September 27, 2008

Be Clear Minded and Self Controlled: 1 Peter 4:7-11


I ran across a quotation this week from Billy Sunday, the well-known American evangelist of the ‘20s and ‘30s. He said, “Preach the gospel, and if you have to, use words.” I googled the phrase and found it originated with St. Francis of Assisi. Although there are slight variations, depending on which source one consults, St. Francis’ original quotation is: “Go out and preach the gospel with all your might, and if you have to, use words.” It’s a good thought that relates to our passage today that deals with some Christian characteristics. People around us watch us, they see our strengths and weaknesses, and they know, perhaps more from what we do and how we treat others than from the words we preach, whether or not we believe in the faith we profess.

As we begin today, I want to review briefly what Peter has told us so far in this letter. We recall that the Christians Peter wrote this epistle to were undergoing persecution. He has so far told them that Christians, even in the midst of persecution, have a living hope because Jesus, our Savior, defeated death itself. He reminded them not to regard just present circumstances as a measure of God’s care for them, but to remember that we have an inheritance that will never perish, spoil, or fade. In other words, no matter what we go through that negatively impact us, it is nothing compared to the inheritance that awaits us.

The world is different from us, opposes us, and we will endure trials, Peter wrote, adding that trials strengthen faith, and our faith will be honored when Jesus returns. He also told us how fortunate we are no matter our current circumstances: through the gospel we know the Savior, whom even the prophets we revere so highly saw only dimly.

Peter so far in his letter has given Christians a great deal of advice: to prepare our minds, be self controlled, our hope set on the grace given us (and not on circumstances of earthly life); not to seek evil desires, but to be holy, as our Savior demonstrated holiness; to live as strangers in the world with reverence for God.

He also tells us to love each other with both phileo love (brotherly love; take care of each other) and agape love (care about each other). Love each other without any selfish motives at all, he writes, and be truthful, kind, not hold grudges, and not speak evil of each other. In addition, we are to seek to grow more mature in the faith; that is, grow closer and closer to being holy in all we are (the process of sanctification).

Starting in 4:7, we find Peter thinking back to the words of Jesus, and reminding his readers that Jesus will, indeed, return victorious. He tells us to therefore be ready.

Remember that Peter was one of the apostles; he had traveled with Jesus and literally listened to His teachings hundreds and hundreds of times. I wonder if in writing verse 7 and the following verses he may be remembering the words of Jesus from Matthew 24:44-47: “So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect Him. Who, then, is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns.”

Today, we hear a lot about the last days. Many Christian writers emphasize when He will come and try to find the signs that His coming is imminent. Christians debate and write books to assert various views of the last days and Christ’s return. One can usually find a plentiful number of books in Christian bookstores defending the various positions about Christ’s next appearing. But Peter's emphasis isn't on when, but simply the assurance that it will happen, and he tells us to get ready and stay ready.

The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:7-11)

In this brief passage, Peter tells us three ways we should be ready for the coming of Christ:

Prepare yourself (7)

His initial statement, “the end of all things is near,” is a reference to Christ's return to judge and rule. “Therefore,” Peter writes, “be clear minded and self controlled, so that you can pray” (literal translation: “prepare yourself mentally and be self controlled, therefore, and attend to prayers”).

Peter isn't setting a date. He is just recognizing the doctrine that we regard Jesus' return as near; it could happen at any time. Jesus taught that His return is not necessarily way off in the future, but it will happen at any time, when we may not expect it. Certainly, the Christians even in the first century, in the midst of their persecution and dangerous living conditions, felt in the midst of the kind of turmoil that Christ predicted would precede His return.

And how, according to Peter, should we prepare? First, we should be clear minded (literally: “prepare yourself mentally”). In context, we might paraphrase this “always be thinking of eternity.” There is a bigger picture than our present stresses and troubles; think of His return and live accordingly. Second, we should be self controlled (literally: “calm, temperate, in control”).

We must not just regard our Lord emotionally, but also we must continue to grow in understanding and commitment, having prepared ourselves mentally by understanding God's love and character. And our purpose is not just to prepare ourselves mentally, but to act: to put ourselves under the control of our understanding of God and His character.

To be self controlled is to determine to do what is right, to allow God to control our wants and lusts, to allow Him to control our tempers and our speech; to determine to let Him make us the people He wants us to be. The NIV translation “be clear minded and self controlled so that you can pray” is really accurate here. Peter sees the mature Christian as one who understands God (clear minded) and who lives out God's character (self controlled) and therefore is prepared to pray. Throughout the Bible, prayer is presented as a deep interaction with God and not just an occasion for requests or praises. It is a constant communion with Him, sometimes formal, more often just a more casual ongoing communication and relationship.

Love each other deeply (8-9)

In verses 8 and 9, Peter expands his thoughts on how we should live in light of the approaching return of Christ. He probably personally heard Jesus’ words recorded for us in John 13:35: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Literally, verse 8 tells us to “have fervent love (agape) for each other”; that is, really care about each other, have a warm personal love for each other. That kind of love means we want to help each other, to meet each other’s needs even when it is difficult or inconvenient. Our relationship with God is pictured in our love for each other, and our love for each other deepens our relationship with God.

Agape love is not always easy. We have different personalities, different gifts, and different objectives in life. Sometimes we just don't understand what makes another person tick. But agape love overlooks all that. I love you because you are my family, my brother or sister, even though there may be rough spots.

Peter adds, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” Proverbs 10:12 gives us the same thought: “Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs.” And agape love is a characteristic of God. In Psalm 85:2, we read “You forgave the iniquity of your people and covered all their sins.” God's forgiveness is an expression of His love, just as our forgiveness is an expression of our love.

One way we show our love, according to verse 9, is to show hospitality. Hospitality means “generosity to guests.” The survival of these early Christians sometimes depended on hospitality to each other: sharing your home overnight with Christians fleeing persecution that was taking place in the cities. It could mean, for example, sharing your home for weeks or even months with homeless Christians running from persecution, sharing of clothing and food for the journey into the countryside, being a guide and traveling companion over an unfamiliar landscape, and taking in and adopting children of Christians killed in the persecution.

Hospitality in its basic meaning is generosity of many kinds and is an outworking of oour agape love for each other. Note also that Peter tells us to offer hospitality “without grumbling,” which means not grudging, without any hidden displeasure.

Serve others (10-11)

Finally, Peter tells us we should serve each other in light of the approaching return of Christ. Whatever gifts we have we should use to help each other. These may be spiritual gifts (giving, teaching, helps, etc.) or our talents. By serving others as we are able, we are “faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms” (10).

Peter singles out two examples of serving others in verse 11:

First, “If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God.” This refers to preaching, teaching, admonishing, praising, comforting in times of difficulty or mourning, expressing our feelings for each other, etc. Second, “If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised though Jesus Christ.”

Peter gives us two guidelines for service:

First, it's not about me. It's about the God I serve. It is His strength that makes me want to serve, and it is His strength that makes my service effective and useful. Both my desire and my ability to serve others comes from God. Second, serving others is not for my credit or glory, but for God's glory. Godly service, which is an outworking of agape love, does not seek glory for me, but gives glory to God. Serving each other is quiet, unpretentious, and does not expect anything in return.

Concluding thoughts

In the early 19th century, a preacher named William Miller was serving in Vermont. It was a time of revival in the churches of the northeastern part of the United States, and there was great interest in prophecies, especially the return of Christ. After years of study, Miller announced in 1822 that he had pinpointed Christ's return to the mid 1840s. He later announced that the date of Jesus' return would be October 22, 1844.

On the morning of October 22, 1844, thousands of people gathered on mountaintops and in churches, having quit jobs, given away homes and farms. They were ready and waiting to rise with Christ. Many others gathered around the tombs of parents and loved ones, so they would ascend together. A number of people of social stature from Philadelphia gathered outside the city, wanting to enter God's kingdom together and not among commoners.

When the day passed uneventfully, many Christians grew disillusioned, and their unsaved friends were cynical. The event became known as “The Great Disappointment.” Miller said through human error the Bible's chronologies and prophecies were somewhat inaccurate, and he died in 1849 still trying to work out the date. Miller's followers formed the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which still exists, preaches the gospel faithfully, and no longer sets the date of Jesus return.

I wonder if you've ever found Bible prophecy to be a little disappointing. It's not that you don't believe Christ will return, but it can get confusing trying to make sense of all the conflicting theories about the rapture, the tribulation, and the millennium.

Peter shows us the way to approach the prophecies of Christ's next appearing. He tells us to start with the right question, which is not “how can I figure out exactly when Christ will return?” but instead a simple commitment: “Lord, since I know You will return, help me to live righteously, love deeply, serve selflessly, and to be found upon your return to be serving faithfully.”

