June 28, 2008

Trials and Discouragement: 1 Peter 1:1-12

1 Peter 1:1-12:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to God's elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.

(Note that I am using the New International Version in this study of Peter’s letters; The NIV translators did an excellent job of translating both the literal words and the thought of the text.)


Recently, I read a news article about a minister from a prominent Dallas-area megachurch. He had been caught in an Internet sex sting and charged with online solicitation of a minor. According to the article, undercover police officers posing as a 13-year-old girl communicated with the 52-year-old pastor from Plano, Texas, for two weeks in online conversations that were sexually explicit. Finally, the pastor suggested in the online exchange that the girl meet him in person. After making the arrangements, he drove 200 miles to meet her in Bryan, Texas, where was arrested by police. The pastor was one of 40 ministers at the church, which is one of the largest churches in the country with 26,000 members. His assigned ministry at the church was to teach and counsel married adults.

Our culture dismisses these kinds of actions as just another prominent hypocritical American pastor who was caught. Many or most of them are hypocritical, Americans largely believe; they are “just like we are”—the priests, the televangelist caught hiring prostitutes, the ministry convicted of fraud, the nationally respected evangelical association president whose homosexual trysts were revealed; the list goes on and on. So many are viewed as “just like we are”—self-centered, out to gain another dollar, addicted to power and influence, driven by lust—but “not like we are” in that they profess a high standard of morals and righteousness.

The accurate perspective on all this is that the world is indwelt by Satan and his demons, who seek not only to keep people enslaved to self-centered sinful natures, but perhaps most of all, to discredit the church and minimize its reputation. An effective way is to tempt and expose Christians not living consistently with the faith they claim, and then parade them before the world. The message to the culture is that Christians are not different as they profess to be; that the church is, in reality, false, a sham.

This has been the case from the beginning, and it is the setting for Peter’s epistles to Christians in the first century, who are described in 1 Peter 1:1 as having “scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.”

Perhaps the first question is, what made it necessary for the Christians to scatter?

The general answer is persecution, and specifically in this case, the persecution involved the great fire in Rome in 64 A.D. In mid-July, 64 A.D., a fire started in Rome and burned for five days, completely destroying about 1/3 of the city, mostly residential neighborhoods and market areas. Historians generally agree that the emperor, Nero, had the fire set in order to rid the city of its extensive lower-class areas. After the fire, Nero used a large part of the burned-out area to build a new palace, whose grounds spread over 100 acres (some historical accounts say the new palace grounds covered as many as 300 acres). He required large payments, called tribute, from all of Rome’s provinces and conquered territories to pay for the new luxurious home.

The fire was a big blow to the city’s culture. Temples to the Greek and Roman gods burned along with thousands of houses and shops, each of which contained idols thought to provide guidance and protection to the inhabitants. The destruction from the fire thus had great religious implications in that the Romans realized that their many deities were not only unable to protect them, but also were themselves consumed by the fire.

The many thousands of Romans who had lost everything were homeless for many months. Their suspicion and resentment quickly grew as Nero immediately had the land cleared and started construction of his new palace. The people suspected Nero of arson so he could take over the land he wanted, and Nero needed someone to blame.

Nero chose the Christians, who were already hated for their association with the Jews and their hostility to Roman culture and rejection of its pagan idols and temples. The Christians were a convenient scapegoat. There was already widespread persecution of the Christians in much of the Roman empire and in Judea a growing insurrection among the Jews (with whom the Christians were identified, since the Christian faith grew out of Judaism). It was the ideal timing for Nero and his governors to spread the word through the Roman empire that the Christians had burned Rome.

The widespread persecution of Christians quickly intensified, with thousands of Christian families slaughtered and crucified. The Romans had their scapegoat and sought with abandon to rid the empire of its Christians. Consequently, a great migration took place as Christians left the cities to seek the relative safety of distant and rural areas of the empire, as far away from the government-led persecution as possible.

This is the scene in which Peter wrote the epistles of 1 and 2 Peter, addressed to “God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered” throughout the rural eastern parts of the Roman empire, primarily in what is today northern Turkey.

