Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Problem of Gurus

Christianity is unique among world religions in that we believe that God does not have to be approached by a human mediator. "There is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus," the Apostle Paul said. God has spoken clearly and sufficiently in His Word to direct His church to be and do all that He has called them to be and do. But it seems that throughout church history, there has always been a temptation to look to certain individuals as expert spiritual guides. Certainly, we do not want to suggest that all Christians have equal expertise on all matters of faith and practice, so it is wise to consult those who have more knowledge and experience on certain issues. But to do so uncritically, without a Berean discernment that examines the individual and his or her ideas against the clear propositions of Scripture is dangerous. In short, we tend to make gurus out of people and they begin to, willingly or even unknowingly, shape the state of the church for a generation. When this happens, the focus of the church and its leaders shifts from what is written in God's word to what is spoken or written by these "gurus," with a result of redefining or reshaping what the church is and what it is intended to do. Invariably, division and confusion results.

While we want to honor those who have wisdom and be open to the reality that God speaks indirectly through human servants to guide us (so long as their teaching is in line with His Word), we want to avoid giving undue "devotion" to these individuals regardless of their position or influence. Ravenous is the wolf who seeks to redirect this focus toward themselves and away from God and His Word, but more subtle are those who do not set out to do this. Subtly, they come into these positions by acclamation of the church. We often see the "rise" (for lack of a better word) of a particular Christian from a position of relatively obscure and humble service to the status of a contemporary guru. Because this is not usually intentional on the part of the individual, I am not writing to condemn those individuals. Rather, I write to warn the church of seeking, expecting, and uncritically following these who would become gurus. Moreover, I feel strongly that we should pray for them.

Some years ago, a relatively unknown Baptist missionary was invited to share some of his experiences at the Southern Baptist Convention. He was so well received, that soon he became the subject of many articles and videos, and was then being flown all over the world to speak at conferences and seminars. His prophetic voice challenged the church to be moved toward reaching the nations. It seemed that God's hand was powerfully upon him. Meanwhile, as he was being whisked across the planet for high-profile engagements, his wife and family were laboring alone in the village to which God had called them. Soon, as fast as he rose in prominence, he disappeared from the public scene. I curiously inquired of a missionary leader about this missionary and was sadly informed that his marriage had begun to collapse, his ministry had come to a screeching halt, and the entire family was now being shepherded through a process of recovery and restoration. This is but one of many similar stories I have seen unfold in similar patterns. It was this story that prompted me to be vigilant in prayer for those who are thrust into the position of a guru.

Today I have been conversing on Facebook with a dear brother in the Lord about another person who has evolved (or devolved as the case may be) from obscurity to celebrity in Christian circles. We lamented together that this well-intentioned brother seems to be enjoying the spotlight perhaps a bit too much. One does not detect the humility of John the Baptist who said, "He (Christ) must increase, but I must decrease" in this particular brother. He, and several others whom I could name and whose names would be easily recognizeable, need our prayers.

Our culture trains us to see the attainment of celebrity status as the ultimate goal. We are all to eager to pursue it and eager to help others attain it. But the platform of celebrity is a slippery pedestal, and many who have found it have fallen off of it, both inside the church and outside of it. So I try to pray for those who seem to occupy it for the moment. I pray several specific things for these individuals. I pray that God would keep them humble, that He would protect their families and their ministries, and that He would give them the wisdom to step off of the guru platform (in the spirit of John the Baptist) rather than fall off of it.

Recently, one man of God demonstrated the kind of humility that is required. John Piper is someone who I respect greatly, and perhaps moreso in light of his recent announcement than ever before. Piper recently asked his church for an eight month sabbatical "because of a growing sense that my soul, my marriage, my family, and my ministry-pattern need a reality check from the Holy Spirit." In his statement to the church, Piper acknowledged, "I see several species of pride in my soul that, while they may not rise to the level of disqualifying me for ministry, grieve me, and have taken a toll on my relationship with Noël (his wife) and others who are dear to me." I pray that others would have the wisdom and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit to recognize these things and act accordingly.

Practically speaking, how do I know who to pray for in regard to guru-ism? I have several indicators I try to be attentive to:

1) Listen for the buzz
Who's the guy you never heard of that everyone is now talking about and quoting?

2) Look at the schedule
Survey the major conferences for the past 12 months and see what name(s) occurs most often.

3) Browse the shelves
Who's got a new book? Who are people writing about and quoting heavily in other books? Who is the go-to guy for current book endorsements?
This name will often be found on the front or back cover of a book, and will be often larger than the author's own name.

I want to be clear ... in most cases, I don't dislike these guys. In most cases, I am also reading them and listening to them. And much of what they have to say is good and bears hearing. But we must remember that God is a jealous God. His glory He will not share with another. So when people thrust these individuals to a high-place of prominence in Christian sub-cultures, I believe God will begin to warn them of the danger of becoming a guru. If they do not heed those warnings, I have often seen that God will not prevent them from some kind of fall. He will not allow them to become His rival voice for the direction of His church.

So, in conclusion, several things bear stating clearly:
1) Don't try to become a guru. If God has placed you in a place of obscure service for His kingdom, be content with that.

2) Don't let others make you a guru. If you find that others are thinking more highly of you than you know they should, be very clear to them you are merely God's servant. Point them to Jesus and to His Word rather than to your own opinions.

3) Don't expect others to be your guru. Most of these guys we only "know" from a distance -- through their books, their talks, their Tweets and blog posts. We do not know their inner struggles. We may know of their successes and strengths, but we do not know of their failures and weaknesses. We know they are human however, and therefore, they must have struggles, weaknesses, and failures. Remember that they serve the same God you serve by a holy calling, and though their station may be different from yours, it is not better. Approach them as brothers on an equal plane, for to do otherwise it to overestimate them and to underestimate the God who has called you.

4) Pray for those who the world and Christian sub-culture would make gurus of. Pray for their families, their ministries, and their spiritual health.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Responding to God's Saving Grace (1 Peter 1:13-16)

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

Along America’s network of railroads, one will periodically find hubs called “classification yards.” As incoming trains arrive, their cars are separated one by one, and each one is “sorted” on separate short tracks according to its classification. Then an outgoing train is reassembled with special care taken to make sure that the cars are reassembled in the proper order. The destination, contents, weight, and other factors of each car are taken into consideration as the train is reassembled before departing. But no matter what order the cars are placed in, one thing never changes – the engine is always in the front of the line to pull the whole thing along the tracks. If the engine isn’t in the front, the train isn’t going anywhere.

When it comes to understanding our relationship with God, it is important that we get the engine in the front of the train, otherwise we will never get out of the station. If we were to imagine the elements of our salvation like a train, we might imagine a car that was labeled “Grace.” Another one might be labeled “Faith,” and a third one labeled “Works.” Now, which one is the engine? This is what separates biblical Christianity from nearly every other worldview and religious system that has ever existed. In almost every system throughout history, the engine of the train has been thought to be “Works”. What you do is believed to earn you favor with God, who may or may not reward you then with blessings such as prosperity, fertility, or immortality. But if that is the case, then we aren’t talking about grace, are we? We are talking about merit, wages, or earnings. But when we talk about grace we are talking about something we don’t deserve and cannot earn. So, the Bible teaches us that the engine of the train is Grace. Based on absolutely nothing that we had done or not done, God initiated the process of our salvation. In verse 15 here Peter refers to Him as the Holy One who called you. He took action to redeem us and restore us to Himself through the death and resurrection of Jesus in spite of our sins. So grace pulls the train, and faith is in the second position. Ephesians 2:8 says that it is “by grace you have been saved through faith.” We place our faith in what God has said and done for us through Jesus Christ. So then what does works have to do with it? Works is the caboose. When Grace is pulling the train, and faith is attached to it, works come along for the ride. Our lives are transformed into the likeness of Christ as we live in relationship with Him. So, it is not that works are unimportant. The Bible is clear that God’s people are marked out in the world by their distinct conduct. But what must be always understood is that conduct, our works, does not pull the train. We do not do good works in order to be saved or to gain favor with God. God has already shown us infinite favor in the life, death, resurrection, and indwelling presence of His Son. Our works are a grateful response to His gracious initiative.

That is why the first word of our text today is perhaps the most important one: Therefore. Every time I come across this word in Scripture, I can hear my old hermeneutics professor’s voice in my mind saying, “Whenever you see the word ‘therefore,’ you have to ask, ‘What’s that there for?’” And in this case, it is there to suggest that all that has come before this verse serve as the basis of what follows. What comes before? Verses 3-12 amount to one long sentence in the Greek language, the main thought of which is that God is to be praised because, through Jesus, He “has given us new birth according to His abundant mercy into a living hope, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and into an imperishable, pristine, and unfading inheritance.”[1] And it is on this basis that the imperative commands of the rest of this letter are issued. Nothing that we are commanded to do in this or any other portion of Scripture is a means of receiving God’s favor. God has already given us favor by His grace in Jesus Christ. Now, we respond to Him. As Edmund Clowney writes, “The imperatives of Christian living always begin with ‘Therefore.’ Peter does not begin to exhort Christian pilgrims until he has celebrated the wonders of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. The indicative of what God has done for us (and in us) precedes the imperative of what we are called to do for Him.”[2]

So, how do we live in response to the grace God has shown us through the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Specifically, in light of God’s saving grace, we are to live in hope and to live in holiness.

