Micah the prophet told the Old Testament folks about a New Testament truth hundreds of years in advance. I love what John Piper wrote about this: “Have you ever thought what an amazing thing it is that God ordained beforehand that the Messiah be born in Bethlehem, as Micah’s prophecy foretold, and that he so ordained things that when the time came, the Messiah’s mother and legal father were living not in Bethlehem but in Nazareth; and that in order to fulfill his word and bring two unheard-of, insignificant, little people to Bethlehem that first Christmas, God put it in the heart of Caesar Augustus that all the Roman world should be enrolled each in his own town? A decree for the entire world in order to move two people seventy miles!”
Joseph must have understood something extraordinary was going on. I mean, an angel told him that Mary’s baby, which was not his, would save the people from their sins. But did Joseph understand that this meant he needed to make sure they were in Bethlehem for the birth? There’s no indication that he did, no record of him asking Mary to get packed and ready to go. We have to be in Bethlehem before this baby is born! No. God used Caesar to move them to Bethlehem. Solomon wrote, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” But some may ask, why did they need to have the baby in Bethlehem? Luke explains it in his gospel: “And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David.”
Joseph may not have understood this, and the wise men did not know for sure either. They came from the east and into Jerusalem, asking everyone they saw, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” The “king” of the Jews, umm, Herod, heard this and he was troubled and so was everyone else in the city. Can you imagine something like that today? Wise men from the east walking through Washington D.C. asking everyone, “Where is he who has been born President of the United States?” Well, when Herod heard what the wise men were asking, he called for the chief priests and the scribes. He knew they would know. And they did. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea,” and then quoted Micah’s prophecy to the king. I don’t want to get too far off the point here, but isn’t it mind-boggling that the chief priests and the scribes and Herod himself knew that there were magi in town looking for a baby that was going to be born in Bethlehem, (a king!), and not a single one of them went over there to find out if it were true? Not one. We talk every year about the very few people who showed up to see the Christ in Bethlehem. The shocking truth that God chose poor shepherds to be the first eyewitnesses to the greatest birth in history. But there’s also the shocking and sad truth that the powerful and the rich and the well-educated and the religious did not even bother to see what the fuss was about. And that’s still true for the most part, today. Ok, back to the story. Who else knew where Jesus was?
The angel of the Lord knew and showed up in the night sky on a Bethlehem hillside to proclaim the good news to shepherds and scared them to death. So he started his message to these guys with, “Fear not!” (Hey, guys, it’s ok, don’t be afraid…guys? Come out from behind the sheep for a sec..) “For behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” The Christ, the Great Shepherd of the sheep, had to be born in the city of David, the shepherd of Israel.
God used prophets of old to tell the people of old the good news that they would never see come to pass. Abraham and Jacob never saw it. Isaiah never saw it. Nor did Micah. They could only imagine it, dream about it, and look forward to the time that they were with God and finally know and understand the perfect plan he put into place for our salvation. What a glorious gift we have been given, to know what was prophesied in the old and what was brought to pass in the new. What a Christmas gift!
It was spring, but it was summer I wanted,
the warm days, and the great outdoors.
It was summer, but it was fall I wanted,
the colorful leaves, and the cool, dry air.
It was autumn, but it was winter I wanted,
the beautiful snow, and the joy of the holiday season.
I was a child, but it was adulthood I wanted,
the freedom, and the respect.
I was twenty, but it was thirty I wanted,
to be mature, and sophisticated.
I was middle-aged, but it was thirty I wanted,
the youth, and the free spirit.
I was retired, but it was middle-age that I wanted,
the presence of mind, without limitations.
My life was over,
but I never got what I wanted.
I don’t know the secret to the changing seasons. I don’t know the secret to a long life. I don’t know the secret to keeping a clear complexion, or keeping my hair from turning gray or turning loose. I don’t know the secret to avoiding the common cold in the winter. Those would be nice secrets to unlock, and I would be happy to share the answers with you if I stumbled upon them. But can I tell you a secret? This one is huge, and makes long life, hairiness, clear skin, and healthy sinuses seem trivial in comparison. It is particularly appropriate to learn this secret during this season of the year, as we bask in our recent thankfulness and approach a time of giving and receiving gifts at Christmas. OK, here it is:
I am learning the secret of contentment. I am not able to say with Paul, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” No, I am still learning. But what Paul said was no glib statement from a man in a chaise lounge on the deck of a cruise ship, sipping a lemonade and reading Grisham. Contentment in any circumstance for the Apostle Paul included having his back laid open with a whip more than once, being stoned and left for dead, being shipwrecked, and sitting in a Roman prison awaiting trial and possible execution. He says, “In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” Whether he had a full belly or not, whether he had just been beaten or just been welcomed to a warm home, Paul was content. It stands to reason that Paul didn’t fret about losing his hair, or his complexion, or even his life! He had found the secret of contentment.
