Return the Favor

Only two more installments in our series, Being Useful, after this one. In this seventh part, we are reaching a point that the qualities on Peter’s list are both the next natural addition as well as the result of the previous additions. What does it look like when we pursue faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, and endurance on a consistent, intentional basis? We begin to fulfill the duty we owe to God. A duty to God? For what? Keep reading to find out more.

Return the Favor

Just out of curiosity this morning, how many of you have both been called and actually served for jury duty?  Thank you for that.  We don’t often thank jurors, but they contribute a vitally important service to our nation’s judicial system.  As much of a headache as this particular service is seen to be—much more of a burden than a blessing—it has kept our court system its distinction as one of the best and fairest in the world for the accused for almost 250 years.  That’s not a small thing. 

Personally, I’ve been called to serve three times.  I have yet to actually get to serve.  The first summons came from the county where we lived in Colorado…just after we moved to Virginia.  That wasn’t going to work and they were very understanding.  The second summons came while we were living in Virginia, but it just said that my name was going in a hopper to serve on a federal jury and to be ready if called sometime in the next 18-months.  I never got called.  The third and final summons came just before we moved here, and the appearance date was going to be just after we moved.  That too, wasn’t going to work.  And I’ve got to say: I’m pretty bummed about that.  I know all the stuff about the hassle of taking off work and finding parking and potentially long hours, but I really wanted the chance to at least go and see what the process is like.  Of course, the second I told them that I’m a pastor who firmly believes in the reality of an eternal Hell I would probably get sent right on back out the door, but I’ve always wanted to go and try at least once.  Maybe now that we’re settled here I’ll get another shot. 

But do you know why they call it jury duty?  Because as citizens of the United States, it is our duty to do it.  But why?  And what exactly is a duty anyway?  That’s another one of those words that we use fairly often, but whose definition isn’t always so precise in our minds.  I was curious so I did what everyone does when they don’t know the answer to something: I googled it.  That really didn’t help very much.  The two definitions at the top of the page, officially offered by Google, were that a duty was something you had to do.  I already knew that.  The question I wanted answered (and I hope you do too because we’re going to try and answer it) is why you have to do it.  What is it that makes whatever it is a requirement? 

Well, in the case of jury duty, because we are citizens of a free nation with a constitutional right to a trial by a jury of our peers rather than a government motivated to hang on to or even expand its power base at the cost of our freedom (the kind of judicial system, for example, the protesters in Hong Kong will face if they are forced to face justice in mainland China instead of their home city), part of guaranteeing that constitutional right (privilege really when you consider the judicial systems in so many other nations around the world and across human history) is that all citizens are required—that is, we have a duty—to provide that jury of peers for the accused.  It is a requirement of our citizenship with the goal in mind of maintaining our freedom.  We’ve talked before about the fact that all relationships have boundaries.  Part of staying within the boundaries of our relationship with the United States of America is fulfilling our duty to provide a jury to the accused when called upon.  This morning, as we keep working our way through Peter’s list of qualities that will make us useful to Jesus, I want to explore this idea of duty a bit further together. 

We are in part seven of our series, Being Useful, this morning.  For the last several weeks we have been trying to get our hearts and minds around this incredible thing the apostle Peter said in his second letter to believers scattered around the rim of modern-day Turkey.  He said that if we “possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep us from being useless or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Given that all of us have this desire inside us to do something significant, to matter, to be useful to the world around us, digging into whatever “these qualities” are seemed like a pretty good thing to do.  We have two more to go after this week and they are the most important of the bunch. 

Each week in this journey, then, we have examined another of Peter’s list of qualities in turn.  We have so far talked about faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, and endurance.  As we have said, faith is trusting God so completely that we are willing to make sometimes significant adjustments to our lifestyle in light of who He is and what He’s said.  These lifestyle adjustments work themselves out through virtue, which can only really be pursued successfully when we have a base of knowledge that makes those things seem reasonable to us.  But, if we are going to act on that knowledge, we are going to have to have a healthy measure of self-control and a commitment to keep at it, or endure, even when things get tough.  As we have seen throughout this journey, each of these things builds on the one before it.  There’s a reason, in other words, that Peter tells us to start with faith and then to our faith add virtue and to our virtue add knowledge and to our knowledge add self-control and to our self-control add endurance.  Starting with this morning, the last three qualities we’re going to examine are a bit different.  They still need to be added on the like the rest, but there is also a sense in which they are the result of what has come before rather than merely the next logical addition. 

