Don’t be surprised at fiery trials, Peter wrote in his first letter. Vance Havner said, “At the Nicene Council, an important church meeting in the 4th century A.D., of the 318 delegates attending, fewer than 12 had not lost an eye or lost a hand or did not limp on a leg lamed by torture for their Christian faith.”
The same man who once rebuked Jesus for talking about suffering on the cross encouraged followers of Jesus to stay in the fires of persecution. Peter tells us in chapter one of his first letter that our faith, which is more precious than gold, is tested by fire. In chapter 4 he repeats that theme, but adds that not only should we not run from our faith when the heat is turned up, we shouldn’t even be surprised by the opposition we face. Here’s the thing about being surprised by suffering. It’s often the first step toward being angry about suffering. Which can lead to being resentful towards God about our suffering. Which can lead to unbelief. What should we do then, Lord, when fiery trials come upon us? Peter tells us: rejoice! What? Why should we rejoice? Two reasons. One, we rejoice in trials because in them we share Christ’s suffering. Paul talked about that in Philippians 3 where he said all that he had attained as a proud Pharisee before he met Christ he counted as rubbish, as dung, after he met Christ and traded in his righteousness which was useless for faith in Christ and the righteousness of God in Christ “…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” As we share in Christ’s suffering because we belong to Christ, we are reminded of another reason to rejoice: Peter says “that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” We suffer with Christ because we will also be raised with Christ!
Don’t be surprised at suffering because you are a Christian. Irish missionary Amy Carmichael understood this when she opened an orphanage in southern India to rescue abandoned children in the lower caste, and many were young girls who had been forced into prostitution in the local Hindu temples. Amy Carmichael suffered greatly in her health because of the work, 55 years without a furlough. But what could have been most surprising and hurt her the most was the disrespect some missionaries in India showed her because they believed what she was doing, taking in little girls who had been prostitutes, was not something their supporters wanted to hear about. Amy Carmichael wrote a poem entitled. “No Scars?” Here’s an excerpt: Hast thou no wound? No wound, no scar? Yet, as the Master shall the servant be, And, pierced are the feet that follow Me; But thine are whole: can he have followed far, Who has no wounds nor scar?
Peter says if we are insulted for the name of Christ, we are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon us. Fox’s Book of Martyrs is one story after another of men and women who suffered persecution to the death because of their faith. One story is about a pastor in London in 1555 who was burned at the stake for his faith. Fox wrote, “When he was come to nigh the place, the officer, appointed to see the execution done, said to Mr. Saunders that he was one of them who marred the queen’s realm, but if he would recant, there was pardon for him. ‘Not I,’ replied the holy martyr, ‘but such as you have injured the realm. The blessed Gospel of Christ is what I hold; that do I believe, that have I taught, and that will I never revoke!’ Mr. Saunders then slowly moved towards the fire, sank to the earth and prayed; he then rose up, embraced the stake, and frequently said, ‘Welcome, thou cross of Christ! Welcome everlasting life,” as the flames consumed him.
Peter includes one qualifier about our suffering that is worth noting. Make sure, he says, that you are not suffering because of your sin. There’s no glory in that, no testimony, unless that suffering leads to repentance. Interesting that he includes the sin of being a “meddler” along with murderer, thief, and evildoer. Maybe he wanted to include one everyone could relate to! Paul’s admonition comes to mind where he wrote, “For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.” Sometimes those with too much time on their hands take to managing other peoples’ affairs, or at least trying to. Peter calls them out and reminds them that the suffering they experience when they meddle is deserved and will not bear good fruit.
Help us, Lord, to suffer well and for your glory.
“The end of all things is at hand.” That’s what Peter wrote in his first letter. It was believed by everyone then, including Peter, that Jesus was coming back in that generation. James, the brother of Jesus wrote in his letter, “The judge is standing at the door.” Paul wrote, “For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night…But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief.” Peter and James and Paul believed Jesus would return soon, and it has been believed by everyone since then. Every generation of Jesus-followers believes he is coming in their lifetime. Every generation of believers, at least in my lifetime, cannot imagine that the world could get any worse. Jesus said himself, “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
How are we then to live? Peter writes in his second letter, speaking about the destruction of the earth by fire, “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God…?” And that’s the question he begins to answer in his first letter. How would you and I live if we knew it was our last year? Would we stop everything and go preach on the streets? Would we double-down on work and pile up as much money as we could? Would we just lock our doors and binge on food and drink and Netflix? Jesus’ question to his disciples gives us the answer: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith (or, faithfulness) on the earth?” That’s what we are to do. Be faithful. What does that look like? Peter gives us four things to do and to consider since the end of all things is at hand, but I will focus on one.
“Above all,” Peter writes, “keep loving one another.” The greatest thing we can do as we await Jesus’ return is love one another the way Christ loves us. The word is “earnestly” and it means “stretched out, continual, intense, and enduring.” When Peter was in prison and James had already been beheaded, the church prayed “earnestly” for Peter. They were stretched out in prayer for their beloved apostle and friend. I believe it is God’s love that stretches our love to its limits for one another. John wrote, “We love because he first loved us.”
What does love do? Peter tells us it covers a multitude of sins. A tree that is wounded produces new wood to grow around the wound. This isolates and protects the wound from further exposure and damage. That’s what God does for us, and even more, with his love through grace. David wrote in Psalm 32, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” And it is what we do for one another. Love them to health. We don’t love well if we delight in finding and exposing sins and faults.
DL Moody used to share this story years ago: “Show me a church where there is love,” he said, “and I will show you a church that is a power in the community. In Chicago a few years ago a little boy attended a church I know of. When his parents moved to another part of the city the little fellow still attended the same church, although it meant a long, tiresome walk each way. A friend asked him why he went so far? There are plenty of others just as good nearer his home. ‘They may be as good for others, but not for me,’ he said. ‘Why not?’ she asked. ‘Because they love a fellow over there,’ he replied.”
