Armed for Righteousness
Passage: 1 Peter 4:1–4:6
Armed for Righteousness
As we come to our passage in 1 Peter this morning, there are two realities we must wrestle with. On the one hand, we have 1 Peter 2.11: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” That’s the first reality. It’s the reality of our calling as Christians to pursue holiness, kill sin, and live for Christ. But on the other hand, we have 1 Peter 4.4: “With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you.” That’s the other reality. It’s the reality of the world’s opposition to holiness and a life lived for Christ. So, two realities – the pursuit of holiness and the world’s opposition to holiness. Two realities that we must wrestle with as followers of Christ in the world. How, then, do we put these two realities together in such a way that is faithful to Christ, but also acknowledges the difficulty of pursuing holiness in the world? That’s the question we need to answer this morning, and it’s the question that I think Peter is trying to answer as he writes 4.1-6.
Now, we might say that we put these two realities together by simply bucking up, getting over the opposition, and moving on with being a Christian. I’ve heard people say that before, and I can understand why you would say that. In one sense, it is good to exhort believers to simply focus on following Christ and not worry about the world says. But on another level, that’s not a very realistic approach to living as a Christian. The reality is that opposition from the world can make pursuing holiness very hard. When the world maligns you, as Peter says in 4.4, that’s not something you can brush off by saying, “Just get over it.” I remember as kid, playing baseball and getting hit with pitches some times. In fact, I got hit by pitches a lot. One of my coaches would always tell me, “Hey, just shake it off and don’t let them intimidate you.” That’s all well and good, but after a while, those fastballs in the ribs start to hurt. Just shaking it off didn’t always work. In a similar way, when faced with opposition from the world, I don’t think it’s very helpful to tell believers, “Just shake it off.” At times, the opposition hurts, so much so that we might even begin to question the pursuit of holiness altogether.
In God’s grace, Peter addresses these two realities in our passage this morning, and his counsel isn’t “Just shake it off.” Peter honors our calling to pursue holiness in the world, but he also recognizes that holiness sometimes leads to suffering and opposition from the world. And instead of saying “Just shake it off,” Peter equips his readers with what they need to withstand the opposition and continue on in the pursuit of holy, honorable lives that glorify God.
Believers Must Be Armed and Ready to Suffer
There are four truths in this passage that we need to take note of this morning. Four truths that can prepare us to face the world’s opposition to holy, honorable lives. First, believers must be armed and ready to suffer. This is the main point of the passage, and we see it in v1 where Peter writes, “arm yourselves with the same way of thinking.” That’s a command; it’s the main action Peter is looking for as he writes this section of the letter. But before Peter gets to that command, he begins by reminding his readers of Christ’s suffering. Notice the beginning of v1: “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh.” This statement takes us back to 3.18, where Peter emphasized the fact that Christ also suffered through his death on the cross. But, as Peter also made clear in last week’s passage, Christ’s suffering was not the final word. Christ died on the cross only to be resurrected on the third day. In that sense, Christ’s suffering was real and difficult, but it was also the pathway to his glory and vindication. That truth is what we should remember when Peter writes, “Since therefore Christ also suffered.”
Now, in light of that truth, we can better understand the main point of this passage. When Peter says arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, he means that believers must remember that Christ suffered and that his suffering was the pathway to glory. Arm yourselves with that mindset. We could say it like this. Just as Christ suffered and then was glorified, so also his followers must prepare themselves to suffer, knowing that it is the pathway to glory. That’s the point of Peter’s command. Believers must be armed and ready to suffer for holiness.
Now, look again at the command of v1. Notice that Peter uses military language – arm yourselves. He could have simply said prepare or get ready or be equipped. But he didn’t. He used military language. Why? Because the Christian life is like war. It’s a life-long battle. One aspect of that battle is suffering for holiness. This is what Peter wants his readers to understand. If you commit yourself to holiness, then you have committed yourself to a difficult, even war-like life. At times, you will suffer. The world will wage war against you. Your own sinful nature will wage war against you. All sorts of things will attack your commitment to live for Christ. And times, it will feel like those attacks are winning.
