1 Peter 1 : 17 – 25
Verse 17 Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear.
The theme of judgement is present throughout the Bible. From the condemnation of Adam and Eve to the final apocalyptic scenarios of Revelation, judgement, judgement, judgement. The prophets delivered God’s verdict on Israel’s apostasy from one generation to the next. Jesus had a lot to say about judgement. The parable of the wheat and tares ends with separation. ‘First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn’. (Matthew 13 : 30) More specifically Jesus taught ‘Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell’. (Matthew 10 : 48) And again, “Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. (Matthew 24 : 31 – 32)
Peter is talking about God judging each person’s work. That too, has precedence in Jesus. The parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 : 30 – 46 clearly indicates salvation and condemnation based on practical help for the hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick and imprisoned or the lack of it. Is this though ‘salvation by works’? I remember a Session Clerk saying to me ‘ I have been up at the church every evening this week attending to things – I am sure to get a place in heaven’. There used to be a description of people in congregations as ‘good church workers’. Presbyterianism still reflects ego involvement, ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘mine’ with attendant personality clashes. There is a residual element of ownership of parts of church life and even of a sense of entitlement to position and prominence.
Faith and works is an age old issue. James wrestles with it in his epistle. ‘What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2 : 14 – 17) Peter is reminding Christians that what they do as Christians matters and that they must be doing something. James does not allow the Christian to depend on faith while contributing nothing to the betterment and welfare of others. Today in this country Christianity is only really tolerated for its works of charity and community involvement. Its Gospel message is not tolerated and indeed may provoke arrest under hate crime legislation.
Jesus put spiritual seeking above attention seeking activity. ‘But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”’ (Luke 10 : 40 – 42) Jesus also taught that the simple criterion to receive eternal life was to believe in him. ‘Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6 : 28 -29) There used to be harsh Christian Brethren around who based their lives on this teaching and eschewed any form of ‘social gospel’. The Church of Scotland has for decades majored on the social gospel at the expense of the proclamation of the eternally saving Gospel.
At the Reformation Martin Luther rejected the Roman Catholic theology of salvation by works, confession, penances and pilgrimages in favour of the Biblical teaching of ‘Salvation by Faith’ found in the writings of Paul. ‘So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified’. (Galatians 2 : 16) And again, ‘So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise’. (Galatians 3 : 26 - 29) But Paul also taught ‘Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers’. (Galatians 6 : 8 - 10) Paul here is talking about piety, moral and spiritual obedience and its opposite, the sowing of wild oats. He may not be talking about specific works of charity in the way James was. What Luther discovered and shared was that it is in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that true Christianity is expressed. What ever good we may do follows from that. It does not precede it and it is not a substitute for it. This is also what Peter meant. The generality of social Christianity has seen nominal Christians adhere to promises of salvation while being less than committed to the consequences of salvation for ongoing living. The minority have found real faith and responded with enthusiasm and obedience and they are the ones that have produced good fruit for Jesus Christ. Are you one of these? Or, are you a half-hearted, quarter-committed Christian?
So what does Peter mean when he says God judges each person’s work impartially? It must refer to the totality of the Christian life, faith, piety and holiness. Paul said ‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’. (Romans 8 : 1) But this was no free for all. ‘Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?’ (Romans 6 : 1) The answer was, of course, ‘No’. We cannot take God for granted. Both Peter and Paul were addressing converts from paganism, spiritualism and polytheism. Neither thought that you could be a Christian and live any way you pleased. Throughout Christian history there have been many contradictions to this truth. In the middle ages the Roman Catholic Church was profoundly corrupt. Popes and bishops had mistresses and families. Some were excessively rich through embezzlement of church funds. In the 20th century American Protestant television evangelists became very rich by promising God’s blessing in return for dollar donations. They lived luxuriously and some lived immorally until they were found out. Most churchgoers are not in these categories. Laziness, indifference and a determination to spiritually resist the call of the Lord are more prevalent characteristics. Testiness towards facing realities and uncomprehending opposition to the Gospel call occur in congregations throughout the Church of Scotland. And so members miss the many splendoured thing.
Christians are foreigners, writes Peter. It is a familiar theme. As the song says ‘This world is not my home, I’m just passing through’. Christians may be feeling more and more alienated within this country. Scotland has been de-Christianised and de-moralised. Claustrophobic conformity to social legislation prevents honest Christian public communication. The Gospel alternative to political correctness, cultural wars and gender definitions is not tolerated. I no longer feel part of the society of the Scotland in which I grew up and in which I have lived most of my life. But the suffering of Christians in Africa as a result of Islamic jihadis bears no comparison. Christians have dual citizenship, here on earth and in the Kingdom of God. This is our eternal and future home. This is where and how we relate to the Risen Jesus Christ. This is where our prayers are answered. This is our true identity and destiny.
