The Christians of Roman Asia, 2000 years ago, lived during an interesting time. The Roman empire was expanding rapidly through conquest, and wherever Roman armies went, Roman culture soon followed.
And one of the values of Roman culture was religious tolerance. Rome did not care what gods the people worshiped, as long as their worship did not violate Roman laws. So, for instance, animal sacrifice? Okay. Human sacrifice: not okay. Giant sex orgies inside your temples: okay. Disturbing the public peace: not okay. Astrology and divination: okay. Foreign bomoh becoming more popular than Roman bomoh: not okay. Saying that everyone’s religion is basically the same? Okay. Claiming that your religion is superior to all other religions? Definitely not okay.
And this last one was the most important. Because Roman religious tolerance was actually an illusion. The powers of Rome knew that if they could keep every religion in the empire content with the idea that they were simply the equal of every other religion in the empire, then there would be no one left to challenge Rome’s claim to superiority. Because if some religion popped up that claimed to be superior to every other religion, then — if true — the followers of that religion would quite naturally have a greater loyalty to that religion than they would to the empire itself.
So really the whole point behind Roman religious tolerance was to make sure there could be no competition to Roman claims of superiority.
In essence, the rule was, “You are free to say anything you want about your religion! — as long as you say the same things everyone else is saying about their religion. Do not claim to be unique or superior.”
Now, the funny thing is, this Roman policy of religious tolerance had an unexpected side-effect: new gods began popping up all over the empire. Because, if all religions are really the same, then it doesn’t ultimately matter what religion you join. And if it doesn’t ultimately matter what religion you join, then you might as well join the one who offers you the most benefits. And if none of the existing religions offers you the benefits you want, why not invent a new one?
So the Roman policy of religious tolerance resulted in a religious free-market system: certain unscrupulous individuals realized there was money to be made through the selling of religious benefits. Some took old gods and gave them new names; some invented new gods and gave them old names; some created elaborate hybrids of old and new gods; but they were all in competition with one another for disciples. And so the empire was shortly overrun with travelling preachers, travelling exorcists, travelling miracle-workers, each one promising some kind of physical or spiritual benefits to everyone who invested in their particular ministry.
So the Christians of Roman Asia lived in an interesting time. It was also a very confusing time. There were many religious options to choose from: some very ancient, some very new. And Christianity was one of the new religions.
Which meant that Christianity did not have the track-record some of the other Asian religions did. They did not have temples that had stood for a thousand years. They did not have a lineage of priests that could be traced back two hundred generations. And ordinarily this would not have mattered: there were lots of other new religions out there, after all! — except that most of those new religions were really well integrated with Roman culture. They were, essentially, products of Roman culture, they were products of Roman religious tolerance, and they knew better than to break the rules and bite the empire that was feeding them.
Christianity was different. First, it was not a product of the empire: had come out of the deserts of far east Asia, way out on the fringes of the empire. Second — and perhaps because it came from the fringes — it was not a tolerant religion at all by Roman standards: it claimed to be superior to all the other religions of the empire.
And we have already seen this over the last few weeks as we have read what Peter wrote to these Christians of Roman Asia who lived so long ago. Peter has not been saying that Christianity offers the same basic benefit package as all the other religions in the empire. On the contrary, Peter has been making extravagant claims about the benefits of Christianity, claims that no other religion in the empire dared to make. No other religion promised total and complete forgiveness of sins. No other religion promised a beautiful life after death. No other religion offered the kind of certainty of salvation that Peter has been claiming for the Christians of Roman Asia.
So Peter, by writing all this, has been breaking rule number one of Roman religious tolerance: he is claiming that Christianity is superior to all other religions. Which means he is claiming that Christianity is superior to Rome.
And that, dear friends, is sedition. That is the kind of talk that got a man crucified in the Roman empire.
Which means that, in exchange for all its benefits, Christianity also came with the potential for some very serious costs. Which is fine: obviously the benefits of a beautiful, blissful eternal life in paradise is worth the cost of a momentary death — but only if those benefits are actually true.
And how can we know whether those benefits are actually true? How can we know whether Peter is just making all this up?
That is the question Peter answers today, beginning in verse 10:
 Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care,  trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow.
So, basically, Peter is saying that all these benefits he has been talking about so far were actually predicted a long time ago by “the prophets”.
So we have to ask: what prophets?
Well, since Peter was a Jewish man, for him, “the prophets” would be the Old Testament prophets, guys like Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel. And the last of the Old Testament prophets — Malachi — died more than 400 years before Peter was born.
So Peter is saying that this new religion of Christianity was actually predicted by prophets from the ancient Asian religion of the Jewish people.
