Beyond the Lectionary Text: 1 Peter 4:1-11
by Lora Copley
Both new Christians and suffering Christians wonder “what kind of life have I gotten into?” In the first half of chapter 4 (our text), Peter addresses the worldview issues of the new believer; in the second half, the worry issues of the suffering one.
These former pagans learn this new life is all about “suffering love.” The new life looks cruciform– patterned after Jesus’ cross– and therefore has a completely new orientation to 1) our desires, 2) our clocks, and 3) to our relationships.
1) In our former way of life, Peter says we lived for our desires, our “epithymias.” Recall Greek 101: “Epi” means above, over, focused on. “Thymos” means desire. So epithymias is an epi-desire, over-desire, super-desire. The word is not about desiring bad things, as much as desiring badly. (The NIV is less helpful here with its translation “evil desires” when the term is more neutral. The better adjective is not “evil,” but “inordinate.”)
God gives us great gifts–our work, our kids, our health, our heritage, our pleasure. Nothing is wrong with these things. But when we “live for these desires” (vs 2), when we try to find our glory through them, we’ve got a problem. The pagans in northwest Asia Minor had over-desires for sensuality and pleasure. (Think Vegas meets Jersey Shore.) For the CEP reader, our epithymias may be sermon success, ministry success, social media approval, the scale and mirror, our justice causes — all these things can easily become what we “live for.” It is these very over-desires which, Peter says earlier, will “wage war against your soul.” (1 Pt 2:11)
The way we wage war with our over-desires is to “arm yourself with this thought” — viz. the thought Peter brought up in 3:18 (before he tangents into the lovely and thorny parenthetical verses19-22) “Christ suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” The way to deflate an over-desire is to overwhelm it with a better desire, a more beautiful desire. The way to deflate an over-desire is at the cross.
When we see Jesus –in our flesh—taking the punishment for our flesh, then everything changes. This is a theme of Peter’s epistle, for in every single chapter he brings us to the cross, “Christ’s sufferings.” The cross is the place where our song turns from “I’ll Do it My Way” to “Have Your own Way, Lord.” (Vs 2) The cross is where we come to senses, knocking our forehead, “why am I looking to achievement, or pleasure, or nice looks, or a retirement fund, or a good sermon to save me when I have already have a Savior!”
And such a Savior! He is the Judge (vs 5-6)–the Judge who got down from the bench to take my punishment “once for all to bring me to God.” (3:18)
2) So our desires change at the “ennoia” (Textual Point 1) of the suffering love of Jesus Christ, but our relationship with time changes too. Before we weren’t even thinking about the clock–we lived drunk with the heady idea that we had all the time in the world. But Peter breaks up our life (vs 2-3) into two times: “lost time” and “remaining time.” We lost enough time doing it our own way, now with the remaining time, before the End, how will we live?
Peter argues that realizing our time is short before the books are opened, we will live sanely, not taking the grace of God for granted but living in accordance with how deeply we are loved.
3) Finally, the sight of Christ’s suffering love for us changes our relationships. Our relationships now become defined by love also willing to be stretched out (see Textual Point 2).
Look at the examples Peter gives and the inherent stretching involved.
How much stretching does forgiveness entail (vs. 8 covers over a multitude of sins)–to let go of your right to an offense?
How much stretching does ungrudging hospitality involve? (Peter Davids imagines this scene in his commentary: “I don’t know why we get all the travelers” or “I wish Paul would move on” -those whispers in a corner when a family was short on rations or housing was cramped due to a traveling teacher or persecution forced believers to flee their native villages.” Davids, 159.)
How much stretching does service involve? To become like a household slave, a steward, who puts to use what belongs to another? Your gifts and talents are no longer to give you glory but to be expended for another’s benefit.
Pastors, how much stretching does speaking “as the very words of God” involve? It’s not just clever ideas or inspirational cheerleading or masterful rhetoric or scholarly exegesis. Preaching is serving others through speech “as the very words of God.” No pressure, right? I’m still chewing on this one, but isn’t it telling that 1st Peter has one of the highest ratios of OT references in the whole New Testament canon? Thirty citations or allusions in just 105 verses. Peter had soaked in the “very words of God.”
What is clear from these examples is “extenes” love is very different than what the pagans experienced in their previous way of life. Many of vs 3’s descriptions are just parodies of love–debauchery, lust, orgies, carousing. Real love is not self-centered or pleasure-centered. Real love stretches. Real love suffers.
