The Christians to whom the apostle Peter was writing were willing to risk everything for the sake of their faith in Christ. Why? Because they understood how high the stakes were: People they knew and loved were living and dying apart from a saving relationship with God through Christ. What about us? Do we live as if we understand those stakes?
Sermon Text: 1 Peter 3:17-18
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As is my tradition when I go on vacation, I took my boys to a movie. We saw Spider-Man: Homecoming. And it was great! And we were supporting our local economy: a lot of it was filmed in Fayetteville.
In the movie, there’s a suspenseful scene in which our hero, who is really just a teenage boy named Peter Parker, is racing up the side of the Washington Monument, in an effort to save some of his high school classmates, who are trapped in an elevator at the top—and the elevator is about to come crashing down. You’ll recall that Spider-Man has the power for his hands and feet to “stick” to surfaces, like a spider.
So Peter is racing up the side of the monument. Suddenly, when he’s at the top of the monument, where the obelisk comes to a point, he looks down, and he’s afraid. Afraid of heights. Afraid of falling. His Spider-Man suit has Siri—or, like, a really advanced version of Siri whom he has named “Karen.” Karen asks him what’s wrong, and he says, “I’ve never been this high up before!” And “Karen,” in this very chipper, cheerful tone of voice, tells him: “Peter, because you forgot to reload your built-in parachute, a fall from this height will do doubt prove fatal.” Thanks, Karen, for that encouragement!
But my point is, the stakes for Peter Parker couldn’t be higher. Every move he makes on top of that monument is potentially a matter of life or death.
And brothers and sisters, the apostle Peter is writing to a group of Christians for whom being faithful to Jesus was also a matter of life or death. And they knew it! They knew that their allegiance to Christ—that their faithfulness to him and his mission—could cost them their lives. And they were O.K. with that—or at least they were trying to be.
This was the attitude of the early church! This was the attitude of Peter, who, as I said last week knew he had an appointment to keep with the executioner; Jesus warned him about that in John chapter 21. And Peter says later in this letter, “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” This was the attitude of Paul—“that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” This was the attitude of the writer of Hebrews: “Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.”
And of course it is the attitude that Jesus demands that all of us disciples have: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross”—that is, “take up his instrument of shame, humiliation, torture, and death”—“and follow me.” This is not optional for disciples of Christ. If we treat our relationship with Christ so lightly, if we treat it like cross-bearing is some optional extra feature for more advanced Christians, but not for us normal, average, every-day American middle-class Christians, then we might be surprised on Judgment Day, when we hear our Lord say to us, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”
Just last week, former megachurch pastor and best-selling author Francis Chan, author of Crazy Love, talked to a group of Facebook employees about why he stepped down seven years ago from pastoring the 5,000-plus member San Francisco church that he started. He said he stepped down in part because he had grown “comfortable” pastoring this church. He didn’t think that God had called him to be “comfortable”—that God calls any of us Christians to a life of comfort. And he said something that struck a chord with me: he said he missed the “old Francis Chan”—“that stupid kid who fell in love with Jesus in high school and starts calling everyone in the yearbook that he knew to tell them about Jesus because he was so concerned about their eternal destiny.”
That touches something within me—because I remember being a kid like that. Do any of you remember being a kid like that? Are any of you like that today?
I worked at Kroger for a couple of years in high school. One summer our manager tried something new to improve our customer service: He insisted that we take customers’ bags out to their cars. There were signs and banners everywhere about this new free service we were offering. And for the whole summer we did this. And I promise you, when we started doing it, the 16-year-old version of Brent used to pray, “God, show me how I can use the two or three minutes that I have between bagging the groceries and loading them in the trunk to talk to this customer about Jesus Christ.” And I had gospel tracts in my pocket, which I might hand to them if I thought it appropriate.
Why did I do that? For the same reason Francis Chan did: Because I was in love with Jesus, and I loved these Kroger customers enough to care about whether or not they spent eternity in heaven or hell. I loved them enough to want them to love Jesus like I loved Jesus!
Was I wrong back then to do that?
Granted, the older, the more “sophisticated,” the more “worldly” version of me—the one who was far more interested in people loving me than loving Jesus—that version of me would have said yes, I was wrong.
But I changed. And if you need to change, I pray that you will, too.
