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.

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