God’s People in a Hostile World - Rev. Hugh G. Mackay
“But the God of all grace, who has called us unto His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you” - 1 Peter. 5:10
Peter is writing to groups of Christians in Asia Minor, weak and isolated, with little opportunity of fellowship with other Christians. Around were hostile pagans and perhaps still more hostile Jews. They were suffering persecution and they feared worse to come. Peter does not comfort them with wishful thinking. He can hold out no hope of respite. His aim is to put iron into their blood. He does not expect them to escape trial, nor does he particularly wish that they should. He does desire that, in the hour of trial, they should acquit themselves as Christians ought. The message of our text is addressed to Christians in a hostile world. The world is hostile still, and increasingly so. The message remains apposite today.
(1) The Christian’s situation
The peculiarity about the Christian is that he lives in two spheres.
I. He is in Christ. The phrase “by Christ Jesus” can also be rendered “in Christ Jesus”. You remember how Paul speaks of himself as “a man in Christ”. The position of the Christian as in Christ is indeed fundamental to Paul’s thinking. The Christian is united by faith to Christ in a relationship as intimate as that of a member of the body to the head. God looks at Christ and, in Him, He sees all believers. God looks at each believer and sees him in Christ. Because he is in Christ, he is secure as Christ Himself is secure. Satisfaction for his sins has been made by Christ and it has been accepted on his behalf, as if he had made the satisfaction himself. Moreover, the knowledge that he is in Christ affects the believer’s character. It should colour his every decision. The mind of Paul dwells much on this. The believer when he rejoices, rejoices in the Lord; when he marries, he does so in the Lord; when Christian children are enjoined to obey their parents, they are to do so in the Lord; when the believer makes his plans, he does so in the Lord, that is to say, he seeks to make his plans according to the mind of Christ. It is not only that this ought to be the case. The believer, being united to Christ by faith, is a child of God and that fact must be evident, at least to some extent, in his character. We read that: “Everyone that doeth righteousness is born of Him”. This means that sin in the believer is out of character. It is there, sad to say, but it is out of character. You know what we mean by that. A father has a son who does something wildly out of keeping with the character he had fondly ascribed to him. We can hear him say in the grief of a broken heart, “That is not like my son”. Can we say that God is grieved? Of course we can. Does not Paul say, “Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God ?” How much grief we must cause to the Holy Spirit of God in a single day - every day! Yet, in spite of all our lapses, our standing remains.
But if his children shall forsake my laws and go astray, and in my judgments shall not walk But wander from my way: If they my laws break and do not keep my commandments; I’ll visit then their faults with rods, their sins with chastisements. Yet I’ll not take my love from him, nor false my promise make. My covenant I’ll not break, nor change what with my mouth I spake.
We should remember the faithfulness of God when we are tempted to despair of ourselves. We should remember it, too, when we are tempted to criticize others. Who are we to judge? If a person is in Christ, God has accepted him.
That then is one side and, let us remember the more important side - the Christian is a man or a woman in Christ. But The Christian who is in Christ is, at the same time, in the world and, because of this double sphere in which he moves, there is tension and hence, there is suffering. There is, of course, suffering which is common to all mankind and the Christian does not escape. But there are sufferings which are peculiar to the Christian; and even such sufferings as he shares with the world take on a new meaning. They are all part of God’s discipline to further his sanctification - “After that ye have suffered .. .”.
(a) There is suffering which is of the nature of chastisement. The Christian may have to suffer sickness, pain, loss, disappointment and sorrow. We are not suggesting that every such experience is to be traced to some particular sin. To try to connect sin and suffering in this way can become a morbid obsession. On the other hand, we should seek to accept everything that comes our way as part of God’s discipline - perhaps to solemnize us, perhaps to lift our thoughts from things temporal to things eternal and to show us the folly of building for this world, but always to further our growth in grace. It is true that some have to endure more suffering than others. Jacob had a life of more severe trial than Abraham or Isaac. We do not know why. Perhaps he was made of more intractable material. In the end of the day, he could speak with gratitude of “the God who hath fed me all my life long unto this day; the Angel which redeemed me from all evil”. The Christian can rest assured that:
“My Father’s hand shall never cause His child a needless tear.”
The silversmith heats the furnace, not because he hates the silver, but because he wants it as pure as it can be made.
(b) There is also suffering which is of the nature of conflict. We are engaged in a warfare from which there is no discharge. We have enemies without and enemies within. Verse 8 leads us to the root of it all: “Your adversary, the devil, goeth about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” We speak of the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil, but the primary source is the devil. The devil uses the world. Those to whom Peter was writing were experiencing this in an acute form. They were subject to persecution or, at least, to the constant threat of persecution. Today, in this country, persecution is absent in its cruder forms. But the difficulty of living the Christian life in a hostile world is always present. Think of a young Christian witnessing for Christ before hostile or indifferent companions. Think of the howl of protest the world raises when anyone in the name of God tries to thwart its selfish plans. Think of the mockery that often greets a statement of the Christian Gospel, or even an assertion of Christian moral standards. Think, especially, of the subtle influences that cool our ardour, that mute our witness, that lead us to compromise. The devil also attacks us through the flesh, that is to say, through ourselves. We are not ignorant of his devices. We know with what cleverness and subtlety he works. He is busy when we have had a season of blessing, for if he can catch us off our guard, he can rob us of much of the blessing received. He is never more dangerous than when he is quiescent. We are flattering ourselves that we are making progress and, just then, the devil is planning a more devastating attack. We find ourselves like the allied armies in France during the “phoney war” of 1939-40, being told that Hitler had “missed the bus” and believing it, until he arrived in a cloud of aeroplanes and a swarm of tanks.
