It is 2:00am and you are deep in sleep, warm and at peace in your bed. Suddenly you wake up to the sound of hammering on your front door, the sound of shouting. You jump out of bed and race for the door, your heart pounding, your eyes still bleary. Before you reach the door, it is torn off its hinges and flattened before you. You are face to face with men in black uniforms carrying guns. There are bright lights in your eyes. You begin to speak and then you feel the searing pain at the aside of your head then … nothing! When you regain consciousness you are lying on the ground, you can feel the grass. It was not a dream – hours have passed. Your family are with you. They are distressed. They are bandaging up the wound on your head with strips of cloth from your son’s T-shirt. It feels cold and damp. As your eyes begin to focus you see stars above. “Why are we outside? What’s happening?” you whisper. With tears your wife says, “The government – they took everything! Our house, cars, clothes, food, money … everything! Because we are Christians.” In one day, your whole life has changed, radically, permanently. You are now criminalised, you are poor, unemployable, persecuted, an exile. You won’t gather with your friends for church this Sunday. As a matter of fact, you don’t even know where they are.
You sit there with a numb mind and bruised body trying to grasp what has just happened to you and your family.
Just a week ago, on Saturday 29th August, Joseph Garang, Archdeacon of Wernyol in Southern Sudan, near the border with Uganda and Kenya, was shot dead at the communion table during a service of Morning Prayer. He was one of forty Christians – men, women and children – killed that day in Jonglei State. In Ezo, near the border with the Congo, earlier in August, there was another devastating attack by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in which three people, including a Church lay reader were murdered. The attack included the abduction of children from the Anglican church in Ezo.
The Hospital was also attacked, medicine stolen and equipment destroyed. Several thousand more people have been displaced – people that the local churches are struggling to care for. Over the years, many have crossed into Northern Uganda as refugees and we hope to work with some of them in January when we launch the Christianity Explored Course in Swahili. Open Doors advocates on behalf of persecuted Christian minorities. They rank countries by the intensity of persecution Christians face for actively pursuing their faith.
Of the fifty countries where persecution is considered most severe, six countries have Communist or former Communist governments (such as North Korea 1st , China 12th & Vietnam 23rd). Three are non-alligned (India 22nd , Burma 24th & Kenya 49th ). The other 41 countries are ruled by Islamic law.
North Korea is ranked 1st for persecution. There are at least 100,000 Christians known to be in labour camps. In prison because the acknowledge Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour not Kim Jong II. Saudi Arabia is 2nd on the list. That is because public non-Muslim worship is forbidden, at the risk of arrest, imprisonment, flogging, deportation, and sometimes torture. Iran ranks 3rd because there has been a significant crackdown on house churches and services in registered churches are monitored. Those found guilty of converting from Islam (apostasy) still face a mandatory death sentence. In Afghanistan, ranked 4th, there is no visible church, most Christians are secret believers unable even to own a Bible. In Somalia ranked 5th, a tiny number of ethnic Somali Christians practice their faith in secret under extremely dangerous conditions. World-wide, an estimated 170,000 Christians are killed every year for their faith.
This evening, in at least 50 other countries around the world, Christians are being persecuted for their faith. Indeed up to two thirds of Christians worldwide live under governments more repressive that the Roman Empire of the 1st Century. That makes Christians the most persecuted religious group in the world. Scot McKnight is a professor of theology at North Park University in Chicago. He has undertaken research on which parts of the Bible most Christians prefer. He found that Western Christians enjoy the Psalms and many identify with Luke’s Gospel or Philippians.
Countercultural types apparently prefer the Sermon on the Mount. Academics like Romans. Charismatics like Acts. Practical types like James. He was surprised to discover, however, from an Indonesian student and one from Yugoslavia that the favourite NT book in their countries is 1 Peter.
On reflection he discovered a simple reason. The world which Peter describes, of marginalisation, exclusion from society and persecution, is their daily experience. Christians in the first-century church had much more in common with our two-thirds world brothers and sisters. That is a good reason for studying this book together between now and Christmas.
Near the end of his life, the Apostle Peter was moved by the Holy Spirit to write a letter to believers who found themselves scattered all over present day Turkey. They had become refugees through the persecutions brought about by Nero, the Roman emperor. In 64 AD, a fire had consumed much of Rome. After three days of fires, Nero needed a scapegoat. He used a very convenient target … the Christians. In an effort to appease the angry masses, Nero began to persecute the Christians, using beatings, floggings, and imprisonment. With time, the persecutions escalated as Nero’s need for blood led to tortures, burnings at the stake, crucifixions, and village massacres. Christians were killed for sport. The persecution started in Rome, but eventually spread throughout the entire Roman Empire. Soon Christians were fair game for almost anyone.
