Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Looking Back and Looking Forward with Thanksgiving (1 Cor 11:23-26)

Audio available here

Today marks the beginning of the liturgical season of Advent. Christians all over the world have for centuries observed this season of the four Sundays prior to Christmas as a time of reflection, introspection, anticipation, and celebration. The word Advent means “coming,” and as anyone familiar with New Testament teachings is aware, there are two senses in which we can speak of Christ coming: there was His first advent which we commemorate at Christmas, and there is a second advent for which we are still waiting. Each of these aspects of the “coming of Christ” were emphasized during Advent by Christians in different times and places historically. As Christianity spread into Northern and Western Europe, Advent traditions focused on waiting and preparing oneself for the Lord Jesus Christ to return. Meanwhile in Rome, Advent was a joyful and festive celebration of the birth of Christ in His first Advent. Over a period of centuries, these two streams of tradition began to blend, and Advent became a season that marked both the end of the Christian year, with its theme of waiting for the return of the Lord, as well as the beginning of the new Christian year, with its theme of celebrating the coming of Christ in His incarnation.

So, Advent is a season that looks in two directions at one time. It looks back in remembrance of what Christ has done, and it looks forward to what Christ is going to do. The righteous people of God in the Old Testament era were waiting for a Savior to come. In Christ, we believe that He has come into the world. But, like those Old Testament saints, we are also awaiting with great expectation His second coming. And the Lord’s Supper is the observance that Jesus has given to His church to help us look in both directions.

While the Lord’s Supper has been called by various names throughout Church History, one of the earliest names for it was the Eucharist. Around 100 AD, a document called the Didache was published to aid the teaching the basics of Christian faith and practice in the church, and in this document, the Lord’s Supper is referred to as the Eucharist. They obviously drew this term from the Lord’s Supper passages in the New Testament which use this Greek word to describe how Jesus “gave thanks” for the bread and the cup as He blessed them and gave them to the disciples to share. The word Eucharist has to do with the thankfulness we express to God for the good gift of His grace. Therefore, since we have just celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday in America, and because we stand at the threshold of the Advent season, it is most fitting for us to mark this day with the observance of the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. For in the Lord’s Supper, we look back at Christ’s first coming, and we look forward to His second coming, and we do so with thanksgiving for His grace that has saved us.

Paul sets forth his instruction on the Lord’s Supper in this passage, and he reminds the Corinthians that partaking of the Lord’s Supper is about looking back and looking forward at the same time. As we read and apply these words in our own day, we are admonished to do the same thing, which is what Advent is really all about.

I. In the Lord’s Supper, we look back with thanksgiving (vv23-25)

Haven’t you always heard that hindsight is 20/20? Certainly we can look back on things that have happened and see them with far more clarity than we could see them before they occurred or even as they were transpiring. This fact of human nature has informed the practices of the people of God since the earliest days of biblical history. The Passover meal, for instance, was a call for Israel to look back on what God had done for them, lest they forget about His nature and His work. As the Israelites observed Passover, they remembered God’s deliverance of His people from bondage in Egypt during the Exodus. It was at a Passover meal with His disciples on the night before His death when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. He had come to be the fulfillment of that which was foreshadowed in the Exodus: God’s deliverance of His people from bondage to sin. And it is with this new understanding that Jesus commands His followers to continue observing the Lord’s Supper until He returns.

Though Jesus spoke with His disciples often about His real mission and purpose, how He would suffer, die, and rise again to break the shackles of sin, they were slow to understand. On one occasion, Peter even rebuked the Lord for saying such things. Shortly after the Passover meal, Peter even took up a sword to fight against those who came to deliver Jesus over to death. Was He even paying attention during the Passover? Or did he think that he could accomplish something Jesus could not? Or did he simply forget what Jesus had said so many times, even up to the hours prior to His arrest in the garden?

Twice in these verses we are admonished to remember. The Lord’s Supper was instituted as a meal of remembrance to remind us of the mission of Jesus to deliver us from sin. Because of our sinful nature, like Peter, we will be inclined to forget or to adopt what we think are “better plans” for Christ and His Kingdom. But as we take the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper, we are called to remember why He came during His first Advent and what He did to accomplish our deliverance from sin.

With incredible simplicity, Jesus used two symbols to illustrate to His disciples what was about to happen to Him. The events that they were about to witness were not to be viewed as a tragic accident, but rather as the fulfillment of His divine mission. He took a piece of bread and gave thanks to His Father, and then He said, “This is My body.” You and I don’t get the full picture of this dramatic visualization for two reasons. First, when we think of bread, we usually think of a big loaf of bread like we would buy in the supermarket or bake in our ovens. Second, when we take the Lord’s Supper, we use these little wafers that are manufactured and packaged for use in church observances, which are not much like what Jesus held up for His disciples to see. The unleavened bread of the Passover, also called Matzo, was a flat piece of bread, similar in substance to a cracker. That bread was cooked until it was crisp, and some pieces got burned in the cooking, so that the color was uneven. Much of it would be sort of off-white, while other pieces were black from the burning. And to keep the bread from rising, it was punctured with straight lines of perforations. So when Jesus held this bread up and said, “This is My body,” the bread that the disciples saw appeared to be bruised, pierced, and striped. This is a picture of what Isaiah 53 said would happen to the Messiah when He came: He was pierced through for our transgressions, and as the King James Version translates the Hebrew, “He was bruised for our iniquities” and “with His stripes we are healed.” And then He broke the bread and gave it to the disciples to eat. So this bread was actually a visible demonstration of what was about to happen to Jesus. He would be beaten, scourged, nailed to the cross, and His body broken apart. But He told them, “It is for you.” It is as if Jesus is saying to His disciples, “Whenever you see this bread, bruised, striped with punctures, and broken to pieces, you are to remember what you are about to witness happening to My body; and you are to remember that I was beaten, whipped, pierced with nails and broken apart for you and for your salvation.”

And then Jesus took the cup “in the same way.” That is, He gave thanks for the cup which He held, and He said to them, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood.” Now, anyone who wants to use this passage to defend the Christian’s use of alcohol is guilty of a tragic case of missing the point. First, does it not cheapen the intense gravity of what is going on here to make that even a trivial point of personal application? Second, while we are certain that wine was in that cup, it is of interest that neither of the Greek words for wine is used in any passage concerning the Lord’s Supper. The word gleukos, which only occurs once in the New Testament, seems to refer to fermented wine, but the word oinos, which is far more common, is used to describe both fermented and unfermented wine. But neither word is used in Eucharistic texts. We find the word “cup” as we do here, and “fruit of the vine,” as in the Gospels. The presence or absence of alcoholic beverages at this meal is an issue of complete biblical silence. Third, if the use of unleavened bread was important to symbolize the sinless body of Jesus, how then would the use of leavened, or fermented, wine be an appropriate symbol of His sinless blood? It would seem that a Christian who wants to defend his or her use of alcohol would have a difficult time using this text to do so.

The importance of the symbol was both its color and its historical significance. In its deep red color, the juice of a crushed red grape was a visual analogy of the blood of Jesus that was going to be shed as He suffered and died on the cross. But this was no ordinary cup; it was a particular cup that had a particular significance. Typically during a Passover meal, there were four cups offered at various points in the meal. The first cup was the cup of consecration which they drank at the beginning of the meal, indicating that God had consecrated Israel as His people. The second was the cup of affliction, indicating the plagues that were poured out on Egypt. The third cup was the cup of redemption reminding the people of the deliverance from their bondage. The fourth cup was called, “the cup of praise,” and was shared to indicate that the Passover meal was completed. So, which cup did Jesus offer His disciples as a symbol of His blood? It was the third cup, the cup of redemption. This was the cup which would be offered immediately following the eating of the food of the Passover. As Jesus took this cup and gave thanks, He did not say, “This is the blood of the Lamb which was slain in Egypt.” He rather pointed to the events that were about to unfold and said, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood.

Just as every covenant was sealed with the shedding of blood, so this covenant would be as well. This covenant was sealed with very blood of its Maker. By the shedding of His blood on the cross, He became the substitute who died in our place and bore the wrath that our sins deserve so that we might be forgiven, declared righteous in Him, and reconciled to God. By this blood we are bound to God in the new covenant of Christ. This is the price of our redemption, His blood, depicted in this cup. And each time we drink it, we are called to remember what He did for us in this sacrifice that seals our covenant with Him.

These symbols were difficult for the disciples to understand at that moment, as evidenced by what they did in the hours to follow. First they tried to fight, then they all fled. But we look on these things with hindsight. We look back in remembrance at the breaking of His body and the shedding of His blood. This was the purpose of His coming in the first Advent. He came to bear our sins to the cross that we might be saved. And as we look back on what He did for us there, we look back with thanksgiving.

II. In the Lord’s Supper, we look forward with thanksgiving (vv23-25)

If the cup which Jesus used to symbolize His shed blood was the third cup of the Passover, the cup of redemption, then what about the fourth cup, the cup of praise? Interestingly, in Mark 14:25, we read that after Jesus shared this cup with His disciples, He said, “Truly I say to you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the Kingdom of God.” He foregoes the fourth and final cup, essentially leaving the Passover meal unfinished. And we see Him upholding His vow to never again drink from the fruit of the vine when, on the cross, He was offered wine mixed with myrrh as an anesthetic, but He refused it. It was not yet time for the drinking of the final cup.

The redemption of humanity from sin would not be fully accomplished until He was dead. And it was there as He died that Jesus uttered His final word: Tetelestai, a Greek word translated in our Bibles, “It is Finished!” And then, John tells us in his Gospel, Jesus bowed His head and gave up His spirit. Now the redemption that seals us in the new covenant has been fully completed. But still we wait. We wait throughout all these centuries and generations for the day when He returns and consummates the covenant in establishing His perfect and righteous Kingdom on the Earth. We wait through days and months and years of trials and suffering in this fallen world, having His Spirit within us as a pledge of His promise. And we know that in His own time, according to His own perfect purpose, the day is coming when He will return and gather His covenant people to Himself. And when John was given the glorious vision of eternity in the book of Revelation, he tells us that the consummation of this covenant and the Kingdom of Christ will be celebrated at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. And then and there, when all the elect of God have been gathered into the fold, and the wrongs have all been righted, and the Lord has executed His perfect judgment and those things which we now behold by faith become sight, the fourth and final cup of the covenant meal will be enjoyed together anew with the Lord Jesus in His everlasting Kingdom. Then and there, we will drink together with the Lord the cup of praise.

