Suffering Isn’t Strange

1 Peter 4:12-19 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. 16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And

“If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

19 Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.

Every year I wrestle with how to handle the holidays from a preaching perspective. Of course most people celebrated Thanksgiving a few days ago and are already looking toward Christmas. There are many passages in the bible that would allow me to appropriately tap into the powerful holiday current. I have done just that at times. I may do it again this year. This morning, however, I’m going to take a different approach…sort of. I’m going to continue on in 1 Peter, but I’m going to do so because I believe that this passage, rightly understood cuts right to the heart of the uniqueness of Christian thankfulness; which is to say that it gets right to the heart of the meaning and implications of Jesus’ birth, suffering, death, and resurrection.

Let’s pray together, therefore, for God’s grace to come upon us such that we’d be truly thankful for the things we should be truly thankful for.

As any of you who follow football know, for any opponent your team faces there is always more than one game plan that would make sense. The goal remains to win the game, but one approach might do a better job of exploiting the other team’s weaknesses while another might do a better job giving your team’s strengths the opportunity to dominate. Those of you who deal in computer code know that the same is true for any desired outcome. One approach might take less time, but be more bug-vulnerable while another might be easier to debug but take longer to write. Financial planners can usually, reasonably, recommend two different investment portfolios to the same individual. Of course there are other parallels in baking, grocery shopping, teaching, parenting, etc. As they say, there is more than one way to skin a cat.

In a similar way, the structure and message of this text lends itself to several good approaches to preaching on it. I think you would have been served well by any of them. Before I get to the one that won out, I want to quickly explain two approaches that didn’t make the cut. I think this will be helpful because each highlights an important aspect of this text that other approaches can’t accommodate quite as well.

The first approach I could have taken to preaching on this passage (but didn’t) would be to organize it around its explicitly stated goals. This is a letter about suffering. But Peter doesn’t want Christians to suffer for suffering’s sake. He wants us to navigate our suffering in particular ways, for particular reasons. In fact, there’s no doubt that this entire letter is goal-driven. Indeed, Peter’s ultimate goal is explicitly stated in this text. Again, for those reasons, it would have been appropriate to preach this text primarily through the lens of the five stated goals.

Suffer well so that:

  1. You may rejoice at the second coming of Jesus (13). “…rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. ”
  2. You may be blessed (14). “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed…”
  3. You may glorify God (16). “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” This, of course, is what Peter commends to his readers as the ultimate goal for all of their lives, including their suffering.
  4. You may avoid a type of God’s judgment (17-18). “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?”
  5. You may find peace unique to those whose hope is in God (19). “… let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator…”.

The approach I did decide on addresses these goals, but organizing the preaching around them would have made them stand out even more (which is why I took the time to do what I just did). Aim for these goals, then. Peter means us to. Don’t lose sight of them even though I’m not going to present them this clearly and neatly.

A second way I could have organized this sermon is by looking at it in light of its commands. There are six commands in this text. In some ways, in fact, it seems that Peter organized this paragraph around them. Obviously I didn’t choose to preach with this outline, but I want to mention it here because wherever we find commands meant for us today we need to be sure to obey them.

  1. Don’t be surprised by fiery trials (12). “…do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you…”.
  2. Rejoice as you share in Christ’s sufferings (13). “…rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings…”.
  3. Don’t suffer for sin (15). “…let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler.”
  4. Don’t be ashamed for suffering in Jesus’ name (16). “…if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed…”.
  5. Glorify God in your suffering (16). “…if anyone suffers as a Christian…let him glorify God in that name.”
  6. Entrust your souls to God while doing good (19). “…let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator…”.

It is absolutely crucial that we see these commands and obey them, Grace. We need to take this simple list and put it into practice; do the things on it. Certainly, no other sermon structure would better highlight this. Therefore, once again, this would have been a good way to structure my sermon (around these commands). And yet, once again, as necessary as obedience is, and as helpful as this approach might have been to get us there, this is not how I chose to organize my sermon either.

In addition, there are other ways still that I could have structured this sermon (but didn’t) and remained faithful to the text. How, then, did I structure it, and why?

The way I did choose to organize this sermon, then, is around the clear flow of Peter’s writing. I’m confident that what I mean by that will become even clearer as we get into the text. In short, though, by “around the clear flow of Peter’s writing,” I mean that we’re going to work through the text just as Peter wrote it, letting his writing order and emphasis directly determine my preaching order and emphasis.