We may think of some of Satan’s methods.
(a) He sows seeds of unbelief. He tries to make us doubt the foundation truths of the Christian faith. He instills doubts as to whether we can really claim the power of God and, thus, undermines our Christian lives.
(b) He sows discord among brethren. He plants seeds of suspicion, he exploits natural antipathies and, so, breaks the fellowship of Christian people.
(c) He makes the most of our frailties. He has studied us more deeply than any psychoanalyst. He knows our weak points, he knows when we are weary, or not in good health, or inclined to be careless, and he works upon that knowledge ruthlessly.
Such is the situation. What hope can we have? Peter holds out no prospect of respite. He does direct us to recollect the Christian’s assets.
(2) The Christian’s assets
What have we to set against so powerful an adversary? Peter mentions two things.
I. The inspiration of a noble calling.
God has called us to “His eternal glory”. Does that mean that we are called to happiness for ever in Heaven? No doubt! But that is a poor paraphrase. Glory is far greater than happiness, eternal means far more than lasting for ever and this is a calling, which, though fulfilled in Heaven, is entered upon now. What, then, is “His eternal glory”? Is it not just the character of God? Can you imagine a more salutary thought than that we are called on to reflect His character? “When He shall appear, we shall be like Him”. That is the ultimate goal - that we should reflect His likeness and, towards the attainment of that goal, all God’s dealings are directed. Towards that goal, our eyes should be set. That we may progress towards that goal, our eyes should be fixed upon Jesus. “We all, ... beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory.”
2. We are reminded of the availability of inexhaustible resources.
“The God of all grace!” That is the answer to “your adversary the devil”. The word “grace” is a great word. It reminds us, first of all, that we are undeserving. God’s gifts have been merited by nothing in us. It reminds us of the price at which these gifts have been made available. “Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor that ye through His poverty might be rich.” It reminds us, also, of the munificence of God’s gift. The word seems to sum up all that is made available to us in Christ. There is justifying grace by which we sinners are accepted as righteous, because the righteousness of Christ - His obedience to God’s law, and His satisfaction on the Cross for our disobedience - is accredited to us as if we had done it all. There is reconciling grace by which we who were enemies are made friends and, not only friends, but sons and daughters, of Almighty God. There is illuminating grace to guide us through each perplexing path of life. There is restraining grace to keep us from turning aside out of the right way. There is restoring grace to heal our backsliding and to return us to the paths of righteousness. There is sustaining grace to uphold us in times of sorrow and in those times when everything seems to go wrong. There is strengthening grace to enable us to face temptation and to prevail.
Against me earth and hell combine,
But on my side is power divine.
Jesus is all, and He is mine.
What excuse, then, can there be for failure? The word “cannot” should not be in the Christian’s vocabulary. What God commands, He gives grace to perform.
So, finally, we are bidden to believe.
(3) The Christian’s promises
The words of our text can be treated as future tenses and, so, can be taken as promises - “shall perfect, shall stablish, shall strengthen, shall settle”. I want you to look at these words for a moment. Some of them are very interesting and must have been precious to Peter.
I. Shall perfect. The word means “repair” or “restore”. Tradition has it that Mark received much of the material for his Gospel from Peter. We can imagine how Peter would have told him of the day when Jesus called Andrew and himself from their fishing boats, and then called James and John when they were mending their nets and, as Mark sets down the story, the word he uses is this word.
Fishermen must mend their nets; and as Peter looked back on his experience as a fisher of men, he realized that not only nets need to be repaired. The fisherman needs to be repaired too. If the fishing is good, it takes toll of our energies and spiritual resources. If the fishing is bad, it leaves us disquieted and depressed. I am sure Peter often felt himself more desperate than a torn net. But he knew One who restores and refits for service.
2. Shall stablish. Here, again, is a word that had a gracious history for Peter. When Jesus foretold his denial, He added, “When thou art converted, strengthen (stablish) thy brethren”. This is the word that Jesus used. Peter’s denial was a shameful, bitter and humbling experience. It shattered his self-confidence. But it led him to God confidence. He was not only restored, he was stablished, so that he became rock-like in his steadfastness. Now he is showing his brethren how they can be stablished as well.
3· Shall strengthen. So shall we be strong for every battle we have to fight.
4· Shall settle. The word means to ground upon a sure foundation, like the man whose house was founded upon a rock.
That brings us back to the primary question. Are we building on the right foundation ? Can we say:
“My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus’ blood and righteousness?”
If not, none of the gracious promises to God’s people applies to us. But we need not remain in this woeful condition. The Gospel invitation is still open. Nay more, the command rings in our ears, “Seek ye the Lord while He may be found, Call ye upon Him while He is near”. There is also the promise, “Let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him, and to our God, and He will abundantly pardon”. Then, if our lives are resting upon this sure foundation, whatever be our lot, we can claim all the promises of God. They are guaranteed to us in Christ and we shall be “Kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation”.
Rev. Hugh G. Mackay was minister of Kinglassie, Aberdeen and Killearnan.