The New Testament book of I Peter was written to encourage Christians in the early church who were suffering severe persecution. I Peter 4:12 says: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.” They would have had reason to think what they were suffering was indeed strange. It certainly was excessive.
Peter was writing during the flare up of persecution under the Emperor Nero. Nero was among the worst of the Roman emperors, and stories of his cruelty, violence, and insanity are astounding. The church in Rome had been growing rapidly during his reign, and unfortunately, the Christians attracted his attention. They were an unpopular minority, unwilling as they were to give their ultimate allegiance to Rome and the Emperor. The early confession of faith, ‘Christ is Lord,’ was considered treasonous since the emperors had, by that time, declared their own divinity.
In 64 A.D. there was a horrific fire in Rome that burned for over a week, destroying much of the city. It was rumored that Nero, in his madness, had started the fire himself, and then casually played his violin as he watched the city burn from a safe distance; thus, the saying, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.” It was never proven that he did start it, and the violin story might have been a false rumor. Historians disagree on the question. Either way, Nero was at the time blamed, and needing a scapegoat, he blamed the Christians. The Romans, eager to see someone punished for the destruction, were more than happy to see this new religion selected for the persecution. Nero never did have any qualms about having people killed, so Christians were rounded up and put to death in a variety of ways. The crowds at the coliseum were always anxious for new forms of entertainment, so while the Christian men faced the usual crucifixion, women and children were dressed up in animal skins and pushed out into the arena to be torn to pieces by wild dogs.
It was at this time that Peter wrote, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.” Peter was not writing from a safe distance. He too would in time be rounded up in this same persecution, and was crucified (upside-down at this own request, because he did not feel worthy to die in the same way as his Lord had died).
St. Peter’s Crucifixion, by Caravaggio (1571-1610), Rome, Italy
So Peter said, ‘Don’t be surprised, Jesus also had to suffer; why should we expect to be exempt?’ In verse 13 he went on to say, “Rejoice, that you may participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you… So if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.”
It is sobering to think about these words in the context of when they were first written. Peter was encouraging people to remain firm and not renounce their faith, if given the chance; and they usually were given the chance. After all, the knowledge of friends and neighbors abandoning the faith to save their own lives would certainly be discouraging, and would lead to more denials. Peter knew what it was to deny Jesus, and he, for one, would not do that again (Mark 14:66-72). But by remaining firm, and encouraging others to do the same, Peter was sending them to their doom; sending them all, children included, to vicious and violent deaths. Yet, he held before them the vision of a greater future glory.
Keeping in mind the details of Nero’s persecution, consider these words (5:6-11): “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of sufferings. And the God of grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast. To him be the power (and not Nero), for ever and ever.”
Most did stand firm. There are incredible stories from this time and the later persecutions of the courage of the believers to stand firm, and to not renounce their faith, even in the face of death. One example is Polycarp who was killed for his faith (in a later persecution), and in his last words reflected the kind of determination and faith that Peter encouraged.
Polycarp was 86 when he was arrested. He was a kindly and likable old man. The Roman authority in charge of sentencing him was reluctant to kill him, so he gave Polycarp several opportunities to renounce his faith. “Old man,” said the Roman governor, “renounce your faith, swear by Caesar, and save your life.” Polycarp refused.
“Just renounce Christ,” said the Roman, pleading, “and I will set you free at once.”
Polycarp replied, “For 86 years I have been Christ’s servant, and he has never done me wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who has saved me?”
The Roman went on, now in a threatening tone, “I have wild beasts,” he said, “I will throw you to them.”
“Go ahead,” said Polycarp, “call them out. I am ready.”
“If you do not fear the beasts,” said the Roman, “then I will burn you alive. Change your mind, old man, or I will prepare the fire.”
Polycarp answered, “The fire you threaten will burn only for a short time, and then I will be gone and the fire extinguished. But there is a fire that you know nothing about, the fire of the judgment to come and of eternal punishment, the fire preserved for the ungodly. Why do you keep hesitating? Might you want me to tell you how you can be saved from that fire?”
Now angered, the Roman ordered that the fire be built. As it was being lit, Polycarp prayed this last prayer: “Heavenly Father, I thank you that you have counted me worthy to suffer for the sake of my Lord Jesus Christ, and I give you thanks that I may partake in the promise of eternal life.” What Polycarp said in his last words is very similar what Peter had said in verse 13: “Rejoice that you may participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” (continued…)
I Peter 4:12-16…19 — Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name… So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.
THE LAST PRAYER OF POLYCARP:
Heavenly Father, I thank you that you have counted me worthy to suffer for the sake of my Lord Jesus Christ, and I give you thanks that I may partake in the promise of eternal life.