Tuesday, March 30, 2010

God's Chosen Pilgrims - 1 Peter 1:1-2

Audio available here (click to stream; right-click to download) or on our iTunes podcast.

How important is your identity? Considering that somewhere around 11 million Americans every year are victims of identity theft, it would seem that one’s identity is perhaps his or her most valuable asset. Think of the limitations we would have to deal with if we did not have any way to validate our identity. It would limit the way we spend money, it would affect transactions we make, it would affect paperwork that we are required to fill out on a regular basis, it would affect the way we travel, and it would affect that conversation that takes place between ourselves and the friendly police officers who are kind enough to let us know that we are travelling in excess of safe speeds. I speak with people almost weekly who find themselves in a severe hardship because their identification has been lost, misplaced, or stolen. One of the saddest events of human life that we witness is when folks are affected by an illness or disorder that causes them to begin to forget who they are. Our identity is crucial to understand.

In one sense, we could look at the opening words of First Peter as a formal letter typed on official letterhead. At the top is the insignia of the sender – Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ. A few lines down along the left hand margin would be the recipients address – To the Christians in the various regions of Asia Minor. And then a few lines down, May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure, which is the first century equivalent of, “Dear Friends, … .” Many ancient letters, particularly Christian letters, begin with this or a similar greeting. But, these words indicate far more than just these banal facts and formalities. The opening words of most of the New Testament epistles are filled with a theological richness that rewards the careful student of Scripture. Here in these verses we have more than just an addressed manila envelope that covers the letters more substantive contents. We have here a clear description of the Christian’s identity. And this identity is as important as our driver’s license, Social Security number, last four digits, CVC code, or any other means of validating our identity in the marketplace of our society. In fact, I would say that it is infinitely more valuable even than all of these combined. If we forget, misunderstand, or lose sight of our spiritual identity as Christians, we will be disoriented and frustrated in this life, confused about our relationship with God or the world around us. And some who claim to be Christians who are not actually described by these identifying factors, making them guilty of spiritual identity theft. So, what is our spiritual identity? Two words clarify it for us in these two verses: aliens and chosen. These two terms mark out the Christian as God’s Chosen Pilgrims, and this identity reflects the two primary relationships that define our lives.

I. God’s Chosen Pilgrims are identified by their relationship with the world (v1)

A few years ago, Donia and I were in a coffee shop in Winston-Salem with Geoff and Nicole. Geoff wandered into the restroom and immediately turned around and came back out and asked me to come in with him. Now you understand, guys aren’t like girls … we don’t go to the restroom in groups, so this was a bit unusual. But I went in and saw what had taken him by surprise. There on the wall, someone had drawn an enormous heart on the wall and written inside of it, “Donia and Russ 4-Ever.” Although I’m still not sure that there may not have been some kind of practical joke being played on us, needless to say, I was in shock for days about that. Neither of our names are that common, and it would be hard to imagine that there are many Donias and Russes out there who are together forever in a bond of love. But the geography of it was really puzzling: this graffiti was on a wall in our own hometown. It is still an unsolved mystery, but it serves to illustrate that geography is an important part of identity.

Peter identifies the original audience of his letter as residents of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. This was a vast territory of several regions in Asia Minor which are now encapsulated in the country of Turkey. That is where these Christians to whom Peter was writing lived. But it wasn’t home for them. They had been “scattered” there. The word Peter uses is diasporas, from which we get the English word disperse. But long before, this word had a very technical reference to describe the Jewish people who had been uprooted from their homeland and carried off into Babylon in captivity or scattered abroad by the subsequent occupying powers of Palestine. But Peter wasn’t writing to an exclusively Jewish population. Indications in the letter demonstrate that he was writing to a mixed group of Jews and Gentiles, all of whom were now followers of Jesus Christ. But they would have connected with the idea of the Jewish Diaspora, and understood how this term would have applied to them.

Though there are many theories about who these people were, it seems likely to me that they had at one time been residents of Rome, which Peter cryptically refers to as “Babylon” in 5:13, further extending this metaphor. At some point they had been “deported” from Rome to Asia Minor. Around 49 AD, the Roman Emperor Claudius commanded a massive expulsion of Jews and Christians from Rome. This event is mentioned in Acts 18. He is also known to have established Roman colonies across the Empire, including the five provinces listed here. In fact, he is the only Emperor who established colonies in each of these areas, and he was known to populate his colonies with exiles from Rome. Why did he kick out all of these Jews and Christians? The first century historian Seutonius states that it was because of frequent disturbances instigated by “Chrestus.” This was a common Latin misspelling of “Christ,” leading many (myself included) to conclude that it was the preaching and witnessing of Christians (who may have included the Apostle Peter at that time) that caused a disturbance of the peace, and led to the deportations.

So, here they were, living far from the city they had once called home, amidst people who spoke a different language, had different cultural values, different religious ideas and different social customs. And Peter uses their sociopolitical situation to shed light on their spiritual situation and ours. Just as they were foreigners in Asia Minor, so all Christians are aliens in this world. In that sense, it doesn’t matter where we are or how we got there. We are all pilgrims on a journey. This world is not our home. Because of our faith in Christ, our citizenship is in the Kingdom of Heaven. The Apostle Paul says this very thing in Philippians 3:20.

As we live for Christ in this world, whether we are in Turkey or America, North Carolina or Eastern Siberia, we are increasingly aware that we are not home. They don’t speak our language here. They don’t share our beliefs and values here. We don’t understand them and they don’t understand us. They will sometimes treat us harshly because of our faith in Christ and our true citizenship. The Christians who received this letter from Peter were experiencing these very realities, as the letter will go on to illustrate. Many of us have traveled or even lived abroad, and can relate to the idea of a longing for home. At first, the foreign customs and culture is intriguing, but over time, the strangeness of it all can become frustrating and we just want to get back to where we belong. But Peter would have these Christians know that that place isn’t Rome, it is heaven, where our true citizenship lies.

C. S. Lewis writes in The Weight of Glory about “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” For the Christian, there ought to be an increasing longing for home, and that true home is a place we have not yet visited, except we have seen glimpses of it in our worship and service to the Lord. But we want to have the passport stamped at the portal and know that we have finally made it home. This isn’t it. We must never mistake this place for home. When the affairs of politics and society make us increasingly weary, we need to remember that we are just here on a temporary visa. The old gospel song said, “This world is not my home, I’m just a’passin’ through.”

But along the way, we are also ambassadors for our homeland trying to recruit new citizens for it as well. The word Peter uses for “alien” here is a word that could literally be broken down to its component parts meaning “beside the people.” We live in the midst of the people of this world, but we are not one with them. We stand beside of them as God’s own people who represent Him to the world. We are not of the world, but God has placed us, scattered us if you will, throughout the world to tell others that there is a better place to call home and to invite them in. And we know the way to that place: Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6).

Our relationship to the world is a key to our spiritual identity. We are scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia; scattered throughout Greensboro, throughout North Carolina, throughout America and every other country and continent of the world. But we are aliens; pilgrims passing through; ambassadors on mission for the King of our True Homeland. And if we ever start to feel too much at home in this world, we are in the midst of a spiritual identity crisis.

II. God’s Chosen Pilgrims are identified by their relationship with the Lord (v2)

Have you ever noticed that some things are defined by negation? That is, it is easier to describe what they are NOT than what they ARE. One example I remember from high school geometry was the oblique triangle. We learned that a right triangle was a triangle that has a 90-degree, or right, angle in it. An oblique triangle is any triangle that is not a right triangle. Well, you can see that definitions by negation may be helpful for distinguishing one thing from another, but they do not help us understand what a thing is in and of itself. So, if we simply identify Christians as those who are not at home in this world, that would be an incomplete definition (not to mention very confusing). There must be something more than a negation in our identity. There must be some positive relationship that marks us as God’s Pilgrims. And that word in our text is the term Chosen. We are not merely identified by our detachment from this world but by our attachment to the Triune God: God the Father, the Holy Spirit, and the Lord Jesus Christ. And this attachment, this relationship is the result of His divine initiative in which He has chosen us. We are not merely pilgrims in this world, we are His Chosen Pilgrims.

