Monday, February 07, 2011

The True Grace of God - 1 Peter 5:12-14

There was a piece on the evening news recently about the dangers of walking and texting. We’ve all heard and seen the danger of driving and texting, which is now illegal in many cities and states, but now the attention has shifted to careless pedestrians who pay no attention to their surroundings while blistering their thumbs in communication with others. My son offered his commentary on this news story by saying, “Texting is for people who don’t know how to spell.” While that may be an overstatement, purists of our day have lamented at how electronic communication, beginning with email, then chatting, then texting, now tweeting, is killing the art of written communication. When there is a limit on words and characters, one cannot be superfluous with words. This may have some advantages for efficiency, but one consequence is the loss of saying a proper goodbye.

Life is short, and none of us knows that when we conclude our correspondence or conversation with someone, we may have just uttered our last words. In our day, we don’t like to think about the imminence of death, but in olden times, one could not avoid the subject. I think that may have something to do with why our ancestors were better at goodbyes than we are. People who knew of the nearness and inevitability of death were careful with their closing words, knowing that they may be remembered as their last. The careless texter probably gives no thought to the possibility that their dying words may be something as uninspiring as “LOL” or a “colon-dash-close parenthesis” smiley-face. If we considered the possibility that every word we communicate could be our last, we would want to speak of the things that mattered most to us. We would want to be like that passionate French grammarian who died just after uttering, “I am about to -- or I am going to -- die; either expression is correct.”

As Peter brings this letter to a close, he speaks words of great importance. Peter is not under a death sentence as Paul was when he wrote 2 Timothy, though he would be in the future. But, with persecution intensifying, he knew that this may be his last opportunity to correspond with Christian brothers and sisters whose fellowship he had cherished. One very compelling reconstruction of the historical background of this letter suggests that Peter had been the pastor of these Christians in Rome before they had been exiled to Asia Minor. And it is with pastoral tenderness that he closes this letter, issuing a reminder of the one thing that means the most to his heart: the true grace of God! It is this subject that Peter says has occupied his mind as he has written briefly to these friends. Now, the word “briefly” in verse 12 may seem out of place, especially having been studying this letter for some 32 weeks or so. But, the letter contains just short of 2,500 words in its 105 verses. The President recently gave a 17-minute speech of the same number of words; you could fit them on four typed pages, single-spaced. But as we have seen in these months of studying this great book, the divinely inspired nature of this brief letter is such that every word is loaded with meaning. It was a brief letter to write, but not to study. I have written some 130,000 words on over 200 single-spaced pages to expound this letter, and I can say that we have barely scratched the surface of its truth.

The reason Peter wrote this letter, he says, is to exhort and testify to the true grace of God. Every word in every verse in every chapter served this purpose. And now he closes with some reminders of grace.

I. The Testimony of Grace

On Wednesday evening I introduced some of you to a little book I have found so useful to me over the years as I have studied the Bible: Halley’s Bible Handbook. And I shared with those there how on page 814, Halley’s words are printed in bold capital letters at the top of the page: “THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THIS BOOK IS THIS.” And that most important thing is for pastors to preach systematically through the Bible and for the congregation to follow along in their own Bible reading during the week. Now there is something humorous and tragic about that. The humorous thing is that one has to read 813 other pages of Halley’s book to get to the MOST IMPORTANT THING. The tragic thing is that the newest edition of the book omits this information entirely. It added glossy pages and color pictures, but it left out what Halley himself considered THE MOST IMPORTANT THING in the book.

Now, Peter says that he has written “testifying that this is the true grace of God.” But unlike Halley’s Handbook, he didn’t wait until the end to reveal the most important thing. He reminds us in the end that he has already written the most important thing. But, what is it? This is the true grace of God, but what is THIS? Having nothing in the immediate context to limit the definition of this, we must understand it to mean the entire letter. The entire letter is a testimony to the true grace of God. Everything Peter has written has been a testimony to grace. Those who received this letter, like many who have read it and cherished it over the last two millennia, were Christians who were struggling to live out their faith, far from their homeland, in a hostile environment. And Peter has set forth to them a testimony of the true grace of God.

