1 Peter 4:1-6
We’re beginning to look at a new chapter today and it begins with what we might consider to be “a call to arms”. We see that because, in verse 1, Peter gives another one of his imperatives by saying “arm yourselves”. He’s not alone in using that sort of language. In Ephesians 6 Paul urges his readers to “Put on the whole armor of God” and he speaks in several other places of armour and taking up weapons. I wonder what sort of picture that conjures up in your mind. It sounds quite militaristic, doesn’t it? You perhaps think of taking up weapons to defend ourselves against an enemy or even to attack an enemy. At the very least, it suggests facing a struggle. It suggests hard work and discipline. This isn’t an inappropriate picture because, although being a Christian involves great joy and confidence, in this life it also involves effort and facing hardship because we are under attack from the world, the flesh and the Devil.
Peter hasn’t suddenly issued this call to arms out of the blue. We mustn’t think that chapter 4 issomehow separated from chapter 3. You see, Peter begins chapter 4 by saying: “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh”. Saying that “Christ suffered in the flesh” is a reiteration of what he’d said in chapter 3. In verse 18 of chapter 3 he’d said “For Christ also suffered” and Peter went on to say that He’d done so by “being put to death in the flesh”. The word “therefore” in our passage indicates that he’s drawing a conclusion from the fact that “Christ suffered in the flesh”. Now, Peter had mentioned Christ’s suffering in the flesh in the context of having spoken of believers suffering “for righteousness sake” and it being “better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil”. That’s what led on to him saying that “Christ suffered in the flesh” and the chapter went on to conclude that His suffering resulted in the fact that He “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him”. The point was that Christ’s suffering was the pathway to His victory and exaltation.
So, it’s in view of that context, that Peter goes on to issue what we might consider to be “a call to arms”. What does he mean by saying that believers in Christ are to arm themselves? Well, from verses 1 to 6 of chapter 4 we can see five points in connection with this call to “arm yourselves”:
The requirement for arming ourselves
The result of arming ourselves
The reason for arming ourselves
The response to us arming ourselves
The reassurances in arming ourselves
The requirement for arming ourselves
The first and most obvious question is: with what are we to arm ourselves? What does this arming ourselves require? It should go without saying that Peter does not have any sort of physical weapons in mind. He’d learnt that lesson first hand from Jesus. You’ll remember what Peter did when the mob was about to arrest Jesus. We read in John 18v10-11: “Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus)”. Was Jesus grateful to Peter for defending Him in that way? Did Jesus commend him for it? No! The text continues by saying: “So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?””. Jesus made it clear that the use of a physical weapon was not appropriate. Paul also makes it clear that the weapons we are to use are not physical weapons. He said in 2 Corinthians 10v3-4: “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds”.
If we’re not being called to arm ourselves with physical weapons what are we to arm ourselves with? Dating back to 1938 there was a pseudo-Christian movement known as “Moral Re-armament”. It promoted the idea of living according to four moral absolutes of purity, unselfishness, honesty, and love as the way to defend ourselves against warfare. Did that movement perhaps capture the sense of what Peter had in mind when he urged us to arm ourselves? Are we to arm ourselves with morality? Well, commendable though such aspirations might seem to be, Biblical teaching is always concerned with more than mere, outward morality. The Biblical emphasis is always that any real change and any real power comes from what God works within us and not from any attempts that we make to be externally moral.
So, with what weapon does Peter want us to arm ourselves? We see from the text that it’s neither a physical weapon nor morality. Rather, he says: “arm yourselves with the same way of thinking”. The NIV puts it as: “arm yourselves also with the same attitude”. So, we’re to arm ourselves with a “way of thinking” or an “attitude”. Now, if you hear that someone has “an attitude” that often has quite negative connotations, doesn’t it? It either means that their behaviour tends to be arrogant and disrespectful or that they have a surly, negative outlook on most things, perhaps a bit like Kevin the Teenager in the television programme “Harry Enfield and Chums”. Clearly, we’re no more to arm ourselves in that way than we are to arm ourselves with physical weapons or morality.
