Strong Where it Counts

As we wrap up our series, Standing Firm, this week, we find the apostle taking a turn from everything he’s been talking about for the past nine weeks. But then again, he’s not doing that at all. Instead, after spending the rest of the letter telling us how to stand firm in our faith without sacrificing our Gospel witness, Peter closes things out by talking about where we can find the strength we need to do it. I’ll give you a hint: It comes from God, but it isn’t found inside of us. Keep reading to find out what is the source of this strength.

Strong Where It Counts

Some of you are builders and so you understand the ins and outs of building and building materials better than I do. But from my rudimentary understanding, concrete is a pretty good building material. It’s stable. It’s sturdy. It’s strong. It holds up pretty well under a whole variety of weather conditions. It doesn’t degrade much over time. It’s low maintenance. There are all kinds of advantages to it. If you’re building something that requires extra stability and support, though—perhaps because of its size, for instance—concrete isn’t enough by itself. It needs a little bit more to make it up to the task to which you are applying it. Specifically, it needs a steel skeleton. To add this, you build an internal rebar frame inside your concrete mold and pour the mixture over it. With the rebar encased in the slab or structure, its strength is increased many times over concrete by itself. Now, this doesn’t mean that concrete alone isn’t still really strong stuff. It is. But when it has that extra element of support, it can withstand just about anything that might be thrown at it.

Well, you and I are a little like concrete. On our own we are remarkably strong. The human capacity to endure hardships and overcome obstacles is simply amazing. God designed us with a hardiness that much belies our relative weakness when compared with many of the other creatures He also put on the earth. Now, in comparison with His strength, this is nothing. And if we’re thinking about the kind of strength needed to pursue the righteousness that will get us to Him, we’ve got nothing. But our ability to survive and even thrive as a species is remarkable. When the situations we are facing go beyond just survival, though, we need a little bit more. As we wrap up our journey through 1 Peter this morning, we find the apostle talking about this little bit more we need.

For the last nine weeks we have been talking about how to stand firm in our faith without sacrificing our Gospel witness in our teaching series, Standing Firm. Our companion for this journey has been the apostle Peter, and specifically a letter he wrote to some believers who were living in a pretty hostile cultural environment. The world around them hated them, and Peter was writing to tell them how to keep doing their faith in spite of it. In our own situation, we live today in a world that is turning against us in ways we have never experienced before in our lives. Now, really, this is just catching us up with the rest of the world and most believers across the history of the church, but here in this country it is something new. In fact, it is so new that some folks—including not a few believers—struggle to even call what we are starting to see in the world around us persecution. And I understand that. It’s hard to call what we are facing in this nation persecution when we know that believers in places like Afghanistan are facing the high likelihood of a posse of Taliban fighters knocking on their door with the intent to kill them in cold blood when they are found. But if we don’t call things by their proper name when our situation is relatively calm, we’ll find it much harder to deal with them when things aren’t so settled. And besides, do you know who doesn’t have a problem calling the growing animus toward Christianity being worked out in our culture persecution? Believers from other parts of the world who have seen and experienced it firsthand. As the world pushes back against our faith whether here or anywhere else around the world, we will be given the chance to stand firm against it. When we do this, though, it must not be at the expense of our Gospel witness because without that, we’re just wasting our time.

Along the way of our journey, once we finished clarifying the foundation we have to stand on, Peter had two main points which he has set before us again and again. The first is that suffering is part and parcel with our living a consistent, faithful Christian walk in a world hostile to that sort of lifestyle. The second is that although character counts all the time, this goes double when it comes to standing firm together. If we are not consistently following the pattern of Christ in every, single corner of our lives, then we’re setting ourselves up to be a slab of concrete with no internal support in a high-load situation. When things get ratcheted up high enough, we’re going to crumble.

