Let’s begin today by looking at John chapter 21. In verse 18, Jesus says something curious to Peter: “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” Then in verse 19, John says parenthetically, “This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.”
Jesus, in other words, predicts Peter’s death: One day in the distant future, Jesus tells him, Peter will be martyred because of his faith in Jesus. Indeed, church history teaches us that Peter was crucified, just like Jesus. This is likely what Jesus means when he says that Peter will “stretch out his hands”: he will stretch out his hands on a cross, just as Jesus did. One tradition even says that Peter was crucified upside down because, out of humility, Peter knew he didn’t deserve to die in the same way his Lord died.
We don’t know if that tradition is true…
But what we do know for sure is this: Peter changed after the resurrection. And I’m not just talking being martyred. We see him in the Book of Acts frequently risking his life—being beaten, being imprisoned, facing execution. He stands up to the very people who hold the power of life and death over him and says, “We must obey God rather than men!”
What a far cry this post-resurrection Peter was from the man who wouldn’t even admit that he knew Jesus when asked by a servant girl—someone who had literally no power over him!
Where did this courage come from?
It wasn’t the result of Peter’s willpower. It wasn’t the power of positive thinking. And it didn’t happen because he just tried harder.
No, it happened because he was the recipient of a miracle from God. Can you spot the miracle in verse 22 and 23?
Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God
The miracle, in other words, is being “born again” through the “living and abiding word of God.”
I know we often use that term “born again” to distinguish one kind of Christian from another—a born again Christian is a really “serious” Christian—perhaps a fanatic, maybe a fundamentalist, definitely a Baptist. Maybe they’re very strict. Maybe they dress a certain way and vote a certain way. Maybe they’re naive about life in the “real world.” Maybe they’re those Christians who stand on the sidewalk with a bullhorn warning people to “turn or burn.” Lots of negative stereotypes about “born again” Christians!
One thing’s for sure… They’re definitely not Methodists, right? We’re so normal and likable and mainstream. We’re not weirdos like those “born again” Christians!
Well… I don’t know if we’re “weirdos” or not, but I hope we’re born again! Because contrary to what you might have heard, there’s no other kind of Christian… If we are Christians at all, that means—by definition—we have been born again!
John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist movement, was born again. And he even describes this experience in his journal dated May 24, 1738. Reluctantly, he said, he attended a Bible study on Aldersgate Street in London. And someone in the class was reading from Martin Luther’s preface to Paul’s letter to the Romans. He wrote:
About a quarter before nine, while [Luther] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
Some of us have had these kinds of “heartwarming” experiences when we’re born again. For me, my heartwarming experience happened around 9:00 p.m. on February 17, 1984. But many of you at home watching this sermon—I know—can’t pinpoint the exact moment when this new birth happened for you. And that’s okay… As I heard one preacher say, you don’t need a birth certificate to know that you were actually born. You can look at yourself and say, “Ah! I know I was born because I’m standing here right now, living and breathing!”
And being born again isn’t so different: Like Wesley you can say, “I feel I do trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation—right now—and I have this assurance—right now—that he’s taken away my sins—even mine—and saved me from the law of sin and death.
“I don’t know when I first began trusting Christ like this, and believing that he did those things for me, but I know that I do trust him right now… and I am, right now, at this moment, convinced that he’s taken away my sins. So… I know I’m born again.”
But the key thing that Peter wants us to know here is, our salvation is something that was done for us; it’s not something that we do for ourselves. And that’s why this metaphor of being born again is so appropriate. When it comes to our own birth, after all—our first birth, our natural birth—we had nothing to do with it. We had nothing to do with being conceived in our mother’s womb. That took the intervention of mother and father—and later on, it also usually takes the intervention of doctors and nurses—to ensure that we are safely born.
It doesn’t depend on us, on our own hard work, and on our own good efforts.
And you may object, “Yes, but we have to do something to be saved! We Methodists don’t believe that God forces himself on us against our will.” And by all means, that’s true… We have to do something. But what we do—our part in the process of salvation—is described well by Mark Galli, a now retired editor at Christianity Today. He writes:
Imagine you fall off the side of an ocean liner and, not knowing how to swim, begin to drown. Someone on the deck spots you, flailing in the water and throws you a life preserver. It lands directly in front of you and, just before losing consciousness, you grab hold for dear life. They pull you up onto the deck, and you cough the water out of your lungs. People gather around, rejoicing that you are safe and waiting expectantly while you regain your sense.
After you finally catch your breath, you open your mouth and say: “Did you see the way I grabbed onto that life preserver?! How tightly I held on to it?! Did you notice the definition in my biceps and the dexterity of my wrists? I was all over that thing!”
Needless to say, it would be a bewildering and borderline insane response. To draw attention to the way you cooperated with the rescue effort denigrates the whole point of what happened, which is that you were saved. A much more likely chain of events is that you would immediately seek out the person who threw the life preserver, and you would thank them. Not just superficially, either. You would embrace them, ask them their name, invite them to dinner, maybe give them your cabin!
So, yes… we do something… but it’s nothing other than reaching out for a life preserver that’s already been thrown in front of us; it’s not something for which we deserve any credit. As Paul puts it so nicely in Ephesians 2:8 and 9, “God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.”
And yet… if all that is true, what does Peter mean in verse 17, when he says that each of us believers will be judged “according to each one’s deeds”? That sounds kind of scary!
After all, I wouldn’t blame you if you thought that being saved meant that you weren’t going to have to face Final Judgment.
While I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that, if you do think that, I need to warn you that you’re wrong. If you’re a Christian you will face Final Judgment. The Bible teaches that everyone—both Christians and non-Christians—will be judged on the basis of their works.
Listen, for instance, to Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:10:
For we must all stand before Christ to be judged. We will each receive whatever we deserve for the good or evil we have done in this earthly body.
See, it’s only if we face Final Judgment that we can make sense of Jesus’ many words about rewards… and Paul’s words about rewards… It’s after the Lord judges us that we receive rewards.
And you may say, “Yes, but if we believers face the same ‘judgment according to works’ that unbelievers face, what hope do we have?”
We have all the hope we could possibly need!
Because we are “ransomed through the precious blood of Christ,” the judgment we face is according to our good deeds, not according to our sins. Unbelievers will be judged for all of their works, both good or bad, including their sins. But our sins have been wiped out… by Jesus on the cross… Hebrews 8:12: God says, “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” Psalm 103:12: “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”
So in the Final Judgment, the good news is that if you’re a Christian, you will only have good works to show for yourself. And the reward you receive will depend on the extent to which you’ve done good works!
Don’t misunderstand: Peter tells us that we need to do good works because we are Christians: “prepare your minds for action”; “be sober-minded”; “set your hope on God’s grace”; “do not be conformed”; “be holy”; “conduct yourself with fear”; “love one another.” Indeed, the New Testament also teaches that because our Father loves us, he will sometimes discipline us, like a loving Father, when we fail to do what he wants.
But everything that Peter tells us to do here is premised upon this fact: We already know God as our heavenly Father. So, for example, when Peter tells us in verse 17 to “conduct yourselves with fear,” that’s similar to fear that we had for our human fathers when we were young—fear of disobeying him, to be sure, fear of letting him down… Every once in a while, my mom would speak those dreaded words: “Wait till your father gets home.” I knew I was in trouble. I was afraid when she said that, believe me.
But you know what I wasn’t afraid of—ever, for a single moment? I was never afraid that when my father did get home, he would tell me he no longer loved me, or that I was no longer part of the family. If we’re born again, we can be confident that nothing will separate us from our Father’s love.
But one more thing: Peter says that we’re born again “not of perishable seed, but imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” When he wrote those words, I’m sure he was remembering a parable that Jesus taught him and his fellow disciples: the parable of the sower. If you have your Bibles, and you should, turn with me to Mark 4:1-20.
A farmer sows seed. Most of it falls on bad soil. But the seed that falls on good soil, Jesus says, “produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” That is a miraculously large bumper crop. Jesus goes on in verse 13 to interpret the parable and tells his disciples that this seed is God’s word—the same living and abiding word that God plants within us when we’re born again.
Consider this: When Jesus predicted that Peter would be crucified for his faith, years from now, Peter wasn’t a substantially different person from the man who had denied Jesus three times, only days or weeks earlier. He was still pretty much a mess. And I’m sure that when Jesus told him he was going to be martyred some day, Peter thought, “Ugh! I can’t do it. I’m not brave enough. I’m a loser. I’m a failure. I’m a sinner. I can never find the courage to do that.”
But what Peter didn’t realize then was that the change within him was already taking place. This imperishable seed of God’s living and abiding word had already taken root in Peter’s heart. And it was starting to grow.
Nobody could see it in John 21! Just like takes a long time before a farmer starts to see any evidence of his seeds doing anything.
“But just wait…” the farmer thinks. Because the farmer is patient. Because he knows what’s coming! And he knows it’s good.
To say the least, we need to be patient, too… Patient with others and also patient with ourselves… God is still writing your story… God is still working his plan for your life…
If you’ve been born again through the imperishable seed of the living and abiding word of God, Jesus is looking at your life right now and thinking, “Just wait! I’ve got something good in store for you!”