To The Elect ...
To The Elect ...
Text: 1 Peter 1:1-12
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to God’s elect, exiles scattered ...
In December, AD 37, Agrippina and her husband had a son. Because they were a noble family, they were able to afford to provide a good education for their son, and hired the famous Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger to be his tutor. When the boy was twelve, some time after the death of her husband, Agrippina married the emperor Claudius and persuaded her husband to adopt her son and set aside the claim to succession of his younger son Britannicus. Five years later, in October, AD 54, it is said that Agrippina fed her husband poisoned mushrooms. Claudius died, age 64, and his adopted son, Nero, age 17, became emperor. Because he was under-age, Agrippina ruled the empire. Coinage was issued showing the heads of Agrippina and Nero facing one another. But, after just one year, Nero assumed full control, assassinated Britannicus, and his mother’s power faded away.
This may surprise you, but Nero, under the guidance of his tutor, led a rather stable government. He insisted that the Senate should function as it had under his ancestor Augustus. He took steps to eliminate forgery and reform the treasury, and Nero showed himself to be an able administrator. He abolished some indirect taxes, and forbad the killing of gladiators and the condemned in public spectacles. For various reasons, his apparently good ideas turned out to be impractical and were abandoned. Like his mentor, Nero expressed an objection to taking life, even in the case of capitol punishment. When he was forced to enforce the law in that way, he felt deep revulsion.Facing great opposition from the Senate, from the army, and from the people, Nero began to distance himself from governing and to devote his time to his entertainments – horse-racing, writing poetry, singing, dancing, and rather diverse sexual activity, even adopting effeminate Greek dress. When his mother objected, he arranged her murder, claiming to have uncovered her plot to have him assassinated. In AD 62, Seneca retired from the political arena, leaving the 25-year-old emperor to his baser instincts, becoming ever more depraved.
In AD 64, the Great Fire broke out in the slums of Rome. Nero stood on his balcony, reciting his own poem, “The Sack of Troy,” and enjoyed the spectacle of the fire. It is thought that, perhaps, Nero set the fire himself, trying to clear space to build a new palace for himself. But the fire raged out of control, consuming homes and businesses of prominent citizens and some Senators. In order to divert attention, Nero blamed the small community of Roman Christians, and burned some of them alive. Thus began a period of persecution that made martyrs of many Christians, including Paul and Peter. Up to this point, the Christians had been considered a sect of the Jews. There had been sporadic persecutions, as when Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome, sending Priscilla and Aquila to Corinth, but now, under Nero, persecution broke out in earnest and thousands of Believers lost their lives, many in indescribably gruesome ways.1
It was into this climate of persecution and suffering, Peter wrote his letters. The dates given for the writing are between AD 60 and 64, sometime either just before the great persecution or shortly after the Great Fire. In this first section, Peter reminds the “scattered saints” of four things.
The first thing that Peter wants the scattered saints to know is who they are. This is vital. When we are in the midst of pain and suffering, we begin to forget certain things. Our focus turns toward our own pain. We begin to think that we are alone, that we are the only ones going through this, or the only ones who experience this. We start to identify ourselves with our pain, with our trauma, with our disease. We see ourselves as victims or as patients. It is frustrating to me to see all the sorts of support groups and affinity groups that focus on a particular disease. We have our disease in common, or our addiction in common, or our trauma in common. We become part of that group – cancer survivors, alcoholics, parents of murdered children, etc. – and seek identity there. And then the Church responds by developing support groups that masquerade as “ministries”, but do nothing more than Christianize the problem. We then claim to have a ministry to cancer survivors, or a ministry to alcoholics, or whatever. But what that actually does, folks, is to separate us from our true identity.
What is your identity? Who are you? To those scattered saints, suffering persecution and martyrdom, Peter replies, “To God’s elect ... who have been chosen ... through the sanctifying work of the Spirit ... and sprinkled with his blood.” There are those who want to jump straight to predestination, and so miss the whole emphasis Peter is trying to make. It is who you are in Christ. Remember all the “whosoever” verses? Remember, and we haven’t got to that part of Peter’s letters, but “God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). God adopts everyone who responds. God wills that all should be saved. Not all will be, unfortunately.
But that’s not Peter’s point. Peter’s point is your identity in Christ. You belong to God. You have been chosen, sanctified, and sprinkled with his blood. You are part of the brotherhood of Christ. When you go through trauma, when you face illness, when things go wrong in life, never ever forget that you belong to Christ. You are HIS! And I actually don’t particularly care how it happened or why. I actually don’t particularly care about the theology behind your salvation. What matters in the face of trial is that you belong to Jesus. “Now I belong to Jesus. Jesus belongs to me. Not for the years of time alone, but for eternity!”2
You are not Nero’s victim; you are God’s own child. You are not defined by your pain, by your disease, by your trauma, but by your identity in Christ. Too many Christians live in their victimhood. It’s time to be reminded that we are children of God. We are defined by our salvation and by our sanctification. I belong to Jesus – whatever trials, disease, or troubles I may face.
