1 Peter: Faithfulness In Persecution

With no further delay, we are going to look at 1 Peter this morning and for the foreseeable future. It’s a remarkable letter in many ways, many of which I hope to highlight for you today. First, though, I’d like to offer a bit of background.

1 Peter, as you might have guessed, was written by Peter. This finds greatest confirmation, perhaps, in the facts that 1:1 makes that claim (“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ”), that Peter’s authorship wasn’t questioned by the early church (even though other letters claiming to be written by Peter were), and that Peter seemingly referenced it in 3:1 of his second letter (“This is now the second letter that I am writing to you…”).

Peter’s birth name was Simon (Matthew 4:18). It was later changed to Peter by Jesus (John 1:42). Peter was a fisherman by trade (Matthew 4:18). Peter was married and owned a house (Matthew 8:14).

Peter, along with his brother Andrew, were the first of the twelve disciples called by Jesus (Matthew 4:18; Mark 3:16; Juke 5:12; John 1:40-42). In addition to being called first, Peter was among Jesus’ closest disciples. He was granted the ability to walk on water by Jesus (Matthew 14:28-29). He was given the keys of the kingdom for his profession of faith in Jesus as the Christ (Matthew 16:13-19; Mark 8:27-30; Luke 9:18-22).

He was one of the three (or four) disciples allowed by Jesus to join him at his transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-9; Luke 9:28-36), when he raised the ruler’s daughter from the dead (Mark 5:35-43; Luke 8:49-56), when he foretold the destruction of the temple (Mark 13), and further in to Gethsemane while Jesus prayed before his crucifixion (Mark 14:33-42). Though he denied Jesus when questioned prior to the crucifixion, he was the first disciple to run to the empty tomb (Luke 24:12) and the one who became most bold in proclaiming Jesus after his death and resurrection.

According to 5:13, this short letter was written by Peter from “Babylon” (likely Rome) in the company of Mark (5:13), was delivered by Silvanus (5:12), and is addressed “to those who are elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia…” (1:1)—most likely predominately gentile Christians.

This letter was likely written shortly before the great Christian persecution of Nero began in 64 A.D..
The main point of this letter, which Peter himself makes plain in 5:12, is that his persecution-dispersed audience would “stand firm” in the grace of God in the face of the persecution they were already enduring, and that which all could see coming in even greater measure.

This morning I’m going to share with you all the message of 1 Peter so that we’re better prepared to understand the individual passages contained within it. Specifically I want to show you from the text the main theme of the letter (faithfulness in persecution), what faithfulness in persecution looks like in real life, the power and motivation for faithfulness in persecution, and a few reasons why God allows his people to be persecuted.

With that, let’s pray that God would use 1 Peter to rescue us from the false belief that Christian faithfulness even allows for (much less guarantees) comfort and ease, to equip us to suffer persecution well, and awaken us to a greater longing for eternal glory in Christ.

As I mentioned in the introduction, the simple message of 1 Peter is faithfulness in persecution. We see this right away in the first verse of the letter when Peter identifies his audience as “the elect exiles”. The elect had been exiled because of their faith in Jesus Christ, and Peter wanted to help them understand how to honor God in their thoughts and actions in the midst of their persecution.

We see it again in 1:6 where Peter reminds his readers of the fact that their imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance comes on the other side of brief and various trials.

4:12-19 gives the most direct and thorough exhortation to the exiled believers to remain faithful in their persecution. In this passage Peter admonishes them not to be surprised when the “fiery” trials come, as if being persecuted for Christ’s sake were unexpected or strange. He even goes so far as to command the suffering saints to “rejoice insofar as [they] share in Christ’s sufferings”.

Peter makes certain his readers know that not only are they suffering persecution and expected to remain faithful in it, but that throughout the world all who call on the name of Christ are experiencing the same persecution and are called to the same faithful response (5:9-10).

And, most succinctly of all, Peter closes his short but impassioned letter with the words “I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it” (5:12).

In A.D. 64 Rome was set on fire and largely destroyed. Many scholars believe it was the emperor Nero himself who set the fire. Nero, however, blamed the Christians and used that as justification to unleash the power of the Roman Empire to persecute them severely. Both Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome under this slaughter sometime between 64-67A.D..

1 Peter, as I mentioned in the introduction, was written just before all of this began. Unlike today, where we live in a society where we’re able to semi-plausibly (but wrongly) tell people to trust in Jesus and everything will go well, at the time 1 Peter was written to be a Christian was to suffer—often immediately and significantly. Therefore, the great question on the minds of all Christ-followers was, “how do I do so well?”. That, once again, is the main point of Peter’s short letter. And that, specifically, is where we’ll turn our attention now.

As we just saw, Christians, insofar as they are truly following Jesus, will be persecuted and must, therefore, learn how to do so faithfully. Again then, the question is, “what does that look like?”. There seem to be eight main categories that Peter gives for suffering faithfully at the hands of persecutors.

First, above all, Christians who suffer persecution are to do so in a way that puts on display the glory of God. He proclaims to the various churches (immediately before warning them not to be surprised by the fiery trials) their need to live in such a way that, “in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:11).

They did that then, and we do it today, by demonstrating in our persecution that we do not fear man, that death is gain, that the gospel is more precious than comfort, and that God is greater than any earthly offering. In persecution we glorify God when we do not despair because our hope is in something the persecutors can never touch.

Second, we remain faithful in persecution by preparing our minds before persecution (1:13). One of the most consistent things I see both in my own life and as a pastor is the need to have right thinking before entering into times of significant blessing or difficulty. Once the large bonus comes in from work or the cancer diagnosis comes from the Dr., it’s often too late to walk in faithfulness if we haven’t worked to think rightly about those things in advance. If we are to suffer well, we must learn to think biblically about suffering before we suffer.

Third, we must fear God and not man (1:17; 2:17; 3:6, 14). Peter writes, “…conduct yourselves with fear [of God] throughout the time of your exile.” We are being faithful in our suffering when we fear God alone. And we are being faithful in suffering when we recognize that man can take nothing of significance from us and, therefore, that we have no reason to fear anything he can do to us.

Fourth, we must love one another to be faithful in persecution (1:22, 2:17, 3:8, 4:8-9). It is so easy in times of difficulty to think only of ourselves. It is so easy to want to gather those closest to us and head for the hills. It is so easy to wallow in our own difficulties and become calloused to the difficulties of those around us. But Peter tells us that faithful suffering doesn’t do that. Instead, faithful suffering means faithfully loving. When Christians suffer well, rather than blinding us to the needs of others, it awakens us to the needs of others. Thus Peter writes, “above all, keep loving one another earnestly…”.

The fifth way Peter calls on God’s people to remain faithful in suffering is by submitting to authority. As we saw in the previous point, when suffering comes selfishness tends to follow quickly behind. In a similar way, then, though our tendency might be to step away from the authority given to us by God (especially when those in authority are the ones persecuting us), faithfulness means stepping even more toward it. Specifically Peter mentions citizens submitting to their government (2:13-14), servants to their masters (2:18-20), wives to their husbands (3:1-7), church members to their elders (5:1-4), and younger Christians to older Christians (5:5).

Sixth, faithfully suffering Christians live in freedom (2:16). While being persecuted for our faith certainly limits our freedom in some ways, it ought to remind us of an even greater, unshakable freedom that we have in Jesus. As the world around us increasingly tries to restrict gospel proclamation and living, faithful Christians increasingly recognize the far, far greater nature of Christian freedom.

Seventh, persecution ought to increase unity among Christians (3:8). When Christians are persecuted, Christians need to gather together in order to support one another, and also to shine an even brighter light in the world. The NT in particular describes the interdependence of God’s people. For many reasons, however, we often don’t feel dependent on one another. Suffering changes that. Under persecution we are better able to feel what’s always there—our need for the people of God. Likewise, Christians are meant to continually reflect the light of Christ to the unbelieving world throughout love and unity. Suffering together highlights and enhances our ability to do this as well.

And finally, eighth, when we suffer persecution at the hands of the enemies of God, Christian faithfulness means Christian holiness (1:14, 2:1, 2:11-12, 3:8-12, 4:4-4, 4:7). This is probably the most thoroughly addressed aspects of faithfulness in suffering in 1 Peter. Most directly Peter writes, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct…”.

Perhaps above all these responses of gospel faithfulness are so significant because they are so counterintuitive. Where the world would disparage God for allowing suffering, Christians are joyful and thankful. Where the world is shocked by and unprepared for suffering, faithful Christians expect and have carefully thought about suffering. Where the world is terrified by the things mankind can do to them, Christians are called to be fearless. Where the world tries harder to love themselves and get others to love them in times of suffering, godly men and women look to bless others. Where the world looks for ways to avoid the authorities that are persecuting them, Christians look for ways to submit. Where the world looks at persecution primarily in terms of restricted freedom, Peter calls Christians to look at it primarily in terms of greater freedom. Where the world tends to scatter and divide in times of suffering, Christians come together. And where the world uses persecution to excuse all manner of ungodliness, Christians use it to grow in holiness.

Christians are charged in this letter (and the rest of the Scriptures) to remain faithful in suffering—especially when suffering for being Christian—in large part because it shows the reality of Christ in us and the supreme glory of God above all circumstances.

I imagine that many of you are wondering (rightly) how you could ever do that. Walking in that kind of faithfulness under the best circumstances is difficult. How much more challenging would it be under the type of persecution faced by the early Church? Where can we find the strength to do so? These questions lead us to the next point addressed by Peter in this letter.

Christians will suffer persecution and must do so faithfully in the ways we just looked at. Again, then, the next question is, from where does the power and strength and motivation to do so come?

Peter explicitly lists several ways in which God brings power and motivation to his people in order to strengthen them for faithfulness in persecution. There are three in particular that Peter presents as most significant. One looks backward, one looks forward, and one looks at the present.