Peter mentions ‘reverent fear’. This seems to contradict the teaching of John. ‘And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love’. (1 John 4 : 16 - 18) Is this the old recidivist Jew Peter, once again backsliding from true Christianity in favour of the Law? Proverbs 9 : 10 says ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’. Psalm 34 : 11 says ‘Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord’. But Jesus told his disciples ‘You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you’. (John 15 : 14 – 15) Peter himself had quoted the prophet Joel on the day of Pentecost. ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams….And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ (Acts 2 : 18 and 21) ‘Reverent fear’ then may be described as awe and wonder rather than fright and dread. After all, Peter had begun his letter praising God with a joyful heart.
Verses 18 & 19 - For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.
It is a truth of creation that the possession of material things is accompanied by emptiness of heart and soul. Andrew Carnegie (1835 – 1919) the Bill Gates of his day said, ‘Man does not live by bread alone. I have known millionaires starving for lack of the nutriment which alone can sustain all that is human in man, and I know workmen, and many so-called poor men, who revel in luxuries beyond the power of those millionaires to reach. It is the mind that makes the body rich. There is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else’. Carnegie gave away his fortune philanthropically. His Foundation still does. He said ‘The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced’. This is why Peter uses the phrase ‘empty way of life’. He means ‘spiritually empty’ also since gentiles had no knowledge of God or of his Law. They had not known the Gospel either until their conversion. Idols of gold and silver were meaningless, deeply unsatisfying and absurd. How can man worship what he himself has made? Today there is a great emptiness abroad in our greedy materialistic society with its preponderance of ‘get rich quick’ offers and enticements. Euro Millions offer fortunes of unearned income every week. So much in shops and online is 50% off, with freebies attached and years to pay. Selling, selling, selling. Buying, buying, buying. Contrast all this with the words of Jesus, ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions’. (Luke 12 : 15)
The empty way of life was not just about money. It was also the alternative practices of the ancient world that Peter was thinking about. The luxuriant polytheism of Greece, the panoply of Roman gods, their empty rituals and false narratives contrasted much with the singular monotheism of Judaism and now the incarnation in Jesus Christ. Today there is an upsurge in spiritualistic cults, indigenous practices and worship of human made imagination. Judaism and Christianity are devalued. There is a prevalence of misunderstanding throughout the globe, in Africa, South America, North America, the Koreas, China and the middle east. Humans left to their own devices create gods for themselves and worship them. In contrast, ‘God’, said Paul, ‘was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them’. (2 Corinthians 5 : 19) Christianity is not an elite’s privilege. Christianity is not a war of conquest. It is our Maker’s love seeking out the errant children of the Father.
Contrast it too with the obedience of Jesus who went to the Cross and died with nothing. Contrast it with what Jesus gave to the world ever since. The 2.54 billion Christians, the highest example of self-giving love, the place and possibility for reconciliation for enmities and wars. Karl Marx offered the opposite. Jews return violence for violence when they are attacked. Muslims initiate violence to conquer the world for Islam. Measure Jesus Christ against all this. Calvary is the opposite of gold and silver, ‘the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect’. Why did God require the blood sacrifice of his son? The answer is contextualised in the Old Testament sacrificial system. It begins in Exodus 12. ‘The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt...“Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household....The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect... Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover...This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance...Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, 'It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians’. (Verses 1, 3, 11, 14, 24 - 27)
Jesus was the perfect sacrificial lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But how? By assuaging the wrath of God against humanity? By drawing the poison out of human nature? By overcoming evil with good? By paying the human debt of sin? By embracing all humanity in the cruellest of deaths thus ensuing that no-one is beyond the love of God? By dying in order to rise so that we may know there is indeed life after death? It is important to understand that this is God himself doing this. It is an inter Trinitarian action. Only this makes sense of it for us. We are the beneficiaries. It presumes the reality of human sin and our inability to save ourselves from it. We wrong one another but we sin against God. We are not that good at making peace with one another but God has made peace with us for us. It is the redeeming initiative of our Creator.
Verses 20 & 21 - He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.
The Greek word προεγνωσμένου means to foreordination or foreknowledge. It is the linguistic root of our word prognosis. The NIV translation has ‘chosen’. This is problematic, suggesting two separate actors. God decided himself to send Jesus and Jesus agreed to go. The main point however is that this was determined long before the formation of planet earth, in the mind and heart of our Creator. Jesus and his redemption of the world were not after thoughts, an international rescue or an emergency response. Christians had to dissuade objectors from regarding Jesus as less than God. Christians have received knowledge of this revelation in their lifetimes on earth, writes Peter. To be personally connected with this loving outreach of God. Peter did think that he was living in the ‘last times’. The events of Jesus death and resurrection were so stupendous that they elevated normal consciousness into the plane of the Kingdom of God.
