Sermon 4-19-2020: “Tested by Fire”

April 22, 2020

Scripture: 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

When we think of the apostle Peter, we often think of someone who’s brash, impulsive, presumptuous… brave but foolish… a loudmouth. Full of pride… 

I mean, give Peter credit for having the courage to walk on the water out to Jesus… but of course his faith falters, and he begins to sink before Jesus rescues him. Give Peter credit for being the first disciple to confess Jesus as Messiah and Son of God, but in almost the next breath he insists that Jesus must never suffer and die on a cross—and Jesus rebukes him: “Get behind me, Satan!” 

When Jesus predicts that Peter will deny him three times, Peter protests: “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” Then of course, what does he do within the next several hours? He denies him three times… Oh, Peter…

But today I’m beginning a new seven-part sermon series called “Rocky VII: Seven Lessons from Peter after the Resurrection.” Peter is a nickname that literally means Rocky. Anyway, this series will take us through Pentecost Sunday. In a way, these sermons demonstrate howEaster changed Peter—and the good news is, Easter can change us at well.

If you have your Bibles—and you should—look with me at verse 3: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…” 

The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ… Remember we looked at John 20:17 last Sunday. Mary Magdalene encounters the resurrected Jesus, and he commissions her to go tell the other disciples about the resurrection. Jesus said, “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Because of what happened through Christ’s atoning death on the cross, which was confirmed by the resurrection, the God and Father of Jesus has now becomes the God and Father of everyone who believes in him… We are sons and daughters of our heavenly Father and brothers and sisters of Jesus himself. The resurrection proved that. We’re part of God’s family… 

Speaking of Peter, though, there’s a perfect illustration in Peter’s own life of how Easter changes us. Way back in Luke chapter 5, just before Jesus called his twelve disciples, Peter and some of the others had been up fishing all night. They hadn’t caught anything; I’m sure they were frustrated. Jesus, who’s not a fisherman, tells Peter to go over to a certain place on the lake, to cast his nets, and there he’ll catch something. “But, Lord, the fish aren’t biting… we’ve tried!” But to humor Jesus, he does what he says. And what happens? He catches more fish than he’s ever caught before in his life… all the fishermen do. Their nets are bursting and the boat is sinking there are so many fish!

But does this make Peter happy? Does Peter run over to Jesus and say, “You and I need to start a fishing business together. We make a great team! Let’s do it again tomorrow!”? No. Luke 5, verse 8: “But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’” 

Peter understood that he was in the very presence of God, and guess what? It terrified him! And this sort of thing always happens in the Bible when sinners get too close to God. Think of the prophet Isaiah, in Isaiah chapter 6. He has this amazing encounter with God in the Temple, and what’s the first thing he says, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Isaiah thinks he’s a dead man!

All of us sinners become afraid for our lives when we get too close to a perfectly holy and righteous and just God.

So that’s what Peter’s doing when he falls down and begs Jesus to leave him.

But after the resurrection, there’s another miraculous catch of fish. In John 21. Once again, Peter and some other disciples are fishing all night; they don’t catch anything. And there’s a man on the shore. They can’t make out who it is, but he gives them some fishing advice. “Throw your nets over there.” And they do so… And once again, they bring in a miraculous haul. Once they figure out that the man on the shore is Jesus, Peter can’t wait to see Jesus. He leaves the others with the fish, puts all his clothes on, jumps in the water, and swims to shore he’s so eager to see Jesus.

So this time, instead of begging for his life or running away or wanting Jesus to leave, he can’t get to Jesus fast enough! 

What accounts for that change?

Only this: Easter… and Easter changes everything!

Look at verse 3: Peter says that God has “caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” How does the resurrection enable us to be born again and have this “living hope”?

I think it’s like what Paul describes in Romans 6, verses 4 through 6: Paul talks about how we are united with Christ… Our “old self,” Paul says, was crucified with Christ, so that Christ’s death counts as our death; his experience of hell counts as our experience of hell; his experience of God’s wrath counts as our experience of God’s wrath; his death penalty for sin counts as our death penalty for sin. Because Christ suffered and died for our sins, in our place, we won’t suffer and die for our sins; we won’t be punished; we won’t go to hell. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” 

Peter could jump out of that fishing boat and swim to Jesus as fast as he could because he knew that despite all his sins, despite his failures, despite all his mistakes of the past—Peter knew—that there was therefore now no condemnation for him, because he was in Christ Jesus!