Thinking back to verse 3, I wonder, could verses 8-11, particularly vs 8, refer not just to the fellow family of believers but also to those who in verse 4 are “heaping abuse” on the new Christians? We learned former drinking-buddies and party-going neighbors are baffled by this new religion–“what?! you worship a crucified Galilean, you don’t have a temple, no temple prostitutes to enjoy? You crazy? You dogging the way you were raised?” In the face of this scorn, with convictions and self-respect threatened, the new believers are tempted towards fight or flight. Either retreat into a holy huddle or retaliate. Either choice makes the scorn a weightier reality (a more glory-full reality) than the cross.
Given the context of the whole letter (cf 3:9-16, 2:11-23), I think a case can be made that the sacrificial, suffering, servant-love of verse 8-11 also extends to those who are heaping abuse. It is this stretched-out, athletic love that (like the Lord it follows) covers a multitude of sins.
This love is priestly; it puts God on display. And He gets the glory He deserves. (vs.11b)
1) Vs 1’s ennoia is from en -“engaged in” and nous “mind.” This word only occurs here and Hebrews 4:12. Ennoia is close to insight or intent–some versions have “determination, purpose, way of understanding.” The NIV’s “attitude” is bettered as a “thought-out attitude.”
2) Vs 8’s ektenes (“love deeply”) is from ek “out” and teno “to stretch or strain.” Our words tension and tense are from this root. Ektenes is an athlete’s word; think of straining in effort or stretching out every sinew. It’s a great word to be paired with love. So often we think love ought to be effortless. (Especially in marriage, we say we “fall in love”; not only did not I put any effort into love, oops! Clumsy me! I tripped into it.)
But the text says love is going to involve some sweat, some strain, some stretching. It’s suffering love, realized in service. You roll up your sleeves, pull back your hair and die to your old over-desires to see the other person cared for and flourishing.
The book To End All Wars, written by WWII veteran Ernest Gordon tells the true story of Gordon’s time in a Japanese prison camp along the River Kwai. The torture turned the prisoners into something like desperate animals— as each man fought for his own skin and “to hell with everyone else.”
One day a shovel was declared missing. The guards demanded the man responsible step forward. No one moved. The guards raised their machine guns, warning unless the guilty man stepped forward everyone would be executed. One prisoner stepped forward, and was beaten to death. It was soon discovered no shovel was missing after all; there had been a miscount. The prisoner who stepped forward had sacrificed his life to save the others.
Soon after, another prisoner became deathly ill. In time past he would’ve been left to die. Each man for himself. But this time, an inmate named Angus cared for the sick man. He saved his rations and fed them to his sick mate. He gave the man his blanket while he shivered through the night. The sick man recovered, while Angus fell over dead. He too had given himself away to save his friend.
The sight of those two acts of sacrificial, suffering love transformed the camp. The law of “the survival of the fittest” snapped. Instead, Gordon recounts, men shared their rations, tended each other’s wounds, and showed kindness whenever possible—even (get this!) toward their captors. When the Allied forces finally penetrated the jungle and arrived to liberate the camp, they wanted to shoot the Japanese guards on the spot – so outraged were they by what they saw. But the skeletal prisoners placed themselves between their liberators and their captors. The killing stops today.
If the sight of men sacrificing their lives in suffering love can transform a prison camp, what is it to see the sight of the Son of God himself sacrificing everything for us? How might our communities be changed as this God and this suffering love becomes our epithymia, our great desire?
2) David Helm’s commentary on I Peter refers to Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach. The story is about an accidental nuclear war obliterating the Northern Hemisphere and the radioactive fallout will destroy life in the Southern Hemisphere within months. The dust jacket reads: ”There would be time to prepare, time to seek solace in religion, or alcohol, or frenzied sex. To drive a fast, expensive car. To buy some splendid object with one’s life savings. To consume the best bottles of wine from the cellar of one’s club.”
What would we do if the world were to end in just months? Evidently the question is much on film-makers minds. Wikipedia lists every apocalyptic film by decade and before 1960, there was a grand total of 15 films about The End. The 70s doubled that number with 33. And our current period (’10-’19) is on track to triple that doomsday count; we’re at 42 already and the decade’s not half over!
The whole New Testament constantly calls us to lives as though Judgment Day were just around the corner. How then will we live? And why?
Rev. Lora A. Copley is ordained by the CRCNA. She is a teacher for Classis Red Mesa’s Leadership Development Network and preaches by invitation.