Sunday, November 26, 2017

Having Faith in a Godless Age

1Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. 3 For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. 4 With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; 5 but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.
1 Peter 4:1-6

The theme of suffering never subsides in 1 Peter.  Here in chapter 4, the theme of suffering is highlighted once more.  Tying the Christian suffering with the suffering of Christ, Peter warned his audience to be careful with how they live their life.  Peter even listed the horribly disgusting sins that his audience once committed in the past.  Why in the world did Peter do that?  Being reminded of past sins was like opening up the old wounds.  Yet somehow Peter found it necessary to do so.  There must be a reason for that.  His lengthy discourse on suffering in the previous chapters was augmented in this passage.  Especially, after he talked about the suffering of Christ Jesus, our Lord.
We have known for some time now that Peter was addressing the Christians who were dispersed because of the heavy persecution the Romans and the religious leaders did to them.  These Christians suffered much.  In that kind of situation, it’s easy to fall back into the old way of life.  I imagine them comparing their old life and their new life.  Perhaps before believing in Christ, they all lived in a better state than what they were now.  Surely they were still under the Roman occupation.  But it was not that bad compared to the persecution they now experienced by becoming Christians.  Perhaps it was similar to the struggle of the first generation of Israel that came out of Egypt.  They too compared their new life of freedom with the old life of slavery.  Surprisingly, they preferred their old life as slaves to the new life of free people.  The reasoning was simple.  The old life was familiar, in which they could eat their favorite food, they could find water, they did not have to suffer the desert, and life was predictable.  Whereas the new life was quite unpredictable, they suffered the desert day and night, it was difficult to find water, and they missed their favorite food.  And so if given the opportunity, they would just sell their right as free people for a little comfort of the old life of slavery in Egypt.  We must be remembering Esau at this point, who sold his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup.  Just like Esau despised his birthright, the first generation of Israel that came out of Egypt also despised their freedom that God gave through His mighty redemptive act.
Now, given the severity of the persecution, it’s very possible that Peter’s audience also flirted with this kind of arrangement.  The suffering they experienced was rattling their cage.  It was very likely for them to think that their newly found freedom in Christ Jesus was not as pleasant as their old life of slavery under sin.  It is not difficult to make the connection that they were tempted in many ways to just sell their freedom in Christ for the sake of being reinserted into the slavery of sin.  They missed their old life of orgies, of debauchery, of sensual passions, of fornication, and of idolatry.  It’s true that their new life in Christ freed them from those sinful lives, but with it they gained troubles, sufferings, living as fugitives, insecurity, persecutions, and even the possibility of inhumane deaths.  The temptation could not be easily quenched.
Obviously, we are Peter’s audience as well.  We experience similar things to what God’s people experienced in the span of thousands of years.  Just like Esau, who was famished and in need of immediate refreshment, we too are tempted to sell our faith in Christ for a bowl of sins that would alleviate our earthly needs.  Just like the first generation Israel that came out of Egypt, who preferred to be enslaved by the Egyptians to the life of freedom under the true God, we too are tempted to exchange our freedom in Christ with the old enjoyment under the slavery of sin.  Just like the persecuted Christians Peter originally wrote his letter for, who were so much tempted to leave their holy life in Christ for the sake of sinful living that promised freedom from being persecuted, we too are tempted to deny Christ for the sake of enjoying the abundant earthly life of wealth, power, fame, and entertainment.  Facing these temptations, what do we do?  What can we do?  Should we abandon our faith?  Should we exchange our freedom in Christ for the slavery in sin?  Should we deny Christ so we could life like all the godless people?
Let me put it in a more practical way.  Should we abandon our faith so that we could bribe our way to win a tender?  Should we exchange our freedom in Christ with slavery of sin so that we could enjoy pornography, or alcohol, or drugs, or freesex?  Should we deny Christ so that we can be accepted and supported by the liberals, by scientists, by the LGBT community?  Before answering, let us truly reflect what is in our heart and be honest to God.  This is a mighty struggle.  And there is no easy process for this.
The biblical answer is clear and cannot be negotiated, as declared by Peter in the first three verses of chapter four of his first letter:
1Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. 3 For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry.

The grace of God is bestowed upon us amidst the pressures and the temptations.  In fact, God’s grace has been given to us even before we were born and continues to stay with us for eternity.  The ultimate grace that God gives is Jesus Christ.  John 3:16 speaks volume to this amazing grace:
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

The apostle Paul also speaks of God’s amazing grace in Romans 5:8:
but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Thus Peter was not alone when he spoke of Christ’s suffering for our sakes.  In 1 Peter 3:18 Peter echoes John and Paul:
18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit,

Peter’s exhortation, therefore, is not empty, but instead is filled with eternal force and heavenly grace.  True Christians must always direct their hearts and minds toward Christ and be like Him in every way possible.  A commentator of 1 Peter, Robert Leighton in the Crossway Classic Commentaries, commented on verse 1:
The chief study of Christians, and the very thing that makes them Christians, is conformity to Christ. “This is the sum of religion,” said the wise heathen Pythagoras, “to be like him whom you worship.”[1]

If we truly worship Christ, then it is only logical that we become like Him.  If we claim we worship Christ, but we do not wish to become like Him, then we are deceiving ourselves.  For the desire of God for all Christians is, as pointed out by Paul in Ephesians 4:11-13:
11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,

It is not too much, therefore, for Peter to instruct his audience to have the mind of Christ, to be like Christ, which is to be willing to suffer for the sake of righteousness and to endure sufferings patiently for the sake of Christ who has died for all of us.
            Naturally, the amazing grace that God has bestowed upon us in Christ Jesus continues and it leads to what Peter teaches in verses 2 and 3, in which Christians should no longer live to gratify the desires of the sinful nature of the flesh.  Christians ought to be intentional not to give in to temptations.  Even though persecutions were present at the time, Peter gave no opportunity for Christians to use persecution as their excuse to go back to their old way of life, which is described very vividly in verse 3.
living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry.

