When Will You Suffer?
Preached by Jason Abbott
In my former career as a track and field coach, I just loved training athletes for the 400 meter dash. There’s really nothing in track as intimidating as the 400. More athletes, I would venture to guess, have lost their breakfast, lunch, and dinner following (or during!) that race than any other.
One thing I was told when I ran the 400, and then in return told my athletes, was that it’s not really a question of if you will suffer, while running it, but when. What we meant in saying that was this: As a 400 runner, you can suffer in practice, you can suffer while giving yourself to the workout and putting in faithful training, or you can suffer when the “day of judgment” comes, when you line up for a race. That’s the choice. Not if…but when!
Friends, Peter’s saying something similar about suffering in today’s passage. He’s saying it’s not really a matter of if you will suffer but when you will suffer. Peter encourages Christians here—like 400 meter runners—to pick up their crosses and follow Jesus in this life so that they can celebrate in victory at the finish-line, at the day of Christ’s glory.
Let’s read God’s word together and learn more about this.
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
“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.
As we dig into this passage, we will want to consider two types of suffering: (1st) suffering now for following Christ and (2nd) suffering then for denying Christ. Let’s look at each in turn.
1. Suffering now (vv. 12-16)
Peter would’ve made a great track coach because he’s a straight shooter—he’s honest and upfront with the difficulties which his team will inevitably face while living for Christ in a sinful world. So he prepares them and us here:
…do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you (v. 12).
Suffering is hard; trials are difficult. And, they’re only made more difficult when we’re surprised by them. If we’re not surprised when trials come, however, then we’re much less likely to be crushed by them when they come.
In my former pastorate, I gained a reputation for being rather anti-romantic among our young couples moving toward marriage. I became the “Dr. Depressing” of premarital counseling because I would plainly tell them how hard marriage was. I would clearly tell them to “not be surprised when fiery” trials came.
Now I could have played “Good Cop” with them. It would have been easier for me to tell them that marriage was only puppy dogs and rainbows—fun and sun! However, when their first real fight comes, when their first real betrayal comes (when it comes, not if it comes!), won’t they fear something is wrong with them—won’t they fear something is wrong with their relationship?
On the other hand, if they’ve been told to expect such trials in their marriage then they are prepared to stay the course and work through them and grow together rather than apart. Their marriage is prepared for better and for worse.
Friends, being the Church or being the Bride of Christ or being wed to Jesus, in this life, inevitably means that we will face trials. Peter tells us this plainly because Jesus told him this plainly:
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you…. Remember… “A servant is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you (John 15:18, 20).
So, Christians aren’t to be surprised when trials come. Yet, then Peter gets into some seemingly crazy talk because he doesn’t just say we should expect trials but says we should also celebrate them. Let’s read what he says again:
…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. 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 (vv. 13-16).
There’s so much here, but I’m going to focus on two things. First, it’s good for us to share in the sufferings of Christ. In fact, they should cause rejoicing in us since they’re proof that we’re God’s children (his “Spirit of glory…rests upon” us) and that we’re destined for God’s perfect, forever kingdom at Jesus Christ’s return (i.e. “when his glory is revealed”).
Sharing in Christ’s sufferings proves to you that you are his.
Friends, nothing reveals and proves true friendship, true fidelity to someone, like a willingness to suffer with or for him. I will often say that I’m truly thankful for the ever growing hostility our culture manifests toward Christianity. “How so?” you may ask. Well, I’m thankful because it ultimately clarifies our actual situation. It more fully reveals who’s really a follower of Jesus Christ.
When it is easy—or even beneficial!—to call yourself by the name of Christ then many people will pour into local churches and jump into membership classes, but when it costs them something—comfort, pleasure, reputation, career success—then play-believers stop coming, and the true Church become ever more visible.
So rejoice when you’re counted worthy to share in the sufferings of Christ since it reveals something of the authenticity of your faith.
This, however, brings me to the second thing we should see in these verses. And it’s simply this—there’s plenty of suffering in life that’s not rejoice worthy. There’s lots of suffering in this fallen world that’s because of our sinful choices, even if we are Christians.
- It’s not rejoice worthy if you suffer for taking someone’s life.
- It’s not rejoice worthy if you suffer for taking what’s not yours.
- It’s not rejoice worthy if you suffer for doing what’s evil.
- It’s not rejoice worthy if you suffer for getting into people’s business.