But until then, we gather together regularly and partake of these tokens, these symbolic elements: the bread that represents His broken body; and the cup of redemption representing His shed blood for our sins. And Paul says, “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes.” We are proclaiming with these simple symbols that God has done a miraculous work in the past in Christ to reconcile us to Himself; but we are also announcing that Christ is coming again. We take the small symbols of this meal on faith that the grander feast is yet to come.

The second Advent is still future. And while we wait, we remember what He has done, and we remember what He has promised, and we give thanks. These symbols of the bread and the cup are reminders for us. As we partake of them, we do so with self-examination, knowing that the Lord is coming again in judgment. This is Paul’s point in verses 27-32. We examine ourselves, and as we discover sin in our lives, ruptured relationships in our fellowship, things that are displeasing to the Lord, we repent of them on the basis of what He accomplished for us in the first Advent, and in anticipation of the day when we stand face-to-face before Him at the second Advent.

And so today, with the Thanksgiving holiday fresh in our memory, we give thanks to God for the greatest blessing of all … the salvation that is ours in Jesus Christ because of His sinless life, His substitutionary death and His glorious resurrection. And we begin our preparations for the Christmas holiday by reflecting on His coming into the world, in which God took upon Himself a human body with human blood pulsing through His veins in the person of Jesus Christ. And we also prepare ourselves for His return by examining our relationship with Him and with others.

In this moment of prayerful preparation, let us consider these things, and receive the bread and the cup with thanksgiving, with remembrance of what Christ has done, and with a renewed commitment to walk with Him by faith until He returns. If you have never trusted Christ as Lord and Savior, we would welcome you to turn to Him by faith today. He lived the life you and I cannot live, a life of sinless perfection; and He died the death that you and I deserve to die, bearing God’s wrath for our sins; and He conquered our sins and their penalty in His resurrection. Let your sin rest on Him, and His righteousness will rest on you in exchange. We’d love to pray with you as you receive Him as Lord and Savior today.

Others perhaps have another need, a sin that needs confessing to the Lord, or a commitment that needs to be made to restore a broken relationship, or rededication of faith to Christ on the basis of what He has done and what He has promised. How is the Lord leading you to respond to what He has said and done, as we look back, and look forward, with thanksgiving?

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Right Way to Suffer (1 Peter 4:12-19)

Audio available here

After he had toured the United States extensively, the German theologian Helmut Thielicke was asked what he considered to be the greatest deficiency among American Christians. His response was that American Christians “have an inadequate view of suffering.” While I would agree with him that we lack a proper view of suffering, I am not sure this is our greatest deficiency, nor am I certain that we are unique in this inadequate view of suffering. Have Christians in other places had a far greater understanding of suffering than we do? Consider C. S. Lewis, a man of tremendous faith and intellectual prowess, who was no stranger to personal suffering. Lewis set forth one of the most intelligent and thorough discussions on the issue of suffering in his classic book The Problem of Pain. In that book he claims to solve the intellectual problem raised by suffering, and many have been helped by his reasoning in the book. But some years later, when C. S. Lewis watched his wife’s painful death through a battle with cancer, Lewis struggled to personalize the truths he had proclaimed to others. He journaled through his grief candidly and honestly, never intending for any other person’s eyes to see what he had written. When he was persuaded to allow it to be printed, he insisted that it bear the pseudonym N. W. Clerk. He did not want those who had read his articulate defenses of the Christian faith to know that he could be the same man who would write such things as this: “Meanwhile, where is God? … When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, if you turn to Him then with praise, you will be welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away.” It was only after Lewis died that his executors allowed A Grief Observed to be published in his name.

Suffering has a way of breaking in and ransacking an otherwise neat and tidy life. Philosophers have debated for centuries how a good God could allow it. Others have simply accepted the reality of it and focused instead on what to do about it. There is no more universal experience in life than suffering. All human beings suffer, but not all human suffering is the same. Some suffering is because of sin, both their own sin and its consequences, and the effects of the sins of others. Other suffering is the result of this fallen world which groans under the curse of sin. The human body is frail and corruptible (Gen 2:17; 3:19; Rom 5:12), the ground bears thorns and thistles (Gen 3:17-18), the fountains of the deep have burst open, and the floodgates of the sky have been opened (Gen 7:11), the land has been divided (Gen 10:25); the peoples have been scattered and their languages confounded (Gen 11:9). These realities make life in this world hard and dangerous, and it will stay that way until it is all restored when Christ returns (Rom 8:18-22). But then there is a category of suffering that is unique to the people of God, the followers of Christ. The Bible tells us that as disciples of Jesus, we can expect to suffer for the sake of His name. The world hated Him, and they will hate those who follow Him (John 15:18).

And it is that kind of suffering that Peter is addressing throughout this letter. While the Bible offers precious promises of God’s presence, comfort, and help to His people in all manners of suffering, Peter is focused on the harsh treatment and hostility that Christians are experiencing specifically because of their faith in Christ. To suffer in this way, Peter says, is to “share the sufferings of Christ.” Simply stated, this means that the way in which the world treated Jesus is the way we can be expected to be treated if we bear His name. He was hated, blasphemed, slandered, abused, and ultimately put to death, though none of it was deserved. In the same way, we who belong to Him by faith can expect to undergo these same sorts of unjust suffering in the world. As Christ’s representatives in the world, we become the proximate targets for the world’s hatred of God in Christ. Peter’s purpose in these verses is not to address the question of why. His purpose here is to address how. What is the right way to suffer when we suffer for Him?

I. When we suffer for Christ, we are not to suffer in shock, but with hopeful joy (vv12-14).

When Solomon was just a toddler, I used to play a little game with him where I would go hide, and he would try to find me. As he entered a room or rounded a corner, I would jump out from where I was hiding and scare the daylights out of him. I know that sounds cruel, but he absolutely loved it and we would laugh hysterically about it. But eventually we had to stop playing that game because he came to expect me to jump out and scare him. It wasn’t as fun anymore because he knew what was coming, and it didn’t scare him. By definition, a surprise is something we don’t expect to happen. If we expect it, it’s not a surprise. Peter’s point here in verse 12 is that our suffering for the name of Christ should not surprise us, because we should expect it. Though it may be intense, a “fiery ordeal” as Peter calls it, it should not be considered “a strange thing.” If we consider all that the New Testament teaches us about suffering for Christ, we should rather think it strange and be surprised if we do not face it.

Rather than shock, Peter says that the appropriate response to such suffering is joy. There is a proportional relationship between the intensity of our suffering for Christ and the magnitude of our joy. He says, “To the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing.” As those sufferings increase, so should our joy increase. Joy can be found in the midst of this suffering because it is evidence that we truly belong to Jesus. If that were not so, the world would not treat us as they treated Him. Therefore increased suffering for Christ’s sake provides increased assurance that we belong to Him, and results in increased joy. Peter says that this fiery ordeal comes upon us for our testing. The idea is that it is proving the genuineness of our faith, because in the midst of the trial, we demonstrate Christ to be a more precious treasure than safety, comfort, luxuries, or even life. And the more we treasure Christ, the more we find that He is all-sufficient and all-satisfying, and thus, the true source of all real and lasting joy in our lives.

Another reason we can rejoice in the midst of this kind of suffering is that we do not suffer alone. While all the world will experience suffering, Christians are unique for we have something, or better, Someone, helping us as we endure this suffering. Peter says that we are blessed when we are reviled for the name of Christ, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon us. When you gave your life to Jesus, God Himself took up residence in your life in the person of His Holy Spirit. Have you ever wondered how someone can endure intense suffering without the Lord? It seems unthinkable for us who know the blessing of the presence of the glorious Holy Spirit of God. But “the fact is, many do and move on with life.” Many have suffered and “become deeply embittered against God.” Others suck it up and press on with stoic determinism, or perhaps even unfounded optimism. But the Christian is able to endure suffering, especially the suffering that comes our way because of our faithfulness to Christ, with joy knowing that we are blessed with the presence, the power, and all the spiritual resources of the Holy Spirit of God in all of His glory. He is with us, empowering us, producing joy within us, and giving us a foretaste of the glory that we will witness, experience, and participate in eternity.

Thus, our joy is not temporal; it is everlasting joy. It is filled with the hope that, though these days may include the fiery ordeals of intense suffering for Christ, there is a better day coming. We rejoice as we await the revelation of His glory. While Christ’s glory is being made known every day, it is breaking through in shafts and glimmers. But a day is coming when there will be a full unveiling. That is what this word means. Peter uses the word apokalupsei, from which we get the word apocalypse. We think of that word as one that means ultimate destruction, but that is not what it means. It means “unveiling.” The Book of Revelation is more accurately called by its Greek title, “The Apocalypse,” or “The Unveiling.” And while many turn to it looking for symbols and mysteries about the antichrist and Armageddon and the great tribulation, John tells us in the opening verse that he is writing about the Apocalypse, or “Unveiling,” of Jesus Christ. He is the one who is revealed in the pages of that book, and He is the one who will be fully unveiled as the last things of the end times unfold. We are not looking for events, for creatures, for battles, beasts, or plagues. We are looking for Christ to be fully unveiled in all His glory, and when He is, the joy of those who have held fast to His name while undergoing suffering for His sake will abound exponentially. We will rejoice with exultation. The word Peter uses here describes a “deep spiritual joy, a rejoicing in God,” and in “what He has done.” Interestingly, this word is never found in any of the secular Greek writings. It is only used by Christians. Truly, “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him.” When Christ is fully unveiled in His glory, we will behold Him face to face as He truly is, and we shall rejoice like never before. We will behold Him whom we have trusted in the dark days by faith, there with our eyes in the light of His glorious presence forever!

Therefore, when suffering comes upon us for the sake of the Lord Jesus, we must not be shocked by it; rather we must rejoice in it. And one day we will behold His unveiled glory in a future home where there will be no suffering, no tears, and no death. Then we will rejoice with exultation forever. God has made it possible for us to begin rejoicing now even while we suffer for Him.

II. When we suffer for Christ, we are not to suffer in shame, but with glory (vv15-16).

Let’s face it: some people suffer because they deserve it. They have gotten what is coming to them; they have reaped what they have sown; they have made their beds and been forced to lay in them. And the suffering they endure is, in some cases temporarily and in others permanently, a mark of shame upon them for what they have done. Therefore Peter says that we must make sure that none of our suffering has come upon us like this—for deserving reasons. Notice in verse 15, he says, “Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer.” If you do these things, and suffer for it, well, you have just received justice, and you bear shame for your deeds. And we must remember that Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, broadened our understanding of these sins. According to Jesus, hatred is murder committed in one’s heart and mind; covetousness is stealing; lust is adultery; evil thoughts are evil deeds committed in one’s fantasy life. So, if these kinds of sins are leading to our suffering, there is shame to be borne, and justice to be meted out. There is no promise of blessing, no call to rejoice, no indicator of glory to be shared.

To this list here, Peter adds one more: “Make sure that none of you suffers as … a troublesome meddler.” That seems quite incongruous to the others doesn’t it? The other things seem a bit more severe than this, don’t they? Well, as we have already indicated, according to Jesus, there are no small sins. The word Peter uses here refers to one who becomes “inappropriately involved in another person’s affairs.” It may be that some of those early Christians had done this, thinking they were doing a good thing. One scholar has theorized that some of these believers may have been hypocritically condemning the behavior of unbelievers, interfering with family relationships thus creating tension between spouses or between parents and children, or even using manipulative tactics of evangelism. While we are right to be concerned about others, and right to offer advice or help in some situations (particularly where we are invited to do so), and right to seek to share the gospel with the lost (especially when they ask us about our hope in Christ, 3:15), it is not right to be nosy. If you are suffering for sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong, then there is shame to bear, and you got what you deserved.

But Peter says that we must see to it that we are not suffering for these reasons. But it may be that we will suffer for no other reason than that we are a Christian. Interestingly, the word Christian (Greek: CristianoV, Christianos) only occurs three times in the Bible: here; Acts 11:26 and 26:28. It means “follower of Christ,” much like a Herodian (Mark 3:6; 13:13) is one who follows Herod. And if we are following Christ, then we are walking on the road He walked. There is a road in Jerusalem called the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Suffering, which marks the path that Jesus walked to the cross. We may say that to follow Christ is to walk along the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Suffering. We are sharing in His sufferings, suffering for Him and suffering as He suffered. Therefore, since we are suffering with Christ and for Him, there is no shame to bear. The one who suffers as a Christian, Peter says, is “not to be ashamed.” Those who suffer as the evildoers described in verse 15 bear shame, but not the Christian who suffers for Christ. We bear no shame, but glory.

It is the name of Christ that brought us suffering, and it is the name of Christ in which we glorify God. We glorify God knowing that the suffering which Christ endured purchased our redemption, and our redemption is demonstrated through our willingness to suffer with Him for His name. And God is glorified as we endure it. If our suffering provokes us to retreat from following Christ and to engage in sinful acts of rebellion and retaliation, then there will be shame. But where suffering is endured patiently for the sake of Christ, God is glorified through the name of Christ which we bear as we follow Him. So we do not suffer in shame as the evildoers; we suffer with glory because of the name of Christ which we have been granted to wear as Christians.

III. When we suffer for Christ, we are not to suffer in fear, but in trust (vv17-19).

Several times in the surrounding context of these verses, Peter has indicated that there is a judgment coming. And perhaps the followers of Christ hear that and think, “Great! Bring it!” After all, we tend to think that judgment is something that only unbelievers will face. And knowing that it is coming soon, we can use the time we have left to share the gospel with them in hopes that they repent and believe upon Christ, all the while knowing that if they do not, they will be condemned in judgment, and we will go to heaven. But here in verse 17, Peter says that judgment is not just something that is going to occur in the future. He says “it is time for judgment to begin.” It has already started to happen. And he says that it does not begin with the unbelievers. It begins “with the household of God,” “with us first.” Now, are we still ready to say, “Great! Bring it!”? I would imagine that unless we have a mental disorder, the idea that judgment is beginning with us, the believers, here and now, probably provokes a sense of fear. In fact, if we understand our own sinfulness and God’s infinite holiness, that would be an understandable response. However, a judgment does not always result in condemnation. Judgment involves an evaluation, which may result in a good or bad outcome, in approval or discipline, in praise or condemnation. Additionally, very few English translations rightly express the Greek preposition found in verse 17, which would more literally be rendered that judgment is beginning from the household of God. That means that it is starting here, but then it is going out from here to everyone else.

Peter likely has in view several Old Testament passages. In the Old Testament, the house of God clearly referred to the Temple. We have no temple of brick and mortar as Christians; in 1 Peter 2, he says that we are the stones which are being fitted together in God’s temple. The temple, the dwelling place of God’s Spirit and His glory, is the church: not the building, but the people. Ezekiel 9 depicts a scene in which the Lord assembles six armed executioners, by whom He will destroy the wicked. But with them, He also calls a man who has a writing case. And the Lord calls out to that man with the writing case, from within the Temple, commissioning him to go through Jerusalem marking the foreheads of the faithful people of God. Then the executioners are told to go through the city and strike down all who do not have that mark on their heads. They are to begin at the Temple and go out from there, and this they did, beginning with the elders of the temple. The tragic calamity of that scene is that Ezekiel was apparently the only man in all of Israel who bore the mark of salvation. The rest were condemned. Similarly, in Malachi 3, we find a prediction that the Lord Himself will come to the Temple, and He will be like a refining fire, purifying the Levites so that they may present pleasing offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then, after these have been purified, the Lord promises to bring a swift judgment upon the unrighteous. And it is because of the faithfulness of God to keep His covenant promises that the people of God are not consumed in that judgment.

Now fast forward back to the New Testament: Peter says that it is time for judgment to begin with, or from, the house of God, with us first. If we understand these Old Testament images correctly, then we who truly belong to Christ have no reason to fear. The suffering is occurring, Peter says in v19, according to the will of God. It is accomplishing His sovereign purposes. It is marking us off as the ones who rightly belong to Him; as the ones who are safe from destruction. It is refining us in the fire of purification, the fiery ordeal of our suffering that is purging sin from our lives and proving the genuineness of our faith and our place in the covenant of Christ. Therefore, we need not be afraid of this judgment that is upon us in these sufferings. Rather we can entrust our souls to a faithful Creator: the God who made us, the Savior who saved us, and the righteous Judge who will vindicate us in Christ. We do not abandon our pursuit of Christ, but entrust ourselves to God and commit ourselves to “doing what is right” all the more. God will be faithful to His covenant promise, and we will be saved.

The process of proving and purifying is not an easy one. It is not for no reason that Peter calls it a fiery ordeal; it can be quite painful to endure. But the outcome is certain. The righteous is saved. None of us are righteous in and of ourselves (for we are all sinners), but those of us who have trusted in Christ have been covered in His righteousness. And it is in His righteousness that we are saved. But through the painful days of this life, it will appear that it is with great difficulty that we live out this salvation. Throughout this life, bearing His name is like carrying a lightning rod for suffering. If we persevere through the difficulties by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, we demonstrate the genuineness of our salvation.

But we are left to ask two questions with the Apostle Peter: If judgment begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? If it is with great difficulty that the righteous is saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner? The unbelievers, including those who are false believers, stand in danger of condemnation. In the patience of God, judgment for them has been put off for a season. He has granted an open window to hear the gospel, to turn from sin, and to call upon Christ for salvation. He died for your sins, that you might be reconciled to God; and He ever lives through His resurrection to secure eternal life for you. You may indeed suffer for Him as you follow Him, but the glory that is to be revealed will swallow it up eternally. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:17, “Momentary, light affliction is producing for us a weight of glory beyond all comparison.”

So, as followers of Christ we mustn’t be surprised, but rather, we can rejoice when we suffer for His name. We are sharing in His sufferings, we are filled with hope awaiting the day of His unveiling, and blessed because we are filled with His indwelling Spirit. We need not be ashamed, but rather we glorify God as we endure suffering for Him. We need not fear the coming judgment, for the present judgment of suffering is proving the genuineness of our faith; and in that we can entrust ourselves to God knowing that He is faithful to all of His promises. For all others, we echo the oft repeated warning of God’s word that a final judgment is coming, and only those who belong to Him in Christ will be saved. You can turn to Him today; indeed, you must if you would have any hope in that day.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Glorifying God as the End Approaches (1 Peter 4:7-11)

In 1947, the directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists established “The Doomsday Clock” at the University of Chicago to indicate how close humanity is to catastrophic destruction. At that time, the threat of nuclear war indicated that the world was at seven minutes ‘til midnight, or Doomsday. Over the last 63 years, the time has been advanced or reversed 19 times according to the state of nuclear threat, climate-change, and other scientific and technological advances. It has advanced to the point of 2 minutes ‘til midnight and been reversed to 17 minutes ‘til midnight. Presently, the Doomsday Clock reads 6 minutes ‘til midnight. According to the Doomsday Clock, the end of the human race is near, but perhaps not as near as it has been in the past.

Meanwhile, another clock is ticking. God’s timetable advances each day, and each passing day marks another tick of the clock. Peter says in our text, “The end of all things is near.” Many have ridiculed Christians over the centuries, especially those first few generations of believers, for holding on to the hopes that Jesus was going to return at any given moment. Peter addresses this in 2 Peter 3:3 when he says that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.’” Unconvinced that the end is near, he says they continue to pursue their sinful desires and belittle those who are holding onto the hope of Christ’s return. And they continue to do so today. But Peter says there in 2 Peter 3 that we must not forget that “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day.” He is not slow in keeping His promise to return and bring all things to an end, but He is patient, giving as many people as possible an opportunity to hear and believe the gospel message of Jesus Christ.

When Peter says that “the end of all things is near,” he is not looking at a clock or a calendar, but at the Scriptures. All that has been promised and prophesied in the Word of God has taken place. Following the birth, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, only one promise remains unfilled – the promise of His return, marking the end of this world as we know it and the consummation of His eternal Kingdom. The final act before the curtain falls is the establishment of the church and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon believers. That had already happened when Peter wrote this letter, therefore it is perfectly accurate for him and other New Testament writers to speak of living in the last days and to say that the end is near. Around the turn of the eighth century, the English monk Bede (pronounced Bead), said, “Peter says this so that you will not be fooled into thinking that judgment is a long way off or even that it will never come. Its timing may be uncertain, as far as we are concerned, but it is sure to come sooner or later.” In 1 Peter 4:5, Peter said that Christ is ready to judge the living and the dead. All things are in order, and that judgment could potentially occur at any moment.

