Suffering is the backdrop of I Peter. And in our text for this week, we hear Peter return to the subject of persecution. Let's take a moment and recall what we know about the times when Peter was in Rome, preaching and writing. Claudius was the Roman Emperor just prior to the time we are considering, 41-54 AD, and a statement by Suetonius (70-130 A.D.), a Roman historian/biographer coupled with one by Luke in Acts 18:1-2 reveal that many Christians along with all Jews were expelled from Rome during Claudius' reign. Rome was not a welcoming place for Jews and Christians at that time, and it became worse.
Nero (37-68 AD) was the emperor at the time when Peter and Paul were martyred. William Lane correctly characterizes him as a reckless despot. He had reduced the Senate to utter servility and made life miserable among the wealthy and the aristocracy. Initially, Nero gave little if any official attention to the church which was growing in Rome. This was due in part to the fact that Rome was filled with a vast number of religious groups, societies and guilds, a truly pluralistic society.However, followers of Christ were commonly accused of being hateful of men because they refused to participate in the immorality and idolatry associated with much of Roman life, especially its guild and religious life. But there was no official, state-sponsored persecution of the church until a short time after a suspicious fire nearly destroyed the entire city of Rome.
In the summer of 64 A.D. a fire broke out near the Circus Maximus and strong winds fanned the flames through the wooden structured stores and the fires quickly spread. The fire was checked within five days, but it mysteriously broke out again and burned for two or three days. In the end, of the fourteen wards in Rome, three were utterly destroyed and seven were heavily damaged. Suspicion was rampant that Nero himself was responsible for the fire, and in an effort to deflect culpability from himself, he blamed Christians. Listen to the impassioned words of first century historian Tacitus (55-114): "But neither human help, nor imperial munificence, nor all the modes of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order. Therefore, to scotch the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for their hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts' skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there rose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man."
State-sponsored persecution of the Church began in earnest, and it is under these circumstances that Peter preached in Rome and wrote I Peter to the people of Asia. Some think that Peter intended to end his letter with the doxology in 4:11, but when the fire broke out in Rome and Christians were blamed he picked up his pen again in 4:12.
Read I Peter 4:12-19 carefully and use the questions below to help you meditate on this text.
1. The subjects in these eight verses are not new. Take a few minutes and review I Peter. What subjects is he returning to and where did he addressed them?
2. Why should Christians not be surprised when we suffer persecution? Do you recall what Jesus told us?
3. In verse 13 Peter gives us two reasons to rejoice in persecution. What are they? What do they mean?
4. What does verse 14 add to the reasons why we ought to rejoice when we are persecuted, in this case, verbally insulted?
* Have you ever been insulted for the name of Christ? If so, how did you respond?
5. What is Peter's point in verse 15?
* Peter mentions four vices. The first two are straightforward; what about the last two? What kind of behavior do these describe?
* What does this list suggest about the church to whom Peter was writing? What does it suggest about us? (you might add I Cor. 6:9-11 and Gal. 5:16-24 to you consideration)
6. The word "Christian" is used only three times in the New Testament (Acts 11:26; 26:28). It is the term outsiders used to called followers of Jesus. Why do you think the world called them Christians, and is it the same today?
7. In verse 15, what does Peter say about how are we to respond if we suffer as Christians?
8. What is the point of verses 17-18? Why and in what sense does the judgment of God begin with the household of God?
9. What is Peter's final and summary application for those of us who suffer persecution as Christians (v. 19)?
10. Peter has described several ways Christians ought to respond to suffering for being a Christian in this passage. List them all. Which do you think is or would be most difficult for you?
11. Tacitus tells us that Christians in Rome were persecuted as "a class of men, loathed for their vices," and persecuted for their "hatred of the human race." Do you think we might someday share their fate? Why or why not?
God be with you, and see you on Sunday!