The End of All Things is at Hand: Understanding 1 Peter 4:7-19
NOTE: This post is an excerpt from a forthcoming book entitled The High King of Heaven. Its purpose is to explain and defend the classic Reformation vision of the Church’s Blessed Hope: Christ will return once at the end of the age to raise the dead, judge the world in righteousness, and bring in the Kingdom in its full and final form.
Our final two texts appear in the general epistles of the apostle Peter. It is widely believed that he wrote them from Rome sometime between AD 60-68, during the reign of the infamous persecutor of the fledgling Church, the Roman emperor Nero. As we shall see, in his first letter Peter repeatedly encourages suffering believers with the hope of eternal glory at the revelation of Christ. From this it is evident that when he wrote it he looked for the Lord’s return in his own lifetime. However, in his second letter, Peter has realized that he will soon be martyred (2 Peter 1:12-14, John 21:18), and that the Lord may yet tarry for a great while (2 Peter 3:8-9). Accordingly, he is now at pains to leave behind a body of written instruction and exhortation; instruction that will include, not least of all, important information about the Consummation, so that Christ’s pilgrim Church may be able to keep her Blessed Hope squarely before her eyes, and so walk in strength and purity, pleasing to the Lord (2 Peter 1:15, 3:1-18).
In this section I want briefly to discuss 1 Peter 4:7-19, a passage that well reflects the apostle’s view of the Consummation. However, in order to understand it most fully, we must take a few moments to survey the eschatology of the letter as a whole.
The Eschatology of 1 Peter
The eschatology of this epistle is comprised of five main elements.
First, there is suffering. Unsurprisingly, this theme is quite prominent, seeing that the recipients of the letter were suffering greatly. When they followed the pagan traditions of their forefathers, they experienced little or no persecution. Now, however, by God’s grace, they serve the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Now they can no longer render unto Caesar what properly belongs to God and Christ (Mark 12:17). Now they must try, with gentleness and respect, to press upon their idolatrous neighbors the rightful claims of the one true living God (1:17-19, 3:15). Now, therefore, they do experience persecution (1:6-9, 3:13-22, 4:1-2, 12-19). And they must see it, not as some “strange thing,” but as part of the plan of God, who uses persecution to manifest his faithfulness (4:19), purify a steadfast people (1:1:7, 4:1-2), visit the (convicted) souls of unbelievers who witness that steadfastness (2:12), and secure eternal rewards for his saints (1:7, 4:13).
Observe from reading this letter how much Peter’s eschatology resembles Paul’s in the Thessalonian letters, and also his Master’s in the Olivet Discourse. Like them, he understands that prior to the end the suffering Church must pass through a brief season great tribulation, but after that into the glories of the eternal Kingdom. As a matter of private opinion, Peter himself no doubt believed that under Nero the Church was doing this very thing (4:12f).
The second element—and the central one—is the revelation of Christ. This is, by far, Peter’s favorite term for the Second Coming (1:7, 13, 4:13, 5:1). In every text where it appears, he treats it as the one and only Blessed Hope of the Church. Most emphatically, he is not looking for a secret “coming” of Christ (for his saints), nor is he counseling his suffering brethren to do so. Rather, he is simply waiting for the glorified Christ to appear (5:4, Col. 3:4, 1 John 2:28); to be revealed to all (4:13, 5:1), saints and sinners alike (4:15, 17; 2 Thess. 1:7).
This brings us to the third element: the Judgment. When Christ is revealed, he will judge the world in righteousness. Later on, in his second epistle, Peter will develop this theme at great length (2 Peter 3), but it definitely shows up here (4:15, 17). Always and verywhere he assumes that there is but one Final Judgment, and that it will occur by the hand of Christ at his Revelation. As a rule, he likes to think of it as the appointed time of final rewards for the saints: praise, glory, and honor from Christ (1:7); grace that consummates their redemption (1:13); unfading crowns of glory (5:4); and the perfection of their total being (5:10). Nevertheless, Peter recognizes and warns that the one Judgment will also bring (final) retribution for the godless and the sinner (4:17-18).
The fourth and final element of Peter’s eschatology is the World to Come. For Peter, it is this and this alone that lies on the far side of the Revelation of Christ and the Judgment. In his second epistle, Peter will call it the New Heavens and the New Earth (2 Peter 3:13). Here, he simply refers to it as “heaven” (1:4-5), and also as “the glory that is to be revealed” (5:1). We look in vain for the slightest hint or hope of a future millennial era in which glory and sin, life and death, peace and war, and joy and sorrow will again commingle. No, Peter is eagerly waiting for “ . . . an inheritance that is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away . . . “ (1:4). He would have the suffering saints do the same.
