we trust God absolutely in every circumstance. Only such trust will free us from the constant and normal temptations to assert our own power in circumstances, to take down the enemy or oppressor, to seek our own good, to establish our own rights, to attain our own position of honor, or, most basically, simply to defend ourselves and secure our own safety. Without humble trust in “the mighty hand of God,” how would we be able to follow the way of the Messiah, who did not do any of those things, but rather, “entrust[ing] himself to the one who judges justly,” walked the journey from divine glory to the cross?
a man who puts himself under the control of the love God acts, when a private personal injury has been done to him, as though nothing had occurred. In this way, by simply ignoring the unkind act or the insulting word, . . . he brings the evil thing to an end; it dies and leaves no seed. . . . This consideration gives dignity and worth inestimable to the feeble efforts of the most insignificant of us to make love the controlling principle in our daily lives.
You may have heard of the Presbyterian pastor and author Tullian Tchividjian; he’s Billy Graham’s grandson, and the successor to D. James Kennedy as the senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church down in Fort Lauderdale. I haven’t read a lot of his work, but he wrote a remarkable little essay last fall called “Church, We Have a Problem” that I’ve been mulling ever since. In it, he writes this:
Spend any time in the American church, and you’ll hear legalism and lawlessness presented as two ditches on either side of the Gospel that we must avoid. Legalism, they say, happens when you focus too much on law or rules, and lawlessness when you focus too much on grace. . . .
It is more theologically accurate to say that the one primary enemy of the Gospel—legalism—comes in two forms. Some people avoid the gospel and try to save themselves by keeping the rules, doing what they’re told, maintaining the standards, and so on (you could call this “front-door legalism”). Other people avoid the gospel and try to save themselves by breaking the rules, doing whatever they want, developing their own autonomous standards, and so on (you could call this “back-door legalism”). . . . Either way, you’re still trying to save yourself—which means both are legalistic, because both are self-salvation projects. . . . We want to remain in control of our lives and our destinies, so the only choice is whether we will conquer the mountain by asceticism or by license.
This is a profound insight. Rev. Tchividjian goes on from there to talk about the importance of preaching grace, which is indeed the main point at issue. I want to take his comments in a different direction, though, because I think he highlights something important about the world. The world wants us all to be legalists, and on the whole, it doesn’t really care which kind. Put another way, the world wants us to be conformists. Some times and cultures favor “keep the rules” conformists, while others favor “break the rules” conformists, but what really matters either way aren’t the obvious rules being kept or broken. What matters is the deeper set of rules you aren’t allowed to question.
This is important to recognize when we talk about our individualistic culture. It is indeed individualistic in the sense that it values the desires of the individual above the well-being of the group (hence no-fault divorce laws, for example). It’s quick to praise self-expression and denounce “conformity”—by which it means keeping the standards of previous generations, which are now hopelessly passé. But have you ever noticed that non-conformists run in packs? It’s great to be an individual and chart your own course, as long as you’re an individual just like everyone else. Be “different” in one of the approved ways, and you’re golden. If you’re actually different from the world, you’ll be attacked—as, among other things, a conformist. And no, no one will see the irony.
Obviously, the world isn’t monolithic. It has factions—different groups that want different things and approve of different things. They’re rather like political parties. But just like our political parties, they only fight each other when there’s no common enemy. Introduce a threat to the system and the existing power structure, and they band together to defeat it. We see an example of this in the gospels. The Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Herodians hated each other, but they teamed up willingly to kill Jesus because they hated him even more. As long as you’re in the system and belong to an accepted group, you might get flak from other groups, but you’ll be okay.
The key question from the world’s perspective is, are you a part of the system? Do you follow its rules and honor its priorities? If so, you might think you’re the one calling the shots, but it’s the world that’s running your life; you’re under its management, in its employ. For example, you might be a spender or a saver; you might believe in working hard and living frugally, or you might live one paycheck behind and borrow from everyone in sight. These are different factions which honor money in different ways, but they agree on its importance. That’s what the world really cares about. Even as Christians, it’s easy to fall into these patterns, thinking and acting much like everyone around us does—acting as if the world owned and ran us, too.
