1 Peter – A Holy People in a Hostile World
1 Peter 4:12-19 – Persecution
Sermon preached at Christ Church Dusseldorf 9th December 2018
1 Peter 4:12-19 CCD
Between the 23rd and the 25th June this year, 218 Christians were killed in Barkin Ladi, in N.Nigeria.
This was part of a wave of violence against Christians that has swept across the north of Nigeria in the last year. The Western media has reported it as herdsmen attacking villagers, but I met some of those under attack when I was in Israel last June, and there is no doubt that this is Muslims attacking Christians, and trying to wipe out Christianity in the north of Nigeria. Maybe 2000 people have been killed, others beaten or maimed or sexually assaulted, churches burnt, people driven from their homes and denied access to water. Our brothers in Nigeria are going through a fiery trial.
That is not unusual. Open Doors estimates that around 20 million Christians around the world face serious persecution, and between 2000 and 6000 are martyred every year. It has been estimated that more Christians have been martyred in the past century then in the previous nineteen put together, many of them during the Cultural Revolution in China. In the Soviet Union, around ½ million Orthodox Christians alone died in the Gulags- plus Baptists and Pentecostals and so on. No-one knows how many Christians are at this moment in concentration camps in North Korea, where it has been reported that they are used as guinea pigs in chemical weapons experiments. And I know that some people in this church know what it was like to be a Christian behind the Iron Curtain, or in the underground churches of Iran.
None of this is unusual.
Very often we think about and pray for the suffering church, or the persecuted church, as we should do; and if you are not a supporter of Open Doors, please become one. But we view it as a sort of exotic beast, and we think of what happens to it as strange and peculiar. That is a mistake. In the near future we will have to think not only about how we can help the persecuted church, but how we can learn from it, learn to survive in a hostile environment. Because the persecuted church will be us. We may not face the fiery trial that is taking place in the North of Nigeria, but as we said before, a cold wind is blowing in the West. We are aliens and strangers, a holy people in a hostile world, in which Christian faith is seen as offensive and dangerous. We will face mockery and abuse, we will find that we and our children can’t get jobs, or get the sack for standing up for Christ. And we can’t rule out violence against Christians.
So because persecution is not unusual, we need to be ready and prepared for it. That’s why Peter wrote his letter: to get his readers ready for persecution. It looks like a “fiery trial” had either just started or was about to start: these churches were scattered over a wide area, so the exact situation may have been a bit different in each place. Peter gives them and us three things that we have to tell ourselves and preach to ourselves when persecution comes: persecution is normal, persecution is an honour, and persecution is not the worst thing that could happen.
- Persecution is normal – v12-13
Verse 12 says “do not be surprised” at persecution. –v12
Don’t be surprised or shocked by suffering, don’t think that something strange or unusual is happening to you. When persecution comes, it could hit us like the shock wave from a bomb, and knock us off our feet, so that we don’t stand firm as Christians- if we are not expecting it. Sometimes, we have very naïve and unrealistic expectations about the Christian life- we think that from now on everything will be easy and all our problems are over. After all, God loves us, doesn’t he? Especially if we’ve drunk the cool aid of the Prosperity Gospel, or just soaked up the general beliefs of those who around us, who think that it’s God’s job, if he exists, simply to affirm and comfort us, and make us feel fulfilled; that he would never do anything to challenge us, or make us feel uncomfortable. Persecution will then come as a great surprise to us. We will think that something has gone wrong, or that we have done something wrong, or that we don’t have enough faith- maybe God doesn’t love us. But look at how Peter begins- he says “Beloved”, in our translations “dear friends”. He knows that what has to say will be hard for them to hear, but with that gentle, tender word, he assures them that he loves them, and God loves them. When suffering and persecution come, however painful they are, we are still God’s beloved. They are not a sign that things have gone wrong, or that we have done something wrong. We should stay calm- this is to be expected. It is normal. Why is that?
Persecution is God’s normal way of testing his beloved. –v12.
The story is told that when Rumania was taken over by the Soviet Union after the war, a church was meeting for worship when two Communists soldiers burst in with sub-machine guns levelled, and shouted “Everyone who will deny Christ and say they are not a Christian can leave! Everyone else will be shot”. With heads bowed, first one, then another person left. Until the pastor and about half the congregation were left. There was a moment of silence. Then the two soldiers burst into tears, threw down their guns, and said “Praise God! We are secret believers. We longed to meet other Christians, but this was the only way we could be sure who we could trust and who wouldn’t inform on us”. The remaining half had passed the test.
