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Follow Christ’s example and suffer for your faith

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THE Prayer Book Epistle reading for today, the second Sunday after Easter, is a strong encouragement to Christians suffering for their faith.

The passage is from the Apostle Peter’s first New Testament letter, written from Rome during the reign of the Emperor Nero (AD 54-68). It was probably written shortly before the state-sponsored persecution of Christians broke out in AD 64, unleashed by Nero’s decision to blame them for the Great Fire of Rome.

The original recipients of 1 Peter were Christian communities in several Roman provinces south of the Black Sea in what is now Turkey. This apostolic epistle would have been read out in their churches. It is a short letter and the spiritual benefit of reading it in full would more than repay the less than half an hour it takes.

The immediate context of today’s reading is Peter’s admonition to his Christian hearers to respect secular authority including his command to slaves to submit to their masters, even the harsh ones. Such New Testament statements are unacceptable to many modern readers. But the cold reality is that if the Apostles had incited a slave rebellion after the Spartacus uprising almost overthrew the Roman state in the previous century, they would have killed Christianity stone dead.

For the sake of the gospel, Christians at all levels of society were not to be insubordinate towards secular authority even when that proved difficult:

‘For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully.For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps:Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed. For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls’ (1 Peter 2v19-25 – King James Version).

In suffering for their faith, rather than for their faults, Peter’s hearers would be following the example of Jesus Christ, whose suffering on behalf of God’s chosen people the Old Testament prophet Isaiah had foreshadowed. Peter quotes directly from Isaiah’s description of the Lord’s Suffering Servant: ‘Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth’ (Isaiah 53v9).

Peter’s summary of the saving work of Jesus Christ in suffering and dying on the cross for the sake of God’s people gathered in Christian churches also derives from Isaiah: ‘Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed. For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls’.

In the phrase ‘by whose stripes ye are healed’ Peter echoes Isaiah’s description of the benefit of the Suffering Servant’s saving work for God’s people (Isaiah 53v5). His suffering for their sins brings healing to their souls. In his description of his hearers’ spiritual state before they became Christians, ‘for ye were as sheep going astray’, Peter again refers to Isaiah’s prophecy: ‘All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (Isaiah 53v6), a verse put to music so brilliantly in Handel’s Messiah. 

The King James translation of Peter’s description of Christ as ‘the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls’ is significant. The Greek word for Bishop (episcopos), translated in the 20th Century New International Version as ‘overseer’, is the same word the Apostle Paul used in 1 Timothy 3 to describe a church leader.

It seems the early 17th Century Anglican scholars responsible for the King James Bible were making a vital theological and pastoral point in their translation of 1 Peter 2v25. Jesus is the ultimate Bishop of his people, a truth that should never leave the mind of any genuinely Christian bishop called to serve the Lord’s Church.

The Collect for today resonates powerfully with Peter’s apostolic teaching: ‘Almighty God, who hast given thine only Son to be unto us both a sacrifice for sin, and also an ensample of godly life: Give us grace that we may always most thankfully receive that his inestimable benefit, and also daily endeavour ourselves to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life: through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.’

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Julian Mann
Julian Mann
Julian Mann is a former Church of England vicar, now an evangelical journalist based in Heysham, Lancashire.

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