So how, then, are we chosen? Peter says here that we are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father. A common misunderstanding of God’s choosing according to foreknowledge would say that God looked down through the corridors of time and saw all of those who would choose to believe in Christ, and elected them to salvation. That sounds attractive to us, but for all the wrong reasons. It violates three very important Scriptural realities. First, it makes man’s sovereignty superior to God’s. By definition, the sovereignty of God means that His will is not subject to the dictates of another. But if we view ourselves as the first actor, and God as a subsequent reactor, then we are making ourselves more sovereign than He is. Second, it undermines grace, for it makes our choice the basis for God’s choice. There is some sense of merit or deservedness and works involved in this, and the Bible says repeatedly that God’s choice of us was based on nothing we did. Third, it assumes that we are able to make this choice in the first place. But we are spiritually dead in sin, and Paul says in Romans 3:11, quoting from the Psalms that “there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God.” First John 4:10 says it this way: “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” God knew us intimately before we were born, and even before the world was created. And in spite of His knowledge of our sinfulness, He marked out some to be His own completely by His love and grace. So there is absolutely no room for boasting, only for worshiping Him in awe of His sovereign glory and grace!

Then notice that we are chosen not only according to the foreknowledge of God the Father but also by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. Sanctification is related to the idea of consecration, setting something aside for a holy purpose. But it goes beyond this in that it is not merely a designation or a declaration; sanctification actually involves the making of a thing holy. We have not always been aliens in this world. At one time, we were right at home here. Peter will speak later in this letter about “the futile way of life inherited from your forefathers,” and says that in their past they “pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries.” But along the way, a change was made. It was more than just the turning over of a new leaf; it was an uprooting and a replanting of a whole new tree! And what began this in our lives was the work of the Holy Spirit. He began to reveal God to us, to convict us of our sinfulness, and to show us that a Savior had been provided in Jesus Christ. And ultimately, He moved upon our hearts to regenerate us – to convert us from our old way of living to an entirely new way of life toward God. He called us out of this world and into the Kingdom of God. And once awakened from the death of sin, we realized that we were made for something more than the satisfaction of our own pleasures. We were made by God, separated from God, and called back to God through the saving work of Jesus. The Holy Spirit is the one who caused this change within us by His sanctifying work. God has chosen us according to His foreknowledge, and His Spirit came upon us to make us aware of that fact.
This work of the Spirit brings us to the point of personal commitment of faith and trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Peter uses an Old Testament image here to describe this, saying that we were chosen … to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood. With these words, he transports us back to Mount Sinai, where Exodus 24 records the establishment of the Covenant of the Law with Israel. For no particular reason within themselves, God had graciously and sovereignly chosen Israel out of all the nations to be His own. And Moses had received the Law from God which specified the terms of their covenant relationship with Him. To ratify this covenant, Moses commanded a sacrifice of bulls. Half the blood was sprinkled upon the altar and the rest was put aside momentarily. Then he read the book of God’s Law to the people and they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!” And Moses then took the blood that had been set aside in basins and sprinkled it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” To modern sensitivities, the idea of being splattered with the blood of bulls is rather repulsive, but these people understood precisely what was happening. This blood that was sprinkled on them signified two realities: First, that their sins had been washed away, and two, that they were now bound to God in a covenant relationship. The ancient world was one in which covenant-agreements were common, and they understood that covenants were sealed with blood.
Now, Peter is framing his picture of our relationship to God through Jesus Christ against this background. As the Holy Spirit performs His calling, convicting, converting, consecrating work in our hearts, we are brought, as it were, not to Sinai, but to the foot of the cross of Jesus. And there we see the sacrifice that was made for us – the blood He shed for our sins on Calvary in His death. This is the Word that is proclaimed to us … the Word made flesh and slaughtered for us on the cross. What will we do? What will we say about that? We will say, “Yes, Jesus, You are my Lord!” This is what the Apostle Paul calls “the obedience of faith,” in the book of Romans. It is obeying the inward call of the Spirit to proclaim Christ as Lord and Savior. And instantaneously with that confession of faith in Him, we are sprinkled with blood—yet not the blood of bulls, but the blood of Jesus Himself. At the Last Supper, as He shared the cup with His disciples, He said to them that it represented “My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24 NASB). And so by the sprinkling of this blood, our sins are cleansed and we are bound in a new covenant with God through Jesus Christ. This is what we were chosen for!

And so Peter reminds his audience, and the Spirit continues to speak to us through these inspired words, that they are God’s Chosen Pilgrims, identified by their relationship with the Triune God: chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father; chosen by the sanctifying work of the Spirit; chosen to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood. And all of this is the outworking of God’s grace toward us. By His grace, we who were in rebellion against Him have now been brought into His peace. Colossians 1:20 says that Christ made peace through the blood of His cross. And Peter’s prayerful desire for his readers, which includes today you and me, is that this “grace and peace” would be ours “in the fullest measure.” The grace that brought us to salvation in Jesus Christ continues to work in us, establishing us in the faith and making our lives more like Christ Himself as the Spirit works in us. The obedience of faith that we confessed when we first turned to Christ is becoming in us an obedience of love and hope as we live in gratitude for His grace and the peace that the Cross offers us.

But if it is all a matter of God’s choosing, how then can we know if we have been chosen? Consider what Jesus said in John 6:37 and 6:44, that corresponds exactly with what Peter says here. He said, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” And then He said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.” “All that the Father gives Me” – that is the sovereign choosing according to the foreknowledge of God. “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” – that involves the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. “Will come to Me” – that is the obedience of faith, coming to Him as Lord and Savior of our lives. “I will certainly not cast out,” and “I will raise Him up on the last day” – that is the eternally secure bond of His blood bought covenant. So do you want to know if God has chosen you? We know by the effects of His choosing: Has the Spirit drawn you to Christ? And have you placed your faith and trust in Him? Martin Luther said it this way: “Do you acknowledge that you are by nature a child of wrath, worthy of eternal death and condemnation, from which no creature, neither human nor angelic, can save you? And do you accordingly grasp the promise of God and believe that He is the merciful, true God, who faithfully keeps what He has spoken, moved by pure grace without our work and merit, and has therefore sent Christ, his only Son, in order to make satisfaction for your sins and impute to you His innocence and righteousness, to redeem you finally from all need and from death? Then doubt not, you do belong to the company of the elect.”

So God’s Chosen Pilgrims are known by this identity: we are strangers, aliens, scattered about in this unfriendly world while we make our pilgrimage to our true Homeland; and we are God’s chosen ones, bound to Him through the saving work of Jesus Christ and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in the New Covenant established by His blood. Cherish this identity; treasure it above all else, and safeguard it in your hearts as if your very life depended on it, for in a very real and eternal sense, it does! Should you feel too much at home in this world, or if you have never come to Christ by faith, then to call yourself a Christian would be to commit identity theft. His people are defined by these very relationships.

This week, we reflect on the suffering and death of Jesus on the Cross as we move toward Easter Sunday when we celebrate His glorious resurrection from the dead. Friday marks the traditional day that we believe Jesus died on the cross. It has been called by Christian people for centuries “Good Friday.” The late cartoonist Johnny Hart once depicted one of his lovable cavemen in the “B.C.” strip reflecting on Good Friday with these words:
Now, who can call “Good Friday” good?
-A term too oft misunderstood-
You, who were bought by the blood of His cross
You can call “Good Friday” good.

And so we conclude today by asking you to consider His cross. Have you come to this Christ who died for your sins and asked Him to save you and be Lord of your life? If so, then you have been sprinkled by His blood, and are being sanctified by His indwelling Spirit as you progress in obedience, and in His grace and peace. This world is not home for us. We have been made citizens of a greater Kingdom than any that this world has to offer us. But if you have never come to Him as Lord and Savior, then it may be that this very day, the Spirit of God is revealing to you your need for Him. And we would urge you to surrender your life to Him by faith today.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

"I Ain't Home Yet"

As I wrap up a busy week today, a few thoughts are on my mind that are somewhat interrelated. I typically take Fridays off to take part in teaching our kids in homeschool and give my wife a little relief. Fridays and Saturdays are sort-of "on-call days" for me, in which I tie up loose ends, meditate on Sunday's message, and respond to needs as they arise, but primarily catch up on lost time with my family through the week. Monday nights, I usually have meetings, Tuesday nights I teach, Wednesday nights I have church, and Thursday nights I stay at the office late until the sermon is finished for Sunday. So that time with Donia and the kids on Fridays and Saturdays is precious and priceless. In a few moments I will leave the office and head home and as I do I am thinking about the words to a song I love.

