July 5, 2008

Be Holy: 1 Peter 1:13-21

Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: "Be holy, because I am holy." Since you call on a Father who judges each man's work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear. For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God. (1 Peter 1:13-21)

Remember the context in which Peter wrote this letter. In 64 A.D., a fire destroyed several hundred acres of homes, shops, and pagan temples in Rome. The people suspected the emperor, Nero, had set the fire, and historians agree. Shortly after the fire, Nero appropriated about 100 acres of the burned areas (some historians say he seized 300 acres) to build for himself a new palace and its grounds. Facing a growing public opinion that he had had the fire set for the purpose of clearing land for his new palace, Nero placed blame on the Christians, releasing a long and bloody government-led persecution in which thousands of Christians were murdered and crucified. The Christians in Rome and other large cities of the Roman empire fled to the countryside, where the could find relative peace in villages and rural areas, primarily in the northern parts of Asia Minor (modern Turkey).

Virtually every pagan religion was acceptable in Roman culture because they recognized many gods, and those practicing one of the many pagan religions did not object to worshiping the emperor in addition to their other gods. The Roman government required worship of the emperor as a god as a condition of Roman citizenship and in order to have the right to own property, earn a living, and buy and sell in the marketplace. Christianity was not acceptable in Roman culture because it did not acknowledge pagan gods, including the emperor.

The fire in Rome was devastating not only to the thousands of homes and shops it destroyed, but also to the many pagan religious ideas in which the people believed. The fire spared nothing, including the pagan temples and the household gods, small pagan idols in every home and shop to protect the property and inhabitants. After the fire did its work, the people saw that their gods were not powerful enough to protect them, and blaming the Christians was, in a way, a method of rationalizing the destruction: the Christian God had somehow overpowered the pagan gods, whose powers were seen as having been reasserted by the persecution and killing of the Christians, because killing them proved their God was not powerful enough to protect them.

Last week, we discussed Satan’s desire to discredit God and His people. In the instance of these first century Christians, it was in the form of a huge public event, the fire in Rome, and a government that instigated persecution. Today, it may be more subtle as various cultures, including our own western culture, seek to discredit or minimize the Christian principles and practices, as well as deny the existence of God Himself or reject the idea that Jesus is the only way for salvation and communion with God the Father. In a semantic reversal, the Christians, and not the culture, are regarded as intolerant, whereas it is the culture itself, with its ecumenical, polytheistic ideas of religion, that is intolerant. Sometimes Christians observe that it is their religious beliefs, and only theirs, that the culture seems to routinely reject as unacceptably rigid.

Some Christians themselves don’t help matters, as we discussed last week. Every evangelical leader publically exposed in sexual sin, fraudulent business or ministry practices, or opulent living tends to reinforce the culture’s attitude toward our faith. Every Christian business person whose business practices are less than honest leads unbelievers to conclude that the Christian faith is inconsistent with its claims has little to offer. Every Christian who yields to sexual temptation, expresses racial bias, or lives a prideful, arrogant lifestyle helps the unbelieving culture conclude once more that the Christian message is not that different from that of the culture.

But Peter points out that Christian are different. In chapter 1 verse 1, Peter calls these first century Christians “God’s elect, strangers in the world.” That applies to us, too. Authentic Christians do not subscribe to the self-centered, me-first values of our culture. We are different. We are “strangers in the world” because worship and serve the one and only God and energetically adopt His character traits and subscribe to His principles for living.

Lest we start feeling sorry for ourselves or see ourselves as victims in a culture that largely rejects our beliefs and values, remember that God chose us to live in the world as His ambassadors and witnesses, a world full of opposition to our faith and full of temptations that confront us. The night before He died, Jesus prayed: “I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:14-15).

In light of that, in the passage today Peter advises us how we should live as strangers in a hostile world. The basic question he answers is: How do we live a holy life in an unholy world? Peter gives us four principles to follow:

Be prepared (13-14)

God wants us not to live blindly, following whatever notions of character and behavior currently in vogue, but to think and live in light of who we really are. Notice that verse 13 starts with “therefore.” Peter is saying that in light of what I’ve just told you, here’s what to do. And what has he just told them? Look at the first 12 verses for the answer. He has told them that God has a great interest in us, has given us a new birth; we are no longer who we were, enslaved to our sin nature, but new people with a new relationship with our Creator. Peter also has pointed out that God has a purpose for allowing us to face trials, and, finally, that we live in a special time: whereas the prophets who wrote centuries before about the coming Messiah, we have experienced Him.

