CDPCKL · Distressed but Not In Despair (1 Peter 2:1-9)

Distressed but Not In Despair (1 Peter 2:1-9)

In his first letter to the Christians of Roman Asia, Peter borrowed some very vivid examples from the Old Testament to help his friends in Roman Asia understand what their situation is like.

He talked about how they are like exiles, refugees, like Moses’ people fleeing across the desert, escaping from slavery.

He talked about how they are like Noah’s family, waiting patiently while the ark is being built, watching horrified as the waters of judgement begin to rise and people treat it like a joke.

He talked about how they are like the righteous remnant of God’s people during Ezekiel’s time, the rightous few who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in God’s temple and God’s city. They find themselves standing by, safe with the mark of God’s angel on their foreheads, while sudden judgement strikes down the people all around them — people who claimed to belong to God, but actually did not.

All of these Old Testament examples — and others like them — are still very much on Peter’s mind as he writes this second letter. And we are going to see that today as he revisits these examples.

But we are also going to see that his point in using these examples has shifted somewhat. And this is because the point of his second letter is different from the first.

Peter’s first letter was about the dangers that come from outside the Church.

And so Peter’s point in using these Old Testament examples was to show that it is normal for God’s people to live as a minority, surrounded by nations and powers greater than they are. He kept telling them that the way to survive these dangers is, first: focus your eyes on Jesus, following his example of faith in the face of suffering; and second: focus your eyes on one another, loving one another deeply, from the heart, do not let the devil’s roaring panic and divide you from one another!

Basically his message was: stay united with Christ; stay united with one another; this is how we will survive the dangers from outside.

It was only near the end of his first letter, when he brought up Ezekiel’s situation, that Peter warned his friends in Asia that there can also be dangers that grow up from within the Christian community: he told them to make sure their own elders were humble and generous men, because division and false worship always begins in the center, with the elders and teachers of a church, and spreads outward as the congregations follow their example.

But what if it is already too late? What if the internal unity of the Church has already been weakened, compromised by false teachers and false elders, so that the pressures from outside are beginning to panic and divide a Christian community? What are Christians supposed to do in that case?

This is why Peter’s second letter is all about the dangers that grow up from within a church. And this is why his point in revisiting these Old Testament examples has shifted somewhat, as we are about to find out.

So let’s get started.

Peter begins today by going back to the example of Moses’ people escaping across the desert.

Last week he set the stage for this example by reminding everyone about the time God the Father descended in a cloud and met his Son Jesus on a holy mountaintop. Peter, James, and John were all there that day: they saw Jesus’ face shining, and they heard God’s voice speaking from the cloud. And Peter pointed out that this event was a partial fulfillment of Psalm 2.

But it was also a fulfillment of an even earlier event that happened during Moses’ time: after God’s people escaped from slavery, they came to a holy mountain in Arabia. And God descended in a cloud and met Moses on that holy mountaintop. And the people themselves saw Moses’ face shining; they heard God’s voice speaking. It was an astounding moment in the history of Israel! — because it was during those days that Moses sprinkled the people with animal blood and they were officially adopted as God’s children.

[1] But, Peter says, during those days there were also false prophets among the people.

Remember this? It was while Moses was up on the mountain with God for 40 days that the new-born children of God turned against him. They had been baptized for barely a month! and what did they do? They made a golden cow; they worshiped it; and then they celebrated their worship with a massive orgy of drunkenness and sexual immorality.

And who gave them this idea? It was Aaron, Moses’ own brother, one of the elders of Israel, one from within their own community. And later on, when Moses confronted him, Aaron refused to take responsibility for what he had done. He said, “Hey, you know what these people are like: they just don’t have enough faith!”

And the golden calf incident is only the first of many examples in the history of Israel. Even after they had safely arrived in their promised homeland, even after they had received all the benefits of being God’s children — even then, they turned their backs on their Father again and again, led astray again and again by their own leadership, by men who claimed to be speaking for God.

Well, in the same way, Peter says, there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves

— just as, after the golden calf incident, thousands died under the judgement of God.

But even though their false teachings are obviously destructive, and even though their behaviour has resulted in obvious destruction time and again, Peter says: [2] Many — who call themselves Christians! — will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute.

But: why?

Why were the Old Testament false prophets so often successful? Why are these 2nd-gen false teachers going to be so successful?

Well, because, [3] in their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories.

Now, Peter is going to describe these false teachers in more detail over the next couple of weeks, so you’ll need to come back for that. But this sentence is a brief preview: in essence, these false teachers are going to be so successful because they tell people what they want to hear. When they prophesy, they only prophesy good things for their followers: no suffering, no judgement, just prosperity and power and success. When they teach, their teachings are full of good stories about their own prosperity and power and success. And the reason they make up these stories is because they are obsessed with prosperity and power and success. The reason they promise people money and power is because they know that this is the best way to get people to follow them — and, therefore, the best way to make money and power.

And so: no wonder many are going to follow their depraved conduct! After all, the bible’s message is, “Take up your cross and follow Jesus.” The false teachers’ message is, “Follow Jesus, and take up your power.”

One of these messages is obviously more attractive than the other!

And this is where we begin to realize that Peter’s point in revisiting Moses’ situation is a little different here in his second letter than it was in his first.

In his first letter, Peter wanted his friends to know that it is normal for God’s people to live as a powerless minority surrounded by hostile nations. And we all found this a very hard truth to accept! We had many conversations about it during our Q&A after worship every week, trying to understand what Peter was saying about our true place in this world.

Well, here in his second letter Peter wants his friends to know that it is also normal for God’s people to live as a powerless minority surrounded by false teachers and false Christians. Peter is telling his friends to get used to the idea of being outnumbered, inside the Christian community as well as outside.

Throughout history, God’s nation has always been outnumbered by the surrounding nations. That is normal. But many times throughout history, God’s people have also been outnumbered inside God’s nation. Many times in the history of Israel, only a few remained faithful to God while many in their generation followed the depraved conduct of false prophets and destroyed Israel’s reputation among the surrounding nations — all because they wanted to be like the surrounding nations, all because they were greedy for the apparent prosperity and power and success of the surrounding nations.

Okay, Peter: message received. You are saying that false teachings are going to infect Christianity, and that in many cases true Christians will find themselves outnumbered — even inside the churches — by people who claim to be Christians but actually have no idea who Jesus really is.

Got it.

But to be very honest with you, this is an even harder truth to accept! Because if being outnumbered by false Christians is going to be normal…then, really, where is our hope? If even our churches are not places where we can be completely safe, then…how?

Basically, at this point, we want to know if Peter has any Good News for us.

And the Good New is: yes, he does.

Here is our Good News: Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.

These false teachers live and talk as if there is no judgement, as if they will not be held accountable for what they have done.

But Peter is saying that, even though these false teachers and their followers are going to lead many astray, even though they are going to look like they are right about there being no Judgement Day — their doomsday clock has already started. Jesus is not up there in heaven goofing off or meditating or anything like that: he has not been sleeping, he is keeping a detailed record of everything these false teachers say and do, and he will hold them to account.

But Peter: how can we tell that your teaching is the true teaching?

Because — correct me if I’m wrong here, but — you just told us that all the evidence is going to be on their side! They are going to be successful at corrupting Christianity, and they are not going to suffer any apparent judgement because of it. So why should we believe you instead of them?

Ah! But this is why Peter gave us a two-step test of the truth just last week. So, let’s apply this test to what he is saying. The first step is to ask where in the New Testament Peter got this idea from. The second step is to ask whether this New Testament idea confirms — and is confirmed by — the Old Testament prophets.

So, first step: where in the New Testament did Peter get this idea that the Christian community is going to be infected by — and even dominated by — false teachers, and that these false teachers will one day be judged and destroyed?

Well, good news: Peter heard this directly from Jesus:

Jesus once said that the kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat. So the workers ask if they should pull up the weeds, but the owner is worried they might accidentally pull up some of the wheat also. So he tells them to let the wheat and the weeds grow up together — until the harvest. Then the weeds will be gathered up and burned, while the wheat is gathered into his barn. So there will be weeds — false teachers, false teachings, false Christians — among Jesus’ churches, and there will be a Judgement Day for them.

