Commentary on 1 Peter 4:1-6

Notes (NET Translation)

4:1 So, since Christ suffered in the flesh, you also arm yourselves with the same attitude, because the one who has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin, 4:2 in that he spends the rest of his time on earth concerned about the will of God and not human desires.

The word “so” connects this passage with 3:18-22. Recall that 3:18-22 taught Christ’s victory over hostile powers through his death, resurrection, and ascension. “The connection between the two sections is this: since Christ’s suffering is the pathway to glory, believers should also prepare themselves to suffer, knowing that suffering is the prelude to an eschatological reward” (Schreiner 199).

The adjective “same” (auten), like the preceding conjunction “also,” establishes some connection between this understanding [attitude in NET] with which believers are to fortify themselves and the suffering of Christ. Since v 1a, however, speaks not of an “understanding” of Christ but of his “act” of having suffered, “same understanding” must refer to the attitude of mind and commitment that the author believed prompted Christ to endure suffering. From what the author has already stated, this mind-set could have involved Christ’s subordination to the divine will during his innocent suffering (1:2c; 2:21-23 [as God’s servant]; 3:17-18), his resistance to wrongdoing and retaliation (2:22-23b), and his trusting commitment of his cause to God (2:23c). These features of Christ as model is typical of NT instruction, particularly on the subject of discipleship. (Elliott 713)

The subject of the phrase “because the one who has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin” is believers.

The point is not that believers who suffer have attained sinless perfection, as if they do not sin at all after suffering. What Peter emphasized was that those who commit themselves to suffer, those who willingly endure scorn and mockery for their faith, show that they have triumphed over sin. They have broken with sin because they have ceased to participate in the lawless activities of unbelievers and endured the criticisms that have come from such a decision. The commitment to suffer reveals a passion for a new way of life, a life that is not yet perfect but remarkably different from the lives of unbelievers in the Greco-Roman world. (Schreiner 201)

Verse 2 confirms that the above interpretation is correct. For the rest of his life, the believer is to live zealously for God and not sinful human desires.

Peter has already instructed his readers that they, too, are called to suffer unjustly, because of this example set by Christ (2:21). In order to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, to embrace their calling, and to face daily a society unfriendly to their values, Christians must be armed with the same disposition and resolve that allowed Jesus to set his face resolutely toward the cross. Suffering for their relationship with God in Christ then becomes something to be expected and not something to be avoided. Therefore, the content of the resolve enjoined on Christians, the same resolve that Jesus had, is that (hoti) those who suffer unjustly for their faith in God have demonstrated that they are through with sin to the extent that they would choose to suffer rather than to sin. And because they would rather suffer than sin, they can live out the rest of their time in the flesh no longer motivated by human desires but instead by the will of God (4:2). The fact that they are suffering demonstrates the true nature of their resolve. They have not just resolved to cease from sin that presents itself; they have in this case actually ceased from it, or they wouldn’t be suffering for righteousness. This interpretation fits the overall theme of the letter-suffering for being a Christian-as well as the immediate context of 4:2-4, which exhorts believers to abstain from the things they once approvingly participated in, even though it might bring the disapproval and abuse of their unbelieving associates. (Jobes loc. 4125-4133)

4:3 For the time that has passed was sufficient for you to do what the non-Christians desire. You lived then in debauchery, evil desires, drunkenness, carousing, drinking bouts, and wanton idolatries.

“In this context, arketos (‘sufficient’) is used ironically with the implication of ‘more than enough'” (Elliott 720).

