Wednesday, September 15, 2010

1 Peter 3:9 - Responding Rightly to Wrong

About 3 weeks ago, I overheard a ethical discussion between my children from another room in the house. The discussion had to do with whether or not is right to give someone a noogie. Now one of my children said, “I hate it when you give me noogies. Stop doing that.” And the other one said, “Well, you give me noogies, and you know about the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So you must want me to give you noogies, because you keep giving me noogies.” And then the other one said, “Yeah, but when you give me noogies, then I give you back noogies,” and on and on this discussion went for sometime until the long arm of the law, who is also called Daddy, stepped in to say, “How about nobody give anybody else any more noogies!” But in my mind, I was kind of proud of my kids trying to reason through this whole noogie-giving situation and applying biblical wisdom to the situation.

Most of us grew up hearing about the Golden Rule. I am not sure many of us could find it in our Bibles if we had to, but it is there. In Luke 6:31, and paralleled in Matthew 7:12, Jesus said, “Treat others the same way you want them to treat you.” But most of us did not grow up practicing the Golden Rule. What we grew up practicing is what we might call the Brass Rule. Brass looks like gold from a distance, but it is significantly cheaper, softer, and more corruptible. The Brass Rule states, “Treat others the same way they have treated you.” Someone hits you, hit them back. Someone speaks evil of you, speak evil of them. The Brass Rule is not as virtuous as the Golden Rule; it is not an ethical code for individual Christians to live by; but each one of us would probably readily confess that we have more often followed the Brass Rule than the Golden Rule. It may not be what we should do, but it is what we want to do, and what we find easier to do.

Living the Christian life often involves overcoming our natural desires and tendencies. If we have believed in Christ, we have entered the realm of the supernatural. A great exchange has occurred in which our sin was placed on Christ in His death, as He bore the penalty of our sins and conquered sin and death through His resurrection. His perfect righteousness has been placed on us in the divine act of justification, and God has indwelled our lives in the person of the Holy Spirit, enabling and empowering us to live out that righteousness. Therefore, we find ourselves in a struggle between doing what comes naturally and relying upon the Spirit’s power to do what only comes supernaturally. The Apostle Paul spoke of this struggle in Romans 7, where he confesses, “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. … For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. … I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good.”

The lifelong process whereby the Holy Spirit transforms us into Christlikeness is called sanctification. There are areas in our lives where we can detect progress in this transformation: sins that no longer ensnare us, temptations that no longer appeal to us, habits from which we have been set free, attitudes and actions that have been radically changed. As we find this effects of the Spirit’s sanctifying work within us, we are seeing the evidence of our salvation in Jesus Christ. But then there are those areas where the process of sanctification seems slow, areas of life where the natural tendencies of the flesh are still far too strong. In these areas, we find out that God is not finished with us yet, that we have not yet arrived, and that there is still much sin that needs uprooting in ourselves. And the area where this is most frequently evident is when others treat us wrongly. I don’t know of a stronger temptation than that of defending ourselves, getting even, and seeking revenge. Even this very week, as I have been praying and preparing to give this message today, God has given me opportunities to realize that I still have a long way to go when it comes to responding rightly when wrongs are done to me. We can gain control over many areas of our lives; better yet, we can surrender more and more areas of our lives to the control of the Holy Spirit. But there is one thing we can never control. We can never control how other people treat us. And when they treat us badly, our knee-jerk reaction is to respond in similar fashion. We fall back on the old Brass Rule and our greatest desire in that moment is to do to them what they’ve done to us. We want revenge.

Peter is writing this letter to a group of Christians in Asia Minor who were under harsh treatment. It is likely that they had been kicked out of Rome and exiled to Asia Minor to form a new colony there. Having been transplanted to this new area where Christians were in an extreme minority, they were not being received well by their new neighbors. They were being slandered, insulted, discredited and verbally abused. Over time, this would only intensify as the Roman Empire would begin to launch an all out pogrom against Christianity. For many years, Christians in the Western world have found it difficult to relate to First Peter because we have not lived under this hostility like they did. However, while this book was being ignored by us, it was being treasured by our brothers and sisters living in parts of the world where hostility and persecution raged against the church. And now in our day, anti-Christian sentiments are spreading in our own culture, and we find ourselves turning to this book with fresh eyes for wisdom in how to respond. Surely those first-century believers were no different than we are. They faced the temptation to respond in hostility just as we often do. But Peter writes them to admonish them that in Christ there is a better way – a right way to respond to wrongs that are done to us.