That’s how I chose to structure this sermon, but why did I decided on this structure rather than any of the others? I did so for several reasons. I’ll start with the most broad and work to the most specific.

First, and most generally, I chose to do so because following the author’s line of reasoning is always the best default option. God not only inspired the biblical authors’ points, but also their structure. In general, therefore, it’s wise to let that guide our preaching.

Second, it’s going to take a couple weeks for me to get through this passage. I think it will be easier to follow Peter’s flow over a few weeks than any of the other approaches.

Third, and most specifically, I chose to structure the sermon the way I did because, although less neat and tidy, it allows us to feel some of the important nuances that Peter has written into the passage in a way the other approaches don’t.

With all of that, then, let’s get to the text and do our best to follow Peter’s line of reasoning, in order that we might most effectively understand and accomplish his purposes and obey his commands. We’ll look at the first two parts to Peter’s flow this morning and the rest in the coming weeks.

Suffering is a normal experience for Christians (12).
I vividly remember my first ever multiple-night backpacking trip. A group of my college buddies and I were heading to the Appalachian Trail for several days over spring break. Our plan was to knock off a 35-40 mile loop. Knowing that I was in good shape and having never taken a trip like that before I thought worrying about pack weight was altogether unnecessary. I packed my pack to the brim. I had fishing gear (waders, tackle, a fly rod, boots, and a net), camp shoes, my own personal stove and cookware, many cans of soup, cards, a Frisbee, and who knows what else. In the end, my pack weighed just under 70lbs. On flat, packed, dry ground that’s a load. In the Smokey Mountains in the spring, that’s dumb.

Needless to say, when the rain and then snow storms came, I suffered a great deal. I ended up leaving valuable supplies—including some fishing gear and all of my canned goods—in a bear box at one of the AT’s shelters. By day three I still struggled mightily.

Knowing what we’re getting ourselves into is an important part of success. The same thing holds true for following Jesus. If we don’t really know what he’s called his followers to, it’s awfully difficult to faithfully follow him. Indeed, I truly can’t count the number of people I’ve met in my life who were misled or otherwise mistaken about the nature of following Jesus. Christianity for countless people is little more than the promise of a divine wish-fulfiller and heaven as their final destination.

When that’s the version of Christianity we believe in, Peter’s words must come as a shock, a surprise, a strange sounding idea. But Peter wanted his readers to understand that, that’s no version of Christianity at all. To be a Christian in this life is to be persecuted in this life. As Christians, we ought to expect to suffer, to be persecuted for our obedience to Jesus, Peter wrote. We should not think it strange when trials come our way.

“Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”

In light of everything else he’s written to this point, this sentence serves as a kind of summary statement. What should have been obvious already, Peter made explicit here. Suffering—particularly persecution—is a regular part of the Christian life. No follower of Jesus should be surprised when life is hard.

This certainly has implications for how we ought to live our lives. If we’re honest we’ll admit that all too often, along with the rest of the world, we make our decisions based on what’s least likely to result in our suffering. But if Peter’s right, which of course he is, then the typical American’s endeavor to insulate ourselves from every possible hardship and to seek comfort through every possible means, has no place in the life of a Christian. Our charge is obedience and our aim is faithfulness regardless of the earthly cost. We don’t run to suffering for its own sake, but we don’t avoid it for its own sake either.

Practically, this means that Christians are continual risk-takers. We are never exempt from putting our comfort, our relationships, our jobs, our safety, and even our lives on the line for our obedience to Jesus. Christians are people who continually live under the conviction that losing all of those things for following Jesus is GAIN! Christians are people who know that, because of Jesus’ faithfulness, through our faithfulness, all that truly matters is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4).

What’s more, the implication of this passage is that not only should we not be surprised when fiery trials come our way, we should be surprised when they don’t. We should find it strange when we’re living out our faith in Jesus and we’re not persecuted. As bluntly as possible, even in our culture, Peter’s words here mean that if you and I are not regularly scoffed at, mocked, avoided, and held down, it’s probably because we’re not following Jesus as closely as we should be.

These simple, straightforward words of Peter have implications for every how we ought to live our lives. They also have implications for how we ought to share the gospel. Often, both ill and well meaning Christians share a gospel message that is in direct contradiction to this passage.