It is striking that Peter refers to all unbelievers as “Gentiles” (ethne) [non-Christians in NET] when writing to Christian readers who themselves may have been ethnically Gentile (as Paul also does in Eph. 4:17). The apostles used terms, familiar to the Jewish tradition, that divided all humanity into God’s covenant people and the rest of humanity, who were referred to as ethne, the nations, or Gentiles. The Christian apostles kept the language but redrew the line, redefining God’s covenant people to be those who believe in Christ and referring to all others as “Gentiles.” In this letter Peter writes to Christian readers as if they were Jews who are now scattered among the nations (Gentiles), as the ethnic Jews had historically been in the Diaspora (1 Pet. 1:1). (Jobes loc. 4150-4154)

The terms “debauchery” (aselgeia) and “evil desires” (epithymia) may refer to sexual sin or to sin in general (Schreiner 202-203). The terms “drunkenness,” “carousing,” and “drinking bouts” refer to unrestrained desires for food and drink (Jobes loc. 4139).  “Wanton idolatries” refers to the religious rituals of pagan worship.

4:4 So they are astonished when you do not rush with them into the same flood of wickedness, and they vilify you.

The reaction of the nonbelieving contemporaries is not so much “amazement” as it is to be “put off” or “offended” by the strangeness of the Christian conduct, which in turn estranges the Christians from their contemporaries. It was precisely this aloofness from normal cultural practices that made Christians the object of contempt and persecution. (Acthemeier 283)

The word (anachysis, outpouring [flood in NET], 4:4), occurring only here in the NT, refers figuratively to the indulgent outpouring of excesses in the pagan lifestyle. Rather than following the Christians’ good example, pagan friends malign them because they do God’s will, and thereby pagans implicitly blaspheme God. In his ancient commentary on 1 Peter, Oecumenius writes: “Not only do the Gentiles wonder at the change in you, not only does it make them ashamed, but they also attack you for it, for the worship of God is an abomination to sinners” (Bray 2000: 113). Just as Noah’s obedient faith implicitly condemned his generation when he built the ark (Heb. 11:7), the Christians of Asia Minor pass judgment on society by refraining from the evil practices in which they once indulged with society’s approval. Therefore, the abuse and slander they suffer is a righteous suffering for the sake of Christ. By persecuting Christians, their opponents are siding against God, and for that reason they will come under God’s judgment. (Jobes loc. 4185-4190)

4:5 They will face a reckoning before Jesus Christ who stands ready to judge the living and the dead.

All of humanity, whether physically alive or physically dead (“the living and the dead”), will face an eschatological judgment. The Greek text does not mention Jesus Christ by name but contains the pronoun “him.” The judge in this verse could be either God or Jesus Christ.

4:6 Now it was for this very purpose that the gospel was preached to those who are now dead, so that though they were judged in the flesh by human standards they may live spiritually by God’s standards.

The reason the gospel was preached to the dead is articulated in the last clause of the verse. In other words, the phrase “for this very purpose” does not point back to verse 5 but forward to “they may live spiritually by God’s standards.”

The Greek text reads just “dead,” not “now dead.” This raises the question of what Peter meant by the word “dead” here. In verse 5 “dead” refers to the physically dead and Peter does not use the term nekrous to refer to the spiritually dead elsewhere. Therefore, we are probably to take it to refer to the physically dead. The phrase “the gospel was preached” (euengelisthe) refers to the preaching of Christ, not preaching done by Christ. It refers to preaching done by regular human beings. The translators of the NET are probably correct in thinking that verse 6 refers to the preaching of the gospel to Christians who are now physically dead. Such believers suffered in the flesh at the hands of scoffers (“judged in the flesh by human standards”) but will be resurrected. This parallels Christ’s death and resurrection mentioned in 3:18. It is not clear whether the phrase “live spiritually by God’s standards” refers to the intermediate state between death and bodily resurrection or to the resurrection itself (stated in the present tense because it will certainly come to pass). In this state believers will live in conformity with God’s standards.

Peter’s message is quite similar to the message found in Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-7 (RSV):

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them. In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble.

Bibliography

Achtemeier, Paul J. 1 Peter. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996.

Elliott, John Hall. 1 Peter. Yale University Press, 2007.

Jobes, Karen. 1 Peter. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 2005.

Michaels, J. Ramsey. 1 Peter. Thomas Nelson, 1988.

Schreiner, Thomas R. 1, 2 Peter, Jude. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2003.

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