Our passage from 1 Peter this morning brings the main body of the letter to a close. The apostle’s primary practical concern as he wrote was to help these believers understand and respond in a Christlike way to the present reality and future prospect of suffering for their faith. As we’ve seen, he approaches this by focusing them on their identity in Christ, for two reasons. One, they need to realize that if they live as committed followers of Christ, suffering is unavoidable. The world will try to force them to change, and punish them if they don’t, for being who they are instead of who the world thinks they ought to be. As the Japanese say, the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. Two, they need to believe that following Christ is worth the suffering, that the rewards are and will be worth the pain, so that they don’t lose heart and walk away.
Here, as he wraps up all that he’s been saying about suffering, he brings in one more idea which serves to land the whole section. After all, even if you buy in to everything Peter’s had to say to this point, you might well still be thinking it isn’t fair. Sure, no one ever said life is fair, and I believe that Jesus makes it all worth it, but we shouldn’t have to suffer for our faith in him, and why doesn’t God protect us from it? He could, after all—he’s all-powerful and all-knowing, and he could do it if he wanted to.
Many answers have been offered to that question. One that I keep coming back to is the reality that if we were miraculously protected from all suffering, we would quickly lose our ability to relate to, much less to minister to, people in pain. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “The man who has not suffered—what does he know, anyway?” That’s an approach, one of many, which points to the usefulness of suffering—which means, while I believe it to be true, it is nevertheless an attempt to soften the question a little bit by making it seem like not quite such a bad thing.
Peter is bolder than that; in this passage, he strikes deeper than we ever really want to go. In verse 16 he says, “If you suffer as a Christian, don’t be ashamed, but praise God that you’re known as a Christian.” OK, that’s nothing new for this letter. Then comes verse 17. “For”—which is to say, this is why you should praise God if you suffer as a Christian—“it is time for judgment to begin with the house of God.” In other words—at least, this is what it sounds like—praise God if you’re suffering for his sake, because this is his judgment on you. What on earth do we do with that?
There are three things that need to be said here. First, while Peter doesn’t use the word “family” here, if we think of this in a family context for a minute, we begin to get a handle on it. I discipline my children, but I don’t discipline other people’s children, because it’s not my right to do so. That would make me a meddler or a busybody, which Peter tells us not to be in verse 15. When I discipline my kids, they may perceive it as suffering—Iain certainly does—but it isn’t that I want them to suffer. I want them to turn away from their sin rather than continuing in it; I want them to grow in godliness rather than in sinfulness. It’s better for them to suffer sooner under discipline than to suffer later under judgment, for the latter is far worse, with far greater consequences in the long term. So it is with us under God.
Second, what Peter has in view here is God’s judgment on the whole world, which will come to its fulfillment at the return of Christ. He isn’t talking about God judging you or me as individuals; this is the judgment of God in the big picture, sorting out the world into those who have come to Christ and those who have rejected him. That’s why he says specifically that it’s time for judgment to begin with the houseof God, with God’s temple on earth—which, you may remember, he defined back in chapter 2. God’s spiritual house, the place where he is worshiped on earth, is the church, and we are the living stones out of which he is building it.
Why does this matter? Well, it shifts the picture. Peter isn’t actually saying that if I suffer for my faith, that it’s God’s judgment on me personally—presumably for my sin, which wouldn’t make a great deal of sense in this context. Rather, he’s saying that if suffering comes on the church, that we need to recognize that as the beginning of his judgment on the whole world. His judgment on the world is the separation of the wheat from the weeds, to borrow from one of Jesus’ parables. When the church suffers, that separation is made within the church; those who aren’t truly disciples of Christ, and thus would lead it away from him and bring it under judgment for sin, are weeded out. If you suffer as a Christian—if suffering for your faith doesn’t drive you away, but drives you to Christ—then, Peter says, you should praise God for that.
There has been a long season in this country for the wheat and the weeds to grow up together, but I think we’ve seen that judgment beginning in the American church. A lot has been written about the “rise of the Nones,” as the fastest-growing religious category in the census is those with no religious affiliation; many have taken this as a major change in American society, and either lamented or celebrated it, depending on their point of view. It isn’t really a change at all, though, just a symptom of change. Most of those folks used to describe themselves as affiliated with one church or another because this is America and that’s what you do, even if they only ever went for Christmas, Easter, and weddings. Now, increasingly, that isn’t what you do anymore, and so people who don’t go to church and don’t really care about church have no reason to say otherwise; they aren’t really changing their religious position, just being more honest about it.
Beyond that, whenever Christianity is socially approved, there will be many who will go to church for reasons that have little to do with God—for the sake of their reputation, or their business dealings, or what have you. As traditional Christian faith falls out of favor, that creates a problem for them: they don’t want to lose the connections they’ve made in the church, but they don’t want to be associated with something which is unpopular in their social circles. Their usual response is to try to drag the church along with the culture, and thus we see many in the American church changing historic Christian teaching to conform to what elite society tells us all the right-thinking people believe.
That’s been going on for a long time in the Protestant mainline, such as our former denomination, but it isn’t just there; we also see it happening now among many who would call themselves evangelicals. The church is being divided out. If we refuse to go with the flow, if we stand for Christ against the desires of the world, we need to realize that we’re in for trouble for it, and we need to accept that in advance.
Third, if we do, it matters. It matters tremendously, because this is about the cleansing of the temple. The house of God is the place on earth where God is worshipped; it’s the access point for all those in the world whom he draws to seek him. He made many promises through the Old Testament prophets that the time would come when all nations would come to Zion, to the mountain of God, to his temple and his city, to worship him and to bow before him; the church is the spiritual Zion and the inheritor of those promises.
One that we should especially remember is God’s statement in Isaiah 56, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” I say we should remember it because of something Jesus did—twice—which I’m sure Peter never forgot. The high priest set up a religious marketplace in the Court of the Gentiles; it probably made him a lot of money, but it also made it impossible for Gentiles to worship in the Temple. They probably couldn’t even hear what was going on in the inner courts over the sounds of animals and money and business deals. When Jesus saw this, he flipped over the tables and drove out animals and moneychangers alike, denouncing the whole thing in the words of Isaiah 56: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a den of thieves!”
The worship of God had to be pure because those whom God was calling needed to be able to answer that call. It wasn’t, so Jesus purified it by driving out those who weren’t in that courtyard to worship. God’s judgment on the church is the separation of those who are focused on worshipping him, who are learning to love to worship him, from those who, in the last analysis, are really worshipping something else. It’s God renewing his church as a people who worship him in spirit and in truth, and whose worship is pure—as pure as we ever manage, anyway—so that those who come are led and taught to turn away from the idols of our culture and worship him alone.