1 Peter 1:3–9
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith--more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire--may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
The apostle Peter took up his pen 30 years or so after the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus, and set himself to write something encouraging to the beleaguered Christians of Asia Minor. They were being abused by overbearing bosses (2:18), threatened by unbelieving spouses (3:1, 6), and ridiculed by skeptical neighbors and associates (4:14). On the horizon loomed the possibility of a much more violent form of persecution (4:12–18).
It was a very anti-Christian society. The question raised for these believers is the same that we should pose for ourselves today: How can we have the power of soul in times of great stress and anxiety not just to endure the evil day, but to be joyful and to fill our lives with the fruits of righteousness (Philippians 1:11), with deeds of kindness, with projects of mercy, with labors of love? How, when your life is in jeopardy, or your job, or your marriage, or your health, or your respect in the community—how can you rise up with joy and bless those who abuse you and devote yourself to labors of love? To busy yourself for love's sake takes power in the very best of circumstances. But to spend yourself in love to others when your own life is falling apart, that takes a power of soul which is utterly beyond us. If that is what we are called to do, then the power has to come from some source greater than the human soul.
The Need for Great Love
And as you all know, the Bible—especially Peter's first letter—does not ease our burden by saying: "When things are tough, don't fret about others; take care of yourself." In fact, Peter seems to suggest that the tougher the times, the greater the need to live a life of love for others. Listen to what he writes:
Having purified your souls, by your obedience to the truth for a sincere love of the brothers, love one another earnestly from the heart. (1:22)
Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul. Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (2:11, 12)
Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly. (2:21–23)
Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary, bless; for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing. For "He that would love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking guile; let him turn away from evil and do right; let him seek peace and pursue it." (3:9–11)
Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins. (4:8)
There is no slackening in the summons to live like Jesus, even when life is really tough. So Peter doesn't lighten our load by saying we don't have to live like Jesus in hard times. Instead he writes something to give us the power to love.
He begins the main body of his letter: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who according to his great mercy has begotten us anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1:3). The power with which Peter aims to equip these beleaguered saints is the power of hope. If they, or we, are going to love like Jesus loved, even in times of great stress and worry, then they must be filled with "living hope." I want to try to answer three questions about this "living hope": 1) What is it? 2) How does it arise in our heart? 3) How does it empower us to love?
What Is Living Hope?
1) What is "living hope"? The New Testament idea of hope is very different from our normal thinking about hope. We say to someone: Will the North Stars win the Stanley Cup? And they say: I don't know; I hope so. In other words, hope, as we typically think about it, is a desire for some future thing which we are uncertain of attaining. That is not the way Peter, or the rest of the New Testament, thinks about hope. When Peter says in 1:13, "Hope fully in the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ," he does not mean we should desire it and be uncertain of it. The coming of Christ is a matter of complete confidence for all the writers in the New Testament. So the command, "Hope fully," means be intensely desirous and fully confident that Jesus Christ is coming again with grace for his people. Another example outside 1 Peter would be Hebrews 6:11 where it says, "We desire each one of you to show the same earnestness in realizing the full assurance of hope to the end." So we can define hope, in the New Testament sense, as full assurance, or strong confidence that God is going to do good to us in the future.
But there is something even more peculiar about Christian hope: Peter calls it "living hope." What does that mean? The opposite of a "living hope" would be a "dead hope," and that calls to mind a similar phrase in James 2, namely, "dead faith." "Faith without works is dead" (2:26), James says. That is, faith is barren, fruitless, unproductive (2:20). So "living faith" and, by analogy, "living hope" would be fertile, fruitful, productive hope. Living hope is hope that has power and produces changes in life. This is what "living' means in Hebrews 4:12, where it says, "The word of God is living and effective." So Christian hope is a strong confidence in God which has power to produce changes in how we live.
How Does Hope Arise in Our Hearts?
2) The second question I want to answer is: How does this hope arise in our hearts? One part of the answer is given here in verse 3; another part is given in verses 23–25. In verse 3 Peter says, "We are born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." That is, our hope arises from being born anew, and this new birth comes in some sense through Jesus' resurrection. There is a big gap between the resurrection of Jesus and my new birth 2,000 years later. Verses 23–25 help fill the gap. Peter says, "You have been born anew not of perishable seed but of imperishable through the living and abiding word of God; for all flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord abides forever. That word is the good news which was preached to you." Connecting the historical resurrection of Jesus and my life 2,000 years later is the Word of God, namely, the gospel. The gospel is the message, preached in the power of the Holy Spirit, "that Jesus Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, and that he rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3–4).
So in verse 3 we are born anew through the resurrection of Jesus, but in verse 23 we are born anew through the living and abiding word, the news of Jesus' death and resurrection. And how these two means work together is not hard to understand. The resurrection of Jesus does not produce hope without our hearing about it. Before it can beget hope in our heart, we have to get the news. But the other way around is true too. Words by themselves don't produce hope. There has to be some assurance that they are true. We have to have some evidence that Jesus really did rise from the dead. If the Pharisees and scribes had been able to produce the body of Jesus on Pentecost, Peter could have preached till he was blue in the face and no one would have been born anew unto a living hope. That's why Paul, when he defined the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:4, went on to say that after his resurrection Jesus "appeared to Cephas, then the twelve. Then he appeared to more than 500 brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep" (1 Corinthians 15:5–7). Christian hope arises in the heart through hearing a credible testimony to the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
But two further questions arise: How does a credible testimony to Jesus' resurrection produce hope in our heart? And: Why is this called a new birth? I'll tell you how a 2,000-year-old resurrection reaches my heart and produces hope. It happens in basically two ways. First, the testimony that Jesus rose from the dead is a declaration to me that Jesus Christ is alive, never to die again, and therefore is here right now, April 19, 1981, 8th Street and 13th Avenue, Minneapolis, Minnesota. You know I mean it, Lord Jesus, and I ask you to make your presence known right now.