The final act has been underway now for nearly 2,000 years. It is still playing out. Therefore we too can say with certainty that we are living in the last days, according to the prophetic timeline, and that the end is near. And we are equally certain that we are closer to the end today than the world has been at any point, and that will continue to be true in each day that passes between now and then. Peter says, “The end of all things is near.” And then he says “therefore.” That single word introduces the answer to the great question, “So what?” If you knew the end was near, what would you do? In the past, people have reacted to the message of the end of the world by plunging into sinful living, as if to say, “We might as well have fun while we can.” Others have sold all their possessions and retreated to mountaintops and deserted places to wait for the Lord. But Peter’s admonition to his readers is different. The awareness of the nearness of the end is to prompt them to live in such a way that God would be glorified. This is how the passage concludes. Since the end of all things is near, we should live in such a way that God may be glorified in all things.

We notice that God is glorified “through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever.” This is as clear a statement as you will find in Scripture that Jesus Christ is fully God. If the goal is to glorify God, and the glory rightly belongs to Jesus Christ, then they must be the same, for otherwise, idolatry would be occurring here. God has said in Isaiah 42:8, “I will not give My glory to another.” But Peter rightly says that God is glorified when Jesus receives the glory that belongs to Him. And dominion also belongs to Him, which is to say that Jesus is Lord and has a genuine claim to authority over the earth and all who inhabit it. And when His people live to bring Him glory, His Lordship over their lives is evident, and it is extended through them to the people, places, and things that they influence.

The end is near. So what? So we must live in a way that brings our Triune God the glory due unto Him. And how do we do that? There is a series of imperatives in this passage that guide us in living for His glory as the end approaches.

I. We must have a prayerful mindset (v7)

The Apostle Peter had learned much on the subject of prayer from the Lord Jesus Himself. Peter was there when Jesus taught His disciples how to pray, using what we now call “The Lord’s Prayer” as a model. But perhaps the greatest lesson Peter had learned on prayer happened on the night in which Jesus was arrested. As they entered Gethsemane, Jesus told His disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He said, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me.” After Jesus had prayed for a while, He returned and found Peter and the others asleep. He said, “Could you not keep watch with Me for one hour? Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And this happened two more times! After the third time, Jesus returned and found them still sleeping, and he said, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Behold the hour is at hand.” And at that moment, Judas and the crowd came into the garden to arrest Him. While Jesus accepted what was occurring, Peter panicked. He picked up a sword and hacked the ear off of one of the servants who had come to arrest Jesus. And Peter was rebuked by the Lord. Prayer had prepared Jesus for the moment; sleep had made Peter unprepared for it.

As Peter considered the nearness of the end of all things, he seems to have gone back to that night in Gethsemane. He remembered how, at that critical moment in time, the deepest need of the Lord Jesus was to spend time alone with His Father in prayer. And he remembered how he had failed the Lord by not being awake and alert enough to pray with Him in that moment. So, Peter admonishes his readers, and the Spirit of God speaks to us today with the same urgency, indicating that as the end draws near our greatest need is to spend concentrated time in prayer. This requires us to keep a sound judgment, a phrase that suggests “thinking about and evaluating situations maturely and correctly.” A sound mind is to be accompanied by a sober spirit. The word that Peter uses here indicates the opposite of drunkenness. Peter always uses this word in connection with other words as he does here. In 1:13, the word occurs in connection with “prepare your minds for action,” while in 5:8, it is paired with “being on the alert.” Therefore, Wayne Grudem says that the word “forbids not only physical drunkenness but also … letting the mind wander into any other kind of mental intoxication or addiction which inhibits spiritual alertness, or any laziness of mind which lulls Christians into sin through carelessness.” In a sense what Peter is saying here is that these days call for undistracted devotion to prayer. Don’t be like he was that night in the garden, slumbering lazily through the moment of urgency, distracted by so many other cares and concerns. We must be alert, seeing the things happening around us and understanding them with spiritual discernment in order to pray more effectively and intelligently, all the more as the day draws nearer.

What do you see and hear during your daily commute? What do you see as you read the newspaper or watch the evening news? What is popping up on your Twitter or Facebook page? What are the people around you talking about? Why has this information found its way into your purview? Is it so you can ignore it, worry about it, or gossip about it? I suggest that God has providentially caused your eyes to see what they see and your ears to hear what they hear so that you, Christian, can pray about it. If you have sound judgment and sober spirit, you can evaluate these things from a spiritual perspective and be drawn by them into prayer. As the end of all things draws ever nearer, the need for us to pray about the people and happenings around us only escalates. Having a prayerful mindset will glorify God as the end approaches.

Moving forward in the text, we find another imperative …

II. We must maintain a loving fellowship (vv8-9)

If we would glorify God here in these latter days, we must take into account how we treat one another within His family, the Church. Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). It is that love for one another, love that is expressed between the fellow disciples of Christ, that testifies to the world around us that we belong to Him. When we see siblings who genuinely care for one another, we immediately conclude that they come from a happy home with loving parents. Similarly, when the world sees Christians love for one another, they conclude that we belong to a good family with a loving Father. It is obvious that Jesus was not talking about love as a feeling, but rather as an action. The world cannot see our feelings, but they see our actions. And when we act lovingly toward one another within the church, we present a strong testimony for Christ. So important is this single attribute of Christian believers that Peter introduces his discussion on loving fellowship with the words “above all.” We may fail in a number of ways, but if we would glorify God and show ourselves to be His children and Christ’s disciples, we must not fail to demonstrate love for one another. While we can demonstrate love for one another in a variety of ways, two ways are specified here in these verses: forgiveness and friendliness.

Because we tend to equate love with a feeling, our inclination is to wait until the feeling arises within us to act toward another person in a loving way. But the Bible teaches us here that the feelings we are waiting for may not arise naturally, and may be squashed frequently. That is why this love that has to be fervently kept. The word fervent comes from a Greek word that means to stretch out. Every passage where this word occurs in the New Testament refers to doing something difficult, something that runs counter to what we desire or counter to what is expected, including this one. You notice that the love that we are to fervently maintain for one another is a love that occurs where there is a multitude of sins. Some have wrongly believed that this passage means that if I love people, then my sins will be forgiven by God. That is not what Peter is saying. You cannot do anything to earn the forgiveness of your sins. Your sins are forgiven by His grace because you trust in Christ. You don’t deserve that, but because God loves you, He forgives you. And THAT is what Peter is talking about here.

Martin Luther said to his church members, “It always happens that at times you do or say something that grieves me, and I do things that do not please you. An example is when one member of the body injures another: when the teeth bite the tongue, for instance, or the finger is run into the eye.” Have you ever done that? Have you ever bit your own tongue or poked yourself in the eye? You know the Bible says that we are like body parts, connected to each other in the body of Christ, who is the head. And sometimes, we hurt each other. Luther acknowledged that his church members hurt him, and he hurt them. Has this ever happened? Maybe I have disappointed some of you, maybe some of you have disappointed me, or maybe some of you have disappointed one another. Yes, it has happened and will continue to happen. But where we keep fervent in love for one another, our love will cover a multitude of sins. I will be able to go on loving you, not taking your sins into account when I consider how I will treat you. Isn’t this what God has done for us in Christ? Have we not received this kind of grace from Him? Therefore we must extend this kind of love and grace to each other. We will sin against each other. That’s what people do. But what Christian people do is love one another, covering one another’s sins as we reach out to one another with fervent love. We will have disagreements, but they don’t have to undermine our love.

Wayne Grudem says, “Where love abounds in a fellowship of Christians, many small offences, and even some large ones, are readily overlooked and forgotten. But where love is lacking, every word is viewed with suspicion, every action is liable to misunderstanding, and conflicts abound—to Satan’s perverse delight.” In that wonderful passage of Scripture that we often turn to for a definition of love, 1 Corinthians 13, Paul describes a love that is patient, that is not provoked, that does not take into account a wrong suffered (or, as the KJV says, “keeps no record of wrongs”), that bears all things and endures all things. Therefore, as our brother James Keku says here many Sunday mornings, “We love you, and there is nothing you can do about it.” Martin Luther said, “A man who is full of love is one whom you cannot enrage, however much injury may be done him.” If we let someone else’s sin short-circuit our loving actions toward them, then we open the door to all manners of conflict and strife. But where we love one another in spite of each other’s shortcomings, we cultivate an environment filled with the fresh air of grace, where love grows and abounds, and where God is glorified. Forgiveness is one way in which our fervent love for one another is expressed in Christian fellowship.

Friendliness is another way that this love is expressed. Peter says in verse 9 that we must be hospitable to one another without complaint. “Hospitality” is a word that immediately conjures up the idea of welcoming someone into our homes, or supplying someone with a meal, or meeting some other great need in his or her life. And, indeed, it includes all of those things, but the Greek word that Paul uses here means so much more. The word is philoxenoi. We recognize the philo part as coming from that same Greek word that means “love” for a friend or a brother. The latter part of this compound word, xenos, is a term that refers to strangers, foreigners, or guests. So, the hospitality that is called for is a genuine friendliness toward one another, even though before coming into the family of God together, we may have been perfect strangers.

In a culture in which following Christ could make one an enemy of the state or leave one orphaned with no earthly family to call his or her own, Christians depended on one another to help them meet their needs. Someone’s faith may lead to them being homeless, but the hospitable Christian says, “Come my brother, share my home.” They may have become unemployed, with no means to put food on the table. The hospitable Christian says, “Come sister, I have food to share with you.” Because the church in that day met in the homes of its members, this kind of hospitality may prompt the offer of one’s own home for the purpose of worship and fellowship. And notice that the offer of friendly hospitality comes without grumbling or complaining, a statement that has led many to conclude that Peter must not have been writing to Baptists. The idea is that we don’t do this because we have to, but rather we are blessed to have the opportunity to do so. To complain about it would ultimately be to complain about God providentially ordering our circumstances so that we find ourselves in the position to be a blessing to someone else, and to be blessed as we do.

