Sunday, July 08, 2007

How Should We Live in Light of the Coming End (Part 3 of 5)

The Christian's Duty
Having given sound instruction regarding what the Christian’s perspective should be in light of the coming end, Peter jumps into presenting a quick-fire list of six commands every Christian must obey in order to meet the demands of the Christian’s duty, in light of the coming end. The first two commands directly address personal holiness. The second couplet addresses mutual love. And the third couplet addresses spiritual service.

Every Christian must be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer.

Every Christian must keep fervent in his or her love for other genuine followers of Jesus Chris and be hospitable to his or her brothers and sisters in Christ.

Every Christian must employ the spiritual gift (or gifts), which they have graciously received from the Holy Spirit, for the purpose of serving their Christian brethren.

Sound Judgment
In light of Jesus Christ’s imminent return, every Christian must be controlled by sound judgment. The phrase “be of sound judgment” comes from a single Greek word—sōphroneō. It is a word that is full of meaning. It literally means to be in one’s right mind; to exercise self-control; to have a reasonable estimation of one’s self; and to curb one’s own passions. Here are a few passages that speak directly to sound judgment.

"I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. For through the grace given to me I say to every man among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith" (Romans 12:1-3).

"If indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth" (Ephesians 4:21-24).

"Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things" (Philippians 4:8).

It is our God-given duty, in these last days, to be of sound judgment in all things. I. Howard Marshall wrote that being of sound judgment “carries the idea of maintaining a sense of proportion and keeping one’s head despite the dangers and fears of the time. Fear and worry, stimulated by persecution, can easily lead to hasty and ill-conceived judgments.”[1]

Take evangelism, for example. I see a lack of sound judgment so very often when I talk to people about evangelism. Often times, I can see it in the look in their eyes. They don’t even have to say a word. I’ll mention open-air preaching on Hollywood Boulevard or spending a Friday evening at a mall, wading through hundreds of out-of-control teens, looking for opportunities to engage the kids (and adults) in spiritual conversation; and the look on the person’s face changes from initial interest to a look of utter terror.

When I see this look overtake the person’s face, a look not unlike the moon moving in front of the sun during a solar eclipse, I will pause and say something like:

"I know what you’re thinking. In the last few seconds, you’ve come up with any number of reasons why there is no way you would preach in the public square or witness to people at the mall. You’re probably thinking, ‘What if the other person hates me? What if they not only attack what I say, but what if they physically attack me? What if I end up in the hospital and I can’t work? Who will pay the bills? And what if the car breaks down, and we can’t afford to fix it because I’m out of work?

'Then I won’t be able to drive the kids to school. And if I can’t drive them to school, their grades are going to drop. And if their grades drop, it might adversely affect their self-esteem. And then what? They won’t graduate. They won’t get a job. They will be living with me until they’re forty. So, I better not get involved in evangelism because my kids might not turn out the way I hope.’"

The person will look at me with a look on their face that expresses both how absurd they found my word picture and, at the same time, how much truth it contained. Now, having the person where I want them, I can talk to them about being of sound judgment. I can talk to them about the rationality or irrationality of their fears. As Paul wrote in Philippians 4:8, if we are operating with sound judgment we should dwell on what is true. Is it true that you might face mild persecution from the valley’s youth or mall security if you spend a Friday night witnessing at the Valencia Town Center? Maybe. But will it result in your life falling apart and your children growing up to be perpetual tenants in your home? Come on!

Being of sound judgment means that we are serious in our thinking. Not that we brood or sulk or worry. Rather, it means that we do not allow our fallible emotions determine our actions. It means that we do not allow our fallible perceptions determine our level of obedience. We live and operate by faith and not by sight. We press on and obey the Word of God, even if we don’t understand or even agree with every verse. We press on and follow Christ, even if the outcome is uncertain.

