Monday, October 18, 2010

Making A Defense: 1 Peter 3:15

(Audio available here)

In our culture, we’ve grown accustomed, and perhaps numb, to hearing apologies. Because of public interest in scandals involving high-profile celebrities, the nightly news has become an R-rated hour of images, videos, and rumors involving politicians, athletes, and anyone else in the spotlight. And, with the scandals come the apologies. Most often, they are carefully crafted statements that are put together by lawyers and public relations advisors, with the intention of deflecting the public scrutiny without acknowledging any particular wrongdoing. Most of us were taught as children that an apology is not an effort to dodge responsibility, but to expresses regret for wrongs that we have done. But in the ancient world, an apology was something altogether different than what we were taught as kids and what we see in the media today. In the writings of the earliest Christians, we find many documents containing the word “Apology” in the title. In these writings, there is no sense of dodging the issues or regret for wrongs done. An apology in those days had to do with making a formal defense to official charges. An apology would have involved reasons and arguments against charges that were made against an individual or a group of people.

As we look at the most notable of apologies written by early Christians, we discover that there were several accusations commonly made against the Church. Christians were often charged with treason because they refused to acknowledge Caesar as Lord. The simple phrase that we take for granted, “Jesus is Lord,” was considered a traitorous act of sedition in the empire. Some Christians were also accused of being atheists because they did not worship the gods that were recognized in the Roman pantheon. Others were accused of incest and sexual perversion because the world misunderstood a Christian’s love for his or her brothers and sisters. Still other Christians were accused of cannibalism because, in the Lord’s Supper, they claimed to be eating flesh and drinking blood. Christians were also accused of being followers of ignorant and foolish myths because of the belief in the Trinity, the incarnation of Jesus, and His bodily resurrection from the dead.

In the wake of those accusations, Christians were not silent. They spoke publicly and wrote prolifically to defend themselves against these charges. These arguments were called apologies, and those who delivered them became known as the Christian apologists. Today, we have an entire field of study, which was one my two concentrations in Seminary, called Christian Apologetics, which has to do with making reasonable and intelligent defenses of the claims of the Christian faith against the criticisms and challenges that we face in the world. Few, if any, would accuse Christians today of incest, cannibalism, or atheism, even though some may still accuse us of treason or anti-intellectualism. But new challenges, objections, criticisms, and attacks are launched against the church in every generation. Like those in the earliest days of the Church, they are often based on distortion, misrepresentation, misunderstanding, or malicious deceit. And it is the task of Christians in every generation to present an apologetic, a defense, of what we believe, as we seek to make the Gospel of Jesus Christ known in our respective cultures.

Now, who has the responsibility of defending the faith? Who are Christianity’s apologists? In the early centuries of the Church, there were well known Christian apologists like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Athanasius. Later there came the likes of Anselm, Aquinas, and John Calvin. Today, we know of those like Ravi Zacharias, Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, and others who are well-known apologists. And we thank God for these men, and for their apologetic work, but we must not think that the task of apologetics is for the specialists. This verse, 1 Peter 3:15, tells us clearly that the task of apologetics, the task of defending what we believe, belongs to us all. When Peter speaks of making a defense, he uses the Greek word apologian, as if to say, be ready to engage in apologetics. And Peter was writing to ordinary Christians like each of you. Every time he uses the word you in this verse, it is plural in Greek. Let’s translate it into good Southern English here: “Sanctify Christ as Lord in all ya’all’s hearts, being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks all ya’all to give a reason for the hope that is in all ya’all.” This means that the task of defending the Christian faith belongs to every Christian. The task depends on us all. It is a massive task, it is a daunting task, it is a task of eternal significance, and it is a divine privilege of God’s grace to be a participant in this task of defending the claims of Jesus. But the task of defending the faith comes to us with several requirements, just as it did for those in Peter’s day. We find these requirements in the verse, so let’s examine them.

I. Defending the Faith requires us to be spiritually prepared.

June 6, 1944 is a date we remember as D-Day. On that day, over 160,000 Allied troops landing on the beaches of Normandy, initiating the liberation of France from Nazi occupation. When one thinks of the enormous role that France has played in the history of Europe, it comes as a surprise that it could have ever been captured by the relatively upstart power of the Third Reich. Historians have cited several contributing factors to this, but many conclude that the primary reason Hitler’s forces were able to roll successfully through France was the unpreparedness of the French military leaders. French Generals thought that they would not see a major war in their time, and certainly not one of the magnitude that Hitler was able to wage. History has taught us time after time that preparedness is a necessary key to victory and success.

