As we continue in our journey through 1 Peter, we get a reminder today that even though our best deeds often don’t go unpunished, that shouldn’t slow us down on our journeys after Jesus. Instead, the suffering we face for doing good is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to advance the Gospel in ways we won’t otherwise get. Let’s talk today about suffering and serving Jesus.
No Good Deed
I heard a news story the other day about a man named Paul Gaylord. Ever heard of him before? I hadn’t either. That’s okay, though, because he lives in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. Paul has a cat named Charlie. Back in 2014, Charlie went missing for a few days. Now, if you have cats that are not strictly inside cats, you know that’s not so unusual. Cats do their own thing. Outside cats occasionally grace their owners with their presence, especially if they are hungry, but otherwise can sometimes vanish for a little while. Eventually Charlie came back. Unfortunately, Charlie was not quite in the same condition as when he left. His face was swollen up and he was clearly having some trouble breathing. Being a conscientious pet owner, Paul jumped into action. He forced open Charlie’s mouth and eventually figured out that there was a dead, rotting mouse lodged in his throat. I know…gross! Well, Paul got the mouse out, but as a reward for his troubles, Charlie bit him on the hand and broke the skin.
If you are a cat person, though, you know that getting bit and scratched occasionally is part of the…fun…of owning cats. It happens, but then you get better and move on. There was just one problem: Paul didn’t move on. A couple of days later, he started to experience some flu-like symptoms at work. Soon thereafter his skin began to turn grey, and the glands under his arms swelled up to the size of lemons. He got rushed to the hospital and was there diagnosed with…wait for it…the plague. Yes, that plague. Paul saved Charlie’s life and as a thanks for it, he gave him bubonic plague. His lungs collapsed, his heart stopped, he was in a coma for a month. One good deed and he was afflicted with one of the deadliest illnesses known to mankind. I really can’t think of a better situation than this to apply the rather cynical maxim, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
Have you ever experienced that? Sometimes our best efforts to do good don’t seem to matter. There are times we try really hard to be nice to people or to be extra kind to someone we don’t like very much, and in return we get scorn and derision. What are we supposed to do then? Well, what we want to do we can all identify pretty quickly. We want to heap right back on the person all the scorn and derision we were holding in so that we could do that nice thing for them. What we should do, though, is another matter. As we continue in our series, Standing Firm, this morning, we’re going to see Peter pointing us in the direction of this should with a bit of encouragement for the times when it gets extra hard.
This morning we are in the sixth part of our journey. I don’t know about you, but I find it almost hard to believe we started working our way through this incredible little letter six weeks ago. That seems like another lifetime. As we have moved forward each week in this series, we have been driven by a simple, but powerful idea. The culture around us is changing. As followers of Jesus, when we go outside and look around, we don’t see the same world we once knew. Used to, being a Christian was a mark of personal pride and respect. Today we hear stories all the time of believers committed to consistently living out their faith in public being attacked for it by not only the culture around them, but by folks in positions of genuine political power. Even though that kind of thing may be called something like “Tuesday,” in the rest of the world and for most of Christian history, it is a fairly new concept for us. That means it’s something we need to talk about. The great temptation in these moments is to fight back with the same ferocity as the attacks we are facing. But if we take that path, while we may stand firm in our faith, we’ll lose our Gospel witness, and that’s not something we can abide. With the help of the apostle Peter, we have been talking all about how to stand firm in our faith without sacrificing the Gospel in the process.
This comes when we first stand on the foundation of hope, character, and confidence we have alone in Christ. With our lives so rooted, we can stand firm after the pattern of Jesus. That’s what Peter started to outline for us two weeks ago. The example Jesus left for us to follow is one of unfailing love in the face of the world’s aggression. When the world strikes hard, we love back harder. That’s no easy path to walk, but it is the one that has the power to change the world if we’ll stick to it. The evidence of that is manifold across history. But just because we’re giving so much attention to getting our faith right out in public, doesn’t mean we can forget about living it out at home. That’s what we talked about last week. We have to live out the character of Christ, even at home. Too often home is where we let our hair down, take off our faith, and pick up our flesh. It’s no wonder so many children of active, committed Christian leaders never pick up the faith in their own lives. We can’t let that be the case in our own situations.
Well, this morning as Peter keeps moving us forward, you may find yourself having noticed a bit of a theme developing as we’re crossing the halfway point in this journey. That theme is this: Suffering is something followers of Jesus should expect to have in their lives. Peter actually isn’t the only New Testament writer to talk about this. Jesus Himself was rather explicit about it. Jesus guaranteed His followers they would face hard times and suffering because of their devotion to Him. That’s not one of His more celebrated promises, but it is one of His more frequent ones. The challenge in this for us living in the time and place we do isn’t so much the difficulty of such a promise, but the believability of it. If we’re being honest, most of us haven’t experienced any kind of suffering for our faith. Yes, we’ve perhaps been through medical tragedies or the loss of loved ones or difficult financial seasons, but that’s not what Jesus had in mind. Those things are all just part of life in a world broken by sin. Jesus was talking about intentional, organized, and even officially sanctioned efforts to make our lives difficult because of our relationship with Him. Except, most of us don’t have any kind of experience or, really, a personal category for such a thing.