I. We respond to God’s saving grace by living in hope (v13)

As this past week progressed, and we began to look toward the weekend, I know many of us uttered something like this: “I hope it doesn’t rain this weekend.” We saw that the forecast called for storms, but perhaps we had plans for outdoor recreation, cooking out, and yard work that rain would have greatly interfered with. So, regardless of the forecast, we hoped for a sunny and dry weekend. This is the way we usually think of the word hope – a positive wish for the future, based on absolutely no grounds of certainty. But this is not the way the word “hope” is used in the Bible. The New Testament idea of hope is a confident expectation that what has been promised will certainly come to pass. It is strong enough for us to take assurance in and to take action upon. This is because our hope is built not on the shifting sand of wishful thinking or happy dreams, but on the solid rock of something that has already happened in the past – namely, the death and resurrection of Jesus. What do we sing? “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness.” And because He has already done what He had promised to do, we have every reason to believe that the promises which still linger for the future will likewise come to pass.

So, Peter says we are to fix our hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. How do we live in response to the grace that God has already shown us? By living in the confident hope of the grace He has yet to show us. When Peter speaks of the revelation of Jesus Christ, he uses a word that means “unveiling” or “uncovering.” We might say, “But hasn’t Christ already been revealed when He came into the world?” Yes, but that revelation was veiled so that His true and glorious divine nature was covered over in His humanity. But the New Testament is filled with promises that He is coming again, and when He does, the veil will be removed. The glory that shone through Him on the Mount of Transfiguration will be visible to all when He returns. We will, as 1 John 3:2 says, “see Him as He is.” And when He returns, all of His gracious promises made to us concerning our redemption, our glorification, and our eternal home in His presence will come to pass. Peter is telling us here that our belief in the coming of that day should affect the manner in which we live in these days.

We are to fix our hope completely on this. All of our confidence and assurance, all of our hopes and ambitions for the future are bound up in this reality of Christ, and His salvation, and the consummation of His Kingdom. We put no confidence in the flesh, as Paul says in Philippians 3:3, whether that is ourselves, or others, or the things that this world cherishes. So our hopes are not built upon our abilities, or our education, our status or our wealth, our occupation or our recreation, our reputation or our relationships, our supposed power or influence in the world. Our hope is undividedly placed in the future grace that is going to be revealed when we see Christ face to face.

This past week, I attended a seminar on Christian Funerals that Hanes-Lineberry hosted which featured Dr. Thomas Long. Dr. Long has been researching the history and present trends of Christian funerals for fifteen years or more and has concluded, among other things, that for the better part of 1800 years or so, the focus of a Christian funeral was that the deceased was a righteous saint of God who lived in the hope of eternity. Today, Dr. Long discovered that the focus seems to be on demonstrating that the deceased was somewhat of a celebrity who had attained his or her fifteen minutes of fame in this life. Somewhere we got off track, didn’t we? We are not living for what this world offers. We are living in hope for the eternal future, not for the fleeting pleasures of this life.

So how can fix this problem? How can we reorient ourselves to live with our hopes completely fixed on this future grace? Peter tells us two things we can do here. First he says we must prepare our minds for action. Cumbersome as the wording of it is, the King James Version really translates the Greek very literally here when it says, “Gird up the loins of your mind.” In ancient times, when the typical dress of most people was a long robe, a person would pull the robe up and tuck it into a belt around the waist whenever they needed to act with quickness and intentionality. This would prevent their feet from being tangled up in the robe. So, for instance, in Exodus 12:11, God instructed the people to eat the Passover Meal as they prepared to leave Egypt with their loins girded, so they could exit quickly. Jesus taught His followers to be ready for the Master’s return in Luke 12:35-36, saying, “Let your loins be girded about.” Here in this text, Peter is telling us to be ready in this way, by girding up the loins of our minds. We are not to let our minds be occupied with trivialities and the idle things of this life and this world. We are to be mentally resolved that this life is being lived in preparation for eternity and take action based on these things. The way we live our lives should reflect our confidence that what we say we believe is true. Do we live as if we really believe that Christ died for us, rose from the dead, and is coming again? Do we live as if we believe that heaven and hell are real? Do we live as if we really believe that Christ is a more precious treasure than anything this world offers us? When Peter tells us to prepare our minds for action, to gird up the loins of our mind, he is telling us that we need to let the reality of these beliefs drive us to a conscious decision to act upon them. A failure to do so only indicates that deep down we are really not sure about them. So, if our hopes are fixed completely on the grace that is coming when Christ is revealed in His glory, we will also act with this mindset.

This means as well that we will keep sober in spirit. If you are using the New American Standard Bible, you notice that the words in spirit are in italics, which means that they are not represented in the Greek text, but have been added by the translators to aid us in our understanding. I am really not sure they are necessary here though. We understand what it means to keep sober. We know that the opposite of sobriety is intoxication. Obviously we should understand that as people who live in the hope of what is to come that we should avoid the intoxication of alcohol and drugs. Our minds are to be sharp and alert, prepared for action; not dulled by the effects of these substances. But we also know that drugs and alcohol are not the only things that can intoxicate us, don’t we? We have seen and maybe experienced the drunkenness that comes from overindulgence of power, materialism, greed, and a host of other pseudo-intoxicants that this world throws at us. So this admonition to keep sober directs us to not only avoid physical drunkenness, but also to avoid having our minds lead astray into any other kind of mental intoxication, addiction, or laziness that would inhibit our spiritual alertness or make us to be spiritually careless. Peter will use the same phrase in 4:7 and 5:8 to indicate that spiritual sobriety will enable us to be fervent in our prayers and to be alert in our defense against the schemes of the devil.[3] Clowney writes, “Drunken stupor is the refuge of those who have no hope.”[4] But we have a living hope that is fixed upon Christ, and therefore we should be spiritually sober, alert, and clear-thinking as we make our way through this life.

God has given us a great and gracious salvation through Jesus Christ. How do we respond? By living in hope – with our hope completely fixed on the grace that will be brought to us in its fullness when Christ comes in His glory. And as we live in this hope, we gird up the loins of our mind, preparing ourselves to act on what we believe and we keep ourselves free from the intoxicants of this world that would dull our spiritual sensitivities to the reality of Christ and His Kingdom to come.

There is another response to grace indicated here in the text as well.

II. We respond to God’s saving grace by living in holiness (vv14-16)

See, when we get the railroad cars in the wrong order, we think like this: “I bet if I will try as hard as I can to be holy, then God will love me, and He might save me.” That’s like trying to pull the train with the caboose. The fact is that God already loves you, and in Christ has made salvation available to you by His grace. If you have received this gift by faith, then you will respond to Him accordingly by living in the manner to which He has called you. And one word summarizes that way of living: holiness. “Like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves,” Peter says in v15. Our lives are to be a reflection of His holiness.

This word holy probably evokes a range of images and ideas in our minds. Perhaps we think about medieval Christian icons in which the holy people are recognizable because of the enormous halos around their heads. Or we think that being holy means walking around in brown robes tied at the waist with a rope and speaking to each other in Gregorian chant or something like that. But the word actually means to be separated. When the objects of the temple and tabernacle in the Old Testament were called holy, it means that they were pulled aside from ordinary use and devoted to the service of God. You might think of this sanctuary as a holy place, and we don’t mean by that it is a magical place where the miraculous occurs on a regular basis. We mean that it has been set aside for the specific purpose of worshiping God. So you wouldn’t be surprised to walk in here and find people singing or someone preaching, or people getting married, or a funeral in progress. You would not expect to walk in and find a high school prom or a Graeco-Roman wrestling tournament taking place or something like that.

When we say that God is holy, we mean that He is completely separate from sin and completely devoted to the magnification of His own glory. Sometimes people take exception to that and think it makes God sound self-absorbed, but really, whose glory should He rather magnify? Yours? If you say yes, then who is the one who is self-absorbed? He pursues His own glory because there is nothing more valuable for Him to pursue. If God pursued anything besides His own glory, He would be guilty of idolatry. So, He is holy—separated from sin and devoted to the magnification of His own glory. And we are called to be like Him in holiness—set aside from ordinary things and marked out as distinct among the people of the world because we are devoted to the magnification of God’s glory above all else. So this holiness is about priority—God’s glory above all else; it is about passion—nothing should be the object of a higher loving devotion than He is in our lives; it is about purpose—we exist and have been redeemed by Christ for God’s own use; and it is about purity—because He is separated from sin, we should be as well. And it is a process—we are called holy when God saves us because He removes our sins from us and covers us in the righteousness of Jesus in the divine work of justification, but we progress in holiness throughout our lives as the Holy Spirit works in us in the divine work of sanctification, making us more and more like Jesus.

As the Spirit works in us in this way, we should find ourselves being transformed more and more by His power, and conformed less and less by the influence of the world and our own sin nature. So, v14 says that we must no longer be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance. For a period of time in our lives, we did what we wanted to do with no thought of right and wrong, sin and righteousness. We lived for our own pleasures and satisfaction. But that is not to be so anymore as we grow in Christ. We have been set free from slavery to sin and have the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit to overcome those desires for the purpose of pursuing holiness. We are now the adopted sons and daughters of God, and the family resemblance should be increasing in us. Our lives should look more and more like our Father, as obedient children—holy as He is holy.

