About a year ago or so I was asked by a friend from high school to explain the verse in 1 Peter 4:18. Embarrassingly, I had never re-read 1 Peter since I had to read it the first time in seminary. This is both lazy and dumbfounding, since Peter is by far my favorite disciple/apostle. His story is close to my heart because Peter takes a while to understand Jesus and his message. He isn’t like Paul, who is on the road to Damascus, and BAM! his life is changed. Instead, Peter is one of Jesus’ right hand men, but he doesn’t get it. Even up to the very end of Jesus’ life Peter is still confused, in denial, and missing the point. Even after everything Jesus does with Peter and the even after he places his faith in him, Peter cannot commit to agape with Jesus. He can only commit to brotherly love (John 21:15-17). Whether or not 1 Peter is actually written by Peter is debatable, but I think the contents are aligned closely enough with Peter’s other philosophies to assume that the text is at least by a disciple of his.
The question about Peter’s letter then, was humbling and also a challenge. Because I so confused by it, I started wondering about it in broad strokes. What is the context of that Scripture in 1 Peter? What is the context of that section of Scripture in the overall context of the book? What is the role of 1 Peter in the broader context of the Christian realm? What does it mean when Peter (mis)quotes a Proverb that says, “If the righteous receive their due on earth, how much more the ungodly and the sinner!” as the verse that says, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” If I was answering this off the top of my head, I would say it is difficult for the righteous to be saved because they are bound by works, and not by faith in grace.
In order to answer these questions, let me begin by setting 1 Peter in context. 1 Peter was written in the early middle of the time span covered by the writings of the Christian scriptures. The earliest gospel, Mark, was written somewhere between 65 AD and 80 AD, while one of the later texts, The Gospel of John, was written between 90 AD and 120 AD. Most scholars think that 1 Peter was written between 80 AD and 100 AD, and it was geared toward Jewish Christians, but could easily be understood by Christians of all ethnicities and religious backgrounds. The text seems to be about having hope in the face of suffering, but it does not seem to dwell on interminable suffering. For the writer (presumably Peter) of this text, suffering will end eventually, but it should also be expected as part of a life lived in Christ. Simultaneously, as many texts of its age, this epistle was probably written to bolster the faith of Christians who were terrorized by the reign and persecution of Nero. It also may have been to warn about future suffering and persecution.
As I noted above I was asked specifically about verse 18, but I think it is bad to focus all attention on only one verse. It’s called proof-texting, and it is usually done to support one’s point or to make someone else feel bad about his or her level of commitment as a Christian. Let’s just say, it’s something that all people do, but that should never be done. In short, to answer my friend’s question, I think it is necessary to look at the whole passage that contains that verse. For the purposes of this exegesis, I will focus strictly on verses 12-19, because that is all I have time to write about, but I think the ideas of this section are similar to the ideas set forth throughout the whole letter. Here is the text:
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 continues to do good.
To me this seems pretty straightforward until the verses about judgment, but this could be because I am so entrenched in the SotM right now. However, Peter seems to be nearly quoting the SotM, when he says to rejoice in suffering. It seems logical, says Peter, for Christians to expect suffering because Christ suffered. Today, it would be like Gandhi’s followers not to expect hunger, Martin Luther King’s followers not to expect persecution, or environmentalists’ followers not to expect ridicule. Peter thinks that to be a Christian, at the very core, is to expect to have to suffer for your beliefs. How far is his understanding of Christianity from today’s churches that have their coffee shops to entice believers to get out of bed on Sunday mornings? We have changed a bit from the beginnings of our faith.
Anyway, beginning in verse 12, Peter sets down the idea that we shouldn’t be surprised when suffering comes because it should be NO surprise. Our faith is built on the suffering of Christ, so why shouldn’t we suffer?
In verse 13, Peter even tells us to rejoice in the suffering of Christ, in order that we will really get it when Christ’s glory is revealed. He doesn’t, anywhere in this passage, ask Christians to walk around miserable; he commands us, much like Jesus did in his teachings to recognize, learn from, ponder, and rejoice in Christ’s sufferings. He doesn’t say, go out and be miserable because everyone around you should know how devoted to suffering you are.