Make no mistake: Peter still sinned even after the resurrection. Paul himself describes confronting Peter for the sin of hypocrisy in Galatians chapter 2, verses 11 to 14. This was long after the resurrection. Peter did not become a perfect man after the resurrection, but he knew that because of the cross and the resurrection, his sins were wiped out… God wouldn’t punish Peter for his sins because those sins were already punished through Jesus on the cross… so Peter stood before God as if he had never sinned

And that happens to all of us Christians when we’re born again! It’s made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection.

But even more… even more… being united with Christ doesn’t only mean that God has taken care of our problem with sin—not that that wouldn’t be enough. But no… it also means we are united with Christ in his resurrection. That means new birth into God’s family now; a newness of life now; an abundant, eternal life now; a Spirit-filled life now; a living hope for the future now…and get this… see verse 8… we get a “joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” now.

This kind of joy, the Bible says, is available to us now. God wants us to have it now… he wants us to experience it now.

And please notice: Peter is writing to a group of mostly Gentile churches in Asia Minor—present-day Turkey—who are suffering. Many of them are facing persecution—violent persecution in some cases, even death, because of their Christian faith. Many of them are slaves. Most of them are poor—many destitute. To say the least, their lives are generally much, much more difficult than ours are today—even in the midst of this coronavirus plague. Yet Peter reminds these suffering Christians of all the reasons that they have for rejoicing—because of what God has done and is doing for them through Christ. 

So in verse 8, when Peter says that they “rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory,” he means that they can rejoice and experience this joy right now… He means that even suffering is no impediment to the kind of joy that we have in Christ!

Indeed, as strange and difficult as it might sound, Peter says that God can and will use this suffering as a means to this joy.

Because let’s notice what Peter says here: verse 6: “for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that…”—in other words, Peter says, there’s a reason you’ve been grieved by these trials—”so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

What is Peter saying? He’s comparing the trials that we face to gold that’s been put in a furnace for refining. What happens to the gold? The dross—all the combustible impurities that are mixed in with the gold—is burned away. The gold is purified as a result. Similarly, Peter says that all the trials, all the suffering, all the persecution, that these Christians are facing is serving a valuable purpose: God is using them to purify their faith, to strengthen their faith. Like it or not, Peter says, this is how God does it: through suffering, through trials, through pain. If there were a better way, God would do it. But God is doing what is necessary. Notice verse 6: “If necessary, you have been grieved by various trials.”

The 18th century Anglican pastor and author of “Amazing Grace,” John Newton, put it like this: He said, “Everything is needful that [God] sends; nothing can be needful that He withholds.” Peter is making the same point in verses 6 and 7. 

Before my Wednesday night Bible study was so rudely interrupted by COVID-19, we were studying 1 Corinthians. The church to which Paul was writing was badly divided—over a number of issues. Among other things, the church was split into factions based on which apostle was their favorite: Some said, “I belong to Paul; he’s my guy; he’s the best.” Others said, “No… Forget Paul. I belong to Apollos! He’s a much better preacher!” Still others said, “I belong to Jesus’ numero uno apostle, Peter himself!” Paul refers to Peter by his Aramaic name, Cephas. So some were saying, “I belong to Cephas!” But listen to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3:21-23 and prepare to be blown away:

So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.

In other words, here these church members are, arguing over which apostle they “belong” to. And Paul says, “You don’t get it. You don’t belong to me or Apollos or Peter. We all belong to you! Because our heavenly Father, in his sovereignty, is enabling us to serve you and your best interests. Always.” In fact, Paul goes on, This is true of literally everything in the universe! Everything that happens to you… You may not be able to see it right now, but everything that happens to you, everything that will happen to you in the future—even your own death—it’s all for you… it’s all working out perfectly according to God’s plan for you. And because you’re in Christ, his plan for you is always for your good; his plan is always to serve your best interests. Because you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

And of course these astonishing words here are implicit within the promise of Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

And one of God’s “good purposes” for our suffering, Peter would say, is to strengthen our faith, so that we can learn to hold more firmly to this “living hope,” so that we can believe in Jesus more deeply, so that we can love Jesus more fully, so that we rejoice with a joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.

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