1 Peter – A Holy People in a Hostile World
Sermon preached at Christ Church Dusseldorf 16th December 2018
1 Peter 5:1-11 –
Persecution is normal, persecution is an honour, and persecution is not the worst thing that could happen.
That was last week’s sermon, on 1 Peter 4:12-19. We saw then how persecution is a normal part of life for millions of Christians around the world, and will soon be a normal part of life for us, as our culture becomes more hostile to Christian faith. And we mentioned the fiery trial that our brothers in the north of Nigeria are going through.
Last June, at the Gafcon conference, I had the privilege of hearing and meeting some of those persecuted brothers.
I heard Benjamin Kwashi, the Archbishop of Jos in Nigeria, and the new General Secretary of Gafcon. Ben has had three attacks on his house by Muslims: his cattle were stolen, his wife Gloria viciously assaulted, and a friend who tried to intervene shot dead. But Ben remains cheerful, and keeps on preaching the Gospel. And he and Gloria have adopted 50 orphans who share their house with them. I also spoke with another Nigerian Archbishop, a former Muslim who was converted to Christ. He has had four attempts on his life, the last one leading to a gun battle inside his house. He says: “That is part of my job- to be persecuted. I am happy, because if I die for Christ, I know where I am going to”. These men are true shepherds- suffering shepherds, who have stuck with their suffering sheep.
What gives people the strength to suffer like this, and suffer with joy?
The answer is our brother’s words: “I know where I am going to”. There is a great reward ready and waiting for Christians who suffer for Christ, both shepherds and sheep. Come with me to 1 Peter 5:1-11. Peter has said that believers will suffer for the name of Christ, and now he says “so” this is what you should do. And he writes to both suffering shepherds and suffering sheep, to assure them that their suffering will lead to glory.
- Suffering Shepherds – v1-5a
A suffering church needs shepherds – v1-2a
Peter writes to the “Elders” among his readers. Now who are they? Very simply, they are the “Senior Men” in the churches, the leadership. Peter’s just said that the churches can expect a fiery trial: well, it will be especially fiery and painful for the leadership. Both as they witness the people they care for suffering, and as they suffer themselves. Again, you can see why. Imagine you are in the army as a sniper, and you see a column of enemy troops approaching. Who will you shoot first? It will be the officers and the experienced NCOs, so you cause chaos in the ranks. Well the Devil isn’t stupid; he knows that if he can take out the leadership, he will cause chaos in the church. So the Elders are always the first targets of persecution.
Who are the Elders? Well, Peter is one of them. Peter could have pulled rank, and called on his authority as an Apostle, and said “I order you- do as you are told”. Instead he says I exhort you, or I encourage you- because I’m one of you. He certainly doesn’t claim to be the first Pope. He says that he’s in the trenches with them. He is an Elder like them, and a witness to the suffering of Christ. I don’t think that means that he saw Jesus die- when Jesus was on the cross, you couldn’t see the disciples for dust, so Peter probably wasn’t there. But in 4:13, he has said that Christians are sharing the sufferings of Christ. So I think he means “I’ve seen people I care for suffer, and I’ve known suffering as well”. He’s setting an example of humility for them- of how they should treat the people they govern and care for.
Who are the Elders? They have some other titles. They are also “shepherds”- Peter says in v2 that they “shepherd” the flock. The word for “shepherd” in English is “Pastor”, and in German “Pfarrer”, which is the title people most often use for me. And they “oversee” the flock- they are “overseers”. And from the Greek word for “overseer” we get the word “bishop”. Please notice that Elders and Pastors and Overseers are the same people. Notice too, that there was more than one of them in each church. The Bible’s pattern is not to have just one Pastor in each church, but to have team of Elders serving together, as the Presbyterian churches do today.
Who are the Elders? They are people whom God’s family needs, especially when they are going through suffering and persecution. Peter is talking about how we get through the fiery trial safely, and he immediately highlights the need for good Elders and Pastors. A persecuted church needs good leadership and government. Of course, all members of the church have a ministry, but this office is vital for the health of the church.
