The practical purpose for Jesus’ suffering

Posted April 13th, 2017 by CLMrf and filed in View From the Pew

By Robert Fontana

crucifixionIt is important to ask why we focus on Jesus’ suffering.  The answer is two-fold.  We remember his death because it was/is salvific in that it offers all of humanity and creation itself forgiveness, new life in the Spirit, and everlasting life.  But there is a more specific and practical purpose for focusing on the suffering of Jesus, as stated in 1 Peter 2:21: “Christ suffered for you that you should follow in his footsteps.”

The intent of the epistle of Peter, written to Gentile believers, is to help them fully live and witness to their faith in a hostile social environment.  These Christians were unjustly suffering in many ways – ridicule, social shunning, disqualification for public office, with the threat of physical harm as had happened to the followers of Jesus some twenty years earlier during the persecution of Nero.   The writer makes it clear what the practical meaning of Jesus’ death is for them: Christ suffered for you that you should follow in his footsteps.”

What were some of the unjust sufferings that these people endured?  The letter does not identify any specific forms of suffering endured by the Christians receiving the letter.  However, in reading “between the lines,” as well as considering what I know about the life of the early Church and the life of 1st-century Romans throughout the empire, I have some thoughts:

  • They were criticized by the Romans as being “unpatriotic” because they did not offer sacrifice to the emperor, which would be the equivalent today of refusing to say the pledge of allegiance to the flag or not standing while the national anthem was being played. Furthermore, the men in the Christian communities were considered cowards because they refused to serve in the army and fight for Rome.  Certainly such men were not allowed in civic leadership.  (Christian men refused allegiance to the emperor because this would mean worshiping an idol – the emperor considered himself a god.  They refused military service to follow Jesus’ teaching and example of non-violence.)
  • old coupleThe Roman elite ridiculed the behavior of Christians in their own homes. Christian husbands and fathers were dismissed by their Roman peers for being soft and sentimental with their wives and children.  Roman men were to rule over their families as Caesar ruled over Rome.  1 Peter admonishes all believers, to “love one another intensely from a pure heart (1:22) and husbands are to “live with your wives in understanding showing honor to the weaker female sex…” (3:7).   Christian husbands were faithful towards their wives. We get a sense of the difference between Roman and Christian behaviors in the family in St. Augustine’s confessions.  Augustine describes the abuse his mother received at the hands of her pagan husband who frequently visited temple prostitutes.
  • Christian women were not immune from ridicule. They broke from the behavior of their Roman peers who took pride in how they adorned themselves with jewelry, fine clothes, and braided hair.  Roman women could not understand and berated the Christian women who rejected such outward displays of beauty to develop “the hidden character of the heart, expressed in the imperishable beauty of a gentle and calm disposition” (3:3-4).
  • To add scandal to scandal, these Christians welcomed at their agape meal any believer from any social class: rich and poor, slave and free, women, men and children. No one was excluded if they had been “born anew…through the living and abiding word of God” (1:23) and the waters of baptism (3:21 b).  In fact, there was little class distinction at the agape meal.
  • Lastly, these believers did exclude themselves from much that was going on in Roman society: “debauchery, evil desires, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and wanton idolatry, which Paul in another letter describes as “greed.” (See Colossians 3:5.)

joy 2It is probable that Christians were treated as social outcasts and threats to the common good of Roman society as our culture treats Jehovah Witnesses today.  The writer of 1 Peter is trying to help the Christians to whom he is writing not simply get to heaven, but to live full authentic lives of faith within this hostile social environment.  His deeper spiritual intent is to help believers live in complete freedom from the distorted desires of the depraved human heart (as the Romans were perceived) so that they can do the will of God by being a power for good in the world (2:15-16).

And in response to all the slander and hatred which they are unjustly receiving from their Roman peers, 1 Peter urges believers to “not return evil for evil, or insult for insult; but on the contrary, a blessing…” (3:9).

WOW!  There is so much for us learn from in this letter.  I have just touched on a few points.  Yes, one must read this letter with a critical eye and an understanding of what is written that was 1st century behavior and should stay in the 1st Century, e.g. the institution of slavery (2:18), and the unquestioned obedience of wives to abusive husbands (3:1).

I am convinced that we live in an environment that is fundamentally hostile to Christianity specifically, and authentic spirituality in general.  It is a mistake to think that any one political party has the high moral ground over another.  Each is equally immersed in the “world” of power, privilege, position, and possessions made possible by money.

We Christians and all people of good will must live in this world as best we can.  1 Peter gives us insights on how to do it:  “…live soberly, and set your hopes completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.  Like obedient children, do not act in compliance with the desires of your former ignorance but, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, “Be holy because I [am] holy” 1 Peter 1:13-16.

One Response to “The practical purpose for Jesus’ suffering”

  1. Michael Krainak says:

    Robert:

    Excellent article! A very difficult and challenging subject.

    Here’ is some inspiration from the same chapter:

    4And coming to Him as to a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God…