1 Peter- A Holy People in Hostile World
1 Peter 3:14-22 CCD
Sermon preached at Christ Church Duesseldorf 11th November 2018
(Links to the news items mentioned at the end of the sermon)
I wonder how you would feel if you were walking down the street and saw a poster with these words on it?
“Dear Bigots, division seems to be what you believe in. We don’t want your religious hate on our buses, on our streets and in our communities. We don’t want you spreading your intolerance. Or making people’s lives a misery because of their religious dress. You may not have faith in respect and love, but we do. That’s why if we see or hear your hate, we’re reporting you. End of sermon. Yours Scotland. Hate crime. Report it to stop it”.
Posters like that have been on display for the last few weeks in cities and towns all over Scotland. They finish with the logos of the Scottish government and the Scottish police. A shorter, and even more sinister, version simply says “Dear bigots, you can’t spread your religious hate here. End of sermon”. They are an attempt to intimidate Christians and frighten them into silence. Ironically, a government and police force that claim to oppose bigotry and hatred are themselves inciting bigotry and hatred against Christians with these posters.
That is shocking- but we can expect to see a lot more of such things in the near future.
Here in the West, in Europe and America, we live in a time of growing and gathering cultural hostility towards Christians. What we face is nothing compared to what happens in Northern Nigeria, where churches are burnt and Christians lynched by Muslim mobs. Or compared to North Korea, where if someone is a Christian, the whole family will be sent to a concentration camp to be tortured and worked to death. But there is a cold wind blowing in the west. Our generation has had it relatively easy; it will be much harder for our children and grandchildren to live as Christians. We will face persecution and suffering because we follow in Christ’s footsteps.
The churches that Peter wrote to were in a place very like the one we are in. Serious persecution hadn’t started yet- but Peter knew that it was just around the around the corner, and he tried to get them ready for it. He didn’t want them to respond to suffering with fear and panic. Instead he wanted them- and us- to be calm and confident, because of the completed work of Christ.
- We can be calm and confident when we suffer – v13-17
Christians may suffer for righteousness – v13-14a
Peter knew what his readers would be thinking at this point. He’s told them in v8-12 to love one another, to be sympathetic and humble and tender-hearted, not to try to pay people back for wrong, to bless even those who wrong them, and so seek peace with everyone. The obvious question in people’s minds then is “If we are enthusiastic to live like this, surely no one will want to harm us? Surely we can enjoy a quiet life free from suffering?” It says in 2:21 that Christians are called to suffer with Christ- but surely we can side step that by being enthusiastic to do good? But no, Peter replies, if you live like this, you may have to suffer not simply despite your righteousness, but because of your righteousness. And as the letter continues, it will become clear that suffering in this way is not just possible, but highly likely for Christians.
So what is “suffering for righteousness”? It isn’t the general suffering that everyone in the world experiences, Christian and non-Christian, that might come from illness or relationships breaking up and so on. This is an extra suffering that only Christians experience, that comes from persecution. We might suffer simply because we are a Christian: in Saudi Arabia, if someone becomes a Christian, they are beheaded; and there was a report on the BBC last week of a young British man from a Muslim background who has become a Christian, and lives in fear of what his family may do if they find out. Or we might suffer because we live in a righteous way, that is we live in obedience to God’s commands. That seems to have been the situation for Peter’s readers: in chapter 4, it says that people are hostile to them because the Christians don’t join in with their immoral lifestyle. That I think will be the sort of thing we will face here in Europe: Christians will suffer because we live by different moral convictions and values, especially in matters of sexuality, and marriage, and gender. That will be the Schwerpunkt for persecution.
