God’s Inclusive New Work of Grace (Acts 13:13-52)

As we continue today with another parallel passage that talks about the union of Jew and Gentile in the new temple, the living stones structure of the church, we look at Acts chapter 13 and at a story on Paul’s first missionary journey. Traveling with him, among others, was Barnabas.

They were in Antioch of Pisidia, not to be confused with the Antioch of Syria — the third largest city in the Roman Empire — from which they were sent out on this journey. There were multiple places named Antioch, sort of like there are multiple Williamsports in America; and just as the good W-port is in Maryland, not PA, the good Antioch was in Syria, not Pisidia … but I digress.

As was the custom of Paul, the first place to go on a missionary journey was the local synagogue. The Law and Prophets (the Hebrew Scriptures) were divided into regular sections of weekly readings, so that over a period of time the entire “Old Testament” was read. After the reading, someone would stand to deliver a sort of sermon or teaching that gave an expanded meaning of those texts. A visiting Rabbi or some Jewish person of repute might be asked to do just this.

You may recall this happening with Jesus in Nazareth (Luke 4), when being called upon to read and comment on an Isaiah passage that was messianic, he said it was fulfilled in their hearing by him being there. Even worse than some of my sermons, it did not go over well with the congregation.

And so Paul is asked to comment here in Pisidia, and I would LOVE to know the passages read that day and how pertinent they were to the sermon that follows — having been sovereignly ordained by God for this occasion.

So here is the set-up and the sermon … it is a great message — drawing upon eyewitness testimony, experiential testimony, and most importantly an argument from the Scriptures that spoke of the sovereign plan of God over the ages of time and history …

Acts 13:13 – From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John left them to return to Jerusalem. 14 From Perga they went on to Pisidian Antioch. On the Sabbath they entered the synagogue and sat down. 15 After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the leaders of the synagogue sent word to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have a word of exhortation for the people, please speak.”

16 Standing up, Paul motioned with his hand and said: “Fellow Israelites and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me! 17 The God of the people of Israel chose our ancestors; he made the people prosper during their stay in Egypt; with mighty power he led them out of that country; 18 for about forty years he endured their conduct in the wilderness; 19 and he overthrew seven nations in Canaan, giving their land to his people as their inheritance. 20 All this took about 450 years.

“After this, God gave them judges until the time of Samuel the prophet. 21 Then the people asked for a king, and he gave them Saul son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, who ruled forty years. 22 After removing Saul, he made David their king. God testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’

23 “From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised. 24 Before the coming of Jesus, John preached repentance and baptism to all the people of Israel. 25 As John was completing his work, he said: ‘Who do you suppose I am? I am not the one you are looking for. But there is one coming after me whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.’

26 “Fellow children of Abraham and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent. 27 The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. 28 Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. 29 When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb. 30 But God raised him from the dead, 31 and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.

32 “We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors 33 he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. As it is written in the second Psalm: “‘You are my son; today I have become your father.’[Ps. 2:7]

34 God raised him from the dead so that he will never be subject to decay. As God has said, “‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David.’[Isaiah 55:3]

35 So it is also stated elsewhere: “‘You will not let your holy one see decay.’[Ps. 16:10]

36 “Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed. 37 But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay.

38 “Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. 39 Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses. 40 Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you:

41 “‘Look, you scoffers, wonder and perish, for I am going to do something in your days that you would never believe, even if someone told you.’[Hab. 1:5]”

42 As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath. 43 When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.

44 On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. 45 When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy. They began to contradict what Paul was saying and heaped abuse on him.

46 Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. 47 For this is what the Lord has commanded us:  “‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’[Isaiah 49:6]”

48 When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.

49 The word of the Lord spread through the whole region. 50 But the Jewish leaders incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region. 51 So they shook the dust off their feet as a warning to them and went to Iconium. 52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.

What a marvelous work of grace is the gospel of Christ. It is that which took God’s plan beyond a man (Abraham) and his family and nation, to being the message of reconciliation with God for all peoples. This was a seminal moment for Paul and his ministry. He was not confused that indeed the gospel message was for all, but these events affirmed it like none before. God was doing a great new work, and Paul was to be at the forefront of it.

As living stones in this temple of truth we call the church, we are in our generation at the forefront of this message. We often forget the past and fail to appreciate the history of all that brought this message of grace down to us through the corridors of time and history. And we too often also fail to see the great opportunity this message has in our day to do a more expansive work of grace and reconciliation in our own culture and community.

