Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.
1 Peter 5:8-9 (NRSV)
It’s interesting that the serpent is used in Scripture to portray both the devil and Christ, and so is the lion. Yet, you never find Satan portrayed as a lion in art or even in conversation. When was the last time you heard a sermon where the speaker referred to Satan as a mighty lion or Jesus as a wily serpent?
Whatever other significance this image may have, the people receiving this letter would have understood it as persecution, specifically from the powers that be. Not only is there a rich history in the Bible of portraying worldly powers as beasts, but one of Rome’s forms of capital punishment – along with crucifixion – was being thrown in with lions.
For 1 Peter, these two images overlay: the adversary the devil and the capital punishment of Rome. One is the spiritual dimension of the other’s outworking in human history. Like a spirit and a body, the author here shows us that the oppression of the early church is not either/or, but both/and. There is a dark, spiritual, anti-kingdom animus that has always been the adversary of God’s people, and in the age of 1 Peter, the “body” of that spirit was Roman persecution. In other places and times, that “body” might be Philistia, or Babylon, or even the religious power structure in Jerusalem. And at the time of that writing, this body was working overtime. “Know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.”
1 Peter encourages the readers to stand fast and to resist the devil. But if the work of the devil is being done through persecution, how is the early church supposed to resist it? Does the church draw a sword and start chopping off ears? Does the kingdom of God war with the kingdoms of this world with their tools – weapons, politicians, and economic sanctions? Do they fight fire with fire? Do they form a Tribulation Force?
The author knows that Jesus has shown a better way – faithfulness even unto death. By remaining faithful to their testimony even under persecution, this puts their salvation in God’s hands, and in Jesus Christ, God has already demonstrated what faithfulness unto death gets you – deliverance for your people, resurrection, vindication, and exaltation. The book of Revelation, which is also primarily concerned with the endurance and salvation of the early church under persecution, sums this up in a beautiful passage:
Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down who accuses them day and night before our God. But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.
Revelation 12:10-11 (NRSV)
Revelation presents us a picture of the future outcome of what 1 Peter’s audience is presently experiencing. Remain steadfast, be faithful unto death, know that all your brothers and sisters stand with you. This is how we fight the lion.
In some nations, today, this scenario may play out very directly. Perhaps in the future, we will see more of this dynamic. In America, where I live, there is no institutional persecution of Christianity by the powers that be. Christians do not face the sword of the government for their testimony. In that sense, this passage from 1 Peter does not speak directly to the experience of the American church. We are on this side of Satan having been bound, and he does not control the whole world as we know it.
We do, however, know we have brothers and sisters suffering these things. We are obligated to speak prophetically against the powers that are the hands and feet of the adversary in the world. They are not only a threat to Christian life but to the welfare of the world God dreams of where every person is treated with justice and compassion and does not need to fear the very institutions that should be protecting them and raising them up. A church in a country that is not persecuting them is a church that can focus a lot of energy on speaking on behalf of brothers and sisters who cannot speak in other countries.
We also know that oppression is not just highly visible violence. Oppression happens when justice is not done. It can be economic. It can be political. It can be spiritual. It can happen simply by doing nothing when something should be done. All of these are tools in the hands of the adversary.
And for those of us who are not so persecuted, we can still remember that the adversary does his work through the present world system. “Spiritual warfare” is not meant to be primarily some Dungeons and Dragons-like experience where we fight demons in the spirit realm, nor is it meant to be primarily a personal struggle against temptations to sin. Elements of those things may come into the picture, but the main, dominant theme we see here and elsewhere in the Bible is the clash between the people of God powered by the ragingly active Holy Spirit and the present evil world system powered by an impotent devil. We are not supposed to ally with it or use it or its ways to accomplish the purposes of the kingdom of God.
When we are reviled, we return blessing. When the powers that be strike our cheek, we offer the other one. We will continue to live out the life of the new creation, being a counter-testimony to the world around us, no matter what they do, even if they kill us. And in doing so, we offer ourselves to a living God, commit our spirit into His hands, and know that it is by being a slaughtered lamb that God will conquer and deliver in ways we could not even begin to expect.
- What is a response to persecution that mirrors Jesus’ response?
- What does it mean to maintain a faithful testimony? Is it just the things we say?