"For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?"
It is interesting to me that 1 Peter 4:17 receives so little attention in the on-going debate about eschatology. For instance, Aune in his large work "Prophecy in Early Christianity" does not even mention this text; likewise Vincent’s Word Studies. Even Beiderwolf’s famous "Second Coming Bible" which claims to examine "The complete text of every scripture passage concerned with the second coming of Christ" does not even list the verse. When they do discuss the verse many commentators completely ignore the chronological statement regarding the imminence of the judgment.
While discussions concerning eschatology very often center on the Petrine epistles, particularly 2 Peter 3, or even 1 Peter 1:3-13; 4:5-7, verse 17 is seldom given serious exegetical attention. Yet we would suggest that 1 Peter 4:17 is vitally important to eschatological study. It is our purpose to demonstrate that significance in this short article.
It cannot be denied that Peter believed and taught that he and his readers were standing at a critical juncture in history. The exact nature of that crisis is what is so vital. Did Peter believe, as most modern critics aver, that history was about to end? Or did Peter believe that eschatology was Covenantal and not Historical? In other words, was Peter anticipating the end of the Old Covenant world of Israel, at the fall of Jerusalem, and the full establishment of the New Covenant World of Jesus, or was he in fact anticipating the "end of time"? Let us examine the text and context to see if we can determine the answer to that question?
The Time Has Come
Peter is emphatic; he says "the time has come." Commentators take note that "the article before kairos (time, DKP) must not be overlooked." This was not "generic" time in which Peter was living; it was "the time." An examination of the word "time" confirms this fully.
When Peter said "the time has come" he uses the word "kairos" a word meaning more than just time. It "frequently refers to ‘eschatologically filled time, time for decision.’" In other words, kairos means an appointed time. Just as in Mark 1:15 when Jesus said "the time (kairos) is fulfilled, the kingdom of heaven is at hand" meaning that the prophetic calendar had reached the designated time for fulfillment. Thus, Bigg rendered 1 Peter 4:17 "For it is the time appointed for the judgment to begin." Peter uses kairos in other places.
In 1 Peter 1:5 the apostle said salvation was "ready to be revealed in the last time" (kairo eschato). We cannot overlook the fact that Peter was not anticipating some period of time far removed from his readers day; he believed he and his contemporaries were living in the last days, Acts 2:15ff. Thus, the very days in which the salvation foretold by the Old Testament prophets would be revealed was present. Further, in 1 Peter 1:11 the fisherman said the Holy Spirit had spoken (prophetically) of the times in which he and his readers were living. Finally, he urged his readers to be humble so that God would "exalt you in due time" (en kairo). Kairo means a designated or appointed time and Peter said that the designated time for the judgment had come. Where else do we read of the day God had appointed for judgment?
In Malachi 3:2 we find the prophet anticipating the work of the Messiah "Who shall endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap." One cannot fail to see Malachi’s reference to the refining fire of the coming of Messiah echoed in Peter’s reference to the refining fire and the parousia of Jesus, 1 Peter 1:6-7. And in Malachi 4:1-2, the last of the prophets before Jesus’ incarnation spoke of "that day which is coming" when the unrighteous would burn like stubble to destroy them "root and branch." John the Immerser, as the predicted Elijah, was the precursor to this awesome "Great and Terrible Day of the Lord" Mal. 4:4-6; Mat. 3:2-12. And John definitely believed that Day was imminent, Mat. 3:10, 12, and involved judgment on the Jewish nation.
In Matthew 16:27-28 Jesus said he was going to come in judgment to reward every man before his generation passed away. this prediction springs from Isaiah 62:11, Ps. 98:9, etc.
In Acts 17:30-31 Paul also taught about the appointed day of judgment. It was the time when God would judge the world, (oikoumene); the very world into which the gospel was to be — and was — preached before "the end" came, Mat. 24:14. Further, Paul said God was "about to judge" (mellei krinein) the world. Just as Peter said the time had come, Paul said God was about to judge.
Thus, when Peter said the time appointed for the judgment had come he was echoing the voice of the prophets and Jesus. How much more emphatic declaration is demanded before the Bible student is willing to bring his concepts into line with inspiration?
Some, e.g. Gentry, appeal to the disciple’s question "will you at this time (en to krono touto) restore the kingdom"; and Jesus’ response "it is not for you to know the times or the seasons" (kronous e kairos) to claim that the word "chronos" as opposed to kairos "indicates a long period of time of uncertain duration." This is an attempt to find another coming of Jesus, e.g. Acts 1:9ff, that supposedly was not imminent in the first century. But as Trench says "This distinction, if not inaccurate, is certainly insufficient, and altogether fails to reach the heart of the matter."
The word chronos "is time, contemplated simply as such." Whether the period of time contemplated is short or long is indicated by a contextual modifier: "little while," (kronon mikron), Rev. 6:11; or "a long time," (polun chronon), Mat. 25:19; "some time," (kronon tina); or even "at this time," (en to kronon touto), Acts 1:6. In other words, kronos does not mean, nor imply, a long time unless it has a modifying word that says so.
