As we near the end of our series, Standing Firm, Peter pours a little bit of apocalyptic fervor over the whole thing. Why is it that we stand firm in our faith even when things get tough? Because the journey we’re on won’t last forever. Let’s explore this together today.
Stand with the End in Mind
I want you to do a little remembering with me this morning. Think about the last time you watched a movie or television show that was set in a post-apocalyptic environment. Now, you know what a post-apocalyptic setting is, right? Most directly it is a story setting that takes place on the other side of some kind of an apocalyptic event. Whether it’s a nuclear war or an alien invasion or a series of natural disasters or a horde of self-aware nanites eliminating all electricity around the world or a virus pandemic that turns people into zombies, something happens that causes massive numbers of people to die, and the survivors are left to figure out how to do life in a whole new world with a whole lot less people and no modern conveniences. In most of these shows people do reorganize into some sort of a society, but have you noticed that this society is almost unfailingly way more violent and brutal than it was before the apocalypse? It’s like the apocalyptic event gives people the freedom to give in to their darkest desires and tendencies. It’s like we’re in the wild, wild west again. These are the kinds of things I think about while watching TV. I’m a ton of fun to watch with.
In any event, this storytelling trend got me thinking: Why do all the post-apocalyptic stories present us as devolving socially and morally like this? Why couldn’t we have some dramatic event that makes us all decide to improve on ourselves? It’s like the writers are all coming from a place of deep skepticism and pessimism about the moral fiber of the human population. What’s really interesting to me is that in almost none of these stories do God or any kind of Christian theism make an appearance at all. Or, if they do, the faithful are often presented as decent people who are utterly deluded about the real nature of things. What’s interesting about this is that while the writers may not be coming from any sort of a Christian perspective, by writing God out of the story and then writing the story as they do, they unintentionally demonstrate the worthwhileness of the Christian worldview at the very least on the grounds that it plays a profound role in restraining human sinfulness where it is unleashed and embraced on a broad scale.
The other thing all of these writers seem to be assuming is that such immoral, unjust, and often downright evil behavior is normal for people to be embracing. What we see now in terms of people playing nice with one another is something artificially imposed by social and moral codes from which whatever the apocalyptic event was has freed us. In other words, the things that followers of Jesus claim to be right and true about how people should behave are anything but normal in the eyes of the world. Well, if you think much about it, that is actually a perfect fit for us, because as followers of Jesus, we are called to be anything but normal.
This morning finds us on the penultimate stop on our journey through the New Testament letter of 1 Peter in our teaching series, Standing Firm. For the last eight weeks we have been exploring with Peter how to stand firm in our faith when the world starts pushing back, but to do so without sacrificing our Gospel witness in the process. The idea that has really been animating our conversations has been that the culture around us as Christians in the United States of America is changing. In many ways we are merely catching up with our brothers and sisters across the world and the last 2,000 years of history, but for us this is all pretty new still. Used to be, a great majority of the country at least claimed some semblance of devotion to the Christian worldview because that was the expectation to be included in polite society. Such an assumption today, though, has gone the way of the dodo. Nowadays, being outed as a follower of Jesus is more likely to get you strange looks or worse, depending on in which part of the country you live. Because this is something most of us aren’t accustomed to experiencing, we need to talk about how to handle those moments should they finally arrive on our own doorstep. Peter’s letter gives us a perfect forum for doing just exactly that.
He started by pouring a foundation of hope, character, and confidence on which we can stand firm in the face of the world’s aggression. This standing firm means we don’t give ground, but we hold the ground we have after the pattern of Jesus, which always led with love. This pattern is important not just for times of pushback and persecution, but for all the times in our lives. Our Christlike consistency should characterize our public lives, of course, but it should also mark our lives in the church and in our homes. Now, when we walk this path, it may not always go well for us in the short term, but in the big picture, it puts us on the very solid ground Jesus Himself already paved for us. More than that, as we talked about last week, such efforts will make us more like Him, and that’s the very goal we are trying to reach.
Well, this morning as we draw one step closer to the end of his letter, Peter takes us back through some of the things we’ve already covered. In other words, we aren’t going to introduce anything new in the passage we are going to look at together that we haven’t already seen him talking about earlier in the letter. What he does here, though, is give us a new frame of reference through which to view some of these themes and ideas. This new frame is the end of the world. Everything Peter says here in these verses should be seen and heard through the lens of the end of the world. In fact, that idea bookends the whole thing. If you have a copy of the Scriptures with you today—and if you don’t, let me encourage you to make sure you do in the days ahead because it just may be that as we’re looking into the Scriptures together, the Holy Spirit chooses to reveal something you haven’t seen before; having your Bible with you, whether in digital or analog form, gives you a place to make some notes that just may be beneficial to you later on—find your way with me to 1 Peter 4:7, and we’ll look at these bookends together right quick.
