Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 26, 2020
1 Peter 1:17-23 Commentary
A few years ago the University of Maryland’s football team found itself in trouble at halftime of one of the biggest games in its history. It didn’t just trail North Carolina State’s team. Maryland’s team also hadn’t played very well.
Maryland’s head coach Ralph Friedgen knew he had to motivate his team to play better in the second half. So he gave a passionate speech – and threw a few chairs. “I don’t think I hit anyone,” he noted somewhat sheepishly after his motivated team rallied to beat North Carolina State.
One challenge that faces all leaders is how to motivate those whom we lead. How can teachers motivate their students to do as well as they can? How can pastors motivate the members of their church to fully follow Jesus?
These are perhaps especially hard questions in the context of the current pandemic. Even Christians may have higher priorities than holy living. Some of us are mostly thinking about the physical and economic health and survival of our loved ones and ourselves.
Preachers and teachers don’t ignore those challenges or their context. But we also continue to offer God’s gracious words of life. Among them are Peter’s call to his readers not to “conform to … evil desires” (14) but to “be holy in all” (15) we do.
Yet he knew that it was incredibly difficult to do that. How, then, could the apostle motivate his readers to be completely holy? The apostle doesn’t throw any chairs or discipline wrongdoers. He instead first reminds Jesus’ followers that the One to whom we pray as our Father also “judges” each person’s work “impartially.”
He implies that our hope of salvation also brings with it accountability. Yet Peter also knew that such accountability to an impartial Judge might terrify people. To properly address such terror, this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s preachers and teachers may first want to explore the nature of God’s judgment.
Some of God’s people deny that they’ll have to stand before God’s judgment seat because God has already forgiven and “forgotten” their sins. Other Christians believe that they’ll stand before God’s judgment seat with their confidence bolstered by our addition of good works to God’s saving grace.
To clear up such misperceptions, those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson can point to the Bible’s teachings about God’s judgment. Certainly, as Peter notes in verse 17, God “judges each man’s work impartially.” That implies that God is already judging the world. “As a just judge,” Reformed Christians profess in the Heidelberg Catechism, God punishes disobedience “now and in eternity.”
However, Peter also at least suggests that those God judges on the Day of Judgment will include members of the Christian community. Judgment, after all, begins with what Peter later calls “the family of God.” Romans 14:10 also insists, “we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.”
Christ himself will be everyone’s “impartial” judge on that last day. After all, in II Corinthians 5:10 Paul writes about “the judgment seat of Christ.” Thankfully, then, as the Heidelberg Catechism insists, the final judge will be “the very One who already stood in” Jesus’ followers’ “place before God.”
God’s standard of judgment of all people will be “impartial.” So the things that often affect our judgment won’t affect God’s judgment. God’s impartial standard of judgment, as Gordon Spykman once wrote, “will be the same then as it is now – whether our life is ‘hid with Christ in God’ or whether we are ‘still in our sins’.”
So Christians’ failures will somehow enter the picture on Judgment Day. However, as Anthony Hoekema once noted, “the important point” of that is that God will reveal those sins and shortcomings as “forgiven sins.”
So while even God’s adopted sons and daughters will have to appear before God on the Judgment Day, we don’t have to worry about that day. After all, then, as now, there is no condemnation for those who faithfully receive God’s salvation. The impartial Judge, after all, is also our Lord and Savior.
Yet knowing that we will someday have to stand before Christ the Judge helps motivate us to live in what Peter calls in verse 17 “reverent fear.” While Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters don’t have to be afraid of God, we do want to cultivate a deep respect for the Lord. After all, at the last day God will reveal everything Christians have done, both good and bad. So we try to live, talk and even think in ways that God will reveal then as good.
Such a lifestyle, however, makes us what Peter repeatedly calls “strangers” (17). After all, the world in which we live cares little about whether God will judge its actions as good or bad. So Christians pattern our lives on God’s holiness, not on the people around us.
To even further motivate his readers to live holy lives, Peter also reminds us that God “redeemed” God’s dearly beloved people (18). I Peter 1’s preachers and teachers might use our biblically shaped imagination to explore redemption with our hearers.
We might invite them to imagine themselves as antebellum American slaves. Their master completely owns them. He tells them when to get up and when to go to bed, as well as when and where to work. Their master also beats them mercilessly when they act as though he isn’t their master.
