If I were to ask you: 'How have you grown since you became a Christian?' I wonder how you would answer. Now, I'm no mind-reader, but I'm confident enough to suggest that many of us may have been thinking something along the lines of… 'I don't know how I've grown – I'm not even sure that I have grown.' Am I right?
Without doubt the process of spiritual growth is long and tricky one – full of ups and downs. As we grow in our faith, knowledge and love, sometimes we fail to see that growth... and sometimes we drop the ball, spill our milk and go off in a huff. Just the week before last, I had a falling out with my wife the likes of which we haven't had for ages and I'm ashamed to say that this supposedly mature man behaved as if he we still suffering from the 'terrible twos'. It's a reality folks; we can't deny it when it happens - sometimes things happen and we question whether we're growing at all. If only we had something, say some markers or questions, that could help realign us in such times… Well, let me reintroduce you to 1 Peter 3. In this chapter, the apostle Peter provides a number of helpful markers by which we can assess how we're doing. I've summed them up as five questions we would do well to note and ask ourselves every so often. The first question is this:
1. Do We Understand the Reality?
As I read this passage in preparation, this was the first thing that struck me… peppered throughout these verses is the assumption by Peter that difficulties, evil, opposition and suffering are to be expected. Let me give you a few examples. Verse 9:
"Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling."
Assumption? You will be on the receiving end of evil, you will be insulted. Verse 14:
"Have no fear of them, nor be troubled"
Assumption? You will experience things to trouble you. You will feel afraid. Verse 16:
"when you are slandered"
Assumption? People will speak ill of you, not 'if' but 'when' you are slandered. Verse 17:
"it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil."
Assumption? One way or another you're going to suffer. We pick up on this reality throughout Peter's letter and it reaches a crescendo at the end of Chapter 4. This is verse 12 of chapter 4:
"Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you."
In other words: expect it. This is the reality for followers of Jesus. And yet as the years of serving and following him roll by we tend to think differently, don't we? 'Why is this happening - I wasn't expecting this? I didn't think it'd get this bad - I don't deserve this! Why is it always me! Why is it only me?' But here's the thing - we're in a spiritual battle, yes, but the consequences are often felt in the physical realm and the reality is: difficulties, evil and suffering are to be expected for all of us. Selfish ambition resulting in an argument between husband and wife, family members, work colleagues – expect it! Opposition to the lifestyle choices you make in faithfulness to Jesus – expect it! Suffering and ridicule for doing the right thing on the football pitch or in the office – expect it! Another natural disaster, senseless murder, anger-inducing case of abuse – expect it! This is the reality.
One of the best things I've ever seen on television is Band of Brothers. It's a powerful portrayal of one unit of the US 101st Airborne Division from training in 1942, through to D-Day, through to Hitler's Eagles Nest in 1945. Numerous times we see soldiers digging fox holes for protection. We see them under fire. Yes, they're scared – but never are they surprised by the reality. They are expecting it. I can't recall one scene where one of the soldiers pops his head out of the foxhole and shouts back at the Germans 'What did you do that for? Was it something I said?' No! They understand the reality, they expect difficulties and they plan on them! Our spiritual reality is no different. If we're going to grow into maturity, we need to expect difficulties, evil, suffering, opposition. In fact, we need to plan on them. Question one: do we understand the reality? Question two:
2. Are We Following our Calling?
Of course, first we have to know what our calling is… and according to verse 9 it is to behave in a way that counters the world's way of doing things. We're not supposed to repay things in the way the world does:
"on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called"
We have been called to witness to Jesus by blessing the world through... counter-cultural living. Let's find out how Peter sees us doing that by getting into our text in a bit more detail. Verse 8:
Why does he say 'finally'? Well, let's not forget where we are up to in this letter. The finally doesn't mean he's coming to the end of it all – just the end of Part 1. And as we've been seeing, so far Peter has been mainly concerned with encouraging believers to live differently: live differently in the world, live differently in your families, live differently at work… and now finally live differently at church.
"Finally, all of you…"
This is addressed to us - brothers and sisters who love Jesus. Now, admittedly this exclusive focus only lasts a sentence but it's so important. Counter-cultural living 'out there' begins with different counter-cultural living 'in here' between us.
"Finally, all of you, have unity of mind…"
Literally a harmonious unity if you like – we're not all the same but we're working together in harmony in way the world out there rarely sees.
Literally 'feel with people' - share your emotions, cry together, laugh together, rejoice together!
"… brotherly love…"
Literally love each other with that loyal, committed, brotherly love - the kind of love that sticks at it through thick and thin.
"… a tender heart…"
That is, be kind and compassionate – counter-cultural living reaches out to those who hurt and expresses great compassion.
"…and a humble mind."