Now, on a quick read of 1 Peter 4, it looks like the apostle is only concerned about obvious bad behavior, as he seems to be describing an extreme group of sinners—acts of lawlessness, lust, orgies, drunkenness, carousing, and so on. There are two points to consider, however. First, with the exception of the final item on his list (idolatry), everything he’s denouncing was also condemned by pagan writers. These were vices that society recognized as vices. Second, I don’t think we can assume that the Christians to whom this letter was written had all been addicts of the worst sort. It’s probable that most of them had lived reasonably respectable lives before their conversion. And yet, Peter tars all of them and their whole society with this broad brush. Why?
I think the answer lies in the fact that this list ends with the condemnation of idolatry. Most if not all of the rest of the terms in verse 3 refer to behaviors which, though generally recognized as wrong most of the time, were practiced every year at some of the Greek and Roman religious festivals. If you participated in the religion of the culture, however upright and upstanding your daily life may have been, there would be times you would abandon self-control and any sort of moral constraint as a part of your worship of the gods of the culture. To refuse to do so was to mark yourself off as someone who followed a different Lord than the world around you and gave your allegiance to a different authority—and thus as someone not properly under control.
That’s what it’s all about. The world always talks about morality—even those who denounce traditional morality speak in moralistic terms—but the underlying theme and purpose is control. Remember, our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers of this present darkness, as Paul says in Ephesians 6. The world wants to make us legalists, either striving to use law to control our desires or letting our desires determine our law; either way, it has us in its grip.
Peter reminds us that we’re free of that grip, and calls us to live free of it. Christ suffered in this world, the perfectly just bearing the weight of all our injustice, to buy us out of our slavery to sin—and he is now done with sin. He came into this world resolved to defeat sin, he carried that through and broke its power by his death and resurrection, and he has now left it forever behind him, passing through and returning to the presence of God the Father. Because of his work, we no longer belong to this world, and we are no longer slaves to sin and death; instead, we too look forward to the day when we will leave them forever behind us, passing through them to live with God, in whom there is neither sin nor death, eternally.
Peter says, fix your eyes on that, and arm yourselves with the same resolve to live your life to do the will of God. We are no longer slaves to this world, we are slaves of God; we’re under new management, accountable to a new master. We need to set our hearts and minds to live in that freedom, even though it will mean suffering abuse from others, and possibly worse. We need to steel ourselves to bear that suffering as Christ did, neither running away nor fighting back, but trusting in the justice of God the Father and accepting suffering as an opportunity to bear witness to the love and the grace of God. As that translator said in the video of the Masterworks China trip from a couple years ago, “Don’t pray that we will not have persecution, but pray that we will prevail and stand throughout persecution.”
Peter has exhorted his readers not to fight fire with fire, but rather with blessing, offering the assurance of God’s word that “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are open to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” He follows that in verse 13 with a proverb: “Who’s going to persecute you for being eager to do good?” The implied answer is “no one,” and in general—which is the level on which proverbs work—that’s true. In the normal course of events, if others see you doing things they consider to be good, they aren’t going to attack you for that. Peter’s appealing here, as he has at earlier points in the letter, to the fact that even a corrupt society recognizes much of what is truly good, and appreciates it as such. As a general rule, people who do evil are punished, and those who don’t, aren’t.
Still, that’s only generally true. It doesn’t always hold, and Peter knows it. Some people hate what is right, and enjoy tormenting “do-gooders”; others feel threatened by those whose example makes them look bad. Then too, there are those for whom it’s strictly business. Nothing personal, but the morally upright are just easier to rip off and abuse, that’s all.
Beyond that, while there is much that God calls good with which the world agrees, we know the world is in rebellion against God; it seems each culture and every generation rebels in different ways, but there are always aspects of his righteousness which the world declares evil rather than good. As we saw in the Beatitudes, anyone who hungers and thirsts for the righteousness of God will end up being persecuted sooner or later. If you hunger and thirst for his righteousness, then you aren’t hungry and thirsty for the bill of goods this world wants to sell you, and you aren’t aiming to go where it wants you to go. Instead, you will find yourself a walking contradiction to beliefs and commitments which the culture declares self-evident and non-negotiable, and the world will find it has no hold over you; that makes you a threat.
