Monday, August 02, 2010

Following in His Steps - 1 Peter 2:21-23

The last half of the nineteenth century was a time of great evangelistic fervor. Crusades and revivals were taking place all over America with multitudes of people making decisions for Christ. A pastor in Topeka, Kansas around the turn of the twentieth century was noticing that in spite of all those who were claiming to believe in Christ, very few were actually following Christ in the way they lived. He began writing a series of semi-fictional stories about a pastor and his people that he read to his youth group every Sunday night. The entire church was excited and enthusiastic about what the pastor was sharing and they encouraged him to have the stories published. He sent the manuscript to three publishers, all of whom rejected it. His denominational newspaper began publishing the series, one chapter per month. It was so well-received that publishers took sudden interest in the story. Unfortunately, because the newspaper was not copyrighted, sixteen publishers issued editions of the book, and the author never received one cent of royalties. Hundreds of thousands of copies of the first edition were sold within a few weeks. By mid-century, it had outsold every book except the Bible. And in an interesting turn of events, during the early 1990s, the book experienced a sudden renewal of interest due to a little bracelet featuring four simple letters. This resurgence made the book one of the only books in the bestseller list in the first and last decades of the twentieth century. Today, it has sold over 30 million copies and ranks as the 39th best-selling book of all times. The book is called In His Steps, written by Charles Sheldon.

The book tells the story of Rev. Henry Maxwell and the church he serves in the fictional town of Raymond. The church is visited one Sunday by a homeless man who rises to speak to the congregation at the end of the worship service. He confronted the Christians about the lack of compassion that Christians had shown to the homeless and needy in the town. After speaking, he collapsed and died a few days later. The entire episode is a wake-up call to Rev. Maxwell, who then challenges his entire congregation to live the next year of their life by asking the simple question, “What would Jesus do?” The rest of the book features vignettes of how individuals are transformed by this question.

The popularity of this question, and its abbreviation WWJD, continues today among Christians. However, because of the growing biblical ignorance among those who profess to be Christians, the question is not easily answered in many lives. The question is asked, “What would Jesus do?,” but in many situations there is an embarrassing realization that individuals simply do not know what Jesus would do. The only way to rightly answer the question is to immerse ourselves in the Word of God and discover what, in fact, Jesus did do. And what we find on nearly every page of the New Testament is the sometimes startling reality that Jesus suffered. When we ask, “What would Jesus do?,” the answer we find in Scripture may not be what we want to hear. Near the book’s conclusion, Rev. Maxwell preaches,

“If our definition of being a Christian is simply to enjoy the privileges of worship, be generous at no expense to ourselves, have a good, easy time surrounded by pleasant friends and by comfortable things, live respectably, and at the same time avoid the world’s great stress of sin and trouble—if this is our definition of Christianity, surely we are a long way from following the steps of Him who trod the way with tears of anguish for a lost humanity.”

Think about Jesus’ first recorded words to Peter, the apostle who writes these words in our text today. In Matthew 4:19, Jesus called out to Peter and his brother Andrew, who were fishing at the time, and said, “Follow me.” This is the true meaning of discipleship. To be Christ’s disciple is to follow Him. It took Peter a long time to learn that Christ’s way was the way of suffering—it was the way of the cross. When Jesus began to tell His disciples that He was going to die, it was Peter who was the first to rebuke the Lord. When they came to arrest Jesus in Gethsemane, it was Peter who drew his sword to fight. Now, years later, we see that Peter has come to understand that suffering does not mean that we have wandered from the path of Christ, but rather that we are following Him upon that path. In fact, as we read Peter’s epistles, it seems as if suffering has become the center of all Christology in Peter’s mind. These verses, and continuing on to verse 25, form somewhat of an exposition of Isaiah 53, that rich passage of the Old Testament that prophesied of the Suffering Servant who was to come. When we hear or read that passage today, we instantly recognize that it is speaking of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, Peter is the only New Testament writer to specifically connect the Isaiah 53 prophecy to Jesus. Perhaps that passage had become precious to him as he contemplated all that he heard Christ say about suffering and all that he had seen Him endure.

The context in which these few verses is situated is all about suffering – unjust suffering for the sake of Christ. Then we come to verse 21 which says that we have been called for a specific purpose … to follow in Christ’s steps; to follow His example. The Greek word translated “example” in verse 21 refers to a practice of teaching children to write by giving them a pattern of letters to trace over. There were four Greek words which, together, contained every letter of the alphabet. These would be written lightly on paper, and a child would repeatedly trace over the form of the letters until they had mastered forming the letters. Here Peter says that Christ is our example. We are to study His life and practice bringing our lives into conformity with His as the Spirit performs His work of sanctification in us.

We might think that this discussion of Christ as our example marks a change in subject from that of suffering to that of happier thoughts. But as we see here, suffering is the way of Christ, and He has blazed a glowing trail through the vale of suffering upon which He calls all of His people to follow. There are a million ways to follow His example, to walk in His steps, but none of them travel far without encountering suffering. Many are willing to follow Him up to it; those who belong to Him by faith prove themselves by following Him all the way through it. Every human being will experience suffering in life. It is an inescapable reality of life in this world that is radically corrupted by sin. But some of us will follow Christ through suffering. And in order to know that we are doing that, we need to know something about His suffering. We need to find His footsteps on the path, and follow them. This passage shines the light on that path so we can step where Christ has stepped.

