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.

No comments: