Tuesday, March 30, 2010

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

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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.

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