What's the future? - 1 Peter 1:3-9

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 12th November 2006.

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One November morning, a student was walking across the university campus, and as she came to Cranbrook Avenue, she saw the figure of Death a little bit in front of her.  It was a typical figure, donning a black robe, a long scythe, and an hourglass in its opposite skeletal hand.  She was scared, for a moment, but then remembered that it was close to Halloween, and figured that it was probably a schoolboy trying to frighten people. Moments later, however, the figure was coming closer to her.  She looked to her friends for support, but they had vanished. In fact, she was totally alone on Cranbrook Avenue. Now the figure was right in front of her, and it raised its scythe high above her in a threatening gesture. Well she’d had enough, and she fled in the opposite direction.  She didn’t stop running until she reached the office of one of her lecturers, and when she got there, she was crying and screaming, still frightened.  Her lecturer calmed her down, and then she told him of the figure of Death and how it raised its scythe in a threatening gesture. He assured her that it was probably just a Halloween prank, but she wouldn’t listen. She told him that she must get to Edinburgh right away to see one of her friends. It’s too far away to go there, he said. Don’t worry about it any more. But the girl wouldn’t listen, and she stormed out of the office, packed her bags, and was on the next train to Edinburgh. An hour or two later, the lecturer was walking across campus. He too saw the figure of Death. He decided he was going to get to the bottom of the situation and marched right up to the figure. “What are you doing walking around like this, using your scythe in a terrifying way and threatening my students?” “I wasn’t doing it in a bad way,” said Death, “but in a way of surprise.” “Surprise?” the professor asked. “Yes,” Death said, “I was surprised to see her here in Hull this lunchtime, because I have an appointment with her tonight in Edinburgh.”

            If there is one taboo left in our culture it is death. The Victorians would talk about death all the time and were obsessed with it, whilst they would never talk about sex. Now we 21st century Britons are obsessed with sex and never talk about death. Even at funerals, I’ve found that people will talk about anything apart from death. We have a whole set of vocabulary to make sure we don’t mention the ‘d’ word. We talk about people “passing on”, or “kicking the bucket” or “going to a better place”. But rarely do we talk about someone dying. The cosmetic industry thrives on people’s fear of ageing and death by making us buy products whose aim is to help us stave off the inevitable. Stay young we are told. Look fit and healthy, when all along the years roll by and we are simply deluding ourselves. Cryonics is also becoming big business, where your body can be frozen and then in years to come, the disease which killed you will be cured and you can be brought back to life. Not bad for £60,000.

            Of course, some, mostly the younger generation, will simply ignore the fact that death is inevitable. Some will simply say, “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” But for those who bother to think about it, there is the realisation that such a denial of death is naive and the inevitability of it is very depressing. The author Mark Twain said shortly before his death: “A myriad of men are born; they labour and sweat and struggle;…they squabble and scold and fight; they scramble for little mean advantages over each other; age creeps upon them; infirmities follow;…those they love are taken from them, and the joy of life is turned to aching grief. [Death] comes at last- the only unpoisoned gift earth ever had for them- and they vanish from a world where they were of no consequence,...a world which will lament them a day and then forget them forever.”

            Well thankfully for the Christian there is hope beyond the grave. Death does not have the last laugh. In fact death has been defeated and death need no longer hold its sway over us. And the simple reason is that Jesus Christ rose again from the grave never to die again. He has smashed the doors of death off its hinges and has triumphantly brought in a new reign of life and immortality. And it’s that wonderful resurrection hope that we are thinking about tonight. And to help us we’re going to look at a letter written by the apostle Peter to a church that were in the grip of serious persecution. These Christians were scattered across what we now know as Turkey. And the Roman Empire was about to begin a systematic extermination of Christians, including Peter himself. So what hope is there for Christians under that sort of pressure? Facing persecution and possible death, how should Christians respond? And what hope is there for us as we face that last enemy, death? Well there is great hope, because Peter explains that the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead profoundly affects the believer in three ways. For the resurrection gives us:

1) A Certain Future (Vv 3-5)

2) A Purpose to Suffering (Vv 6-7)

3) A Joyful Present (Vv 8-9)

1) A Certain Future (Vv 3-5)

