God Is Sovereign Over Suffering

1 Peter 3:13-17 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.

1 Peter, once again, was written to help Christians know how to honor God in times of suffering. To that end, having clearly communicated the gospel in the first half of chapter 1, the need to respond to the gospel with holy living in the second half, the nature of the new identities of those who trust in Jesus in the first half of chapter 2, and the need for Christians to continue subjecting themselves to every human institution through the first half of chapter 3—having communicated all of that—in our passage for this morning Peter seems to step back, take a breath, and give a few thoughts on the things he’d just written.

Indeed, we’re about to enter into another amazing passage. This is certainly one of the most practically dense paragraphs in the letter. The breadth and glory of the crucial, Christ-following issues raised by Peter are truly awesome. I really could have titled this sermon, “12 Essential Perspectives for Faithful Christian Suffering”. Consider the following 12:

  1. The deep emotive side of mature Christ-following (3:13).
  2. The evil-binding role of the unbeliever’s conscience (3:13).
  3. The judgment of God causing the searing of conscience (3:14).
  4. Suffering for righteousness’ sake leading to blessing (3:14, 17).
  5. The inherent fearlessness of the Christian life (3:14).
  6. The source of Christian fearlessness (3:15).
  7. The visible nature of genuine, Christian hope (3:15).
  8. The proper response to persecution (3:15).
  9. The proper disposition of the proper response to persecution (3:16).
  10. The proper aim of the proper response to persecution (3:16).
  11. The relationship between God’s will and your suffering (3:17).
  12. The Christian’s role in executing justice (3:17).

This morning, I want to remind you all of a few key underlying beliefs that inform and unite all 12 of these issues before working through the first three. Then, in the coming weeks, we’ll continue down the list until we cover them all. Please join me in praying that God would use this passage to renew our minds in order that we might be transformed increasingly into the image of Jesus.

If we are to rightly understand and apply Peter’s instructions in this passage (or any passage), we need to be aware of the underlying beliefs that drive them. In other words, there are a few foundational principles which Peter has in mind that cause him to write the things he writes.

Let me give you a quick example of what I mean. Consider a newspaper columnist who wrote a series of articles extolling the virtues of self-sustaining family farms, private wells, well-armed citizens, personal libraries, and the like, culminating with a final article advocating for individuals to quit their jobs, purchase land in remote areas of the country, and begin learning to live off the grid. Without knowing about and sharing in her belief that the government is about to collapse, we’d likely label her as nutty and extreme. Knowledge of her underlying belief in the vulnerability of government is the key that unlocks the fullest meaning of her articles. Anyone who lacked or disagreed with that knowledge would likely brand her a fool. What’s more, if she wasn’t right about the imminent collapse of government, her articles could lead many to needless financial peril, or worse.

That is the nature of foundational beliefs…they inform and instruct everything else we do. When correct they are helpful, even necessary to make every other decision. Therefore, once again, let’s quickly consider the foundational beliefs of Peter that inform this section.

The Sovereignty of God Over All Things, Including the Church and the Unbeliever
Peter’s first foundational belief that bears noting is God’s sovereignty over all things, including the Church and the unbeliever. Grace, Peter’s writing will make very little sense if we don’t read it with the understanding that he believes whole-heartedly that there is a sovereign God who is actively reigning over all things. In this passage alone we see that God is sovereign to direct, protect, bless, instruct, and shame.

The things Peter calls upon the church to believe and do would be dangerous, foolish, and even mean if not for God’s direct involvement in them and promises to make them succeed. But, Grace, rejoice and find certain hope along with Peter and his readers that God is directly involved in every aspect of our lives for our good.

Everything we Do Must Ultimately Be For the Glory of God
The second of Peter’s foundational beliefs that drive our passage for this morning is his belief that Christian faithfulness means honoring God in all situations, including times of suffering. God’s people are never exempt from having as our highest aim glorifying God and enjoying him. Whether we are walking or talking or working or flossing our teeth or playing sports or creating art or going to school or suffering for righteousness’ sake, our aim must always be to see, savor, and show God’s glory.

Peter understands God to be infinitely glorious, the one thing for which our souls long and were made and can be satisfied by, and the greatest need and reward of all mankind. If we don’t understand this Peter’s words will seem ridiculous. If we don’t believe it, we ought to run as far as possible from all of it. But for those who, like Peter, have seen and savored God’s glory, who have experienced by God’s grace that God is greater than we could ever imagine, his instructions are the only things that make sense.