Peter calls persecution an “ordeal” or a “trial” and says that is happening to “test” his readers. In any church, there will be those who genuinely believe in Christ, and those who are just along for the ride, who like being in a church, and who like to think of themselves as Christians, but who don’t genuinely believe. Persecution tests what people are. In 1:6-7, Peter has already said: “for a little while… 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”. That’s what persecution does- it tests the genuineness of faith. Now don’t misunderstand- it isn’t that God sits in heaven thinking “I wonder if their faith is genuine? I’d better send some persecution to find out. John 2 says that when people claimed to believe in Jesus, he wasn’t fooled- he knew who were really his. But God uses persecution to purify his church, as gold is purified in fire that burns away the impurities. In this way, God brings out the beauty and purity and preciousness and glory of genuine faith- so that he is glorified. We’ve sad before that God wants us to be a holy people- well, persecution is how God purifies his people and produces a holy church. Persecution is the normal way God tests his people. And…
Persecution is normal for those who share in Christ. –v13a.
In Acts 9:4, Saul of Tarsus is on the road to Damascus. He has already been responsible for the death of Stephen, he has persecuted the church in Jerusalem, now he is on his way to Syria to wipe out the church there. But on the way, he meets the risen Christ, who says to him “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?” Christians, very simply, are those who have been united to Christ. They share in Christ, and so they share his lot. What happens to them, is done to Christ- so when they are persecuted, Christ is persecuted. Their suffering is Christ’s suffering, and Christ’s suffering is their suffering. As Peter says, there are sharing in the suffering of Christ. This of course shouldn’t be a surprise. I’ve become convinced that this first letter of Peter is actually Peter’s commentary on Jesus’ teaching. And Jesus said that those who wanted to be his disciple would have to pick up their cross and follow him. To be his follower is more than liking Christ or doing what he says. To be his follower is to share his life, and so to share his sufferings. So the pattern of Christ’s life will be stamped on ours, like pressing a seal into hot wax. So the more like him we become, the more likely we are to face persecution. Which may be a comfort: because if he are hated and persecuted for being a Christian, it isn’t really about us, it’s about Christ. He’s the one they really hate. Persecution is normal for those who share in Christ. And…
Persecution is the normal way to joy for Christians. – v13
What is the reward for those who pass the test and come through the fire? It is joy, overwhelming joy. Peter says that we will be overjoyed, when Christ returns and his glory is revealed. The reward given to genuine faith will be to see Christ’s glory and share his glory. We won’t see him as the suffering Christ, the man of sorrows. We will see him as the risen, glorious, triumphant Christ- but with the nail marks still in his hands. And we will praise him- praise will gush forth when we see that most glorious and beautiful of sights. And we will share his glory- we will be praised by him. We saw that in 1:6-7- that those who come through the fire will be praised and honoured by Christ. There can be no greater joy for a Christian than to hear the person we admire and love more than anyone else say “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your master. You didn’t give in- you passed the test. I am pleased with you- how precious your faith is to me”. So our life follows the pattern of Christ’s life. We share his suffering now, so that we can share his glory and joy later. Suffering for Christ doesn’t mean that we’ve gone the wrong way- it means that we’ve gone the right way. When we are persecuted, we can stand on this promise, of seeing his glory and sharing his joy. Persecution is the normal way to joy for Christians.
So how should we respond to persecution? Peter says “Rejoice!” – v13.
Don’t be surprised- rejoice! I have suffered so little for Christ, I wouldn’t dare to say this, if it wasn’t in the Bible, and I’m just being a faithful messenger passing on what’s in here. There are many different ways in which we could respond to suffering and persecution. We could respond by sinking into misery and self-pity, and feeling depressed and sorry for ourselves, or become bitter and resentful. If that carries on, people who do that will turn into cowards and deny Christ. Or we could face persecution with courage- we decide that we won’t give in, and we grit our teeth, and grimly press on. That’s good, but there’s nothing particularly Christian about it. Christians have no monopoly on courage; plenty of non-Christians have faced suffering and death bravely. No, the distinctive Christian response is joy- Peter says “rejoice”- be happy! And he says “rejoice so that you will rejoice and be glad”. Respond with joy now, so that you will be overjoyed then. There’s a connection there. I think the point is that joy is the evidence that we’ve come through the fire and passed the test. Joy in persecution is what the tested genuineness of faith looks like. It’s proof that our hope is in Christ, and in nothing on this earth. It isn’t at all a natural response to suffering, it’s completely unnatural. It’s evidence that there has been a work of the Holy Spirit in us.