In fact, chronos "embraces all possible kairo, and being the larger, more inclusive term, may often be used where kairos would have been equally suitable, though not the converse." In other words, chronos may mean "appointed time" in some contexts, but kairos does not mean simply unqualified time. Thus, Gentry’s attempt to delineate between the coming of Acts 1 and the judgment of 1 Peter 4:17 is a vain attempt based upon faulty logic and theological necessity. Peter’s declaration that the appointed time for the judgment had arrived cannot be off-set by such artificial argumentation. Peter said the appointed time had come.
For the Judgment to Begin
Not only did Peter say the appointed time had come, he said the time had come for "the judgment" (to krima) had come. The definite article is present and must not be ignored. Strangely, however, many Bible translations do ignore the definite article here! It is a wonderment indeed that such is the case. Could it be that theological bias has influenced this omission? It is interesting to observe how commentators attempt to deal with the definite article when it comes to eschatological matters.
In 1 John 2:18 John said "it is the last hour." To all appearances inspiration was proclaiming the imminence of the end. Stafford North argues however, that because the words "last hour" in the original do not have the definite article this means that "John is
speaking in a qualitative or categorical way and not of any definite last hour." In other words, "John was not saying `This is the last hour of time’ but rather, `this is a critical time.’" (ibid) Besides begging the question and assuming an end of time, North’s suggestion proves far too much.
In the text before us, Peter said "The time has come for the judgment (to krina) to begin." Here we have the use of the definite article. North implies that if the article were present in 1 John 2:18 this would indicate the consummation was at hand. Will he now admit that Peter was saying THE judgment was at hand? Would North argue that the absence of the article is significant in John but the presence of the article is insignificant in Peter? What kind of convoluted logic would this be? This problem is compounded by other passages.
In Matthew 10:15 Jesus said it would be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in "the day of judgment" than for those who rejected him. See also Matthew 11:22, 24. Jesus said it would be more tolerable for Tyre, Sidon and Sodom "in the day of judgment" (KJV) than for Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum. North applies these texts to the "end of time"; yet, the definite article is absent. Further, the definite article is missing from John 5:28, "the hour is coming when all that are in the graves shall come forth"; yet brother North certainly applies that verse to "the last hour!" But per our brother’s logic concerning the absence of the article in 1 John 2 these passages cannot allude to the "final judgment."
Peter’s use of the definite article demands we honor his word in proclaiming the imminence of the judgment. One cannot, simply because of theological bias, so easily dismiss or ignore this fact. The appointed time for the judgment had come. And since we can find only one appointed eschatological judgment in scripture this means Peter was asserting in an unequivocal way that it had arrived.
The Universal Judgment
It is commonly argued that the fall of Jerusalem was simply a localized judgment with no eternal significance. Jackson for instance scoffs at the idea of universal judgment occurring at the fall of Jerusalem: "what would the destruction of Jerusalem have meant to those people who were living in Athens, Greece?" One has but to turn the question a little to see the folly of this childish logic: "what would the crucifixion have meant to those people who were living in Athens, Greece?" Viewed from the physical perspective the crucifixion of Jesus was simply the death of another troublesome Jew by the cruel Roman authorities. "Big deal; weren’t there two other Jews killed with this Jesus at the same time? So what does the death of Jesus mean to the people in South America or Athens, etc?" But viewed from the spiritual perspective the crucifixion and the fall of Jerusalem take on another dimension.
It needs to be noted that Peter said that the judgment would "begin at the house of God"; and would include those "who do not obey the gospel." Thus we have both the righteous and unrighteous being judged! It would seem that this judgment is not exactly "localized" after all; especially since Peter is writing to people in Asia and speaking of impending judgment.
It also is important to see that in Luke 21:25-26 Jesus described the coming judgment on Israel in "cosmic" proportions; it would include the whole world, cf. Rev. 3:10. Further, in Matthew 24:29f the Lord said that at the fall of Jerusalem "the sun will be darkened, the moon shall not give its light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heaven shall be shaken." Now how much more "universal" of a judgment is needed than that?
Finally, in Matthew 23:29-39 Jesus said that the judgment coming on Jerusalem in his generation would be so comprehensive as to reach back to creation! All the righteous blood of all the martyrs back to Abel would be judged at the coming of the Lord in the fall of the Old World. And notice that Jesus said "that upon you," that is the living; "will come all the righteous blood," that is the dead. Thus, Jesus said the living and the dead — all the way back to creation — would be judged in his generation. And let us not forget that in 1 Peter 4:5, Peter, writing just a few years before Jerusalem’s demise, emphatically told his readers that Jesus was "ready to judge the living and the dead."
Now while it is widely admitted that 1 Peter 4:17 is a reference to the A.D. 70 parousia, it is, as we have seen, also insisted that Jerusalem’s demise cannot be viewed as a universally significant event. But if Jerusalem’s demise/judgment was strictly a judgment against Israel and if it was not all that significant, how could Peter say that judgment included the church? Wasn’t the Jewish War against just the Jews, per this argument? And if that judgment was simply a local judgment of a rebellious city, even though guilty of persecuting the church, why did Peter express such concern over those who "do not obey the gospel"? Isn’t this the kind of question that denotes a spiritual concern and not exclusively a physical judgment?