Returning to the old way of life would constitute abandoning our faith in Christ, exchanging freedom with slavery, and denying Jesus Christ for the sake of worldly comfort.
            But Christians are enabled to resist temptations.  In Christ we are given the tool to combat them and win.  God is not ordering His people to resist temptations and then threaten to punish them if they fail.  God is not cruel.  In the minds of those who do not know God, God is cruelly oppressing humankind.  But that is not true even one bit.  God the Son had to go through the unspeakable suffering that we can’t even imagine (and we have no time to discuss about it here), in order for those who truly believe in Him will be saved.  Yes they will still suffer, internally and externally, as they follow Christ.  But that also is God’s grace for all Christians, for through the suffering because of Christ we too will receive glory in Him.  God provides the grace, the power, the assurance, of salvation.  True that He demands all of us to become like Christ even in His suffering, but He does not bully us nor toy with us.  The process of following Christ, which includes suffering, is a natural course that sanctifies us to become like Christ.  What an amazing grace it is, isn’t it?
Yes we might fall here and there.  But we do not fall joyfully.  We might give in to temptations at one time, but our hearts would be hurt so deep that we will repent.  Peter and Paul knew all about it.  Peter denied his Master three times.  His heart was broken, and this led him to true repentance.  Paul persecuted Christ’s followers zealously, thinking that he did what was pleasing to God.  Jesus intervened and confronted him of his evil deeds.  Paul was heartbroken, and this also led him to his true repentance.  Remember that Paul said that Christ died for us when we were still sinners?  It’s true for him, for Peter, for John, for James, for all apostles, and prophets, and the patriarchs, and also for all of us.  Repentance and the road to repentance is also God’s wonderful grace for all Christians.
And so Peter warned his audience not to return to the old life of sin.  If we return to the old way of life willingly and joyfully after believing in Christ, we will find it extremely hard to come back to Christ, if not impossible.  Hebrews 6:4-6 warns all of us sternly:
For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

Esau could not take his birthright back after he sold it.  So he was denied the very blessing he wanted.  If Israel went back to Egypt willingly and joyfully and then be reinserted again as slaves of the Egyptians, they would forever be slaves.  That is the point of no return.  Brothers and sisters, reflect on this: “If terrifying persecutions experienced by the first century Christians could not be used as an excuse to abandon their faith in Christ, what then is our excuse?!
            Let me tell a story from the Matrix, a breakthrough movie in 1999.  Morpheus was the captain of a vessel called Nebuchadnezzar.  His mission was to rescue people who were enslaved by the machine.  In that story, humans were not born, but they were grown.  The machine grew humans in the field.  And they were harvested only to make them power supplies for the machine.  All humans were put to eternal sleep.  They were inserted into a program called the Matrix, in which they all lived in a dream world.  These sleeping batteries did not realize that they were all enslaved by the machine.  Their life as they knew it was a fake.  It was a computer simulation program to deceive the mind as if it was the real world.  And so humans live their entire life in a fake world, in which their only meaning is to supply energy to the machine.  Morpheus could not take that reality.  He was one of the many who were awaken from the Matrix.  His main goal was to free all, so they could become true humans.  And he set out in a mission to free Neo, the one person who could fight against the machine in extraordinary way.  One of Morpheus crews was Cypher, which Morpheus freed some time ago.  But Cypher did not like the suffering.  He preferred the fake world over the real world.  So he made a deal with the machine to hand over his savior, Morpheus, in order for him to be reinserted into the Matrix.  He chose slavery over freedom.  And by doing so, he had to betray everyone in Nebuchadnezzar.  He killed his own crew members for his own selfish gain.  And he let Morpheus to be caught by the machine.  Cypher was at the point of no return.  His crime was just unpardonable.
            Brothers and sisters, we are not Cypher.  We are not people who have no faith.  And we are not people whose faith is unclear.  God’s grace is so amazing and great in Christ Jesus.  He is not only our savior but also our model.  He too lived on earth.  He too suffered, and an even greater suffering than what we might endure at this point.  He knows.  We can always come to Him for counsel, for comfort, and for assurance.  Do not live like someone who is faithless.  Do not live like someone who has no God.  We have a God who cares.  God also suffers with us.  No matter how hard our suffering is, wait for the Lord.  Do not choose the way of Cypher, of Judas, of Esau.  Choose the way of the faithful.  Peter waited for the Lord patiently during his internal suffering, and he was restored by Jesus Himself.  Paul took the step toward repentance as soon as he was confronted.  Both of them, together with all the other prophets and apostles, endured suffering patiently and faithfully.  And so was Polycarp, Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Hudson Taylor, John Sung, and many other faithful Christians in this world.  Amen!

[1] Robert Leighton, “1 Peter,” in 1, 2 Peter, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 177.

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