We’re in it Together (1 Peter 5:10-14)

One of the great things about the National Youth Conference that we send our teenagers to attend every other summer is to help them see that they are a part of something much larger than they realize. The Evangelical Free Church has about 1400 congregations, and when the youth of all of them gather for a national conference, it can have about five to six thousand attendees. Our students get to see that they are far from alone in the world as Christians.

We all are bolstered by that awareness. Sometimes we get the Elijah complex — you know, from the Old Testament when the prophet ran away from Jezebel and felt all alone, saying, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

God basically says to him, “Oh, shut up and stop your whining! Here are some tasks I am sending you to go do; I have 7,000 in Israel that have not bowed the knee to Baal.”

The opening and closing words of New Testament letters just seem to be simple greetings and howdys and fare-thee-wells. But they contain some interesting meaning. So don’t overlook them.

In our final thoughts on 1 Peter as we wrap up this series, we see his farewell words coming on the heels of teaching about the common experience of persecution around the world, to essentially be saying to the chosen strangers to whom he wrote, “Hey, there are a lot of us in this together.”

5:12 – With the help of Silas, whom I regard as a faithful brother, I have written to you briefly, encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it.

13 She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark. 14 Greet one another with a kiss of love.

Peace to all of you who are in Christ.

Peter sends greetings from two well-known personages of the early church era: Silas and Mark. Along with that are greetings from “she who is in Babylon,” which is a code way of saying, “those who are in the church in Rome — the center of the cultural / political world — send their greetings to you as fellow chosen strangers.”

The greeting with a kiss is the Eastern, cultural greeting, sorta like us giving a quick hug and slap on the shoulder of someone you see as a close teammate and member of the family of faith. When I have travelled in these parts of the world and been obligated to observe the custom, I always had to remind myself … it’s right, then left … always afraid I’d “zig” when they “zagged” and we’d have an awkward meet-me-in-the-middle moment!

But something else has always been true of these travels I have made, often to places and gatherings of Christians where we were unable to communicate well. There was an unmistakable feeling in the room that we were family … that we were in this thing together.

An example of this was in Uzbekistan. We were in a church gathering of about 75-100 people. Our hosts pointed to a number of men sitting in the back, telling us they were KGB agents who watch everything that goes on. Just today, I read in a newsletter that reports on persecution around the world that in Tashkent, Uzbekistan (that place we were), recently the government came into a church gathering and beat many of the Christians assembled there. I find myself wondering if it is the place we were a number of years ago.

We are in it together — with those brothers on the other side of the world, and with each other. And if we are in it together, for it to work, we have to be together.

Imagine a Thanksgiving dinner with relatives who gather from near and far. One guy runs in just at dinner time, says nothing much, grabs a Turkey leg and gobbles it down; and then he stuffs some stuffing in his jacket that he never took off, finally leaving without saying anything. That would be pretty weird.

But, just as strange as the relative pictured above is a family system that allows this to happen without seeking to engage the person. Imagine them all talking to each other and watching this scene happen without any personal interaction!

And beyond that, just as strange, is a family system where one part of the family has an unresolved offense with another part of the family at the other end of the table, and everyone in between needs to quietly keep it sorted out and navigate the estranged feelings.

You would say that is a weird family, but too often that is what a church family is like. It is just as weird to be a Christian who runs into church on Sunday just after the service starts, eats up what is there, and then runs out to the car without interacting or getting engaged in the family life. It is equally as strange to watch and allow a person to do that, and really strange to allow unresolved conflicts to fester over extended times.

We are in this faith thing together as chosen strangers. Times could get really bad. We need to be united with one another.

(Our devotional writing will be gone for about a week, but then we will be back with our next series that talks about “What is the Gospel?”  This will be the 20th sermon series with written devotionals on this site.)

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Three Ways You are not Alone (1 Peter 5:8-11)

I had to laugh at a little video I saw, probably shared by someone on Facebook. It was titled, “The difference between men and women when shopping.”  A lioness was featured in the first 95% of the video, pictured crouching just feet away from a herd of hundreds of wildebeests running past her, unable to decide where to pounce with so many choices. And suddenly a male lion comes rushing in from out of sight, instantly grabs a beast and drags it away.

In today’s passage we read about a lion, speaking of course of the Devil. We should see this lion as sort of in between the two pictured above. This is a lion that crouches and watches for vulnerability, not so much to just randomly strike out. But he is going to strike wherever possible. Peter says …

5:8 – Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.

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. 11 To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.

Let me speak about three ways that you are not alone as a Christian.

