1 Peter 1 : 3 – 12
Verse 3 - ‘Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’,
Praise is a very positive word; praise is a very positive activity. Praise is joyfully expressed recognition of God as Creator, Father and Saviour in Jesus Christ. Certain evangelical communities include the exhortation ‘Praise the Lord’ in worship and conversation. For such folks this is an identifier of real faith and of personal relationship to God. In the Church of Scotland praise usually means singing hymns. Too often this hymn singing does not amount to praise in the energetic and enthusiastic sense that is seen and heard in born again Christian fellowships. Parish worship is often somewhat introverted, quiet, undemonstrative, lacking rhythm and extroversion, without conviction and confidence. Often it takes congregations two or three verses of a hymn to get up to speed and volume. It is a very Scottish thing. Ministers are often criticised for the choice of hymns. I was once told ‘If you picked your nose like you pick hymns, you’d have a sair face’. However, Church of Scotland people can sing loudly and lustily at family celebrations, functions, parties and gatherings where music and song are encouraged. Is it because we do not actually love God with our whole heart and mind and strength that we are so reticent in praise? It is because we are not rejoicing within? Does the traditional format inhibit praise? Although we have dragged ourselves to Church, are we really inwardly scunnered? Are we seriously lacking the central essential conversion experience that liberates the human soul to praise God? Is it simply a question of practice and of choral leadership? Is traditional Presbyterian worship reflective rather than exuberant? Is it the old adage of not getting above yourself? Not letting go? Is it the historic legacy of a negative expression of Calvinism? Are Scots just miserable people?
Peter was an ordinary man powerfully infused with the Holy Spirit. On the day of Pentecost ‘All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them’. (Acts 2 : 4) We learn in Acts 4 ‘The next day the rulers, the elders and the teachers of the law met in Jerusalem...They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: “By what power or what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. Jesus is ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone."' (verses 5 – 11) Praising God had become a way of life for Peter. He had been changed from the blustering voluntarist into an apostle of divine grace.
‘New birth into a living hope’ is the essence of Christianity. The essence of the Risen Jesus Christ, the essence of the Gospel. Living God, Living Saviour, Living Holy Spirit – these are descriptions Christians use to express their relationship with God. God is not a man made projection of human imagination. God is not made of the things of the earth, wood, metal, silver or gold. This is living knowledge of God, living faith in God. It is alive. Paul put it this way. ‘But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved’. (Ephesians 2 : 4 – 5) This is the living power of redemption in Jesus Christ. It is the energy behind 2000 years of Christianity, within countless men, women and children who have lived as Christians. Paul wrote ‘Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth...were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ'. (Ephesians 2 : 11 – 13) We have a living hope, not a ‘hope against hope’ not a desperate hope, not a vague and partial hope, not a doubting hope – we have a living hope of eternal life to follow this one.
Verses 4 & 5 - ‘and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time’.
This reflects the teaching of Jesus. ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’. (Matthew 6 :19 – 21) The context is the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus goes on to say that we cannot serve God and money (24). Further he teaches that we should not be anxious about material things (27) and he offers reassurance. ‘For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’ (32 -34). Paul is speaking about the gifts of salvation and eternal life in Jesus Christ, something that people who had no knowledge of God had received in becoming Christians. Many members of the Church of Scotland do not have such assurance of their eternal destiny. Some are afraid of dying and of death and of the hereafter. Many have only the vaguest apprehensions of these things, have never really thought much about them, don’t want to talk about them and pretend they do not exist. Some Christian Brethren can be annoying, verbally proclaiming their certainty of salvation in a kind of ‘I am better than you’ way. Roman Catholics have for many generations considered that they alone are the recipients of heavenly sanctuary.
For Paul it is his whole life that is invested in his eternal future. ‘I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day’. (2 Timothy 1 : 12) Most of us Christians have a foot in both camps, the world and the hereafter. Indeed, we must have as we live out our humanity. However, the inward purpose and direction of our lives and living may not be so clearly focussed on eternal life. Our Faith may be important but not central to our thinking and decision-making. Lots of church goers take part in the National Lottery. Our daily wishful thinking is about better things for ourselves and for our families. Maybe as we near the end of our lives we may orientate our thinking more towards whither we are bound. Many however, in fact, just become passive towards our future hope, just as older years lead us to give up the passions, struggles and challenges of younger years. In youth and middle years we enlist the Lord’s help for what we want out of life. Fulfilment and achievement are important and it is right to fully exercise the range of gifts and skills given to us. But for Paul it was 110% as footballers say, maybe in his case 200% towards heaven and his future reward.
