1 Peter 4:1-6 Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. 3 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. 4 With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; 5 but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 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.
This morning’s text is a call to arms. Let’s pray, then, that God would put it on all our hearts to arm ourselves for battle against anything and everything that would compete for our allegiance to God and his kingdom.
THE REALITY OF WAR
By the end of the previous chapter Peter had clearly established the fact that Jesus had gone through everything (and more) that his readers were presently enduring. It was important to Peter that his readers understood that there was no suffering they would encounter that Jesus himself did not also encounter.
Both for Peter’s first readers and all his readers since, there is hope and comfort here. Jesus does not ask his people to go anywhere he wasn’t willing and able to victoriously go first.
Ultimately, Peter’s message to this point is that Christians ought to suffer like Jesus, therein pointing to the salvation won by Jesus through his suffering.
All of that brings us to the first few words of chapter 4, “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh…”. That is, in light of all I’ve written concerning Jesus’ suffering and what it means and accomplished for you… What? As a result of all of that, what ought Peter’s readers do? His answer is that they must arm themselves. They must prepare themselves for war.
Grace, let’s pause here for a moment and acknowledge once again that this is not the way Christianity is presented to or understood by most people in our culture. The idea that trusting in Jesus means not only going to heaven when you die, but also making war while you live is, frankly, not what most of the professing Christians I’ve met signed up for. In fact, this kind of talk would probably creep most church-goers out.
And that is one of the most frightening aspects of the American version of Christianity (for me). Not only are most people who think of themselves as Christians not engaged in anything that might be considered warfare, most would be put-off by anyone who suggested that they should. That’s over the top, a bit much, too radical, or even offensive they’d say.
All-too-often, entire churches (from the mission, to the architecture, to the decorating, to the programs, to the clothing of the leaders, to the music, to the lighting, to the things they fill the building with, to the nature of the relationships, to the preaching and teaching, all) suggest (even if only implicitly, though often explicitly) that the mission of the church is to make you and your kids happy, comfortable, entertained, and personally uplifted.
With the risk of falling into the ditch on the other side (unChristian aestheticism, isolationism, etc.), I want to sound the coffee shop Christianity alarm. If Starbucks becomes the Church’s model for architecture (trendy, cool), atmosphere (comfortable, talk [rather than action] oriented), and mission (“to inspire and nurture the human spirit”), how will we then be able to make sense of passages like…
2 Corinthians 10:3-4 For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.
1 Peter 5:8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
Ephesians 6:11-12 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
Let’s be honest with ourselves. How many of us, even if we’re willing to admit that the NT is filled with passages like these, describing life in Christ as warfare, live like we believe it? How many of us who nod our heads in mental assent when we read these verses or hear them taught, respond with anything approaching the warfare they call for?
Grace, would you consider right now repenting of your militant desire to live as if we are not at war? Would you consider forsaking your pursuit of the civilian life on the middle of the battlefield? Would you seek (and certainly receive) God’s forgiveness for treating life in Christ more like a coffee shop than the cosmic conflict it is? Or, in Peter’s language, would you consider laying down your toys and arming yourselves for the war to which you’ve been called?
If so, I think you’ll find this portion of Peter’s letter to be exceedingly helpful to those ends. Let’s consider, then, the nature of the war in which we must fight and for which we must be armed.
THE NATURE OF THE WAR
What, precisely, is the nature of the war? It was not Peter’s intention to fully answer this question here, but he does mean to address head-on one crucial component of it: it is a war against the desires of the flesh; against the perspective and affections that drove us before we were rescued from them.
Grace, here’s the decision that all of God’s people have always been confronted with every minute of every day: which kingdom will we serve, the kingdom of this world or the kingdom of God? Will we live according to the standards, wisdom, and priorities of our old selves and the unbelievers around us or of our new lives in Christ? If we’re being honest, the consistent answer is: some of both. Both individually and collectively we have continually oscillated between the two kingdoms and their perspectives.
Positionally, God has declared Christians to be righteous in Jesus. Positionally Christians are only citizens of the kingdom of God. Positionally, we have already been made new. Positionally, our salvation is certain.
But practically, on this side of heaven, no one (other than Christ himself) has ever truly lived consistently with the nature, purposes, and will of God and his kingdom.