We Must Always Be Ministry-Minded
Finally, the third foundational belief that underlies this section of Peter’s letter, is his belief that Jesus Christ died to take away the sins of the world and, therefore, that Christian faithfulness means considering the unbeliever at all times (including, and perhaps especially, the times when they cause our suffering). This passage instructs God’s people to act evangelistically by doing public, good, gospel-driven works and by being ready and eager to give reasons for our hope in the gospel.

Underneath all of his instructions (in 3:13-17) is the belief that bringing the gospel to those who do not have it is so important that it’s worth dying for. Peter is certain that God desires our evangelism even more than our short-term justice. He desires our evangelism even more than he desires our temporal comfort. He desires our evangelism even more that he desires us to live.

Again, like an apocalyptic journalist, knowledge of Peter’s foundational beliefs is a prerequisite to understanding his commands, and acceptance of them is a prerequisite to obeying them in God-honoring ways.

With that, let’s consider the first three of the major issues of 1 Peter 3:13-17. They are found in 3:13-14a. And they are built to help suffering people live in light of the reality of a sovereign, benevolent God whose glory is the good goal of all and whose salvation must be declared to all.

The Deep Emotive Side of Mature Christ-Following
The first key issue raised by Peter is the deep emotive nature of mature Christ-following. If God’s people are to suffer well, then, we are to be people of deep, deep feelings. This theme shows up throughout 1 Peter, but we see it especially explicitly in 3:13.

1 Peter 3:13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?

It is the word “zealous” that I want you to notice. Typically it is used in the NT to refer to people who are misguidedly intense or enthusiastic about something. Most commonly it refers to the Jewish leaders who “have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Romans 10:2). At the time of Jesus, there was even a political/religious party among the Jews who had determined to free Israel from Roman rule by any means (even sinful means) and at any cost (even their own lives). The party was called the “Zealots” (Matthew 10:4).

However, in its most basic sense, having zeal (or being zealous) means feeling very deeply about something. That is precisely how Peter uses the term in our passage for this morning (see also Titus 2:14).

In other words, for Peter, the expectation for Christians is not just that we will do good, but that we will be “zealous for what is good”. That is, the expectation is that mature followers of Jesus will carefully work to understand what is genuinely good and feel the need to see it done deep in their being.

This is one example of something found throughout the bible: the call to deep emotions as an essential part of following Jesus. Earlier in this letter Peter commands Christians to “love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (1:22). 2 Corinthians 9:7 commands us to be cheerful givers. And Romans 12:8 commands God’s people to show mercy with cheerfulness. The list goes on and on. What does this mean for you and I?

  1. Logic and careful reasoning are important, even necessary, but they are always meant to lead to profound depth of emotion.
  2. Powerful emotions are good, even necessary, but only insofar as they are directly connected to truth.
  3. One of the surest ways to know that you truly understand a doctrine of the faith is by whether or not it stirs your emotions. If you don’t feel it, you don’t yet fully understand it.
  4. One of the surest ways to know that your emotions are truly pleasing to God is by determining whether or not they are directly attached to a doctrine of the faith.
  5. The Church needs people who are more naturally given to careful thought and people who are more naturally given to depth of emotion, all working together to build up the Church.
  6. The bible is filled with commands for both careful thinking and deep feeling.
  7. The bible is filled with examples of both careful thinking and deep feeling.
  8. Healthy Christian churches have opportunities to grow in and express both careful thinking and deep feeling.
  9. God is a god of careful thought and deep feelings.
  10. Jesus died for our wrong feelings as much as your wrong thinking and actions.

The first issue raised by Peter is the fact that Christians—especially suffering Christians who mean to glorify God and minister to the unbelievers around them—ought to be zealous in all aspects of our Christ-following, especially in doing good. That is, we need to be a people who feel deeply about the nature and commands and salvation of God. For God is good enough to produce unparalleled joy. God is fierce enough to produce unparalleled fear. Sin is evil enough to produce unparalleled disgust. Grace is beautiful enough to produce unparalleled amazement. And hell is torturous enough to produce unparalleled grief.

Where we lack these feelings in depth, therefore, we must confess them to God as sin and fight to gain them. We cannot be emotionally neutral or misguided if we are to truly follow Jesus and honor him in times of suffering.

The Evil-Binding Role of the Unbeliever’s Conscience
The second key issue of this section, again meant to help suffering saints suffer well—is the fact that part of bearing God’s image—which all people do, Christians and non-Christians—is being infused with a conscience. The role of the conscience, according to God’s design, is to make us aware of good (by drawing us to it) and evil (by making us averse to it).