Here, then, in a nutshell, is the eschatology of 1 Peter, and his view of the Consummation. To sum it up: Following a brief season of intense tribulation for the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ will be come again and be revealed in all his glory, at which time he will punish the ungodly, richly reward the saints, and bestow upon them the glories and joys of the World to Come.
1 Peter 4:7-19
With these preliminary thoughts to guide us, let us now take a closer look at our text.
In verses 7-10, Peter issues a series of familiar commands: The saints are to devote themselves to prayer (v. 7), keep fervent in their love for one another (v. 8), be hospitable without complaint (v. 9), and faithfully use their spiritual gifts for the glory of God and the good of the Church (vv. 10-11). What is remarkable here is the little phrase that stands at the head of these exhortations: “The end of all things is at hand” (v. 7, 1 John 2:18). Because of this, the saints—with a diligence proper to the urgency of their historical situation—must busy themselves with the responsibilities and privileges of Christian discipleship (James 5:8).
That Peter has in mind a single Consummation can scarcely be doubted. If anyone wanted to speak of the ultimate goal of Salvation History, how could he possibly choose a more apt expression? Importantly, the verses that follow confirm this conclusion, showing not only that he did indeed have a single Consummation in mind, but also that he very much wanted his brothers and sisters in Christ to be prepared for it.
In verses 12-13, he launches his pastoral thrust with an exhortation: The saints are not to be surprised or offended by the “fiery ordeal” going on among them. Far from thinking this a “strange” thing, they should realize that it is actually part of God’s plan for his people: Through such suffering, he “tests” (i.e., refines) them (1:6-7), affords them the privilege of sharing in Christ’s sufferings (and his redemptive fruitfulness, 2:12), and prepares them for the exultation they will experience at his Revelation, when he consummates their redemption and rewards them for their faithfulness (1:3-9, 13, 5:10-11). Again, in light of verse 7, it appears that Peter himself, at this stage of his ministry, viewed the persecutions under Nero as part of the final tribulation that would soon culminate in the return of Christ.
In verses 14-16, the apostle offers further words of encouragement and exhortation to the pilgrim Church (1:1). If, as they make their way through a hostile world, they should yield to temptation and suffer as murderers, thieves, evildoers, or meddlers, they will simply be getting what they deserve, and should indeed feel ashamed for it. But if they suffer for carrying the Name of Christ, then far from feeling ashamed, they should wear his Name as a badge of honor! Also, they should recognize that amidst any such suffering, their faithful Creator will meet them with corresponding effusions of his soul-strengthening Spirit (3:19). Here, then, is how tribulation saints “gird up the loins of their minds” for the rigors of the last days (1:13).
In verses 17-18, Peter gives an important rationale for his exhortations: They must walk in holiness, because “It is time for judgment to begin.” Verse 7 illumines his meaning: He has in mind the Last Judgment, for, as he said earlier, the end of all things is at hand. Read in context, we see clearly that this Judgment will occur at the Revelation of Christ (4:13), that it will begin with the Church, and then immediately fall upon those who do not obey the Gospel of Christ (2 Thess. 1:8). In other words, in the one Consummation both the godly and the ungodly, the righteous and sinners, will stand together before Christ the Judge (3:18). If anyone thinks that our text leaves room for doubt about the unity of this Judgment, a close reading of 2 Peter 3 will remove it completely.
In verse 19, Peter concludes with still another exhortation: In view of the impending Judgment, let every believer keep entrusting his soul to a faithful Creator in doing what is right; to a faithful Creator, because he knows our frame and can strengthen it; in doing what is right, because the holy Lawgiver and Judge is at the door, and because believers who walk in holiness will have no cause to shrink back when he appears (2:13-21;1 John 2:28).
Was the apostle wrong in teaching that the end of all things is at hand, or that it is time for the Judgment to begin? No, he was not. As he himself would write in his second epistle, with the Lord a thousand years is as one day (2 Peter 3:8; 1 John 2:18). By God’s reckoning, Peter wrote us only two days ago! The end of all things is at hand, and the time for the Judgment is upon us. Therefore, like our courageous first century brethren who lived under Nero, let us also faithfully gird up the loins of our minds for action, stay sober in spirit, and fix our hopes completely on the grace to be brought to us in the one Consummation at the Revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ–the High King of Heaven (1:13).