First the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead gives us a certain future. Let’s read from verse 3: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” So Peter begins with cry of praise. Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! Give praise to God, he says. Why? Because in God’s great mercy he has given us a living hope. Now sadly for many the word hope is devoid of meaning. Many people if you press them say they have little hope. They might have vague hopes of a better income sometime in the future, a better period of financial security, better weather next summer, better health. But there are no guarantees. And when it comes to life beyond the grave, then hope is simply wishful thinking. “I believe he’s gone to a better place.” “I’d like to think I was going to heaven,” people say. But back in the first century when Peter was writing, people were much more realistic. Listen to this quote from a gravestone in the first century when Peter was writing: “The sun will rise and set, but it is eternal darkness for me.” In fact, in that whole 1st century graveyard there is not one headstone that offers any hope. Or consider the Greek philosopher Aristotle who wrote: “Death is the most terrifying of things, for it is the end.” That was the common thought of the time. The reality is, without Christ, there is no hope for human beings. But Peter says the Christian has been given a living hope. We have a hope which is alive and true. It’s a living hope, not a dead hope. In other words it’s certain and concrete. But why? What gives us such confidence? Surely it’s just pie in the sky when you die, wishful thinking in the extreme. Well no. Because Peter says such hope comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Our hopes are pinned on the physical historical resurrection of Jesus from the dead. When Jesus rose victoriously from the grave that Easter Sunday morning, a new dawn was beginning. It meant that no longer could death hold its victims for ever. Because if we are trusting in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then we too can participate in that new life Jesus gives. We too will rise again from death. Death cannot hold us. Death is just like crossing a river to the other side, to eternal physical life beyond the grave. And it’s not wishful thinking, because Jesus Christ has taken the first step and shown it can be done. He has paved the way for all of us who trust in him. That’s why we have a living hope. Jesus stands triumphant over the corpse of death. And if we place our hand in his, then so can we. He will take us through death to a new perfect life with him forever.   

            But notice what else Peter says about this certain hope. Because he goes on to mention two characteristics of this hope. First that it includes an indestructible inheritance. Let’s read from verse 3: “In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you.” Now the inheritance that Peter is talking about is our position in God’s perfect kingdom, a new world which as Christians we will inherit. And literally such an inheritance is imperishable, unspoilable and unfading. It’s imperishable in that it cannot decay with age unlike everything in this world. It’s unspoilable in that this inheritance cannot be marred by sin or evil, unlike everything in this world. And it’s unfading in that such an inheritance never loses its glory and joy, unlike even the best things of this world. That’s what we have to look forward to because of Jesus’ resurrection. An inheritance that will never ever perish, spoil or fade.

            But notice also that Peter describes another aspect of this hope. And that is that we are a protected people. You see it’s one thing to talk about a great future hope, but will we make it? What happens if we stumble along the way? Can we be sure we will get there? Well yes, because of what Peter says in verse 5: “We through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” In all the ups and downs of life, God is keeping us. We are shielded, literally garrisoned. That is it’s as if God’s protective wall is around us. He will keep us until our full salvation is revealed when Jesus returns. He will keep us, you can be in no doubt about that. Now of course it’s not just that God keeps us and we can do what we want. Notice that little word “faith”. We must keep trusting the promises of God. But be assured today if you are in any doubt, God will keep you till the end, as you keep on trusting him, however weak you feel you are. He will shield you till the end.

            Now I for one cannot think of a better hope than that. This hope is based on the historical victorious resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It means you and I have a fantastic indestructible inheritance. And it means God will keep us till the end. That is the certain hope we have. And we need to ask ourselves if we understand that and whether we live in the light of it. You see Peter isn’t writing to give his readers a theological poser to talk about over a strong Turkish coffee, or in the Turkish baths. He’s writing to them to galvanise them for the sharp steel of a Roman sword on the backs of their necks. That’s the reality. And it means that you and I if we are Christians can stare death in the face and say to him, “You will not have me forever. Because I am Christ’s. You are defeated.” It doesn’t mean we won’t die. But it does mean we need not fear death. Yes it may be painful, and we might be afraid of the process of dying. But we need not fear death. Because we know that Jesus will bring us through.

            Over my years here, I’ve had the privilege of holding the hand of a few people who have been very close to death, in some cases just hours before they meet their maker. And as they face the awesome reality of heading into eternity, what has given them confidence? What have I said to them? In every case, I have been able to say place your hand in Jesus’ and he will bring you through death. And in every case they have faced death with confidence because they are holding the hand of the one who has defeated death. And when you cross that threshold with him, there is no fear. 

