In a local Bible study group, we just read 1 Peter, and this time through I was struck by how consistently the theme of judicial persecution of Christians remains near at hand through the whole letter. Indeed, seeing more of the letter in light of this consistent theme forced me to revise my understanding of several passages. These re-assessed verses include every reference to suffering in the letter, as well as two very famous verses, the one most often cited by Evangelicals as the clarion call for apologetics (1 Peter 3:15) and the one warning about the devil’s activity (1 Peter 5:8). I thought I’d chart here some of this new (to me) reading of Peter’s letter in light of persecution.
It is, of course, widely known that during the first century Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire, and that Christians could be hailed before a Roman tribunal, where failure to deny Christ would mean execution. While this is not to say that all Christians were routinely rounded up, or that all Christians had to pass their days in hiding, it does mean that, when Christians did come to the attention of the imperial judiciary, things could get rather unpleasant very quickly. Much of Peter’s letter addresses issues designed to keep Christians out of the attention of the judiciary. For example, Peter tells Christians,
12 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15 If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. 16 However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And,
“If it is hard for the righteous to be saved,
what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”[a]
19 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, NIV)
The recipients of Peter’s letter are evidently experiencing a “fiery ordeal,” and Peter tells them not to be surprised. What is this “fiery ordeal”? Evidently it involves “participat[ing] in the sufferings of Christ,” but how did Christ suffer? Christ himself was wrongly condemned by a Roman governor and judicially executed. This context explains why verse 15 lists crimes, which lead to punishments, rather than sins. Being sentenced from crimes one has committed should be shameful, but Peter tells his audience not to be ashamed if sentenced as Christians. The judicial context explains the curious verses 17-19. Judgment has begun with God’s household, in that Christians are being summoned to court to face (human) judgment and condemnation. The difficulty of saving the righteous is the potential of needing to undergo martyrdom. But Peter is also concerned that Christians will deny Christ in order to save their own skin, and so the warning (from Proverbs) that the ungodly and the sinner will have an even harder time, as they will face not human but divine judgment. Therefore the better response for Christians facing condemnation for their beliefs is to “commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (4:19).
But this is not the only passage that addresses the issue of suffering for doing what is right, rather than for doing what is wrong. Earlier, Peter had addressed slaves to submit even to unjust masters, but his advice then takes a more general turn:
19 For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. 20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. (2:19-21)
“The pain of unjust suffering” and “receiving a beating for doing wrong” could refer to situations that slaves find themselves in, but to “suffer for doing good” is less common, even with unjust masters (although suffering for refusing to do wrong is certainly possible). The example of Christ’s suffering is not, again, just the fact of suffering, but the miscarriage of justice, as is described in 2:23: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” Indeed, just before this paragraph, Peter had admonished Christians, “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (2:12). The accusations mentioned here need not be informal gossip or slandering you to your boss, but might be formal legal accusations in a trial. Such a judicial context might also explain Peter’s emphasis on submitting to the Roman state: his advice for how to “live such good lives” begins and ends with honoring the emperor (2:13, 17), and includes other state functionaries in the process.
The context of prosecution of Christians for practicing an illegal religion may likewise explain Peter’s emphasis on the unfading inheritance kept in heaven for believers (1:4). In that same context, Peter remarks that his addressees “greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1:6-7). The word “trials” here is not necessarily a legal trial, but the suffering mentioned here exists for the purpose of demonstrating their faith. I suppose that some amount of endurance through adversities of various kinds can reveal psychological fortitude and trust in God’s greater plan. But if the faith of the Christians, not as their psychological faith but instead as the content of what they believe, is precisely what is at issue in the sufferings – if, in other words, their are on trial for their faith – then the relationship between the suffering and the faith is more direct. Peter seems to be saying here that his audience is rejoicing in God, even though they are dealing with hostile judges who are condemning them, but God allows this judicial persecution in order to reveal the truth of Christianity, leading to greater glory “when Jesus Christ is revealed,” perhaps at his return, or perhaps in the character of the Christians and their imitation of his endurance of unjust suffering.
Peter’s advice for harmonious living (3:8) likewise includes not “repay[ing] evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing” (3:9). What forms of evil or insult are the recipients of Peter’s letter enduring? This becomes clear slightly later:
13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats[b]; do not be frightened.”[c] 15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 17 For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.
This paragraph begins with a rhetorical question, that doing good leads to no harm. But Peter also acknowledges the possibility of “suffer[ing] for what is right,” and later Peter contrasts suffering “for doing good” as better than suffering “for doing evil,” i.e. being punished for wrongs committed. The context of this suffering includes receiving threats, such as of execution or corporal punishment. Verse 16 alludes to slander which may represent the accusations. The example of this suffering is again Christ, who is declared “righteous” (which could also be “not guilty” in legal jargon). In light of this contex of suffering and discussions of doing right versus doing wrong, I do not think verse 15 envisions interested seekers asking you why Christians are such optimists. Instead, I think “to give an answer” in this passage is a legal term, “to make a defense,” in the context of a courtroom showdown. (This is not to say that I reject the value of apologetics, and by all means Christians should be prepared to explain their faith and hope! I just think that this verse is envisioning a different context.)
Finally, we come to the devil:
8 Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.
10 And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. 11 To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen. (5:8-11)
Peter warns Christians of their real spiritual adversary, who is to be resisted by “standing firm in the faith.” Many Christians interpret this as saying that we resist the devil by working up our “faith muscle” to trust God more. But that makes the second half of the verse a non-sequitur, referring to the “same kind of sufferings” throughout the world. What kind is that? Incidentally, the verb here translated “undergoing” is not a typical verb for suffering, but really means “to accomplish” or “to bring to completion,” implying that this is something that Christians attain to. Almost all of the suffering described so far in the letter is judicial, and all of it is unjust. The Roman legal system was seeking (if often not very zealously) to destroy Christians, and this was at the instigation of the devil. “Standing firm in the faith” is not a strong faith-muscle, but rather being unwilling to reject Christ. In this context, God promises to restore Christians after their run-in with the hostile government, and to make them unmovable. The benediction in verse 11 indicates that, despite human claims to the contrary, power belongs to God, not to the Roman state.
All of these passages indicate that Peter had a lot to say about suffering, specifically about suffering punishments meted out by a hostile government through judicial means. This is not talking about suffering illness, or suffering from natural disasters, or suffering from attacks by criminals. (I am not denying that those are forms of real suffering, just that those are not the variety of suffering which Peter is talking about.) But when Christians are threatened with torture, beating, or even execution for being Christian, Peter’s advice is to rejoice in the promised inheritance kept by God (1:6; 4:13), to live lives that are squeaky clean (2:12), to honor even the hostile government (2:13-14, 17), to imitate Christ (2:21), to “bless those who curse you” (3:9 seems to evoke either Matthew 5:44 or Romans 12:14), to have a legal defense prepared, but humbly and respectfully (3:15), not to be surprised (4:12), to praise God (4:16), and to think rightly about what is really going on (5:8, 9). “To [God] be dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (5:11, NASB)