The Surprising Source of Joy: A Biblical Foundation for Christ-Centered Suffering

Peter Y. Lee
Associate Professor of Old Testament
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington D.C.

This article is a chapter from Joy Unspeakable, a forthcoming book by the author which is scheduled for release by Wipf and Stock Publishers in spring 2019.

“But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” 1 Peter 4:13

May 6, 2005 was one of the most memorable days of my life. This was the day I was ordained into the ministry of the gospel. Although I had served I the church in a pastoral capacity for many years prior, finally receiving the blessing of ordination confirmed my call into ministry. It was a great night for my family and me.

One moment in particular has stayed with me all these years—the pastoral charge given to me by my dear friend, Pastor Dick Ellis. The text that he preached from was 2 Corinthians 1:24 where the Apostle Paul says, “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith [italics mine].” I can still envision Dick in my mind now, thundering away with that challenging words, “Work for the joy of God’s people!” For a young and budding Christian leader, this was inspiring and I took seriously, praying that the Lord would give me a heart for His people to love them so that I could accomplish this noble but overwhelming task.

It was not very long after that when my church community was hit by a barrage of crises. A member diagnosed with a brain tumor, others striving to fix their broken marriages, still others facing cancer and death. All these issues occurred within the first several months of my pastoral work. I recall so many evenings thinking about that charge—“work for the joy of God’s people”—and wondering, “How in the world am I supposed to accomplish this now? How can I instill joy in these people going through such heartache?” How indeed, especially in light of the fact the majority of these people were faithfully serving the Lord in our church. How do I tell them that they were called to endure these extreme times of pain?

The Holy Scriptures is not devoid of words of counsel to those going through such times, and many books have been written on this subject. The passage in 1 Peter 4:13, however, has remained underappreciated. The purpose of this article is to draw attention to this passage in the New Testament and to offer it as another meaning contribution to the plethora of texts that provide hope (and joy) to the people of God enduring times of significant distress.

A shocking command

Perhaps nothing is more shocking (and yet comforting) than the word of encouragement that is given here in 1 Peter 4:13—to rejoice while suffering. We saw in the previous verse (1 Pet. 4:12) that Peter urged his readers not to be surprised by the fiery ordeal that they encounter as believers in Christ. Their “resurrection-birth” has created them anew as spiritual “foreigners” and “resident aliens,” bringing them into the frontlines of a raging spiritual warfare where their adversaries are not flesh-and-blood beings like themselves, but rather draconic forces whose allegiance is to the prince of demons, Satan himself. These descriptions apply first and foremost to our Savior Jesus Christ. Then, as an effect of their union with Him, they also apply to his original readers and to us today. Instead of being taken aback by the fiery trials that result from this new identity, Peter immediately follows in 1 Peter 4:13 by giving a rather odd and unexpected command. Because of (not in spite of) the horrible suffering that his readers are enduring, he calls them to “rejoice.”

This does not seem to make any rational sense. In fact, it sounds impossible. His readers had faced all sorts of hardship because of their faith in Christ. They had been mocked and slandered by the secular world around them, and possibly even by their own families (1 Peter 3:1-7). Some perhaps may have even been harmed to the point of shedding their own blood. They had suffered great loss and had endured much heartache. I would have expected Peter to encourage them to “persevere,” or “trust in the Lord,” or even “don’t fall to temptation.” Instead, he tells them to rejoice. Not to wallow in self-pity, not to doubt the sovereignty of God, not even to complain, grumble, or even challenge what the Lord is doing (alas, Job!). None of that. But rather rejoice! Let me say it again: rejoice!

What is even more shocking is that the “joy” that he has in mind is the joy that he mentioned earlier in his epistle in 1 Peter 1:8, a “joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.” I don’t know about you, but that is definitely, absolutely, and positively a joy that I do not have, but desperately long for. At the same time, it seems impossible to attain this while enduring sorrow and pain. How can I rejoice with a “joy unspeakable” when all I see is the futility of living a faithful life? I strive to obey and the only result seems to be ridicule and slander from my surrounding community. What about my family members who are literally dying before my eyes? What can possibly give me this joy when I experience nothing but agony around me? What about our fellow Christian brethren in persecuted areas of the world, who are risking their lives for the sake of the Gospel? Can they have this joy?

The incredible word of hope that we are given is a bold and resounding YES! Yes, you can have that joy, and you can have it right now! Although his words come to his readers in the form of a command, they also describe a blessing from the Lord that they can possess. Yes, that is correct—you are called to rejoice and, at the same time, the Lord will give you this extraordinary joy as a precious gift. Our “yes” and “amen,” however, is only in Christ.

“Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings”

All this sounds great, but how can such joy be attained? Let us begin by examining the instruction Peter gives in 4:13 carefully:

“Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings…”

Peter says more than this, but we need to meditate on this opening phrase before moving on. He begins by bringing together two concepts that we do not naturally connect with each other: joy and suffering. Specifically, he mentions our joy and Jesus’ suffering. This pairing is a significant one that we must never forget. In fact, as we will see, for Peter the two are inseparable. There are three significant factors to keep in mind in order to understand how Peter correlates joy and suffering.

1) Not Suffering from sin

The first comes from the use of the adverb “insofar as,” which is the Greek particle katho. He says that we are to rejoice “insofar as” (katho) we share in the sufferings of Christ. The significance of this small Greek particle is critical to a proper understanding of this passage because it helps to specify the nature of the suffering in view and provides safeguards to avoid misunderstandings. The suffering that Peter addresses here is not the kind that results from sinful behavior, but that which comes as a result of living a life of faithfulness to God.

Peter states clearly the type of suffering that he does not have in mind when he says in 1 Peter 4:15, “But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler.” This is similar to what he taught earlier in 1 Peter 2:20, “For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure?” This is a rhetorical question, which makes the point being made here very clear: there is no credit or glory for you if you suffer negative consequences as a result of your sin. He states very plainly, without equivocation in 1 Peter 3:17, “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” In the cases where sin has been committed, the individual suffers justly, enduring the consequences of his own violation of the law of God. For example, if you steal, then you will suffer imprisonment. If you commit adultery, then you will suffer a miserable marriage. If you are arrogant and selfish, then you will suffer loneliness as you will have no friends.

The Scriptures make it clear that the response required for this kind of suffering is not joy, but rather confession of the sin, repentance of it, and growth in holiness.

I should point out at this juncture that I am oversimplifying a complex matter in the Christian life: overcoming the powers of sin. Although this is not an article on repentance and restoration, I would be remiss not to mention the forgiveness of our sins that comes from the “great mercy” of God (1 Peter 1:3). This is a message that we need to hear repeatedly because we repeatedly “fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Not a day goes by that we do not sin against the Lord in some manner, whether outwardly in our behavior or internally in our motives and the private thoughts of our hearts.

Romans 3:10-18 has always struck me as a somber yet powerful passage that reminds me of my fallen and sinful nature, and how without Christ there is no hope of overcoming the penalty of sin: death (Rom. 6:23). Simply put, we should be condemned for all eternity because among all humanity….

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Rom. 3:10-18)

Peter, like Paul, is able to offer genuine good news since he understands that the sufferings of Christ, the “righteous one,” on the cross was on our behalf, “the unrighteous,” as our substitute “to bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). In so doing He not only pays for the penalty of sin, but also takes the guilt of our sins upon Himself. A proper understanding of the “sufferings of Christ” leads to an appropriate, humble response: we must confess and renounce our sins, ask God for His forgiveness, attempt restitution where possible, and rest in the promised forgiveness of Christ. Though repentance is only dealt with briefly here, it is far from peripheral to the life of a believer. Repentance is absolutely a spiritual discipline worthy of further contemplation and I encourage you to do so.[1]

Regarding suffering, however, the point that Peter is trying to make is this: do not suffer due to your own sins. It only brings misery and there is nothing praiseworthy in this since you are suffering the consequences of your actions (see 1 Pet. 4:15). Yet, even in such circumstances, the gospel has the transformative power to change the pain from sin into joy. This comes when we realize that Christ paid the penalty for our sins and that in Him there is no longer any condemnation for those who turn to Him by faith (Rom. 8:1). Sinners, therefore, can rejoice once they have repented, but the suffering that comes from that sin is not a source of joy in itself. Sharing in Christ’s sufferings, however, is an entirely different matter. Peter says that this kind of suffering is fellowship with Christ because He is the true righteous sufferer. For this reason, the apostle says that you can rejoice “insofar as,” or as long as, you share in the sufferings of Christ.

2) Christ’s sufferings

The second significant feature to observe is also derived from that same “insofar as” particle (katho) that we took note of earlier. Whereas the previous point emphasizes the kind of suffering not in view (i.e. suffering as a result of sin), this second point brings out the positive description of the kind of suffering that Peter does envision: the sufferings of Christ. This is what Peter says is the source of our extraordinary joy: “rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings.” In other words, you can rejoice because you share Christ’s sufferings.

The phrase “Christ’s sufferings” refers to the suffering that Jesus Himself endured. What kind of suffering was this? Certainly, it was righteous suffering. He was perfectly obedient to the will of God the Father, both in His motives as well as in His public life. There was no blemish or hint of sin within Him. He embodied a perfect love for God and for His people (Matt. 22:36-40). In spite of this, He was rejected by His fellow Jews, was scorned, and ridiculed for proclaiming the good news of the gospel. He was betrayed by His close companions and followers, even though they swore that they would never abandon Him. He was arrested illegally, falsely accused of crimes He did not commit, and sentenced to death. In His moment of physical weakness and exhaustion, He was not shown any remorse of mercy. Instead, He was targeted with even more mocking and disdain. Yet, throughout all this, He never sinned, never turned against the will of His Father. He was faithful and obedient. If anyone ever exemplified a righteous sufferer, it was Jesus.

His suffering is frequently juxtaposed with the “glory that is going to be revealed” (1 Pet. 5:1). In fact, Peter describes the life of Jesus in exactly this way, “the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories” in 1 Peter 1:11. He says that this two-fold summary of the life of Christ (suffering then glory) is the message of salvation that was preached by the Old Testament prophets. In 1 Peter 1:10-12 a series of profound terms are used that captures the essence of the prophetic message: “salvation,” “grace,” “good news,” and “things into which angels long to look.” The phrase “the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories” is in the same procession of redemptive images. For Peter, the gospel message of the suffering and glory of Christ is the fulfillment of Old Testament Scripture.

This is precisely the same summation of the Old Testament that Jesus himself provides. Luke 24:13-32 records two disciples leaving the city of Jerusalem on the day of Jesus’s resurrection. They were disillusioned and confused because Jesus had not restored the golden era of the people of God with the highly-anticipated son of David enthroned as the high king of Israel. Instead He suffered a criminal’s death—death on the cross. On the road they encounter the resurrected Christ, who rebukes them for being “slow of heart to believe everything that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:26). He then teaches and interprets for them the whole of the Old Testament Scriptures; showing that it was necessary for the Messiah to first “suffer these things and enter into his glory.” Later in Luke 24:35-47, Peter learns directly from Jesus that His suffering and glory is the fulfillment of all of the Scriptures. Therefore, it seems best to understand “Christ’s sufferings” in 1 Peter 4:13 as referring to the righteous suffering that Jesus Himself endured, which is in part a fulfillment of the Old Testament. His suffering, however, is related to the suffering of Christians. To this point, we now turn our attention.

3) Sharing in Christ’s sufferings

The third factor is the verb “you share” in 1 Peter 4:13. You can rejoice only “insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings.” The phrase “you share” is the Greek verb koinōneite and can be translated “you fellowship with Christ in His sufferings.” The use of this verb suggests that there is a close relationship between the believer and Jesus. By calling this a “fellowship,” it suggests something much more intimate than a mere friendship. Rather, it is an unbreakable union. The Apostle Paul uses the same word to describe the close fellowship (ESV “participation”) that believers have with Christ in the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 10:16).[2] Given that it is Jesus’ suffering that we share in, it is unjust, righteous suffering that binds Jesus and believers together.

As long as the suffering that believers experience is due to their faithful obedience in Christ and not as a result of their sinful rebellion, they fellowship with Christ and they do so in His sufferings. According to Peter, Christian suffering is reminiscent of the sufferings of Christ. Therefore, to suffer “as a Christian” (1 Pet. 4:16) is to suffer “unjustly” (1 Pet. 2:19), “when you do good and suffer for it” (1 Pet. 2:20), “for righteousness’ sake” (1 Pet. 3:14), or “for the name of Christ” (1 Pet. 4:14).

Fellowship with the Sufferings of Christ

Each of the motifs described above—1) suffering not due to sin, 2) but for righteousness, 3) which makes suffering a form of Christ-centered fellowship—describes not only the suffering endured by Jesus, but also the suffering of believers who are in union with the suffering of Christ.

Sharing in His sufferings can be easily misunderstood. It does not mean that Jesus is presently in a continual state of suffering. His suffering was limited only to His earthly life while He was in “human form” and “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). We rejoice that Jesus arose from the grave, ascended into heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father, and awaits His return where He will claim His saints who have shared in His sufferings. Jesus suffered for a time, but is now in glory, and we, who share in His sufferings, will also share in His glory.

Second, to “fellowship with Christ’s sufferings” does not mean that Christians are spiritual masochists who rejoice in suffering per se. Though we are called to rejoice in our suffering, we are not called to intentionally seek it out, desire it, or even pray for it. For Peter, suffering is unavoidable and part of life in a fallen world. When he says we are called to suffer for Christ’s sake (1 Pet. 2:21) he is describing what lies in store for believers, not what we are required to do; the command is to “rejoice” not to “suffer.” Given that, he encourages us by saying that fellowship with Christ’s sufferings will not crush us. In fact, we can find joy in the midst of it.

Third, to “fellowship with Christ’s sufferings” does not mean that our suffering atones for our sins or the sins of others. Peter states clearly that atonement is accomplished by the sufferings of Christ “once for sins” (1 Pet. 3:18). As such, our suffering has no atoning value; Christ has paid already paid the ultimate and entire price.