First, you are not alone without an enemy that lurks nearby. Though we will see this is not something to be paranoid or terrified about, it is something about which to be alert and sober-minded. Christians tend to underestimate the hatred of the Evil One for those who are a part of God’s family. He is not ambivalent; he despises God’s people … like you and me. He longs for our destruction as an effective witness for the cause of Christ. With his opportunist character, we need to be aware of his techniques to disqualify us wherever possible.

Secondly, you are not alone in any unique way when facing this challenge. Peter told these early Christians that others in God’s family around the world were facing the same difficulties. It doesn’t make it actually easier in terms of the problems being faced personally, but there is some comforting perspective to know that the challenges are par for the course and not something unique or unexpected.

Thirdly, and most importantly, you are not without resources and hope for success. The problem is not endless, and our guarantee of calling to eternal salvation is not at stake. Of course, the need is to trust in and access this resource that makes one strong, firm and steadfast.

Don’t be alone the first way, understand you’re not alone in the second way, and in the third way don’t become estranged from the resources you have in God. That is indeed the way you absolutely don’t want to be alone.

Wisdom for the Church Community (1 Peter 5:5-7)

The idea of submission to others is not a very popular American idea or contemporary concept. Asserting oneself and one’s rights is the wisdom of the age. We see it on college campuses where outrage exists almost for the sake of existing, rather than for some substantive injustice.

Bible passages with the word “submission” in them don’t tend to play well in the modern era, such as those that speak about husband/wife relationships. And there is no way to go to the original Greek and make the word mean something less than it sounds like it does. Peter writes…

5:5 –  In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”  [from Proverbs 3:34]

5:6 – Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

But God gives to us in these passages an order of doing things and living life, an order that places primary responsibility vertically. The greater and more difficult challenge is to be the one with the lead responsibility, rather than the one to extend honor and follow someone else.

Here we see a sort of juxtaposition of older/younger. Without doubt there is an assumption that generally the elders are going to be more toward the older age. What is old and young is a bit subjective and might look different in one context versus another. But in other passages about the qualifications of elders, those traits are generally those that develop over time and life experiences and extension of service.

And just as Paul does in the aforementioned passage about marriage, Peter here moves quickly to an even larger and more encompassing idea … that of everyone exercising humility in service toward one another. He says to “clothe yourselves” in this way, as if there is a uniform that is worn in all church family relationships — the humility of service uniform. You simply cannot find yourself in conflict with anyone who simply loves you so much that he wants to serve you and help you in any way possible. Get everyone doing that and you’ve got a system where it is no big deal who are the elders and who are not.

Peter quotes a well-known verse from the Old Testament that speaks of the over-arching truth that God blesses those who are servants, essentially those who model the servant life of the Great Shepherd. And so he says to do that as a general pattern of life … to make it a personal initiative.

What ALWAYS follows service is that the one doing it finds that his needs are surprisingly met in abundance when troubled times or circumstances rise to the surface.

I gave the illustration on Sunday about a man in my New Jersey church named Don. He was a little bit different in some ways, somewhat socially awkward and odd. But there was no doubt that he was exceedingly kind and that he genuinely loved everyone in the church. Don was interested in learning all about you and praying for any needs you had. When people were hospitalized, he visited all of them to cheer them up and pray for them.

One day, Don had an emergency appendectomy. The word got around the church that Don was the patient in the hospital this time. People rushed to see him. And before long I got a call from the Chaplain’s Office at the hospital asking me to get the word out somehow to the church that their visits to Don were simply overwhelming the system and creating havoc.

When you serve others, others are likely to serve you in return when your time comes. And if that is not true, as in verse seven, you can always put your own cares into God’s hands. He knows it all, he keeps score really well, and he is faithful for whatever care you may have.

Now go love and serve somebody else in the church today. And then do it again tomorrow, and so on …

Wise Words to Shepherds (1 Peter 5:1-4)

Several times during my speaking assignments in this series I have shared with you of my visit in 1999 to Cappadocia in Eastern Turkey, to the very area that Peter was writing his letter to Christians scattered there. I have also shown the pictures of the unique “Flintstones Bedrock” look of this region, where people literally lived in homes hewn out of the volcanic rock formations, many of them along hillsides and into the flanks of mountains.

Not only did people live in such caves and caverns, they also worshipped there. On our visit we went into several ancient cavernous churches where the faithful gathered in the centuries just after Peter’s letter to them. Scenes from the Scriptures were painted on the walls, essentially serving as the Bible in the hymnal rack on the back of the pew. Likely illiterate, the visuals depicted major biblical themes that were likely referenced in the teaching of the leadership.