The second thing Peter wants you to know is what you possess. We often forget the source of our strength. Paul told the Corinthian church, we have this treasure in jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7) – the treasure being the light of Christ. Peter spends a bit more space defining what we possess in Christ.He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ ... There’s more to unpack here than we have time for, but your salvation brought you hope because of the resurrection. It no longer matters what man may do to you because of what God has done for you. The resurrection of Jesus gives you hope. Two things here: a new birth and a living hope.
He has given you an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade, kept in heaven for you. You are the heir of the kingdom of God. The divine will has been written; the ink will never fade; the treasure will never be exhausted; and it’s secure in heaven’s golden vault. Your inheritance is shielded by God’s power. And that’s not a temporary matter that depends on your circumstances – it is shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. That is, in Paul’s words to Timothy, I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day (2 Timothy 1:12). I know God, and I am fully persuaded that he is able to protect my inheritance to the very end of time.
The third thing Peter wants you to know is why trials come. It is what James has already told us – the testing of your faith produces perseverance (James 1:3). The proven genuineness of your faith ... results in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. And you need to remember that your faith is of greater value than gold. “What good is it,” Jesus asked, “for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36). Your faith in Christ is of greater worth than all the treasure in the world.
The story is told of a rich man who showed up at heaven’s gate with a wheelbarrow full of gold. He begged Peter to let him bring his treasure in. Peter turned to the angel next to him, and said, “Look at this. This man wants to bring pavement with him.” Earthly treasure is worthless in heaven; heavenly treasure is priceless even here. The trials of your faith prove the value of your faith.
Trials come to focus our faith. It is not in things, not in this world, not in people. Our faith is in Jesus Christ – even 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 expressible and glorious joy. “Joy unspeakable and full of glory.” In Christ you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. Trials make us focus on what really matters. I wrote this in the hours before surgery to remove tumors that tests showed might be aggressive cancer. I am not writing from an “ivory tower faith”, but from the shadows where faith is all I have. I cannot have faith in this life, but only in Christ, my Rescuer and my Healer.
The fourth thing that Peter wants you to know is that this should come as no surprise. The prophets predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. Salvation is costly. The prophets searched intently, Peter says, trying to ferret out the times and circumstances that God was pointing them to. They discovered that it was not for them they spoke, but for the ages to come. God revealed the plan of salvation through the likes of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea. He revealed his plans for the restoration of His good creation through Daniel, Zechariah, Joel, and Isaiah. They were able, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, to gaze into God’s glorious future, and see the day of Christ. Hebrews 11 reminds us that they did not obtain what they saw, but they did not turn away from it. They believed in God. They believed God’s word. And they spoke so that later ears, open to the Voice of God, would hear and believe. God revealed his mind to the prophets, and the angels can only stand by in amazement.
The point is that Jesus would not be the only one to suffer. The servant is not greater than his master. Jesus told the disciples that if he were persecuted, they would be also. If he suffered, so would they. Salvation is costly. It set us in opposition to the world. It makes us counter-cultural. It makes us rebels, for if Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not. If Jesus is Lord, the world is not. Those who follow Christ will indeed drink the same cup he drank. You should not be surprised when trouble comes. You should not be surprised when people ridicule your faith. You should not be surprised when Christian businesses are sued for refusing to comply with worldly demands. In fact, you ought to expect such things to happen, and not be dismayed when they do.
How do we do that? How do we live that way in the face of persecution? How do we stand when Nero is on a rampage against the Church?
First, remember who you are – the chosen people of God, the sanctified and cleansed.
Second, remember what you possess – the great treasure of salvation. You have an inheritance that can never fade, and your treasures are secured by God’s own power.
Third, remember why trials come – for the testing and perfecting of your faith. Trials help us to refocus on what is really important. And trials refine us and strengthen us.
And finally, remember that this was predicted. We were warned ahead of time that such days would come. They are confirmation, in a way, of those first two - confirming that we belong to Jesus and identify with him; and confirming that we possess a great treasure. Knowing this, we remember then, that we are more than conquerors through him who loved us (Romans 8:37).
And nothing can separate us from that great love. Nothing will tear us away from Him.
1 Adapted from Michael Grant, The Roman Emperors (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985), pp 34- 39
2 “Now I Belong to Jesus,” Norman J. Clayton © 1938 and 1943 by Norman J. Clayton. © renewed 1966, 1971 by Norman Clayton Publishing Co. (A division of Word, Inc.). All rights reserved. Used by permission.