1 Peter 1:1-2
Peter was a man who knew what it felt like to fail miserably, and he was a man who knew what if felt like to lose hope. His failure, his denial that he even knew Jesus in Jesus’ darkest hour, appears in the pages of Scripture for all to read, to study, to dissect, and to judge. He had succumbed to the pressure of danger and suffering, denying that he even knew Jesus, his best friend, because he knew that if he admitted to knowing Jesus, traveling with Jesus, following the way of Jesus, he too could be beaten, as Jesus was being beaten. He feared for his safety, and he feared for his life, and so he denied knowing Jesus.
And then Roman soldiers drove spikes through Jesus wrists and ankles, nailing him to a cross. And that cross was raised on the hill, and Jesus, his friend, his rabbi, the one he had left everything to follow, died a horrific death by crucifixion. Less than a week ago, Peter had walked proudly into Jerusalem beside Jesus as the crowds shouted “Hosanna! Save us lord!”
He wasn’t hiding then. But a few days later? After his denial. After Jesus was crucified. He and the other disciples were hiding. They were hiding because as the closest associates of a convicted, crucified criminal, they too could be rounded up, beaten, and executed. They hid because they were afraid. They were afraid because they’d lost hope. And they’d lost hope because they’d seen Jesus arrested, beaten, and crucified. They’d lost hope because things didn’t go the way they thought they were supposed to go.
But Peter had also seen hope rekindled. He had seen his failures restored. When he arrived breathless at the tomb with his friend John, when he saw the place where Jesus’ body was laid, the grave cloths cast aside, the cloth that had covered Jesus’ face neatly folded … when he realized that Jesus was alive … everything changed. The flame of hope that had been snuffed out as Jesus life faded away was rekindled, and that flame of hope would never again die out.
No matter what situation Peter faced, no matter how dire the situation, no matter how difficult life got, he would never lose hope again, because Jesus was, and is, alive.
Thirty years later, in backwater territories of the Roman Empire in the northern parts of what we now call the nation of Turkey, on the southern shores of the Black Sea, in places like Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, Christians were coming under pressure because of their faithfulness to Jesus.
In places like this, Christians were mostly made up of disenfranchised people, and people with little social standing or power. They were slaves of harsh masters, and wives of godless husbands. And their faithfulness to Christ made their already precarious position even worse. They weren’t coming under any official Roman persecution yet. Rome didn’t care much about anyone out where they lived. But strong persecution was coming. The storm clouds were on the horizon. And locally, their neighbors were already taking things into their own hands. They were starting to experience suspicion, abuse, and mistreatment because they refused to bow before Caesar as a god, giving their loyalty and worship to the crucified and risen Christ instead.
They had no standing. They had no power. They had little by way of resources. And now, things were worse, not better, because they followed Jesus. And their flame of hope was beginning to waver.
By now, Peter was in chains in Rome. Paul had just recently been martyred. It was likely that Peter soon would be to. And Peter wasn’t a Roman citizen like Paul was, so he didn’t have some of the advantages the imprisoned Paul had. But he could still get out a letter or two. And so he summoned a man named Silvanus who had penned some of Paul’s letters when Paul was imprisoned in Rome, and he sent out a letter to these backwater, harried Christians whose hope was failing.
How Peter had heard about their situation we don’t know. Someone had passed on word that they were struggling. So Peter, the one who knew the struggle, who knew what it felt like to lose hope, and have it rekindled again, wrote to encourage them. Turn with me to 1 Peter 1:1-2.
From now to early summer we’re going to be walking together through 1 Peter, Peter’s letter to the struggling Christians in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. I’m calling this series “A Living Hope.” Because the truth is, all who follow Christ will at some point have their hope tested, because we will all suffer. We will all face pressure at some point.
In John 15:18-20 Jesus tells us, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” God’s people WILL suffer in this world.
