It is especially poignant that the author (actual or implied) of this exhortation to share Christ’s sufferings is the apostle Peter. The memory of Peter’s denial of Christ was widespread among early Christians. Peter was ashamed to be associated with Jesus in the courtyard of the high priest: not once, but three times (Mark 14:68, 70, 71). But Peter is also a potent symbol of the transformative power of grace. Simon’s new name ‘Peter’, ‘rock’ (Matthew 16:18; John 1:42), is less an indicator of his character than of what he would become.
But how long would it take Simon to live up to his new name? More importantly, when would Peter be bold enough to publicly declare Christ’s name, and suffer for it?
Annibale Carracci depicts a scene, not from the New Testament, but from Christian tradition.
Many years have passed since that threefold failure in Jerusalem. An elderly Peter, having preached the gospel in Rome, flees the city, only to encounter Christ on the Appian Way. Quo vadis, Domine? (‘Where are you going, Lord?’). Christ, bearing the marks of his passion, replies that he is headed for Rome, to be crucified again. Carracci’s Peter recoils at this prospect of suffering. Yet this encounter also marks a turning-point. Peter will return to the city, and face crucifixion in Christ’s stead. Posterity will claim both Peter and Paul as founding martyr-apostles of the Roman church.
Our passage presents an apostle who has made that transition. He has learned from his mistakes, and is no longer ashamed of Christ’s name. Now he boldly encourages his fellow Christians, scattered across the provinces of Asia Minor, to suffer joyfully ‘as a Christian’ (1 Peter 4:16). The name ‘Christian’ almost certainly emerged as a term of abuse, used by pagan neighbours (Acts 11:26). Yet now it has become a badge of honour, for those, like Peter, unashamed of their association with Christ.
12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. 15But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker; 16yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God. 17For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18And
19Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will do right and entrust their souls to a faithful Creator.