Now here’s an interesting problem. At the moment, I am the only ordained Elder in this church, although there are other godly men who do elder-like stuff. That means that most of v1-4 applies most directly to me. So in a moment, I’m going to start talking to myself. Please don’t call the men in white coats and have me taken away. I need to listen to and be under the authority of God’s word as much as anyone else. So I’m going to preach to myself. You can do this as well- it’s a very good habit to get into. To read the Bible, and then preach it to yourself. Let’s look first at…
The shepherds’ job – v2a
What do Elders have to do? First, they have to do the work of a shepherd- they have to “shepherd” or “pastor” the flock, following the example of the chief shepherd, the Good Shepherd, Jesus. Isaiah 40:11 says of God himself “He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will carry the lambs in his arms, holding them close to his heart. He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young”. That’s what Pastor’s are to do- gently care for the sheep and feed them. What with? The food that Christians need is God’s word. Persecuted churches are always hungry churches, hungry for the word of God- you don’t hear them complaining about the length of sermons. So in the Bible the main job of Pastors is to teach, teach the Bible. To lead God’s sheep into good pasture land. And Elders are to oversee, to have oversight over God’s people. That is, they don’t just give advice. Elders have authority to govern and direct the affairs of God’s people. In v5, Peter tells the young people of the church that they have to submit to the Elders and be subject to their authority. By the way, did you notice that the young people were in the church, listening when the letter was read out, not segregated into their own group?
So Stephen, these are the flock that God has entrusted to you. They don’t belong to you, or to themselves, they belong to God. So you can’t do and say whatever you want, or whatever they want, only what he wants. You must gently care for them, especially those who are suffering and hurting. You mustn’t stand aloof from them, or be impatient with them, you must keep them close to your heart, visit them in them homes, and feed them with the Bible. You must guard them and direct them, and give them the authority and leadership they need. And if necessary, like Jesus the Master Shepherd, you must suffer and die for them. That’s the Shepherd’s job. But how should he go about it? What is the way of the Shepherd
The shepherds’ way – v2b-3
In v2-3, Peter turns to the manner in which Shepherds care for and govern the flock. He isn’t concerned so much with what Elders do as with how they do it. And he gives us three pairs of words to describe the Way of the Shepherd. First he says don’t do this work “under compulsion, but willingly”. The job of a Shepherd can be a very heavy burden. Those burdens are especially heavy when a church is persecuted, and ministry might be physically dangerous as well as difficult drudgery. So then Elders might become half-hearted, or grumpy, or lazy, or resent their people, and start to grumble, and do their work out of a sense of duty and compulsion. Stephen, do this work wholeheartedly- do it because you want to, not because you have to.
Then he says, do this work “not greedily, but eagerly”. Now there are some false Shepherds who make vast amounts of money out of their flocks, and live in luxury. But most Pastors aren’t in if for the money. But it is possible to be greedy for other things: fame, respect, status, titles, the praise of man, a big church. There can be a greed to be needed, to have people who are grateful and dependent on you. Peter is really saying “don’t do this for what you can get out of it, don’t shepherd and govern for any earthly, mercenary reward- because you ain’t going to get one”. Stephen, be eager- think about what you can put into this, and throw yourself into it.
