Pastor, Imitate The Apostle Peter

When I began the pastor series I had nothing more than a handful of anaemic drafts and almost no direction. I have appreciated interacting with readers (often pastors) about those posts and thought that I was finished with them. But over the past few weeks I have been mediating on 2 Peter. Yes, there is a New Testament book titled 2 Peter, somewhere in the wilderness between Paul’s epistles and Revelation. Rereading this short epistle I have been struck by the apostle’s pastoral heart, particularly on display in 1:12-15. My intention for this short post is to unpack those verses.

PastorBefore we get to 1:12-15 let me offer a few comments on the epistle’s historical setting, which also shapes our understanding of what it means to be a pastor. 2 Peter seems to be written to combat theological error. This is implied as early as 1:16, where Peter refers to “cleverly devised myths.” These inventive errors are likely what lies behind Peter’s exhortation to live a certain way (1:3-11). He reminds them of his authority as an apostle (1:16-21), which he later extends to Paul (3:15-16). This authority is contrast with “false prophets [who] also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you” (2:1). We cannot say precisely what these false teachers were preaching but 2 Peter 2 warns against licentious immorality, possibly being presented hand-in-hand with the denial of Christ’s promised return to judge (3:3-4). To summarise, Peter was writing in order to correct dangerous heresy that was poisoning the church’s faith, distorting their lives and witness (3:17-18). As Paul wrote in Titus 1:9, one of the elder’s functions is to refute error with sound doctrine.

It is with the above purpose or situation in mind that Peter wrote, “I intend always to remind you of these qualities [1:5-7], though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in the body, to stir you up by way of reminder…And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things” (2 Peter 1:12-13, 15; see 3:1-2). These verses are very unlikely to find their way into a church leadership seminar. They are not visionary or gripping. In fact, they are a little boring and uninspiring. But we should pay careful attention to this apostle’s aspirations. A few years ago I remember hearing a sermon on legacies. The preacher, a bishop over a large diocese and pastor of a church bordering on megachurch status, urged us to consider what kind of legacy we will leave behind. All these years later, I am struck at how far that man’s aspirations were from Peter’s. Aware of his imminent death (1:14), Peter outlines his desired legacy, his aspirations for the congregation he would soon leave behind.

“I intend always to remind you”

The word “remind” occurs throughout 2 Peter. The apostle understood his ministry as one of repeatedly calling Christians back to the simple truth. Even though they are established in their faith (1:12), he makes it his mission to continually remind them. The comfort and challenge of this observation is that Peter did not feel the lure of innovation, novelty and trends. I imagine most pastors are tempted by all of those and many have succumbed to them. But Peter saw his task as a pastor as teaching and reteaching. Of course, this does not mean Peter majored in the basics or that he was content with spiritual immaturity (see 1 Peter 2:2-3; also Hebrews 6:1). Yet he did not feel the need to move outside of the revelation of God in Christ, and all its entailments, promised in the Old Testament. Peter’s example is liberating. Pastor, imitate Peter by reminding your people of the truth and urging them to live in ways consistent with it.

“Stir you up”

In the verses preceding those we are focusing on, Peter lists a set of qualities or characteristics (1:5-7). These are to be added to our faith (1:5), as we depend on God’s gracious power and pursue godliness (1:3-4). But notice what Peter says about those qualities in 1:8, “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they will keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful”. While the presence and propagation of godly characteristics mean productive Christian living, Peter delivers an uncomfortable point about their absence, “Whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins” (1:9). The Christian is incomplete apart from these things, perhaps even lacking assurance (1:10-11), therefore Peter seeks to stir his congregation up by way of reminder (1:13). It is important for us to note that he does not whip up fervour by something other than the truth. Godliness is inseparable from the gospel. We must hold these first two points together, for Peter did not desire mere morality. He longed to see believers so gripped by the gospel truth that their lives were utterly transformed.

“So that…you may be able to recall these things”

Finally, Peter’s did not aspire to be remembered. As we have seen above, his message pointed away from himself and translated into Christian maturity not personal recognition. There are no ambitions beyond that. Peter’s legacy was only that once he had put off his body his congregation would remember Christ. Admittedly I am venturing beyond what the text says when I imagine that Peter would happily have been forgotten. Because it was never about him. Pastor, what do you aim to leave behind? Does it hurt that you may not be remembered, that they might never name a youth hall or library after you? If it bothers you then seek to imitate Peter, as we meet him in 2 Peter. Here is a desirable, noble and God-honouring legacy to aspire for: that your congregation will be able to recall the truth you taught and continue living that truth out. Soli Deo Gloria.

