A Lonely March and a Glorious End
Passage: 1 Peter 4:1-6
This paragraph is a hard section of Scripture. At times it is hard to understand. It’s not as difficult to understand as the previous paragraph, but it’s still has a couple of hard sayings. In particular, what does Peter mean in v. 1 when he says that Christians can in this life “cease from sin”? And what does v. 6 mean when it says that the gospel was preached to the dead? Those are hard questions. But the hardest part of this passage is not understanding it; the hardest part is living it. Verse 1 commands us to embrace the mentality of Christ and to follow his example of total commitment to God’s will. We know from the Gospels that Christ’s path was often hard and lonely. Peter is going to give some difficult challenges in this passage. This is a hard text, but that’s okay because most good things are not easy. And there is certainly much good in this passage.
As I did last week, I’d live to begin with a quick…
The opening clause of v. 1, “Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh” indicates that this paragraph builds directly off of 3:18–22 and especially v. 18, which describes the example of suffering that Christ set.
Peter follows with the only command in the paragraph (read). The basic purpose of this paragraph is to challenge us to follow Christ’s example in suffering. In 2:21–25 Peter already challenged us to follow his example of not sinking to the level of those who mistreat us. But here he is going to challenge us to follow in another important way. We must follow Christ’s example of total obedience to the Father’s will. And so vv. 1–3 call on us to “follow Christ’s example of total commitment.”
Verse 4 follows by acknowledging that such commitment will set us at odds with the world. It will be lonely and hard, but in vv. 5–6 Peter encourages us that in the end, God will bring justice. And so after vv. 1–3 call on us to “follow Christ’s example of total commitment,” vv. 4–6 call on us to “trust God to bring justice.” Therefore, the central challenge that I want to bring today is to live in total commitment to God’s will believing that he will bring justice.
Let’s begin by considering vv. 1–3, which challenge us to…
Follow Christ’s example of total commitment (vv. 1–3).
I’d like to break down our discussion of these verses into three statements. First…
We must adopt the wartime mentality of Christ (v. 1a–1b).
I already mentioned that the background for this command is 3:18. Because of that, Peter is primarily thinking of the example Christ set in going to the cross, although we know that he suffered in a variety of ways throughout his ministry. There are many ways we are to imitate the example of Christ, but Peter is specifically concerned in this verse that we “arm ourselves” with “the same mind.” You could also say the same “resolve,” “purpose,” or “determination.” Think of Christ’s mentality in the garden just before he was arrested. Jesus was not surprised by his arrest or the suffering he endured. He fully understood what was about to happen, and he endured an intense battle with temptation as he contemplated the pain he would endure. But he resolved to obey the Father’s will no matter how hard it may be, and declared to the Father, “not My will, but Yours be done.” And Peter uses this example to say, “you also arm yourselves with the same mind.” There is a clear sense of urgency in the command. The NKJV doesn’t include it, but Peter added an emphatic “you” at the beginning of the command. It’s like he is pointing his finger at us and saying, “You do what Jesus did.” This urgency is also apparent in that Peter uses a verb that comes from a military background. Peter commands us to prepare for battle. Understand what lies ahead and resolve to obey the Father no matter the cost.
I’ve never been in the military, but my understanding is that psychological training is a pretty high priority in preparing a soldier for battle. A soldier has to be mentally ready for the ugliness of war, or he may freeze up or wilt under the pressure. The same is true in the Christian life. If you are blindsided by the battle or you are waffling in your commitment, you probably won’t stand. That’s why Jesus never shied away from telling us that following him would be hard. He compared choosing to be a disciple to selling everything, hating your family, and picking up a cross. Jesus wasn’t the salesman that sadly some “Christian” pastors are who paint the Christian life as easy or carefree. Discipleship is costly, and we must resolve that we will not back down; we will not be intimidated. What would it take to make you deny Christ? Would you be willing to die for him, to go to jail, or to take a lesser job? How far are you willing to go in standing against the flesh and worldly temptation? Will you resolve in your heart that you will obey the Father no matter the cost?
We must adopt the wartime mentality of Christ. My second statement about following Christ’s example is that…
We must replace a life of sin with a life of surrender (vv. 1c–2).
The big interpretational challenge in this statement is the phrase, “ceased from sin.” That sounds like perfection. We may immediately assume Peter is talking about life in heaven, but the context won’t allow that. Verse 2 clarifies that Peter is talking about something that is possible during the rest of our “time in the flesh.” This ceasing has to be something that happens in this life. So is Peter teaching that Christians can reach perfection before death? Some Christian groups teach perfectionism is possible. They believe that following salvation, a Christian can receive a second work of grace that elevates him to a “higher plane” or “higher ground” as the old revival song says. But the Scriptures don’t support this. The NT consistently teaches that we will struggle against sin as long as we are in this world, and that spiritual growth is a lifelong process, progressive work of the Spirit. Another possible interpretation, which is very attractive to me theologically, is that Peter is referencing the believer’s death to sin at salvation. Romans 6:7 says of all genuine believers, “he who has died has been freed from sin” in the sense that sin no longer reigns over his life. He is a new creature in Christ. But this does not seem to be what Peter has in mind. He does not tie this ceasing from sin to our union with Christ’s suffering; instead, he says that it is the result of our own “suffering in the flesh.” How then can our own suffering result in a ceasing from sin? The best view is that when we are faced with suffering for doing good, as 3:17 said, it draws a line in the sand, so to speak. We need this because very often we try to straddle the fence and hold onto as much of the world as we can while still looking and feeling like a Christian. But suffering has a way of turning a fence into a canyon. You are no longer able to keep a foot on both sides; you have to decide if you are really going to follow him or not. And when we decide to stand for Christ no matter the cost, it has a refining effect. It focuses our attention on Christ and takes our eyes off the world. Verse 2 supports this interpretation when it assumes that we cannot live for both the lusts of men and the will of God. And so Peter is not talking about perfection but a resolve to live for God and do his will. Now, I do want to clarify that this resolve cannot be separated from conversion as if we can get saved and then later decide whether or not we will follow him. The NT consistently teaches that there is no such thing as a genuine Christian who, using the language of v. 2, perpetually chooses to live for the lusts of men, not the will of God. We receive transforming grace at conversion, and then we are progressively conformed to the image of Christ. In light of that, what is Peter’s point? The point of v. 1 is that we need to prepare to suffer because choosing to suffer has a purifying effect. It helps to stop living for human or worldly lusts and to instead live for the will of God. There’s nothing difficult to understand about v. 2, but talk about drawing a line in the sand. Peter says there are two very different paths life can take. We can live for human passions or for God. We cannot do both. Jesus said, you cannot serve two masters. We need this reminder often because we like to try serving both masters. We love the world, and we try to justify as much of the world as our conscience and Christian culture will allow. But you cannot pursue Christ with all of your heart while still clinging to every little trinket the world sets before you. It won’t work. I want to challenge you today, to focus your attention on Christ and to pursue the will of God. Embrace the resolve of Christ to purse obedience to God no matter the cost.
My third statement about following the example of Christ is…
We must pursue total commitment with urgency (v. 3).
The purpose of this verse is to push us away from worldly lusts and toward God. But Peter uses a rather unique means of offering encouragement. He reminds his readers of their pagan past. The descriptions he uses focus attention on drunken, sensual partying that is void of restraint, decency, or a long-term outlook. This kind of partying is purely about gratifying the immediate lusts of the heart. Get drunk, forget about your problems, have a good time, and indulge sexual desires. And then worry about the consequences of sin later. It may strike us as odd that he adds idolatry to the list, but in the Greco-Roman world, these kinds of feasts were normally associated with pagan worship. Sadly, people without the Lord often live for the next drunken party. I worked for a gutter company my first year in seminary, and many of the guys at our company worked all week so that they could blow their paycheck on Friday night. As Christians, we look at that and think what a waste, how empty. Peter reminds his readers of their past to say that they had already wasted enough of their lives on these empty pursuits. His point is to build within them an urgency to forsake the “lusts of men” and to pursue “the will of God. Don’t waste any more time on these foolish things. And boy, do we need that reminder every day because we are easily drawn to pleasures of this world. We feel like we have to have this thing or we have to indulge that desire. We gaze with discontentment, and we buy the lie that this thing will make me happy. But we never notice that pursuing that happiness has ironically made us bitter or angry. And we certainly don’t see how meaningless that pleasure is in the grand scheme of things compared to God’s eternal purpose. Where have you grown distracted? Where are you sacrificing the joy of the Lord for momentary pleasure? Where have you become distracted from the resolve of Christ to pursue the Lord’s will and the Lord’s work? We’ve got to wake up and see that we’ve been called to something bigger. We’ve got to live with the urgency and focus of Christ. We must arm ourselves with Christ’s mindset.
Our ultimate purpose is only found in the Lord, but that doesn’t make life easy. Quite the opposite it makes life hard even while there is joy. Therefore, vv. 4–6 challenge us to…
Trust God to bring justice (vv. 4–6).
I’d like to break these verses down into three statements. First…
The world will not understand our commitment (v. 4).
Verse 4 reflects on how Peter’s readers’ family and friends reacted to the change Christianity had brought about in their lives. They looked at these Christians and wondered what happened. We used to have so much fun together in unrestrained living. It’s interesting that Peter describes their former life as a “flood of dissipation.” Dissipation speaks again of raunchy partying that is wrapped up in fulfilling sinful passions. A flood of this kind pictures them as swimming in a sea of sinful indulgence. The unbelieving family member or friend reflects on all of the fun he used to have with this person who is now a Christian and no longer participates in these things, and he wonders what happened. Why don’t you do any of these things anymore? But he isn’t just surprised; he is appalled, even angry. And so Peter says that he “speaks evil of you.” We’ve mentioned throughout this study that several things fueled this anger. For one, by refusing to participate in sinful practices, Christians were saying that these things were wrong. And unbelievers often react defensively to that. “Who do you think you are?” “Oh, I guess you’re too good to hang out with us anymore.” Their conscience is convicted, and they react by putting up a wall. As well, the fact that Christians separate from the cultural norms and meet together sets them up for misunderstanding and speculation. I’ve heard of many Christians whose families think they have joined a cult. They don’t understand. As well, there was the idolatrous aspect of the parties that also may have offended some. Regardless, Peter notes that the world will not always respond positively to holy living. Many of his readers were facing significant hardship because of their decision to separate from this evil. Verse 12 says they were enduring a “fiery trial.” There are a number of people in our church who have been slandered by family and friends for their commitment to live holy lives. Probably most of us have had someone get angry when we have presented the gospel or confronted sin. Sadly, holy living is only going to make us look stranger and stranger as our culture moves into greater perversion, and the momentum of slander against Christians is only building. Again, that’s why we’ve got to arm ourselves with the mentality of Christ. We have to resolve that we will not be intimidated, and we will not back down.
Verse 4 teaches that the world will oppose our commitment to Christ, but v. 5 follows by encouraging us with the fact that…
God will hold mankind accountable (v. 5).
