For the next two Sundays, the focus of our worship services will be on the mission of the church beyond its own family. This has caused me to do a lot of thinking about my own priorities in life and the priorities of our church. There is one prominent fact that has forced itself on me from several sides—a fact that our church and every church must reckon with. I'll put it in the words of Ralph Winter, Director of the U.S. Center for World Mission. He said in 1978 ("Six Essential Components of World Evangelization: Goals for 1984," William Carey Library, 1979, pp. 3f.):
We may do well to recognize what seems to be the consistent thrust of the whole Bible—that unless and until, in faith, the future of the world becomes more important than the future of the church, the church has no future. As Jesus put it, the most dangerous thing you can do is seek to save your life . . .
World Mission and the Future of the Church
Thus, to turn it around backwards, world evangelization is the only future of the church. Every church in history that has not reached out has gone down. Couple this fact with the logical statement that "to whom much is given, of him shall much be required" and world evangelization is no longer an option in which the super zealous can gain extra brownie points. It suddenly appears to be (and must actually become) the central and fundamental concern of the evangelical movement, if there is any future for the movement.
The words of Jesus, "If you save your life you will lose it, and if you lose your life for my sake and the gospel's you will find it" (Mark 8:35), have an application to the church universal, to denominations, to local churches, and to individuals. We have it on the authority of Christ that the church universal will endure. "The gates of hell will not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18). God will always cause his true people around the globe to give up their lives for the gospel mission.
But we have no biblical guarantee that any given denomination or local church or individual will endure to the end. Denominations have come and gone. Churches have risen up and disappeared. And many individuals, like seed sown among thorns, have confessed faith in Christ but then have been "choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life" (Luke 8:14). So the future of the Baptist General Conference, Bethlehem Baptist Church, and you and me hangs on whether we lose our lives for Christ and the gospel. "The church exists by mission as fire exists by burning."
A Case for Our Hope
As I thought and prayed about what I might say the Sunday before Missions Week begins, I felt that my focus should be on the first state of mission: our personal readiness to bear witness to those we meet from day to day. This is important not only because of the need all around us here in the Twin Cities, but also because a lack of joyful engagement at the personal level will probably inhibit our enthusiasm for worldwide mission. So the text from which I have chosen to speak is 1 Peter 3:13–16, especially verses 14 and 15. These are familiar verses, but I got a new insight as I pondered them this past week.
Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is right? But even if you do suffer for righteousness' sake, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be troubled, but reverence the Lord Christ in your hearts, ready always to make a case to everyone who asks you for a reason concerning the hope which is in you; but do it with meekness and fear, having a good conscience in order that whenever they speak evil of you, those who abuse your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.
What does it mean to be ready to make a case for your hope? Wherein does this readiness consist? How are we to get ready and stay ready? As I posed these questions to myself another text came to my mind, where Jesus says something about readiness for witness. In the last week of his life, Jesus warned his disciples, in Luke 21:12ff., that unbelievers would persecute them and hand them over to prison and bring them before kings and governors. Then he says,
This will be a time for you to bear testimony. Settle it therefore in your hearts not to meditate beforehand how to make your case. For I will give you a mouth and wisdom which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. (Luke 21:14f.)
The least we can say from this command of Jesus is that there is a wrong way to get ready to make a case for your hope. And when I saw this, it made me want to be very careful in telling you how to be ready to make a case for your hope, lest I be found urging you to do the very thing Jesus told the disciples not to do. Peter says, "Always be ready to make a case for your hope." Jesus says, "Don't meditate beforehand how to make a case for your hope." This makes the question all the more crucial. How, then, are we to get ready and stay ready to make a case for our hope?
The clue that put me on the track of some new insight into 1 Peter 3:15 was the relationship between the phrase "be ready" and what comes just before it in the text. Literally there is no verb in the phrase "be ready" or "be prepared." You can see that in the King James Version and the New American Standard Bible because the word "be" or "being" is in italics. So literally Peter said, "Reverence the Lord Christ in your hearts ready always to make a case . . . for your hope." This suggests that there is a very close connection between reverencing the Lord Christ in your hearts and always being ready to make a case for your hope. In fact, we find an amazingly close connection, when we examine what it means to reverence the Lord Christ in our hearts.
One key to understanding what it means to reverence the Lord Christ in our hearts is to notice that this reverence is the alternative to fearing what men fear. Verse 14: "Even if you suffer for righteousness' sake, you are blessed. So don't fear what they fear and don't be troubled but (instead) reverence the Lord Christ in your hearts." In other words, don't be afraid of the sorts of things men threaten you with, instead hallow Christ in your hearts. Reverencing Christ in our heart is what we do in order not to have fear in our heart of what men can do to us. So whatever reverencing Christ means, it must be the opposite of fearing men. It must be a source of confidence and hope. And that word "hope" explains why there is such a close relationship between reverencing the Lord Christ in our hearts on the one hand, and always being ready to make a case for our hope on the other hand. Reverence the Lord Christ in your hearts, and in that way you will always be ready to make a case for your hope.
Picture this text as a sandwich, with a piece of bread on top, then a piece of meat, and underneath another piece of bread almost like the first one. The top piece of bread says, "Don't be afraid of your adversaries, don't be troubled." The bottom piece of bread says, "Always be ready to make a case for the hope you feel inside." Now compare these two pieces of bread. The top piece says, "Don't be afraid." But in order not to be afraid you have to have some reason to be hopeful. The bottom piece says, "Be ready to make a case for your hope." But in order to make a case for your hope, you have to have some reason to be hopeful. In other words, both of these pieces of bread are commanding us to do the same thing: namely, do what we need to do to have our hearts brimming with hope instead of fear.
And I think it is the meat sandwiched between these two pieces of bread that tells us what we must do in order to be hopeful persons instead of fearful persons. And that is: Reverence the Lord Christ in our hearts. How shall you not fear when the path of righteousness seems to lead only into darkness? Answer: Reverence the Lord Christ in your heart, and your fear will be replaced with hope. How shall you always be ready to make a case for your hope? Answer: Reverence the Lord Christ in your heart, and you will always have a reason to give for why you are hopeful.
Reverence the Lord Christ
So what is this "reverencing of the Lord Christ in our hearts" which has the amazing power to turn fear into hope and to supply us always with a reason for our hope that we can give to those who ask us? The thing that helps us answer this question in a way most true to the text is to notice that in verses 14 and 15 Peter is giving a Christian adaptation of a text from Isaiah 8:12–13. You might want to look at this with me. This Old Testament word of God gives us a lot of help in deciding what it means to reverence the Lord Christ in our hearts. God gives Isaiah a warning in these verses about how he should feel about his unbelieving countrymen and about the Lord God. Beginning at verse 11,
For the Lord spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying, "Do not call conspiracy all that this people call conspiracy and do not fear what they fear nor be in dread. But reverence the Lord of hosts; let him be your fear and let him be your dread."
Peter takes this word of God addressed to Isaiah about his adversaries and applies it to the Christians of his own day and our day in relation to our adversaries. "Don't fear what they fear, but reverence the Lord instead." So if we can find out what Isaiah meant by reverencing the Lord, we will have a solid basis for Peter's meaning, too.
Isaiah 8:14 makes it clear that the way to reverence God or treat him as holy is to fear him instead of fearing what men fear and to dread him instead of what men dread. "But reverence the Lord of hosts; let him be your fear and let him be your dread." But does God really mean that we are to be always gripped by the emotion of fear when God is our Lord? That would seem to be an invitation to misery. I don't think that is what God means. One clue that he doesn't is that the very next phrase in verse 14 promises that for those who fear him God will become a sanctuary. A sanctuary is a place where you can feel safe and secure and peaceful. It seems at first paradoxical: if God is your dread, he will be your refuge and sanctuary.
But it is not as paradoxical as it seems, if we take the words of verse 14 to mean not, "be constantly gripped by the emotion of fear," but rather, "always regard the displeasure of God as more fearful than the displeasure of men." What God wants here from Isaiah is for the prospect of offending God to be a much more dreadful thing to him than the prospect of being persecuted by men. This is the way Isaiah was to reverence God in his heart. The degree of his reverence for God was the same as the degree of his desire not to displease God.