This verse is couched in a context of summary. Verse 8 begins, “To sum up.” And in verse 8 Peter summarized the characteristics that are necessary for us to be the church God has called us to be. Verse 8 speaks to the attributes that enable us to have unity and strong fellowship within the church. Now verse 9 adds a summary of his instructions on how we as Christians should respond to a largely non-Christian culture when there is hostility directed toward us. Certainly, as we apply these truths to our lives we find that there are times when even inside the church we must consider our responses. It would be nice to think that our fellow Christians would never do us wrong, but some of us have experienced it. And the admonition is the same, whether we are dealing with hostilities outside the church or antagonism inside the church. We cannot control what others do or say to us, but by the Holy Spirit’s transforming power, we can surrender our responses to His control and respond rightly to wrong. How do we do this?

1. We respond rightly to wrong when we resist the temptation to seek revenge

Not returning evil for evil or insult for insult.

One of the most ancient law codes in history is the principle of lex talionis, or “the law of retaliation.” In its most familiar form, we would express this as “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Hammurabi of Babylon was one of the first to record this principle as a law, some 100 years or so before the time of Moses. The principle is found in the Law of Moses in Exodus 21, where it applies to punishments that suit crimes of personal injury: “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” This law prevented people from responding with excessive punishment beyond what is warranted by the crime and to warn all in society of the dangers of wrongdoing. An often overlooked reality is that this law of retaliation was to be carried out by a civil justice system of judges who heard cases and prescribed sentences. It was not to be carried out in a vigilante system of individuals seeking revenge on others. Nowhere did the Law allow an individual to seek revenge on another for himself. It is like the old tagline that Doug Llewelyn used to say at the end of Judge Wapner’s People’s Court program: “Don’t take the law into your own hands; you take ‘em to court.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made stark contrasts between what God’s will for His people was and what they had been taught by rabbis and scribes that actually contradicted God’s will. This was one of those areas. In Matthew 5:38, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Yes, we have heard that; in fact, we have read it in the Bible. But over time, rabbinic traditions corrupted the original intention of this law, and actually encouraged people to take the law into their own hands and seek vengeance on their own rather than entrusting the matter to the civil authorities. So what people heard was not what God had originally spoken in the Law, but rather a corruption of the Law. Jesus therefore said, “You have heard this, but I say to you” something different. Jesus did not question the right to carry the matter to a judge or jury for retribution, but He spoke to the issue of seeking to exact revenge on your own. He said, “I say to you do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.” He is simply saying this: If someone strikes you on the cheek, you have no biblical right to strike him back. If striking another person is evil, then you striking someone in response is still evil. Thus Peter says here that we must not return “evil for evil.”

Most of us are not often in a case where we might be tempted to return physical harm for physical harm. If you find that you are often being beat upon and physically battered, I’d suggest that you need to think about removing yourself from that situation somehow. But, isn’t it the case that most often the evil done to us is a spoken evil? This is what Peter intends by insults here. In the original language, the word had to do with cursing, abusive speech, insults and mockery. It is the same word translated just a few verses before, in 2:23, as “revile”. There it refers to Jesus. There has never been anyone to walk on this earth who faced more undeserved insults, more hateful cursing, more abusive speech, than Jesus. Do people speak ill of you? Would you trade it for what Jesus faced? Not if you are in your right mind. But how did Jesus respond to the reviling He received? Notice that Peter said there “He did not revile in return; while suffering He uttered no threats.” He must be our example as well. Peter says in 2:21 that Christ has lefts us an example for us to follow in His steps.