It's easy to pretend to be humble, but Peter is calling for humble spirits (not a humble façade) – there's no place for pride in the Lord's family. There's stacks of it out there! Not in here. So, counter-cultural living 'out there' begins with this kind of counter-cultural living 'in here' between us. But that then spreads out into the world and our counter-cultural behaviour is in evidence out there! Look at verse 9 again:
"Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called"
Friends, Peter is drawing our attention to the fact that faithful followers of Jesus not only need to give up the right to get even – they need to respond proactively with blessing! But that hard isn't it? Especially when we've been hurt. I mean, just think of the hurt you've experienced in the last little while – whether that's been criticism (professional or personal), whether you've been on the receiving end of someone's anger (rightly or wrongly) whether you're experiencing the deeper waters of hurt through betrayal, abuse or cruelty… it is hard to actively repay that hurt with blessing.
But friends, this is where the rubber of counter-cultural living hits the road. This is our calling. Peter doesn't say 'repaying evil with blessing is just one of a number of choices available to you!' No! This is our calling and we need to work out what it looks like in all of our different situations. Fortunately, Peter helps us out with some of the detail as he quotes Psalm 34 which we read earlier. Let me draw our attention to a few things…
Firstly, notice from verse 9, that forgiveness is the way to go. Any ideas of revenge need to go out the window. This whole process is so counter-cultural that it needs to flow out of all of those things we just mentioned in verse 8 – tenderness, sympathy, love and a humble mind. And from that humble mind comes the intentionality and desire to bless others. Secondly, notice verse 10 - the way we control our tongues plays a big part in all this. Sometimes, the best thing to do, initially at least, is to say nothing. We need to control and keep our tongues from evil. Next, verse 11 - notice that actively doing good features. And here we need to remember that while all notions of revenge need to be off the cards, that doesn't mean we forget about justice and righteousness. Evil and wrongdoing need to be acknowledged and addressed and sometimes the way we bless people is through the pursuit of justice through a third party: a well-meaning friend, a boss, an appeals process, sometimes even the police or courts. To repay hurt and evil with a blessing does not mean that we have to ignore the evil or pretend that its ok. But notice too in verse 11 the instruction...
"to seek peace and pursue it."
It reminds us that we will need to exercise discernment in how we bless. Indeed, the call to bless is not always a call to deeds. Sometimes sadly, that is not possible or appropriate with someone who has upset or harmed you. But whereas it's not always a call to deeds, the call to bless is always a call to a prayerful attitude. Do you see that in verse 12? The Lord's…
"ears are open to [our] prayer."
Jesus himself instructs us to (Matthew 5.44):
"Love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us"
What better or more powerful way is there to bless those who mistreat us than to pray for them?! So let me ask you again, are you following your calling by living in a way that counters culture – in 'here' and out 'there'? There's a reason for it. Look at verse 9 again:
"on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing."
And so, our third maturity marker, our third question is this:
3. Are We Motivated by the Promised Blessing?
Folks. We mustn't be embarrassed about this. You know on the one hand we are rightly concerned about the dangers of self-centred action and motivation. We hear the call to 'count the cost, to deny self and take up our cross and follow Jesus' and we can think that there is absolutely no place for self-interest in the Christian life. But I think that is to somewhat miss the point. Because on the other hand to trust in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is to grab hold of the greatest blessing of self-interest there is: rescue from death to life!
And God in his word has no qualms about that. In fact, he says, the best thing for us is to follow his laws and obey his commands, not because he is some form of 'killjoy-control-freak'. No, he says these things because he is our loving creator and he knows what's best for us and he wants what's best for us – because he wants to bless us – both in this world and the next. So what does this blessing look like? Take a look at verse 10:
"Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit"
Do you see that? Part of the blessing is the promise of good days – sometimes in this life, yes; certainly in the next! Of course, sometimes there aren't good days – in fact there are days that seem a million miles away from good – but the blessing there, is the contentment that comes from knowing that God has got this. He is in control…which provides part two of the blessing: protection. Verse 12:
"For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous"
God has promised that he will watch over those who faithfully follow his calling. He will protect us. There is nothing that anyone can do to us in this life that will rob God's people of their eternity with him. Nothing! Look at verse 13:
"who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?"
Its' a rhetorical question that expects the answer 'no one'. But Peter's realistic. He knows that bad things happen in this life and so he writes in verse 14:
"But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed."
Because no-one can take away that eternal blessing. As well as being a blessing of good days and protection, this promised blessing is also a blessing of restored relationship. Verse 12 again:
"…his ears are open to [our] prayer"
We're not alone. We get to enjoy fellowship, communion, conversation with the Creator of the universe in prayer! His ears are open to our prayer – he's listening! And he's listening because we're in restored relationship. Just jump ahead to verse 18 for a moment. There we are reminded how that relationship has been restored:
"For Christ also suffered [died] once for sins…that he might bring us to God."
Friends, it's this blessing - of restored relationship, protection and good days - that should motivate us to keep going and live differently. And it's not wrong to see that as self-interest because that's exactly how God wants us to see that. With our fourth question we get right to the heart of the matter:
4. Is Jesus Honoured in our Hearts as Holy?
Verses 14- 15:
"… Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy"
The heart of the matter is a question of who is at the centre of the heart. And Peter provides us with a deliberate contrast: man or Jesus? Who is more important? Do we fear/honour man or do we fear/honour God? Peter is drawing on teaching from Isaiah 8.11-13. Did you pick that up from when it was read earlier?