The next item on Peter’s list appears in my translation as “godliness.”  Like the word duty, godliness is another of those words we use—although this one more exclusively in the church world—but whose definition isn’t necessarily clear.  So, godliness may not be the clearest word here, but like we talked about a couple of weeks ago, translating from Koine Greek into English isn’t always a straightforward process.  This is another of those cases. 

The word translated into “godliness” in my translation (and probably yours as well) is the Greek word eusebeiaEusebeia is indeed most commonly translated as “godly” or “godliness,” but it can also be translated as “piety” or even “duty.”  And, the word is part of a family of words whose root is the word sebomaiSebomai is a verb that I’ll define in just a second.  Another word in the family is the word sebastos.  That refers to something that belongs to the Emperor, or something imperial in nature.  It could be used as a title for the Emperor, but it also had to do with the kinds of duties a citizen owed his lord.  In our context, jury duty might be a sebastos.  Sebomai is the verb that refers to the doing of those duties and is most often translated in the New Testament as worship. 

Do you see how that works?  The Roman emperors were generally considered divine.  If you fulfill a duty to a god, we call that worship.  When we worship something or someone, we ascribe worth to them.  We say it is worthy of our devotion and then adjust our lives accordingly.  Eusebeia, then is connected with this idea of worship.  You might say that eusebeia is the lifestyle that results from a careful application of sebomai.  Or, to put that back into English, when we worship God, eusebeia describes what our character comes to look like.  Shall we come up for air? 

Here’s what all of this means: While the word “godliness” is a good translation of eusebeia, what Peter is getting at here is to describe the kind of religious devotion our lives should (there’s a duty here) come to reflect when we pattern ourselves after the character of God in light of what He’s done for us.  In other words, and as I said just a second ago, godliness, although a discrete quality on the list here, is in another sense the sum total of what we have talked about together so far.  All of these things—faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, and endurance—when put together result in godliness.  At the same time, if we are going to do something productive with these previous five qualities, we need to commit ourselves to doing our duty to God in light of what He’s done for us.  So, what we see here is both something we add to our endurance, and the result of all these qualities put into application. 

What we need to get our minds around better together this morning is exactly what godliness looks like in our lives and why exactly we have some kind of duty to God in the first place.  Thankfully, we don’t have to go very far to find out.  Peter himself gives us a great picture of this at the beginning of his first letter.  Flip over a couple of pages with me in your Bibles to 1 Peter 1:13 and listen to this: “Therefore, with your minds ready for action, be sober-minded and set your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” 

Now, we’ll get to the duty part here in just a minute, but there’s a word in that verse that should grab your attention if you were here last week.  Any guesses as to what it is?  Therefore.  Peter’s command to be sober-minded and to set our hope completely on the grace coming when Jesus returns is given in light of something that comes before this verse.  Let’s look back to see what that is.  Jumping back to v. 3, Peter says this: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Because of his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.  You are being guarded by God’s power through faith for a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time [that is, at the revelation of Jesus Christ].” 

So, the reason we are to be so focused in our faith and to sell completely out to the hope we have in the future is because of this incredible promise of salvation.  In Christ, we have the hope of eternal life and complete freedom from the effects of sin that wreak havoc on this world.  It is a hope guaranteed, as we talked about last week, by the resurrection of Jesus from the grave.  God did that for us.  This is remarkable.  Actually, that’s not nearly a strong enough word.  Look at how Peter puts it in v. 10: “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that would come to you, searched and carefully investigated.  They inquired into what time or what circumstances the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating when he testified in advance to the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.  It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you.  These things have now been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven…” 

That’s pretty spectacular all by itself.  Countless faithful men and women invested their whole lives into working with God to see the unfolding of His plans in our lives even though they didn’t get to see the fruits of their labors themselves.  But Peter adds a coda that ratchets the amazement level here up to 11: “…angels long to catch a glimpse of these things.”  I get an image here of an old electronics storefront filled with TVs all showing the same newsreel footage with a crowd gathered around outside, all straining to see what’s the on screens.  But instead of people, the crowd is angels—God’s special servants who have the privilege of seeing His face in ways we won’t be able to do until glory finally comes one day—and the TVs are talking about the gift of salvation God has prepared for us.  What God has done for us in Christ, in other words, leaves even angels stunned at the glory of it.  

