His eyes are on the righteous

Series: 1 & 2 Peter.

“Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you, but always do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

The second part of 1 Peter 3:15 is often quoted in isolation, as a kind of mantra for apologists and evangelists. It is an important reminder to Christians that our faith is not a personal matter to be kept to ourselves. As Peter demonstrated in his own sermons (Acts 2:14-39Acts 3:11-26Acts 4:8-12Acts 5:29-32), we too should know how to defend the historical truth of the gospel.

We should know our Bibles, and take every opportunity to discuss why we believe in Christ and what Christ has done in our lives. We should have a winsome manner while we go about it. After all, how can someone place their trust in Jesus unless they hear the gospel clearly explained? I’m all for giving good reasons for the Christian faith.

But there’s a danger in using this verse in isolation without looking at what comes before and after it. It can lead us to elevate a silver tongue and persuasive skills above a godly life. Or to idolize a preacher or teacher who impresses his audience with clever words and appealing stories, even if he is nothing like the ‘shepherd’ leader Peter describes in 1 Peter 5:2-4: A leader who eagerly serves God’s flock under his care and is not greedy for money. A godly shepherd who sees his work as a trust from the Lord, and whose life is an example to the flock.

A righteous life.

In fact, Peter’s first letter is mostly about living the Christian faith in every position we find ourselves, humbly, quietly and consistently:

As God’s holy people (1 Peter 1:15-161 Peter 4:3).

As godly citizens (1 Peter 2:13).

As godly servants (1 Peter 2:18).

As godly husbands and wives (1 Peter 3:17).

As godly church leaders (1 Peter 5:14).

As young people towards elders (1 Peter 5:5).

In our everyday lives (1 Peter 3:8-12).

Whatever their position in life, Peter urges his readers to “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12). According to Peter, godly behaviour and godly character speak volumes. It is our lives that glorify or disgrace Christ and his gospel message.

Let’s get a taste of what Peter says about righteous living in chapter 3:

Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct…

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honour to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. 

10 For “Whoever desires to love life
and see good days,
let him keep his tongue from evil
and his lips from speaking deceit;
11 let him turn away from evil and do good;
let him seek peace and pursue it.
12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”

13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled,

Now here we come to verse 15:

15 but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.”

Suffering for doing good.

In fact, for Peter’s original readers, their most persuasive witness to the world was the way  they would bear up under suffering and continue to live godly lives wherever they found themselves. It’s the same for us (1 Peter 2:12). And Peter gives us many practical details of what this godliness looks like:

Our harmony, humility and practical love for one another as a Christian community is a powerful witness in our divided society (1 Peter 3:8). Our ability to forgive one another and pursue peace when wronged, rather than retaliate, is as radically counter-cultural today as it was in Peter’s day (1 Peter 3:9). Truth speakers are a breath of fresh air in a deceitful culture (1 Peter 3:10Ps 34:12-16). Our habit of confessing and turning from sin to do good is proof that Jesus is changing us into his likeness (1 Peter 3:11). A clear conscience is our defense against those who speak slander and malice against us (1 Peter 3:16). Our fear of God rather than man, is a powerful witness to the watching world. It comes from knowing that the Lord sees and cares for his children, who have been made righteous by Jesus’s blood (1 Peter 3:122:1923). His eyes are on the righteous.

Setting apart Christ as Lord in our hearts.

But what does Peter mean, “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord”? (1 Peter 3:15a) This seems to be the crux of everything he says before and after it.

Albert Barnes unpacks the first part of 1 Peter 3:15“to act toward Christ as holy: that is, to obey his laws, and acquiesce in all his requirements, as if they were just and good….to flee to him in trouble, in contradistinction from withholding our hearts from him, and flying to other sources of consolation and support.”

When we set apart Jesus as Lord in our hearts, we are obedient to Christ as Lord of all, and we trust in him alone. We know that one day each one of us “will give account to him who is appointed to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:5). This is the bedrock on which we can speak about the gospel and “give a reason for the hope that we have in Christ”.

Only one Lord.

So, there is room in the Christian’s heart for only one Lord, and that is Christ. Not the lord of opinion; not the lord of personal ambition, money, sex and power; not the lord of worldly wisdom or approval (1 Peter 3:14-16). These are all false lords that we must banish from our hearts, as if our lives depend on it.

Actually, our lives do depend on it, as the recent exposure of Ravi Zacharias has shown us (Read here and here).  1 Peter 3:15 was a verse often quoted by the world famous apologist before he died last year, and it always reminds me of him. But now I am amongst many Christians who are shocked and saddened by the overwhelming evidence of Mr Zacharias’s persistent sin, deceit, abuse of power, abuse of ministry funds, and his calculated and deliberate abuse of multiple women over many years. It all started by exaggerating his credentials, by lying and deceiving to impress the world (Read here).

