It is wonderfully suggestive for us, who probably stand within sight of the last persecutions under Antichrist, that the Apostle Peter wrote his Epistles to prepare his readers for the persecutions of the very Man himself—in his first advent—Nero. Dean Alford says:—"I should place the writing of Peter's first Epistle during the later years of Nero, but before the persecution related by Tacitus broke out. The odium generis humani which justified the victimising of the Christians, was gathering, and producing its anticipatory fruits here and there, where-ever circumstances were favourable." Exactly so we watch the same gathering hate, an identical “sadism,” with persecutions breaking out where possible; therefore, with a doubled preciousness we can actually hear the counsel of God on how to meet the identical persecution, given through an Apostle who himself was crucified.
A never-to-be-forgotten background Peter erects as the setting for all possible experiences of the Church of Christ. "The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears unto their supplication; but the face of the Lord is upon them that do evil" (1 Peter 3:12). If our Heavenly Father's eye is ever upon us, and His ear open to our cries, our suffering is never a divine forgetfulness or oversight, and all persecution can always be put directly into the hands of God. Mary Slessor's motto was:— "Where duty calls, my safety is God's business." Just a century ago, in 1839, the Sultan of Turkey decreed that not a representative of the Christian religion should remain in his Empire. Learning of this, Dr. William Goodell, an American missionary to Turkey, came home to his friend and colleague, Dr. Cyrus Hamlin, the first president of Robert College, Constantinople, with the sad news. "It is all over with us; we have to leave. The American Consul and the British Ambassador say it is no use to meet this violent and vindictive monarch with antagonism." To this Dr. Hamlin replied:—"The Sultan of the Universe can, in answer to prayer, change the decree of the Sultan of Turkey." They gave themselves to prayer: the next day tit e Sultan was dead; and the decree was never executed. All persecution, one way or the other, is in the hollow of God's hand.
The Apostle opens with an utterance that covers all the centuries, and all the countries, in which there has been no public persecution by the State. "And who is he that will harm you, if ye be zealous of that which is good," or—as the Greek emphasis is, if goodness is always that at which you aim. All that a righteous government asks if honest citizenship; and Christian self-control, cleanness, uprightness—wholly apart from the Church's spiritual intercession with God—is a tremendous civil asset, and meets all the requirements of good government.
But history is studded with the fact that governments arise who do harm the harmless; and opposition, public or private, is so general to the Christian Faith that Paul says:—"All that would live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution" (2 Tim. 3:12). So, therefore, at once confronted with persecution we at once meet its beatitude. "But and it ye should suffer for righteousness' sake, BLESSED ARE YE." Here is a startling development. Suffering here is assumed, notwithstanding righteousness; ' nay, actually for righteousness—as Paul says, "I suffer hardship unto bonds as a malefactor" (2 Tim. 2:9); and with no deliverance by God. Peter himself had known a supernatural opening of prison doors by a liberating angel; yet his Lord had also told him of his helpless carrying to crucifixion. And the Lord Jesus, giving the same beatitude, reveals that He Himself is the source of the trouble. "Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely for MY SAKE: rejoice and be exceeding glad; for great is your reward in heaven" (Matt. 5:2). As Commissioner Lamb, of the Salvation Army, has just said:—"I am inclined to agree that, at the present time, there is some danger of prisons becoming a reward." So the marvellous word; dawns:—"Our light affliction, which is for the moment, worketh for us more and more exceedingly an eternal weight of glory" (2 Cor. 4:17). Let us never forget that it is the ages of persecution that create the loftiest thrones and the most golden crowns.
Now our first command from God appears when:; under persecution. "And fear not their fear, neither be troubled." Do not yield to the terror they would inspire in you: do not be terrorised: fear only paralyses. Nothing is impossible to a God-fortified man. "If we are convinced from the depth of our soul that the promised help of God is all-sufficient, we shall be most effectually armed against all fear" (Calvin):—God's all-sufficient help to deliver; or equally effective help to endure. Chrysostum 's words are worthy of remembrance. “Should the Empress banish me, let her: the earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof. If she east me into the sea, let her: I remember Jonah. If she cast me into the fire, the three Hebrews were there. If she threw me to the wild beasts, Daniel was among the lions. If she stone me, I shall stand with Stephen. If she behead me, I am the Baptist. If she takes all I have—naked came I into the world,| and naked leave it."