First, Peter calls persecuted Christians to find strength and motivation for faithfulness by looking backward at the suffering of Jesus (2:4-8, 2:21-24, 3:18, 4:1, 4:13). Over and over he reminds the exiled believers that there’s nothing they are experiencing that our Lord hadn’t experienced even more. One of the clearest examples of this is found in 1 Peter 2:21-24,

“For to this [persecution] you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”

Second, Peter calls those suffering to remain firm in their faith by looking forward to the eternal reward that awaits them (1:4-5, 1:9, 1:13, 5:10). Peter invites his readers to be amazed by the fact that “…after [they] have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called [the] to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish [them].”

From where does strength to suffer faithfully come? It comes from considering the past sufferings of Christ on our behalf and the future grace won by Christ’s sufferings. In a close third, Christians are to find help in remaining faithful by considering the present day reality of their new life in Christ (1:3, 1:18-21, 2:9-18). Of this Peter writes “…conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, 18 knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.”

In addition to these big three motivations, Peter reminds the exiled believers of the goodness of God (2:3), the power of the word of God (1:23), the blessing of God (3:14, 5:5), and their love for, trust in, and joy because of Christ (1:8). That is, he encourages godliness in the midst of suffering by calling their attention to the fact that they have all “tasted that the Lord is good.” He admonishes them to remember the power of the “living and abiding word of God” which caused them to be born again and gives them strength continually. He instructs the suffering saints, “even if [they] should suffer for righteousness’ sake, [they] will be blessed”. And, in a remarkably pastoral way, he encourages faithfulness in God’s persecuted people by reminding them that even though they “have not seen [Jesus], [they] love him. Though [they] do not now see him, [they] believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory…”.

Standing firm in the face of persecution is hard. In fact, left to our own strength, it is impossible. But, the good news of the 1 Peter is the good news of the gospel: we are never left to our own strength. God’s grace is continually upon his people as they remember Christ’s sufferings, hope in the promise of eternal life, rest in the present blessings of Christ’s work on their behalf, and seek out all of the means of grace promised by God.

The final main questioned addressed by Peter in 1 Peter is, “why would God allow such suffering to come upon his people?”. That is, our sovereign God could certainly have stopped the hand of every would-be persecutor. Better still, he certainly could have softened the hearts of those persecuting the Church and used them to join and bless the Church (as he did the apostle Paul), but he didn’t. Why?

Grace, the fact that God used the persecution of his Son—the darkest, most unjust, evil action of all time—for good—the greatest, most amazing good of all time—gives us complete assurance that God is able to cause all things to work together for good for those who love him.

It should be no surprise, then, that since God had the highest glory purposed in the greatest sin, every other lesser sinful choice by man—including the persecution of Christians—will be used by God for good. Indeed, that’s exactly what we find in 1 Peter as he explains why God’s people are being persecuted.

Ultimately, Christians suffer persecution because God wills it. That’s Peter’s point in 4:19, “…let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” We’ll look more closely at how this works when we come to 4:19, but know this Grace Church, none of your suffering because of the name of Jesus is apart from the sovereign will of God or the loving, gracious kindness of God.

We might ask ourselves, then, why God would will such a thing; or how does suffering bring grace? Peter gives a few specific answers to those questions. I’ll just briefly mention them this morning.

God wills the persecution of his people in order to save (4:13), sanctify (1:2, 4:1-2), and give assurance of salvation (1:6-7) to his people. 1 Peter 4:13 says, “…rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” If we do not joyfully share in Christ’s sufferings we will not be glad when Jesus’ glory is revealed. That is, we will not be saved. 1 Peter 4:1 says, “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…” The point here is that God uses the suffering of Christ to sanctify us through our suffering. And finally, 1 Peter 1:6-7 says, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith…may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” As we walk in faithfulness through persecution, it proves the genuineness of our faith and assures us of our salvation.

It can be hard to understand but God allows difficulty to come to his people for our good. We’ll see this repeatedly throughout 1 Peter.

1 Peter, once again, then, is a charge from the apostle Peter to the persecution-scattered exiles to stand firm in their faith, even as they awaited even greater persecution. In this letter Peter describes and commands what a godly response looks like under such circumstances, offers power and motivation for the believers to endure the persecution, and gives reasons for God’s allowing of the persecution.

As elders we chose this book to preach through now because, providentially, we seem to be heading in much the same direction as the early church. Not to be overly dramatic or prophetic, but the world around us is becoming increasingly hostile to genuine Christian conviction. We’re tasting little bits of it now with a much more ominous picture on the horizon.

One of our hopes in preaching through this book is that we’d all be better prepared to handle such persecution if it does in fact come. Specifically, it is our prayer that we’d all endure as the early church did, by remembering the gospel, trusting the promises of God, and anticipating the eternal reward that awaits all who remain faithful until the end.

There is great glory in this letter, Grace. I look forward to proclaiming it to you and basking in it with you. Amen.