June 10, 1984
Bethlehem Baptist Church
John Piper, Pastor
The Holy Spirit will Help You Die
(1 Peter 4:12-19)
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove
you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13) But rejoice in so
far as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when
his glory is revealed. 14) If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are
blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. 15) But let none
of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker; 16)
yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed but under that name
let him glorify God. 17) For the time has come for judgment to begin with the
household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the end of those who do
not obey the gospel of God? 18) And
"If the righteous man is scarcely saved,
where will the impious and sinner appear?"
19) Therefore let those who suffer according to God's will do right and entrust
their souls to a faithful Creator.
In A.D. 202 the Roman emperor Septimus Severus issued an edict making
conversion to Christianity illegal. The resulting persecution was felt most severely in
Carthage, on the North African coast. Vibia Perpetua, a 22-year-old mother of an
infant son, along with her servant girl who was eight months pregnant was arrested
for joining a class of Christian believers. Perpetua nursed her child in prison and
made arrangements with her mother to take him if anything should happen. The
servant girl gave birth to her child in prison.
When Perpetua's father learned that she was to be thrown into the arena with wild
beasts he tried to get her out. But he was beaten instead. On the day of the
execution the men were taken first. Among them was Saturus the Bible class
leader. He stopped at the gate for one last word of testimony with Pudens, the
prison governor, who later turned to Christ and became a martyr himself. The men
were sent into the arena with a bear, a leopard, and a wild boar. As Saturus was
mangled by the beasts the spectators shouted, "He is well baptized!"
Next Perpetua and her servant were stripped and sent into the arena to face a "mad
heifer." The torture soon became too much for the crowd and they cried, "Enough,
enough!" The women were taken to the executioner. Perpetua called out to some
grieving friends, "Give out the Word to the brothers and sisters; stand fast in the
faith, love one another, and don't let our suffering become a stumbling block to you."
The first blow of the gladiator was not sufficient. Perpetua cried out in pain, took the
gladiator's hand and directed the sword to her throat. (For sources see Ruth Tucker,
From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, pp. 33-35.)
On January 19, 1981, a group of terrorists called "M-19" broke into the S.I.L.
residence in Bogota, Columbia, and kidnapped Wycliffe translator Chet Bitterman.
The communiqué from the terrorists read, "Chet Bitterman will be executed unless
the Summer Institute of Linguistics and all its members leave Columbia by 6:00
p.m. February 19." Wycliffe did not budge. Brenda Bitterman and her two little
children waited 48 days. On March 7 the terrorists shot Chet Bitterman through the
heart and left his body on a bus in Bogota. More than one hundred Wycliffe
members in Columbia were given the choice of a new field. None left. And two
hundred candidates volunteered to take Chet Bitterman's place.
I have heard and read stories like these since I was a little child and my recurring
thought has not been, Why does God let it happen? Jesus promised it would
happen: Luke 21:16, "Some of you they will put to death." My recurring thought has
been, could I stand it? Could I take the pain? Would I try to rationalize a denial of
Christ? "I don't mean it, Lord. I just want to get free so I can serve you more. My
children need me, Lord. I can do more good alive than dead." Would I be a coward?
Or would I have the courage of Vibia Perpetua?
I think it is very important for every one of you to think hard about what you would do
if cultic terrorists hijacked your plane and before they blew it up offered to let
everyone off who would say, "Jesus Christ is not my Savior and Lord." The reason I
think it is important to think about this is that the resurgence of fundamentalist, anti-
Christian violence in the world makes it very possible that it will happen. But more
important is the fact that thinking about your own death for Christ will help you live
for Christ as you should. A true Christian must be willing to say, "I will not renounce
Christ even if it costs my life." But as soon as we say that it makes a whole lot of
things in our lives look ridiculous. I will die for you but I can't find time to sit and read
your teaching each day. I will die for you but prayer doesn't seem real. I will die for
you but I can't talk to Jim about you at work. I will die for you but I can't support your
cause with more than 10% of my income. One of the best ways to bring wonderful
Christ-honoring changes into your life is to measure your way of life by your
willingness to die for Jesus.
But if you are like me, you sometimes wonder, "How would I ever have the strength
and courage to die for Christ?" So I have chosen 1 Peter 4:12-19 to encourage you -
- not that you will escape hardship but that you will be strong enough to endure it.
