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Faith That Is Focused
Fall Quarter: Responding to God’s Grace
Sunday school lesson for the week of November 17, 2019
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Lesson Scripture: I Peter I: 13-25
Key Verse: I Peter 14-15
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.
Geographical and other background information for text
The first letter of Peter is addressed to the “exiles” throughout northeastern Asia Minor, now called Turkey. The letter was probably written some 20-30 years after Paul’s first epistles. Peter’s letters and Paul’s epistles overlap around 60-65 A.D. The oral sayings of Jesus were almost certainly being shared, and within a few years the first gospel of Mark would appear. Some place a date on the writing of I Peter at around 60 A.D. Unlike Paul’s letters which were usually written to a specific church or focused upon a particular audience, the epistle of First Peter is what we call a “General Epistle.” Its message was intended for a large group of Christians from a larger geographical area. His audience included both Jewish and Gentile converts, but most likely a larger number of Gentiles comprised his audience. We begin to gain a sense of how rapidly the church was expanding within a time span of only 30 plus years. From its earliest beginnings in Jerusalem the body of Christ had now grown into Africa, Asia Minor, toward Rome, and was already beginning to expand westward. The early apostles found themselves at the crossroad of the known world and were prepared to take the gospel in every direction to every person.
These large numbers of Christians did not just represent individual Christians, but also the great number of Christians who had gathered and formed churches and communities of faith. The early Christians were not just evangelizing, they were bringing new converts into the body of Christ for growth and discipleship. Though Christianity never sought conflict with the government representing the Roman Empire, the two struggled to coexist amid a growing tension. The Christians proclaimed a new King of Kings, not just over Rome, but over all creation. They unabashedly proclaimed their allegiance to Christ and his kingdom over all other kingdoms of the world. When most consider the persecution of the early church they do so in relation to the Roman emperors that challenged the church such as Domitian and Nero. However, the persecution of the church developed more slowly and in varied arenas of public life. Initially, persecution of the Christians arose from their Jewish kinsmen who saw the new faith as harmful to Judaism. Some Jewish Christians attempted to meld Judaism with Christianity but were not successful. Judaism was based on works-righteousness, and Christianity proclaimed grace. These two perspectives mixed like oil and water. Furthermore, the Christian belief that faithfulness and obedience to one law, “to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength and thy neighbor as thyself,” threatened the important role and status of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The religious leaders gained power and wealth through teaching and interpreting more than 612 Mosaic Laws. Thus, the church moved away from its initial academic epicenter in Jerusalem and into the Gentile areas. The second wave of persecution began on a local level within towns and their city magistrates. The making and selling of idols was a major business in some towns and Christianity challenged the power of such idols, thus sales diminished. Some Christians were jailed for publically refusing to embrace the idolatry in particular town. The greatest persecution began as insecure, power-hungry Caesars were threatened by the proclamation of a new King and the growing rumblings of members dissatisfied with Christians permeating the empire. Even though Christians paid their taxes and were obedient to the state as far as their faith in Jesus allowed, Caesars like Nero were not giving a foothold to a new faith possessing the power to change the known world. Peter, like Paul, spent the latter years of his life in Rome and most likely died there. His general epistle could have been written from Rome. He addresses the growing persecution beginning to create great suffering for the body of Christ. Most likely the persecution addressed by Peter was that inflicted by Nero around 64 A.D.
Doctrinal Issues Confronting Christians in the Roman Empire
As persecution spread in the empire and inflicted greater suffering, the Christian community struggled to reconcile God’s love and promises with their personal and corporate suffering. The Jewish Christians were just emerging from a centuries-old belief in what was called “The Retribution Principle.” This principle, or doctrinal belief, can be stated simply: If a person is healthy, wealthy and blessed, God’s favor is upon them. And, God’s favor is upon them because they have been faithful to the Law. However, the inverse is true. If a person is sick, poor, and struggles in life, they are guilty of violating the Law, or their family is sinful. Read the account of the disciples asking Jesus about a man’s blindness. They ask, “Is he blind because of his sin, or the sin of his parents?” (John 9:2) In contrast, when the rich young ruler walked away sad when Jesus told him to sell all he had, the disciples ask, “Then who can be saved?” (Mark 10:17-26) Few believed in the Retribution Principle more than Simon Peter. Now, we can understand why he was the first to recoil when Jesus spoke of suffering and dying on a cross. Good, moral people did not die like that! Only those without the favor of God died such a horrible, public death. It was only after Pentecost that Peter finally understands why Jesus died. It is Peter who descends from the upper room and offers a sermon in stark contrast to his old belief in the Retribution Principle. He preached, “This Jesus, whom you crucified, God hath made him Lord and Christ.” Peter was finally able to understand that suffering and redemption did not have to be opposites or irreconcilable. Redemption could actually come through suffering. This doctrinal change in Peter is important to understanding his writing in I Peter to suffering Christians. In 64 A.D. Nero blamed a destructive fire in Rome on the Christians, and severe persecution was ignited.
This lesson is asking the all-important question, “How do Christians understand the universal issue of suffering?” Should we even be involved in judging the sinfulness of another, or determining who has the favor of God? Since the Christian community possessed no military or army, what was their greatest threat to the powers they encountered?
Theological, historical, and experiential reflection upon I Peter 1:13-25
I Peter 1:13
The opening conjunction “therefore,” implies that all written prior to verse 13 has been leading to this point. Peter acknowledges that the Christian church is suffering, though he informs them it will be a brief time of persecution. The term “brief” is subjective, and what is brief to one is not always brief to another. Peter also does not address the severity of the persecution. Even a brief period of persecution can create severe pain and hardship. Yet, he is not offering the false promise that persecution is an easy experience, void of pain, or that Christians are insulated from such suffering. Peter reminds them they stand on a spiritual foundation as members of the body of Christ. This foundation is of eternal substance and indestructible. This certain foundation is the eternal salvation given to us through Jesus Christ. It is eternal and therefore incorruptible. It is untouchable by decay. Gold and silver, the most precious commodities in their world, are subject to decay. However, the salvation given through Christ is not subject to this world. It stands above and beyond the world. Thus, Peter asserts that this salvation is “kept in heaven for us.” This use of language is Peter’s manner of reminding us that human hands cannot touch it, take it, or destroy it. No expression of suffering can take away or remove the salvation that is ours through Jesus Christ the Lord. For we were bought with the precious blood of Christ and belong to God’s indestructible kingdom. Therefore, the Christian is to keep their mind uncluttered, free from distraction, and alert. It is helpful to recall the story of Peter trying to walk on water to Jesus. He actually walks on the lake until he looks at the waves and storm about him. The Christian must keep their mind, focus, and affection upon Christ himself, for if we consider the suffering we experience, and question why it is inflicting us and not those less deserving, and even more so question God’s goodness in allowing us to find ourselves in the storm, we lose spiritual focus and stumble. The prophets who preceded the early church suffered to deliver to us the truth of the new covenant in Christ. Likewise, God can use our suffering not just for ourselves and the refinement of our own faith. We, like the former prophets, can, through our suffering, become the instruments that bless all Christians who come after us with strength and courage as they too experience suffering. We live as witnesses not just for the Christians in our present time, but for all Christians who will follow. Again, our hope is not on what we see now, but rather on what God is going to do in his divine future through us, and on the fullness of salvation that will be revealed at the coming of Christ.
I Peter 1:14-16
In two of the earlier lessons in this unit, we read of Israel’s temptation to “reimagine” their past in Egypt. While in Egypt they suffered horribly. Yet, as they suffered on their journey toward God’s promise they began to believe life was actually better in Egypt. Yesterday always looks better because we have already endured it, and now it doesn’t seem so painful. When we struggle for Christ, it is tempting for some to say, “Life was far easier prior to my following Christ.” However, it wasn’t. Life was void of meaning, purpose, and hope, and we were not a member of the loving community of Jesus.
