The August Theologian: Our Consolation

The whole family of God, most high and most true, has therefore a consolation of its own—a consolation which cannot deceive, and which has in it a surer hope than the tottering and falling affairs of earth can afford. They will not refuse the discipline of this temporal life, in which they are schooled for life eternal; nor will they lament their experience of it, for the good things of earth they use as pilgrims who are not detained by them, and its ills either prove or improve them. As for those who insult over them in their trials, and when ills befall them say, “Where is thy God?” we may ask them where their gods are when they suffer the very calamities for the sake of avoiding which they worship their gods, or maintain they ought to be worshipped ; for the family of Christ is furnished with its reply: our God is everywhere present, wholly everywhere; not confined to any place. He can be present unperceived, and be absent without moving; when He exposes us to adversities, it is either to prove our perfections or correct our imperfections; and in return for our patient endureance of the sufferings of time, He reserves for us an everlasting reward. —Augustine, The City of God

The August Theologian: Loss for Gain

“They who were making such a use of their property have been consoled for light losses by great gains, and have had more pleasure in those possessions which they have securely laid past, by freely giving them away, than grief in those which they entirely lost by an anxious and selfish hoarding of them. For nothing could perish on earth save what they would be ashamed to carry away from earth.” —Augustine, The City of God

The August Theologian: Tested by Fire

For as the same fire causes gold to glow brightly, and chaff to smoke ; and under the same flail the straw is beaten small, while the grain is cleansed ; and as the lees are not mixed with the oil, though squeezed out of the vat by the same pressure, so the same violence of affliction proves, purges, clarifies the good, but damns, ruins, exterminates the wicked. And thus it is that in the same affliction the wicked detest God and blaspheme, while the good pray and praise. So material a difference does it make, not what ills are suffered, but what kind of man suffers them. For, stirred up with the same movement, mud exhales a horrible stench, and ointment emits a fragrant odour. —Augustine, The City of God

Harmless (1 Peter 3:13–17)

Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. —1 Peter 3:13–14a (ESV)

John Piper says that this is “the most perplexing verse in the book” to him. That’s the kind of statement made by a mature believer reading the book as a humble child seeking understanding. Unbelievers and the immature are offended by 2:18 telling slaves to be subject or 3:1 telling wives to submit. The immature are not perplexed when Peter tells them not to be surprised by fiery trials (4:12). If you are reading this letter in humility and maturity, it’s a text like this that puzzles you. Again and again, Peter, and the Bible, explain that being an exile, an alien, a pilgrim, a stranger on this earth entails suffering. So what do we make of this verse?

Is it speaking proverbially? Generally, it’s true, if you are zealous for good, no harm will come to you. Proverbs 15:1 speaks  to this; “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” If you obey traffic laws, generally, the highway patrolman won’t pull you over. When citizens are subject to the state (2:13), when believing slaves obey their unbelieving lords (2:18), when believing wives submit to unbelieving husbands (3:1), when Christians don’t return reviling for reviling, but instead bless (3:9), generally, no harm will come to them.

Or, is this verse speaking eschatologically? Eschatology is the study of the end, the last things. So is this verse saying that ultimately no harm will come to the saints? The “now”  at the beginning of v. 14 connects it back to the previous section which ended saying, “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” So is this the reason that no one can harm us? Because God’s eyes are on us and are against the wicked so that in the end, we will be blessed and they cursed. To get the eschatological flavor that connects vv. 12 and 13 listen to a familiar passage from Romans 8:

“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” —Romans 8:31–39 (ESV).

God’s face shines towards you and frowns on the wicked. Now, who is there to harm you? This fits the emphasis of our living hope, imperishable inheritance, future salvation, and the grace ready to be revealed that Peter has so stressed.

So, which is it? I think both of these ideas are here together in this passage, and what illumines them is the “but” in v. 14. The “suffering” of v. 14 is the “harm” mentioned in v. 13. Peter asks the rhetorical question “Who is there to harm you?” and then qualifies that question, “but, if you should be harmed…”. Verse 13 is a proverbial statement, and v. 14 is the contrasting eschatological qualification.

You might be harmed, but only in such a way that is eschatologically not harmful. Persecution tries to rob the saints of life, but only puts deposits in their bank. Their harm cannot ultimately harm us. God turns their curses into blessings. We’re in union with Jesus. Remember what happened when they tried to stamp out His life?

 

Suffering Slaves and the Suffering Servant

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“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” —1 Peter 1:21–25 (ESV)

Peter calls on slaves to suffer for doing good, motivated by the exemplary and empowering suffering of Christ. As you read 1 Peter 2:21-25, it is clear that Peter is drawing from the most familiar passage in the Old Testament concerning the sufferings of Christ, Isaiah 53. When you read Isaiah 53, you must begin with Isaiah 52:13 where the one suffering is addressed by God as “my servant.” Peter then is telling slaves that they were called to suffering because of the suffering of the servant of Yahweh. Further, the letter makes it clear that this is not just the calling of these saints because they are slaves, but of these slaves because they are saints.

