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Lesson 21: Hard Lessons About Hard Times (1 Peter 4:12-19)

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Nobody likes hard times. But hard times are especially hard to handle when it seems like you’ve done everything right and you suffer anyway. You seek to live a godly life, but you suffer one health problem after another, while you know many who abuse their bodies with a life of dissipation and are never sick for a day. You follow the company procedures, but your boss blames you for a problem that was beyond your control, while the guy who didn’t follow the procedures and lied about it gets praised for doing right. You invest many inconvenient hours trying to help someone get her life together and follow the Lord. But she turns against you and tells others all sorts of lies about you behind your back.

At such times, when you’ve done what was right, but things seem to be going against you, you begin to wonder if somehow you’re out of the will of God. Or maybe there’s some hidden sin in your life that you need to confess. Such answers to the problem of suffering have been with us for centuries, since those are the mistaken suggestions of Job’s friends.

But Peter wants his readers to know that suffering is often according to the will of God (4:19). The idea that if you’re in the center of God’s will, you’ll be free from trials, is not biblical. Being in the center of God’s will may mean that you are in the center of suffering! Peter gives us four hard lessons about hard times--hard lessons because they’re hard to apply. But they’re necessary and useful lessons because not one of us will escape hard times in this life (Heb. 12:8).

As Christians, we should expect trials, exult in trials, examine ourselves in trials, and entrust ourselves to God in trials, knowing that they are according to His will.

Peter is speaking specifically about the trials of persecution, about which most of us know very little firsthand. Some of us may have suffered a little rejection, ridicule or slander because of our testimony. A few may have lost a job because of their Christian stand. Almost none of us have had our property confiscated or have been imprisoned or tortured or had loved ones executed because of our faith, like many of our brothers and sisters in China. But Peter’s lessons apply to other forms of suffering as well, and if we ever should suffer for our faith, the lessons are good to know in advance.

1. As Christians, we should expect trials (4:12).

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you.” But in spite of his words, we often are surprised, aren’t we?

We’re often surprised by the intensity of the trials. Peter calls the trials a “fiery ordeal.” We don’t know for sure, but he may have been referring to the persecution that the madman, Nero, had unleashed on the church in Rome, where Peter was (“Babylon,” 5:13), which he presumed would shortly reach his readers in the provinces. Nero was one of the most cruelly wicked men in history, ranking up there with Hitler. He would cover Christians with pitch and burn them as human torches to light his garden parties. Or, he would feed them to the lions in the arena as public sport.

That’s about as intense as you can get! Think of your loved one giving his life for a few minutes’ light as this depraved man strolled around sipping his drink and flirting with the women at his party! Where was God in all this? We often ask that question when intense trials hit. “But don’t be surprised at the intensity of your trial,” Peter says. As he implies in 4:17-18, if God’s people suffer so much in this life, what do you think hell will be like for those who do not obey the gospel?

We’re often surprised by the purpose of the trials. Peter says that this fiery ordeal comes upon us “for [our] testing.” Most of us flatter ourselves into thinking that we’re doing reasonably well in our Christian life and that we don’t need any intense trials to test our faith. But we don’t know ourselves--the depth of our sin, the extent of our self-trust, the shallowness of our joy. So the Lord graciously sends trials to test our faith.

John Newton, the slave trader who met Christ and became a pastor, known for his beloved hymn, “Amazing Grace,” wrote another hymn which tells of his experience with such trials:

I asked the Lord, that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek more earnestly His face.

I hoped that in some favored hour
At once He’d answer my request,
And by His love’s constraining power
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part.

Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.

“Lord, why is this?” I trembling cried,
“Wilt thou pursue Thy worm to death?”
“‘Tis in this way,” the Lord replied,
“I answer prayer for grace and faith.

These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st seek thy all in me.”

If you’re a Christian, your faith must be tested and refined through trials.

We’re often surprised by the source of the trials. Peter’s readers were catching persecution from their former friends (4:4) and they thought it strange (4:12). They must have reasoned, “Don’t they know that we’re just trying to help them? We care about them and want them to know the joy we have found in Christ.” Yes, but the world hates Christ and He warned that it would hate us because it hates Him (John 15:18-19). Don’t be surprised if former friends persecute you.

We often think it strange when we catch opposition from those in the church. But Jesus told the disciples that they would be persecuted by the religious crowd, which would flog them in the synagogues (Mark 13:9). He was crucified by the religious leaders and it was their fathers who murdered the prophets (Matt. 23:31). Religious people often hide their sin behind a mask of spirituality. They don’t like having their sin exposed by those who live and proclaim the message of the cross. So we shouldn’t think it strange when we are maligned by religious people. As Christians, we should not be surprised by trials—we should expect them. That’s the first hard lesson about hard times!

