1 Peter 2:4-10 — Identified with Israel

June 21, 2015

This section is soaked in quotations, allusions, and echoes of the Hebrew Scriptures. Peter depends heavily on Isaiah 28:16, Psalm 118:22, Isaiah 8:14, Isaiah 43:20-21, Exodus 19:5-6, Isaiah 42:12, and Hosea 2:23. Out of the 126 Greek words that lie behind the English text, almost half of them are directly from the Hebrew Bible (quoted from the Greek translation or LXX). No other text in 1 Peter is as saturated with the language of Israel’s heritage as this one.

The “elect exiles” (1 Peter 1:1), if they were not fully confident previously, learn that they are part of a larger story. Their heritage is God’s ancient people, Israel. Their honor, identity, and glory are rooted in God’s continuous work in history to redeem a people, one that is God’s own possession. The “elect exiles” discover that they are part of Israel, God’s redemptive community in the world.

Jesus and His People

Becoming part of Israel’s story entails exilic living, which means rejection by others but inclusion by God. We become part of Israel’s story by “coming to him,” that is, Jesus, the living stone with which God builds a new temple. The temple of God is the people of God, the living stones that compose the substance of the temple.

Rejected by Others but Chosen by God

Peter uses the “stone” metaphor because of three significant texts in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The first is Isaiah 28:16 where Yahweh lays a “stone in Zion”—an elect and honored (or precious) “cornerstone.” The second is Psalm 118:22 where the “stone” Yahweh selected as the “cornerstone” is rejected by the builders. The third is Isaiah 8:14 where Israel stumbles over the “stone,” which becomes the sanctuary. The stone is rejected by others, but chosen by God.

It should be no surprise that the “elect exiles” are rejected and dishonored by the surrounding culture since that is exactly the experience of Jesus himself, the cornerstone. As we come to Jesus, we experience what he experienced, including rejection.

However, this rejection is a limited, one-sided perspective. The real truth is that the cornerstone Yahweh has laid is elect and honored, and this same honor will come to those believe. Believers, though humiliated by others, are chosen by God, and they will never be put to shame. Unbelievers—the disobedient—have no such promise.

[1 Peter 2:8 is a controversial text in Calvinist-Arminian discussions. Whatever the specific point, I think McKnight (NIV Application Commentary, 109) is correct: “God’s act of appointing Jesus as the living Stone has become both honor for believers and judgment for unbelievers; this was God’s design.”]

Formed into a Living Temple.

The cornerstone of the new temple is Jesus himself, and the other living stones are believers in Jesus. This is the “spiritual house” God is building; it is still under construction (“being built”), even into the present.

We should not think of this “spiritual house” as a kind of invisible house or house consisting of spirits. Rather, it is a house animated by the Spirit; a house sanctified and indwelt by the Spirit of God whose glory resides within us. The Spirit of God, Peter later writes, “rests” on us (1 Peter 4:14). The Holy Spirit is the animating life of this temple as the Spirit sanctifies us as God’s holy dwelling place, the temple of God.

In this house we are holy priests who offer sacrifices. We are not only the stones that form the material of the temple; we also have a function within the temple. Below we will note the meaning of priesthood here, but it is important to notice as priests we offer sacrifices. We do something.

What are these “spiritual sacrifices”? As with the house itself, which is animated by the Spirit of God (pneumatikos), so the sacrifices are also animated by the Spirit of God (pneumatikas). The sacrifices are empowered—given life and brought into being—by the Spirit of God. We participate (we offer), but the power belongs to God whose Spirit produces fruit in our lives. Our “spiritual sacrifices” are our holy (sanctified) lives before God, and those sacrifices are the result of cooperative grace as God works through our participation in the holy priesthood to which God has appointed us.

This picture offers another view of the Triune work of God: we offer “spiritual” sacrifices to God the Father through Jesus the Messiah. Our lives, our worship, are offered to God by the power of the Spirit through Jesus. We worship the Father through the Son in the Spirit.

Shared Identity with Israel

The “elect exiles,” a largely Gentile community spread across what is now modern Turkey, are deeply embedded in the story of Israel. Indeed, they are both the fruit and continuation of that story, which includes Jewish believers in the Messiah. Identified with the Jewish Messiah, they share the identity of Israel itself. Through Jesus the Messiah, God’s election of Israel and promises to Israel in the Hebrew Scripture also belong to them.

Chosen Race.

This language (genos eklekton) echoes Isaiah 43:20, which reads “my chosen race” (to genos mou to eklekton). Significantly, the context of Isaiah is God’s intent to ransom Israel from Babylonian exile, and the wilderness—the trek between Babylon and Palestine—will flourish with animals and water. God will provide for “my chosen race” in the wilderness on their journey back to their homeland

Genos refers to a common lineage; that is, a descent from Abraham in Isaiah 43. But now this “genos” language includes Gentiles. Though they have not physically descended from Abraham, they are now included as members of the genos. Their heritage is the same as Israel’s; they now carry the same “genes,” though these “genes” are rooted in the work of the Spirit through the Messiah (who is the seed through whom all become children of Abraham by faith, according to Paul in Galatians 3 and Romans 4). Like Israel, these Gentiles are also God’s chosen race.

Royal Priesthood.

This expression, along with the following two, is derived from Exodus 19:5-6.

The Exodus text is programmatic for Israel. When God gathered Israel at Mount Sinai, Yahweh announces Israel’s relationship to God and their mission in the world. This text, practically above all others, identifies Israel in the theology of the Old Testament. So, to link these expressions with the scattered “elect exiles” is to identify them with Israel at Mount Sinai.

To identify Israel as a “royal priesthood” is to recognize their royal and priestly functions, and this echoes the creation narrative where humanity is given a royal function (shared dominion with God) within the creation in Genesis 1, and humanity is given a priestly function (to guard and keep) in God’s Eden sanctuary in Genesis 2. In other words, Israel functions as a new Adam (humanity) in the world. Just as original humanity was commissioned to multiply and fill the earth with God’s glory, so Israel is also commissioned with such.