In the song, "When I Go Home," the Benjy Davis Project sings about life on the road and the joy of coming home. Now, if your sensitivities are easily offended, you may want to bypass this song, because it contains one scatological vulgarity and some drug reference. But what shines through beyond the earthiness of those elements is the love and longing he has for a woman who's waiting for him at home. I get that! My ministry takes me far from home at times, and keeps me away from home more often. I love what I do, and thank God for the calling to serve Him with my life, but I also love being home with the three most precious people in the world to me. I can't tell you how incredible it feels to walk in the door and hear Donia say to the kids, "Daddy's home!" So I resonate with the words that this song repeats as a chorus:

No matter where I go
Baby I ain’t home yet ‘til you open up that door
I can smell you, I can tell you
That I love you even more
Than the last time that I kissed you
It’s been so long, girl, I’ve missed you
You’re the only place I go when I go home

When those words begin to flow through my iPod, I sing them loud, and I long for home. But today, I have also been studying 1 Peter 1:1-2, in which Peter describes the Christians to whom he is writing as "those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia." Though we don't live in those regions (unless by chance someone in Turkey is reading this blog), if we are believers in Jesus Christ, we are resident aliens, scattered here in this world. But it isn't home. Our citizenship is in a far better place. Paul says in Philippians 3:20 that our citizenship is in heaven. And that being so, there is no place here in this world that the Christian can truly call home. Some days the homesickness for our true Homeland stabs like a dagger! And so, as long as we are here, we aren't home, but we want to be. So if I could be a little bit of a mystic (which is highly uncharacteristic for me), and with apologies to the Benjy Davis Project, I will paraphrase my deepest homesick longings:

No matter where I go
Jesus I ain’t home yet ‘til You open up that door
There I will see You, and I will tell you
That I love you even more
Than the first time that I met You
It’s been so long, Lord, I've waited
You’re the only place I go when I go home.

That's all for now. I'm off to my favorite place on earth; that place here on earth that I call home, knowing that the joy I find there is just a foretaste of what awaits when I finally get to my real home.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Born Again to a Living Hope Through the Resurrection

Following is my article for the April issue of IBC's Newsletter, "The Messenger":

In the meticulous providence of God, we come to the study of First Peter in the heart of the Easter Season. This is wondrously appropriate, for perhaps no individual in Scripture was so radically transformed by the resurrection power of Jesus than the Apostle Peter. Perhaps best known for his threefold denial of Jesus on the evening of His betrayal and condemnation, Peter's story doesn't end there thankfully. When the women came to the tomb early that Resurrection Sunday morning, an angelic messenger told them to go and tell the disciples AND PETER that the Lord would meet with them in Galilee (Mark 16:6). Frustrated and discouraged, Peter had returned to fishing on the Sea of Galilee when the risen Lord Jesus appeared on the shore and called the disciples to Himself. Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him, and three times Peter affirmed his love for the Lord, and three times the Lord recommissioned Peter to serve Him by caring for His people; once for each time Peter denied the Lord. As a result of this encounter, Peter was restored to right fellowship with Jesus and His people. Empowered by the Spirit, Peter became the boldest spokesman for Christ in the early church. As he put pen to paper to record the inspired letter we call First Peter, the Apostle wrote to a persecuted band of believers who had been scattered across Asia Minor to encourage and embolden them to persevere in faithfulness to Christ. He begins his pastoral exhortation to them by reminding them that God the Father, "according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1 Peter 1:3). Because of Christ's victory over sin and death through His crucifixion and resurrection, we have been granted a new birth and a real and vital hope in Him. Peter's sin and failure had been great, but greater still was God's mercy, Jesus Christ's salvation, and the Holy Spirit's power. What Peter had experienced personally, he tells the original audience of his letter that they could also experience in the midst of their hardship and suffering. And what was true for them is true for us as well. Because of Christ's resurrection we too can be born again through faith in Him, having our sins forgiven and our lives transformed by the indwelling power of the risen Christ through the person of His Spirit. And though life in this fallen world is hard, it is not hopeless. Because Christ conquered death, we have a living hope that in Him we can overcome whatever obstacle is before us, including death itself. His resurrection is the basis of our assurance that we too can experience life beyond the grave with Him. As one modern hymn writer has put it, "No guilt in life, no fear in death, this is the power of Christ in me." May the reality of Christ's resurrection do for us what it did for Peter and those to whom his first epistle was addressed! May we be ever encouraged and emboldened to face the difficulties of life in His overcoming power knowing that He has granted us new life and a living hope!

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Man Called Peter (1 Peter 1:1a)

Audio here (click to stream, right click to download) and on our podcast on iTunes.

I remember a conversation soon after I entered the ministry with an older Christian who told me that I simply must see the film entitled, “A Man Called Peter.” He said that as a young preacher, I could learn a lot from that movie. He didn’t bother to tell me that the man called Peter was not the apostle but rather Peter Marshall, one time pastor of the historic New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and chaplain of the United States Senate. So, when the opportunity came for me to see the film, I was a bit disappointed. I was expecting the story of a first-century Galilean fisherman, and found instead the story of a Scotch Presbyterian who influenced the halls of American political power in the middle of the 20th Century. And though certainly, preachers and Christians can learn much from the story of Peter Marshall, there is another man called Peter from whom we stand to learn much more. It is this Peter who puts pen to paper to record for all generations the divinely inspired truths we will explore in coming weeks and months as we dive into the first epistle that bears his name. He identifies himself in the opening words as “an apostle of Jesus Christ.” By the gracious will of God and the work of Christ and His Spirit, this man called Peter became the most prominent character of the New Testament period aside from the Lord Jesus Himself. His name occurs in the Gospels more often than any other name except Jesus. No one aside from Jesus speaks as often in the gospels, and no one is spoken to by Jesus more than Peter.

While we most commonly refer to him as Peter, others in the New Testament will refer to him as Simon (his birth-name, making him 1 of at least 9 Simons in the NT), Cephas (the Aramaic equivalent to Peter), and Simon Peter. People have characterized him as a quick-tempered man, impulsive, eager, aggressive, bold, and outspoken. MacArthur says of him that he had a “habit of revving his mouth while his brain was in neutral,” and therefore calls him “the apostle with the foot-shaped mouth.” Others have been more generous in assessing Peter. G. Campbell Morgan writes, “I never come to the study of this man without being reminded of something which Henry Drummond said concerning D. L. Moody, namely, that he was the greatest human that he had ever met. This characterization seems to me to apply to Peter.” As in most cases, the truth is somewhere in between these perspectives. I find in Peter a man who is unashamedly real. I don’t mean “real” as opposed to imaginary, but real, as in authentic and genuine, transparent, and thoroughly human. Scripture tells us about his highs and his lows. Few people were used so greatly by God, few people failed the Lord as terribly as Peter. And this is of great encouragement to us. We have a tendency to elevate the apostles to a super-spiritual status, but this would only indicate that we have not studied our Bibles very well. These are real men with real struggles, and Peter is perhaps the most real of them all as we come to know him in Scripture. So today, as we begin to walk through 1 Peter, I want to begin by introducing you to the man who wrote it. I think you will find, as a result, that he is no so much different from you and me.

I. How Peter Met the Master

Here is what we know about Peter’s life before he met Jesus. He had a brother named Andrew, and their father’s name was John or Jonah. They were fishermen. Originally Peter was from the small village of Bethsaida but had moved at some point to Capernaum. We know that he was married, but we do not know if he had children. We also know that his mother-in-law lived at least some of the time with him in Capernaum. Aside from this, we know nothing more about his life before he met Jesus. We know a great deal about Peter compared to other apostles, but almost everything we know about him comes from the time after he came to know Jesus. I wonder, do the people who know us know more about who we were before we became Christians, or do they know more about who we are in our relationship to Jesus? Peter is an example of how we ought to see and be seen by others – our primary identity consists of our relationship to Christ. So, how did Peter come to know Jesus? Compared to some biblical stories, his story may seem rather pedestrian. There was no blinding light on the Damascus Road like with Paul, no burning bush like with Moses. In fact, Peter came to know Jesus very much like most of us did.

Peter’s introduction to Jesus involved the human agency of personal evangelism. Someone introduced him to Jesus. In Peter’s case, that someone was his brother Andrew. John 1:35-42 tells us that Andrew met Jesus through John the Baptist, and soon he went to his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah!” The Bible says that Andrew “brought him to Jesus.” I would imagine that all of us could reflect back and identify the one person who first brought us to Jesus, that person who came to us and told us about the faith they had found in the Messiah. Do you remember who that person was? … And all of us know people who don’t know Jesus. How are they going to find Him? The same way we did, and the same way Peter did. Someone is going to have to tell them and bring them to Him. So why not you? Why is anyone else in the world better qualified than you are to be that person? We all know how difficult it can be to talk to our family members and closest friends about our relationship with the Lord – but aren’t you glad Andrew didn’t say, “I’d like to talk to Simon about Jesus, but you know, it’s just so hard because he’s family.” Who’s to say? Could it be that your brother, your parent, your child, your grandchild, your friend may be the next person God intends to use in great ways like he used Peter? So, perhaps He will use us like He used Andrew, to be that person who will bring the good news of Jesus to them.

Peter’s introduction to Jesus involved the human act of one person sharing his faith in Jesus with another. But it was not merely a human transaction. It never is. Spiritual conversion is never exclusively about one person talking someone else into believing something. There is a divine agency involved. A transformation of the heart must take place, and only God Himself can do that. He certainly uses the words we speak, but ultimately, God calls, God reveals, and God transforms. We see that in Peter’s case. Some time after this initial meeting, Jesus was walking along the shores of Galilee and saw Simon and Andrew fishing. The story is recorded in Matthew 4:18-20. Jesus called out to them and said, “Come, follow Me.” And they did. It was His initiative to draw them into a relationship with Himself. He was inviting them to know Him personally. And over the next three years, He would spend nearly every waking moment of life with them and the others He called. They would hear Him speak and see Him perform miracles as God made Himself known to them in the person of Jesus.

And then came that great day recorded for us in Matthew 16 when Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” It was Peter who spoke up to say, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus said, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona (meaning “Son of John”), because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” Saving faith is the result of God doing a work in human hearts to reveal Himself in Jesus and drawing that person by the power of His Spirit to make a confession of personal faith and trust in Him. This was no random decision Peter had made. As we hear about Christ and see the work He is doing in and around our lives and the lives of others, God is making Himself known to us and bringing us to the point of belief where we will be saved in relationship to Jesus. This happened for Peter as He confessed Jesus to be the Christ at Caesarea. It happened for us the moment we realized who Jesus is and that we would be utterly and hopelessly lost without Him, and then placed our faith in Him to save us. It will happen for others as we tell them about who Jesus is and what He has done for them. They will become aware of how Christ is working in our lives and theirs and in the circumstances around them to bring them to that point as well.

When Peter first met Jesus, the Lord told him, “You are Simon the son of John; you shall be called Cephas (which is translated Peter).” Jesus was pointing him forward to the day when he would become something more than what he was at that moment. He would become a rock, which is what the names Cephas and Peter mean. And when Peter finally confessed Christ as Messiah and Lord, Jesus said to him, “I say to you that you are Peter.” Now he had become what Christ had called him to be – a rock. And Jesus said to him, “upon this rock I will build my church.” Now this does not mean that the church is built on Peter. The church is built on Christ. But Peter was the first stone set in place in the building. And every person since Peter who has professed faith in Christ as a result of the drawing, calling, revealing, and transforming work of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit becomes a stone that Christ fits together in the building of His church. For this reason, Peter will write in 1 Peter 2:5, “You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house.”

Peter met the Master through the human agency of his brother and the divine agency of Christ calling, revealing, and transforming him. You and I are no different. Our lost friends will be no different. As we share our faith in Christ with them, God will work in their lives, just as He did with Peter and with us.

II. How Peter Followed the Master

Jesus’ first command to Peter was “Follow Me.” And Peter followed. You and I have also been called to follow Jesus; that is what being a disciple is all about. And so we can learn a lot about following Him by looking at one of the first people who did.

Peter followed Jesus immediately. He was fishing with his brother when Jesus called him to come and follow, and Matthew 4:20 says, “Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.” We would perfectly understand if Peter had said, “Yeah, about that … listen, I’m kind of busy right now, got a job to do, but when things slack off a bit, I’ll be happy to come follow you. Leave your card on the beach and I’ll get back to you in a bit.” We would understand that because sometimes that is how we want to follow Jesus – we want to make it a matter of convenience. But following Jesus is a matter of urgency, not convenience. We don’t choose the times or circumstances, He does. And if we say that we will obey later, then we have chosen to disobey now. Some of us are perhaps waiting for a more opportune time to follow Jesus faithfully, but now is the only moment we know we have, so we need to be like Peter and put other matters aside immediately for the sake of following Christ.

Peter also followed Jesus intimately. When Jesus prayerfully chose His disciples, Mark 3:14 says that His purpose was that they might “be with Him,” and that “He might send them out to preach.” But the sending out to preach was secondary to the “being with Him.” His call to follow was a call to fellowship. Multitudes of people flocked to see and hear Jesus, but only 12 were chosen to be with Him all the time. Of those 12, it seems that 3 were a part of a special inner-circle of intimate fellowship with Him: Peter, James and John. These three were among the first to be called by Jesus and were with Him in some very significant moments. They were the only disciples present when Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead in Mark 5; when He was transfigured in the fullness of His glory in Mark 9; when He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane in Mark 14; and it was Peter and John whom Jesus sent ahead to prepare for the last Passover meal in Luke 22. These three were granted virtually unlimited access to Jesus and had opportunities to see and hear things that even the other 9 apostles didn’t. Why is this? It is not because they were greater than the others in and of themselves. It was simply a matter of Jesus’ gracious choice to have this kind of intimate fellowship with them. And He has chosen each of us to have that same kind of fellowship and access to Him. Because of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives, we have access and opportunities for intimate fellowship with Jesus at all times. So the real question for us is, “Are we making the most of those opportunities?” Are we following Him intimately? Do we make time for Christ and look for opportunities to be with Him and learn from Him?

Then we should also point out that Peter followed Jesus imperfectly. It seems in the Gospels that for every step forward he makes, he takes at least a step or more backward. And it often seems that the moments of his most significant failures come fast on the heels of his greatest successes. After confessing Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Peter heard Jesus foretell about how He would be crucified, and Peter had the audacity to rebuke Jesus! Matt 16:22 says that Peter said, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.” And Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” He had just called him a rock a moment before, and now He calls him Satan because Peter had yet to understand the purposes of God fully. Like Satan, Peter would have Jesus avoid the cross that He came to bear for the salvation of the world. This is but one example of Peter’s imperfect following. In fact, of the apostles, none ever attempted to rebuke Jesus to His face like Peter, and none were rebuked so frequently by the Lord as Peter. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus alternately uses his names Simon and Peter to reflect Peter’s spiritual condition. When he fails the Lord, Peter calls him Simon, as if to say, “You are still acting like the man you were before I called you.” But then there are those moments of greatness when Jesus calls him Peter, as if to say, “Now you are acting like the man I called you to be.”

So Peter is much like us. At our best moments, we are still imperfect followers – sometimes tremendously spiritual, while at other times, tragically carnal. Sometimes we are strong in the Spirit, walking in the new nature Christ has given us, and sometimes looking far too much like the old person who is supposed to be dead to sin now. But thanks be to God, Jesus never gave up on Peter, and this encourages us that He will never give up on us when we falter in our following. Peter learned that in spite of his sinful tendencies and spiritual weakness, the Lord still wanted to use him and would restore and uphold him. Just like Peter, we should follow Jesus immediately, we can follow Him intimately, but we will continue to follow Him imperfectly. But the perfect grace of God will continue to rescue and restore us, even if we have to undergo a season of rebuke and painful correction.

Now we turn to that blackest spot on Peter’s record and consider …

III. How Peter Failed the Master

As Jesus gathered His disciples together for a final meal, He told them what was getting ready to happen. He reminded them that He would be handed over and taken away to be put to death, and He warned them that they would all fall away from Him on that very night. Again Peter rebuked the Lord. Matt 26:33 records that Peter said, “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away.” But Jesus assured Peter that he would in fact deny him three times before the rooster crowed twice. And we all know what happened. Mark tells us in Ch 14 of his Gospel that Peter had followed Jesus to the hall of judgment from a safe distance, and as he observed what was going on, he was warming himself by a charcoal fire with others gathered there. The people began to question Peter about his relationship with Jesus, and Peter denied the Lord, and denied Him again, and denied Him a third time, each time more forcibly than before. And as Peter heard that rooster crow the second time, Luke 22:61 says that Jesus “turned and looked at Peter.” Looking through the mob around him, Jesus’ eyes met Peter’s, and Peter fled weeping from the scene. He had failed the Lord terribly.

Though his failure was terrible, we can give thanks to God that it wasn’t terminal. Jesus knew what Peter would do, He warned Him about it, and He even told him before it happened that He had prayed for him. In Luke 22:31-32, Jesus told Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers." This was an assurance that though he would fail away temporarily, he would “turn again,” and Jesus would use him once more. I knew a Christian lady once who said to me, “I have no respect for Peter because of what he did to Jesus!” Perhaps you have been critically judgmental about Peter because of his denials too. But consider these two things: 1) Have you not failed the Lord terribly yourself? I dare say we all have, with some of us denying Him many more than three times. 2) Have you ever thought about the fact that Peter stayed with Jesus that night longer than any of the other disciples? They had all fled long before, disappearing like a vapor into the night. Peter alone had stayed with Jesus all the way to the high priest’s courtyard. And though we would not make excuses for him, we can agree with William Barclay who says of him, “Peter’s failure was the kind of failure that could have happened only to a brave man. He alone was in a position to fail; the others had fled long ago.” And in the same situation, there would be precious few of us with enough courage to stand as long as Peter did!

