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David R. Helm: A Biblical Exposition on Sharing in Christ’s Sufferings From 1 Peter 4:1-6

28 Oct

“Embrace Your Calling to Suffer in the World”

“Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 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” (1 Peter 4:1-6).

Some would say that those who suffer most often suffer first from blind naiveté. Albert Schweitzer thought as much about Jesus, claiming that his cruel death on the cross was nothing more than the unfortunate result of naiveté. According to Schweitzer, Jesus, the misguided visionary, never saw the sufferings of the cross coming until it was too late:

There is silence all around. The Baptist appears, and cries: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Soon after that comes Jesus, and in the knowledge that He is the coming Son of Man lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn, and crushes Him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, He has destroyed them. The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to think of Himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to His purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is His victory and His reign (Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus. New York: Macmillan, 1968, pp. 370, 371).

Peter, however, has been telling a different story. Jesus was vindicated in death. He rose victorious in the spirit and now reigns eternally as the Ascended Son at God’s right hand. According to Peter, naiveté is set aside. Jesus’ suffering was not the unfortunate result of an impoverished itinerant’s idealistic fervor. Instead, his suffering was by divine initiative. Persecution was the predetermined pathway for God’s Son.

All the Gospel writers concur. The Jesus they present to the world is well aware that his unique work required suffering and service. Jesus believed it on the strength of the Hebrew Scriptures. And Jesus embraced it every step along the way of his earthly ministry. Repeatedly he told his disciples, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed” (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33). When Jesus stood before the Sanhedrin on the night of his betrayal, never once did he defend himself in hopes of avoiding the cross. In fact, when he did speak, he intentionally said what he knew would seal his fate (Mark 14:62).

Clearly, Jesus fully embraced his calling to suffer out of his desire to save us. As Peter argued in 3:18: Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.

Now, with the opening phrase of our text, Peter again returns to Christ’s sufferings, but this time with different intentions — he feels no need to further encourage us with Christ’s triumphant vindication. He accomplished that in 3:18-22. Rather, he writes about Christ’s suffering in this particular text to call us to embrace it as well. In 4:1 he says: “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking.”

“Arm yourselves.” Emulate Jesus. It is as if Peter has finally come to the place in the letter where he rises up to unashamedly proclaim, “Followers of Jesus, be prepared to embrace not only submission but suffering as an aspect of your calling! Get yourselves ready for suffering!” (It is interesting that until this time suffering appears in the letter to be “if necessary.” But now he speaks with definitive force, preparing the church for the inevitable).

The question of course is, how? How do we go about getting ready? What does a person need to know and do to prepare to embrace his or her calling in the world?

Fortunately for us, the structure of our text unfolds the answers to these questions with clarity and simplicity. If we intend to embrace this aspect of our calling, there are three gospel commitments we must be willing to make (4:1-3), two personal costs we should be ready to endure (4:4), and one encouraging reminder that a final accounting awaits all humanity (4:5, 6).

THREE GOSPEL COMMITMENTS (vv. 1-3)

Become a Person of Resolve

How do we go about embracing our calling? First, by becoming persons of resolve. Take another look at verse 1. Peter writes, “arm yourselves with the same way of thinking.” Notice, to embrace our calling in Christ initially requires the attention of our mind. We begin by thinking clearly. And for that we need to develop the mental disposition of Jesus.

Today, in the West at least, it is the church that suffers from a naiveté of the mind. It is difficult for Christians here to understand and embrace God’s intentions in suffering. We prefer a gospel in which God gives us healthy bodies and bulging wallets. And we too readily think that material blessing is the entitled reward of the gospel. To put it bluntly, the democratized West expects in Jesus, comfort, ease, and acceptance from the world.

Yet, in actual fact the life of Christ challenges all of this. Jesus resolved to live as a stranger in the world. He expected hardship. And when he read his own Hebrew Scriptures, they taught him that union with God culminates in mixed reviews here on earth.

In one sense, when Peter calls us to arm ourselves with “the same way of thinking,” he is saying, “Beloved, grow up! Get the mind of Christ. Become a person of resolve. Be prepared. If you have been united with him by faith, you will need to identify with him in suffering.”

The first gospel commitment Peter calls us to embrace closes with a phrase that needs some explanation. Look at the latter part of 4:1:

“Arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.”

The natural question this phrase raises is, what does it mean to “cease from sin”? Is the suffering person a sinless person? We ask this even though we know that such a wooden interpretation of the verse goes against all of Scripture and life experience. So what is Peter saying?

He is simply affirming that those who suffer for the gospel do, by their very willingness, demonstrate that they are done with sin. To put it as clearly as I can, everyone who suffers for Jesus first resolved, somewhere along the line, to cease from sinning. After all, the suffering they experience is a result of leaving off with sin. Thus, Peter says, “For whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.”

Live for the Will of God

In the next verse Peter puts forward the second and third gospel commitments that followers of Christ make as they embrace their calling in the world: “…so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God” (v. 2).

