The Hope of Grace (Saved from Defending God)
This is a complicated passage of scripture. It is, without a doubt, the most complicated part of this whole letter by Peter. But it is complicated because it is the heart of the whole thing—it is in these verses that Peter reveals the most important truths that he has to share. The key to the whole letter is found in v.18. Hear it now again in another translation (VOICE):
The Anointed One suffered for sins once for all time—the righteous suffering for the unrighteous—so that He might bring us to God. Though He died in the flesh, He was made alive again through the Spirit.
This is the reality that undergirds Peter’s faith. This truth is what allows him to proclaim hope in hard times to people who find themselves suffering—especially on account of their faith.
But there’s a lot to unpack in so simple a truth—which is why the surrounding passage seems so complicated.
These verses are loaded with code-words and specialized terms for a purpose. It allows Peter to reference much larger pieces of instruction and story without having to relate the whole thing.
“Suffering once for sins” brings to mind the Passion story of Jesus, reminding us that his death on the cross was a “sacrifice” that need not be repeated—by we ourselves or any surrogate.
“The righteous for the unrighteous” recalls Jesus’ sinless nature, but also his innocence of the trumped-up charges that led to his execution. And even more, this expression looks back at how Jesus’ “righteousness” contrasted with the “unrighteous” politicians and religious leaders in cahoots against him—We saw Jesus’ righteousness most clearly as his own nonviolent response was met with ever-escalating violence by everyone else.
“That He might bring us to God” takes us back—waaaay back—to God’s desire for relationship with us—persistent since our very creation. It reminds us of those days we strolled in Eden with our Maker, of the rift we tore as we hid from our God (then and still), and of the ways God has tried again and again to be reconciled to us:
through personal relationship with Abraham and his descendants,
through prophets like Elijah,
through kings like David,
through a different kind of prophet like Isaiah or Jeremiah,
through pagan leaders such as Cyrus of Persia,
and now (at last) through Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah and Son of God.
When Peter refers to how it is better to suffer for doing good than doing evil, he is saying it is better to suffer undeservedly (like Jesus) instead of because you earned it.
He stresses this point—and he does so this close to his key verse about Jesus’ own suffering—because he himself knows the instincts of our species: when we are threatened, one of our primary instinctual responses is to attack and destroy.
But this is not the way of Jesus. As we read two weeks ago, 1Peter 2:23 tells us that “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (1Peter 2:23 NRSV).
Jesus saw that violence cycles back on itself. He even said as much in Matthew 26:52: “People who live by the sword die by the sword” (VOICE). It was by bathing himself in the stories and teachings of Jesus Christ that led Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to proclaim:
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that
(Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? p. 67).
As revealed in how Jesus lived and taught, we now know that it is impossible to break the cycles of violence through the use of violence. Christ could not have overcome the violent systems of this world through force; he only would have imposed new violent systems.
In order to “overcome the world” (Jn 16:33; 1Jn 5:4), Jesus had to respond nonviolently to the harm being done to him—he had to trust that he would be vindicated by God, that “vengeance is mine…saith the Lord” as the old King James Version put it (Rom 12:19).
By helping his audience see the way that God redeemed Jesus‘ suffering, Peter wants to open their imagination to the ways God might be able to redeem their suffering, should they respond (like Jesus) in ways that break the cycles of sin and violence, instead of reinforce it.
If we (like Jesus) trust God to be a righteous judge, then we recognize that we too have a hope that carries us through our suffering. Our hope is called grace.
It is the hope that things will turn out differently than they do in this world.
It is the hope that God will view us through the lenses of compassion and forgiveness.
And it is the hope that when we face our Judge, we too will hear: “Well done, good and faithful servant… Enter into the joy of your master.” (Matthew 25:21 ESV).
Apologetics: Ancient Misunderstandings
Now maybe this is enough of a sermon for one day, but I want to take it a step farther.
In the early days of the Christian church after the NT era, there was a lot of misunderstanding about Christianity. Since it emerged out of Judaism, some considered Christians to be yet another Jewish group, like the Pharisees, Sadducees, or Essenes. But even within the NT era, Christians started to be pushed out of their Jewish world of synagogues and rabbis. In the Roman Empire, practicing Judaism as a religion was permissible, but Christianity had no such protections. We were seen as a rogue, insurrectionist cult by many.
