1 Peter 1:6-9 — Joy in the Midst of Suffering

May 31, 2015

“Joy” and “suffering” are not two words that often belong in the same sentence, much less a blog title. Yet, this is exactly the case as Peter digresses from doxology (begun in 1 Peter 1:3) to commentary on his reader’s present circumstances (1 Peter 1:6-9).

1 Peter 1:3-12 is a single sentence in the Greek text. Peter begins with doxology (1:3-5), digresses into proclamation (1:6-9), and ends with wonder (3:10-12). Peter blesses God because the Father has rebirthed us, continues to preserve us, and will in the last time rescue us (1:3-5). This “salvation,” which is already present though not yet fully revealed, provides the ground for joy in the midst of suffering.

Joy arises out of the salvation rather than from the suffering. We do not rejoice because we are suffering, but our suffering is soaked with joy because of God’s saving work. This does not mean that we forsake grieving or tears. On the contrary, we weep, lament, and cry out to God because we suffer. What it does mean, however, even as our suffering is for a little while and for limited purposes, God is at work among us for our salvation. This is our living hope, and it will carry us through our darkest times.

This salvation, which is the subject of Peter’s doxology, is the reason why believers rejoice even as they “suffer various trials.” Peter lays out the reality of salvation first, and then situates suffering in the context of that salvation. As Peter illustrates, suffering is best framed by God’s narrative, by the story of God’s saving work among us. Despite the suffering, but because of our salvation, we rejoice in the midst of suffering, trust in Jesus, and love Jesus even though we have not see him.

In this brief digression, Peter offers some perspectives on suffering, which we might summarize in a few points.

Suffering is varied and brief.

What kind of suffering is Peter describing? It certainly involves the sort of suffering later described in the book, including what slaves suffer from their masters, how Christians are treated by Roman culture, and potential imprisonment on the part of political authority. In other words, Peter is primarily focused on suffering as persecution in one form or another.

But should we limit what Peter says about suffering to only persecution? I don’t think so.

It is important to remember 1 Peter is soaked with the theology, imagery, and language of the Hebrew Scriptures. Peter addresses the “elect exiles of the Disapora” (1:1)—they are the people of God scattered across what is now modern Turkey. They are God’s “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9).

When 1 Peter describes the suffering of the exiles as “trials” or “testing,” this evokes diverse images from the Hebrew Scriptures. Israel endured various trials throughout its history—from persecution to wilderness wanderings. When Peter evokes the image of “trial,” he is drawing on the theology of Israel’s Scriptures. For example, Deuteronomy 8:1-4 characterizes the wilderness wandering by the children of the rebellious generation as a “testing” (trial), which becomes a type of Jesus own “testing” in the wilderness in Matthew 4 (Luke 3).

“Various trials,” I think, has a broad meaning, just as “salvation” is broadly considered as well (past, present, and future). The term “varied” itself gives the impression of different kinds of suffering or suffering that comes in many different forms, just as grace comes in many forms (“manifold grace” in 1 Peter 4:10—using the same term). Peter’s language is not restricted to persecutions but to all forms of suffering.

This suffering, however, is brief. It is for “ a little while.” Peter contrasts our unfading inheritance with the brevity of our suffering (similar to Paul in Romans 8:18ff). Suffering is limited; it will not last forever.

Suffering is necessary and meaningful.

Peter is quite explicit about this. Believers “have had (deon) to suffer various trials so that (hina) the genuineness of [their] faith…may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:6-7).

Deon, a form of dei, entails necessary. We might translate this as, “it was necessary to suffer…” Of course, this is not an absolute statement about suffering but a relative one. It is necessary relative to the meaning or purpose of suffering. In other words, the significance of suffering is not arbitrary or chaotic; it is purposeful and significant.

The hina expresses purpose, and the specified purpose is testing, which bears fruit as believers are praised, glorified, and honored when Christ is revealed in the eschaton (or “last time”).

Suffering tests faith; suffering is a trial. It refines faith just as gold is refined by fire, and it demonstrates its authenticity or proves its worth. Suffering functions like a smelter where what is pure, good, and authentic emerges on the other side. As God preserves us through the fire, our faith emerges stronger and more deeply rooted in God’s own work in our lives.

“Testing” is a theme that reverberates throughout Israel’s story. God “tested” Abraham (Genesis 22:1), Israel in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:1-5), and Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 32:31). The Psalmists invite this testing (Psalms 26:2; 139:23), assume it (Psalms 7:9; 11:4-5), and recognize it in their own history (Psalm 66:10). Israel’s wisdom literature employs it (Proverbs 17:3). The prophet Jeremiah pictures God as one who tests hearts (Jeremiah 11:20; 12:3; 17:10; 20:12; cf. Zechariah 13:9). We might see “testing” as a core motif in God’s relationship with Israel and with humanity (as the example of Job illustrates as well; cf. Job 23:10).

The exiled elect of the Christian Disapora are also tested, and this is consistent with the story of Jesus and the early church (James 1:2-3, 12). Jesus himself is tested. Hebrews, quoting Psalm 95, situates Christians in the wilderness testing (Hebrews 3:8). God tests hearts (1 Thessalonians 2:4). Indeed, the whole world is tested in the crucible of the conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan (Revelation 3:10).

Given the pervasive nature of this testing motif, the identification of followers of Jesus with Israel’s story, and the function of testing in God’s narrative, suffering has meaning. It is a refining fire and authenticator, and this is the reason—at least in 1 Peter—that suffering is necessary. Faith must be tested.

The result of a genuine faith is eschatological “praise, glory and honor.” Coming through the fire, we will emerge as refined gold, and God’s response to this is to praise us (e.g., “well done”—the applause of heaven, as one of Lucado’s books is entitled), glorify us (with a “crown of glory” in 1 Peter 5:4), and honor us. “Well done” are the words of Jesus in Matthew 25. In other words, through suffering, we are renewed and restored to the original vision of God for humanity whom God crowned with glory and honor (Psalm 8). God will exalt those who have been humbled in their suffering.

