Tag Archives: Suffering

The Church in Exile – A survey of 1 Peter

The Church in Exile

First of all, check out that cool graphic designed by Becki Watson. That is the graphic that is being used to promote the new Sunday Night series starting this Sunday night at our church and which has been the topic of several recent blog posts, and even a few old ones.

In the last post I reviewed the gospel of John, picking out all the places that identified Jesus as a stranger and exile on this earth. Today I am doing the same thing with the book of 1 Peter, looking at all the key verses that highlight the Christian’s identity as a stranger and exile.

Exiles and Foreigners

1 Peter is a letter written specifically to a church in exile. It is addressed to “God’s elected, exiles scattered throughout the provinces” (1:1). They are called to live “as foreigners here in reverent fear” (1:17). As “foreigners and exiles” they are instructed to “abstain from sinful desires” (2:11). Peter concludes his letter with a salutation from “she who is in Babylon” (5:13). I believe Peter uses this language on purpose so that his hearers might remember their identity as a people who are somewhat out of place in the world from which God had brought them. I believe he also does this in order to call to their minds the exile of God’s people in the Old Testament. The scattered church of Peter’s time finds itself in a position not unlike that of Daniel: a minority worshipper of God amidst a sea of paganism, in constant danger, but nevertheless a recipient of God’s special grace and provision.

They are made exiles because of a transfer of citizenship

Those to whom Peter writes were once “at home” with their surrounding culture. Peter reminds them that they have “spent enough time in the past doing what pagans chose to do” (4:3). Now, however, they have been redeemed from the empty way of life in which they used to live (1:18). They have received new birth in Christ (1:3) and have been born again (1:23). They who were once not a people have become part of the people of God (2:10).

How did the change of citizenship occur? It happened through the mystery of the sovereignty of God and the free response of man. They are the “elect” (1:1) and the “chosen” (1:20). They are also those who have responded to God’s faith. They believed the message of the gospel (1:21) and have “purified themselves by obeying the truth” (1:22). In doing this they have been sanctified (1:2) and set apart as God’s people, a chosen priesthood, a holy nation (2:9-10).

In other words, it was the gospel of Jesus, his death and resurrection, which set apart the Church as exiles in the world. They became a church in exile when they abandoned the false gods which they had previously worshipped and began to worship the true and living God through Jesus.

Despite the fact that this exile in the world leads to frequent danger and persecution this transfer was definitely in the best interest of those who responded in faith. They traded the perishable, dying, and empty for the imperishable, living, and enduring word of God (see 1:17-25). Note the similarities between this passage and Hebrews 11 which describes Abraham as looking forward to “the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10).

As exiles and strangers, they are called to live holy lives

One the key attributes that will set apart the church in exile from its surrounding culture is the holiness of the people of God, especially in comparison to their pagan neighbors. Peter encourages the church to resist conformity to evil desires (1:14), to get rid of malice and deceit (2:1), to abstain from sinful desires (2:11), and to “not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires” (4:2). The sins that Peter has in mind have a striking resemblance to the “works of the flesh” in Galatians. Instead, like Paul’s exhortation, the people of God are to be primarily marked by a deep and sincere love for one another.

This commitment to abstention from sinful pleasures will set them apart as somewhat odd in their culture. Peter tells them that the pagan world is “surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living” and that this surprise will quickly lead to abuse and hostility (4:4).

Even as citizens of heaven, under a higher authority, earthly authorities are still to be honored

One might expect Peter’s sharp distinction between the people of God and the surrounding culture to lead to an oppositional attitude towards earthly authorities. Peter himself was thrown into prison on multiple occasions. He knew better than we that the authorities of this world often stand in opposition to the authority of God.

It might strike us as somewhat odd to read, then, Peter’s plea for, of all things, submission. Specifically, he encourages submission to various earthly “authorities”. Citizens submit to governing authorities (2:13). Slaves submit to masters (2:18). Wives submit to husbands (3:1). Younger people in the church submit to elders (5:5). (Aside: Husbands get an “in the same way…” clause in 3:7 indicating a decree mutual submission).

What we have here, especially in regards to governing authorities, is a recognition of dual citizenship. As it pertains to God, Christians are citizens of heaven and in that way they are to “live as free people.” In regards to their citizenship in heaven they have one single authority above all others: God. However, as strangers in a foreign land God is honored when they honor the authorities of that land. Obedience to the governing authorities ought to be the norm for Christians.

The authority of the civil government, though, has its limits. Peter himself disobeyed the authorities on occasion, because he recognized a higher authority. Daniel also serves as an excellent example. He went out of his way to honor the king in Babylon, but there were certain limits to his obedience. He would not give up prayer. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago would not bow down to the idol.

Nevertheless, those cases are rather extreme. For Peter’s message to the exiles, obedience to civil authorities is the normal way in which we honor God as strangers in a foreign land.

Exiles and strangers should expect opposition

The congregations to which Peter is writing are clearly in a state of active persecution and are expecting more to come. Opposition, hostility, and suffering are major themes in the book. Peter writes “do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come upon you to test you, as though something strange is happening to you” (4:12). For Peter, opposition is the norm of Christian life.

Opposition is the norm for followers of Jesus because they are exiles and strangers in the same way that Jesus himself was an exile and stranger (see study on John). If the world hated Jesus, the world will hate his followers. Jesus himself predicted this. Jesus is held up again and again as the example of how to endure suffering: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (2:21). Again in 4:1 “since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves with the same attitude.”

Why should Christians expect opposition? Four reasons might be given. (1) Identification with Christ (4:13, 14, 16). (2) Because they will not join in the immoral behavior of their unbelieving neighbors (4:4). (3) For doing good, or for no good reason (2:20; 3:14). (4) Because of immoral behavior (4:15). Peter does not commend those who suffer because of legitimate wrongs done. His emphasis in the letter, however, is on the first three.

How should believers respond to opposition? First there is an internal commitment. Like Jesus we are to commit ourselves to our faithful Creator (4:19). This Creator is also the one who is the judge of all things and will vindicate the people of God at the proper time, just as he vindicated Christ by raising him from the dead. He is also the God who has stored away for us a glorious inheritance and an enduring and sure hope. He is the one who is able to make us strong, firm, and steadfast (5:10). He is the one who holds the journey and the end of the journey in his hands.

Second, having committed themselves to God, exiles and strangers find joy and honor in opposition. “Rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” and “you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory rests on you” and “praise God that you bear [the name of Christ]” (4:13-16). Joy is set up as the opposite of the fear and fright which hostility naturally engenders (3:14).

Third, the exile and stranger patiently endures and refuses to take revenge. “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing” (3:9). When the Christian responds with hope instead of fear and blessing instead of insult the natural response of the persecutor will be surprise. When the questions are asked Christians are called to always be ready with an answer and then respond with gentleness and a clear conscience.

Fourth and finally Peter encourages his congregation to avoid any unnecessary conflict by always doing what is right. Again, it is no benefit to suffer for doing wrong. To always do right would certainly deflect much of the unfair criticism. However, Peter is not optimistic that it would deflect all hostility. At its core, hostility against Christians comes from hostility against Christ. The inevitable hypocrisy of Christians adds fuel to the flames, to be sure. And, to be sure, Christians should always live with a clear conscience before God. Nevertheless, hostility towards Christians simply because of identification with Christ appears to be part of the normal Christian life in most places and ages.

Exiles and strangers don’t go it alone

A final and essential component of 1 Peter as it relates to exiles is the place of the church. Those who accept the message of the gospel have a transferred citizenship. This means a new ultimate authority (God) and a new life. It also means that they are part of a new people. Acceptance of Christ set the people apart from their still unbelieving neighbors. They became outcasts from the world’s perspective. But from God’s perspective they became part of an enduring community and a spiritual house (2:4). The cornerstone of this house is Christ, rejected by man but glorified by God. The house shares the same fate as its Cornerstone (2:4-9).

As a church in exile, made up of people scattered throughout the earth, the people of God have the privilege of being God’s special possession and of declaring the praises of God (2:10).

The people of God is to be characterized by love as a direct response to the gospel: “Love one another deeply from the heart,” (2:23) “love one another,” (4:8) “above all, love each other deeply” (4:8). In this way the church forms a sort of countercurrent to the current of the surrounding culture. Where the systems of the world are primarily selfish, the norm for the church is to be self-giving. Where the systems of the world are primarily prideful, the norm for the church should be humility. Where the systems of the world focus on self-love, the norm for the church seeks above all to honor and love the living and true God.

In this short Q & A from John Piper, Piper offers a great metaphor for the life of the foreigner and stranger. The foreigner should be like a dolphin and not like a jelly fish. The jelly fish simply moves with the current. The dolphin is able to cut across the current. Impacted but no controlled by the movement of the water. The jelly fish Christian simply moves along with the current of culture. The dolphin Christian is able to cut across culture, being counter-cultural where necessary, perhaps moving with the current when doing so honors God (all cultures are mixed bag). We can’t remove ourselves with culture any more than a dolphin can swim out of water, but we can develop the skills necessary to navigate it with Christ’s help.

This metaphor seems to jive well with the message of 1 Peter. Peter doesn’t call God’s people to escape from culture, but he does tell them to resist sinful desires, a command that will set them apart from their neighbors. He calls them to navigate a sometimes hostile world by relying on the gospel and committing themselves to God.

I want to conclude by expanding the metaphor just a little bit. The church, I believe, can function as a sort of undercurrent or counterculture amidst the ocean of culture and I believe that the church is called to such a task. The Christian is wise to seek out that undercurrent which is moving in the way of Christ. This is important in every day and age, but perhaps even more important in places and ages more openly hostile to the gospel.

Advertisements

God is Just not Fair by Jennifer Rothschild (Book Review)

ImageDoes God really hear my prayer? Is he concerned about what happens to me? Did he make a mistake? Is he even there? These are just some of the questions Jennifer Rothschild addresses in her new book God is Just not Fair. Her book is laid out in six parts, each with several small chapters designed to encourage the reader to trust God in the most difficult circumstances of life.

Like Nick Vujicic, Rothschild’s words carry more weight because she has experienced suffering. In her case, she has been totally blind for most of her life and recently struggled through a bout of depression.

God is Just not Fair is a book written to believers seeking encouragement. It’s not really an apologetics book. She answers weighty questions, but not in a particularly weighty manner. Personally, I wish she had gone deeper in a few areas, but that was not really the intention of her book.

Her intention, instead, is to point her readers to God as person, not just as the answer-giver. Near the beginning of the book she equates faith to a blanket. When we experience suffering our blanket gets holes in it. What does God do when our blanket of faith gets holes?

“God doesn’t fill the holes in our blankets with answers or solutions. He fills the holes in our blanket of faith with himself. Philosophy, intellectual answers, or religion alone will never be enough to repair the holes in your faith. Only God can fill the missing pieces.”

There’s a lot of truth in this and I can attest in my personal journey of doubt and faith that God has often met me in this way. Still, rigorous books which answer these tough questions are great. And, while this book gives a lot of great answers, it didn’t quite deliver to my expectations.

In the end, God is Just not Fair, while theologically sound, lacks the originality, depth, and insight to be a great book.

Learning from Joseph

I recently re-told the story of Joseph from the Bible to a group of teenagers with practically zero knowledge of the Bible. It was the most fun I’ve had telling the story because the teenagers did not know what was going to happen. Case in point:

Me: Joseph was a man from the Bible. He had 10 older brothers. They plotted to kill him.

Teens: *Audible gasp*

One of the best things about the story of Joseph is that it’s not ultimately about Joseph. Most American Christians would probably expect Joseph to say in Genesis 45:7, after he had become the second in command in Egypt: “But God sent me ahead of you to bless me and make me rich and powerful.” Joseph doesn’t say this. Instead he says, “But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.”

Joseph sees the bigger picture. God turned something evil, his brothers selling him into slavery, into something good, the salvation of his family – including those wicked brothers – in order to preserve his covenant with Abraham, and eventually his covenant with us through Jesus.

