The Peter portrayed in the Gospels and the Peter seen in this letter are hardly recognizable as the same person. The Gospels portray Peter urging Jesus to avoid pain, cowering in the darkness the night of Jesus’ trial and execution, and denying with an oath that he knows the man he’s been following for three years. In this letter, by contrast, Peter welcomes suffering as a badge of honor, as proof of his commitment to Christ at any cost.
Most likely, Peter is writing this letter during an outbreak of persecution under Nero. Leaders of the church, the apostle Paul among them, have been shipped to Rome for imprisonment and execution. Crucial questions about suffering have stirred up within the embattled Christian community.
Peter’s response focuses not on the cause of suffering—the why—but rather on the results. His answer: Suffering can refine faith, much as a furnace refines impure metals. A prospector who discovers gold-bearing rock sends it to an assayer for evaluation. Testing by fire will melt off most impurities, and the true gold will emerge purified.
Suffering acts in much the same way, says Peter. It exposes and refines true faith. In addition, faith in the midst of such trials will earn future rewards. Suffering shifts attention from the rewards of this world—wealth, status, power—to more permanent, “imperishable” rewards in the life to come. And, if Christians maintain their faith through persecution, a watching world will have to acknowledge the source of that faith: God himself.
Peter and the Martyrs
More often than not, intense persecution has led to a spurt of growth in the church. Peter’s own martyr’s death no doubt had a profound effect on his contemporaries.
When has your faith gone through a “refining fire”?