That simple word “ready” gives a tremendous weight to this statement. The idea is that God’s judgment is not just a remote possibility or something so far in the distance that it doesn’t matter. No, God’s judgment is near. He stands ready to hold all people accountable. That’s important because most unbelievers see themselves as completely free. Those who live reckless, wicked lives do so without any thought that they will ever face consequences for their actions. But God warns that all people, whether they are dead or alive when Christ returns will one day stand before God and give an account of their lives. Isn’t it sobering that even death can’t save someone from this judgment? Isn’t that why people commit suicide? They want to escape the pain of going on, and they assume that killing themselves will rescue them from pain. But not even death can save someone from standing before God. You will give an account of your life to God. It may be that someone here has never dealt seriously with reality of your own coming day of accountability. Maybe you’ve never thought about it, or maybe you just choose to ignore it. But you need to understand that it is coming, it is near, whether you acknowledge it or not. Are you ready to stand before God? Are you good enough to avoid his judgment and to enter heaven? The Scriptures say that you are not. You are a sinner, and you can never be good enough to earn the favor of God. But the Scriptures also teach that the only way you can avoid God’s judgment is to believe on Christ. You cannot save yourself from God’s judgment but Christ can save you because he bore the punishment for sin when he died on the cross. If you are feeling the weight of your coming day of accountability, I want to urge you to believe on Christ for salvation. Cast yourself on his mercy, and you can be saved. Don’t ignore God’s coming judgment. But v. 5 is not primarily addressed to unbelievers; it is addressed to Christians. Why does Peter remind Christians that all people will be held accountable? The answer is that he wants to encourage us that we are on the winning side. We are in a small minority, and the evil around us often feels overwhelming. But it will not ultimately triumph. God will destroy evil and hold evil men accountable. And so don’t be discouraged; don’t be intimidated. Keep doing what is right because right will triumph and God will reward your faithfulness.
This is the point that Peter makes in v. 6.
God will reward his people (v. 6).
We need to take a moment and understand what Peter means when he says the gospel was preached to the dead. One way that some have understood this statement is to relate it back to 3:19 and to say that Peter is referring to Christ preaching to people who are already dead. Some who take it this way say that Peter is describing how Jesus preached to OT saints who had not yet entered the presence of the Lord. But I argued a couple of weeks ago that the idea that justification wasn’t fully applied to OT saints until after the cross is simply unbiblical. Others who related v. 6 to 3:19 say that Peter is describing a second chance for salvation. But again, I argued two weeks ago that the Scriptures clearly contradict the idea that there is a second chance for salvation after death. Another tempting way to understand this verse is to see “dead” as a reference to spiritual death. The idea then would be that the gospel came to us when we were spiritually dead and then made us alive. This is a very biblical idea, but it doesn’t fit this context. That’s because in v. 5 “dead” clearly means physically dead, not spiritually dead. It would be very odd for Peter to use the same term with such a dramatically different meaning in the next verse. As well, v. 6 is pretty clear that it is talking about physical death when it describes this death as being “judged in the flesh” or the body. The best interpretation is that Peter is speaking of dead Christians. They received the gospel in this life, but then they endured the common judgment that all people face because we live in a sin-cursed world. They died. Very likely unbelievers looked at the death of these saints and concluded that their faith hadn’t benefitted them at all. They forsook a partying life and followed the lonely path of Christ, but they still died. Clearly, their faith didn’t give them anything. But Peter notes that this wasn’t the end of the story. They may have died in this world but they were alive in the heavenly or spiritual world where, as 1:4 said, they enjoyed “an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you.”
And so the challenge of this text is to live in total commitment to God’s will believing that he will bring justice. The passage begins with a hard challenge. We are to embrace the mentality of Christ as we take up our cross and follow him to death. This road requires us to deny our sinful lusts and to instead walk in complete dedication to God and obedience to his will. Self-denial is never fun or easy. Oftentimes, it is also lonely because the world doesn’t get it; in fact, it’s offensive to them. There is nothing easy about the challenge of this text. But it is absolutely worth it from an eternal perspective. From an eternal perspective we can see the futility and waste of a life given to momentary please. We can see the judgment that is coming to those who reject God, and we can see the life that awaits God’s children in glory. So let’s stop trying to keep a foot in both worlds, and let’s turn our attention today solely toward Christ. Let’s resolve to “live the rest of our time in the flesh, not for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.”