This eschatological glory is, in fact, the “salvation of [our] souls” (1 Peter 3:9). Unfortunately, “souls” is sometimes misunderstood to refer only to the inner person, but this is too limited. Our living hope is both a resurrection and a landed inheritance (the meek shall inherit the earth, Matthew 5:5). “Soul” includes both the inner and outer person, both the spirit and body (in resurrection), just as eight “souls” were saved in Noah’s ark. “Soul” refers to the whole person, and it is the whole person who will be saved.

But this salvation is not simply future. While its full revelation awaits the “last time” (1 Peter 1:5), it is already received now by faith. The verb “receiving” in 1 Peter 1:9 is present tense; it is something located in the here and now. Our salvation is something we already experience through new birth and divine perseverance even though it is not yet fully realized, that comes when God grants our inheritance in the “last time.”

We endure suffering through love, faith, and joy.

Clearly Peter does not believe the Christian life is a bed of roses. It is filled with “various trials.” Suffering is part of the path that Christians tread.

Suffering correlates with the reality that we do not now “see” Jesus. Jesus is, in one sense, absent as he sits at the right hand of God. He is located in heaven with our inheritance. Suffering, then, entails a kind of blindness, even darkness. We do not see, but yet we endure. Suffering can often darken our horizons, and it creates a fog that blinds us. Yet, nevertheless we endure by the power of God.

Peter describes this endurance with three verbs (as translated by NRSV):

  • You love him
  • You believe in him
  • You rejoice with indescribable and glorious joy

Love, faith, and joy.

These are possible, in part, because even now we are receiving the telos (goal, end, or outcome) of our life with God. Through love, faith, and joy we experience the future in the present.

So, suffering does not destroy us. On the contrary, it strengthens and refines us. We love God—not for profit or reward but because God has loved us. We trust in God’s work within and among us because of Jesus—even in the midst of suffering. And, further, we do not despair, but we rejoice in our living hope.

Suffering—as difficult as it is to see in those dark times—refines us so that through love and faith we might rejoice in God’s work in and for us.


Enter the Water, Come to the Table

May 30, 2015

Below are summary statements that correspond to chapters or sections of chapters in my most recent book Enter the Water, Come to the Table (Leafwood, 2014). They summarize the theology present in the book, which is deeply rooted (I hope) in the story of God as given to us in Scripture.

I am grateful for Highland View Church of Christ (Oak Ridge, TN) and my friend Curtis McClane for requesting these summary statements for their own use this summer.

Sacrament:  God acts through appointed material (created) means to impart grace, assurance, and hope, and God uses these means to enjoy relationship with people and foster relationship among them.

Israel:  Liberated from slavery and baptized into a new community, Israel begins its journey to the land of promise.

Israel:  The sacrificed animal, along with bread and wine, becomes a joyous fellowship meal between God and Israel as well as with each other.

Jesus:  Jesus entered the water to unite with others in their journey toward the kingdom of God and to begin his own ministry in the kingdom of God.

Jesus:  Jesus shared table with others for the sake of witness, reconciliation, and justice; Jesus models table etiquette in the kingdom of God.

Acts:  As with the baptism of Jesus, Spirit-baptism and water-baptism are a united witness to the reconciling work of God that intends to transform the world.

Acts:  When disciples break bread together they eat in the presence of the resurrected Christ, which generates joy and comfort.

Paul:  Through baptism God raises the dead and calls us into a new life characterized by a righteousness empowered through the indwelling Spirit.

Paul:  Through eating and drinking together we participate in the reality effected by the body and blood of Christ wherein we commune with both God and each other.

Eschaton:  Through our union with the resurrection of Jesus in baptism we begin our participation in the new creation as new creatures in Christ.

Eschaton:  Through eating and drinking we experience the new creation in the present as a community nourished by the resurrection life of Jesus, who is the foundation and beginning of new creation.

Practice:  Through baptism we enter into God’s own story, which absorbs our story, and we become partners with God in God’s mission.

Practice:  The table of the Lord is a communal moment where God shares life with us and we share life with each other.


Five Lectures on the Book of Job: Midwest Preachers’ Retreat (2014)

May 28, 2015

In September 2014, I was honored to present some material on the book of Job to a group of dedicated and devout servants in the church at the Midwest Preachers’ Retreat in Wisconsin.  Here are the audio links to those presentations.

1.  The Text of Job as Dramatic Lament: The Dialogical Structure of the Book

2.  A Tension Within Job: The Righteous Sufferer and Divine Responsibility

3.  Jobian Faithful Lament: Learning to Voice Our Impatience to God

4.  Yahweh Speaks: Wisdom Encounters Job

5.  The Unsatisfying End to the Book of Job: Job’s Response and God’s Gifts

If you would like a copy of the handout for the retreat, click here: Faithful Lament — Midwest Retreat Outlines

For those interested in more detailed discussions of Job, see my twenty-two blog posts which walk through the book of Job.  They are under the menu “Serial.”

 

 


Our Pledge of Allegiance…to the Kingdom of God

May 24, 2015

The Sermon on the Mount is the epitome of Kingdom ethics and discipleship.

The Sermon opens with the Beatitudes, which begin and end with a promise that the blessed belong to the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3, 10). The Sermon ends with a promise that those who “do the will of the Father” will “enter the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21). At heart of the theology of the Sermon is the call to “seek first the kingdom and its righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).

Near the center of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus offers a model prayer for kingdom people. Christian tradition has typically called it “the Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father.” The prayer, however, is not simply pedagogical; it has a theological function. At its core, the prayer articulates a theology and ethic of the kingdom of God that should shape our lives.

While the Sermon begins with beatitudes and ends with a parable, at its center is a liturgical prayer. From the earliest times of which we are aware, this prayer has served Christians. The Didache, which was probably written in the late first century, suggests Christians pray this prayer three times every day (8:2-3), and in the early centuries the prayer became part of the weekly liturgy of the church.

As a daily prayer, it functions not only as a petition for God’s care, it also as a daily affirmation, a daily pledge of allegiance.