Not having this, though, just means that as our culture continues moving in a direction that will ultimately not be to our benefit, we need to begin to more intentionally develop a theology of suffering. We need to spend more time than we have before thinking about how to think about it when it comes so that we aren’t caught unprepared or unaware when it does. As we move forward in Peter’s letter here, that is exactly what he is going to help us do. Let’s dig in together.
If you have a copy of the Scriptures handy, find your way with me to 1 Peter 3:8. Peter picks up here right where we left off last week. If how we behave matters in public and at home, it also matters at church. How often have churches become broken and bitter because of behavior not fitting the name of Christ unleashed within her walls? Peter has so far talked about faithfulness to the character of Christ out in the world and in our homes. Here as he gets into this next section, he starts by turning his attention to the church.
“Finally, all of you be like-minded and sympathetic, love one another, and be compassionate and humble, not paying back evil for evil or insult for insult but, on the contrary, giving a blessing, since you were called for this, so that you may inherit a blessing. For ‘the one who wants to love life and to see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit, and let him turn away from evil and do what is good. Let him seek peace and pursue it, because the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do what is evil.’”
Now, it’s really easy to see laundry lists of virtues like Peter offers here and just kind of tune them out. Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’re supposed to behave like Jesus. I get it. You don’t need to give me the full list every time I turn around. I know all of those things. But don’t miss what Peter says here. He’s offering a bit of a summary statement to believers on how to stand firm without sacrificing their witness. If we are going to do that, how we treat each other in the church matters.
There’s a school district in northern Virginia that recently, rather publicly embraced some modern cultural positions that are impossible to square with historic Christian orthodoxy. What’s more, they embraced these on behalf of their entire staff; district-wide. They said in effect, “If you are going to work in this district, here is how you must speak.” The trouble is, the speech they have mandated is, from the perspective of Christian faithfulness, not truthful speech. One Christian teacher in the district decided to stand firm and to do so publicly. He was almost immediately fired for it. Using some of those constitutional freedoms we talked about our having that Peter’s audience did not have, he sued for wrongful termination on grounds that the district violated the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of speech and religion. A local court quickly ruled in his favor and reversed his firing. Now, that’s a win we should celebrate (although the story is not over), but do you know what really made a difference for this courageous man? His church embraced him. They stood behind and beside him. It was their faithfulness that enabled and fed his courage.
In these verses Peter does give us a laundry list that is review, but he also quotes a bit of Scripture to them. Verses 10-12 are all taken from Psalm 34. Have you read Psalm 34 recently? Do you know what it is all about? It’s about God’s protecting and intervening on behalf of the righteous when they are persecuted. Don’t miss that. The whole Psalm is remarkably powerful in its affirmations of God’s action on our behalf when the world comes against us, but again and again in it, David says He does all these things on behalf of the righteous. Do you know who the “righteous” are? They are people who are right with God and with other people. Righteousness is all about right relationships. If your relationship with God or with people (since Jesus and Paul both make clear either both are right or neither are) are out of whack, there’s a good chance the hard times you are facing are the result of poor or otherwise sinful choices you have made. By all means, cry out to God if you’re in that kind of a position, but until and unless you quit making those choices and get those relationships straightened out, you shouldn’t expect much in the way of help. In other words, this whole character piece is something we really do have to get right.
If our character doesn’t match our confession, then when the world comes after us, we’re going to be on our own. There’s a great story in Acts about a group of non-Christian Jews who were going around exorcising demons from possessed people in Jesus’ name. This worked okay until a demon in one person finally responded, “I know Jesus, and I recognize Paul—but who are you?” I love the next part: “Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them [seven of them], overpowered them all, and prevailed against them, so that they ran out of that house naked and wounded.” Claiming Jesus’ name without living Jesus’ lifestyle is not going to get us anywhere.
But let’s say we do get all of this right. Our character matches our confession. We’ve succeeded. This means everything is going to go well for us now, right? Nice thought. Remember where we started? No good deed goes unpunished. That may be a rather cynical view of the world, but it too often is one that gets thoroughly justified because of sin. Come forward a bit with me in the text and let’s see how Peter plays right into this.
Verse 13 now: “Who then will harm you if you are devoted to what is good?” Who indeed, right? Plenty of people will! We’ve heard the stories. There are all kinds of people who have committed themselves to living out the character of Christ with wonderful consistency and the world came after them anyway. Across the annals of church history and around the world today, those stories are a dime a dozen. This was certainly the case for his audience. How could Peter be so clueless? Honestly, I think he had his tongue in his cheek a bit here. He said this with a bit of a nod and a wink because he knew the answer to the question. He’d watched Jesus receive as much and had done so himself plenty of times.