It is somewhat arrogant, not to mention dangerous, is it not, to depreciate the judgment of Israel by calling it a localized judgment with no eternal significance? When Peter said it was "the judgment" and included the judgment of both "righteous and unrighteous" and would entail "the living and the dead" this hardly qualifies as an insignificant or localized judgment.
What Shall be the End of Those Who Obey Not the Gospel?
Peter’s emphatic declaration of the imminent judgment and his rhetorical question about the fate of those who do not obey the gospel sheds light on another very significant eschatological text. In 2 Thessalonians 1:4-12 Paul said Christ would come "in flaming fire, taking vengeance on those that obey not the gospel." Who would these be that would suffer such a fate? It was the very ones that were persecuting the church, vs. 7-8.
What we find then is that Peter poses a question that Paul had already answered. This is why Peter’s question is rhetorical. Paul’s Thessalonian epistles were well known to Peter’s readers, 2 Peter 3:15-16. Thus, when Peter asked the question, his readers could directly reference those epistles.
Are we to suppose that Peter was concerned with a different fate for "those who do not obey the gospel" than Paul? Are we to understand that there are two totally different and disparate judgments in view in these two epistles?
When one acknowledges Peter’s positive declaration about the imminence of the judgment upon "those who do not obey the gospel," then unless it can be categorically demonstrated that Paul and Peter were speaking of two different circumstances, two different judgments, two different groups of "those who do not obey the gospel," two different fates for these groups, then it must be admitted that Peter’s chronological statement governs and identifies the judgment of 2 Thessalonians 1.
Ethics and A.D. 70
It is often maintained by the opponents of Covenant Eschatology that if the Lord came in A. D. 70 then there is no motivation for righteousness today. Another objection, a corollary, claims that the impending fall of Jerusalem was not sufficient motivation for righteousness.
By response notice a few facts. First, it is admitted by most that Jesus did in fact come in the fall of Jerusalem. Jackson says that Matthew 24:29-31 "is a coming of Christ in judgment upon the city of Jerusalem." Second, it is common among amillennialists to agree that 1 Peter 4:17 predicted that coming judgment; "it refers to the judgment against Jerusalem impending in the total destruction of it, prophetica
lly foretold by both Christ and the apostles." With these facts in mind let us look closer at 1 Peter 4.
In verses 15-16 the writer urges his readers to follow lives of holiness: "let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief." He exhorts them to glory in suffering for the cause of Christ and then says "for the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God." Notice the word "for"; it is from the Greek word "hoti" and means "because." Thus Peter was saying be holy because the time has come for the judgment to begin. But the impending judgment is widely admitted to be the A.D. 70 judgment of Jerusalem. Therefore the end of the Old World of Israel was in fact a motivation for holiness. And what is more, it was a motivation for holiness for brethren outside of Judea.
Remember, Peter was writing to Christians in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia; the fall of Jerusalem was utilized by Peter to urge brethren all over the world to holiness. How silly of Peter to use such a localized and unimportant event to try to get brethren to be holy. Peter’s problem was that he did not know, as some modern divines think they do, the insignificance of the end of Israel’s World.
It is very evident that the question of ethical living and the fall of Jerusalem is related. Clearly, ethics did not end in A.D. 70. Equally clear, the fall of Jerusalem was used by the inspired writers as motivation for holiness. And the reason ethics and righteousness are still relevant today is because in A.D. 70 the kingdom was fully revealed, Lk. 21:31, and life in the kingdom — with all attendant implications for righteous living — were fully revealed. The kingdom is eternal — unending, Eph. 3:21 — thus when fully established at the coming of the Lord righteousness did not pass away but was brought to full reality, Gal. 5:5.
Summary and Conclusion
Our investigation of 1 Peter 4:17 has revealed very powerful evidence that Peter was anticipating the consummative judgment coming of Jesus. He declared in the clearest of terms that the appointed time had arrived. He taught that the judgment was comprehensive. The consistency of 1 Peter 4:17 with the rest of his epistle — not to mention 2 Peter — demands that we see but one judgment in Peter’s discourse. We have seen that while many commentators acknowledge that this verse refers to the A.D. 70 event they also disparage the significance of the Judean Catastrophe by limiting it in scope and meaning. Yet Peter wrote to Christians far removed from Judea and exhorted them to righteousness by an appeal to that impending judgment.
The relationship of 1 Peter to Jesus’ Temple sermon and Olivet Discourse identifies the framework for Peter’s prediction — the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the Old Covenant World of Israel. Further, the relationship of 1 Peter to Paul’s Thessalonian correspondence demands a similar application of those epistles.
1 Peter 4:17 then, while somewhat ignored in the overall discussion of eschatology, is highly significant and demands that we honor its chronological limitation for the judgment. The time for the judgment had arrived in the first century; those who deny this deny scripture.