This is not merely a religious change, but a total life transformation. This holiness should pervade all our behavior as Peter says in v15. It is not just that becoming a Christian means we hang out at church rather than at the bar or something like that. It’s not just that we read the Bible instead of other books now. It means that holiness affects my life as a husband, as a father, as a son, as a brother, as a worker, as a neighbor, as a friend, as a citizen, and so on. In all areas of my life, this holiness of my Father in heaven should be becoming more and more apparent.

This command to be holy is not a new one. Peter tells us that the foundation of this command is found in the written Word of God (v16). This command, “You shall be holy, for I am holy,” and similar ones like it are found throughout the Old Testament, including at least four times in Leviticus. The Greek wording of v16 is an exact quotation of the Greek translation of Leviticus 19:2. Now it is very interesting that Leviticus 19:2 says, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” And this verse is immediately followed in Leviticus 19:3 with this statement: “Every one of you shall reverence his mother and his father.” That is interesting because Peter’s exhortation to be holy is based on the command of Scripture found in verse 2 and the principle found in verse 3 – that our holiness is a reflection of our obedience as children to our Heavenly Father. He has called us His own, and He desires that the world would know that we belong to Him by the resemblance they see in us.

The Psalmist of Psalm 116 recognized that God had delivered him from death and blessed his life in innumerable ways. We who are in Christ by faith know that God has done this and immeasurably more for us. And so we can ask, like he did, “What shall I render to the LORD
For all His benefits toward me?” (Psalm 116:2). And like the Psalmist, we recognize that we could never repay the Lord – if we could, it wouldn’t be grace. He has given us what we do not deserve by saving us from sin, giving us eternal life, and indwelling us with His Spirit to empower us to live for Him. We are utterly bankrupt to repay Him for this. But the Psalmist said this, “I shall lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the LORD. I shall pay my vows to the LORD” (Psalms 116:13-14). John Piper says concerning this that the Psalmist’s response to the Lord is that he will “go on receiving from the Lord so that the Lord’s inexhaustible goodness will be magnified.”[5] By lifting up the cup of salvation, he indicates that when he drinks of it, the Lord will continue to supply more. This is living in hope for future grace. We respond to what the Lord has done for us by living in the confidence that He will do what He has promised. We will see Him, we will behold His glory face to face, and the assurance of that will keep us living in hope spiritually sober and alert, prepared to act out our faith and hope in Him. The Psalmist also says that he will call on the name of the Lord. He will respond to the Lord’s grace by making it well-known that he is dependent on this grace. And so we are as well. As we live in hope, we live calling upon His name to meet our needs and guide us through our days here, and expressing our devotion to Him. And the Psalmist says he will pay his vows. He will do what the Lord requires of Him. And what the Lord requires of us all is to be holy as He is holy. So we devote our lives to His holy purposes, allowing Him to separate us from sin and set us on the passionate pursuit of His glory above all else. In short, like the Psalmist who said, “What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits toward me?”, we will respond by living in hope and living in holiness.

[1] Karen Jobes, 1 Peter (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 109.

[2] Edmund Clowney, The Message of 1 Peter: The Way of the Cross (The Bible Speaks Today; Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1988), 61.

[3] Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries 17; Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1988), 81.

[4] Clowney, 62.

[5] John Piper, Future Grace (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 1995), 38.

Contextualizing the Gospel

The topic of contextualizing the Gospel is a hot one today. While some seem to be arguing for it and some against it, few seem willing to admit that we ALL will contextualize the gospel, even as we received it in a contextualized way. The Gospel, as it is presented in Scripture itself, is contextualized to a first century audience. So the question is not whether we should or should not contextualize. The fact is we will contextualize the gospel. To me the bigger issue is HOW we contextualize the gospel. In his excellent book Understanding Folk Religion, Paul Hiebert argues for "critical contextualization," and it is this "critical" element that seems so lacking in many efforts to contextualize today.

In preparing for a lecture on World Religions, I came across the following in Winfried Corduan's book Neighboring Faiths:

"The process of contextualizing the gospel is tricky. Ideally speaking, missionaries should be able to extract the pure gospel message from the biblical message and pass it on untouched by their own culture to the converts, who then incorporate the gospel into their culture without polluting it. In practice this is impossible. The gospel message comes to us embedded in the culture of biblical times. Missionaries can try their best to separate true Christianity from its expression in their own culture, but no one can do so perfectly. The gap between the missionaries' and the hearers' cultures will cause misconceptions. The only way to avoid 'cultural pollution' would be to stop sharing the gospel altogether."

All of us are agreed that the cessation of sharing the gospel is not an option, so what are we to do? Here is where critical contextualization needs to be exercised. It is the task of the proclaimer of the gospel to determine where elements of his or her own culture must be maintained for the sake of keeping the gospel from being contaminated by the non-Christian's culture, and where the elements of his or her own culture need to be shed so as to not contaminate the gospel as it is being shared. Corduan cites a study of some churches in Africa where contextualization has been implemented with no critical evaluation whatsoever. While the attempt was to "establish an African Christianity that combines the Christian message with African culture," (a noble goal to which no mission-minded believer would object), the actual outcome was far different. Corduan notes that in many cases, "the result has been syncretistic." He supplies the conclusions from research done by Professor Murikwa, who found that the independent churches of Kenya were typically holding to doctrines which were more in keeping with their traditional beliefs than with biblical Christianity. These included belief in a remote and capricious God; reverence for ancestors as mediators between God and man; Christ as a moral example to the exclusion of reference to the atonement; and a view of healing and dream interpretation that simply replaced the tribal medicine man with the church's clergy. Sadly, Corduan concludes, "One looks in vain for the gospel message. In most cases the embodiment of the gospel in traditional African culture has swallowed up Christian doctrine and the gospel itself."

None of us should be so bold as to suggest that we have arrived at THE answer for the problem of gospel contextualization. But perhaps we should all take a step back from the contemporary rhetoric and ask ourselves some hard questions about our efforts to contextualize the gospel. The case study that Corduan cites suggests to me that a good question to consider when trying to assimilate the Gospel into what we will call "Culture X" is this: "If all things were to remain as they are, in 20 years, will this movement look more like the Gospel, or more like Culture X?" But things do not remain as they are, do they? Countless examples could be cited that demonstrate that movements tend to downgrade over time. Rather than trying to couch the gospel in the clothing of the culture, perhaps we need to confront the culture with the gospel and be very clear that the gospel does not need adornment, from our culture or from theirs. That would be easier said than done. But through dialogue, cultural trappings on both sides could be identified, evaluated, and isolated from the core of the gospel so that it comes through unscathed and undefiled. That seems to be what was happening at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, and this passage should be one that we allow to inform all of our efforts to carry the Gospel across cultural borders.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Privilege of the Gospel - 1 Peter 1:10-12

Audio available here (click to stream, right-click to download). It is also available on our podcast on iTunes.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” Indeed, most of us have found some truth in that if we have ever shared a secret with someone. But we’d like to think we can do a little better with the secrets that are shared with us, wouldn’t we? We have probably all had a friend who says, “Listen, no one knows about this yet, but I wanted to tell you about something, and you have to keep this to yourself for now.” A little while later another friend comes along and says, “I wonder what’s going with so-and-so; I haven’t heard from him lately.” And you just kind of tighten your lips and remind yourself, “I can’t tell, I can’t tell.” While other people are wondering and speculating about things, you have the satisfied contentment of knowing what they do not know. And for a while it begins to feel like your friend has placed a great burden on you by demanding your silence about the secret. But in reality, it is often not a burden but rather a privilege to be so loved and so trusted to guard the precious information. Our passage today tells us that God has entrusted us with privileged information that others have not received, but unlike those secrets our friends share with us, this information is intended to be shared.

Peter has described at some length about the blessings that are ours by faith in Jesus Christ. We have been born again, we have a living hope, we have an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and will not fade away that is reserved for us in heaven, and we are protected by the power of God to receive this inheritance in eternity. All of these blessings are part and parcel of our salvation. Salvation is the large, umbrella-term that covers all of these and more spiritual blessings that include our initial conversion, the forgiveness of our sins, the righteousness we are granted in justification, the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and the eventual glorification we will experience when we stand before Christ on the last day. Verse 9 tells us that “the outcome of your faith” in Christ is “the salvation of your souls.” This has been made known to us in the gospel of Jesus Christ. In verse 12, we are told that these things have been announced to us “through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit.” The Greek word that is translated “preached the gospel” in our English Bibles is the basis for our word “evangelism,” which means to proclaim the good news. The good news includes the fact that, because of God’s infinite love for sinful humans such as we are, He became one of us in the person of Jesus Christ, lived a sinless life that fully satisfied the righteous demands of God’s holiness, died as a substitute for us on the cross that our sins may receive the punishment they deserve in God’s justice, and conquered death through His resurrection, that we may be forgiven and have new life in Christ by God’s mercy and grace. Those who have been born again, without exception, are those who have heard this message announced and responded in faith. So, someone shared this message with us, and Peter says that it was “by the Holy Spirit” that they did. This was not simply a case of one person convincing another person to change his or her religious opinions. God was at work in the process. The Holy Spirit provided the message, empowered the messenger, implanted the message in our hearts, and regenerated us by His power as we responded in faith to believe the message and turn our lives over to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Now, we must understand just how privileged we are to have access to this information. It is entirely a matter of God’s sovereign grace. In Acts 17:26, Paul says that God “made from one man every nation and mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation.” That means that God placed you on the earth at the exact time and in the exact location that He determined. It is fun to imagine what it would be like if we were born in another part of the world or in another century. I have often said that I was born about 300 years too late. But I wasn’t really. I was born exactly when God wanted me to be born. He determined my appointed times. And I joke from time to time that I wish I had been born in England so that I could have a British accent, but God determined the boundaries of my habitation, and it was His will that I be born 26 miles West of where I am standing right now. No, I don’t get to have an British accent. No, I don’t get to pal around with the Puritans. But in determining my appointed times and the boundaries of my habitation, God sovereignly placed me in the exact setting in which I would grow up as I did and hear the gospel of Jesus when I did, and believe upon Him to be saved. Had I been born in another time or place, I may not have had that opportunity. Today, there are about 6,815,100,000 people in the world. Nearly 3 billion of them, or about 41%, live in a place where there is little or no access to the gospel still after some 2,000 years since it was first preached by Jesus Christ and the Apostles. Have you ever stopped to simply thank God that in His gracious providence, He chose to place you in the world exactly when and where He did, if for no other reason, than for this one: that you have the privilege of having access to the Gospel of Jesus Christ that you might be saved?