Today we belong to a different world and a different kingdom offering a far different life. Then how should we live in times of persecution and suffering as members of the body of Christ? Peter writes, “But just as he who calls you is holy, so be holy in all you do.” Holiness involves two major dynamics. Holiness implies perfect moral purity. And it implies being set apart from the world, representing that which is noble, good, pure, and moral. Personal holiness is to live with hearts of moral purity. And, it calls us to a lifestyle that is always pointing toward the highest ideals and expression of God’s eternal life, especially in times of adversity. More simply stated for our lesson, to be holy is to embody the life of God within our hearts. It is to allow the presence of the Holy Spirit to teach, guide and empower us to live the highest morality possible. Consequently, this inner moral life is seen, witnessed, and noticeable to the world about us. It is a different life that draws the longing heart to God. What is the nature of this highest inner morality? It was stated in Deut. 6:4 and illuminated by Jesus when he quoted the “law of laws.” Our morality is based upon “Loving the Lord our God, with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves.” Jesus proclaimed that he did not come to abolish that law, but to fulfill it in the deepest sense of the word. In the midst of suffering, Peter would desire that we live in, and express holy love. We do not fight, we do become bitter, and we do not give in to anger: we love! It is not our fighting against the unchangeable that touches the world, it is our ability to accept the unchangeable in love, believing God is accomplishing some great work for his kingdom that we may not yet see. The book “Early Christian Martyrs” records the following account:
“There are hundreds – thousands – of other martyrs from these years who endured the most terrible pain. But the strange thing is, the stories that come down to us about their deaths, even those few stories recorded by the Romans who killed them, tell us that most of these women, men, and children who were killed for their faith died with peaceful hearts, sometimes even singing hymns as they were burned or dragged by animals in front of the cheering crowds. Their friendship with God was very, very deep.”
This was a moment when Christians were filled with holy love, and their life pointed upward to the high calling in Christ, and they changed their world.
I Peter 1:17
Peter uses the paternal title “father” in referring to God. His choice of the title reveals he had listened to Jesus and the manner in which Jesus addressed God. Naturally, we do not believe God can be defined or limited by gender. However, we do get a sense here that Peter had listened when Jesus taught them to pray, “Our father, who art in heaven . . .” One of the most surprising terms used by Peter to describe God is the adverb “impartially.” No disciple tried with greater enthusiasm to stand out to Jesus than Peter. He was impulsive and made promises he could never keep. Remember, Peter, not the others, attempted to walk on water. He repeatedly claimed he would refuse to let Jesus die on a cross and yet ran away; and, in Gethsemane sliced off the soldier’s ear. Now, we hear his maturity in walking with Christ as he humbly admits God judges us all equally. No one stands out above another, not even Peter himself. We all stand on equal ground at the foot of the cross. Peter reminds his listeners that Christians are indeed foreigners in the world. Suffering is a part of this world, but our strength comes from another. Paul expressed the Christian response to this world powerfully in II Cor. 10:3, “For though we live in the world we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.”
The world recognizes this higher morality in the church and its members. The world can envision what is possible only when it recognizes the Kingdom of God alive in God’s holy people. Yes, we live in the world, but our moral life stands above the chaos and destruction, revealing a new, transformed existence through Christ. This lifestyle is the “reverent fear” of which Peter speaks. Peter calls the church, suffering in the world, to holy living, which is holy loving.