But we have to understand what suffering is, because we use the word differently than it was used in the New Testament. Actually, our English word “suffer” encompasses the meaning of several New Testament Greek words. In English, it’s actually a pretty generic word, when you think about it. It basically covers any kind of experience that is bad or unpleasant. Could be a bad situation at work or an illness or a lost job. Anything bad really.
But it’s more specific in the New Testament. The New Testament in particular differentiates between illness and suffering. Suffering is being persecuted for your faithfulness to Christ. That is why those experiencing illness are told to pray for healing, and those who are suffering are told to pray for endurance. We are to pray for healing for the sick, and for endurance for the suffering. And that challenges us as American Christians, because we have a very stunted view of suffering.
Ajith Fernando, a Christian leader from Sri Lanka who ministers to the urban poor, writes:
The church in each culture has its own special challenges – theological blind spots that hinder Christians from growing to full maturity in Christ …. I think one of the most serious theological blind spots in the western church (that’s us) is a defective understanding of suffering. There seems to be a lot of reflection on how to avoid suffering and on what to do when we hurt. We have a lot of teaching about escape from suffering and therapy for suffering, but there is inadequate teaching about the theology of suffering ….
The “good life,” comfort, convenience, and a painless life have become necessities that people view as basic rights. If they do not have these, they think something has gone wrong …. One of the results of this attitude is a severe restriction of spiritual growth, for God intends us to grow through trials.[i]
Suffering is a transformative experience. It is in times of trial and suffering that our roots of faith go down deep and we come out stronger, and at the same time gentler and more empathetic toward those around us who are suffering. But suffering for Christ’s sake? We don’t know much about that, do we? Not REAL suffering here in the United States. People might disagree with us and call us closed minded, but that’s about as far as it goes. But maybe we SHOULD ask ourselves, “What is wrong with our witness and our lifestyle if the world doesn’t persecute us?”
Now, be careful. This isn’t a call to be obnoxious. The Christians Peter wrote to weren’t being obnoxious. They weren’t trying to force other people to see things their way or do things their way. They couldn’t. They had no power. They were just living their day to day lives following Jesus, and that caused them to stand out anyway. They weren’t picketing. They weren’t protesting. They weren’t marching on Rome holding up banners. They were just living their lives faithful to Jesus.
Peter cared about what these nameless Christians were going through because he’d gone through it. Imagine being one of those struggling Christians, breaking the seal and unrolling the scroll of this letter to read it aloud during your probably secret or at least low-key gathering of fellow Christians. And your eyes fall on the first sentence, and you stop. “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ …”
Just that first word – Peter. It is Peter writing to you. He’s never met you, but he knows you’re there. And it’s an encouraging letter. He’s in prison in Rome, awaiting execution, and he’s writing to encourage you! He’s concerned not about himself, but about you. He wants you to know the hope that he has. A hope whose flame never fades and cannot be snuffed out.
Peter wants you to know, wants us to know, that we have an identity grasp. Look at V. 1. He uses two words to describe his audience of struggling Christ followers … elect exiles. Those words describe every follower of Christ in every age and in every place. Elect exiles.
Elect means “chosen.” As followers of Christ, we are God’s chosen people. He chooses us. Which seems weird to us because we think of ourselves as choosing to follow Jesus, and we do. But before we choose to follow Jesus, God has chosen to save us. We receive God’s grace because God has chosen to offer it, not because we have earned it or deserve it. Your identity comes not from your social standing or the amount of power and control you have over your life and your situation. Your isn’t in your degrees and titles. It doesn’t come from what you do or don’t own. Your identity comes first and foremost from being God’s elect, chosen by God.
The second word is exile. Sometimes its also translated as aliens or sojourners. The point is, because you are a follower of Christ, this world is not your home. You are a sojourner here, an exile. In Philippians 3:20, Paul says, “But our citizenship is in heaven.” As followers of Christ we are citizens not of this world but of the Kingdom of God. We live here as resident aliens.