Okay. One objection, though: if the ancient Jewish prophets were predicting Christianity, why didn’t they just call themselves Christians?
Well, because — according to Peter, here — even though the ancient Jewish prophets understood the general flow of how God’s plan was going to play out in the future, they did not have names and exact dates.
The most ancient prophets of the Old Testament knew that God’s Messiah, when he came, would be betrayed by his own people, sold into slavery to a foreign nation, that his blood would be poured out upon the earth as a sacrifice to pay for sins, that he would be dead and buried — but that his body would be brought back to life before it could begin to decay, and that God himself would raise him up and crown him king over all nations. The later prophets of the Old Testament knew that physically he would be a son of King David, spiritually he would be the Son of God, that he would be born in Bethlehem almost 500 years after Jerusalem was rebuilt
But they did not know his name would be Jesus. They did not know that their Hebrew word “Messiah” would be translated into Greek and become the word “Christ”, so there is no way the Old Testament prophets could have called themselves Christians: the word did not exist yet, because Jesus Christ had not been born yet.
Peter is basically saying that the Old Testament prophets would have called themselves Christians if they could. They were certainly “Messiahnians” — they were looking forward eagerly for their Messiah to come. They were searching their own prophecies intently and with the greatest care, looking for every possible clue as to the time and circumstances of his birth.
But, Peter says, that information was not given to them. Why not?
Because  it was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves.
In a way, the ancient Jewish prophets were a bit like people planning a roadtrip. They had their googlemaps open, they knew what roads to take and approximately how long it would take to get there. They were able to use streetview to get pictures of some of the major turning points along the way — but even with all that information, they could not possibly know what it would actually feel like to make the journey, they could not possibly know all the details of every little thing they would see along the way, all the little delays and detours and traffic. And they knew that! That is why they were looking forward to this journey so much: they wanted to experience it for themselves.
But then they were told that this journey was not for them. They found out they were actually making travel plans for some future generation. And that must have been disappointing!
One of these moments is described at the end of the Book of Daniel. The prophet — Daniel — has just received a very detailed vision of the future, leading right up to Judgement Day. The angel talking with him says, “at the very end there will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people — everyone whose name is found written in the book — will be delivered.”
And Daniel says, “Yeah, but: when? Where? How?”
And the angel says, “Sorry, Daniel, because the words are rolled up and sealed until the time of the end. At that time, none of the wicked will understand these things you have written, but those who are wise will understand.”
In other words, Daniel is an example of an ancient prophet who was told he was not serving himself, but some future generation.
Okay. That’s fine. One more objection though: even if we accept that the ancient Jewish prophets actually serving some future generation, how do we know that the peoples of Roman Asia were the ones Daniel and the rest were actually writing to?
Because — correct me if I’m wrong here — the ancient Jewish prophets were predicting a Jewish Messiah who would save the Jewish people. That is, for instance, exactly what the angel told Daniel: “On Judgement Day your people will be delivered.” Daniel’s people were the Jewish people, not random Asian people.
Mmmmm. Yes. It is true that Daniel’s people were Jewish people. But if we take another closer look at what the angel told Daniel, we find that Daniel’s people were not actually defined as Jewish people, they were defined as everyone whose name is found written in the book.
Now, what book is this? Well, earlier in Daniel’s prophecy it is called the Book of Truth. It is, essentially, God’s written plan for all of history from beginning to end. And contained in this book is a master list of every person who belongs to God’s people.
So really our question is this: is it possible for non-Jewish people to get their names written on that list, in that book? And if so: how?
Well, Peter says it was revealed to those ancient prophets that they were not serving themselves but you — you, the Christians of Roman Asia. So Peter himself says that it is possible for non-Jewish people to have their names written in God’s book.
But how does Peter know this is possible?
This is how Peter knows: because the things the ancient Jewish prophets talked about have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven.
Back in verse 11, Peter told us that the New Testament Spirit of Christ lived within the Old Testament Jewish prophets, helping them predict the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow.
Here, Peter is saying that the Old Testament Holy Spirit of prophecy also lives within the New Testament Jewish prophets — men like Peter, Paul, James, John, and others.
And the point Peter is making is that the New Testament Spirit of Christ and the Old Testament Spirit of prophecy are the same Spirit. The ancient Holy Spirit who spoke light into the darkness at the dawn of creation is the same Holy Spirit who spoke Christ through the Old Testament prophets. The Holy Spirit who spoke Christ through the Old Testament prophets is the same Holy Spirit who has now spoken Christ through those who preached the gospel in Roman Asia.