The prayer is a comprehensive, “big picture” view of relationship with God.  In the prayer–at the direction of Jesus–we address the Creator as one who is both immanent in relationship with us (“Father”) and transcendent beyond us (“in heaven”). The prayer proceeds to connect us to both dimensions.

In the first half of the prayer, we commit ourselves to the transcendent God.  We pledge allegiance to the divine name, will, and kingdom. We have no other allegiance. This is the heart of worship itself–a covenant loyalty that transcends everything else in our lives and orders the whole of lives under the sovereignty of God.  Anything else is idolatry. We call upon God to act so as to sanctify God’s name, accomplish God’s will, and bring the divine kingdom to the earth.

At the same time that we petition the Creator to reorder life on earth in conformity to divine purposes, we also commit ourselves to become the instruments of that work. We pray for the sanctification of the name, the accomplishment of the will, and the inbreaking of the kingdom but our prayer is no mere passive waiting for the divine act.  Rather, we pursue those goals as proactive agents of the name, will and kingdom of God. God works through us, and we testify to our willingness to be divine instruments. Empowered by God, we commit to cooperate with the redemptive grace of God at work to bring heaven to earth.

The first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer affirm the petitioner’s commitment to God’s agenda. Prayer commits to the name of God, the kingdom of God, and the will of God. To pray this prayer is to subordinate our agendas and desires to God’s kingdom. We acknowledge that God’s will rather than our own is primary. We pledge allegiance to God’s kingdom rather than to the kingdoms of this world. We seek the will of God.

The prayer, however, is not simply about our allegiance to God, but it is also a testimony of God’s commitment (yes, even allegiance) to us. God is immanent, present to us, in our daily existence. The last three petitions assume God’s benevolence for us and claims God’s promises of daily material sustenance, reconciliation (forgiveness), and power against the evil one.  God is for us and he will not abandon us.

We seek God’s involvement in our daily–one day at a time–life in the world. God feeds us, forgives us, and protects us. We need the divine gift of life (physical, emotional, spiritual), and we need the divine power that overcomes the evil one. When I pray the Lord’s Prayer I sense the renewal of God’s promises in my life–God will sustain me in all my needs whether it is about bread, sin, or spiritual warfare.

However, in the very reception of these gifts is the obligation to share them. When we pray for bread, we commit to share the bread God gives.  When we pray for forgiveness, we commit to forgive others.  When we pray for protection, we commit to protect others.

This is most clearly present in the fifth petition. We seek God’s forgiveness just as we have forgiven others. It is a dangerous prayer to pray. Do we really want God to forgive us as we have forgiven others? Yet, to pray it is to be transformed by it.

Immaculee Ilibaguza, who survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide, powerfully illustrates the transformative nature of this prayer. While over one million of her tribe (Tutsi) were slaughtered over three months, she hid in a bathroom with seven other women for ninety-one days. She prayed the Lord’s Prayer every day, though she struggled with forgiveness. But through praying the prayer she learned to forgive those who killed her family and wanted to kill her. [See her books Led by Faith and Left to Tell].

The Lord’s Prayer, prayed daily with purpose and commitment, will transform us. Through this prayer, we acknowledge God’s transcendence, commit ourselves to God’s agenda, and embrace a new way of living in the world that conforms to God’s will, honor God’s name, and manifest God’s kingdom.

Through this prayer, we trust in God’s daily provisions for our lives, receive God’s forgiveness as we forgive others, and embrace God’s protection against the evil one.

The Lord’s Prayer is our pledge of allegiance.  I pledge allegiance to no other kingdom (including the United States of America).  And the Lord’s Prayer assumes God’s faithful commitment to me–God is for me and not against me.

Morning, noon and evening, I renew my pledge and embrace again God’s pledge to me.


When Friends Try to Help….On the Death of My Son

May 21, 2015

May 21 is an anniversary date for me. Joshua died on that day in 2001. SCAN1561

Many friends helped. Mark and Margo Black were there, Rubel and Myra Shelly were there, Mike Cope was there a few days before as well as John York, and we were surrounded by many others (including my Woodmont Hills Bible class). Gary Dodd painted a portrait of Joshua lying on his death bed; it still hangs in my home office. I am looking at it even as I type. My colleagues at Lipscomb University helped and many friends from Memphis (including Gary Ealy and Allen Black). There are too many to mention.

Many friends helped. They helped by their presence and actions. I don’t remember many words, but I do remember that they were there and what they did.

Words that express love and sympathy are welcome, but their presence spoke more than their words.  I am grateful for their friendship.

But friends don’t always help, and this is especially true when it comes to their words. Some words can sting and stir the pain rather than relieve it. Fortunately, that was rarely the case in my situation, though it is often the case for others.

For me, the memory of my friends on May 21 and the days following is comforting. They helped. They were present. But for others that memory is not as pleasant.

What do we do with unpleasant memories? What do we do with the anger we might feel towards those who mistreated–whether intentionally or unintentionally [which is usually the case]–us?

Those who know me also know that the Book of Job has significantly shaped my journey through grief ever since Sheila died in 1980. And that book speaks to the above question in a powerful way.

Job’s friends came to comfort him (Job 2:11), and they sat in silence with him for seven days. But they broke their silence when Job lamented that he had ever been born (Job 3). The dialogue between Job and his friends runs from Job 4 to Job 27.

  • The friends advise Job to repent (Job 4-14).
  • The friends insist that Job shut up (Job 15-21).
  • The friends give up any hope for Job’s faith (Job 22-27).

With friends like these, who needs enemies!

The depth of their “help” and “comfort”–Job calls them “miserable comforters” (Job 16:2)–reaches unimaginable proportions. For example, Bildad opines that Job’s children died because they had sinned (Job 8:4).  They accuse of Job of self-righteousness, arrogance, and hidden sin (see Job 22).

What do you do with friends like these?  What did Job do?

Job forgave them. Job prayed for them (Job 42:7-9).

Suffering creates a crisis for not only the sufferer but for his or her friends. Everyone struggles with the reality, and no one really wants to face it.

