Seeing Life from God’s Horizon

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For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. 4They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. 5But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.

1 Peter 4:3-6 (ESV)

Understanding the Word

We begin our study this week in the middle of a paragraph that describes the suffering faced both by Christ and his followers (4:1–6). Our study this week will weave together and expand on two themes that we have seen earlier in 1 Peter—suffering and right behavior in the Christian community.

In 1 Peter 4:3–4 we see the kinds of activities in which the pagans around our audience choose to engage. We can sum up the list this way: wild partying and the worship of other gods. In first-century culture, festivals and feast days centered on the temples and shrines that filled the cities of Asia Minor. The types of wild behavior described could be part of the celebrations at the local temples. This behavior was not limited to the public sphere. Homes could also be the location of drunken parties, sexual license, and other ungodliness. Peter reminds his audience that they have experienced a new life and no longer participate in these types of activities. However, those around the Christians are surprised that they don’t join in the same activities that they used to participate in. Their surprise turns to insults, abuse, and mockery (v. 4).

Once again Peter reminds Christians that there is a horizon beyond the here and now. In 1 Peter we have come to see that God is the Creator of the world and that Jesus and his redemptive work were known before the world began (1:20). We have also been reminded that Christ will return (1:7; 2:12) and that those who have mocked Christians will glorify God (2:23). Here, Peter reminds Christians that God judges both the living and the dead—both Christians and their persecutors will have to give an account before the throne of God.

First Peter 4:6 is another complicated verse that has been understood in a variety of ways. But in context, it seems that some who heard the good news had died. In the early church many expected that Jesus would return before they died. So a question arose about what happened to Christians who died. Verse 6 may relate to that question and reassures those who have suffered.

Some who heard the good news had died and experienced the judgment that happens to all of humanity. The sin of Adam and Eve brought about death as the consequence of sin. However, those who have heard and responded to the gospel find life after death in the spirit. This parallels the description of Jesus’ death in 3:18. His crucifixion is described as “being put to death in the flesh,” and his resurrection is described as “being made alive in the spirit.” So, too, those who experience new birth in this life may still experience physical death. But they also anticipate resurrection and life in the Spirit in the age to come.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Have you given up behaviors that others in our world consider normal because of your Christian convictions? How have your unbelieving friends reacted to the choices you have made?
  2. How does your belief in life after death and in God’s judgment give you hope and impact the choices you make now?

Did you enjoy this entry? It’s an excerpt from Ruth Anne Reese’s Bible study, The Letter of 1 Peter. In this work, Reese helps readers understand and respond to 1 Peter’s call to live as the new family of God within the context of a challenging world. This eight-week study will encourage participants to think about what it means to be the church and to take up practices that demonstrate the love of God in community.

In these pages you’ll:

  • Become familiar with the cultural context for Peter’s writings to the church in Asia Minor
  • Better understand and respond to 1 Peter’s call to live as the new family of God within the context of a challenging world
  • Be encouraged to think about what it means to be the church and to take up practices that demonstrate the love of God in community

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Dr. Ruth Anne Reese is Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. Reese is also the Chair of the New Testament Department at Asbury Seminary and serves on the board of the Institute for Biblical Research.

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