The knowledge of God the Creator was apprehended through Jesus Christ for these new Christians. Their own previous understanding had not brought them this knowledge or this relationship. The corollary of the crucifixion was the resurrection and glorification which confirmed Jesus’ status and the offer to humanity in him. Peter had met the risen Jesus. (John 20) He had been challenged by the risen Jesus. (John 21) Peter was present when Jesus ascended, some time after his resurrection. (Acts 1 : 9) John saw ‘a lamb that looked as if it had been slain standing at the centre of the throne’ in heaven (Revelation 5 : 6) Peter had become an apostle – one sent to spread the good news of God’s redeeming love. He connected his message with the experience of these new Christians as the mainspring of their faith and hope.
Verse 22 - Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.
How to change a human being! The story is told of a wild young gang member in Airdrie who was suddenly converted to Jesus Christ and joined the Christian Brethren. In years gone by Christian Brethren used to hold open air services of worship on beaches and on street corners in towns and cities. The new convert took part in one of these witnesses in his home town. Some of his erstwhile pals happened by and stopped to mock him. ‘Show us a miracle, Wullie’, they taunted ‘Show us a miracle’. As they persisted in this tormenting, disrupting the service, Wullie became embarrassed and exasperated. He turned to them and said, ‘You go home and look in the mirror. There you will see that your heid is still attached to your body. If you had spoken to me like this last year, it widnae have been. That is a miracle’. Peter recognises that new Christians have changed. They have become morally pure, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. They have given up bad language and disciplined their thinking. They have control of their appetites and wants and longings. They are honest. They have turned away from the licentiousness of their surroundings. And all this has set them free to love others. Perhaps first of all to love themselves. This is not shallow, nominal or routine love. It is deep and sincere love.
Jonathan Aitken (b. 1942) was wealthy and privileged. He was an MP from 1974 – 1997. He was Minister for Defence Procurement from 1992 – 1994 and then Chief Secretary to the Treasury from 1994 – 1995. On 10 April 1995, The Guardian newspaper alleged that he had nefarious dealings with and had arranged prostitutes for Saudi Arabian businessmen. Granada's World in Action programme was due to repeat the accusation in a television documentary called ‘Jonathan of Arabia’. Aitken had called a press conference at the Conservative Party offices in Smith Square, London, at 5 p.m. that same day denouncing the claims and demanding that the World in Action documentary, which was due to be screened three hours later, withdraw them. He said: ‘If it falls to me to start a fight to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play, so be it. I am ready for the fight. The fight against falsehood and those who peddle it. My fight begins today. Thank you and good afternoon’. He was convicted of perjury in 1999 and received an eighteen-month prison sentence, of which he served seven months. While in prison Jonathan Aitken befriended and helped other prisoners. His speciality was writing letters to families, helping to formulate appeals and communicating with authorities on their behalf. The prisoners respected the posh guy for helping them. After becoming a Christian, he later became the president of Christian Solidarity Worldwide and was ordained in the Church of England. Better known perhaps worldwide is Chuck Colson (1931 - 2012). He was counsel to President Nixon and was involved in the Watergate scandal. He was convicted of obstruction of justice and spent seven months in prison. There he was humbled and began his Christian journey. He told his story in his book ‘Born Again’. He formed the Prison Fellowship in 1976 and it is still a world-wide organisation. Aitken and Colson turned from great egotism to great caring, manifestations of the work of the Lord Jesus in their lives. They loved from the heart.
Verses 23 - 25 - For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For, “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” And this is the word that was preached to you.
First generation Christians had the clearest and cleanest conversions to Jesus Christ. They were indeed born again. For many in our time it is not always so clear cut, not so obvious than in a society influenced still by many centuries of Christianity that someone has changed from not being a Christian to becoming one. And it is even less clear when someone has changed from being a church goer to becoming a Christian. It is also possible to be a covert Christian, living undercover, not confessing Jesus Christ as Lord. But the great work is still accomplished. People are born again into eternal life. The living word is the Gospel, preached by and enacted in committed Christians. It is also the Bible which lives and radiates truth and conviction. The Christian story is a living dynamic, growing and expanding throughout the world. There are approximately 2.7 million conversions to Christianity every year, according to the World Christian Encyclopaedia.
The Scripture quoted is a shortened version of Isaiah 40 : 6 – 8. Its context was the proclamation of comfort, tenderness and redemption for Jerusalem. These verses follow the prophetic description of John the Baptist (Verses 3 -5) quoted in Luke 3 : 4 -6. Some scholars date Isaiah’s prophecy to about 538 BC during the exile and from the Isaiah school which had persisted through generations. There are Christian scholars known as Thomists. They follow Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 74). There are Calvinists who follow John Calvin (1509 - 64. There are Lutherans who follow Martin Luther (1483 -1546). There are multiplicities of denominations which take the name of founders, all within the large umbrella of Christianity. Others consider the possibility that there were two distinct prophets with the same name. Phil Moore, the London Bible teacher, thinks that there is ample evidence of unity for the entire book of Isaiah, notably that is in one piece in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Peter emphasises the pattern and credibility of the salvation story from ancient times to their very lives. It is the same for us. This living Word is preached to us in our day and age. Nothing has stopped the work of redemption and nothing will.