Christian morality brought two new things into the world -- a new type of life in sharp contrast with the sensuality rife on every side, and a new set of motives powerfully aiding in its realisation. Both these novelties are presented in this passage, which insists on a life in which the spirit dominates the flesh, and is dominated by the will of God, and which puts forward purely Christian ideas as containing the motives for such a life. The facts of Christ's life and the prospect of Christ's return to judge the world are here urged as the reason for living a life of austere repression of 'the flesh' that we may do God's will.
I. We have, first, in verses 1 and 2, a general precept, based upon the broad view of Christ's earthly history. 'Christ hath suffered in the flesh.' That is the great fact which should shape the course of all His followers. But what does suffering in the flesh mean here? It does not refer only to the death of Jesus, but to His whole life. The phrase 'in the flesh' is reiterated in the context, and evidently is equivalent to 'during the earthly life.' Our Lord's life was, in one aspect, one continuous suffering, because He lived the higher life of the spirit. That higher life had to Him, and has to us, rich compensations; but it sets those who are true to it at necessary variance with the lower types of life common among men, and it brings many pains, all of which Jesus knew. The last draught from the cup was the bitterest, but the bitterness was diffused through all the life of the Man of Sorrows.
That life is here contemplated as the pattern for all Christ's servants. Peter says much in this letter of our Lord's sufferings as the atonement for sin, but here he looks at them rather as the realised ideal of all worthy life. We are to be 'partakers of Christ's sufferings' (v.13), and we shall become so in proportion as His own Spirit becomes the spirit which lives in us. If Jesus were only our pattern, Christianity would be a poor affair, and a gospel of despair; for how should we reach to the pure heights where He stood? But, since He can breathe into us a spirit which will hallow and energise our spirits, we can rise to walk beside Him on the high places of heroic endurance and of holy living. Very beautifully does Peter hint at our sore conflict, our personal defencelessness, and our all-sufficient armour, in the picturesque metaphor 'arm yourselves.' The 'mind of Christ' is given to us if we will. We can gird it on, and if we do, it will be as an impenetrable coat-of-mail, which will turn the sharpest arrows and resist the fiercest sword-cuts.
The last clause of verse 1 is a parenthesis, and, if it is for the moment omitted, the sentence runs smoothly on, especially if the Revised Version's reading is adopted. The purpose of arming us with the same mind is that, whilst we live on earth, we should live according to the will of God, and should renounce 'the lusts of men,' which are in us as in all men, and which men who are not clad in the armour which Christ gives to us yield to.
But what of the parenthetical statement? Clearly, the words which follow it forbid its being taken to mean that dead men do not sin. Rather the Apostle's thought seems to be that such suffering in daily life after Christ's pattern, and by His help, is at once a sign that the sufferer has shaken off the dominion of sin, and is a means of further emancipating him from it.
But the two great thoughts in this paragraph are, that the Christian life is one in which God's will, and not man's desires, is the regulating force, and that the pattern of that life and the power to copy the pattern are found in Christ, the sufferer for righteousness' sake.
II. More specific injunctions, entering into the details of the higher life, follow, interwoven, as in the preceding verses, with a statement of the motives which make obedience to them possible to our weakness. The sins in view are those most closely connected with 'the flesh' in its literal meaning, amongst which are included 'abominable idolatries,' because gross acts of sensual immorality were inseparably intertwined with much of heathen worship. These sins of flesh were especially rampant among the luxurious Asiatic lands, to which this letter was addressed, but they flooded the whole Roman empire, as the works of poets like Martial and of moralists like Epictetus equally show. But New York or London could match the worst scenes in Rome or Ephesus, and perhaps would not be far behind the foul animalism of Sodom and Gomorrah. Lust and drunkenness are eating out the manhood of our race on both sides of the Atlantic, and, if we have 'the same mind' as the suffering Christ, we shall put on the armour for war to the knife with these in society, and for the rigid self-control of our own animal nature.
Observe the strong motives which Peter just touches without expanding. A sad irony lies in his saying that the time past may suffice. The flesh had had enough of time given to it, -- had not God a right to the rest? The flesh should have had none; it had had all too much. Surely the readers had had enough of the lower life, more than enough. Were they not sick of it, 'satisfied' even to disgust? Let us look back on our wasted years, and give no more precious moments to serve the corruptible flesh. Further, the life of submission to the animal nature is characteristic of 'the Gentiles,' and in sharp contrast, therefore, to that proper to Christ's followers. That is as true to-day, in America and England, as ever it was. Indeed, as wealth has increased, and so-called 'civilisation' has diffused material comforts, senseless luxury, gluttony, drunkenness, and still baser fleshy sins, have become more flagrantly common in society which is not distinctively and earnestly Christian; and there was never more need than there is to-day for Christians to carry aloft the flag of self-control and temperance in all things belonging to 'the flesh.'