To these elders of the numerous scattered congregations of God’s “chosen strangers,” the words of Peter were likely read in these caves. We too, upon our visit, sat there and read aloud these encouragements and instructions; and I tell you it was a tremendously moving experience to have these words echoing in our ears, generations after they first reverberated through these very spaces.

Peter wrote several sentences specifically to the elders of these churches … words directed to them that would have been read in the presence of the entire company of saints, saying …

5:1 – To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 2 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

In whatever profession or endeavor we give our time, we appreciate meeting and speaking with someone else who is involved in the very same thing. A mutual feeling exists that here is someone who understands exactly what I go through on a daily basis. They know of the unseen challenges and difficulties that people looking in from the outside are unable to appreciate, imagine, or understand.

And so Peter writes to these elders as a true comrade, a fellow elder who had additionally the firsthand experience of having walked with the Great Shepherd, Jesus. And he gives them three “negatives / positives,” or, “don’t do / but be like” scenarios in terms of leadership and shepherding.

  1. Don’t do it because you have to, but rather because you willingly want to. We have all had experiences in life where we were stuck leading something because nobody else would do it, or because we got elected to it by virtue of missing a meeting. It’s no fun. Likely if it was such a great thing to lead, everyone else would want to do it. But shepherding the church of Christ is, along with its challenges, a great blessing and privilege.
  2. Don’t shepherd to pursue person gain, but do it out of an eager heart to be a servant. This is of course so central to being Christlike: that we focus not on what we personally gain from any level of ministry, but rather upon what we give to others. It is a defining distinctive about Christ, and it too is a distinctive about His under-shepherds who serve.
  3. Don’t use your position to lord it over people, but rather be an example worthy of following. Christ was a servant leader, and it is the way those entrusted to lead His sheep should be. No sheep wants to be led by being whacked with a staff, literally or figuratively. Confidence in leadership, be it from an actual sheep or a human sheep, comes from the wisdom of the shepherd in providing good and safe pastures and water.

As with all of work for the Lord, the benefit package isn’t always so great in the immediate context, but the rewards are out of this world!  Literally.  Peter says there is a special category of reward for faithful and good shepherds — called the crown of glory.

Like many who have ended up being in this category most specifically addressed by Peter’s words, I can tell you that I did not set out from the beginning to do what I’ve now done for close to four decades. I didn’t grow up longing for the day when I would be the pastor of a church. Nope. I was thinking more about things like sports writing or journalism, stock market brokerage. And even as I went off to college, it was with a goal of doing something in the professional music field; I was not thinking of it being in a church context.

But the circumstances brought me to a calling I could not refuse, a “feed my sheep” directive that caught me much by surprise. There have been many blessings. But there have been as many difficulties and days and nights when I’ve asked God to let me quit. He has always said “No, stop your whining and get back to the sheep.”

Some people count sheep in their sleep, or so the story goes. For me, I worry about sheep at night. It is a daily experience of waking at night and thinking about the church, about the people, about who is missing or going through some experience of suffering. Such is the life of a shepherd. I’m not complaining, I’m just reporting.

And this passage speaks to me before it speaks to most of you, and it reminds me that it involves great privilege to be in the position of worrying about sheep in the middle of the night. There is reward for this and for serving faithfully. I forget that. After all, in a greater sense, I’m a stupid sheep myself.

We’ve all been — all are — sheep of shepherds. Yes, led and blessed at some point by shepherds in this world, but ultimately by the Great Shepherd.

Living in Anticipation (1 Peter 4:19)

More than a few writers have observed that anticipation is sometimes its own reward.  Maybe.  It’s certainly true for a few things in life.  If you go to the movie theater, you’ll most likely be subjected to several minutes of “previews” before the film you paid to see.  They’re called “trailers”—longer than a television commercial, each trailer is a work of art unto itself, highlighting the basic contours of an upcoming film without giving away too much. It’s the fine art of building anticipation, making you yearn for the day you plunk down more money to be enveloped in the film’s story.

Eschatology—the study of the so-called “end times”—is like that.  The resurrection of Jesus testifies to a coming reality, and believers actively anticipate the day when we get to experience this glorious event for ourselves.

As we’ve mentioned, God’s future Kingdom is a major theme that runs throughout Peter’s letter.  After addressing the hurts of a persecuted Church, Peter says this:

19 Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. (1 Peter 4:19)

Don’t miss the “therefore.”  Peter had earlier said that those who suffer are sharing in what Christ experienced, and we receive the blessing of God’s presence through it all.  Because of that, Peter says, we can “entrust” or “souls” to God.  The word for “trust” here is an unusual one—the same Greek word that is used of Jesus “entrusting” His spirit to God on the cross (Luke 23:46).  Its meaning is something like “to give to someone for safekeeping.”  Peter assures his readers—and us as well—that God can be counted on for our preservation.  Preservation?  For what?  The answer can only be God’s new heaven and new earth.

