"for judgment must begin at the house of the Lord," found in I Peter 4:17 .
I Peter 4:17 is totally misunderstood by most teachers. I Peter 4:17 is commonly understood to refer to God's judgment upon the church. However, a careful analysis of this verse results in a surprising conclusion. It is not a prediction that judgment will begin upon the corporate churches, as for example near the end of time. It is true from other scriptures that corporate churches are judged by God for their sin, but that is not the message of I Peter 4:17 at all. The message concerns the role and experience of individual true believers. This can be shown in two ways. One from the immediate context and another from a careful analysis of the words in the verse.
First of all, let us look at the context of verse 17, in particular, to whom the verse is addressed. The focus of verse 15 is upon a collection of people who are "partakers of Christ's suffering" (verse 13). People "partake of Christ's suffering" when Jesus suffered on their behalf in payment for their sins. Also, people "partake of Christ's suffering" when they suffer for bearing Christ's name in the world. In addition to that, verse 14 states they are people upon whom "the spirit of glory and God" rests. These verses show that true believers are in view.
The message of the context is, in the words of verse 15, "let none of you suffer as a murderer, or ..." That is, they must not suffer for the wrong reason. They must not suffer for actions that are similar to an unbeliever's. They must not live as an unbeliever. As a complement to that, according to verse 16, is that when they suffer for the right reason, God is glorified. Verse 17 continues the focus upon believers that is part of the preceding verses. Notice the connecting word "for" that begins verse 17. That is, the message of verses 14-16 continues into verse 17.
The judgment mentioned in verse 17 concerns "the house of God." As it turns out, the word "house" refers to those people who really are the house, that is true believers, as we read in Hebrews 3:6, "But Christ as a Son over his own house; whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end." In support of that understanding of "the house," verse 17 goes on to state, "if it first begin at us," in which the word "us" includes Peter and other believers to whom he wrote. In fact, the verse ends with the words "them that obey not the gospel of God," as a contrast to the "us" who do obey the gospel. Therefore, the first idea to get straight is that I Peter 4:17 is directed to true believers, and not the corporate church that is a mixture of believers and unbelievers, or a totally apostate church, with few if any saved members.
Furthermore, the word "at" in the phrase "at the house of God" is really the word (apo) that means "away from." It always means "away from" without exception. The judgment is not directed toward (pros) the house, as if it were the target of the judgment. The judgment is not placed upon (epi) the house, as if the house must bear the judgment. The judgment issues away from the house into the world. Therefore the second idea to get straight is that I Peter 4:17 tells us judgment goes away from the house of God, away from true believers, because it is "the time" for that to happen. In addition to that, the phrase "if it first began at us" also uses the word "away from" (a different form of apo) for the word "at," with the proper meaning of, "but if first away from us."
Putting all of this together, we can come up with the following understanding of I Peter 4:17. The time is now, and has been for a while already, that judgment goes away from the believers out into the world. When does this happen? As this passage itself tells us in verse 11, "if any man speak, let him speak the oracles of God." In other words, it is because true believers bring a message of judgment, in faithful obedience to God, that the "fiery trial" comes to them (verse 12), inasmuch as the unbelievers hate that message and persecute anyone who brings it. Verse 17 continues to ask, "if that message first comes out of us to the world, what will happen to those people who do not obey the Gospel message that comes out of "us?" The answer, of course, is that they will be judged.