When we run back to the kingdom of the world, at best it’s a chance for the world to mock us for our hypocrisy and a quick fix for us (briefly satisfying our lingering craving for sin) before conviction sets in.
On the other hand, when we seek to live according to our true citizenship, we are bombarded from within and without. Internally, our flesh rears up and lies flood in. Externally, the world and the spiritual forces of darkness conspire to draw us back into treason.
The short version of all of this is that being a Christian is hard in this life. It’s hard when we sinfully dabble in our old life and it’s even harder when we rightly reject it entirely. How hard it is and what form of hardship we are forced to endure has varied over time and culture, but truly following Jesus has never been easy.
And yet, at the heart of this letter is Peter’s divinely inspired conviction that “the time is past…for doing what the Gentiles want to do.” As Christians, a key aspect of our battle is fighting to live consistently with who we really are. Our war is fighting to determine to live according to our true citizenship. Our conflict is fighting to forsake our old “human [sinful] passions” and committing ourselves to living “the rest of the time [we have on earth]…for the will of God.”
Again, Grace, would you do that today? Would you, as Peter charges, determine now to live entirely for the will of God and not for human passions? Would you look to Jesus’ example and turn from that which the gentiles do?
The nature of the war for which Peter calls God’s people to arm themselves is both a willingness to answer “yes” to those questions and to persevere in actually doing so. Apart from making war on our flesh, we will never answer yes, let alone continue answering yes. Apart from making war, we’ll be indifferent to or even offended by such a question.
To be clear, Peter lists a number of the Gentile desires, the old sins, the flesh’s wishes, the human passions:
- Living in sensuality. The idea here is simple. It means living only for the pleasure of the senses. The highest goal of someone living in sensuality (as Peter means it here) is to find physical satisfaction. As Christians, looking to the example of Jesus, we must make war against the desire to live in sinful sensuality.
- Living according to passions. This can also be translated “lusts.” This is very similar to the previous one. It means living according to whatever our affections happen to rest upon. It means living a life that chases after whatever our hearts desire, without caring about whether or not they our desires are pleasing to God. If I find myself earnestly desiring cars, sports, relationships, travel, whatever, I will give myself over to it. This too Peter calls God’s people to make war against.
- Living in drunkenness and participating in drinking parties. This means exactly what you think it means: habitual intoxication (either to alcohol or other inebriating substances). Drunkenness is not consistent with the character of Jesus or the kingdom of God. Likewise, neither is attending parties whose primary purpose is intoxication.
- Participating in orgies. Along with drunkenness, one of the most common passions of the unbelievers in Peter’s time (and ours, perhaps) was sexual immorality. While the gentiles and non-Christians around Peter’s readers eagerly gave in to such sensuality, and while Peter’s readers might have at one time too, Peter reminded his readers that this behavior is not consistent with Jesus’ example and grossly dishonoring to God. And that means that Peter’s readers, once again, must make war against whatever lingering desire for such things remained in them.
- Living according to lawless idolatry. This final reminder of the types of specific priorities and practices that God’s people must avoid is, perhaps, the vilest of all: intentional idol worship. Of course, if Peter’s readers meant to live and suffer in such a way as to honor God, they could not give themselves over to the worship of false gods. Again, turning from such behavior meant making war against the lusts that produced it.
In short, Peter tells his readers that the battle to live entirely for Christ (especially in the midst of persecution) and not for the world is one which they must continually fight. That is the nature of the war.
Before turning to the weapons of war, I’d like to mention what Peter describes as the likely response (and its cause) of the watching world to Christians who intentionally and successfully wage such a war. For this too is an important part of the nature of our warfare. Our war is against our flesh and the spiritual forces who seek to use it to destroy us, not against the unbelievers around us. However, the unbelievers around us, Peter wrote, are likely to make our struggle more difficult.
Peter’s explanation of how Christians making war on the flesh ought to expect unbelievers to respond to their war begins, I believe, back at the beginning of the chapter. I read several interpretations of the second half of v.1 (“for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin”), but here’s what I think Peter meant. I think he meant that suffering persecution comes when Christians stop sinning. When we live holy lives, the way God intended, according to the standards, wisdom, and priorities of the kingdom of God, that’s when we ought to expect to experience a flare up in the war. As long as we’re sitting back, living like we did apart from declaring our allegiance to Jesus (living in sensuality, according to passions, in drunkenness, and participating in drinking parties, orgies and lawless idolatry), the world around us barely takes notice (except to laugh at our hypocrisy). Once we begin to live as God calls us to, however, suffering is sure to follow. Suffering in the flesh, in other words, is a symptom of living a life of repentance (one which has “ceased from sin”).