Now, because we live in a society today where following Christ does not necessarily lead to being isolated from our families or cut off from society’s support networks, we do not often find ourselves in such positions of need. But, though we thank God for that, we perhaps suffer the lack of blessings that this kind of loving fellowship of friendliness would provide. There is a great irony in this in our day: we are not called upon for hospitality as often, and we complain all the more. We come together for an hour on Sunday, and then leave to go our separate ways into our detached lives for the rest of the week. But where this kind of hospitable friendliness is found, the church is found to be a place filled with love, and is seen to be a household of the family of God in Christ. Certainly, as the end of all things draws near, the world needs to see that kind of church. God will be glorified as we become that kind of loving fellowship.

III. We must engage in gifted service (vv10-11)

In C. S. Lewis’s classic book The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, there’s a rather bizarre and unexpected cameo appearance by Father Christmas, aka Santa Claus. Drawing gifts from his sleigh for the Pevensie children, he says to them, “These are your presents, and they are tools not toys. The time to use them is perhaps near at hand. Bear them well.” While we approach the season of gift giving, we must keep in mind that as followers of Christ, “each one” of us “has received a special gift.” These are not the gifts of Father Christmas, but the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Like those gifts that the children received in Narnia, they are tools and not toys, and the time to use them is at hand. We must bear them well.

In 1 Corinthians 12:7, Paul explains that spiritual gifts are “manifestations of the Spirit” which are given to every believer “for the common good.” In other words, our spiritual gifts are the ways in which the Holy Spirit manifests Himself through us, not for our own edification and benefit, but for the good of each other in the church. That is exactly what Peter says here. Each of us, every single Christian, has received, by God’s grace through the provision of His Spirit, a special gift (or perhaps more than one) that is to be employed in the service of one another. And God will hold us accountable for how we use what He has given us. He says here that we are to be “good stewards” of this grace we have received. And this grace, he describes, is manifold. We don’t all have the same gifts; we have different ones, manifold giftedness, so that where one is weak, another is strong. As we serve one another with these gifts, God’s grace is evidenced by the manifestation of His Spirit at work within us.

Now, Peter does not give a list of gifts. Though Paul includes lists of spiritual gifts in several places, we cannot conclude that Scripture ever presents an exhaustive list. Each individual is uniquely gifted for the benefit of the entire church. Peter presents two categories of gifts: speaking and serving. All spiritual gifts fall under these two headings. Our Spirit-empowered service to Christ and His Church consists of what we say and what we do.

Some are particularly gifted by the Spirit for ministries of speaking, such as preaching or teaching. But these are carefully warned. Their giftedness is not a license to say just anything and consider it to be good for the church. Rather, the one with giftedness for speaking “is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God.” In other words, our preaching and our teaching must be nothing of human opinion, but rather strictly the expounding and explaining of Scripture, which is the Word of God. John Calvin once said of preaching, “When we enter the pulpit, it is not so that we may bring our own dreams and fancies with us.” He said, “As soon as men depart, even in the smallest degree from God’s Word, they cannot preach anything but falsehoods, vanities, impostures, errors, and deceits.” When the Spirit grants Christian men and women gifts for speaking in the church, He does so in order that they may proclaim God’s word, not their own ideas. Failure to speak the utterances of God is a failure to be a good steward of the grace we have received in the speaking gifts. And church members have a responsibility to ensure that the Word of God is what is being spoken. If a teacher, preacher, or pastor begins to expound the opinions of men rather than God’s divine truth, it is up to you to remove that person. Hold your Sunday School teachers accountable to this; hold me accountable to this; hold anyone who stands in this pulpit or attempts to speak out in the church accountable to this. Be like those Bereans in Acts 17, who, when they heard the preaching of the Apostles, went to the Scriptures to see if what they were hearing was consistent with God’s word.

Others in the church are not gifted for speaking but for serving. Where would the church be without the people whom God has gifted to do the necessary things for serving one another? We tend to think only of those who do the things to maintain the facility in which we meet and worship, and they are necessary and we should thank God for them. But remember that Christians in Peter’s day did not meet in church buildings as we do. The word “church” has only of late come to mean a building. You are the church: the people. So serving within the church speaks most directly to those things which are done to care for and bless one another, like visiting one who is lonely; feeding one who is hungry; caring for one who is ill; showing mercy to one who is weak; meeting the needs of one who cannot provide for himself or herself; and the list could go on and on. But as anyone who is engaged in these kinds of ministries can attest, the burden becomes heavy at times, and we feel that we cannot endure it. Many people will jump in with both feet to a serving ministry, only to become quickly burned out and fall away. What is the secret for enduring in such service? We must serve, Peter says, “by the strength which God supplies,” as opposed to our own strength. It is only out of desire to not embarrass anyone that I don’t cite examples of seeing this kind of selfless, Spirit-empowered service that I have seen carried out by many of you over the last five years. You know it when you see it, and it is a beautiful thing to behold, for God is glorified when people who love Jesus serve one another in this way.

Each of you has at least one spiritual gift: some ability with which you have been endowed and entrusted by the Holy Spirit. So, every believer has the personal responsibility to both discover and use this gift, as well as helping and encouraging each other to discover and use the gifts they have been given as well. Maybe it is speaking, maybe it is serving. The best way to discover these gifts is to get busy! Do something! And as you are doing it, you will discover whether or not God is supplying you with the strength to do it; whether the church is being blessed and edified through it; and whether God is being glorified through it. Once you discover that special gift, steward it and employ it. Yield to the power of the Holy Spirit and let Him use you to bless one another in the family of God.

The end of all things is near. It has been drawing near since the time of Christ. It is nearer now than ever. How long will it be? We do not know. But we have a very clear word from God about what we are to do until the final day comes. We are to live for His glory; to live in such a way as to bring glory to God through the Lord Jesus Christ. And how do we do that? By having a prayerful mindset; by cultivating a loving fellowship where forgiveness and friendliness abound; and by engaging in gifted service, speaking God’s Word to one another, and serving one another in God’s power. Where a church abides under these imperatives, the glory of God breaks through to shine brightly, even in these dark and final days. And the world will see His glory and be drawn to this Christ who has saved us, and who can save them as well, as the end of all things approaches.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Luther on "Disagreeable Preachers"

Today is Martin Luther's 527th birthday, and as I like to do on days such as these, I have been reading various works by Luther. In particular, I decided to spend some time in Luther's commentary on 1 Peter as I prepare for Sunday morning's message (1 Peter 4:7-11). Therein, Luther deals with those who do not use their spiritual gifts in a loving and appropriate way, and he says:

"These are disagreeable people, and yet they are common in the world, especially among the preachers. As soon as one feels he can do something another cannot -- is apt to learn, has a fine voice, or dispatches work quickly -- he overdoes it, becomes proud, despises others who cannot equal him, yea, he thinks he knows more than those under whom he studied and suddenly changed from pupil to professor and wishes to make a show before the whole world. If then the public join him and praise and boast of his ability (as such spirits strive for this one thing with all their might), he is then first made a little gentle and tickled so that he does not know whether he is walking upon the earth or in the clouds. Such characters do the greatest harm to Christianity; what pious orthodox teachers did so well, and planted and built during long years with great care and labor, they break to pieces and ruin in a short time, and consider their ways better and holier, and they must also be honored by such names which suggest that they were seeking the honor of God and salvation of their neighbors."

If, when reading Luther's words, we are tempted to look down our noses at others whom we deem guilty of such attitudes and conduct, then we have missed the point. Rather, I think it best for us to be driven by Luther's words to look in the mirror at ourselves. Are we allowing the precious blessings of God's giftedness and the gratitude of His people to puff us up with toxic pride? We must always be on guard against this, lest we tear down what others have labored long to build. And Luther's words also contain a warning for the layperson as well. Be careful in heaping praise upon the gifted servants of God, for in so doing, you may unintentionally be casting them into a great temptation, the allure of which is dreadfully powerful.

Luther then wisely concludes this section with a more positive injunction for preachers and those to whom they preach:

"Whoever now preaches the word of God in its purity, without the addition of any human doctrine, that God out of pure love gave his only begotten son Jesus Christ for the sins of the lost world, seeks not his own, but God's honor, does not like God, rule over you, but serves you with his gifts, points out to you how you may be delivered from your sins and be saved. Whoever does the contrary seeks his own honor and advantage as is the manner and character of all work-righteous persons."

From this, we draw that our preaching must be thoroughly saturated in the very words of God Himself in Scripture, and not our own opinions and ideas. This is the only way to truly honor God in the ministry to which He has called us. And if a preacher does this, the congregation must be assured that he is not seeking to reign over his people, for he demonstrates his awareness that Christ is the only Lord over the church. Rather, such a preacher has humbly served both his God and his flock by giving them that which is most precious: God's divine truth. And so the right way to honor such a preacher is not then to heap praise upon him, but rather to praise the true source of his words, the Lord Himself, and to submit to the Lord in saving faith and obedient service.

Monday, November 08, 2010

"Armed with a Purpose" 1 Peter 4:1-6

Audio available here

For many years in the United States, a debate has been taking place over the rights of individuals to own guns. While all parties agree that the Second Amendment of the Constitution protects the rights of individuals to keep and bear arms, the debate centers on the purpose of gun ownership. In the Second Amendment, we read that this right is protected because of the necessity of maintaining a well-regulated militia in order to preserve the security of a free state. In other words, in order to prevent the same kind of tyranny that Americans were trying to escape from occurring in the new nations, its citizens would have the right to own guns for use in the militia if the need were to arise. Those who oppose private gun ownership today say that this right is no longer necessary in our day, for we do not operate with a militia of volunteer citizens, but with government-controlled military and law enforcement agencies. In fact, if you attempt to form a citizen’s militia, those government forces will demonstrably and forcibly object to your right to do so. The advocates of gun-ownership object and insist that the need for a militia was not the basis of the freedom being protected, but rather it was the basis for the inclusion of it in the Bill of Rights. So the question in the debate on gun ownership is not, “Can citizens arm themselves?” but rather “For what purpose can citizens arm themselves?” And that debate will continue, I imagine, for many years to come. We are not here to solve that dilemma today. I bring this up because the question surrounding that debate is related to a question raised in our text today.

