Suffering and glory are deeply connected. Any story that inspires us involves suffering. The more suffering there is in a story, the more glorious it is when the suffering ends, or is redeemed somehow. God wants to include us in his glory, and that means that suffering should not be considered unusual for those of us who follow Jesus. However, in our suffering, we can be confident that God is holding us in his hands, and remains in control. We can trust that he loves us, even in the middle of difficult times. There will be an end to suffering and then we will be participants in God’s glory.
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1 PETER #29. 1 PETER 4:12-19
12 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(1 Peter 4:12-19, ESV)
“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.
Before we jump into this passage, I want to use it to reinforce something I’ve talked about before. If you look at the New King James Version, it will have this at the end of verse 14: “On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified.” The Old KJV has something similar. These words were almost certainly not written by Peter, but rather, were added in two our three hundred years later by a scribe. The KJV (and versions derived from it) has such things from time to time, because it is based on fewer ancient manuscripts. This is an example of why I don’t rely on those versions (though I do compare them to other versions quite often). It is also why I think the people who claim that the KJV is the only legitimate version of the Bible are seriously ignorant and mistaken.
By the way, although there are a number of things going on in this passage, I’m going to focus on the main thing. Sometimes I worry that I get us too bogged down with every detail. So, let’s get to the heart of the text. There is a fascinating historical aspect to this passage. At the very beginning of this letter, Peter uses the image of gold being tested in fire. He says, at that point, that trials test our faith in a similar way, adding that our faith is more precious and more enduring than gold:
6 So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. 7 These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world.(1 Peter 1:6-7, NLT, formatting added for emphasis)
Now, in our text this time (chapter four), Peter says, “don’t be surprised when the testing fire comes upon you.” Peter is aware of the political climate of the Roman Empire. He knows that emperor Nero has it out for Christians, and so he wants people everywhere to be prepared to suffer for following Jesus. What Peter did not know was the literal role that fire would play in the upcoming persecutions and sufferings of Christians. Probably within a year of this letter (two, at the most) a great fire burned much of the city of Rome. Some historians speculate that Nero himself ordered the fire to be set, so he could rebuild the parts of Rome that burned. Whether or not that is true, Emperor Nero blamed Christians for the fire, though there was no evidence that they were involved either deliberately or accidentally. He used the fire as an excuse to begin a deliberate, systematic city-wide persecution on Christians, imprisoning many, having some killed for entertainment in the circuses, and executing others outright. Even more horrifically, he had some of them bound to stakes in the complex of the imperial palace, and he burned them alive to light up the area at night.
Many Christians chose to flee from Rome during this intense period of persecution. Apparently some of them convinced Peter to leave, also, but on his way out of the city, he changed his mind and turned back, entrusting himself to Jesus in either life or death, which shows that he practiced what he preached here. He was put to death.
I have to believe that when the believers in the provinces heard of all this, and re-read his letter, telling them not to be surprised at the fire of suffering, they were comforted. There is no way Peter could have known that the coming trials were going to involve actual fire. But God knew what was going to happen, and the Holy Spirit slipped in those references to fire to remind everyone that He was not surprised by it, that nothing whatsoever that happens can take them outside of His loving arms.
Peter connects suffering to glory. Paul does the same thing in Romans 8:16-18
16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.(Romans 8:16-18, ESV)
18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
Let’s think about this connection between suffering and glory for a moment. Picture a man who was born into a happy, wealthy family. He grows up with every advantage, and never knows a day’s need in his life. He has been raised as a Christian, and he thanks God for the goodness of his life. His parents send him to the best prep schools, and then an elite university. He meets his wife there. They get married, and start their careers. Set up in life this way, they are successful in their professions, and wealthy. They have two beautiful children who are healthy and happy. They continue to follow God, and then they grow old, and die, and will stand with Jesus in the new creation.
Now, how glorious is that story? It’s a nice thing. We all want that sort of life. There is a glory to the goodness of God there. But let’s compare the glory of that to another story.
Imagine a young lad in the seventeen hundreds in England. His mother is a strong Christian, but dies of tuberculosis two weeks before he turns seven years old. His father is a sailor, and the boy is passed around from place to place a bit, until he is eleven, when he too, becomes a sailor. At this time in history, sailing is a very hard life, with brutal work and even more brutal discipline. He becomes a wild and unruly young man. At one point, after becoming a junior officer, he is given eight-dozen lashes with the whip for disobedience, and is stripped of his rank. After healing, trying to find a better situation, he transfers to another ship, this one used in the African slave trade. His new shipmates don’t like him much, and when they arrive in Africa, the captain illegally binds him, and sells him into slavery. This did happen to Europeans at times. The young man ends up in slavery to an African princess who mistreats him horribly.
After three years as a slave, during which time life is miserable, he is finally rescued. And yet, on the trip back to England, his ship is caught in a storm, and almost sinks. During the storm, he prays to God, and begins, slowly to open his heart to Jesus Christ. The ship finally limps into port safely. He continues to work in the slave trade, eventually becoming the captain of a slave-trade transport ship. Yet, at the same time, this man continues to grow as a Christian. Eventually, he realizes that the slave trade is incompatible with his Christian faith, and he leaves the trade to become a pastor. In fact, not long after, he begins to work for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. He grows older, still working hard for abolition, but still seeing great resistance to it. He has almost despaired of living to see the abolition of slavery, but when he is a very old man, at last the English parliament passes a law making slavery, and the slave trade, illegal. During the middle of his life, while working for abolition, this man writes the most famous Christian hymn of the English language: Amazing Grace.
