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The Problem of Suffering: A Response from 1 Peter

 

From an analysis of the text of the epistle, it is possible to summarize Peter’s concept of suffering and consider his message both to his original and contemporary readers. The language used by Peter suggests that the suffering of his readers included social alienation and verbal abuse (1:6; 2:13-17; 3:14; 4:14), as well as more formal charges brought into a court of law (e.g. 4:14). The latter form of suffering could have the possible consequence of death. In both cases, however, the suffering is undeserved (2:18; 4:15) and is a result of being a Christian (e.g. 2:18; 4:15).

Since the word for suffering is used 21 times in its various forms in this short epistle, 1 Peter can appropriately be called the epistle of suffering. At the same time, it can also be called the epistle of joy. Indeed, for 1 Peter, suffering and joy are not opposites, like pain and pleasure.16 Rather, they are interdependent; suffering trials and tribulations are inextricably linked with rejoicing with unspeakable joy, “Don’t be surprised when you suffer as though something strange were happening. Rejoice in that you share Christ’s sufferings” (1 Pet 1:6ff; 4:13).

1 Peter suggests a context of meaning which is both useful and significant. Suffering is within the context of God’s broader plan for humanity (1:1-3; 4:19). It was foreknown by God and brought about by the Holy Spirit (1:2).

Within this context, suffering fulfills four main purposes. First, it brings about the genuineness of faith (1:7).

Through our tears we see the tears of God.

The author uses the word pyros, sometimes translated “fiery,” to describe the trials of his community (1 Pet 1:7). This may refer to the persecution by fire under the rule of Nero but it certainly is also a metaphor referring to the refining process used by metal workers.17 This process functioned for the purpose of proving and purifying the vessel.18 This word in its various forms in this metaphorical sense can be found in the LXX, particularly in the context of the purification of someone or something to be used in God’s presence, for example in the Temple.19 It is also used in the sense of the judgment of the wicked at the end time (see 1 Pet 4:17-18).

In this sense, then, the author of 1 Peter is stressing that like the fiery process of proving and purification for metal, suffering proves the genuineness of faith.

Suffering indicates the very presence of God.

Secondly, suffering indicates the very presence of God and enables the Spirit of God and of glory to rest upon us (4:14). This metaphorical sense would suggest an important point in terms of suffering. When someone is experiencing a pyrosis (fiery trial) they are certainly not experiencing the abandonment of God; in all actuality, their suffering is an indication of the very presence of God, “an anticipation and inauguration of the eschatological inbreaking of the purifying glory of god” (1 Pet 4:17-18).20 Johnson points out that when Peter explains that it is suffering that enables the spirit of God and of glory to rest upon us (4:14), he means that suffering indeed is the indication of the “constant presence of the divine Glory-Spirit with afflicted Christians, ‘inspiring and endowing you permanently.”21 So, the significant point here is that far from indicating God’s abandonment, suffering indeed denotes God’s very presence “resting’ that is, abiding with the sufferer. And, because of this:

 

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 2008

About the Author: Rebecca Skaggs, Ph.D. (Drew University), is professor of New Testament and Greek at Patten University in Oakland, California. She also holds an M.A. in philosophy from the Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology, Berkeley. Her commentary on 1, 2 Peter & Jude (2003) is published by The Pentecostal Commentary Series (Continuum).

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