In 1 Peter 4:1-6, there is one overarching imperative given to the readers: arm yourselves. The context is clear that Peter is not talking about literal weapons here, so this passage does not add to or detract from the debate on gun ownership rights in America. Rather, Peter is speaking figuratively, as Paul does in Ephesians 6, about Christians being spiritually prepared to live for Jesus in this fallen world where we will face the internal opposition of our human nature, the external opposition of a godless society, and the spiritual opposition of Satan and his demonic forces. The phrase “arm yourselves,” here translates a Greek verb that only occurs here in the New Testament. The noun form occurs several times in the NT, each time meaning “weapons” in the literal or figurative sense. Unlike Ephesians 6, we are not here given a list of spiritual weapons that we must take up. Rather, we are told that our spiritual armament is a purpose. Peter says we are to arm ourselves with the “same purpose.” Which purpose is this? The opening words make it clear: “Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh.” Throughout the letter, Christ has been the example to which Peter keeps pointing his readers in order to encourage them in the suffering that they are experiencing as Christ’s followers. When we suffer unjustly for the name of Christ, we must remember that Christ bore the most unjust suffering imaginable, and He did not resist or refuse this suffering, but embraced it for the purposes of fulfilling the mission for which He came into the world, namely the redemption of humanity. In 3:18, Peter says that Christ died for sins, once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God. None of the suffering that He faced would deter Him from fulfilling the Father’s perfect will and divine purpose. He had many opportunities to give up, to turn back, to run away, and to shut it down. But He remained faithful to His Father’s purpose. Jesus had told His followers that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things and be killed (Matthew 16:21). Luke 9:51 records that Jesus was “determined” to go to Jerusalem. The KJV translates the Greek phrase more literally, saying that He “steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem.” Even when suffering reached its pinnacle, in the brutal death of the cross, Christ endured the shame and the pain, and was ultimately vindicated through His glorious resurrection.

Now, Peter says that we must arm ourselves with the “same purpose.” That purpose, he says in verse 2, is “to live the rest of our time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.” The Christians who originally received this letter were experiencing much hardship and faced much discouragement as they attempted to live for Christ. But Peter’s words are an exhortation to them that nothing must dissuade them from living for the will of God. His will is multifaceted and it has inroads into every aspect of our lives, but it can be summarized as living in such a way to bring pleasure to God; i.e., the pursuit of His glory above all else in life, and the Spirit-empowered obedience to His commands. In the same way, we who belong to Christ today must be armed, that is, we must have the same resolute determination, to live for the purpose of God’s will. We are not to be armed with no purpose. The purpose is living for God’s will in the rest of the days we have on this earth. And the armament that this purpose requires is the resolute determination of Christ that refuses to be turned aside from God’s will. Why is such resolute determination necessary to live for God’s will? There are three reasons for us in this text.

I. We must be resolved to live for God’s will because of cultural expectations.

At the United States Air Force Academy, cadets are trained from day one to live by a certain code. It is inscribed on one of the walls of the campus quad for all to see. It says, “We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.” It is a written expectation of how an Air Force Officer Candidate will live. But not all behavioral expectations are written down, and certainly not all are as morally virtuous as that one. Some years ago, Las Vegas adopted a marketing slogan that has now become familiar: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” That communicates an unwritten expectation about certain things that are supposed to happen when one visits Las Vegas. The ancient Greek moral philosophers condemned loose living in their writings and championed high ideals for virtuous living. But the unwritten cultural expectations of that society were far more influential. Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome have both been characterized by excessive indulgence and debased behavior. That was the culture in which the original recipients of this letter lived.

Peter gives a partial list of the common practices of that day in verse 3. He mentions sensuality and lusts, using a Greek word that would describe the unrestrained pursuit of pleasure and gratification. These terms were often used in contexts related to sexuality and violence. He mentions drunkenness, using a Greek term which means “overindulgence of wine.” Then he describes two types of public celebrations: carousing translates a Greek term that was used for celebrations that included gluttonous feasting, excessive drinking, and in some cases, wild sexual indulgences; and then there are drinking parties, or events planned with the intention of getting drunk. And then he mentions abominable idolatries. When I was a kid, Sesame Street used to have a little segment called “One of these things is not like the other,” and it seems to us that this is the case here. What does idolatry have to do with the rest of these behaviors? Two things: (1) because of the plethora of idols which were worshiped in that day, there were no absolutes; (2) the worship of many of these idols actually encouraged such behavior as appropriate manners of worship. At the temple of Bacchus, the god of wine, one was expected to get drunk. The temple of Aphrodite or Venus (the name varied depending on the region), sexuality was a key element of worship. Aphrodite’s temple in Corinth, for example, was said to be attended by more than 1,000 temple prostitutes. So, this behavior was not only culturally permissible, it was actually considered to be sacred devotion to the deities.

Our day is not much different, is it? There are certain expectations in our society. For example, many of us will gather in coming weeks with friends, family members, or co-workers for holiday parties in which we know that the expected practice may be excessive drinking, the usage of illicit drugs, vulgar speech, and/or uninhibited demonstrations of lust. For others of us, this is not just limited to the holidays. Friends invite you to tailgate with them before a big game, and though it isn’t stated, you kind of sense that the expectation is to get a few drinks in you before entering the stadium. We can think of countless other examples. It’s just what people expect in those situations.

Peter’s point here is that if we aren’t determined with extreme resolve to live for the will of God, we will be pulled along by the cultural expectations that surround us. He says in verse 4 that their expectation of us is that we will “run with them into the same excesses of dissipation.” We might translate that expression quite literally as a “flood of unsavedness.” They are drowning in that flood of sinful living, and they expect us to dive in with them. But notice what he says in verse 3: “The time already passed is sufficient for you to have carried the desire of the Gentiles.” When he says “Gentiles” he isn’t talking about ethnically non-Jewish people, but people who live outside of the covenant of God. But Peter says that as followers of Jesus Christ, those desires are expired in our lives. The times for living that way have expired for the one who has committed himself or herself to Jesus. They say, “Come and join us,” and our response is, “No, there’s no time for that now. Time for that has already passed.” It is what Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:17 – “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” We are no longer living for those desires, but for the desire of pleasing the God who has saved us from such a way of life.

When a Christian is resolved to pursue the will of God, and to abstain from these culturally expected activities, notice the reaction it draws from others. In verse 4, Peter says, “In all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them.” They are surprised, literally, they are staggered with shock! And that surprise is often mixed with mockery and offense! Your refusal to run with them into their sin is perceived, perhaps accurately, as a condemnation of them and what they do. This is exactly what we read about Noah in Hebrews 11:7. “By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world.” The very building of that ark was a condemnation of the wickedness of the world, for it spoke of a coming judgment. When you and I refuse to participate in the sin of our society, though it is expected of us, we are saying to the world that we are more concerned about a coming judgment in which we will give account to our great God! And that says also, “Therefore, those who act in these ways must not be concerned about God or His judgment,” and that is an offensive message. It was in Noah’s day, and in Peter’s day, and in our day. And because of these cultural expectations, the Christian must arm himself or herself with a resolute determination that they are going to live for the purpose of God’s will, and not the appeasement of carnal desires and societal pressures. We’ve spent enough time doing that in the past.

Next we notice another reason why living for God’s will requires such determination and resolve:

II. We must be resolved to live for God’s will because of hostile opposition.

We’re all familiar with those dogs whose barks are worse than their bites. We owned one of those at one time. But that is not true of all dogs. Some dogs bark, and then they bite; and the bite is far worse than the bark. Peter is telling us here that the people around us may bark, that is, they may be surprised, confused, and even offended by the change of direction they see in our lives. But he also says that some of them may also bite! Not only are they surprised, he also says, “they malign you.” The Greek word here is the source of our word, blaspheme, and it means “to defame or injure the reputation of someone.” Throughout 1 Peter, there are indications that verbal abuse was the extent of hostility that these Christians were facing, but we know from history and other texts that the hostile opposition of believers escalated to unthinkable measures, including murder. In our society, thus far, we are mostly like these Christians in Asia Minor—we just get verbally maligned. But elsewhere in the world today, our brothers and sisters face much more intense opposition.

Karen Jobes, in her excellent commentary on 1 Peter, says that Christians in the first century were considered to be “killjoys who lived gloomy lives devoid of pleasure.” They didn’t go to the theater, because the performances were filled with risqué behavior; they didn’t go to the chariot races because of the drunkenness and gambling that occurred there; they didn’t attend the gladiator games because of the blood and gore. Christians spoke out against sex outside the bounds of marriage, consumption of alcohol, and materialism, and therefore early Christians were considered to be hateful, intolerant people who threatened the way of life that prevailed in the Empire. Does that sound familiar? Let a Christian refuse to “go along with the crowd,” speak out about our unpopular convictions, or say that Jesus is the only way to God and all other religions are false, and see what happens. Killjoys; hateful; intolerant; threats to a free-thinking society. The Barna Group released a study this week in which a random sample of 1,000 Americans were asked about Christianity’s contributions to American society. Just less than 1 in 5 said that helping the poor and underprivileged was the most positive contribution. One in four, however, could not name one single positive contribution Christians have made to our society. Nearly 20% said that Christians had contributed to the violence and hatred in our society, and 13% singled out Christian opposition to homosexuality as a negative influence on society. And we thought these were recent developments, but our text shows us that Christians have always been maligned for standing on God’s truth.

Why are Christians the target of such hostility? We’ve already mentioned how our different way of life pronounces a sometimes subtle (and other times not so subtle) condemnation on others. Equally offensive, or perhaps moreso, is our claim that Jesus is the only way to God. You need to realize that there are only three religions in the entire world that have an understanding of idolatry as a sin: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Islam fits into this category because it originated as an attempt to purify the monotheistic religion supposedly corrupted by Jews and Christians. But all other belief systems have no problem with worship a multitude of deities and venerating sacred images and such. They see no problem in saying that something can be “true for you, but not for me,” or that all roads lead to God, as long as they are followed with sincerity. But the historic monotheistic religions claim that there is only one God and only one way to know Him. And of course, for Christians, the claim is that Jesus Christ is the only way. Where do we get such a funny idea? From Jesus Himself. He said in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” The apostles understood this clearly. Peter said in Acts 4:12, “there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” The world says that this is a very intolerant belief and that we should abandon it, and unfortunately many so-called Christians and churches have abandoned this exclusive claim to alleviate the pressures and opposition of a hostile society. But we must understand that to abandon this claim is to reject the very words of the Savior and Lord whom we worship and consider to be the one and only True God!

