Suffering As a Christian (1 Peter 4:16)
[Yet] if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. —1 Peter 4:16
The main topic of the paragraph in which this verse is found (4:12-19) is the suffering of Christians. Peter explains that it is not an unusual thing for Christians to suffer (4:12), and they should rejoice when they share in the sufferings of Christ (4:13). In fact, it is a blessing to be reviled for the name of Christ because when people are reviled for Christ’s name, it is an indication that they possess the Spirit of God (4:14).
In verses 15-16 Peter clarifies the kind of suffering that is appropriate for Christians. They should not suffer for their own bad behavior (4:15), but if they suffer for being a Christian, they can glorify God through such suffering (4:16). The last verses of the paragraph (4:17-19) teach that suffering is the beginning of God’s purifying judgment of this world and is part of His will. Thus, the consistent message of 1 Peter is that Christian suffering is not a sign of divine displeasure, rather it confirms a person’s Christian experience, and it is a path to glory. Verse 16 is vital to Peter’s discussion of Christian suffering in 4:12-19.
The connection of 4:16 with the preceding verses is even more obvious in the Greek text. Because there is no verb in the Greek in the first clause of 4:16, the translators have supplied the verb suffers based on its presence in 4:15. Whereas 4:15 describes behavior for which a Christian should never suffer (“not this”), 4:16 describes behavior for which a Christian should suffer (“but that”).
The suffering Peter is referring to is not just suffering a Christian might experience from things like illness or an accident. The kind of suffering he commends in 4:16 when he says, “if anyone suffers as a Christian,” is suffering that results directly from following Christ; it is suffering for one’s obedience to and testimony for Christ.
The conditional particle if at the beginning of 4:16 should not lead Christian readers to think they can escape suffering for Christ. In fact, Peter assumes for the sake of his argument that the recipients of 1 Peter will suffer for being Christians. He has taught earlier in this epistle that Christians are called to follow Christ in His suffering (2:20-21) and that a commitment to follow Christ in His suffering is the way to victory over sin (4:1-2).
Christian is not a common word in the New Testament, occurring elsewhere only in Acts 11:26 and 26:28. These verses indicate that this name was first given to believers by outsiders (non-Christians) in Antioch (Acts 11:26). It was probably a term of derision, and it would have indicated that those so identified were followers of Christ, like Herodians were followers and supporters of Herod the Great and his family.
Early church writings show that the church soon adopted this term for its own self-designation. There were times in the Roman Empire when it was a crime to be a Christian, and on some occasions Roman officials imposed the death penalty on Christians, simply for being Christians. Thus, in his first clause, Peter wants his readers to assess the cause of their suffering. Suffering for following Christ brings glory to God (2:12) and results in God’s favor and blessing (2:19-20). But suffering for sinful behavior does not please God or bring Him glory, as the rest of the verse shows.
But Glorify God
If any of Peter’s recipients suffer for Christ, Peter commands that they “not be ashamed.” The shame he is referring to is not simply a subjective feeling of shame, but a denial of the faith. This is supported by verses like Mark 8:38 where Jesus says, “For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (see also 2 Timothy 1:8, 12, 16; 2:15).
In contrast to being ashamed of Christ, Peter exhorts believers to “glorify God in that name.” One way believers can glorify God is by confessing their faith openly and praising God publicly (see Romans 15:6; 2 Corinthians 9:13; 1 Peter 2:12; 4:11). Such glorification of God is to be “in that name.” In this context the name Peter is referring to is best understood to be the name Christian, which indicates allegiance to Jesus Christ. Thus, believers are to glorify God by open and unashamed allegiance to Jesus Christ. They confess such allegiance to Jesus Christ when they are willing to suffer for being a “Christian," confessing Christ openly and living a life of obedience to God.
Does the epithet Christian bear stigma and bring reproach in our culture? If so, why?
What are some of the positive benefits and blessings of suffering for Christ, according to 1 Peter?
What is your first response when people connect you with Jesus Christ? How can the truth of this passage help you to be prepared to glorify God by your identification with Christ and other Christians?
Ed Glenny is Professor of New Testament Studies and Greek at the University of Northwestern—St. Paul, in St. Paul, MN.