The second story is, obviously, the true story of John Newton. Newton went through a great deal of hardship and suffering, and involved himself in the shameful slave trade. Yet, I would have to say that his story is more glorious than the first one. It is glorious precisely because of the suffering.
Most people would not be interested in a movie about the first life. Many people did watch the movie of John Newton’s life: Amazing Grace. The truth is, the stories that capture our imagination, the ones that mean the most to us, involve suffering. The story of a young woman from an elite family who had advantages and connections and then became a successful CEO is not particularly interesting. But a story about a woman who grew up poor, and was dyslexic, and was mugged four times as a youngster, who taught herself to read, and overcame all her disadvantages to become a CEO – that is inspiring.
My point is that glory and suffering are connected in some way. I would almost guarantee that any story (true, or fictional) that ever captured your imagination, or inspired you, involved suffering of some kind. The more suffering in the story, the more glorious when finally the suffering is overcome, or redeemed. When Peter says: “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed,” he means that because we are destined for a glorious future, we should not be surprised about a difficult present. When we suffer in Christ, glory is being created in our future.
This raises a question, then, about what it means to share in the sufferings of Christ. First, Peter clearly means suffering that comes about because we are Christians. So, if someone mocks us for being Christian, that is “sharing in the sufferings of Christ.” If we lose a job because of our Christian principles, it is the same. Obviously, if we are beaten, imprisoned or executed for a being a Christian, those things are sharing in the sufferings of Christ. Peter clarifies that he’s not talking about suffering for things like committing a crime. We can’t claim that a proper punishment for a crime that we actually committed is suffering for Christ. In other words, sometimes you suffer as a consequence of your own bad choices – this is not the same as sharing in the sufferings of Christ.
I do think however, that Peter has more in mind than only persecution when he speaks of sharing the sufferings of Christ. He adds, in verse 19: “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good,” (1 Peter 4:19, ESV). I think the primary meaning of “suffer according to God’s will” is not, “God desires you to suffer,” but rather, “when you encounter suffering, God desires you to go through it in a way that is consistent with your faith in Jesus.”
There is a secondary meaning, I believe to “suffer according to God’s will.” I think all of Christian suffering ends up connected, in some way to the cross of Jesus Christ. Was it God’s will for the Romans, and Jewish authorities, to sin by accusing an innocent man and putting him to death? No. Was it God’s will for the soldiers to indulge their brutality and sadism by beating Jesus, and mocking him? No: God desires no one to sin. God did not desire to inflict pain upon Jesus. So, in one sense it is entirely accurate to say: “God did not want Jesus to suffer the way he did.”
And yet, was it God’s will for Jesus to take on himself the sins of humankind by his suffering and death on the cross? Yes. Ephesians chapter one tells us that it was planned from before the foundation of the world. So, in another sense, just as true, it was God’s will for Jesus to suffer the way he did.
So we have a mystery here: God did not desire anyone to sin by hurting Jesus. And yet, when Jesus was suffering, he was completely fulfilling the will of God the Father. Jesus was not at the mercy of sin, or even chaos, while he suffered. He was held in the everlasting arms of the Father.
So it is with us. Because of Jesus’ suffering, we have seen the lengths God will go to save us. We have seen how much he loves us. When we suffer, we can trust God’s love for us, even when we don’t understand. And when we suffer, we can also trust that the universe is not spinning out of control, that God has a purpose in our emotional and physical pain, and that purpose will ultimately work for our good. When we suffer we must trust that God is still in control, and also that he is good, and he still loves us.
Let’s return to the image of the fiery trial. Did God want Nero to burn those Christians alive? Of course not! But were those Christians ultimately safe in the hands of a loving God, even in their terrible trial? Absolutely yes.
I think we have plenty to think about so far. It is a great comfort to me, thinking about the history connected to Peter, to know that God knew ahead of time what would happen to so many Christians. Those first readers of Peter’s letter would be able to see, from the words about the fiery trial, that God knew what was going on, and nothing could take them out of his hands. Perhaps that is what you need to hear today. God knew exactly where you would be, exactly what you would be going through at this time in your life. You are not adrift and alone in a chaotic universe. Through Jesus Christ, you are safe in the everlasting arms of our loving Father. I am not sitting comfortably just proclaiming theology with no suffering of my own while I write this. I am in the fiery trial as well, and I have been for some time. This is not a meaningless platitude. It is true. Receive it in faith whether or not you feel like it, the truth is that if you belong to Jesus, you are safe and secure.
Remember also that your sufferings are creating a glorious story. Last time we learned that when God is glorified, we are blessed. So, through your suffering, as you share in the sufferings of Christ, God is indeed being glorified, and you are being blessed. Again, this is not a truth we always feel, but we hold on to it in faith.
Finally, we should not be surprised when we suffer. This is normal for those who follow Jesus. We should be surprised, instead, when we don’t suffer, and we should be deeply thankful for those calm, peaceful times. Millions of Christians in history, and certainly at least many hundreds of thousands today, are in a fiery trial of one sort or another. You are not alone. God has not looked away from you, or abandoned you. You are in good company, and in God’s loving hands.