I have to confess that I don’t much look forward to heaven—at least not as much as the idea of God making the earth new again.  See, the Christian story of the end times is of God remaking all of creation, and we get to enjoy this new world with Him.  The Bible speaks of Heaven as a very real place, of course—it seems that until this new earth is made that God’s people inhabit Heaven even as they, too, await the day that Christ returns to set things right.

The point is simply this: any Christian focus on the “end times” must be focused on the whole story—and the story must be an emphatically earthly story.  Our final destination is God’s renewed earth.  This is why we must be cautious in how we approach our understanding of the end times.  Too often evangelical Christianity has exhibited a strange preoccupation with an event known as the Rapture.  The Rapture refers to the day that the Church is rescued from the present world prior to a seven-year period of intense tribulation.  Now, the Rapture is an idea worthy of our attention and even our devotion.  But we must be clear about two things.  First, not everyone agrees on the nature and timing of the Rapture.  Second, the Rapture is not the end of the story.  We must be more focused on resurrection than Rapture—and by resurrection I mean the final end of the story when God’s people inhabit a new earth.  Again, it’s hardly wrong to learn about and evaluate the Rapture, but the danger is that we might start to think that our goal is one of escaping the earth instead of caring for it, or that our good deeds are motivated by fear of the Lord’s return rather than loving a created world that groans for completion.  Telling the whole story—a story that ends not with Rapture but a resurrected world—that builds a greater anticipation and care for our earth.

This, then, is what Peter means when he speaks of trusting God “while doing good.”  The gospel, of course, cannot be reduced to good works.  The gospel is the powerful story of God’s plan to renew all of creation—and our immediate response is to come to Jesus’ cross for personal forgiveness and transformation.  Good deeds, then, reflect this inward transformation; they become a means of participating in God’s future kingdom even though it has yet to be fully realized.

In the first few centuries of the Church, this became the key to the Church’s success.  Even a non-Christian historian pauses to remark:

“By 250, Christianity had spread from Palestine across the Roman empire….The impact of Christian faith was palpable in the lives of ordinary men and women, who had embraced sexual continence, willingly set their slaves free, and in martyrdom displayed the highest form of courage.  Again, was this coincidence, or was it a sign that man’s divine nature had finally truly been awakened?”[1]

But, of course, it had nothing to do with “man’s divine nature,” but everything to do with ordinary people who found confidence in knowing that even in the midst of suffering, they could entrust their souls to a faithful God.

And so can we.

Our challenge, then, is to “do good” in the lives of our neighbors, our friends, our co-workers.  We “do good” because—like a movie trailer—we live in anticipation when all things will be made good again.

 

 

[1] Arthur Herman, The Cave and the Light, p. 161-2.

Strength through Defeat (1 Peter 4:12-18)

In the 2012 film The Dark Knight Rises, director Christopher Nolan completes his Batman saga with the villain known as Bane.  In the years since the defeat of the Joker, Gotham City had enjoyed relative peace.  Batman had no longer been necessary.  Now, the threat of Bane called Batman out of retirement, but after so many years away he was off his game.  “Peace has made you weak,” Bane taunts.  “Victory has defeated you.”

For years, Christianity has enjoyed relative peace with regard to the public square.  Sure, America has never had any official religion, but Christianity has historically had tremendous influence over the art and morals of Western society.  Now that’s all changing—but can the character of the Church stand up to these new social pressures?  Could it be that these past years of peace have “made us weak?”

THE PURPOSE OF PAIN

Peter writes that Christ’s followers should “not be surprised” by periods of suffering:

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.  (1 Peter 4:12-14)

Too often it’s tempting to respond to suffering not with soft hearts but with clenched fists.  We bring to mind faded (and often distorted) memories of the cherished past, which only fuels our desire to “get back to the way things used to be.”  Love and compassion quickly become eclipsed by fear and a lust for power.  We admire those with the passion to speak against the world’s moral decay, and we ourselves mirror their red-faced diatribes about the seeming barbarism of a world without God.

Peter isn’t saying that the world’s moral order (or disorder) shouldn’t sadden us; he’s simply saying it should not surprise us.  When we witness the unvarnished brokenness of the world we harden into anger—but the gospel invites us to soften into tears.

Peter tells us that this suffering—though never positive—can be enriching.  He uses the words “fiery ordeal.”  The phrase can be used to refer to the “way of testing silver and gold” (Proverbs 27:21).  Suffering can be used to purify the Church for God’s glory.