Instinctively, the fight-or-flight reflex drives us to react to worldly opposition by either backing down or going to war. Large sections of the church in this country have taken the latter course as official policy, whether by trying to wall the world out or through political and cultural offensives. Tellingly, their efforts do little to convince the culture of the love and grace of Jesus, and too often they end up being of the world even though they aren’t in it. But for the rest of the church, which seeks to remain engaged with the world, compromise is a constant, insidious temptation. There’s always the pressure to conform to the world—to look for some way to justify telling our society what it wants to hear. Though we learn to hunger and thirst for righteousness, the hunger and thirst for the approval and applause of those around us never quite goes away.
Neither combat nor compromise is the right course. As Peter tells us, we’re called to a third way: to oppose without fighting, to stay connected without compromising. Our job is to be different from the world—conspicuously, but not combatively, assertively but not aggressively. On the one hand, we need not fear what the world fears—and fear drives the world as much as anything does. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, as the Scriptures tell us, in part because it puts every other fear in perspective: compared to him, every earthly threat is insignificant. If we fear God, we can be fearless with the world, and thus free to proclaim our faith boldly without feeling the need to protect or defend ourselves from anyone or anything around us.
Thus, on the other hand, we don’t actually need to fight for our faith. We’re to contend for it, yes, but not in the world’s way. It’s not our job to defeat others and win arguments, and nothing justifies tearing other people down or belittling them. You’ll notice Peter says in verse 15 that we should always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks the reason for our hope. We’re supposed to preach the gospel, yes, and do it without compromise, but Peter doesn’t tell us to push that conversation. Rather, he envisions us living in such a way that other people ask usabout our faith. What we say about Jesus ought to be credible, whether they want to accept it or not, because it’s backed up by what they’ve already seen in our lives. If people haven’t already seen the sermon, they aren’t going to want to hear it, or be likely to believe it if they do.
Toward the powers of this world, then, we are to live as nonviolent protestors, actively resisting without fighting back. Our strength is the strength of the Holy Spirit, which is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, who suffered without even threatening to retaliate, and died to save even those who were killing him. In a culture which is increasingly convincing itself that orthodox Christianity stands against progress, we must stand firmly against what this world thinks is progress, but do so with only gentleness and respect. If we do so, there will be loud voices that will slander us in every way they can think of, and many will believe those slanders because they want to; but those who take the time to look at us will see them for the lies they are, and that will be a more powerful witness to Jesus Christ than anything we could devise.
Our culture, for all that it’s running on the fumes of the faith of generations past, still has a deeply-ingrained belief that love is the best thing there is—a belief which really didn’t exist apart from belief in the God of the Bible. This society has divorced that belief in love from any belief in God, but for now, that belief in the idea of love remains. As a result, we have a culture which loves to talkabout love, but is losing any sense of any obligation to show love, especially if that would require any sort of self-sacrifice. “Love” has become a weasel word, used to justify whatever the powerful and the fashionable want to justify.
>We can’t out-argue that. It’s hard to argue someone into believing what they don’t want to believe, and at this point, the cultural headwind makes it impossible. Even if that weren’t so, the best an argument could win us with most people would be intellectual agreement, and that isn’t our goal; that doesn’t change people’s hearts. Indeed, it often doesn’t even change their behavior, unless you have the power to require the behavior you desire—which only hides the fact that their hearts haven’t really changed.
But then, we can’t change other people’s hearts, no matter what we do. Only God can do that, and he does it through his love. We can’t argue the world into believing its view of love is wrong; we can only show it to be wrong by loving the world as God loved the world. We can only show the world the love of God by loving one another, and by loving our families, and by loving our neighbors, and by loving the desperate, the powerless, and the outcast—and by loving our enemies, and seeking to bless them rather than insult them or condemn them.