This led us to be rather particular about who we allowed into our gatherings and rituals. In some places, symbols and codes were used to prove you were a Christian or mark where we were to next gather. Often, we were forced to gather for worship in suspicious places and times, such as catacombs and graveyards in the dead of night. This, combined with ignorance about what Christianity is really about, led to all sorts of gossip and slander that only furthered the persecution we experienced.
As one example, Christians generally did not allow non-Christians to be present when we celebrated communion. But whispering abounded and gossip (as still) filled in the blanks. The dominant theory quickly became how we met in secrecy and under darkness in order to perform human sacrifices that involved drinking human blood and eating human flesh.
In order to counter all these misunderstandings and help to mainstream Christianity, a number of Christian leaders began practicing what historians call “apologetics.” Simply defined, apologetics is the practice of “speaking in defense” of religious belief.
There are places in the NT where Paul does this kind of thing, but it becomes more of a discipline with Origen, Augustine of Hippo, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and many later writers.
And while (as you might expect) there has been a nearly infinite variety to the arguments that have been made by these “apologists,” there is also a remarkable consistency among these early voices. All of them utilize the most solid secular data and logic that was available to them. In other words, they defended Christianity in ways that stood up to peer-review, that were consistent with the scientific knowledge of their world, and that made sense to someone with no knowledge of Christianity. They embraced the conclusions of the world around them, but used those conclusions to argue for the validity of the Christian religion and worldview.
There’s been a resurgence of people calling themselves “apologists” in the last century. In fact, the opening paragraph of Wikipedia’s page on “Christian apologetics” lists over twice as many modern voices as they do for the previous one-thousand-nine-hundred years (as accessed 19 May 2017 at 1:10 pm CST).
But particularly in the last few decades, I’ve noticed these “new apologists” handle themselves in a very different way than their ancient namesakes. These “new apologists” tend to be antagonistic toward the world, supposing they can “prove” Christianity by condemning everything else. They work to undermine the generally accepted scientific data instead of discovering the ways it points to God. And throughout it all, they present themselves as victims of some mass conspiracy.
Now our country identifies as over 70% Christian. Unless you live in an apartheid state, it is not very likely that such an overwhelming majority will find themselves so victimized.
The ancient namesakes of these “new apologists” would hardly recognize them.
What’s my point? Well, there are significant players of American Christianity that are working hard to convince us that we are the marginal victims of an anti-Christian majority. They work to keep us afraid—and many of us are afraid—because when we are afraid we are more easily controlled and manipulated. When we are afraid, we need them more, because we are more willing to trust in the supposedly-Christian power players of our nation than in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.
These “new apologists” may be doing a great job selling fear to the Christian public, but they are in fact undermining the cause of Christ and making the Way of Jesus a laughing-stock among those who need salvation. Their arguments are faulty. Their denial of repeatably demonstrated scientific principles undermines their credibility. And their anti-culture language only serves to distance them—and us—even more from those Jesus loves. They are not defending Christianity to those outside it; they are building walls between Christianity and the world Christ entered to save.
Back to Grace
The grace we receive as Christians—the grace we experience through a transforming relationship with God—it is not given to us to purify us so we can escape this world unscathed. The grace we receive is given to us that the cause of Christ might be expanded as we—like our Savior—give it to others. This grace forces us to tear down walls and overcome divides in order to bring all into the reconciling mission of our God.
But it is also rooted in that core trust of Jesus—the trust that God is Judge and not we. This gives us a clean conscience and frees us from unnecessary battles. These verses of Peter and the teachings on Jesus and God here demonstrate that God does not need us to defend God or God’s actions. How can God save us if God needs saving by us? No! God is fully capable of defending God’s-self. Our job is not to defend God against a vile and evil world, but to reflect Jesus so that the world “God so loves” might be brought back into his tender embrace.
The hope of grace saves us from defending God.
And in the hope of grace, we discover how to move forward as a faithful people loved by our God, even in the midst of hard times.