This is seen in the nature of Israel’s priesthood. They are not priests for themselves. Rather, they are priests for the nations. Just as the Levites mediated between God and Israel, so Israel (as a priestly people) mediate between God and the nations. They serve the nations and represent God before the nations. In this sense, all believers are priests because all believers mediate between God and the world; they exist for the sake of the world.

Their royal function, as an echo of Genesis, reflects their mission to bring order out of chaos, that is, to subdue and care for the earth. In relation to the nations, they represent the reigning light of God in the midst of darkness.

Holy Nation.

The “elect exiles,” though outsiders to the imperial interests of the Roman empire and its civil religion, are themselves a “holy nation,” appropriating the language that describes Israel in Exodus 19:6. As a “holy nation,” they are set apart by the sanctifying work of the Spirit and the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus, just as Israel was set apart by blood sacrifices. As a “holy nation,” they are a genos (race) that serves God as a community (or nation), just as Israel was a political as well as a communal reality in the Ancient Near East.

Consecrated to God and sanctified by the Spirit, they are a holy ethnicity—a people with a common bond in the Spirit, as God’s “spiritual house.” They are not a political entity, but they are a physical community that lives within the Roman Empire as a consecrated (holy) race (genos) or nation (ethnos). They are an alternative community, distinct from the Empire itself; but they are constituted by a new birth through the resurrection of Jesus.

God’s People.

Here I have combined 1 Peter 2:9 (“God’s own people” or “treasured possession”) with 1 Peter 2:10 (“now you are God’s people”). Literally, the former is God’s “special possession,” which quotes Exodus 19:5 (and also Isaiah 43:21). In other words, these are a people who belong to God and are highly prized or valued by God.

The latter (1 Peter 2:10) quotes Hosea 2:23. While Hosea speaks of the restoration of Israel and thus their inclusion in the people of God once again, Peter applies this language to the movement of Gentiles from darkness to light; that is, they were once excluded from the people of God, but they are now God’s people. In Hosea’s text, Israel is promised inclusion after the exile, and in Peter’s text the “elect exiles” are assured that they are even now included.

To belong to God as a treasured people and to be included in the “people of God” are deep affirmations of God’s gracious and redemptive disposition toward these “elect exiles.” They are counted among God’s people; that is, they are identified with Israel herself.

Shared Mission with Israel

God came to dwell with Israel who was chosen from among all the nations as God’s special possession. But this choice was never about Israel’s righteousness or its exclusive claim on God. Rather, Israel is chosen as a servant among the nations, as a priest for the nations. Israel is a light to the nations, and through Israel all nations were to be blessed. Israel was to lead the nations into relationship with Yahweh rather than ostracize and marginalize them.

The “elect exiles,” sharing the identity of Israel, now also share their mission. As a chosen race, they are servants to the nations. As a holy priesthood, they minister in the temple for the sake of the others. As a holy nation, they invite the nations to participate in their own, that is, to switch allegiances. As God’s people, they are the instruments by which others are included in the people of God, just as they were once outsiders who have now become part of God’s people. In other words, the “elect exiles” scattered across the world are missional communities that bear witness to God’s intent to redeem the world and include the nations within Israel through Jesus, the elect and honored cornerstone.

More specifically, 1 Peter 2:9 identifies this mission as “proclaiming the praises of the one who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light.” This language, to announce or declare God’s “praises” or excellencies, comes from Isaiah 42:12. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (LXX) translates “praises” as aretas, which refers to moral excellence or virtues, and this is the word Peter uses. In other words, the mission is to announce the goodness (moral virtue) of God, which—in the Hebrew parallelism of Isaiah 42:12—is to give God the glory. It is, to put it another way, is to declare the mighty works of God that flow from God’s gracious and loving commitment to redemption.

The mission of the people of God, now inclusive of all ethnicities and nations, is to announce, proclaim, and tell of God’s wondrous redemptive activity in the world for the sake of the world. In other words, we tell the story of redemption. We tell the story of how God intends to move us from darkness to light, from outside of God’s covenant people to within God’s covenant people, from outside God’s mercy to within God’s mercy. To declare the moral excellence of God is to tell the story of redemption, and specifically to praise God for God’s inclusion of those who once not part of the people of God.

Conclusion: Israel and the Church

Through Jesus, who is the remnant of true Israel, God builds a living temple that includes Gentiles (those who were once not part of the people of God). This divine intent to include the nations, present in the Hebrew Scriptures, is actualized through Jesus the Messiah.

This community is called God’s people, race, nation, and priesthood, which is language that belonged exclusively to Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures. Now Gentiles are included. This is not a new community, but a continuing community; it is an expanded community.

The “elect exiles” whom Peter addresses are the people of God. They are the temple of God. They are the Israel of God. They are God’s elect.

This is not some form of secessionism as if the church replaces Israel. Rather, it is the consummation of Israel. The mission, purpose, and goal of Israel is expressed  in the actual inclusion of other nations (Gentiles) into the people of God through Jesus the cornerstone of the living temple of God.


The First Advent (Exodus 40:34-38)

June 19, 2015

Mount Sinai must have been an impressive, even startling, sight. Enveloped in darkness with flashes of lightning, Israel heard the thunder and even, on one occasion, the voice of God. They felt the rumblings of God’s presence in tremors that rippled through the earth’s crust. This was Yahweh’s holy mountain. Yahweh descended upon it, and the glory of the Lord appeared as a consuming fire (Exodus 24:17).

We might imagine that this would have been the end of Israel’s journey. They had arrived at the holy mountain, the place where God lives. But it would, in fact, become the beginning of Israel’s real journey, the journey through the wilderness to the promised land carrying the presence of God among them.

Israel’s journey seemed stalled at the mountain, however. Israel arrived at the mountain only to pause. They waited. They waited forty days while Moses was on the mountain. And the wait was unbearable. They turned their wait into celebration when they fashioned their own gods out of the spoils of Egypt. They returned to Egypt in their hearts.

Moses interrupted their celebration and God’s consuming fire purged Israel of their last Egyptian fantasies. There was no going back to Egypt. Now was the time to choose. Will Israel continue its journey with Yahweh or will they whither in the wilderness? Israel chose Yahweh.

The story still seems stalled. Israel came from Egypt to Sinai, but for what? To meet Yahweh, to be sure. But now that they had met their God, what is next? When will they leave for the promised land, or will they? How long will they wait?

