The idea of persecution is ingrained in the old unregenerate nature, what Paul calls “the natural man” who does not know the nature of God. The fact that Christians over the last 20 centuries have been among the most persecuted groups just seems odd, however. One question people might ask is, what would anyone have against any Christian, whose faith calls him or her to pursue righteous living, humility, and unselfishness? An even greater question might be, how can God allow someone who believes in Him and lives to please Him to suffer persecution?
In the west, we live in vastly different circumstances than the Christians to whom Peter first wrote the letters we know as 1 and 2 Peter. They had fled the cities to the rural areas of what is today northern Turkey, in order to escape vicious government-sanctioned persecution.
As we discussed in earlier messages, after the great fire in Rome in 64 A.D., the Roman emperor, Nero, seized about 100 acres of the land that had been ravaged by the fire to begin building a new palace and grounds for himself. The people of Rome suspected Nero of having the fire set for this purpose, and, to deflect public unrest, Nero accused the Christians of setting the fire. A fierce persecution resulted, with the government sanctioning the killing of Christians. Whole families were slaughtered, many crucified by government forces. Many Christians in Rome and other metropolitan areas left the cities to settle in rural areas; as Peter refers to them, “God's elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1). These Christians to whom Peter wrote this first letter had settled in what is today northern Turkey.
We can imagine whole families in the Roman cities finding it necessary to silently slip off in the middle of the night, leaving homes, possessions, and livelihoods behind, in order to escape the mobs and government persecution.
There were many other accusations against the early Christians, in addition to being accused of burning Rome. For example, Christians were generally regarded as traitors and insurrectionists, because Christians refused to worship the emperor, which was a Roman subject’s civic duty. Another accusation was that Christianity broke up families, since some members would become believers and others not (Matthew 10:34-39). The Christians were regarded as heretical by both the Jews and the Romans. Jews charged Christians with heresy, since the Christian faith had its roots in Judaism but Christians did not follow the Pharisaical laws. The Romans charged Christians with heresy for failing to recognize and honor pagan gods or recognize deification of the emperor.
Two more outlandish accusations against the Christians were that they practiced cannibalism and were immoral. The charge of cannibalism resulted from the communion terminology (“eat my flesh, drink my blood,” John 6:5f; “this is my body . . . this is my blood,” Matthew 26:26, 1 Corinthians 11:24). The charge of immorality grew from the referring to communion as the “love feast,” which to Christians meant a fellowship meal. Pagans regarded it as an orgy, as many of their pagan religions practiced.
Persecution of Christians has continued and still continues, though in most eras it has not been as vicious as in the first three centuries of the church. We know persecution as sometimes subtle, often not so subtle, but almost never physical or life-threatening. We live in a quite tolerant culture, and we ourselves tend to be tolerant. To us, persecution may be the derogatory references to creation, biblical standards of marriage and promiscuity, or simply the social attitude of how silly evangelical Christianity seems to the unregenerate mind.
But even in our sophisticated modern world, Christians die because of their faith. From 1917 to 1991, the USSR executed thousands of Christians because of their faith and jailed hundreds of thousands of Christians who practiced their faith outside a government-controlled registered church. Christians in Islamic nations today, especially in Egypt (where the Coptic Christians practice their faith openly), Iran, and Afghanistan, are jailed or even killed for the crime of evangelism; in Saudi Arabia, possessing a Bible can bring a sentence of several years in prison. In the conflict in Kosovo in the late 1990s, more than 100 churches were burned and hundreds or thousands of Christians killed by Muslims simply for being Christians. Muslim clerics predict a future when Islam will rule a world in which Christians and Jews are to be either subservient or executed for the crime of opposing Islam.
With that as a rather negative-sounding introduction, let’s look at what Peter tells us about facing persecution:
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” So then, those who suffer according to God's will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good. (1 Peter 4:12-19)
Don’t be surprised at persecution (12)
Peter tells his readers “do not be surprised at the painful (fiery) trial you are suffering , as though something strange were happening to you.” (The “trial” he refers to is the persecution they are going through.) He uses the same word here as in 4:4, to describe how the people around them thought it “strange” that Christians would not join them in drunkenness, partying, and idolatry, and for that “they heap abuse on you.” In the same way, Peter tells us not to think it “strange” (surprising, shocking, foreign) that we face painful trials and persecution.
Often, we are perplexed at why God simply does not shield us from insults and persecution, particularly when it is painful, as in the case of Christians today in the Middle East, China, Egypt, and many other countries.
But as Christ warned His followers, the world hates devoted Christians: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).
Even in our western culture, being an authentic believer creates difficulties. People oppose the stands we take. They do not understand someone who strives for humility, holiness, purity, and putting faith first. We find, in the final analysis, the world often wants little to do with us. And while in the west that may not mean angry mobs, it can mean social scorn, loss of credibility, and legislation limiting rights to practice some beliefs or, in limited cases, free speech.
So what good comes from persecution? Two positive results of persecution that come to mind are more dependence on and trust in the strength and care of our Lord and more intimacy with God. As James tells us, we learn patience, endurance, and steadfastness in faith; in fact, trials and persecution give us a measure of our faith and strengthen our faith.
Oddly, our response to persecution can prove the strength of our faith to others and attract them to our Lord. When we read about martyrs of the past, we even find instances in which the persecutors themselves were drawn to Christ by the Christians’ endurance.
