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.”

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