This is hard; and for a long time in Western culture, the church could believe it didn’t have to do that, because the cultural authorities were outwardly friendly. But now, even in America, we are riding out of Palm Sunday and toward the cross. We’ve been accustomed to the praise, and we’ve taken it as our due, expecting it to continue. Jesus knew better. He knew the crowd’s allegiance was shallow and fickle, and that they would soon turn on him; and he knew he wasn’t there to receive their praise, but to suffer and die for them.
More than that, we can only carry out our mission if we live with each other in love and grace—to frame it positively—because how we live with each other is how we earn credibility to preach love and grace to those around us. Why should anyone believe in the sacrificial love of Jesus if they can’t see us laying down our lives in love for one another? Why should anyone believe that our God is a God of grace if we aren’t a people of grace? We can only teach people that Jesus lives if they see him living among us. The only way we earn any credibility to tell them Jesus saves is if we live together as people who have been saved. May we ever be so, to the glory of God.
One of the biggest things that trips us up as we try to understand the Bible is our habit of treating it like a plate of monkey bread. We come to it, and it’s all in one piece, but we figure that it’s really a bunch of little pieces stuck together; and we don’t want a whole lot of it, we only want a snack. We only want to know what the Bible says about this one thing, or maybe we just want something to comfort us or encourage us; and so we pull it apart. We treat it like a lot of small pieces stuck together for convenience, rather than as all one book that we need to understand as a whole.
The tendency with this section of 1 Peter is to look at it and say, “Here, Peter’s talking about slaves, and here he’s talking about marriage,” and then go off and talk about the husband as the head of the household and the importance of female modesty and never actually come back to the book at all. That misses the heart of this passage. For one thing, look at verses 18-25 of chapter 2. Peter begins, “Slaves, be subject to your masters with all respect,” but then he doesn’t actually say very much about slaves at all. He spends more than half those verses talking about Christ and his suffering, and most of what he says applies to everyone in the church, not just slaves.
For another, context matters. What do slaves and married women have in common? Under Roman law, both were completely under the authority and at the mercy of another person. What has Peter just been talking about in verses 13-17? As slaves to God, we are to defer to other people and respect those who are in authority over us. Is that always going to be a positive experience? Will those authorities always treat us justly? No. And if they don’t, where is that going to bite?
The fact of the matter is, it probably won’t be from the emperor first. Governments may be unjust, and even the best of them create a lot of injustice along the way, because this world malfunctions all over the place; but except in times of all-out persecution, it’s rare that any government deliberately does as much damage to any one person as an abusive husband can. Slaveowners could be even worse, for obvious reasons. It’s all well and good for Peter to say, “Respect the emperor,” even when the emperor is Nero or Caligula; but what if you’re a slave and your master is a mini-Nero? What if you’re married to Caligula’s evil twin? What are you supposed to do about that?
American society being what it is, we instinctively analyze and respond to these questions in terms of legal rights and political power. We want Peter to say, “Rise up and demand justice”—but he couldn’t, because the people he’s addressing have no ability to do that. They’re powerless. Outside the very rich, if a man killed his wife, unless his wife’s family had a powerful patron, the authorities didn’t care. If he killed his slave, nobody cared. Other slaves might, but they didn’t count, and didn’t dare say anything. Legally speaking, you’re going to submit—or else.
Peter’s answer is spoken into this reality, and the heart of it is an application of verse 16: “As free people, but as slaves of God.” You’re not free by the law of the world, but you are free in the spirit. If you’re a slave, if you’re a married woman under Roman law, you’re going to submit; you can’t control that. But you can control why you submit. Do you submit resentfully, because you have to—perhaps because you’ll be beaten if you don’t? Peter says, look to Christ, and do it for him. Do it because he submitted to far worse for you, so that he might heal you and give you new life in God.
For slaves whose masters are cruel and unjust, the reality is that they will suffer unjustly. Peter acknowledges this, and asks, “Is it really any better if you suffer because you deserve it?” The answer is, of course, no. If you suffer for doing good, he says, look to Jesus and endure it without fighting back. He did that for us, because he trusted that the injustice of his earthly judges would not stand; God the Father and his justice would have the last word. If we do the same, bearing undeserved suffering patiently because of Christ, because we trust in the Father, then our suffering isn’t pointless—we’re suffering for God, as an act of service to him, and this pleases him.
