If the righteous one is scarcely saved, where will the ungodly and the sinner appear? (1 Peter 4:18, NKJV)
Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jno. 16:33). As they preached the gospel, Paul and Barnabas were “strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, ‘We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God’” (Acts 14:22). Peter said, “do not think it strange” when fiery trials happen to you because of your faith (1 Pet. 4:12). These statements do not suggest we earn our way to heaven. They explain being a faithful Christian brings you face to face with challenges and turmoil that require the effort and conviction of a faith to endure and prevail when they come. “Scarcely” is from a Greek word that means “with difficulty.” Luke used it in Acts 27:16 of securing the skiff with difficulty during a storm. He also used it in Acts 14:18 of the difficulty of restraining the mob from sacrificing to Paul and Barnabas. The righteous are saved, but not without difficulties that test our faith. Trials purge the dross from their faith and identify them as being unashamed to live for Christ (1 Pet. 1:6-7; 4:16-17). On the other hand, the “ungodly and the sinner” will not appear in glory due to their lack of faith. They are unwilling to endure tribulations to enter the kingdom of God, preferring not to obey the gospel of God (1 Pet. 4:17).
“For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17, NKJV)
The apostle Peter speaks of judgment commencing at God’s house. Since it has been almost two thousand years since he wrote this, we can safely conclude what started then continues to be true now. God’s house is the church (Heb. 3:4-6; 1 Tim. 3:15). So, we readily admit the church of Christ has and will undergo judgments. Judgment in this verse means “the process of judgment (separation) leading to a decision” (Vine, I:222). Peter has been discussing intense persecutions already happening to Christians. He said God’s people should not think it a strange (foreign, novel) thing when trials come upon us (1 Pet. 4:12). Instead, he exhorts us to “rejoice” since such trials are our fellowship with the sufferings of Christ (1 Pet. 4:13; Phil. 3:10). God blesses and comforts Christians who suffer for His name’s sake. Accepting reproach for our faith without shame, we are to glorify God in the name “Christian” (1 Pet. 4:14-16). To be ashamed of being a Christian judges us unworthy of Christ (Mk. 8:38). Suffering for one’s faith in Christ separates the faithful from those who abandon their faith to escape reproach. Thus, persecution has the effect of judging Christians. It separates the unfaithful from the righteous. Since Christians are saved through such difficulties, it becomes obvious that those who “do not obey the gospel of God” will not be saved (1 Pet. 4:17, 18).
21 “Now brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. 22 And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:21–22, NKJV)
Jesus spoke these words to His twelve apostles before sending them out to preach “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6-7). After His resurrection, He would send them into all the world to preach His gospel (Mk. 16:15). Jesus was preparing them for the resistance they would face because of their faith in Him and their work for Him. The gospel produced harsh reactions from faithless family and friends as well as strangers in the first century. (It still does.) Their lives would be endangered and embroiled in controversy. Jesus exhorted them to endure the hatred and persecutions “to the end” to be saved. This helps us understand what Jesus went on to say, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matt. 10:34, 35-36). Many react to the truth of the gospel with hostility, including family members. Just as He called the apostles to endure, He calls us to love Him more, follow His truth first, deny ourselves, and always fear God rather than people (Matt. 10:37-39, 28). When we choose family (or ourselves) over the truth of the gospel we are no longer worthy of Christ. We will lose our life, not save it (Matt. 10:37-39).
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. 12 Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:10–12, NKJV)
Early Christians faced threats, deprivation, imprisonment, violence and death for their faith (Hebrews 10:32-34). It may be hard for us to envision the blessedness of being persecuted. Yet, our perspective changes when the blessing of persecution is understood in the context of being citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Enduring persecution for the sake of righteousness produces patience and perfects faith (James 1:2-4). Devotion to things above will bring persecution, but it also helps the persecution seem as “light affliction” in comparison to the “eternal weight of glory” to come (2 Corinthians 4:17). Because we trust His word, the Lord’s promise of eternal reward replaces the fear of persecution with confident hope (1 Peter 3:14). Jesus showed us the blessedness of suffering for what is right, and because of His suffering we obtain an eternal blessing (1 Peter 3:18; 2:19-24). Persecution is not seen as a blessing when viewed from a “this world” perspective. But, eyes of faith see the blessing it brings. Citizens of the kingdom of heaven will suffer for righteousness’ sake, and are blessed for it.
2 And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him. 3 As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison. 4 Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word. (Acts 8:2–4, NKJV)
This striking contrast between martyred Stephen and persecutor Saul paints a picture of the faithfulness of the early church and the forces of opposition faced by the disciples (Acts 7:54-8:1). Saul would eventually be converted and learn about suffering for the Lord (Acts 9:16; 2 Corinthians 4:8-12). When we start to focus on the advances of evil around us and the pressures of its influences and actions upon our lives and those we love, remember these faithful brethren (as well as those presently suffering for their faith). When they were pressed, they pressed onward and upward. When threatened in an effort to silence them, they remained vocal, going “everywhere preaching the word.” When pursued by enemies of the faith, they pursued peace and holiness (Hebrews 12:14). Let us take to heart the apostle’s exhortation, “Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern” (Philippians 3:17). May we follow their worthy examples and remain true to the Lord Jesus Christ.