That doesn’t mean we withdraw from the world and live in a little Christ-following cloister. We live here IN this world, among the peoples of this world, all the while realizing that we ourselves are not OF this world. We are citizens of the kingdom of God. And our role here is to live AS citizens of the kingdom of God IN this world.
And that leads to us living lives that have a different flavor than others, with different priorities, marked by different characteristics and values. And that can lead to suffering for Christ’s sake, because we aren’t marching in step with the rest of the world. We are elect exiles, citizens of God’s kingdom living his life in this world.
And as we grasp that identity, we also have a hope to hold on to. Look at V. 2. We are citizens of God’s kingdom, elect exiles “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.” This doesn’t just mean that God can predict the future. It means that God holds the future, and the past and present, in his hand. It means that God sees you and knows you, regardless of the situation you find yourself in. Even if you are suffering, God sees and knows you and loves you. And he knows your tomorrow better than you ever will and he’s already there working for your good, even when you are suffering.
We are also elect exiles in the sanctification of the Spirit. What does that mean? Sanctification is the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives, reaching into our lives and making us God’s chosen people, God’s elect, both willing and able to obey him.
Because we are also elect exiles for obedience to Christ and sprinkling with his blood. It is the shed blood of Christ that paves the way for us to be in relationship with God, elect exiles, citizens of the kingdom of God living in this world. Popular author and shame researcher Brené Brown recently talked about coming back to church after years away and the moment “the whole Jesus thing” finally clicked. She said:
People would want love to be unicorns and rainbows. So then you send Jesus, and people say, “Oh my god, love is hard, love is sacrifice, love is trouble, love is rebellious.” As Leonard Cohen sings, “Love is not a victory march … it’s a broken hallelujah.” Love isn’t hearts and bows. It is very controversial. In order for forgiveness to really happen, something has to die. Whether it’s your expectations of a person, or your idea about who you are. There has to be a death for forgiveness to happen. In all of these faith communities where forgiveness is easy, and love is easy, there’s not enough blood on the floor to make sense of that.
All of a sudden, it becomes clear why Christians take forgiveness to heart. The blood on the floor is Christ’s own.[ii]
We are the people of God in this world through the combined, unified work of Father, Spirit, and Son.
Now, while every analogy of the Trinity has its limitations, this picture illustrates one aspect of our Triune God – that they are all on the same team.
Say a family is trapped in a forest fire, so a helicopter team undertakes a rescue. One fireman flies the helicopter over the smoky blaze to coordinate the operation and see the big picture. A second fireman descends on a rope into the billowing smoke below to track down the family and stand with them. Once he locates the family, he wraps the rope around them, attaching them to himself, and they are lifted up together from the blaze into safety. In this rescue operation the first fireman looks like the Father, who can see the whole field unclouded from above to sovereignly orchestrate the plan.
The second fireman looks like the Son, who descends into our world ablaze to find us, the human family, and identify with us most deeply in the darkness of the grave. The Spirit is like the rope, who mediates the presence of the Father to Jesus, even in his distance, and raises Jesus – and the human family with him – from sin, death, and the grave, into the presence of the Father. Of course, like all analogies, this one falls short. The Spirit is a person, not a thing (like the rope). And the Father, Son, and Spirit are not separate individuals but the one God, sharing a divine nature and essence as one being.[iii]
We have an identity as elect exiles, the people of God in this world, to grasp. We have a hope in the work of Father, Spirit, and Son to hold on to. And as we grasp our identity and hold on to our hope, we can choose to embrace suffering. That doesn’t mean we go looking for it. But when it comes, we can realize that God is at work even in our suffering for our good and for the good of his Kingdom. When suffering comes, and it will, we can embrace it and find in it God’s hand at work, and we will find there a hope that refuses to die. Let us pray.
[i] Ajith Fernando, The Call to Joy and Pain (Crossway Books, 2007), pp. 51-52
[ii] William McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints), (Mockingbird, 2015), page 47
[iii] Adapted from Joshua Ryan Butler, The Pursuing God (Thomas Nelson, 2016), page 122