2. As Christians, we should exult in trials (4:13-14).

This is where the hard stuff gets harder! Enduring trials is one thing; exulting in them is something else! In fact, it’s humanly impossible. Only God can supernaturally give us great joy in the midst of trials. We may not rejoice in the trial itself, which would be masochistic; but, we can rejoice in the ultimate good that will come out of it. As Paul put it, “We exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope” (Rom. 5:3-4). James tells us to count it all joy when we encounter various trials, knowing that the result will be endurance and maturity (James 1:2-4).

Here, Peter uses the word rejoice or some synonym four times in two verses: “Keep on rejoicing”; “rejoice with exultation”; “you are blessed.” He brings out three reasons why we can exult in trials:

A. We can exult in trials because they lead us to deeper fellowship with Christ.

We share (the Greek word is “koinoneo,” “to fellowship with”) the sufferings of Christ (4:13). Of course, Christ’s sufferings were penal and substitutionary, while ours are not. He died for our sins, whereas our death cannot pay for anyone’s sins. But even so, when we suffer on behalf of the gospel, we join with our Savior in suffering unjustly at the hands of sinners. It makes us realize that He went through much more on our behalf than we’re going through on His behalf. That draws our hearts into a deeper love for Him.

Whenever we suffer on behalf of the gospel, the Lord comes to us in a special way and affirms that He suffers with us. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego were thrown into the fiery furnace, Nebuchadnezzar looked in that furnace and saw four men walking in the midst of the fire without harm (Dan. 3:24-25). The Lord Jesus came and stood with them in the flames! When Stephen was stoned for his witness to the Sanhedrin, he gazed into heaven and saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:56).

When Paul was fearful in Corinth, the Lord appeared to him and encouraged him to go on speaking (Acts 18:9-10). Later, when he was arrested in Jerusalem, the Lord appeared to him and told him that he would bear witness for Him in Rome (Acts 23:11). As he stood trial for his life in Rome, though others deserted him, Paul reported to Timothy how the Lord stood with him and strengthened him (2 Tim. 4:17).

Last year, I was going through a time of more intense criticism than I had ever known because I had spoken out against some popular false teachings that have crept into the American church. I was getting into bed one night when Acts 18:9-10 popped into my head. I hadn’t been reading Acts recently, nor had I thought about those verses, so there was no human explanation for why I would think of that reference. I read, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city.” I rejoiced as I realized that, in a small way, I was sharing in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings and that He was standing with me.

B. We can exult in trials because they will lead us to a deeper level of joy at His coming.

“At the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation” (4:13b). Christ and His glory are now hidden from human sight. We can guess, but really can’t know, what it will be like to see Him coming in the clouds with His mighty angels with Him! But our sufferings now on His behalf will get us a front-row seat for the big event, so that we will burst with joy at seeing Him. Paul put it, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).

C. We can exult in trials because they lead us to a deeper experience of God’s Spirit.

“If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (4:14). The New King James Version adds, “On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified.” Probably the phrase was added by a copyist as an attempt to explain the verse, which is difficult in the Greek text. Peter’s meaning seems to be to distinguish the Holy Spirit both as the Spirit who is marked by glory and also as divine, the Spirit of God.

God’s glory, as we saw last week, is the manifestation of His majesty and perfect attributes. When the Spirit of glory rests on a believer, something of God’s attributes shine forth. Peter’s overall meaning, then, is that when we suffer rejection because of our stand for Christ, something of the Lord will be seen in us, even if others reject God and us. Those who stoned Stephen saw this as they saw his face as the face of an angel (Acts 6:15).

It takes God’s Spirit to make us exult in trials. My tendency is to groan and look for the escape hatch! But if we will see that trials, especially persecutions, lead us to deeper fellowship with Christ, to deeper joy at His coming, and to a deeper experience of His Spirit, we can grow in this hard lesson about hard times.

3. As Christians we should examine ourselves in trials (4:15-18).

Peter says, in effect, “Make sure you aren’t suffering because of some sin on your part. If you’re not, then you can glorify God in it. And, if you’re tempted to bail out and go back to the world on account of your trials, then consider what will happen to unbelievers. If godly people suffer now as they do, what do you think will happen to the ungodly when Christ returns to judge the earth?” These verses suggest three questions we need to ask ourselves when we face trials:

1) Is this trial due to some known sin in my life (4:15)?

If I brought persecution or civil judgment on myself because I disobeyed God or broke the law, and now I’m reaping the consequences, then I need to repent of the sin. But I shouldn’t sniffle about how I’m suffering for the cause of Christ, when really I’m suffering because of my sin.

2) How can I glorify God in this trial (4:16)?