The natural inclination we have to get even, to get revenge, or to even go one up on someone is strong. We desire it, others encourage and expect it of us when we’ve been wronged, but it is a temptation that must be resisted. To respond to evil with evil, or insult with insult, only perpetuates the cycle. It is a mark of Christian maturity to step up and stop the cycle by resisting the urge for revenge and obeying God’s word in the Spirit’s power. We respond rightly to wrong by resisting the temptation to seek revenge.

2. We respond rightly to wrong by becoming a channel of grace

Things have been kind of hectic lately, and I have been spending a lot of time catching up on stuff that I’ve been behind on, and I’ve still got a long way to go. But last Sunday morning, Donia and I decided we needed to catch up on some family time, so after church we went up to Ridgecrest for the night with the kids. We had a great time hiking up and down the mountains there and just enjoying the beauty of our Father’s world. Hiking up the Rattlesnake Trail at Ridgecrest, we crossed and walked alongside of several clear, running streams. There’s nothing like the sight and sound of a mountain stream flowing. But later that day, we hiked up to Craggy Pinnacle on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There are no flowing streams there. Along the way up to the top there, we’d come across some soggy ground and puddles of water that had just gathered there from rainwater, dew, and ground moisture. And it was not as lovely. In fact, it smelled bad. All the rotting organic matter decomposing in those pools let out a foul odor that we didn’t experience while hiking by the flowing streams. When I think about the difference between those two mountains, I am reminded about how grace works in our lives. We are saturated with blessings by God’s grace, pouring into our lives in abundance. But does that grace have anywhere to go? Is it just gathering in pools in our lives, or is it finding an outlet through us? See, like the water on those different mountains, I have observed that when people receive grace from God but never extend it to others, they became bitter and foul, like a spiritual cesspool. But where people receive grace, and extend it to others in like measure, there is flowing through their lives a crystal clear stream of grace and blessing that refreshes themselves and others.

Grace is only grace when it is extended to someone who doesn’t deserve it. That is how you receive it from God – when you least deserve His favor; and that is how you must extend it to others – when they least deserve to be treated well by us. And here Peter says that we are not to respond to evil with evil, or to insult with insult. Rather, we are to respond to evil and insult with blessing! As if it wasn’t hard enough to simply not seek revenge, now we are under the command to seek the good of another by blessing them.

What would it mean to bless someone who is committing evil or speaking insults against you? The Greek word here is one that is familiar to us – eulogeo. We’ve all been to a funeral and heard someone deliver a eulogy before, right. Now, you may be thinking, “OK, now we are on to something. Respond to evil or insult by preaching someone’s eulogy.” No, you need to slow down a bit. The original word did not have to do with funerals, at least not exclusively. The word means “to speak well of.” So, the idea is that if someone is insulting you, you respond by speaking well of them. But just as the wrongs that are done are both of word (insults) and deed (evil), so must our blessing be in word and deed. Not only are to just speak well of those who insult us, but Jesus said that we should love them and pray for them. In another portion of the Sermon on the Mount, He says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Indeed, the Law did specify loving one’s neighbor, but it never said anything about hating an enemy. That was an addition to the Law that rabbinic tradition supplied. But Jesus contrasted that unbiblical tradition when He said, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Now, praying for someone who is treating you harshly may seem like a simple thing to do. I once knew a man who had the ability to pray for someone else in a very unorthodox way. I likened it to being dragged before the throne of grace and beat to death. I got nervous every time he said, “Let me pray for you.” I don’t listen to country music, so I had a learning experience this week when someone explained a current country song to me called “I’ll Pray for You.” Some of you have probably heard this song. The heartbroken singer says that he went to church and heard the preacher say to pray for someone who has done wrong to you, so this is what he prays:
I pray your brakes go out runnin’ down a hill
I pray a flowerpot falls from a window sill and knocks you in the head like I’d like to
I pray your birthday comes and nobody calls
I pray you’re flyin’ high when your engine stalls
I pray all your dreams never come true

It would be easy to pray that way for someone who has done wrong to us. But that kind of praying can hardly be called a blessing. What Jesus means is that we should pray for God to bless these individuals in remarkable ways, and particularly, we should pray that they come to know saving faith in Jesus Christ. If they claim to be followers of Jesus already, we should pray for them to grow in their relationship with Him and be empowered to overcome their hurtful ways. It may be that the reason that they hurt people is that they have been hurt themselves. So perhaps we need to pray for the healing of their past wounds, or for God to meet some other need in their life that is causing their bitterness. It is difficult to pray for someone who has hurt us in this way. Difficult, yes, but not impossible. God does not command us to do what He does not enable us to do. It will require a surrender to the control of the Holy Spirit, and as He works in our hearts we can genuinely pray in that way for the person.