Chased, hunted, and running for their lives, Christians were scattered all over Europe and the Middle East. Things got so bad in Rome that many, having lost all their possessions, their status and employment, began living and hiding in the catacombs. The catacombs are a series of tunnels underneath the city, originally designed to bury people.
For years Christians became refugees living in these tombs, like hunted animals. It was to these believers that Peter was inspired to write his letter.
The Purpose of 1 Peter
Peter explains his purpose in the opening and closing verses:
“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood. Grace and peace be yours in abundance.” (1 Peter 1:1-2).
“I have written to you briefly, encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it.” (1 Peter 5:12)
He has at least three reasons for writing:
1. To encourage suffering Christians (1:6-7; 5:8-9, 5:12).
2. To prepare them for more severe trials ahead (4:12-13).
3. To offer practical instruction to fulfil their responsibilities and not give the enemy any ground for complaint (4:15-16).
This letter has much to say to us too, living increasingly in a secular, amoral and materialistic society where Christianity is marginalized, expressions of faith ridiculed and biblical values overturned. This week, two lesbians won a landmark victory to allow both to be listed as the parents of a child conceived by artificial insemination. And a transsexual prisoner, convicted of murder and attempted rape has won the right to be housed in a women’s prison. We should not be surprised.
Outline of 1 Peter
1. The Security of the Christian (1:1-2:10)
1.1 The Derivation of this Security from God (1:1-9)
1.2 The Permanence of the Christian’s Security (1:10-12)
1.3 Holiness appropriate to Christian Security (1:13-21)
1.4 Love as an Expression of Christian Security (1:22-2:3)
1.5 The Purpose of the Christian’s Security (2:4-10)
2. The Submission of the Christian (2:11-3:12)
2.1 Introductory (2:11 f.)
2.2 The Christian’s Civic Submission (2:13-17)
2.3 The Submission of Christian Slaves (2:18-25)
2.4 Wives and Husbands (3:1-7)
2.5 A Final Word on Christian Submission (3:8-12)
3. The Suffering of the Christian (3:13-4:19)
3.1 The Manner of Endurance (3:13-17)
3.2 Christ’s Righteous Suffering and Vindication (3:18-22)
3.3 Holiness of Conduct required of Christians (4:1-7)
3.4 Christian Conduct within the Church (4:8-11)
3.5 The Fiery Trial (4:12-19)
4. The Shepherding of the Christian (5:1-14)
4.1 Exhortation to Elders and Younger Men (5:1-5)
4.2 A General Exhortation to Submission to God (5:6-11)
4.3 Final Greetings (5:12-14)
While you may not necessarily be able to identify with our brothers and sisters in Somalia, Iran or North Korea, picture yourself standing in the flood plain of a rising river. The waters are slowly creeping higher and higher. The current grows faster and faster. You still have your footing, but you fear that, at any moment, your feet could slip and you will be washed downstream. Is that how you feel this evening? Your letter box receives a steady stream of bills, but your bank account doesn’t match your expenses … the river rises. Your diary is out of control and your relationships are strained . . . the current gains speed. Pressures at work are mounting, and every morning you wake up with a knot in your stomach … the ground beneath your feet begins to give way as the waters press against you. You try to hold on, but you are not sure how long you can stand your ground before you are swept away. Sound too familiar? Well, you’re not alone. We are going to discover in this new series of studies in 1 Peter, that God’s word is just as timely, just as powerful and needed today as they were two thousand years ago. We all face times of struggle, pain, tension, and conflict. But the storms of this life do not have to sweep you away. They do not have to destroy your family, erode your career, or drown your hopes. God will empower you to stand strong in the storms of life. Whatever your circumstances, my prayer is that you grasp the hand of God in the midst of the storm and find His power to stand strong. And in standing strong I pray you will increasingly identify with your brothers and sisters who are suffering persecution and be a support to them. With that in mind, let us look at these opening verses of 1 Peter 1 and see what they teach us.
Peter Greets them with a Blessing
Grace and peace be yours in abundance.” (1 Peter 1:2).
When Peter says “Grace and peace,” he’s saying much more than “Have a nice day!” Grace describes God’s character.
It’s a theological statement of immense importance. The heart behind the universe is a gracious heart of love. Although he is the centre of all power, God cares for you as a person. Grace signifies God’s love in action in Jesus Christ on behalf of sinners. Grace and peace.
The meaning of peace goes far beyond merely the cessation of hostilities. Peace between you and God settles your biggest problem—sin. When God saves you, he removes all your rebellion and indifference to him. Peace with God gives you the base for solving your second tier of problems—relationships with everyone else in the world. With your relationship with God made right, you have the energy and insight to work on your human relationships. All this comes at a price you could not pay yourself; it was prepaid by Jesus on the cross. Peter’s brief greeting, “Grace and peace be yours in abundance”, is a summary of the whole letter. To those experiencing scorn and malice from an unbelieving and hostile world, Peter blesses them with God’s grace and peace.