He has spoken to them of the living hope into which we, as believers in Jesus, have been born again through His resurrection from the dead. It is grace that birthed us anew into this hope. He has spoken of how Christ has conquered all evil through His own suffering for our sins. It is grace that gives us this victory. He has written of how Christ calls His people to follow His footsteps through this life. It is grace that beckons us to follow Jesus. Peter speaks of Christ’s blessing and presence with those who endure hardship, how He brings them through death and into glory just as He has also first gone. This is grace to the undeserving that Christ may guide us in this way. He has spoken promises of how Christ will vindicate and glorify those who are faithful to Him through the hardships of this life. That is grace! He has promised a judgment to come that will right every wrong and restore every loss. This is grace!

When we sing that favorite old hymn of John Newton’s, “Amazing Grace,” we sing about how grace “saved a wretch like me.” That’s saving grace. We sing about how grace teaches our hearts to fear and at the same time relieves us of fear. That is sanctifying grace. We sing in the third stanza that the Lord has promised us good things and fixed our hope upon His word by His grace. That is satisfying grace. We go on to sing about how grace brings us through many dangers, toils, and snares. That is strengthening grace. We don’t sing Newton’s original words after that. We omit two stanzas that he penned, and sing one that he didn’t write. But if we were to sing the original, we would sing a fifth stanza that speaks of grace providing joy and peace even though the flesh and heart begin to fail and mortal life comes to an end. That is sustaining grace. And in Newton’s original final stanza, we would sing about how grace binds us to the Lord for eternity, though the earth dissolve like snow and the sun cease to shine. That is a secure grace. Instead, we sing a different final stanza that speak of grace leading us to our eternal heavenly home where we will worship the Lord forever. That is all-surpassing grace.

Grace truly is amazing! And Peter says that he wrote this letter to testify to the true grace of God: how it saves us; how it sanctifies us, satisfies and strengthens us; how it sustains us, secures us, and how it surpasses all else in existence, binding us to Christ forever more. To read the precious words of this letter is to be presented with a rich testimony of the true grace of God.

II. The Exhortation of Grace

Now Peter says he has also written, not just to testify, but to give an exhortation concerning this true grace of God. What is the difference? To testify is to tell someone about something, but to exhort is to tell someone to do something. The New Testament epistles are often divided cleanly at some point near the middle by a shift from testimony to exhortation. Peter, like the other writers, wants to inform us all of some truths that we must know and believe; but that knowledge and those beliefs must then shape what we do. Belief determines behavior. Is that true? What you believe determines how you act. Agreed? Well, if that is true, then a corrolary truth is that behavior demonstrates belief. If what I believe determines how I act, then how I act demonstrates what I believe. We find these principles stated in various ways on nearly every page of the New Testament. So is Christianity about what I believe or is it about what I do? The answer is yes, for what I believe determines what I do; and what I do demonstrates what I believe. I am not saved by my doing, but by my believing; however my doing demonstrates the genuineness of my believing.

Now Peter says he has testified of the true grace of God. He has taught us about this grace and how it saves us, sanctifies us, sustains us, and so on. But he has also given us an exhortation. There is something or some things we must do because we believe in this true grace of God. Throughout each chapter, he has spoken about how this grace should affect our attitude and our actions. Here at the conclusion of the letter, he summarizes all of those exhortations with this one: “This is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it!” It is one thing to say that I believe in the true grace of God, how He saves us through the blood of the cross and sanctifies us to make us more like Jesus, and strengthens us to endure the trials of life, and then brings us to Himself forever in heaven. It is easy to say that I believe all of those things. But I will have countless opportunities every day to demonstrate how firm my belief in this grace of God and this God of grace really is. The proof will be found in whether or not I stand firm in grace.

When our mind is assailed with doubts and questions that leave us second guessing our faith, will we stand firm in the grace that has saved us? Will we preach the gospel of grace to ourselves afresh? When we are faced with someone who we consider to be a vile sinner, will we remember that we are as desperately wicked as they are, and that we would be with them in the folly of their sin if not for the grace of God? And will we testify to them of the grace that saved us in Jesus Christ, just as someone else did for us? When someone has wronged us, will we reply to them in grace, or will we harbor resentment and hatred in our hearts? I am glad that God does not harbor grudges in His heart toward me when I wrong Him; and I don’t want His grace to be wasted in me, I want it to flow through me. And when the going of life gets tough, and the pressure is applied to me, what do others see in me? Do they see grace? When this very grace that saved me and is sanctifying me becomes the cause of my suffering, when I am hated and mistreated for my faith in Christ, and when it appears that all will improve if only I back down, what will I do? Peter is saying to his readers and to us that in all of life’s circumstances, including and maybe particularly in the difficult ones, we must stand firm in the true grace of God.

Christ has satisfied the righteous demands of God’s law for us; He has borne our sins on the cross; He has conquered death; He has birthed us anew into His family and His kingdom; He has shown us the path through suffering into glory, and promised that in the end all wrongs will be made right by a righteous judge. Therefore, on the basis of this true grace of God, we can fix ourselves immovably and not waver when hardships, crises, trials, or other types of suffering come our way. This is grace’s exhortation: once you know of this grace, you must stand firm in it.

III. Examples of Grace

In ancient days, when a person wrote a letter, they put their own name first, as Peter does in 1:1. It makes sense, really, because you don’t want to have to read through the whole letter to find out who it is from. So, when they close the letter, they typically don’t sign their own name again, but rather pass along greetings to certain individuals or from certain individuals who are with the person at the time the letter is written. So, it is no surprise to find several names and personal greetings here at the close of 1 Peter. That was customary. Yet, we Evangelicals make strong claims about the verbal plenary inspiration of Scripture. We claim that every single word of Scripture was inspired by the Spirit of God and is therefore inerrant, infallible, authoritative, and profitable for teaching and guiding us in the Christian life. So what profit is there in us having these names and greetings preserved for us through the centuries? I believe that they provide us with examples of the true grace of God of which Peter has testified and upon which he has exhorted those of us who read this letter.

Peter himself is an example of grace. When he first met Jesus, he recognized his unworthiness to be in the Lord’s presence. He said in Luke 5:8, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” But the Lord didn’t go away. He called Peter to follow Him, and Peter even became part of the inner circle of disciples who were with Jesus constantly. There was grace working in Peter’s life. And this grace proved to be effective on that day in Caesarea when Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus told Peter that flesh and blood had not revealed this to him, but that God the Father had revealed it to him. That is grace, revealing truth to Peter and drawing him to confess Christ as Lord. By grace alone, over time, Peter became the leader of the apostles. And then in famously tragic episode when Jesus was on trial, Peter denied even knowing Jesus. He failed to stand firm in grace, but he never fell from grace. Jesus came to Peter and restored him to right fellowship and commissioned him to shepherd the flock of God. And here, a couple of decades or so later, Peter writes this very pastoral letter to the flock he has tended well for Jesus, and he testifies and exhorts them to stand firm in grace. Peter is an example of this grace.

And so is Silvanus. In the book of Acts, Luke calls him Silas, but in their letters both Peter and Paul call him Silvanus. Like many in his day, he had a Roman name and a Semitic name. We first meet him at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, where the church leaders had gathered to determine what should be required of Gentiles who desire to believe in the Lord Jesus. Silas was there. At some point grace had brought him under the Lordship of Christ, and he is described as a prophet, indicating that grace had also made him a preacher of God’s Word. But now he found himself at the most monumental gathering of the first century, surrounded by the men whose names we all know: Paul, Peter, Barnabas, James, and others. And when that council broke, they needed a messenger to deliver the verdict to Antioch. Silas was one of two chosen because he had gained a reputation as one of the “leading men among the brethren.” He was now, by God’s grace, the courier of the most important church gathering since Pentecost. Arriving in Antioch, he even had opportunity to preach to the brethren there, and before long, he began traveling with Paul as a partner with the greatest missionary who ever lived. He suffered alongside of Paul in the Philippian jail where they sang hymns together through the night. Grace had provided unbelievable opportunities for this preacher to be involved in some incredible things. And now, he finds himself along side of Peter in Rome. Some have said that he may have even been the amanuensis, or scribe, who wrote this letter as Peter dictated. That could be what is meant by the phrase, “Through Silvanus … I have written.” While this is uncertain, it is surely the case that Silas would be entrusted to deliver this letter to the Christians across Asia Minor. He was trustworthy because Peter regarded him as a faithful brother. He had proven himself so over the years. But it was all of grace. Every opportunity that came his way was by grace, and the ability to rise to those occasions was of grace as well. Silvanus, the faithful brother, is an example of grace alongside of Peter.

And then we find Mark, whom Peter calls his son. This is certainly the same Mark, or John Mark, who wrote the Gospel According to Mark. But long before this, the grace of God had been at work in Mark’s life as he grew up with a godly Christian mother. Nothing is known of his father, perhaps he had died when Mark was a child or a young man. But there was a godly cousin in his life by the name of Barnabas who encouraged young Mark to join him and Paul on the first missionary journey. The first missionaries on the first mission trip, and here Mark is right in the thick of it. There is grace involved in this opportunity. But at some point in that missionary journey, for a reason that the Bible does not tell us, Mark turned back and went home. Whatever the reason, it was enough for Paul to refuse to take him on the second journey. Mark was the cause of one of the first divisions in church history as the missionary team of Paul and Barnabas divided over him. Paul took Silas and Barnabas took Mark, but the grace of God was still working for now there were two mission teams instead of one. Mark could have gone through life sulking about being a fatherless failure, but by God’s grace, he had a cousin who encouraged him, and along the way he crossed paths with Peter. History ties him closely to Peter, and even suggests that the Gospel of Mark is a transcript of Peter’s preaching and teaching about the life and ministry of Jesus. If many scholars are correct, his gospel was the first one to be written, and the first of its kind in the world. No longer a fatherless failure, the grace of God had transformed Mark into a mighty servant of God, and united him with a brother in the Lord who became for him a father-figure. Peter calls him here “my son.” Peter understood that the true grace of God means that there is always a second chance. He had one, and he made sure Mark got one too. Even Paul would come around later, telling Timothy in 2 Tim 4:11, “Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service.”

Then there is one final person mentioned here: she who is in Babylon. Who is she? When we compare this wording to that of the opening and closing of 2 John, we notice a similarity. There he addresses the “chosen lady and her children,” and sends greetings from “the children of your chosen sister.” It seems that when hostilities in the Roman Empire began to rise against Christianity, this became a cryptic way of identifying a church. So the she of whom Peter speaks is a church. He says that she is in Babylon. Of course we know Babylon was that great city of the Middle East, capital of the domineering Babylonian Empire, and site of present day Baghdad, Iraq. But at the time Peter wrote this, that city was a wasteland. A first century historian said that Babylon was so desolate that it was no longer a great city but a great desert. And there is no evidence of a Christian church there until far beyond the Apostolic period. But there was another Babylon, in Egypt near present-day Cairo. But there has never been a shred of evidence to suggest that Peter was ever there, and no serious biblical scholars have made a case for that. So where is Babylon if it isn’t in Babylon? I agree with the majority of interpreters who conclude that Babylon is a cryptic reference to Rome.

Most of our knowledge of the history of the early church comes from the book of Acts and a few pieces of evidence we find the Epistles. Since Paul wrote most of the epistles, and since Luke traveled with Paul on his missionary journeys, most of what we know concerns the ministry of Paul. But Peter was at work during those years of Christianity’s expanse as well. We know that he was in Jerusalem for a while, and then he traveled throughout the entire region of Judea, Galilee and Samaria, visiting Lydda, Joppa, and Caesaria. And then he came back to Jerusalem, got himself arrested, and escaped by way of an angelic jailbreak. Now, keep in mind that at this point, he is a fugitive. So, it is no surprise that Luke does not tell us anymore of his travel plans. He is a wanted man. Luke simply says in Acts 12:17 that he left and went to “another place.” We know from some statements made by Paul that Peter and his wife passed through and visited some other churches over time, including Antioch and Corinth, but we don’t know much else except that Peter died in Rome. It is therefore entirely plausible that the fugitive Peter and his wife journeyed secretly from church to church across the Mediterranean region until he got to the metropolis of Rome where he could easily blend into the crowd of 1.2 million people who lived there. Tradition says that he pastored a flock of Christians here, and we have expounded this letter on the assumption that the Christians in Asia Minor who received it were originally members of that church who had been kicked out of Rome and exiled to Asia Minor as unwilling colonists there. Somehow Peter managed to lay low, as he had been doing for a while, under the radar. And he stayed in Rome to continue to shepherd the remnant of believers there, some of them perhaps family members, certainly many of whom were close Christian friends with those who received this letter. And to protect their identity and location should Silas encounter trouble and have the letter confiscated, he uses veiled language when giving these greetings.

Now, why the history lesson at this point? Because we are talking about examples of grace. And this church in Rome at this time in history is a great example of grace. In a hostile environment, where the powers that be were already threatening to erase every trace of Christianity, the church of Christ and the testimony of the gospel remained. And though external pressures had forcibly removed many of that church’s members from the region, they could not sever the bond of fellowship. The grace of God had made this band of strangers into a family of brothers and sisters. Think about it … in a country that desires to eliminate all Christian presence, the “just” thing for God to do may be to smite them, or else to withdraw His people and the testimony of His grace from that area altogether. But God doesn’t do that. Instead, he strengthens His church to remain and abide there, enduring those external pressures and persecutions, and continuing to show and tell the gracious offer of salvation through the gospel of Jesus Christ. A church in area, especially in the hard places of the world, is an example of the grace of God.

So, whether you have rebelled against the Lord as Peter did; you have wavered in your commitment like Mark did; you feel like an insignificant person like perhaps Silas had felt at some point in his life; you find yourself surrounded by hostility because of your faith in Jesus; the grace of God is sufficient for you. By grace, you can be restored like Peter was, and go on to do great things for the Lord. By grace, you don’t have to be a fatherless failure like Mark perhaps had considered himself; you can have a family of fellow believers and go on to be useful for God’s purposes. By grace, you may find God placing ordinary little you in extraordinary circumstances where He demonstrates His glory through you -- like He did with Silas. Or, like the chosen lady of Babylon, the oppressed Roman Church, God may use you to demonstrate His grace and His glory, even to those who are most hostile toward Him and His truth. And in all of these circumstances, you are the examples of the true grace of God for the world to see.

But the greatest example of His grace is this: that God would become one of us in the person of Jesus Christ, and live the sinless life of perfect righteousness that God requires, but that we cannot deliver, and yet die as a sacrificial substitute to bear the wrath of God for our sins, and then conquer death on our behalf through His glorious resurrection. And because of this, God calls out to sinners and beckons them to come to Jesus to be saved. And He promises to fill them with His Spirit and transform them into the likeness of Christ until He takes them into His presence forever in heaven. Who among us can say that we are entitled to that from the Holy God of the Universe? Who can say it is deserved, or that we are good enough to earn it? No, not one. This offer comes to us by grace. This is the true grace of God. You are surrounded today by examples of grace. You have heard today a testimony of grace. You have also been presented with an exhortation of grace. Come to Christ and be saved. Experience this true grace of God and then stand firm in it until He calls you home.

These were the last words Peter wrote in this letter, not knowing that it may be the last words he ever said to these friends. They were important enough to say in the event that they were his final words. Friends, we have no guarantees. And if these are the last words I ever say to you, I could say nothing better. I have testified to you of the true grace of God. I exhort you to stand firm in it.