And that is a good start! But how do we know Peter is not lying about what Jesus told him? After all, these 2nd-gen false teachers also claim to have testimony from Jesus, and they are saying Jesus will not return to pass judgement on the world.

This is why we have to ask the second question: “Peter, can you explain to us how this idea — that you claim you got directly from Jesus — can you explain how this idea is connected to Old Testament prophecies and ideas?”

Peter’s answer is yes.

He has already referred to the time of Moses, when thousands experienced a very immediate judgement for following a false teacher, when only a minority remained faithful to God: only one tribe out of the twelve. But we are not asking about how we can have hope in the face of immediate judgement, we are asking about how we can have hope in times when it looks like judgement is not coming at all.

So this is why Peter goes back once again to talk about the time of Noah, just as he did in his first letter; and then goes on to talk about an event that happened during the time of Abraham — an event that has parallels to Ezekiel’s experience, which Peter also talked about in his first letter:

[4] For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment; [5] if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; [6] if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; [7] and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless [8] (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)— [9] if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment.

In Peter’s first letter, he brought up Noah’s situation as an example for the Christians of Roman Asia.

The world of Noah’s time was dominated by Nephilim, fallen angels, who ruled over Cain’s civilization through the human leaders of that empire, driving them into greater and greater expressions of greed and violence and perversion. But God, in preparation for that first Judgement Day, started a countdown timer of 120 years, captured and chained up those fallen angels, and commissioned Noah to build an ark, a sanctuary. Everyone inside the ark on Judgement Day would be saved; everyone outside would be destroyed.

And Peter’s main point then was to reassure his friends that, even though they are a tiny minority in the Roman empire, surrounded by demonically-inspired nations and cultures, they are safe inside the ark of Jesus’ Church: safe from God’s judgement and safe from the devil and his demons, even though sometimes it does not feel like it — even though sometimes it feels like the day of God’s judgement is taking forever to arrive.

Peter’s point here is essentially the same. Yes, God’s countdown to judgement does often feel like it takes forever. Yes, we Christians are destined to be tiny minority surrounded by hostile forces. And yet we are safe. And we can be certain that one day, suddenly, Judgement Day will begin and everything will be set right.

And in Peter’s first letter, he also brought up Ezekiel’s situation as an example for the Christians of Roman Asia.

If you recall, Ezekiel was one righteous man, one last true prophet left, one of just a tiny minority of faithful people left in the corrupted city of Jerusalem: the rightous few who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that were being done around them.

And Peter’s main point then was to help his friends understand why God’s judgement must begin in the center, in his own house: because there will always be good seeds and bad weeds growing up together — but one day the harvest will begin, when the weeds will be cut down and bundled up and burned, and only the wheat will be gathered into the barn of salvation.

This time, Peter brings up a slightly different example of one righteous man living in an unrighteous city, a man who grieved and lamented over all the detestable things that were being done around him. And in one sense Peter’s point is the same: Lot’s experience of God’s judgement — just like Ezekiel’s experience — is meant to help reassure the Christians of Roman Asia that God is not sleeping. They can be certain that one day, suddenly, Judgement Day will begin and everything will be set right.

But there is something else that Noah and Lot — and Ezekiel — have in common that sets these examples apart from the example of Moses and his people in the wilderness:

Moses lived in a holy nation surrounded by corrupted nations, and he was constantly at work trying to keep that outside corruption from creeping in and defiling God’s holy nation. And that is, in part, what the Christians of Roman Asia are also called to do: protect the purity of the Church from pagan beliefs and behaviours.

But Noah and Lot were both men who lived in a family surrounded by corrupted families; they were men who lived in the middle of corrupted neighborhoods full of friends and relatives who had already embraced pagan beliefs and behaviours.

In a way, Moses’ situation is an example of how Satan will use false leaders to secretly introduce destructive beliefs and behaviours into Jesus’ churches. This is important information for the churches of Roman Asia, because they are still mostly uninfected by these 2nd-gen false teachers. They need to know what to watch out for so they can expose Satan’s secret agents and protect the Church from their teachings.

