Peter’s letter remains consistently focused on the theme of Jesus’ suffering and what that means for suffering believers. Jesus’ suffering and death, and subsequent resurrection, were not without purpose, glory, or blessing—by no means! Instead, it is -because- of Jesus’ suffering that believers have salvation, sanctification, and a standard to follow.
God asks no more of believers than was asked of God’s own Son, and our suffering also has purpose, glory, and blessing in it.
Suffering in Sanctification
After offering the example of an ancient remnant—Noah and his family—being saved in the ark, and of Jesus’ concern for those ancient people who nevertheless rejected that salvation, Peter returned to the theme of noble and righteous suffering.
Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same intention (for whoever has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin), so as to live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God.1 Peter 4:1-2 (NRSV)
The first phrase, Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, returns to Peter’s previous points, which themselves point back to Peter’s opening thoughts about being saved and sanctified.
. . . For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered, for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
“He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.
. . . For Christ also suffered, for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.1 Peter 2:21-23, 3:18 (NRSV)
For those who have endured earthly suffering (both physical and emotional), this mystery has been revealed. Suffering offers a changed attitude towards life, a change of priorities, a shift in seeing what is, and even more significantly what is not, important.
Suffering also offers a speeding up of the sanctification process.
Be Finished With Sin
Which brings us to the second phrase, same intention (for whoever has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin). Remember that the apostles were united in these teaching, and in particular, Apostle Peter and Apostle Paul taught much of the same thing. Peter’s phrase was written by way of reminder to a whole body of doctrine these believers knew well.
The writer of Hebrews spoke of it this way:
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.
For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.
Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.Hebrews 2:14-18 (NRSV)
Jesus’ own suffering is the example, and through Jesus’ suffering comes help. To finish with sin will involve suffering.
Paul often wrote about this very same thing, including Peter’s third phrase, to live . . . no longer by human desires but by the will of God.
Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.Galatians 5:16-17 (NRSV)
There is a putting off, and a putting on, that becomes a lifelong process, teaching that showed up in nearly all of Paul’s epistles, as this sampling will show.
- To the assemblies in Colossae: You were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead, Paul wrote (with echoes of what Peter had just written about in chapter 3 of this letter).
- To the believers in Rome, let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
- To Christians in Ephesus: You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Peter—in the same way as Paul—listed a number of Gentile lifestyle choices his readers used to engage in, and which they now had extricated themselves from, but not without cost. For their friends, surprised (and possibly also hurt, or feeling judged) now maligned them.
Proclaim the Gospel
Peter’s next words may read strangely to our eyes.
But they will have to give an accounting to him who stands ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.1 Peter 4:5-6 (NRSV)
Perhaps as a balm to their own wounded feelings, Peter reassured his audience that though they were currently maligned, vindication would come. For all people must one day stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ, the living and the dead (perhaps a reference to the Last Day when some will be yet alive, while all the rest of humanity already having died OR perhaps a reference to those who have been born anew to eternal life, and the rest who have not).
But it is Peter’s next statement which has arrested readers over the centuries. Paul has a similarly mysterious teaching in one of his own letters, stating,
When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.
Otherwise, what will those people do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?1 Corinthians 15:28-29 (NRSV)
It would not be puzzling, perhaps, if it was thought people still could come to saving faith even after they were dead and buried. Indeed, as early as the fourth century, Christians did think the prayers of the living could affect the salvation of those who had already died. Over time, a theology of Purgatory was developed, which indicated a middle place between salvation and damnation, where those who had died, yet now longed to be with Christ, still had opportunity.
The Protestant Reformation, however, weighted the understanding of salvation with the scripture that states,
[Jesus] has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.Hebrews 9:26-28 (NRSV)
There is a chance Peter was referring back to the time Jesus had preached in the Spirit to those who ultimately died unrepentant in the Flood (though that would not explain Paul’s question).
There is a chance “the dead” refer to those Paul otherwise spoke of as remaining dead in their sins, those who reject Jesus, and whom God has already given over to the choices they have made.
The apostles, as Jesus had shown them, were indiscriminate in their preaching of the Gospel—they went everywhere and spoke to everyone. Whether to the hearers’ judgment or salvation, the apostles made Jesus’ offer of life, of forgiveness and redemption, of victory over sin, corruption, and death, free to all.
It may be as simple as that.
[A Dedication to Bacchus | Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]