Ill-meaning Christians—most notably the sick prosperity, health and wealth, name-it-and-claim-it “gospel” preachers—intentionally disguise and deny Peter’s plain meaning for their own sinful gain. “God’s blessing comes primarily in the form of material wealth,” they say. “All suffering is the result of a lack of faith,” they proclaim.” “God’s blessed live in peace and prosperity in this life,” they teach.” These twisted people twist the scriptures, lie to their followers, and close their eyes to God, so that they can have their “best life now”.

More often, well-meaning, but misguided, Christians unintentionally deny this teaching when they share the gospel, focusing on the benefits of following Jesus, as if they were all to be received in this life. In many cases their error is driven by a genuine desire to see non-Christians saved. In their zeal they do what they can to make the gospel as inoffensive and carnally appealing as possible.

I first came to hear the gospel like this. The emphasis of the message that was initially presented to me was: “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” This is certainly true in one sense, but…

John 15:18 If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.

2 Timothy 3:12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…

1 John 3:13 Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you.

Hebrews 11:35-38 Some were tortured, refusing to accept release… 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated- 38 of whom the world was not worthy- wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth…

When we share the gospel with unbelievers it is not wrong to hold out the countless blessings God promises to believers—the apostles did that all the time—but it is vital to make sure we’re clear on which ones are for this life and which are for the next. It’s also vital to make sure that people understand the earthly cost of following Jesus, which includes not being “surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”

The first thing to see in the flow of Peter’s message is that in this life following Jesus and suffering are inevitably linked. The comfort-cost of the Christian life is high, but as we will see, the reward is infinitely higher.

Suffering Christians are meant to suffer alongside people who love them (12).
The heart of the flow of Peter’s reasoning in this passage is the claim we just looked at—that suffering is to be expected by the followers of Jesus. For that reason we began by considering that claim. Grammatically before that, however, is a another crucial idea. Let’s back up just a bit then as we continue tracing Peter’s thoughts.

Even with knowledge of the promises of God to comfort and protect and persevere Christians in our suffering; and even in the knowledge of God’s promises to not waste a drop of the suffering of his people and to use all of it for his great purposes; and even with knowledge of the heavenly rewards that await all who remain faithful through suffering; the thought of having to endure persecution in this life can be oppressive.

For those reasons, what might look like a throw away word, is actually a significant means of God’s persevering grace. The word I’m referring to is the first word of this passage, “beloved.”

Peter’s doctrine is sound. His reasoning is clear. His theology is in order. His words are precise. His arguments make sense. Consequently, we might be tempted to miss the fact that he’s not writing a text book, offering a theodicy, or giving a lecture to seminary students. He’s writing a paternal, affectionate letter to a group of people who are in hard places and whom he profoundly cares for. He grieves over their persecution. He desperately and delightedly wants what’s best for them. He loves them deeply!

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you…”.

Suffering Christians, as a means of God’s comforting and persevering grace, are meant to suffer alongside people who love them (12).

Still, the most vivid example I have of this is the Saari’s. In God’s providence their youngest came into the world in remarkably trying circumstances—so trying that it didn’t initially look like she was going to survive. Nick and Alicia had all the right doctrine. They knew the right answers about God relationship to this most dire situation. They knew they had all they needed in Jesus. But they also experienced profound help through the love of this church (and many others). Because their brothers and sisters in Christ called them “beloved” as Peter calls his readers “beloved,” they were fed and prayed for and cried with and provided with child-care and home maintenance and sound wisdom and on and on. That is, they were loved by God’s people in their darkest trial and God provided grace through it.

Let us love one another, especially in our suffering, Grace. Let us not shy away from entering into the suffering of others. Let’s make sure that everyone in this room knows that their willingness to follow Jesus into hardship will never leave them alone.

There are implications of this, to be sure, for the way we engage suffering non-Christians, but that’s not Peter’s point here. His point is that God’s people are meant to endure unstrange and unsurprising suffering alongside people who love them in Christ. That’s the essence of the flow of Peter’s message to this point in this section.

As I hope is already, and becomes clearer still, this is another remarkably rich text. If you mean to faithfully follow Jesus, even into his suffering (as this passage and letter call us to), you will, once again, find great help to do so. This ought to help us prepare for life in Christ, sustain us in Christian living, and be right at the heart of our thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations. May it be so. Amen.