The secret of contentment is found in joyful submission to Christ. It is realized as we grow in our trust that He does all things for our good. We can trust Him when there is plenty, and we can trust Him when there is nothing at all. Whether he was sleeping on the stone floor of a dungeon or in a comfortable bed, Paul’s life was in God’s hands, and he knew it. He kept himself under God, accepting with joy everything God brought his way, instead of putting himself over God by expecting or even demanding a quieter, easier, more prosperous and enjoyable life. Those who do not know Christ have what they have simply from God’s general providence. The rain falls on the just and the unjust, as the Bible says. Jeremiah Burroughs writes, “But the saints have (what they have) in a special way. The saint says, ‘I have it, and I have a sanctified use of it, too; God goes along with what I have to draw my heart nearer to him and sanctify my heart to him.’” There it is. The secret of contentment is found in trusting God for each moment of each day, that what He gives is for our good and for His glory.
This is a secret too good to keep to yourself. Pass it on!
Peter brings his first letter full circle at the end, reminding the elect exiles that their suffering is purposeful but temporary. “After you have suffered a little while,” he writes. Some of you might feel like your suffering has gone on for much more than a little while, and indeed there are people who suffer most or all of their lives with chronic illness. But the Bible tells us we are not victims of chance. We are not tossed about by the wind and waves of fate or cruel destiny. Instead, the God of all grace is for us, and he has called us to his eternal glory in Christ. And even though our suffering may last a lifetime, it is still a ‘little while’ compared to the eternal glory we have waiting for us. As the Puritans liked to say, “Affliction may be lasting, but it is not everlasting.”
Peter then tells us four things God is doing for us now and will bring to completion then, on that day when we see Jesus face to face. First, he will restore us. It is the word used for restoring a broken bone, putting it back in place. That restoration work is mostly painful, and many of you know that a physical therapist’s main job is to hurt you in order to help you. The process may be painful but it is purposeful, just as our suffering and often our restoration can be.
Second, he will confirm us. The word means to establish, to set fast or permanent, so you won’t topple or be knocked over. I remember years ago when Cindy and I were in our first home, and putting up our first Christmas tree, which I had cut down in the field behind us, some scraggly pine that was barely a notch better than Charlie Brown’s. I had a stand that I put the tree in but it wasn’t a good stand and the tree was wobbly. So I ran outside in the dark to where I knew there were a couple of cinderblocks and I grabbed one, without gloves, and carried it toward the house. As I got to the back stoop, and into the light, I looked down and saw, right next to my thumb, the biggest healthiest black widow I had ever seen. I screamed and dropped the cinderblock, probably on my foot, I don’t remember. But God doesn’t use cinderblocks or spiders to help us stand firm and not be wobbly in our faith. But by all means, if you’re going to get a cinderblock in the dark, use a flashlight. Or at least gloves. God strengthens us by the means of grace: his Word, prayer, the church, fellowship with our brothers and sisters. Paul wrote in his final words to the Romans, “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ…” The promise that God will make us stand up straight in trials is a great comfort to all of us who know we are weak.
Third, he will strengthen us. God not only keeps us from toppling but gives us strength to accomplish his purpose. He makes us strong in our soul and more and more as we walk with him. It would be a good practice for all of us, but perhaps especially for we who are ‘seasoned saints,’ to read Isaiah 40 every week. We may be feeling weakly so we need to read this weekly. “…They who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” I also believe we who are older have been given strength by God to encourage and teach and strengthen someone younger to come along behind and pick up where we will leave off. It is our gift to the future of His church to do so!