Then he says “don’t lord it over those entrusted to you, but lead by example”. In other words, “don’t be a control freak”. Ministry can attract the sort of people who like to be a big fish in a small pond. And so Elders can become bossy, and controlling, and expect the church to serve them and do their will. But Peter says that instead Elders should set an example- and he’s just set an example of how to set an example. Shepherds are to be in the trenches, struggling and suffering with their people, setting them an example of humility and holiness. Stephen, lead by example, not by giving orders. But why would anyone do this? Because of…
The shepherds reward – v4
Peter says in v2 that Elders will share in the “glory to be revealed”, and in v4 that they will receive an “unfading crown of glory”. So the life of a shepherd follows the pattern set by the life of the Chief Shepherd- suffering now, glory later, glory that more than compensates for the suffering. The life of a shepherd is tough- you are out on the hillside in all weathers, in those days fighting off wild animals and robbers who were after the sheep. The life of a Christian Shepherd, an Elder, is one of hardship, suffering, and danger- because of the burden of the job, and because they are the targets of persecution. But there is a great reward waiting for them. A reward of glory- Peter calls it a crown. Not a king’s crown- the word he uses means the crown of leaves that was given to victors in the Olympic Games. This is a crown of glory- a crown of joy, honour, praise, and commendation. It is a glory that will not fade- all other earthly rewards, all other glory and honour, will fade away, but not this. But the best thing about it is the one who gives it. It is an honour given by the Master Shepherd, Jesus Christ himself. The crown is hearing him say “Well done, good and faithful shepherd. Enter into the joy of your master”. I can imagine no greater honour and joy
So Stephen, remember that you bear the name “Stephanos”- the Greek word for “crown”. Your name should remind you of what your reward is. Let that get you up out of bed, and motivate you, and keep you going, and make you eager. Suffering will lead to glory for suffering shepherds and-
- Suffering Sheep – v5b-11
To survive suffering, sheep need two things that we normally think of as contradictory, like oil and water, than won’t mix- but in this case they must. Suffering sheep must be both soft hard. They need to be both tender and tough. They need to be humble and they need to be steadfast.
Sheep must be soft – v5b
Sheep need to be soft towards one another. Humility is softness and openness and gentleness towards other Christians. It means that you are not so absorbed in your own worries and problems that you forget about other peoples’ suffering. Humility is what Peter was talking about when he told the Elders not to look out for themselves, not to lord it over others, but to set an example for others. Now he’s telling the sheep to follow the example of the shepherds, who themselves follow the example of The Shepherd, Jesus Christ. Who on the night before his death, wrapped a towel around his waist and washed his disciples’ feet. That’s humility: the willingness to do really dirty, unpleasant, unglamorous jobs to help others.
Peter says that we have to clothe ourselves in humility. Just like Jesus wrapped that towel around his waist, we have to wrap ourselves in humility. So it’s not just something that we occasionally do when we feel like it, but a uniform that we wear and walk around in and never take off. Again, I suspect Peter is thinking of the time he and the other disciples were arguing about who was the greatest, and Jesus had a little child stand among them and said “that’s what you have to be like to enter God’s kingdom”. Why do we have to that? First, because God resists the proud. So if we are hard to others, God will be hard towards us. Second, because God gives grace to the humble. We can’t get through suffering and persecution on our own. We need the help of God’s grace. But grace is only given to the humble, those who admit that they need it. The proud and self-sufficient, who think that they are better than others, or that they should be the greatest, by definition can’t receive God’s grace. Their prayers will go un-answered. So…
Sheep must be soft before God – v6-7
You see, where do we get the softness and humility to care for one another? It doesn’t come naturally to any of us, especially of we go through a fiery trial, and the tendency is to think “every man for himself- I’ve got enough of my own problems without worry over other peoples”. Humility like this is a gift- it comes from grace. So to be humble with other people, we have to first humble ourselves before God, under his mighty hand. That means accepting what God sends us, including suffering, as his will, bowing before him and not protesting about it. It means accepting his timing, that although he will exalt us and put an end to the suffering, it will be in his proper time.
