1 Peter- a Holy People in a Hostile World
1 Peter 4:1-11- A Dedicated and Disciplined People
Sermon preached at Christ Church Dusseldorf 18th and 25th November 2018
Twenty five years ago now, I was a student at Oxford, studying history, and heading for my final exam.
At most universities, your final grade depends partly on the coursework that you do during the years. But not here. All that mattered was five days of exams at the end of the three years- they decided the grade you got in your degree. And as the deadline approached, and time to prepare started to run out, you could tell who had used their time well. Some students had spent a bit too much time in parties and the college bar- in those happy days when beer was a pound a pint- or in my case trying to climb mountains in Wales. But others had been dedicated and self-disciplined, and lived in light of the coming end of the course.
Christians too live in the light of the end. That’s what Peter is telling us to do in this passage, where he is still teaching us how to respond to hostility and suffering and persecution. He says in v7 “the end of all things is near”. And his message is that Christians must be a dedicated people and a disciplined people
- Christians must be a dedicated people – v1-6
To be “dedicated” is the same thing as to be holy
To be “holy” is to be set apart and separate and dedicated for a special purpose. Peter has already talked a lot about holiness and dedication in his letter. Let’s go back for a moment to 1:13-16. Let’s think back and try to remember what we said there, because it’s the basis for what Peter says in chapter. God is holy: he is absolutely unique and special and set apart, he is untouched by the slightest speck of evil. And Christians are holy: they have been set apart, and dedicated to God, we are his special possession, as 2:5 says. And so, as God’s obedient children, we mustn’t conform to our old desires, 1:14. Instead, 1:13, we have to “gird up the loins of our mind”- in our minds, in our thoughts we have to get ready for action. And then when you come to 4:1-6, Peter simply says the same things in a slightly different way. So although he doesn’t use the word “holy” here, that’s what he’s talking about: about being a holy, dedicated people.
Now, when you think of a “holy” man or woman, I wonder what you think of? Maybe you think of a monk or a nun. Or perhaps you think of the statues of so-called saints you see in some churches, with pale, sentimental faces, and eyes looking up to heaven, not really in touch with the real world. Well let me give you another picture of holiness: the Spartans. Have you heard of them? They were the most fearsome warriors and soldiers of ancient Greece. A Spartan man wasn’t allowed to enter any kind of trade, to be a merchant or a craftsman. From birth, he was dedicated to one purpose, and one purpose only: war. From childhood, he was set apart, and taught to be a soldier. He was disciplined and trained to the peak of physical fitness. He had to live without the luxuries and comforts that other Greeks enjoyed. And mentally, he was prepared to suffer and die. Most famously, at the battle of Thermopylae three hundred Spartans fought to the death against overwhelming odds, and sacrificed their lives to give the rest of the Greek army time to escape. That is the sort of holiness and dedication that God wants from us.
Christians must be dedicated for battle – v1-2
What does Peter command us do to? He says “arm yourselves- get ready for a fight”. What sort of fight? Go back to 2:11. Peter says that our desires “wage war” against us. Those desires would of course include the desires for sex and money. But they would also include ambition, the desire for power and influence, or the desire to be popular and well liked, or the desire for ease and a quiet life. They struggle and fight against us, and the warfare is deadly- no holds barred and no quarter given. We are in this battle because we have to live in what Peter in chapter 4 calls the “flesh”. That doesn’t just mean that we have physical bodies. It’s the “now”, the present conditions in which we have to live. Think of it as a realm, a country in which we live at the moment. We live in a warzone, we live in hostile territory, and so we have to be ready to fight this battle and accept the cost of it.
We have to arm ourselves- picture a Spartan soldier strapping on his sandals and breastplate, putting on his helmet, picking up his shield and spear, so that he is armed and ready for battle, and the enemy can’t catch him with a surprise attack. That’s what Christians have to be like- because our desires will sometimes take us by surprise. Everything may feel great, we may think that we are living “the victorious Christian life”. Then suddenly a desire to look at pornography, or to get our own back on someone, might sweep over us. We have to be armed and ready for the attack.
