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“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time He may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you… And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:6,7,10).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Saint Peter, writing from Rome, addresses Christians in another part of the Roman Empire who are suffering because of their allegiance to Christ. Throughout this epistle we find Peter, himself in the hotbed of persecution in the city he calls “Babylon,” offering steadfast encouragement to those undergoing persecution for professing the fact of Jesus as truly Lord of all. Jesus, not Caesar, is the world’s rightful King who alone with the Father and the Holy Spirit is to be worshiped as God and Savior. Any title or honor that may have been conveyed to Caesar in the past, must now be heaped onto Jesus. Only Jesus is Savior and Lord.
Not only were these Christians professing their faith; they were living it! They refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods. And there were gods galore: household gods, family gods, city gods, guardian (tutelary) gods, regional gods, a pantheon of Greco-Roman gods syncretized with Egyptian gods and, of course, on top of the entire heap of deities (at least here on earth) was the divine Caesar, Nero.
Breaking a link anywhere in the chain swiftly brought troubles as the whole system was an interdependent web of obligatory superstition on which everything hinged; economics, politics, civil affairs, marital relations—everything. The Christians to whom Peter writes were not just breaking a link, they tossed out the entire chain which they believed kept the world in bondage to the darkness, the ignorance of superstitions, and the violent forces empowering it all.
And notice how they did it! Quietly and peacefully. They knew the Creator-God had visited humanity and reclaimed His throne over Jews and Gentiles. Jesus of Nazareth had conquered death and rose from the dead as the Lord of Life. There was no need for these newly converted Christians to immediately start smashing idols and throwing them into the fire. They simply left them in the dust since Christ had exposed them as nothing but bits and blocks of stone anyway. Jesus is the destroyer of the gods as the only true and living God. He proved in His death and resurrection that He is the world’s rightful Lord.
But that did not mean that all was smooth sailing. They were paying the price for their faith in the one true God. They were Christians; their culture was not. Their persecutions were, therefore, inevitable. Oppression came from every domain of life: spouses, family, employer, guild, community, and government… all the way up to those who governed in the name of Nero.
So, Peter writes to encourage them to remain steadfast in our holy faith:
“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. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:12-14).
Peter urges his fellow believers to see the fiery trial they are bound to experience as a test: an opportunity in their calling. Suffering persecution as Christians is a way to bear the cross of Christ, and the promise of God is that He strengthens us through affliction. Luther reminds us of this same thing: “God lays a cross on all believers in order that they may taste and prove the power of God—the power which they have taken hold of through faith” (LW 30:127).
Seeing suffering as an opportunity to bear Christ’s cross reminds us that in doing so, we share Christ’s sufferings—an honor for Christians, who know that our Savior suffered to save us. Before His death, Christ called His cross the moment of His glory (John 12:23-33), and Peter unites the “not-yet” glory of Christ’s return with the “now” glory of sharing in His cross, which results in joy when His glory is revealed, not only at the end of time, but in the present moment, as the Gospel’s effects are seen in the life and the witness of those who suffer for His name.
Suffering for Christ’s name is a particular sharing in His cross, the location in time and space of the insults He endured. Therefore when Christians are insulted for His name, we are blessed by God in the grand reversal of the theology of the cross. Christ transforms the world’s taunts into His blessing. Peter is speaking from personal experience. Christ also shares His glory as He shares His cross. When Christians are persecuted for His name, we are never alone, but empowered and blessed with the Spirit of glory and of God.
Peter adds a stern warning: “But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. 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?” (1 Peter 4:16-17).
“Bearing the cross” is not suffering the effects of our own sin. We Lutherans talk often about “cheap grace,” that is, a self-justifying concept of a tolerant God, without a respect for the actual cost of God’s favor in the innocent blood of Christ. But we seldom talk about the other side of that coin, “cheap Law,” again a self-justifying concept of a God who is always on the side of believers who feel we have free reign to act as offensively as we please, and to chalk up everything we suffer as a result of the persecution of the world that is out to get us because we happen to be Christians. We must remember: sin has consequences! Christians are simul iustus et peccator—at the same time saint and sinner. And as sinners, breaking the Law of God still brings with it temporal consequences!
Such suffering is not identity with Christ’s wounds; rather it puts us on the inflicting side of those wounds! This is not limited to gross sins such as murder and theft, but even offenses in the communion of the Church that some might consider minor, such as being a meddler—a busybody, one who wants to supervise the affairs of others.
