As we continue in our series, Standing Firm, this week, we’re finally getting into the heart of Peter’s message. If you want to know how to stand firm in your faith without compromising your witness, you need to read this message. Peter lays it on the line for us and doesn’t let us look away until he’s taken us all the way to the mat. His challenge does not mean we roll over and play dead for anyone. Instead, he’s calling us to stand firm in our identity in Christ and refuse to be made a slave to anyone including ourselves. The way to do this, though, is not what the culture around us would have us believe. The way of Jesus looks entirely different. It takes a great deal more courage and a great deal more strength. Read on and think about how God might be applying this to your situation today.
Submit for Good
Have you ever had a boss you didn’t like? I don’t mean just a little dislike either. I mean, you could not stand even to be in the same room for any longer than you had to be. He was rude. She was demanding. He was demeaning. She micromanaged everything and everyone. It just wasn’t a good situation. Maybe you’ve never had that misfortune, but if you have, how’d you handle that? Used to be the general cultural attitude toward that situation would be for you to just suck it up and persevere through the frustration. You had to work because you had bills to pay and mouths to feed. You needed to be a productive member of society, and that was more important than your feelings about your boss. If you wanted to switch careers, you could, but that wasn’t necessarily going to be an easy process.
That was then. Today, things are a bit more…fluid. Nowadays, people change jobs like they change clothes. We have been well taught that if our situation isn’t to our liking, we shouldn’t even consider sticking it out for the sake of anything or anyone. Instead, we should change our situation so that it is more to our liking. If we don’t agree with the people who are in authority over us and we can’t immediately make a change in our circumstances so they aren’t in positions of authority over us, we do not try to find common ground from which we can build a partnership that will be mutually beneficial. Instead, we style ourselves as part of the resistance…the #resistance, that is. Indeed, when things aren’t to our liking these days, we don’t bother trying to meaningfully make them better. We spout off on Instagram or fire off an angry tweet-storm or make a snarky Facebook post about it. That’s much easier, and it leaves us feeling like we’ve done or said something profound to speak truth to power. (The truth is that we’ve usually done little more than gripe into an echo chamber.) Yet although there is certainly a time and place to stand against unjust authority—and living in this country, we have the blessing of being able to do so without much in the way of fear of reprisal—there are some situations in which believers have not been and are not today so fortunate. It may be that we may one day find ourselves in such a situation and entirely sooner than we think. What are we to do then?
Well, this morning finds us in the fourth part of our teaching series, Standing Firm. Throughout this journey, we are talking about how we can stand firm in our faith without relinquishing our witness. The reason we are having these conversations is the fact that our culture is currently running away from any connection to the Christian worldview foundations of its past, and running toward a hodge-podge of alternative worldviews, all of which have little patience for Christian theism. That is, the culture doesn’t like us very much anymore. Not only do these various new worldviews not like Christianity, they are increasingly comfortable with using the levers of power available to them to exclude, harass, and even persecute believers who are willing to live lives that are publicly consistent with their confession. If we are going to stand firm against this rising tide of intolerance and abuse in a way that nonetheless keeps us on track with the mission God has given us of advancing His kingdom into a dark and lost world, fighting back with the same tactics our opponents are using is not going to do the trick. Thankfully, the apostle Peter wrote a letter to some believers living in a similarly hostile cultural environment walking them through how to do this well.
In the first three parts of our journey, we have watched together as Peter poured a foundation for us to stand on as we go forward. This foundation came to us in three parts. We start by standing firmly on the hope we have in Jesus Christ. As Bill Gaither wrote, “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.” Your hope in Christ is big enough to lean on. But if you are going to lean on it, you have to actually lean on it. Claiming it without making the life changes that necessarily come with such a claim is meaningless. If your hope is in Christ, your life should look like it. Then last week we received the encouragement that doing all of this isn’t just something we do because we are duty-bound to it. There is a benefit to us in it. Specifically, when we stand firm in Christ, we gain an identity that is rock solid. We become someone in a way deeper, truer, and more lasting than any other identity we might try and play with in this life. God is making you somebody in Christ.
So, that’s the foundation. Today, then, we start getting into the real heart of Peter’s letter. We are finally laying eyes on the big idea he wanted to convey. But if you thought this would be something easy or exciting, I can assure you that is it neither of those. He doesn’t ease us into things here. He jumps right into the deep end and starts kicking. Or, to switch images on you, he serves up the first course of the meal and it’s all vegetables. What Peter says here right out of the gate is as deeply unpopular as it is difficult to embrace. And yet, if we are going to stand firm against the challenges of the world around us in such a way that we don’t give up our witness, the model he lays out here is absolutely essential for us to understand and apply.
If you have a copy of the Scriptures handy, find your way to 1 Peter 2 with me. Peter starts here with a kind of summary statement before starting to unpack it in some specific situations over the next several sections. Essentially, everything he says after this opener needs to be understood through the lens of what he says here. Look at this with me in 1 Peter 2:11: “Dear friends, I urge you as strangers and exiles to abstain from sinful desires that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that when they slander you as evildoers, they will observe your good works and will glorify God on the day he visits.”