Peter opens this section by pouring a bit of apocalyptic fervor over his message: “The end of all things is near; therefore be alert and sober-minded for prayer.” Now, we’ll dig into his “therefore” and what follows in just a minute, but do you see how he starts his counsel here? “The end of all things is near.” In other words, that fact should shape how we understand everything that comes next.
And if that were the only time he mentioned this idea, it would be notable, but more as an introductory statement to this part of the letter. It isn’t the only time he mentions it, though. Come with me now to the end of the chapter in 4:17 and listen to this: “For the time has come for judgment to begin with God’s household, and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who disobey the gospel of God? And ‘if a righteous person is saved with difficulty, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’ So then, let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator while doing what is good.”
That’s the same idea as before. It’s simply repeated with a bit more verbiage than it had the first time. In a day before they could easily put graphics and pictures in their writing, repetition was one of the most common ways for an author to tip off his audience that this or that was something he thought to be of superlative importance. In other words, for Peter to repeat this idea that the end of the world is coming soon at all, let alone at both the beginning and the end of his message, meant he deemed it to be something we need to keep in mind when seeking to understand and apply what he says here.
Let me make one quick observation here. Guys like Peter who contributed to the New Testament, talked about the end of the world and the return of Christ like it was all going down really soon. Just think about his language right here. The end of all things is near; for the time has come for judgment to begin. It sounds like he fully expected Jesus to return and reclaim His kingdom within days, maybe weeks. He certainly doesn’t seem to think it would be more than a few years. There’s no way he could have even envisioned its still having not happened nearly 2,000 years later. What are we supposed to do with proclamations like this? Was Peter just wrong?
I don’t think so. Yes, Peter expected Jesus to be back much, much sooner than it turns out He is arriving as we would count soon, but in his second letter, He addressed the apparent slowness. I wonder if that was prompted by these very same kinds of questions from his contemporaries. He said in 2 Peter 3:9: The Lord does not delay his promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance.” No, Peter’s “soon” and our “soon” are not even remotely the same. But Jesus Himself made clear no one knows the timing on His return. Jesus, Peter, and Paul all make clear that it could happen at any time. This means we’ve got to be ready at any time because it could be soon in the way we usually think about it. Peter may not have been specifically right for his generation, but what he was instead is right for every generation. Jesus is returning soon. The minute we start to doubt that fact is the minute we start to let down our guard and live in ways that are not consistent with the life He has called us to live.
Speaking of that, what does he say here? What are we supposed to do if the end really is coming soon? Well, the same thing we’re supposed to do if it’s not coming soon: follow the path of Jesus. Peter gives us another picture here of what this looks like. Come back with me to v. 7 and let’s unpack this together.
“The end of all things is near; therefore, be alert and sober-minded for prayer. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, since ‘love covers a multitude of sins.’ Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Just as each one has received a gift, use it to serve others, as good stewards of the varied grace of God. If anyone speaks, let it be as one who speaks God’s words; if anyone serves, let it be from the strength God provides, so that God may be glorified through Jesus Christ in everything. To him be the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.”
Now, think for a minute about all the things Peter could have said first after announcing the forthcoming arrival of the end of the world. I mean, there are a lot of things he could have put first on that list. The end of all things is near; therefore…fill in the blank. Get ready. Serve the poor. Renounce all sin forever. Advance the Gospel even more fervently than you’re already doing. There are a lot of things. But look again at what he does say. In light of the forthcoming end of the world, be alert and sober-minded for prayer. That’s first. Pray. Hard. With a clear and focused mind. Weak or distracted prayers have no place in the end of the world. Have you ever tried to carry on a conversation with someone when they are scrolling on their phone? Not such a productive chat, is it? Usually it just makes you mad. The same thing goes here. There is way too much at stake for us to be giving God only a portion of our attention. Jesus is coming back soon, let’s get fully engaged.
And what do we do with that engagement? The very thing you’d expect: We love one another. And I love the reason Peter gives for this. He doesn’t go with “because Jesus said so,” like he could have gone. Instead, he tells us that “love covers a multitude of sins.” That’s half of Proverbs 10:12. I’ll save you having to look it up: “Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers all offenses.” That was a timely word for Peter’s audience, I’m sure. I know that it’s a timely word for the church today. Think about how much hatred a few cents’ worth of cloth and elastic has stirred up in the last few months both outside and inside the church. Do you really think a church all up in arms with one another over whether or not and who should wear a mask or the color of the carpet or the height of the bushes—or, you pick any other issue that might tear a church apart—is going to be ready for Jesus to return? Yeah, me neither. When we’re truly committed to loving one another, though, those kinds of squabbles are reduced to their proper size (which is small).