But Noah’s situation and Lot’s situation are examples of what it looks like when those destructive beliefs and behaviours have become so deeply rooted in Christianity that there are really no differences left between ”Christians” and pagans. And this is also important information for the churches of Roman Asia, because this is what is going to happen to them. Satan is busy sowing weeds among the wheat of Jesus’ people. No matter how carefully Jesus’ people keep watch, those weeds are going to spread, and there will be situations, sometimes, where there are just a few stalks of wheat left surrounded by a vast field of weeds: just a few true Christians left surrounded by false Christians and non-Christians.

Okay. We were asking how can we tell if Peter’s teaching is the true teaching. So we tested it, asking him if he got these teachings from Jesus, and how these teachings are related to Old Testament teachings. And Peter has answered us very well, very clearly.

So…this hard truth is confirmed: there will be false teachers among us. Their infection is going to spread. Sometimes whole fields will be lost: 99% weeds and only 1% wheat. So we should not be surprised if we find ourselves outnumbered by people and churches who claim to be Christians but actually have no idea who Jesus really is! That is normal.

But then we were asking Peter for some Good News in the midst of this very hard truth. And he gave it to us: our only Good News is the reality of Judgement Day, the reality that one day God is going to harvest the fields of the world. And the Good News for us personally is that God can tell the difference between wheat and weeds. Even if there is only 1% wheat left in the world on that day, God knows how to burn the weeds while also safely gathering in the 1%. That really is Good News —

But this just leads us to one last question: Peter, if all this is true, then what is the point of your training program?

Because, to be very honest, even this Good News that Judgement Day must come still makes it seem like there is really no point in teaching us to identify false teachers! Because here we are, 2000 years later. And it is very obvious that the internal unity of global Christianity has already been terribly weakened, terribly compromised by false teachers and false Christians.

To be very honest, at this point it seems like the wisest thing for us to do now is just close the door of our individual ark, seal all the hatches and windows, and just wait for the final flood to begin. No more new members, no more new teachers, no more watching other sermons on youtube, we just lock everything down and we wait for the day of our deliverance. That way we can make sure that our church remains pure, uninfected by all the bad churches and bad teachings out there…

That is tempting. But it won’t work. Because Peter has made it clear that the infection grows from within, like a cancer. If there is even one infected cell in our body when we seal the door, well: now we have just sealed the infection in with us.

Noah’s ark is actually a good example of this: it contained only eight people. Only one of those eight was secretly infected with Satan’s sickness…but all we have to do is look around to see how completely that infection has taken over the world.

The lesson we are learning here is that it is impossible for us to completely purify our congregations. There is no such thing as a perfectly pure church on earth. And those churches that do claim to be the only true Church on earth, those churches that do cut themselves off from every other church in the area…well, that arrogance is actually one of the biggest marks of a false church led by false teachers, and Peter is going to talk about that problem in particular next week…

For now we just have to accept that having an “independent”, “non-denominational” church is just not going to protect us from infection — in fact, history shows us that independence actually speeds up the rate of infection. Besides, God’s Word is clear: we are supposed to keep our doors open. We are supposed to take the risk of accepting new members, new teachers, new elders. We are supposed to take the risk of interacting with other churches. We are supposed to accept that there will be infections in our midst from time to time, and that sometimes those infections can grow strong enough to actually take over a church or a denomination or even an entire region of the Christian world, leaving very few true Christians behind.

So we were asking Peter what is the point of his training program if we cannot keep Jesus’ Church from being infected by false teachers. But now we are realizing that the point of this training program is not to keep Jesus’ Church from being infected, the point is to help Jesus’ Church handle this infection.

Peter started today by saying, “there will be false teachers among you,” and when we look at the condition of global Christianity today, we can agree that Peter’s prophecy has certainly come true! Even though, in one way, Christianity is the fastest growing religion in the world, and even though the knowledge of Jesus is being preached in more and more nations…in many cases, the fastest growing kind of Christianity in the world is actually a false kind of Christianity, and the knowledge of Jesus that is being preached is a false knowledge, based on stories that have been made up by false teachers — not based on the true knowledge of Jesus that comes from the bible.