So, what’s he saying here? He goes back to what he said at the very beginning of the letter by calling them strangers and exiles. He’s basically saying this: “Look, given that you don’t belong here, you need to behave in ways that are not going to give the locals who are already predisposed to not liking you evidence to confirm their suspicions.” Essentially, if you want to get along well as a follower of Jesus in any cultural context, give a fair bit of effort to not sinning. Or, as we said a couple of weeks ago, if your hope is in Christ, your life should look like it.
Peter doesn’t just tell followers of Jesus here to pursue lives of righteousness for the sake of being righteous. There’s a reason for this. We are to do this “so that when they slander you as evildoers, they will observe your good works and will glorify God on the day he visits.” Let that sit on you for just a minute. Do you see Peter’s assumption there? He doesn’t say we are to do this on the offhand chance we get slandered as evildoers. He says we are to do it so that when it happens, we are prepared. This character slander is going to come from the world around us. There’s simply no avoiding it. People have always assigned ill-intent to the character and actions of minority groups whether or not there is any basis to such claims. When we see something that is different, we automatically assume the worst about it. That’s a natural tribal instinct that all people have always had. We have been too often guilty of this ourselves. In this case, as the cultural minority, Peter warns that it is going to be directed against us. Because this is the case, we have to behave in ways that absolutely take the heart out of such accusations before they’re even given the time of day.
When Branch Rickey, the famous Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager who signed Jackie Robinson was preparing him for what was to come, he made clear that his behavior had to be absolutely without fault at all times. If he gave in to the incredible temptation he was going to face to respond in kind to the avalanche of abuse he was going to receive as the first black man to play Major League Baseball, all of his critics would immediately count their doubts and suspicions about him and the whole integration project as validated and it would fail on the spot. In the same way, when the world is coming against us—and it will come against us—we cannot meet it on its own level. We must live in such a way that when a critic starts to say, “Well, you know those Christians…” someone else nearby immediately fires off, “What? You mean those people who helped my neighbor out with a bill his family couldn’t pay? They even provided his family with groceries for a month while he got back on his feet. I think their beliefs are pretty weird, but I sure hope my daughter marries one of them someday.” We want the people around us to say, “I think their beliefs are insane, but if what they believe makes them behave like that, then maybe there’s something to it…”
Now, let’s pause here for just a second to talk about Peter’s original audience. I’ve tried over the course of this series so far to get us to see the connection between their circumstances and ours. That being said, things are generally still a whole lot better for us than they were for them. They were a tiny minority of their society and one that was generally hated by everybody. More than that, because of their confession of faith, they had intentionally removed themselves from all the possible sources of power that might make their lives a bit easier. They were totally at the mercy of the world around them in ways we just aren’t. We have the benefit of a Constitution that gives us rights and privileges they couldn’t have even imagined. That being said, if Peter’s advice applied to them, it applies to us at least as much. If they were called to this in spite of their circumstances, we don’t have any excuses not to do it.
Like I said, though, Peter offers us this banner statement, and then starts to apply it in some more specific situations. In other words, he answers the question of what this looks like in practice. He starts with as broad a target as he can manage. Look at v. 13 with me: “Submit to every human authority because of the Lord, whether to the emperor as the supreme authority or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do what is evil and to praise those who do what is good. For it is God’s will [anytime you see that phrase in the Bible, you should be paying close attention] that you silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good. Submit as free people, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but as God’s slaves.”
That’s kind of uncomfortable stuff there, isn’t it? There’s no whiff of our #resistance efforts here. Peter’s point is painfully clear. If there is an authority over you and you are a follower of Jesus, you are to submit to that authority. And you don’t do that in spite of your relationship with God, you do it because of it. It doesn’t matter whether that authority is distant or near. It doesn’t matter whether or not you think the authority is particularly worthy of your submission. It doesn’t matter even an iota whether you like or agree with the authority or not. Well, there are people in positions of authority over us everywhere we look. The same was the case for Peter’s audience. The real difference is that while for us sometimes some of those authorities give at least a lip service of fidelity to the same basic beliefs we hold, for Peter’s audience, none of them did. But again, that doesn’t matter.
Now, this doesn’t mean we violate God’s commands if we are commanded to do so. There’s precedent for saying no in those circumstances in the Scriptures. Even that can be done submissively as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego demonstrated. We can’t take this bit out of the context of the whole. But short that—and Peter was writing to a people whose ultimate ruling authority was one of the most anti-Christian emperors Rome had—our call is to submit. We don’t do this as an act of giving up freedom, though, but as an exercise of it. Did you catch what Peter said? “Submit as free people.” The freest we will ever be is when we use our freedom in service of others. We think that the freest person in the world is the one who can do what he pleases. I understand the temptation of that line of thinking, but it’s wrong. The freest person is the one who can voluntarily give up what he wants in submission to another as a means of accomplishing a greater good. When you do good to another person who hasn’t earned it and doesn’t deserve it and when you don’t have to do so, you are the freest you will ever be. If you want to stand firm in your identity in Christ in the face of a world pushing back against you, this is how you do it.
Talking in this direction, though, someone might retort with something like this: So, what? Am I supposed to just make myself a slave to these ungodly authorities now? How does that advance the kingdom of God? Peter goes there next. Look at v. 18: “Household slaves, submit to your masters with all reverence not only to the good and gentle ones but also to the cruel.” Woop! Woop! Danger! Danger, Will Robinson! Right?!? You’d be hard pressed to find something more culturally offensive than this in all of the New Testament. Especially nowadays!
Let’s bring down the temperature just a bit here. Peter is not somehow condoning slavery in any sense here, and should not be construed as doing so. Any arguments to the contrary are revisionist and don’t take seriously the full counsel of Scripture on the matter. That goes whether it is opponents or proponents making the arguments. More relevantly for us, what Peter is doing here is telling one particular group of believers how to live out their faith in an incredibly difficult situation. While there are many differences between slavery in Peter’s day, and slavery as we understand it because of our nation’s history with it, some things are the same. The slave had no control over his life. The slaveowner then could literally do anything he wanted to a slave. There were some things that were culturally frowned upon, but nothing was illegal. Would God really expect one of His children in that kind of a terribly unjust situation to submit to such an ungodly master? Submission in that situation wasn’t just an ideal and an occasional inconvenience. It was a daily terrorizing reality. Peter’s Spirit-inspired answer? Yes. Submit.
Why? “For it brings favor if, because of a consciousness of God, someone endures grief from suffering unjustly.” The reasoning here matters a great deal. You submit because of your larger submission to Christ. If you do it for any other reason, it’s not going to go well. In Christ, your submission may not go well for you in the short term, but in Him you’re not playing a short-term game any longer. You’re seeking to advance the kingdom of God with your life however He happens to think it best. There’s a difference there that is profound and significant. If you don’t understand or appreciate or account for this difference, your efforts won’t matter. After all, look at what Peter says next: “For what credit is there if when you do wrong and are beaten, you endure it?” Right? If you get punished for wrongdoing…you deserved it. If the hard time you are facing is the result of sinful decisions you have made…stop making those decisions and start making better ones. “But when you do what is good and suffer, if you endure it, this brings favor with God.” Enduring what is unjust in spite of showing and maintaining a Christlike character gets people’s attention. And when you tell them you’re doing it because of the hope you have in Jesus, it points them firmly in His direction. Now you have stood firm and maintained your witness. No matter what the immediate outcome of the situation may be, you win.
But still, how can God expect us to do something like this? Doesn’t He understand how difficult a thing this is? When we are facing an injustice of some kind—a genuine injustice mind you, not merely an inconvenience we have construed as an injustice so we can loudly resist it with a clear conscience—everything in us wants to fight back. When the world strikes hard, we want to strike back harder. That’s natural. Doesn’t God understand that? If He only knew how we felt, He wouldn’t have given these commands.
Oh wait…He does. In fact, He knows what this is like a whole lot more intimately than not only you, but probably just about everybody you know unless they happen to be serving the Lord in a place like India or Nepal or China or one of the other Open Doors World Watch List nations. Look at v. 21 now: “For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you [unjustly, I might add], leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps.” Jesus isn’t asking us to do anything He not only isn’t also willing to do Himself, but in fact has already done. “He did not commit sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth; when he was insulted, he did not insult in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but entrusted himself to the one who judges justly [implication: we don’t always].”
That’s what all Jesus did. But Peter isn’t content to simply leave us with what Jesus did. He gets personal. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree; so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” Because Jesus was willing to suffer unjustly with a submissive, gentle spirit, your sins and mine have been covered. And if He did that when we were chomping at the bit to be able to live a life of righteousness, but couldn’t get there on our own, it would be one thing. But it wasn’t like that. We weren’t even looking for it. “For you were like sheep going astray, but you have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” Do you know why He did all of that? One word: love. Jesus’ love in the face of injustice literally saved the world. When the world struck hard, He loved back even harder and stood firm like mountain. And the way to eternal life was opened for all who care to enter it. What’s more, this was an example given for us to follow. We’re supposed to walk in this very same pattern. If we want to stand firm in our faith without sacrificing our witness, we can’t do anything else. By His example, Jesus saved the world. Imagine what you could accomplish. When the world strikes hard, love back harder.
When we commit to standing together on our faith no matter what challenges may come our way, the potential for incredible kingdom impact is beyond what we can imagine. When the world strikes hard, love back harder. When we commit ourselves together to doing good in our community and beyond no matter the cost, there are few other things that will give more life to our bones as an organization. When the world strikes hard, love back harder. When you commit to standing firm without giving up your witness by submitting with Christlike character everywhere you go, you will see the kingdom expand and lives transformed. When the world strikes hard, love back harder.