One of the most crucial questions any generation can ask is the question of security. How can I protect myself? How can I maintain my personal rights?
These aren’t bad questions. A free and just society serves the interest of its citizens, which includes defending their personal rights. But scripture never guarantees that we’ll find such justice and security in the here and now.
Where does that leave us? For some of us, it leaves us clinging to the hope that somehow, someway, we can secure ourselves. And the things that make us feel secure therefore become our idols: relationships, career—even the conceal-carry permit that grants us the feeling of protection against those who might seek our life. None of these things are bad. In fact, as we noted earlier in our series, some of these things might even be a legitimate source of “immediate hope.” It’s just that when we turn these things into a source of “ultimate hope” we are effectively telling God that our comfort, our security lies elsewhere.
In 1 Peter, the early Christians were facing a similar set of questions. Let’s remember that at the time that Peter was writing, the government had yet to enact a full-on assault on Christianity. Instead, believers struggled to follow Christ in a world that saw such belief as weird or even shameful. In his study of 1 Peter, Frank Thielman tells us:
“Peter is writing to people suffering the plight of ‘aliens and strangers.’ Conversion to Christianity has separated them from their traditional ways of life and placed them on the margins of their societies. Like literal exiles, they need consolation…They need a mental map on which they can place their suffering in order both to make sense of it and to move beyond it….
Their options were limited. What could they do?
REALIGN YOUR LOVES
Peter has a clear piece of advice: “arm yourselves:”
Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. 3 For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. (1 Peter 4:1-3)
This is a great paradox: we are called to “arm [ourselves]”—but not with power but with vulnerability. It’s as if Peter is saying that the greatest weapon against the greatest of our enemies—sin and death—is the cross. Security lies not in strength but in weakness.
Why would this matter for issues of morality? In verse 2 Peter anchors human behavior in the language of “human passions.” The issue at hand is a simple one: what do you love? Our hearts follow our loves—whether for good or for ill. Peter is telling us that left to our own devices, our hearts end up in the frat house with all its “drunkenness” and “debauchery.”
In many cases, we can imagine how some Christians allow themselves to slide into morality because, let’s face it, certain behaviors might have a powerful pull on our desires. If they didn’t, the entire advertising industry would collapse. But in other cases, the pull doesn’t come from the desire itself, but from the community that surrounds you. When your friends, coworkers, classmates are all clamoring to—as just one example—go see a movie containing nudity and coarse humor, you choose to ignore your conscience and attend. Why? Because social comfort can be purchased through social conformity.
Let me be very clear on this point. Graceless religion tells us that certain things are “good” and certain things are “bad.” If you engage in something “bad,” you become bad. The gospel doesn’t deny the existence of moral absolutes, but the gospel approaches the issue through the lens of love. After all, Peter is concerned with “human passion” here. The gospel says that you will never flourish unless God is your first and most cherished love. When Jesus consumes your mind and consumes your heart, then things that don’t align with his character become less significant.
Maybe an analogy would help. When you’re on a diet, the beginning is always the hardest. Everything looks delicious. You begin having impure thoughts over the Wendy’s commercial. But give it time (maybe even a lot of time!) and your tastes will begin to follow your habits. So much so that cheating on your diet won’t seem as fun—and even if it is you might later find yourself missing your whole grains.
Ah, says the gospel. Following Jesus is like that. The things that Peter lists here might seem appetizing at times. Maybe even following the crowd offers us a sense of security and comfort. But if we turn our eyes upon Jesus, look full at his wonderful face, then the things of this world grow strangely dim, in the light of his marvelous grace.
Now, a point of clarification is surely needed, here. When Peter says that this change in attitude enables us to “cease from sin,” I think he means that we cease to be enslaved by it. All believers will stumble as part of their walk—even Paul seems to have had this experience at times. But what we can be assured by is that by focusing on Jesus our desire for him grows even as our desire to serve self shrinks.
JUSTICE IS COMING
So what hope is there? Peter writes:
4 With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; 5 but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does. (1 Peter 4:4-6)
Peter acknowledges that a different lifestyle can result in ridicule. But don’t lose hope, Peter tells us. Justice is coming.
Peter’s emphasis on God’s future is a major thread throughout the book of 1 Peter. Here, he seems to use it as a source of comfort. First, that those who are wrong will received final justice in the end. But second, that the gospel is effective.
This leads us to the confusion of verse 6. What does it mean that “the gospel was preached even to those who are dead?” Some have taken this to mean that Jesus somehow descended to Hell to offer the dead a second chance. But nowhere else in Scripture do we find such an idea, so this idea seems pretty flimsy. It might be merely a metaphor, referring to those who are spiritually dead. This is more helpful, but if you think about it, it’s not that helpful for those struggling with social pressures and persecution. In his study of 1 Peter, Wayne Grudem takes note of the past tense here. He says that Peter must be referring to those that heard the gospel when they were alive, but have since died. This is Peter’s way of answering the obvious question: “What happens if they kill us?” And the answer, Peter says, is that they are transformed into life. It’s like my friend Jared likes to say: “Cheer up; the worst they can do is kill us.”
As Christians, then, we “open carry” the cross—we arm ourselves with vulnerability and weakness, because those values are at the center of God’s plan to bring life to the dead and hope to the hopeless.
 Thielman, 583.