Paul taught on this in Romans 1:19-20 where he wrote, “What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”

In light of these things, consider again 1 Peter 3:13, “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?”. Do you see the expectation of the evil-binding conscience in this passage? It’s subtle, but it’s there. Even in writing to those who had been exiled for their faith, even in writing to those who found themselves under secular, unjust governments, even in writing to those who had abusive bosses, even in writing to those who had disobedient husbands and wives, even in writing to those who were surrounded by evil-doing, non-Christians, Peter believed in the evil-binding nature of the human conscience enough to teach that Christians doing good should not expect to be harmed.

He wrote something very similar in 2:12, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”

Again, the assumption is that honorable conduct of Christians will be disarming to, and even appreciated by, non-Christians. And again, it seems that although Peter knew that evil doers are all around, he had the expectation that their conscience, given to them as God’s image-bearers, would keep them from doing harm to people who do good.

It truly is an amazing reality, a testimony to God’s sovereign rule, to God’s commitment to his glory, and to God’s desire for you and I to be able to bring the gospel to the unbeliever, that as you and I engage in zealous acts of goodness—generosity, service, love, justice, kindness, compassion, and the like—we are still to expect that conscience-bound people will not seek to harm us. It is an even greater testimony to all of those things that there is a deeper promise here that even if temporal harm does come to God’s people while doing good, no ultimate harm can come to us—our salvation and final protection are certain!

In light of the previous point (the deep emotive nature of mature Christ following), let’s rejoice in this, let’s thank God for this, and let’s grieve the thought that this might ever lift. And that leads us to the third and final idea that we’ll look at this morning.

The Judgment of God Causing the Searing of Conscience
There is a deep emotive nature to mature Christ-following, God has given an evil-binding conscience to all mankind, and thirdly, it is one of the most severe expressions of God’s judgment when the conscience fails.

Peter introduces this idea in the beginning of 3:14, “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake…”. The conscience is a gift of God to be appreciated and cultivated. But like all of God’s gifts, God is not bound (by anything outside of his own promises) to allow us to keep them.

In this passage Peter subtly acknowledges that the conscience is powerful, but not infallible. It seems that there are times when goodness (or righteousness) isn’t appreciated, but attacked (which is why Christians suffer for righteousness’ sake). But how does that happen? What Peter alludes to, other biblical authors make explicit.

Of the Israelite’s persistent rebellion the Psalmist wrote,

Psalm 81:10-12 I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it. 11 “But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me. 12 So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels.

Further emphasizing the importance of this aspect of God’s judgment, in his dying sermon, Stephen said,

Acts 7:39-42 Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 41 And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. 42 But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven…

Immediately after the conscience introducing passage we read above, Paul wrote,

Romans 1:21-25 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator…

Again, Grace, the point to see here, and to be particularly aware of when we suffer, is that a shriveled or cauterized conscience is one of the scariest things we might experience, for it is one of the most sever expressions of God’s judgment on this side of death. It happens—God gives people over to their sin—when his patience leads not to repentance but to presumption, pride, and greater wickedness. When people can go on sinning without conviction that means that the Spirit is not in them and that God has removed his grace of conscience from them. It also means that they will not tolerate good, but will persecute it—which is what Peter’s readers were experiencing to a significant degree and what we are increasingly experiencing today.

But Grace, let this also be a warning to you and I. Should you find your conscience no longer pricked by sin, should you find yourself with a shrinking appetite for righteousness, stop everything and cry out to God for mercy. Fight to believe the promises of God to bless good and to punish evil. Should you find your appetite for sin increasing rather than decreasing, run fast to Jesus and hope in grace.

And so, Grace, as you encounter trials of various kinds, remember that God is benevolently sovereign over all things, God’s glory is the aim of all things, and one of the main ways that God has given you and I to express our understanding of and belief in both is by sharing them with the unbelievers around us. Remember also, as you encounter various trials that faithfully following Jesus through them means experiencing deep, truth-driven emotions (hope in God, grief for our persecutors, eagerness for blessing, etc.). It also means acting in the knowledge of the evil-binding nature of the conscience which God gives to all mankind as a means of God’s protecting grace for those who do good. It also means, unfortunately, knowledge that the conscience is not infallible. At times, as an expression of his most severe judgment, God removes the conscience of unbelievers. When that happens, Christians should expect to suffer for doing good.

The aim in all of this, once again, is to help Christians to think carefully and truthfully about how to navigate the various trials that come our way in a manner pleasing to God. None of us has understood this perfectly and none of us has obeyed this perfectly. Our hope for all of this, and all things, is the work of Jesus on the cross. We will not want any of this, much less live according to it, if not for the grace of God in Christ. If you are a guest, turn to Jesus and you will find forgiveness and help. If you are a Christian already, turn to Jesus and you too will find forgiveness and help. Amen.