Good evening! This evening we're continuing our series in 1 Peter called 'Standing Firm in a Hostile World'. The letter of 1 Peter was originally written to Christians scattered around modern-day Turkey. These Christians were suffering severe persecution on all fronts: state oppression, discrimination in the workplace and pressures in the family. Peter had two pastoral aims in writing this letter: Firstly, he wanted to equip Christians to expect suffering now and to long for heaven. Suffering now, glory later. But he also had a second aim. He wanted Christians to respond to persecution by doing good. Suffering now, do good now. And it's this second aim which Peter focusses on in our passage for this week. Doing good in response to suffering sounds nice, but it's very challenging! So let's pray for God's help.
Father, you know our hearts. You know that we struggle with the idea of submission. It goes against our desire to be independent and free. It especially grates with us when we're suffering as Christian members of society, at work or in the family. So we pray that you would soften our hearts. May your Spirit speak to us and move us to obey your teaching. In Jesus' name, Amen.
Please turn back in your Bibles to 1 Peter chapter 2. My first point is from verses 13-17.
1. Submit to The State Authorities –> To Silence Foolish Critics
"Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution: whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good." (v.13-14)
The Bible recognises the different levels of human authority as God-given. There are the supreme authorities – in the case of the UK, this is the Queen and the British government. But there are also governors sent by them – for example: city councillors, magistrates, university chancellors and school governors. These human institutions have a twofold purpose: Firstly, to punish those who do evil – to punish those who break the law and keep discipline in society. Secondly, to praise those who do good – to support those who (for example) look after their families well, study hard and handle their finances wisely.
That's God's purpose for government. The problem is that human governments don't always follow God's purpose. And Peter was more aware of this than any of us as he lived under Emperor Nero! Yet still he writes…
"Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution" (v.13)
So friends, regardless of the different governments we find ourselves under – tyrannical or just, Conservative or Labour, whether we voted for them or not (or didn't even get a say if we don't have a democracy!), whether they uphold Christian ethics with pride or discard them with embarrassment – we are subjects. We are to be subject to the government. We are to set aside our personal preferences to honour those God has placed in authority over us.
Yes, there are limits to our submission. If the state tells us to do something against God's Word, then we cannot obey (as we see in Daniel chapter 3). If the state tells us we cannot do something which we must do as Christians, then we cannot obey either (as we see in Daniel chapter 6). And then there are those difficult questions of conscience about how Christians should respond when the state systematically oppresses one section of the population: women, children, the unborn, the elderly or particular ethnic groups.
But the general point stands: submitting to the state on earth is not beneath us as Christians because we are citizens of heaven! No! It is exactly what God calls us to! But why? Why should Christians do this? Well, look on to verse 15:
"For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people" (v.15)
Peter is totally realistic. He is saying to his readers:
- There are foolish people around you in society, in your workplaces and in positions of influence
- They will make misguided, insulting and groundless accusations about the Christian faith
But he's also positive about the difference Christians can make in society:
- In response to these foolish critics, get on with honouring the government and doing good in society
- This will (in God's timing) silence your ignorant critics
- That's what God wants from you
It sometimes feels like there have been so many foolish critics of the Christian faith in modern-day Britain! It can feel like we're alone! But let me encourage you. While we may feel that our situation is particularly bad, we face the same trials as church down the ages – and around the world today. Let me give you three examples of ignorant criticism towards the church. I'll start with the early church. In the first century, the Romans thought Christianity was subversive for two reasons:
- It had dangerous foundations, because the founder, Jesus Christ, was a convicted criminal.
- It had dangerous effects on the harmony of society, because wherever the message spread it often caused rioting and public disorder.
So public opinion about Christians was not positive: 'Roman Christians are not good citizens. They do not respect our values. They are harmful to our society.' Let's jump forward into modern-day France. I remember reading a French newspaper with the headline:
"Evangelicals: the sect which wants to conquer the world"
This article promoted the common French caricature of evangelical Christianity as right-wing, pro-Iraq-war, American imperialism. It voiced the same opinion: 'French Christians are not good citizens. They do not respect our values. They are harmful to our society.' Let's go around the globe to modern day China. Alongside the phenomenal growth of the church in China over the last 50 years, the Chinese government has witnessed the dramatic growth of extreme religious cults in their country, like the Eastern Lightning Cult. Rightly they are very concerned… the issue is that in the minds of many of the policy makers in China, extreme cults and evangelical Christianity are the same thing. So the media says: 'Chinese Christians are not good citizens. They do not respect our values. They are harmful to our society.'
I've avoided the UK so far, to show you we're not alone in facing these trials, but I can do so no longer! Because accusations against Christians in the UK are becoming more direct – more personal – and more difficult to defend by argument. People are saying things – or soon will be saying things – like these:
'It's harmful to allow children to be fostered or adopted by evangelical Christian families.'
'If you take a biblical position on sexual ethics and gender, you should be barred from public office.'
'Evangelical Christians hold extreme views and are not safe to teach our children.'
'British Christians are not good citizens. They do not respect our values. They are harmful to our society.'
As you heard me read out those statements, you probably responded with an 'Ouch!' or an 'Argh!' Ouch! Ignorant foolish criticism hurts, doesn't it?! And Argh! Ignorant foolish criticism makes us angry! But how does God want us to respond? It's there in verse 15!
