A Living Hope

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This evening we are starting a new series of sermons entitled "Standing Firm in a Hostile World." And we will be studying the Apostle Peter's first letter, chapter 1, verses 1-12. And after some words of introduction I have just two headings, first, The Christian's Hope and secondly, The Christian's Joy. Let's start then by looking at verses 1-2:

"Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood. May grace and peace be multiplied to you."

But why have we just read those verses and why are we seeking to learn from them? Answer: because Peter, as he tells us, is "an apostle of Jesus Christ". He was one of the 12 that Jesus specially commissioned to tell others of his teaching - teaching given from both before and after his Resurrection. Those 12 had been witnesses to his Resurrection and met the risen Jesus. The Holy Spirit also helped them remember and expound fundamental lessons they had learnt from Jesus. Next, note three things about this letter.

First, it was probably written towards the end of Peter's life, possibly after the beginning of Nero's persecution. That immediately makes it relevant for us today. For Christians in the West do not face persecution as some do. But often they have to face low-grade persecution in public life for resisting the religion of atheistic Secular Humanism. This is particularly over life and death issues and sexual ethics which too often surface in medical institutions and schools. However, the Christian must be expecting various other forms of suffering or hardship from time to time. Jesus said to his disciples among the last things he taught:

"I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world." (John 16.33).

And it is reported that, in following up new converts, Paul and Barnabas, those New Testament missionaries, were…

"…strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God." (Acts 14.22).

So Peter is writing in the context of persecution.

Then, secondly, Peter is writing to Christians whom he calls "exiles of the dispersion." The "dispersion" in those days referred to Jews living outside Palestine, their homeland. Peter, therefore, is suggesting these Christians in northern and western Asia Minor were - and by extension Christians in Newcastle (or wherever we live) are - outside our real homeland, which now is heaven. So they were (and we are) "exiles", who just live in Asia Minor or on Tyneside for a short while. Is that how you are thinking, such that you are ready, and looking forward, to going home when the time comes? That may be at death or when Jesus' returns a second time, if that is sooner.

And, thirdly, also note the recipients of this letter, as those of us reading it (if believers), are Christian by a threefold act of the Trinity. For (verse 2) is saying that believers are elect or chosen by the Father, made holy or "sanctified" by the Spirit and serving or "obeying" the Son - cleansed by his blood. Well, so much by way of introduction. We come now to my first, heading:

1. The Christian's Hope

Look at verses 3-5:

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time."

Peter is so thrilled, no matter how dark the times, because God has given us a living hope and a purpose for living. He would have known that hope is so necessary for any motivation. Recently after a Sunday evening service here, someone was hurrying to catch the train to Edinburgh. He had to be ready for work at 5.00 am the next morning, he said. Why? Because he is a rowing coach. And his VIII has to be on the water or in the gym at that unearthly hour. For those guys want to win races. Some of them may dream of the Olympics and a medal one day. They have high hopes. That gets them ready for 5.00 am.

But what about life itself and your earthly existence? What hope do you have regarding not only this life but for what happens after you die - a question relevant to the folk to whom Peter is writing? We are fairly certain that question was relevant to Peter himself. For it seems Peter was martyred during the Neronian persecution. However, God gave Peter a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And he gives that to all believers. How different that is to those modern atheists who publicly express their despair. John Stott used to quote Woody Allen's joke: "It's not that I'm afraid to die; I just don't want to be there when it happens." More seriously Woody Allen once wrote:

"The fundamental thing behind all motivation and all activity is the constant struggle against annihilation and against death. It's absolutely stupefying in its terror, and it renders anyone's accomplishment meaningless."

The Apostle Paul described such folk as …

"separated from Christ ... having no hope and without God in the world." (Ephesians 2.12)

But because things were so different for Peter, he praises God and so should we (verse 3 again):

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead."

But note that this living hope is not primarily to do with our feelings, but with objective facts on which it is based and grounded. The first fact is that our hope is grounded on who God is. For the God, who is with us and gives us a living hope, is not just any God. No! He is "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (verse 3), and the one who is "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" to whom Peter has alluded in verse 2. And he not only has revealed himself in our Lord Jesus Christ but in the Old Testament as …

"a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness." (Exodus 34.6)

And so, as Peter says, it is …

"According to his great mercy [for we in no way deserve it], he has caused us to be born again to a living hope."

But the second fact is what God has done to enable us to be born again by his Holy Spirit to a living hope. We are told it is "through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (the greatest of God's redemptive works) that you have hope and are assured of so much. Here are three of those things.

One, you are assured of the forgiveness of sins. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15.17 and 20:

"if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. … But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep."

So Christ has born your sins in your place and you can be right with God as you trust in Christ. And so you are born again to this living hope for time and for eternity.

And, two, the resurrection of Jesus gives you hope and assures you of the power of God. Listen to Paul in Ephesians 1.18-21 where he speaks of …

"the hope to which he has called you … and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power towards us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come."