"For the Lord spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: "… do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honour as holy. Let him be your fear"
Friends to fear the Lord, to honour him in our hearts as holy, is to believe that Jesus is in charge and treat him as such. He's the boss, he's in ultimate control, he is trustworthy and worth obeying. Not man! And actually what happens is that the more we fill our hearts and minds with Jesus, the less we'll fear the threats and be afraid of man. Nothing exposes the truth of what we really believe in our hearts quite like what we are prepared to say. Jesus himself said – out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. So, you could say that what we are prepared to say is the litmus test of whether Jesus is truly honoured as holy in our hearts. Peter certainly seems to think this, hence the rest of verse 15:
"always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you"
In other words 'When the opportunities come, prove with your mouth that Jesus is Lord in your heart!' How? Peter is very practical here. By "being prepared" (i.e. do your homework / think about the way you find easiest or most natural to present the gospel / think about the questions that our culture is already asking / think about how you can get from those to Jesus as soon as possible!) "Always being prepared", that is have a bash at every opportunity that comes your way. Don't let some go to waste – take every one! By speaking with "gentleness and respect" – it's not about winning the argument, it's about being faithful! Too often we seek to take our enquirers out with a slam dunk of an argument or point and in the process we can clamber over them and floor them. Peter says 'not that way! Do it gently and respectfully.' You may be saying – ok that's fine, but I don't get that many opportunities. And the question I think Peter would say back is – well are you really living counter-culturally then? Because most of the time 'being ready to give a reason for the hope that you have' actually begins with a counter-cultural lifestyle that then raises the right questions…
- Why do you do that?
- Why don't you do that?
- Why do you go to church?
- Why do you read the Bible?
- Why don't you join in with that kind of language or that kind of behaviour?
- How are you able to be so patient and kind with our infuriating boss?
- How do you keep going, given all that's happened to you?
- How on earth were you able to forgive that person for what they did?
Do you see how the questions come? And once the question is asked, the green light is on and you go for it. 'Well let me tell you about the hope that I have… I'd love for you to know it too!' You know the wonderful thing about not fearing man and taking every opportunity to talk about hope is that we get to talk about the content of the gospel. And the more we talk about the gospel, the more we are reminded and assured by the victory of Jesus. And this is where Peter goes with the remainder of this chapter. Our final question:
5. Are We Living with the Assurance of Jesus' Victory?
Often times the pressure and struggle of trying to live counter-culturally comes at a cost. And humanly we can be tempted to ask 'Is it really all worth it?' Well, in these last few verses Peter assures his readers that Jesus has gained the victory. Verse 18:
"For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit"
This is Gospel 101. It's remarkably similar to Paul's simple gospel summary in 1 Corinthians 15 – Christ died for our sins, was buried and raised to life. Friends, when we are talking about the reason for the hope we have – this is the basis. We've got to mention the death and resurrection and explain why they were necessary. Why are they necessary? Because they bring about the potential of transformation in the human soul that is impossible in any other way. This work of Christ brings about transformation. Now admittedly, the imagery Peter uses to describe that transformation almost trips itself up here, it's so dense. But I think we can see a transformation from death, dirt, disobedience and imprisonment in verses 18-20 to life, washing, renewal and freedom to obey in verses 20-21.
And if that dense mix isn't enough there's also this weird bit about Noah to try and get our heads around! These few verses are some of the hardest in the whole Bible to make sense of. Much ink has been spilled over them. But here's what I think is going on. Let me try and put it as simply as I can: The point of these verses isn't to give us a timeline of exactly when Jesus did what he did. Jesus is alive in the Spirit and outside of time. No! The point of these verses is to show that God, through his eternal son, walked with Noah through a time of suffering. We know that don't we? We know what happened to Noah. God brought him out the other side of all that opposition and evil; God brought him through the flood of judgement and kept him safe. And God is going to do that with us too – because of the work of Jesus on the cross. He saved Noah, he saved Jesus – and (v.21) through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, he will save us too.
This is the assurance we need today – whatever challenges and opposition we may be facing, however mature or immature we may be feeling: God can be trusted to deliver on his promise. Jesus has won the victory; Jesus is at God's right-hand side and he has all the power and authority in the whole cosmos to bring us through. His eyes are on you and his ear is attentive to your prayer! And however we spill the milk and mess up, his arms remain outstretched – just like they were on that cross – saying 'my grace is sufficient for you. I'm bringing you through. In repentance and faith, the victory is won.'
You know, as a Christian you have everything you need to be what you ought to be. Spiritual maturity is not a process of gaining things that you did not have when you first became a Christian. Just like a new-born baby: new babies are born with all the physical equipment they will ever have. They don't reach the age of 10 and suddenly grow legs. They don't reach the age of 18 and suddenly grow a brain – as much some parents wish they would! No, a new born baby lacks nothing, but it needs to grow and mature and learn how to use what it already has. It's just the same with a Christian. And Peter is saying here 'Keep growing and maturing in these areas by remembering...
- The reality of evil
- The call to counter-cultural living
- The blessing you'll inherit
- To keep the Lord Jesus revered in your heart
- The assurance of victory!