And that is the substance of our duty.  Generally speaking, when we have a duty to someone else it is because they have done something for us.  The greater the gift, the bigger the duty.  Even if the giver expects nothing in return, we still feel that sense of duty to at the very least pay forward the gift we have been given.  In Christ, God has given us the whole farm.  He’s given us eternal life.  This is a gift that He worked patiently at getting ready for hundreds of years of human history.  All for us.  We may not be able to do anything to earn this gift for ourselves—it is all grace from start to finish—but once we have received it, we have a duty to live out of it.  We need to pursue godliness. This is the context of Peter’s call here to be sober-minded, or focused in on our faith, and to put our hope so completely on Christ. 

Okay, but what does that look like?  What does it look like to pursue this duty we have toward God?  What does it look like to pursue godliness? Let’s go a bit further in the text starting back at v. 14: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires of your former ignorance.  But as the one who called you is holy, you also are to be holy in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’”  Notice there that Peter said this thing about being holy “is written.”  Where and by whom?  Moses wrote it and in Leviticus.  Leviticus?  What good could possibly come out of Leviticus?  Isn’t it the book with all those minute details and obscure laws that make most folks go cross-eyed and give up when they try and read through it?  Yes, but there’s more to it than you might think. 

At its core, Leviticus is a book about worship.  All those details about the proper offering of sacrifices and dietary laws and purity codes and the like are really all about giving the people of Israel instructions on how to worship God properly.  In terms of ordering, in Exodus, we see the people receiving the Law and how to build the place where the God who gave the Law could be sought (the tabernacle).  Leviticus answers the question of what they were to do when they got there as well as whether what they did there was to spill over to their lives when they weren’t there (spoiler alert: it was).  It is a book about the duty the people had to the God who had saved them.  That was the important part.  All of this commanding and instructing was predicated on what God had done for the people.  This was not simply God saying, “Do these things.”  It was God saying, “In light of what I’ve done for you and the relationship I want to have with you, here are the ways you can live within the boundaries of that relationship.” 

And what had God done for the people that justified such an incredible response as this?  He had saved them.  He had rescued them from the bondage of slavery after 400 years in Egypt.  He had broken the grip of the most powerful ruler in the world and laid bare the powerlessness of his supposedly powerful gods.  He was taking them on a journey to receive a land that would be all their own.  He was fulfilling a promise He had made to their ancestor, Abraham, to do this very thing.  He had given them the whole world.  All they had to do was be willing to receive it.  But, to receive it would require something of them.  It would require them to live the way He was directing them to live.  This was not going to be an easy thing to receive, but the reward for committing to it—for committing to Him—was life like they had never known before.  What Leviticus offers as God reminds and calls and commands them over and over to be set apart and morally pure—that is, holy—after the pattern He had already set for them is the structure of what it was going to look like to answer this call in their lives.  And what did it look like?  It looked like worship. 

That’s what God did for Israel.  What has He done for us?  It is even more, is it not?  He has not brought us from merely a physical bondage, but a deeper, spiritual one, that was even more restrictive than what the Egyptians forced upon the people of Israel.  It was not merely our bodies, but our very souls that were locked in a pit of death and destruction from which we had no meaningful hope of escape on our own.  And this freedom, this salvation, has not gone borne on the back of the sacrifice of a mere lamb as it did for the people of Israel, but the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  It is brought to us by the blood of Christ, poured out for us on the cross.  It comes at the cost of the death of the Son of God.  What gift could be more precious than that?  Does this gift not render Him worthy of our devotion?  God has done a lot for you; return the favor. 

The question this should set firmly before us here is this one: If God did that for us, what do we owe Him?  Our worship should be merely the start of the answer to that question, should it not?  Now stay with me here for a minute.  One of the deep truths of the Scriptures, written across the grand narrative is that we gradually become like what we worship.  If we ascribe worth to God—that is, if we worship Him—and do that in a systematic, consistent manner, what will be the result?  We will become more like Him, won’t we?  Well, what do you call it when we become more like God?  Godliness, right?  This amazing little word, eusebeia, then, is both the thing that we bring to God next if we are to be useful to Jesus, and the result of bringing it.  This is all what Peter had in mind when he said that being useful to Jesus is going to require godliness from us.  It is the duty we owe God in response to what He’s done for us and the result of fulfilling that duty.  This godliness, this eusebeia, is all about duty.  God has done a lot for you; return the favor. 

But how?  How can we return the favor in ways that will have the greatest impact?  Come back with me to 1 Peter for the answer to that.  Listen to vv. 14-15 again: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires of your former ignorance.  But as the one who called you is holy, you also are to be holy in all your conduct.”  If we are going to pursue godliness as a response to the incredible gift God has given us in Christ, this is what we need to do: We need to actively turn away from the lifestyle He came to destroy in favor of the one He offers in its place.  In other words, we need to sin less and show forth the fruits of righteousness more.  Easier said than done, right? 