Sober Spirit
The second command Peter gives us for the purpose of fulfilling our Christian duty is to be of sober spirit. In the Greek text, the word translated as the phrase “sober spirit” has in mind the idea of sobriety. Peter is commanding his readers (and us) to exercise self-control in every area of their lives and to remain alert.

I spent a good time of my patrol career hunting and arresting drunk drivers. Having pulled over a suspected drunk driver, and having begun the field sobriety tests, it didn’t take me very long to determine that the person standing in front of me was not very alert. They couldn’t follow simple directions or complete simple tasks. They couldn’t multi-task. They exhibited short-term memory loss. They were drunk. Because of their intoxication, they lacked the basic necessity to safely operate a motor vehicle. They were not alert. Their ability to pay attention to what was going on around them was impaired.

Likewise, the Christian who is not alert, who, because of fear and worry and sinful behavior lacks the ability to see what is going on around them (in both a physical and spiritual sense). Their powers of observation are lacking and, as a result, they do not have the right spiritual perspective, particularly as it pertains to the coming end of all things.

For the Purpose of Prayer
God, through His Word, graciously gives us the reason we must remain sound in judgment and of sober spirit. The reason is so that we can have unhindered communion with God and so that we can petition the Father on behalf of others, and ourselves, through the power of prayer.

Christians are often too drunk to enjoy any meaningful time in prayer, with their heavenly Father. No, I’m not talking about being drunk on strong drink. Christians are often too drunk with worry and fear to enjoy wonderful time with the Lord, in prayer.

Something else I noticed about drunk drivers (and drunks in general) is that they are very boisterous. They talk very loud. And they never stop talking. They continually have something to say and nothing short of a tightly fitting muzzle is going to keep them from telling you how they feel, what they think, and what they want.

Christians who are drunk with worry and fear do the same thing. If they pray (and that’s a big if), they spend most of their time, with a very loud spiritual voice, telling God how they feel, what they think, and what they want. And when they don’t receive an instantaneous, positive response, they talk even louder, adding whining and sniveling to their expressed feelings, thoughts, and desires.

It’s not uncommon for people to e-mail me or call me in what can best be described as a state of panic. “God’s not answering my prayers! God isn’t listening! I’m done praying. It doesn’t work!” They say.

The first thing I try to do is to determine if the person with whom I am corresponding or speaking is born again. God’s Word is true. He does not listen to the prayers of those who reject Him and live in willful disobedience to His commands. Listen to the Word.

"O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer; and by night, but I have no rest" (Psalm 22:2).

"When your dread comes like a storm, and your calamity comes on like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come on you. Then they will call on me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently, but they shall not find me, because they hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the LORD. They would not accept my counsel, they spurned all my reproof. So they shall eat of the fruit of their own way, and be satiated with their own devices. For the waywardness of the naive shall kill them, and the complacency of fools shall destroy them. But he who listens to me shall live securely, and shall be at ease from the dread of evil" (Proverbs 1:27-33).

Answered prayer comes, first and foremost, as a result of being in a right relationship with God. That is only possible by faith in Jesus Christ. One must, by the power and leading of the Holy Spirit, humbly come before the Lord in repentance (a genuine desire to turn away from their sinfulness) and submit to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Unless one is born again, he or she will not enter the kingdom of heaven, nor will they have communion and communication with the King of Heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Having established, to the extent that I am able, where the person is spiritually, if they are a follower of Jesus Christ, the next thing I encourage them to do is to be quiet. The psalmist wrote: “Cease striving and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). The phrase “cease striving” can also be translated from the Hebrew as “let go” or “relax.” And Paul wrote: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:6-7).

If we are in a constant state of panic or worry, if we do not possess and exercise sound judgment, if we are not functioning with a sober spirit, then our prayer life will be in a shambles. We might pray often, but our prayer life will be so noisy and so “me” oriented that we make it impossible to hear from the Lord, as He ministers to our hearts, speaks to our consciences, and encourages us through His Word. Peter is not suggesting that one cannot pray without sound judgment or a sober spirit. What he is saying is that without these important character traits, our prayers will be ineffective, noisy, and futile exercises.

