The Fiery Ordeal

1 Peter 4.12-19 and Matthew 5.10-12

Eyal is a church leader in Eritrea. In Eritrea only three Christian denominations (Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran – as well as Sunni Islam) are legally permitted and they are tightly controlled by the government. Eritrea is roughly equally Christian and Muslim.

‘Anybody who is believed to have criticised the government is likely to be severely punished – and following an unapproved Christian denomination is considered anti-government. This means that hundreds of Christians are arrested and imprisoned, including  141 in May 2019 and 30 the following month. Some prisoners are held in shipping containers in scorching temperatures.  Eyal, who has now been released, talks about being severely beaten with rods, kept in chains and treated without any human dignity. “I cannot believe I survived that,” he says. “Really, it was only by the grace of the Lord.” Eyal still sees a bright future for the church in Eritrea. He knows that Eritreans are often choosing suffering when they choose Jesus, but as 1 Peter 5:10 says, “The God of all 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.”

In recent months, the Eritrean government has also shut down church-run schools and  hospitals. This is believed to be in retaliation for bishops making a public call for government reforms.’ Open Doors, Website UK

Peter opens this section with, ‘do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you’. v 4.12 When Peter wrote to the Christians in Asia Minor the level of persecution was not extreme and more closely matched that of the western world now. However, he had experienced imprisonment and beatings, more importantly he had witnessed the sufferings of Jesus and heard him say, And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me’ Mathew 10.38 and ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’ Mathew 5.10-12 In just a few years levels of extreme Christian persecution in the Roman Empire became official policy.

Peter was not academically discussing the rights and wrongs of suffering or does the presence of suffering raise the question is there a God. He was addressing the reality and expectation of suffering for the Christian believer. He knew that unless the churches were prepared their capacity to cope and persist, with eternal consequences, was at risk. One of the most important parts of leadership is to prepare for the worst and one of the most negligent aspects of leadership is to presume the good times will always be with us.

Suffering is on a continuum from insults, derision and threats to torture and death. John Lennox, Professor in Mathematics and Fellow in Mathematics and the Philosophy of Science at the University of Oxford, describes being summoned into the study of his senior lecturers whilst an undergraduate and warned that unless he gave up his Christian faith he would not progress in the world of science. Increasingly in the western world barriers are being raised against Christians but it rarely comes to physical suffering. This is far from the case across much of the rest of the world.

Peter seeks to strengthen Christians in the face of persecution in ways that Eyal has grasped. Firstly, in suffering the Spirit of Christ is with them. ‘If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you’. v 4.14 I think it is only when we have been through such experiences that it is possible to fully appreciate how the Spirit strengthens one at those times. But knowing that brothers and sisters are experiencing such persecution should encourage us to actively support them in prayer and other ways. Having spent time with fellow Christians who have suffered from life threatening experiences and subsequent trauma in their flight to this country for asylum the church here also has a role to play in welcoming, loving and actively supporting them as they go through spiritual and mental restoration.       Peter describes suffering for faith in Christ as sharing in Christ’s sufferings .v 4.13 Paul says, ‘For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too’. 2 Corinthians 1.5 In this way Jesus provides us with an example of how to live. 1 Peter 2.21 We should therefore not be ashamed of suffering but instead glorify God. v 4.16 This is an important message for those experiencing post traumatic stress following periods of persecution.

Peter also confirms the apostolic message that those who have suffered for Christ’s sake will receive a reward that far exceeds their suffering. v 1.6,7 James adds his voice in James 1.12 and Paul in 2 Corinthians 4.17.

Peter makes clear though that suffering for wrong doing is very different and should not be considered in the same terms as suffering for Christ. v 44.15

In all things and especially in suffering we are to entrust our life to God while persisting in doing good. v 4.19

The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir – Psalm 34 (Live)

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