Therefore, in order to cast aspersion on the claims that Christians make and in an attempt to justify their own sin and false beliefs, hostile unbelievers malign the followers of Jesus and persecute them. The goal is to silence the gospel through intimidation, and if that is not successful, then to eliminate the gospel through persecution and death. But it has rarely succeeded. Persecution has ordinarily strengthened the church, and it will continue to do so until Christ returns. Persecution separates true and false believers, which strengthens and purifies the church and emboldens it in its mission. In verse 2, when Peter says that “he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin,” he means that the Christian who is willing to suffer through the days of this life for the sake of Christ has demonstrated that he or she has made a break from the former ways of living. We have been given a choice: follow Christ and suffer, or reject Christ and return to the sinful life. When we embrace Christ and the suffering that faith in Him brings our way, we demonstrate that we find Him to be more ultimately satisfying than the momentary pleasures of sin. We declare to the world that we are not going to turn back but press on all the more in spite of what the world says about us or does to us. And that is not easy to do. It requires a resolute determination to pursue Christ rather than comfort and to endure the pain of suffering instead of enjoying the pleasures of sin.

Now we come to the third reason why living for the will of God requires a determined resolve in our hearts:

III. We must be resolved to live for God’s will because of eventual vindication.

The ancients lived in a universe that was overpopulated with deities. Though they rejected the one true God, they believed in a multitude of gods that governed nearly every aspect of life. And, while they were concerned that offending one of the gods or goddesses may lead to unpleasant circumstances, they believed that a day was coming in which they would no longer need to fear or appease them. They believed that death would be the end of divine justice and moral accountability. Like many in our own day, they did not consider a judgment after death something to be feared. Death would just be a “fade to black”, followed by eternal non-existence. This is why they didn’t understand the gospel of Jesus Christ. They didn’t see any good in it. It forced people to give up pleasures in this life, and then they would die, just like all the rest, and it would all be over. But they understood neither the promises nor the warnings of the Gospel. The promise was that life goes on beyond the grave; and the warning was that every human being would stand before a holy and righteous Judge to give an account for his or her life. As Hebrews 9:27 says, “It is appointed for men to die once, and after this comes judgment.” And so Peter’s words here echo the promise and the warning of the Gospel.

Notice in verses 4 and 5 that three things are stated about those who do not know Christ: They are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation; they malign you; but they will give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. This is presented as an undeniable fact: They will give account to Him. And there is a note of urgency in the warning: He is ready to judge. Death could strike a person at any moment, and then they face the Judge. Christ could return at any moment, and then they face the Judge. He has conquered death through His resurrection and been exalted in glory, and all is now ready for Him to judge humanity. And notice there is a note of universality in this warning: He is ready to judge the living and the dead. In other words, He is going to judge everyone: all those who are alive now and in the future; all those who have died in the past.

So, the Christians who are undergoing the hostile opposition and strong pressures of societal expectations can endure and press on with determined resolve to live for the will of God in spite of what they face in this life. Their oppressors may exalt themselves in this life, and they may prosper and advance their cause at the expense of the sons and daughters of God, but it is certain that there will be a day of judgment in which they stand before our exalted Lord, who is ready to judge the living and the dead.

The certainty of this coming judgment is not only a warning for those who do not believe, but it is also a comforting promise for those who do. Peter says, “For this purpose,” that is, because of this coming judgment, “the gospel has been preached.” If there were no coming judgment, there would be no need for the good news of Jesus. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:19, “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” In other words, if there is no judgment day coming, the pagans are right! We are intolerant killjoys who have exchanged the pleasures of this life for a lie. Oh, but that day is coming, and for that reason the gospel has been preached.

Now you may gather that it is no small interpretive challenge to determine the exact meaning of this phrase, “the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead.” The identity of these dead is explained in the words that follow in the text. These are they who “are judged in the flesh as (or according to) men,” but who “live in the spirit according to the will of God.” And if they are those who are going to “live in the spirit” after this judgment, we know that they are believers. So let me paraphrase what I think Peter is saying here: “Because there is coming a great judgment in which every human being will give account to the Lord Jesus Christ, the Gospel has been preached. And for those who have believed it, even if faith in Christ costs you suffering, even if it costs you death, you will live in the spirit according to the will of God.”

Though we are judged in the flesh, that is, in this earthly life, according to the principles of unbelieving men and women, and condemned, sentenced and punished, perhaps even to the point of death, the gospel is our hope. Let men do what they will to us. Let them be staggered by our transformed lives, offended by our claims, hostile to our beliefs and our way of life. What is the worst they can do? For even if they kill us, because of the gospel, on that day of judgment, we will be vindicated before the throne of the righteous Judge, who bore our sins and gave to us His very righteousness as a covering. And in that righteousness, we will live on in the spirit, according to the will of God. In other words, by resolutely determining to live for the purpose of His will here and now, we are choosing to begin living the life now that God has granted us for eternity – a life of lasting pleasure and joy, and ultimate satisfaction in knowing Him and the glory of His presence.

In the patience of God, that day has been delayed. His desire is for all to hear the promises and the warnings of the gospel and repent, turning to Jesus to save them. But it will not be prolonged forever. Death will come. Christ will come. Judgment will come. And when it does, the one who has resolutely determined to live for the will of God will be vindicated. Our oppressors will face condemnation, and we will enter into life everlasting because of the grace of God demonstrated in the death of Christ for our sins and His triumph over the grave.

So … in closing, I will echo Peter’s exhortation here: Since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. Let these be our resolutions:

· Because of Christ, I am resolved that to suffer is better than to sin.

· Because of Christ, I am resolved that sin has held dominion over my life long enough, and I pledge my allegiance to Him alone.

· Because of Christ, I am resolved to endure mistreatment at the hands of others for His sake.

· Because of Christ, I am resolved that the gospel shall be my only hope and trust.

· And as the Holy Spirit empowers me, I am therefore resolved to live for the purpose of His will.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Living for Christ in the Days of Noah - 1 Peter 3:19-22

I prepared an analysis of the interpretive difficulties of this passage, which is available here.


The Rare Book Division of the New York Public Library is home to one of the oldest globes in existence. Called “The Lenox Globe,” this 500 year old hollow copper ball, 4.4 inches in diameter, shows the world as it was thought to be in those early days of discovery. Across the unexplored territories of the Pacific, there is written a Latin phrase that translates into English as “Here Be Dragons.” No one is sure what prompted this phrase to be written there, but it served as a warning to seafarers of the dangers that may be encountered in charting unexplored territory and the caution that needed to be exercised.

The Bible can by no means be considered unexplored territory. In the two millennia since the New Testament was completed, this book has been studied, scrutinized, and analyzed by the world’s most brilliant minds. Still, in its pages one occasionally comes across choppy waters that pose certain danger for interpreters, and we must be cautious when we encounter them lest we fall prey to the twin dragons of error and heresy. First Peter 3:19-22 might well be marked in our Bibles with the warning, “Here be dragons,” for it has proven to be one of the most difficult passages (if not THE most difficult) in all of Scripture to understand.

Since today marks the 493rd anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses to the Wittenburg Church door, igniting the fires of the Reformation, it is fitting that we should consult with him about this text. Luther, one of the most brilliant men to ever handle the Word of God, has this to say about this passage: “A wonderful text is this, and a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament, so that I do not know for a certainty just what Peter means.” [1] Luther’s words should both encourage and caution us as we attempt to interpret this text.

There are several questions raised in these verses that interpreters have struggled to answer over the centuries. Who are the spirits in prison? What kind of prison are they in? When did Christ go to make proclamation to them? What did He proclaim to them? In what way can baptism be said to save us? Interestingly, it seems that we have more answers than questions. One scholar has counted at least 90 different interpretations of verses 19-20 alone. All of these alternative interpretations essentially reduce to variations on three major perspectives. I am not going to turn this into an academic lecture in which I compare and analyze these views, but if the subject interests you, I have prepared a very lengthy analysis of them in writing and it is available on the resource table in the back of the sanctuary. I would recommend that to you, because as you read notes in your Study Bibles or other reference works, you will very likely encounter views which are much different from the one I have taken on this text, and you may benefit from seeing the supporting argumentation of how I came to hold the view that I will share in this message.

The Bible tells us that Noah’s ark came to rest after the flood upon the mountains of Ararat. This region was in close proximity to the Christians to whom Peter was writing in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey. You may remember a news story from back in April of this year which reported an alleged discovery of the ark in the Turkish mountains. Whether that was really the ark or not, we may never know, but it is in the right place. This mountain range would have been visible from at least two of the regions Peter specifies in the opening verse of this letter: Galatia and Cappadocia. The story of the ark was a well known biblical account in that region long before the first Jews and Christians settled in the area. Several accounts of the flood were commonly told in that region, perhaps each being a corrupted version of the story found in our Bibles. Additionally, a prominent city in Asia Minor had been named after the ark, and ancient documents from the region make frequent reference to Noah and the flood. Some time after this letter was written, a series of coins were minted in the region depicting Noah and his wife. So, perhaps by introducing Noah in this passage, Peter is making an appeal to an account that was familiar and of interest both to his audience and their neighbors.

In many ways, the situation of the Christians who received this letter was similar to that of Noah in the days before the flood. God had announced a coming judgment and made a way of salvation available. But rather than turning to God in faith for salvation, the people continued in their sins and ridiculed the righteous for believing in the promises of God. That was the situation in Noah’s day, and it was the situation in the days when this letter was written. Many Christians in the world today, and increasingly we ourselves, find that the present situation is not altogether different. In Matthew 24 and Luke 17, Jesus said that His second coming would be “just like the days of Noah.” He said that in those days, “before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away.” This is how it will be in the last days. We don’t know when that will be, but we know that every day we are one day closer to the end. Peter’s original readers were living in the land of Noah, and in days that were very much like his. We are living even closer to the “days of Noah” that Jesus promised would come. And like the original recipients of this letter, and like Noah himself, we are to live for Christ in the midst of these days. As we do, this text presents us with assurances that we have to keep in mind.

I. As we live for Christ, we are Christ’s minority.

At 5:00 last night, I pulled up the headlines of the day on the web. Shootings, killings, robberies, assaults, terror attempts, armed conflict, missing persons – you saw the same stories. And then there was the email I received from my missionary friend in South Asia telling of a Christian church planter in his city whose home was intruded in the middle of the night by a gang. After stealing this man’s most valuable possessions, the gang dragged him out of town, tied him to a tree, and beat him. This world is a mess. Bad news is everywhere because sinful people are everywhere. That is the way it was in the days of Noah, and in the first century when Peter wrote this letter.