If you enjoyed this post there are a few more in this series:

Words of Eternal Life

After a particularly challenging sermon during Jesus’ earthly ministry we are told, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). Some of Jesus’ followers found his teaching hard to hear and considered it an unbearable burden (6:60). After many of the crowd had left, Jesus invited “the twelve” to go with them (6:67). Simon Peter’s response to Jesus’ invitation is one that I wish I believed as firmly as the apostle clearly did. He starts by answering Jesus’ question with his own question, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” (6:68). But notice that Simon Peter is not merely drawn to some aspect of Jesus’ personality. He cannot envision departing from Christ because, as he continues, “You have the words of eternal life” (6:68).

Icon St PeterI wish I believed Peter’s words more often. Even now, as I am writing this blog post, it is the end of another day in which I have demonstrated that I do not believe God’s words to be significant, let alone the words of eternal life. Sure I am a full-time theological student, and I can ease my conscience by reminding myself that I spent the day poring over rich theology. But that does not mean I spent any time today treasuring Christ, or acting in such a way that imitates Peter’s convictions. Peter goes on to say, “We have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (6:69). In the Gospels, despite his numerous failings and follies, Peter is a man devoted to Christ. In John 6 we see that his commitment to Christ brought with it a commitment to his words.

Earlier in the same section, Jesus said, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (6:63). Of course, the Bible teaches us, as this passages does, that this life is tied to the work of God the Father (6:65), as well as the Holy Spirit (6:63). This observation should challenge Christians who imagine the Spirit to work separately from God’s Word, which I have done elsewhere. We could also make a Trinitarian observation here, that the work of the three persons – Father, Son and Spirit – are inseparable. But these segues would only distract us from the topic at hand: Jesus’ words give and sustain life; or as Peter understood, Jesus had the words of eternal life.

DevotionalUnfortunately, as is evident from my own experience and many readers’ too, I am sure, we struggle to appropriate this truth in at least two ways. The first is not a little ironic, we allow the busyness of life to keep us from the words of eternal life. Years ago I would frequent a second hand Christian book store not far from where I lived. The owner of that shop traded in the embarrassing acronyms sadly associated with Christians. One of his favourites was Bible: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. I still shudder thinking about it. Peter was not hanging out with Jesus hoping for a couple of helpful throwaways and guidelines—certainly not acronyms. Peter clung to Jesus because his words were eternal life, spiritually sustaining and life changing in the present. I imagine if we told Peter that our lives are too busy to mediate on Jesus’ words he would be confused because those words are life.

Another way I often show I do not share Peter’s evaluation of God’s truth is when I am faced with other options. Unlike the above point, this occurs when I have too much rather than too little time. For example, it is Saturday afternoon and my son and wife are taking a nap. The way our weekends go it is likely that this is the only time I will get to myself on any given Saturday. What should I do with that time? I regularly struggle to give up that time because I wrongly turn to other life-giving things: recreational reading, exercise or blogging. Yes, those things are good gifts from God, and you likely have your own, but if Peter and Jesus are correct in our passage, are we overlooking one of God’s greatest gifts? Let us say with Peter, “You have the words of eternal life”. Then let us delight in them, be sustained by them and desire to know God better through his Word.

Why Bother With Church?

Why bother with church? Do I really need to attend this Sunday? Do you find yourself asking these question? Sunday rolls around and you can think of ten places you would rather be. For some, this apathy is the result of making church about ourselves, what we get out of it. So when the church service stops delivering we stop attending. I have challenged this consumerist view of church previously (here and here). But the primary reason many of us wonder about the value of attending church is that we have lost sight of God’s purpose for gathering his people, wrongly believing you can be a Christian but not a churchgoer. The problem is that I do not attend church following God’s directives, which is why gathering can feel pointless. In this short post I want to pick out two reasons to bother with your local church, from Hebrews 10.

Empty churchHebrews is one of the more difficult books in the New Testament. There is almost no agreement among scholars about when it was written, who wrote it, why it was written and who it was written to. Aside from the lack of those details crucial for interpretation, Hebrews arguably contains the most technical rhetoric, not to mention a truly bewildering structure. The unfortunate outcome of these challenges to understanding Hebrews is that it receives little airtime, outside of proof texting. Apart from 13:8 — “Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever” — and 1:1, the most quoted lines from Hebrews are, “Let us consider how to spur one another on to love and good works, not neglecting meeting with each other” (10:24-25). It was actually one of the first sections of Scripture I attempted to memorise. But like many readers of Hebrews today I did not give due consideration to its context.