Saying that we’re to arm ourselves with a “way of thinking” or an “attitude” is saying that we’re to arm ourselves with a particular outlook. You might remember a song that was popular back in the 1980’s that went “don’t worry, be happy”? Is that the outlook that Peter was encouraging? Always look on the bright side of life. The power of positive thinking is much vaunted in our society, isn’t it? Is that the “way of thinking” or “attitude” that we’re exhorted to arm ourselves with? Are we to force ourselves to be optimistic come what may? Well, notice that Peter is speaking of “the same way of thinking” or “the same attitude”. So, we need to answer the question “the same as what”? Well, Peter began the verse by saying “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh”. The point is that since Jesus suffered, we, as His people should expect to suffer too. Peter has already made that clear in chapter 3 but now he’s going on to say that our attitude towards such suffering should be the same as Jesus’ attitude to suffering. What was His attitude towards suffering? Well, He not only expected it, He accepted it and even embraced it. In fact, He chose it. Suffering wasn’t simply something that happened to Him. He deliberately chose it. He said in John 10v18: “No one takes my life from me, I lay it down of my own accord”. We’ve already seen that He said to Peter: “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”. You see His attitude. There was a determination to face the suffering that was in store for Him. He had no intention of trying to avoid it. We see the same emphasis in Matthew’s account of the same event. In Matthew 26v52-53, we read that Jesus said: “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”. You see, Jesus could have been defended infinitely more effectively than any defence that Peter could attempt but He deliberately chose not to call upon the resources that were at His disposal. It would have been very easy for Him to avoid suffering but He deliberately chose to face it. To advocates of modern day positive thinking that would sound rather defeatist or fatalistic or even downright stupid. However, the reality is that positive thinking usually has no sound basis and often amounts to nothing more that unrealistic wishful thinking. In contrast, Jesus was realistic about His suffering and He could embrace it positively. Why? Not because of helpless defeatism. Not on the basis of wishful thinking but because He knew that His Father was at work in all that was happening. He said: “shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”.
So, it’s not the power of positive thinking that’s being encouraged but the power of realistic thinking in the light of the fact that our loving heavenly Father is in control and is working out all things for our good. Just as soldiers are prepared for battle, we as Christians are to be prepared for suffering. We are to arm ourselves with the knowledge that suffering will come and with the disposition to face it with confidence because we know that God is in control. That is to be our “way of thinking”. That is to be our “attitude”.
The result of arming ourselves
Or, you could ask “what are we arming ourselves against”? Well, Peter continues by saying: “for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin”. He’s saying that we’re to arm ourselves with this attitude that we will positively embrace suffering, even if we’re suffering for doing what is right, because being willing to suffer in that way shows that we have “ceased from sin” or, as the NIV puts it, “done with sin”.
Now, we must be careful to not misunderstand this. Firstly, Peter is not saying that our own suffering in some way deals with our sin or gets rid of our sin or stops us from sinning. Suffering as such is no defence against sin. Make no mistake that it is the shed blood of Christ that cleanses us from sin and it is the work of the Holy Spirit within us that enables us to sin less so that we grow in holiness. Secondly, we must not think that Peter is talking about sinless perfection. The Bible is very clear that we can never expect to be completely without sin in this life. So, when Peter says “ceased from sin” or “done with sin” he doesn’t mean “never to sin in any way again”.
In that case, what does Peter mean when he speaks of having “ceased from sin”? Well, he goes on to clarify that in verse 2 where he says: “so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God”. By “the rest of the time in the flesh” I think he means the rest of your earthly life and he’s talking about a change in the way that you live that life. He says that you live “no longer for human passions”. The words “no longer” indicate that “human passions” are what used to motivate you but they don’t any more. Peter has already alluded to that in the letter. In chapter 1 verses 14 and 15 he said: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct”. You see, those passions dominated a believer’s former self but things have changed. Then, in chapter 2 verse 11 he said: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul”. You see, to have “ceased from sin” is to live “no longer for human passions”. Instead of being motivated by sinful, human desires it’s to be motivated by the desire to do “the will of God”. Arming yourself with the willingness and readiness to “suffer for righteousness’ sake” or to “suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will” enables you to resist “human passions” or “abstain from the passions of the flesh”. It enables you to defend yourself against “the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” and, instead, live “for the will of God”.
