Saturday, April 14, 2007

Hang Together, Not Separtely

God does not leave His people defenseless in the world. He sends a comforter and counselor in the Holy Spirit, we have the assurance of Christ’s righteousness imputed to our account, the peace which flows from the Gospel, and the sword of God’s infallible Word.

We also have the people of God living together in the church. Our brethren provide love and encouragement, not to mention the occasional rebuke, preaching the Gospel to us in word and deed.

I discovered this truth again recently in the seemingly innocuous closing words of First Peter. The beauty of Holy Scripture is that even in the ostensibly banal and trite there are nuggets of gold and great wisdom.

Consider I Peter 5:12-14: “By Silvanus, a faithful brother as I regard him, I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it. She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son. Greet one another with the kiss of love.”

The theme of suffering and tribulation is a consistent subject throughout I Peter. He was writing to Christians scattered throughout Asia Minor who were undergoing persecution. Moreover, they would face greater strife in the near future. Peter desired to see them live well in the face of trouble. His hope was that suffering would serve as an iron, melding the people of God together rather than ripping them apart.

And it is crucial that Christians learn to handle suffering. Suffering is certain, it will happen. “Beloved do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (I Peter 4:12). Whether physical suffering associated with the slow decaying and dying of our bodies, grief connected to watching our family and loved-ones suffer, problems stemming from sin—our own and others, we will in fact suffer. We may struggle not merely with physical maladies, but also emotionally—the pangs of loneliness or despair, worry or anger, feelings of inadequacy or condemnation, etc. Faith in Christ will not protect us entirely from struggle or difficulty. "Man who is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble” (Job 14:1). Suffering is certain, and how we handle it has consequences, temporal and eternal.

Think for a moment of the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1-9, 19-23:

"A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear…When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty."

The “seed” was sown on three types of soil. First, there is good soil that produces a yield of 30, 60, and 100-fold. Then there is rocky soil where the seed immediately springs up, but it has no established root so when persecution and trouble come it is followed by falling away. Likewise there is soil that is filled with thorns. Those thorns are the worries and anxieties of this life that choke out the word so that it does not bear fruit. In short, if we don’t know how to handle worries and afflictions, we will not persevere as believers.

Throughout the letter, Peter has been comforting his readers with the truth of the Gospel by emphasizing their standing before God. But in his closing greeting he shows that growing strong through suffering requires standing with other saints.

The fact that we are not merely suffering alone, but together, should give us hope and buttress our faith during a time of trouble. Moreover, it is not merely believers in local bodies, but believers all over the world. Peter says that we should be spurred to resist by the fact that “the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (v. 9).

Peter is saying that throughout the world believers are undergoing similar trials and similar stresses. And like soldiers going to war, we are not suffering and battling alone, but are fighting the devil with our spirit-filled brethren.

I was reminded of this truth reading Dave Black’s blog recently. In his April 2nd entry, Dr. Black posted pictures of evangelists serving in Ethiopia. These brethren are suffering and being persecuted for their faithfulness, and yet they face trials with “supernatural, Spirit-given joy and exultation.” The lives of these brethren are a living apology for the transforming power of Christ’s redemption. And though I have never met these men, nor Dr. Black, they are my brothers and sisters in Christ with whom I will spend eternity, and I if I love them as my brethren (which is the mark of a believer), I must support them in whatever way that I can via gifts of money and intercession.

Peter also commends “Silvanus,” who we know as Silas. He calls Silas a “faithful brother.” Silas likely carried Peter’s letter to these churches as a means of encouraging them. He was also with Paul on his second missionary journey where he faithfully taught and encouraged many churches. For his faithfulness he suffered beatings, hardship, and even imprisonment. When Peter says “stand firm” in the grace of God, he was in the company of a man who had done just that and could serve as a worthy example.

Peter also sends greetings to the churches of Asia Minor from, “She who is at Babylon, chosen together with you sends you greetings.” Peter is using Babylon as something of a code name to protect believers in Rome and he is also attempting to communicate the wickedness associated with the enemies of God by comparing the Roman regime to Babylon. But he is also speaking of a real group of Christians gathered in Rome. Even there in the middle of “Babylon” existed a group of believers linked with churches throughout the world in the great cause of the Gospel.

There was also Mark, who Peter calls his son. He wasn’t a physical son, but a son in the faith. Mark, who was so afraid of persecution that he had earlier abandoned Paul and Banabas, had grown into a faithful and godly man, ready to endure hardship for the cause of God’s Kingdom

Peter closes by saying, he “written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God” and encouraging them to “Greet one another with the kiss of love”

In other words, extend the peace and love of Christ to your brothers and sisters. Peter has been emphasizing suffering, and he is encouraging us to go through trials together rather than individually. In our suffering, God is often preparing us to help others during their time of stress and difficulty. Our aim is to comfort one another, support one another and spur one another on to love and good deeds. Peter’s letter is a testimony to the grace of God in Jesus and he urges them to “stand strong” in that grace.

There are many reasons to join and actively support a local church. But one reason is that during trouble, we need brothers and sisters. Moreover, we are called to minister to those who are suffering. We have been given the comfort and grace of God so “that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ” (I Cor. 1:4-5).

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