In light of that difficulty, believers need to arm themselves with the proper mindset. We need to settle in our minds this reality – Christ also suffered; as his follower, I will suffer as well. If we don’t arm ourselves with that truth, then when the battle begins to rage, we will quit. We won’t understand why these things are happening to us. We might begin to question God’s goodness or his purposes. We’ll be tempted to turn back from holiness. Think of how actual military training works. When a young man signs up for the military, we don’t send him straight to the front lines. Why not? Because he’s not prepared to fight. He doesn’t know what to expect in battle, he doesn’t know how to use his weapons. He hasn’t been armed with the correct knowledge to be able to fight effectively. That’s similar to what Peter is saying here to these believers. Arm yourselves. Remember that Christ suffered, but was glorified in the end. Be ready to endure the same kind of suffering, knowing that God will vindicate you in the end.
At the end of v1, Peter gives a further reason for believers to arm themselves to face suffering. Look at what he writes: “for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.” Now, Peter cannot mean that those who suffer for Christ live lives of sinless perfection. That can’t be the case because throughout the letter, he has encouraged these suffering Christians to pursue holiness, which implies they weren’t sinless. So, what does the phrase mean? Peter is saying that those who commit themselves to suffer for Christ have made a decisive break with their former, sinful way of life. They have ceased to live for sin, and they have now begun to live for Christ. Their commitment to suffer for holiness reveals that sin is no longer their master. Instead, they now belong to Christ, the One who suffered to bring them to God.
In a strange way, this means that suffering for Christ can bring encouragement to the believer. When you suffer for holiness, that suffering is evidence that you have broken from your former way of life. Or to say it more accurately, it is evidence that Christ’s victory over the power of sin is now being displayed in your life, in your ongoing victory over sin as well. There is encouragement here, if we know how to look for it. Suffering is not a sign that we’re destined for punishment or that we’ve foolishly chosen to follow a God who can’t help us. No, suffering for holiness reveals the power of the gospel at work in our lives. It reveals that slowly but surely, Christ is overcoming our former deadly slavery to sin, and he’s delivering us into life-giving slavery to righteousness. So, the next time you face suffering because of your commitment to holiness, be encouraged. That moment reveals the power of Christ at work in your life.
So, that is Peter’s main point in this passage. He wants his readers to arm themselves and be ready to suffer for Christ and for holiness. Now, to prevent any misunderstanding, Peter gives us the purpose for this arming ourselves. After reading v1, we might misunderstand Peter. We might think he’s saying Christians should prepare to suffer because that’s just how life works in the fallen world. But that is not Peter’s point at all. There is a specific purpose to this arming ourselves, which Peter provides in v2: “so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but the for the will of God.” That’s the second truth of this passage – believers should be ready to do God’s will.
Believers Should Be Ready to Do God’s Will
What exactly is God’s will? Peter tells us by way of contrast. He says believers should arm themselves so as to no longer live for human passions. That phrase human passions is the common NT way of referring to sinful desires. Believers are not to live for sinful desires. That is God’s will – that we put off those sinful desires and put on holiness that pleases the Lord. God’s will is his people’s holiness, their sanctification. This fits with what Peter has already said a number of times in the letter. In chapter 1, Peter said believers should be holy as God himself is holy. And in chapter 2, Peter said believers should abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul. Repeatedly, Peter has reminded his readers that God’s will for their lives is holy, honorable conduct in the world. And that’s the purpose of the arming from v1 – so that we might continue to pursue holiness, even in the midst of suffering.
In v3, Peter gives us another reason why holiness is God’s will for our lives. Look at v3: “for the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry.” Why should these believers pursue holiness? Because they’ve already given enough of their lives to sin. Peter is saying that the time has come for a distinct break from your former way of life. There needs to be clear separation from how you once lived. That leads me to ask myself, “Is there clear separation in my life from how I lived before Christ and how I live now?” Am I holding on to anything that sinfully defined my life before I knew Christ? We must be on guard against the tendency to hold on to those former ways of life, those things that marked us before we knew Christ. Beware of that tendency. Peter says the time that is past is more than enough. By God’s grace, we must pursue a clear, distinct separation with how we once lived apart from Christ.
And lest we make the mistake of missing Peter’s point because of the specific sins he describes in v3, let me offer a word of caution. When comparing Peter’s list in v3 to our lives, it might be easy to dismiss these things as not relevant for us. Orgies, raucous drinking parties, and pagan temples are not regular features of the typical American neighborhood. But if we account for the difference in culture and context, these things are quite prevalent in our world. Much of American culture is marked by sensuality and at least the suggestion of sexual immorality, if not the outright celebration of it. And we may not bow down to golden statues in pagan temples, but we have just as much idolatry as the first century world. It’s just that our idols are more sophisticated and seemingly more respectable – success, nice homes, growing retirement account. So, accounting for differences in culture and context, maybe our experience isn’t all that different from Peter’s original audience. So, consider again Peter’s point. Has there been a clear and distinct break in our lives? Or, do our lives reflect the 21st century version of sensuality and lawless idolatry? We would do well to ask ourselves those hard questions.