As Peter says this, he starts off talking to slaves, but he isn’t only talking to them—his words are for the whole church. If we’re all slaves to God, and if we’re all exiles and resident aliens in a world where we really don’t quite belong, then what’s true of those household slaves is in fact true of all of us. For one, if we live faithfully with the Lord, we’re all likely to suffer unjustly; that reality was just more obvious in their case. And we’re all every bit as indebted to Jesus, who freely allowed himself to be tortured to death when he never deserved it. If he’d insisted on his rights and demanded justice, we’d all be damned.
For another, we’re all going to have to submit to others, and not just the government. No, we don’t have legal slavery; but the critics of capitalism have long denounced it as “wage slavery,” and they’re not entirely wrong. Just ask the Man in Black. . . .
Obviously, there’s a difference between being beaten for praying and being taken advantage of at work because you have a selfish, unjust boss who knows you can’t afford to quit. Employees have options and recourse that slaves didn’t. But if you’re in a position where those options are all theoretical and there’s no better job in sight, you’re just as caught. Bad economies empower bad bosses, and it comes down to the same two choices in the end. If you’re being treated unjustly, you can resist in some way, even if all you do is complain, or you can look to God and bear the injustice with patience and grace for Jesus’ sake. Put another way, you’re going to be a servant regardless; the choice is yours either to serve grudgingly, kicking and screaming, or to serve freely and graciously in the name of the Lord. The work is the same in either case, but the heart is completely different—and it’s amazing how much that difference can mean.
When Peter speaks to wives, we see his concern for the witness of the church come into play again. Women married to unbelievers were in a difficult situation. The Roman writer Plutarch declared, “A wife ought not to make friends of her own, but to enjoy her husband’s friends in common with him. The gods are the first and most important friends. Wherefore it is becoming for a wife to worship and to know only the gods that her husband believes in.” The women Peter’s addressing were violating that completely, and so they had to be very careful; they could easily endanger both themselves and the church.
This is why we have the injunction against fancy hairdos, jewelry and clothing, because they were commonly seen as signs that a woman intended seduction. To quote the Roman satirist Juvenal, “There is nothing that a woman will not permit herself to do, nothing that she deems shameful, when she encircles her neck with green emeralds and fastens huge pearls to her elongated ears.” It was already questionable for a married woman to go out alone to meet with a lot of men her husband didn’t know; if she went out dressed to the nines, her husband and their society would likely assume the worst. By contrast, if she lived in such a way that the goodness and holiness of God could be clearly seen in her life, that would allay his concerns, and perhaps draw him to Christ as well.
There’s a lot we could say here about how Peter is subverting the Roman social order, but most of it is outside the scope of this sermon. I do want to look at verse 7, however, which brings the point of this passage—that in Christ, we’re called to choose freely to serve others—home to husbands, who weren’t legally obliged to submit to their wives. He says to them, “Husbands, don’t you get any ideas.” The culture of the time thought women were inferior and rendered them powerless, and Peter’s been talking to wives about how to live out their required submission to their husbands; now he forbids married men in the church from taking advantage of that. As Karen Jobes puts it, “Peter teaches that men whose authority runs roughshod over their women, even with society’s full approval, will not be heard by God.”
Remember, in verses 13-17 Peter tells Christians to live with deference and respect to every person; this played out in particular ways in the Roman household, but that didn’t let husbands and masters off the hook. Nothing in this passage in any way justifies any sort of abuse of power; indeed, we are grateful that thanks to people like Mary Ann Cox, women with abusive husbands have options now that their Roman counterparts didn’t. Whatever position of authority you may have, you have it only because of God, and under hisauthority, as his slave; he will judge you on whether or not you’ve used it in accordance with his will and his character. Jesus suffered injustice, trusting in the one who judges justly; you don’t want to be on the other side of that equation. Whether you are powerful or powerless, you are a slave of God; you are free in Christ, which means you’re free to serve.
