Q&R with Brad Jersak – “What will become of the ungodly?”
How do you understand 1 Peter 4:17-18, which reads:
- 17 The time has come, you see, for judgment to begin at God’s own household. And if it begins with us, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel? 18 And “if the righteous person is scarcely saved, where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?
I’m especially wondering about what “the judgment” that begins with the church means, but also what verse 18 could mean for “where will … the sinner appear.”
Excellent question! The best way to respond begins with the bigger picture of Peter’s purpose for writing this community and what they were experiencing.
In verse 1, we read that Peter’s community included “God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia.” Taken literally, both epistles attributed to Peter would have been written during Nero’s reign of terror between 65-68 A.D. It is also possible that it was written in Peter’s name after his martyrdom (he was crucified upside down), penned by a protege such as Mark (who communicates Peter’s voice in the earliest Gospel). In either case, these epistles were written to believers experiencing tremendous persecution and in desperate need of encouragement.
Indeed, the level of pressure seems to have been so intense that believers were sorely tempted to deny their Lord and abandon their faith in order to avoid their own gruesome martyrdom. By way of background, remember that Peter had been the one who most resisted Christ’s path to crucifixion and had been the first to overtly deny him three times. So Peter directly understands their aversion to suffering and to the painful aftermath of apostasy.
Peter (via Mark) addresses this temptation by using every rhetorical tool in the first-century kit. Two come to mind specifically that happen to appear back to back in the cited passage
He identifies their suffering with that of Christ.
What is the “judgment that begins at God’s household”? In the broader context of Petrine literature, including Mark’s gospel, Peter gradually came to recognize Christ’s crucifixion and their persecution as: (1) the wicked acts of violent men, (2) trials to be overcome that prove our faith, and (3) God’s providential judgment (BUT not punishments) that purifies his church. But most of all, he wants them to see how the wounds of Christ have been united to theirs and conversely, how they can identify their particular suffering in his Passion.
The hard part of this to understand is how the persecutions of violent people can also be imagined as the chastisements of a loving Father. Yet this is precisely the point made in Hebrews 12:4-13. Somehow, God co-opts the wrath of their opponents and transmutes these trials into a harvest of righteousness, strength, and healing. Again, they are NOT to see them as God’s active wrath or negligent abandonment. In other words, he’s reframing the narrative to make it bearable and even “cruciform” (cross-shaped).
Whatever their difficulty, the alternative is worse.
The other rhetorical strategy is to press the long-view “play” button. In 4:18, “Peter” borrows a verse from Proverbs (11:31 in the Septuagint version). Without addressing ultimate or eternal destinies (note: he absolutely leaves it an open rhetorical question), he makes this point here and elsewhere:
If you think your persecutions are rough (they surely are), I promise you that the alternative is far worse! Those tempted to revert to their old lives need to know that would be like reboarding the Titanic just as it goes down in flames! How do we see this? Again, Peter leaves that to our imagination.
It could be that he’s talking about the final judgment, where despite our desire, hope, and prayer that no one ultimately spends eternity in some fiery torment, our encounter with Christ will surely be more joyful for the faithful than for those who had persecuted him in his people. At the very least, Peter believes that between Nero and Christ, allegiance to Christ will finally prove the wiser and safer choice.
On the other hand, it is also entirely possible to interpret this passage as true in this life. When the floods and fires of chaos and calamity reach their crescendo in Rome, when Nero’s insanity climaxes, and when the nations rage and the Goths and Vandals invade, where will you be? Will you be hunkered down with a faith family who has overcome fear and knows the comfort of Christ’s presence? Or will you be caught away in the frothing waves of history-on-fire? The coming destruction announced in 2 Peter 3:10 may refer to the end of history … or it may refer to the “end of the world” as they knew it, with Jerusalem burned to a crisp by Rome and Rome itself reduced to rubble.
Either way, Peter’s strategic exhortation reminds me of a point made by Tolstoy in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount (My Religion). He addresses those who know that Jesus’ call to nonviolence, forgiveness, and enemy-love really does involve taking up our cross to follow him. Yes, he says, but compared to the alternative, the Jesus Way is truly a much lighter yoke. How so? Like so:
Forgiveness is very difficult at time. But try living with the burden of resentment!
Loving one’s enemy is truly a sort of crucifixion. But a lifetime of bitterness is far worse!
Turning the other cheek is a blow to the ego. But retaliation, violence, and war are far more destructive
Jesus is not some naive idealist when he calls us to follow him, even through times of persecution. He’s a relentless realist who has seen where the diverging ways come to their terminus. Following him, even through the trials Peter foresees, is far the far wiser choice … the house built on the Rock.