Ravi did impress the Christian world with his sharp mind and ability to reach atheists and intellectuals. He charmed us with his gracious manner and convinced many people of the truth of Christianity. But he used his position and his platform as a cover-up for evil, which has left a trail of traumatized victims in its wake, including his family. He was not a faithful husband to his wife, and spiritually manipulated the vulnerable women whose lives he destroyed. As effective as he was at reaching people for Christ, he lived a double life, much like Judas did. Instead of repenting when confronted, he spun a web of lies, then bullied and smeared the reputations of his accusers. His ungodly legacy is painful to process, not least because his ministry and the broader Church initially discredited his accusers, instead of investigating the evidence against him carefully.

You may choose not to read Miller and Miller’s disturbing report, but for anyone willing to look at the evidence, there are warnings and lessons to learn there for our personal lives, ministries and churches. And Ravi’s victims deserve to be vindicated and freed from the shame of secrecy.

Giftedness does not equate with godliness.

You see, there’s nothing pie-in-the-sky about Peter’s teachings on godly Christian living. It’s a sobering yardstick for Christians. However gifted or influential a leader, helper, teacher or preacher, any one of us can be derailed by pride, sin and secrecy. We mustn’t think we are too important, as God will accomplish His purposes, with or without us. We will each give account to God for our lives. So, before we tend to anyone else’s spiritual life, we need first to attend to our own, because God requires a godly life before our service. It is impossible to separate a person’s message from their life.

Peter’s letter is a sober reminder that we must live before the face of the Lord, not for the eyes and ears of man (1 Peter 3:12). We must recognize that Satan is crouching at the door of our hearts too, seeking to devour us (1 Peter 5:8). We must turn time and time again to Christ who died for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous (1 Peter 3:18). And instead of idolising Christian leaders, writers, and speakers, we must set apart Christ as Lord of our hearts. Of course let’s use the gifts God has given us to serve (1 Peter 4:10-11), but being gifted is no substitute for being godly.

“For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”

Father, we want to live for your eyes and to be honest about our sin. Give us open, humble, repentant hearts that we may come to Jesus to be made clean and whole and righteous. Thank you for the lives you have entrusted to us, to live for your glory. Help us to live godly and obedient lives in whatever position you have placed us, by the power of your Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Living as strangers in the world

Series: 1&2 Peter, by Rosie Moore

This is the first in a series of devotions in 1 and 2 Peter.

“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:11-12).

As Christians, we are the most privileged people on the planet. Lest we forget, the Apostle Peter reminds us that we have been chosen by God and our salvation and security rest in the free and merciful choice of God (1 Peter 1:1-3). Nothing can take away our “living hope” in the resurrected Jesus (1 Peter 1:3). Unlike everything else in this flimsy world, our heavenly inheritance is permanent and indestructible—it can never perish, spoil or fade (1 Peter 1:4). And through faith in the Lord Jesus, God will shield us and keep us true to our faith until we see our Saviour face to face, to live with him in his perfect home, forever and ever (1 Peter 1:5). What’s more, as the Lord’s chosen people (1 Peter 1:9-10), we have a secure identity in Christ. And as the family of God, we have a million reasons to praise God with the Apostle Peter: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1 Peter 1:3).

But as privileged as we are, we are also strangers in this world (1 Peter 1:1). This is something we should never forget or underplay, even for the purpose of growing God’s kingdom in the world.

First century strangers.

In fact, the lived reality of Peter’s original readers– Christians scattered across the Roman empire due to persecution– is a picture of Christians in every era, who in a sense are called to be strangers, exiles and pilgrims in the world. It is a picture of us, until we reach our permanent home in heaven.

This is how Peter addresses his original readers:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia”. He calls them exiles of the Dispersion, because that is literally what they were. They were scatterlings of Christ in far flung places, away from the comfort, security and community of home.

Let’s walk for a moment in the shoes of these exiled believers who, despite their genuine suffering and grief in “all sorts of trials”, were being urged to “rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:68). What exactly was the source of these trials? And how were they to find joy in the midst of them?

Cultural traitors.

History tells us that these Christians had been banished from their homes in Jerusalem and Rome, branded as traitors by their Jewish communities and declared enemies of Rome. This violent dispersion is described in Acts 8:1-4.