Fourth, to “fellowship with Christ’s sufferings” does not mean that our suffering is at the same level of intensity as Jesus. Jesus bore upon Himself the sins of His elect and endured the wrath of God as our substitute. Whatever suffering we share in, it will never be suffering to that extent. Ours is similar, but not identical to His.

Finally, we are not to mimic Christ’s sufferings literally. Suffering in union with Christ does not mean that we must follow the pattern of Christ’s sufferings in an overly-precise way. For example, since Jesus was hung on a cross, we might falsely conclude that we should also be hung on a cross. Or, since Jesus was given a crown of thorns, so we also must receive our own crown. Instead, Peter focuses on a similarity that is analogical and theological in nature rather than identical and moral. This means that all suffering endured for the sake of Christ is qualitatively similar to those endured by Jesus—suffering due to righteousness and obedience.

When we consider all the points above, the astounding lesson that we learn is this…and I simply cannot overstate enough the power of this next statement…we can have this joy not in spite of our Christ-centered sufferings but because of our Christ-centered sufferings!

Lifetime of suffering

Nowhere in his epistle does Peter suggest that the “fiery ordeal” that his readers are facing will come to an end during their lifetime. He does say that their sufferings will be for a “little while” in 1 Peter 1:6 and 5:10, but this is a period of time that terminates at “the revelation of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:7). For Peter, the “little while” is to be understood with the background of the two-fold pattern of suffering and glory where the “glory” is revealed at the termination of the “little while.” In other words, for Peter this “little while” is the entirety of the period between the first and second advents of our Lord.

The Apostle Paul says the same thing in Romans 8. The “sufferings of this present time” (verse 18) comes to an end at the return of Christ which is the time of the “revealing of the sons of God” (verse 19) and also the same time of the “redemption of our bodies” (verse 23). Paul sees the time between the initial coming of Christ and His return as a time when “creation [is] subjected to futility, not willingly” (verse 20), where creation maintains “bondage to corruption” (verse 21), when “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth” (verse 22). The effects of the fall are broad and encompasses “not only creation, but we ourselves” (verse 23). This means that the entirety of a Christian’s earthly life is part of the “little while” in 1 Peter. In fact, Peter would even say that the life of the church, which coincides with the “little while” period, can also be described as a lifetime of suffering.

We offer a false hope if we comfort believers by telling them that the “little while” of suffering refers to a quantitative time period—a few weeks, months, years, or a season of life. During my time in pastoral ministry, it never ceased to amaze me how quickly new crises would arise within the ministry of the church after old ones were resolved. Even in the individual lives of believers, there is rarely a time of respite from trials and hardships. We fight for spiritual sanity while we live in a fallen world because the nature of a fallen world is unstable. Everything appears to be in chaos. To quote a famous man of wisdom, “everything is meaningless” (Eccles. 1:1) when life is viewed from “under the sun” (Eccles. 1:3)[3]. For Peter, our entire earthly life as “foreigners” (1 Pet. 1:1) and “resident aliens” (1 Pet. 2:11) is the “little while” which is a time defined by suffering.

Word of comfort

Peter comforts his readers by promising a future inheritance that that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you (1 Pet. 1:4). However, this will not be revealed until “the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:7) when our suffering will be transformed into glory. However, this future glory is not the only way that Peter encourages his readers. In fact, I would dare say it is not even the primary way. The comfort that Peter offers is not merely the promise of change in our current harsh circumstances. Rather, he helps us to see and understand the true nature of our hardship and trials—it is fellowship with Christ in His sufferings, and thus it is a blessing.

Until the return of our Lord, what we need is not only a change in our painful circumstances but also a change in our perception of them. Peter provides a historical redemptive context to this reality, or more accurately, a Christ-centered context. This is what makes the words in 1 Peter 4:13 so amazing. In the midst of this “little while” which is characterized by Christ-like suffering, we can have joy. It is true that there is a greater joy to be revealed at the return of Christ, but we don’t need to wait for that time to know true joy. This does not have to be a time of sorrow or doubt. We can have a “joy unspeakable” now.

Who are those who fellowship with Christ in His sufferings?

Many take the phrase “you fellowship with Christ’s sufferings” too narrowly as referring only to the harsh persecution characteristic of areas hostile against the gospel. I’m sure you know of such churches and believers. They literally and courageously risk their lives for things that are a regular, daily practice for believers in the western world. For example, going to church, attending a weekday bible study, carrying and reading a bible (even owning a bible), and sharing the gospel. Such believers have put themselves in harm’s way for what would be considered the basics of the Christian life and suffered greatly because of it. Such believers most definitely “share Christ’s sufferings.”

Many in the extraordinary work of foreign missions share testimonies of tragic persecution. Some have even given their lives for the sake of the gospel. Certainly, such persecution is heartbreaking and characterizes the ministry of the church in many areas of the known world, the tragedy of which cannot be overstated. The history of the church testifies to the “enmity” (Gen. 3:15) that the church has endured for her groundbreaking penetration into areas that are hostile to the gospel. This is even becoming more common even in the United States, where the church has historically lived in relative comfort, free of societal aggression against Christianity. With increased secularism and the ever-growing deterioration of Christian values in our communities, days where persecution is largely absent are becoming more and more a distant memory and suffering to the point of shedding blood an increasing reality.

However, according to 1 Peter, to fellowship with Christ in His sufferings is broader than this kind of suffering. Any believer who endures trials due to their commitment for the Lord suffers righteously and thus shares in His sufferings. The kind of suffering found in the persecuted church around the world is definitely in Peter’s mind. But, he also thinks of those who endure through the wear and tear of daily Christian living. To illustrate this, Peter considers examples from the privacy of our homes and basic societal relationships. For example, he encourages godly spouses who suffer under ungodly ones (1 Pet. 3:1-6) and believers whom he says must submit to civil authorities hostile to their faith (1 Pet. 2:13-15; cf. Dan. 1-6).

To these, we can include numerous other examples that Peter does not mention. What about young, single Christians? I have met many who desire to marry yet struggle to meet a godly partner. The notion of marrying outside of the Christian faith is tempting, but they stay committed to the biblical teaching that they are to marry in the Lord. They obey the Lord, but do so at a price. They struggle with emotional depression and loneliness.

What about the young college student who is barraged with insults due to their faith? Many Christian beliefs are not well received in our society—the exclusivity of salvation in Christ, views against homosexuality as a morally acceptable way of life, certain doctrines (e.g. predestination, total depravity), etc. As a result of this, many Christians are vilified in social circles and their friendship is not wanted.

What about the married spouse whose partner commits adultery, in spite of their faithfulness and commitment to the marriage? Or the godly parents who tragically lose a child? Or the Christian who shares the gospel to their non-believing friend only to be ridiculed for holding such archaic beliefs? What about Christians who live with unbelief in their family?

In each case believers suffer due to no fault of their own (1 Pet. 2:18; 20-21). In some situations, suffering results even when we are obedient to the will of God.

