Commentary on 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
These verses repeat and recast the pattern that 1 Peter has been emphasizing through the past weeks’ lessons. Believers should expect to share the defamation that the world directed at Christ.
They should interpret this as a positive sign that they are replicating his way in the world successfully enough to offend their neighbors. In a series of verses that the lectionary framers omitted, the letter emphasizes that this does not constitute a call simply to annoy authorities: “If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief maker” (or “meddler” in many translations) (4:12-14). The familiar pattern of heavenly relief following temporal discomfort serves to relocate the context of the recipients’ suffering from their immediate circumstances to their eventual vindication–a gesture that risks platitudinous promises of “pie in the sky,” but which nonetheless stands true, and makes a powerful theological point if is expounded sensitively.
The criticisms of pie-in-the-sky preaching arise in part from a general disbelief that anyone should expect more in the future than can be foreseen to result from earnest work toward social change. Such a premise–though understandable, granted the disheartening persistence of poverty, tyranny, and cruelty–stands squarely athwart 1 Peter’s appropriation of the gospel; somebody who discounts the reality of some eschatological consummation of all things ought probably to preach on different a text, if not reconsider the preaching vocation altogether. The Bible places predominant emphasis on the assurance that God will bring a glorious resolution out of the apparently disastrous conditions of daily life, apart from which 1 Peter’s expression of confident faith would be empty.
The hope of an eschatological restoration falls under suspicion even in some circles that accept the broad premise that God will deliver people from their miseries. Some preachers have emphasized eschatological hope in order to attenuate believers’ commitment to active discipleship in the present. If one begins with an exaggerated (un-Pauline) emphasis on faith alone as the ground of salvation, and then relegates all the blessings of creation to an otherworldly fantasy realm, one might dissuade congregations from attending to any matter other than their personal adherence to a congregation’s norms of belief (lest they be left behind). When preachers dissociate the hopeful anticipation of a greater future from believers’ conduct of their mortal lives, they endanger, perhaps even poison, their congregations’ spiritual well-being.
The sound path that 1 Peter articulates accepts the hope of a future consummation as a point of orientation for daily life; the glory of that end (emphasized twice in today’s lesson) serves as a beacon toward which we should orient our lives, and by which we can see more clearly the conditions in which we find ourselves. At the same time, our role is not to hunker down and cultivate a passive self-congratulatory piety! The verses omitted from this morning’s lesson invoke the prospect of divine judgment, but not as retribution against the oppressors: “[T]he time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, what will be the end for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” Judgment calls the church to account before it turns to its enemies, and 1 Peter anticipates that the righteous will attain salvation only with difficulty (“If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinners?” says 4:18, quoting the Septuagint’s version of Proverbs 11:31–literally, “if it is hard for the righteous one to be saved, where will the impious and sinners be found?”).
1 Peter packs the letter, and this passage, with very firm counsel on how to live out the vocation of God’s new people who know they stand under judgment. We should refrain from obvious transgressions such as murder, theft, or miscellaneous wrong-doing, but also from sticking our noses into others’ business. Vest our hopes in God alone, but not to the exclusion of serving others; rather, we should humbly, eagerly, seek opportunities to do good. Our determination to order our lives in accordance with the good, the generous, the humble, the trusting, prepares us to inherit and rejoice in the kind of world for which God is preparing us.
In other words, the good things that 1 Peter (in concert with abundant other scriptural witnesses) promises us are not a substitute for earthly suffering; the letter makes it plain that “suffering” in general doesn’t matter, but that those who suffer as a result of their steadfastness and their unashamed adherence to the gospel should understand that their sufferings would end. Appropriate fidelity and trust in God, however, motivate believers to continue growing in humility and diligent service–adaptations that set us at odds with worldly culture in many ways, but which orient us rightly to enjoy the everlasting world for which we are forming our souls. As strangers and sojourners in the ways of greed, exploitation, and control, we encounter resistance as a matter of course. Such resistance (understandably) daunts some hearts and revitalizes others; for just this reason, 1 Peter urges his readers to bind their burdens to the God who empowers us to sustain them, and ultimately to prevail over them.
Without the orientation toward Christ, the morning star who knows no setting, we falter and stray into futile ways. We lose our sense of a transformed belonging to a different people, and instead conform ourselves to the cultures among whom we pass our days. All the more vigorously, and all the more joyously, then, 1 Peter redirects our attention to the God of glory who will at the end establish us in the ways of patience, humility, and mutual service for which we’re preparing now. Learning to find joy in service among sisters and brothers whose burdens we can share attunes us to far greater joys when we emerge into the resplendent light of Christ’s eternity.