Their waiting, however, is no passive resignation. They wait but they also prepare. God gave Israel a task. They had a mission as they camped in the shadow of Sinai. They must build a tabernacle, a portable sanctuary. Its portability was a hopeful sign. For seven chapters in Exodus (25-31) they are given detailed instructions as to its structure and content. Then for six chapters (35-40) they implemented those plans. They constructed God’s tabernacle. They waited and they worked. They waited and they prepared for they could not even imagine.

This was Israel’s Advent season. They were waiting for something and perhaps they were not even sure what it was. They prepared a sanctuary, a worship center. They prepared themselves as they listened to Moses and obeyed his every instruction. They consecrated themselves to the service of Yahweh. They did everything they were commanded (Exodus 39:42-43). They set up the tabernacle and finished the work (Exodus 40:33).

Then it happened. The Lord drew near. The glory of God, the redemptive and personal presence of the Lord, filled the tabernacle. A cloud hovered over the tent while the consuming fire of God’s presence filled the sanctuary. God now dwelt within Israel’s camp. In a sense God moved from the mountain to the tent. God moved from a permanent fixture to a portable one. The holy presence of the Sinaitic burning bush was now within a portable tent. God, too, was going on a journey, a journey with Israel.

Their wait was over. Advent had arrived. A new journey was beginning, but God, the consuming fire present in the cloud, would lead them and guide them. God would bring them to the promised land, and God’s presence was their assurance and their strength.

Years later, as Israel still prayed for the return of the glory-cloud to the temple, John the Baptizer came heralding the nearness of the kingdom of God. John prepared Israel for the first Advent of the Messiah and promised that someday God’s people would not only be baptized in water but also in the Spirit. The Messiah, too, promised that one day the Spirit would descend upon the people of God to empower their holiness and mission. The risen Messiah renewed John’s promise of baptism in the Spirit even as he ascended to the right hand of God. The disciples then waited in the upper room in prayer and praise for the realization of the kingdom of God in the pouring out of the Spirit.

On the day of Pentecost, the day of first fruits, God poured out the Spirit upon all flesh. The church became a Spirit-drenched community in which everyone, male and female, slave and free, young and old, participated in the new life of the Spirit. The first Advent was complete with the advent of the Spirit who was now present within the church to commune, empower, and lead the community of Jesus.

We now live in that moment. God has descended into the temple that is now our own bodies. We, both individually and corporately, are the temple of the Holy Spirit. God dwells among us to empower, strengthen, and guide. God leads us through our own journey in the wilderness as we patiently wait for the second Advent of the Messiah.

We wait for the fullness of the kingdom of God to come. We wait for the moment when the New Jerusalem will descend out of the heavens on to a new earth. We wait for the glory of God to fill the earth, just as it once filled the tabernacle. We wait for heaven to come to earth; we wait for the earth to become heaven, the dwelling place of God with humanity within the new creation.

Like Israel at Mt. Sinai, in one sense Advent has arrived. God has come to dwell in the flesh among us and having ascended to the right hand of God has poured out the Spirit upon us. In other sense we still live in a season of Advent. We wait for the fullness of the reign of God upon the earth. We wait, but we do not wait alone. Like Israel in the wilderness, we carry the presence of God with us in our journey.

We wait, but we do not wait with resignation. We prepare for the coming reign of God. We are neither passive nor discouraged. We wait but we also announce and embody the presence of the kingdom of God even now. We wait and prepare for the final coming of God.

 


Did Jesus Preach the Gospel?

June 18, 2015

Yes and No.  Check it out at here.


1 Peter 1:22-2:3 — Identity Empowered by the Gospel

June 17, 2015

A marginalized, refugee community within a hostile culture is potentially filled with stress, suspicion, and selfishness. Communities sometimes turn on each other rather than caring for each other. Peter recognizes this possibility and addresses the need for this new community, living a new life, to grow in love for each other.

As children of God (1 Peter 1:14, 17), they belong to a new family, which calls for “brotherly love” (philadelphian, 1 Peter 1:22), a familial love. They are not children of God in some kind of isolation from others, but as children of God they belong to a new community whose new way of life renders them “aliens and strangers” in the land. In other words, they need to stick together, have each others back, and love each other.

1 Peter 1:22-2:3 is bounded by two imperatives with a quotation from Isaiah 40 at the center. The two imperatives are:

  • love one another deeply from the heart (1 Peter 1:22).
  • crave pure, spiritual milk (1 Peter 2:2).

Between these imperatives lies an important quotation from Isaiah 40 that gives theological shape and meaning to Peter’s exhortation.

Conversion

The two imperatives are rooted in a past moment, which Joel Green identifies as “conversion.” Since “X” is true, then you ought to “Y.”

  • having purified your souls by obedience to the truth…love one another (1 Peter 1:22-23)
  • having put off all malice, all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander…crave pure, spiritual milk (1 Pete 2:1-2).

This past moment—“purified” (perfect tense) and “put off” (aorist tense), both past tenses in Greek—refers to their conversion. Some have seen baptismal allusions here—“putting” clothes before their immersion and “purified” (sanctified, set apart, or made holy) through the waters of baptism (cf. 1 Peter 3:20-22). Perhaps “obedience” alludes to this, but it is difficult to specify in this limited context.

The past includes a marker moment, a beginning of their new life that reaches into the present (the significance of the perfect tense). The old way of life is left behind and a new adventure has begun. It was a “setting apart” (a distinct, even alien, way of life), a “putting off” (disrobing, taking off all the past ways of living), and also a “new birth” (born again).

Peter describes this conversion—the turning from one way of life for another, or the exchange of narratives—as a new birth (literally, in the perfect [past] tense, “having been born again” in 1 Peter 1:23). Since Peter introduced this language in his doxology at the beginning of the letter (1 Peter 1:3), it is a significant descriptor. It introduces familial language as well as conversion motifs. New birth entails a new beginning, a new family, a new narrative, and a new reality, a spiritual reality.

How did this happen? The text describes two means or instruments for this event. One stresses human participation and the other divine activity.

  • Having your souls purified “by (en) obedience to the truth” (1 Peter 1:21).
  • Having been born again “through (dia) the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:22).

