1 Peter 4:3-6
For the time past of our life may suffice us to have worked the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts…
We have seen that the apostle - the large-hearted, sympathetic, experienced apostle - is showing the scattered Christians he is addressing how to fortify themselves against the persecution that in stormful violence had fallen upon them here and there, before and since they became fugitives or exiles. This is part of a long paragraph beginning at the thirteenth verse of the last chapter, in which he is teaching that amid such persecution a good conscience is the only charm; that whatever befalls their circumstances or their bodily life, a consistent character will be as an asbestos robe enwrapping their spirits. Nothing can violate the charm of that good conscience, nothing burn or even singe the asbestos robe of that true character. Remember his defiant inquiry, "Who is he that can harm you, if ye be followers of that which is good?" This he has been showing in many verses; and the possession of that charm, the possession of that character is the burden of his exhortation here. The key-note of this chapter is - Live to the will of God.
I. LIVE TO THE WILL OF GOD. This is the lesson of man's past evil life. St. Peter urges that "the time past may suffice to have wrought the desire of the Gentiles. What was the desire of the Gentiles in time past? What they desired for themselves and others. The life of that century throughout the Roman empire, where these scattered Christians were, has never, perhaps, been equaled in the hideousness of its private and public vices. The names of the Emperors Tiberius, Gaius, and Claudius Nero are so many symbols of cruelty, lust, and buffoonery. The walls of Pompeii, the pages of the poets, the annals of the historian, all testify how voluptuous, how debased, how heinously immoral, were the desires of the Gentiles.
1. Lasciviousness; outrageous debauchery in general, including all that follow - wine-swillings, roysterings, revels, and the filthy festivals of idolatry. So many forms - alas! scarcely exaggerated - of selfism prevalent in cultured and Christian England today. The apostle says, The time past may suffice to have wrought the desire of the Gentiles." There is deep sadness in the irony here about time past. And yet there is deeper hope, for the past is past, and need not return.
2. Sadness. Enough sin! and such sin as we have been gazing at! Enough; for such time past - hour, or day, or year, or years - was simply
(1) A time of degradation to self. Men in such indulgences become coarse, vulgar, low, bestial.
(2) A time of imperiousness to others. Such a life was the breathing out of pollution into the social atmosphere; the opening up of fetid and poisonous fountains that pour forth disease and death.
(3) A time of rebellion. The human misery in scenes of riot and shame tell of Divine anger. Enough; let not the wheels of time bring back an hour of such life as that to you, my brother.
3. Hope. Time past may be left behind.
(1) There is forgiveness for time past. "Depths of the sea;" not shallow river, not near shore, where the tide may wash on to the beach.
(2) There is deliverance for time past. The charm of evil can be broken; the spell of wrong-doing can be dissolved. With all the energy you have, get away from that past time. The pirate bears down upon the vessel and captures her when her sails are down and she is making no headway. Oh, press on! "Escape for thy life!"
"Let the dead past bury its dead.
Act, act in the living present -
Heart within, and God o'erhead."
II. LIVE TO THE WILL OF GOD, NOTWITHSTANDING BAD MEN'S WONDER AT GOOD MEN'S CONDUCT. St. Peter said, nearly two thousand years ago, what can be truly said today, that worldly men, sinful men, sensual men, think it strange that Christian men do not run with them into the same excess of riot. Dissimilar characters often find it difficult to understand each other; the thoroughly corrupt man seems to find it impossible to understand the Christian.
1. He thinks his conduct strange, and so perhaps he ignores him altogether. He does not invite him to his carousals; he does not know him in society; still less is he on visiting or calling terms with him. He is an enigma he does not care to understand.
2. Or he thinks his conduct strange, and he is aggravated by it. He is contemptuous; he sneers; he tempts. He says about him, or to him, with curled lip, as he declines the wine-party, or gaming-talkie, or clubs of voluptuous pleasure. "Oh, you are 'green;' you are 'soft;' you are 'melancholy;' you're not 'half a man.'" And soon their irritation makes them scandal-mongers and slanderers, as were the pagan scandal-mongers and slanderers of -the early Christians.
3. Or, better far, he thinks his conduct strange, and it leads him to inquire. Wonder ends in respect, and respect in admiration, and admiration in imitation. Not a few of the men who have been reclaimed from lives of silly, not to say sensual, self-indulgence, began to climb the higher path and to breathe the purer air of Christian manhood because they saw a change come over some old companion that they at first thought strange, but soon found to be fascinating and ennobling. Who of you would not wish so to live that men should say, "We will go with you, for we have seen that God is with you"?
III. LIVE TO THE WILL OF GOD, FOR BOTH CHRIST'S JUDGMENT AND CHRIST'S GOSPEL ARE FOR ALL. The point the apostle is here pressing is that these bad men - these Gentiles and pagans of that day, who find their counterpart and succession in all worldly, sensual, selfish men of today - will have to give account to him who will judge quick and dead. The last time he mentioned Christ it was as having ascended to the right hand of God; just before that, as having suffered and died and gone to Hades; now, as in the very order in which the Apostles' Creed enshrines the great biography, he mentions him as judging the quick and the dead. All the living and all the dead shall stand at that tribunal. "Every one of us shall give account of himself to God." But if all are to be judged, all must have the gospel preached to them; or the judgment would be partial, unjust, unrighteous. "Unto this end," that is, that all may be righteously judged, all have the gospel preached to them. The gates of mercy are as vast as the seat of judgment; the cross of Christ is as stupendous as the great white throne. Hence the good tidings had been preached "to the dead." "Spirits in prison' were visited by the Redeemer; to the dead Christ goes with his boundless gospel of righteousness and mercy. The myriads in the Roman empire in Peter's day who died without a single note of the evangel falling on their ears - died in gross corruption and bewildering superstitions of heathenism, are yet to be met with the offers of mercy, with the provisions of the gospel, and with the love of Jesus Christ. So that though according to the flesh - their life on earth - they were judged by men, and rightly judged, as evil and wicked men, they may, if they will yet receive the gospel preached to them, if they will read its blessed writing in the lurid light of the very flames of hell, yet be trophies of its unspeakable grace, and live to God in the spirit. Their life in the flesh was a ruin and a wreck, a scourge and a curse; - so they are judged according to men. But, wondrous ray of hope! their life in the spirit may, after the purgings of those terrific fires, and through the influence of the gospel of our blessed Lord, yet become a life unto God. That is the object and only sufficient end of the preaching of the good tidings of Christ anywhere and at any time - now and here, or then and yonder. Has it led us to live unto God, as the flower lives to the sun, turning to it to paint its petals and to distil its odors and to nourish its exquisite life; as the subject lives to his sovereign, in unflinching and loyal fidelity; as the child lives unto his parent, in loving, watchful, eager obedience? Some men are alive to pleasure, or gain, or ambition, or friendship, and no more. Are we alive unto God? - U.R.T.
Parallel VersesKJV: For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries: