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.

Fortunate Son (Exodus 15:22–27)

God saves. His people sing. Then, they grumble! The children who praise and thank you at the beach, whine and moan on the way home.

God saves. His people sing. Then, they grumble. Yet, God is gracious! The children who praise and thank you at the beach, whine and moan on the way home, but you don’t drop them off at the nearest convenience store, you drive them all the way home.

God saves, we sing—this is the essences of salvation. We sing, then we grumble, yet God gives grace—this is the story of sanctification. In this wilderness of life east of Eden and south of the new heaven and new earth, sin remains in us, but it never exhausts the grace found in God. Grace that will drive us all the way home. Grace that will drive sin out of us.

I don’t understand my friends who think otherwise, but in my opinion, The Horse and His Boy is one of the best in Lewis’ Narnian tales. From one perspective, Shasta’s life has been a series of unfortunate events: abandoned as a child on foreign pagan soil to become a slave, finally gaining opportunity to seek his freedom, only to be exhausted by one obstacle after another. Journeying alone in the night he begins to complain that he must be the most unfortunate boy in the world. His grumbling is stunted by the terror of realizing he is not alone. After the unknown Thing travels alongside him for some distance in the darkness Shasta finally breaks the silence.

“Who are you?” he said, barely above a whisper.

“One who has waited long for you to speak,” said the Thing. Its voice was not loud, but very large and deep.

“Are you – are you a giant?” asked Shasta.

“You might call me a giant,” said the Large Voice. “But I am not like the creatures you call giants.”

“I can’t see you at all,” said Shasta, after staring very hard. Then (for an even more terrible idea had come into his head) he said, almost in a scream, “You’re not – not something dead, are you? Oh please – please do go away. What harm have I ever done you? Oh, I am the unluckiest person in the whole world.”

Once more he felt the warm breath of the Thing on his hand and face. “There,” it said, “that is not the breath of a ghost. Tell me your sorrows.”

Shasta was a little reassured by the breath: so he told how he had never known his real father or mother and had been brought up sternly by the fisherman. and then he told the story of his escape and how they were chased by lions and forced to swim for their lives; and of all their dangers in Tashbaan and about his night among the tombs and how the beasts howled at him out of the desert. And he told about the heat and thirst of their desert journey and how they were almost at their goal when another lion chased them and wounded Aravis. And also, how very long it was since he had had anything to eat.

“I do not call you unfortunate,” said the Large Voice.

“Don’t you think it was bad luck to meet so many lions?” said Shasta.

“There was only one lion.” said the Voice.

“What on earth do you mean? I’ve just told you there were at least two lions the first night, and—”

“There was only one, but he was swift of foot.”

“How do you know?”

“I was the lion.”

And as Shasta gaped with open mouth and said nothing, the Voice continued. “I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you as you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.”

“Then it was you who wounded Aravis?”

“It was I.”

“But what for?”

“Child,” said the Voice, “I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.”

“Who are you?” asked Shasta.

“Myself,” said the Voice, very deep and low so that the earth shook: and again “Myself,” loud and clear and gay: and then the third time “Myself,” whispered so softly you could hardly hear it, and yet it seemed to come from all around you as if the leaves rustled with it.

Shasta was no longer afraid that the Voice belonged to something that would eat him, nor that it was the voice of a ghost. But a new and different sort of trembling came over him. Yet he felt glad too.

Shasta, was brought by the Lion to a regal home, for unbeknownst, he was heir to the throne. Unbeknownst, he had saved the kingdom—though really it was all Aslan’s doing. Unbeknownst to Shasta, Aslan, by all these trials, was changing Shasta, fitting him for this kingdom. Likewise, God’s strange, wise providence guides His people home, for His glory, and for their joy. No more grumbling will be heard, all will be song.

The Penning Pastor: No Losses, Just Returns

We often complain of losses; but the expression is rather improper. Strictly speaking, we can lose nothing, because we have no real property in anything. Our earthly comforts are lent us; and when recalled, we ought to return and resign them with thankfulness to him who has let them remain so long in our hands. —John Newton, The Works of John Newton

Singing While the Bombs are Falling (Habakkuk 3:17–19)

I think anyone can get the general sense of Habakkuk 3:17 from an initial reading. But reading that verse in light of the entire Old Testament, and then seeing what Habakkuk goes on to say, is like hearing the “Hallelujah Chorus,” within the entirety of Handel’s Messiah—it makes it soar.

Figs, grapes, and olives were the choicest produce of the land. They’re iconic; used again and in the prophetic corpus. There seems to be an increasing severity to the images Habakkuk uses. The absence of figs by itself hardly suggests privation. From grapes they received their daily drink, but these wouldn’t be essential for life. From the olive they resourced oil not only to anoint their faces, but to fuel their lamps and cook their food. The fields yielding no food turns one from the lack of joys to starvation. The flocks being cut off not only means the absence of another food source, but also of clothing. Finally, the cattle being absent from the stalls suggests not so much that beef isn’t an alternative to mutton, but that the animal they used to prepare and work the ground is non-existent. Now there is not only no food, but no possibility of food. David Prior paints the canvas well:

Everything has been destroyed. There is no grain, oil or wine. There is no meat or wool. There is no food of any kind—fruit, vegetables, cereals, milk, meat. It is not simply a devastated economy. It is the end of everything that can keep body and soul together. There is nothing, absolutely nothing—and an invading army takes possession of the land, pillaging and raping with indiscriminate violence. It is Bosnia, Vietnam and Rwanda rolled into one. ‘How could life be sustained at all in such conditions?’ Nothing to eat, nothing to drink, nothing to wear. Not just poverty, but the enemy stalking the land. Nowhere to hide.

But this is only the general sense that a good reading of the text itself can give us. There is a much deeper significance. Our story begins in a garden of plenty and peace. It is the story of a kingdom: God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule. Man rebels against God’s rule and is driven from the garden, separated from God—not His people. The earth is cursed. Thorns grow. But God calls Abraham out for Himself. He promises to make from Abraham a people for Himself, to give them a land, and to bless them—to reverse the curse.

Habakkuk gives us a picture of the curse gone full bloom, consuming all so that nothing else blooms. Habakkuk is saying that there is not one tangible evidence to His senses of the covenant God made with His people, yet he will rejoice in Yahweh. When the only part of God’s promises that you have is God Himself, that is all you need. That is all we ever have in this life. Just like Abraham, Habakkuk can’t see the promises, but greets them from afar (Hebrews 11:8–16).

Picture a devastated village within German occupied territory during the second great war having received news that the tide has turned. The war isn’t over, but they believe it will be soon. In the midst of the bombed out buildings, stripped gardens, and with tattered clothes they sing and dance with joy. When there is not one tangible sign of the kingdom come, and all you have is the word of the victory of the Word, this is all faith needs to rejoice because it is all that faith ever has. When faith sings in the midst of darkness it demonstrates that the joy of the kingdom isn’t in the people, the place or the rule (peace and righteousness) by themselves in isolation from God as though that were possible. The joy of the kingdom is that it is God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule.