Sherrie Mills Johnson, “Think It Not Strange Concerning the Fiery Trial,” in Go Ye Into All the World: Messages of the New Testament Apostles, 31st Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002), 230–243.
Think It Not Strange Concerning the Fiery Trial
Sherrie Mills Johnson
Sherrie Mills Johnson was an instructor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University when this was published.
Part of life for anyone traveling the path of righteousness includes what can be called a wilderness trial—an experience similar to what the Savior endured after his forty days in the wilderness. This type of trial is peculiar in that it consists of a period of adversity caused by a contrast between our current earthly reality and the promises the Lord has given us. Enduring the test forces us to confront ourselves and decide not only who we are but who we choose to follow. In this paper, we will examine Peter’s first epistle to the Christians who lived in the provinces of what is now Asia Minor to see how he encouraged the Saints who were suffering a wilderness trial and how he advised them from the vantage point of his own experience with such trials.
But before we look at the epistle, let us examine the Savior’s ordeal that is recounted in Matthew and Luke to identify what is meant by a wilderness trial. In the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) we are told that Jesus was taken into the wilderness by the Spirit and after forty days of fasting, prayer, and communion with God, Satan came to tempt him (see JST Matthew 4:1–2; Luke 4:1–2). Two of the three temptations recorded begin with Satan challenging the Savior by saying, “If thou be the Son of God” (Matthew 4:3, 6). These words are loaded with insinuation that is calculated to cause doubts and misgivings. “If you really are the Son of God, you shouldn’t be hungry. You shouldn’t be suffering like this. You’re King! You should have power to make food out of this stone. That is, if you really are the Son of God.” But the Savior was not influenced by Satan’s insinuations. He calmly answered, “It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God” (Luke 4:4).
Satan persisted, however. Appealing to appetite hadn’t worked, so Satan appealed to vanity and pride, using the same tactic of insinuation: “If you are the Son of God, you should have power. Prove it. Cast yourself down from this pinnacle and let the angels protect you as is promised in scripture. That will show everyone! That is, if you really are who you say you are.” Despite the repeated temptations, Jesus never faltered. Instead He commanded, “It is written, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” (JST, Luke 4:11).
At last Satan gave up on insinuations and resorted to out-and-out deceit by offering the Savior powers and kingdoms that were not his to give (see Matthew 4:8–9). At this point the Savior dismissed Satan with the words, “Get thee hence, Satan” (Matthew 4:10)
Afterward Jesus returned to Galilee and proclaimed to the people that He was the one sent “to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18–19). As in all things, He set the pattern for us. If we will valiantly endure the trials, we will be strengthened and learn more about the duties of our missions here upon the earth.
Wilderness Trials of Our Forefathers
Life in general can be thought of as a wilderness experience in that we leave our spirit home with our Father in Heaven to live for a time in the wilderness known as the lone and dreary world. However, what is meant here by “wilderness” trials are the period of time in our lives when we are tempted, as the Savior in the wilderness, by thoughts that cause us to question our basic beliefs and values and that can be phrased in a format such as “If you are . . .” or “If the Church is . . .” These trials accentuate the fact that we are wandering in a “wilderness” and are calculated to make us feel so far from our heavenly home that we doubt its reality.
Throughout the scriptures we find many examples of trials that fit the wilderness definition. For many years Abraham had to wrestle with the dilemma: “If you are to have seed without number and be the father of many nations, why are you childless?” Later the question became even more poignant: “If Isaac is to provide your posterity, why is he to be slain?” Joseph’s wilderness test included, “If you are to be ruler over your brethren, why were they able to sell you into slavery?” For Moses, part of the test was, “If you are to free your people from slavery in Egypt, why are you in exile?” Lehi’s wilderness test included, “If you are to inherit a promised land, why are you wandering in the desert for eight years?”
At one point Joseph Smith had to face many of these questions, For example, “If God has a work for you to do, why are you spending so many months in a cold and filthy prison?” And among the questions our forefathers in these latter days had to deal with was, “If you are to establish Zion, why are you being driven from state to state?”
These apparent discrepancies between the promises of the Lord and the reality we are experiencing can last moments, months, or years, and, as with Abraham, they often recur in various forms at different times in our lives. Moses spent forty years in exile before returning to Egypt to free the Hebrews, Joseph spent thirteen years in servitude before he was made a ruler in Egypt, and Abraham was one hundred years old when Isaac was born. The length of time varies, but time is not the important issue. What is important is that these people endured and were better, stronger people because of what they learned from their suffering.
Peter’s Wilderness Experiences
As with other great prophets, Peter was no stranger to wilderness trials. According to John, Peter, who was at that time known by the name of Simon or Simeon, was introduced to Jesus by his brother Andrew. Jesus’ first words to Simon were, “Thou art Simon the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas” (John 1:42). Cephas is Aramaic and Peter Greek for the word “stone” or “rock,” and the JST for this verse adds that the Lord also called him a “seer.” What a lasting impression this must have had on Simon. He and Andrew had obviously been awaiting the promised Messiah. Finally they met, and the Master’s first words to Simon were to proclaim him a seer and a rock. Think about it. A rock is solid, firm, unyielding. A seer is all of this plus wise and knowing. How his heart must have burned at the words and the confidence the Savior was expressing in him.
The first encounter Mark and Matthew recorded between Simon and the Savior differs but is just as dramatic. It took place on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. In these accounts, Jesus approached Simon and Andrew while they were casting a net into the sea and said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19; see also Mark 1:17).
Luke’s account is similar to Matthew’s and Mark’s, but he added some details the others do not. Luke tells us that the Savior asked Peter to take Him out in his boat so He could teach the multitude. Peter did as he was asked, and after Jesus taught the people He said to Simon, “Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught” (Luke 5:4). Surprised by the request, Simon protested that he had toiled all night and caught nothing. Despite this he added, “Nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net” (Luke 5:5). No sooner did he obey than the net was filled with so many fish it broke. Calling another boat to help, Simon filled both boats until they began to sink. Seeing the incredible catch, Simon fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8).
Jesus replied, “Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men” (Luke 5:10).
Simon knew the prophecies. He had heard the marvelous teachings of John the Baptist. He had been anxiously awaiting the coming of the Messiah who would heal, recover, and deliver mankind. He recognized that Jesus was indeed that Messiah. Now he was being told by the Messiah that he was to be part of the Savior’s work. He was to “catch” men. When the ships landed, Simon and his brother forsook all and followed Jesus.
How these promises and words must have resounded through Peter’s mind the next three years as he labored with the Savior. The Messiah promised him that he would be a fisher of men! He proclaimed him a rock and a seer. He was the first called to be an Apostle and was ordained to preach and to heal and to cast out devils (see Mark 3:14–15). Those were the promises, but what were the actual experiences?
During those years Peter witnessed some of the most sacred and marvelous occurrences of all time. He saw storms calmed, people raised from the dead, invalids healed, devils cast out of people, and thousands fed from a few fish and loaves of bread. If that weren’t enough, he spent his days listening to Jesus teach his message of peace and love with great authority. Yet despite all the teachings and the things he had seen the Savior do, when the Savior asked who in the multitude had pressed upon Him and touched His clothing, instead of confidently replying something like, “Certainly thou knowest,” Peter was bewildered and responded, “Master, the multitude throng thee and press thee, and sayest thou, Who touched me?” (Luke 8:45).
Later, in a great storm, Peter saw the Savior walking on water and called out, “Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water” (Matthew 14:28).
The Lord did bid him come, so Peter stepped out of the ship onto the water and began to walk toward the Savior. But as he walked, the boisterous wind roared in his ears, the waves lapped violently around him and his focus changed from faith to fear. Sinking into the water, Peter cried, “Lord, save me” (Matthew 14:30).
Accordingly, Jesus stretched forth his hand, caught Peter, and tenderly chided, “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” (Matthew 14:31).
But despite these moments of human frailty, Peter was given glimpses of the rock and seer he was to become and the promises continued. For example, one day while on the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked His disciples, “Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?” His disciples answered, “Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.”
The Savior continued, “But whom say ye that I am?”
Peter responded, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (see Matthew 16:13–16).
“Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona,” the Savior replied, “for flesh and blood hath not revealed this unto thee, but my Father who is in heaven.
“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
“And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven” (JST Matthew 16:18–20).
The Church would be built upon the rock of revelation, and Peter would hold the keys of the kingdom of heaven. This was another incredible promise for Peter.
However, immediately after this account we are told that the Savior began to explain what was going to happen to Him—that He would be called upon to suffer many things and eventually be killed by those who hated Him. At these words Peter responded, “Be it far from thee, Lord; this shall not be done unto thee” (JST, Matthew 16:23)
“Get thee behind me, Satan,” Jesus rebuked, “thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men” (Matthew 16:23). This stinging rebuke stands in sharp contrast to the promise Peter has just received.
Shortly after this experience, Peter, along with James and John, was present on the Mount of Transfiguration. He heard the voice of God introduce Jesus as His “beloved Son” (Matthew 17:5). But at the sound of the heavenly voice the “rock” fell to his face in fear.
But the climax occurred the night of the Last Supper. On that occasion, Jesus said to Peter, “Behold Satan hath desired you, that he may sift the children of the kingdom as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith fail not; and when you are converted strengthen your brethren” (JST, Luke 22:31–32).
At that time Jesus also told His Apostles that “all ye shall be offended because of me this night.” In response, Peter vehemently cried out, “Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended” (Matthew 26:31, 33). And yet before the cock crowed the next morning, Peter—the rock, the seer—had denied the Savior three times. “And the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. (Luke 22:61–62). And Peter “went out, and fell upon his face, and wept bitterly” (JST, Mark 14:82). 
For three years Peter had listened to and pondered the promises. Surely the thought crossed his mind, “If you are the rock, the seer, why do you keep faltering?” But despite the discrepancy between the promises of the Savior and what he was experiencing, Peter did not stop following Jesus. He did not give up or turn away. On the morning of the Resurrection, Peter was among the first at the tomb. Along with the other Apostles, he received the Holy Ghost (see Acts 2:1–4), and the Savior, during his forty-day ministry, appeared to Peter and fed him physically and spiritually on the shores of Galilee after a night of fishing. At the close of this later experience, Jesus turned to Peter and asked, “Lovest thou me more than these?”
“Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee,” Peter answered.
“Feed my lambs,” Jesus instructed and then asked again, “Lovest thou me?” Peter answered again in the affirmative, and the Savior told Him, “Feed my sheep.”
Then once more Jesus asked if Peter loved Him. “Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee.” And Jesus replied once more, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15–17).
This experience surely reminded Peter of the original promises Christ made to him. He was to catch men—to feed the Lord’s sheep! Some may interpret this experience to be one of chastisement, but it seems more to be intended as encouragement. The Savior knew the wilderness experiences that Peter had endured and knew that even though Peter occasionally faltered, his heart was good, his intent was sincere. He had passed the test. But more than that, the Savior knew that the wilderness experiences had not only tried Peter but prepared him. He was now ready to feed the Lord’s sheep. This was a turning point for Peter. We next see him on the day of Pentecost boldly teaching the Lord’s flock and proclaiming, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:38–39). And that day there were about three thousand souls baptized (see Acts 2:41).
We next learn of Peter on his way to the temple with John. A man lame from birth cried out to them, begging for alms. Peter stopped and instructed, “Look on us.” Obediently, the beggar lifted his face to them, expecting to receive alms, but instead Peter confidently said, “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk” (Acts 3:4, 6).
There was no more doubt. Peter was solid as the rock he was named for. He was a seer. Peter now went forth in power healing the sick, teaching the people, and leading the Church or in other words, feeding the Lord’s sheep and catching men in safety nets.
The First Epistle of Peter
When reading the first epistle of Peter, we learn much more when we keep in mind the author and his background. Peter is writing to people who are suffering a wilderness trial. Bart D. Ehrman, a New Testament scholar, explained: “The word for ‘suffering’ occurs more often in this short letter than in any other book of the New Testament, even more than in the much longer works of Luke and Acts combined. Even where the author is not talking directly about how to handle suffering, he appears to be speaking about it indirectly.”  These people are converts to Christianity; some are Jews and some are Greeks. They have been taught the promises. For many those promises were a basis for their conversion. But their reality was not matching the promises. They had been taught they were the elect of God (see 1 Peter 1:2), yet they were being persecuted and tormented by their former friends and neighbors and by the Romans.
For many years the Roman government tolerated all religions, including the new Christian Church. However, as the Apostles taught the gospel, the message that the King of the Jews who had been crucified by Roman soldiers was resurrected, it began to cause a disturbance in the Roman Empire. The Romans did not like the missionaries proclaiming that a coming judgment would destroy the wicked and usher in the Savior’s reign of righteousness, so they began efforts to stamp out the new religious movement. Peter’s epistles were written just before this persecution erupted into frenzy during the reign of Nero. Hatred and persecution against the Christians throughout the empire were increasing.