Peter wants to remind his readers of the glorious privilege this is for us to be able to hear the gospel, to believe the gospel, and to be saved by the Christ of the gospel. And he does so by comparing the station of the contemporary Christian with that of the ancient prophets of Israel and the angels of heaven. The prophets saw grand visions and received direct divine messages straight from God. They were used by God in mighty ways that we have never and will never experience. And the angels, they have spent their entire existence in uninterrupted fellowship with God in the perfect environs of heaven. Would you trade places with either of them for a moment? If you would, you would be demoting yourself from a place of far superior privilege in the purposes and plans of God. The gospel has made it so that those who hear it and respond in faith to it are the most privileged creatures in the entire universe.

I. We are more blessed than the prophets because of the completeness of our information (vv10-12a)

The writer of Hebrews tells us in the opening verse of that epistle that God spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways (Hebrews 1:1). Whether we are talking about Isaiah, who wrote one of the longest prophetic books, or Obadiah who wrote one of the shortest; Elijah, the first of the official prophets of Israel, or Malachi, the last of them; or any others in between, it was God who was speaking through them to deliver His message to Israel. And He said much to them and much through them. Some of them heard from God in dreams and visions; some of them spoke for God in straightforward language while others used apocalyptic descriptions of the things to come. Some served as religious officials in Israel, others were farmers; some were called to act out the prophetic message in very strange ways. But in spite of the greatness of these visions and revelations, none of them had access to the fullness of information that you and I have in the Gospel. And so the writer of Hebrews states, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2).

By virtue of their role as God’s spokesmen to their society, they received more information than the average Israelite about His purposes and plans. God used their words to make these things known to the nation. And so they spoke about this salvation that God would provide to deliver people from sin, but their information was incomplete. It was accurate, but it was incomplete. They knew about salvation, and they knew that it would be of grace and not personal merit as Peter says in v10: “As to this salvation (that which is described at length in verses 3-9), the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you.”

They also knew that this salvation would come through the work of a Messiah whom God would send, and they knew that this salvation would involve His suffering. In v11, Peter says that they spoke of “the sufferings of Christ.” The entire Old Testament is filled with these predictions that God’s chosen Savior would be a suffering Messiah. Genesis 3:15 is what we call the protoevangelium, the first gospel, in which God announced, immediately following the first sin of humanity that there would be one to come from the seed of woman who would bruise the head of the serpent, but whose heel would be bruised in the process. This spoke of the wounding of the Messiah that would occur as He destroyed the works of Satan. In Psalm 22, David described the sufferings of Messiah to such an extent as to even use the words Jesus would use on the cross, saying, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” He goes on to speak of the sneering insults of the people and the brutal torture of the body. David spoke of the bones being out of joint and the heart being melted as wax, the piercing of the hands and feet. And it bears reminding that David had never even witnessed a crucifixion when he described that scene. And then there is of course that most well-known of all the passages about Messiah’s sufferings in Isaiah 53. There the prophet speaks of this Servant of the Lord who would be despised and forsaken, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, who would bear our griefs, and carry our sorrows. He would be pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, chastised for our well-being that we might be healed by His scourging. We could go on and cite more of these (Psalm 22; 34:19-20; 69:21; Isaiah 50:6; 52:14-15; 53; Zecharaiah 12:10; 13:7, et al.) but these are sufficient to illustrate that the prophets understood that the Messiah would suffer.

They also knew that the Messiah would be glorified following His sufferings. In v11 Peter refers to their proclamations about “the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow.” The most frequently quoted verse of the Old Testament in the New Testament is Psalm 110:1 which says, “The Lord says to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.” Isaiah 9:6-7 speaks of His glory, saying that the government would rest on His shoulders, and that He would be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, and Prince of Peace. He would occupy the throne of a never ending Kingdom forever. Perhaps most vivid is Daniel’s description of the Son of Man in Daniel 7:13-14, who came before the Ancient of Days and received dominion, glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations and men of every language might serve Him in the kingdom that will not pass away or be destroyed. These are but a few of the many prophecies that spoke of Messiah’s glory that would come after His suffering (Psalm 2; 16:10; 45:7; 110:4; Isaiah 40:3-5, 9-11; 42:1-4; 61:1-3; Jeremiah 33:14-15; Ezekiel 34:23; Malachi 3:1-3, et al.).

We could add to this that the prophets knew that the Messiah would be born of a virgin (Genesis 3:15; Isaiah 7:14) and would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), and many other details. Thus Jesus could say in Luke 24:44-47,
“44 Now He said to them, "These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." 45 Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and He said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, 47 and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

But one piece of information remained a mystery to them. Verses 10-11 say that the prophets “made careful searches and inquiries seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating.” Many scholars have persuasively argued that this should be translated, not person or time, but rather time or what sort of time, in other words, “when and under what circumstances.” This was really the missing element in the prophetic information. They could answer almost any question about the Messiah based on the information they had, except for when He would come. They studied their Scriptures looking for any clues they could find. But there was none to be found. Therefore they must have concluded that God did not intend for them to know, but would reveal it later. The prophets knew that they were not merely serving themselves and their own generation, but that they were speaking truth that would serve a generation to come. Just as God had progressively revealed more of His plan to them than to previous generations, they knew that there were more questions that remained unanswered in their day, and expected that God would make these things known in time. They knew God was going to do what He promised, but they died knowing that He had not yet done so. So Hebrews 11:13 says, “All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance.” Hebrews 11 goes on to say that they “did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us.” And they died knowing this.

So the information available to the Old Testament prophets was accurate, but incomplete. We might also add that it was inspired but incomplete. How did they know what they knew? Peter tells us in v11 that it was because “the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating” these things “as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow.” This very simple statement presents a profound explanation of the doctrine of biblical inspiration. How is it that we can have a Bible that was written by the hands of men, and yet we still claim that it is the Word of God? It is because the Holy Spirit was speaking through these individuals as they wrote what He would have written. In 2 Peter 1:20-21, Peter will say that “No prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” These prophets were not just recording their own opinions, but they were recording the things that God had revealed to them, with the Holy Spirit superintending every step of the process including the choice of the very words used in their writings. This is not only true for the prophetic writings, as Paul will say in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is inspired by God,” or “God-breathed.” The ultimate source of the Bible is God Himself, who reveals Himself through these words that are recorded. Therefore we can say with confidence that our Bible is without error and bears the full authority of God Himself in all that it says.

When the prophets recorded the words they had received from God, the information was accurate and inspired, but it was incomplete. Now it has been completed. Hebrews 1:1-2 that we mentioned previously asserts this, declaring that in Jesus Christ, God’s word has been fully and finally delivered for us. When Jesus gave His final instructions to the Apostles before going to the Cross, He told them that the Holy Spirit was coming to teach them all things and bring to their remembrance all that Jesus had said to them, to guide them into all truth, and disclose to them the things to come (John 14:25-26; 16:12-15). These promises have a very limited application to us, for they were specifically intended for the apostles, who under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, would complete the written revelation of God in the pages of the New Testament. Therefore, Peter can say in 2 Peter 1:16-19, “We did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty … so we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place.”

The prophetic word, which was accurate and inspired, but incomplete, has been made more sure now for us through the person of Jesus Christ and the completed written revelation of God in the New Testament recorded by the apostles and their associates under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we have information that is accurate and inspired as the prophets had, but which unlike their information is now complete. We have all that we need to become a Christian, to live as a Christian, and to grow as a Christian contained here in the pages of the Old and New Testaments of our Bible. Herein we find the Gospel of Jesus Christ … the message that has been proclaimed to us for our redemption. Thus, we are more blessed than even the prophets of old in that we have been privileged to have access to this information. Jesus said in Matthew 13:16-17, “But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear. For truly I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” But you have heard it in its full and final form. Only three questions remain: 1) Have you believed it? 2) Have you treasured it for the privileged blessing that it is? The gospel is not just another piece of information that has flooded into your life; it is not a song or style of music we sing; it is the very privileged treasure of life-giving good news that generations have died without knowing, and countless others live in ignorance of today. Oh that we might treasure this gospel as the pearl of great price and value it over even our very lives! 3) If you have believed this gospel, if you treasure this gospel, then have you shared it with others? God has not whispered to us a secret to be kept under wraps, but good news that is to be made known far and wide! It is our privilege to hear it and our privilege to tell it to others. By having access to this priceless information, we are more blessed than the prophets.