"For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people"
That's not to say there's no place for a Christian voice in the media or in newspapers – there most certainly is. What Peter is saying here is that many people are cynical. The only thing that will cause them to change their views about Christians (or at least silence their ignorant talk) is for them to see Christians doing good. You see, it's difficult to argue that Christian beliefs are harmful to society… if children placed with Christian foster parents are happy, mature and achieve well. It's difficult to argue that Christian beliefs are anti-British values… when you see Christian civil servants working with such obvious dedication and integrity. It's difficult to make the case that Christian students on campus or Christians in schools are a dangerous clique… if they work hard and play important roles in different clubs and societies.
Friends, when you hear the ignorant criticism… ignore it and get on with doing good. And in God's timing, he can use our good works to silence foolish critics. Peter summarises in verses 16-17:
"Live as people who are free, [enjoy the freedom from guilt which Christ gives – and the political freedoms which the state gives] not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honour everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor."
That's my first point. Submit to the state authorities -> to silence foolish critics. Here's my second point:
2. Endure Unjust Suffering in The Workplace -> To Follow the Example of Jesus
Here's Peter's instruction in verse 18:
"Servants be subject to your masters with all respect"
Back then God wanted Christian slaves to respect their masters. Today God wants Christians employees to respect their employers. So let me ask you: If you're working, what is your boss at work like? (Or bosses if you're in the unenviable position of having more than one?!) Or your lecturers? Or your teachers? If 10 is fantastic (super kind, considerate) and 1 is unbearable (cruel, harsh), what do they score? Here are four supplementary questions to help you give your boss a score.
- Does your boss pay you a fair wage?
I was recently in a restaurant where the lady at the counter was complaining (loudly!) to a customer. On 1st April 2018 the government had raised the national minimum wage (now called National Living Wage) from £7.50 an hour to £7.83 an hour. But the lady said that as a result of having to raise salaries, her employer had cancelled the staff meal allowance, so in real terms her wages were now lower. That's an unjust boss.
- Does your boss allow some flexibility in emergencies?
If a family member is seriously ill and you suddenly need to take time off work to help, will they let you take time off work now, as long as you catch up later?
- Do they care about your training and development?
Or at the end of the day, are they just out to get you to produce the goods?
- Do they allow you to talk about your faith as a Christian?
Or do they want you to keep quiet about your faith?
Well, Peter's original readers had a range of bosses from 1-10 as we do here. How does he instruct them? Verse 18:
"Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle [that's relatively easy] but also to the unjust [that's very hard]"
It's really hard to respect an unjust boss, because it hurts and you feel angry with them, but living this way carries the full weight of God's approval. Verses 19-20:
"For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God."
If you cut corners and your boss has words to say – or you plagiarise work and fail your coursework, you're getting what you deserve! But if your philosophy lecturer mocks you for producing work with a Christian viewpoint, or your manager deliberately pushes all the difficult clients your way… and you patiently endure the treatment… If that's you this evening, God knows your pain and he commends you – he approves of how you're living. Why does God approve of this? Because if we patiently endure unjust suffering, we are following the example of Jesus himself. Look down at verse 21.
"For to this [enduring unjust suffering] you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps."
Jesus was totally innocent. Verse 22:
"He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth."
He suffered patiently, as we heard in our New Testament reading. Verse 23:
"When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly."
Jesus entrusted his unjust suffering into God's hands, because he knew what God's plan was for him. Verses 24-25:
"He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls."
Peter is clear here: Jesus is our role-model when we face unjust suffering. But it's here that people raise two important objections.
Objection one: 'But isn't this a passive 'doormat' approach? Are Christians to be wimpy? Lacking backbone? Not self-assertive? Is this the approach Jesus is advocating?' Jesus was not a wimp! When he was silent, he wasn't cowing under the insults of his persecutors. No! He was submitting to the will of his Father. It's the same for us as Christians. We do not submit to unjust bosses because we fear them, but because we fear God – and want his will to be done.
Objection two: 'Does this mean we can't make use of the law, or workplace complaint procedures if we are mistreated?' No it doesn't! In fact, using the legal system in a principled way shows that we submit to the state. Using the avenues open to us to expose unjust treatment in the workplace (like sexual harassment or bullying) and get justice is good – not just for us, but for the welfare of other workers… But we must step short of revenge. We must not fight back. With God's help, we must seek to honour our boss even if we're in the difficult position of having to make an official complaint or the extreme position of having to press legal charges against them.
So, with the objections to one side, how then do we actually follow the example of Jesus? We can't copy Jesus completely – Jesus alone bore our sins in his body on the Cross. He alone paid for our sin and took God's anger away from us. He alone can bring us to the Father. There's no way we can copy that. (And if you wouldn't yet call yourself a Christian here this evening, you need to first understand what Jesus did for you on the Cross, before you then seek to follow his example.) But although no-one can copy Jesus' finished sacrifice for sin on the Cross, Christians are to copy Jesus in the sense of suffering unjustly to bring about good. Let me explain.
The will of God for Jesus was to suffer unjustly on the Cross. The good he did was to bring salvation by dying for the sins of the world. The will of God for us is to suffer unjustly, that we might walk in Christ's footsteps. We do this good thing to attract the world to the salvation Jesus offers. Jesus suffered on the Cross… to bring people to God. We Christians suffer in world… to point people to Jesus – and that's what our lives on earth are all about. As Peter says in verse 12:
"Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation."
Father, please help us to follow the example of Jesus when we face unjust suffering from the state, at work, or from people around us. We pray that by living like this we would attract people to Jesus Christ. In his name, Amen.