Obedience may refer to a specific moment such as baptism, or it may refer to the exchange of narratives, that is, they changed the course of their lives to follow “the truth.” Either way, conversion involves human participation, which is characterized as “obedience.” What “truth” might envision here will entertain our attention in a moment.

New birth through the word of God focuses on divine power and activity. It is the “living and enduring” word, which is language that takes us beyond words on a page and points us to the One who lives and endures. It draws our attention to God’s own eternal nature, and this God births us. 1 Peter 1:3 makes this clear: God is blessed because we are birth by divine mercy through the resurrection of Jesus, that is, by God’s active power that inaugurates new creation and new life in the resurrection. God is our Father because God has begotten us through the living word–not simply words on a page, but a living word.

The new birth means they are nourished by “pure, spiritual milk.” Peter characterizes his readers as “newborns,” but this is not a contrast between “immature” and “mature” (as Hebrews 5:11-14 does). Here the point is that as newborns—people who have experienced new birth—they must crave “pure, spiritual milk.” They are nourished by the reality into which their new birth has brought them.

It is “spiritual” (logikon) milk. Logikon is a difficult word to translate. Translations vary from “rational” to “figurative” to “spiritual.” Consequently, it is uncertain exactly how to understand the term though the broad sentiment is clear: newborns in this community are nourished by God rather than by their own desires and former ways of life.

While some identify the “milk” with Scripture, the written word of God, it is better to regard “spiritual” as a reference to the new reality into which they have been born (see Jobes commentary). They are nourished by new creation, by a new life, which does not originate in their past but draws on their future (“salvation” or the living hope of resurrection). Their new life is a radically new one that is fueled by the future world rather than the present one; that life is nourished by “spiritual” milk.

Isaiah 40 and the Word of God

Sandwiched between the imperatives in 1 Peter 1:22 and 1 Peter 2:2 is the quotation from Isaiah 40:7-8.

The quotation, however, is no mere proof-text about the “word of God.” On the contrary, Peter quotes the text as a way of recalling the whole backdrop, meaning, and significance of Isaiah 40 (see the extended discussion by Jobes). For Peter it has a new significance in the new setting in which these “elect exiles” find themselves.

Isaiah 40 is addressed to “elect exiles” as well. It addresses Israel in Babylonian exile, and seeks to comfort them with a promise that God will bring about a new exodus through the wilderness. Indeed, the word of the Lord is the heralding of “good tidings” (euangelizomenos, preaching the gospel in Isaiah 40:9). The good news is that God has not forgotten the exiles, is working redemption or liberation for the exiles, and is present among them to give them strength to endure. In fact, God is a shepherd who will lead the flock (Isaiah 40:11), just as Jesus is the chief shepherd who will appear to grant glory to his flock (1 Peter 5:4). The connections between Isaiah 40 and 1 Peter are too numerous to enumerate in this brief post. Peter’s readers find themselves in a similar situation as Israel in Isaiah 40, and just as the “word of the Lord” assured Israel so it now also assures his readers.

What is this “word of the Lord”? 1 Peter 1:22-2:3 has two identifiers—“the truth” and “the good news” (euangelisthen, gospel). Both terms, in context, are Christological in character, that is, they point us to the work of God in Jesus the Messiah. The truth or good news is the revelation of Jesus “at the end of the ages” (1 Peter 1:20), which ushers in new life or new creation through the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection and glorification of Jesus, after his sufferings and death, are the good news, and obedience to this truth is the means by which we are reborn through the implanted seed, which is the enacted word of God—the event of Jesus the Messiah who has worked salvation for us by the Spirit.

While many suggest that the “word of the Lord” is Scripture itself, it is actually that to which Scripture points, that is, the promise of a future through the work of Christ. That is the good news, which is the word of the Lord. Scripture records that good news, bears witness to it, and interprets it, but the good news is not Scripture itself. The good news is Jesus the Messiah, and he is the message of God to a broken world.

A New Community

This new family, empowered by the word of Lord, is called to act as a family.

  • To love each other deeply from the heart, and
  • To get rid of all negative attitudes that might disrupt the community.

The positive statement—love each other (1 Peter 1:22)—is paralleled with the negative one—get rid of malice, etc. (1 Peter 2:1). Love means that we no longer act in malice, treat each other with deceit, live as hypocrites, nurture envy in our hearts, or speak slanderously about each other.

The pressures of a marginalized community might affect it negatively or positively. They may turn toward each other for love and support, or they may find opportunity for malice and deceit. Will the pressure turn them against each other or will it turn them for each other?

Conversion is supposed to transform us so that we are for each other. If our souls have been purified, then it should lead to a “genuine mutual love” for each other, that is, philadelphian. If we have rid ourselves of all disruptive behaviors, then together—as a community—we can “grow into (eis) salvation,” which is communal, progressive sanctification.

Salvation here is a goal, something toward which we move and something into which we grow. Extending the agricultural metaphor, just as the imperishable seed has been planted in us for new birth, so we will also grow (plants grow) into salvation. Peter has used “salvation” in this first chapter in an eschatological sense, that is, the future full revelation of Jesus. Salvation is something that lies ahead even though we already experience it in particular ways. Salvation is something we “grow” into—we are newborns who grow up into maturity, into the fullness of the reality that God will bring about in the eschaton.

This is true, however, only “if” we have “tasted that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). “Tasted,” as a past tense verb (aorist), once again references conversion, which is described as tasting the goodness (chrestos) of the Lord. More than likely, the play on words—chrestos (goodness, gracious) and christos (Christ)—is intentional. Through our conversion, we taste the grace and goodness of what God has done for us in Christ.

Actually, this is a quotation from Psalm 34, which has already factored into the background of 1 Peter 1:13-21 and is quoted in 1 Peter 3:10-12. The Psalm expresses the confidence that God is gracious to the brokenhearted, protects those who live in reverent fear, and ransoms the servants of the Lord from trouble. It is a reassuring Psalm for exiled people, and Peter intends that his readers hear this Psalm in their own context.

Living their new life within their new family with a new Father, “elect exiles” can live in the confidence that Psalm 34 exudes. Just as they have tasted that the Lord is gracious, so they can feed on the spiritual milk, the God whose protection is promised in Psalm 34.