But I also love the story of Joseph because he shows us such a great example of living by faith no matter what circumstances he found himself in. Here are a few things we can learn from the life of Joseph:

When you’re not where we want to be – be faithful to the task at hand: After being sold into slavery Joseph found himself in the house of Potiphar. This was not the job he wanted. He had been forcibly removed from his homeland and his father’s house. He had gone from being a son, a favorite son, to being a slave. Yet Joseph was faithful in those circumstances. God was with him and blessed his diligent work.

When you’re being tempted – flee: While a slave Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him… every day. After the seduction didn’t work she tried to take him by force. She grabbed his cloak. What did Joseph do? He fled! I wonder if Paul had Joseph in mind when he wrote 1 Corinthians 6:18 “Flee from sexual immorality.”

When you’re facing injustice – help others: Jilted by Joseph’s rejection Potiphar’s wife accused Joseph of trying to sleep with her, a charge that got Joseph thrown into prison. While there, Joseph met two of Pharaoh’s officials. One morning he saw they looked dejected and asked them why they looked so sad. From there, Joseph was able to interpret their dreams – after which one was probably felt even worse! Well, he tried. It’s interesting to note that even while Joseph was facing injustice, he did his duty, and was even open to helping those in the same situation.

When you have success – continue to do your work: Eventually God raised Joseph out of prison and gave him a prominent role in Egypt. He was showered with wealth and honor. That kind of success makes a lot of people delusional. Joseph could have easily settled into a life of luxury. Instead, he stuck to the task at hand. He was tasked with storing up crops during the years of plenty and distributing those crops during the years of famine. That was probably a difficult and stressful job. Who would have known if he hadn’t done a good job? No one, until it was too late. But Joseph knew the work was important. He stuck to it. He was as faithful to God when he was the ruler as when he was a slave and a prisoner.

Most people’s stories don’t turn out like Joseph’s. It’s a good story because he’s an exception. His story isn’t a motivational speech: Live like Joseph and God make you rich beyond your wildest dreams. Yeah, it probably isn’t going to happen. I’ve known plenty of people whose lives are marked by faith yet haven’t seen close to the kind of success Joseph did. Remember, Joseph’s story isn’t ultimately about Joseph; it’s about God saving Israel’s children – and the many others whose lives were saved from the famine.

Nevertheless, the principles of this story still ring true. God blesses the faithfulness of his people and he uses the faithfulness to bring about his eternal purposes, for his glory.

“Why is something bad happening to me?”

One of the philosophical objections to Christianity is the “Problem of Evil”. Why does an all-good, all-powerful God allow evil in the world? I noted in a previous post how Jesus’ death and resurrection gives Christianity a unique and powerful answer to that question.

But this question is rarely raised in a philosophical void. The more common question everyday people face is this: Why is something evil happening to me? This question is personal and is best answered in a personal context. I got this question while giving a talk in our After School program, and thankfully it was addressed later in a one-on-one conversation between a leader and a student.

Nevertheless, here are some Biblical answers I might give. My exact answer would depend on the particular situation.

We live in a fallen world. God created the world and declared it good, but when sin entered the world that goodness was broken and corrupted. The general brokenness of the world accounts for lots of things that don’t appear to have an immediate “culprit”. We get sick. A relative gets cancer. A natural disaster strikes. These are all signs of our broken world. Our hope is that God will eventually bring about a world where there is no sickness, death, or sudden disaster.

We also hold out home in this life because we know that God is a master at bringing good out of evil.

God may be using this to help us grow closer to Him. Paul says that he was given a “thorn in his flesh” to keep him from becoming conceited. He pleaded with God to remove whatever it was but God didn’t. Instead God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12:9). Through this trial, Paul learned to rely fully on God.

I recently had a conversation with a woman who went through bouts of depression. She told me that during one bout she was able to experience the comfort of God in a unique and powerful way which she is able to return to again and again. Why did God allow her to experience depression? I’m not sure, but he has found a way to redeem at least a part of it for good.

God may be using this to help us grow in character and hope. Paul also tells us that we should “glory in our sufferings,” which is a pretty surprising and counter-intuitive command. We can glory in our sufferings because “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character; and character hope” (See Rom 5:1-5). Somehow, our temporary comfort is less important to God than our hope and our character.