Fervent In Your Love
Having squared away his reader’s thinking regarding their own hearts and minds, he shifts the focus to how believers should behave around one another; and he begins by stressing the most important characteristic of biblical fellowship. Peter writes: “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.”

Regarding the command in verse 8, Martin Luther wrote:

“As to thine own person, be of sound mind and sober so that you may pray aright and in sincerity. Then look to those around you and with whom you live that you may love them from your heart.”[2]

Peter and Paul are in total agreement. Paul wrote: "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing . . . But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor. 13:1-2, 13).

"Make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose" (Phil. 2:2).

"Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity" (Col. 3:14).

I have yet to belong to, visit, or minister in a church that does not struggle in this most important area—loving each other. I have often said (sometimes tongue in cheek and sometimes not) that ministry would be so much easier if people weren’t involved. Why do I say that? I say that because some of the angriest, meanest, spiteful, malicious, self-centered, lying people I have ever met are members of Christian churches. Their love for others only extends as far as what they receive from others. So long as they are served, they will treat others well. The moment they don’t get want they want, they make life miserable for others in the church (particularly leadership), until they decide to leave and go infect another church with their sinful behavior. Granted, with the increasing number of false converts being welcomed into the church family, it is likely that many of these negative people are not truly saved.

The church (speaking in general terms) really has no one to blame but itself. Yes, each person is responsible for his or her own sin. But the church breeds and encourages this kind of self-centeredness when its vision, purpose, direction, and modus operandi is based upon a desire to please, accommodate, and entertain unsaved people while, at the same time, coddling the sin of professed followers of Christ by making sure not to do or say anything that might negatively impact attendance.

When this kind of thinking (which is the antithesis of sound judgment and a sober spirit) rules the church, it is not long before everything the church does is geared toward keeping the church alive. The focus soon turns inward, and reaching a lost and dying world with the gospel becomes a mere afterthought—if it is thought of at all. The church becomes a club. Tithing becomes paying dues. Serving becomes self-serving. And worship becomes little more than something people do on Sunday, if there is not something better or more entertaining to do.

This bleak picture, which is a reality in many churches, can be traced back to a failure to do several things, one of which is a failure to love each other the way Scripture commands. We, as genuine followers of Jesus Christ, are to love each other fervently. This word “fervent” comes from a Greek word that was used in ancient texts to describe an athlete, including racehorses, straining every muscle. Our love for each other must be this intense, this committed.

Remember what Jesus said? “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The Greek word translated as “love” in John 15:13 is the same Greek word we find in 1 Peter 4:8—agape. It is the kind of love that is sacrificial and completely other-oriented, meaning: to love in this way is to continually have the greater good of the one you love, in mind.

When I put this kind of love together with the idea of fervency—stretching and straining to reach love’s full potential and effectiveness, I cannot help but to think of Jesus Christ hanging on the cross. I cannot help but to see Him straining to take every breath. I cannot help but to see every muscle in his body stretching to the point of failure as He took upon Himself the wrath of God each of us rightly deserves as the just punishment for our sins against God. So great, so fervent, so perfect was His love that He bore the weight, the shame, and the punishment for the sins of those who would repent of their sin and, by faith, receive Him as their Lord and Savior.

Above all else, we must keep fervent in our sacrificial love for one another. We must exhibit the reality of justified and sanctified hearts that have been changed and renewed through the redemptive work of Christ. We must stop wounding each other by hurling hearts of stone at one another. We must love each other the way Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us.

[1] Marshall, I. Howard: The IVP New Testament Commentary Series—1 Peter. Downer Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991, p. 142
[2] Luther, Martin: Commentary on Peter & Jude. Trans. and Ed. By John Nichols Lenker. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Classics, 1990, p. 181

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