The first thing we learn in this text about Christ’s suffering is that …

I. Christ suffered unjustly (v21-22a)

Though it has been several years now, the memory is still fresh. I cannot drive past the restaurant beside of Toys R Us here on High Point Road without remembering the gang-related double murder that took place there in 2007. This past week, a federal jury sentenced 25 year old Alejandro Umana to receive the death penalty for those murders. An FBI agent said of the sentencing, “It proves our law enforcement partners are determined to bring those who break the law to justice, regardless of the obstacles that may block the path.”

Justice. It is a word that means receiving what we deserve. It means that there is a punishment that fits that crime. When wrongs are done without penalty, that is injustice. When someone is punished innocently, that is also injustice. Part of our being made in God’s image includes that we have some understanding of justice. We may fear it when we have done wrong, but deep down, we desire it for ourselves and others, and we feel a sense of satisfaction when justice is done. But then we look upon the cross where Jesus died and instantly we are aware that we are not seeing justice carried out. Here the death penalty is being carried out, not upon a murderer, but upon One whose entire life is encapsulated in these words from Matthew 9:35 – “Jesus was going through all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness.” For this, He was sentenced to death. This is not justice. This is injustice of the highest degree.

The Bible says that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). This does not mean that every sin causes instantaneous death, though some do. It means that all death is the result of sin. This is obviously true in the case of murder – someone’s sin led to the victim’s death. It is plain to see in the case of a person who dies while driving drunk – their sin killed them. But what about in the case of a 91-year old faithful saint of God who loved the Lord, loved her family, and loved her church. Is sin the cause of her death? Yes. Because of sin’s effect on the human race, our bodies are susceptible to injury and disease; we are corruptible, and our bodies are constantly wearing-out to the point of death, throughout our entire lives. As Paul says in Romans 5:12, “Though one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” We have a congenital birth defect that we inherited from Adam called “our sin nature,” and it is deadly.

But what about Jesus? In the first part of verse 22, Peter says of Christ that He “committed no sin.” Even Pilate, who ordered the crucifixion knew this. After examining Him, Pilate said, “I find no guilt in this man” (Luke 23:4). Not only did Jesus never commit any sin, He did not have a sin nature, as the rest of humanity does, because of His miraculous virgin birth. So, should He not have been exempt from dying? Indeed. But Jesus died unjustly. He did not get what He deserved on the cross. He suffered, Peter says in verse 21, for you. Jesus didn’t get what He deserved. He got what we deserve. In His death, He became our substitute. We may say that we never did anything to offend the Jewish religious authorities or the Roman Empire, so why would we deserve that? Well, that is not all that was going on in Jesus’ death. He was dying for the sins of humanity – including yours and mine. He was dying to bear the full wrath of God that our sins deserve. Romans 5:8 says, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” And because He didn’t get what He deserved, you and I don’t have to get what we deserve. In becoming our substitute in death, Jesus bore the wrath for us so that we can be forgiven of our sins and covered in the righteousness of Jesus; because Christ suffered what He did not deserve, we receive abundant life in the power of His Spirit and eternal life in His glorious presence.

Jesus suffered unjustly, and we have been called to follow in His steps. This means that we who follow Him will also face unjust suffering. We will often suffer for things we have not done, we will often suffer for what others have done. We will face inconveniences and uncomfortable situations that do not benefit us at all, but are solely for the good of another. As Christ suffered for us, so we will suffer for Him. He bore the wrath of God for us; we will face the wrath of men for Him. Our suffering is not like Jesus’s suffering; we cannot provide salvation for another person because of our suffering. Only Christ could do that. But in our suffering, we will sometimes endure what ought to be borne by others; we will face what we do not necessarily deserve from men; but we do so in the knowledge that we will not face what we deserve from God. Christ bore that for us. As He willingly faced that unjust suffering, so we follow in His steps when we experience unjust suffering as well.

Secondly, we find in the text that …

II. Christ suffered silently (v22b-23a)

On the side of our sink, there is a sponge that we use to wash dishes and clean up messes around the kitchen. Ideally, whoever uses the sponge washes it out after it has been used and wrings it out so that it is clean and dry and ready for the next use. Ideally. As Donia will tell you, things don’t always happen ideally. Sometimes I just forget. I was in a hurry. There was milk spilled on the counter, and I wiped it up and forgot to clean and wring out the sponge. So the next time I grab the sponge, it is soggy and it smells very bad. This sort-of toxic ooze begins to drip from the sponge, and I do what every self-respecting man does in that situation. I say very accusingly, “Who used this sponge last?” Or I drop it in the trash can and say, “What happened to the sponge?” See, it is a funny thing about sponges. You really don’t know what is inside of one until you squeeze it. People are much the same. You find out what is inside of them when life squeezes them. And sometimes it isn’t pretty.