Well, last week would have made a lot of sense as the end of the series. Peter recapped everything we’ve talked about so far. He gave us a new lens through which to view it. There was this powerful reminder to keep going in spite of the challenges because they won’t last forever. In short, it was a fitting series finale. But it wasn’t the end of the letter quite yet, and so here we are back together again this week talking about it one last time. In a move that is as unexpected as it is important, Peter fairly well turns away from the points he’s made so far and offers us a final exhortation that is vitally important to understand if we are going to be able to put any of the other things we’ve talked about into practice. And this morning, I’m going to do something just a little bit different than I normally do. I’m going to tell you what Peter’s big idea is right here at the beginning. Just like concrete can stand firm against a whole world of pressures to crumble when it has that rebar skeleton in place, in our own lives, we too are able to stand firm on the outside when we are strong on the inside.

Peter starts unpacking this idea by talking directly to church leaders. If you have a copy of the Scriptures with you this morning, find your way to 1 Peter 5:1 with me and let’s take a look at this together. “I exhort the elders among you as a fellow elder and witness to the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory about to be revealed: Shepherd God’s flock among you, not overseeing out of compulsion but willingly, as God would have you; not out of greed for money but eagerly; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.”

Now, as I said, Peter is talking to church leaders here. There’s really not much of a way around that. In other words, much of this is aimed primarily at me as the pastor of the church. He even goes on in vv. 4-5 to offer encouragement for a job well done as well as a call to honor the position of the elders. Listen to this: “And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. In the same way, you who are younger, be subject to the elders.”

That all seems pretty cut and dry in terms of its messaging and primary audience. Pastor, you need to do your job well. This whole thing isn’t about you. You need to bring a good attitude, a lack of worldliness, humility, and a willingness to consciously set a good example for the people you are leading. If you do this well, there will be a reward for your labors. And, if you’re not a pastor, treat the pastor like he’s the pastor. There are just two bits of tension all of this causes in my heart and mind. Number one, if this is solely the case, then this is not a message I need to preach to you; it is a message I need to have preached to me. Number two, I don’t actually think Peter’s words here are this limited in their application.

Yes, he’s talking to “elders” here. Yes, the position of elder, or pastor, in a church comes with a higher burden of expectation and accountability from God. If the church is a wreck, He’s going to be looking at the pastor and asking, “What happened?” But the character traits Peter identifies here? Don’t serve out of a sense of compulsion; don’t let greed get ahold of your heart; don’t use your position as a means of self-advancement; be active in setting an example for others. These are all things that every single member of the church needs to have in place in her life.

If the thing that drives your service in the church is primarily a kind of guilt-driven duty, you’re not doing it right. In fact, you’re not just not doing it right, you’re doing it wrong. And the more you let that guilt-driven duty drive you, the more wrong you’re going to do it. You’ll start looking for excuses to not be where you need to be given the position you’re in. You’ll be exhausted all the time when you’re serving. There won’t be any joy in it for you. And you’ll just generally not do a very good job.

If serving in the church becomes for you primarily a means of some sort of personal advancement, you will cease to be effective for the kingdom. Whether that personal advancement comes by your efforts to get ahold of as much as you can get your hands on (greed), or simply a means of boosting your image and power in the community, you’re going to be making a mess of things everywhere you go. Instead of elevating the people around you like Jesus did, you’ll be pushing them down as a means of making yourself higher.

These kinds of faults and flaws have no place in the church whether we’re talking about the pastor or any other member. If you are serving in the church, your only motivation needs to be seeing the kingdom of God advance. If it’s anything else, you’ve got to get that addressed. And it can’t be about you, what you want, or what you need. The whole thing needs to be self-sacrificingly focused on the people around you—people whom God loves and for whom Jesus died. If that’s not the attitude that’s dominating the picture in any church, that church is weaker than it should be. What’s worse, it’s leaving its members spiritually weaker than they should be. They’re not going to be adequately prepared to stand against an ever-encroaching world without sacrificing their Gospel witness. We are able to stand firm on the outside when we are strong on the inside.

Well, the way we avoid this weakness-inducing chaos is by embracing a character of humility. That’s where Peter goes at the end of v. 5 here: “All of you clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because ‘God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.’” Now, he chooses an interesting word there. He doesn’t simply tell us to be humble. He tells us to “clothe” ourselves with humility. Have you ever put on a new shirt or pair of pants or pair of shoes? Sometimes they don’t quite fit just right. But the longer you wear them, the more you break them in. They become molded to your body and it’s almost like they were made just for you.