But, even with those hard questions, there is encouragement in this verse for the fight against sin. We might miss it, if we’re not reading carefully. Notice that Peter uses the word Gentiles to refer to unbelievers. You see that in v3? That’s interesting, because most likely the recipients of Peter’s letter were Gentiles. And they haven’t stopped being Gentiles ethnically, so why does Peter use that word to describe unbelievers? He uses the word Gentiles because he is subtly reminding his readers that they have a new identity now. They are part of the true Israel. They may be Gentiles ethnically, but they are now God’s new covenant people. This was Peter’s primary teaching in the first part of the letter, where he stressed the believer’s identity as part of God’s chosen people. That identity was the result of God’s grace, given to believers in the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, with a simple word, Peter has reminded his readers of the most important truth about them – they now belong to God, as his new covenant people.
And that new identity means something for the fight against sin. It means that these believers are no longer who they were. They have been decisively changed and transformed. They can make that break with their old lifestyle because Christ has broken the power of sin through his death and resurrection. Already, they belong to God. Already, Christ has cleansed them from sin and set them on the path of holiness. Already, they have overcome the power of sin through the resurrection of Christ. They can live for holiness now because they have been born again through the gospel of Christ. Their identity as God’s people should encourage and enable them to continue fighting sin in the pursuit of holiness.
If you are struggling with sin this morning, if there is something in your life that is difficult for you to make a distinct break from, let me encourage you to go back to the beginning of Peter’s letter and dwell on your identity in Christ. The power to break sin is not found in you, but in the gospel of Christ. Christ’s victory has given you a new identity; you belong to God. And that new identity is the fuel for growing in holiness now. Dwell on your identity in Christ, dwell on the power of the gospel, and let those glorious truths compel you to become what you already are – a new creation in Christ.
Believers Can Expect to Be Treated Like Outcasts
So, the purpose of arming ourselves is that we might no longer live for sinful desire but for God’s will. Now in v4, Peter tells us what we can expect from the world if we live for God’s will. We can expect to be treated like outcasts. That’s the third truth of this text. Look at v4: “With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you.”
How does the world respond when Christians begin to live for God’s will? At first, they are surprised. For the believers in 1 Peter, this is quite understandable. Probably all of them were converted out of pagan lifestyles. It’s unlikely that any of these Christians grew up in the church, in other words. That means for a portion of their lives, they lived just like the world, following in that same flood of debauchery. But they don’t live that way anymore. In response, the world is surprised. Why would you not live like us, like you used to live?
But that surprise quickly turns to persecution. Peter says, “they malign you.” The word has the idea of reviling or defaming. Once the surprise has passed, the world begins to slander and denigrate these believers. The world persecutes them. In the context of Peter’s letter, this was probably not official government persecution. This was most likely social and cultural persecution. Being treated like outcasts, in other words. Remember, in the first century, the worship of idols was part of almost every aspect of life and culture. From the home to the public market to the pagan temple, to worship idols was part and parcel of what it meant to be a member of the community.
So, when these Christians refused to participate in those sinful practices, the world saw them as a threat to their way of life. This was equivalent to treason, a betrayal of everything it meant to be part of the community. In response, the world treated these believers like outcasts, like traitors to the culture.
Now as we think about this, we’re confronted with this truth. Distinctly Christian lives will always earn the world’s disapproval. You cannot abstain from the passions of the flesh and expect to be friends with the world. As followers of Christ, we must expect and prepare ourselves to receive the world’s disapproval and disdain. To put it frankly, if you live for Christ like Peter commands in this letter, the world will treat you like an outcast, like a traitor, like a freak. Think about it.
If you’re a young person, say around college age or so, and you refuse to live a life of sexual immorality with your boyfriend or girlfriend, then the world will treat you like an outcast. People will think you’re strange; they’ll view you as a threat. Expect that, and arm yourself to pursue holiness regardless.
If you’re a Christian man and you refuse to live like the culture says men should live, then the world will treat you like an outcast. If you resist pornography and speak against the world’s objectification of women, then you’ll be maligned. If you make the spiritual leadership of your family your highest priority, even above your career, you’ll be reviled. Expect it, and arm yourselves to face it.