What comes out of us when life puts us under pressure? Grumbling? Lies? Complaining? Whining? Making excuses? Protesting? Fighting? All too often, I am ashamed to say that those things characterize my own response to suffering. But, I am called to follow in Christ’s footsteps through suffering. And what do we hear from Jesus in the midst of His suffering? Silence.

In the first part of verse 22, Peter says that Christ “committed no sin.” The rest of verses 22 and 23 explain the particulars of His sinlessness in response to His suffering. Notice that they all have to do with His speech, or better with His silence. Verse 22 says, “No deceit was found in His mouth.” Jesus was dragged before Pilate on the charge that He had blasphemed God and incited rebellion against Israel and Rome by claiming to be the King of the Jews. So when Pilate asked Him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus didn’t say, “Who Me? No way. I never said that! You got the wrong guy. You need to let me go!” No, there was no deceit in His mouth. He said very simply, “It is as you say.” And He said precious little else. Verse 23 says, “while being reviled, He did not revile (or speak abusively) in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats.” There was no grumbling, no complaining, no whining, no excuses, no protests. Jesus was living out what Isaiah had long before prophesied of Him: “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).

Some of us have a real hard time with that don’t we? We seem unable to keep our mouths closed, and especially when things aren’t going well. James 3:2 says, “We all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.” In other words, the tongue is the most difficult part of our bodies to control. We sin in our speech more easily than in any other way. James says that the tongue is a restless evil and full of deadly poison (3:8). And at no time is this more evident than when things aren’t going our way. When we suffer, particularly when we suffer unjustly, we are tempted to complain incessantly, stretch the truth, speak evil of others, or offer insults and threats in return to those who oppose us. But these indicate that though we may have followed Jesus’ footsteps into suffering, we have abandoned His path in the midst of the suffering. If we were to follow Him through, we must not return evil for evil, or speak deceptively, slanderously, or harshly. Silence will sometimes be our best, albeit our most difficult, option in the midst of suffering. Any other response may only deepen the quagmire of our distress, and will definitely demonstrate us to have wandered away from following after our Christ who suffered silently.

Jesus’ silent suffering was not the silence of fatalistic or passive resignation, nor shall ours be. But rather, we see in the remainder of the text that Christ suffered silently because …

III. Christ suffered faithfully (v23b)

How could Jesus endure such unjust suffering in silence? It was not because He was a stoic who merely set His face like flint toward an unescapable fate. Rather, He walked through this suffering in patient confidence that His Father was in sovereign control of all things and was accomplishing His divine purposes through it all. Peter says here in verse 23 that, He “kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously.” The Greek word here translated as entrusting has to do with “handing something over.” Interestingly, it is the same word used to describe how Judas “handed Jesus over” to the chief priests (Mark 14:10); how the Sanhedrin “handed Him over” to Pilate (Mark 15:1); how Pilate “handed him over” to the people’s will (Luke 23:25); and how he handed Jesus over to the soldiers for crucifixion (Mark 15:15). Jesus was being handed over from one authority to another as He endured His suffering, but all the while He was handing Himself over to a greater authority: not one that judged based on fear, people pleasing, personal protection, nationalistic concerns, but to One who judges righteously; One who is sovereign over all other authorities; One who is always in control and working to bring good to those whom He loves and glory to Himself. Jesus kept entrusting Himself to the Father in absolute confidence that His purposes would be fulfilled.

He suffered faithfully. His confidence in God’s sovereignty, God’s goodness, and God’s faithfulness never faltered. He knew that the Father had not disappeared, become unconcerned with His plight, become displeased with the Son or lost control of the situation. He handed Himself over to the Father in confident faith. O Christian, look down that path of your suffering and see the footprints that glow thereupon! They are not leading along the side roads of depression and despair, frustration and failure, anxiety and abandonment; they are leading us through suffering in confident faith. Christ example shows us that when, literally in His case, all hell breaks loose on earth, God is enthroned over it all, and is just as good and loving and faithful as He was in our most pleasant days. So walk on. We walk on in the assurance that we can depend on Him even in our most difficult days of suffering. Christ knew that His suffering was not the end. He had not wandered aimlessly into it; He was walking victoriously through it. And if we follow Him, we can embrace the cross of suffering, knowing that it meets on a path that leads to glory.

If we are following Christ, He is leading us on the way of the cross. For this reason, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The cross is laid on every Christian. … the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise godfearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die. … Suffering, then,” Bonhoeffer said, “is the badge of true discipleship.” More recently, Karen Jobes has written, “One cannot step into the footsteps of Jesus and head off in any other direction than the direction He took, and His foosteps lead to the cross, through the grave, and onward to glory.” The apostle Paul put it this way in 2 Corinthians 4:17. “For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.”

It maybe Crucifixion Friday now, all may be dark and painful. The cross we must bear for Christ may stand undeniably before you. But Resurrection Sunday is coming, and the footsteps of Christ lead us to it. Every year at Easter we sing Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” but the truths contained in that great hymn need to burn in our hearts every day. Particularly when we are suffering, it will help us to remember these words:

Soar we now where Christ hath led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like Him, like Him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

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