Well, let me offer some help.  Remember that I said godliness here is both the next item on Peter’s list as well the result of pursuing all the other items consistently?  When we make life adjustments out of faith in pursuit of virtue with minds that are shaped by the things of God more than the things of people, this turning from sin is going to happen naturally.  When we apply the discipline of self-control and stick with that in spite of pressures to give in, we are going to be fulfilling our duty to God with ease.  The big idea here is that we will fulfill our duty to God well when we are hot on the trail of being useful to Jesus.  In light of what He has done for us, this is all the least we could do for Him.  God has done a lot for you; return the favor. 

Still, though, that question lingers.  How do we do this?  Allow me to offer two good paths to you, one which is a bit of a subset of the other.  The first path is the spiritual disciplines.  These are things like reading the Scriptures, praying, celebrating, silence and stillness, fasting, evangelism, service, and the like.  Spiritual disciplines are deeply rooted biblical practices designed to bring our lives more in line with the character of God in a systematic, organized fashion.  We know from our previous conversations that we are not going to do much in the way of resisting the pull of sin on our lives to conform with who we were before Christ unless our minds and hearts both are doing the work of pulling us away from that with the Spirit’s help.  The spiritual disciplines are like exercises for our soul intended to strengthen our spiritual resolve in this. 

So, if we are going to grow in godliness, if we are going to effectively do our duty to God in light of what He has done for us, if we are going to ascribe the worth to God that will shape our hearts to more closely resemble His, we can set about engaging intentionally in these ancient Christian practices.  Where to start?  Where are you weakest?  Is your life always filled with noise and busyness?  Then perhaps silence and stillness are the place where you need to start.  Begin setting aside a time in each day when you can put aside all distractions and noises and just sit quietly before your Lord.  Start with five minutes and grow from there.  And, like we’ve talked about, as soon as you set out on this path, you will be attacked and tempted off course.  Resist these efforts and keep at it.  And, just so we can settle this now: You have the ability to do this.  You can make time for this.  You simply need to choose to do so.  We always have time for everything we most want to do.  Or, is your knowledge of the Scriptures incomplete and your relationship with God somewhat hollow?  It could be that the disciplines of Bible reading and prayer are the best places to start.  I’ve told you often how important those are.  Generally speaking, asking this question will help determine where you need to aim your efforts: Does my biggest spiritual struggle stem from a lack of engagement with God and His people or too much engagement with the world?  This isn’t easy, but in light of what God has done for us in Christ it is a small thing.  God has done a lot for you; return the favor. 

The spiritual disciplines are one way to do that.  A second path to grow in godliness can be a spiritual discipline all by itself, but I want to set it apart because of how important it is.  This second path is worship.  Remember the ultimate root of the word here?  Godliness comes from worship.  This is true linguistically and also experientially.  It is true experientially because, again, we become like what we worship.  If we are consistently worshiping God, we will become like Him, that is, we will become godly. 

Growing in godliness comes from worship in two ways.  It comes when we develop a lifestyle of worship.  It comes when we make every aspect of our lives a recognition, celebration, and participation in the character of God.  But, if we’re not careful, we can let the thought grow in our hearts and minds that this is enough.  More specifically, we can develop the idea that worshiping by ourselves is sufficient.  It’s not.  We need to worship with the whole body just like we are doing together this morning.  That’s the second way we can grow in godliness through worship.  There is something about joining with the body of Christ and recognizing, celebrating, and participating in the character of God all together that’s just powerful.  It reminds us that we are not alone.  It reminds us that we can’t do it all on our own.  It sets before us all at the same time the glories of what God has done for us and actually increases the glory of it all.  Not only has God done this amazing work of salvation for us, but He has done it for all the people around us too.  He’s done it for the people who aren’t around us.  He’s done it for everybody.  God has done a lot for you; return the favor.  When we put ourselves in the presence of the Holy Spirit, opening ourselves to His shaping power and actively proclaiming the wonders of who He is, godliness is going to be the result, and our duty to Him will be fulfilled.  God’s done a lot for you; return the favor. 

And when we find ourselves growing in godliness both as the result and the outflow of our efforts to be useful to Jesus, something amazing will begin to happen in us and through us.  This thing is so amazing, in fact, that it’s going to take us the next two weeks to fully unpack it.  I can’t wait to see you then. 

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