Christians have no excuse for being unprepared for the task of defending the faith. If we have not heeded calls like the one we find here to “always be ready”, then we have stuck our heads in the sand like the proverbial ostrich. But you will notice here that Peter’s instructions for preparing ourselves are relatively simple. We aren’t told to read dozens of volumes on systematic theology, critical argumentation and philosophy. We are told quite simply to “sanctify Christ as Lord in our hearts.” But this simple instruction is packed with meaning.

First, we observe that there is a necessary personal commitment. Christ must be sanctified, or set apart, as Lord in our hearts. This is more than just a theological commitment or a historical assertion. It is a personal commitment that each person must make to establish Jesus Christ as the Lord over his or her life. It is not enough to know that Jesus is Lord of the universe, Lord of the church, Lord of heaven and earth, time and space; that’s important, really big stuff. But we must each personally consider whether He is Lord of our lives. Does He reign on the throne of our hearts? If Christ is Lord, that means that He is our Master, our King, our Commander. It means that He is the sole object of our allegiance, our devotion, our affection and worship. As we stated last week in our study of the larger context, we must constantly be on guard against rivals to His Lordship. Are there idols, in the form of ideas, habits, interests, people, activities, or anything else, that threaten His absolute authority over our lives? If so, they must be purged; and if we are truly children of God, we can rest assured they will be purged. God will not allow us to serve two masters if we have been adopted into His family. We will either tear the idols down ourselves, or they will be consumed in the crucible of affliction, so that we emerge singularly devoted to Jesus as our Lord. Could it be that one reason that Christians are so ill-equipped for the task of defending the faith is that many of us have not truly set Christ apart as Lord in our hearts and guarded His throne in our lives from all rival allegiances that emerge?

If Jesus is Lord, then we must be submitted to His authority. Jesus said, “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” That means that if He is Lord, then His word is final and we must do what He says. There is no room for willful disobedience under His Lordship. He said that if we love Him, we will keep His commandments (John 14:15). He did not say that if we love Him, we should keep His commandments. He said that our obedience to Him reflects our love for Him, such that it is impossible to simultaneously say that we love Him while blatantly trying to live outside of His authority.

Part of this submission to His authority involves a willing embrace of His mission. What is the mission of Jesus? He identified it plainly in Mark 10:45 when He said that the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many. He came on a mission to save lost and sinful humanity from sin. He did this in His sinless life, His sacrificial death, and His glorious resurrection. After conquering our sins through His death and resurrection, in John 20:21, He said to His followers, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” That means that He has commissioned us who follow Him to continue His mission of rescuing humanity from sin. We call this the Great Commission. In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus said to His disciples, “Go … and make disciples of all nations,” that is, all ethne, all peoples of the world. His mission is not yet complete; it falls to us to carry it on, as He said in Acts 1:8, as His Spirit-empowered witnesses beginning where we are, and extending beyond our own culture, and to the ends of the earth. As we do this, we will encounter atheists, pagans, materialists, hedonists, polytheists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and adherents of belief systems we’ve never even heard of. That means that we are not just proclaiming Christ into a vacuum, but we are actually seeking to persuade others to follow Jesus only, instead of the false gods and ideologies that they presently adhere to. We can’t expect to do this without some challenge or opposition. So we must be ready, not just to go and tell, but also to set forth, to defend, and to reason with others about why belief in Christ is not just one option among many, but is in fact the only option available for us to be reconciled to God. And we must spiritually prepare ourselves for this task by examining our lives to see if we are truly committed to Jesus Christ, and to Him alone, as Lord in our hearts. If we are, then we will submit to His authority and embrace His mission. Defending the faith will require this kind of spiritual preparation.

II. Defending the faith requires us to hear the cry of the lost.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, when cholera epidemics raged, there was a widespread fear that people may be accidentally buried alive. This gave rise to various designs of “safety coffins.” One of these was invented in 1829 by a man named Johann Gottfried Taberger. In Taberger’s coffin, a cord would be attached to the body inside the grave, and to a bell outside the grave. That way, if a person was buried before they were dead, they could signal to those among the living to get them out! If the graveyard watchman heard the bell ringing, his task was to insert a tube down into the grave and begin to pump air down to the person until the coffin could be dug up. This gives new meaning to the phrase “saved by the bell”!