If we have the mind of Christ, we shall get the same treatment from the world which Peter says that the primitive Christians did from the idolaters round them. We shall be wondered at, just as a heathen stared with astonishment at this strange, new sect, which would have nothing to do with feasts and garlands and wine-cups and lust disguised as worship. The spectacle, when repeated to-day, of Christians steadfastly refusing to share in that lower life which is the only life of so many, is, perhaps, less wondered at now, because it is, thank God! more familiar; but it is not less disliked and 'blasphemed.' A total abstainer from intoxicants will not get the good word of the distiller or brewer or consumer of liquor. He will be called faddist, narrow, sour-visaged, and so on and so on. 'You may know a genius because all the dunces make common cause against him,' said Swift. You may know a Christian after Christ's pattern because all the children of the flesh are in league to laugh at him and pelt him with nicknames.
Further, the thought of Christ as the judge should both silence the blasphemers and strengthen the blasphemed to endure. That judgment will vindicate the wisdom of those who sowed to the spirit and the folly of those who sowed to the flesh. The one will reap corruption; the other, life everlasting.
The difficult verse 6 cannot be adequately dealt with here, but we may note that introductory 'for' shows that it, too, contains a motive urging to life, 'to the will of God,' and that no such motive appears in it if it is taken to mean, as by some, that the gospel is preached after death to the dead. Surely to say that 'the gospel was preached also (or, even) to them that are dead' is not to say that it was preached to them when dead.
Peter's letter is of late enough date to explain his looking back to a generation now passed away, who had heard it in their lifetime. Nor does one see how the meaning of 'in the flesh,' which belongs to the phrase in the frequent instances of its occurrence in this context, can be preserved in the clause 'that they might be judged according to men in the flesh,' unless that means a judgment which takes place during the earthly life.
We note, too, that the antithesis between being judged 'according to men in the flesh,' and living 'according to God in the spirit' recalls that in verse 2 between living in the flesh to the lusts of men and to the will of God. It would appear, therefore, that the Apostle's meaning is that the very aim of the preaching of the gospel to those who are gone to meet the Judge was that they might by it be judged while here in the flesh, in regard to the lower life 'according to men' (or, as verse 2 has it, 'to the lusts of men'), and, being so judged, and sin condemned in their flesh, might live according to God in their spirits. That is but to say in other words that the gospel is meant to search hearts, and bring to light and condemn the lusts of the flesh, and to impart the new life which is moulded after the will of God.
III. The reference to Christ as the judge suggests a final motive for a life of suppression of the lower nature, -- the near approach of the end of all things. The distinct statement by our Lord in Acts i.7 excludes the knowledge of the time of the end from the revelation granted to the Apostles, so that there need be no hesitation in upholding their authority, and yet admitting their liability to mistake on that point. But the force of the motive is independent of the proximity of the judgment. Its certainty and the indefiniteness of the time when we each shall have to pass into the other state of being are sufficient to preserve for each of us the whole pressure of the solemn thought that for us the end is at hand, and to enforce thereby Peter's exhortation, 'Be ye therefore of sound mind.'
The prospect of that end will sweep away many illusions as to the worth of the enjoyments of sense, and be a bridle on many vagrant desires. Self-control in all regions of our nature is implied in the word. Our various faculties are meant to be governed by a sovereign will, which is itself governed by the Divine will; and, if we see plain before us the dawning of the day of the Lord, the vision will help to tame the subordinate parts of ourselves, and to establish the supremacy of the spirit over the flesh. One special form of that general self-control is that already enjoined, -- the suppression of the animal appetites, especially the abstinence from intoxicants. That form of self-control is especially meant by the second of these exhortations, 'Be sober.' How could a man lift the wine cup to his lips, and drown his higher nature in a flood of drunken riot, if the end, with its solemnities of judgment, blazed before his inner eye? But this self-command is inculcated that we may be fit to pray. These lower appetites will take all desire for prayer and all earnestness in it out of us, and only when we keep the wings of appetites close clipped will the pinions grow by which we can mount up with wings as eagles. A praying drunkard is an impossible monster.
But exhortations to self-control are not all. We have to think of others, as well as of our own growth in purity and spirituality. Therefore Peter casts one swift glance to the wider circle of the brethren, which encompasses each of us, and gives the all-embracing direction, which carries in itself everything. 'Fervent love' to our fellow-Christians is the counterpoise to earnest government of ourselves. There is a selfishness possible even in cultivating our religion, as many a monk and recluse has shown. Such love as Peter here enjoins will save us from the possible evils of self-regard, and it will 'cover the multitude of sins,' -- by which is not meant that, having it, we shall be excused if we in other respects sin, but that, having it, we shall be more desirous of veiling than of exposing our brother's faults, and shall be ready to forgive even when our brother offends against us often. Perhaps Peter was remembering the lesson which he had once had when he was told that 'seventy times seven' was not too great a multitude of sins against brotherly love to be forgiven by it in one day.