II. We are more blessed than the angels because the experience of our salvation (v12b)

Before our children came along, Donia and I were some of those annoying dog-people. We had an American Water Spaniel that we named Zeke. We got him from a breeder in the Midwest because he had a heart problem and they wanted him to go to a good home. He was a big part of our family life. We took him everywhere we went, and really pampered him. We were at the vet clinic one day and it came up in conversation that one of Zeke’s favorite treats was chocolate. The vet looked at us in a very concerned way and said, “You realize that chocolate can be dangerous for a dog, especially one with such a serious heart problem?” We had no idea. All we knew was that he loved it. So from that day on, every time we ate chocolate, Zeke would sit there and look at us, drooling with the longing to taste some of that wondrous stuff that he could no longer have. He had to learn a painful lesson – chocolate is not for dogs. Similarly, Peter tells us, the gospel is not for angels.

Make no mistake, angels are a privileged class of creatures. They have uninterrupted access to the presence of God, and do His bidding in ways that we may never know until we join them in heaven. They are unusually powerful and important agents of God’s work. They gaze upon the beauty of His holiness constantly and behold divine wonders that we are incapable of comprehending. But there is something we have that they do not – we have the privilege of experiencing God’s redeeming love in salvation, and this is something that Peter tells us that the angels long to look into. Hebrews 2:6-8 speaks of the superior privileges humanity has over angels. The writer says that it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, but borrowing from Psalm 8, he says that God has promised the dominion of creation to humanity through Jesus Christ. And he says there in Hebrews 2:7, “You made him (that is, humanity) for a little while lower than the angels.” In other words, we are inferior to them in the created order, but only temporarily. The day will come when the Kingdom of Christ is fully consummated that redeemed humanity will be exalted above the angels by virtue of the redemption we have in Christ.

Think of it this way: God created human beings with some measure of power to make moral choices to obey or disobey him. He also created angels with some measure of power to make moral choices as well. We know this because Satan exercised that power to rebel against God and take a third of the angels with him. Humanity also exercised this power to rebel against God in sin. But here is where the similarity ends. To which of the angels did God ever offer an opportunity for redemption? For which of the angels did Christ come and die for? The answer is none (See 2 Peter 2:4). The angels that rebelled against God were condemned with no offer for pardon. But humanity rebelled, and God acted out of mercy, grace, and love to redeem us. God did not become an angel to save angels; He became a man and endured human physical death on the cross to save humanity from sin. This is a staggering marvel for the angels to consider. Peter says they long to look into this. The Greek word Peter uses here is the same one used in John 20:11 where Mary stood outside the empty tomb and peered into it. So the angels find themselves outside of the scope of salvation, peering into from a distance. It is foreign to their experience.

It is pagan folklore, and not biblical Christianity, that says that when people die they become angels. That would be a horrible exchange to go from being the objects of the redeeming, saving love of God to being a creature that is disqualified from experiencing that love. Please purge that notion from your minds friends, for it is a perversion of the gospel to suggest that. No, the Christian does not become an angel at death, but something better. He or she becomes a glorified, perfectly transformed, human who is finally capable of living the kind of life that God created us for – a life of eternal and uninterrupted fellowship in the glory of His holy presence. Never trade that for the silly notion that you might become an angel when you die. Angels long to look into the salvation that God has provided for us. It has never been experienced by them; it has never even been offered. But we have received the offer, and we who have turned to Christ by faith and repentance of sin, have experienced it and continue to experience it until the day when we are perfected in glory.

In the Old Testament, God gave very specific instructions for building the tabernacle and its furnishings. The most important piece of it all was the Ark of the Covenant. This was a box made of acacia wood overlaid with pure gold, 4 feet long, 2½ feet wide, 2½ feet deep, that contained the tablets of the Law. It’s top was called the Mercy Seat. This was the place where the manifest presence of God dwelled in the midst of the people. And when offerings were made to atone for the sins of the people, the blood was sprinkled there on the Mercy Seat. When God gave the instructions for building the Ark, He instructed them to craft a cherub (or angel) to sit on opposite ends of the Mercy Seat. But, get this, He said, “The faces of the cherubim are to be turned toward the Mercy Seat” (Exodus 25:20). The representation of these angelic beings sit with their faces fixed upon the divine mystery that the shedding of blood atones for sin and enables humanity to have fellowship with God. They gaze upon the blood longingly, knowing that it is not shed for them, but for us! And by the shedding of blood, by the sacrifice of an innocent substitute, sinful people are made righteous in the presence of a holy God. For centuries, the blood of bulls and goats and lambs was sprinkled there foreshadowing the day when the final sacrifice would be offered – the blood of Jesus Christ Himself. And though the Ark has been missing for centuries, the reality it pointed to is ever present in the promise of the Gospel. Through the shed blood of Jesus, our sins have been atoned, and we who are sinners are cleansed and granted the very righteousness of God through faith in Christ. And the angels will ponder the mystery of it all for eternity to come. And every time a sinner repents and turns to Christ with saving faith, the angels rejoice and celebrate. Jesus said in Luke 15:10, Jesus said there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents!

How blessed we are to be the special objects of God’s redeeming love. It is for sinful humanity and no other creature that Christ died to redeem. The great hymn writer Charles Wesley summed it up this way:

And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

We are more privileged than the prophets of old because what they knew in part, we know in full – this Gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ because of His death and resurrection which has been proclaimed to us. Can you comprehend the treasure that we have in this gospel? And we are more privileged than even the angels, who observe salvation as outsiders. They cannot experience it, they are not offered it; but they long to look into it, and rejoice whenever one of us experiences it.

It is our privilege not only to hear and receive this treasure of the Gospel, but to proclaim it as well. Perhaps one or more is here today who has never received God’s offer of salvation from sin in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is our delight to make it known and available to you today. If the Holy Spirit is speaking to your heart about the need to turn your life over to Christ to save you and give you new life under His Lordship, we invite you today to do so. We would be glad to pray with you and share with you about making that decision. And for those of us who have received this gracious offer of redemption, I pray today that it would be our most precious treasure, but not one that we selfishly horde; rather it is one we should freely give away to others. May God burden us for that one who doesn’t know Christ in our family, our community, our workplace, and for the multitudes who have yet to hear of Him around the world. Reaching them with this good news is our task. May we prayerfully and boldly engage it in the power His Spirit supplies.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Facing Our Trials With Joy - 1 Peter 1:6-9

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

For several decades, a disturbing trend has been developing under the umbrella of American Christianity that seems to have reached a pandemic state in recent years. I am referring to what is called “Prosperity Theology.” According to this movement, if you are following Christ faithfully, you will be wealthy, happy, and healthy; therefore if you are not wealthy, happy, and healthy, then you are either not following Christ, or else you lack faith or spiritual maturity. And if you were to survey the number of so-called Christian books and television ministries, you would find that a vast majority of the most popular ones are teaching this very notion. But the sad reality is that the New Testament makes no such claims. Rather, the Bible explicitly states that the followers of Jesus will endure much hardship and suffering in this world, much of it in direct proportion to their faithfulness and spiritual maturity. Jesus said in John 16:33, “In the world you have tribulation.” Paul said in 2 Timothy 3:12, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Those are pretty clear statements if you ask me. If we teach or believe that following Jesus means a life free of suffering, then not only do we violate the clear teachings of Scripture, but we also do spiritual harm to our souls and the souls of others. When the reality of suffering strikes them deeply, as it certainly will, they will be disillusioned, depressed, and devastated. It seems that the only people who really prosper on Prosperity Theology are the teachers of this heresy, who thrive on the contributions that flow toward them from the pockets of vulnerable people who can ill-afford it. Better for them, and for us, to be grounded in the truth of God’s Word, lest we be taken by surprise and overwhelmed by the suffering we will certainly face in this world. Peter tells us here that instead, we can meet life’s trials with joy. For many that may seem like an impossible contradiction; they tend to think that you can have joy or you can have hardships in life, but not both—at least not both at the same time. But what God’s Word tells us here is that it is possible to rejoice in life’s trials. More than possible, for many Christians it is certain that they will do so. So why? Why will we, why should we, why is it possible for us to face our trials with joy? Some of the reasons are found in these verses.
I. We rejoice in trials because of the nature of our joy.
Peter begins this text by saying, “In this you greatly rejoice ….” What is this? It refers back to what was stated in the previous section, vv3-5. Here we found a package of blessings that has been given to the followers of Jesus by God’s grace. It includes the new birth, our living hope, our imperishable inheritance, and our eternally secure salvation that have been purchased for us by Christ through His death and resurrection and imparted to us through faith in Him. These are the foundation for our joy. It is “in this” reality, that these blessings are ours in Christ, that we “greatly rejoice.” These blessings are primarily future-oriented and heavenly-focused, but here in verse 6 Peter brings us back to the present, earthly realities we find ourselves in. It is a stark contrast. The future promises the Christian “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and will not fade away, reserved in heaven” (v4), but the present promises only the distress of “various trials” (v6). But it is the vision of what is to come that helps us to endure the present realities with joy. If we had no glimpse into what lies ahead for us as the people of God, then the hardships of this life would hardly be bearable.
Our joy is fixed in the knowledge the heavenly blessings that are ours in Christ. And nothing we endure in this world can take those away from us. As Peter said in vv4-5, this inheritance is reserved for us, and we are being protected by divine power for it. If our joy is too firmly affixed to the things of this world, we are in for certain disappointment. They will break, they will rot, they can be taken away, stolen, or lost. The heavenly blessings cannot. So, we must not make our present state of health, our financial stability, our material possessions, or our social status the gauge of joy in our lives, for they are fleeting. As we so often sing in Edward Mote’s glorious hymn from the 19th Century, “The Solid Rock”: In every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil. The imagery Mote is referring to is the Holy of Holies, that inner-most sanctuary of the tabernacle and temple where the presence of God dwelt. And he reminds us in that hymn that in this life there will be turbulence – high and stormy gales – but our ship will not capsize for we are firmly anchored in the presence of God through our faith in Christ.
I had a dear friend in Bible College who came from a very poor and humble background. He didn’t have much to his name apart from his calling to preach the gospel. But on more than one occasion, when one of his few earthly possessions was lost or broken, I witnessed him shrug his shoulders and say, “Oh well, it will all burn one day.” Nothing on this earth apart from the Word of God and the souls of men will last forever. So, these earthly blessings, precious though they may be to us, must never become the source of our ultimate joy. The nature of our joy is that it is fixed on eternal matters that none of this life’s hardships can take away from us. For that reason, the text not only begins with a word about joy that is based on eternal matters, it ends that way too. In vv8-9, it is the reality of Christ Himself and the salvation that is ours for eternity that is the basis of our great rejoicing, with joy inexpressible and full of glory. We can rejoice in the midst of life’s hardships because our ultimate joy is not found in the things of this life. It is found in Christ and in our eternal relationship with Him. This is the nature of our joy that enables us to face trials with joy.
II. We rejoice in trials because of the nature of our sufferings.
We are told here in v6 that life in this world involves “various trials.” The word Peter uses here is used in some contexts to indicate “multicolored.” Indeed, we are faced with a wide variety of hardships in life. I have shared this before in other settings, but always like to just review the various areas of suffering that we encounter: 1) Moral evil, wherein someone makes a sinful choice to harm us directly or indirectly in some way, or wherein the consequences of our sinful choices cause suffering for us and others; 2) Physical suffering, which involves pain, injury, disease, and ultimately physical death because our physical bodies are corrupted by sin and are wearing out as we live; 3) Natural disaster, wherein storms of all kinds, earthquakes, volcanoes, and other natural forces inflict loss and suffering on people; 4) Suffering for righteousness sake, wherein we undergo trials for no other reason than that we stand for Jesus Christ. Those four categories encapsulate every instance of suffering imaginable. Every hardship we face is classified in one of those or the other, perhaps in some rare cases, straddling the lines of two or more. And though many of Peter’s readers were experiencing this fourth kind of suffering—suffering for righteousness sake—none of them were exempt from any of these “various trials.” Nor are we. But our ability to rejoice in suffering is not the result of being able to diagnose it in one of these categories. Our joy comes from understanding the nature that all of them share.
First, notice that our sufferings, no matter their source, are temporary. We rejoice, “even though now for a little while,” we are “distressed by various trials.” Notice those words: for a little while. This past Tuesday morning in Ames, Iowa, the oldest person in America died. Neva Morris was 114 years and 246 days old. Now, let’s just take her for an example. Suppose that every single day of Neva Morris’s life had been filled with suffering … all heartache, and no joy at all. That’s 114 years of suffering; can you even imagine? Now, I don’t know if she was a believer in Jesus, so I won’t speculate on her eternal destiny, but let’s say for argument’s sake, she went to heaven. How long do you think she would be in heaven before she realized how brief those 114 years were? How long would she have to gaze on the face of the risen Lord Jesus Christ before she conceded that all her sufferings in this life were like the morning dew that is here one minute and gone the next? Bede, the 8th Century monk, wrote, “Once we have entered our eternal reward, the years we spent suffering will seem like nothing at all.” But all of life is not suffering ONLY is it? No, life is hard, but it is punctuated throughout with momentary experiences of delight. And those moments come to us as reminders that sorrow and suffering doesn’t last forever. It has an expiration date. Robert Leighton, the great Scottish preacher of the 17th Century, said this: “Because we willingly forget eternity, the moment looms large in our eyes. But if we look at it correctly, how little we would be concerned about our present condition on earth.” Surely, some of us may experience more hardship than others in this life, but for all of us who are in Christ by faith, it is all just temporary. It’s for a little while.
Then notice that our trials may be necessary. Peter is writing, but remember, he is writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and he says here that we greatly rejoice in our eternal blessings in Christ, “even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials.” Now, the word if is an important one. It does not mean that all the suffering we face is necessary, nor does it specifically mean that any of the suffering that a particular Christian faces is necessary. But it does mean that some of it may be necessary. Surely God is able to prevent suffering, but He often does not prevent it. In some cases, as Peter will say in 3:17, God may even will that some suffering occurs, and sometimes those cases will seem unjust to the sufferer. But God is not unjust. He has a purpose and a plan in all that He wills to occur. And sometimes suffering is a necessary part of His will.
I have already stated that some suffering is simply a matter of cause and effect. God created the world with a built in set of consequences for sin. Much of that, such as the corruption that works within our physical bodies, was set in motion by the first sin. The natural disasters that often wreak havoc on the planet may be residual effects of the global flood in the days of Noah which involved a massive geological and atmospheric upheaval as God poured out judgment on the wickedness of the world. Some is merely the result of sinful choices people make, directly or indirectly. Included in this category of the cases of unbelievers persecuting Christians for their faith. But why would God not will that all of this be stopped? Why would He make the suffering in any of these cases, especially this latter one, a necessary part of His will? Some matters will be a divine mystery until we enter heaven and find all our plaguing questions either answered in the light of His glory or else fade from view altogether. But some of our questions are answered in the divine revelation of God’s Word, and that is the case here.
We are told here in verse 7 that some of the suffering we endure as we follow Jesus is for the purpose of proving the genuineness of our faith. But for whose benefit is this proof? It would be folly to say that the testing proves the genuineness of our faith to God. He already knows us intimately, inside-and-out, and needs no proof of the sincerity of our faith or the lack thereof. But it is often the case that we ourselves do not know the genuineness of our own faith. As Jeremiah said, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9). You and I don’t even know the depths of our own souls, and so in proving our faith, God is allowing us to see our true standing from His perspective. Many of us can testify to undergoing some trial, and looking back on it in disappointment over how poorly we handled it. Some of us have found that we are handling difficult circumstances better the longer we walk with Christ. And in these moments, God is showing us how He is developing our spiritual maturity, and in some cases, how far we have to go! Think of Abraham when God asked him to sacrifice Isaac. Did God know if Abraham loved Him more than Isaac? Surely He did. But Abraham did not even know this about himself, until God proved his faith in that very trying moment. Suffering can be a spiritual mirror that God uses to show us our own reflection, in order to show us the true condition of our souls.

But also there is another audience for this proving that God does through our suffering. The people around us are watching our lives to see if Jesus Christ makes a difference in how we live through hardship. It is one thing to stand before them while our lives are going well and theirs are going poorly and say, “Oh friend, you really need to turn to Jesus!” But when the roles are reversed, and they are in happy prosperity while we are burdened with a great load of care, can we show them in that moment that Jesus makes a difference in how we suffer? Can we show them that Christ is so priceless a treasure to us that we can rejoice in Him even though all around us is falling apart? There are times when it is necessary for us to suffer so that God can prove to the world that our faith in Christ is genuine, and that faith in Him transforms us in a radical way. Think of David, who fasted and prayed through the sickness of his newborn child, but when he learned that the child died, he ate, cleansed himself, and went to worship God. When his companions asked him why the change of heart from one moment to the next, David replied, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, 'Who knows, the LORD may be gracious to me, that the child may live.' But now he has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam 12:22-23). The genuineness of his faith was proven to those around him through this suffering. So God may use our suffering to prove the genuineness of our faith to others.

Then we might also say that in some cases, God uses our suffering in order to prove the genuineness of our faith to Satan and his demons. Satan is not all-knowing. He doesn’t know the depth of our faith, but he operates to undo us all, assuming that we can be easily led astray from the Lord. And sometimes God allows us, even wills us, to undergo suffering so that the genuineness of our faith may be proven to the hostile spiritual forces. Think of Job. Remember that Job 1 tells us that Job’s suffering was God’s idea. Satan had been roaming about on the earth, perhaps doing as Peter will say in 1 Peter 5:8, prowling around like a lion seeking someone to devour. And it was God who said, “Have you considered my servant Job?” But Satan suggested that Job only feared the Lord because God had protected him from harm. And at this, God allowed Satan to have his way with Job, in order to prove to Satan that Job’s faith was genuine. So it seems to me that while we often emphasize Job’s confidence in God, a more important reality is God’s confidence in Job to withstand the unprecedented and unrivaled suffering that was inflicted upon him by Satan and to come through it with his faith in God still in tact. Have you even thought that God may be using the hardships you are experiencing to prove to Satan that you belong to Him and that your faith in Him is steadfast?