So Nero can do his worst, and modern political leaders can do their worst. The result can be attacks on God's people. But those are only in the light of God's mysterious permissive will. Remember: that Resurrection power meant Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane could summon legions of heavenly forces to defeat his enemies. He could do so now. But with Jesus, as we shall see, there is good reason sometimes for God's allowing his people to go through hard times and with no immediate victory. However, that Resurrection power can help you endure those hard times and come through them for your benefit.

Then, three, the resurrection of Jesus gives you hope and assures you of the final and complete victory of God over sin and death. For there is the certain hope beyond death not just of survival like a ghost, but of renewed bodies like Christ's body. Jesus, as we've heard, was like firstfruits. So there will be that wonderful future for believers beyond all dreaming, described in verses 4 and 5 as:

"an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time."

And that "last time" is when Jesus returns at the end of history. Then there is to be a cosmic renewal as well as an individual and personal renewal. There will be "a new heaven and a new earth" (Rev 21.1). So as you focus on "the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" you can keep your hope alive. For it assures you of forgiveness when you fail and confess your sin; power as you seek to obey and live for Christ as Lord; but, one day, the final and complete victory over sin and death. And consciousness of that final victory is so important. For we all need to be living as though each day may be our last, either by death or by, yes, Christ's return. The timing of that no one knows. It may even be tonight. Well, so much for the Christian's hope. We now come to the other side of the coin, as it were, and:

2. The Christian's Joy

Look at verses 6-9:

"In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith - more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire - may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls."

Christian "joy" is like "hope". For first come facts and then, secondly, feelings. So the Bible can make having joy an imperative or a command, as in "Rejoice in the Lord always" (Philippians 4.4). But you can't order an emotion. However, you can make people think about certain facts that lead to states of mind and then emotions. That is why joy is different from pleasure, as grief is different from pain.

And the first fact (verse 6) Peter mentions is the shortness of any suffering Christians experience. Peter speaks of it being "for a little while". But suppose suffering is over a long period. Well, all earthly suffering is of a short duration compared with your eternal inheritance. This (according to verse 4) is "imperishable, undefiled, and unfading." So Paul could write in 2 Corinthians 4.16-17 not only of bodily illnesses and old age, but of all trials and tribulations:

"So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison."

The second fact that we should never forget is the value of such times of testing. It is being asserted that the various trials are …

"so that the tested genuineness of your faith - more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire - may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ."

It is that God is wanting you to be rewarded with praise and glory and honour at the judgment day as your faith is refined and proved real. But this is not to be thought of as a reward for what is owing you, for what you have earned. Rather it is more like a gift for trying hard than a payment for a job completed. You see, God allows you to go through hard times so you can learn how to stand firm under pressure of all sorts. And you stand firm as you trust in the guidance of God who is loving and merciful and strengthens you with that Resurrection power by his Holy Spirit. So Paul writes in Romans 5.3-5 about how…

"we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us."

And James begins his letter, in verses 2-3 of chapter 1 like this:

"Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness."

And in that context Peter writes, "in this you rejoice" - you rejoice having hope, but also from lessons learnt when "grieved by various trials". And this spiritual ecology increases long-term your love for Christ. In this connection, I can never forget speaking on this passage from 1 Peter at a Scripture Union boy's camp. I had just returned from a period working in Omdurman in the [north] Sudan in the 1960s. For "various trials" in my talk, I referred to the violence we had experienced and come across at our mission - some quite terrible. And I explained how Christians need to expect hard times. After the talk the camp leader said to me,

"Actually, I don't think I have ever really had to suffer. Yes, I was in the RAF in World War II, but where I was it was quite peaceful."

The following day his two little boys were playing with an old scout cart on the camp site. But it rolled down a slope and pinned the youngest boy to the wall. It killed him outright. That was so terrible. So how do you handle suffering? Look at verses 8-9:

"Though you have not seen him [Jesus Christ], you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory [not of course for the death of a child, but for], obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls [and for the day when you will understand why some terrible things were allowed to happen]."

Of course, you mourn for a long time after such an event as that man experienced. And the memory may never leave you. But trusting in Christ, whom you have not seen but love, makes all the difference. And that Christian love, of course, is neither like brotherly love, nor erotic love, but God's love that always seeks the best for God and for others. So in difficult times you seldom feel happy but you learn to rejoice believing that Romans 8.28 is so true. And this is the third fact you should never forget:

"that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose."

I must conclude. Look finally at verses 10-12:

"Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, enquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look."

So those sufferings of Christ for our sins were foretold by Old Testament prophets. That was because they were all part of God's plan from before the dawn of history. And that plan was being carried out down the centuries for our salvation. That also is evidence God is always in control. So remember! Those sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories of his resurrection lead to a living hope and not despair. That is because his Resurrection assures you of God's forgiveness, God's power and God's final victory over sin and death.

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