Christians, says Paul, are shielded by God’s power. They carry spiritual gold within. Yet they are not robbed of such spiritual treasure. Nothing, in fact, can get at it, no-one can take it away from them. Even in extreme suffering, Christians are protected from spiritual burglary of Christ’s presence within. ‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’. (Romans 8 : 38 – 40) Our adversaries do not understand our faith, hope and love. They are as brute beasts. Terrible persecution of Christians is taking pace every day in Africa, In September 2021 in northern Nigeria Pastor Yohanna Shuaibu was murdered by Islamic jihadis despite his community work which had included helping to provide a water supply for a local mosque. 800,000 people have been displaced in Christian majority Mozambique due to Islamic violence. In Myanmar 35 people in a Christian village were killed by soldiers on Christmas Eve 2021.
Paul expects Jesus Christ and his salvation to be revealed to the world. It appears that he thought this would happen in his lifetime. It did not. The ‘last time’ did not happen as he and other early Christians imagined. The only credible way to interpret this is in the coming of Jesus into the lives of those converted to Him. And that has been happening for nearly 2000 years. Some do look for a kind of appearance to happen any day now. We can though deduce from God’s guidance and providence over the centuries that this may not happen any time soon. We ourselves are latter day witnesses to this long term pattern of salvation, to the 2.3 billion Christians, to the works of Christian humanity, neighbourliness and charity and to the praising and worshipping God in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit in Christian congregations throughout the world. And we can be obedient to Jesus’ teaching to be awake and ready and alert ‘just in case’. ‘Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the middle of the night or toward daybreak. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him'. (Luke 12 : 35 - 40)
Verse 6 & 7 - ‘In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed’.
‘Fie, fie, all is lost’ cried Cardinal Archbishop David Beaton when at dawn on 29 May 1546 a group of Protestant lairds dragged him out of his bedchamber, stabbed him to death, mutilated, then hung him from a castle window, in full view of the town of St Andrews. It was pay back time for his ordering of the deaths of John Rogers and George Wishart, early Scottish Protestant thinkers and preachers and for his corruption, including ecclesiastical advantage through nepotism, using the wealth of the Church as his private income and fathering 20 illegitimate children, 8 of them to Mary Ogilvie who was in effect his common law wife. Dreadful times! Thus the Church of Scotland was born as an attempt at genuine Reformation. Contrast however this history with Peter's words in these verses. He advocates rejoicing in the midst of persecution. This may not have been extreme persecution but the beginning of the terrible times for Christians under the Roman Emperor Nero. Hitler's persecution of Jews was slow burning beginning in the 1930's leading to the Kristallnicht on 9/10 November 1938 and forcing Jews to wear yellow stars on their arms from 1939, leading then to the genocidal mania of the concentration camps and The Holocaust. Peter explains Christian suffering as a trial of faith, that is, to see who is the genuine article and who is not. Has it ever cost you anything to be a Christian? Have you ever suffered for being a Christian? Do you know anyone who has? Would you stand the test? Peter thinks it is only for 'a little while' but in fact it was 313 AD before the Roman Emperor Constantine legitimised Christianity and the persecutions stopped. True Christian faith is of more value than gold, says Peter and every real Christian would agree. Even gold, he says, cannot stand the heat, but good Christians can. And their reward is very great, being identified with Jesus Christ in praise, glory and honour. This reflects the teaching of Jesus. 'Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven'. (Matthew 10 : 32 - 33)
Verses 8 & 9 - ‘Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls’.
Why cannot we see God? If only we could, we would believe. So have many said throughout the ages. But if we could see God that would limit God to our visual perception. God is much greater than what is described by the human faculty of sight. The disciples were the most fortunate of men. Jesus said to Philip, ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’. (John 14 : 9) He also said to Thomas, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’. (John 20 : 29). Peter echoes this. Christians love an unseen Person. ‘I who am here dissembled Proffer my deeds to oblivion’, wrote TS Eliot in his poem ‘Ash Wednesday’. But we do not. We have a personal relationship with the Risen Jesus. We exercise our spiritual sense in communicating with him. This effects our physicality. He said, ‘Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me’. (Revelation 3 : 20) This is corroboration. We are filled with love and joyfulness in the active and lively practice of our faith. Paul put in another way. ‘Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come’. (2 Corinthians 1 : 21 - 22)
Verse 10, 11 & 12 ‘Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things’.
