For it is time for judgment to begin with the house of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Pet 4:17)
This is a passage that seems to come up whenever something bad happens to Christians.
If a pastor stumbles in sin and his church splits, it’s God judging his house.
If an earthquake wipes out a city, it’s God judging his house.
Some people seem to take perverse delight in threatening others with the sword of God’s judgment. They seem to forget that all of our sins were dealt with at the cross. We have been redeemed and sanctified by the blood of the Lamb. There is a day coming when Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats, but this is only bad news if you’re a goat. If you are a sheep it is a day to look forward to with confidence. Where does this confidence come from? It comes from a revelation of the Father’s love as expressed in the Son’s perfect work on the cross.
So what is Peter talking about when he says it’s time for judgment to begin with the house of God?
I’m going to give you two interpretations. The first interpretation emphasizes things we must do while the second emphasizes things Christ has already done. However, let’s first read the scripture in context:
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.
But rejoice that 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.
For it is time for judgment to begin with the house of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?
And, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”
So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good. (1 Pet 4:12-19)
Interpretation #1: Work harder
There are only two kinds of religion – religion based on our works or religion based on his blood. Someone whose faith is in the former will interpret the judgment of 1 Peter 4:17 as punishment for Christians. Of course they won’t come right out and say it. They will use words like purification and discipline but what they really mean is condemnation and wrath. They will refer to patterns of judgment in the Old Testament but make no mention of the cross. They may talk about Ananias and Sapphira but ignore Jesus.
Strip away the jargon and their message is: “Bad things are going to happen to you. God is behind these bad things, but don’t worry because far worse things are going to happen to sinners.” They may try and pass this off as “good news” by saying it’s better to suffer a little wrath now than hellfire later.
And what should we do in response to such a message? More works of course! Try harder to be a better Christian. Repent more and confess more. Straighten up and fly right.
There’s no way around it. Interpret 1 Peter 4:17 through the lens of works and you will end up with a condemning message. “Because God loves you he’s going to give you a whipping. It’s for your own good.”
How is it, then, that in the preceding verses Peter uses words and phrases like “rejoice,” “be overjoyed,” “you are blessed” and “praise God that you bear his name”? How in the name of all that is sensible are we supposed to get joyful over a divine whipping? Either Peter has lost touch with reality, or he has something completely different in mind.
Interpretation #2: Trust God
The key to understanding 1 Peter 4:17 is the word judgment. In the original Greek this word is krima which means decision or decree. It’s the decision of a judge or authority. A judgment can be good or bad, in your favor or against you, but in the New Testament krima is usually bad.
When Peter says it’s judgment time for the church, he is most likely referring to the judgment of Nero against the Christians. Look at how Peter describes this judgment:
v.12: “the fiery suffering among you that is coming to try you”
v.13: “you participate in the sufferings of Christ”
v.14: “you are insulted because of the name of Christ”
v.16. “if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed”
v.19: “(you) who suffer according to God’s will”, meaning for the gospel
Peter wrote during a time of great persecution. In the beginning, the New Testament church only had to worry about persecution from religious folk. But things since escalated. Now the Rome itself was out to get them.
Because of Nero Christians were being tortured and killed for their faith in Christ. Paul was probably dead and Peter would soon be crucified. If you were a follower of Christ back then, martyrdom was a real prospect.
In light of this awful persecution, Peter wrote to bring perspective. He did this by comparing what happens to the righteous (persecution in this life) with what happens to the ungodly (eternal condemnation). Peter says four things:
(1) Don’t be surprised that you are suffering for the gospel (4:12). If they persecuted Jesus they will persecute you.
(2) Even though persecution is painful, rejoice on account of the coming glory (4:13). It hurts now, but justice is coming.
(3) Don’t let these trials cause you to be ashamed – it’s actually a blessing to be insulted on account of Christ’s name (4:14,16).
(4) In view of this, don’t run and hide (like I once did) but commit yourselves to your faithful Creator and keep doing good (4:19).
Is Peter saying Christians can lose their salvation?
Not at all. In verse 19 he encourages the believers to commit themselves “to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” Who is faithful? God is! You may be worried about persecution but you do not need to worry about God letting you go. In the words of Spurgeon, “if he has loved you once he will love you forever.”
The concern is not that Christians could lose their salvation, but that they might be driven underground in fear (3:6,14). This is why Peter urges them to continue doing good, even in the face of persecution (4:17). Peter knew from personal experience what it was like to run from Jesus and he didn’t want his readers doing that. The good news of God’s grace will not be heard unless those who preach it are bold.
A final word on judgment
Jesus said two things about judgment that are relevant here:
For God sent not the Son into the world to judge (krino) the world… (John 3:17a, ASV)
For judgment (krima) I have come into this world… (John 9:39)
Jesus did not come to judge the world, yet the world will be judged on account of Jesus. Remember that another word for judgment is decision. Now if Jesus said he is not the one doing the deciding (krino), but that decisions (krima) will be made on account of him, then who is making these decisions? We are. Every single one of us responds to Jesus one way or another.
When Jesus returns in glory he will not judge anyone. He will simply separate those who have found their rest in him from those who refuse him. The Grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, but not all men will put their faith in him.
Let me finish with three questions for those who still think God is judging/punishing the church:
- Those who are in Christ are complete (Col 2:10) and perfect forever (He 10:14). If Jesus said he would not judge even the lost (Jn 12:47), why would he judge those he has redeemed and are now reckoned perfect?
- Peter said “Christ died for sins once for all” (1 Pet 3:18). If my sins have been removed and God is now “done with sin” (1 Pet 4:1), then what is left to punish?
- Finally, if the punishment that brought us peace was placed on Christ (Is 53:5), how can God now punish us? Would he not be unjust if he punished twice for the same offence?
Just something to think about.
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