But how do I know his presence bodes well for me? How do I know it is a hopeful presence? The answer to this is the second way his resurrection gives me hope. If Jesus was raised from the dead, exalted to the right hand of the father, and is coming as king to judge the quick and the dead, then I have good reason to believe that what he said about his death is true. And what he said was that he died for me (John 15:13) and that he ransomed me for God (Mark 10:45). The way Peter puts it in 3:18 is this: "Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God." The resurrection of Jesus certifies to me the efficacy of his death for my sins. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:17, "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins." But if Christ has been raised, then all my sins are forgiven if I cast myself on him. And if all my sins are forgiven, then God is not against me but for me. "And if God is for me, then who can be against me?"
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus who died, yes who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. (Romans 8:31–34)
That's how a 2,000-year-old resurrection reaches my heart and begets hope: it certifies to me that because Jesus bore my sins on the cross, God is for me and not against me; and it declares that this Jesus who loved me and gave himself for me is alive and present and caring at every moment of my life. Thank you, Jesus!
And now why is the begetting of this hope called a new birth? "By his great mercy we have been born anew unto a living hope." Have you ever asked the question: What makes you you? What is the essence of your unique personhood? What is that tap root from which the flower of your individuality grows? I think if you probe deeply, you will find that it is not your actions or thoughts or ideas. It is your desires. We are most basically what we crave. Ideas and principles will be brought in afterwards to justify our appetites and passions. The primal thing is your yearning and longing. Your individuality is determined by what you hanker for.
If that is true, then a radical change in our desires and longings will mean a radical change in our personhood. Something new comes into being, and that is what Jesus and John and Paul and Peter call the new birth or regeneration. The reason Peter says we are "born anew to a living hope" is because when we cease to pin our hopes (our desires and longings) on things that are in the world, and instead pin our hopes and desires on God, then a new person has been born.
How Does Hope Beget Love?
3) And now we will try to see why such a person has the power to love. Notice 1 Peter 1:13–15:
Gird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct.
The main thing I want us to see from this text is that conduct conforms to passions or desires. Formerly we were ignorant, Peter says in verse 14, ignorant of the death and resurrection of Jesus and all the promises they contain. Accompanying this ignorance was a complex of desires. Not knowing the glory of God and the hope he offers through Christ, you set your hope on things of the world and your conduct kept in step. But now you are no longer ignorant of God's grace, so hope fully in the grace coming to you at the revelation of Christ. Have a new set of desires and the holy conduct that follows from them, like fruit on a tree.
The kind of conduct that hoping in God empowers is holy love. And I want to conclude with three illustrations of how that works. First of all, hope empowers holy love by pushing out greed and self-pity. When we are anxious about tomorrow and something has happened to make us feel terrible about what's coming, we generally respond in one or both of two ways, which are just the opposite of love. Our subconscious may tell us: "Well, if things are going to be so bad tomorrow, you may as well get the pleasure you can today. And it doesn't matter if you exploit others in the process." A mild form of this would be overeating; a more serious form would be stealing. The other way we respond to anxiety is by self-pity or depression. And the result of this is that we are so fretful about ourselves that we have no incentive or strength to care about others.
Against such anxiety we have to throw the forces of hope. We must gird up our minds and be sober and hope fully in God who said in 1 Peter 5:7, "Cast all your anxieties on me because I care for you." We must argue with our soul and say, "Soul, Jesus Christ died for my sins, it has been certified to me by his resurrection. God is not against me but for me. Why are you downcast, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God!" And in that way we fight the fight of faith, and drive away the greed and self-pity of hopelessness, and open the gates of love. And so hope is the power for holy love.
A second way that hope empowers love is what we might call the inevitability of imitation. You always tend to imitate the people you admire most and desire most strongly to be around. Kids tend to dress and walk and talk like their heroes. And so do we adults, though we are less blatant about it. A person who hopes intensely in Jesus Christ, who longs to see him and be with him, will inevitably start to think and feel and act like Jesus. "Everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure" (1 John 3:3). Strong hope to see Jesus is a strong power for holy love.
Finally, one other way that hope empowers holy love is by giving the assurance of God's blessing and care which we need in order to follow through on some of his specific hard commands. There is only one basic reason why we disobey the commands of Jesus: it's because we don't have confidence that obeying will bring more blessing than disobeying. We do not hope fully in God's promise. What did he promise? Peter passes on his teaching like this: "Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called that you may obtain a blessing. He who would love life and see good days . . . let him turn away from evil and do good."
You will always be better off to obey than to disobey, even if it costs you your life. "Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and the gospel's, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time . . . with persecutions and in the age to come eternal life" (Mark 10:29–30). The only way to have the power to follow Christ in the costly way of love is to be filled with hope, with strong confidence, that if we lose our life doing his will, we will find it again and be richly rewarded.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy has begotten us anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead—a hope that everyone can have and maintain if you pray this prayer from the heart:
Lord Jesus, I believe in my heart that you were raised from the dead, and that this guarantees that your death was sufficient to pay for all my sins, and therefore God is for me and not against me, and that you yourself are alive today and with me to help forever. And I pray that you will help me now to hope fully in your promises, so that I am freed from the greed and self-pity that come from fear, and that I might be driven to imitate your love, and that I might always believe it is more blessed to give (to obey) than to disobey. And so Lord grant me in these times of stress and anxiety to have the power of soul to be joyful and to fill my life with labors of love. Amen.