In short: the same Holy Spirit who spoke the Word of God to the Jewish nation in the Old Testament is the same Holy Spirit who is now speaking the Word of God to all nations in the New Testament.
And so, Peter is saying, the reason I know your names are written in God’s book is because you have heard and responded to the same Holy Spirit — and the same message — that the Jewish people heard and responded to in times past: the message of the suffering Messiah and the glories that would follow.
The Old Testament people of God proved their names were written in God’s book when they accepted the preaching about the Messiah from God’s Old Testament prophets. In the same way, these Christians of Roman Asia proved their names were written in God’s book when they accepted the preaching about the Messiah from God’s New Testament prophets.
The overall point Peter is making is that Christianity is not one of the newest religions in the Roman empire…it is actually one of the oldest, because everything Jesus did and all the benefits that came from him were actually written down hundreds and even thousands of years before they happened.
So, Peter is saying, if you are worried that Christianity is just one more crazy new religion, if you are wondering how you can verify the things I am saying…read the ancient Jewish prophets. Read the Old Testament. It will confirm everything I have been telling you. There will be some differences in detail, of course — because the ancient prophets were looking at the streetview pictures of the journey, whereas the New Testament prophets actually experienced the journey — but still, a careful comparison of Old and New Testament prophets will reveal that the original Jewish religion and the new Christian religion are actually the same religion, because they are both centered around the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
However, Peter does acknowledge that all this was quite a profound mystery for everyone involved in the process. ”In fact,“ he says, ”even angels long to look into these things.”
God’s long-term plan of salvation for mankind was not just a mystery for the ancient Jewish prophets who wrote it down, it also was a mystery for the angels who went and spoke to the prophets.
The angels and the prophets were God’s messengers, and that is an amazing thing to be! But apparently the prophets and the angels were carrying messages that they themselves did not completely understand…because those messages were actually designed to only be completely understood by some future generation.
In the Old Testament, the angel told Daniel that, when the time comes, “None of the wicked will understand his prophecies, but those who are wise will understand.”
Peter is saying that these Christians of Roman Asia are ”those who are wise”, because now they understand things that even the greatest Old Testament prophets could not. These Christians of Roman Asia now understand things that even angels cannot fully grasp.
So, Peter is saying, it is a great thing to be a messenger from God. But it is an even greater thing to be the one God sends a message to — especially such an ancient and sought-after message.
In short, Peter is telling these Christians that they have been simply given a treasure that many generations of God’s people lived and died trying to discover.
 Therefore, Peter says, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.
Peter is telling the Christians of Roman Asia that the cost/benefit analysis he has offered them is true, accurate, and that therefore Christianity is worth the cost of being so weird and different.
And he is saying, “Look, if you doubt me, read the paperwork for yourself. Not only will you find that these promises are very very old, but you will also find that we are way better off than all the generations that came before us, because we are receiving now the salvation that the ancient prophets could only hope for.”
So: the Christians of Roman Asia had joined a religion that offered better benefits than any other religion:
All the other religions of the Roman empire taught that suffering is guaranteed in this life and the next; all they offered was the possibility of minimizing that suffering. The most hopeful of all the Roman religions taught that, at the moment of death, people simply cease to exist.
By contrast, Christianity agreed that suffering is guaranteed in this life…but not in the next. Christianity alone, of all the religions, old and new, offered a way of complete and total escape from suffering. Christianity alone promised that, at the moment of death, it is possible for a person to be translated directly into the glorious presence of God.
Once all this is understood, it becomes very obvious that the benefits of Christianity were superior to every other religion in the empire!
— if those benefits are true.
And herein lies the problem, no? Because the Good News that Christianity offers is so far beyond anything anyone else is talking about that it quite simply sounds too good to be true. The certainty that Christianity offers is so unbelievably certain that it can actually lead to doubt.
As in, all the other people from all the other religions would have been looking at these Asian Christians and saying, “Are you sure — really, really sure — that your god is actually offering you a free ride to some kind of paradise? Because, as far as we can tell, no other god in history has ever said anything like that! So, you can understand why what you are saying sounds utterly unique and crazy, right?
“And you can understand why what you are saying sounds completely arrogant to us, right? Because, if 99.99% of us all agree that the afterlife is either hellish or non-existent, while only .01% of you believe in a good afterlife — rationally speaking, is it not more reasonable to believe that the majority is right on this point? Would it not be wiser and safer to just admit that your religion is essentially no different than ours?”
That is the doubt that Peter was addressing today. Yes, the Gospel of Jesus Christ would fall into the category of “too good to be true” — if it could not be tested and verified on a rational level. Yes, it should considered the most intolerant and arrogant religion ever invented — if it cannot prove to have a more consistent track record than any other religion.