That’s kind of how it works with humility here. Humility isn’t necessarily something we lean into naturally. In fact, it is decidedly unnatural. What is natural is boosting ourselves and making sure we get what we need even if that comes at the expense of the people around us. That’s not what humility is. You know what humility is, right? Maybe not. We’re often taught to think of humility as thinking less of ourselves than we should. In this way, humility is often made to seem like a vice, not a virtue, in the world around us. But this understanding of humility is badly flawed. Humility doesn’t have anything to do with thinking less of ourselves. Humility is fundamentally about seeing ourselves the way God does. A humble person knows who God is and who she is in light of who God is. Well, if I know well who God is and who I am in light of who He is, then I am freed to treat you as if you were the most important person in the world without fearing in even the slightest that I might diminish myself or have my needs go unmet by such efforts because I know who I am and I know who God is. Now, because of sin, we can’t manage to reach this place without the presence of Christ in us. This is why we see a whole lot of false humility in the world around us. True, biblical humility only comes from the power of the Holy Spirit in us which we have because of a relationship with Jesus because of the grace of the Father. This is why humility is so important to see working in the life of a follower of Jesus—it is a piece of evidence of a regenerate heart.

Now, when it comes to humility, we make equal, but opposite, errors. On the one hand, we do think too highly of ourselves sometimes. We overestimate our abilities and importance. We start believing certain things are unnecessary for us to do, not because we recognize the giftedness of others who are more suited for them, but because we’ve either done them before or done them long enough that we deserve a break. We think we are entitled to certain advantages and benefits; that certain things should be molded in light of our preferences because we’ve been around long enough or given a sufficient amount.

On the other hand, though, we are often guilty of thinking too lowly of ourselves. We underestimate our gifts and the vital nature of our contribution. We think we can’t do something even though God has called us to it, and others have pointed out to us they too believe God has called us to it, because we don’t understand ourselves in light of who God is. We say, “No,” to invitations to ministry because, “I just don’t feel like I’m spiritually prepared to serve in that position.” One time, that may be the case. When that becomes a pat response, though, we may have a failure of humility on our hands. Where humility is not working in the church, it is not going to be strong enough to help us stand in those moments when the world comes pounding on our door. We are able to stand firm on the outside when we are strong on the inside. 

Let’s go forward together in the text. Peter makes this a command now. Look with me at v. 6: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you at the proper time.” When we serve well, God will honor that. He won’t do it too soon, and He won’t do it too late. It’ll be done right at the proper time. God has a vested interest in seeing us thrive in the church. He will absolutely honor our efforts.

Because of that—because of His commitment to us—we can boldly cast “all your cares on him, because he cares about you.” Don’t miss that. The creator of the universe cares about you. In case this isn’t clear: That means you are worth caring about. Now, keep drawing out the implications of this with me. If He cares about you, then that means He cares about the person next to you too. If He cares about the person next to you, that means they’re worth caring about. If He cares about them, you should as well. And when we all get our minds around that, suddenly we’re all caring for each other and treating each other as if we’re all the most important person in the world. I defy you to find me a church that is stronger than the one in which this kind of godly humility has been fully unleashed within it. When you have a whole church membership absolutely convinced the rest of the church membership loves them and has their back through whatever the world might throw in their path because they feel the same way about them…nothing can shake that church. That church is strong. That church will stand firm no matter what the world may do to any single one of its members. We are able to stand firm on the outside when we are strong on the inside. Are you with me?

