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.

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