The Bible says that humanity is dead in sin (Eph 2:1). No one has been buried alive; we were all at one time completely spiritually dead because of our sinful condition. And it takes a miracle of God’s grace to raise the spiritually dead. He does this by the work of regeneration in which the Holy Spirit gives new life to a person. The Spirit works through the Word of God and the witness of the believer. Ordinary folks like us are involved in raising the dead when we share God’s Word with the lost people around us. Now, the analogy with Taberger’s safety coffin is imperfect. Those who rang that bell were not dead. Those who are lost are spiritually dead. But allow a liberty here for the purpose of illustration. When you understand the true condition of the lost and the saved, you realize that we are walking around in a spiritual graveyard, surrounded the graves of the lost. But as we share the message of Jesus Christ by our words through our deeds, some awake to see their true condition. There are, in a sense, countless bells ringing all through this spiritual graveyard, as the lost are crying out for rescue. They are hopeless and helpless unless we come to their aid. We must hear their cry, the ringing of their bells, and respond with the message of salvation, the gospel of Christ that is fittingly summarized in verse 18: “Christ died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God.”

Peter says that there is something Christians have that the lost world does not have, and many of them notice it, especially when we cling to Christ in the midst of hardship. That precious something is “hope.” We have neutered the word “hope” of its power by equating it with wishful thinking, but genuine Christian hope is anchored deep in the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection, and His Lordship over this world and the world to come. The love, the faith, the joy, the confidence that we have in this world, in spite of all the suffering and hardships around us and which afflict us, is that we have hope because of Jesus Christ. We might have cancer, but cancer does not have us; Christ has us. There might be great disaster, but there is a greater Deliverer. We might face suffering, but we do so knowing that we have salvation. We might face death, but we do so knowing that death has been trampled by life. Sin may surround us, but that sin is swallowed up in the righteousness of Christ that has absorbed us and will make all the world’s wrongs right on the last day. If you know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, this is not “Your Best Life Now.” Your best life is yet to come, and on the promise of Jesus Himself we know that it will come. “Your best life now” is only true if you are lost and en route to an eternal hell. Hardships, suffering, disaster, and distress surround us all. But some of us have hope. And that hope in Christ shines in the darkness, and some of the lost around us are able to see it. And they notice that they don’t have it. And some will cry out like someone in Taberger’s casket, as if to say, “Hey, you out there, the one with all the hope! Get me out of here!” And if we will hear that bell ringing, we have to pump the fresh air of hope into their lives. If we hear their cries, we will be able to share that hope we have in Jesus with them, and defend it.

Every lost person in the world today is hopeless. Any hope they have apart from Christ is false and wishful thinking. Paul describes the condition of the lost in Ephesians 2 as being “without hope and without God in the world.” They’re all hopeless, and some will ask us about our hope, others will not, at least not directly. They might ask about all sorts of stuff that seems to be unrelated, but there may be questions behind their questions; they may deploy some smokescreens to disguise their condition of hopelessness. Now, here in this verse, Peter’s focus is on answering the questions of everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that is in you. And certainly, there are many who will ask. But our task is not limited to the inquisitive. In Romans 1, Paul describes himself as a gospel-debtor. He owes it to every person, regardless of their ethnicity or social background, to proclaim the gospel to them. They’re all hopeless, and they will remain that way unless we share with them the hope we have in Jesus. And as we share it, new questions will arise; challenges and objections will surface. It will not be enough to just say that we have hope. They will want to know if there is a reason for the hope we have, and we will have to defend it as we share it. But we will never get around to this if we do not first hear the hopeless cry of the lost and dying world. It is a requirement if we are to defend our faith.

III. Defending the faith requires us to show Christ through our lives as we tell of Him.

I took a piece of bark to school one day for show and tell. A piece of bark? What was I thinking? My classmates had seen bark before, so what was the big deal? As they passed the piece of bark around, I told the other third graders about how this piece of bark came off a tree in my grandfather’s backyard, a tree that sprawled out over his lake that I used to climb, and it had this magnificent crook that I would often sit in. While I was in that tree, it was like being on another planet. I felt like I had escaped everything when I was in that tree. Now I could have passed the bark around, and folks could have looked at it and said, “Wow, Reaves! Bark! Nice job.” But the story gave meaning to what they saw. I could have told the story, without bringing the bark, and they would have said, “Great, you have a special tree. And you might need therapy.” But by showing and telling, my words had more substance, and the object had more meaning. For similar reasons, defending the faith is a matter of show and tell. If we tell others about Jesus, but don’t show them Jesus through our lives, then we are hypocrites. If we show them, but don’t tell them, we are just confusing them.