Luke 7:1-10 — Amazing Faith!

June 15, 2015

This is an amazing story. Even Jesus is amazed.

It is amazing because it involves a Roman centurion, who symbolizes occupying power. Luke’s readers, thirty to forty years later than the story itself, are probably amazed that the story’s central character is a Roman soldier. Rome, at that time, still occupied Israel, and Rome was emerging as a major antagonist of the new Christian movement.

Much about this person is intimidating within first century Palestine.

  • Gentile—outsider to the Jewish community.
  • Roman—represents imperial power.
  • Career Soldier, a legionnaire—part of an oppressive occupying force.
  • Ranked Soldier, a Centurion—the commander of a hundred soldiers whose primary role is to enforce imperial power
  • Governmental Liaison—one who mediated problems and enforced imperial interests within the local village; he was probably he leading imperial authority in Capernaum.

There is no indication that he is a God-fearer, as Luke usually notes this in his stories. The lack of any such a designation probably indicates that he is not an active participant in the Jewish faith, certainly not a proselyte.

The previous chapter in Luke contains Jesus’s Sermon on the Plain, which is Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Jesus said, “Love your enemies” because God is gracious and merciful (Luke 6:35-36). Now, in Capernaum where Jesus has encountered opposition, Jesus hears the request of a Roman Centurion, Israel’s enemy.

Yet, Luke offers a positive picture of this particular centurion. Note some of the positives we might enumerate:

  • Generous—he funded the building of a Jewish synagogue
  • Humble—he does not think himself worthy to address or invite Jesus into his home or even address him directly
  • Open—he displays no bigotry or bias toward Jews
  • Loving—he valued the life of his slave (doulos), whom he affectionately calls his “child” (pais)
  • Intercessor—he pleads (even begs) for the life of his slave
  • Culturally Sensitive—he did not intend for Jesus to enter his home

Perhaps this should remind us not to let stereotypes determine how we think about people. Roman? Bad, right? Centurions? Violent oppressors, right? Gentile? Unbelievers, right? Not necessarily, and apparently not in this case.

But the quality that Jesus identifies is faith. It is the punch line of the whole story, and it amazes Jesus!

It contrasts specifically with the Jewish elders of the local synagogue, but also with Capernaum itself, and with the nation of Israel as a whole.

In this case, the Jewish leaders think relationship is a matter of patronage and worth—the centurion is worthy because of his generosity toward and care for Jewish people in Capernaum. They do not request on the ground of kinship, shared faith, or shared religion. They ask because he is a benefactor, and they want to continue the good political-cultural relationship they have with this powerful centurion.

Patronage was built into the Greco-Roman system. Wealthy authority figures built or funded, for example, temples, altars, buildings, and roads as a way of securing loyalty, good relations, and a good reputation. This is how “authority” operated in Greco-Roman culture, and Jesus himself alludes to this (cf. Luke 22:25).

So, the Jewish elders, working within that system, want to keep a good relationship with this centurion. He has scratched their backs, and now they need to scratch his. This is a quid pro quo relationship, “I’ll do for you because you have done for me.” Consequently, the centurion is “worthy” of Jesus’s kind attention.

This is not, however, what the centurion himself thinks, as reported by his “friends” (not the Jewish elders). He does not feel worthy; he is not worthy in his own estimation (contra the Jewish elders). Healing—the inbreaking of redemptive wholeness—is not a matter adjudicated by patronage or by being a benefactor. The centurion recognizes that Jesus’s authority is not subject to such manipulations. Instead, he submits to Jesus’ authority, which though analogous to his own is quite unlike his own.

Jesus’s amazement at the centurion’s faith highlights the contrast between the Jewish elders (as well as the Jewish nation) and this Gentile centurion. The Jewish leaders approach Jesus in the context of the cultural values of honor and shame, but the centurion approaches Jesus in faith.

Worthiness is not required for healing; only a submissive trust, faith. Faith, in this context, is a trust in the authority or word of Jesus. He speaks, and it happens.

Centurions understand authority. Vegetius, a fourth century Roman military author, described centurions as leaders “more ready to do things ordered of him than speak” (Epitome of Military Science, quoted from Cotter, The Christ of Miracle Stories, p. 114). The whole military Roman camp is ordered by an authority structure. Josephus, for example, writes, “nothing is done without a word of command” from the “respective centurions” to “rank and file” (Josephus, Jewish Wars, 3.98, quoted from Cotter, The Christ of Miracle Stories, 106).

Faith is expressed in the centurion’s willingness to hear a word from Jesus, trust it, and act on it. He did not have to verify it or test it. He believed it, and he believed it because he knew that Jesus had authority, that a word from Jesus counted. A word from Jesus is a performative word; it enacts the reality it imagines.

This echoes the creation story. God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. The word is performed; it is enacted. When God speaks, something happens. When Jesus speaks, something happens.

The authority structure in the Roman army was one of control. The centurion controlled his soldiers, just as his own commanders controlled him. He could tell them what to do, and they did it. They obeyed without question and without hesitation.

But he was not always in control, and neither are we. He could not save his beloved slave, his “child.” And neither can we.

We all want to think we are in control; we want to have control. We fear because we know we are not in control. We could lose a job. We are powerless over addictions. We can do nothing in the face of cancer. Powerlessness stops us in our tracks, and instead of feeling in control, we feel fear.

But here is the point. The centurion did not rely on his own authority or control. Instead, he trusted Jesus. He believed. He trusted that the authority of Jesus was for the sake of the other, that Jesus would use his authority to heal, redeem, forgive, and love.

Jesus’s power is the authority to reverse the curse, to redeem what is broken, to heal the wounded. We do not submit to tyranny but to God’s redemptive authority. We trust God’s redemptive purposes in Jesus, and we trust that God has given authority to Jesus to heal a broken world and reconcile God and humanity.

I wonder if Jesus is amazed by the faith of a Roman centurion whether we might, too, be surprised at times. Perhaps it should not surprise us that we are sometimes surprised. Nevertheless, faith shows up in some unlikely places. God often—even regularly—shows up in unexpected ways and places, and when God shows up, God often surprises us!