After all, Peter notes, such was the experience of Christ himself.  In verse 13, Peter notes that we follow a Savior who himself endured suffering.  If we follow him, we can expect much of the same.  And it’s this shared experience that seems to be in mind when Peter calls us “blessed.”  In her commentary on 1 Peter, Karen Jobes notes that while Paul sees suffering as an opportunity to build character, Peter sees suffering as “evidence of genuine faith.”  Suffering for Christ unites us with him. [1] The phrase “the Spirit of glory and God rests on you” seems to be an allusion to Isaiah 11:2 which, in turn, points to the promised Savior.  So suffering unites us with Jesus.

The phrasing “the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you” is a likely allusion to Isaiah 11:2—which is itself a Messianic prophecy.  Therefore the same Spirit predicted to rest on the Messiah now rests on his followers.

MAKING “CHRISTIAN” MEANINGFUL

But Peter is aware of the possibility of ethical breaches.  For an unbelieving world, there are few greater barriers to Christianity than hypocrisy.  Peter tells his readers that if you’re going to suffer, at least suffer for the right reasons:

15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. 16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And

“If the righteous is scarcely saved,
what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” (1 Peter 4:15-18)

I’d like to point out that this is one of only three—yes three—uses of the word “Christian” in the entire Bible.  Peter specifically uses it in its classical sense, meaning “Christ follower.”  I think Peter’s instructions here are applicable for today: let the word Christian actually mean something.

The idea of judgment beginning with “the household of God” is consistent with this teaching.  In the Old Testament, God speaks of putting some of his people “ into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’” (Zecharaiah 13:9)  Something similar seems to be happening here, in that God seems to be purifying his own people.  And, as Peter notes in verse 18, Christians can endure suffering because we are confident in our salvation through grace alone—but what if you had no such assurance?  Suffering would come with the added misery of meaninglessness.

These days we use the word Christian far too flippantly.  It’s become an adjective—a word we use to describe Christian music, Christian schools, Christian books, Christian radio, and even Christian breathmints (no, really).  But in the Bible, the word “Christian” isn’t an adjective; it’s a noun. It describes a specific type of person: a follower of Jesus.  In his book When Bad Christians Happen to Good People, Dave Burchett notes that sometimes even brand names get applied too broadly.  For example, if I need to blow my nose, what sort of product do I need?  Though the broad term is “tissue,” you might have replied “Kleenex”—because here’s a case where the brand name gets applied to all forms of the same product (in The South, they do the same thing by using “coke” to refer to all forms of soft drinks…it gets very confusing).  But, Burchett notes, companies technically have the right to sue for using the word “Kleenex” to refer to other brands of the same product.  Why?  Because no one wants their label attached to something inferior.  His analogy may not be perfect, but you see where he’s going with this.  The word “Christian” ought to mean a deep, abiding commitment to Christ and His Kingdom.  Spirituality cannot be as simply as checking a box under “religious affiliation.”

Ultimately, this may be the positive aspect of our post-everything society.  A generation or so ago, you were Christian by default.  That is, you weren’t Buddhist or Muslim or Jewish, so you must be Christian.  And of course that didn’t necessarily mean anything.  Now, it’s far more fashionable to be “unaffiliated,” or a “none.”  Fewer people than ever before label themselves as Christian.  But don’t you see how the refining process is already at work?  Now, Christianity is no longer a default label.  You have to deliberately choose to label yourself a Christian, meaning those who call themselves a Christian in today’s religious climate are more likely to be a genuine disciple of Christ.  So don’t you see how the refining process is already at work?  Persecution—or at least social stigma—can actually be a way of purifying the Church, making her stronger and healthier than she was before.

 

[1] Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter, p. 287-8.

Love More; Whine Less (1 Peter 4:7-11)

The human soul craves justice.  Peter tells his readers that God’s justice is coming.  “The end of all things is at hand,” he tells them (1 Peter 4:7).  Throughout his letter, Peter places special focus on God’s promised future—a future that includes both restoration and righteous judgment.  Yesterday we even noted that those who slander God’s people will “give an account” to God (1 Peter 4:5).

If you are unfamiliar with Christianity, I know that this might be hard to swallow.  Speaking of judgment and righteousness starts to sound like the fire-and-brimstone preachers who sweat through their polyester suits in an effort to scare you into joining the church.  But justice is more than that—much more.  Consider the recent popularity of the television series Breaking Bad.  The show centers on Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who pays for his cancer treatments by cooking and selling crystal meth.  The entire series is about his descent from middle class America into total moral depravity.  Why would this become one of the most-watched television series of all time?  In an interview with The New York Times, the show’s writer Vince Gilligan offers us a clue:

“If religion is a reaction of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished…. I feel some sort of need for Biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen. My girlfriend says this great thing that’s become my philosophy as well. ‘I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.”[1]

For Gilligan, heaven is desirable, but hell is necessary.  Do you want justice?  Do you want wrongs to be set right?  We have this promise in the future return of Christ.

