“Why would God do this?” his grandmother asked me as we stood in front of her grandson’s casket. Was there an answer that would calm her troubled heart? Nothing I could say would take away her pain. I told her that I did not know why her grandson died, but that God cares for us when we are suffering.
First Peter is about suffering. Certainly not a topic I like to read about or hear preached, but Peter casts it in a new light. And he has reasons for doing so.
Reason 1: Peter’s Experience
The apostle Peter understood suffering from identifying with Jesus and his years serving the fledgling church. Sometimes his suffering was self-induced, caused by his own mistakes. The simple, rugged fisherman failed when he took his eyes off Jesus while walking on the water. Peter even denied Christ during the last few hours before the crucifixion. Despite all this, Jesus never forsook Peter, and God used these experiences to mold him.
In [Christ] you 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 your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed (1 Pet 1:6–7 NIV).
Peter’s view is ironic (to say the least). When we endure pain, most of us doubt God’s love, or even question our salvation. Peter reminds us that suffering isn’t punishment from God. It is temporary. Even though God didn’t cause the pain, He will refine us through it. Peter seems to be echoing what Job said after he endured a tremendous trial: “But [God] knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I shall come out as gold” (Job 23:10 NIV).
If Job and Peter could find purpose in their pain, then there must be something to what they are saying. The mystery of suffering is never fully expressed. But it does seem that suffering leads us to pray more—whether out of anger, protest or petition. And thus, in the midst of tragedy, our relationship with God can improve.
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Reason 2: Christ’s Suffering
As odd as it sounds, we have the opportunity to become more like Jesus by suffering.
Jesus gave us the ultimate example of godly endurance when He died for our sins. He had a purpose in mind. Peter says that “Christ suffered for [us], leaving [us] an example … [We] should follow in his steps” (1 Pet 2:21 NIV). But why do we need to suffer like Jesus? Wasn’t He crucified “once and for all” for us?
These questions delve further into the mystery of anguish. It is not that we need to suffer just like Jesus. Because Christ suffered and “bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (2:24).
The last line of 1 Pet 2:24 is an allusion to the servant in Isaiah.
Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isa 53:4–6 NIV, emphasis added).
For Peter, Jesus was the ultimate fulfillment of the suffering servant prophesied about 500 years earlier. Peter directs the words of Isaiah at his community by exchanging the pronoun “we” for “you”: “By his wounds you have been healed.” Jesus bore our sin and lifted our iniquities so that we will no longer be separated from God (1 Pet 2:24; Isa 53:8). We don’t have to endure ultimate suffering—separation from God—because of the ultimate sufferer’s actions. All we have to do is believe, and then begin “living for righteousness” (the right purposes) (1 Pet 2:24).
The example of Christ’s suffering in 1 Pet 2:24 also clarifies Peter’s point in 1 Pet 2:21: We should react to suffering like Jesus did, being willing to suffer for other people. When we suffer, we share something in common with Jesus. We have an opportunity to show people Christ’s faithfulness in how we react. Jesus was rejected, humiliated, beaten and murdered. When tragedy happens to us, it is not caused by God, but it is certainly an opportunity to show ourselves faithful.
When you are going through horrible times, people will watch to see how you react. It may seem strange and even unfair, but God might be answering your prayers in a round-about way. A friend who needs Christ may accept Him because you believed that God would continue to work through you—even in the midst of your pain.
Above all, Peter wants us to remember that we are not alone. When we cry out to Christ, He understands our pain and weaknesses because He endured the same thing.
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Reason 3: Blessings
Peter’s audience was suffering at the hands of other people, because they believed in Jesus. If you have endured persecution for Christ, you know how traumatic it can be. Peter offers some advice: following the example of his Savior, he encourages us not to repay evil for evil or insult for insult.
Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing (εὐλογέω, eulogeō), because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing (εὐλογία, eulogia) (1 Pet 3:8–9 NIV).
“Bless” those who harm me? You have got to be kidding. What is Peter talking about? The Greek words Peter uses (eulogeō and eulogia) both have to do with wishing favor upon someone—specifically the type of favor wished on someone through prayer. We don’t need a Greek dictionary to figure this out. Just look at the context:
Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with eulogeō, because to this you were called so that you may inherit eulogia.
From the context, we find the sense of the word. “Favor” works nicely:
Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with favor, because to this you were called so that you may inherit favor.
If we turn the other cheek, those attempting to inflict pain will be thrown off their game. They will be taken aback. They may even suddenly begin to favor us.
We see the English word “blessed” again in 3:14 “But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed (μακάριος, makarios).” First Peter 3:14 uses makarios, not eulogeō or eulogia. This is a different kind of “blessing” than what we see in 3:9. Makarios is the word we find in Jesus’ “Blessed are you” sayings in Matt 5. Jesus says:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled (Matt 5:3–6 NIV).
All of Jesus’ sayings are about how God will vindicate His people—what He will do for them in the future. In His next statement, Jesus even echoes Peter’s logic in 3:9: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matt 5:7 NIV). If you show mercy, God will be merciful. If you show kindness to other people when they are cruel, they will likely be kind to you. Giving someone what they don’t deserve changes everything, and it results in God’s favor—His future blessing.
The apostle talks about this in depth in his second letter.
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Reason 4: God’s Faithfulness
One day, our suffering will end. We will be united with our suffering Lord and those who came to know Him because we suffered well. This is what Peter says near the end of his second letter, which he wrote very close to his execution:
Since everything will be destroyed … what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. [The day God comes] will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation (2 Pet 3:11–15 NIV).
Suffering does not last forever. Not only do we follow Christ’s example by suffering, but we also follow in His resurrection. One day, God will raise us up out of our suffering.
First and Second Peter gives us a complete picture of suffering. These letters remind us that suffering is only temporary and that it exists because we live in a fallen world. But one day Christ will return and redeem this world and make everything right. One day God will vindicate us. In the meantime, we have to act like Christ by being kind to those who do not deserve kindness. In doing so, we will realize the profoundness of suffering—the mystery. For this reason, Peter says at the end of his letter, “Cast all your anxiety on [Christ] because he cares for you” (1 Pet 5:7).