Moody continued, “If only we could make the world believe that we loved them there would be fewer empty churches, and a smaller proportion of our population who never darken a church door. Let love replace duty in our church relationships, and the world will soon be evangelized.”
Living in the last days is changed by how well we love others the ways Jesus loves us.
The Lord of the Rings movie began with Galadriel saying, “The world is changed.” And we know what Tolkien was going for there, but the world is not changed! It is always the same and there is nothing new under the sun, as Solomon said. But we have changed. We who know Jesus are not the same anymore. Peter wrote his first letter to Gentiles who had come to Christ to encourage them that they had now a completely different purpose. They once lived solely to satisfy the flesh and all its desires, and they may have winced as they read the descriptive but not exhaustive list: sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry.” Sounds like Friday and Saturday night at most college campuses! “But the times that are past,” Peter writes, suffices.” It is enough! What you did in the past is in the past and it is over. Enough of that!
There is hope here and not condemnation. Peter reminds us that our purpose is no longer to see how much we can satisfy the flesh, medicate our pain, escape from reality, or bury our faces in the cesspool of the world. We have a new purpose and when we stray from it, we remember the stench of those past indulgences. I remember being in Kenya many years ago when one of the men on the trip was walking through the Kibera slum. His worst nightmare happened as he lost his footing and fell into the side ditch, filled with raw sewage. Charlie managed to spare the Bible he was carrying by holding it over his head, but the rest of him was covered. When he got back to the room where we were staying, I smelled him before I saw him. Charlie knew as soon as he hit that cesspool that he didn’t want to be there. We have all been in the cesspool. Maybe ours was not filled with raw sewage, but cesspools come in all sizes and shapes and substances. Greed can suck us in and hold onto us. Unforgiveness. Lust. Even self-righteousness, with proud hearts praying, “Thank God that I am not like other men.” The real danger in being in a cesspool is when we get numb to it and don’t really care anymore about getting out.
Sin always leads us into a pit, and sin is always going to be part of the story. But there’s good news: sin is not the end of the story. God is. He can rescue you and me out of the deepest pit. Corrie ten Boom said, “There is no pit that is so deep that God is not deeper still.”
Here’s a warning, though: You may well be in a pit and not realize it because your heart is dull of feeling and hearing. If Charlie had not thrown his clothes away and showered “Kibera” off of him, he would have eventually gotten used to the smell. But nobody around him would have. Our new purpose is nothing less than living for the will of God. It is a daily goal and a life goal: to align my life with God’s purposes. To live according to his will, not mine. Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” On earth. And in my life.
Edmund Clowney wrote, “They (these elect exiles) now knew a better way, a way that their scornful friends could not imagine. Fervent love for brothers and sisters in Christ had replaced lust, alert awareness of the times had replaced drunken stupor, but, above all, the joyful adoration of the risen Lord had replaced the folly of idolatry.”
What a change! What a gift, this new purpose!
Peter writes in his first letter Noah’s ark to make a point about our salvation in Christ. The ark was provided for sinners when there was no other hope for salvation. The ark was planned by God. The ark was a place of safety, the only place of safety. A man once said to D. L. Moody that he was worried because he didn’t feel saved. Moody asked, “Was Noah safe in the ark?” “Certainly he was,” the man replied. “Well, what made him safe, his feeling or the ark?” Christ, not our feelings, keeps us safe. He is our only safe place.
Peter makes the point that the ark also points to baptism, but we have to be careful here. He said “baptism…now saves you.” If we jerk that phrase out of its context we end up with baptismal regeneration, which is heresy. Baptism cannot save us. If we look at the whole verse in its context, we understand these things. Baptism does not remove dirt any more than the ark brought Noah’s family to safety. It was a safe place from the storm, but it was God who brought 8 people through the storm and to dry ground. Baptism is a recognition by a redeemed sinner that our appeal is to God the Father through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The one who suffered once for sins and is now at the right hand of God and all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. We are in a safe place in the arms of Jesus.
I was in Moldova last week to speak at a men’s conference. One of the things I talked about was how important it is for a father to be a protector for his family. It is part of our calling as men. But ultimately, we know that only God can protect our families. A good friend who was there with me shared the story of when he and his family lived in South Africa after apartheid was finished and Nelson Mandela was released from prison. There was a lot of unrest. Larry was driving his family to church one Sunday and his wife, pregnant with their third son, said about halfway there, “I don’t feel well. Can you take me back home?” Larry agreed and his two sons said they wanted to stay home with mom as well. By the time Larry got to the church by himself, he was late and couldn’t sit in his normal seat, near the front. He sat near the back, instead. The service had just started when armed gunmen came into the church at the front, near the pulpit, and opened fire on the congregation. Then men came in from the back and rolled hand grenades into the auditorium. A lot of people died. Larry said had they been on time, they would have died, as one of the hand grenades blew up right where they normally sit. Larry said to the men in Moldova, “I could not have protected my family from that. Only God could do that. And when our third son was born, we named him Joshua, which means ‘Jesus saves.’”
I believe Peter shared this message to the dispersed people of God to say, “Take heart! God can and will save his people.” Noah and his family must have felt all alone, surrounded by the wicked. They were so few and the wicked were so many. Their voices were muted compared to the raucous cries of the ungodly. They were few but they were faithful. The church in Moldova is very small, surrounded by unbelievers and agnostics. But they remain faithful. Just like the church Peter was writing to in the Roman Empire 2000 years ago. God is calling the church in Moldova, in America, and around the world to remain faithful, to put our trust in God.
Christ has triumphed, and he is our hope!