If there’s no sin in my life, and I’m suffering because I took a stand for Christ, then I should seek to make God look good as He is through my conduct in this trial. When Peter and John were beaten by the Sanhedrin for preaching Christ, they went on their way “rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41). The name “Christian” (vs. 16) only occurs three times in the Bible (Acts 11:26; 26:28). It meant “little Christs” and was a derogatory term the pagans applied to the church. It’s not a bad identification to strive for, is it!

3) Have I considered the depth of my sin and the eternal perspective in this trial (4:17-18)?

In 4:17, Peter pulls out an Old Testament concept and applies it to the church. When God did a work of purification or judgment, He began at the sanctuary and moved outward (Ezek. 9:4-6; Jer. 25:29; Mal. 3:1-3). Paul told the Corinthians that they needed to judge their own lives by dealing with their sin so that they would not be condemned along with the world (1 Cor. 11:31-32). God’s purifying process must begin with His people before it falls on the world.

Peter is teaching that the trials God’s people go through for refining are the initial stages of God’s judgment on all sin, which will culminate in the second coming of Jesus Christ, when those who have not obeyed the gospel will go into the flames of hell. Peter is arguing from the lesser to the greater: If God uses such severe trials to purge sin from the righteous--if the process of salvation is that difficult--think of how much worse the day of judgment will be for the godless and the sinners! So if you’re tempted to bail out of the faith when you encounter trials, ask yourself, “Where else will I go?”

One of the hard lessons we all need to learn about hard times is that the cancer of sin is rooted at the very core of our being and that God is committed to cut it out entirely. The process may be painful, but not nearly as painful as the alternative, which is to face His wrath on the day of judgment. So in a time of trials, we need to examine ourselves and the depth of our sin in the light of eternity and submit to God’s refining process.

Thus the first hard lesson is that we should expect trials; second, we should exult in trials; third, we should examine ourselves in trials. Finally,

4. As Christians, we should entrust ourselves to God in trials (4:19).

Where else can we go? If we suffer for our faith in Christ, then we can know that it is according to God’s will. Thus we can entrust ourselves to Him as the faithful Creator and continue to do what is right. “Entrust” is a banking term that meant to deposit one’s valuables to another for safe keeping. Paul used the noun when he told Timothy, “I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day” (2 Tim. 1:12). It was the word Jesus uttered from the cross when He expired: “Father, into Your hands I commit [entrust] My spirit” (Luke 23:46).

This is the only time in the New Testament God is called the Creator. If God created the universe by the word of His power, He is able to guard your deposit with Him and bring you safely to His heavenly kingdom. That He is the faithful Creator shows that He cares enough to guard you. So you can trust Him with your very life, even if evil men take it away from you, and know that He won’t lose it. You demonstrate your trust by continuing to do what is right when you suffer. You don’t plot revenge on those who wrong you. You pray that God will save them and know that if He doesn’t, He will judge them and exonerate you.

Trusting in God has fallen on hard times. We’re told today that when we suffer, we need to express all our anger toward God or we might do some psychological damage to ourselves. But trust the Lord? Get practical! I am! Trusting in the Faithful Creator is the most practical thing you can do when you’re going through a difficult trial.

Conclusion

Compared to what martyrs and other saints have suffered, I have not gone through much. But I can testify that whenever I have suffered, especially when I’ve suffered for the cause of Christ, I have grown closer to Christ, I have sensed His abiding peace and good pleasure, and I’ve known His joy in a deeper way than at any other time.

I just received a letter from a friend who met the Lord at 41 out of a night club background in which he was enslaved to drugs and alcohol. He went on to pastor a church near me in Southern California, where I got to know him and enjoyed many times of fellowship together. He’s now 72 and has just found out that he has prostate cancer. He wrote, “The result has been that the Lord has provided many opportunities to share His sufficient grace with saved and unsaved alike, especially young people.” He mentions how his relationship with his wife and with the Lord has deepened through this trial and adds, “Hallelujah!”

You say, “That’s not natural!” Precisely! Only God can bring such joy in the face of what the world calls a crisis.

As Christians, we can expect trials. Don’t be surprised. More than that, by God’s power, we can exult in them if we see the result God is accomplishing. When they hit, we should examine ourselves more deeply and entrust ourselves to God more fully, knowing that we are in His perfect will. Hard lessons about hard times—but our God is faithful!

Discussion Questions

  1. How can we know if a trial is from the Lord, from Satan, or from our own making?
  2. How can we rejoice in trials when, honestly, we feel angry toward God? Is the anger “natural” or “sinful”?
  3. Is “trusting God” an impractical cliche or the most practical thing you can do in a trial?
  4. A person who has gone through a horrible trial angrily asks, “How can you trust a God who allows this to happen?” Your response?

Copyright 1992, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Faith, Suffering, Trials, Persecution