In our 2000 year history the name Christian has become associated with followers of Jesus and, indeed, identifies us more than any other word. In some instances it has become associated with political power. Kings have had Christian leaders as their advisors and exercised their mighty power to satisfy Christian desires, whether for good or for evil. Even in modern America, presidential candidates dare not openly denounce the name for fear of that hurting their ability to successfully take hold of the Presidency. Nevertheless, Peter tells his readers in Asia Minor, if they suffer as a Christian, don’t be ashamed (1Peter 4:16). Why would he word this part of his letter this way? Earlier he spoke about the blessing associated with suffering for the name of Christ, but now he speaks of shame. How does shame enter into the context of Peter’s letter?
The word Christian is mentioned in the New Testament only three times. Perhaps, if we understood the context of each of the other two occurrences, Peter’s use in his letter might become clearer. It is mentioned first in Acts 11:26 where we are told that “the disciples were first called Christian in Antioch” (italics mine). The context of it appearing there first, points to a Roman influence. This is understood in its timing and in the ian ending of Christian. The Greek is Christos for Christ, the equivalent of Messiah. However, Christian is Christianoi, which is a Latinized Greek word. The question is, why would we receive this name from the Romans. What interest did they have in us that caused this name to be associated with us?
Antioch is in Syria, and this city was the capital of the Roman state in its eastern frontier. The governor of Syria, for example, was supreme over the Roman governor of Judea. Pilate’s immediate superior was the Roman president of Syria, who resided in Antioch. In 39-40 AD the political climate between Rome and Jerusalem had become very tense. Gaius Caesar commanded his newly appointed Roman president at Antioch to place a statue of Caesar in the Temple at Jerusalem, by force if necessary. Petronius, the Roman general and president of Syria, paused for the winter at Ptolemais, just north of Caesarea, intending to resume his duty in the spring. Jews had peacefully demonstrated there and convinced him to request Caesar to reconsider. So, he wrote to Rome and waited throughout the rest of 39 AD for a reply. Jerusalem and Rome were on the brink of war.
Meanwhile, the Roman government took an interest in the behavior and attitude of disciples of Jesus who were so closely associated with Judaism. In fact, they were considered by Rome to be a faction within Judaism (Acts 25:19. It was important to Rome to understand whether the growing group of believers in Christ would ally themselves with Jerusalem, if war would break out between Jews and Rome. It was determined that Christians were innocuous, as far as Rome was concerned. Nevertheless, the name Christian was a derogatory term used for a group whose Leader Rome had executed.
The word is used again at Acts 26:28 by King Agrippa, and again it seems its use was less than complimentary. The king was stunned, perhaps even a little embarrassed with Paul’s frankness in the presence of both himself and the Roman governor. His remark about becoming a Christian was meant to put some distance between what the king believed and what Paul was saying. So, once more shame is associated with the name Christian, which seems to be a name used by the authorities who shared a low opinion of believers who trusted in a resurrected person convicted and executed by Rome. In such a light, therefore, it seems Peter’s use of the word at 1Peter 4:16, he means to say: if the believer suffers as a Christian—as one whom others hold in contempt etc. that one should never be ashamed. Although others mean to shame us, we need, rather to embrace the insult and glorify God in that respect (1Peter 4:16c).
Therefore, in 1Peter 4:17 Peter is pointed out that the time for the judgment of the Jewish nation has arrived. Twenty-three or twenty four years earlier God heard their prayers at Ptolemais and killed the emperor on their behalf, but now the judgment of the nation was finally come. Nevertheless, all judgment must begin at the house of God (Ezekiel 9:6). The persecution that believers endure occurs so that they will not be judged with the ungodly (1Corinthians 11:31-32; Psalm 94:12-13). In 1Peter 4:17-18 Peter quotes from Proverbs 11:31 in the Septuagint. This Scripture not only refers to the magnitude of the judgment upon the wicked, that is, if the believer suffers through many difficulties, what can the ungodly expect, but it also points to the surety of judgment upon the wicked—if the righteous suffer through such difficulty, what can the ungodly imagine for themselves?
It is God’s will that believers would be strong in their faith. Pain is involved in this, just as pain is involved in exercising the body and in such things as military discipline. Sacrifices are made for a goal and to be approved by one’s superiors (viz. received as a regular soldier after boot camp; received as a lawyer after law school; received as a medical doctor after serving an internship etc.). So it is with God and the believer. Persecution is not the will of God—if it wasn’t there, he would use something else, but, since it was there, God used it to strengthen the faith of those who trusted in Jesus. Believers need to know they must commit their safety to God (1Peter 4:19; cf. Luke 23:46). They do this by continuing to do good works—helping others, showing mercy, submitting to authorities etc. Believers are able to do this without regret, because God has shown himself to be a faithful Creator (1Peter 4:19).