How? In our minds. By having the same mental attitude that Christ had- that is our armour and weapon against sinful desires. Christ suffered in the flesh- he had no sinful desires, but he did struggle against temptation, he lived in this warzone for 33 years, and was under constant attack, and never gave in. He suffered for us, the innocent for the guilty, he was dedicated to our good, whatever the cost- and we have to arm ourselves with that thought. So to arm yourself with that same attitude is to think: “Christ suffered for me- I will suffer for him”. Because your desires will tell you that if you fight them, you will suffer- you will be deprived of things that make life worth living. But Peter says arm yourself with the same mental attitude as Christ- expect and accept suffering. That’s partly why we have the Lord’s Supper- when we do this we are arming ourselves with the thought of Christ’s suffering.
Why should we arm ourselves like that? Peter says because someone who does that has done with sin. That doesn’t mean that you become sinless and perfect, and never ever do anything wrong again. But if someone has counted the cost of following Jesus, and is ready and willing to fight and suffer with him, then they have said to sin “I’m done with that- it’s over”. They may still lose some battles, but they are fighting on the right side- they have made the break with sin. They may still sometimes give in to their desires, but, v2 they don’t live to satisfy those desires any more, that isn’t what their life is about. They are no longer dedicated to doing what they want. Instead they are dedicated to doing what God wants, and live for that. Like a good soldier, who is dedicated to doing what his command officer says, not what he thinks is best. That’s holiness.
And I would say this especially to those of you who are in Fusion, our young peoples’ group. You are at the beginning of your lives. Decide now what you will live for- decide to what cause you will dedicate your life. Will it be to doing what you want? Or will it be to doing what God wants?
Christians must be dedicated and different- v3-4.
To be holy is to be different. If we are dedicated to doing what God wants, that will make an enormous difference in our lives. Even before we open our mouths to speak about Christ, we will stand out from the crowd. We will swim against the stream. And that will not make us popular.
Peter said that his readers should decide that they would suffer, and then dedicate their lives to doing what God wants. Because they had already spent plenty of time living the other way and doing what they wanted- and time was something that they were running out of. They had spent plenty of time living like everyone else- now it was time to be different. He says not to carry on in debauchery, desire, drunkenness, partying, binge drinking, and disgusting idolatry. Now that doesn’t mean that you can never go to a party or never have a drink. It does mean never let your guard down- don’t put yourself in a situation designed to fuel your desires and weaken your resistance. Peter is describing a lifestyle of excess, the unrestrained pursuit of pleasure, where people are swept away by a flood of excess, v4. In fact he’s describing the culture of the early 21st century- the particular region of the flesh in which we live. A million TV programmes and adverts tell us that we should follow our feelings and desires, and never say “no” to them, that we were born that way. And, our culture adds, even to suggest that someone might say “no” is oppressive and evil.
So being dedicated and different will lead to suffering. If you stand out, and don’t join in with everyone else, people will think you are weird. You will make them feel uncomfortable by the way you live. And you will come under great pressure at work or in social activities to conform and be like everyone. And people will he says “blaspheme” you- they will insult you, and hurl abuse at you, as they did at Christ. They may accuse you and take you to court. That’s just happened in the case of Asher’s Bakery in Northern Ireland, and a couple of similar cases in the US. Asher’s refused to make a cake with the words “Support Same-Marriage” on it. They didn’t refuse to serve anyone- they just refused to join in. And they ended up in court, and nearly lost their business over it.
Of course, not all non-Christians live in this way. But they will still find Christians strange. Consider the young Christian couple who don’t have sex before marriage. Their friends will think they are mad. Or the Christian parents who won’t let their child have a smartphone, because of what it will expose him to. Other parents will find it weird. Or the Christian man who goes to church on a beautiful Sunday morning instead of going out jogging. His colleagues won’t understand him. We have to be dedicated and different.
Christians must be dedicated because of the day of judgment- v5-6
People will think that Christians are weird because they think that they are having so much fun. This feels like a great lifestyle, and isn’t harming anyone. But it does have a cost. What Peter calls this “flood of excess” is a river that is sweeping people on towards judgment and destruction. God’s judgement is coming, time is running out, the deadline is looming, and there is no way of escaping it. It says here that God is ready, it could be at anytime, and no one will escape, living or dead. Judgment is coming, and everyone will have to give account to God. Perhaps you can imagine trying to explain to God why you have dedicated your life to whatever you have dedicated to. Can you imagine trying to explain that you wasted the life he gave you on parties?