We live in a world that is inundated with sin, and the damaging and painful effects of sin are all around us—illness, death, persecution. We certainly see it in the brutality that marks the persecuted church, but we also see it on a daily basis around us. Suffering for the sake of Christ is not primarily defined by its outward manifestation but rather by the heartfelt reaction of the believer. Dan McCartney defines this Christ-like suffering well when he says:

“What makes an occasion of suffering a suffering ‘for the sake of Christ’? Is it the motivation of the person or agent causing the affliction? No, it is the attitude or conscience of the person who is suffering. Thus any affliction can be suffering for Christ, when we endure it for Christ’s sake.”[4]

Richard Gaffin says similarly, “Where existence in creation under the curse on sin and in the mortal body is not simply borne, be it stoically or in whatever other sinfully self-centered, rebellious way, but borne for Christ and lived in his service, there, comprehensively, is ‘the fellowship of his sufferings.’”[5]

The Suffering Servant…according to Peter

Perhaps nothing illustrates the thrust of Peter’s main message in 1 Peter 4:13 better than his appropriation of the well-known passage of the song of the Suffering Servant (Isa. 52:13-53:12) in 1 Peter 2:22-25. This passage occurs in the larger context of Peter addressing societal relationships where he encourages believers to submit to their earthly authorities. According to Peter, they are called to do good, even if their leaders treat them unjustly. They will suffer even though it is undeserved. In the face of such maltreatment, they must not retaliate, rebel, or complain. Rather, he insists they must submit.

However, this becomes more difficult when considering the example that Peter uses to illustrate an unjust sufferer in the lofty model of Christ Himself. Peter uses selections from the song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah to illustrate Christ as the prototype of the unjust sufferer that we are called to emulate:

“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” (1 Pet. 2:21-25)

Surprisingly rare use of the song of the Suffering Servant

As powerfully as this passage in Isaiah’s prophecy portrays the sufferings of Christ, commentator Karen Jobes makes a surprising observation. She says that there are only six places in the New Testament that directly quote from this prophecy (Matt. 8:17; Luke 22:37; John 12:38; Acts 8:32-33; Rom. 10:16; 15:21).[6] Of these six only two are used in reference to Jesus’ suffering: Acts 8:32-33, which tells of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch who happened to be reading from Isaiah 53, and this passage in 1 Peter.

Given this exegetical data, in addition to the manner in which Peter uses the image from Isaiah 53, it seems that the suffering of Christ is particularly important to Peter. Perhaps he sees his direct culpability in Jesus’ suffering in light of his own three-fold denial of Christ.[7] For Peter, this makes the unjust nature of Christ’s passions that much worse. Not only was Jesus unjustly imprisoned and executed, but Peter was one who abandoned Him and betrayed Him in His moment of need, in spite of his previous claims that he would never do so. A proper understanding of Peter’s relationship with Jesus, therefore, highlights how Peter sees the truly unjust nature of His suffering. For Peter, the epitome of the righteous sufferer is Jesus.

Paul Achtemeier observes that Peter places sections from the Suffering Servant passage in a sequence that summarizes the passion narratives of the Gospels.[8] 1 Peter 2:22-23 describes the silence of Christ before the false accusers at His trial. 1 Peter 2:24 is a clear reference to the cross and the subsequent blessings we receive from it, in spite of who we are as straying sheep (1 Pet. 2:25).

Believers as the suffering servant

While it is obvious that Peter identifies Jesus as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, a careful analysis of his use of that prophetic passage demonstrates that he is also saying something more. Profoundly more. Indeed, he uses this passage in a very careful manner. His use is very precise and a bit technical. But, exploring it in greater depth will prove to be immensely fruitful.

Notice that in 1 Peter 2:21 Peter says that Christians have been called to endure unjust suffering as exemplified by Christ. For this reason, we are to follow “in his steps.” If we are called to follow Christ, then astonishingly the portrait of Christ as the Suffering Servant is also a portrait of the believer. In fact, Peter seems to have removed all features from the source-text of Isaiah that applies exclusively to Christ. The effect of this allows the song of the suffering servant to be applied to the believer as well!

In 1 Peter 2:22 he quotes from Isaiah 53:9, “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.” Here, Peter tells the reader that Christ did not suffer due to sin but because He followed the will of God. Then, in 1 Peter 2:23 he gives a brief commentary of the previous verse with an extended application: in the midst of His sufferings Jesus did not strike back at His oppressors, but entrusted Himself to God. Thus, in his application of Isaiah 53:9 in 1 Peter 2:22-23, Peter portrays a morally upright servant who does not strike back against his oppressors in his sufferings. This is the ethical model of how we are to respond to our enemies during our own unjust suffering.

In 1 Peter 2:24 Peter quotes from two different places in the song from Isaiah. Specifically, he takes from the first half of Isaiah 53:12 (“He Himself bore our sins”) and from the last part of Isaiah 53:5 (“and with his stripes we are healed”), then places them together to create a new poetic line. In addition to his citation of Isaiah 53:12, he adds two additional phrases, “in his body” and “on the tree,” which are clearly references to the crucifixion. Since the unjust accusations against Jesus ultimately led Him to a cross, it is possible that His followers may face the same fate. Whether a literal or figurative cross, readers are struck by the way that crucifixion is a fate that they also may have to endure. This is the sober reality that his readers need to know.

Isaiah 53:12, however, continues on with the following phrase: “and makes intercession for the transgressors.” Peter does not include this in his quotation. I cannot help but to think that the reason he did not include this is because Christ alone is the true intercessor for the unrighteous. As similar as our suffering is to Jesus, no one can effectually intercede for sinners but the One and Only Suffering Servant. It is true that the earlier phrase “He bore our sins” can only be applied to Christ as the One who atones for sins. But the addition of the two prepositional phrases (“in his body” and “on the tree”) suggests that it may be an actual physical cross that Peter has in mind, not the atoning work of the cross.[9] During ancient Roman times, it was possible for believers to suffer crucifixion (an actual physical cross) as a result of their Christian confession, but their suffering would not atone for sins. Only the death of the true Suffering Servant atones for the sins of His people; therefore, only He can truly intercede for them. The inclusion of the two descriptive phrases seems to refer to the physical cross as a means of a potential penal sanction believers might face, but the absence of the second half of Isaiah 53:12 suggests that Peter denies any atoning power in this potential crucifixion that believers may experience.

Peter also quotes from Isaiah 53:5, “and with his stripes we are healed.” As we saw above in the case with his use of Isaiah 53:12, what is missing is just as important as what is present. The full text of Isaiah 53:5 says, “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.” Peter only quotes the final phrase, thus leaving out the rich descriptions of Christ as the sacrificial substitution for our sins that also brings us peace. Again, why does Peter not include the earlier portions of this text? The answer seems clear: only the sufferings of Christ have atoning value—ours does not. To make sure there is no misunderstanding, Peter only quotes what is needed for us to appreciate the sufferings of Christ as an example of what lies in store for His followers.