Fourth, he will establish us. This means he will place us on a firm foundation that we may be steadfast. Our hearts may waver and our strength may be small for a time, as Peter knew better than anyone. But God promises to establish us in him, even and especially through dark and difficult days. I think of John the Baptist in prison and his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth perhaps having a conversation about whether their son would be ok and stand strong through his trial. And saying to one another, “I think we put him on the right path as a little boy growing up in this house. We taught him about Jehovah and how to trust in God even in times when he can’t see his plan. I think he will be ok.” And he was. God kept him strong, even through momentary doubts, as he does us as well. All the way to the end.
We can say with Peter, “To him be glory and dominion forever and ever!”
Peter wrote, “Your adversary the devil…(is) seeking someone to devour.” We have an adversary and we need to know who he is. It’s the devil. Peter doesn’t say “Your adversary the pastor.” Or “your adversary your wife.” Or “your boss,” Or, “_________ political party!” No, we have a real and powerful adversary that hates us and wants to destroy us. He is seeking us like a lion seeks his prey. That imagery doesn’t mean as much to us as it would have to first century Christians. Unless you have been on an African safari, the only lions you have seen are on TV or in the zoo. But the Christians in Rome knew the terrors of a roaring lion. They had seen the horrors of the Roman Colosseum. Ignatius, the Bishop of the Church in Antioch would know it well many years after Peter wrote this letter. He said as they led him to his death in the Colosseum, “Let me be given to the wild beasts, for through them I can attain to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am ground by the teeth of the (lions) that I may be found pure bread.”
We have an adversary, the devil. The word for adversary is a legal term, and that is the strategy of the devil. He knows he cannot make an unbeliever out of a believer. He was defeated at the cross and because of that, Jesus said, nothing can snatch us from the Father’s hand. But the devil is prowling around collecting evidence. He is a legal expert who cares nothing about justice. He hates God and will do anything he can to accuse the brethren and discourage them and make them unfruitful in their lives. Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” He cannot destroy believers but he is looking for any opportunity to attack. That’s why Paul wrote, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.”
The enemy is real and the fight is real. We are not called to be passive, but to be soberminded. Clear in our thinking. And watchful. Awake and alert to the schemes of the devil. Perhaps most important, we must recognize we are soldiers who go into battle every day. When our children were little, we had them memorize Ephesians 6:10-17 because we knew the battle was not really with their brothers and sisters but with rulers, principalities, spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. The kids would stand up after family devotions in the morning, and they would recite that passage while acting out putting on the armor of God. They put on, symbolically, the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the gospel of peace. They took up the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. They didn’t understand that then like I believe they do now, but we wanted them to see that God’s Spirit within us produces fighters, warriors for the Kingdom. Not pacifists.
We have an enemy. But he is already defeated and we are already victorious because of Christ, our champion. We stand against the enemy because of Christ, and we stand in the armor of faith and truth and righteousness, wielding the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God. And the “weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.”
Submit to God, beloved. Stand against the enemy. And he will flee.
Catherine Marshall wrote a book years ago called “Beyond Ourselves.” It was a powerful book that made an impression on me. She introduced a concept she called a prayer of relinquishment. “I got my first glimpse of it in the fall of 1943. I had been ill for six months with a lung infection, and a bevy of specialists seemed unable to help. Persistent prayer, using all the faith I could muster, had resulted in—nothing. I was still in bed full-time. One afternoon I read the story of a missionary who had been an invalid for eight years. Constantly she had prayed that God would make her well, so that she might do his work. Finally, worn out with futile petition, she prayed, All right. I give up. If you want me to be an invalid, that’s your business. Anyway, I want you even more than I want health. You decide. In two weeks the woman was out of bed, completely well.”
Relinquishment is a letting go, but with hope. It is not resignation or fatalism where we sigh and say, “Whatever is going to happen is going to happen.” Rather, it is a relinquishment of our cares, concerns, fears, and worries to God, trusting in him alone for the outcome. Careful! This does not mean that a prayer of relinquishment will always result in God healing you or taking away your troubles. It is a submission to his sovereignty and trust that what he chooses for you will be for your good and his glory.
Peter tells us to “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” The word literally means to throw. It is an act of the will to take your anxieties and cast them, throw them onto the Lord. And it is total relinquishment of all your anxieties. Not just the ones you don’t think you can manage in your own strength. Because the truth is, we cannot manage any of our anxieties in our own strength.
