In 1 Peter 4:12-16, Peter exhorts his readers to rejoice when they encounter “the fiery trial” and gives specific instructions on how to respond to this suffering. These are a short few verses, but they are packed with useful instruction and warning.
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. 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.
1 Peter 4:12-16 ESV
So, if you suffer for being a Christian, according to Peter, you
- Not be surprised (vs 12)
- Rejoice (vs 13)
- Not suffer for our wrong deeds (vs 15)
- Not be ashamed, but glorify God (vs 16)
Let’s explore each of these instructions.
Do Not Be Surprised at Suffering
Suffering has not been foreign to the Church, and in fact, wasn’t unknown to Peter’s readers. There is some evidence to support the idea that this letter was written during a lull in persecutions: the church in Israel had come out of the initial wave of persecution described in Acts, and had entered a period of explosive growth throughout Asia Minor. The readers of this letter likely had not encountered significant trials, however, the Domitian persecution was around the corner and it is hard not to see a prophetic note in Peter’s tone in verse 12.
American evangelicals are often surprised when we encounter suffering. We shouldn’t be; as Peter alludes, suffering is not something strange or unexpected for Christians. Jesus warned that we, as disciples, will not be treated differently than the master. If He is maligned and abused by our culture, we should be as well.
After explaining how we should respond to suffering, Peter then explains that judgement is coming for everyone.
…But Rejoice In It
In this passage, Peter is not focused on understanding the suffering, but instead is explaining how we should respond. Instead of being surprised or dismayed, we are to rejoice. Why do we rejoice? Peter offers three reasons for rejoicing in the face of suffering:
- We rejoice because we get to share with Christ. Paul talks about this idea as well (Philippians 3:10, 2 Corinthians 1:5), which is rendered as “the fellowship of his sufferings” in the KJV. A different way to phrase this is, “To the extent that you are suffering in common with Christ, rejoice!” Since Christ told us we would share in his suffering if we were his disciples, sharing in his suffering should bring us joy—we get to participate in that fellowship.
- We rejoice in suffering so that we may also rejoice when His glory is revealed. This phrase commonly refers to the return of Christ in glory—we will rejoice and be glad at that time because of our place in His house, which we are getting to share in at this present moment. This phrasing does lead to a question: If I don’t rejoice when I suffer as a Christian, will be excluded from rejoicing at His return? Jesus warns, in the parable of the sower, about those who fall away from the faith when persecution arises, because they had no root in themselves (Mark 4:1-20). He also warns about those who will arrive at the judgment showing the mighty works they did in His name but will be rejected because He never knew them (Matthew 7:21-23). This implies two things: First, it is possible to be in the church, serving in ministries, and not have saving, justifying faith in Christ. In other words, to look like and act like a Christian, to hear the Word of God with joy, but end up in hell. Secondly, suffering for Christ is a litmus test for this kind of Christian: if your faith enables you to rejoice in suffering with Christ, then that faith will carry you home to rejoice when His glory is revealed. Put another way, if persecution and tribulation are enough to cause you to fall away, you never had true faith to begin with. The act of rejoicing in tribulation does not cause us to be saved, but does prove that our faith is saving faith.
- We rejoice because we are blessed. In verse 14, Peter explains that when we are mocked because of Christ, we are blessed—the Spirit rests on us. This echoes Matthew 5:10: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” These promises are great fuel to power our faith in the midst of persecution. When we are insulted as Christians or suffer because of Christ, we are uniquely blessed. That is cause for great rejoicing!
Not All Suffering is Equal
Throughout this epistle Peter distinguishes between suffering in Christ and suffering for our own wrongdoing. In verse 15, Peter warns, “But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler.” Peter sandwiches this warning in between encouragements: “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed,” and “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed.”
Peter’s main thrust in this passage is how we should respond to suffering for Christ. He describes two specific aspects of this suffering in this passage: First, the “fiery trial” that has come to test us, and second, that this suffering comes upon us because we are Christians and associated with Christ.
This is not suffering because we’re stupid, sinful, or dumb. If we’re getting in trouble because of our foolish mistakes or evil deeds, our response shouldn’t be rejoicing but should be repentance. Proverbs is full of examples of how foolish or wrong actions typically result in unpleasant consequences. Those consequences are not “suffering for Christ”.
However, we are easily deluded. Our hearts lie to us, and our minds justify our behavior. It is easy to excuse our meddling in other’s business as “loving on them” or “speaking truth into their lives”. Our response to suffering ought to include careful, prayerful self-reflection to ensure we aren’t just reaping the consequences of our own wrongful deeds.
Don’t be Ashamed of the Name
At first glance, this admonition seems to contrast suffering as a Christian with suffering due to our wrongdoing. We should feel shame when we encounter consequences for our evil deeds. But there’s more to this. This verse echoes the words of Jesus in Mark 8:38: “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” This same idea is repeated throughout the New Testament: if we are suffering because we belong to the family of God, we should embrace that and not be ashamed by it. We should glorify God that we are counted worthy of being called by His name, not deny that we know him. Instead of being embarrassed by our association with Christ, we should glory in it!
Suffering is a good thing!
Peter, James, Paul, and other apostles emphasized the value of suffering as a test for our faith. Like purifying precious metals in a forge, the “fiery trial” of suffering for Christ purifies us, forces our flaws, our doubts, and our sin to the surface, and results in the strengthening of our faith.
Peter’s main point in this passage is worth remembering: Don’t be surprised when you suffer as a Christian, but rejoice in it. Don’t be ashamed of your association with Christ. Glorify God that you get to share in His suffering.
In America, we’ve had it pretty easy as Christians. We don’t suffer often, and organized persecution is rare. That has not been the historic norm for believers and is not the case in much of the rest of the world. Furthermore, that appears to be changing here as well: witness the cases in the news where Christians are being discriminated against or punished legally for adhering to their faith. At a time like this, Peter’s message on responding to persecution is critically important.