Perhaps the most important thing to point out is that these verses fall into the fourth and final warning section of the book—the others are 2:1-4; 3:7-4:11; 5:11-6:12; possibly 12:25-29. In 10:18 the author concludes the central exhortation of the epistle by emphasising that because of Christ’s singularly effective sacrifice: (a) sin is forgiven, (b) therefore no more sacrifices are necessary. His finished work is the cause of the Christian’s confidence to draw near and worship God (10:19-22), so we read, “Let us draw near” (10:22). But before we get to the verses we are reflecting on in this post we read, “Let us hold to the hope we confess without wavering, for the one who made the promise is faithful” (10:23). After them the author writes, “If we go on sinning deliberately after we have received knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins” (10:26). It is a terrifying warning. It is the negative implication of 10:18. Apart from Christ there is no forgiveness of sins, because no sacrifice for sin remains. It is within this larger section that the imperative to keep meeting together and encouraging each other is located. The day is approaching (10:25), so we cannot give up meeting and reminding each other of that day, urging each other to persevere. Those who turn away from Christ’s sacrifice have nothing but the fearful expectation of judgment (10:27).

Empty churchLinked to the above is the idea that church attendance is active, not passive. The author is not wagging his finger at those who bunk church. He is giving us a purpose for going to church and meeting with other Christians. “Consider how to spur one another on to love and good works…encouraging one another” (10:24-25). We saw above that this encouragement in intended to strengthen faith, helping our brothers and sisters persevere, but is one of your aims when meeting with other Christians to spur them on towards love and good works? I know that I fail on all accounts, regularly. Perhaps it is because the church is rife with consumerism or nominalism. However, the reason it is not true in my own life is simply that I do not obey God’s directive in Hebrews 10. Or, on the other hand, I have grabbed the convenient meaning in these verses — do not skip church — but ignored the responsibility given to me by God to: minister to other Christians. You may think that is the role of the pastor or preacher, but only if you ignore the obvious sense of these verses.

To summarise, we must commit to meeting with our local church for two reasons. Firstly, believers are in danger of giving up. All of us are regularly drawn away from Christ. The Christian life is hard, which is why God provides brothers and sisters to hold us accountable, to spur each other on as the day approaches. Secondly, this is the task given to all believers. If you feel that no one would miss you if you stopped attending your church it is probably because you are not actively ministering to others. We must reclaim God’s vision for church gatherings. Every Christian must remember that the Christian life is fraught with temptations to walk away. So let us consider how to spur one another on.

Doodle: Thanos and Abortion

Last year I wrote a satirical piece at Rekindle, 5 Steps to Feeling Better About Killing Unborn Children. Though a few readers called my approach insensitive and unhelpful, I remain convinced that satire has its place in debate—even this one. In case you missed that article, and do not plan on reading it, I tried to unveil the callous, cruel and murderous truths about abortion, particularly behind the pro-choice rhetoric. In this short doodle I want to outline a phenomenon I have observed in the incendiary conversations around this issue, at the personal and legislative levels. What is that? As lobbies push to have the option for abortion set later in a pregnancy, it seems to me that people on all sides are growing increasingly uncomfortably that we are killing children. But before we get to that, let us consider Thanos.

Marvel AvengersThe question I want to put to you, off the back of Avengers: Infinity War, is this: can we really call Thanos a villain? I am not contrasting his surprisingly deep and conflicted character with the cardboard cut-out nemeses typical of Marvel films. My question is concerning his mission, to restore balance in the universe by wiping out half of all living things. In fact, a recent article at Forbes actually argued that Thanos’ ambitions may not be evil or even wrong. “Look at our planet,” we can imagine someone saying, “it cannot endure humanity’s abusive consumption, devastating expansion and careless disposal of waste.” If only half of the world’s population simply vanished, with the click of a finger, surely we would find ourselves in a far more sustainable position. What Thanos set out to accomplish is arguably something desperately needed—at least on earth, I can’t speak for other species. So is he really a villain?

Despite the above, no one is rooting for Thanos. Because his life’s goal is nothing less than killing half of all living things. For this we deem him the villain, and most likely went to watch Avengers: Endgame to see his efforts foiled. Coming back to the matter of abortion, I think we can draw an uncomfortable contrast between how we view abortion and Thanos. Though the former is a disturbing fate for innumerable unborn children most of us are more concerned with the fictional genocide. Only, pro-choice advocates do recognise the similarities, which is apparent in the adapted defence and arguments we are hearing more and more.

