Practical Suffering, Part 4b: Trusting God’s Judgment – 1 Peter 4:17-19
“For it is time to begin the judgment from the house of God. So, if it begins first from us, what is the end of those who disobey the gospel of God? Also, If the righteous are saved with difficulty, where will the ungodly and sinner appear? Therefore, also those who suffer according to the will of God must entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing good.”
The initial for (ὅτι) connects these verses back to vv. 12-16. In reality, all of 4:12-19 is a single paragraph but beginning in v. 17 Peter provides some necessary explanation. There remains an illusion of paradox between the fact that Christians will suffer and that this suffering is somehow for God’s glory (vv. 12-16). How can this be? Peter answers that question and more in the remaining verses by connecting present suffering with eschatological judgment. It is imperative that Peter’s audience understands three aspects regarding God’s judgment so that they will joyfully comply with the concluding command to entrust themselves to God their creator.
The Genesis of Judgment (v. 17a)
“For it is time to begin the judgment from the house of God”
It may be accurate to think of God’s judgment in terms of His wrath upon sin and sinners, though that is not a comprehensive understanding. The term κρίμα (judgment) is better understood in terms of a verdict or a final judicial decision. It’s Hebrew equivalent (מִשְׁפָּט) is an often-used description of Scripture because God’s Word reveals God’s final verdict on any given matter. God’s final verdict does involve punishment and wrath against sin and sinners, but it includes the preservation and sanctification of His people. The theme of God’s refiner’s fire (1:6-7; 4:12) continues here.
Peter’s language regarding God’s house as the genesis of judgment is strikingly similar to Ezekiel 9:6. In his vision of Jerusalem and the temple, Ezekiel witnesses God’s command to begin a slaughter of all who have defiled themselves and the temple with idols. All who groan in mourning over idolatry are to be marked and spared while the rest are to be dedicated to destruction. This slaughter is to begin from the sanctuary (ἀπὸ τῶν ἁγίων μου ἄρξασθε) just as Peter’s judgment is to being from the house of God (ἄρξασθαι τὸ κρίμα ἀπὸ τοῦ οἴκου τοῦ θεοῦ). When God takes back what is His, He will begin with His house.
While the language of Peter mirrors the language of Ezekiel, the context does not. Peter does not speak of God’s judgment in the sense of wrath poured out to kill and destroy but to refine and purify. The context is more fitting to another Old Testament prophet; namely, Malachi 3:1-5.
“'Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me, and the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,’ says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap. He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the Lord offerings in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. ‘Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien and do not fear me,’ says the Lord of hosts.” (NASB)
Peter borrows that language of Ezekiel to explain why there is suffering that purifies (4:12) within the church. Judgment must begin with God’s house, God’s temple. In our current dispensation, there is no building upon which God’s glory rests. Instead, there is a people who are individual stones dressed of Christ, the corner stone (2:5-10) who have the Spirit of God resting upon them (4:14). The pattern of God beginning with His people, yet purifying rather than destroying His people, is a pattern that is well established in the Old Testament. There is more at play here than only the wrath of the world being poured out on the church. God is using this suffering to accomplish His own designs.
Peter does not claim that either Ezekiel’s or Malachi’s prophecy has been fulfilled in the church. He simply tips his hat to these prophets in order to establish that the current situation is not without precedent. God will render a verdict upon His own people before He pours out wrath upon rebels. Judgement starts here, from His people, from His own house, where He has determined for His name to dwell.
The Nature of Judgment (vv. 17b-18)
The rest of v. 17 through v. 18 are not designed to condemn but confirm and bring comfort. Peter desires for his readers to see their suffering from a cosmic perspective. As he comforts his readers in their suffering, he draws a line of comparison based on simple logic (v. 17b) and then turns to the Scripture to validate this logical connection (v. 18).
Judgment’s Nature Explained Logically (v. 17b)
“So, if it begins first from us, what is the end of those who disobey the gospel of God?”
The conditional clause assumes the premise that those who are in Christ are the first to feel the heat of the refiner’s fire. The logical premise begins with an understanding that the genesis of God’s judgment begins with His own people. But if that is true (and it is), what does that mean for those who are disobedient to the gospel?
Peter uses the same term (τέλος) to describe the end or goal of these disobedient fellows as he did to describe the conclusion, end, goal, objective of all things (4:7). What is God’s ultimate objective for those who disobey the gospel of God? These are not described merely as those who disbelieve the gospel. The factual validity of the good news sent by God in the person of His Son by His Spirit is not up for debate. Man does not determine the gospel to be true or false, he obeys it or he disobeys it. The gospel is a call for all men to repent and trust in Christ (Matt. 4:17; Acts 17:30). A command cannot be disbelieved but it can be disobeyed. With the use of the present tense, Peter describes these ones as those who continue to disobey God’s gospel. Rather than describing the torment of eternal punishment, Peter lets the question hang in the air. What is their end? His readers know full well what the objective of their disobedience will be.
This rhetorical question is designed to encourage the readers. Their current suffering for the sake of righteousness as those who have accepted the gospel with joy (1:6-7) is nothing compared to the wrath that those who persecute them will face. There is no reason to be astonished at their current suffering (4:12) because judgment always begins from God’s own house (4:17a). If this seems too much for them, perhaps they should consider the fate of those who reject and rebel the imperative to repent and believe. The heat of God’s judgment is a refiner’s fire for the elect. But for the wicked, it is a consuming fire that utterly destroys.