Judgement is coming- and that’s why the Gospel, the Good News about Jesus, had to be preached. Peter says that it was preached to the dead- meaning it was preached to pagans who then became Christians and who then died. Possibly they died as martyrs, killed for being Christians. Normally we would see death as a judgment on them, a sign that they were wrong, wouldn’t we? “What a waste- they could have such a great life, but instead they died”. That’s how people who are immersed in the flesh would think. But it was nothing of the sort- it was the door to life for them. When they day of judgment comes, they won’t be destroyed- they will live again, made alive by the Holy Spirit. And the Gospel is what makes the difference! The Gospel is like a lifeline that God throws into flood. On it is written “Christ suffered”. And those who grasp hold of that won’t be swept away to judgment.
- Christians must be a disciplined people – v7-11
Christians must be disciplined because the end is near.
Soldiers need dedication and they also need discipline, especially self-discipline, not just the discipline that come from fear of punishment. The ancient Spartans were famous for this- the discipline they showed on the battlefield, which meant that they could out-fight anyone who faced them. Christians also need discipline- that’s what v7-11 are about, they are about living a disciplined Christian life. Christians need discipline, self-discipline, because Peter says “the end of all things is near”. Once again, he’s telling us that we have to live in light of the coming end. What does he mean by “the End”? He’s already talked about this in 1:7,13, where he spoke of “the revelation of Jesus Christ”. He means the great day that all Christians long for- the day when Jesus Christ returns visibly in power and majesty and glory. But how is it “near”? Haven’t we been waiting for it for 2,000 years? Well, from God’s point of view, that’s no time at all. It is near in the sense that we are living in the last chapter of history; we should be living with the thought “it can’t be long now”. Christians have sometimes got this wrong: they have tried to predict the exact date when Jesus would return, even though he said not to do that. And they have got over-excited at the thought that Jesus would soon return, and gone into all sorts of wild and crazy behaviour. Instead Peter says that our response to this glorious hope should be cool self-discipline. We should be like disciplined soldiers waiting for an inspection from our commanding general. So how must we be disciplined?
We must be disciplined in our thoughts- v7.
Peter begins “therefore”- so because Christ is coming back, this what we should do. First, he says “be alert” or “be self-controlled” or “self-disciplined”. Or you could translate it “be sane, think straight”. Then he says “be sober-minded” or “clear minded”. You know that if you’re drunk, your brain is fuzzy, you can’t think straight, you can’t make sensible decisions. God wants to see nothing like that among Christians! What he is looking for instead is the sober, alert self-discipline of a good soldier on sentry duty. But what’s the point of this mental discipline? Prayer.
That’s a surprise, isn’t it? When we think about prayer, often what we value most is spontaneity. So we pray when we feel like it. Perhaps we think that prayer is most valuable when we go out of ourselves in an ecstatic state. But that doesn’t seem to be God’s priority. What he wants to see is alert, sober self-discipline in prayer. We still have these sinful desires inside us, fighting against us, so a lot of the time we won’t feel like praying, prayer won’t come spontaneously. It will take sober self-discipline. That applies to individual prayer- every Christian needs to set aside a daily time to seek God and bring their requests to him. But it applies even more to our prayer together, which is I think what Peter is talking about here. We need the self-discipline to come to church every Sunday and pray together- maybe the self-discipline to go to bed in good time on Saturday, and get up early enough on Sunday. We need the self-discipline to come to a church prayer meeting. If we wait until we feel like it, they won’t happen. We need the self-discipline to keep on praying when we feel cold, and nothing comes spontaneously. That’s partly why at this church and most others we have a liturgy of written prayers that we pray together- it’s a way of being disciplined in prayer, instead of merely spontaneous.
We must be disciplined in love – v8-9.