Jesus’ suffering stands underneath our suffering in two ways: it is exemplary and empowering. This isn’t multiple choice. This is all of the above. But one of the answers is foundational, standing underneath the other. If Jesus’ life is only an example, it is a crushing one, for none of us measure up. Worse, if Jesus’ death is only an example, then it is one of insanity. Tim Keller illustrates:

“Imagine that you are walking along a river with a friend, and your friend suddenly says to you, ‘I want to show you how much I love you!’ and with that he throws himself into the river and drowns. Would you say in response, ‘How he loved me!’ No, of course not. You’d wonder about your friend’s mental state. But what if you were walking along a river with a friend and you fell into the river by accident, and you can’t swim. What if he dived in after you and pushed you to safety but was himself drawn under by the current and drowned. Then you would respond, ‘Behold, how he loved me!’ The example of Jesus is a bad example if it is only an example. If there was no peril to save us from—if we were not lost apart from the ransom of his death—then the model of his sacrificial love is not moving and life-changing; it is crazy. Unless Jesus died as our substitute, he can’t die as a moving example of sacrificial love.”

Jesus’ death was not a meaningless suicide. Jesus death is more than a sign telling us to go this way. It is gas burning in our tanks.

You can only follow Jesus because of how you cannot follow Jesus. The empowering aspect of Jesus’ death stands under the exemplary aspect of His death. As James and John learned, there is a way that we can drink from the cup of Christ’s sufferings, and there is a way that we cannot—that we dare not.

When Jesus died on the cross, He did so as our substitute, accomplishing what we could not. He bore our sins, cursed of God in our place on the tree (cf. Deuteronomy 21:23; Galatians 3:13). His death not only delivered us from the guilt of sin but also from the bondage of sin. Our sins were born by Christ, so that, in union with Him, we might die to sin and live to righteousness (Romans 6:4–7). When one suffers for righteousness’ sake, living honorably, and then endures that suffering not reviling but trusting God, all this righteousness is empowered by Christ’s substitutionary wrath-bearing suffering in our place.

It is only because of how you cannot follow Jesus, that you can follow Jesus. Christus exemplar flows out of penal substitutionary atonement. Because Jesus suffered in a way we can’t, we can suffer like Him. And if we suffer with Him, we will also be glorified with Him (Romans 8:17).

WARNING: Combustible Churches (1 Peter 1:6–9)

“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials…” —1 Peter 1:6

“I am tired of evangelical conferences where more time is given to the hype than to the hope, where more energy is given to the methods than to the message, and where more effort is devoted to techniques than to truth.” —Michael Horton, Putting Amazing Back into Grace

Peter here rejoices in a hope that is noncombustible. While Peter’s faith in this hope may be tried and tested, pressed and purified, his hope remains imperishable. Our precious faith is being proved by fiery trials to match our 24 karat inheritance.

Unfortunately, we’ve exchanged hype for hope and joy for cheap laughs. The church’s thin jolly front makes for good kindling and the hot spotlights have brought things to the point of ignition. When the fire comes, the mega edifice will be gone and scarcely anything left. Faith survives the fire, but faith is rooted in the Word. When there is little of the Word, there’s little left after the fire. Trials purify gold, not fluff. It’s no kawinkidink that so many adolescent ministries have “fire” in their name, because that’s often all their good for—and awesome quick flame.

Don’t let the veneer fool you. We’re building sheds instead of temples. Sure, sheds go up a lot quicker, but they don’t last long. They don’t stand the fire. Sheds burn down even quicker than they’re built up. What are the glitz and glare of such hype in comparison to the glory of the Son in His revealing? The saints don’t need to be worked up into a hysteria aping the world’s delusional happiness. The saints need to taste of the word to come through the truth of God’s Word.

A Beat of Hope Interrupting a Dark Rhythm (Ruth 1)

“In the days when the judges ruled…”

These were grim days. The evils of the latter kings and the exile to come were but the harvesting of idolatrous seeds sown only a generation after the death of Joshua. Here is the dark rhythm of Judges:

“And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals (Judges 2:11).”

“And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. They forgot the LORD their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth (Judges 3:7).”

“And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD (Judges 3:12).”

“And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD after Ehud died (Judges 4:1).”

“The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD gave them into the hand of Midian seven years (Judges 6:1).”

“The people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth, the gods of Syria, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines. And they forsook the LORD and did not serve him (Judges 10:6).”

“And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, so the LORD gave them into the hand of the Philistines for forty years (Judges 13:1).”

As you advance through the book, the minor key persists, but a motif of hope is added:

“In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 17:6).”

“In those days there was no king in Israel (Judges 18:1).”

“In those days, when there was no king in Israel… (Judges 19:1).”

“In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25).”

The hope is a king.

Set in the midst of these local military leaders, these flawed superheroes, you have the pastoral setting of Ruth. It is a welcome reprieve from the violence and evil of Judges and a hopeful transition to the era of kings.

In the midst of such sin, we see the beauty of God’s grace. Here, God’s providence takes the ordinary stuff of life and brings extraordinary mercy to his people. God’s sovereignty works in the regular hurts and glories of all His saints towards the same end we see in Ruth—the glory of His King. The King who will turn the hearts of His people back to God.