Let us not fail to grasp the initiatives before us to be expansive with the gospel of reconciliation of man and God, and man to man.

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Fellow Citizens (Ephesians 2:11-22)

We turn today to a similar passage as that which we read yesterday from 1 Peter 2:9-10, where Peter spoke to a Gentile readership about how they were once not a people, but are now — in the church and through the reconciling work of Christ — the very people of God. The former identifications as Jew or Gentile were no longer particularly interesting. Rather, the two groups were together now as the one new people of God — the church of Jesus Christ.

When I write articles, devotionals, sermon illustrations, etc., I attempt to think of an experience or application from my own life or in some story that I know of in the experience of others. I am pretty much at a loss to come up with something that quite illustrates the unification of Jews and Gentiles into a new and living endeavor of working, worshipping and serving together. The hostility and alienation of the two groups was enormous, creating a chasm unimaginable to ever be crossed and united.

But the cross of Christ has done the unimaginable. The cross crosses the divide, and it not only does it for that division, it can be the crossroads as a common denominator to unify other divides that exist in culture, like the ethnic and racial divides that so afflict our country and culture at this time.

Even as today’s passage from Ephesians 2 expands upon Peter’s basic thought and fits well with our current series, it was also the central passage at the heart of my challenge to the congregation on the first Sunday of this year. A visionary sermon on the Sunday after New Year’s is always a bit risky because it so often is a weekend where masses of the congregation are involved in the holidays and possibly away from attendance.

Nevertheless, that message was entitled “The Unity in being CROSS-cultural.”  The essence of the challenge was to call the church to a new initiative to truly be a diverse and cross-cultural community (as the tri-state area is increasingly becoming), seeing the message of the cross of Christ as the crossroads of reconciliation between not only God and man, but man and man.

There are three movements to this passage in Ephesians …

  1. The Way Things Used to Be …

Eph. 2:11 — Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.

  1. The Way Things Changed …

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

  1. The Way Things are Moving Forward …

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

So here again we see the idea of a living building, a spiritual house or temple with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone. And just as Jews and Gentiles came together into a new and beautiful organism called the church, so also can the church in our culture and generation be the model of reconciliation of all the diversities of peoples and backgrounds that increasingly make up the fabric of American society.

This is not natural or easy. The quickest and most efficient way to build a big church is to have everyone be rather homogeneous by markers of age, race, or social strata. Church growth experts over the years have taught us that the wise church will maximize these natural affinities and thereby be the most efficient in reaching masses of people with the Gospel. Their central phrase was, “You can’t be everything to everybody” … with the inference then being to just accept that you can only reach people who are just like you already are.

But I’m weary of that — that which I see as mere American pragmatism. I want us to increasingly look like the church in heaven — people from every tribe, tongue and nation.

As a summary statement several weeks ago, I said, “The gospel of Christ is most vividly seen when outsiders observe the CROSS-shaped and cross-cultural love and unity that believers from varying backgrounds share with one another. A pragmatic desire for rapid and strategic church growth of a single affinity group will never have the beauty and health of a diverse congregation.”

We can do this. How? I’m not completely sure, but I believe it is our calling as we move forward together, accepting a new challenge to us as a congregation to be a cutting edge fellowship in this community.

The Chosen People of God (1 Peter 2:9-10)

There is a 10,000-pound elephant in the room and it has nothing to do with Republicans. It is a theological pachyderm with a collar tag that says “election.”

At this moment, there is a little man in my brain who is standing upon a heap of rubble waving a red flag, saying “Danger, danger, go another direction!”

The doctrine of divine election has to do with God sovereignly choosing who will be saved. This goes against the sensibilities of many, especially Americans, who feel that a man-initiated choice was a part of salvation. And over the years, theologians have used quite a lot of ink and paper to reconcile these ideas.

Whereas I very comfortably fall out well to one side of center on this doctrine, I have no desire to battle with those, even at TSF, who fall toward the opposite direction. Not that I’ve never debated this issue.

In one such encounter, the person said, “I don’t believe election is biblical and that it happens at all.”

Well, you can’t have that view. The Bible says in various places that election, which means choosing, is something that God did. One of those passages in our text for today where it says “you are a chosen people.”  This issue has to do with what is the basis of God’s choosing, and then we get into definitions of foreknowledge and all sorts of deeper waters.