Now again that sounds odd, doesn’t it? We think of love as something spontaneous, something that should come naturally. But Peter says here that we should “maintain constant love for one another” (CSB). You could translate it “love one another at full stretch”. In other words, “keep on loving one another even when you don’t feel like it”. And that’s tough- it takes discipline. Then Peter fleshes out what this love looks like- he says “show hospitality without grumbling”. We maybe miss the point of this, because we think of hospitality as a social activity, inviting your friends round for a meal. That’s great- and I know that many of you do that- you invite people from the church round for a meal, or you go out together for a meal after the service, and invite newcomers to come with you. That’s a wonderful thing to do- keep on with it! And if you’ve never done that, think about who you could invite today. But I think Peter means more. These churches had no buildings- so hospitality would mean hosting the meetings of the church. Could you host a Bible study group or a prayer group in your home every week? And these churches were facing persecution. Soon, there might have been people who had lost everything, who had been driven from their homes or cast out of their families, because they were Christians. They would need somewhere to live- another Christian family to open their home and their lives to them, and give them somewhere to live long-term. That sort of love is tough because, lets face it, we sometimes find other people a nuisance, don’t we? It’s OK to admit it! We grumble and complain about them. When that happens, we need sober, disciplined love.
But this disciplined love is, as Peter says, the number one thing, the thing we need above all. He says that it covers over a crowd of sins. Loving others in this way means ignoring the things they do that annoy us and forgiving them when they offend or hurt us. We need that because we need each other. We are living in this last chapter of history, which is a time of suffering and persecution for Christians, and we need each others support and constant, disciplined love to get through it. So if you are a Christian, you have to be part of a church where you are a loved and where you love others, so that you will survive. If you just drift between different churches every week, and don’t have the discipline to commit yourself to one, you will not survive. The ancient Spartans won their battles because they were soldiers, not warriors. They stood in immovable ranks, shoulder to shoulder, covering each other with their shields. That’s the sort of disciplined love we must have for each other. We must be disciplined in love, and so…
We must be disciplined in service- v10-11a.
Love for each other isn’t just a warm feeling- it has to be shown in serving one another, and that take self-control and self discipline. Peter says that God has given a great variety of gifts to Christians. But whatever gift we have been given, we must use it to serve other. We have to think of ourselves as stewards, who have been entrusted with someone else’s property. Our gifts our not ours- they belong to our master, God. And just as a steward was accountable to his master for how he used the master’s property, we are accountable to God for how we use his gifts. The end is near, and we will face judgment for how we have used the gifts God has given us.
For instance, someone’s gift may be speaking- whether that is standing up and teaching the Bible as I am doing now, or talking to someone one-to-one to share the Gospel with them, or to encourage them to grow as a believer. Then he has to be careful to speak God’s words, not his own inventions. As he speaks, he must be a good steward of the words God has given in us the Bible. He mustn’t twist them or leave out bits that people find uncomfortable. Or someone else’s gift may be serving- that is, helping others in material, practical ways. She has to bear in mind that it is God’s property and resources that she is using. Whether that is money, time, or her own strength and energy, it all comes from God and belongs to him. So she is accountable to God for how she serves.
We must be disciplined to the Glory of God- v11b
The Spartans didn’t fight as individual warriors, each for his own glory. They fought for the glory of Sparta. It’s like that with us. Peter says that we are not to be dedicated and disciplined and fight for our own glory. We are to fight for the glory of God. God’s glory is the reason we serve- power and glory belong to him by right, not to us. And so God’s glory should govern the way that we serve. We shouldn’t speak and serve in a way that makes us look great- we should speak and serve in a way that makes God look great. We shouldn’t speak and serve in a way that draw attention to us, to how clever or resourceful or helpful we are. We sometimes do that when we start to think about our ministry as “our” ministry, which belongs to us- as our little kingdom. But instead we should speak and serve in a way that draws attention to Jesus Christ, and what God has done through him. And if we do that, then God’s glory will be our reward. Our glory, the praise we try to get for ourselves, is fake gold that will quickly tarnish and fade. God’s glory is real gold, that will last forever. And our reward will be to gaze at it and enjoy it forever and ever. That’s what makes our dedication and discipline and service a joyful duty.
Brothers and sisters, the end is nearly. Christ is surely coming, bringing his reward. In light of that, let us be a disciplined and dedicated people. But to Christ be the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.