Their suffering took many forms (1 Peter 1:6): On account of the Lord’s supper, the Christians were falsely accused of ‘secret’ immoral worship practices, cannibalism and incest. They were caricatured as haters of humanity and scorned for their irrational beliefs. Two years after Peter’s second letter, Christianity was banned in the Roman empire (64AD), so things were getting worse, not better.

But ironically, far from being rebels, these Christians were living out their faith in selfless service to each other and submission to authorities. Their problem was that they did not blend in with their culture. They refused to conform to the world around them, but aspired to God’s standards of holiness instead (1 Peter 1:14-16).

In spite of their quiet, good lives, they committed the ultimate ‘crimes’ of their day: They would not affirm or participate in the sins of their culture and insisted that Jesus was the only way to know God. They didn’t support the Roman ideals of self, of power and of conquest. And worst of all, they would not bow to Caesar or the Roman gods. So, their crime was not that they were evil, but that they were cultural traitors and non- conformists. This was deeply offensive to their society, and ultimately became a crime worthy of death. That’s why they were scattered all over the Roman empire, living as strangers in the world.

Peter drives home their refugee status several times in his letter (1 Peter 1:172:11). But, as strangers, he doesn’t give them false comfort. He doesn’t promise them prosperity, protection or popularity. And he doesn’t urge them to appease or agree or conform with their culture in an attempt to grow God’s kingdom.

Instead, Peter instructs them plainly to “abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul, to live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:11-12). He reminds them that God the Father judges each man’s work impartially, so they are to “live as strangers here in reverent fear” (1 Peter 1:11). They are to be self-controlled and obedient, holy and distinct from their culture, “for as it is written: Be holy because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:13-16).

The miracle of Christ’s mustard-seed kingdom is that the more Christians were dragged from their homes and persecuted, the more they scattered like seeds, spreading the good news of Jesus Christ to the whole Roman empire and beyond. Little churches were planted throughout the empire and gatherings of believers blossomed, even in Africa, until there were more than 40 000 Christians by AD 150.

So what do Peter’s instructions mean for Christians living in the world today?

Strangers today.

Peter’s letter is definitely for us today! Although we naturally crave approval and hope to woo the world with the gospel, Peter reminds us that our ‘narrow’ worldview will always be deeply offensive to those who oppose Christ. Jesus reminded us of this reality too: “If the world hates you, bear in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).  And James is unequivocal about this too: “Don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God?” (James 4:4) Friendship with the world is a dangerous thing for our souls and it doesn’t help the gospel cause either. God always expects personal holiness from his people. We are to be different.

At the same time, Peter is clear that we should never set out to be offensive, odd or unloving. We must never use our freedom as an excuse for evil but must show proper respect to everyone (1 Peter 2:16-17). We are first servants of Christ, so we must fear God and honour authorities (1 Peter 2:17).

But when we don’t conform; when we seek to obey God’s Word instead of bowing down to the high priests of academia; when we demolish ideas that set themselves against Christ; when we choose a distinct and holy lifestyle, we will automatically be ostracised. We will be ridiculed and caricatured when we expose our culture’s sin, rather than affirm and accept it. And if the prophets, Jesus, and Peter’s readers are our examples, then we too will be offensive to the world. It’s an inevitable byproduct of living as foreigners here.

Timothy Keller explains one area this may apply to Christians in contemporary culture:

“The earliest church was seen as too exclusive and a threat to the social order because it would not honor all deities. Today Christians are again being seen exclusive and a threat to the social order because we will not honor all identities.

But we remember that Christ, who is the “stone the builders rejected…the stone that causes men to stumble” (1 Peter 2:7-8) is a precious Rock to build our lives on, because “the one who trusts in Him will never be put to shame” (1 Peter 2:6). That’s why, like Peter’s original readers, “you can greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1 Peter 1:6). Let’s ask the Lord Jesus to help us to be true to him, always loving God and his Word, rather than the world and its ways.

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:15-17).

My times are in his hands

Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come” (Prov 31:25).

Proverbs 31:25 paints the picture of a woman who lives out of the security that the Lord is in control of the time to come, that he cares for her and the people she loves. “She laughs at the time to come” is not frivolous laughter borne out of a trouble-free life. No, this woman fears the Lord (Prov 31:30), and so she views the world through a grid of hope rather than dread or cynicism. Because of her relationship with God, she is able to face the future with a confident assurance. She has a certain strength, dignity and joy about her.

I wonder if the trials and dangers the Proverbs 31 woman faced in 1000BC were so very different from ours?

“She laughs at the time to come?” That’s a tall order for 2021, given the blanket of doom that’s shrouded our world in the past nine months. If we’re honest, many of us are shaking in our shoes at the time to come! Behind our masks, we aren’t laughing nearly as often as we used to. And we’re not even sure how best to take care of each other when even a hug or a funeral is translated as an act of unkindness. Many are grieving and facing unspeakable losses.

Everyone is battling. Not only are we struggling to navigate the landmines of illness, debt, social isolation, life-and-death choices, depression and death, but many Christian parents are fearful of how our children will navigate a brave new world, which has untethered itself from God’s law and redefined good and evil for itself.

If we’re honest, it’s much easier to fall headlong into fear, than to forge ahead in hope.

Future hope.

But as God’s redeemed people, we dare not place our hope in our ability to perfectly navigate our fragile lives and our futures. We dare not place our hope in a vaccine, or a financial miracle, or a Government, or a strong immune system. Instead, if we have surrendered our lives to the Lord Jesus, we dare to put all our hope in him, who knows our limitations. Our weaknesses. Our fragility. We dare to proclaim him as the Saviour, who is redeeming many lost people through this pandemic and guiding everything toward his ultimate goal—the final judgment and the new heavens and new earth (2 Cor 5:102 Peter 3:13). We dare to seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness (Matt 6:33), knowing that God will work all things for good in order to make us more like Jesus (Rom 8:28-29).

Unlike the atheist Bertrand Russell, who built his life “on the firm foundation of unyielding despair”, a believer can live with confident assurance that our times are in the Lord’s hands (Ps 31:15).  God’s wise and sovereign providence gives Christians hope and purpose during every season of our lives and at every point in history.

My times are in his hands.

I love the way that Charles Spurgeon expresses this great truth from Psalm 31:15:

“All that concerns the believer is in the hands of the Almighty God. ‘My times’, these change and shift, but they change only in accordance with unchanging love, and they shift only according to the purpose of One with whom is no variableness nor shadow of a turning. ‘My times’, that is to say, my ups and downs, my health and my sickness, my poverty and my wealth—all those are in the hand of the Lord, who arranges and appoints according to his holy will the length of my days, and the darkness of my nights. Storms and calms vary the seasons at the divine appointment. Whether times are reviving or depressing remains with him who is Lord both of time and of eternity; and we are glad it is so…But David’s times were in God’s hand in another sense; namely that he had by faith committed them all to God. “Into thine hand I commit my spirit, thou hast redeemed me, O Lord God of truth.”

Living by divine providence

But, if the truth be told, I’m a very slow learner. It’s so easy to see God’s wise and purposeful sovereignty in characters like Joseph and Paul and Jesus, but I find it so hard to surrender to providence when it’s closer to home: This holiday, unbeknown to me, I was bitten by a tick. Soon my body was wracked with raging fever, headaches and muscle aches. Worst of all was the fear and guilt that set in. Fully convinced that I had COVID, I believed that I had already infected my entire family, including my elderly parents and other family members with immune problems. In my delirium, I had visions of an entire clan gasping for breath on a remote Eastern Cape farm. And I was the murderer of them all! I worried and fretted about every worst case scenario.

I’ve discovered that many people are currently living with this kind of guilt and fear of what may (or may not) happen in the future, but I’m so grateful that the Lord used my elderly parents and a local Christian doctor to remind me that our times are in the Lord’s hands (Ps 31:15). One of my children also brought this home when she read to me Jesus’s teaching about worry in Matthew 6. “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matt 6:34).

Jesus holds the keys.

When, as an old man exiled on the island of Patmos, the Apostle John saw a vision of Jesus, he was awestruck and fell at Christ’s feet like a dead man. Nothing could prepare him for Jesus in his heavenly glory. But this is the assurance that Jesus gives his beloved disciple as he lays his right hand of comfort on him:

“Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades (Rev 1:17-18).

John didn’t need to be afraid because he was in the presence of Jesus who lives to never die again. His victory over sin and death was a permanent victory and he alone has the authority and power to determine life, death and eternity for us too. We can trust that he never lets the devil borrow the keys.

What an awesome picture of the Lord Jesus for us to keep at the forefront of our thoughts! It is our helmet of salvation to protect our minds. And it was this memory of the risen Christ that gave all his disciples the courage to keep seeking and serving God’s kingdom through one of the most oppressive periods of history. This is the vision that I would like to shape my own thoughts as I live out whatever days the Lord has given me on his earth: The Lord Jesus, who was there at the creation of the universe, still holds the keys to life, death and eternity, even during COVID. “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:16-17) “For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36). Even times of unemployment and disease, times of revival and restoration – All our times are in his hands.

There’s not a single day that slips through the net of his providence.

Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,when as yet there was none of them” (Ps 139:16).