Judgment’s Nature Explained Scripturally (v. 18)
“Also, If the righteous are saved with difficulty, where will the ungodly and sinner appear?”
Peter is not content to leave his readers with a logical argument, though it is true. He turns to the Scriptures in order to enforce the logical connection he has already made. The passage he has in mind is Proverbs 11:31. Peter quotes verbatim from the LXX, whose wording may alter a bit from the MT, but the meaning remains consistent.
By stating that the righteous are saved with difficulty, Peter refers to the trials and suffering that Christians experience. We must keep in mind that Peter always refers to salvation in its fullest eschatological sense. He is not speaking of the past moment of conversion, as we so often do. He refers to the final day when we stand glorified with Christ, and He is seated upon His throne. It is in this sense that Peter can speak of a difficult salvation, for the journey there is a difficult and narrow road (Matt. 7:13-14; Mk. 10:23-27). Peter is not implying any doubt as to the final salvation of his readers. He simply points to the arduous experience of the righteous upon the earth.
It appears that Solomon used the same rhetorical question as Peter when he asked where will the ungodly and the sinner appear? Those who disobey the gospel are here referred to negatively by what they refuse, and then positively by what they actively engage in. They are ungodly (ἀσεβής) or those who do not (ἀ) worship (σἐβω). They are devoid of any fear of God. They are also called sinners (ἁμαρτωλός), those who actively fall short of God’s standards. The singular is used in both cases to emphasize the class of people referred to. If any is an ungodly sinner, where will he appear (ποῦ φανείται)? The same question hangs in the air and the same answer shoots through the minds of the readers like a lightning bolt. They will not appear on earth or in heaven. These will appear in the lake that burns eternally with fire where the worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched (Is. 66:24; Mk. 9:48).
Can Christian suffering really be compared to the eternal torment of the disobedient ungodly sinner? It is necessary that judgment first come to God’s people so that it can spread to consume the wicked. This is part of God’s plan to undo and reverse the curse. Is it not all the more important that we rejoice in the fact that God’s judgment has already begun?
The Response to Judgment (v. 19)
“Therefore, also those who suffer according to the will of God must entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing good.”
With a simple “therefore” (ὥστε) Peter brings the whole paragraph to a conclusion. The single imperative in this verse is delivered as a capstone over all that has been stated from 4:12-18. All those who suffer as Christians (v. 16), in the name of Christ (v. 14), sharing the suffering of Christ (v. 13) do so according to God’s will. This is an amazing encouragement to the readers, who now read that there is no such thing as random or arbitrary suffering. If suffering in this age is inherently connected with the name of Christ (4:12-16), and if we are called by Christ’s name only because the Father has caused us to be born again (1:3-5), then our Christian suffering is perfectly within the will and plan of God. This suffering is for our good (1:6-7; 4:12, 17) and for God’s glory (4:11, 13, 16). If our suffering is in accordance to God’s decree and will, then we must trust Him.
The single imperative is here translated entrust (παρατιθέσθωσαν) and carries the idea of giving something of value to a trusted person for safe keeping. What are those who are suffering according to God’s will supposed to give over for safe keeping? Their souls (ψυχή), the whole of their being, themselves. Peter’s words echo one of the final sentences our Lord uttered before He died on the cross: “Into Your hands I commit [παρατίθεμαι] My spirit” (Lk. 23:46). The only conclusion one should reach is that our persons, lives, sufferings, joys, and everything are already in the hands of our Creator. He has made us, and not we ourselves (Ps. 100:3), and we belong to Him. The only logical conclusion one can reach in our suffering is that we must entrust ourselves to Him, to work and to do according to His will. But what does this look like?
The final phrase in doing good (ἐν ἀγαθοπιΐᾳ) answers the question “how?” in regard to the way believers can show their trust in God, their Creator. If He is sovereign over their lives, purifies those who belong to Him (4:12, 17), and will destroy those who disobey Him, then the greatest way to trust Him is to continue to live in obedience, doing what is good (2:12, 20; 3:8, 13; 4:7-11). If the gospel is a command, then those who are saved are identified by their compliance to that command much more than any verbal confession of the command’s truthfulness. Our trust in God is demonstrated by our obedience.
There is a reason that Peter first addressed holiness (1:13-16; 2:4-5) before turning to suffering (3:13-5:11). One of the main objectives of Christian suffering (4:16) is to purify Christ’s bride, to burn off any remnant of the curse and to make her holy. The only question that remains is whether or not we trust God to do His work of making us holy? Are we really willing to forsake the desires of the nations (4:3) and receive their condemnation in exchange for God’s blessing (4:14). The judgment of God is nothing to fear for those who are His. In fact, this judgment demands our implicit trust in Him. Do we really believe that what we believe is really real? That is the question set before us. Are we willing to stand aside and allow God to purge our lives, our families, our churches of all that dishonors Him? Or would we prefer to stand with those who disobey the gospel and have no portion in God’s blessing? There is no middle ground. Peter designed these words for encouragement. I pray that you, dear reader, find them to be so.
Thomas Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2003), p. 226-8. D. Edmond Hiebert, 1 Peter (Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 1984), p. 292-3.  Ibid, p. 293.  Ibid, p. 293-4. Archibald Robertson, The General Epistles and The Revelation of John, vol. VI, VI vols., Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1933), p. 129.