BabyIn my previous post I pointed out how pro-choice rhetoric majors in women, progress and prefers impersonal ways of speaking about the unborn (foetus, cells, etc.). But as the option for later and – in some abhorrently distressing places – full term abortion becomes a reality it simultaneously becomes harder to deny what is happening. We have all seen the pictures. Those are babies. In many cases they would survive outside the womb. Murder of unborn children is being sanctioned and most people with any sense know it. It is here that a shift takes place. For as long as the aborted life bears no marks of human life or form people were fairly comfortable to affirm a woman’s right to choose. But now many people are finding that harder to swallow, let alone stomach.

Re-enter Thanos. Stripped of the rhetoric he is simply a murderous tyrant. He wants to kill half of all living beings in the universe; we, on a smaller scale, want to kill babies without it unsettling our consciences. So we do what he does: justify it. How? Socioeconomic factors. So pro-choice advocates ask questions such as: what kind of access will the child have to education; will this perpetuate poverty and crime cycles; and what about the life that the mother will never have? These considerations are not unlike those employed by Thanos when he wiped out half the universe. Yet we despise him for that. We call him evil. We long and hope for justice. Sadly many people only possess that sober assessment when it comes to a fictional universe on the screen, and tragically lack it when it comes to earth.

Jesus’ Resurrection and the Christian Life

Albrecht AltdorferThough the reference eludes me, C. S. Lewis once wrote, “A man can’t always be defending the truth; there must be a time to feed on it.” In the past I have written posts defending the historical veracity of the resurrection: the first argued that the most convincing reason for the existence and expansion of the early church is Christ’s bodily resurrection; the second compared Christ with the Caesars, asking why an itinerant Jewish rabbi is remembered as a god while his contemporaries, worshipped in the Imperial Cult, are all but forgotten. Following Lewis’ dictum, my aim in this post is to offer a few theological points on the resurrection that I hope will encourage and exhort believers. Come and feed on the resurrection, let it nourish your soul.

Through the resurrection Christ earned absolute trust

Jesus told his disciples, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again” (John 10:17). When we slow down and reflect on these words we cannot but be in awe of Jesus. His power matches his promises. The resurrection is no parlour trick. It is the validation of all that he said he would do. Elsewhere Jesus is recorded saying that he would give his life as a ransom (Mark 10:45). Therefore at the resurrection Jesus is not merely vindicated as a martyr or misunderstood zealot but confirmed as God’s Messiah. His work is powerfully presented as complete. What does this mean for us? It means that Christ can be trusted. His word can be believed. We can depend on him for the salvation he promised. It is here that a biblical definition of faith emerges. If Christ died and three days later took his life up again then there is something more certain than death and taxes: our own resurrection.

In the resurrection our lives gain real meaning

In one of his autobiographical works, titled Confessions, Tolstoy admitted that he seriously considered taking his own life, as he suffered from severe melancholy. As he did so, he was haunted by a question, ‘Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?’ Despite his monumental achievements and influence the crushing conclusion he drew was that death brings an end to all of them. A similar sentiment can be read in 1 Corinthians 15:32, where Paul wrote, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’”. Frighteningly, such outlook can not only be widely observed today but is celebrated. Importantly, however, while gallantly expressed with a drink in hand among friends it is far more sobering to reflect on quietly—and alone. We should do so, since we will all face death alone.

ResurrectionEarlier in 1 Corinthians Paul wrote, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (15:14); and a little later, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (15:17). Part of Paul’s argument in this chapter is that for the Christian life is not vain and death is not final. Apart from the resurrection we only have only death to look forward to, when everything we spent our lives pursuing is lost. In the resurrection, on the other hand, “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (15:54). Though this life is besotted with blessings it labours vainly for meaning if death has the last say. For the Christian even though death is inevitable it does not destroy. One of J. I. Packer’s regularly quoted verses is John 17:3, “This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” To know Christ means eternal life has already begun. To know his resurrection means this life is not futile.

By the resurrection we are set free from sin

In 1 Corinthians 15, mentioned above, Paul makes the point that Christ’s death means we need not fear God’s judgment against sin. As Paul puts it, ‘Death has lost its sting, which was our sin.’ We are free from the power of sin in the future. But in Romans 6 Paul mounts a different argument: Christians are free from the power of sin in the present. It reads,“We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (6:2); “We were buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (6:4); and “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been set free from sin” (6:6-7). Paul’s point, which is worthy of much more reflection and rereading is that objectively the power of sin is broken in the life of the Christian. Therefore when we sin we do so freely and not under compulsion. Sin is our decision to submit to a defeated power. Our sin denies the work God has done and defies the work he is doing.