But today, let’s rejoice in the big idea of it all — the wonderful grace and love of God in granting salvation. To the living stones of God’s spiritual temple, Peter writes …

2:9 – But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Recall again that the bulk of Peter’s readers are Gentile peoples scattered over a wide area. Their history would have been (apart from a very few who became converts to Judaism) those who were entirely estranged from God and from truth. God was working through the nation of Israel.

But with the death and resurrection of Christ and the new institution of grace abounding in the church age, those who were far away have been graciously targeted to be brought now into a new and living organism, the church of Jesus Christ.

That this is a wonderfully new and expansive work of God is seen in the wording of these verses. Compare them to the familiar Jewish text in Exodus 19 that talked about Moses at Mt. Sinai …

Exodus 19:3 — Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: 4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”

Here is the main point for today: However you define it, if you have trusted in Christ, you have been chosen by him through God’s magnanimous grace and love. In the words of the text, you are chosen, special, called … you were specifically desired by God. And we know from plenty of other texts that God’s choosing was not based upon our goodness or merit, quite the opposite. When we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, etc. We were truly in darkness, and the light has come to us.

The result is that we should be, by life and speech, those who proclaim his praises. We’re part of his body, his temple, his spiritual house. We don’t just come to it once a week or whenever it is convenient. We are his temple, and that is pretty special.

The Living Stone (1 Peter 2:4-8)

If you have friends whom you have known throughout the entirety of your life, you really have something special. Remember your high school pals and classmates? You did so many things together, and at that time you could not imagine that those friendships would ever fade or be lost.

Then you went to college, or to the military, or to a career. You met new people, and the old friends faded away one by one. And were it not for the modern phenomenon of social media, you might never be connected at all with the high school gang.

And then there is the break from friends that so often accompanies falling in love. No longer are you one of the boys or a part of the sisterhood in quite the same fashion. Just as you saw others before you drift away, so too it happened with you. You were moving on to a new dimension of life.

Over the years you likely moved in and out of varied social interest or cooperative ventures of business or pleasure. For a while it might have been sports pursuits or a community service club, but then new jobs, location changes, or simply the passing of time brought about new networks and experiences.

Relationships come and go with the seasons of life. But above all human relationships is the desire to have a connection to God — a desire to fill what Blaise Pascal spoke of as an “infinite abyss that can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”

In all religions over the years, the place where mankind has gone to fill this hole is to a temple — a place where God and man would meet. This was true in Judaism as well. The Temple was a grand place, but apart from God’s presence inhabiting it, it was a big stack of dead stones.

I have visited some of the grandest structures of religion in my lifetime: the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque in Turkey, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, the Cathedral de Notre Dame, Il Duomo di Firenze in Florence, the National Cathedral, St. Paul’s in London, Westminster Abbey, St. Patrick’s in NYC, York Minster in Yorkshire, the Mormon Tabernacle, St. Giles in Scotland, Old St. Mary’s in Cambridge, and the Sacré-Cœur de Paris. Though beautiful and impressive, apart from the living God, they are merely walls of dead stones.

But Peter speaks of a different sort of temple (or “spiritual house” in the NIV). This is one that has Jesus as its living cornerstone, and believers joined with him as living stones.

2:4 – As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house < a temple > to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For in Scripture it says:

“See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him     will never be put to shame.”[from Isaiah 28:16]

7 Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,”[from Psalm 118:22]

8 and, “A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.”[from Isaiah 8:14] They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.

When it speaks here of “coming to him” … of coming to Jesus, this is not the simple moment of salvation / ask Jesus into my heart sort of thing. The words used originally here speak of an intimate relationship. In relationship with Christ, we are a part of something more than a club or association with merely a membership card for our wallets; we are a living member of the very work of God in the world.

These living stones have a serving and ministering capacity to perform, as priests and as living sacrifices. It involves a full-time role of being God’s people before the world, and bringing the world to him.

This may not be popular. The chief cornerstone will never be undone, but He has been rejected and despised; and we may expect the same from those who stumble over the immoveable Rock.

It is interesting that Peter — “the rock,” and the one upon whom Christ metaphorically said the church would be built — is pointing to Jesus as the true rock and foundational cornerstone.

So the church of Jesus Christ is not like other clubs or organizations that may come or go, depending upon their usefulness within the seasons of life. No, the church is the main thing, the main idea of what it is ALL about.