Instead in verses 14-16, we get the idea that we are to revel so much in the cause the of Christ that people will make fun of us and persecute us. These Christians weren’t getting persecuted because they had Jesus-fish bumper stickers; they were persecuted because they acted counter-culturally, rejoicing in suffering, believing in resurrection, and living communally. Peter writes, echoing the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, “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.” (On a side note, I love that Peter puts meddlers on the level with murderers and thieves.)
Jesus says in his sermon, “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 are your rewards in heaven, for as they do to you, so did they do to the prophets before you.” He continues to elucidate the ways in which Christians should conduct their lives in a better way than those who will be held in judgment for murder, saying that even being angry with your brother or calling him a fool is a punishable offense.
Finally, Peter summarizes these teachings of Jesus by writing that we should praise God that we bear the name Christian. I have to confess, this convicts me a little because I am fond of saying that I am not going to call myself a Christian because of the bad connotation the word Christian carries today. Would Peter be comfortable calling himself a Christian with all the baggage the word carries? Or would Peter be one of the people who speaks out against the difference between what the world perceives to be a good Christian and what being Christian should really look like? I am conflicted.
Then, the text shifts in verse 17 as Peter begins talking about judgment. As these later (in placement in the Bible, not in date) texts tend to do, Peter focuses on the final judgment. He alludes to the fact that the end is near and makes the claim that the judgment (persecution) has begun for those who believe in the risen Christ, so what will that judgment eventually look like for those who do not know the gospel? I think that here Peter is showing his Jewish roots and making a claim about being the chosen people. If God will let us, as Christians be persecuted, what then will God allow to happen to those who do not know the gospel. I also think that Peter may be feeling somewhat compassionate toward non-Christians, as he is certain of his future in Christ, but he is uncertain of theirs. This also maintains the urgency to spread the gospel message, which I will discuss in a bit.
Verse 18, the verse that started this whole adventure, is actually an example of Peter (mis)quoting a Proverb. I put the mis- in parentheses because he doesn’t intentionally misquote Scripture; he simply writes it the way he has memorized it. (Here is where I would normally explain the whole Jewish education system, but if you want to know that information, look it up.) Proverb 11:31 falls near the end of a long list of comparisons between good and evil. As noted above it really says, “If the righteous receive their due on earth, how much more the ungodly and the sinner!” How different is that from what Peter remembers that it says! This Proverb essentially says that if you are righteous, you will receive righteousness, but if you are a sinner, you will receive accordingly.
In its own context, the Proverb falls between one that reads, “The fruit of the righteous is the tree of life, and he who wins souls is wise,” and one that reads, Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates correction is stupid.” I am not sure that the second proverb has anything to do with Peter’s intention except to remind Christians that they need to be open to correction and learning, but the one before it certainly bears on his argument by asking us to consider the fruits of righteousness. Peter was most likely banking on his readers’ understanding of the Proverbs in order for them to be able to apply the broader strokes of this Scriptural reference. In referring to the original Proverb, Peter was hoping that the readers would remember that there is a contrast between good and evil. In other words, the righteous will get theirs, but so will the sinners. You reap what you sow.
Finally, by combining all of the verses up until now with this last verse (19), it seems like Peter wants his readers to understand that their lives are meant to be filled with suffering and the contemplation of it, but that this suffering should remind them of who they are, what their lives should look like, and how their lives should present others with the gospel. Peter is echoing Jesus’ teachings: Blessed are you when you are persecuted for my sake, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. Suffering and persecution are part of Christianity, but there is the hope that we will receive what is ours if not on earth, then in heaven.
My assessment is that verse 18 is not a verse that is meant to scare people into behaving a certain way or that is meant to mean that the ungodly are inevitably doomed. In fact, I think that this whole section of 1 Peter (and in fact the whole of the epistle) is meant to encourage Christians to walk with God in spite of their sufferings, because it is only through their inexhaustible faith and hope in God that they can do good works and reap the heavenly benefits of a life lived with Christ. In fact, like Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” This verse has a positive implication to compel Christians to live a life exemplary of our faith, and to cast our light far and wide to encourage others to follow Christ. We should commit ourselves to our faithful Creator “and continue to do good.” Do not be discouraged; our actions proclaim who we are and in whom we believe.
I am thankful for God’s blessings.
Food: banana, juice, chocolate milk, almonds and M&Ms, small piece of vegan lasagna, Chipolte vegetarian salad and chips, Cadbury eggs, short soy latte, decaf Americano
Exercise: walked the dogs, ran 5 miles