            But let me tell you, if your hand is not in Jesus’ then you have no hope as you face death. You’ll be like the medieval king who gave his new court jester the fool’s sceptre and told him to keep it until he met someone more foolish than himself. Well years later the king lay dying, and he called for his jester to cheer him up. And the king said: “I’m about to go on a long journey.” “Where are you going and how will you travel?” asked the jester. “I don’t know,” replied the king. “Have you made any provision for the journey, your majesty,” replied the jester. “No,” said the king. Then the jester handed the king his fool’s sceptre and said: “Then this belongs to you.” Whether you are young or old, then I urge you to place your hand in Jesus’ tonight. For we do not know what tomorrow will bring. All you have to do is live long enough to know that death comes often when least expect it. And we need to be ready. And the brilliant news is that through the resurrection of Jesus we can be. For through him we can have a certain hope.

2) A Purpose to Suffering (Vv 6-7)

But secondly, the resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us a purpose to suffering. Let’s read from verse 6: “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.” Peter goes on to say that in this certain hope his readers greatly rejoice. But, for a little while they may have had to suffer grief from all kinds of trials. Between now and the time when either we die and go and be with the Lord or the Lord returns, there are going to be trials of different kinds. Now notice Peter says such things last only for a little while. All the difficulties we face in life are for a little while. Peter isn’t wanting to belittle our pain. Rather he is showing us that we need to have a bigger perspective on life. In the grand scheme of things, in the light of eternity and the wonderful future hope awaiting us, then these things are for a little while. There will come a time when our pain and suffering will end. And that should be a great encouragement to us. And notice too that he says we suffer grief in all kinds of trials. I guess if we were to put our hands up and tell of the different things we are going through, then there would be a whole range of difficulties in this building. For some it would be persecution at home or at work for our faith. For others it would be a physical ailment which drains us of energy and strength. For others the anguish is mental. For others the pain is a spiritual struggle of varying sorts. This side of heaven we do face grief in all kinds of trials. And that is the norm for the Christian. We are not spared the pain of this world.

            But Peter goes on to say that God has a purpose for us with these trials that we suffer. He can use them to make us more like himself, to refine our faith. It’s not that God is responsible for all the pain we are suffering. Rather by his sovereign power, he can use even sad and painful and evil things for your and my good. See how Peter puts it in verse 7: “These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.” Our faith is like a precious metal that needs to be put through the fires of adversity to burn off the impurities. And it’s often the case that in difficult times we fling ourselves onto God more, our selfishness is stripped away, our self dependence is shown up for what it is. Through the fires of suffering we learn to become more holy and godly and loving. And notice that it is only at the end of time, when Jesus is revealed, when he comes again, that all will be seen for what it is. In other words, that future hope guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus, is a spur to keep going in the present. Because we know that one day everything will be seen for what it is. Our faith, tried and tested in the fires of adversity will be seen to be gold, and it will result, not in our glory, but in the glory of God.

            I wonder if we see our pain and suffering in that light, if we do have a long term perspective on it? Because what should encourage us is that God wastes no tears. Every bit of difficulty we go through, he can use to make us like himself. And one day all that hard work, all that perseverance and pain will reveal a faith of pure gold and it will be God who gets the glory. And it’s only because Jesus rose again and is coming back that our suffering has any meaning. Because as the risen conquering Judge he alone can use our pain for his glory, and he alone can give us the courage and strength to get through it!