If this were not enough, on the local level the Christians were experiencing additional problems. The converts were no longer interested in the “same excess of riot” (1 Peter 4:4), or in other words they were not interested in participating in the same entertainments and pastimes as they were before they were converted. Because of this, their former friends and neighbors and sometimes even family members may have turned against them and were making life miserable for them. Unable to endure the persecution, some were leaving the Church. Understanding what they were experiencing, Peter wrote the epistles to encourage the members to endure their trials; and being a man who had been tried and tested and prevailed, Peter knew how to do that. The general theme of the epistle is that the Saints are the elect of God and as such they are entitled to the promised blessings, but they should not be surprised when reality contradicts the promises because that is part of the test of life. However, if they will be faithful and turn more fully to Christ, they will be able to endure the contradictions and persecutions.
Peter begins the epistle by addressing them as “strangers” (1 Peter 1:1) and reminds them later that they are sojourners on earth (1 Peter 1:17). In other words, this wilderness is not really their home. Heaven is their home, and it is to be expected that their spirits will feel this discrepancy. However, they are “the people of God” (1 Peter 2:10) and are chosen by God to succeed or to endure the trial. He then reminds them that Jesus Christ “according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection” (1 Peter 1:3). Therefore, this condition of being strangers in this foreign place can and will be rectified because of Jesus Christ. It is temporary.
Peter explains that if they can endure the vicissitudes of this “strange” place they will eventually rejoice because they are promised “an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4). However, before they can get to this promised blessing “for a season” they are going to suffer grief in all kinds of trials so that their faith may be proved genuine (1 Peter 1:6–7). The heading to chapter 1 in our Latter-day Saint edition of scriptures underscores this point. It says, “The trial of our faith precedes salvation.”
“Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind,” Peter admonishes. “Be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13). Grace is enabling power, and Peter of all people knows that it is only because of grace that they can endure the trials of life. They can’t do it alone. Peter urges the people to be obedient and not to follow after their former way of life but to strive after holiness in all they do and speak. “Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16) Notice that he does not say, “Be ye holy as I am holy.” Peter has learned that in and of ourselves we cannot be holy. No matter how much willpower or self-discipline or sincere desire we have, we cannot be holy without Christ. But because Christ is holy—because He has atoned for us, because He will share His grace with us—we can be holy with Christ. Peter then reminds them of who Jesus is and what He has done for us.
In chapter 2 Peter explains more of the promises: “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). They were to be temples and temples are places of healing. Also “ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). But after explaining these promises Peter again acknowledges the reality by saying, “I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Then Peter encourages them to be honest and diligent that all who see their good works even in the face of persecution will be taught about God. After all, Peter explains, it is commendable if a person endures the suffering he or she deserves, but how much more commendable when a person endures suffering that is not deserved. That is what Christ did. What’s more He endured the unearned suffering for us (see 1 Peter 3:13–18).
Chapter 4 continues this theme beginning with the words, “Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind” (1 Peter 4:1). And what is that mind? A mind centered on righteousness, of course, but also a mind that understands that just because you are following righteousness and striving to do what is right does not mean you will be free from suffering. The rains, storms, and tempests beat upon the house built upon the rock the same as on the house built upon the sand. The promise has never been that there will be fewer storms if we follow Christ. The promise is that if we build upon the rock we will be sustained despite the storms (see Helaman 5:12).
Repeatedly Peter reminds them that Christ, the only pure and perfect person, suffered more than any of us. Suffering and trial are a basic part of our mortal experience. Peter pleads with the people not to turn away from the gospel and Jesus Christ just because they are suffering temptations, persecutions, and trials. Instead he urges them to be sober and to pray (see 1 Peter 4:7) and to help one another through the trials (1 Peter 4:8–11). But most of all, he says, “Think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you” (1 Peter 4:12). The New International Version (NIV) renders this verse beautifully: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ” (1 Peter 12–13). And through all of it, remember that after you have suffered a little while, Christ “will himself restore you and make you strong, and firm and steadfast” (NIV, 1 Peter 5:10). He knows that “whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth” (Hebrews 12:6). He knows trials are normal. The persecution they are experiencing is simply part of the trial and test of mortality.