  • Faith shows up at funeral homes.
  • Faith shows up in pediatric critical care units.
  • Faith shows up in families with job losses.
  • Faith shows up in abject poverty.
  • Faith shows up in people with chronic pain.

Faith shows up in places where we don’t expect faith. God surprises us, and such faith amazes us.

May we never lose our sense of wonder and amazement!

 


1 Peter 1:13-21 — Identity: Children of God

June 11, 2015

This salvation, for which we bless God, in which we rejoice, and which fills prophets and angels with wonder (1 Peter 1:3-12), is the foundation and ground for everything else Peter writes in 1 Peter 1:13-2:10. “Therefore” (1 Peter 1:13) introduces the first section of the letter’s main body and roots it in God’s saving work. This salvation gives believers a startling identity; an identity that places a demanding call on their lives.

Five imperatives in 1 Peter 1:13-2:10 stress the ethical nature of this high calling. Elect exiles may be exiles (resident aliens in their culture) but they are nevertheless elect (chosen, given an identity, and called for a purpose). The five imperatives are:

  • Set your hope on the grace that is to be revealed (1:13).
  • Be holy in all your aspects of life (1:15).
  • Live in reverent fear during the time of your exile (1:17).
  • Love one another deeply from the heart (1:22).
  • Crave pure, spiritual milk (2:2).

These imperatives characterize the kind of life into which God has called “elect exiles.” Hope. Holiness. Reverent fear. Love. Passionate Desire. These virtues not only flow from their election but they also testify to their identity as God’s children.

The elect are God’s children, and they invoke God as “Father” (1 Peter 1:14, 17). This is their fundamental identity. Though aliens in their culture, they are beloved children of God. As children of God, they are called into a particular way of life. Since God has rebirthed them—they were born into the family of God, they are called to mirror God’s life in their own lives. “Therefore,” because of “this salvation,” Peter directs them toward a particular way of living in their exile.

1 Peter 1:13-2:10 easily divides into three sections:

  • Identity as God’s children (1 Peter 1:13-21).
  • Identity Empowered by the Word of God (1 Peter 1:22-2:3).
  • Identified with Israel (1 Peter 2:4-10).

The first section calls them into a new life, the second urges growth in that new life, and the last identifies this new life with God’s ancient people, Israel.

Following Joel Green (New Horizons Commentary), one may read 1 Peter 1:13-21 through the lens of how Peter locates these “elect exiles” within God’s history. Green identifies six moments in time, though I have renamed and adapted them into five moments:

  • Christ is foreknown before creation (1:20).
  • Unbelievers lived in an ignorant, empty life l (1:14, 18).
  • Christ appears at the “end of the ages” (1:20).
  • Believers presently live as exiles (1:17-19).
  • Christ is revealed in the last times (1:13).

This time sequence locates the readers within the story of God, between God’s eternal intent (God’s foreknowledge of Christ) and the second coming of Jesus. The redemptive-historical frame moves between creation and new creation with the appearance of Jesus the Messiah within history occupying the middle. With the appearance of Christ, humanity experiences redemption but the redeemed live an exilic life in a hostile culture. Christ is foreknown, manifested in the midst of history, and will be fully revealed in the last times. This places Christ at the beginning, middle, and end of history, and our story rests within his. God has acted in Christ to liberate humanity from its empty way of life and now calls redeemed humanity to live a life that mirrors God’s own.

Three imperatives, in three separate Greek sentences, direct the lives of these “elect exiles.” 1 Peter 1:13-21 is only three sentences in Greek.

Set your Hope on the Grace to be Revealed (1 Peter 1:13)

The first sentence directs believers to fix their hope on the future grace (probably referring to the salvation already described) that Jesus will reveal when he comes again. That future grace is the Christian’s hope.

Surrounded by a hostile and suspicious culture, Peter advises hope—to fully (teleios, completely) hope in God’s grace. While they live as marginalized exiles, they hope in God’s favor, which is assured to them by their own experience of grace in Jesus the Messiah. They are an elect, rebirthed, and sanctified people, and therefore they hope in future grace (salvation).

This complete fixation on hope, however, involves discipline. It is all too easy to lose hope or to become discouraged by their surroundings. Two participles modify the verb “set your hope,” and these describe the circumstances in which hope might have its fullest effect within the community. It is a disciplined community—their minds are prepared (they have girded up their loins, that is, they are ready to run), and they are sober-minded or self-controlled.

They have a purpose, and they are committed to the values of this new community. Ready, disciplined, and hopeful, they are prepared to fully lean into a new way of life.

Be Holy as Obedient Children (1 Peter 1:14-16)

The second sentence directs believers to live holy lives as children of God.

Peter draws a contrast between a past way of life (“desires of your former ignorance”) and their new way of life (“to be holy in all your conduct”). In the past they lived an empty or futile life in ignorance (cf. 1 Peter 1:18), but now they live with a clear identity as children of God. The “empty” or “ignorant” nature of their previous life reflects a purposelessness or a meaninglessness. Life, ultimately, had no value or significance because they had no firm or lasting identity, and they had no hope. They did not know God (thus, “ignorance”).

As children of God—with a firm identity—their lives have meaning, but it also has a calling, a vocation. As children of God, they must become like God. Instead of conforming to past desires, which resulted in an emptiness, they are called to embody the holiness of God in their new way of life.

This vocation—to be holy as God is holy—is Israel’s vocation, and Peter quotes Leviticus 19:2. These “elect exiles,” mostly Gentiles, have the same vocation as Israel. Indeed, we might say that this is fundamentally a human vocation since all human beings—made in the image of God—are called to become like God. This is part of Israel’s creation theology, and it was Israel’s own identity. Now, we see, it is the identity of these Gentile “elect exiles” as well.

Live in reverent fear as people who call God “Father” (1 Peter 1:17-21).

The third sentence directs believers to “live in reverent fear during the time of [their] exile.”