Peter has simply been saying that Christianity can be tested and verified on a rational level, and that it does, in fact, have a more consistent track record than any other religion. And this is meant to be an encouragement for the Christians of Roman Asia: your sufferings in this life, whatever they may be, are worth the benefits that are coming to you.
Friends, you may be interested to know that, in 2000 years, the only thing that has changed are the percentages:
In the ancient Roman empire at the time Peter wrote, 99% of people believed in a hellish afterlife. A small percentage believed in no afterlife. And an even smaller percentage believed that Jesus Christ would take them directly to paradise when they died.
Today, about 60% of people in the world believe in some kind of hellish afterlife. About 8% believe in no afterlife. And about 32% of people in the world today believe that Jesus Christ will take them directly into the presence of God when they die.
But the costs and benefits of each system remain the same. The best that the other world systems have to offer is the possibility that we might be able to minimize our suffering in this life. According to them, if we are very very lucky we will die and simply cease to exist — which is just another way of saying that nothing we do in this life ultimately matters. But, if we are very very unlucky we will die and discover — to our horror — that everything we did in this life mattered…and that we are going to have to spend our hellish afterlife working off the debts we accrued in this life…
And so, even today, 2000 years later, we find that Christianity is the only religion in the world that promises the certainty of salvation from all grief, all suffering, all judgement. And once all this is understood, it becomes very obvious that the benefits of Christianity are superior to every other religion and every other philosophy on earth.
And this is why — even today, 2000 years later — Christianity is consistently accused of being the most arrogant religion in the world. Even today, people from other religions and other philosophies look at us and say, “Come on, you guys! You have got to know just how insulting it sounds for you to say your benefits are superior!”
And if you are here today and this is what you are thinking, then I want to say, yes: we do know how insulting it sounds. And we do wish it did not sound so insulting. We are sorry it does sound so insulting. It is not really meant to sound insulting!
It is simply meant to be a rather matter-of-fact analysis and comparison of all the systems on offer in this world.
For instance, let’s say you are trying to decide on a career track. You sit down and you look at the options:
Option A requires a PhD, a 100 hour work week, and provides a salary of 60k.
Option B requires a Masters, an 80 hour work week, and provides a salary of 80K.
Option C requires a high-school diploma, a 40 hour work week, and provides a salary of 120K.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I would say that Option C is far superior to Options A and B, because you invest less and get more. That is not arrogance, that is simply a statement of fact!
Well, in the same way:
It is not arrogance to say that Christianity offers benefits that are far superior to every other religion or philosophy in the world, that is a simple statement of fact!
— if those benefits are true.
And how can we know whether these claims are true or not? How can we know whether Peter just made all this up or not?
Well, that is the gift Peter has given us here, by revealing to us that the claims he makes can be traced back into history further than any other religion operating in the world today. Our scriptures — the Judeo-Christian scriptures — have been in continuous use for longer than any scriptures of any other religion. But Peter is not even saying that our scriptures are more credible because they are older than everyone else’s, he is saying that our scriptures are more credible because no other faith or philosophy in the world has ever produced prophecies that have been so consistently confirmed over the course of centuries.
See, all the other ancient scriptures are essentially nothing but morality tales, disconnected from history. They were basically written to teach their people the hundreds of timeless rules required for their religion. You either accept them, or you don’t. But there is no way to verify whether those scriptures are true or not, no way to verify that one set of timeless rules is any better than some other set of timeless rules.
But the scriptures written by the ancient Jewish prophets are unique. They did not write unverifiable morality tales disconnected from history. They did just the opposite: they wrote history, the particular history of God’s interactions with his people. Instead of writing down hundreds of timeless rules, they limited their timeless rules to only ten — and then went on to show, over hundreds of years, how those rules worked out in a real time relationship between God and his people. And their ultimate purpose in writing was to map out a journey that future generations would be able to follow and verify when the time came.
So what this means is that our Christian bible is not an unverifiable rule-book, like the scriptures of other religions. The Christian bible is actually one long story, the story of God’s plan to deliver his people from death on Judgement Day. And because it is actually one long story, we are able to compare the earliest parts of it with the latest parts and see if they do, in fact, tell a consistent story.
And…they do. Again and again, the streetview snapshots the ancient Jewish prophets received have proven to be accurate. They said the Messiah would be born into the family of David, and he was. They said the Messiah would suffer. And he did. They said the Messiah would be glorified. And he has been. They said that one day he would appear riding on the clouds of judgement — and this we are still waiting to see. But we have every reason to believe that it will happen just as the prophets described. They have been right about everything else, after all!