Peter advises us to prepare our minds (verse 13). Literally, he writes “gird up the loins of your mind,” evoking the picture of a soldier preparing for battle. He adds that we must be self-controlled (literally, “sober”; in control). Living in a pagan culture and facing temptations does not mean merely to try to live detached in a spiritual dream world. It takes a decision of the mind. As James says, resist the devil and he will flee from you.

Peter is reminding us that our propensity to do wrong or determination to be holy is a decision of the mind. Paul expresses it just as clearly: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). That means removing the contaminants, like your heating system’s filter removes the dust from the air in your home.

But the process is not just to resist evil. Peter adds that we must set our hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. So it’s not just filtering out the unholy from our minds that is important, but filling it instead with what is good.

Peter is in agreement with the other New Testament writers: the temptations and troubles of the present pale compared to our future hope, when we see our Savior. Paul gives us the practical prescription in Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Be holy (15-16)

We know that “holy” means “set apart to God” or, simply, “pure” or “set apart from sin and impurity” in the sense of God’s perfect moral purity. There is not much to add to Peter’s instruction: be holy in all you do. No doubt we can find a lot of lists of do’s and don’ts about how to live more holy lives. But becoming better at being holy isn’t just something we do, it is something God does together with us called sanctification. As we mature in the faith, we naturally show that with thoughts and behaviors closer and closer to holiness.

That said, let me just give one practical way to help us along the path of holiness as we face temptations daily: always think about the consequences and not the brief pleasure of sin. In the short run, frankly, most wrong actions offer pleasure or satisfaction. We tend to want to take vengeance, for example. Don’t we all feel justified or satisfied at the prospect getting vengeance for some wrong done to us? Also coming to mind are other self-centered actions such as sexual sin, stealing, gossiping, anger. We could make a long list of unholy attitudes and behaviors which, in the short run, offer temporary feelings of satisfaction, pleasure, or justification.

But when a little time passes, the positive feelings are gone. They always go away, and we are left to deal with the consequences. There are the spiritual consequences such as grieving God, damaging the cause of Jesus Christ, and harming our reputation and ministry. There can be physical consequences such as pregnancy and disease and emotional consequences such as guilt, shame, and broken relationships.

Here’s what the writer of Hebrews had to say about how Moses handled a big temptation: “By faith Moses' parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king's edict. By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh's daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king's anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel” (Hebrews 11:23-28).

Or perhaps we should just remember to heed the advice from Proverbs 10:23: “A fool finds pleasure in evil conduct, but a man of understanding delights in wisdom.” (In Proverbs, the definition of a fool is a person who does not have wisdom.)

So a good question to ask when on the verge of lashing out at someone or yielding to some temptation that promises pleasure or satisfaction might be: Is the short-term satisfaction I will have worth the pain that will follow?

Live in constant reverence (17)

The term “fear” means both reverence or extreme respect, and fear or terror. (I am using the NIV for our study of 1 and 2 Peter because of how well it translates both the words and the thoughts; “reverent fear” is as close a translation as we can get.)

Everyone will appear before God one day to give an account of how he or she lived. For the Christian, our works will result in gaining or losing rewards: “By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).

No one, saved or unsaved, escapes giving an account of himself or herself to God: “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).

That leads me to better understanding the “reverent fear” in verse 17 of our passage today. In every temptation, I should learn to think about the fact that there will come the day when I stand before God to be judged according to my attitudes and actions. So it’s a good idea to begin every day with a sense of awe for Him It’s also a good idea to pray about the challenges facing me and ask for His grace and power to deal with them.

Remember what God has done for me (18-21)

So far we have dealt with the “what”: be prepared, be holy, live in constant reverence for Him. Now Peter deals with the “why,” the motivation: refusing to yield to temptation not just because I will be judged, but more important because I want to honor my God after all He has done for me.

Jesus rescued me by dying in my place. It’s hard to think of love and sacrifice stronger than that. That act of redemption also enables me to be a different person. Jesus also gave us the perfect example of living and dealing with temptations: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

But He did something else, too. He sent the Holy Spirit to live in us, and it is He, the Holy Spirit, who makes it possible for us to live the way Jesus lived: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

(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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