That’s why I think Peter says in v.4, “With respect to this, they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they will malign you.”
Here’s how it typically works. When Christians don’t act in the same way as the world, the world is initially surprised (4:4). “We thought you all were extinct.” Having recovered from their surprise, the world is shamed (we saw that in 3:16). It is easier to engage in sinful behavior when everyone else is doing so as well. And it’s not that hard to convince oneself that sinful behavior isn’t actually sinful when surround by people who repeat the same refrain of denial. But when a Christian refuses to join in the denial and practice of the sin, shame sets in. But shame often doesn’t last long. It typically, quickly turns to anger. Anger turns to maligning. “Goody two-shoes. Hypocrite. Intolerant. Judgmental. Old-fashioned. _____aphobe.” And then maligning turns into more serious persecution (even crucifixion).
Again, the main message of this passage is that Christians must look to Jesus’ example in suffering, make war on whatever resists living like Jesus, and expect that non-Christians will not be our allies in battle.
THE WEAPONS OF WAR
Again, the constant war that Christians face, Peter wrote, is the internal war between remaining faithful to our true King and kingdom and defecting back to our old king and kingdom. Having been convinced that the Christian life is a life of constant warring and having come to understand a bit of the nature of the war, Peter’s readers must have been wondering what weapons God had fashioned for them. What were they to arm themselves with? In this passage Peter mentions two specific weapons. In conclusion, let’s briefly consider each.
The first weapon mentioned, the first piece of armament available to God’s people as they seek to wage war, is a proper perspective. Peter commands his readers to arm themselves “with the same way of thinking” as that of Jesus Christ (v.1). We simply cannot wage a successful campaign against our flesh if we are of wrong minds. We must have the mind of Jesus. What, then, was the mind of Jesus?
Peter explicitly mentioned five perspectives of Jesus when he suffered persecution: he (1) continued to hope in God throughout his suffering—even to death, (2) feared nothing and no one when he was made to suffer, (3) walked in holiness even in times of greatest suffering, (4) loved those around him during his suffering (even those who were the cause of it), and (5) remembered that God was only and always working good through his suffering (ultimately the glory of God in the salvation of all his people).
The first weapon fashioned by God for his people’s successful war against their flesh, was his revelation of these perspectives in Jesus. These five things, wielded rightly, in the power of the Spirit, are able to kill sinful desires.
The second weapon mentioned in this passage is knowledge that God’s judgment will come upon all who do not win the war. That’s part of what Peter meant in v.5, “But they [the ones who malign Christians for walking in holiness] will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.” Peter’s main point was that Christians need not worry about the maligning done to them by non-Christians for God will take care of it. But embedded in that is the reality that God will judge guilty everything and everyone who does not successfully wage war on sin.
There are two crucial things to understand if we are to wield this weapon effectively. First, we must fight. We must fight against the sinful desires that wage war against us. We must fight with earnestness and ferocity.
Romans 8:13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
Colossians 3:5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you
Again, then, the first thing to understand about this weapon is that our fight is necessary for our salvation. “For if you live according to the flesh you will die.”
The second thing to understand is that, by grace through faith, God’s people are united with Jesus and empowered by the Spirit such that we will fight and we will win.
1 Peter 2:24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.
Romans 6:6-7 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin.
1 Corinthians 12:11 All these [Spiritual gifts] are empowered by one and the same Spirit…
We fight with the Spirit’s vigor in the knowledge that Christ’s suffering secured our victory over our fleshly desires.
In this life, the very nature of being Christian is being at war. We are constantly at war against the desires of our flesh. But God has given his people suitable and sufficient weapons: the example and mind of Jesus, and the knowledge that our salvation hinges on our successful warring which was secured at the cross.
The practical implication of all of this is that you and I must make war. We must identify the areas in which we are still living in and tempted towards the kingdom of sin, take up the weapons that God gave us, and begin to slaughter them. And we must praise God while doing so for his great and certain promise that all who do so will win! In Jesus’ name, amen.