So is not arrogance to say that Christianity offers benefits that are far superior to every other religion or philosophy in the world, that is a verified statement of fact.
Okay. So, practically speaking now, what are we supposed to do with this information?
Well, if you are here today and this is the first time you are hearing all this, then undoubtedly it sounds unbelievably arrogant and narrow-minded to you. But, if I might appeal to your humility, you have to admit that all this is not actually arrogance if it is true. And, if I might appeal to your open-mindedness, you have to admit that the only way to really know for sure that these are arrogant claims is by looking at the evidence for yourself.
So, if that is you, this is what you should do: read and compare. Read the Islamic scriptures, Buddhist scriptures, Hindu scriptures. Go back and read the most ancient Mesopotamian scriptures. And then read the ancient Jewish scriptures. You will see that the ancient Jewish scriptures are different. They are not disconnected just-so stories, cut off from history and rationality. They were clearly designed to be understood and verified, compared to other sources outside themselves. In other words, you will find that the ancient Jewish scriptures are the most open-minded of all the ancient scriptures.
And then, once you have discovered those differences, compare the ancient Jewish scriptures with the new Jewish scriptures: compare the Old Testament prophecies with the New Testament claims of fulfillment. For instance: today, in our worship, during our section called the Promise of Forgiveness, we read Isaiah, Chapter 53 together. Go back and read it again. As you read it, realize that Isaiah is talking about what will happen to the Messiah. Then, compare his description with the description of what happened to Jesus Christ in the New Testament. And then go back to the Old Testament and realize that Isaiah 53 was written more than 700 years before Jesus Christ. And then realize that Isaiah 53 is only one of many examples of fulfilled prophecy in the Old Testament.
So what I am saying is that, if you are here today and you consider yourself to be humble and open-minded, then prove it: read, and compare. Challenge these ancient scriptures, and allow them to challenge you. Because they will: I promise you that.
Now, if you are here today and you have already been convinced that Jesus Christ is the Messiah predicted and confirmed by ancient prophecy, then this is what we are called to do:  Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.
The Christians of Roman Asia lived in an interesting and confusing time, surrounded by many different religions all making different kinds of claims.
So do we Christians of Modern Asia.
The Christians of Roman Asia lived in a time when religious tolerance was the rule, and breaking that rule could potentially cost a person their reputation, their career, even — possibly — their life.
So do we Christians of Modern Asia.
There is a cost that comes with accepting the extravagant claims of our faith. We have been set free from the fear of death and a hellish afterlife! — so there is a poetic irony to the fact that death might be the price the world will make us pay for our freedom from the fear of death.
But the truth is that we live in a peaceful nation, at least for now. The chances are small that men with parangs will break in here and kill us, as happened to Nigerian Christians last week. The chances are small that the police will show up and carry us away to prison, as happened to Chinese Christians last year.
No, the worst thing that is likely to happen to most of us, here in Malaysia, is that our neighbors will think us arrogant and closed-minded, that we might be passed over for promotion by more “open-minded” bosses. We live in a time when religious tolerance is becoming the rule, and breaking that rule could potentially cost us our reputations and our careers.
And Peter is challenging us to count the cost. He is challenging us to think: is it worth it?
And as part of that challenge, he is telling us to go back, again, to the Old Testament prophets, to read what they predicted about the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow, and compare what they wrote with the sufferings of Jesus and the glories he received. And once we have confirmed that they were right about Jesus’ first coming, we should turn and set our hope on what they said about Jesus’ second coming.
And the reason Peter is telling us to do this is because he knows that the only way the cost to our reputations and our careers will be worth it is if we keep our eyes fixed on the reality of the benefits that are destined to come to us.
Our hope is not a leap into the dark. Our faith is not a blind faith disconnected from reality and rationality. There are many religious options out there to choose from. Some of them have produced temples of incredible power and grandeur. Some of them lay claim to very ancient ways of doing things. But none of them have what we have: the certainty of ancient prophecies fulfilled, the certainty of God’s Word preached to us by the Holy Spirit, the certainty of salvation from all grief, all suffering, all judgement.
So our practical application for today is just this: let us set our hope on the grace to be brought to us when Jesus Christ is revealed. We are exiles now. We are not going to fit here anymore. We are no longer going to be well integrated with the cultures around us. And this means we are going to suffer as our Messiah did. But that is okay! Because, just as he had to suffer before he could be glorified, so must we.
Therefore, our focus is not fixed on the suffering, our focus is on the glory to come.