Now, this doesn’t mean we can just forget about the challenges before us. We can’t get complacent. Verse 8 now: “Be sober-minded, be alert. Your adversary the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour. Resist him, firm in the faith, knowing that the same kind of sufferings are being experienced by your fellow believers throughout the world.” There is still an enemy out there who is resolutely committed to seeing us fail and fall. He’ll use any means necessary to achieve that goal and he’s been at this kind of thing for a long time so he’s really shrewd about knowing which means might be necessary and which aren’t. He is a master of subtlety. If he doesn’t need a big, flashy attack, he won’t use one. If he can accomplish a world of destruction with something as simple as a letter or a social media post, he’s fine with that. But listen, we’re not alone in this. We have brothers and sisters throughout the world who are fighting the same battles we are. You have brothers and sisters in this very room who are fighting the same battles that you are. That means we can all stand together. The One who is at work within you is greater than the one who is at work in the world. We are able to stand firm on the outside when we are strong on the inside.

Throughout all of this…this doing life for the kingdom in a fallen world…we can know with absolute certainty that God has our backs. Verse 10: “The God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, strengthen, and support you after you have suffered a little while. To him be dominion forever. Amen.”

There are several big ideas we could draw from this passage. There are several points of application we could dissect and discuss. But there’s one thing that has really jumped out at me as I’ve studied and prayed through Peter’s words here and with everything unfolding around us lately in mind. In our effort to stand firm in our faith when the world pushes back without sacrificing our Gospel witness, it is impossible to overestimate just how important the church is. I have been reminding you all morning that we are able to stand firm on the outside when we are strong on the inside. Our primary source for that strength is the church. Now, that may sound off to your ears because you expected me to say something about the primary source for our strength being God. And He is, but His strength comes to us in Christ primarily through the church.

We draw strength from the church in two ways. First, and as I just said, it gives us access to God’s strength. God doesn’t operate by sending out lone wolves to do His bidding. There has never been a situation of kingdom advancement in which one person simply made it all happen by himself and God equipped him for that. Perhaps the best example of this I can think of is Billy Graham. Billy may have preached to scores of millions of people, and that preaching may have been the catalyst for life transformation for tens of millions over his long and incredibly fruitful ministry, but I suspect he would have been the first to tell you that any success he had came as the result of thousands of people praying for months in advance in all the places he preached. And do you know how they found those people in order to have them praying? The churches in the cities where he spoke. The ground game well ahead of his rallies is what saw lives transformed by the Spirit of God. If we want to accomplish anything of even moderate value for the kingdom—and that includes standing firm in our faith—that is going to happen when we are deeply connected to a local church. Absent that, we are powerless.

The second way we draw strength from the church is through the people who are in it. There is something powerful about knowing we are not standing alone. In any fight, if you have someone beside you, you are stronger and more confident than when you are fighting alone. If you are going into a season of trial or temptation or of persecution, knowing you have someone to call, or who you don’t even have to call because they’re already tuned in to what is happening in your life and have called you, makes the whole situation a great deal more bearable. Their strength becomes your strength and together you are strong enough to face down whatever might be standing before you. We can stand firm on the outside when we are strong on the inside.

That is the secret here. It all comes back to the church. If you are connected to the church, relish that. Invest in that. Strengthen that. Receive the ministry that comes from that and be active in contributing to the ministry going to others through that. There’s just no substitute for the church. We can stand firm on the outside when we are strong on the inside and the church is our strength.

If you aren’t connected to the church, let me encourage you in the strongest possible terms to get that addressed. You don’t have enough on your own to face down the challenges that are coming your way. So don’t be on your own. While my first preference is of course to see you connected with this church—I happen to think it’s one of the best in town—I won’t be but so picky because this is that important. And don’t settle as so many do today for a commitment-lite connection. Attending a church without making a formal commitment to it is a little like living together without being married. Sure, the feelings may all be there, and the relationship may be great and last a really long time, but without that formal commitment, there’s something missing that is keeping it from being as good as it could be. You can connect formally with this church by moving your membership from another church, by affirming your commitment to Christ and desire to be joined formally with us, by being baptized by immersion if you’re following Jesus and haven’t that opportunity like we’re doing next week, or by making a brand-new profession of faith and getting baptized as a new believer. The options are varied, but the result is the same: you’re not standing on your own when the storms start to blow. So, that’s my invitation to you: Plant yourself first in Christ, and then plant yourself in the church. Then you’ll have all you need and more for the journey that lies ahead of you. Let’s all stand firm together.

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