We seek explanations or rationales. We shield ourselves from as much pain as possible. We defend God or accuse God. Our emotions range from shock to anger to indifference. This is true for friends as well as the sufferer. In fact, good friends suffer with the sufferer. And like the sufferer, the friends don’t know how to handle or process the grief and loss.

Sufferers sometimes resent the way the friends responded–they were not present or they said the wrong thing. And this resentment adds to the pain.

Job prayed for his friends.  Job forgave them, even after the harsh things they said to him.

Resentment increases suffering–it is a poison pill we take in the hope that the other person will die. It actually kills.  Forgiveness is the balm that heals resentment.

Job forgave his friends, and we sufferers can forgive those who increased our pain rather than relieving it.

Forgiveness is a comfort God works in our hearts and enables us to move forward in life.

On this day, the anniversary of my son’s death, I remember the comfort my friends provided by their presence and actions.

Thank you, friends.


1 Peter 1:3-5 – Born Again, Preserved, and Rescued

May 18, 2015

Elect exiles.

Scattered across the Roman provinces of modern Turkey, these Christians are called “exiles” due to their social dislocation within a culture hostile to their new way of life. Though “exiles,” they are nevertheless elect. But for what or to what are they elected? What does this election mean?

In part, it means they have been born again, they are being preserved, and they will be rescued.

1 Peter 3:3-12, in Greek, is a single sentence that begins as a doxology, continues as proclamation, and ends in wonder. It winds its way through the whole narrative of salvation—past, present, and future—in order to locate its readers in God’s story. As the opening to the letter, perhaps as an exordium in Hellenistic rhetoric, it provides a theological frame for the rest of the letter by identifying the redemptive situation of believers. There are no imperatives or commands—only blessing, proclamation, and wonder. This single sentence introduces the whole letter.

Despite their present trials and sufferings, they are the recipients of the goal of God’s redemptive work throughout history. They have been born again through the resurrection of Jesus, continuously preserved by the power of God, and will be finally rescued from suffering in the last times (the Eschaton). They have been infused with hope. Though exiles, they are the heirs of God’s redemptive work.

Consequently, God is blessed, which is a typically Jewish way of praising God (Psalm 66:8; 103:1, 20-22; 104:1; 115:18; 134:1). Moreover, “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” probably reflects a liturgical practice of the early church since the only other places where it appears are in New Testament doxologies (cf. Romans 15:6; 2 Corinthians 1:3; Ephesians 1:3). The letter, then, opens with doxology, and its theology flows from the praise of God the Father.

But the letter also opens with the proclamation, embedded in the blessing, that Jesus is Lord. Its liturgical form emphasizes the importance of this phrase as something Christians regularly confessed in their communities. The God of Israel is the Father of Jesus the Messiah, who is Lord. That is a mouthful. Religiously, it affirms continuity with the Hebrew Scriptures. Politically, it is dangerous since Caesar is Lord within the Roman Empire. Socially, it becomes the object of derision. “Jesus is Lord” is the central confession of the Christian Faith.

Reborn According to the Mercy of God

Peter blesses the God and Father of Lord Jesus the Messiah who, according to (kata) God’s great mercy, “rebirthed” (regenerated) us into (eis) a living hope and into (eis) a sure inheritance.

New birth, or being born again, is an important theological word for Peter (used in 1:3 and 1:23). It is the starting point for a new way of life, a new kind of existence. Indeed, this is what renders us exiles or foreigners in the present world. We do not breathe the same air as others in the world.

New birth is grounded (kata) in the mercy of God, which is one of the most significant covenant terms for God’s faithful love in the Hebrew Scriptures (hesed in Hebrew; cf. Exodus 34:4-6). Our rebirth flows from God’s merciful and faithful initiative; that is, our election.

Our rebirth issues in two realities: (1) a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus, and (2) an imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance. In other words, our rebirth gives us an eschatological perspective, and it ushers us into an eschatological reality. Born again, we already participate in the eschaton; our new life is eschatological life.

A living hope is a present hope. This is not escapism, but a hope that lives. Or, to put it another way, it is an empowering hope because it lives. The alternative is a life without hope, which is ultimately despairing. Indeed, the nature of this hope is defined by the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, which conquers death and promises life without death.

Resurrection is not simply life after death, but it is life in the wake of the annihilation of death. Resurrected life is the ultimate fruit of newborn life. Our new birth is the promise of this resurrection life as we are born into a new mode of existence. That new existence is ultimately the resurrected life of Jesus himself. We are birthed into a new creation, and new creation begins with the resurrection of Jesus because Jesus—raised from the dead—is new humanity clothed with an eternal body. The hope that lives within our hearts is the hope of sharing in that new humanity where our own resurrected bodies are patterned after the likeness of Jesus’s resurrection body.

Our rebirth also issues in an inheritance. This is, again, a word loaded with meaning in the Hebrew Scriptures. Inheritance is about land. But that inheritance was lost through exile because it was defiled by sin. The inheritance of the new creation—of regeneration and rebirth—is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,” which is a alliteration in the Greek text using the alpha-privative (each word begins with the negative “a-”). To put it another way—in the oft-quoted words of Beare that mirror the Greek alliteration—“untouched by death, unstained by evil, unimpaired by time.”

But what is this inheritance? Peter says it is “kept in heaven” for us. Our inheritance is in heaven, but it is not heaven. That is, our inheritance is not life after death where one ascends into the heavenly realms for their reward. Rather, our inheritance is connected with resurrection hope; our hope is new creation or resurrected life.

Jesus sits at the right hand of God in his resurrection body. The resurrected Jesus is the beginning of new creation, and new creation is our inheritance. It is now kept in heaven, but it—our ultimate salvation—will be revealed in the last time (1:5). At that time, as 2 Peter 3 makes clear, a new heaven and new earth will appear as the home of the righteous. This is our inheritance; it is the moment when we will inherit the new heaven and new earth as our homeland. Then, we will no longer be exiles or foreigners; we will be home.