The Holy Spirit will see to it. He will help you die the way you should. First, let's
clarify the situation the believers are facing. Second, we will see what Peter tells
them to do in the face of this situation. Third, we will focus on the source of strength
to do what he says.
First, what is the situation these believers in Asia Minor are facing?
In a word, SUFFERING, and possible death. Verse 12, "Beloved, do not be
surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you." Peter may well see on the
horizon the persecution of Nero in which both he and Paul were killed and in which
Christians were burned like torches to light up Nero's courtyard. Verse 17 describes
this fiery ordeal as God's judgment that starts with his own people, and then
consumes unbelievers. "For the time has come for judgment to begin with the
household of God; and if it begins with us what will the end of those be who do not
obey the gospel of God?" This does not sound very comforting at first. When we are
about to be arrested and killed for believing in Jesus it is not encouraging to hear
that he is judging us in wrath like unbelievers. But let's be careful; that is not what it
says. Verse 18 makes it plain that God's judgment upon us does not lead to
condemnation but to salvation. "If the righteous man is scarcely saved" -- he is
What then does God's judgment mean? Verse 12 explains, "Do not be surprised at
the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you." The judgment of God which
comes upon believers is to test and refine their faith not to condemn them. It is an
expression of his love not his wrath. 1 Peter 1:6-7 says we may have to "suffer
various tests (same word) so that the genuineness of our faith … may redound to
praise and glory and honor."
This is a very important distinction to make: the same act of judgment can be
purifying love for believers and punishing wrath for unbelievers. There is no promise
in Scripture that saints will escape all tribulation, not even the last Great Tribulation.
What is promised is that when God's judgment comes upon the earth it will begin
with the church and end with the unbelievers. But for the church it will be the first of
purifying love and for the unbelievers it will be the fires of punishing wrath. "The Lord
disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives"
(Hebrews 12:6 where the context again is persecution, v.4).
In verse 13 the fiery ordeal is called "sharing Christ's sufferings." In verse 14 it is
called being "reproached for the name of Christ." And in verse 16 it is called
"suffering as a Christian." So the suffering that is coming is owing to the fact that
the believers are living the way of Christ, identifying with him openly and being
labeled "Christian." Peter sees that persecution is going to become severe simply
because the believers are living like Christ and being open about their allegiance to
him on their jobs.
Verse 19 gives the last description of the situation. Peter calls it suffering according
to God's will. "Therefore, let those who suffer according to God's will do right and
entrust their souls to a faithful creator." People who try to solve the problem of
suffering by saying it is not God's will in any sense, must take a long detour around
this verse. If the fiery ordeal is the judgment of God beginning at the church, then it
is his will that we suffer. We must not dishonor God by thinking that every time we
suffer, he has dropped the reins. His ways are strange, but they are his ways. And
our duty is to trust that he is a faithful Creator who only has our best interest at
That brings us to our second question: what are believers to do in the face of
this oncoming suffering?
I see at least five admonitions which Peter gives to us as we anticipate the
possibility of a fiery ordeal or suffering.
First, he says in verse 12, "Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal." This is an
admonition to know what God is like. This is an admonition to have a true and deep
theology. If you know that God sometimes wills for his people to suffer as verse 19
says; that God's judgment begins with Christians to test us as verse 17 says; and
that if suffering befell the King how much more his subjects as verse 13 implies;
then when your fiery ordeal comes you will not be surprised. You will not raise your
fist and say, "Where is God now when a young missionary and father of two children
is shot through the heart?" You may weep for the pain, you may be angry at the sin
of the killers, but you will not be surprised. Your knowledge of God, learned from 1
Peter 4:12-19, will not let you be thrown into confusion or uncertainty. God is the all-
powerful Creator and God is faithful to his people. So the first admonition is, Don't be
surprised at suffering. Know your God! Have a true and deep theology.
The second admonition to focus on is in verse 19: "Entrust your soul to a faithful
Creator." The purpose of good theology is to build and sustain great trust in God. In
all Christian suffering Satan is seeking to devour faith (1 Peter 5:8-9). God is
seeking to test and refine faith (4:12). God's great purpose in all our suffering will be
accomplished when we do what Jesus did in the agony of the cross when he cried
out (Lk. 23:46), "Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit." He entrusted himself to
a faithful Creator. According to 2 Cor. 1:9 God's purpose in suffering is to cause us
to rely no longer on ourselves but utterly on him who raises the dead.