But now comes the great central command, controlling and inspiring all persecution. "But sane
tify in your hearts Christ as Lord." The two first commands link up; as Isaiah (8:12) puts it:— "Neither fear ye their fear: the Lord of hosts, him shall ye sanctify; and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread." It is most remarkable that Moses and Aaron lost the Promised Land—exactly our peril—just here; "because ye sanctified me not in the midst of the children of Israel, thou shalt not go thither into the land" (Deut. 32:51). Christ is to be sanctified as Lord in our hearts: as Bishop Wordsworth beautifully puts it, "His glory is to be the aim and end of all our actions; His word our law; His grace our strength; His blessed self the object of our desires." "For hereunto were ye called: for Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example that ye should follow his steps" (1 Peter 2:21). To a maimed soldier of the World War, who refused a postcard, a neighbour said:—"Shall I write for you? I see you have lost your hand." He drew in a deep breath.—“No, sir, I gave it,” he answered quietly.
An exceedingly important injunction follows, and one we are likely to find exceedingly difficult. "Being ready always to give answer"—a word often used for the 'apology' given when on trial in the law courts—"to every man that asketh you a reason concerning the hope that is in you, yet with meekness and fear”; the fear lest by word or conduct we misrepresent Christ. "Having a good conscience"; a good conscience turns a man into steel; what we know to be right is worth living for, and worth dying for: but more than that—one of the glorious possibilities of persecution is the conversion of the persecutors. "Everybody," says a Russian Christian woman, "was against me except Jesus. He carried me through; and now others who once persecuted me are following Him." Exactly so, the Roman Centurion, when he heard our Lord's words under actual crucifixion, and especially when he saw how He died, was converted on the spot:—"When the centurion saw that he so gave up the ghost he said, Truly this man was the Son of God" (Mark 15:39).
So, therefore, the best of all 'apologies' the Apostle now emphasises. "That, wherein ye are spoken against they may be put to shame"—that is, proved to be liars—"who revile your good manner of life in Christ; for it is better, if the will of God should so will"—for it is God who decides whether there shall be persecution or not—"that ye suffer for well-doing than for evil doing." Suffering can fall on us for one of two reasons:—as chastisement or our own sins, which is our reproach; or actually because of our goodness, which is our glory. Calumny is refuted by our innocence. "All may not be able to wield the sharp sword of argument, but all can wear the silver shield of innocent lives." The two peoples of God at this moment bring the truth into sharp relief:—the agony of the Jew, who said—"His blood be upon us, and upon our children"; and the agony of persecuted
Churches, which are being stamped out for Christ. What a difference in suffering! God says, to Israel:
—"I will curse your blessings" (Mal. 2:2): He says to the Church:—I will bless your curses. The loveliest German hymns, and the finest hymn music, were written during the horrors of the Thirty Years' War. Forty years ago the Boxer Riots attempted to stamp out Christianity in China, and there were many martyrs; but in the next ten years more Chinese became Christians than in the preceding century.
Peter gives our final safeguard in persecution, and the crowning reason why Christian suffering is blessed. "Because Christ also suffered." It must be blessed to suffer for well-doing, for our blessed Lord so suffered, and they who so suffer are made most like Him. The loftier our life, and therefore the closer our resemblance to our Lord, the more we may expect to be treated as He was. The Sinless One was the deepest sufferer: spotless in character, upright in conduct, perfect in ministry; yet the greatest sufferer of all eternity. What an honour to share His suffering: to "fill up on my part that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ" (Col. 1:24). Though we can in no way share the Atonement of Christ, we can share His martyrdom; and we can say, as Latimer said to Ridley:—"By God's grace, we shall light a candle to-day in England"
—the burning of their own bodies—"which shall never be put out."