Last week on Sunday we were blessed by having Pastor Emmanuel from Rwanda speak at our church. He is a man who has undergone much suffering. His family was killed before his eyes during the genocide. He lived as an orphan for much of his teen life. And yet, he is a man of incredible character and hope. And his hope runs deep. Did that genocide break God’s heart? You bet. Do I have any idea why God allowed it? Nope. But I do know that out of it God raised up a man to bring the light of Jesus to Rwanda.

God may be using this to accomplish something beyond ourselves. The story of Joseph in the Bible is a great place to go to look for comfort in our trials. In it we see how God uses terrible circumstance (Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers) to raise up Joseph to a place of power. At the end of the story Joseph says “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). God had a plan for Joseph beyond himself.

God has a bigger plan than we could ever imagine and rarely do we get the same glimpse that Joseph did. But we have the same God that he did. His plans for our lives transcend our own lives. In this life we might not ever see the good that can be brought out of evil, but someone else might.

We may have to ask, is there something in my life that needs to change? In each of the examples above, the individual was not directly responsible for their trial. But, if we’re honest, we must admit that much of the time our suffering is self-inflicted. The guy who looks at porn shouldn’t wonder why his marriage is crumbling. The man who cheats on his taxes shouldn’t blame God when legal trouble comes along. The teenager who is a jerk to her friends shouldn’t be surprised when her friends desert her. This doesn’t mean everything that is bad that happens to us is our fault or that others don’t share blame. But, we are wise to examine ourselves. Lots of bad stuff happens because the world is fallen. Sometimes it happens because we are fallen.

But God is a master at bringing about good in the midst of evil. He beckons us to himself whether our suffering comes from others or is self-inflicted. Just like the prodigal son, when we return to God, he runs to meet us with open arms to heal, forgive, restore, and redeem. 

On Faith: In Victory and Defeat

Hebrews 11 sprints to a finish with a list of characters and accomplishments of faith.

First, the characters:

Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah were all judges in Israel together had a list of impressive military accomplishments. In each case, their victory came, not from military might, but from the strength of God. David, Samuel, and the prophets have their own impressive resume of faith.

Second, the accomplishments:

The list of accomplishments is impressive and each item refers back to a great story. Thematically, there are two kinds of “accomplishments” in faith. One list (33-35a) is obviously positive. The second list (33b-37) is not, at first glance, so great. The first list shows how faith leads to victory. The second shows how faith gives us strength, even in defeat.

The accomplishments of faith in 33-35a include military victories, preservation of life and limb (“escaped the edge of the sword”) and receiving back their dead. These are obviously feats of miraculous victory. Sometimes, God gives us victory against all odds when we are faithful to Him. Daniel, whose story is referenced in this list, is the perfect example. He boldly prayed, in view of everyone, despite the king’s command, but was ultimately saved from the mouths of the lions.

The accomplishments in 35b-37 start with this: “others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection.” From there it moves to enduring flogging, jeering, imprisonment, destitution, and death by stoning and the sword. It’s worth noting that by faith some “escaped the edge of the sword” (34, first list) and by faith some “were put to death by the sword” (37, second list). The outcomes were different even though both were acting by faith. One was an obvious victory, the other what appeared, at least to those on the outside, as a defeat.

The accomplishment of faith in the second list is this: by faith the people of God remained faithful to God, even to the point of death, and for it received a better resurrection.

Looking for, and finding, a better home:

The passage concludes by saying “the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.” This reaffirms what the writer said earlier about Abraham, that he lived in tents because, “he was looking for a city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (10) and again, “people who says such things show that they are looking for a country of their own” (14). Those who were rejected by the world because of their obedience found their home with God.

In the world I live in, I do not face the threat of active persecution. I live in a remarkably free country by historical standards and for that I am extremely grateful. However, the world could turn, and already shows some signs of doing so. The offense of the cross is ever present. Even without the threat of persecution, we American Christians are still called to boldness. To that end, this passage teaches us two things.

First: Defeat for the sake of Christ is really victory.

Second: If you live by faith your reward will come. It might not come in this life, but it will come.

I will conclude with the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecute the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12)