1 Peter 4:12-16
Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you:…
It is said by the wise man in the book of Ecclesiastes — "That which hath been, is now; and that which is to be, hath already been; and God requireth that which is past." The assertion here is, that of there being great uniformity in the dealings of God; so that the history of any one generation is little more than the repetition of that of any other. From such a description of the dealings of God, it would follow that there cannot be anything "strange," at least not to those who live in a remote age of the world; for nothing can happen to them, which has not often happened before, and for which therefore they might not have been prepared by due attention to the experience of others. The case is evidently very different with ourselves and the earlier converts to Christianity, the difference being much the same as between the later and the earlier inhabitants of the world. We can appeal to the history of many ages for the workings of Christianity; we can show its predictions fulfilled, and its promises verified, in the progress of events and the experience of the Church. But the first converts were obliged, in a great degree, to take all upon trust. With them the whole was matter of experiment. There was therefore great room, as it would seem, for what was "strange" in their case, though not in our own. With us, the experience of a Christian may be mapped out beforehand. His own experience may not be an exact copy of that of any one of his predecessors in the faith; but there shall be nothing in it which has not been experienced before, the parallel to which may not be found in the history of any other believer, and therefore nothing. which ought to come upon him unexpectedly, or to take him as it were by surprise. But it was not thus with the earlier Christians. They were themselves to furnish experience for those who came after; but had scarcely any power of appealing to the experience of those who went before. And yet in one great particular, it appears from our text that there is no difference betwixt the earliest and the latest converts, so far as the foreknowledge of God's dealings is concerned. With ourselves it amounts almost to a truism, that "they who will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution," and that "through much tribulation we must enter into the kingdom of heaven." It were expecting God to change the established course of His dealings, to expect Him not to chasten where He loves, and therefore to "think it strange concerning the trials which are to try us." But can the same be said of the earliest Christians? Had they not embraced the religion of One, who was promised by the auspicious title of "Prince of peace"; whom seers of old had beheld in visions, glowing and tranquil and beautiful? And might they not therefore have justly expected that their lot would be one of freedom from trouble? No, saith the apostle; a "fiery trial" can be no unlooked for thing.
I. Now the first thing which I would argue from this alleged absence of "strangeness" from the dealings of God, is that there were more points of correspondence than of difference between the Christian and the Jewish dispensations. It is true that they could not co-exist, but not because they were in any measure opposed the one to the other. The dawn and the noon tide cannot co-exist; yet the one does not so much displace the other, as it is that other in a more advanced stage. The Mosaic economy was the Christian in its dawn, or in its bud, presenting the same truths, though in a more shadowy form, and proposing the same way of salvation, though with less clearness and precision. The Christian dispensation superseded the Jewish, but only in the manner in which history supersedes prophecy. And this must necessarily have been the case, if you only consider how God had from the first determined the plan of our redemption, and virtually announced it ere Adam was driven from Paradise. There was not one method of being saved in one age, and another in another, so far as the method of reconciliation is concerned; neither can there be thought to have been any such variation, so far as the method of application is concerned. In all ages there has been the same necessity for a renewal of nature in order to a meetness for the kingdom; and therefore must it be supposed that in all ages the dealings of God with a view to these ends have borne in the main the same features. But undoubtedly God had from the first made sorrow one of His chief engines in weakening attachment to the things of time and sense, and directing the affections towards heaven. Was it therefore for a moment to be expected, that because there came a dispensation of greater light, a dispensation of substance in place of shadow, sorrow was to depart and no longer to be used in preparing men for heaven? And, indeed, without tracing accurately a sameness in the dealings of God, we might venture to say that the discipline of affliction is indispensable in the case of depraved creatures like ourselves. It is not that under this economy, but not under that, sorrow is a wholesome thing for those whose nature is corrupt; it is rather that in every condition and estate, man cannot do without affliction, if he is to be kept up to the task of preferring the future to the present. Hard it may be, bitter it may be, but "strange" it can never be, that whilst "the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked," God should constantly verify the saying, "Many are the afflictions of the righteous." "Are ye not men?" might be the address of the messenger of God: "are ye not sinners? and is it not your sanctification which is proposed? Oh! then, 'beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you.'"