How do you humble yourself under God’s hand? Peter says that you do it by throwing all your cares and worries and anxieties on to God. Peter isn’t just talking about little worries here. He’s talking about the worries that would come with fiery trial, suffering, and persecution like. Like “when will my husband be let out of prison?” or “Will I be able to withstand the next beating from the police?” I think that this is one of the hardest commands to obey in the whole Bible, because worry comes so naturally to us. How do you do it? You do it by prayer. You take specific worries, big or small, to God and say to him “I can’t deal this. You deal with it. This burden is too heavy for me to bear- bear it for me”. And let me tell you, Pastors above all need to do that. And if we do that, we find that God himself is both soft and hard. He’s hard: he’s strong enough to bear any burden, he has a mighty hand. But he’s soft towards his children: he cares about, his heart is soft to us. This is like a little child who is being bullied, so she runs to her Dad for help. And he’s soft to her, he opens his arms, and hugs her and comforts her. But then he turns his hand towards the bullies- and it’s a mighty hand. So sheep must be soft and humble and…
Sheep must be hard – v8
If the idea of a hard sheep sounds strange, I used to live in a sheep-farming area, and they are pretty tough, stubborn, resilient animals, especially the sort that live up in the mountains in Wales. Real sheep had enemies when this was written: wolves and lions who would kill and eat them. And so do Christian sheep: we have an enemy the Devil, who longs to swallow the church whole. The church doesn’t just face human predators and persecutors: behind them is the Devil’s hatred.
So Christians need to be vigilant: v8 says “be sober minded, be alert”, be on your guard. A soldier on sentry duty mustn’t fall asleep or get drunk, in case the enemy makes a surprise attack. That’s what we have to be like. Peter has said in 4:12 “don’t be surprised by the fiery trial”. If think that persecution could never happen to us, then we are not alert, and can be taken by surprise. In 4:7, he’s said “be alert and sober minded so you can pray”. So be self-controlled and self-disciplined, clear-minded, don’t get drunk on your desires, or let your guard down. And pray. That’s how we maintain our vigilance and alertness- by constant prayer.
Sheep must be hard and not give in – v9
Christians have to be tough- they have to stand and fight. Peter says resist the Devil- stand firm in the faith. In 1815, at the Battle of Waterloo, the squares of British redcoats stood firm under artillery fire and resisted attack after attack from Napoleon. They stood firm and didn’t give in, knowing that help was on the way, that General Blucher was coming with the Prussian army. That’s the attitude that Christians must when we face wave after wave of persecution, which tries to make us give up the faith: stand firm, hold your position, and resist. Stand in the strength that God’s grace gives you as you humbly pray to him, stand and fight. And to do so with one eye on our comrades. Peter says to resist, knowing that the brotherhood around the world are enduring the same sort of sufferings. An isolated soldier will soon be cut down. But if he knows that his mates are fighting next to him, and not giving in, he can stand firm. It’s like that with Christians. One great way to prepare for persecution is to read about the suffering church. Read the books of Richard Wurmbrand, or go to the website of Open Doors. You will find it a great source of strength and encouragement
Suffering Sheep have a great reward – v10-11
It’s a glorious reward- the same reward as the Shepherds, the glory and beauty of God which we’ll see in Jesus Christ. And it’s an eternal reward- the suffering lasts a little while- which may be 70, 80, 90 years- but the glory is eternal. Suffering may now seem never-ending and unbearably painful, but it is little and brief compared to the vast glory to come. The glory will more than compensate for the trial and make it all worthwhile. And it is a completely secure reward. Peter’s letter has come full circle. In 1:1 he said that we are exiles and strangers- and that is an insecure, rootless existence. But God is going to restore us, fix us in place, strengthen and establish us- give us an eternally secure home. Our reward is secure, not because of who we are, but because of who God is. He is the God of all grace: so it doesn’t depend on how well we do or what we deserve. And he is the God of all dominion and power. He rules and is in control, not the Devil. So our reward doesn’t depend on our strength or efforts, it depends on his dominion. So Suffering Sheep, don’t be afraid or feel sorry for yourselves- your reward is secure.
We’ve come to the end of our series on 1 Peter. What have we learnt? That we are to be a holy people, a people who belong to God, and so are special and set apart and different. But we are a holy people in a hostile world: a world that will hate and insult and persecute us. But we mustn’t feel sorry for ourselves. Because we are a people with a great hope: the glorious return of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose glory we will see and share. So praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! Amen.