Peter says that this changes the way we respond to one another within the believing community:

7 The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. 8 Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. 9 Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: 11 whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:7-11)

If I know that the end is near, this changes my attitude toward others.  My focus is no longer on myself, but on others and—ultimately—God.  Peter lists a whole series of commands, here.  Some of these commands are about our attitudes (“be self-controlled and sober-minded”) while others are about our actions (“use [your gift] to serve one another”).  But in verse 11 Peter says that the higher purpose is that “in everything God may be glorified.”  The word glory most literally means “weighty” or “massive.”  We might use the word “significant.”

If we put the pieces together, what is Peter saying?  Peter is telling a community of marginalized Christians that when suffering comes, they must serve and love one another—so that others may see that the most significant thing in their life is not their comfort, but Christ and His Kingdom. 

Practically, this means that you and I are faced with a similar question regarding our own gifts.  What is a “gift?”  Sometimes I think it’s tempting to think of our “gifts” through the lens of Self. But when it comes to gifts, the issue is not: What makes me special?  the issue is: How can I contribute? 

The gospel promises us that ultimate justice is coming and may come at any moment.  In Peter’s view, this doesn’t promote fear, but provokes Godly character and sacrificial living.  We look for this ultimate justice by practicing justice even in our communities.  We contribute in meaningful ways because we want our present communities to mirror the values of God’s future kingdom.

So what about you?  How might you contribute?  For some of you, it might be something small.  Contributing to our Church community by serving as an usher, a greeter, preparing coffee.  Maybe you step up and serve in our children’s ministry—there’s always an opening.  Maybe it’s about serving outside our walls in your individual workplaces: humbly and graciously doing the tasks no one else seems fond of, engaging with your coworkers in ways that reveal the character and love of the Savior and—if opportunity allows and the Spirit leads—sharing with them the “hope that is within you.”

 

[1] Segal, David (July 6, 2011). “The Dark Art of ‘Breaking Bad'”. The New York Times. July 25, 2011

“Open Carry” the Cross (1 Peter 4:1-6)

One of the most crucial questions any generation can ask is the question of security.  How can I protect myself?  How can I maintain my personal rights?

These aren’t bad questions.  A free and just society serves the interest of its citizens, which includes defending their personal rights.  But scripture never guarantees that we’ll find such justice and security in the here and now.

Where does that leave us?  For some of us, it leaves us clinging to the hope that somehow, someway, we can secure ourselves.  And the things that make us feel secure therefore become our idols: relationships, career—even the conceal-carry permit that grants us the feeling of protection against those who might seek our life.  None of these things are bad.  In fact, as we noted earlier in our series, some of these things might even be a legitimate source of “immediate hope.” It’s just that when we turn these things into a source of “ultimate hope” we are effectively telling God that our comfort, our security lies elsewhere.

In 1 Peter, the early Christians were facing a similar set of questions.  Let’s remember that at the time that Peter was writing, the government had yet to enact a full-on assault on Christianity.  Instead, believers struggled to follow Christ in a world that saw such belief as weird or even shameful.  In his study of 1 Peter, Frank Thielman tells us:

“Peter is writing to people suffering the plight of ‘aliens and strangers.’  Conversion to Christianity has separated them from their traditional ways of life and placed them on the margins of their societies.  Like literal exiles, they need consolation…They need a mental map on which they can place their suffering in order both to make sense of it and to move beyond it….[1]

Their options were limited.  What could they do?

REALIGN YOUR LOVES

Peter has a clear piece of advice: “arm yourselves:”

Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. 3 For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. (1 Peter 4:1-3)

This is a great paradox: we are called to “arm [ourselves]”—but not with power but with vulnerability.  It’s as if Peter is saying that the greatest weapon against the greatest of our enemies—sin and death—is the cross.  Security lies not in strength but in weakness.

 

Why would this matter for issues of morality?  In verse 2 Peter anchors human behavior in the language of “human passions.”  The issue at hand is a simple one: what do you love?  Our hearts follow our loves—whether for good or for ill.  Peter is telling us that left to our own devices, our hearts end up in the frat house with all its “drunkenness” and “debauchery.”