In 1984, a Nigerian man named Umaru Dikko found himself in a bit of trouble. He had been his country’s Minister for Transportation from 1979-83, but then a coup took down his government and he fled to exile in London. Once there, understandably enough, he took every opportunity to attack the new government back in Lagos. He also became a vocal critic of Israel, perhaps because the Israeli government bought a lot of Nigerian oil and sold the Nigerian government a lot of weapons. That may have been understandable too, but it wasn’t wise, because Israel has the Mossad, and you never want to get on their bad side.
That’s what Peter’s talking about in this passage; that’s the goal of his instruction. He tells us we’re exiles and resident aliens in this world. He’s used each of these words before, but now he puts them together to multiply the effect. Then he takes it a step further, adding in the point he’s just made in verse 9: we have a purpose in this world that goes beyond just getting through the day and making a living. We aren’t supposed to just blend in with everyone else, as if we were citizens of this world right along with them. Our citizenship is somewhere else; we’re here on a mission from God.
Let’s unpack that for a minute. Peter doesn’t explicitly use the language of citizenship, but coming hard on the heels of verses 9-10, his point here is right in line with Paul in Philippians 3. It isn’t in the way you probably think, however. The NIV reads, “sinful desires,” but a more literal translation would be “desires of the flesh.” Peter isn’t just talking about things which are obviously sinful—and neither is Paul. The point is broader than that. The desires of the flesh are those desires which are natural to those whose minds are set on earthly things. Yes, obviously, many of those are clearly sinful; but many of them aren’t. There’s nothing wrong with our instinct for self-protection and self-preservation, or with our desire for material comfort and prosperity. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to experience pleasure, or to have a good reputation. They’re just earthly, worldly, of the flesh, and so by themselves, they point us away from God.
Now, does this mean that we shouldn’t have any desires at all? No. We’re not supposed to be enemies of pleasure, as if we worshipped a cosmic killjoy; I’m not going to tell you to put on a hair shirt and go out and sleep in the snow on a bed of nails. We need to understand that Peter was using typical language from both Jewish and Greek moral and ethical teaching, which would have been familiar to his audience; where the NIV reads “desires,” we should understand that to mean unrestrained desires or impulses. The point isn’t that it’s wrong to have desires, but that it’s wrong to just give in to them and let them run the show.
It’s natural to desire pleasure, but that desire needs to be under control. If it’s starting to get away from you—maybe you’re starting to drink a little too much, or your eyes are starting to wander once in a while—then you need to abstain. You need to cut yourself short. It’s normal to want financial and material security, but if you find yourself making all your decisions on that basis—if that desire is running your life—then you need to set that aside, because that way of life doesn’t bring glory to God. It’s perfectly understandable to want a good reputation, but if you catch yourself shading the truth, or maybe spinning things a bit, to make yourself look good, then you need to sacrifice that desire to God, because he’s a God of truth, not of the lie.
We’re called to be a people who respect our earthly rulers, but who fear God alone—not any person around us and not any human power. We’re an organized community of resident aliens in this world, members of another nation living in the midst of this one, owing our allegiance to a greater King, for the purpose of declaring and displaying the character and the glory of that King in the earthly community in which we live and work. Like Joseph, we’re here to tell people the good news of Jesus Christ with such persistent love and such humble grace that even when people attack us and beat us for it, our example will move them to repentance and faith. We’re on a mission from God, alright—a diplomatic mission. We’re his ambassadors to Winona Lake and Warsaw, to Kosciusko County, to Indiana, to America. We’re the designated representatives of the kingdom of heaven to this community and this nation.
As some of you probably know, I’m pulling that language (and the title of this sermon) from 2 Corinthians 5, which we didn’t read this morning. In verse 20 of that chapter, Paul describes himself and his colleagues as ambassadors for Christ because they’re speaking on behalf of Christ, carrying forward his ministry of reconciliation which God has entrusted to them. It isn’t only a ministry for Paul and other special people in the church, however. It’s been given to all of us. Paul implores us to be reconciled to God so that we would then turn and do the same for others, leading them to find the peace with God which we’ve found.