The third admonition, which flows out of a good theology and a great trust in God is
found in verse 13: "Rejoice in so far as you share Christ's sufferings." Or to put it
negatively with verse 16, "If you suffer as a Christian do not be ashamed." When you
suffer according to God's will don't be ashamed, rejoice. This is amazing. The mark
of a Christian is that he experiences deeper and greater joy in being dishonored with
Christ than he does in being honored by men. Peter knew what he was talking
about. He had experienced it. According to Acts 5:41, after being beaten with the
other apostles, he "left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted
worthy to suffer dishonor for the name (of Jesus)". If you admire and love someone
tremendously, and you get lumped together with them and treated the same way, it
is a great honor. There may be great pain as well. The deepest joys of life often grow
in the soil of pain.
The fourth admonition in these verses comes from verses 15 and 19. Verse 15 says,
"Let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or a wrong-doer or a mischief-
maker." Verse 19 says, "Do what is right." When you have a good theology, a great
trust in God and overflowing joy even in suffering, the obstacles to loving others and
the incentives for abusing others are gone. People who kill and steal and trouble and
annoy others are people who have not known God in his greatness, trusted him like
a child and found in him joyful fulfillment. So they try to satisfy the frustrations of
their life by doing wrong. But those who know and trust and delight in God are free
from the slavery of sin and their joy in God overflows in patience and love. They do
what is right from the heart.
Which leads to the final admonition in verse 16b, "Under that name ('Christian') let
him glorify God." God gets glory from us when the way we speak and live shows
that he is glorious. If you trust him you show that he is gloriously praiseworthy. If
you rejoice in suffering for his sake you show that he is gloriously more valuable
than the pleasures and approval of man. If you do good to your persecutors instead
of retaliating, you show that he is gloriously sufficient to satisfy your longings. The
one all-consuming desire of true Christians is that Christ be glorified in their bodies
whether by life or death.
So far we have seen, first, that the situation facing the believers is one of imminent
suffering -- a fiery ordeal; and, second, that Peter admonishes us in the face of
suffering to build a good theology, which begets great faith in God, which enables us
to rejoice in suffering, which guards us from evil and frees us to love, which brings
great glory to God as the sovereign, all-sufficient, faithful Creator.
The final question remains where do we get the strength to be like this in
the face of persecution and possible torture and death?
There are at least four answers in the text (a good theology, v. 12; the hope of glory,
v. 13; and the fear of what becomes of unbelievers, vv. 17-18) but we will only look at
one found in verse 14. "If you are reproached for the name of Christ you are blessed
because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you." Jesus said, "Blessed are
you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you
falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven."
"Yes, Jesus, that hope will help me endure. But, Jesus, when there is pain and
weariness it is so hard to keep the heart focused on the worth of your glory. I don't
know if I can keep my eyes on the reward. How can I be sure that in the moment of
my dying I will have strength to see your glory and choose death?" Peter gives the
answer in verse 14: in that moment the Spirit of glory and of God will rest upon you.
God will not stand aloof as you die; like a skeptical schoolmaster watching you
agonize over your final exam. He will come to you in his Spirit, and he will sustain
Corrie ten Boom tells how she worried as a girl whether she would be able to stand
against the Germans if she was threatened. She felt so weak when she thought
about what might happen. Her father, I think it was, gave her a great illustration. He
said, "When you are going to take a journey on the train, do I give you your ticket
three weeks early or just as you get on the train?" She answered, "As I get on the
train." "So God will give you the special strength you need to be strong in the face of
death just when you need it, not before."
I believe 1 Peter 4:14 promises that in the hour of greatest trial God comes to his
children to give them courage and faith which they did not know they were capable
of. The Holy Spirit will help you die.
Good tradition tells us that Paul was beheaded by Nero. Paul's last letter was
probably 2 Timothy. His trial had already begun. Picture the old soldier, battle
scarred for his Commander, in custody in Rome. He is called before the court. Every
one knows his days are numbered. He's a marked man. So none of his friends
stand by him. He makes his defense. The decision is made to hear him once again
-- then the end. He goes back to his quarters and writes these words to Timothy (2
Tim. 4:16-17), "At my first defense no one took my part; all deserted me. May it not
be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength."
I pray that you will remember the words of this message. The Spirit will help you die.
The Spirit will help you die. He will stand by you when there is no one else. He will
sustain your faith. He will give you glimpses of glory. He will cause you to magnify
Christ in your death. Courage which you never thought was possible will be yours.
The Spirit of glory and of God will rest upon you and carry you home.