On the Sunday morning following Jesus’ death, some women had come to the tomb to anoint His body, and they were met by an angelic messenger who reported to them that Jesus had risen from the dead! And the messenger tells them in Mark 16:7, “Go, tell His disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you.'” Did you notice that? “His disciples AND PETER!” Jesus had a special message for Peter. He wasn’t finished with him yet. And as Peter and some of the others were out fishing on the Sea of Galilee early one morning, they heard the risen Jesus calling them from the shore. Peter was the first to jump out of the boat and splash through the water to meet Him. In those tender moments recorded for us in John 21, Peter found Jesus cooking fish on “a charcoal fire.” Why that detail? Why “a charcoal fire”? There is only one other time in the NT where this word is used. It is the same kind of fire that Peter was warming himself by when he denied the Lord. Now Jesus confronts him about his denials and says, “Simon, son of John (using his old name), do you love Me more than these?” What did He mean, “more than these?” Remember that when Jesus told the disciples that they would all fall away, Peter brashly asserted, “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away.” I think Jesus was saying to Peter, “Well, now, its all been done, and can you still say that your love for Me is greater than any of the other disciples?” And Peter’s response is, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” But he no longer suggests that his love is greater than the others. Three times the Lord asks Peter if he loves Him. Three times, Peter affirms that he does. Three times Jesus recommissions Peter to serve Him. Once for each time Peter denied Christ. His failure was terrible, but it wasn’t terminal. In grace, in mercy, and in love, Jesus restored Peter to his place of service in the Kingdom. And from that day forward, Peter served the Lord faithfully. Have you failed the Lord? It might have been terrible, but it doesn’t have to be terminal. You can turn again, and Christ will receive you in His grace, restore you, and recommission you to serve Him. If He did it for Peter, you have no reason to doubt that He will do it for you.

And that brings us to the final point.

IV. How Peter Served the Master

From the time of his recommission, Peter stands out as a remarkable servant of Christ. The remainder of the NT shows us that he was a great leader among the earliest generation of Christians in the ancient church. We find him serving the Master with an open mouth. No longer the timid denier of Christ, Peter is transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit into the boldest preacher of the church. In Acts 2, when the Spirit came on the Day of Pentecost, it was Peter who rose to speak to the crowd, and 3,000 were saved. He preaches again at the Jerusalem Temple in Acts 3 and Acts 9 tells us that he ministered far and wide throughout the region. Peter had apparently learned to make the most of every opportunity to serve the Lord with his mouth open for the cause of the gospel.

We see him serving the Master with a courageous heart. Every time he preached in Jerusalem, he had to know that in the crowds of people were many who had cried out for the crucifixion of Jesus. In the middle of his sermon in Acts 3, he was interrupted by the temple guard and Sadducees who imprisoned him along with John. When they commanded the apostles to speak no longer in the name of Jesus, Peter replied in Acts 4:19-20, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” And after receiving more threats and being released, Peter and the others prayed that the Lord would give them even more boldness to speak for Christ. After being arrested once more in Acts 5 for preaching, he and the others were miraculously released from their captivity and returned to preaching yet again. When they were confronted, Peter said defiantly in Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men.” Courageously, he defied social customs to enter the home of the Gentile Cornelius in Acts 10 and share the Gospel with him and his family. Though Paul would come to be known as the Apostle to the Gentiles, it was Peter who first took the Gospel to the Gentiles as he preached to the household of Cornelius. This paved the way for the church to take the mission of Christ beyond the bounds of Israel to Gentiles all over the world. Following the martyrdom of the Apostle James in Acts 12, Peter was imprisoned once more, this time knowing that he would have faced his own death, had it not been for another miraculous jail break. And then he departed, Acts 12:17 says, and went to “another place.” But he didn’t stop serving Christ courageously. We know, for instance, from 1 Corinthians that he had likely traveled through and perhaps ministered for a while in the wicked city of Corinth. And there is good reason to believe that he was among the first to take the Gospel to the pagan imperial capital city of Rome where legendary accounts demonstrate him serving boldly there in the face of much opposition.

And yet, Peter had the rare ability to combine the prophetic boldness we see in those scenes with a pastoral tenderness that is so necessary in service to Christ’s church. We see it most clearly in the two epistles that bear his name. Addressed to those whom he had perhaps pastored in Rome before they were exiled to Asia Minor under the emperor Claudius, First Peter is called by one NT scholar describes as a “model of a pastoral letter.” He comes along side of his friends in that letter comforting them in the midst of their suffering. He is shepherding the sheep against the attacks of lions from the outside. But in the second letter, he shepherds them against the attacks of wolves on the inside, false teachers who had arisen within the church proclaiming heresy. And Peter, who calls himself in 1 Peter 5 a “fellow elder,” a NT term for a pastor, knows that both of these dangers are destructive. So he does what all great pastors should do by encouraging the believers to be on alert against the attacks that face the church from the outside and inside.

Then finally, we see how Peter served the Lord with persevering faith. In John 21:18, after restoring Peter to right fellowship, Jesus says to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.” John had the luxury of looking back on that statement many years later and realizing that Jesus was talking about his death. He writes in John 21:19, “Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, ‘Follow Me!’” And Peter would follow Jesus in faithful perseverance all the way to his death. The Bible doesn’t record it, but the tradition is virtually uncontested which says that Peter was apprehended by Roman authorities sometime in the 60s AD and put to death under the hand of the maniacal emperor Nero. A lesser known tradition states that Peter was forced to watch his wife put to death first, and that as she died, Peter cried out to her, “Remember the Lord.” Days later, Peter would be crucified like Jesus was. The exception is, according to legend that Peter requested to be crucified upside down, for he felt unworthy to die like Jesus did. He was faithful to the end, following Jesus through much hardship until death brought him together face-to-face with the Lord once more. He had travelled a rough road full of spiritual ups and downs, but he finished well for Christ.

Like Peter, we know that death is coming for us as well. How will we finish? And what will we do with the days we have left? Peter lived out his days in service to the Master, proclaiming the gospel with courage and boldness, serving God’s people in the church, and overcoming all obstacles by his persevering faith. We could never hope to improve on that. The epitaph on Peter’s life is his final words recorded in Scripture: 2 Peter 3:18 “Grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” That’s what Simon Peter did, and it is what each of us should do as well … spend the rest of our days growing in our relationship with Jesus and bringing glory to Him.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

More on Patrick of Ireland

I've also spent some time today going back through Greg Tobin's book The Wisdom of St. Patrick. While it is decidedly more Catholic, and acknowledges much of the mythology that surrounds Patrick, it is nonetheless an interesting and rewarding read, and contains in the appendices The Confession, the Letter, the Lorica, and the hymn of Secundinus.

"The Romans had not dared to conquer this wild island by might of arms, but Patrick, a Roman himself, sought his mission and succeeded where no general or statesman ever had: to win the souls of the Irish for Christ, his King."

"He vociferously proclaimed his own imperfection and unworthiness, acknowledged and defended himself against the hatred of accusers in his own country, boasted about the thousands of Irish whom he baptized and brought into the Church of Christ, excommunicated the violators of Christian innocents with ringing, righteous anger, claimed no special miraculous powers that others imputed to him in later times yet saw many visions, and sought the protection and guidance of his Divine Father in a 'mission impossible' about four hundred years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth."

"He must have been an especial reader of St. Paul's epistles, based on the frequency of quotations and similarity of language in Patrick's writing. ... He learned the Scriptures as a handbook for salvation."

"His language, various translators tell us, was imperfect, imprecise, at times almost incomprehensible. He was no rhetorician; he missed that class. So, he speaks from the heart, in a way few, if any, writers of the late classical age (e.g., St. Augustine) did. He could not do otherwise, for, as he tells us in no uncertain terms, he knows only how to speak the truth in blunt, even crude, everyday language."

"St. Patrick's spirituality is simple, direct, practical, as earthy as it is mystical, not so much Roman Catholic as baseline Christian, not so much Irish as truly universal (catholic with a small c)."

"Patrick's language is most often very plain, and at the same time very spiritual, rife with direct and paraphrased quotations from the New Testament. Patrick drew liberally from scriptural passages in his own writing to give voice and validity to his arguments."

"St. Patrick's commitment to Christ, to Church, to fellow Christians, to those who had not yet received the gospel message, was unbreakable. He was ready--and he proclaimed it in no uncertain terms--to lay down his life (though not to squander it trivially, for he knew of its potency) in the cause of truth, as he understood it."

"He is a quintessential Christian missionary whose message and personality seem to flower throughout the generations."