Our living hope is resurrected life on a new heaven and new earth, and that is our inheritance. Even now—in the present—we experience that life through our rebirth, and it is that rebirth which gives birth to our hope and the promise of an inheritance. As people born again into the living hope of the resurrection, we are also born into an inheritance that belongs to the family of God.

Preserved by God Through Faith.

Our present experience, however, is often filled with trials and troubles. In fact, our rebirth—our new life—entails that trials will come since we are now exiles or foreigners. Rather than insulating us from hurts and hostility, this new life attracts them because it threatens the values and commitments of a hostile culture. So, in the present, we suffer.

This does not, however, eliminate our hope and inheritance. Rather, God presently preserves (protects, guards) us in the midst of this suffering through faith. Significantly, it is the power of God that preserves or protects. We do not protect ourselves; God protects us.

At the same time, however, we participate in this process. Faith is the means by which the power of God guards us. This is a divine-human movement; it is cooperative grace. God supplies the power, and we appropriate that power through faith. We do not generate the power, but we receive it through faith. Our preservation is not our own doing; it is God’s work in us and through us by faith. Without faith, however, there is no preservation.

The age-old debate between Calvinists and Arminians finds practical common ground here. Both theological traditions agree that we are elect through faith, and that the elect will persevere in faith. Whatever the dogmatic or theoretical frame, these statements affirm a shared perspective: God guards the elect through faith. At a practical level, the elect believe and the elect persevere in belief. In this, both traditions “bless God” as we recognize God’s initiative in our salvation and God’s empowering grace.

Rescued in the Eschaton

God preserves us for (unto, eis) salvation.

“Salvation,” in 1 Peter, describes the full reality of God’s redemptive work. It is both a present and future reality—it sums up the whole of what God is doing to redeem and rescue humanity from sin and death.

“Salvation” (or deliverance, rescue), in 1 Peter 1:5, is eschatological. It is linked to the “last time” (kairo eschato) and final revelation of God’s saving work in the second coming of Jesus. In other words, here salvation refers to the fulfillment of our hope and the arrival of our inheritance. God preserves us in order to bring us into the full experience of our salvation when our “living hope” is realized and we receive our full inheritance.

Conclusion

Blessed be God, Peter writes, because the Father, through Jesus the Messiah, has birthed us and preserves us for the future unveiling of our inheritance (salvation). God is praised for his past, present, and future saving work.

The doxology locates believers in the story of God rather than in the imperial story. God, through Jesus, is the savior of the world, not the Roman Emperor. Christians live in God’s narrative rather than in the imperial one.

According to Peter, that is the true story, and consequently this is the true and authentic location of Christians. Though they live as exiles in Roman culture, they are nevertheless God’s elect.


Reconciliation in the Gospel of John, Or Perichoretic Oneness

May 13, 2015

“I suggest that within the Farewell Discourse this ‘oneness’ is expressed in a Eucharistic love feast even where diversity continues. When believers gather together around the table with self-giving love, they experience in a concrete and sacramental way the common bond that unites them; that is, the perichoretic love of the Triune God. Unity, then, is not best expressed in forms, institutions, and extended theological declarations as much as it is in the reality of the Eucharist in a loving community where we are nourished by the life of divine perichoresis.”

One paragraph, near the end, from a recent paper I uploaded. I presented this paper at the Lipscomb Preaching Seminar in February 2014. The seminar was part of an academic course, and that is the reason why it assumes much and not everything is explained.

The full paper is linked HERE.


On Reading 1 Peter

May 12, 2015

This is a brief letter, but it packs a powerful punch.

It comes to us as a communication between Peter, one of the Twelve, and Christians (“elect exiles”) scattered throughout what is now western and northern Turkey (1 Peter 1:1).

Peter is in “Babylon” (1 Peter 5:13), which is a cryptic and common Jewish way of referring to Rome in the first century. Peter writes to “exiles” from “Babylon.” This association, which appears in the beginning and close of the letter, highlights an important theme in the letter; that is, Christians are a socially dislocated minority within Roman culture. They are aliens who have a different way of life than their surrounding culture.

There is a strong and ancient tradition that both Peter and Paul died in Rome. Consequently, it is most natural to read “Babylon” as Rome given that tradition and the apocalyptic use of the term within Judaism (as well as Revelation 17). It also accounts for why Peter might take up his pen to write to Roman provinces in what we now call Turkey. Perhaps Peter had previously visited that region at an earlier period, but there is no explicit evidence for that. Whatever the reason Peter addresses these scattered Christians, there is no reason to doubt Peter’s presence in Rome (other than some old Protestant polemics against Roman Catholicism).

Peter, writing from the center of Roman power and wealth—the origin of Roman culture, addresses the social location of Christians within the empire. They are aliens or foreigners; they are homeless within the empire. They live as exiles or refugees.

This offers the most significant key for reading 1 Peter as the author addresses his letter to the “elect exiles of the Diaspora.”

While some think—and not without some good reasons—Peter’s audience is primarily Jewish because the Diaspora refers to Jews living outside their Palestinian homeland, I think it better to read this as Christians who are not at home in Roman imperial culture. Christians are outsiders to Roman power; they do not belong. Christians are scattered throughout Roman culture and its provinces, but they live as aliens within that culture.

Consequently, one of the better ways to think about 1 Peter’s genre (literary form) is to categorize it as a “Diaspora Letter,” which was prominent within Judaism. Some of this genre’s best examples are Jeremiah 29, 2 Maccabees 1:10-2:18, and Elephantine letters 21 & 30.

These letters address Jewish communities displaced from the Jewish homeland. They encourage living well within cultures to which they do not belong and which are often hostile to their presence.

This is exactly what 1 Peter does. “I have written you this brief letter,” Peter says, “to encourage you and to testify that this is the true grace of God” (1 Peter 5:12). The letter is an exhortation—it encourages and testifies. Distressed in their uncertain circumstances as exiles and foreigners (“strangers in a strange land”), Peter encourages them to live faithfully in the grace of God.

The letter is apparently a circular one; that is, it is intended to circulate among congregations throughout the regions of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. We might suppose, as Peter hints in 1 Peter 5:12, that Silas (Silvanus) carried the letter to various churches where it was read to the assembly and probably copied. In other words, the letter was orally performed. It is a sermon or exhortation for these distressed and suffering communities, an encouragement to people living in hostile environments.

Peter does this with three major moves in the letter. First, he stresses their identity as God’s chosen people whom God has loved from the foundation of the world (1:13-2:10). Second, he encourages them to live out that identity despite their difficult circumstances as witnesses to the grace of God in the world (2:11-4:11). Lastly, he commends their suffering for the sake of Christ, which is their greatest witness (4:12-5:11).

Peter addresses the “diaspora” of God’s elect living among Roman provinces whose faith is regularly tested by the hostility of the surrounding culture in which it lives. Their lives, Peter believes, will bear witness to the grace of God as they follow Christ in his suffering. In this way, they suffer as Christians rather thieves or murderers.

Our contemporary western culture has shifted. Christianity is no longer privileged (and it should never have been). Our culture is now post-Christian, even if it ever was “Christian.” In our present setting, Christianity is increasingly dismissed, treated as irrelevant, and sometimes hated.

Our world is becoming increasingly like Peter’s world. As a result, Peter’s letter is becoming even more relevant as Christians learn to live in a post-Christian culture.

So, we read 1 Peter—like its first readers read it—as aliens. We read it to understand our identity, seek encouragement in our way of life, and endure suffering as followers of Christ.


1 Peter 1:1-2 — Exiled, But Chosen

May 11, 2015

Everyone wants to be chosen, especially those who feel marginalized or undervalued. Many of us remember what it feels like to be the last one chosen in a pickup game of basketball or uninvited to the school party.

Sometimes we feel like outsiders, and sometimes we are treated like outsiders. Sometimes we simply are outsiders.

Yet, though unchosen by others, we are chosen by God.

Peter opens his circular letter to the “elect” (chosen) of what is now modern Turkey like any other letter in the ancient word:

  • Identification of the author: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ.”
  • Recipients: to the “elect exiles dispersed” throughout northern and western Anatolia (modern Turkey).
  • Greeting: “may grace and peace be multiplied among you.”

While the form is typical, Peter’s language and further elaboration illuminates the pastoral focus of his letter.

The community is described as both exiled and chosen. They are both rejected and embraced. This is central to understanding how, as Peter puts it, this letter testifies to the “true grace of God” (1 Peter 5:12).

The community lives an exiled existence as aliens (foreigners) in cities throughout the Anatolian peninsula. Though settled in these Roman provinces, like Abraham before them, they are “sojourners and aliens” (paroikos kai parepidemos, Genesis 23:4). Peter uses both terms in this letter (paroikos in 1:17, 2:11; and parepidemos in 1:1; 2:11). Specifically, the term parepidemos (foreigners, aliens) refers to one who is not a citizen, and consequently those who are citizens view a parepidemos with suspicion, fear, and often hostility.

This is a displaced existence. The letter’s recipients are part of the Dispersion (NRSV) or Diaspora (1:1). Technically, in the first century, this describes ethnic Jews who no longer live in Palestine, their homeland. Combined with the language of exile and the use of “Babylon” as a metaphor for Rome (1 Peter 5:12), Peter addresses the people of God scattered among the provinces of Roman power and culture. This is not their home. They are exiles, foreigners, or aliens.

They are “resident aliens” (to use the title of significant book as well as The Epistle to Diognetus [5:4-5] in the second century). Their lives are different, and their relationship with Roman power and culture is different. Their community is a living contrast with their surrounding environment, and this creates tension in the communities where they live. So much so that the peaceful existence they desire is threatened by violence, incarceration, and local hostility. They suffer for the sake of Christ.

In other words, their “alien” status is not a contrast between earthly existence and heavenly hope, between present life and eternal life. Rather, it is their social location as a community whose values and interests are out of sync with the surrounding culture. They stick out like a sore thumb. They are regarded as “strange” or weird because they do not engage in the practices of their neighbors (1 Peter 4:4) or participate in the civil religion of the Empire like good citizens.

As a community, they are despised and rejected, much like the servant of Isaiah 53 (to which 1 Peter 2:21-22 appeals). They face intense questioning, hostility, and mockery from their culture. They are marginalized and oppressed. They are aliens in a culture that does not like aliens.

This is an alarming picture. This kind of life might generate a sense of unworthiness. Living on the margins, especially when the culture is hostile, might generate some questions about whether God also dislikes them. How might an alien feel beloved?

They are elect, chosen! Rejected by culture, they are chosen by God. Marginalized by culture, they are at the center of God’s project to redeem the world. They are God’s elect through whom God will transform the world.

Peter characterizes this election with three phrases:

  • according (kata) to the foreknowledge of God the Father
  • by/in (en) the sanctification of the Spirit
  • unto (eis) the obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus the Messiah

The triune nature of this statement is immediately obvious, though the order is rather unusual (even in Scripture, much less in the tradition of the church): Father, Spirit, and Jesus.

We are elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father. Whatever this may mean (and there are historic debates about the relationship between foreknowledge and election), it at least means that God was focused on our election long before we were. Our status is a gift of grace driven by God rather than us. God takes the initiative in our salvation. We did not start the ball rolling. Instead, God has been moving toward this moment from the beginning. We are not an afterthought in God’s eternal purposes; we are the objects of God’s election.

We are elect by the sanctification of the Spirit. Sanctification may refer to the moment we were made saints (that is, we were set apart or consecrated at our conversion), or it may refer to the long process of becoming like Christ in our lives (that is, becoming holy as God is holy), or it may refer to God’s completed work in the end (that is, when God fully perfects us). Since the work of the Spirit here moves us toward obedience and the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus, it probably refers to the initial work of the Spirit in separating us or setting us apart. But perhaps Peter has something broader in mind analogous to: “living in the space sanctified by the Spirit.” In other words, though we are exiles amidst the kingdoms of this world, God has gathered us as a people who live in the holy space of God’s Spirit. Living in the Spirit, we live in sanctified space, beloved by God. The Spirit consecrates us to God and separates us from the world. This is part of what it means to be one of God’s elect. Consequently, though exiles and aliens in a culture infused with hostility toward God, the elect live in space sanctified by God.