Job understood that what he was experiencing was a test, and was able to proclaim, “When He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). Interestingly, that is the same imagery that Peter uses here in our text. He says that our proven faith is more precious than gold. In talking about joy and suffering, Peter is contrasting things of heaven and things of earth, and that contrast continues with the comparison of faith and gold. To most people, gold is the most valuable commodity that earth has to offer. But from heaven’s perspective, genuine faith is more valuable by far. Like gold, faith is purified in the refiner’s fire. Precious metals are heated to the melting point and the impurities separate and are skimmed away so that what is left is only the pure substance. Martin Luther said, “Just as the fire does no harm to the gold, devours it not, neither diminishes it, but only serves it, for it takes from it all dross, so that it becomes indeed pure and genuine, just so does the fire and heat of persecution and all opposition (and we might add all other suffering as well) indeed grieve us and cause us pain beyond measure, so that those who are thus tried become sad and for a time impatient; yet their faith will thereby become pure and genuine, like refined gold.” Yet, even gold will eventually perish. Peter says here that it is perishable, and in 2 Peter 3:10, he will say that all the elements of the earth will be destroyed with intense heat on the final day of judgment. But in that day, genuine faith in Christ will be shown to be imperishable, and will last for eternity.

And in that day, all of the hardship we have endured with joy in this life will be transformed into “praise and glory and honor” when we see Christ face to face, at the moment of His revelation. Prior to that day, we do not see Him with our eyes; we behold Him by faith. But when faith gives way to sight, we will praise Him, give Him glory and honor for all that He has done for us, and others will praise and glorify and honor Him as well. In fact, along the way, some may even turn to Christ before that day because of the joy they see in your life that is anchored in Christ in the midst of the storms you travel through. So recognizing that our trials in this life are temporary, are sometimes a necessary part of God’s will to prove the genuineness of our faith, and will eventually result in praise, glory and honor being given to Christ forever enables to hold fast to joy in the midst of the suffering we endure here and now.

Now our final point here in this text:
III. We rejoice in trials because of the nature of our Savior.

Sometimes, suffering enters our life like a Tsunami. All appears hopeless and everything that can be is shaken from its moorings. The temptation in that moment is to say, “Where is God in all this?” And the answer is that He is right where He has always been – sovereignly enthroned as Lord over it all. He was there on the darkest day of earth’s history when sinful men nailed the Holy Son of God to the cross, and He is there on the darkest day of your life. And in fact, in those moments, you also are exactly where you have been ever since your first turned to Jesus by faith: right in the palm of His hand. Is God a liar? Absolutely not! Has He promised you that you will never suffer in this life? He has not. But has He promised you that as His child He will never leave you nor forsake you? He most certainly has. And His word is truth!

Peter says, “Though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice.” How is that we can rejoice in Him and love Him when we cannot see Him? How can we believe in Him when it seems at time that He is absent? The fact is that we would neither love, nor believe, nor rejoice in Him had we not already discovered His infinite love for us and His faithfulness to us, His trustworthiness, and found Him to be the source of all true joy in this life and the life to come. Our love, our belief, and our joy is merely as response to the divine initiative He has taken in our lives to draw us close to Himself through the cross of Jesus. And the fact that we love, and believe, and rejoice, in spite of never having seen Him with any eye other than the eye of faith, means that we are blessed beyond measure according to Christ’s own promise. In John 20:29, Jesus said to Thomas, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”

So we rejoice in Christ in the midst of life’s trials because of His love, His faithfulness, and the joy He supplies to us. On this basis, we love Him, we believe in Him, yes, and we rejoice in Him with joy unspeakable and full of glory. And we rejoice knowing that the day of His revelation is coming. The day is coming when we will see Him face to face, and on that day, as a result of our faith in Him, we will, as Peter writes in v9, obtain “as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.” We endure these days with joy, because our eyes are fixed on that day. And we know that in that day, because of His perfect justice, all wrongs will be made right; and because of His grace, He will receive us unto Himself if we have trusted Him to save us.

I don’t know what you may be going through today, but I can imagine that all of us are in the same boat. We are either experiencing suffering of some kind to some degree, or we have just come through a season of suffering, or we are getting ready to enter into such a season. I am neither a prophet nor a psychic, but I know that those things must be true based on what God’s word teaches us about living in this fallen world. And I also know that it is possible for us to endure such sufferings with joy. Our joy is not rooted in the circumstances of this life, but in the eternal realities of the blessings we have received in Christ. Our joy is possible because we understand that these trials are temporary, they may be necessary for proving the genuineness of our faith, and they are producing praise and glory and honor for Jesus. Our joy is firmly fixed in the nature of Jesus Himself, the One whom we love because He first loved us; the One in whom we trust because we have found Him faithful; the One whom we have found to be the source of all real joy; and the One who will right every wrong in the day of His appearing. Life will bring the suffering; Jesus will provide the joy for those whose hearts are fixed steadfastly on Him.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Praise God for the Risen Jesus! (1 Peter 1:3-5)

Audio available on our iTunes podcast and here: http://ibcgso.org/MP3s/1P%20010305%20PGFTRJ.mp3 (click to stream, right click to download)

When the Patriarch Jacob met the Pharaoh of Egypt in Genesis 47, the Bible tells us that Pharaoh asked him, “How many years have you lived?” Jacob responded “The years of my sojourning are one hundred and thirty; few and unpleasant have been the years of my life.” Most of us will not live to the ripe old age of 130, but all of us can look over the landscape of our lives and say that our years have been few and difficult. Each of us experiences hardship on a daily basis. We are not unique. Since the fall of humanity into sin, every person who has ever lived in this world has been affected by suffering and sorrow in countless ways. Peter’s original readers could relate. They had very likely been uprooted from Rome and deported under the Emperor Claudius, sent off to live in the newly established Roman colonies in Asia Minor. Why? We don’t know for certain, but we have reason to believe that they were singled out because they were Christians. And they were scattered across this enormous new territory where they came into contact with people who had lived there for a long time and were not too pleased about being under Roman control or having to deal with these new residents. These Christians were treated harshly by their new neighbors in a number of ways. Peter describes how they underwent “various trials,” “evil,” “harm,” a “fiery ordeal,” being slandered, reviled, and socially ostracized because of their faith in Christ. Not all suffering that we have endured is a direct result of our faith in Christ, but live long enough and you will experience some of it. Some of you have already experienced it to a great degree. Your decision to follow Christ may have cost you relationships, privileges, or possessions. So, what does the Word of God have to say to people who are living in hardship and difficulty, much of which may be directly related to our faith in Jesus?

Peter writes, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, in verse 3: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He calls them to worship the sovereign God of the universe in spite of their difficult circumstances. Instead of looking at the hardships around them, Peter directs their focus upward to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and says, “Blessed be Him!” In other words, “Praise Him!” Our worship of God is always rooted in the objective realities of who He is and what He has done. Peter uses very precise theological language in the opening verses of this letter to identify the one true God in His Trinitarian Nature, referring in v2 to God the Father, the Spirit, and Jesus Christ. Here in v3, he refers to Him as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, further establishing his conviction in the sovereignty of God and the deity of Christ. He is supremely and uniquely worthy of our praise and worship because who He is in and of Himself. But then notice that Peter also points to a particular act of God as a foundational basis for this worship: The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It is that miraculous and historical event that we celebrate today.

God has done many things in the history of the world, and the Lord Jesus did many things recorded in the Gospels, and many more that are not. John said that if we recorded everything He said and did, the whole world wouldn’t contain the books. But the resurrection is the event that Peter points these struggling readers to. It is this singular event that he uses as a basis of his call to worship. Praise God, he says, on the basis of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. And in the words that fill this passage, Peter tells us why the resurrection of Christ is so foundational to our worship as we live out our lives, few and difficult though our days may be.

I. Because of the Resurrection, we can be born again (v3)
I’m not much of a handy man. When something has to be assembled, my tendency is to tear into it and start trying to put it together without looking at the directions. Invariably I reach a point where I realize I am stuck and pull out the instructions to see where I went wrong. Often it was with step one. So I have to take it all apart and start over. Don’t you wish life was like that? Wouldn’t it be great if you could go back and start over, knowing what you know now? See, by the time we come to understand what God expects of us in this life, we are already guilty of violating His holy standards. In fact, we were born guilty because we inherited a sin nature from Adam. So we are sinners by nature and by choice, from the worst of us to the best of us. We deserve to be eternally separated from God because of our sins. But praise the Lord, God has not given us what we deserve. He has shown us “great mercy.” When the Bible speaks of mercy, it means that God is withholding from us some penalty or consequence that we deserve. In His great mercy, Peter says, He has “caused us to be born again.” And this new birth is a direct result of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

You remember when Jesus was talking to Nicodemus in John 3. This man was a religious leader among the Jewish people. As far as human standards go, he was a good man. But his goodness was not good enough to please God. Jesus told him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” And Nicodemus asked Jesus a very natural question in response: “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?” And Jesus spoke to him about a different kind of birth – not the natural birth by which we are brought into the world, but a spiritual birth that comes to us from above. This new, spiritual birth is accomplished through Jesus Christ. Because God loved the world, He came into the world in the person of Christ to die for sins. He died the death we deserve because of our sins. But because of His divine power, He conquered sin and death by rising from the dead. Therefore, He is able to impart new life to all who come to Him by faith. He is able to “cause us to be born again.”