God does not call us Christians to be comfortable. And given that the time we spend in this life on this earth is the tiniest fraction of a second in comparison to the time that we will spend in eternity, it’s crazy—it’s irrational—that we wouldn’t be willing to sacrifice some of the comforts that come from being a normal, average, every-day American middle-class Christian. And yet… are we willing to sacrifice these comforts? I’m not questioning the sincerity of our faith: I know we love Jesus; we want Jesus. But we want all this other stuff, too. And we’re secretly glad that, unlike with these first-century Christians, God isn’t forcing us to choose between Jesus and everything else!
I saw an article last week about a Methodist church in our conference that has begun broadcasting its worship services over the “Facebook Live” streaming service. I have no problem with this whatsoever; I’m all for using technology as an evangelistic tool, and it sounds like this is how this church is using it. In fact, this pastor said that his Facebook Live broadcast was so popular that his church was now getting three times as many viewers on Facebook Live as are actually showing up on Sunday morning for worship.
So far, so good… But here’s the rub: this pastor was wondering aloud whether or not or how he should count these at-home viewers of his worship services in his worship attendance totals.
And I thought, “Is that where we’re at as a culture? Are we now supposed to be O.K. with would-be disciples of Jesus Christ who value comfort so much that the idea getting up on Sunday morning, of getting out of bed, of getting dressed, of driving a few miles to church, and of physically showing up at worship is a deal-breaker? Never mind tithing. Never mind the disciplines of prayer, Bible study, fasting. Never mind witnessing. Never mind serving.”
What is wrong with us? It goes without saying that if we’re not even willing to show up on Sunday—and I’m talking about us adults and teenagers who have been baptized and confirmed—if we’re not willing to do something that my mom made me do when I five years old—which is “sit for one hour through big church”—how on earth would we be willing to do what the members of Peter’s churches were called to do every day—which is put their lives on the line for Jesus Christ?
Because make no mistake: Here was the evangelistic message that these early Christians were offering: “If you accept this message I’m sharing with you, if you agree that Jesus Christ is Lord and he rose from the dead, if you agree to put your whole trust in his grace and mercy, if you live your life in obedience to him, you may get killed because of it. It may cost you everything. Are you O.K. with that?”
And remarkably enough, through the power of the Holy Spirit, so many said yes to this message that within three centuries the Christian movement had conquered the most powerful empire the world had ever known!
And we say, by contrast, “Being a Christian is so easy you don’t even have to get out of bed! Just reach for your smartphone.”
So in many ways the context in which Peter is writing couldn’t be more different from our American context.
Our little church needs the same encouragement that Peter gives to his little churches. Sure, the Christians that he’s writing to may be up there with Spider-Man at the top of the Washington Monument—500 feet off the ground and afraid of falling—while we’re only five feet off the ground and afraid of falling. But we still need the same encouragement to overcome our fear. And I’m not talking about fear of witnessing: that’s just a symptom of the problem. Fear of tithing is another symptom.
But we don’t tithe and we don’t witness for the same reason: because we’re afraid of giving our lives completely to God. We’re afraid of saying, “Whatever you want, God. My life belongs to you. It’s not mine to do with as I please. It’s yours—everything I have. It’s all for your glory, not mine. Do with me what you will.” We’re afraid of making God our only treasure in life because we’re so attached to all these earthly treasures. And we’re afraid of losing them.
So maybe we’re standing only five feet off the ground, but we need encouragement from God’s Word to climb higher and without fear.
And encouragement is precisely the reason that Peter has written the words of today’s scripture. Now, in today’s sermon, I’m only going to cover two verses—verses 17 and 18—and next week I’m going to cover verses 19 to 22.
But the first encouragement is found in verse 18, and since it’s connected to the previous verse, let’s read both of them together: “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” If that should be God’s will… And remember last week I talked about the difficult truth that God sometimes wants us to suffer; God always uses or works through our suffering to bring about a greater good—including sanctifying us; making us into the people he wants us to be. Many people in Peter’s churches were suffering and even dying for their faith as he was writing these words, and he’s going to give them this encouragement, in verse 18: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God…”
For Christ also suffered. Peter wants these Christians to know that when they suffer, it’s not because God is angry with them, and out of this anger or wrath God is punishing them for their sin. Why? Because our role model is Jesus: in last week’s scripture, Peter said we “follow in his footsteps.” And where do those footsteps lead? To his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane; to beatings, to whippings, to mocking, to being spat upon, to being falsely tried and convicted. Ultimately those footsteps lead to Calvary, to his death on the cross. So even if God asks these Christians in Asia Minor to literally lay down their lives for the sake of their faith in Christ, it won’t be because God is angry with them, and God is punishing them for their sin. It can’t be, he says. Because even God’s Son Jesus suffered and think of how much God the Father loved his Son. Why should we expect to be spared from suffering?
So how does this encourage us today? When we suffer, I believe it gives Satan an opportunity to taunt us—to exploit a fear that’s already buried deep within us: “See… If God really loved you, do you think he would let you get cancer? If God really loved you, do you think he would let your child get into trouble like that? If God really loved you, do you think he would let you lose your husband or wife, lose your job, lose your business, lose your life savings? What did you do to make God angry with you? I bet it was because of that time that you… I bet it was because of that season in your life when you… I bet it was because of this sin or that sin.”
Now make no mistake… After we become Christians, God does discipline us sometimes. The Bible is clear about that. But the Bible says that’s a sign of the Father’s love: he loves us so much that he will discipline us in order to help us become more faithful children—which in the long run will make us happier and more joyful.
But suffering is not punishment for sin—if we mean by “punishment” that God is angry with us. It can’t be!
Why? Because of what Peter says next: Christ suffered “once for our sins, the righteous for the unrighteous.” Christ suffered once for our sins. It’s true that before we received God’s gift of eternal life in Christ, we were under God’s wrath—which is God’s righteous and completely justified anger. And we were under God’s wrath because of our sin. God hates sin. God promises to punish sin. If God is truly just, he must punish sin. God’s Word tells us that sin brings death—physical death, spiritual death, hell.
But Christ suffered once for our sins. What does that mean? Remember in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” What is “the cup”? As Isaiah 51 and Jeremiah 25 tell us, it is the “cup of God’s wrath,” from which all of us would have to drink… because of our sins.
Except… Jesus prayed in the Garden, “If possible, let this cup pass from me. But not my will but yours be done.” Jesus drank that cup of wrath for us on the cross. He suffered the penalty of our sins for us—the “righteous for the unrighteous.” And when Peter says he suffered “once,” he means that God requires no further suffering—no further sacrifice. When Jesus says from the cross, “It is finished,” he means all of our sins have been fully, and finally, and completely dealt with. Jesus drank the cup of wrath down to the bitter dregs—for us.
So… if we are united with Christ through faith, there are no more sins that deserve to be punished. They’ve already been punished. God cannot be angry with you for your sins because his anger was poured out on the cross of his Son Jesus. Christ’s death was a “once for all” sacrifice.
I have a good friend named David, who’s a deeply devoted Catholic. One time, many years ago, he and his family were visiting us back when I was seminary, and I was pastoring a small church down in Forsyth, just above Macon. We were living in the parsonage next to the church. And although I was a terrible pastor back then, I didn’t realize I was terrible. And I was excited to have David and his family come to my church—see what I was doing with my life.
And they arrive in Forsyth on Saturday afternoon, and David informs me that he can’t wait to catch up with me and Lisa and the kids—but first, he and his family had to go to the nearest Catholic church, which was in Macon, in order to go to mass.
And I didn’t say anything, but it hurt my feelings a little. He said he looked forward to coming to my church the next morning. But I was thinking, “That’s not good enough for you? You can’t worship in a Protestant church even for one Sunday without also finding a Catholic church somewhere and worshiping there?”
But I didn’t understand Catholic theology at the time. Catholics don’t believe in this “once for all” sacrifice. Every time a Catholic goes to Mass, they believe that Christ is “sacrificed” all over again, in Holy Communion, and when they receive Communion, Catholics believe they are getting just enough of that saving grace to last them a week or so—and they have to keep going back again and again and again… just to make sure… that all their sins are covered… that they are truly forgiven.
So I now feel sorry for David—because, while we have so much in common in our Christian faith, he can’t quite get rid of this fear. Maybe God is still mad at me—or if he’s not right now, he might be—if I don’t do this and this and this.
Needless to say, I hope that doesn’t describe any of us.
Peter saves the best for last, and so will I: Why did Christ suffer once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous? “That he might bring us to God.” That he might bring us to God.
Listen, by contrast, to the prophet Isaiah’s frightening words in Isaiah 59:
Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save,
or his ear dull, that it cannot hear;
but your iniquities have made a separation
between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you
so that he does not hear.
We are “separated” because of our sins. In chapter 3, verse 18, Peter considers this separation that Isaiah describes and says, in so many words, “Not anymore. Because of what Christ did, there’s no longer any separation between us and God. Not if we’re in Christ.”
And brothers and sisters, that’s a message worth living and dying for.
1. 1 Peter 4:13 ESV
2. Philippians 4:10 ESV
3. Hebrews 13:13
4. Matthew 16:24 ESV
5. Matthew 7:23 ESV