Peter makes two more points here before moving on. The first is that we are to be hospitable to one another without complaining. Now, we’re generally pretty good about that as a church. But there’s more than being hospitable than simply being neighborly. Showing hospitality means we bear with another person’s faults, failings, and differences even to the point of making uncomfortable or inconvenient adjustments to our own preferences and norms because we are committed to putting their needs and desires ahead of our own. This is simply an application of Paul’s command for us to treat the people around us as if they were more important than we are. We know they’re not in an absolute sense, of course, but because of our confidence in our standing in Christ, we can treat them that way without fear we’ll miss out on something or somehow diminish ourselves. The other point Peter makes here is that we do all of these things from out of the giftedness God has given us. If we do it all merely on the basis of what we are able to accomplish, we’re really not doing very much. When we open ourselves up for God’s power to flow through us, on the other hand, a whole lot more gets done and God gets the glory for it.
All of this is how the church has to be working if we are going to successfully stand firm without sacrificing our Gospel witness as the end draws near. And the reason it is so important for us to be doing this is that if we are weak on the inside (and, just so we’re clear, not doing any of these things will leave us weak on the inside), then when the world comes after us, we’re not going to have the strength to stand. Because the simple truth is: the world is going to be coming against us.
Look at what Peter says next in v. 12 now: “Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you.” When we get everything right and things are hard anyway; when we perfectly model the character of Christ, and the world nonetheless comes after us, this shouldn’t surprise us. That’s simply the world being the world. When we experience persecution for following Jesus, we’re not experiencing anything different than what Jesus Himself experienced. In the face of this kind of abuse, our first reaction is to strike back somehow. It’s to complain about how awful the world is, and how hard our lot is as Christians.
Peter offers us some different advice that is pretty countercultural. Stay with me in the text at v. 13: “Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of Christ.” Wait what? Rejoice in suffering? That’s crazy! Not if you really understand what’s going on. When you’re suffering because of your faithfulness to Jesus, then you are experiencing the same treatment from the world He received. Listen: If the world is treating you the same way the world treated Jesus, that means it sees you the same way it saw Jesus. And if the world seems to think you’re enough like Jesus to warrant the same kind of treatment He received…well…I’d have to say that is indeed cause for rejoicing. “Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may also rejoice with great joy when his glory is revealed.”
And as if that weren’t enough, Peter doubles down on it. “If you are ridiculed for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.” Then he gives us that reminder again that it’s not just any suffering that counts here; it’s got to be suffering because of our commitment to Christ. Verse 15: “Let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer…” Pause right there. Any murderers or thieves or evildoers in the room today? Probably not. But then Peter adds one more category here that makes us do a double take. “Let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, and evildoer, or a meddler.” We just might be a little more guilty of that one. “But if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed but let him glorify God in having that name.” Why? Look at the next verse. “For the time has come for judgment to begin…”
Remember what I said a little while ago? That’s the frame of reference for this whole section. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that is the frame of reference for properly understanding this entire letter. There is an end and it’s coming soon. That’s why we persevere. The challenges and setbacks and hardships we face in this life are not going to last forever. The path of Christ is going to have some bumps along the way. In fact, it’s going to involve some suffering. We keep walking it, though, because those hard parts aren’t going to last forever. We double down on what’s right because the cost this world slaps us with for doing so will soon be removed. We stand firm with gentle boldness because the victory Christ as already won is almost here in full. We stick to the path because our journey won’t last forever. Stick to the path because your journey won’t last forever.
Friends, I know this seems simple, but that is what you can do with this. Stand firm with the end in mind. Stick to the path because your journey won’t last forever. When you walk out of those doors here in a little while and are faced with the opportunity to compromise for the sake of convenience, stand firm. When you are given the chance to let go just a little bit to avoid some trouble, give the trouble a hug and hold tight to Christ. When it’s just you and that desire for some thinking or doing that doesn’t glorify God at all starts to climb up on your back, turn away from it even in the agony because one day soon it won’t be there anymore. Instead, you’ll be rejoicing that you grabbed hold of the Spirit’s help and chose to honor Jesus. Stick to the path because your journey won’t last forever. Jesus is coming soon, and He’ll make all things right. He’ll right every wrong and repair what is broken. He’ll honor every sacrifice and bind up the wounds that just won’t heal. He’ll reward those who are faithful and finally honor the choice of all those who have rejected Him. That’s the end toward which we are headed and it’s coming a whole lot sooner than we think. So stand firm. Stick to the path because your journey won’t last forever.