And what was it in this particular context that would have displeased God? Verse 12 tells us, "Do not fear what they fear or be in dread." God would have been displeased with Isaiah if he had feared the same thing his unbelieving countrymen feared, namely, the threats of men.
Why? Why would God be so displeased and offended if Isaiah feared men? The answer is that God had made many promises to his people that should have taken away their fear and filled them with confidence and hope; and so if Isaiah feared man, it would show that he doesn't trust God's promise. And when someone doesn't trust an honest man, he is offended and displeased.
God had said,
Fear not, I am with you, be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand . . . For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, 'Fear not, I will help you!' (Isaiah 41:10, 13)
Say to those who are of a fearful heart, 'Be strong, fear not! Behold your God will come with vengeance, with the redemption of God. He will come and save you.' (Isaiah 35:4)
And many other such promises God had made to his people. Therefore, if Isaiah fears the threats of men, he casts his vote against the trustworthiness of God and does not reverence the Lord in his heart. But if he does not fear what men fear, but instead fears to displease God and so trusts in his promises, then he reverences the Lord in his heart.
And so what we see from the Old Testament background of Peter's teaching in 1 Peter 3:14, 15 is that reverencing the Lord Christ in our hearts means, first of all, feeling that to displease Christ is more fearful than the threats of men. But, more specifically, since what displeases Christ most is unbelief, therefore reverencing him means setting our minds on his promises and trusting in them with all our heart. Promises like 1 Peter 5:7, "Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you," or verse 10, "After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you."
So now let's go back briefly to the image of our sandwich. The top piece of bread in verse 14 says, "Don't fear human threats." The bottom piece of bread in verse 15 says, "Always be ready to make a case for your hope." And the meat in the middle tells how to do both: "Reverence the Lord Christ in your heart," that is, set your mind on his promises to take care of you, and trust him with all your heart. If you do, your fear of men will be turned to hope, and you will have a reason to give for the hope that is in you.
Don't Amass Arguments, Hope in God
Now, in conclusion, let me tell you why this insight into the meaning of 1 Peter 3:14, 15 has been so exciting and liberating to me this week. It has become clearer to me than ever before that the reason we aren't more free and natural in testifying to our neighbors and associates about the reality of our hope in Christ is that we don't feel very hopeful. And if our hearts are not full of hope in the promises of Christ, then here is what happens when an occasion arrives to make a case for our hope: we sense it as a duty to defend doctrine instead of a delight to tell somebody why we are so hopeful. I saw, like I had never seen before, that witnessing will always be a burdensome duty to defend a doctrine as long as Christianity means for us simply accepting certain doctrines as true and keeping a certain list of dos and don'ts. So many people in the church have simply inherited the motions of church life and outward morality and piety, but the heartfelt reality of Christ and joyful hope in his promises are foreign to their experience. Such people can always make a case for a doctrine, but they cannot make a case for the hope within them, because they don't feel any hope brimming up within their hearts.
What this means, then, just as the text says, is that the way to get ready to make a case for your hope is to get hopeful. That is what was so exciting. It simplified matters. Don't meditate beforehand on how to answer somebody else's questions. Apply yourself to settling the questions of your own heart. We have to find for ourselves reason enough to get over our fear of men and have a lively hope. If our own hope does not spring up from something Christ did and said, then it is a mere sham to try to make a case for anyone else to hope in Christ. But if we search out the promises of Christ and meditate on his character and work for the sake of banishing our own fear and kindling our own hope, then this very act of reverencing Christ for ourselves will be the best preparation for making a case for our hope to others. That was an exciting and liberating discovery for me.
And if it is so, then our primary activity in preparing to witness is to keep our own hearts happy in God. Morning by morning we have to go to the Word, not to anxiously amass arguments for every possible rebuttal somebody might have—that's what Jesus was against in Luke 21. No, we go to the Word because we are so desperately needy, our own hope wanes. We have fears that need to be overcome by the promises of God. We have doubts that need to be answered. The fight of faith is waged on our knees with the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, and prayer. And when we emerge from that encounter with God with a renewed and lively hope in his promises, we will be ready to make a case for our hope. For God only calls us to tell others the reasons which that very day are making us hopeful in Christ.