“Fear” is an important motivator in 1 Peter (my friend Van Robarts wrote his thesis on this at Harding Graduate School of Religion in Memphis). It also appears in 1 Peter 2:17; 3:2, 14, 16. We miss the point if we think of “terror” or “being afraid.” Rather, this language arises out of Israel’s wisdom literature and its liturgy. In particular, as Jobes points out, this language probably reflects the context of Psalm 34, where Israelites as exiles (paroikias in 1 Peter 1:17 and Psalm 34:6) are ransomed (lutroo in 1 Peter 1:18 and Psalm 34:22) as people who hope in (elpizo,1 Peter 1:13 and Psalm 34:22) and fear (1 Peter 1:17 and Psalm 34:7, 9, 12) God. Further, Peter later quotes Psalm 34 extensively in 1 Peter 3.

“Fear,” in 1 Peter, is thoroughly saturated with a Hebrew theology and meaning. The word reflects a basic trust, awe, and wonder. It is a word that encompasses worship, fundamental (“gut-level”) orientation, and reverence. “Living in fear” in 1 Peter is not about living a terrified existence waiting for the next shoe to drop. Rather, it is a fundamental description of how human beings relate to a transcendent God in trust, hope, and worship. As Hebrew wisdom says many times, the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” or authentic knowledge (Proverbs 9:10; cf. 1:7). A holy, reverent, and obedient life begins with a basic awe, wonder, and trust in the God.

Just as God called us into a holy life, so we call upon God as “Father,” and those who call God “Father” must orient their life around the “fear of the Lord,” just as the wise ages of Israel advised.

Peter, once again, situates his readers (“elect exiles”) in the story of Israel—they are to live out the values of Israel’s wisdom. But more than that, they are also a liberated (ransomed) people, just as Israel was. They, too, have experienced an exodus—a liberation from bondage, from slavery.

“Ransom” is the language of slave manumission where slaves could buy their own freedom. In this case, however, God buys the freedom of these exiles, a freedom from a past way of futile living. The price is the blood of Jesus, rather than silver or gold. The language of “blood” and “lamb” as well as “ransom” evokes images of the Passover liberation of Israel from Egyptian bondage. In other words, the “elect exiles” are a liberated people—free from futility and ignorance and free to live holy lives as God’s children.

This liberation is no momentary decision on God’s part. Rather, God has “foreknown” this moment when Jesus would liberate people from their futile ways. This was God’s intent from the beginning, even before the creation of the world. Even as God foreknew that humanity would sin, so God also knew that Christ would redeem them. God has taken the initiative, from the beginning, to ransom humanity from their own self-inflicted wounds and bondage. God revealed this intent in the work of Jesus the Messiah.

Faith and hope, when set on God, are the means by which the work of Christ becomes ours. Just as God raised him from the dead (liberating him from the bondage of death) and gave him glory (exalting him to the right hand as King and Lord), so God, through faith, will raise us from the dead and exalt us when we reign with Christ in the new heaven and new earth. Even now, however, we experience this grace of God as we live in reverent fear and reign with Christ as a priestly, royal nation (cf. 1 Peter 2:4-10).

Conclusion

Discouraged? Oppressed? Feel like an alien?  Peter’s advice is:

Hope in the grace God will reveal.

Become holy as God is holy, as children of God.

Live in reverent fear, as a people liberated through faith.


1897 Graduation Program for the Nashville Bible School

June 10, 2015

The Nashville Bible School, founded on October 9, 1891 with nine students, steadily grew throughout the first years of its existence. At the end of October 1891, it would have nineteen students, and twenty-six by Feburary and conclude the year with thirty-two students In succeeding years it would have forty-two, fifty-three, eighty-eight, and then one hundred and ten.

The Nashville papers were impressed. “The Nashville Bible School, which has grown up so quietly in this city during the last five years, is becoming one of the mighty powers of this section” (The Nashville American, May 29, 1896, p. 2). The “verdict of a critical audience” at the 1895 graduation exercises “was that the institution has not only attained results which give to it eminent character in the community, but that the great good worked by it recommends it to the support and well wishes of the city and State” (The Nashville American, May 31, 1895, p. 8).

In addition–and more important to Lipscomb and Harding–was the fact that over that five years its graduates and students had baptized more than 3,400 people and planted over twenty-eight congregations (as reported by James A. Harding at the 1896 graduation exercises; The Nashville American, May 29, 1896, p. 2).

Given both the public assessment of the Nashville Bible School and the productive work of its students, the institution was regarded as a great success. It had fulfilled its two major purposes: (1) to provide a cultured education that equips young people as useful and successful citizens, and (2) to nurture them in the Christian faith that they might serve as Bible teachers, evangelists, elders, and deacons in their communities. (See Harding, Gospel Advocate, 21 October, 1891, p. 661 and Gospel Advocate, 7 June 1894, p. 362).

It was an education, however, that was designed for the poor and working classes (though not excluding the wealthy) since they had no other opportunity in the city. “We differ from many other schools,” Harding wrote, “in that we freely admit all who are not able to pay free of charge. Our Master preached the gospel to the poor; we are trying to imitate him” (Gospel Advocate, 3 June 1897, p. 338).

In 1897, the school graduated four (they had graduated five in the previous year). The Nashville American provided the details of the exercise (4 June 1897, p. 8).

Opening Song: “Somewhere”

Prayer: Elder J. W. Grant.

Reading: Miss Clara M. Benedict read her essay, “Unselfishness.”

Oration: “Lessons from the Past,” by A. B. Lipscomb.

Song: “Oh, Be Joyful in the Lord,” sung by Misses Clara Sullivan, Tennie McAlister and Woodson Harding, and Messrs. W. H. Sewell, J. M. Murphy, J. B. Bostick and T. H. Hales.

Address: “What is the Destiny of Man?,” David Lipscomb. “He said self-denial was the only way to be happy. The mission of all preachers should be to go among the sick and lowly.”

Diplomas, awarded by Superintendent J. A. Harding to Miss Clara Benedic, of Nashville; Miss Cynthia Gill, of Allensville, KY; J. B. Bostick, of Fresno, CA, and A. B. Lipscomb, of Nashville.

Song: “Gliding Away”

Benediction: Elder C. A. Moore.

 

 


1 Peter 1:10-12 — Prophets and Angels, and the Rest of the Story

June 4, 2015

Elect exiles, scattered across the Roman provinces of modern Turkey, are the heirs of Israel’s story, which means they participate in the trajectory of not only Israel’s history but also its hopes. Significantly, the “salvation” in which believers rejoice is what Israel, through its prophets, anticipated.