But, what about loving them? Surely it isn’t possible to love someone who is evil or insulting toward us, is it? Again, Jesus would not command it if He could not empower us to do so. Our problem is that by default we associate love with an emotion rather than an action. It may well be impossible feel loving toward someone like this, but we find in God’s Word that love has more to do with what we do to others than how we feel about others. So our challenge is to find ways to actively do good to those who are actively doing evil against us. That is no small order, and it will require the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome our natural inclination to get even.

The Bible also tells us that we must forgive those who treat us harshly. In fact, Jesus said in Mark 11:25-26, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions.” What if God used your standard of grace toward others to measure His grace toward you? How would you fare? Well, in fact, this is exactly what Jesus is saying here. Forgiveness means that I give up the right to get even with someone, and move from a position of hostility toward them to a position of seeking their good. This is what God has done for us in Christ; this is what we must do for others who sin against us. Otherwise we have become receivers only of His grace, and not channels of grace. As we allow grace to flow through us, we posture ourselves to be continual recipients of grace from God. I like to think of it like this: God allows you to choose the measurement of grace you receive. You choose it by how much you are willing to extend to others. Therefore, because I see myself in desperate need of abundant grace, I want to use the largest measure possible in dealing with others. Otherwise, what I am actually doing is minimizing the work of Jesus Christ on the cross to save me. I am saying that my sins were not very big at all compared to the sins of this other person. If my sins were not big, then they did not require a big sacrifice or a big Savior. Oh, but when I see the magnitude of my own sin, and I see what they cost … the shed blood of God-Incarnate on the cross … then what I actually see is that the sin that has been committed against me is quite small in comparison. And as my perspective changes in this way, I find myself becoming more and more a channel of God’s grace as it flows into my life, and then through me toward others.

Now, Peter says that we have been called for this very purpose. We have been saved for a specific purpose. What is it? It is the purpose of blessing those who are evil toward us. If God wanted us to hate our enemies and exact our own revenge, He wouldn’t need to redeem us from sin. We can do that just fine in our fallen, corrupted and sinful state. But God has rescued us from that life so that we can live on a higher plane. He has saved us to be His agents of grace and blessing in the world. And as we do this, by His power and for His glory, what do we find? We find that we are inheriting blessings of our own. We never outgive God. God’s grace that we receive will always exceed that which we give others. God’s blessings that we receive will always exceed those blessings that we bestow on others. So, be as gracious as you can be in light of our great salvation; be a blessing to as many as you can, even and especially those who do not deserve it. For God has blessed you in the same way, when you least deserved it; when, in sin, you had postured yourself as His enemy, He rescued you by His love. Who is to say then that the love you show to one who insults you or does evil to you will not be used of God to rescue them as well? The grace you show to them may be the first glimpse of God’s saving grace they have ever seen. You have been called for that very purpose.

You and I will never be able to control how others speak or act toward us. But, if we have been saved through Jesus Christ and empowered by His indwelling Spirit, we can choose how we will respond to them. And in His power, and for His glory, we can respond rightly to wrong by resisting the temptation to get revenge and by becoming channels of blessing and grace. It is only impossible for those who have never experienced God’s saving grace for themselves. So today, perhaps the Holy Spirit is speaking to your heart about your need to be saved through faith in Christ. He died for your sins, and conquered death through His resurrection. He desires to be Lord and Savior of your life if you will trust in Him. And if you have received His grace in Christ, He will empower you to share it with others who are as ill-deserving as you were when you first came to Him.

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