This is why he quickly follows this in v. 14 by saying, “But even if you should suffer for righteousness [remember: for righteousness alone and not anything else], you are blessed.” Blessed? I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel so blessed when I’m suffering. I have to imagine I would feel even less blessed if I was suffering persecution in spite of getting everything right. Stick with Peter here just a bit longer, though. He quotes from the Old Testament to them again in the rest of that verse: “Do not fear what they fear or be intimidated.” That’s a quote from Isaiah 8. The prophet was warning the decidedly unrighteous nation of Israel about the coming Assyrian invasion that would totally destroy them. He was giving a word to the few righteous remaining in the land on how to wade through the chaos that was coming their way. Listen to the whole quote. This is awesome: “For this is what the Lord said to me with great power; to keep me from going the way of this people: Do not call everything a conspiracy these people say is a conspiracy. Do not fear what they fear; do not be terrified. You are to regard only the Lord of Armies as holy. Only he should be feared; only he should be held in awe.” Now, given what’s going on in our world today, there’s a whole lot of things those two verses don’t mean and shouldn’t be used to those ends. What they do mean, though, is that when the world is coming after us because of our commitment to righteousness, we can keep our eyes fixed on the one who will carry us through it. He will help us stand firm without sacrificing our witness in the process.
That’s actually exactly where Peter goes next. Look at this with me: “but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, ready at any time to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. Yet do this with gentleness [there’s that word again] and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that when [again, not “if”] you are accused, those who disparage your good conduct in Christ will be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” In this country and culture, we’ve lived a whole lot of years in which suffering for doing good hasn’t very often been God’s will. We’re entering together into a season in which for a growing number of people it just may be. When those seasons come—when our good deeds doggedly refuse to go unpunished—with our eyes fixed firmly on our Lord, we stand firm like Jesus did. And when we do that, the odds are good that we’re going to be asked about it. If we are going to stand firm without sacrificing our Gospel witness, then when such opportunities come to offer up a Gospel witness, we need to be ready. Unjust suffering endured with grace is going to invite questions. When we answer those with the Gospel on our lips, the kingdom is going to expand. But then, that’s what Jesus has always been doing. And as Peter has already made clear, if we’re walking in the path of Christ in our suffering, we’re walking on incredibly solid ground. If you are suffering for serving Jesus, you are on solid ground.
He tells us why next. Look with me at v. 18: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous that he might bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit.” Now, Peter goes on from here to say some things that many scholars consider to be among the hardest to understand and interpret material in the entire Bible. We’re not going to do anything with that this morning, but if you want to dig into it more later, I’d be glad to do so. Thinking just about v. 18 here, though, is that not incredible? I’ve said this before on this journey and I’ll say it again: When Jesus willingly endured unjust suffering for the sake of righteousness, He changed the world. Just imagine what you and I could accomplish. If you are suffering for serving Jesus, you are on solid ground. This, my friends, is the beginning of a sound theology of suffering.
Now, this doesn’t mean we wantonly seek out suffering wherever we can find it. There’s a reason beyond making a little inside joke that Peter asked the question he did back in v. 13. “Who then will harm you if you are devoted to what is good?” We pursue what is good because that’s what Christ called us to, not because we’re looking to get pounded for it. But should suffering come while we are taking that path, Peter wants us to know that we aren’t doing anything wrong. In fact, that suffering just may be an indicator we are doing something right. If you are suffering for serving Jesus, you are on solid ground. More than that, you are blessed, Peter said.
When we think about blessing today, we don’t always think about it in the same terms as the guys who contributed to the Scriptures. For us, being blessed means that everything is going well in our lives. For the New Testament authors, being blessed means we are the object of God’s favor. Listen: Being the object of God’s favor and everything going well in this life are not the same thing. Being the object of God’s favor means our lives are bringing Him glory and He is turning His attention more fully on us to make us more fully reflective of His image—that is, He is making us more fully who He designed us to be. He is growing our faith. He is pruning away what is unrighteous in our hearts and minds. He is giving us the chance to serve on the front lines of His kingdom-advancing efforts. In worldly terms, that may look like a way of life no one in their right mind would want to live. In kingdom terms, though—and those are the terms that matter—such a position should make us the holy envy of anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear. If you are suffering for serving Jesus, you are on solid ground. Your good deeds may all go thoroughly punished in this world, but there is another world coming where you will be storing up incredible treasures to enjoy forever. If you are suffering for serving Jesus, you are on solid ground.
So, my invitation to you this morning is not to live a life of suffering. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. My invitation to you is to come and walk the path of righteousness. Put on the character of Christ and absolutely refuse to take it off no matter where you are or what it costs you. Stand resolutely firm in your faith in the face of an increasingly antagonistic world, but do so with gentleness and respect that will profoundly reveal the shame of sin in those who would come after you for it. As the world seems to descend ever more into chaos and confusion, let your light shine in spite of any efforts to put it out. Instead of adding to the noise, be a part of the solution. That’s what the Gospel does. If you are suffering for serving Jesus, you are on solid ground. Stand firm and keep standing.