We are elect unto the obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus. Though a difficult phrase, it does represent movement toward a goal. We are elect on the ground of the Father’s foreknowledge, and we are elect through the consecration of the Spirit. Our election has a goal, that is, to lead us to obedience to the covenant and the sprinkling of the blood of the covenant, which is the forgiveness of sins. The language probably echoes Exodus 24:4-8 where Israel entered into covenant through a pledge of obedience and a sprinkling of the blood. So, we are elect toward the goal of obedience and the cleansing reality of the blood of Jesus. Obedience, then, is part of the conversion narrative where we experience our election because of the work of the Father, Spirit, and Son. And obedience is also part of our ongoing life in the Spirit. We are elect so that we might become obedient people as a people holy to God. The sprinkled blood of the Lamb continually cleanses us as we progressively become what God has called us to be, that is, “You be holy as I am holy.”

The Father foreknows. The Spirit sanctifies. The Son cleanses. The Father, Son, and Spirit together participate in the movement to redeem humanity. We are elect because of what God has done for us, and our response is obedience as we live in the sanctified air of the Spirit, gracious predisposition of the Father, and the sprinkled blood of the Messiah.

Elect, but exiled. Foreigners, but chosen.

The echoes of the Hebrew Scriptures abound here.  This is Israel’s story–they are elect exiles scattered among the nations. They were exiled, yet loved (Malachi 1:1-4). They were despised by the nations but the apple of God’s own eye.

The elect scattered among the provinces of Anatolia occupy the same space as Israel: exiled but chosen. Standing in the grace of God, they are a displaced, but chosen, people.

This is our story: we are aliens in an increasingly post-Christian culture.

This is our joy: we are chosen; we are loved….foreknown by the Father, sanctified by the Spirit, and sprinkled with the blood of Jesus.

 

 

 


Psalm 58

March 9, 2015

Occasioned by the injustices of the ruling class, the community petitions God to judge their unjust judges. A worshipper speaks for the community in a kind of “cultic prophetic lament.”[1] One might imagine a Jeremiah or some priestly leader voicing this complaint at the temple as Israel’s judges gathered to worship. Jeremiah may have appeared at the temple with Jehoiakim to protest his injustice before God (Jeremiah 22). When human leaders fail to administer justice in the world, the God who judges the earth will judge them. And the people of God appeal for divine action against unjust judges.

Psalm 58 may be divided into three sections:  Complaint (1-5), Petition (6-9), and Praise (10-11). The complaint arraigns the wicked before God (1-2) and describes them (3-5). The petition invokes God’s action (6), and describes the effect of that action (7-9). The praise rejoices in God’s action (10) and confesses the justice of God (11).

The verb “judge” appears in verses 1 and 11 as an inclusio. The so-called “imprecatory” petition of verse 6 is the structural center of the lament. Human judges, who sit in God’s judgment seat, act out of self-interest rather than for the sake of the kingdom of God. Consequently, Israel complains about injustice, appeals for justice ,and expects God’s righteous judgment.

The judges (“gods”) do not act according to covenantal equity, but they devise inequities in their hearts and carry out their design with violence. Equity is a key term (cf. also Pss 9:8; 17:2; 75:2; 96:10; 98:9; 99:4). God is the model for this equity. The Psalmist addresses the enemies directly like some other lament psalms (4, 6, 11, 52). They are like cobras with their lies–they destroy; they intend to do evil. They are like deaf cobras in that no one can charm them–they are incorrigible. They listen to non one. As Mays comments, “They are so enchanted with the lie of their life that they are deaf and blind to any other influence.”[2]

The Psalmist calls upon God to act—to defang the judges or take away their power. “Break the teeth” is a curse/penalty found in legal documents of the ancient Near East. Whoever has not kept their contracts are punished.[3] The metaphor evokes images of a failure to keep covenantal obligations. The judges have not judged according to the principles of the covenant. The “imprecation” is addressed to God who judges the judges. As the sovereign King, God exercises Lordship over earth and executes justice.

Unjust judges deserve to wither rather than blossom. Thus, the lamenter seeks their demise according to the figures (drain, wither, dissolve, miscarry) of verses 7-9 (cf. Psa 52:1-7). But the joy of the righteous is rooted in the defeat of the wicked by a just God. The vivid and hyperbolic language should not obscure the essence of the Psalm’s call for divine righteousness in the world (cf. Deut 32:42-43). The imagery of “feet in blood” does not relish cruelty, but victory (cf. Isa 63:1-6; Rev 14:19-20; 19:13-14).

We must take the reality of a victimized world seriously, especially when structures of power oppress the poor (the likely scenario here). Pauls notes: “The forcefulness and prominence of this complaint, if it is to be taken seriously, must raise the recognition of an equally forceful experience of oppression and anguish lying behind it.”[4] The lamenter seeks justice from God. He/She does not take vengeance in his/her own hands. It is God’s job to meet out vengeance, not ours (cf. Psa 94). The lament will turn to joy when this vengeance is manifested (cf. Psa 52:6-7). This is submitted to God because the God of the covenant takes injustice seriously, and the lamenter trusts that God will act.

The lament evokes a vision of God’s justice which takes the side of the oppressed over against those who abuse their power. It challenges us to enter into their experience and cry to the Lord with them. It challenges us to seek God’s kingdom and divine righteousness. “The words which we have sung,” Augustine preaches, “must be rather hearkened to by us, than proclaimed. For to all men as it were in an assemblage of mankind, the Truth crieth, ‘If truly indeed justice ye speak, judge right things, ye sons of men.'”[5] Consequently, Zengar appropriately comments, “The psalm fights for the indispensable union of religion and ethics. The truth about God that people believe or proclaim can be tested by whether it preserves its adherents from the ways of violence and impels them to a life in solidarity with the victims of violence.”[6]

This psalm functions to express our righteous indignation against structural injustice within society. It laments the wickedness that pervades human social institutions, especially judicial ones. It offers a form by which oppressed people may pray for God’s justice in their land.