In chapter 5 Peter admonishes the leaders to “feed the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2) and reiterates the promise that if they will do so “when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away” (1 Peter 5:4). Therefore, they should humble themselves (1 Peter 5:6) and cast their cares upon the Savior (1 Peter 5:7) because the Savior loves them.
Peter concludes his epistle by telling them that after they have suffered a while the Lord will make them perfect. He will strengthen them and establish them (1 Peter 5:10). “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (NIV, 1 Peter 5:10). Peter knows.
Our Own Wilderness Trials
It is tempting to skip over these small letters of Peter when studying the New Testament. However, Joseph Smith said that “Peter penned the most sublime language of any of the apostles.”  By this did the Prophet Joseph mean that it was the most poetic? Or is it the message that makes it sublime? Perhaps it is the message and the language together. Peter’s words encourage, uplift, and advise us. By studying these epistles carefully and returning to them when we need encouragement, we can gain strength and courage to endure when our own wilderness trials cause us to doubt.
As he did to Peter and the early Saints, Satan tempts us to have a negative mindset or attitude instead of being of the “same mind” (1 Peter 4:1) as Christ. Wilderness challenges are as real for you and me as they were for Peter. We may be tempted, “If you are a son of God, and are paying your tithing and doing what the Lord says you should be doing, why are you experiencing financial difficulties?” Or “If you are a member of the only true Church and have lived the Word of Wisdom, why are you having health problems?” Or “If you are a daughter of God, and are to help multiply and replenish the earth why are you not yet married?” Or “If this is the true Church that you have joined, why do so many members have so many faults?” But we, like the people in the provinces of Asia Minor, should not think this strange. Suffering and temptation are normal.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks explains: “Adversity will be a constant or occasional companion for each of us throughout our lives. We cannot avoid it. The only question is how we will react to it. Will our adversities be stumbling blocks or stepping stones?”  The only way to endure, the only way to make adversity into stepping-stones, is by turning to Christ.
This is how Peter grew through his adversity. Despite repeated personal trials, he refused to let doubt or discouragement change his course or defeat him. We do not know how many of the Saints in Asia Minor took Peter’s advice and were sustained, but we know that he knew the way and that if we follow that way we will be sustained.
Peter’s counsel points to one important thing. Whatever happens, the Saints should follow after the good, for all good comes from Jesus Christ (see 2:15; 3:10–13). Peter knew from experience that by choosing the good we put ourselves in a position to be strengthened by the Lord. When we choose the negative and evil, we deny ourselves the blessings.
And how do we consistently choose the good in this world of evil? We trust in Jesus Christ. Peter learned that when the question “Who touched me?” was asked it wasn’t because the Savior needed an answer. Jesus knew who had drawn upon His healing power. Instead the question was asked because Peter needed an answer. Peter learned that we can trust in Jesus because He knows all and will teach us. Peter also knew that when we focus on Christ despite the winds and waves of persecution and suffering that attempt to distract us, we can do miraculous things—things we never dreamed we could do. He knew that even if we falter the Lord still loves us. But most of all Peter knew that we can’t do it alone. He knew that when we cry out, “Lord, save me!” the Lord will reach out to us. Peter knew as did President Spencer W. Kimball that “no pain suffered by man or woman upon the earth will be without its compensating effects if it be suffered in resignation and if it be met with patience.” 
As we read the first epistle of Peter, we can be assured that the man advising us to “have fervent charity among yourselves; for charity preventeth a multitude of sins” (JST, 1 Peter 4:8) knows what he is talking about. When we are discouraged, we can turn to his words for comfort and for direction. If we follow his advice and trust in the promises of Jesus Christ despite the reality we are experiencing, we can and will overcome any wilderness trial we are called upon to endure, for it is written, “Jesus Christ, your advocate . . . knoweth the weakness of man and how to succor them who are tempted” (D&C 62:1).
 Joseph Smith Jr., The Holy Scriptures: Inspired Version.
 Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 399.
 Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 301.
 Dallin H. Oaks, “Adversity,” in Brigham Young University 1994–95 Devotional and Fireside Speeches (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1995), Spencer W. Kimball, The Teachings of Spencer W Kimball (Salt Lake City Bookcraft, 1982), 168.
 Spencer W. Kimball, The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982), 168.