For anyone, if you refuse to bow down to the idols of 21st century America – materialism, self-indulgence, this insatiable lust for more and more stuff – then you’ll be treated like an outcast. If you use your time and resources to demonstrate that Christ is your treasure, you will be maligned. Expect it, and arm yourselves to face it.
Listen, for far too long, the church has tolerated friendliness with the world and justified it under the guise of engaging the culture. We live like the world and claim it’s our attempt to reach the world. Now, as Christians, we must engage the world, but the first step in doing so is to live distinctly Christian lives. The first step in reaching the world is to show them with our lives that we have a greater and better hope than what this world can offer – the hope of Christ, the hope of holiness and freedom from slavery to sin. If we don’t demonstrate with our lives that Christ is better than what this world can offer, then we not engaging the culture. We’re simply becoming like the culture. We must remember that we are sojourners and strangers here on earth. Our identity is not of this world. We should be different. We should seem like outcasts to the world at times, because that’s what we are. God has transferred from this kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of his beloved Son. For the remainder of our time here on earth, we must live as ambassadors of that kingdom. Our churches must be shining lights in the darkness of the world. But those things will only happen if we arm ourselves to live distinctly Christian lives.
So, let me encourage you to resolve yourself to the reality that you cannot live a distinctly Christian life and win the world’s approval. A life of Christ-like holiness will make you an outcast in the world. Expect that. Arm yourself right now to endure it. And then by faith, pursue a life of distinct holiness in the world, for the glory of Christ and the good of your neighbor.
Believers Should Live for the Last Day
Finally, Peter closes this passage by reminding believers that instead of living for the world’s approval, they should live for the last day. Look at vv5-6: “but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.”
After mentioning persecution in v4, Peter reminds his readers that persecution is not the final word. Those who malign Christians now will give an account to God. Believers should understand that the judgment they receive from the world is not the final verdict. There is a greater Judge and a final hearing in the highest court of appeals. On that day, in that court, in front of that Judge, believers will be vindicated, and every wrong will be made right.
Why does Peter bring this up? Because he’s encouraging Christians to live for the last day rather than for the moment. When the world persecutes you, the temptation is to change your behavior in order to stop the persecution and earn the world’s approval. Look, no one likes to be treated like an outcast. We would all prefer for the world to like us. Peter is saying, “Don’t give in to that temptation. Don’t live for the world’s approval because there is a greater day coming. Live for that approval.” What a tragedy it would be to earn the world’s approval, which cannot last, only to lose God’s approval, which endures for eternity. Don’t make that trade. It’s a bad investment. Live for the last day.
Then, in v6, Peter continues to focus on the last day. His point is that the last day will bring resurrection and vindication for believers. This verse is hard to interpret, but let me explain how I read it. “Those who are dead” refers not to all the dead who lived before Christ, but to believers who have trusted in Christ but have since died. The key to understanding the verse is found in the contrast at the end. Notice how Peter contrasts what happens in the flesh with what happens in the spirit. He’s contrasting the reality of death now, in the physical realm, with the reality of resurrection to come, in the spiritual realm. His point is to encourage these Christians that persecution and even death are not the final word. Remember Peter’s point from 3.19, which we looked at last week. Christ suffered physically, but was raised by the power of the Spirit in victory. Peter’s applying that same thinking to Christians. You may suffer in the flesh now, even to the point of death, but there is new life to come through resurrection with Christ. So, just as with v5, don’t live for today; live by faith in the last day, when God will vindicate his people with resurrection and eternal life.
As we close, I would like to go back to the very first phrase of the passage, “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh.” As we said earlier, that phrase reminds us of the fact that Christ suffered, so therefore we should be prepared to suffer. That’s true, and it’s the key point in Peter’s preparation of his readers. But that phrase also reminds us of the uniqueness of the biblical gospel. The Christian faith is centered not on our ability to perfectly endure suffering and pursue holiness. The Christian faith is centered on Christ’s perfect righteousness and his sacrificial suffering for us. Each time Peter has referenced Christ’s suffering in the letter, he has also referenced some unique aspect of that suffering. Christ bore our sins in his body on the tree. Christ died to bring us to God. Christ suffered to pay for our unrighteousness. Yes, we must remember that Christ suffered and therefore so must we. But we must always remember that in the context of the glorious truth that Christ suffered for us, to bring us to God. As we sojourn here in this world that is not our home, may we do so with our feet firmly planted on the foundation of the gospel. Our great hope is not that we will endure suffering, but that Christ suffered for us. My prayer is that God would use that gospel truth to encourage and sustain us in the pursuit of holiness in the world, all to the glory of Christ.