So Peter says that our apologetic task, our task of defending the faith, requires certain qualities to be evident in our lives. The first is gentleness. This speaks to our demeanor as we interact with other people. We have to keep in mind that the people Peter is telling his readers to defend the faith to are the ones who are persecuting them. Understandably, the natural inclination would NOT be to be gentle. But Peter says, “Gentleness is the order of the day.” How can you be gentle in that situation, or even in lesser situations when our cherished beliefs are being challenged? Frankly, you can’t. But if you are a follower of Christ, you have a power to overcome your own abilities. The Holy Spirit indwells you, and He has the ability to control you if you yield to Him. And when He does, certain characteristics that are not native to ourselves begin to emerge. Paul calls these the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5, and that fruit includes gentleness. We don’t need the Holy Spirit’s help to be obnoxious; we are perfectly capable on our own. But we need Him to overcome that tendency and help us to be gentle as we show the gentleness of Christ. Jesus never tried to overpower those who came to Him with genuine questions. Even with the rich young ruler, who walked away from Jesus in unbelief, the Bible says that Jesus loved him and let him walk away. Jesus did not try to win followers by force. He invited people to follow Him, saying “I am gentle and humble in heart.” Do those with whom we speak find that we are gentle as He is? Do they see His gentle compassion in our lives as they interact with us?

When I first began to study apologetics, I did so from a posture of arrogance. I wanted to learn arguments and evidences and trump cards I could whip out in a debate and force my opponent into submission. But one of my early professors in this field said to me, “Russ, we don’t have any sledgehammers.” What he meant by that is that we cannot compel someone to believe. We can present arguments and evidences in a loving and gentle way, and like Jesus, we have to be willing to let folks walk away. But they will remember the nature of our conversation and the genuineness of our faith, our hope, and our love as they reflect on the encounter. The gospel message is offensive. It says that all those who die without Christ go to hell. It says essentially that all other gods and philosophies and religions are lies! That’s offensive. But we are not to be the cause of offense. If there is to be offense, it must be due to the exclusiveness of the message, not the obnoxiousness of the messenger. We must be gentle as we show Christ and tell of Him.

And then Peter says that this task requires reverence. The Greek word is phobos, which we can easily see relates to fear. But we are not to fear the person with whom we are speaking. That is Peter’s point in verse 14: “Do not fear their intimidation and do not be troubled.” Our proper fear is identified in 2:17 – “fear God.” This fear of God affects our defense of the faith by giving us a proper motivation: Christ commands us to be His witnesses, and He is our Lord, so we obey. But it also provides us with a proper perspective. We are trying to raise the dead! You and I simply cannot do that. But God can! So, defending the faith with reverence for God means that we abandon our efforts to convert the unbeliever on the strength of our arguments, efforts, and tactics. We put our sledgehammers down, and while presenting our hope, our reasons, and our defenses, we do so knowing that if the dead are going to be raised, our sovereign God is going to have to do the raising. He alone is able, so our confidence is in Him. Therefore, we can be gentle and faithful to the message we must proclaim, and trust Him with the outcome. None will come to Christ unless the Father is drawing. Jesus said this in John 6:44. We can’t draw them, but our defense of the Gospel can be used to help them overcome their resistance to God’s drawing if He so chooses to use it. We are merely His messengers, and it is a blessed privilege of His grace to be invited to be one. And we fear Him, reverence Him, worship Him, as we proclaim and demonstrate Him through our words and our life, confident that He is able to save sinners, just as He did for each of us.

The Irish evangelist Gypsy Smith once said, “There are five Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the Christian, and some people will never read the first four.” What he means is that God has set us in the path of that individual to be the first Gospel they encounter. What they see and hear in us will have an effect on how they respond to the saving message of Jesus. Peter says that we must always be ready to make a defense to everyone concerning the reason for our hope. This requires us to be spiritually prepared by setting Christ as Lord in our hearts over all other allegiances and affections; to hear the cry of a hopeless world; and to show forth Christ through our lives as we tell of Him with our lips. So, are you ready?

You may find that in your daily interaction, you encounter those of other faiths and unbelievers who are armed with questions you cannot answer. You need not be intimidated by this. Live your life for Christ and gently tell your story of hope that you have found through Him, as you trust in the Lord to do His saving work. And you may feel the need to prepare yourself to be better equipped for the task. I’ve compiled a list of some great resources that will help you in the task of apologetics, and you will find it in your bulletin today. But the main thing is always this: Are you ready, and are you willing? If so, God will use you. Perhaps today He is calling you to commit to the task of sharing and defending your faith with others.

Or maybe you are here today and you feel hopeless. Have you ever placed your personal trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? Surrounding you today are a multitude of folks who were once just as hopeless, but we have found in Jesus Christ the only hope that humanity has. He died for our sins, in our place, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God. This is our hope, and our hope in Him is abundant enough for us to share with you today if you will receive Him. If you turn from your sins and trust Him to save you, He will, and He will give you new life that is abundant and eternal.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this message