Now, if Peter had not told us in advance that this is going to happen, we would look at our situation with our human eyes and say, “Oh, no! Christianity has gotten out of control! We have got to stop this somehow!” But because of Peter’s prophecy here, we can relax and look at our situation through God’s eyes: we can realize that God has allowed this wide-spread infection to happen, just as he allowed it to happen again and again in the Old Testament; we can realize that this was actually God’s plan all along —

— and again, in a couple of weeks Peter is going to help us understand why God planned things this way, so make sure to come back for that —

But in the meantime, Peter wants us to understand how we can cooperate with God’s strange plan. Just because God has allowed this infection does not mean we are supposed to just give up and cooperate with the infection. In fact, at least part of God’s purpose in allowing this infection is to strengthen his true children by testing us from within as well as from without. In Peter’s first letter he told us not to be surprised by the fiery ordeal of persecution that has come upon us to test us; now he is telling us not to be surprised by the fiery ordeal of infection that has come upon us to test us.

So how are we supposed to cooperate with God’s plan? How are we supposed to apply Peter’s training program here?

Well, we already know what we are not supposed to do:

We have figured out that we are not supposed to close the door to our church, or try to isolate our church from other churches. It is too late: Christianity is already infected, it was infected from the moment God allowed sinful people like us to join!

In addition to this, Jesus has also told us clearly that we are not supposed to try to uproot the weeds, because we are not skillful enough to uproot the weeds without also damaging the wheat. Only God has that skill, and Jesus has asked us all to trust him to accomplish this task finally and completely on the day of Judgement.

But then: what are we supposed to do?

So far in his letter here, Peter has given us two things to do:

First, we need to test our teachers’ behaviour, and our own behaviour, and see if it is in line with Jesus’ true character. If we do find a steady growth in righteousness amongst ourselves, then we can be confident that we are truly God’s children, that God’s Holy Spirit is truly at work in our midst.

Second, we need to test our teachers’ teachings — and test our own understanding of Jesus’ character — and see if these things are in line with the New Testament apostles and the Old Testament prophets. If we continue to pay close attention to the Word of God, we will have light in the darkness.

And perhaps, until this point, we thought the point of this training was so we can keep Christianity from being infected. But now we know that our job is not to prevent infection, our job is to help strengthen the immune system of the body of Christ.

So, for a third step in Peter’s training program, he is pointing us to Noah and to Lot as examples on how to apply Steps 1 and 2 in a situation like ours, where true Christians are seriously out-numbered in the world and in the churches.

Peter wants us to notice two things about these men:

First, he specifically says that Noah was a preacher of righteousness. Even though the entire civilization of his time was a lost cause, completely enslaved by Satan and his angels, Noah kept telling the truth about who God is and about what kind of behaviour God wants from mankind.

Second, he specifically says that Lot was a righteous man. Which is puzzling for us, because we know what kind of trouble Lot got into later on. But Peter is not saying that Lot was sinless. Clearly, Lot made some pretty bad decisions, and clearly he stuck to them long past the time when he should have made some changes. But what Peter means when he says that Lot was a righteous man is that Lot never lost his basic sense of what is good and what is evil: Lot never stopped being distressed and tormented by the lawless deeds he saw and heard. Yes, he wavered in the face of false teachings. Yes, he doubted. But so do we! The important thing Peter wants us to notice about Lot is that, in the end, when the entire city — including his friends and relatives! — surrounded his house and tried to pressure him into joining their culture of corruption, he resisted. He refused. Like Noah, he preached righteousness to the mob, and they tried to kill him for it.

So what is this third step in Peter’s training program? How are we supposed to apply this to our situation?