"The kings and druids were by their very nature hostile to Patrick's mission. At the same time, Patrick apparently encountered a willing and generous people who showed their gratitude to him with offers of gifts, which he, on principle, refused."

"He gave much and yet expected nothing in return but their faith."

"He chose to live in this distant and alien but not unfamiliar (to him) land as a demonstration of his commitment to Christ. His mission took him back to the site of his captivity and enslavement, and he vowed never to leave the Irish people again, as long as he lived. To the 'heathens' who were his former captors, he brought the ultimate and most precious gift: the love of God."

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

In honor of the great missionary-evangelist, Patrick of Ireland, I went back through my copy of his Confessions and Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus today and jotted down some salient quotes about him and from him. All quotes below are from The Confession of Saint Patrick and Letter to Coroticus translated by John Skinner, 1998, Doubleday Image, which is available for purchase from Amazon here. Previous blog entries I have posted about Patrick can be found here.

Quotes about Patrick:
"Patrick was a man of one book who ate, drank, and dreamed his Latin Bible. Practically every line of his writings contains a Bible phrase or quotation." John Skinner

"The Bible's rhythm had become his own: the chiastic paired statements that characterize so much of Old and New Testament books, as in the opening of John's Gospel, find their echo in Patrick's writings like some lonely bell buoy tolling the entrance to a safe harbor." Skinner

"We know two things for certain: He read his Bible and he prayed." Skinner

"Patrick almost certainly did not write the Lorica, or Breastplate, ... yet it breathes his spirit, for it tells how much of a pitched battle Patrick must have waged against the druids of the pagan world he had come to turn." Skinner

Quotes from Patrick:

"I am Patrick, yes a sinner and indeed untaught .... I am certain in my heart that 'all that I am,' I have received from God. So I live among barbarous tribes, a stranger and exile for the love of God." (Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus)

"If I have any worth, it is to live my life for God so as to teach these peoples."

"I am a slave in Christ to this faraway people for the indescribable glory of everlasting life which is in Jesus Christ our Lord."

"Far away from the love of God is the man who betrays my Christians."

"If this wicked deed, so horrible, so unutterable, had to happen, thanks be to God, as men, believing and baptized, you have left this world behind for paradise. I can see you all clearly: you have set out for where 'there will be no more night,' 'no more lament, neither death.' 'There your hearts will leap, like calves let free from the tether, and you will trample down the wicked underfoot, and they will be like dust under your feet.' Therefore will you reign with the apostles and the prophets and all the martyrs. You will attain the eternal kingdoms. Just as he testifies, exactly as he declares: 'They will come from East and the West, and they will rest with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven."

"I am Patrick, yes a sinner, and the simplest of peasants, so that I am despised by the majority of men." (Confessions)

"I was like some great stone lying deep in mud until 'He who is power' came and 'in his mercy' lifted me up. ... he placed me on the very top of the wall. And so, because of that, I must shout out loud 'to the Lord in order to give back' some small thing for all his gifts that are so great both here and in eternity."

"Who stirred up me, a fool, ... to be fit to help (if only I could!) faithfully and 'in fear and trembling' and without any complaint that race of people to which the love of Christ drew me and thus spend the rest of my life, if only I might prove worthy; simple to serve them in humility and truth."

"I must take this decision, disregarding any risks involved, and make known 'the gifts of God and his everlasting consolation.' Neither must we fear any such risk in faithfully preaching God's name boldly in every place, so that even after my death a spiritual legacy may be left for my brethren and my children."

"I had a vision in my dreams of a man who seemed to come from Ireland: his name was Victoricius and he carried countless letters, one of which he handed over to me. I read aloud where it began: 'The Voice of the Irish.' And as I began to read these words I seemed to hear the voice of the same men who lived beside the forest of Foclut, which lies near the Western sea where the sun sets. They seemed to shout aloud to me 'as if with one and the same voice': 'Holy broth of a boy, we beg you, come back and walk once more among us.' I was utterly 'pierced to my heart's core,' so that I could read no more."

"Who am I, Lord, or what is my calling, that you have appeared to me in such divine power. So that today, among the gentiles, I may praise you ceaselessly and magnify your name, wherever I may be. And this, not merely in good times, but also in distress. So that whatever will come my way, whether good or bad, I may accept it calmly , and always give thanks to God, who has ever shown me how I should believe in him unfailing without end. And he has heard and helped me, so that I, for all my ignorance, should 'in these latter days' dare to undertake this work that is so holy and so wonderful. Thus, in some small way, I may come to imitate those whom long ago the Lord foretold would announce his gospel, 'as a sign to all the gentiles before the world comes its end.'"

"Should I prove worthy, I am ready and willing to give up my own life, without hesitation for his name."

"There would I be glad to pour out my soul even to the point of death, if the Lord would grant it me, because I am so much in God's debt. For he gave me such great grace, that many people through me were reborn to God."

"It is our duty to fish well and with loving care, just as the Lord urges and teaches us."

"What I fear most is to lose the labor I have begun, and not I alone, but Christ the Lord, who bade me come here and be with them for the rest of my life, if the Lord so desires. And he will shield me from every evil, so that I do no sin in his sight."

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Message of Ephesians

Audio available here (click to stream, right-click to download)

Ephesians 6:23-24
Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ with incorruptible love.

After nearly a year of studying this great book of the New Testament verse-by-verse, we come today to the end of it. The Christians in Ephesus were close to the Apostle Paul’s heart. For three years he had labored among them during his third missionary journey, and Acts 20 records for us the emotional farewell he had exchanged when last he saw the Ephesian church leaders face-to-face. Now, as he is imprisoned in Rome, seeing his own death approaching fast on the horizon, he has sent them this final letter. There are many ways we could summarize the main teaching of Ephesians, but I have chosen to use the four key words Paul uses in his farewell here: Peace, Love, Faith, and Grace. He could have closed this letter in any particular way he saw fit, but writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, these are the words which he felt impressed to share as penned his final greeting to them. Each of these words are like strands that run through the entire book from beginning to end, and as Paul concludes the letter, it is as if he has brought them together to form a great bow on the package. They form a lasting reminder to the Christians in Ephesus of the great truths he has taught them. And as God continues to speak to us through His Word today, these four words encapsulate a lasting message that needs to be etched into each of our minds as we leave the book of Ephesians today. These words summarize the message of Ephesians.

I. The Message of Ephesians is a Message of Peace – (v23) Peace be to the brethren.

In Ephesians 1:2, Paul opened with peace – Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Now he ends with peace – Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. And so we begin and end, not only with a prayer for peace, but with a statement of where this peace comes from. This is not the kind of peace that people can arrive at by signing a treaty with each other. It is not a ceasefire or an end to a battle between human forces. It has a divine source – it is from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. This peace indicates that a greater conflict has been brought to an end – the enmity that exists between God and man because of sin. Sin is rebellion against God, it is a subversive and offensive attack on the divine Creator and Ruler of the universe, and every one of us is a partaker in the mutiny. But God has now offered amnesty to the rebels; He has made peace available to us. This peace is offered to us by God the Father, and accomplished for us by the Lord Jesus Christ. This is why Paul says concerning Jesus in Ephesians 2:14 that, “He Himself is our peace!” In His death on the cross, Jesus has taken the full-measure of the Father’s wrath against sin. He has suffered in our place and on our behalf as a substitute. Therefore our sins have received the full and righteous justice they deserve and forgiveness is available to us. And receiving that gift of salvation in Him, we are not only forgiven by God, but we are adopted by Him – we who were enemies are made sons and daughters, so that God the Father (of 6:23) becomes God our Father (of 1:2).

But the peace that God offers to us in Christ extends beyond peace with Him, as if that weren’t enough. Through Christ our peace, we have peace with each other as well. In Ephesians 2:14-16, Paul says that Christ is our peace, and He has made “both groups,” that is Jews and Gentiles, “into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall … so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.” Sin not only separates us from God, but from other people as well. And in the cross, by destroying sin, God has removed the barriers that divide us from Himself and each other.

Having been reconciled to God by this peace, and having been brought together into one body, one family with each other through faith in Jesus Christ, the Church is now commissioned to preserve this peace. In 4:1-3, Paul implores the church to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called,” which includes “being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” If God has offered us His peace, if Christ has become our peace, and if the Holy Spirit has unified us together in this peace of Christ, then it would be highly hypocritical for us to be at odds with our fellow Christians. But, since Satan desires to get a foothold in our lives through falsehoods and unbridled anger (4:25-27), we must be diligent, alert and on guard, to preserve the bond of peace by constantly showing mercy to one another and taking the high road to extend the peace of Christ we have received from God to each other.

Then Ephesians tells us we must be proclaimers of this peace as well. We must announce to the world that peace and pardon has been offered to them from Almighty God through Jesus Christ. Jesus preached peace, Paul says in 2:17—“He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near,” quoting Isaiah 57:19. Now, according to 6:15, we, His people, are to go into the world, “having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace,” and inviting lost and sinful people to be reconciled with God through the peace of Christ. We are ambassadors for peace in the world, and are commissioned to make this peace known. The message of the gospel is peace with God and peace with one another through Jesus Christ our Lord. He offers us peace, He is our peace, and He has given us His message of peace to make known. This message of peace is essential in the message of Ephesians.

II. The Message of Ephesians is a Message of Love (v23) Peace be to the brethren, and love

In Paul’s closing words, he prays for the people to experience, in addition to God’s peace, His love as well. It is a divine love which comes, like the peace, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The supreme nature of this love is indicated by the Greek term agape. It is love that surpasses romantic love, brotherly love, and natural affections and fondness. It is a love that flows from God, is defined by God Himself, and offered to us in relationship with Him. It is His “great love with which He loved us” (2:4). We are the objects and recipients of His great love.

Ephesians does not merely tell us that love comes from God, and that God loves us, and that His love is great, though these would be enough to know! But here in this letter, Paul goes deeper to tell us what God’s great love for us has accomplished. In 1:4-5 he tells us, “In love, He predestined us to adoption as sons.” Now to some, the doctrine of predestination sounds very unloving. In their mind, if God was truly loving, He would not predestine some to go to heaven and some to go to hell. But this misunderstands a very important reality – all of us deserve hell because of sin. None of us can stand before God and say that we deserve fellowship with Him because of our own goodness. Because God is completely holy, sin must be dealt with. And God has dealt with it in Christ because He is completely loving. The benefits of Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection are applied to those who come to Him by faith as Lord and Savior. But for those who do not, they will bear the wrath against sin in themselves. So, then, is it simply up to us to choose? And those of us who choose rightly will be saved while those who do not will perish? As attractive as this sounds, and as popular as it is, the reality that we are faced with is that sin has so totally corrupted us that none of us would ever make the choice to believe, to turn from sin, and to be saved. We are, as Paul says in 2:1, “dead in our trespasses and sins.” The only choice a dead person can make is to stay dead. So then God, who has planned out our glorious redemption in Christ from before the foundation of the world, also knows that none of us will avail ourselves of His grace on our own free choosing. Therefore, because He loves us so greatly, because His mercy and grace is so abundant, God has sovereignly chosen some to save. He has set aside some for Himself to enjoy and experience His love to the fullest extent. Good Christian people will always disagree on how predestination works exactly, but we who take the Bible seriously are not at liberty to say that we do not believe in predestination. The Bible speaks too clearly about it to deny! It is a great manifestation of God’s love that He has not only accomplished redemption for us in Christ, but has predestined some who do not deserve it to experience it. It is not important to me that you become Calvinists or Arminians or anywhere in between, but rather that you understand this about predestination: 1) The Bible clearly teaches it so we do not deny it. 2) It is not unloving, because God does not predestine people to hell. We choose and deserve hell because of our sin. He has predestined some to redeem from the hell we have chosen and deserved because He loves us. 3) We would have never chosen to move toward God by faith if He had not first chosen to move toward us in love. 4) The fact that some of us have chosen to believe on Christ as Lord and Savior is evidence that we have been predestined to do so, so we need not worry or fear discovering we were not predestined. 5) The way that predestined people discover they have been predestined is by hearing and responding in faith to the gospel message we have been called to share with them. Aside from these realities, you can wrestle and argue with the rest of the systematic details of predestination all you want, but these things are clear in God’s Word. As Paul says here in 1:4-5, He predestined us because He loves us.

Not only has His great love brought about our predestination, but also because of His love we are made alive. As I already stated, Paul tells us in 2:1 that we were dead in our trespasses and sins. Death was at work in us from the moment of conception, as we inherited spiritual death from Adam. Because of this, we are born with corruptible bodies, depraved minds, hardened hearts, and wills bent toward rebellion. Spiritually, we are dead from birth, and are moving toward an eternal death unless we can be made alive in some way. And there is a way. Paul says in 2:4-5 that “God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ.” He has raised us from the death of sin to enjoy life as He intended it – abundant and eternal. This new life that God has given us is a life with Christ that will never end. Because our flesh is corruptible, we will experience physical death, but that death is the only death we have to face, and we have the promise of God’s Word that it will not be the end. Jesus said in John 11, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.” We have received life in Jesus Christ because God loves us.

But we are also told in Ephesians that it is God’s love that builds us up in the faith. In 4:15-16, Paul tells us that Christ causes the growth of the body (that is, the church), for the building up of itself in love. Because of God’s love for us, Christ is at work in us bringing us into spiritual maturity and a deepening fellowship with one another in the church. He has not saved us to only abandon us. He has saved us, made us alive, and lives in the midst of us making us more like Himself and bringing us into more unity with each other.

Now this great blessing of His love entails some responsibilities for those of us who have received and experienced it. We must grow in our knowledge of this love. Paul says in 3:19 that he prays for the church to “know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.” How can we know the unknowable? We will never know it fully in this life – the fullness of His love will always elude our intellectual grasp. But as we mature in the faith we come to understand and experience this love in ever-deepening ways. The Christian ought to be continually more aware and more assured of the great love of God for us in Jesus.

Not only are we to know this love, but we are to show His love as well. There is a dual focus of the reflection of His love in us. It is vertical – a love for Him. As Paul says in the final phrase of this letter in 6:24, his prayer is for those who love our Lord Jesus Christ with incorruptible love. The more we understand His love for us, the more we are able to return that love to Him. Our imperfect love for Him is being perfected as His love works in us. And this love we show is horizontal as well. In 4:2, Paul says that “walking worthy of our calling” entails “showing tolerance for one another in love.” The more we understand His love, the more evident His love should be in us, and the more freely it should be shown to others through us. The old hymn we sing at times says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” One reason so many are turned away from Christ today is that they are not seeing this love at work in our lives! Our failure to love our brothers and sisters in Christ is a demonstration of our failure to understand and grasp His love for us. Love for God in Christ, love for each other – does that sound familiar? Jesus said they were the greatest commandments – to love God and love our neighbors.

We are to know it, and to show it, but Ephesians also tells us that we are to speak it. In 4:15, we are admonished to “speak the truth in love.” Love for Christ and one another should be evident in how we speak to one another. Loving speech demands truthful speech, but not all truthful speaking is done in love. We must always join the two together, realizing that there is a loving way to say what needs to be said to one another. But our love must not only be on our lips, it must be in our lives as well. We are not only to speak it, but to walk in it. In 5:2, Paul says, “Walk in love, just as Christ also loved you.” Our love for Him and others should be evident as live more and more like Jesus, who “gave Himself up for us.” As we give ourselves up for others, they will see His love alive in us.

So we see that the message of Ephesians is a message of love. In 6:24, Paul joins two key words together in an inseparable way as he prays for God’s people to experience “love with faith.” Our faith in Christ has a direct effect on our love for Him and others. The more faith we place in Him, the more we trust Him, the more we will know His love, and reflect His love back to Him and to each other. We see this in 1:15 as Paul says that he is aware of “the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you and your love for all the saints.” The one produces the other. His prayer in 3:17 is that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith,” which would result in you “being rooted and grounded in love.” He even points to a living example of faith and love in his colleague Tychicus, by whom he has sent this letter to the Ephesians. He describes him in 6:21 as “the beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord.” Like Tychicus, love and faith should mark our character as well.

So we move now to …

III. The Message of Ephesians is a Message of Faith (v23) Peace to the brethren, and love with faith

While there are some who would want to suggest that faith is a blind leap that foolish and religious people make, it can be demonstrated relatively easily that all people exercise faith. A person deposits their money in the bank in faith that the bank will guard it in safekeeping. A person gets on board an airplane in faith that it will carry them to their destination safely. All of us have some kind of faith. But the faith Paul is talking about in Ephesians is a specific kind. It is faith in God through Jesus Christ, as he says in 4:5, there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.” Though there are many kinds of faith, only this faith saves. It is the only faith that makes us right with God. In 2:8, Paul says that we are saved by grace, through faith. Grace is God’s hand reaching out to save us from sin. Faith is ours reaching out to Him to receive salvation.

So faith is our means of receiving salvation, as opposed to works. We are not made right with God by performing rituals or doing certain things and not doing others. We are made right with God by believing His promises to save us. It is not what we do, but our faith in what He has done for us through Jesus Christ. And when we exercise this kind of faith in Him, we who are sinners by birth and by choice, are declared and made righteous (or justified) in Christ. Look at how the Ephesian Christians are described in 1:1 – they are saints (God’s righteous people) because they are faithful in Christ Jesus (they have placed their faith in Him). Faith is our means of receiving salvation and righteousness, and also our means of access to Him. In 3:12, Paul says that we have boldness and confident access to Jesus through faith in Him. We can approach Him in prayer and in worship knowing that He hears us and receives us because of the faith we have placed in Him!