So, in pointing you to a vital relationship with Jesus and with the life of the local expression of the church, we are not just encouraging your participation in a nice, additional component of life to embrace when you have time in the otherwise busy schedule of life. No, we are calling you to be a daily and functioning part (a living stone) of the biggest, most important, eternally-enduring main idea of what life itself is about. It is the visible expression of priority #1 of life.

Craving Milk (1 Peter 2:1-3)

As most of you know who are connected to the coming and goings of my family, we finished off the year with two new grandchildren in December, just a week apart. When the family is around or when we are visiting, it really has struck me again about just how much eating a baby does. You could almost say that a baby lives to eat.

And so it is not surprising that Peter would use this picture to speak of hunger for growing in the Lord …

2:1 – Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. 2 Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, 3 now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.

The “therefore” ties us back to the previous thought about the enduring word of God. Peter’s readers should nourish themselves on that which is for their health, that which is the stuff of eternity.

Those things that are natural to the passing world involve such items as are listed here to be gotten rid of: malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, slander. The first two words speak of ill intent to do and speak wrongly. The others are no better; from envy, one might purposefully feign affection and support while falling short of truth and speaking of others in an ill light.

Think of a presidential debate stage and the way each speaks of the other. This is a high-stakes illustration of the natural way of promoting self at the expense of others. How would that work in a church family environment? But that is that way of this world.

Rather, believers should set aside the gravitational pull of the natural self, and they should choose rather the healthy choice of truth and enrichment through regular connection to God. This is especially true since even a taste of this (quoting from Psalm 34:8) would make the believer understand that it is much better and to be preferred. This brings healthy growth for self and for others.

So it is rather stupid to not choose this course. I saw recently where someone voiced the frustrated opinion that they wished it was not so much hard work to be healthy physically, that they’d rather eat anything and just be lazy. I understand that feeling, to be honest!  In my efforts to be healthier, I have to say that I get so sick of fruits, vegetables, grains, salads, etc.  If only it tasted better than the unhealthy choices, it would be a lot easier path to follow.

But with God’s truth and his word, it is the better tasting way to go as well as the healthier choice for spiritual growth. For some reason (let’s call it the sin nature), this is not naturally the immediately-believed path. But the results are undeniable, even in … especially in … a world where the follower of Christ lives as a “chosen stranger.”

Loving Deeply (1 Peter 1:22-25)

Picture this scene: you are walking through the woods in an area of some mountainous terrain. You hear a rumble ahead, see some rising clouds of dust and also hear some cries for help.

And so you run ahead to see what has happened and discover there has been a rock slide off the edge of the path. A hiker ahead of you has been caught up in it but is hanging perilously onto the exposed roots of a tree. He cannot in his own strength pull himself up to safety and is dangling over a precipitous fall with serious injury or death at the bottom.

He is within reach if you lie down flat and stretch out to him. But as you begin to do so, you have some second thoughts … “Is this fellow worth saving?”  And so you hold back for a moment from fulling stretching out your arm.

And again, you think … “Has this fellow ever done anything for me, or would be ever do something to assist me in the future?”  And you hesitate to reach out fully.

And then another thought hits you … “What if he pulls me down with him?  Maybe I should just walk on by and hope for another person who is better gifted to pull him up, or possibly there is just such a person nearby.”

What would you do? Well of course you would stretch out your arm fully to help a person from falling. Would you be more likely to do it for someone you know, versus someone unknown? I suppose so. Would you particularly extend your arm if it was your sibling, or a member of your family? Why yes!

I’m glad you agree with this, and pleased that you see the person hesitating as ridiculously uncaring and self-absorbed. And of course this means that you will extend any possible effort to help anyone else in need who is of the church family of faith.

Peter said this is how you should love others …

1:22 – Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.

The Greek word for “sincere” means to be without hypocrisy. And so to love non-hypocritically means to love one another deeply. And since we’re getting deep here and into the Greek roots, what is the original meaning and picture for “deeply?”  It is a term that literally means “fully stretched out and completely extended,” and hence by translation it carries the idea of being fervent, strenuous, or fully earnest.

That is a high calling to love in this way; and it is one that should be an immediate challenge we take deeply into our lives for examination. Did we move around church and interact with the others there this past Sunday with such an action and attitude? How might we do that this next week?

This is a way of making an eternal impact, not just something that lasts in this life …

23 – For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.  24 For, “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, 25 but the word of the Lord endures forever.”