Isaiah 53 : 4 – 12 encapsulates the Old Testament foresight about Jesus. ‘Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors’.
In Acts 8 we are told about a highly placed civil servant from Ethiopia who was a seeker after God. ‘Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. ‘So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth. The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
To what extent was Isaiah and other prophets speaking about Jesus? The Ethiopian’s question is central. Yes, they no doubt looked for and hoped for a Messiah, their Messiah, to deliver the People of God and set up a new world order. Isaiah also says ‘After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong’. (53 : 11-12) This does not prophesy Jesus’ resurrection. It appears to be an existential affirmation not an eternal one, something that might come to pass on earth, but not one about heaven. The rest of this passage from Isaiah 53 is however an astonishingly accurate prophecy about what happened to Jesus. Cynical academic theological sceptics suggest that Jesus sought to self-fulfil this prophecy. How could he have manipulated his own crucifixion?
Grace is at the heart of Peter’s thinking. He is seeing the ‘chesed’ of God in the Old Testament story, the faithfulness of God, the grace of God. Isaiah 40 : 1 -2 reads, ‘Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins’. God’s forgiveness is part of the entire Old Testament narrative. Psalm 51 reads, ‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place. Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity’.
Personal knowledge of forgiveness is the heart and soul of Christianity. Sin is what we do wrong against God. Sin is what we are as human beings. But Jesus Christ has bought us redemption. This is what the members of the churches to whom Peter was writing had experienced through the work of apostles and the Holy Spirit. ‘From heaven’ emphasises that the preachers and teachers of the Gospel did not make it up. Our salvation has divine origin. Peter emphasises the privilege that Christians have in receiving the grace that others sought and longed for but did not receive.
Even in the Old Testament there was spiritual joy. ‘Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights above. Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his heavenly hosts. Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars. Praise him, you highest heavens and you waters above the skies. Let them praise the name of the Lord… young men and women, old men and children. Let them praise the name of the Lord’. Psalm 148 : 1 – 5 & 12 – 13) This is carried throughout the New Testament with greater content and emphasis. 'Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts'. (Colossians 3 : 16) ‘Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!’ (Philippians 4 : 4 )
Peter mentions angels. According to surveys 70 – 80% of Americans believe in angels. About 33% of Brits believe in personal guardian angels. Angels appear in the Old Testament in human and spiritual forms. ‘The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground’. (Genesis 18 : 1 – 2) Angels were present before the formation of the earth. ‘Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?’ (Job 38 : 4 - 7) Psalm 91 : 11 says, ‘For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways’.
An angel ministered to Jesus in Gethsemane. (Luke 22 : 43). Angels are present at the resurrection of Jesus. They are described differently in Matthew, Mark and Luke and do not appear in John. Matthew has ‘There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow’. (28 : 2 – 3) Mark has ‘As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed’. (16 : 5) and Luke has ‘While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them’. (24 : 4) These accounts are sufficiently close and coherent in describing what was a unique spiritual supernatural experience.
Peter’s escape from prison features an angel without saying whether this was a spiritual or human angel. As with Abraham of old, these are interchangeable. ‘The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists. Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him’. (Acts 12 : 6 - 12)
Angels can appear incognito. ‘Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it’. (Hebrews 13 : 2)
Including angels means that Peter was living in this rarefied spiritual atmosphere, ‘in Christ’, ‘in the Spirit’. Our industrialised, mechanised, computerised age is not so sympathetic to angels. Secular culture has undermined and departed from the Christian cosmic view in which they are included. Historic Protestant Christianity has a hard edge to it, spiritually speaking. ‘Far ben wi’ God’ might describe the fringe members and eccentrics who are aware of and commune with angels in our time. For Peter they were part of the communion of saints, the dynamic sphere of the Kingdom of God into which Jesus had initiated him and for which he was an apostle.