Suffering “with” Christ means being subject to both the very costly Law and very costly Gospel that unites us with His death and life. Suffering as a Christian brings an honor distinct from suffering for wrongdoing, and the proper response to such suffering is to glorify God by confessing Christ, even if it means death or adversity. Peter calls for judgment among ourselves at the household of God: both God’s judgment and our own. Repentance is the goal of such judgment, as we see the effects of our own sin, and even as God allows us to face consequences. Christians believe in the Gospel that saves.
The consequences of sin are not “crosses” that the Christian bears. On the other hand, suffering for the name of Christ is indeed a sharing in the sufferings of Christ. But what about other kinds of suffering? For example, when faced with a crippling illness, some faithful Christians may say, “It’s just a cross I bear.” When natural disaster hits, is this a sharing in the cross of Christ? Does illness or other affliction rise to the level of what Peter has in mind here?
It’s helpful to think in terms of two distinct truths: (1) the enemies Christians face, and (2) the honor to which Christians are called. As Christians we face an unholy trinity of enemies: the world, the devil, and our own sinful flesh that leads us to death. When the world has us in its crosshairs, the Christian finds that the target on his back is shaped the same way, and receives whatever the world slings at him as a union with Christ on His cross. As Jesus says, “for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12). Where the Gospel is preached in its purity, there will be Christ’s cross, for the devil hates it.
And while “sinful flesh” does not bear honor of suffering in the name of “sin,” Christians can yet bear the honor of suffering in “flesh,” for so Christ suffered. Suffering in the flesh can be sickness and any other affliction that weakens us in the eyes of the world or ourselves. Suffering in the flesh because of the evil or accidents of others, while a result of sin generally, is still suffering that God cares about, and He calls His children to bear up under such suffering patiently, waiting on Him for ultimate healing.
Not every affliction seems like a gift from God at the time, especially the initial shock of debilitating or terminal illness. But for those who can bear to hear it, even the sufferings we bear in this corruptible flesh can be an opportunity to honor God as the One who will soon vindicate the saints who bear His name, by completing what was sown in corruption by raising it to His imperishable honor.
Do you wonder why your life is often a struggle? Do you wonder why your problems don’t just evaporate even though you go to church and pray? Do you groan because of the carelessness, lovelessness, or recklessness of others? Do you wonder why you still find certain sins so fascinating even when you’ve been burned by them before? Well, says Peter, wake up and realize what you’re up against in your life: you have a fearsome enemy, the greatest of the demons, a dragon whose spiky tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky, that is, seduced other angels to join his rebellious conspiracy. What a dreadful thought—this evil, worldwide, powerful spirit is committed to dragging you off to hell too.
But here is the good news: the descendant of the woman, prophesied in Eden, has crushed the serpent’s head. His power to accuse (that’s what the name Satan actually means) is broken, for Christ has forgiven all sin. Satan’s power to control and manipulate is broken, because the Spirit of the Lord lives in the believers and shares His strength.
And now comes the great promise—Christ shares with you His power to rebuke Satan, and Satan has to obey you! As James says, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you!” One little word can fell him, the Word of the Gospel, that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. Stand firm in that faith, and remember that as you suffer, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve done something wrong. Remember that your brothers and sisters over the world are suffering too as they wait for Christ to return and create a new heaven and a new earth.
The same God who called you to eternal glory through the Gospel will not let your sufferings go on one minute longer than He allows, and He already has His plan of relief ready to go. From God’s point of view, your sufferings last just a little while, for at the right time our loving Father will come with strength and restoration. He will make the hurtful times serve you and the Church by making you strong, firm, and steadfast. And you, in turn, will be a good counselor and witness for other people who struggle.
No persecutor can avail over the victory of Christ for His people. Even if death separates you from this world, it cannot separate you from the love of God and the redemption accomplished through Jesus Christ. The world’s rightful King, Jesus Christ came into this world for the very purpose of reversing the power of human sin and rebellion, the debilitating effects of illness and disease which lead to death. This is what resurrection life promises.
You may suffer for a little while, but “after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” (1 Peter 5:10). And the God of all grace does this through the promise of the resurrection of our mortal bodies. We know this to be true because Christ has been raised from the dead. Through Baptism, as Christ is, so shall we be.
Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.