II. But possibly these remarks on what we may call the necessity for affliction, and therefore on the truth that it ought never to seem "strange," hardly clear up the point which is presented by our text. The case of those addressed by St. Peter is not that of men exposed to trouble in its ordinary sense, but of those on whom was coming a great onset of persecution. The "fiery trial which was to try them," was to result from the efforts of the enemies of Christianity to destroy by violence what they could not disprove by argument. What is strange, if it be not strange that heaven's best gift should be received with loathing; that the very remedy, which at an immeasurable cost God prepared for the evils which have pressed on this creation, should meet not only with scorn, but hatred; that they whom it is designed to benefit, should agree with themselves to cast it out from the earth? Yet the apostle does not hesitate to tell them in our text, that nothing "strange" had happened to them, when a "fiery trial" arose and they had to maintain their profession in the face of persecution and death. We close with this statement of St. Peter, and we wish you to see whether it may not be vindicated by almost self-evident reasons. The results which Christianity proposes, and which beyond all question it is calculated to effect, are those of a widespread peace and a dominant happiness: but the processes, through which it would work out these results, are those of self-denial and restraint, of mortified passions and curbed affections; and they who would be quite in love with the results, may be quite at war with the processes. There is not after all, anything surprising in persecution, whether in the bold shape it assumed in early days, or the more modified which it exhibits in later; it is, we might almost say, but a natural result of the rejection of Christianity — whether of the open rejection of the sceptical, or of the more covert of the indifferent. Doctrines which are not embraced must be disliked, when they are doctrines which would bind us to practices, which conscience secretly pronounces to be right, but which inclination vehemently opposes; and disliking the doctrines, men must also dislike those who hold them, for every believer is a reproach to the unbeliever, condemning by his example those whom it does not excite to imitation; and there is only a step from dislike to persecution. Persecution is but dislike in action the effort to remove what annoys by reproving. Then till Christianity be universal, persecution, in some form or other, is unavoidable. It is not the product of a dark age, rather than of a light; it is the product of human nature — the same in its corruption, acted upon by a system the same in its holiness.
III. But we cannot suppose that St. Peter used these remarkable words, in order merely to correct an erroneous impression which had been made on the minds of the first Christians — an impression as to the likelihood that Christianity would disarm rather than provoke opposition: we may further believe that he designed to offer a topic of consolation and support — to suggest what ought to reconcile the suffering to their lot. "You ought not," St. Peter seems to say, "to be amazed or confounded; you are called to no affliction which others have not sustained; and where there is nothing but what has been experienced, why should there be surprise, as though it were unexpected?" And truly the distressing thing to a believer would be, if he were able to show that God's dealings with himself were quite different from what God's dealings with His people had ordinarily been. Suppose the registered course of God's proceedings had been, that where there was belief in His Word there was comparative freedom from trouble, so that religion and temporal happiness went hand in hand: what fearful thing would it then be, for a Christian to find himself in trouble! It would not be the amount of the trouble, so much as its strangeness, that would overwhelm him. His inference would be — "Surely I am not one of the people of God: if I were, He would not deal with me in so unusual a manner." Or, to take what might be thought a more supposable case: let righteousness and peace of mind be almost invariably found together, so that a righteous individual is seldom, if ever, disquieted with doubts and apprehensions: if, then, a Christian feels himself depressed and cast down, his hopes darkened through the suggestions of his great adversary the devil, do you not see that the bitterest thing in his portion would be, not the depression, but the consciousness of this depression being a "strange thing" in a believer, and therefore almost an evidence of his not being a believer at all? But now take the opposite, which is the actual case, namely, that the Christian has nothing strange to undergo, nothing befalling him but what is common to believers; and do you not perceive that this very circumstance is full of consolation, and ought to do much towards producing in him patience and resignation? The tempest may rage, the sword may glitter, the destroyer may ravage; but he is calm, he is confident, because he can never "think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try him, as though some strange thing had happened unto him."
IV. And now, lastly, there is yet another remark which, in a practical point of view, is perhaps of greater importance than the foregoing. It may be questioned whether our translators have given the exact meaning of the original, in saying, "Think it not strange." The more literal meaning is, "Be not strange in fiery trial." It is not so much an opinion, as a deportment, to which the apostle has respect. What he enjoins on Christians is, that when the fiery trial came, they were not to receive it as an unexpected thing; they were not to be like strangers, but rather to show that they had been waiting the onset, and had prepared themselves to meet it. An old writer justly says, "Things certainly fall the lighter upon us when they first fall upon our thoughts." Arm yourselves therefore beforehand; it is hard to have your weapons to seek, when the foe is upon you.
(H. Melvill, B. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: