(Painting by Aaron Spong)
Series: 1 & 2 Peter, by Rosie Moore.
Knowing God in a personal relationship should naturally lead to a grace-based life. This is how Peter instructs first century believers to go about their everyday lives, as homeless exiles scattered all over the Greco-Roman world:
“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Peter 4:8-11)
Peter affirms the ethic we see throughout Scripture—that love is our top priority as God’s special community (Luke 10:27; Lev 19:9-18): “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). This distinctly Judeo-Christian idea, which is given flesh and bones in 1 Corinthians 13, used to be known as Christian charity. Charity is the natural response of a believer who grasps the mercy and grace of Jesus poured out in their own life. What’s more, God is praised when we use our abilities as he directs, to help others (Matt 5:16; 1 Peter 4:11).
What’s striking about Peter’s instructions is that the first century church’s base was broad—it crossed cultural, social, ethnic, gender and economic lines. Mutual love across these lines wasn’t natural or socially acceptable in the Greco-Roman world. Yet, Peter urged this diversely-gifted, mixed bag of Christians to love one another, as ‘good stewards of God’s varied grace.’
Love one another earnestly
If Peter is to be believed, fiery trials are never wasted on a Christian if we continue to use whatever gifts God has given us to love one another earnestly. Some of these diverse gifts are listed in Romans 12:6-8; 1 Cor 12:8-11 and Eph 4:11, but Peter sorts them into two pigeonholes: Serving and speaking.
I love that word “earnestly”! It means seriously, sincerely, eagerly and from the heart. It’s like a pure stream of love for fellow believers that wells up in response to the gospel which has saved us all. “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love each other deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22).
A few months ago, when a woman joined a Bible study group that I’m part of, her husband was taken aback, “Where did you find all these new friends who love you so much? I’ve never known you to have such caring friends, and you’ve only known them a few months!” Our care for each other is born out of our common bond and precious faith in the Lord Jesus (2 Peter 1:1). It is a natural, but at the same time a supernatural kind of love that makes instant friends out of total strangers. But it’s also a love that mutually serves.
Peter must have recalled the night when Jesus had illustrated earnest love with a bowl of water and a cloth:
“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet…A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13: 14; 34-35).
Although none of us will live up to the radical love of Jesus, who gave up his life to save his enemies, we know that loving and serving our neighbour is part of our DNA as Christians. It’s what makes us different from the world.
Peter lays out four identifying marks of love that would distinguish them from their culture:
- Steadfast service.
- Love that covers over a multitude of sins.
- Cheerful hospitality.
- Christ-like speech.
We’ll explore the first two marks today.
If you’ve been a Christian for a while, you’ll have discovered that love is easier to talk about than to do over the long haul. It’s hard to keep serving in relationships, when our own selfish hearts rub up against real people with their fears, weaknesses and sins. Virtue signaling is a lot easier than obeying Peter’s instruction to “keep loving each other” in the present continuous tense.
Like a car, relationships require ongoing maintenance, not a once-off visit to the carwash!
Joni Earekson Tada describes this kind of steadfast service as ‘long obedience in the same direction’. Bearing in mind that Joni is now 70 years old and has been a quadriplegic since she was 16, her perspective is pretty amazing:
“Someone once said that the challenge of living is to develop a long obedience in the same direction. When it’s demanded, we can rise on occasion and be patient . . . as long as there are limits. But we balk when patience is required over a long haul. We don’t much like endurance. It’s painful to persevere through a marriage that’s forever struggling. A church that never crest 100 members. Housekeeping routines that never vary from week-to-week. Even caring for an elderly parent or a handicapped child can feel like a long obedience in the same direction.
If only we could open our spiritual eyes to see the fields of grain we’re planting, growing, and reaping along the way. That’s what happens when we endure…
Right now you may be in the middle of a long stretch of the same old routine…. You don’t hear any cheers or applause. The days run together―and so do the weeks. Your commitment to keep putting one foot in front of the other is starting to falter.
Take a moment and look at the fruit. Perseverance. Determination. Fortitude. Patience.
Your life is not a boring stretch of highway. It’s a straight line to heaven. And just look at the fields ripening along the way. Look at the tenacity and endurance. Look at the grains of righteousness. You’ll have quite a crop at harvest . . . so don’t give up!”
(Joni Eareckson Tada, Holiness in Hidden Places).
But, just in case we think we can serve in our own strength, Peter reminds us to serve “with the strength God provides” (1 Peter 4:11). If we depend on our own abilities, or serve to feel better about ourselves, we’ll be burnt out before we’re around the first bend. Christian charity is fuelled and directed by Christ, and it’s about God’s glory not our own: “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16).
Love covers over a multitude of sins
Then, in verse 8, Peter makes the point that it’s not possible to keep loving and serving one another unless we also overlook offenses and extend mercy to each other, for “love covers over a multitude of sins”. Paul describes this charitable love as “bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:2-3).
Charitable love gives people the benefit of the doubt. It extends Christ’s tenderhearted forgiveness (Eph 4:32; Col 3:13) even when it’s undeserved. It doesn’t look for hidden faults or motives in what a person says or does, but takes people at face value. Covering over a multitude of sins is only possible when we know how much it cost Jesus to cover over our own sins. How much we need his mercy every day!
Lydia Brownback comments that verse 8 “doesn’t mean that love erases sin or the pain it causes. Peter’s point is that love wants to see the best in others and interprets their circumstances in a favourable light whenever possible. And even when it’s not possible, love takes no pleasure in harping on someone’s sin or discussing it with others.”
The prophet Zechariah adds substance to this charitable attitude: “Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace; do not devise evil in your hearts against one another” (Zech 8:16-17). Authentic peace in relationships is never achieved at the expense of truth and charity. Truth and charity go hand in hand.
The receiving end of charity
As Peter wrote these words, I’m sure he remembered how he had been on the receiving end of truth and charity many times in his own life:
There was that breakfast on the beach when the risen Jesus had forgiven him after his three denials (John 2:15-17). Christ hadn’t harped on Peter’s disloyalty, but had restored Peter with grace and truth.
Then there was the time in Galatia, when Peter had acted like a hypocrite for fear of offending the Judaizers (Gal 2:11-12). Peter had effectively enabled division in the church when he favoured one group (Jews) and would no longer eat with the other group (Gentiles). Yet, after Paul’s truthful confrontation and Peter’s repentance, Paul and Peter remained fast friends, because love covered over a multitude of sins.
How do we find the power to show grace to a person who has hurt us deeply, to cover over a multitude of sins? Certainly not by our own strength or willpower, for ‘flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit’ (John 3:6).
It is only possible through Christ’s Spirit in us. It is only Christ’s love that can move us to be peacemakers and ministers of reconciliation (1 Cor 5:14), to forgive as he has forgiven us. As sinners saved by grace, our relationships can only be sustained by Christ’s supernatural grace in us.
But the Holy Spirit will never compel or bully us into extending charitable love–Love that covers over a multitude of sins. Gordon Macdonald and Corrie Ten Boom remind us that forgiveness requires our co-operation:
“Forgiveness, I came to see, is about cleaning up the memory by renouncing and flushing vengeful feelings about other people.” (Gordon Macdonald, A Resilient Life: You can move ahead no matter what.)
“Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.” (Corrie Ten Boom)
Lord, with all the brokenness and needs around us every day, help us to be led by your Spirit in how and whom we serve. Make us aware of the gifts you have given us, so that we will be good stewards of your varied grace. Give us your heart of mercy, compassion and unfailing love. Give us your strength and grace to love deeply, to forgive easily, to be charitable and to serve each other faithfully and steadfastly. To the glory of your name, Amen.