Finally, in 1 Peter 2:25 Peter quotes from Isaiah 53:6, “For you were straying like sheep.” Just like the other quotations, Peter mentions only a small portion of that passage. The full text of Isaiah 53:6 says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” As straying sheep, we indeed “turned to our own way.” Peter says, however, that because of the work of Christ we have now “returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of [our] souls.” What Peter fails to mention is the final description of our iniquity being laid upon the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53:6. Why? I suggest it is for reason similar to those mentioned above. Only Christ can have our iniquities laid upon Him redemptively. Such a description could not be applied to anyone else with the same atoning results. As great as Abraham, Moses, and David were, they could not atone for the sins of others, much less themselves. We too cannot atone for our own sins or that of anyone else. Our righteous suffering, regardless of how much it resembles Jesus’, does not and cannot atone for sins.

In his use of Isaiah 53 throughout 1 Peter 2:22-25 it seems that Peter takes tremendous care and precision by using specific portions of that prophesy for a specific purpose. By interweaving these selections, he crafts a glorious literary mosaic with a carefully designed message. The addition of the two prepositional phrases in 1 Peter 2:24 and the consistent removal of the atonement idioms (with the exception of “He bore our sins”) creates a certain level of ambiguity as to whom Peter describes. Is it Christ, or is it the believer since the description in 1 Peter 2:22-25 can fit either?

Peter excludes phrases that specifically refer to Jesus’ work as a vicarious sacrifice in Isaiah’s prophecy. There is no doubt that for Peter the identity of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 is Jesus. His use and application of the prophetic text, however, leads to an additional layer of identification. Christ indeed is The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, but Peter seems to allude to more. Amazingly, he also seems to suggest that Christian believers are also to be understood as the suffering servant as a collective because of our union with the Suffering Servant, Jesus Christ.[10]

The “example” of Christ

This is what we are called to (1 Pet. 2:21). Christ suffers as a result of His faithful obedience as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. Likewise, we also are called to suffer as a result of our faithful obedience to Christ-like discipleship. The “example” that Peter speaks of is a moral one, of which Jesus is our model. 1 Peter 2:22-23 clearly teaches this, but it says more than that. In fact, it has to be more. If Jesus were merely a moral standard to which we are called to measure up, then we would all fail as no one can conform to such standards of perfection. If this were the case, then the call in 1 Peter 2:21 would not be a call of hope but a word of condemnation.

After seeing the ways in which Peter carefully uses Isaiah’s prophetic text, we can see further that the “example” that he mentions is not only a moral one, but it is also a historical-redemptive one. The life of Jesus as the Suffering Servant is an “example” of what our lives will be like as well as what our lives should be like. His life was marred with unjust suffering, so we also will “share Christ’s sufferings” by experiencing the same kind of suffering prior to any knowledge of glory at His return. This is the reality of our union with Christ.

Union with the Suffering of Christ

Throughout the first two chapters, I have referred to the fellowship that believers have with the sufferings of Christ as our “union with Christ.” The doctrine of our union with Christ cannot be overemphasized in its importance in 1 Peter as well as the theology of the New Testament. It is not merely one doctrine among many in Scripture. Rather, it is the one concept that embraces the entirety of the redemptive work of God that extends from the eternal plan of salvation “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4) to our eventual glorification (Rom. 8:30). Thus, union with Christ underlies every aspect of our redemption.

Although the actual phrase “union with Christ” does not occur in the Scriptures, this mystical and Spirit-empowered bond between the Lord and His elect is a living reality and best expressed in the commonly used phrase “in Christ.” This is frequently used by the Apostle Paul throughout his writings. One only need to count the numerous times it occurs in Ephesians 1:3-14 (over ten times!) to be impressed by the conscious effort that Paul makes to state the importance of our union “in Christ.”

Union with Christ in Salvation

For Peter, this understanding of our union with Christ is the foundation for our salvation. It is through this union with the resurrected Christ that we receive the blessing of “resurrection-birth” (1 Pet. 1:3). Prior to this, we were “dead in our trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). But now, because of our new birth in Christ, we are “ransomed from the futile ways of our forefathers” (1 Pet. 1:18), redeemed by “the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:19), and possess an inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1 Pet. 1:4). It is because of our union with Christ that we have a “salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1:5).[11]

The accomplished blessings that Christ merited in the cross and resurrection are no longer far away from us. Rather, it is very near you; in fact, it is within us (Deut. 30:14; cf. Rom. 10:8) in the Person of the Holy Spirit who unites the believer to Christ. As John Calvin stated so succinctly and profoundly, “we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us.”[12]

Union with Christ in the Christian Life

Remarkable for Peter is that the source of our salvation is also the source of our suffering. If we have a new life in Christ, what is our life going to be like? According to Peter, life for believers, along with the ministry of the church, will be like the life and ministry of Christ.

How does Peter describe the earthly life and ministry of Jesus? Suffering then glory. I stated earlier that the suffering of Christ is part of how Peter understands the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures (1 Pet. 1:11). He also says that Jesus was “rejected by men” (1 Pet. 2:4, 7) and that He was considered “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense” (1 Pet. 2:8). Remember that in 1 Peter 2:22-25 selected phrases are ascribed to Christ that describe the epitome of all righteous sufferers in the Old Testament Scriptures, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. Peter says that Christ “suffered once for all, the Righteous for the unrighteous” (1 Pet. 3:18) and that He “suffered in the flesh” (1 Pet. 4:1). Peter’s readers never witnessed the actual sufferings of Christ (1 Pet. 1:8); they could only have it preached to them. Unlike his readers who lacked firsthand knowledge, Peter confesses that he was “a witness of the sufferings of Christ” (1 Pet. 5:1), and Jesus is the centerpiece of his confession.

Since Jesus’ life was marked by that movement from suffering to glory, a similar movement will characterize the life of those who are united to Him by faith. In describing the suffering that Jesus endured while on earth John Calvin pointed out that not only was Jesus executed on a cross but that also “his whole life was nothing but a sort of perpetual cross.”[13] This is most likely the reason why Jesus described the life of a disciple as “taking up his cross daily” (Matt. 10:38; 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; 14:27).

Knowing the Suffering of Christ

Peter describes Jesus as the Son of God who came to His people only to be rejected by them; to be brutally and ruthlessly maligned and slandered. He was then beaten, battered, and bruised. He was sentenced to hang on a cross, and he endured penal sanctions for crimes He never committed. He came to save His people from their sins, to be their Redeeming King because He had a “great mercy” (1 Pet. 1:3) for them.

His people, however, did not extend to Him the prerogatives and blessings that He rightfully deserved. They accused Him falsely of wrongdoings, humiliated Him as He took His final walk to the “Place of a Skull,” (Matt. 27:33; Mark 15:22; John 19:17; cf. Luke 23:33) and sentenced Him to an ignominious death. As He hung on the cross, the emblem of curse and condemnation (Gal. 3:10), so frail and vulnerable, no compassion was extended to Him. Rather, He was ridiculed and persecuted all the more.

Even if Jesus had been guilty of violating the law of God, we would still wonder if this penalty fit the severity of the crime and have a modicum of sympathy for the extent of His suffering. What makes the sufferings of Christ so astounding (and gracious) is that He endured all this even though He was innocent of any crime, infraction, or sin. According to Peter the witness, this was the life of Christ. He was treated harshly, brutally, and unjustly.

As believers, we rejoice in our union with Christ as the foundation for our salvation. Our union with Christ is also the foundation for the Christian life. Peter tells us this new life is lived with a “living hope.” This life of “living hope,” however, is characterized by Christ-like suffering. By experiencing His sufferings, the very sufferings themselves become a blessing since they allow us to “conform to the image of the Son” (Rom. 8:29; cf. Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). We must remember that growing in increasing conformity to the Son and thus growing in a greater knowledge of Him is the highest goal for any Christian. What greater desire is there for a disciple of Christ but to grow in His likeness? This is why we rejoice in the doctrine of our union with Christ—both in our salvation and also in life.

How much do we want to know Jesus?

Let me pose a question: how much do you really want to know Jesus? When we contemplate our growth into the image of Christ, we find deep comfort in our union with Christ for in that blessing we receive the rich blessings of redemption which were accomplished by the Son and applied to us as believers. We rejoice to know that in Christ we are “elect,” “sanctified,” and “born again” (1 Pet. 1:1-3). In Christ, we are given an imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance; we are given a great salvation that is safeguarded for us and ready to be revealed in the last times (1 Pet. 1:4-5). Notice the positive nature of the blessings associated with this approach. Who would not want this? We all want to be effectually called, born again, justified, adopted as His children, sanctified, and transformed to everlasting glory (Rom. 8:29).

What we do not want, what we lack the strength of heart and the intestinal fortitude to desire is the historical redemptive expression of our union with Christ. From this approach, our union with Christ means that we “share Christ’s sufferings” in addition to sharing His glory. We do share and will share in the fullness of His glory. There is no doubt of this, and that will be a great and magnificent day. I look forward to it and I’m sure you do as well. But, the suffering and glory are a package that cannot be separated because they come from the same divine source. Jesus knew both. Thus, to have one without the other amounts to an incomplete knowledge of Jesus because that was not the life that He lived. Again I say, that was not the life that He lived!

His life was marred with rejection, ridicule, and persecution, even though He was faithful and true to His call and to the people of God. We are called to “fellowship with Christ in His sufferings” so that we may know the true Jesus, the whole Jesus, the real Jesus. And because we know Jesus we can indeed rejoice. If you take away this Christ-like suffering from the Christian life, then ostensibly you also take away any chance of knowing this “joy unspeakable” because we no longer can say that we know the source of that joy, the suffering of Jesus Christ. According to Peter, Christian joy is neither found in the positive circumstances of life, in the abundance of material goods, nor in success in our professional, academic, or private lives. It is found in a pure and genuine knowledge of our blessed Savior. This is a point that must be repeated constantly so that we do not forget it.

As the Apostle Paul states so powerfully as he contemplates the loss of all things for the sake of Christ, “I want to know him and the power of his resurrection, and share in his sufferings” (Phil. 3:10). What an amazing statement of faith! What an amazing source of joy! We, too, can find it where we would never expect—in the midst of Christ’s sufferings. To know Christ’s suffering is to know Christ. To know Christ is the heart’s desire of the Christian disciple. To know Christ is to know a “joy unspeakable.”

A Personal Illustration

Let me provide an example from our regular, daily lives. The Lord has been truly good to me and has blessed me in more ways than I can count. I have been happily married for many years to a wonderful and godly wife who is a daily reminder to me of the grace of God. The Lord has blessed us with six wonderful children who are steadily and faithfully growing in their love for the Lord. I graduated from Westminster Seminary in California with a Master of Divinity degree and continued in my education at the Catholic University of America where I earned my second masters and my doctorate in Semitic languages and literature. I am now a professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D. C. where I teach and train future leaders of God’s church. During my entire education, I was fortunate to have studied under very godly and knowledgeable instructors who have made a lasting impact upon my theological, spiritual, and academic growth. In addition to all this, I am an ordained Presbyterian minister and have served as a pastor for several decades. In 2004 the Lord opened up an opportunity for me to start a new church, which provided me with one of the greatest pastoral experiences that I have ever had.

These are some of my accomplishments and they are helpful to know if you want to know me. However, what this does not tell you is all the heartaches, the trials, and the pain that I have suffered throughout my life—many of which are too painful to even mention here. These are still very much who I am. As much as I would like to forget them, I can’t. In fact, I will let you in on a valuable lesson that I have learned over the years: I have had more failures than successes, and more defeats than victories.

If all you knew of me were those things that you can find on my Curriculum Vitae, then you really do not know who I am. That is only part of me and truthfully not even the most interesting parts. Unless you know the dark underbelly of my life, you will never know the real me. It is not pleasant, it is murky, and at times very surprising. Yet, it is still part of who I am. There are only a few who know this painful side of my life and thus there are only a few who can say they truly know me.

Christ-like suffering is a blessing

Knowing me may not mean too much for most, but to know Christ is a different matter. We tend to see suffering as something negative that should be avoided at all cost. Indeed, I would agree. After all, regardless of how much the Apostle Peter may redeem the virtue and value of Christ-like suffering and turn that into a source of joy, it cannot compare with the joy that will be found in the last days. Peter himself acknowledges this when he says in 1 Peter 4:13 that you are to “rejoice insofar as we share Christ’s sufferings,” so that “you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” That final clause of verse 13 is better captured in the NASB where it states that “you may rejoice with exultation.” The NIV states similarly, “you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (italics mine). See also the Authorized Version where it says “ye may be glad also with exceeding joy” (italics mine). These various English translations accurately describe that there is indeed joy when we experience Christ-like suffering, but it pales in comparison to the joy we will know when we experience “His glory.”

All this is true and that day will be marvelous. In the meantime, however, we who fellowship with Christ in His sufferings do not need to wait in a state of misery and despair until that day when we share in His glory. According to Peter, sharing in the sufferings of Christ is not a negative experience while sharing in His glory is a positive one. Sharing Christ’s sufferings is not to be considered bad while sharing Christ’s glory good. For Peter, sharing Christ’s sufferings is good, but sharing Christ’s glory is better. There is a relative degree of blessing in both, not a contrastive and dramatic antithesis.

This is very similar to the way that Paul describes death in Philippians 1:21-23. He begins in verse 21 with the famous line, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” The following two verses provide a commentary on his meaning. For Paul, “to live is Christ” suggests that his earthly life is filled with “fruitful labor” (Phil. 1:22), productive and meaningful ministry to the people of God, specifically to the Philippians, for whom he realizes that he must remain “in the flesh on their account” (Phil. 1:24). Although he does not state it here explicitly, it seems clear enough that Paul derived much joy from his gospel work.

Yet, Paul acknowledges that he is “hard pressed” (Phil. 2:23) between two choices. Shockingly, his options are living or dying. For most people, this is not a hard decision to make. Most would quickly and easily choose life over death in a heartbeat without any internal conflict. Most people would see life (even life in ministry) as good and death as bad. Paul, however, was not like most people. He, like Peter, was driven by a different set of values. For him, the choice was not between a negative option (death) versus a positive one (life). The choice was between a good blessing (life) and a better blessing (death). What is surprising and radical is the fact that not only does Paul call death a good option, he says it is better than life. In fact, he even says it is “far better” than life (Phil. 2:23)! Why is death far better? For Paul, this is only true because in death he will “depart and be with Christ” (Phil. 2:23).