The two commitments we are to make are spelled out by way of contrast: “…no longer for human passions” with “but for the will of God.” Since the following verse is going to highlight the kinds of behavior the Christian leaves behind, let’s look first at what we are to be about. Peter says we are to live “for the will of God.” What does Peter mean by the phrase “the will of God”? And how are we to start living for his will? Fortunately we have already seen in 1 Peter the kinds of godly pursuits he wants us to pursue. And in fact, in each of those places he contrasted the
things that God wills for us with the same phase he uses here — “human passions.”

So by looking back in the letter for “passions” we will run headlong into what Peter means when he wants us to make a commitment to “the will of God.” Look at 1 Peter 1:14,15: “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.”

If the will of God is found by way of contrast to human passions, then we can know for sure that we prepare our minds for suffering by giving ourselves wholly over to the pursuit of holiness. God wants us to make a commitment to holiness, to sanctification, to putting on the new man. This is how we prepare to embrace our calling.

Another text in 1 Peter that teaches us what the will of God is can be found in 2:11,12: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 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.

We do the will of God when we “keep [our] conduct . . . honorable” by doing “good deeds.” This, of course, will require us to be countercultural. We will always be swimming against the current of today’s moral tide. We are to be known for doing good. And as we have seen in this letter, the supreme mark of goodness is our submission to difficult and ungodly people in authority.

Leave Human Passions Behind

I love the opening phrase in verse 3: “The time that is past suffices.” It is as if Peter barks out, “Enough already. Put sin in your rearview mirror.” And then he goes on to list the kinds of things that Christians are to put away. Look at how the verse finishes: “living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry.”

Be done. Enough. The past is sufficient. Life as an ongoing fraternity party is a major problem in the church today. If we are not there in person, we are all too often present through what we watch on television, see in the theaters, or watch on the Internet. For men, sensuality is an especially prevalent issue. Sex is the elephant in the room. Peter says that in this matter it is time to clean house. Until we wake up and tackle this area head-on and out in the open, we will only continue debilitating a generation and will keep them from being grounded in their faith, unable to fly unencumbered toward Heaven’s delights.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard tells a parable of the disastrous effects of not putting to death the desires of the flesh, of failing to leave a way of life behind. One springtime a duck was flying with his friends northward across Europe. During the flight he came down in a barnyard where there were tame ducks. He enjoyed some of their corn. He stayed for an hour, and then for a day. One week passed, and before he knew it a month had gone by. He loved the good food, so he stayed all summer long.

One autumn day, when the same wild ducks were winging their way southward again, they passed overhead, and the duck on the ground heard their cries. He was filled with a strange thrill and joy, and he desired to fly with them once again. With a great flapping of wings he rose in the air to rejoin his old comrades in flight.

But he found that his good fare had made him so soft and heavy that he could rise no higher than the eaves of the barn. He dropped back again into the barnyard and said to himself, “Oh well, my life is safe here, and the food is good.” Every spring and autumn when he heard the wild ducks honking, his eyes would gleam for a moment, and he would begin flapping his wings. But finally the day came when the wild ducks flew overhead uttering their cries, but he paid no attention. In fact, he failed to hear them at all.

What an apt parable for the church in our time. As Christians, too many of us have feasted for too long on the pleasant fare this world has to offer. We too easily forget that the time past was enough. We forget that we are still far from home — we haven’t arrived at our destination yet. Sadly, many go on day by day unfazed by the gospel thought that as we feed on the husks of this world we demonstrate that we think too little of the delights that await us in Heaven. Peter says to us, “Enough. Rise up, O men of God. Have done with lesser things” (From the hymn “Rise Up, O Men of God,” lyrics by William P. Merrill; http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/r/i/riseupom.htm; accessed July 31, 2007).

C. S. Lewis struggled with his own inability to grasp the gravity of his sin in light of God’s clear teaching on the subject. He wrote:

Indeed the only way in which I can make real to myself what theology teaches about the heinousness of sin is to remember that every sin is the distortion of an energy breathed into us — an energy which, if not thus distorted, would have blossomed into one of those holy acts whereof “God did it” and “I did it” are both true descriptions. We poison the wine as He decants it into us; murder a melody He would play with us as the instrument. We caricature the self-portrait He would paint. Hence all sin, whatever else it is, is sacrilege (C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, chapter 13, as quoted in Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root, The Quotable Lewis. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1989, p. 547).

God has plans for your body, and they are plans for purity and for good. Don’t cheapen life. Don’t settle for distortion. Don’t poison the wine God decants into you. Be done with “sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry.”

Make three gospel commitments that tell the world you are prepared to embrace this aspect of your calling in Christ.

  • Become a person of resolve.
  • Live for the will of God.
  • Leave human passions behind.

TWO PERSONAL COSTS (v. 4)

But as you do, know this: your newfound commitments come with a twofold cost. Consider verse 4: With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you.