Let me give you an example: Richard Wurmbrand was a pastor in Rumania.
He was imprisoned twice: first by the Nazis for being a Jew, and then for fourteen years by the Communists for being a Christian. He didn’t see his wife Sabina, who was also imprisoned, or his son Mihai, all that time. For the first three years, he was held in solitary confinement. He was beaten and tortured. Yet, in his books, and the many interviews you can find online, one thing that stands out is his joy. He tells of how one day, he was sitting in his cell, feeling very unhappy and miserable, when he remembered Jesus words, “rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven”. So in obedience he got up, and started to dance and clap his hands. Some of the guards thought that he’d gone crazy, took pity on him, and gave him extra rations! Later, when he was in a cell with other Christians, they would hold services on a Sunday, and sing “This is the day that the Lord has made, we will rejoice and be glad in it”. Using the chains on their wrist and ankles as musical instruments, clinking them together to beat time. Persecution is normal- so don’t be surprised, rejoice. Persecution is normal and…
- Persecution is an honour – v14-16
Don’t be ashamed – v16. Don’t be surprised, and don’t be ashamed.
The purpose of persecution is not just to hurt, it is to humiliate, to make us feel ashamed. Why? Because if you feel ashamed you want to hide, you want to keep your head down, and not look anyone in the eye, and not draw attention to yourself. And they way to make someone feel ashamed is to insult them, as Peter says in v14. He talks of his readers being insulted “in the name of Christ” or “as a Christian” in v16- it’s the same thing. A Christian is someone who bears the name of Christ and is identified with him. The word “Christian” is only used three times in the New Testament, probably because it started as a term of abuse, an insult. So persecution may take the form of Christians being abused and mocked and belittled, both personally, in the media, and on social media. Communist governments used propaganda to portray Christians as criminals, and we will be misrepresented, lied about, and face false allegations. That, I think, is the sort of persecution Christians in the West will have to take. It may not be violence, at least not yet, but we will be insulted and humiliated. But then we mustn’t feel ashamed. Why not? Because…
It is an honour to suffer for Christ – v14.
“When you are insulted, you are blessed”. “Blessed” means “honoured”, or “favoured” by God. So Peter is saying that when your persecutors try to insult and humiliate and dishonour you, you are honoured and blessed by God. The green Bibles that we have here translate “blessed” as “happy”, but that might give the wrong impression. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you feel happy- it means that you are in a happy, privileged condition, whether you feel like it or not. Why? Because the Holy Spirit, the glorious presence of God, rests on you. In other words, you are God’s temple, the place where God lives, God’s house. Not just somewhere the Spirit stays for a night then moves on, but where he stays and rests, as he did on Jesus. What an honour! We are not left alone when we are persecuted- God’s glorious presence is with us. The Spirit will do many things to help us, but let me give you just two examples. In Matthew 10:19-20, Jesus says that when you are dragged before the court, and put on trial, don’t worry about what you are about to say, because at that moment the Spirit will speak through you. Don’t worry about being tongue-tied and not knowing what to say to your friends, or you judges, or your torturers- the Spirit will give you the words. And in 1:6-7, Peter says that his readers who are going through fiery trial, who have never seen Christ “rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and full of glory”. That joy in persecution is not natural, it is the glory, it is the glorious presence of the Holy Spirit. Richard Wurmbrand and many others have testified to the radiant joy that they felt in the middle of their worst sufferings. So it is an honour to suffer for Christ. On the other hand…
It is not an honour to suffer as an evildoer – v15.
That sounds an odd thing to say, doesn’t it? It seems to be stating the obvious, and why would Peter need to worry about Christians suffering as a murderer or thief? Surely no Christian would ever do that? Well, let me tell you about a lady I once knew, who got the sack from her job because she was a Christian. That sounds awful- but what happened was this. She had recently become a Christian, and she was so eager to share the Gospel with her colleagues, that she was stopping them from doing their work- that’s meddling. And then she kept being mysteriously absent from her desk, and eventually she was found sitting in the ladies’ toilets, reading her Bible and praying. That’s stealing- she wasn’t doing the job she was being paid to do. So she got the sack, and she deserved it, it was a very bad witness. Or Peter may be thinking of times when Christians become angry and bitter under persecution, and are tempted to get their own back on their persecutors. Richard Wurmbrand speaks of cases in the Soviet Union where priests and pastors who collaborated with the KGB and became informers were murdered by members of the underground church. And even if Christians just give in to hatred for their persecutors, according to Jesus hatred and anger are as good as murder. So it is not an honour to suffer as a criminal, but it is an honour to suffer for Christ. So how should we respond?