In many cases, we can imagine how some Christians allow themselves to slide into morality because, let’s face it, certain behaviors might have a powerful pull on our desires.  If they didn’t, the entire advertising industry would collapse.  But in other cases, the pull doesn’t come from the desire itself, but from the community that surrounds you.  When your friends, coworkers, classmates are all clamoring to—as just one example—go see a movie containing nudity and coarse humor, you choose to ignore your conscience and attend.  Why?  Because social comfort can be purchased through social conformity.

Let me be very clear on this point.  Graceless religion tells us that certain things are “good” and certain things are “bad.”  If you engage in something “bad,” you become bad.  The gospel doesn’t deny the existence of moral absolutes, but the gospel approaches the issue through the lens of love.  After all, Peter is concerned with “human passion” here.  The gospel says that you will never flourish unless God is your first and most cherished love.  When Jesus consumes your mind and consumes your heart, then things that don’t align with his character become less significant.

Maybe an analogy would help.  When you’re on a diet, the beginning is always the hardest.  Everything looks delicious.  You begin having impure thoughts over the Wendy’s commercial.  But give it time (maybe even a lot of time!) and your tastes will begin to follow your habits.  So much so that cheating on your diet won’t seem as fun—and even if it is you might later find yourself missing your whole grains.

Ah, says the gospel.  Following Jesus is like that.  The things that Peter lists here might seem appetizing at times.  Maybe even following the crowd offers us a sense of security and comfort.  But if we turn our eyes upon Jesus, look full at his wonderful face, then the things of this world grow strangely dim, in the light of his marvelous grace.

Now, a point of clarification is surely needed, here.  When Peter says that this change in attitude enables us to “cease from sin,” I think he means that we cease to be enslaved by it.  All believers will stumble as part of their walk—even Paul seems to have had this experience at times.  But what we can be assured by is that by focusing on Jesus our desire for him grows even as our desire to serve self shrinks.

JUSTICE IS COMING

So what hope is there?  Peter writes:

4 With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; 5 but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does. (1 Peter 4:4-6)

Peter acknowledges that a different lifestyle can result in ridicule.  But don’t lose hope, Peter tells us.  Justice is coming.

Peter’s emphasis on God’s future is a major thread throughout the book of 1 Peter.  Here, he seems to use it as a source of comfort.  First, that those who are wrong will received final justice in the end.  But second, that the gospel is effective.

This leads us to the confusion of verse 6.  What does it mean that “the gospel was preached even to those who are dead?”  Some have taken this to mean that Jesus somehow descended to Hell to offer the dead a second chance.  But nowhere else in Scripture do we find such an idea, so this idea seems pretty flimsy.  It might be merely a metaphor, referring to those who are spiritually dead.  This is more helpful, but if you think about it, it’s not that helpful for those struggling with social pressures and persecution.  In his study of 1 Peter, Wayne Grudem takes note of the past tense here.  He says that Peter must be referring to those that heard the gospel when they were alive, but have since died.  This is Peter’s way of answering the obvious question: “What happens if they kill us?”  And the answer, Peter says, is that they are transformed into life.  It’s like my friend Jared likes to say: “Cheer up; the worst they can do is kill us.”

As Christians, then, we “open carry” the cross—we arm ourselves with vulnerability and weakness, because those values are at the center of God’s plan to bring life to the dead and hope to the hopeless.

 

[1] Thielman, 583.

Jesus Preached to Spirits? Baptism Saves? (1 Peter 3:18-22)

One of the standard commentaries on the Scriptures (The Expositors Bible Commentary) begins this section by saying, “This section contains some of the most difficult exegetical problems in the New Testament.”

You think so? Yes … I vote it as the #1 most convoluted and difficult to understand passage of them all. I’d almost rather have to write about Song of Solomon! If I go into trying to give you all of the details and variant views of Greek constructions, I will end up doing what others have done — essentially writing a book on it.

Rather than do that, let me instead simply tell you what I think this passage is saying; and this is an interpretation that is standard in large part among conservative, evangelical scholars.

Here is the passage … remembering as you read this, that it follows on the heels of an extended section of suffering for righteousness …

3:18 – For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.

3:19 – After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.

Though Jesus was put to death physically, he was not eliminated in any way; he yet lived as the victor over the grave as would be vindicated by his resurrection.

So who are these spirits to whom Jesus preached, where are they, and what did he preach to them? Though various views have been given over the years, here is a brief on what this means…

You may recall that the Scriptures teach that Noah was a preacher of righteousness. You recall also that Noah spent a great many years (with his family) building a boat in the middle of nowhere, surely receiving the scoffing ridicule of the perverse generation of people in his day. Jesus was in him (in spirit / in a pre-incarnate way) preaching to that generation who were then lost in the judgment of the flood. And those spirits are now imprisoned (meaning in hell) awaiting a final judgment.

Noah and his family — a total of eight people — were saved through the waters of the flood. The water did not save them, but they came through the water and out to the other side of the flood as having been saved from God’s wrath. This thought of going through water to salvation on the other side becomes in Peter’s mind a symbol that is like baptism. This rite does not wash sins away, but it symbolizes identification with Christ as the one who saves.

And finally the last verse picks up this very theme of Christ’s victorious exaltation: the culmination of Christ’s suffering by triumphing over the hostile forces of this world.

The practical application of this writing — both for the readers of Peter’s original letter and down to us today — is that we may have confident peace that no matter how dark the world may seem at present, our certain hope is that God’s ultimate justice prevails. In a crazy world with a lot of crazy people both in charge and trying to get in charge, this is a truth that gives me peace each evening at the end of the newscast. And I trust it does for you also.

(Our original schedule called for these ideas today to have been in separate writings today and tomorrow, but for the sake of clarity, I have combined them into the one post. So the next devotional will be next Monday, written by Chris after his great sermon on Sunday.)

Destined for Trials (1 Thessalonians 2-3)

On Sunday, I spoke to the church about a trip I took to Turkey in 1999 with a group of pastors and denominational missions leaders. One day we were in Ankara, being shown certain sites by one of our two missionary hosts in the country.

On the edge of a particular marketplace was an Islamic shrine, and vendors were selling various relics that would give the buyer good luck if you prayed with those objects in the holy place. Our group was being told by our host that it was in honor of a particular cleric who was well-loved for his piety and many trips to Mecca.

A local man who could understand some English was listening, and then spoke Turkish with our host, obviously discussing the shrine and its meaning. Another Turk came along and joined the discussion … all the while with our other missionary friend interpreting for us what was being said.

The two Turkish fellows began to talk louder and louder, directing their remarks with increasing anger toward each other. We were told that they did not agree on the significance of the cleric or the shrine. More and more people began to gather around us, and obviously they were turning into two factions — sort of like Steelers fans and Ravens fans having a discussion about Flacco versus Roethlisberger.

Our two missionaries quietly said to us, “Let’s slip out of here!”  A full-out riot was beginning, and as we were slithering away, the police were running toward the group.

The entire situation reminded me of the story of Paul and his missionary companions in Thessalonica, as recorded in Acts 17.  After speaking for three Sabbaths in the synagogue there, it says …

Acts 17:3-4 — Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women. But other Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city.

The civil authorities got involved, and Paul and his companions were sent off out of town.

Galatians is probably the first of Paul’s biblical writings, written even before the Gospels were fully completed. His second and third writings were likely the two letters to the Thessalonians, presumably written only perhaps a year apart. Among concerns the Apostle had were that some followers experienced great difficulty with persecutions and opposition … just as Peter’s recipients were likewise experiencing, and that Peter was writing to encourage them through these circumstances.

To the Thessalonians, Paul wrote …

1 Thess. 2:13 — And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe. 14 For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews 15 who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone 16 in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them fully.

Paul reflects upon the way the Thessalonians had responded to the preaching of the Gospel as a message of divine truth. They experienced the same opposition and sufferings as did the earliest believers in Jerusalem and Judea. Beyond rejecting Christ as Messiah, they were particularly hostile to the message that Gentiles could be saved and brought into a new people of God — the church.

Paul was worried about this opposition and how these young believers were withstanding it, finally hearing encouraging news that the bulk of them were standing firmly in the faith.

1 Thess. 3:1 — So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. 2 We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, 3 so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are destined for them. 4 In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. 5 For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted you and that our labors might have been in vain.

6 But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. 7 Therefore, brothers and sisters, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith.

So Paul was, of course, experiencing “distress and persecution” but was encouraged by the steadfastness of the Thessalonians. Truly, they were in a new thing together and needed the mutual encouragement of one another.

But the phrase in chapter three that stands out to me is what Paul says about persecutions in verse three: “For you know quite well that we are destined for them.”  Persecution is the normal experience for the believer in Christ.

After my several experiences with surgeries, a few days later I have had the same singular question, “Is this pain I have right now a normal thing?”  If the answer to that was “yes,” then I was good with it, knowing it was to be expected. But if the answer was “no,” then I was going to be troubled that something was truly wrong.

Those of us who have been banging around this planet now for a bunch of decades as followers of Christ should understand that the weird thing — the out of character thing — is that we have suffered so little persecution and opposition. That may change. And if it does, will you endure it like the Thessalonians did … or like the chosen strangers to whom Peter wrote did?