 And this is the word that was preached to you.

Again, while calling upon the temporal versus the eternal, the entire exposition we have been studying in recent days is an exhortation to life investment in the stuff that never perishes — and that is the truth of God’s Word and its application in the lives of others.

This word, this truth, was at some point preached to us and we became God’s family through it. We should now be people of this truth:  with each other and before a watching and perishing world of people who have bought into all categories of lies and death and dying ideas and values.

Don’t hold back in serving God by serving others. Stretch out fully.

Living Like Strangers in a Strange Place (I Peter 1:17-21)

I have a profound memory of the first time that I took a trip to a foreign county. You’ll laugh at this as truly “foreign” … it was England. My family never travelled far on vacations. We went to the beach a lot (in New Jersey, of course!), to Baltimore to see my sister, and on a few occasions to visit more distant relatives in Niagara Falls — going a mile or two into Canada one time! And I got to Florida with the college baseball team and on this thing called a “honeymoon.”  But that was it.

So, getting out of the airport in London was a big deal, especially being thrown into a rental car and sitting on the opposite side and driving on what is, yes, the WRONG side of the road. About a half-mile out of the airport on a narrow street, I very slightly clipped a parked vehicle, with the mirrors kissing. All the signs were strange, and it was confusing to know where to turn and how to navigate roundabouts. GPS systems had not yet been conceived, let alone invented.

Everything about the experience, including finding out that my first name is a dirty word in British (and thereby using my acceptable middle name of “Alan”), screamed to me that I was the odd one out and was walking as a total stranger in a foreign context.

In terms of our spiritual lives and eternal perspectives, that is how we should feel in the culture around us. That is how the readers of Peter’s letter were feeling — totally out of place and out of step. When in such a situation, the choices are to either give in and get with it by accepting and adapting to the larger reality, or to rather accept and even embrace the idea that you are different and in fact citizens of a different place altogether.

Peter encouraged his readers to essentially embrace choice B …

1:17 Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear. 18 For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. 20 He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. 21 Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.

It is our nature as creatures to seek out our own comfort and security; this has always been true and is what lies at the heart of the evolutionary, naturalist view of man. Survival. Strength. Aggression. Accumulation. This is the way of life handed down from the ancestors, to trust in silver or gold — whatever are the exchange items of identified value — the “perishable things” of this material world. Hoping only in this leads, invariably, to an “empty way of life.”

The alternative is to place value in non-perishables — in God generally, and specifically in the blood of Christ who was the chosen sacrificial lamb set aside even before creation, sin, or anything else. Peter is saying to invest in the meta-story and overarching reality of it all, and to not get invested rather in that which has ultimately nothing but transitory value.

A message throughout Scripture is to live in such a way that we are content with giving merely necessary energy and value to the basic necessities of life, and to rather give greatest concentration in all ways to those things that are connected to God’s eternal kingdom.

We should feel like strangers in this material world. We should understand and embrace that our citizenship is in another categorically different kingdom. Our movement through this world is with a temporary passport, but our legal papers are with God’s kingdom and are stamped with the blood of Christ.

I’m not much for American folk music, but there is a tune that often plays through the jukebox of my mind when I read 1 Peter. Pioneers in this Appalachian region in the late 1700s wrote and sang a song that speaks to the transitory nature of living in a world of hardships. It is a plaintiff tune and text that captures the message of this passage and of Peter’s exhortation to God’s “chosen strangers.”

I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger

A-trav’lin’ through this world of woe,

But there’s no sickness, toil or danger

In that bright world to which I go.

I’m goin’ there to see my father;

I’m goin’ there, no more to roam.

I’m just a-goin’ over Jordan,

I’m just a-goin’ over home.

Just Do It: Be Like God (1 Peter 1:13-16)

Things have come a long way since Atari.  In 2012, a 23-year-old man collapsed in an internet café in Taiwan while playing video games.  The other gamers were too engrossed in their online fantasy worlds to notice.  His death went unnoticed for 10 hours.[1]

The opposite of certainty isn’t doubt; it’s fantasy.  The human mind seems uniquely wired to find meaning amidst shattered pieces.  In Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X, one of the characters laments that “either our lives become stories, or there’s just no way to get through them.”[2]  But—as our gamer friend teaches us—if we live for the wrong story, we may find ourselves as dead men.