While we don’t face the same kind of uncertainty as his first readers, Peter’s epistle speaks to us today. In their own way, our lives can sometimes be difficult, too. Technology has made us more comfortable, more mobile, and better informed. But like those early Christians, we still live in an intolerant world in which Satan seeks to discredit the only true God. In the early centuries of Christianity, Satan accomplished the persecution openly and violently against the Christians, who rejected the polytheism of their cultures. Today it is more subtle: through the well-publicized sin of a high-profile pastor that discredits the reality of the new birth and new nature, through unbelievers seeing Christians around them as not really much different in giving in to temptations of greed and the pleasures of sin, or the so-called Christian despots pursuing ethnic cleansing in third-world regions.

Peter tells us that times of trial will not go away, and, in fact, evil and difficult times will increase as the return of Christ approaches. His prescription is to rise above Satan’s influence and experience the hope that is in our God and Lord. His reassurances about our hope in our Savior and Lord are applicable to us as we, too, live in a world in which Satan’s goal continues to be to discredit us and discredit our Lord and the church.

In these introductory verses, our Lord gives us four reasons to be positive in days of discouragement:

God has a great interest in us (1:1-2)

When I think of strangers in the world, the phrase Peter uses in verse 1, I think of the nomadic tribal people groups in north Africa, living in tents. We refer to them generally as Bedouins, but there are many tribal groups. Many still are literally nomadic, living in tents and traveling from oasis to oasis. Others have chosen to settle in permanent homes, farm the land, and raise livestock. While those who choose to live in permanent homes are no longer literally nomadic, anthropologists say their nomadic tradition dominates their thinking and world view. They are, in a sense, strangers in their own world.

That may be pretty close illustration of what Peter means in addressing his readers as “God’s elect, strangers in the world.” As Christians living in this world, we’re similar to these nomads, spiritually speaking. Like these early Christians, we, too, are living in surroundings that seem strange or foreign if we truly are following Christ as our Lord. Our mindset and view of the world are not shaped by our surroundings and, in fact, are in most ways opposite of the world view of unbelievers around us.

We know that Peter’s early readers were literally scattered in strange surroundings. There is an analogy between them and the typical authentic Christian of any age, including today. Paul expresses this in Philippians 3:20, as he contrasts the unbeliever with the believer: “Our citizenship is in heaven.”

Peter’s epistle went out to Christians who were strangers because they had fled from their familiar surroundings to live in a region foreign to them. They were also strangers in the world as a whole, just as we are. Those scattered Christians of Peter’s day were subject to the misunderstandings, threats, insults, persecution, and other abuse that a pagan culture often inflicts on followers of Christ.

Peter gives encouragement to these alienated Christians, starting verse 2. He tells us that we should be encouraged because the Father chose us. Don’t worry about the term “chosen” (literally, “elect”). There are honest differences of opinion about the doctrine of election. No matter our interpretation of the issue, we can’t fully understand it. What we know for sure is that the world consists of believers, for whom Christ is Savior and Lord, and unbelievers, for whom He is not. The fact is, we chose to believe, and the Father chose to make us His children.

Peter writes that we should be encouraged because the Son shed His blood for us. Paul explains this in Romans 6:8-9: “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over Him.” Most of these early Christians had a Jewish background. They understood the blood atonement and the sprinkling of the blood of the sacrifice on the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies for the remission of sins. They would have completely understood Peter’s reference in verse 2 to the sprinkling of Christ’s blood, not in the temple, but on the throne of God the Father.

One of Peter’s major points is that we should be encouraged because the Spirit works in us. This work is called sanctification (“to set apart” or “make holy”). God does not just save us and walk away. The Holy Spirit continually sanctifies us to greater and greater spiritual maturity.

Peter ends his salutation: “Grace and peace be yours in abundance.” In other words, there is immeasurable joy and peace in knowing that God has such a profound interest in us. It is in that that we can rejoice as strangers in the world.

Another reason to be positive in days of discouragement is:

God has given us a new birth (3-5)

Peter doesn’t stop at the fact of our new birth. He explains some of its results. He tells us that we have a living hope (some versions, “lively” hope), the context of our living hope being the hope that exists through the resurrection of the Lord. Our resurrection is possible only because of Jesus’ resurrection; we have this certain expectation because of our new birth. Peter also makes the point that we have an inheritance that is certain: it is incorruptible; it will never perish, spoil, or fade; “kept in heaven for you,” which means reserved, guarded, sure to happen, and guaranteed by our Father in heaven.

He also stresses that we have the assurance of our ultimate redemption when Christ returns (we are “shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time”, verse 5). Peter uses the term “salvation” for both the initial trust in Christ as Savior and our final redemption at the second advent. Paul says it is indescribable: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:9, quoting Isaiah 64:4). We are “shielded by God’s power” until that day comes. “Shielded” is a military term referring to a military garrison quartered in a city to protect it.

Then Peter gives a third reason Christians should be positive in days of discouragement:

God has a purpose for our trials (6-9)

Notice the contrast in verse 6: we can rejoice in what God has done for us (positive), though now for awhile we suffer grief in trials (negative). Just as Paul teaches us in Philippians, Peter tells us that the Christian’s joy is not dependent on his or her circumstances. We can be encouraged that our trials are temporary (“for a little while”; some versions “for a season”).

Another comforting fact about trials (verse 7) is one we often find hard to swallow: trials are for our own good. Trials purify our faith, prove to us our faith is genuine. Our faith is of greater worth (some versions, “more precious”) than gold. Peter is alluding to the refining fire that melts the gold and separates it from the impurities in it. In other words, God uses trials to make us better; it is the result, not the process, that is important. Note that Peter here is not referring to “trials” that Christians bring on themselves with sinful behavior, but to trials and persecution resulting from the stand they take as followers of Christ as the only true Savior and Lord.

Finally, Peter gives us another reason to be positive in days of discouragement:

God has allowed us to live in a special time (1:10-12)

When the Old Testament prophets prophesied about the Messiah and the coming salvation and grace, Peter writes, they did not really understand what the future would be like in much detail. But as Christians, we do, because we are living in the age in which He has revealed Himself. To the prophets, God revealed some truths about the Messiah and gave them prophecies that were remarkably accurate about His first advent—His birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and the salvation and communion with God the Father which He was to reveal to mankind. Those prophecies energized and gave hope to the Israelites, but the picture they had of Jesus was faint and shadowy. But, as Peter points out, we live in an age in which we know Him. This does not mean merely that we know the story and can read about and research His life and ministry and their meanings. But we know Him intimately, through the experience of salvation and the continuing process of sanctification by the Holy Spirit Who lives in us, guides us, and counsels us.

And to emphasize even more strongly the relationship Christians have with the Father through the death and resurrection of Christ, Peter adds, “Even angels long to look into these things” (verse 12). Even the angels, who are God’s messengers and servants and who have the experience of being in His heavenly presence, fall short of the communion we have. They long to know the intimacy with God the Father which only authentic Christians can experience.

(Note: While I usually teach from the New King James Version [NKJV], I am teaching from the New International Version [NIV] in this study in the book of 1 Peter because the NIV so accurately renders the thought of the original text. Regardless of the English translation used, I also compare the English rendering with the Greek New Testament. For those not fluent in the biblical languages, a Greek-English interlinear Bible and Hebrew-English interlinear Bible can be of great assistance in revealing the original nuances of meaning of words and grammatical structure. Many of the interlinear Bibles also include Strong's numbering and Greek and Hebrew dictionaries keyed to the Strong's for concise definitions of the original terms. The most helpful Bible I have found is the MacArthur Study Bible, which is available in the New King James Version and the New American Standard [NASB] translation. The notations in the MacArthur Study Bible are extremely accurate in reflecting the literal meaning of the texts and are invaluable in providing the accurate scriptural backgrounds for the basic evangelical Christian doctrines derived from the literal view of Scripture. Another helpful Bible for English readers is the Hebrew Greek Key Study Bible, which is an NIV translation with numbering keyed to a Hebrew dictionary and Greek dictionary in the back of the book.)

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