Your master owns you so completely that he also controls your family. He essentially tells you whom you marry, since he has the power to sell you or your spouse to another master. Your master even has the power to take your children away from you to sell them to another master.
What’s more, you have no hope of changing this. You don’t have enough money to buy your freedom. Even if you succeed in somehow running away, you have little hope of permanent escape. So you have no reason to think that you’ll ever be anything but someone’s property.
By nature, that’s humanity’s spiritual situation. Human beings are naturally slaves to sin, Satan and death. In fact, as Reformed Christians confess, we actually “increase our guilt every day.” We can’t buy our freedom from this slavery. Nor can people somehow escape from this slavery. We naturally, after all, perversely kind of enjoy being slaves to sin and Satan. So we naturally have no reason to think we’ll ever be anything but sin and Satan’s slaves.
But someone wants to buy your freedom, to “redeem” you from slavery. What’s he willing to pay for your freedom? A few dollars? Another slave? No, he’s willing to buy your freedom with his only son.
While sounds preposterous, that’s precisely what God graciously did for God’s dear sons and daughters. God didn’t purchase our freedom from slavery to sin with valuable but perishable things like silver or gold. Nor did God “pay” with any other creature to redeem Jesus’ followers from slavery to sin and Satan.
Only One who is, as Reformed Christians confess, “truly human and truly righteous” could ransom God’s people from slavery to sin and Satan. God has graciously ransomed God’s adopted children from slavery to sin and Satan. However, the ransom God paid was simply astronomical. God paid the price of God’s only natural Son, Jesus Christ’s blood to ransom you and me from death. Jesus gave his blood for our blood.
Christ’s blood doesn’t, however, just free his adopted brothers and sisters from slavery to future destruction. It also breaks us from slavery to a dead past. Christ’s blood redeems his followers from the meaningless way of life of Satan’s slaves. Christ’s blood graciously sweeps away an entire ungodly lifestyle, with its hollow ways of talking, acting and even thinking.
Long before God created anything, God knew that God’s first imagebearers would fall into sin and become slaves to Satan. God knew as well that their descendants would become such slaves. However, God also knew what God would do when God’s precious children needed to be rescued from this slavery. Long before God even created the world, God decided to send God’s only Son, Jesus Christ, to live, die and rise again for the salvation of those God graciously chose to save.
God chose to adopt us as God’s children before God even created the world. God also loved you and me so much that God gave God’s Son to bring us salvation. God also, however, graciously gave Jesus’ followers our salvation.
So while Christ paid the price for his adopted siblings’ ransom from slavery to sin and Satan, he also, by his Spirit, plants that salvation in our hearts. That means that while, by God’s Spirit, we believe “in” him, Christians also believe “through” Jesus Christ. For while God’s Spirit uses the apostles’ witness to bring you and me to faith in Jesus Christ, it’s the Lord himself who actually gifts us with faith.
So faith in Christ isn’t something Christians generate on our own. We don’t hear the gospel and then simply decide to believe that its testimony to Jesus Christ is true. No, the Lord himself, by his Spirit, gives us faith. God’s people can only receive both that gift and the salvation that comes with it.
Human traditions and religions offer only empty lifestyles and meaningless illusions. So the risen Jesus’ followers have hope only through faith in the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. That, along with an awareness of both our accountability to God and the price God paid for our salvation, helps motivate us, by God’s Spirit, to be holy in all we do.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment’s Marmeladov is an alcoholic public official who has a unique but compelling take on the last judgment: “When [the judge] has finished with everyone, then he shall say to us: ‘And ye also,’ he’ll say, ‘come forth! Come forth ye winebibbers, come forth ye weaklings, come forth ye profligates!’ And we will all come forth and stand there unashamed.
“And he shall say: ‘Ye are swine! Ye have the beast’s image and stamp on you; but come ye also!’ And the wise shall say, and the judicious shall say: ‘Lord, why dost thou receive these men?’
“And he shall say: ‘I receive them, O wise men, I receive them, O nes, because not one of them ever considered himself worthy of it . . .’ And he shall stretch forth his hands to us and we shall fall at his feet . . . and weep . . . and understand all! Then we shall understand all!”
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