Here it is: once we have used the first two steps to make sure we are clear on the difference between false teachings and true teachings, between false behaviours and true behaviours, once we have completed the first two step we must never stop preaching that truth openly or living that truth openly. We must never allow our consciences to become hardened. We should never look around at the lawless deeds we are seeing and hearing in the world — or in our churches — and say, “Oh, we are so out-numbered, our cause is hopeless, if we can’t beat them we might as well join them…” No: we must to continue to be distressed. No matter how hopeless our situation becomes, no matter how outnumbered we may become, no matter how badly the way of truth is spoiled by the many out there who claim to be Christians but are not — we must never stop preaching righteousness and living it.

Why? Why should we keep going, even when we are so hopelessly out-numbered, when false churches have so much more money and power than we do? Because, brothers and sisters, there is still hope for us as a local community. If we have completed steps 1 and 2 of Peter’s program, and we have confirmed our calling and election, then our only concern is to make sure we are preaching and living that hope in our local context.

See, the global Body of Christ is far too big for us to worry about. Jesus is the head of his body and we are going to let him worry about the cancers and infections that are growing here and there. That is not for us! Each one of us is just one small cell in the Body of Christ. Together we make up a larger group of cells, which means that our church is perhaps like one small organ in the Body of Christ. That organ, in order to be useful, needs to be connected to other organs, right? And so we are: our church is connected to a larger group of churches in our city, which is connected to a larger group of churches in our nation, which is connected to churches all over the world: no part of the Body stands alone!

So, while we are affected by the global Body of Christ, and while we also have an effect on the global Body of Christ, we are not responsible for the global Body of Christ. We are only responsible for those that God has given us a relationship with: especially the brothers and sisters in our church, and our children.

So the reason we never stop preaching the truth and leading by example is not because we expect to purify the global Body of Christ — that is Jesus’ job alone! — but because we are responsible to keep our particular collection of cells as pure as possible, and responsible to make sure we are connected to other healthy collections of cells in the Body. By doing this, we strengthen the immune system of the Body of Christ. We cannot keep the global Body from getting infected, but we can fight off infection when comes within our local reach, within our sphere of responsibility.

Noah was responsible for his family: no more, no less. Lot was responsible for his family: no more, no less. We are responsible for our church family: no more, no less.

So, in conclusion here, friends: Peter is telling us not to bite off more than we can chew. Let’s keep things Slow, Small, and Simple. Are you a husband? You are responsible to teach your wife how to fight off the infection of false teaching. Are you a father or a mother? You are responsible to teach your children how to resist infection. Are you a brother or a sister? You are responsible for the brothers and sisters to your left and to your right. But even as we work together like this, we have to remember that we are all infected already! Our bodies are full of viruses all the time; and in the same way our spiritual bodies are always coming in contact with strange new teachings that sometimes cause us to doubt. That is normal! Infection is normal. The point here is to make sure that our church body is strong enough to keep those viruses under control.

And the way we keep our church body strong enough is by going back, again and again, to Steps 1 and 2. When we find ourselves infected by some strange new teaching that one of us picked up on the internet or from the church across town, that is okay! Instead of keeping that teaching secret, let’s bring it out, into the light, and let’s test it as Peter has taught us to do. First, let’s look at the behaviour of those who are promoting this new teaching: is there evidence that they still know the difference between good and evil? Second, let’s look at the teaching itself: does it come from the New Testament apostles, does it confirm the Old Testament prophets? And then, third, let us either accept it and preach it and live it or reject it and preach against it and live against it based on the results of our examination.

As Peter told us at the beginning of his letter: if we do these things we will never stumble; if we pay close attention to the light of God’s Word, we will never get lost in the dark.

But even as we make every effort to spur one another on toward love and good deeds, remember, brothers and sisters, that our faith is not in our own efforts, but in Jesus Christ alone. Yes, we are responsible for our own families, for our own church family. But by deliberately limiting ourselves to our immediate responsibilities, we are basically saying that we trust Jesus with the big picture. We are trusting that he knows what he is doing with his global Body. And even if it looks to us like 99% of modern Christianity is cancerous…we are going to trust that our Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment.

Even if, in the end, there are only 1% of us left, Jesus knows who belongs to him. So let us commit ourselves to our faithful Creator and continue to do good.

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