September 20, 2008

Arm Yourselves with the Mind of Christ: 1 Peter 4:1-6

Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin. As a result, he does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you. But they will have to give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit. (1 Peter 4:1-6)
You will remember from our previous discussions that Peter's epistle was written to Christians who were in a terrible trial. They had lost their homes and livelihoods and had fled from Rome and other Roman cities to the relative safety of the rural areas of Asia Minor, which is today the northern region of Turkey.

Peter has not ignored their persecution, but he has assured them that their hope is not of this world, but in their 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" (1:3-4).

And while he understands and sympathizes with their present suffering, he reminds them of the special gift they have of knowing their Lord and Savior and that their present circumstances, however painful, do not negate that fact. Peter counsels his readers to remember they are God's chosen and thus must live holy lives, love each other, be good citizens even of an evil and corrupt government, repay evil not with evil but with good, and seek righteousness and peace. What is to fear, he asks, if you are eager to do good?

Now, in chapter 4, Peter turns more personal and deals with responding to temptations. He sees our lives as a struggle for which we need to arm ourselves. We are to arm ourselves not with physical weapons, but with understanding and attitude. Peter names three of these: (1) the mind of Christ (v.1-2), (2) the will of God (v.2), rejection of a sinful lifestyle (v.3-6).

Arm yourself with the mind of Christ (1)

Peter opens chapter 4 with the word "therefore," which refers back to what he has just written: that Christ suffered and died "to bring you to God" (3:18) and that He "was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit" (3:18). Christ "has gone to heaven and is at God's right hand-with angels, authorities, and powers in submission to Him" (3:22). "Therefore," Peter writes, "since Christ suffered in His body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because He who has suffered in His body is done with sin" (4:1).

Our Lord, through this letter from Peter, calls us to get ready for battle. "Arm yourselves" means just what it says-get ready for battle by putting on your armor and picking up your weapons; that is, prepare for the battle. “Arm yourselves” was the cry of the watchman as, seeing an enemy approaching the city wall, he warned the people to get ready to defend the city from attack.

The phrase "done with sin" means more than just not giving in to temptations. It is stronger than that, referring to becoming so devoted to Christ that one is not attracted by the temptation or seduction of sin. Our Lord is not telling us here merely to behave. Behavior is external, but to have the same mind or attitude as Christ has regarding sin is internal, a state of mind, a deep, deep faith. Having the mind of Christ forms a value system in us that sees sin as an unacceptable or invalid alternative. Having the mind or attitude of Christ means we are "done with sin," not attracted by it because it is foreign to our thinking.

Peter also seems to be drawing a parallel here between the unjust suffering of Christ and the unjust suffering of the Christians at the hands of Nero and the Roman government. In His suffering, Christ did not turn to sin. He did not curse His torturers, but blessed them by forgiving them. It is an imperfect parallel, but Peter here seems to be telling his readers that in their time of suffering at the hands of the Romans, they, like Christ, must remain without sin.

He has already told them to respond to evil with good, to love each other, to do good and seek peace. Now he is telling them why. The mind or attitude of Jesus was pure and holy in the face of terrible suffering, and as His disciples, they must have that same mind.

But there also is a definite theme here that this does not just come automatically. That being the case, Christians are to “arm themselves" with that mind; that is, we must decide to regard sin as Jesus regards sin. This passage hints that is isn't automatic or easy: we are not automatically armed when we are saved; but we must take the initiative and arm ourselves.

Maybe we would say it differently if we were writing this letter today: seize the mindset of Christ even though that may be difficult or even foreign to us. Determine to reformat our thinking, discard our old ways of reasoning, reject the thinking of our culture, and remain pure and holy, not because that automatically happens for the Christian, but because we make the decision to do it.

Paul puts it this way in Romans 13:12: "Let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light" and in 2 Corinthians 6:7: "with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left." Paul also uses the "armor" metaphor in Ephesians 6:11: "Put on the full armor of God (i.e., "arm yourselves") so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes." Paul adds to the metaphor by listing the belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, shield of faith, etc. What Peter tells us is the foundation of the armor metaphor: arm yourselves with the mind of Christ. It starts with the way we think.

Live for the will of God (2)

"As a result,” Peter writes, “he does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God."

A lot has been written and preached about God's will, as though it is a mystical thing that we seek to learn, always perhaps a bit unsure whether we have found it or not. Peter gives us the simple answer: the will of God is that we arm ourselves with the mind of Christ. Or, to put it another way as Peter does here in verse 2, the will of God is that we do not live the rest of our lives for evil human desires. And what is the opposite of evil human desires? Having the mind of Christ and living accordingly.

We live in a world that calls sins "mistakes" or "missteps" or sometimes "poor choices." We also live in a world that calls evil good and good evil. (See Isaiah 5:20 "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil.") Peter here in verse 2 gives us what is truly the bottom line when it comes to God's will for us. It’s not seeking some mystical message about whom to marry, where to work, or whether to do this or do that. God’s will is that Christian not live their lives to satisfy evil human desires.

There is a progression in what he is telling us:

(1) Arming ourselves with the mind or attitude of Christ is a decision, a decision of which we are capable as Christians because we have the Holy Spirit to guide us.

(2) As a result of that decision, we are able and determined to live our earthly lives with that mindset as our guide, and not evil human desires as our guide.

(3) The will of God is that we have the mind or attitude of Christ.

(4) And if that is the case, then our decision-making will keep us in the will of God.

Paul makes the point clearly in Romans 12:2: "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is-his good, pleasing and perfect will."

That puts matters into perspective, at least for me. It is the will of God, and not my own pleasure and comfort, that is paramount in the life of a Christian. So that is the will of God, that I have the mind of Christ, even when living by that standard might cause me to suffer. Peter's first readers had endured and continued to endure suffering, not because they had done anything wrong, but because they had clung to their faith in the one and only God.

Reject a sinful lifestyle (3-6)

Peter makes three points in verses 3 and 4: (1) we used to live like the pagans live, (2) the pagans think it is strange that we no longer live as they do, and (3) they "heap abuse" on us because we don't live like they do.

Peter gives insight into the first-century Roman culture's lifestyle: debauchery (lit., "filth" or "lasciviousness"), lust, drunkenness (lit., "excess of wine"; likely refers to habitual drunkenness), orgies (originally, drinking and sex parties in tribute to the pagan god Bacchus, the god of wine), carousing (drinking parties), and detestable idolatry (worship of pagan gods).

Paul also is very direct about these cultural practices in his epistle to the Galatians (5:19-21): "The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God."

Peter tells us that the impact of having the mind of Christ is that we don't think like and act like the pagan, who, as Paul points out, are under judgment. In verse 4, Peter gives us a little insight as to just how different Christians who have the attitude or mind or Christ are seen by their culture: "They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you."

A better translation for the word translated “strange” here would be "surprised", "shocked," or even "astonished." The Christian lifestyle and manner of thinking makes absolutely no sense to people in a pagan culture, and it is so unexpected or makes so little sense to them that they are not only surprised, but take offense that Christians don't affirm the culture's values and morals. It is a phenomenon that is not limited to the pagan culture of the Roman Empire in the first century, but also to the pagan western culture in the U.S. today. Authentic Christians’ beliefs, attitudes, and manner of living are so foreign to our culture’s self-centeredness that a common attitude is that people “think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you."

Peter assures us, however, that it is the unbelievers who will ultimately have to account for their conduct. In verse 6, he reassures Christians: “For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.”

Christians have the assurance of eternal life in the presence of their Lord and Savior. Many of his readers' fellow believers had been harshly judged by the Roman culture-persecuted and murdered with the government's approval or even at the government's instigation. Those believers had been judged according to the culture, but he assures them that they suffered and died in the body only. The culture had killed them for the crime of being Christians. His assurance is that though the believers who are now dead suffered such a terrible judgment by men, they are alive.

In verses 5 and 6, Peter draws a sharp contrast between the judgment that is to come to unbelievers (verse 5, the judgment which is the final, eternal judgment from God) and the persecution the Romans conducted against Christians, so many of whom had been judged guilty by the Romans of being Christians and who were tortured and killed because of that.

The thrust of God’s message to us through this passage of 1 Peter is that the persecution Christians of any age suffer while on earth is of virtually no consequence compared to the judgment the pagans will suffer and compared to our future eternal presence with our Lord and Savior.

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 the Greek New Testament. For those not acquainted in the biblical languages, a Greek-English interlinear Bible and Hebrew-English interlinear Bible can be of great assistance. Many of the interlinear Bibles also include Strong's numbering and Greek and Hebrew dictionaries keyed to Strong's for concise definitions. The most useful 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 accurate in reflecting the literal meaning of the texts and provide the backgrounds for the basic evangelical Christian doctrines. 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.)