The living hope and future inheritance—“this salvation”—in which believers rejoice amidst their suffering is the subject of prophetic imagination in the Hebrew Scriptures. The present experience of believers in Christ is a privileged status because they are the heirs of Israel’s traditions and the recipients of the grace about which Israel’s prophets spoke. Peter assumes a radical continuity between Israel and present believers—they participate in the same story. But the story has moved into a new moment because history has now realized, at least in part, the prophetic word.

Christians are exiles, but they are graced and blessed exiles because of “this salvation.” They are privileged to experience that for which Israel in the past could only hope. Though marginalized by their culture and oppressed by Roman authority, they are the advance guard of new creation within the world as they anticipate their future inheritance—an inheritance promised to Abraham long ago.

What did Israel’s prophets “witness beforehand” (promarturomenon)? To what did they testify before it happened, even without fully understanding the reality to which they bore witness?

Peter describes this as “the grace that would come to you” (tes eis humas charitos) as well as the “the messianic sufferings and the glories that would follow” (ta esi Christon pathemata kai tas meta tauta doxas). Essentially, the two phrases are describing the same reality (e.g., notice their similar grammatical structure as if in parallel).

Grace is an important word in 1 Peter (occurring in 1:13; 2:19; 3:7; 4:10, 13; 5:5, 10). Most importantly, the word describes the content of Peter’s letter in 1 Peter 5:12. Peter characterizes his letter as a “witness” or testimony to the “grace of God” in which the elect exiles stand. Peter’s topic, in a word, is grace!

Peter, however, is not the first to declare this grace. Israel’s prophets also spoke of this grace. This affirms the continuity between Israel and the church—they have the same message, the grace of God.

In what does this grace consist? It, no doubt, is inclusive of “this salvation” (1 Peter 1:10), which is expressed in the doxology of 1 Peter 1:3-5. But Peter is more specific about that “grace” or “salvation.” Israel’s prophets also testified concerning the “messianic sufferings and the glories” to come, and that is the grace of God.

The plural nouns, “sufferings” and “glories,” are rather curious. One might expect—as is common in Christian parlance—“suffering and glory.” And precisely for that reason, the plurals are intentional and thus intend to say more than simply the “death and resurrection” of Jesus the Messiah.

The sufferings of the Messiah (cf. 1 Peter 4:13; 5:1) encompass the whole of his life and not simply his death. They are the sufferings of a servant who serves the mission of God in the world, which is the kind of suffering that elect exiles endure as well. Peter reminds us that Isaiah 53 provided just such a picture (cf. 1 Peter 2: 21-25).

The “glories” include the resurrection of Jesus, but much more. We can add the exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of God, which is the inauguration of the kingdom of God within a new creation. Further, “glories” includes the fullness of the kingdom that is part of the Messianic mission, and this points to the inheritance yet to come (1 Peter 1:3-5). The glory of the Messiah is a renewed and remade world that fully mirrors the will of God in heaven. Hebrew prophets saw this future however imperfectly they understood it (e.g., Isaiah 2:1-4; Micah 4:1-5).

How were the prophets able to speak of this future before it happened? They saw it through the “Spirit of Christ” in the past, which parallels the “Holy Spirit” in the present. Their vision was empowered by divine movements in their life, or what we might call divine inspiration.

What is the “Spirit of Christ”? Is it the Messiah himself in some kind of pre-incarnate state? It seems to me the parallel with the “Holy Spirit” unites these two rather than differentiating them. There is more continuity than discontinuity here. The Spirit, known to Christians as the “Holy Spirit,” announces the message to Christians, and this is the same Spirit who stirred up the prophetic imagination. In her commentary, Karen Jobes summarizes it well: “The Spirit who had inspired the prophets was the same Spirit who descended on Jesus at his baptism, identifying him as the Messiah who would experience the foretold sufferings and glories that would follow. Peter thereby shows a continuity of the presence of the Spirit with the prophets and with the Christians.” In other words, the “elect exiles” share the same “Spirit” with Israel’s prophets.

Did the prophets fully grasp this? They did not understand the timing or the specific circumstances (or person) that would usher in the “grace.” The prophets sometimes asked, “how long” before their hopes would be realized (Jeremiah 12:6-13; Habakkuk 2:1-4). The prophets waited for the realization of their message, and—as Hebrews 11:39 says—they waited and often “did not receive what was promised.” They spoke, but they did not know the full ramifications or the ultimate fulfillment of their own words. They prophesied hope, but they did not fully comprehend how that hope would be realized and what form it would take.

The grace that Israel prophesied by the “Spirit of Christ” is the gospel now preached through the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit who revealed the future sufferings and glories of the Messiah to the prophets is the same Spirit that announces “this salvation” to believers in Christ as both fulfilled but not yet fully realized. And just as the prophets searched and investigated the meaning and future fulfillment of their prophecies, even now the angels sit on the edge of their seat in wonder as they hope to know more about what is happening.

The point is the privileged status of the “elect exiles of the Diaspora.” We occupy the back end of God’s story. Believers see and understand more than the prophets, and they experience more than the angels themselves. Though the surrounding culture marginalizes and oppresses them, they are graced with honor and glory in God’s story. The grace in which believers stand, the salvation they experience, and the messianic reality of suffering and glory are things into which the angels “desire to look.”

Charles Wesley’s hymn “Hosanna in the Highest” (cited by Allen Black from Selwyn) expresses the wonder of 1 Peter 1:10-12:

Angels in fix’d amazement

Around our altars hover

With eager gaze

Adore the grace

Of our Eternal Lover

The doxology that began in 1:3, “Blessed be the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” ends with the wonder of the angelic hosts. The Triune God–Father, Son, and Spirit–have fulfilled the hopes of Israel’s prophets. This is praiseworthy, and the angels join in the praise even as they are–as are we–filled with wonder and amazement.

Look at what God has done, is doing, and will do.

Blessed be God the Father who has rebirthed through the suffering and glory of Jesus the Messiah and revealed it by the Holy Spirit.


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.