Thank God for who he is and what he has done for you too.
Let the realization of God’s grace and peace get your day off to a great start. Peter Greets them with a Blessing.
Peter Greets them as the True People of God
“To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God.” (1 Peter 1:1-2)
Peter uses three important words to describe God’s people here:
The recipients of this letter were God’s elect. “God’s elect” refers to those chosen or “called out” who have responded to the gospel. Clowney says
“Feel the drama in that description. Peter is writing primarily to Gentiles, to those who had no part in the people of God, but who followed the ‘empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers’ (1:18)… Peter, a pious Jew, would regard pagan Gentiles with scorn and loathing. Peter was shocked when God, in a vision, commanded him to eat food that was not kosher.2 Only after God’s rooftop session of reorientation was Peter ready to go to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile army officer. There he explained that God’s revelation had overcome his conviction ‘that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him.’3 This is the apostle who writes to Gentiles living in Asia Minor (now Turkey) and greets them as God’s chosen and holy people! What could cause such an about-face on the part of this very Jewish fisherman? The answer, of course, is Jesus. Peter came to a new understanding of what it meant to belong to the people of God: it meant to belong to the Messiah, the Son of God. He came to understand that through faith in Jesus Christ they were chosen of God the Father (1:2)
When we accept Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, God transfers our citizenship from the world to heaven (Philippians 3:20). Thus, while we live on this earth, we are like strangers in the world. So we should feel estranged from our society and uncomfortable with its directions and values. Elect.
The Greek word translated “strangers” is parepidemois and refers to those living temporarily in a foreign land. It does not refer to people unrecognizable to their neighbours, nor people living in these locations against their will. The world becomes a “foreign land” to believers because their real home is heaven and they are only on earth temporarily. We should regard the pursuits of this world as foreign, belonging to someone else. We should be polite to those intrigued by possessions, achievements, and sinful pleasure, but say, “No thanks, I’m just passing through.” We must not be so attached to this world that we are unprepared for Christ’s return. We should not be so preoccupied with worldly gain that we neglect service for Christ. Elect. Strangers.
The Greek word for “scattered” is diasporas, originally referring to Jews who were separated from their homeland in Israel. Peter adopted the word to refer to the early believers who were separated from their homeland in heaven and to build up their identity as members of the church. Elect. Strangers. Scattered. Peter Greets them with a Blessing. Peter Greets them as the True People of God
Peter Greets them as the People of God in the World
“chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood.” (1 Peter 1:1-2)
Peter reveals the tremendous depth and scope of God’s plan. God chooses, destines, cleanses, and covers those who believe. This verse mentions all three members of the Trinity—God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Because of his grace and love, the Father chose us before we chose him (Ephesians 1:4). Jesus Christ the Son died for us while we were still sinners, gaining our salvation by shedding his blood (Romans 5:6-10). The Holy Spirit applies Christ’s sacrifice to our lives, bringing us the benefits of salvation, cleansing us, and setting us apart (sanctifying us) for God’s service. (2 Thes 2:13).
All three persons of the Trinity—God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—work together to bring about our salvation, vindicate our witness and will take us to our final destination – a threefold assurance, past, present and future. What amazing teamwork and strategy. God has chosen us for his team. With God’s presence and in God’s strength, we can face whatever the world throws at us, knowing that the final victory belongs to God.
Peter Greets them with a Blessing. Peter Greets them as the True People of God. Peter Greets them as the People of God in the World. I hope you see by now that this is far more than simply a formal introductory greeting. Peter begins by reminding us how God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are all active in our lives: The Father choosing, the Son saving, the Holy Spirit sanctifying.
At the same time Peter identifies with his readers and the tension they faced. Loved by God but hated by the world. Children of God but strangers in the world. Citizens of heaven but on earth, resident aliens. Chosen but scattered. What has happened to them was no mistake or accident. God was and remains in control. God knew before hand. God knows today too.
Therefore we too can have peace. Our real home is heaven not this world. Don’t get too attached. With Jesus we are at home wherever we live and whatever the world does to us. In the coming week, reflect upon the price God paid to show his love for you and each person in your life. And pray, pray for our brothers and sisters who are facing a fiery trial tonight in order to remain faithful to Jesus. Whatever your situation this evening, whatever burden you are carrying right now, whatever pressure you feel under, whatever opposition you are facing, whatever pain you are suffering, remember: With Jesus you are at Home.
In preparing for this sermon I am grateful for inspiration and ideas from Stand Strong by Bill Hybels (Zondervan); Be Hopeful by Warren Wersbie (Scripture Press); The Message of 1 Peter by Edmund Clowney (IVP), and The NIV Application Commentary on 1 Peter by Scot McKnight (Zondervan)