Martha is an example of a woman who was anxious about many things and was resentful that her sister Mary was not anxious at all! And she came and told the Lord about it in no uncertain terms. Jesus rebuked her gently and pointed out that the way Mary was serving the Lord was the way that was most important. Edmund Clowney wrote, “Martha’s many concerns grew from her pride, pride in many dishes that made her a servant of the dinner. When we cast our cares on the Lord, we often find that they were the concerns of our pride, not the cares of his kingdom.”
I remember hearing Neil Anderson years ago teach years ago about the difference between goals and desires. If we have a goal to have family harmony where everybody in the family gets along all the time, who can block that goal? Every person in the family! Even people outside the family can block that goal. If family harmony is a goal, we will likely be frustrated or anxious all the time. It is fine to have a desire for family harmony, but your goal would be better suited for something only you could block. For example your goal might be to speak with kindness to your family and not use anger to manipulate or get your own way. That’s a goal that only you can block. And a worthy goal to work towards, understanding you will fail at times, and God will give grace.
We cast our anxieties on the Lord knowing that he cares for us. Peter learned this, even at the point of his greatest failure. When Peter uttered his third denial and the rooster started crowing, Luke reports that “the Lord turned and looked at Peter.” Think of that. Peter looked at Jesus looking at him at that moment. And now as he writes his letter, humbled and restored, he urges all of us to cast our cares on the Lord, knowing that he cares for us. He cares about you. Not just when we do the right thing, but like Peter, even when we do the unthinkable. Look at Jesus looking at you. Not with disdain or disappointment or disgust. But with unfading and unconditional love. Then cast those anxieties on his shoulders. He can carry them so you don’t have to. His yoke for you and me is easy and his burden is light.
When Jesus restored Peter after his denial, the Lord told him to, “Feed my lambs…tend my sheep…feed my sheep.” Maybe Peter was thinking of that moment as he began to finish up his first letter. He gives important instructions to the elders who served churches scattered throughout the Roman Empire in the first century.
First, he tells them they serve by taking care of the ones whom God has given them. Peter said, “shepherd the flock that is among you.” Like any honest shepherd, elders don’t go out and try to rustle sheep from other pastures. They tend to the sheep God sends to their flock. This is an argument for church membership, which requires a decision and a commitment by a person or family to put themselves under the leadership of the elders in a local church. It is also an argument for participation in smaller life groups in the church. Elders cannot as easily exercise oversight with a moving target or a missing member. It is good for the members to be in close fellowship with small groups every week, and it is good for the elders to have that close-up ministry with them.
Second, he says that elders should serve willingly, not under compulsion, not for shameful gain, but eagerly. Elders do not serve because someone, their wives, or their best friend, told them they should be an elder. Nor do they serve for money, even if one or more of them are paid. They serve willingly, even eagerly, as God would have them do. This seems hard for us to understand because we are not being persecuted as believers with execution or even imprisonment. But being set apart in Peter’s day as an elder, and today in places where conversion to Christ is illegal or where baptism can bring a death sentence, brings a whole different set of challenges. But even here, where we are relatively safe, any sincere shepherd of Christ’s flock will feel the weight of that responsibility. And he leans into it eagerly.
Third, he writes that elders are to serve not by domineering over the flock but as examples to the flock. Edmund Clowney writes, “Elder-shepherds are not cowboys, driving their flocks like cattle. They lead them as a shepherd would, walking on ahead.” Elders must be men who, and we who are elders should tremble at this, can say as Paul did, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” We are examples that can be seen, not just read about in Christian history books. And notice Peter again says the elders are to take care of those “in (their) charge.” The word used there was “lot,” with the reference being a practice of the Jews and the Romans to determine choice. The lots (could have been stones or some other object) of different parties were marked with their emblem and all were put into a vessel. It was shaken violently and then turned upside down. The “lot” that came out first indicated the man or party chosen for the occasion. What Peter seems to say here is that elders cannot choose their flock. God chooses their flock for them and their job is to tend to and feed the ones he gives. It is sad that the model we most often see in the U.S. are churches led by a solo pastor without elders who choose to reject his lot after two or three years and move to one he thinks he will like better. Some, perhaps, are looking for their reward here on earth, but that’s not where the greatest reward comes. Peter reminds us why we serve when he writes, “And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.”
We serve because Jesus is coming back and will reward those who have faithfully served the church he purchased with his own blood. The crown of glory is great but we will cast it at his feet, the feet of the one who wore the crown of thrones for us. Most glorious will simply be to hear our Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
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!