John Wesley occasionally worried when some time had passed since he had been insulted because of his faith, regarding persecution as a sign of a strong, visible faith. He is quoted once as puzzling over having gone several weeks without opposition. “Can it be,” he is quoted as saying, “that I have sinned and am backslidden?”
Rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ (13-16)
What an odd statement! Rejoice that I endure persecution and suffering? Especially in our culture, we prefer comfort, security, freedom, good health care, a decent home, the right to travel, see family, think and say what we want, have cable or satellite TV, lots of stuff to make us comfortable! Our instinct certainly is not to rejoice when things aren’t just the way we think they should be. And to add to the confusion, we are bombarded in Christian broadcast media and on the shelves of Christian bookstores with the gospels of health, wealth, and positive thinking. Yet the message of the Bible is different: through Peter, the Lord tells us “rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed.”
So when we really consider what Peter is saying, we have to realize our faith is not just about comfort, security, and lots of stuff. It’s about devotion and righteousness, regardless of circumstances.
Jesus proclaimed salvation and holiness as the son of God, and for that He suffered rejection, physical beating, and death by crucifixion. If we proclaim Him and try to conform our lives to His example, as He told us in John 15, the world will hate us. In that context, perhaps we can identify with John Wesley and not wonder why we are persecuted, but wonder what may be wrong when we are not undergoing some kind of persecution and rejection because of our faith!
What Peter means when he writes “rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ” is that if we endure rejection because of our identification with Christ and righteous principles, whether it be a mild intolerance as in our society or violence as in the Islamic and totalitarian states, we in fact join our Savior in suffering, for the very same reason He suffered. The world rejected Him; likewise, the world will reject those who are really serious about following Him. And far from offering expressions of pity about the trials of his Christian readers, Peter points out that what they are going through is a privilege!
This is a truth the apostles, including Peter, recognized from the beginning. In Acts 5, we find Peter and other apostles, rejoicing in their suffering. After appearing the second time before the Sanhedrin on the charge of teaching about Christ in Jerusalem, Peter and the other apostles were beaten and released with orders not to teach the people about the Savior anymore. In Acts 5:41, we read their reaction: “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. . . . they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.”
Peter also relates present persecution to future reward in verse 13 when he writes “so that you may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed.” This is a consistent theme of the New Testament. Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).
Verse 14 tells us that persecution is a sign that we are doing something right: “If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of the glory of God rests on you.” The word translated “insulted” in the NIV means more than a simple insult; it could be translated something like “reproached without cause” and implies rejected, ridiculed, or abused unjustly.
Peter adds in verse 16 not to be ashamed if we suffer for our faith, but to be proud to bear the name “Christian.” In verse 15, Peter reminds us not to confuse suffering because we are Christians with suffering the consequences we bring on ourselves by unrighteousness actions. If we break the law, there are likely to be consequences, but not because we are Christians, but because we broke the law. Peter lists some examples: along with murder, theft, and other criminal acts, he even lists meddling (literally: a busybody; i.e., demeaning, gossiping, troublemaking).
God purifies His people in trials (17-19)
Verse 17 is one of those hard sayings for Christians in the west today: “For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God . . .” The term “judgment” in verse 17 does not mean condemnation; it refers to chastening, purging, or purifying the church. That God would allow us to endure difficulty as a means of strengthening our faith is not a concept with which we readily identify. I am reminded of the metaphor of the refiner’s fire. Paul used it to describe the Christian’s works in 1 Corinthians 3, that our works the build the kingdom will be shown pure as the refiner’s fire purifies gold and silver. God is described as refining and purifying His people by the Old Testament prophets Jeremiah (9:7), Zechariah (13:9), and Malachi (3:3).
In a practical sense, we can observe that trials and persecution draw us closer to God. When things are going well, when we fit in with our culture and have its approval, when we feel in control and self-sufficient, it is then we often find we pray less and rely on God less. Often it is the difficulty or trial that brings us back into closer communion with Him, and we more clearly see Him for what He is: our deliverer and sustainer. God is not the author of persecution, but he will use it to bring us back to Him.
Finally, Peter gives us another perspective in verses 17 and 18. What we go through at the hands of those who insult us and persecute us is slight compared to the eventual outcome for those who are not His people. Compared to the difficulties God allows His own people to endure, how much more serious will His judgment be to the people who have rejected Him?
So, in verse 19, we who are His will endure trials and suffering because we are Christians. His standards for us are the same, whether circumstances are great or lousy: “commit themselves to their faithful Creator (entrust, put ourselves under His care) and continue to do good.”
Note: While I usually teach from the New King James Version [NKJV], I am teaching from the New International Version [NIV] in this study in the book of 1 Peter because the NIV so accurately renders the thought of the original text. Regardless of the English translation used, I also the Greek New Testament. For those not acquainted in the biblical languages, a Greek-English interlinear Bible and Hebrew-English interlinear Bible can be of great assistance. Many of the interlinear Bibles also include Strong's numbering and Greek and Hebrew dictionaries keyed to Strong's for concise definitions. The most useful study Bible I have found is the MacArthur Study Bible, which is available in the New King James Version and the New American Standard [NASB] translation. The notations in the MacArthur Study Bible are accurate in reflecting the literal meaning of the texts and provide the backgrounds for the basic evangelical Christian doctrines. Another helpful Bible for English readers is the Hebrew Greek Key Study Bible, which is an NIV translation with numbering keyed to a Hebrew dictionary and Greek dictionary in the back of the book.)