invitation to “Cast (epiripsantes) all your anxiety (merimnan) on [God].” Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrases this as an invitation to “live carefree before God.” It’s a summons to God’s adopted sons and daughters to willingly surrender to God those things that most burden them.
Peter offers further ethical summons in verses 8-9: “Be self-controlled (nepsate) and alert (gregoresate) … Resist (antistete) him, standing firm (stereoi) in the faith.” In doing so he summons God’s dearly beloved people to constantly remain alert to as well as resist the creative evil one’s persistent temptations.
At this point, this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s preachers might, guided by the Holy Spirit, choose to make one of two homiletical “moves.” We might encourage our hearers to obey the apostle’s ethical summons by pointing to the grounds he offers for them.
So, for example, preachers might join Peter in calling our hearers to “rejoice that” they “participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (4:12). This is certainly a powerful inducement to rejoicing in Christian suffering. It means, after all, that those who participate in Christ’s sufferings will be overjoyed when he returns at the end of measured time.
However, preachers might also (as I plan to do) choose to move from Peter’s ethical summons to a candid admission that none of them can obey them on our own. Who, for example, can cast all our anxieties on God, even with the encouragement that comes from knowing that God deeply cares for God’s adopted sons and daughters (7)?
In fact, preachers who simply call our hearers to be “self-controlled and alert” (8) may, rather than encouraging them, discourage them. Those who offer that summons simply because our enemy the devil prowls around Christians like a roaring lion may inadvertently do little more than add to the burden of guilt many of Jesus’ friends already bear.
Preachers, as prompted by the Spirit, can be candid about our natural inability to resist the ferocious devil’s temptations. We can be honest with our hearers and ourselves about the fact that no one is naturally capable on their own of standing firm in our Christian faith (9).
After all, the Spirit may use this approach to, among other things, open a perhaps fresh perspective on the glorious blessing with which Peter largely closes not just our text, but also his first letter. “The God of all grace (Theos pases charitas),” he virtually sings in verse 10, “who called you to his eternal glory (alonion doxan), after you have suffered a little while (pathontas oligon), will himself restore you (katartisei) and make you strong (sthenosei), firm (sterixei) and steadfast (themeliosei).”
Some Christians have traditionally assumed that Peter is speaking there of what God will do in the future, particularly at the return of Jesus Christ. However, such an understanding potentially limits the extent of God’s sustaining work. The apostle uses verbs in the future tense in verse 10. But given his ethical summons to his readers, preachers can make a good case for suggesting that he’s also talking about God’s promise of help for Peter’ readers who wish to act in Christ-like ways.
None of Jesus’ followers and friends are capable on our own of rejoicing in our participation in the sufferings of Christ (13). But God promises to graciously strengthen us enough so that we can celebrate how God has graced us with the privilege of enduring a bit of the suffering that Christ suffered for his followers’ sake.
Because God’s dearly beloved people struggle to cast all our cares on God (7), the hope of God displaying his care for us may seem remote. However, Peter insists that because God also promises to strengthen God’s adopted sons and daughters, we can eagerly anticipate that God will respond by displaying God’s care (melei) for us.
Christians generally assume that the suffering about which the apostle repeatedly writes in this letter is that which people, particularly authorities, impose on Jesus’ friends. But by placing the matter of Christian suffering in close proximity to his calls to resist temptation, Peter may be at least implying that temptation is also an integral part of such suffering.
Peter makes several beautiful promises to his readers who are enduring suffering in verse 10. He first speaks of that suffering as lasting “a little while (oligon).” Because of his frequent references to Christian suffering, we sense that many of his readers are suffering intensely for following Jesus. Peter, however, insists that such suffering will not endure. Christian suffering does not get the last word in Jesus’ friends lives. It lasts not forever, but only “for a little while.”
What’s more, Peter promises that God will graciously help Christian sufferers who are seeking to follow Jesus, often at a steep cost. Elsewhere in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson Peter also speaks of God as powerful (6, 11), as well as “the God of all grace” (10). God also, he adds, “cares for” God’s adopted children (7).
It is this God, the apostle also goes on to promise in verse 10, who will make God’s adopted children “firm” (sterixei).” It’s as if the apostle is literally insisting that God won’t just solidify suffering Christians’ faith, but also our courage and determination to follow Jesus.
God will, what’s more, the apostle insists, “strengthen (sthenosei)” Jesus’ friends. The Message paraphrases the apostle to mean that God will put God’s dearly beloved people on our “feet for good.” Temptation and other suffering for the faith may knock Jesus’ down followers. But, by God’s amazing grace, it will not, to use a sporting metaphor, knock us out.
Finally, Peter promises, God will “establish (themeliosei)” Jesus’ followers. God, not temptation or any other form of suffering, will get the last word, not just in Christians’ lives, but also in the whole creation that groans in anticipation of the consummation of God’s redeeming work in Christ. By God’s grace, the apostle insists, the Spirit will keep Jesus’ friends going until the end of measured time.
It’s no wonder, then, that the apostle can basically end not just this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson but also his first letter with verse 11’s outburst of praise: “To [God] be the power (kratos) for ever and ever (tous aionas ton aionon).” The evil one and his henchmen wield a great deal of power to inflict suffering on God’s dearly beloved people. But because the ultimate power and authority belongs not to them, but to our mighty God, God, indeed, gets the last word.
Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country’s Stephen Kumalo is a humble and devout pastor in a rural South African community. He tells a friend about the fate of a young woman who’d grown up in their village but basically disappeared after moving to Johannesburg.
The friend responds, “I have never thought that a Christian would be free of suffering, umfundisi. For our Lord suffered. And I’ve come to believe that he suffered, not to save us from suffering, but to teach us how to bear suffering. For he knew that there is no life without suffering (italics added).”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 21, 2023
1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11 Commentary