How does that work? I think the point is that if you have the attitude that you are willing to “suffer for righteousness’ sake” you are showing your commitment to doing “the will of God”. If being faithful to doing “the will of God” leads to suffering and you’re not prepared to suffer what does that say about your commitment? If you’re only prepared to do the will of God so long as it’s easy and painless then “human passions” are still in control. If you’re willing to suffer for the sake of God and the gospel you have armed yourself against the attack of “human passions”.
Well, that’s the result of arming ourselves. Next, let’s consider:
The reason for arming ourselves
We read in verse 3: “For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do”. It begins with the word “For” so Peter is now giving a reason for arming ourselves with the “way of thinking” that is willing to suffer for the sake of the Father as Jesus did. What reason does he give for doing that? Well, the ESV says “the time that is past suffices” or the NIV says “you have spent enough time”. In other words, enough is enough! You have spent enough time doing what? Well, the ESV says “doing what the Gentiles want to do” and the NIV says “doing what pagans choose to do”. As we’ve seen previously in the letter, by “Gentiles” or “pagans” Peter means unbelievers. That’s his way of referring to those who have not come to faith in Christ as their Saviour. Now, the expression “what the Gentiles want to do” or “what pagans choose to do” should literally be translated as “the will of the Gentiles” because it’s the same Greek word here as was used in verse 2 for “the will of God”. Peter goes on to give some examples of what “the Gentiles want to do”. He mentions: “living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry”. Those are some examples of living “for human passions”. That’s what dominated you when you were an unbeliever and it’s completely at odds with doing “the will of God”.
The point that Peter is stressing as a reason for arming ourselves is that we spent more than enough time living in that way before we came to Christ. Even if you came to Christ very early on in your life you spent too long living for self. It was too much. It was more than enough. In coming to Christ, we say “no more”. We renounce that old way of life. We want to make a clean break with sin. So, we need to arm ourselves against slipping back to living “for human passions”. We do that by being ready to suffer for “the will of God”.
So, that’s the reason Peter gives us for arming ourselves. Next, let’s consider:
The response to us arming ourselves
In other words, how can we expect those around us to react to us arming ourselves with a determination to suffer for doing the will of God rather than joining them in doing what they want to do as they follow the dictates of their “human passions”. Well, we see a two-fold response in verse 4.
Firstly, we read: “With respect to this they are surprised”. They think it strange. They can’t comprehend your behaviour. What are they surprised about? Well, according to the ESV, they’re surprised that “you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery”. The phrase “join them” is actually a bit weak. The Greek word actually means to rush along with others. It’s to run with the pack. It’s to be taken up with the thrill of the herd mentality. It’s the idea of rushing headlong with reckless abandon or even to plunge into something. The NIV picks up on that idea by saying: “They think it strange that you do not plunge with them”. The picture that this conjures up in my mind is that of lemmings running over the cliff edge and plunging into the sea. You see, they’re so taken up with the thrill of being part of that charging hoard that they can’t comprehend that anyone would not want to join them. It just seems to be the obvious thing to do.
What does Peter see unbelievers plunging into? Well, he describes it as a “flood of debauchery” or a “flood of dissipation”. The word “plunge” fits well with the fact that Peter speaks of entering a “flood” doesn’t it? The image of a flood perhaps indicates the idea of an excess. It perhaps also suggests something that is widespread. The idea is that this “debauchery” or “dissipation” is commonplace. It seems to be the norm, so, to those who are caught up in it, it is incredible that anyone wouldn’t join in. So, for someone to be willing to suffer for doing the will of God rather than join in the fun and thrill of hedonistically following their passions, seems very strange to them. They are surprised to say the least. But, their response doesn’t stop at that.