Peter begins his letter with a magnificent description of the hope of the gospel.  He then draws an application:

13 Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”  (1 Peter 1:13-16)

You caught his “therefore?”  The word connects Peter’s thoughts: we have hope, Peter is saying, so let’s live like it.  Look at his three commands:

  • Preparing your minds for action
  • Being sober-minded
  • Set your hope fully on the grace

Peter’s call is a turn away from the fantasy world of idols and toward the certainty of God’s master story.  Peter is deeply concerned for men and women who would be “conformed to the passions of your former ignorance.”

Maybe for you, video games present no temptation.  But there’s a very real chance that you and I can find ourselves being “conformed” to our “passions.”  For some it’s sports; for others it’s career.  Maybe for you it’s the mere approval of others.

Go back and take a look at Peter’s three earlier commands: “preparing minds…being sober-minded…set your hope…”  So much of our spiritual trajectory begins in the mind and extends outward into life.

Yet it isn’t until verse 15 that Peter actually issues his command: “be holy.”  Biblically speaking, the word meant to be “set apart.”  It’s the polar opposite of being “conformed.”  You can conform to society, Peter is saying, or you can be holy.  You cannot be both.

That sounds easy, doesn’t it?  Until you consider that conformity also meant comfort.  Holiness would mean being misunderstood, socially rejected, or worse.

But Peter says that the call toward holiness is a reflection of God’s character.  The consummate shepherd, Peter pulls from the pages of scripture:  “You shall be holy, as I am holy” (Leviticus 20:26).   Orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy—that is, what you think about God changes how you live.  Think about it: could it be that your exhaustion stems from a misunderstanding of God’s character?  For instance, the story you might be living might be one of the following:

  • “You shall keep busy, as the Lord your God expects perfection.” If God demands your performance, then you might find yourself in a whirlwind trying to keep everything together to avoid incurring God’s anger.
  • “You shall stay under the radar, as the Lord your God is a harsh judge.” Alternately, if God is ready to blast you for your failure, you might find yourself withdrawing from spiritual practices because, let’s face it, who wants to pray when they feel like they’ve let God down?  Ironically a judgmental God might not promote ethical behavior, but for us to hide in fear.
  • “You shall be open-minded, as the Lord your God is tolerant.” On the surface, an open mind seems a welcome alternative to the judgment we often associate with Christians.  But think harder: if we value justice, if we value wrongs set right, does this not demand ethical standards and judgment?  Tolerance that leads to complacency does not promote the flourishing of virtue, but can inhibit it.

No; Peter isn’t saying any of that.  Peter is saying: “be holy,” because this reflects God’s character.  He’s saying there’s more to life than video games, sports, relationships, or the countless other idols to which we might “conform.”  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”  What does your story “bend toward?”  Toward holiness?  Toward God’s kingdom?  Or to the world of your own fantasy—of your own comfort?

The things that captivate our attention don’t always reflect God’s master plan for the world.  They may, in fact, be a fantasy world that has ensnared us.  They are but shadows cast by a greater light.  We have but to shed our chains and turn from the flickering images to see Reality in all its splendor.  When we do, everything changes.  We conform not to our fantasies, but to the image of a God who loves us, who cares for us, and who romances us to be set apart in the same holy manner as he.

 

[1] “’League of Legends’ Gamer Dies In Taiwan, Corpse Goes Unnoticed For Hours In Internet Café,” Huffington Post, February 3, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/03/taiwan-internet-cafe-corpse-gamer-died-dead_n_1252766.html

[2] Douglas Coupland, Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture.

The Limits of Prophetic Vision (1 Peter 1:10-12)

The most immediate danger of idolatry is not spiritual death (though that comes later) but spiritual boredom.  When we measure our spiritual experiences against the yardstick of comfort, our idols possess limited effectiveness. Idols, after all, wear out; their effects wear off.  The result is an unending thirst for novelty: a new worship album, a new Bible study, a new religious project—even a new church community.  It’s little wonder why Americans change churches as often as some might change drycleaners.

This also might prompt us to mistake spiritual “busyness” for genuine intimacy with God.  We assume that if we’re happy, God must be pleased with us. And if we’re unhappy, then perhaps it’s time to try something new.

Worse, when suffering inevitably comes, we are confronted with the inadequacy of our tokens of comfort.  Where does that leave us?