We should honour God. – v16.
Peter writes in v16 “don’t be ashamed, glorify God”. In Acts 5:41, we are told of how Peter and the Apostles were dragged before the government, told not to talk about Jesus anymore, and then beaten up. But they went out “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for the name”. I’m sure Peter was thinking about that when he wrote this. To glorify God “in that name”, is the opposite of being ashamed of the name “Christian”, of being ashamed to be associated with Jesus Christ. It means instead that someone is proud of being a Christian and bearing the name of Christ. And so when they are treated like Christ, they consider it an immense honour, and they rejoice, and they praise God for it. Beloved, the world can give us many honours: fame, fortune, admiration. But it cannot give us any honour as high as being mistreated for the name of Christ. So persecution is normal, persecution is an honour, and…
- Persecution is not the worst thing that could happen – v17-19
Persecution will be painful.
Persecution will hurt. We mustn’t romanticize it- it will be horrible. Peter calls it a “fiery” trial, one that is intensely painful. And that might have two effects. If we are looking at persecution from the inside, we might envy those on the outside, who aren’t going through this, who ignore and defy God, yet seem to have a great life. On the other hand, if we are looking at persecution from the outside, we might think “I’m glad that’s not me”. There are many advantages to being a Christian, but if this is the price, it’s not worth it, we might think. But in both cases, Peter has a couple of things to point out to us.
It will be painful to be a believer in Christ.
Peter begins v17 with “for” or “because”, so he’s now giving us a reason to glorify God and not be ashamed. And he says that judgment begins with God’s house- that’s us. We know from 2:5, that we, Christians, are God’s house, the temple of the Holy Spirit. And this is where judgment begins. “Judgment” here isn’t condemnation- Jesus saved us from that on the cross. It is cleansing. It isn’t punishment, it is purification. Peter’s drawing on Ezekiel 9 and Malachi 3, which talk about God cleansing and purifying his temple. This judgment is the fiery trial that he’s just mentioned. He says in v18 that it is hard and difficult for the righteous to be saved. He doesn’t mean that we should doubt and be uncertain about our salvation. He simply means that salvation isn’t a bed of roses- it means walking a hard road through suffering and persecution. That’s why, before anyone becomes a Christian, they should count the cost of believing and following Christ. But that’s not the worst thing that could happen.
It will be much more painful to be a non-believer – v17-18.
Peter asks two questions, and leaves us to fill in the dots. If this is what happens to God’s beloved, then what will happen to those who have disobeyed and defied him? Where will they end up? The answer is that their end will be horrible, it will be much worse than any suffering that believers go through. They will endure punishment, not purification. Condemnation, not cleansing. And their judgment will be permanent and eternal, not brief and temporary. So if someone is on the inside of persecution looking out, they shouldn’t envy their persecutors, they should pity them. Richard Wurmbrand spoke of how sorry he felt for the Communists, of how he and the other Christians in prison tried to share the Gospel with their tormentors, and sometimes lead their torturer to Christ. And if you are on the outside looking in, yes you should count the cost of becoming a Christian. But you should also count the terrible cost of not becoming a Christian, and turn to Christ while you have the chance.
So don’t panic when persecuted- v19.
This is really the conclusion to all of v12-19. This is a remarkable verse- and the remarkable thing about it is that it so unremarkable! Entrust your souls to your creator- trust God, that’s the first part of being a Christian. And do good- that’s the second part. Trust God and do good; that’s what Christians should be doing anyone, persecution or no persecution. In other words, when persecution comes- and it will- don’t panic and run around like headless chickens, because you think that something strange is happening. This is normal- it’s business as usual. Your Father is your Creator, so keep on trusting him to care for and provide for you, and your family. And do good to everyone- even, especially, to your persecutors.
Beloved, do not be surprised at this. Persecution is normal, persecution is an honour, and persecution is not the worst that could happen. So rejoice, glorify God, and stand firm.