The suffering itself may take many forms. At the extreme end, people may be imprisoned and killed for living as Christians- we’ll think more about that next week. The suffering that Peter’s readers were facing seems to have been largely verbal abuse, threats, insults, and slander- lies were being told about them. We will hear a lot of that, and it is a very hard thing to be lied about and have your reputation trashed. So we will be slandered both in the mainstream media and the cesspool that is Twitter and other social media. And the good things that we do will come under direct attack. Just last week, the militant atheist journalist Polly Toynbee attacked the Christmas Shoebox Appeal, saying that it was an evil attempt by evangelicals to convert Muslims. We will be called “homophobes”, and “transphobes” and “islamophobes”, when we try to love people and share Christ’s love with them. We will be accused of hate crime, when we speak the truth. We will face false accusations- if we are supposed to always believe the victim, then Christians, especially pastors, will face false allegations of sexual abuse. On top of that, Christians will start to suffer in direct ways. We may lose our job, or find that we can’t get a well-paid, professional job, because we refuse to wear a badge saying that we are an “LGBT+ ally”- something that no Christian can do. We may lose friends because of the way we live. We will suffer because of righteousness, because we are enthusiastic to do good.
When we face suffering, of any kind, we often ask, “why?” But the Bible is a very practical book. It isn’t really concerned with the “why” of suffering- it’s concern is with the “how” of suffering. And Simon Peter tells us how we should suffer. First he says that we should…
Suffer calmly – v14
Don’t be afraid of them. Extraordinary thing to say isn’t it? These people can take away your job, your income, your reputation, your home, your freedom, your life. But don’t be afraid of them- don’t let them frighten you into silence, don’t let them intimidate you into being a secret Christian. And don’t be troubled and agitated- don’t be worried and anxious. That’s a big temptation for Christians in Europe at the moment- to get very uptight about what the future holds for us and our children. I know that it is for me. But Peter says not to worry. Why not? Because even if we are persecuted, we are still blessed- the promise from Psalm 34 in v10-12 still stands firm. They can take everything away from us, they can reduce us to poverty and prison- but they can’t take away God’s blessing. That remains. We shouldn’t be disturbed, and think that something has gone wrong, that God has gone to sleep or has forgotten about us. The promise of v12 still stands, his eyes are still on us, his ears are still open to our prayers. His love and favour are still with us, even if are unemployed, or in a prison cell. So suffer calmly.
Suffer confidently – v15
We don’t want to face suffering with doubt or hesitation- we want to face it with confidence and certainty. First of all, we have to be confident of who Jesus Christ is. As always, Peter begins with the inclination of our hearts- that’s what makes the difference. He says “in your hearts, honour Christ the Lord as holy”. Literally it says “sanctify Christ as Lord”- to “sanctify” him is to set him apart, and treat him as holy. Now what does that mean? I think it means something like this: make sure that you have this deep, settled, rooted conviction in your hearts that Jesus Christ is Lord and God, and that he is holy, he is in a category of his own, there is no one like him, no other way to be saved, no one so pure and precious, no one else worthy of your adoration and worship. And it is worth losing everything to gain him. And then adoration should lead to imitation. Remember 1:16? God said “you shall be holy because I am holy”. Well, if we are convinced that Jesus Christ is the holy Lord God, then how do we honour him as holy? By copying him- by being holy like him, by living a holy life. Our hearts must incline to that- that must be their fixed direction.
If we will do that, then we are ready and prepared to face interrogation with confidence. The “questions” Peter talks about here are not friendly questions from a non-Christian enquirer, who wants to know how to become a Christian, although we will, praise God, get asked those. The word Peter uses for “defence” is used for the speech someone would make to defend themselves in a courtroom, so he is thinking of cases where someone is on trial for being a Christian, and facing a fine, or prison, or death. But it could also take in other situations where we will face hostile, antagonistic questions designed to trip us up, or make us look stupid, or make us crumble under pressure. And we need to be ready for that. We need a clear, confident grasp of the Gospel, and what it means for Christ to be Lord. But there’s more to it than that. Preparation isn’t first of all intellectual- he doesn’t mean that we have to know all the answers to people’s questions. More important is spiritual and moral preparation- preparing our hearts and our lives, as we’ll see in a moment. If we determine in our hearts that Christ is our Lord, then we are ready to face questions. We are ready to calmly and confidently explain the great hope that makes us different from others. So we are to suffer calmly, we are to suffer confidently, and we are to…
Suffer well – v15b-17
This is our moral preparation for suffering and persecution- and it’s very important. When we have to defend ourselves, Peter says do it with gentleness or humility- the word he uses embraces both those things. In other words, don’t be belligerent or aggressive towards those who interrogate and prosecute you. Act like Christ, who was gentle and humble, who didn’t strike back at his persecutors- that is part of living a holy life. Aggression often comes from fear and insecurity- but if we aren’t afraid or worried, then we can stay calm, and be gentle and humble. So when we are in any kind of debate, the goal should never be to win the argument- it should be to win the person.
And he says, “maintain a good conscience”, which I think means something like “make sure that there is no substance in the charges brought against you”. Any kind of hatred, or hypocritical behaviour, will undermine our witness. So for instance, if we are accused of hate crimes, of hating homosexuals or Muslims, there should be nothing in our lives to make those accusations believable. Instead it should be clear that we have always treated them with gentleness and love, that we have tried to do them good and be a blessing to them. Then our accusers will be ashamed, because their slander won’t stick and their lies will be obvious. Christians may have to suffer for doing good- that may be God’s will for them, v17. Innocent suffering is hard to bear, but at least we have the satisfaction of a clear conscience. That’s better than suffering, and knowing that we deserve it because we have done wrong.
So, we can be calm and confident when we suffer.
But calmness and confidence don’t come naturally to us. We need a fixed anchor point- something to tie ourselves to, so that we won’t be swept away by the flood of persecution. And that’s what Peter gives us next.
- We can be calm and confident because of Christ – v18-22
This is a hard bit of the Bible- there’s no doubt about that.
Martin Luther said that v19 was the most obscure verse in the entire New Testament- that’s encouraging! And if I go into all the different was of understanding this, we will still be here tomorrow. So I will simply tell you what I think is the best way of understanding it, without explaining all the other ways. I could be wrong about some of it- but I think the basic idea is pretty clear.
But why did God put hard stuff like this into the Bible? Well partly because we are going to be battered by the waves of persecution. And if we are going to survive and not be swept away, we have to dig down deep into God’s truth, and make sure that our anchor points are firmly fix. A shallow, superficial understanding of what God has said will be no good to us. The same is true of our children. We want them to be ready for the coming flood, so we need to teach them these great, essential truths of the faith. A diet of children’s stories and family service talks will leave them too weak and anaemic to hang on. So parents, you need to understand these things so that you can teach them to your children. So what we have here is a great panoramic, sweeping picture of the complete work of Christ. We have four anchor points- and if we can grasp hold of these, we won’t be swept away by suffering and persecution.
First, Christ suffered – v18
Peter begins by saying “for” or “because”. So everything he says in v18-22 is the basis of everything he has said in v13-17. This is why we are blessed when we suffer, why we shouldn’t be afraid, why we should honour Christ as Lord. Because, first of all, he suffered. Christ suffered “for sins”- that is his death was a legal penalty, a punishment for sin. Christ suffered as a substitute- that is, he swapped places with us. We were guilty and unrighteous, he was innocent and righteous. But on the cross, he swapped places with us and stood in our shoes, and God’s sword of justice that should have fallen on us fell on him instead. He took our curse so that we could take his blessing. We call that “penal substitution”- learn to love it, it’s a beautiful wonderful thing. We need to be able to roll that idea around and suck on it and savour it, so that we can survive suffering. And Christ suffered to bring us to God. Guilty sinners like us can’t approach a holy God without being burnt up, we aren’t worthy of his love and kindness, we shouldn’t be able to come anywhere near him without dying of terror. Yet by his death Christ has blazed a trail for us into the presence of God. And now, because he died and was raised to life in the power of the Holy Spirit, he can put his arm around our shoulders and walk with us into God’s presence, and bring us into his Father’s love and blessing.
Do you see what this means for us when suffer and are persecuted? If suffering gets intense, we might thing that God is angry with us, and making us pay. But it says that Christ suffered once and for all, so there is nothing left to pay, no sacrifice left to offer- a just God can’t demand a second payment. Christ suffered for us and so, whatever happens, we are blessed, v14. Our sins are forgiven, our guilt can’t keep us out of God’s presence, we have nothing to be ashamed of, and when we are on trial, we can hold our head high. We have access to God, we have God’s ear, we can pray to him for help when we suffer. And if we are condemned and put to death, as Christ was put to death, then like him, we will be vindicated and raised from the dead in the power of the Spirit. Christ suffered: that’s our first anchor point.
Second, Christ proclaimed – v19-20
This is the hard bit, about which people write PhDs and tie themselves in knots. Briefly, this is what I think the point is; and there are good, Bible-believing scholars and preachers who would disagree with me here. The “spirits in prison”- or maybe it should be translated “spirits in hiding” are evil spirits, demons, who led the human race astray in the days of Noah. And this I think is the picture: after Christ rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven in majesty and triumph. And as he did so he proclaimed his victory to these evil spirits. If you like, Christ shouted to them “I win- you lose!” And the demons all cowered and gibbered in terror. Again, can you see what this means for us when we suffer and are persecuted? It means that we have nothing to be afraid of and nothing to worry about. Sometimes it seems like all hell has been let lose on the church- literally. But in fact the powers of evil have already lost, and they know it. They can’t really harm us. And if we shouldn’t be scared of demonic threats, how much less should we be scared of human threats like intimidating posters? If Christ has proclaimed his victory in the spiritual realm, shouldn’t we have the courage to proclaim his victory here on earth? That’s our second anchor point: Christ proclaimed.
Third, Christ saves – v20-21
This is another hard bit, and I’m not sure that I understand it. But I think Peter is saying that his time, and our time, is like Noah’s time. It is a time of disobedience and great wickedness. Things seem to have got out of control. The vast majority of the human race have rebelled against God and are hurtling down into moral chaos. Now, we live in a time when a whole civilization that was built on Christian believes and value is collapsing around us, and that can be very disturbing and worrying. But things aren’t out of control. As he did in Noah’s day, God is patiently waiting for the right moment to pour out his judgment.
And so our salvation is like Noah’s salvation- it correspond to it. Noah and his family were saved by water- the same waters that destroyed a disobedient world also floated the Ark and saved those in. They sailed safely through God’s judgment. Christians, and our families, are also saved by water- when we are baptised. Baptism is a picture or a symbol- someone goes safely through the waters of judgment, and is saved. That doesn’t happen automatically- merely being washed with water won’t do us again good. To make it effective, there has to be a genuine, sincere response of trust and turning from sin, that Peter calls “the pledge of a good conscience to God” or “an appeal to God for a good conscience”. That’s why the only people who should be baptised are believers and their children, who belong to God’ faithful family. But baptism isn’t an empty symbol; it’s a powerful means that God uses to save us.
And so our hope is like Noah’s hope. We may feel small and isolated and anxious, like those eight people in the Ark. But just as God saved Noah and his family out of a wicked world and kept them safe, we can be confident that the risen Jesus will save us and keep us safe.
Fourth, Christ rules – v22.
This is much easier to understand. Christ has gone into heaven, the control room of the universe. And he sits at God’s right hand. The right hand is the place of supreme honour and supreme power. So Christ is now in charge- he is the boss, he is the Lord. The greatest powers of the universe, the mightiest angels, are in submission to him, and have to do what he says. And if those powers are subordinate to him, then what do we have to fear from any human government or police force? Their threats are empty. On the contrary, if Christ is Lord, then in our hearts we should set him apart, and honour him as our Lord. And if you are on the wrong side, if you haven’t done that, if you haven’t bowed before him as your Lord, then you need to do that before his judgment comes. That’s our fourth anchor point: Christ rules.
Christ suffered. Christ proclaimed. Christ saves. Christ rules. His work is complete. That’s what we can hang on to keep us secure in the flood of persecution and suffering. So as Winston Churchill nearly said: keep calm and carry on, carry on living a holy life and witnessing to Christ as Lord.
Hate posters: https://theweeflea.com/2018/10/02/the-hate-police-are-now-here/
Muslim man who converted to Christianity: https://www.bbc.com/news/av/uk-46102493/converting-from-islam-to-christianity-one-man-s-story