Faith is also our means of defense in spiritual attack. In 6:16, Paul likens our faith to a shield by which we not only deflect the fiery onslaught of Satan, but extinguish them as well. The temptations that come our way with frequency and intensity are rendered ineffective as we stand strong behind the shield of our faith in Him.

Now this kind of faith that saves us, justifies us, grants us eternal access to God in Christ, and defends us from the attacks of the enemy is not something we can produce on our own. We are so radically corrupted by sin, that we cannot muster this kind of faith from the spiritual bankruptcy of our souls. And that is why Paul says in 2:8 that this faith is “not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” That which He requires of us He supplies to us. A person does not come to this kind of saving faith by being convinced against his or her will to believe. Rather, we can all testify that we found this sort of faith rising up in us rather unexpectedly as God was producing and supplying it to us. We are spiritually hopeless to do even such a simple thing as believe. But thanks be to God, for those He has marked out as His own in the world, He divinely enables them to believe upon His promise to save!

In light of this, because there is only one faith and we who are in it have been brought into it by God Himself, we must strive for the unity of this faith. In 4:13 Paul says that the unity of the faith is our goal as Christ works in and through us for the benefit of one another. The church is not a place where people can pick and choose aspects of the message to believe and have any number of theological opinions about divine truth. There is one faith, and each of us has been called to preserve the unity of it.

So Ephesians is a message of faith. Now, finally, we will add …

IV. The Message of Ephesians is a Message of Grace (v24) Grace be with all

By definition, grace is the demonstration of undeserved favor. We show grace to our children when we give them good gifts even though they have disobeyed. But it is not merely human grace and kindness that Paul speaks of here. This is divine grace that has its source in God. He says in 1:2, “Grace to you … from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” God’s grace is shown to us in spite of our sins. We deserve nothing but wrath and judgment from God, but He has not given us what we deserve. Praise God, He has shown us grace! And because we are so undeserving, this grace is magnified exponentially. Paul describes God’s grace as glorious in 1:6, as he says that God is accomplishing His divine will to the praise of the glory of His grace which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved (that is, the Lord Jesus). Not only is His grace glorious, but it is also limitless! Paul speaks in 1:7 of the riches of His grace, and in 2:7 of the surpassing riches of His grace. The US Government operates a depository adjacent to Fort Knox that holds about 4,600 tons of gold bullion. That is more abundant riches than any of us can imagine! But the riches of God’s grace surpass this by infinity!

Out of God’s glorious and abundant grace, He has worked on our behalf to draw us to Himself. Grace is the basis of our election, as Paul says in 1:5-6 – “He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” Grace is the basis of our redemption, as we see in 1:7, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace.” God’s grace is what marked us out to be His own people and His grace brought Christ to the cross that the price of our redemption – the shedding of His blood in death – could be paid on our behalf. This is how we are saved! It is God’s grace. In 2:5 and 2:8, Paul says twice that it is “by grace you have been saved.” We don’t deserve it. We can’t earn it. But God offers it to us because of His glorious and limitless grace.

Then we see that grace is the basis of our calling and service to Christ. God has a work for each of us to do. Who can fathom that the Creator of the universe wants to use us in His sovereign plan? But He does, and He invites us by His grace, calling us to serve Him in specific ways. Paul speaks of his own calling in Chapter 3, and three times there says that grace is what underlies his calling as an apostle. In 3:2, he says that it his ministry is a stewardship of grace; in 3:7 he says that he was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to him. And in 3:8 he says that he is the very least of all the saints, but this grace was given to him anyway, to preach! Now, not all of us are called to preach, but all of us are called by God’s grace to serve Him in some way. In 4:7, he says, “To each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift,” and these grace-gifts call, equip, and empower us to serve Him in particular ways individually for the benefit of the entire church. God has something for you to do for Him. He is calling you; He has gifted you; He is empowering you to serve Him; and He is doing this because of His grace.

Whatever that task may be, included in all of our tasks is the proclamation of His grace. In 4:29, Paul confronts our way of speaking and admonishes us, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” When you and I speak to others, we are giving God the opportunity to make the glorious riches of His grace known to them through us. Grace is not just something that God has given to you in Jesus, it is something He wants to give the world through you as you speak and live for Him. And Ephesians is a message of grace.

So if you were to ask me to sum up Ephesians in a word, I would say I couldn’t do it. But given 4 words, I would say that Ephesians is about peace, faith, love, and grace, all made available to us by God through Jesus Christ. If you do not know Him as your Lord and Savior, I pray that the truths of this book would be used by the Holy Spirit as He draws you to believe and trust in Him. And I would conclude this year-long study of Ephesians with the words of the glorious doxology found in Eph 3:20-21 – “Now to Him who is able to far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.”

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

On Balthasar Hubmaier, on the 482th anniversary of his death

I am a student of history. Always have been, hopefully I always will be. I love great historical figures, and Christian history is full of them. When I took my first pastoral position, I had studied Church History and Baptist History, but those studies had omitted a significant chunk of our Baptist roots. A good many Baptist historians and texts trace the beginnings of our movement to John Smyth and Thomas Helwys. To say these are humble beginnings is an understatement. More accurate to say they are embarrassing beginnings. In God's providence, my first church was on the outskirts of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, home to a significant Amish and Mennonite community. Through them, I began to learn of earlier Baptist roots -- the Anabaptists. I was immediately fascinated by them, particularly the Swiss Brethren who suffered tremendous persecution under the hand of Zwingli. Here I found a group of believers with whom I more readily identified than I had with Smyth and Helwys. While I believe that Smyth and Helwys were certainly strong shapers of Baptist life, a Baptist history that does not go back to at least the Swiss Brethren is incomplete.

One of the standout figures of Anabaptist history is Balthasar Hubmaier. I can tell you that of all I have read about him, I will never attempt to make a plaster saint out of him. I may in fact disagree with more of his opinions than I agree, but as a shaping influence on Baptist life, I have a great respect for him and share many of his convictions. Among these are the authority of Scripture, believers' baptism, and a memorial view of the Lord's Supper.

Today, March 10, is the anniversary of his martyrdom. In 1528, Hubmaier was burned at the stake for his convictions, and shortly thereafter, his wife was put to death by drowning. Throughout the day, I have been paying tribute to Hubmaier by posting quotes from him on my Facebook page. These have been drawn primarily from John Allen Moore's excellent book of biographical sketches entitled Anabaptist Portraits. I am reposting them here for a wider audience and for my own benefit (as it will be more convenient to have them listed together in one place that is easy to find).
"In all disputes concerning faith and religion, Scripture alone, proceeding from the mouth of God, ought to be our level and rule. ... Scripture is the sole light and true lantern by whose illumination all fictions of the human mind may be discovered and all darkness dispelled."

"It is Christ who calls the sinner, who moves him to what is good, and invites him to the heavenly marriage feast. God the Father draws those who come to Christ."

"It is ridiculous to recite Latin words to a German who knows nothing of the Latin language. What else is this than to hide the Lord whom we ought to proclaim?"

"I hear with great sadness how in your city of Regensburg more men preach vanity than the pure Word of God. That makes my heart ache; for, under God, what does not flow from the living Word is dead. Therefore, says Christ, search the Scriptures."

"Yield yourselves to God, trust him, build on His Word, and He will not forsake you. Whether He gives a short life or a long one, you will have eternal life beyond. And should people call you heretics, be joyful, for your reward will be great in heaven."

"Faith alone makes us right before God. ... [Faith is] an acknowledgement of the grace of God which he has showed us in giving His only begotten Son. This excludes all nominal Christians who have nothing but a historical faith in God. ... Such faith cannot remain dormant but must reach out to God in thanksgiving and to... people in all kinds of works of brotherly love."

"Just as every Christian believes and is baptized for himself, so should each one judge from Scripture whether he is being properly nourished by his pastor."

"Whoever for worldly advantage denies or remains silent concerning the Word of God sells God's blessing as Esau sold his birthright and will also be denied by Christ."

"Divine truth is immortal and although it may for a time be imprisoned, scourged, crowned with thorns, crucified, and laid in the grave, it will arise victorious on the third day to reign in triumph throughout all eternity."

"Oh dear sirs, friends, brothers, take to heart what I have said to you, and strive after the clear, pure Word of Christ. From it alone will faith come to you; in Him alone must we be saved."