The solution to our spiritual predicament is not to try harder or do better, but to have a brand new start given to us by God Himself in the new birth. We need a new nature to replace the sinful nature we are born with. Thus Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again if he would enter the Kingdom of God.” We are born again with a new nature, and are made to be part of a new family. In this new family, God is our Father, and fellow believers in Jesus are our brothers and sisters. And the bond of this family is not just for this life, but for eternity. Because Jesus has conquered death and given us new life, our life with Him in this new family will be everlasting as well.
In 1 Corinthians 15:17, Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.” What he means there is that if Christ is not risen from the dead, then He has not defeated sin or its penalty for us, and thus there is still a price to pay for sin that we must pay ourselves. That price will be eternal separation from God in suffering and perishing in that horrific place the Bible calls hell. But if Christ has been raised, as we preach and believe, then He has made a sufficient sacrifice for our sins so that we can be born again by faith in Him. All the sins of our past are removed. Our nature is transformed by His indwelling presence within us, and eternal life will be ours to enjoy forever with Him and our new family in Christ.
Peter is writing these words to people who have made that commitment to believe in Christ alone to save them from their sins. They have been born again. And as a result of their commitment to Christ, many of them have suffered great loss in their lives. They may have been cut off from family, they may have lost friends, they may be undergoing persecution from others, but Peter calls them to worship God, because Christ is risen, and as a result of His resurrection we have been born again into a new life and given a new family with a new Father in Heaven, and new brothers and sisters in the Church of Jesus Christ. And this is true for all of us as well. Christ is risen, and therefore we can be born again and have new life, abundant life, and eternal life in Him. Praise God for the Risen Christ who makes it possible for us to be born again.
II. Because of the Resurrection, we have a living hope (v3)
To most of us, the word “hope” conjures up the idea of something we are less than certain of. “Will the pastor be finished with his sermon by 12:00?” “I hope so.” I hope so too, but I am pretty sure I won’t. The way we use the word “hope” in our ordinary conversation is a way of expressing what we wish to be true in the future. But that is not the way the word is used by New Testament writers. In the New Testament hope looks toward the future, but it does so with certainty and confidence. To have hope is the opposite of facing the future with fear. As one New Testament scholar said, “To have hope is a sign that things are well with us.” A Christian’s hope is more than wishful thinking, it is a confident expectation of what will be. The logic of the passage is this: the resurrection makes the new birth possible, and the new birth brings hope, and this hope is living.
What is a “living hope”? To understand that, we would have to understand its opposite–dead hope. Hope that is grounded in futile things is dead. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13, Paul refers to those who do not understand the resurrection as those who “have no hope.” Their hope is dead. Many whom we know today have no hope – the only hope they know is a dead hope because it is not based on anything of real substance or value. The existentialists and materialists of our modern world look for satisfaction in this life only, and wrestle with the seemingly undeniable reality that it will not be attained here. Therefore, their only hope is to endure the hardships of this life until death comes, and at that point, they believe they will simply cease to exist. Death to them is just nothingness, a state of nonexistence, like a candle that has been extinguished. This view was common in the ancient world as well. But this is not how the Christian looks toward the future. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:19, “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” We are hoping for something better beyond death. Our hope is a living hope because we understand that life goes on beyond death. Death is not the end for anyone, regardless of their spiritual condition. Hebrews 9:27 says that it is appointed unto man once to die and then the judgment. And in that judgment, some will enter eternal life and the glory of heaven, while others will perish eternally in hell. The difference is Jesus Christ. Those who have been born again by faith in him have a living hope of life beyond death. Jesus said in John 11, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies.”

Peter would have his Christian friends know that life in this world may be hard. People may mistreat us for no other reason than for our faith in Him. For 2,000 years, many Christians have even been put to death for their faith, and this continues in much of the world today. But Peter reminds these believers that we have a living hope. Because Jesus has conquered death, we will have victory over death as well in Him. What can this world do to you that Christ cannot overcome? The worst of it is death, but we have a living hope that enables us to wait with confident expectation for a better life than this beyond the grave. Living hope means that no matter what the future holds, the believer in Christ does not have to face the future with fear. We have faith in the promises of God and await the fulfillment of those promises with assurance that His word will be found to be true.

How are we to endure the difficulties of life in this world? By considering the risen Lord Jesus Christ and worshiping God. He has enabled us to be born again and given us a living hope.

III. Because of the Resurrection, we have a glorious inheritance (vv4-5)

In the Old Testament, the Promised Land of Canaan was often spoken of as Israel’s inheritance. The various portions of the land which were allotted to each tribe were referred to as that tribe’s inheritance. For them, the idea of an inheritance in the land was of the utmost importance. Much of Israel’s ancient laws about land and family had to do with this reality. Ultimately, that land was lost for centuries to invading powers.

It is helpful to remember the likely scenario of Peter’s readers as we come to this discussion about inheritance. While we do not know for certain, the most likely background scenario of these Christians is that which I stated before—that they had been uprooted from Rome and scattered across Asia Minor by the Emperor Claudius. This is important to keep in mind, because in the ancient world, one’s inheritance often consisted primarily of land. This is still true in much of the world today. When a parent dies, the property is passed down to the heirs. But in the case of these Christians, they have been deported from their earthly homeland, and at this point, any claim to that inheritance is questionable at best, and completely forfeited at worst. If their future hope is dependent on what they might receive in this world, then they are relatively hopeless.

Many Christians today can identify with this. I dare suggest that here in our midst are some whose grandparents and parents cut them off when they decided to follow Jesus. Maybe some were disowned, struck from the inheritance, and severed from the ties of family and home. When viewed through the lens of life in this world only, that is a very insecure and hopeless position to find oneself in. And most of us can only imagine the intensity of the temptation that must be faced as one wrestles with these realities, understanding that all those things may be restored if only one would abandon following Jesus. Peter’s friends understood that. Had they renounced their faith in Christ, they may have been able to return to Rome, be reunited with their families, and have once again the security of their future inheritance of land and possessions and wealth.

But Peter tells them here that there is a better inheritance awaiting them. No matter what your faith in Christ may cause you to lose in this world will be more than compensated in the life to come. Because of the resurrection of Christ, we have been born again to a living hope, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and will not fade away. Nothing we stand to gain in this world can be described in those terms. Something that is imperishable means that it will not be corrupted or destroyed. Undefiled means that it is not polluted or stained by sin. Things that will not fade away are those which will never lose their splendor. Everything in this world is perishable, defiled by sin, and posses only a fading beauty. There is nothing you can possess here and now that can’t be broken, stolen, or spoiled. But the things we stand to inherit in the life to come are not subject to any of that. That is why Jesus admonished us in the Sermon on the Mount to “not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal” (Matt 6:19-20)

What will that inheritance consist of? Well, Paul said in 1 Corinthians 2:9 that God has prepared for those who love Him things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard; things which have not entered the heart of man.” What we know is that it will be an inheritance of pure, imperishable, and eternal glory, consisting primarily of life in the very presence of this risen Lord Jesus and all the blood-bought benefits that come through faith in Him.

Israel longed for the homeland that God had promised them; but they couldn’t keep it. Because of their own sin, and because of repeated invasions from foreign powers, they lost that inheritance. But this inheritance that is promised to believers in Jesus is eternally secure. Peter said that it is reserved in heaven for us. This glorious eternal treasure has been stored up for us and is being guarded by the Christ who conquered death and lives forever more. It will never be taken away from those to whom it has been promised.

But what of us? What if somehow we become disqualified from receiving this inheritance before we obtain it? Not possible! Not only is the inheritance being reserved for us, but we are also being protected for it. In v5, Peter says that this inheritance is reserved in heaven for you who are protected by the power of God through faith. We are not maintaining ourselves in this relationship with Christ, but are being preserved in it by the power of God Himself, by the power of the Risen Lord Jesus who saved us and who is alive to keep us in the grip of this saving grace. Hebrews 7:25 says that Jesus is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. He is forever standing before the Father on our behalf, pleading the blood that He shed on our behalf, and nothing we do and nothing that can be done to us by others can ever take us out of His grace. In John 10:28-29, Jesus said, “I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand.”

How may we know if we are guarded in this relationship with Him? If we have put our faith in Christ to save us, then it is certain. We are “protected by the power of God through faith.” It has been well said that, “Our faith lays hold on God’s power, and His power strengthens our faith, and in this manner we are preserved.” If our faith should grow weak as we walk with Jesus, God’s power works on our behalf to strengthen us so that no one who has truly been born again will ever fall away. They have been redeemed into a salvation, the fullness of which will only be fully and finally revealed in the last time, at the final judgment. On that day, we will see the risen Jesus face to face and know that our living hope has become fully realized. On that day, all that was ever lost in this life will fade from view as we behold the glorious inheritance God has reserved for those who are born again by faith in Christ.

Yes, life in this world is hard. Our days are few and difficult as Jacob said. And for the believer in Christ, there are often hardships that we must face for no other reason than that we have put our faith in Him. There will be sacrifice, there will be suffering to greater or lesser degrees, there will be costly decisions made with severe consequence. But the Word of God says to us today what it said to those to whom Peter wrote this letter. Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ because Christ has been resurrected from the dead! And because of this we can be born again to a living hope and an imperishable, undefiled, incorruptible inheritance that is guarded for us in heaven, while we are all the while being guarded for it by the power of God through our faith in Christ.