What determines and defines the nature of true joy for faithful followers of Christ is Christ. It is not material possession, monetary wealth, physical well-being, or anything else. We constantly look for joy in the wrong places, so we must reiterate this over and over again. For Paul, life in the rigors and heartaches of gospel ministry is a precious good, but to “share his sufferings” (Phil. 3:10) is by far better.

This was also the case for the Apostle Peter. His desire, above all else, was to know Jesus in His fullness. If that meant that he must know the agonies of Christ in His sufferings, then so be it. His instruction reflects a profound humility and deep spiritual wisdom. It is clearly counter to our natural instincts regarding pain and suffering.

Of course, the Apostle Peter would not wish pointless suffering upon any believer. For that reason, he provides a new insight into our pain. To fellowship with Christ in His sufferings is most definitely and positively not pointless. Rather, sharing in the sufferings of the Unjust Sufferer defines our pain, gives it purpose, provides it with meaning, gives us godly instruction, and transforms our perception of it.

The reality is that we will face such hardships (“don’t be surprised” in 1 Pet. 4:12). When we do, this does not have to be a crisis that utterly destroys us. Rather, by the extraordinary grace of God, our Christ-like sufferings can be an invitation from our Lord to grow into deeper knowledge, intimacy, and companionship with Him. Therefore, when we endure unjust suffering, it truly is a blessing because it is a time of intense and meaningful fellowship with Christ in His sufferings. Yes, it is true that to share in His glories is a greater blessing. But don’t be fooled into thinking that being rejected and ridiculed for the sake of Christ is a state of misery that is to be pitied. According to Peter, to share in the sufferings of Christ is a blessing also. Truly, I do not know a greater source of joy in a fallen world than this.

Preach, Teach, Share the Suffering Christ

All Christian leaders desire for God’s people to have joy in life. They passionately pray for it, work towards it, and humbly offer it through the ministry of the Word. However, they are not pragmatic about how this joy should be gained; they do encourage us to seek joy in secular society or within a sinful lifestyle separated from Christ. As many can testify, truly meaningful joy cannot be found in these places because joy does not exist there. In fact, the truest and richest experience of any substantial joy is found neither in a place, in a situation, nor in a concept. It is not gained by large income, promotion in professional status, a great vacation, or even a happy and healthy family. It cannot be bought, bartered, or bargained for. It is found exclusively in a person, in The Person. It only comes by knowing the Lord of suffering and glory. It comes by knowing Jesus Christ.

According to Peter, it is not a generic knowledge of Christ that brings this blissful delight, something that even demons have (James 2:19). Ironically, the apostle teaches us that this heavenly joy can come only by sharing in the unjust sufferings of Christ as well as His magnificent glories. His unjust sufferings and a “joy unspeakable” are conjoined as a collective whole that cannot be separated. The flipside, then, is also true: the inability to share in this Christ-like suffering may bring temporary respite but ultimately leads to eternal wrath and condemnation.

Necessity of sharing the Suffering Christ

We live in a fallen world where the people of God are verbally and even physically abused around them. Imagine the comfort that can be given to such as these if they see that they do not suffer alone. Not only do they share in the sufferings of other believers, but they share in the sufferings of their Savior. Jesus is no longer a God who is far away and distantly removed. He is “near you” (Deut. 30:11-14; cf. Rom. 10:3-5). Indeed, He is Immanuel, “God is with us” (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:23). More than that, He “sympathizes with our weakness” (Heb. 4:15) and now we can say that we have “fellowship” with His suffering. This is what Peter says in our theme passage, 1 Peter 4:12-13.

Imagine if such a message were withheld from believers. The tragic reality is that it may indeed be absent in the church today and, as a result, the opportunity to provide profound comfort to so many is lost. Christian suffering is rarely seen as a form of fellowship with Christ. It is more common to find it explained as a necessary but unfortunate experience that we must tolerate in order to gain the glory of Christ. Although there is some truth in such a statement, this view does not portray Christ-centered suffering the way that Peter sees it—as a source of joy. We hear about Jesus’ sufferings that He endured throughout His life and distance ourselves from it. After all, we instinctively avoid anything that reminds us of pain. The suffering of Christ—so powerfully and eloquently portrayed in the Easter season—remains separate from the sufferings of His disciples. Believers do not fellowship with Christ in His sufferings because that invitation is not made by God’s church, either from Sunday school classrooms or pulpits.

Practicality of sharing a Suffering Christ

Consider the preaching of the Word. Regardless of one’s philosophy of ministry, all church leaders would agree that preaching is one of, if not the central ministry of the church. What are pastors to preach? In the words of the Apostle Paul, it is Him we proclaim[14] (Col. 1:28). Nothing more and definitely nothing less. Recall that Peter acknowledged that the central message of the Old Testament is the sufferings and the glory of Christ (1:10-11, cf. Luke 24:13ff). Therefore, it seems more than reasonable to conclude that to preach from the Holy Scriptures is the same as preaching Christ in His sufferings as well as His glories.

What is heard from the pulpits in the churches of America? It will vary. Many churches provide instructional preaching that helps us with the daily challenges of life, such as how to live as loving spouses or parents, ways to manage anger and finances, strategic initiatives on renewing our cultures, etc. These are worthwhile and commendable messages to communicate from the pulpit of God’s church, as long as they first and foremost hold to the primary message of preaching Jesus Christ. In fact, it is only when we understand that we are “resurrected-born” believers in Christ (1 Pet. 1:3) who are now dead to sin that we can truly love our spouses and raise our children in a godly way. It is only when we see ourselves as spiritual “foreigners” and “resident aliens” in Christ that we can combat the values of our secular world and live as citizens of the Kingdom of God (Phil. 3:20). Indeed, it is only when we remember that in Christ we are called to a war that is against “rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12) that we can overcome the evil one and his devilish schemes that can lead us astray.

There are social concerns in the American homeland that weigh upon us: racial tensions, marital issues, teen crises, violence in the public arena, and sexual promiscuity, just to name a few. I sympathize with churches that desire to address these important issues head on from the pulpit and through ministry programs. I fear, however, that this is done at the expense of preserving the central place of Christ in both the preached message and the life of the church. The result is to reduce this wonderful message of the gospel of a Suffering Savior to nothing more than a moral and/or social imperative.

This leads me to ponder many questions. In the name of being relevant to such needs, I wonder if the church is capable of addressing the issue concerning the suffering of God’s people. Has the church succumbed to preaching a message that does not address the heart of the matter, which is offering hope to those for whom Jesus loved so dearly that He shed His own blood? Have we reduced the message of Christ to nothing more than clichés, religious catch-phrases, soundbites, moral platitudes and forgotten the profound theological foundation of our hope in times of tremendous suffering and pain? Are we merely encouraging people to “try harder” when they are struggling without clear direction regarding what they are to “try harder” to do? Are we so focused on the future glory that awaits us that we cannot offer hope in the here-and-now? I confess that I myself am not certain what the answers to these questions are.