I Peter 1:18-19
The early Jewish Christians still revered their ancestry and the symbols that been passed through the years, such as the temple. These were symbolic of the coming Messiah. Therefore, Peter must have been addressing his Gentile readers. The Gentiles possessed a history of Greek and Roman gods, philosophies and other religious thought, perhaps from the east. Few meaningful consistent symbols were passed from generation to generation, all pointing to a great god. There existed a strong disconnect between the Roman and Greek gods and the people. The idols of the Gentile world had little real interaction with humankind. In Greek mythology we find the enlightening words concerning the Greek gods, “You cannot know how frightened gods are of pain, there is nothing more foreign to them.” Contrast the disconnected Greek gods with the Christ dying for the sins of the world and one can gain a sense of just how empty the religion of the Greeks had left them. Even the commodities that were highly valued in the near eastern world, such as gold and silver, were worthless in purchasing life abundant and eternal. A man, woman, or child could suffer with a pocket of riches and die hopeless. However, Peter reminds them that Jesus Christ had entered human history, and though utterly innocent of any sin or wrongdoing, had shed his blood for the redemption of all humanity. Though holy, Jesus could be known, experienced, and followed. The Roman and Greek idols offered nothing other than meaningless existence. Jesus offered real life, a life of substance and meaning made possible through the giving of his precious life. The gift of Jesus himself was far more precious than silver and gold.
I Peter 1:20-21
Now, Peter reminds us again that not only was the gift of Jesus precious, it was “eternal.” When a biblical author refers to a term or word repeatedly it is for reasons of emphasis. Peter wants us to clearly understand that we are anchored in the eternal. In order to emphasize the eternal nature of the church and our salvation Peter journeys back to the preexistent Lord, setting in motion what was to come. God’s desire to love and redeem the world has existed from the beginning. It has been revealed in creation, and humanity has experienced expressions of this truth from the beginning of time as we know it. But at the perfect, appropriate moment, the fullness of God’s love and redemption were revealed and embodied in Jesus Christ. Paul wrote in the Galatian letter, “In the fullness of time, God sent forth his son, born of a woman.” (Galatians 4:4-50) The gift of Jesus has made it possible for us to believe in the one true God, loving and merciful. His life, death and resurrection prove to the world his eternal nature, and that Jesus is the eternal fulfillment of God’s desire from the beginning. To have faith in Christ is to also have faith in God’s eternal will, a will to redeem all humankind. This is the blessed hope of every Christian, for it is eternal truth.
The summary as stated in I Peter 1:22-25
Peter draws this great chapter to conclusion by again reminding us that the one great truth that empowers us to withstand persecution and suffering, or any struggle in life, is our love for God, and for one another. When John Wesley spoke of being holy he often used the expression that God wants us to be “perfect in love.” Christians are on a journey of learning how to perfectly love. As expressed in Jesus, perfect love is selfless, sacrificial, courageous, and again, noticeable. This love may not deliver us from persecution or adversity in this life. The love of Christ empowers one to live above the worst of suffering, for again, our power to endure is not from this world. The greatest witness of rising above the worst of pain and suffering through love was Jesus on the cross. Love granted him the power to look upon those causing his pain and pray, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” In that moment Jesus was “in the world” suffering, but “not of the world” in his loving response. Was his love memorable? It is recorded and read during the Seven Last Words of Jesus during Lent and Holy Week. Furthermore, a young man named Stephen was persecuted by Saul, later to become the apostle Paul. Paul held the cloaks of those stoning Steven to death and he heard the same expression of love from Stephen that had been spoken by Jesus on the cross, “Lay not this sin against them.” Those words and that loving act in the face of suffering deeply touched Paul, and a few days later he met Jesus on the Damascus Road. We know the remainder of that beautiful story. Peter closes this rich chapter of his letter by once again reminding us that we were born again through the eternal, precious blood of Christ. Since he is eternal, his word is eternal. And it is this eternal word and the Holy Spirit that empowers us to be holy and loving. Peter reminds us that one day our bodies will perish. Even the most beautiful facets of our existence will pass. However, we do not belong to this world. We are citizens of the eternal kingdom that endures forever. Peter encourages the church to endure the present persecution and suffering, for all things of this world pass. Within each of us is eternal life, given to us through the precious gift of Jesus Christ. No persecution or suffering will ever conquer that which is within the Christian!
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace, where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. It is in giving that we receive, and it’s in pardoning that we are pardoned. And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. In Jesus’ name, Amen (Excerpts from the Prayer of St. Francis)
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.