What’s so interesting about this list, which Peter gives us, is that he begins with transgressions at the level of a serious crime and finishes with transgressions at the level of a social faux pa. I think he’s taking his readers, both you and me, from “Well, of course that’s not rejoice worthy!” to “Ok, now I’m uncomfortable.” Let me make this practical for us.
Most of us would agree that losing a driver’s license for drinking and driving doesn’t qualify as sharing in the sufferings of Christ.
However, we may not as quickly agree that being socially ostracized at work for being an annoying, preachy, and aggressive Christian doesn’t qualify as sharing in the sufferings of Christ. Yet, I believe, Peter is telling us it doesn’t.
Friends, as Christians, when we suffer in this life, we must ask ourselves whether we are suffering for Christ, for the character and truth of the gospel in us, or whether we’re suffering because we’re sinful and annoying. The former is good; the latter is bad.
A Christ-like character “may be…the most effective means of persuasion” which we possess.1 If we suffer for being gospel-people then we can celebrate. However, we should weep when we suffer for being the opposite.
This brings us to our second kind of suffering.
2. Suffering then (vv. 17-18)
Look at what Peter shares next:
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? And “If the righteous is scarcely saved, / what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” (vv. 17-18).
In these 2 verses, we see the near-term suffering and the far-term suffering. There is judgment that begins with the followers of Jesus Christ, with Christians, and there’s also judgment—an “outcome” in the future—for those who don’t obey the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christians will undergo judgment, or discipline, now, and non-Christians will undergo judgment, or wrath, then. The first trial is brief and leads to salvation. The second trial is eternal and leads to destruction.
In order to make this point, Peter is stringing together language from Ezekiel and Zechariah and Malachi—three Old Testament prophetic books—then quoting Proverbs 11:31. To be clear, there’s a lot that’s going on in these two short verses. Yet, without getting bogged down in details, Peter’s essentially telling his audience that God’s end-times judgment has begun—for believers it’s like fire that refines; for unbelievers it’ll be like fire that consumes.
When we begin to let Peter’s lesson sink in, how we see life starts to change. When we begin to let Peter’s teaching sink in, we can start to make wise choices; we can make eternally significant choices.
One theologian comments on the significance of Peter’s lesson here:
It is difficult to overestimate the importance…of establishing one’s priorities on the basis of an eternal perspective that never forgets that God is the final judge.2
What does he mean? Better yet, what does he mean that God means to say through Peter? Well, I believe it is this. How we live now changes when we know (in the end and forevermore) that God ultimately judges and reigns.
Or, let’s go back to my opening illustration of running the 400 meter dash. Knowing the 400 is coming, knowing the race or the competition is approaching, how and when are you going to choose to suffer? Now, so as to capture the prize?! Or then, in crushing defeat?!
Friends, it’s tempting to avoid the discomfort that comes in following Christ. It’s easier to, as the ancients would say, eat and drink and be merry in this lifetime for tomorrow we’ll die. Unless, of course, tomorrow means life following death; unless, it means eternal suffering away from the glory of God.
The good news is that life after death doesn’t have to mean such suffering away from God. The good news is that Jesus Christ suffered willingly in our place, and, if we will trust in his suffering for us, that God is pleased to call us champions and children.
Certainly, in this life, there will be a cross to bear, but, in light of eternity, that’s really nothing at all! So, when will you choose to suffer?
As we wrap up, I want to end our time where Peter ends this little passage. Look at the final verse with me. In light of everything he has just taught believers, Peter says:
Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good (v. 19).
Sometimes it’s easy for us as Christians, in the midst of suffering, to wonder about God’s care for us, to even wonder if God knows what he’s doing. Or, maybe, we wonder if God is actually in control.
To such doubts, Peter writes this line. And, he calls God—“faithful Creator.” Friends, this description of God says 2 very important things to those who suffer. To believers facing trials, Peter says that God is faithful to his covenant promises. Promises to love and to care for and to protect and to prosper his people. Moreover, he says that God is capable of being faithful—because he’s the Creator of all things. God is not rivaled. God is not co-equal with anyone. God depends upon nothing at all. What he promises, he delivers.
So Peter tells us to entrust our souls to our faithful Creator.
I imagine, as Peter wrote this, that he had a specific image of trust in God during the midst of suffering in his mind. I imagine he vividly recalled peering up at his teacher and his friend and his Lord hanging in bitter agony upon that cross. And, I believe, (as he wrote this) he could still clearly hear Jesus say to his Father, to that very same faithful Creator:
Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke 23:46)!
And, in three days’ time, sorrow was turned to joy and suffering to glory!