Consequently, Psalm 58 functions to call out the wicked who have rebelled against God’s kingdom and sought their own interests through injustice and violence. But it is God’s justice that is offered. We do not originate it, but rather we voice it to one who judges justly and with equity.

Israel’s struggle with injustice continues as our struggle. Just as this Psalm arose out of the narrative of Israel’s oppression by its own leaders, so our proclamation of this Psalm must be placed in our history. Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached this Psalm only days after key church leaders, including Martin Niemoller, were arrested on July 1, 1937. He railed against the injustice that was sweeping his country and called upon God to act.[7] We can hear the cries of African-American churches during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. We can hear the cries of Palestinian mothers whose homes are blown up by Israelis because their sons were involved in illegal activities.[8]

If we proclaim Psalm 58, however, it will make demands on us. It will call us to stand with the oppressed and empathize with the victims of injustice. But as we share the experience of the marginalized, oppressed, and poor, the Psalm calls us to leave vengeance in the hands of God. It is God’s work, not ours. Bonhoeffer made this clear for his own church under Nazi oppression: [9]

It would mean much if we would learn that we must earnestly pray to God in such distress and that whoever entrusts revenge to God dismisses any thought of ever taking revenge himself. Whoever does take revenge himself still does not know whom he is up against and still wants to take charge of the cause by himself. But whoever leaves revenge in God’s hands alone has become willing to suffer and bear it patiently-without vengeance, without a thought of one’s own revenge, without hate and without protest; such a person is meek, peaceable, and loves his enemies. God’s cause has become more important to him than his own sufferings. He knows God will win the victory in the end. “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will retaliate” (Deut. 32:35)-and he will retaliate. But we are free from vengeance and retribution. Only the person who is totally free of his own desire for revenge and free of hate and who is sure not to use his prayers to satisfy his own lust for revenge-only such a person can pray with a pure heart: ‘Shatter the fangs of the young lions, O Lord, break the teeth in their mouth’.

Even more dangerously, however, is how Psalm 58 calls us to reassess our own relationship with the oppressed and victimized. Are we certain that we do not participate in the structural realities that oppress the poor and victimize the marginalized? As we proclaim this Psalm we must confront our own life. Zengar offers an important perspective: [10]

In the process, they very often compel us to confess that we ourselves are violent, and belong among the perpetrators of the violence lamented in these psalms. In that way, these psalms are God’s revelation, because in them, in a certain sense, God in person confronts us with the fact that there are situations of suffering in this world of ours in which such psalms are the last things left to suffering human beings–as protest, accusation, and cry for help. It is obvious on the face of it that these psalms are contextually legitimate on the lips of victims, but a blasphemy in the mouths of the executioners, except as an expression of willingness to submit oneself, with these psalms, to God’s judgment.”

The cry for justice against injustice is not unchristian. On the contrary, we cry out for justice (vengeance) as we await the coming Son of Man (Luke 18:7-8). The parable of the persistent widow is particularly appropriate for the proclamation of Psalm 58 as a widow cries out for justice against an unjust judge.[11]

Further, should we not rejoice in the day of justice (vengeance) when God’s kingdom is fully established (Revelation 19:1-4)? Did not the saints under the altar pray for such a day (Revelation 6:10; cf. 18:20).

Christologically, the Son will execute vengeance upon the unjust (2 Thessalonians 1:8) and believers will find rest in that justice. The Thessalonian epistle addresses young, persecuted Christians who find hope in the eschatological vengeance of the second coming of Christ. Preaching “imprecatory” (or justice) Psalms needs both an eschatological perspective and a sense of the present in-breaking of the kingdom of God that establishes justice and righteousness in the earth.[12]

When we empathize with the oppressed, we must also stand in their place and pray for the revelation of God’s justice. Psalm 58 not only cries out for justice, but it invites hearers to stand with the oppressed and act on their behalf.

[1]Hans-Jocahim Kraus, Psalms 60-150 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989) and Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51-100, WBC 20 (Dallas: Word, 1990) both quoting Jeremias.

[2]James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), 211.

[3]Jo Ann Hackett and John Huehnergard, “On Breaking Teeth,” Harvard Theological Review 77 (1984), 59-75.

[4]Gerald Pauls, “The Imprecations of the Psalmists: A Form-Critical Study” (M.A. Thesis, Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, 1992), 39; cf. Pauls, “The Imprecations of the Psalmists: A Study of Psalm 54,” Direction 22 (1993), 75-86.

[5]Augustine, Psalm 58.1, available at http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/NPNF1-08/npnf1-08-65.htm#P1565_1174137.

[6]Erich Zengar, A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath, trans. by Linda M. Maloney (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996), 38.

[7]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “A Bonhoeffer Sermon,” trans. by Donald Bloesch, Theology Today 38 (1982), 465-71, available at http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/jan1982/v38-4-article3.htm

[8]See the homily on Psalm 58 by Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Arab Christian minister in Israel, at http://www.pcusa.org/peacemaking/conferences/2003/psalmsermon.htm.

[9]Bonhoeffer, “Sermon,” 469.

[10]Zengar, God of Vengeance, 85.

[11]John Mark Hicks, “The Parable of the Persistent Widow,” Restoration Quarterly33 (1991), 209-23.

[12]John Mark Hicks, “How to Preach a Curse,” Lipscomb University Preaching Seminar, May 5-7, 1997, available at http://johnmarkhicks.faithsite.com/content.asp?CID=3913 and “Preaching Imprecatory Psalms,” in A Heart to Study and Teach: Essays Honoring Clyde M. Woods, ed. by Dale W. Manor (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman University, 2000), available at http://johnmarkhicks.faithsite.com/content.asp?CID=11789.

 

Powerpoint presentation on Psalm 58.  20 Psalm 58