Why would the world oppose a moral or social message from the church? Is this not the same message that you can get from any non-Christian organization as well? It is very possible that the reason why the church in the United States does not face hardship for the sake of Christ is because we have come to reflect so much of the values of the secular world around us so that we are perceived more as an ally than a threat. Has the church embraced a preached word that can be aired on any day time talk show and be accepted with little resistance? Many “sermons” in the church remind me of the comment made by the great American reformed theologian B. B. Warfield in his critique of the moralistic preaching of the revivalist Charles Finney from the Second Great Awakening in the nineteenth century when he stated, “It is quite clear that what Finney gives us is less a theology than a system of morals. God might be eliminated from it entirely without essentially changing its character.”[15]  I cannot think of a more condemning comment to make towards a preacher of the gospel than this.

Was this the way the early Christian leaders preached Christ? No! They boldly and courageously preached Christ crucified and resurrected; they did not reduce Him to a mere moral standard that they needed to obtain in their own strength. As a result, they were imprisoned countless times (Acts 4-5, 16), beaten (Acts 5:40), and even stoned (Acts 7:59; 14:5).

Stay the course

The task before modern preachers is the same as the ancient ones: preach Christ. Preach Him, because salvation is found in no one else “for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). It is against the spirit of the religious consciousness in our contemporary society to preach a message that exalts only one worldview as the one and only truth, as opposed to a worldview that is one of many truths. Only the Christian gospel has the “power unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16; cf. John 14:6); all other religious instructions lead to condemnation and wrath.

Stay the course and preach Him, because by embracing by faith a suffering Messiah, God’s people have access to a rich and full knowledge of their Savior. Those who consider suffering futile can now find hope. However, all this can only come if the Christian Church remains faithful to her commission and proclaims the Savior who suffered for them and will raise them to eternal glory. To not preach the sufferings of Christ is to not be true to the central message of the Scripture. The most practical message that we can give for those living in a fallen world is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We must keep in mind that many of the social concerns of our day are manifestations of sinful humanity. The solution to these matters will not be found in a message that merely provides strategic ways to control it. Sin cannot be controlled by positive thinking, social reforms, political agendas, judicial legislations, or sheer will power. Our society is filled with sin because it is filled with sinners. Their sinful nature must be transformed. That transformation only comes when we can acknowledge our fallen nature and thus our need for a Savior who gave His life as a substitute for us. We do a gross disservice to those who come into the church overwhelmed with the destruction of sin and its resulting guilt by withholding the life-saving power of a Christ-centered message. They do not need to be told that they can have their best life now, nor do they need to be given three steps on how to overcome sin—as if overcoming sin can be achieved in such a simplistic manner. This might be what people want to hear, but what they need is something radically different. They need Christ. Many in America (and other parts of the world) do not want to be told that they are sinners who face eternal condemnation. They scrutinize and ridicule churches that hold to such “negative” and archaic views. That is the price that we pay for committing to a biblical vision of reality. We do not preach Christ because this is a comfortable message. We preach Christ because this is a comforting message.

In recent days there has been a growing surge of interest in the church to focus on the centrality of Christ and His gospel as the core of the preached word as well as the Christian life. I rejoice in this and thank the Lord for raising godly leaders who have committed to such a glorious message. I continue to press this issue in hope that not only pastors, but Christians in the pews will offer godly counsel to each other with the same Christ-like saturation. What a glorious thing that would be. I pray for it. I pray for it indeed.

  1. For some very helpful treatments on the subject of repentance as a spiritual discipline, see Thomas Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009); C. John Miller, Repentance: A Daring Call to Real Surrender (Fort Washington: CLC Publications, 2011), formerly published under the title Repentance and 21st Century Man; Sinclair Ferguson, The Grace of Repentance (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010).
  2. For further details on the fellowship/union believers have with Christ in the Lord’s Supper, see Howard Griffith, Spreading the Feast: Instruction and Meditations for Ministry at the Lord’s Supper (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2015), 113-144.
  3. The phrase “under the sun” is pervasive in the book of Ecclesiastes; see 1:3, 9, 14; 2:11, 17-20; 3:16; 4:1, 3, 7, 15; 5:13, 18; 6:1, 12; 8:9, 15, 17; 9:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 10:5. A comparative phrase, although not as common, is “under heaven”; see 1:13; 2:3; 3:1. These phrases describe the parameters in which everything is “meaningless”; only that which is “under the sun” or “under heaven” is meaningless. A glimpse of hope, however, can be discerned by the nature of life “above the sun,” a phrase clearly implied by “under the sun.” If life “under the sun” is all-meaninglessness, then the presumption in the book of Ecclesiastes is that life “above the sun” must be diametrically opposite. All-Meaningful! The book does not provide descriptions on such a life, but that was not its intent.
  4. Dan McCartney, Why does it have to hurt?, 70.
  5. Richard Gaffin, “The Usefulness of the Cross,” WTJ 41 (Spring 1979), 237.
  6. Jobes, 1 Peter, 192-193. In Matthew 8:17, it is Jesus’ miracles of healing (not His atoning sacrifice) that are said to be a fulfillment of Isaiah 53:4; “He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases.” In Luke 22:37 Jesus quotes from Isaiah 53:12, “He was numbered with the transgressors,” as the explanation on why His disciples are to sell their cloaks to buy swords. In John 12:38, the unbelief of the Jews in Christ is seen as fulfillment of Isaiah 53:1; “Lord, who has believed our message?” Finally, Romans 10:16 quotes Isaiah 52:7 and 53:1 whereas Romans 15:21 quotes Isaiah 52:15, both of which see Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles as fulfilling prophetic prophecy.
  7. See Matthew 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:54-56; John 18:13-27’ cf. Matthew 26:33-35’ Mark 14:29-31; Luke 22:33-34; John 13:36-38; 21:15-17.
  8. Paul J. Achtemeier, “Suffering Servant and Suffering Christ in 1 Peter” in The Future of Christology: Essays in Honor of Leander E. Keck (ed. A. J. Malherbe and W. A. Meeks; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 176-188.
  9. The Apostle Peter does not reject the atonement as 1 Peter 3:18 shows, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” He seems to maneuver around it in this context so that the identity of the servant of Isaiah 53 can be applied to the believer in Christ.
  10. Karen Jobes reaches the same conclusion; see Jobes, 1 Peter, 199-200.
  11. It is significant to note how the Apostle Peter seems to be influenced by the historical reality of the resurrection of Christ (1:3) in his union theology as evident in his doctrine of the new-birth (“resurrection-birth” is the term that I used earlier), the Christian life (“living hope”), our inheritance as sons (“imperishable”), and the finality of the salvation blessings in the final day of glory. Dr. Richard Gaffin makes the case that the Apostle Paul articulates the resurrection as the focal point in our union with Christ in Resurrection and Redemption (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1987); a similar case can be made for the doctrine of union with Christ in 1 Peter.
  12. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 537. Book III in the Institutes holds some of the richest and most profound teachings on this doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ. I would recommend this above all other sources for a thoroughly biblical treatment on that subject.
  13. Calvin, Institutes, 702.
  14. This is the title of a very helpful book on Christ-centered preaching by Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007).
  15. B. B. Warfield, Perfectionism, Part Two (New York: Oxford, 1932), 193.