Secondly, we see that Peter goes on to say: “and they malign you” or “and they heap abuse on you”. You see, their response quickly goes from surprise to hostility. Because they find it strange they go on the offensive. That’s a very common response to people who are different or not understood isn’t it? Think of the way in which schoolchildren might cruelly make fun of a handicapped classmate. Why? It’s because they’re different and they can’t understand that difference. Well, as Christians we’re different and the world can’t understand that difference so it responds with hostility. Saying that “they malign you” or “heap abuse on you” suggests that the opposition primarily takes the form of verbal abuse. Peter has already mentioned that back in 1 Peter 2v12 where he said: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation”. That being spoken against is part of the suffering that we are to willingly bear. Remember that Peter said in 1 Peter 3v14-17: “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil”.
Finally, let us consider:
The reassurances in arming ourselves
We see two reassurances in verses 5 and 6. Firstly, in verse 5, Peter goes on to say: “they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead”. By “they” he means those who live “for human passions” and indulge in the ensuing “flood of debauchery” and “malign” believers for being different and not joining with them. They might seem to be whooping it up and having good time. They might seem to be dominant and intimidating but we have the reassurance that the tables will be turned because they will one day have to “give account” to God. That’s courtroom language and it refers to the final judgement because it speaks of “him who is ready to judge the living and the dead”. That He will “judge the living and the dead” suggests that this judgement is inescapable. Everyone who has ever lived will stand before God as judge on that day. That He is “ready to judge” suggests that this judgement could come at any time. The reassurance that stems from recognising that the final judgement is coming lies in knowing that those who malign us will eventually get their comeuppance. Justice will be done. That thought encourages us to arm ourselves with the willingness to suffer for the sake of God’s will in this life.
The second reassurance lies in the words that we find in verse 6 where Peter says: “For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does”.
As with some previous passages in the letter, these words are difficult to understand. For the sake of time, I’m not going to delve into them in detail. I think that if we just grasp the gist of Peter’s words here we’ll quickly see how they provide a reassurance as we arm ourselves with the readiness to suffer for Christ’s sake.
The verse begins by saying: “For this is why the gospel was preached”. The word “For” is pointing back to verse 5 where Peter had been speaking about the final judgement. You see, the gospel exists because there is to be a final judgement. That’s why the gospel message of salvation through faith in Christ is needed. That’s why God provided it and it’s why that gospel message is preached. It’s so that those who believe can face the judgement and not be condemned. Peter goes on to say: “even to those who are dead”. By “those who are dead”, he meant “those who are now dead”. The gospel had been preached to them but, at the time of Peter writing the letter, they had died. They were then physically dead. Some of them might even have died as a direct result of persecution.
You can imagine that some of Peter’s readers could well have found themselves wondering “what’s the point in us being willing to suffer for Christ if we just end up dying in the same way as everyone else anyway?” Well, Peter’s next word is “that” or “so that” in the NIV. That’s a purpose clause so Peter is going on to explain what the preaching of the gospel achieves for those who receive it. Before stating that purpose he inserts the words “though judged in the flesh the way people are”. You see, before stating what the preaching of the gospel achieves, he tells us what it does not achieve. It does not enable anyone to escape being “judged in the flesh the way people are”. What does that mean? I think it refers to the physical death which came into the world as a judgement for Adam’s sin. Everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, is subject to that physical death unless they happen to be alive when Jesus returns. The gospel does not save people from physical death. So, why is the gospel preached to people? Peter said that it’s so that “they might live in the spirit the way God does”. You see, although we face physical death just as unbelievers do, when it comes to the final judgement we won’t be condemned as unbelievers will be. We will: “live in the spirit the way God does”. We look forward to eternal, spiritual life. Those who had heard and received the gospel and had died might seem to have been judged like everyone else but they haven’t. They are alive forevermore. They are with the Lord. What a staggering thought! They live “the way God does”. They live an eternal, holy, glorious life! So, we can be reassured that arming ourselves with a willingness to suffer for Christ in this life is not a foolish thing to do. Paul said in Romans 8v18: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us”.
In 2 Corinthians 4v16-18 he said: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal”.
So, arm yourselves with the willingness to suffer for the sake of Christ. Compared with the “eternal weight of glory” that Jesus has secured for us any such suffering is but a “light momentary affliction”.