They Are Surprised at You

First, your friends and family will be surprised. You will be misunderstood. Remember, there are no categories for them to understand why you no longer grab all that you can in this life without regard for the next. “Come on,” they will say. “What happened? Loosen up. Look out for your own happiness. Pursue some pleasure. Live a little!” Malcolm Muggeridge articulates well how your new life in Christ will affect your relationship with former friends who are still pursuing only happiness and pleasure:

Anyone who suggests that the pursuit of happiness — that disastrous phrase written almost by chance into the American Declaration of Independence, and usually signifying in practice the pursuit of pleasure as expressed in the contemporary cult of eroticism — runs directly contrary to the Christian way of life as conveyed in the New Testament is sure to be condemned as a life-hater (Malcolm Muggeridge, Jesus Rediscovered. London: Collins, 1969, pp. 101,102).

Over time their surprise will turn to ridicule.

They Malign You

Surprise evokes misunderstanding, and misunderstanding evokes a sense of being judged. And when the world feels that it has been judged by your way of life, those who are of it will condemn you as “a life-hater.” They will malign you. Take a look again at the progression of behavior embedded in verse 4. “Surprised” gives way to the word “malign”:

With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you.

R. C. Sproul, in his book The Holiness of God, tells of a time when Billy Graham was invited to play golf with President Ford and two PGA tour professionals. He writes:

After the round of golf was finished, one of the other pros came up to the golfer and asked, “Hey, what was it like playing with the President and with Billy Graham?” The pro unleashed a torrent of cursing, and in a disgusted manner said, “I don’t need Billy Graham stuffing religion down my throat.” With that he turned on his heel and stormed off, heading for the practice tee. His friend followed. . . . His friend said nothing. He sat on the bench and watched. After a few minutes the anger of the pro was spent. He settled down. His friend said quietly, “Was Billy a little rough on you out there?” The pro heaved an embarrassed sigh and said, “No, he didn’t even mention religion. I just had a bad round.”

About the incident Sproul concludes:

Astonishing. . . . Billy Graham is so identified with religion, so associated with the things of God, that his very presence is enough to smother the wicked man who flees when no man pursues. Luther was right, the pagan does tremble at the rustling of a leaf. He feels the hound of heaven breathing down his neck. He feels crowded by holiness even if it is only made present by an imperfect, partially sanctified human vessel (R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1985, pp. 91-93).

ONE FINAL ACCOUNTING (vv. 5, 6)

Peter closes our text with a reminder on the final judgment. It is meant as an encouragement to his readers. In verse 5 it appears that he is especially thinking of the judgment that awaits those unbelievers who choose to malign us. But they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. In one sense you and I do not need to judge the world. It already stands condemned. Entrust yourself to God, and wait for Jesus to set all things straight. The closing verse in our text is tricky to get hold of at first glance. It is especially hard to see how it functions as an encouraging word to

Christians who await the final judgment. “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” (v. 6).

What we need to remember is that the early church had many questions about their family members and friends who had died after coming to faith in Christ. They wondered what happened to believers after death. There was a concern for those who had already undergone the penalty of death. Peter wants to reassure his readers here with news that although believers are “judged in the flesh the way all people are,” they need not worry about their future with God. He says they will still “live in the spirit the way God does.”

We have nothing to fear in Christ! We have nothing to fear in embracing suffering in this life. Peter wants us to grasp this as part of our calling. To do so, we need to make three gospel commitments: become a person of resolve, live for the will of God, and leave human passions behind. We must be ready to incur two costs: the surprise of those with whom we once lived in sin and the inevitable maligning and slander that is sure to follow. In all this, though, Peter reassures us with one encouraging reminder: there will be a final accounting for everyone. As those who are in Christ, we shall live on in the Spirit forever.

Dear Lord, help us to truly embrace our calling to suffer in Christ. May we receive it with open arms. We know that everything we bear for you in this life will be nothing to compare with the glory we will share in with you in Heaven. Make us people of resolve. In your precious name we pray, Amen.

The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (4:7-11)

The Sermon/Article above was adapted from the sermon based on 1 Peter 4:1-6 in David R. Helm’s terrific book of sermons on 1 & 2 Peter, and Jude: Sharing Christ’s Sufferings in the Christo-centric Series of expositions published by Crossway books in Wheaton, IL. – The Preaching the Word Series edited by the faithful expositional preacher R. Kent Hughes.

About the Preacher:

David Helm, along with Arthur Jackson, serves as Lead Pastor of our Hyde Park Congregation, and is the Director of Ministry Training at HTC. After ten and a half years as founding Sr. Pastor of Holy Trinity Church, David handed off the Senior Pastor role to Jon Dennis on November 23, 2008. In addition to serving our South Side congregation, David is Chairman of The Charles Simeon Trust, a ministry devoted to equipping men in expository preaching.

A graduate of Wheaton College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, David is ordained in the PCA and serves on the council of The Gospel Coalition. He authored I, II Peter and Jude in Crossway’s Preaching the Word series, and contributed to Preach the Word:Essays in Expository Preaching in Honor of Kent Hughes. In addition, David has written The Big Picture Story Bible and The Genesis Factor (the latter with Jon Dennis).

David and his wife, Lisa, have five children (Noah, Joanna, Baxter, Silas and Mariah) and reside in the Hyde Park neighborhood. In his spare time, he generally roots for the Chicago White Sox and enjoys Johnny Cash.

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