Genesis 6:5 records for us the condition of the world in Noah’s day: “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Then we read in verse 11 that “the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence (the Hebrew word is hamas, “terror”). God looked upon the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.” But in the midst of that wicked society, one man lived differently. You might say that it was because Noah was such a good man that God chose to use him, but that would be wrong. Genesis 6:9 does say that Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time, but his righteousness was the result of his relationship with God, not the cause of his relationship with God. In the verse immediately preceding, Genesis 6:8 we read that “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” The Hebrew word translated “favor” here is chen, and is often translated as “grace.” It has to do with the idea of a superior showing unmerited kindness to an inferior. The adjective form of this word, which we might render gracious is used only to describe God. It is because God is gracious that Noah found favor with Him, and God’s grace worked in Noah’s life to make him righteous and blameless.

God was the sovereign initiator, calling Noah out of a wicked and corrupt generation to live for Him, serve Him, and speak for Him. And this is the way God has always worked. He always works with a remnant that He calls out by His grace. After the flood, we find in Genesis 10 that Noah’s descendants fan out and become 70 nations all over the world. But of these 70 nations, in Genesis 12, God chooses one. Abraham was living in a culture of pagan idolatry when the Lord called him out by His grace and made him righteous. Abraham’s descendants became a chosen remnant in the world that God would bless and, through them bless to the world. And so it has gone down through the ages. Sinful human beings, as wicked and corrupt as they were in the days of Noah have filled the world. And from their midst God has always called out a small group for Himself, by His grace and for His glory.

Peter’s Christian brothers and sisters in Asia Minor were a remnant like the family of Noah. Surrounded by a sinful society, they were the minority group that God had chosen to bless and bring blessing through. They were aliens and pilgrims in the world, and the people around these believers were hostile to them. In the opening verses of this letter Peter mentions of the “various trials” that they are experiencing (1:6). As the letter unfolds we find mention of their adverse circumstances, even up to this very context. In verses 14-17, Peter speaks of suffering “for the sake of righteousness,” intimidation, slander, reviling, and suffering “for doing what is right.” While the Bible does not record any hostility that Noah ever endured, it is not hard to imagine that he would have been ridiculed, mocked and slandered while the ark was being built. In fact, Jewish legends had been passed down for generations that said this.

Many dream of a day when we will achieve a utopian society where everybody gets along and good moral values prevail in the world. That day is coming, but not here and not now. All promises or attempts to make it happen here and now will fail. The human condition is not changing, and therefore, until Christ consummates His Kingdom, there will always be a majority of people who have no interest in God’s will, God’s ways, or God’s Word. But if you are a follower of Christ today, you have been called out of that multitude to be a minority remnant whom God will bless and through whom God desires to bless the world. Are you frustrated or discouraged that you live in the midst of so much wickedness? Does it sometimes seem that you are all alone, or at least significantly outnumbered? This must not surprise us, for God has always chosen to work with a remnant that He chooses by His grace, and whom He makes righteous for His glory. We will experience hostility and harsh treatment from unbelievers and those who are disobedient to Him. We may be a maligned minority, facing hostility from those around us, but we are God’s minority, chosen by His grace in Christ and called out for the glory of Christ.

II. As we live for Christ, we are Christ’s messengers.

As we read the Bible, one thing that always stands out is how God uses average, ordinary people to accomplish His purposes. The men and women God uses are never depicted as superhuman. We see their strengths and we see their flaws. Just consider the two men who feature prominently in this text. Noah’s story ends in Genesis 9 with him drunk and naked and shamed. Peter is seen in the Gospels as a man with a big mouth and a hard head. God’s plan has always been to use ordinary human beings. So when Jesus gave the Great Commission to the Church, and commanded people like you and me to go into all the world sharing His Good News, He was not choosing Plan B. God is going to make Himself known to the world through us, His people. That is Plan A, and there is no Plan B.

Throughout 1 Peter, the Apostle has been encouraging the suffering believers in Asia Minor to be faithful in the task of sharing Christ with their neighbors. Though they are undergoing “various trials” (1:6), Peter exhorts them to keep their behavior excellent (2:12), to submit to every institution of human authority (2:13), to “patiently endure” their unjust suffering (2:20), to not return evil and insult in kind but with blessing instead (3:9), and to always be “ready to make a defense to everyone who asks” them to give an account for the hope they have in Christ (3:15). This may have been intimidating for those Christians. After all, it is intimidating for us, is it not? On Wednesday night, we studied how even Moses made one excuse after another to get out of being God’s messenger in the days of the Exodus. But if you were there, or if you’ve studied that text, you remember that every one of Moses’ excuses was met with the assurance that God would equip, enable, and empower him for the task. When Moses protested that he was not eloquent, but slow of speech, God said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? … Is it not I, the Lord? Now then go, and I, even I, will be with your mouth, and teach you what you are to say.”

Peter reminds his friends that as they live for Christ and speak for Christ, they need not be fearful or intimidated for it is actually Jesus Himself who will speak through them. Where do we get that idea? That is the entire point of Christ preaching to the spirits who disobeyed in the days of Noah. In 2 Peter 2:5, Noah is called “a preacher of righteousness.” He was not just building the ark, he was preaching to his generation, warning them of the judgment to come and offering them salvation in the ark. But Peter says here that, though the words were coming through Noah’s mouth, it was the Lord Jesus Christ who was doing the preaching. It was “in the spirit,” that is, in Christ’s glorious, eternal, spiritual nature in which He had always existed, that He went and made proclamation to Noah’s generation. And in the same way, the first century Christians of Asia Minor could draw comfort, encouragement, and strength from the assurance that Christ would speak through them as they made a defense of their faith.

Like them, we too have received the Holy Spirit if we have been born-again. God lives in you in the person of His Spirit. Jesus said in Acts 1:8 that this is the key to you being His witness. In Mark 13, Jesus spoke to His followers about difficult days that were coming. He talked about how they would be brought before governors and kings to testify of their faith in Christ. But Jesus said that this must happen in order for the gospel to be preached to all the nations. And He reassured them that when those days come, they were not to worry about what they would say. He said, “Say whatever is given you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but it is the Holy Spirit.” Now, you and I may never be brought before governors and kings to testify, but every day we find ourselves face to face with others who need to hear the testimony of Christ. And as Jesus said, we are not to worry about what we will say, but instead we must trust that the Spirit of Christ is going to speak through us in that moment. Just as He did through Noah, just as He did through the first century believers, so we can have assurance that Jesus will speak through us to others to make Himself known.

The message has never changed. Noah’s generation, Peter’s generation, and our generation must be confronted with the truth of God. There is a judgment coming. You say, “Oh, that message is not popular today.” Let me ask you: Do you think it was popular in Noah’s day? Was it popular in Peter’s day? It’s never been popular, but it has always been true. Peter says in 3:22 that our Lord Jesus Christ has gone into heaven, and He is seated at the right hand of God, exalted over all angels, authorities and powers. In 4:5, Peter says that the people who are harassing Christians in his day “will have to give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.” Christ was preaching through Noah to the people of his generation that a flood of judgment was coming in which every single one of them would perish unless they entered the ark to be saved. That was the same message for the people of Peter’s day, and it is the same for the people of our day as well. We will all stand before the exalted and eternal judge to give an account. And all of us are deserving of condemnation because of our sin. But God has graciously made a way of salvation. Christ has become our ark of salvation. If we would escape the judgment to come, we must come to Him by faith, in repentance of our sins.

The ark was a demonstration of the salvation that a few people, a minority of eight people in Noah’s day, had received by the grace they had found in the eyes of the Lord. And he says in 3:21 that we have a corresponding demonstration of salvation in our day. We do not show evidence of God’s saving grace by boarding an ark, but by coming through the water of baptism. When Peter says that “baptism saves you,” he is indicating that baptism’s relation to salvation is the same as the ark’s relation to salvation. What was that relation? Noah’s salvation was not obtained by entering the ark but by experiencing the grace of God. The ark was the evidence, the demonstration, of that salvation. So our salvation comes, not through the action of baptism, but through the transaction of grace that is signified in baptism. We are saved by God’s grace, through the atoning work of Christ in His death and resurrection.

On the basis of what Christ has done for us, we “appeal to God for a good conscience.” That is, we confess to Him that we are sinners deserving of nothing but wrath, but we appeal to Him “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” for the cleansing of our guilt and the covering of His righteousness. And this salvation is not obtained by, but visibly demonstrated in our passage through the waters of baptism. In baptism, we demonstrate the death, burial and resurrection of Christ which makes our salvation possible; we depict the death and burial of our old way of life and the new life that Christ has granted to us by His grace; and we display our hope of a resurrection from the grave just as Christ arose.

Christ is speaking through us to the world, making His promise of a coming judgment and His gracious offer of salvation known. As the patience of God was waiting in Noah’s day, He is waiting in our day. 2 Peter 3:9 says that God is not slow in keeping His promises, but patient, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. The door of salvation stands open for all who will enter in through Jesus Christ, just as the door of the ark remained open until the day that the rain began to fall. But the Bible says in Genesis 7:16 that the Lord closed the door of the ark on that day. The door of salvation is open today, but one day it will close. Jesus said it will be like the days of Noah. Everyone will be going about their business thinking all is well, and in a moment they will find themselves under judgment. And when that day comes, those who have continued in disobedience and unbelief will join the multitudes of Noah’s generation in their eternal prison of condemnation. But those who have turned to Christ in response to His offer of grace will join Noah and the Church in the ark of salvation and be carried safely before the eternal throne of the exalted Christ.

We began with an illustration concerning the Lenox Globe, that medieval sphere that was marked with a warning: “Here Be Dragons.” But we have now charted the territory and found that this text is perhaps not at all like the Lenox Globe, but rather like the Psalter Map of the 13th Century. The arresting feature on that magnificent map of the world is the Lord Jesus Christ, enthroned over the entire world and attended to by His angels, with the dragons as His footstool. This is the picture we see in this text. Christ is at the center of it all. Our attention should be captivated by Him, not by the dragons of difficult sayings. Those words exist by His inspiration, and they ultimately point us back to Him. He is not obscured by them but is exalted through them. He speaks through us, His church, calling a sinful society to repent and turn to Him and be saved.


[1] Martin Luther, Commentary on Peter & Jude (trans. & ed. John Nichols Lenker. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1990), 166.