Peter says that nothing—nothing—compares to the promises of God himself.  He says that if anything, Christians should rejoice in knowing that God’s promises came true in the person of Jesus:

10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, 11 inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. 12 It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. (1 Peter 1:10-12)

In her commentary on 1 Peter, Karen Jobes points out the great contrast between the past and present.  In the past, prophets looked forward to the arrival of Jesus; in the present we celebrate it.  In the past the Spirit revealed God’s future through prophets; in the present the Spirit told us of their fulfillment.  In the past, God’s messengers strained to know God’s future with certainty; in the present even the angels strain to gaze into the truths of the gospel.

So, Peter is saying, the sufferings that Christ experienced wasn’t an interruption in God’s plan; it was a vital part of it.  That means that the suffering that you and I might experience is likewise a part of an unfolding story.

Boredom produces a wandering eye—always flitting to “what’s next.”  But Peter said that even though God’s messengers spoke of “what’s next,” the arrival of Jesus is a joy that surpasses their anticipation.  What other message could possibly bring this kind of satisfaction?  What other hope is there?

Angels never get bored with the gospel.

And neither should we.

 

The Trials Refinery (1 Peter 1:6-9)

“Crisis reveals character.”  This was the sentiment of C.S. Lewis, from his famous meditation on suffering called The Problem of Pain.  Suffering comes in many forms, perhaps most broadly divided into the natural evils that seem random—ranging from hurricanes to cancer—to the moral evils that are far more malicious—such as persecution and war.

Peter was dealing with a culture that had become increasingly and openly hostile toward Christianity.  Though it would be some years yet before the government sanctioned persecution toward Christians, early believers still felt the sting of life as “chosen strangers.”

For most of our lives, you and I have inhabited a world that labeled itself Christian by default.  Now, it’s increasingly common to feel the social pressure of a world that demands we keep our faith to ourselves—and ostracizes us for bringing our values to the public sphere.

How does the gospel help us cope with that?

WHEN CHARACTER REPLACES COMFORT

First, Peter tells us that our attitude toward suffering should be one of joy:

6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.  (1 Peter 1:6-7)

“In this” refers back to the “hope” of the previous section.  We “rejoice” in hope, Peter tells us.  If you could read this in the Greek, your hair would stand on end.  The word “rejoice” is used in the New Testament to communicate a deep spiritual joy—the kind Mary felt when the angel announced her pregnancy (Luke 1:46-7).  And that’s sort of weird, because now Peter is saying that the same feeling you experience over the birth of a child is the feeling you and I are meant to experience when our faith is ridiculed and belittled.

To have one’s values stripped from the public square is hard to take.  Peter doesn’t say “Well, try and make the most of it.”  When our values or freedoms are threatened, we have a host of talking heads that comfort us by stirring our anger towards our political opponents or by dismissing them outright through political jokes.  But no, Peter says, we “rejoice.”  We dance like we’ve just received a birth announcement.  But why?  We find the reason in verse 7: the words “so that” tell us about the purpose of suffering.  Suffering has the capacity to reveal the deepest character of our spirituality.  Suffering—much like fire—has a refining effect; it’s why the Old Testament writers so often used it to refer to God testing the purity of the human soul (Psalm 66:10; Proverbs 17:3; Zechariah 13:9).  Peter is saying that yes, we can have our comfort stripped away from us.  But the character that’s left is far more valuable—at least inasmuch as it resembles the character of Christ.

WHEN INTIMACY REPLACES TRANSACTION

Secondly, Peter turns to the related theme of knowing God:

8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8-9)

Do you see how these ideas are related?  If I value my comfort above all else, then my relationship with God takes the form of a transaction.  I do spiritual things hoping that I might achieve God’s blessing.  I look to God as a way to comfort my anxiety, improve my financial dealings, or offer me assistance in a relationship.  Mind you, your faith might very well do all of those things—but that’s not the point.  The goal of Christianity is to know God.  If you follow God for his blessings, then you love God for being useful, not for being beautiful.  In a strange yet very real way, you’ve turned God into an idol: because you’ve mistaken his good character as an emblem of the American dream.

The message of the gospel is not that by loving God he will give you what you need to face your circumstance.  The message of the gospel is that God loves you and he gives you himself—and he is what you need regardless of circumstance. 

This is the essential, counter-cultural message of Christianity.  Yet it’s a message that stirs the soul and lifts the eyes beyond the frayed horizon of Self.  And by casting our vision on him—his character, his grace, his future—we find satisfaction that we could never have dreamed of on earth.