            Let me tell you about one group of people who came to know the reality of these truths. They were a group of Christians who lived in Cambodia during the dictatorship of Pol Pot and his communist regime. Pol Pot ruthlessly persecuted the church and killed hundreds of thousands of people in what has become known as the Killing Fields of Cambodia. But in the midst of those terrible times, even there God was at work. The story I’m going to read to you about four Christians in prison comes from a book called “Killing Fields Living Fields,” which is the story of the church in Cambodia. “At the prison, the four men were pushed into a single cell with a number of other people awaiting trial. Wasting no time they set themselves to pray for God’s strength and wisdom, to sing hymns of praise and to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ to the other prisoners. During the several weeks they were detained, virtually all the twelve other prisoners in the cell came to believe in the Lord Jesus and joined them in prayer. When the guards threatened to place the Christians in solitary confinement if they would not cease their evangelistic activities, Elder Un replied that it would be of no avail, for he would continue to sing of God’s grace and salvation at the top of his voice for all in the jail to hear. While the four men waited in jail, a young Cambodian army officer, a Christian, came to stand each day outside the prison gate. He waved no placards nor raised his voice in protest, but simply stood quietly for a time as a silent yet clearly visible testimony. All would know that here was a Christian unmoved in his faith, despite harassment from the government, standing in support of his brothers behind these prison walls. This remarkable young man was Taing Chhirc, a Christian from Kampong Cham, whose energy and vision for the kingdom of God was already beginning to be felt in the church. Later he would emerge as one of the pillars of the Khmer Evangelical Church and ultimately one its greatest martyrs. Those inside the jail, thus tested and tried, would also go on to bear much fruit in the subsequent years.” Can you see what is happening? Through the fires of difficulty, God was refining his people so that their faith would be proved genuine. And in doing so he was strengthening them for tougher tests ahead, and also bringing glory to himself. Even in our trials, God can be at work. For the resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us a purpose to suffering.

3) A Joyful Present (Vv 8-9)

But there’s one final thing we see in this passage and that is that the resurrection of Jesus gives us a joyful present. Verse 8: “Though you have not seen him, you love

him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with

an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the

salvation of your souls.” You see although we do go through difficulties now as Christians, it does not mean that there is nothing of joy and delight in this world. There is and that is what Peter explains in these verses. Peter says that his readers have not seen Jesus personally. They were not around on the scene when Jesus walked the earth, since this letter was written some thirty years or so after Jesus died and rose again and ascended into heaven. But the fact that they have not seen Jesus personally does nothing to dull their joy and love for him. “Though you have not seen him, you love him, he says. And even though you don’t see him now, you are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.” These believers truly loved their Lord. There was a deep personal relationship between them and the Lord Jesus Christ which was marked by love and joy. Although we don’t have everything now, we should expect a measure of delight and love as Christians for our Lord now. There is much to be joyful about, much to love the Lord for. Now of course, it needs to be remembered that joy in the Bible is not happiness. Joy is a deep seated delight in God which is more than surface emotions. That’s why we can rejoice even in difficult situations, because we see the bigger picture. We can see that God is at work in us. We can see that he is still in control. And it maybe that we need to re-examine our own hearts if our love and joy has grown cold. Are we fostering that relationship with the Lord this side of eternity. It’s not all about the future. Our relationship with Christ begins now.

            And notice why it is that we can be joyful and loving to our Lord. For, verse 9, “we are receiving the goal of our faith, the salvation of our souls.” We are in the present receiving the goal of our faith, salvation. We know what it means to be saved and forgiven and set free from sin. And yet there is much more to come. And one day we will experience in reality the full joy of our salvation which is guaranteed by what Jesus has done. And because of Jesus’ work for us by dying and rising again, that we can begin to enjoy the fruits of his salvation. We can know God and grow in joy in him and love of him because of Jesus resurrection.

So let me tell you about one woman who knew the reality of these three blessings of the resurrection of Jesus, a woman who knew the certainty of her future, who knew the purpose of suffering and who enjoyed a joyful loving present relationship with God. Her name was Fanny Crosby. She was a hymn writer who lived during the nineteenth century to the great age of 95 and who wrote more than 6,000 gospel songs and hymns, including “To God be the Glory” and “Blessed Assurance”. Although blinded by an illness as a young infant, she never became bitter. One time a preacher sympathetically remarked, “I think it is a great pity that the Master did not give you sight when He showered so many other gifts upon you.” She replied quickly, “Do you know that if at birth I had been able to make one petition, it would have been that I should be born blind?” “Why?” asked the surprised clergyman. “Because when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Saviour!” Well one of Fanny Crosby’s hymns was so personal that for years she kept it to herself. But one day at a Bible conference run by the famous evangelist D L Moody, Fanny Crosby was asked by Moody to give a personal testimony. At first she hesitated, then quietly rose and said, “There is one hymn I have written which has never been published. I call it my soul’s poem. Sometimes when I am troubled, I repeat it to myself, for it brings comfort to my heart.” She then recited this poem to the audience whilst many of them wept. ‘Someday the silver cord will break, and I no more as now shall sing; but oh, the joy when I shall wake within the palace of the King! And I shall see Him face to face, and tell the story- saved by grace!’”

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