A few verses later Paul offers one of the first imperatives in the book of Romans, “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires” (6:11-12). Echoing Paul I say this as much to myself as I do to you: the resurrection broke the power of sin, which means you are no longer a slave. Stop choosing slavery; stop choosing sin. We have been raised that we might live a new life, a life no longer marked and defined by sin. I know that I often do not believe this, particularly when I struggle with sin and temptation. But according to these verses in Romans 6 when I sin it is not because I was powerless to do otherwise. When I sin it is because I am not standing with conviction and resolution in the power of Christ’s resurrection. Go and sin no more, as you go with the confidence found in Christ’s finished work.

Who is Easter for? The Woeful Exchange

Cross of ChristDespite the cultural forces that persistently sideline the celebration Easter in favour of Christmas, for most Christians Easter has retained its significance in their lives and faith. However, in my admittedly limited experience and therefore tentative opinion, many churches work against the church’s historical, traditional and deeply biblical emphasis on Easter weekend. How is this done? In South Africa some hangovers of Christianity remain, in even the most secular societies. Because of this, with some certainty, churches can predict unusually large numbers in attendance over Easter weekend. Those making their annual pilgrimage are – rightly or wrongly – deemed non-Christians. So Easter is considered an “evangelistic highpoint” or “mission focal point” in the year—and is treated as such. This ungainly pragmatism masked as evangelistic mindedness is almost as trite as it is tragic. It is, as the title of this post suggests, ‘the woeful exchange’. 

Some readers will be familiar with the similar phrase, which I am playing on, ‘the wonderful exchange.’ Though that exact phrase is not found in the New Testament the truth of it is plain throughout. One of my favourite occurrences is in 1 Peter 2:24, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” You could spend an entire sermon unpacking the glorious truth wrapped up in that short verse, along with its context: Christ’s crucifixion is for our sins, in that he bears the punishment for rebellion against God even though he was only ever righteous. The purpose of his death was that we might become righteous, as we die to the self-destructive patterns of sin and live a life patterned after Christ’s. The effect of Christ’s death is healing, being made well or whole, restored to the image God originally created us in. Other verses are clearer that in the exchange we are credited with Christ’s righteousness (Romans 1-3). But this post is unfortunately about the woeful rather than the wonderful exchange.

It is your Good Friday service and the auditorium is packed. Stewards are frantically waving to each other in search of empty spaces or more chairs. The atmosphere is electric as the band does a final check on stage before your most energetic service (or worship) leader steps forward to start the show—I mean- church gathering. The vibe steadily grows as people speak over each other and compete against the carefully selected ‘outsider friendly’ playlist pouring from the speakers. It is almost time. This is it: ‘go big or go home’. Once the almost unrecognisably bare liturgy is out of the way we come to the Bible reading. But it is when the preacher stands up that the woeful exchange is at its ugliest. Instead of holding out the gloriously rich treasures millennia of Christians have celebrated at this point in the year the gathered church is told that Jesus died for our sins. In fact, the gathered church, probably making up the majority of those present, are forgotten entirely in order to present a lazily rehashed sermon about the cross. The woeful exchange leaves believers with almost nothing to reflect on because they were not even considered.

At this point some readers will be hastily offering a retort: ‘The same gospel saves non-Christians and transforms believers.’ True, if reductionistic. For example, if all that was needed to nourish Christian faith and mature believers was the cross why did God provide us with a gospel tapestry of 66 books? Why did he present his character and love in a range of genres, through a host of unique human voices and emphases? I mean, if it is the same gospel – i.e. the cross – why do we ever wander outside of the four passion narratives found in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? If we affirm that all of Scripture finds its centre in the person and work of Christ then why do we retreat to a simple passion text and sermon on Good Friday? I have become convinced that the answer to my last question – the only one that was not rhetorical – is that many churches are guilty of the woeful exchange. Perhaps if we spent more energy in presenting the splendid riches of Christ’s work at Easter rather than offering the same old tired and predictable gospel presentations those visitors would be gripped by God’s truth. Do not ignore the fact that those in your church desperately need Easter themselves. Hold out the wonders of the gospel. Do not pragmatically trade it in this Easter.

This post fits roughly with a short series on the work of Christ. The first challenged the overly narrow view of Christ’s death as a legal event, highlighting for Christians the love of God. The second explored other aspects of the atonement, reminding Christians that God’s work is much richer than Christ in our place (the wonderful exchange), for faith is deeply transformative. Both posts bemoaned presentations of Christ’s work as merely external; it is rather the unparalleled evidence of God’s love that is effective in making us those who love like him.