Keeping going as a Christian

(a sermon on 2 Peter 3:14-18, preached at All Saints Crowborough on 9 November 2014)

One of the saddest things about being a Christian, I think, is seeing people start well in the Christian life, but then wander off or get distracted by temptations, distractions or wrong teaching.

For example, I can think of a young singer that I knew several years ago, and a long way from here. She was in her twenties, newly married, just a lovely girl. She didn’t just have a beautiful voice; she had a wonderful ability to move people as she sang the truths of the gospel. She helped lead a Christian youth group, and as far as I could tell was filled with love for Jesus. But then, apparently out of the blue, she left the church, and she left her husband for another man; and, as far as I know, tragically she is now in a spiritual wasteland.

How does that happen? How can we start so well as a Christian and then go so badly wrong? To ask the question the other way round, what’s the best way to keep going as a Christian? Well, that’s what we’re going to explore tonight as we look at the final few verses of 2 Peter, on p235. It’s the conclusion of our series looking at this book, and in a way these verses sum up the whole of Peter’s message.

Peter, of course, had suffered in many ways for his faith; and he also knew what it was to fail. Remember, in the bible Peter is not just famous as the leader of the first Christians; he’s also famous for denying Jesus three times before his crucifixion. He’s a good person to ask about keeping going! And I think if you asked Peter how you can keep going as a Christian, he’d say three things through these verses: Wait, Strive and Grow.

Let’s have a look at verse 14: “Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things…”

What things? Well, look back a verse: “In accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.”

It’s the things we looked at last week, if you were here: the day when Jesus will return to judge the earth, and to bring salvation for those who have trusted in him and in his death for their sins. And being a Christian is first and foremost about waiting for God to keep that promise. Surviving the Christian life is not fundamentally about us being good enough or working hard enough or going to church enough. It’s about a promise that Jesus has made to come back for us. Isn’t that liberating? People may scoff at that thought, just as they did in Peter’s day; but he will come, and our job is simply to wait for him.

But how should we wait?

Look at the rest of verse 14. “Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”

[SHOW PICTURE]   Here’s a fine young couple. What are they doing? They are waiting! David, if you don’t know him, is our Associate, and this is Esther his fiancée. They have accepted each other’s invitation to lifelong marriage, to begin in August next year, and now they just need to wait for that day to come. And that’s not a bad picture of what it means to be a Christian right now. We have accepted the Lord Jesus Christ’s invitation; we are going to belong to him for ever; we just need to wait for him to come back for us.

So, when you look at that lovely picture of David, you see a man who’s waiting. But what kind of waiting is he going to do? Perhaps, knowing that the wedding’s in the bag, he’ll just ignore Esther for the next 6 months. After all, why waste time returning her calls when you know you’re going to spend the rest of your life with her?

Or perhaps while he’s waiting he’ll want to ‘make the most of his freedom’. Perhaps now’s a good time to check out some other fine looking ladies before he’s under the thumb.

No, David is striving while he waits. He and Esther are working on their relationship – striving to be found by each other at peace, without spot or blemish, to borrow Peter’s phrase. And likewise, we should be striving while we’re waiting for Jesus. The reason he’s not come back yet is that God is patient, wanting to give people time to repent. “Regard the patience of our Lord as salvation”, v15.

How are you waiting for Jesus? Here’s a question: Do you think you are thinking about Jesus each day as much as David thinks about Esther? Are you taking as much care to be pure towards Jesus, without spot or blemish, as David is towards Esther? If Jesus came back tonight, would he find you at peace with him? Or on the run from him?

Don’t do the spiritual equivalent of David having a one night stand on his stag weekend. The temptations of the world promise freedom while we’re waiting for Jesus, but that is just a trick of the devil. That’s exactly what we saw in chapter 2 a fortnight ago – 2:19 – the false teachers “promise [people] freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for people are slaves to whatever masters them.”

No, as we wait as Christians, waiting for Jesus’ return, we also need to strive. To strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish. Purity matters. He will keep us; but there is a spiritual battle going on and we need to keep our hearts and our lives fixed on him.

We need to keep striving because the aim of our Christian life, while we wait, is that we grow. And that’s the third thing. Wait, strive, grow. Let’s read the rest of our passage, from the middle of v15:

“So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given to him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. You therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, beware that you are not carried away with the error of the lawless and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.”

If I wheeled in my children and told you I was quite happy with where they’d got to and didn’t want them to grow any more, you’d think I was mad. In fact, if they stopped growing (mentally, physically or emotionally) I’d be straight round to the doctor. And it’s the same in our Christian life, says Peter in v18: we need to grow spiritually. If we’re not growing spiritually then that’s a sign that we’re not spiritually very healthy. Healthy things grow. It’s a dangerous thing to think that you can coast along in the Christian life. Once you stop growing, you’re likely to start shrinking. Once you stop pressing forwards you’re likely to wander off sideways or start going backwards. But we’re to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

How do we grow in the knowledge of him? Well, how does Esther grow in the knowledge of David? We spend time with him! We talk to him, we listen to him, and we walk with him through life. We need to be learning from the bible, which is why Peter says: remember what our dear brother Paul wrote. Now, knowing the bible and knowing Jesus are not exactly the same thing: it’s possible to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the bible in an academic sense and not really know Jesus at all. But if we’re to grow in the knowledge of Jesus, then we must read the bible, wrestle with the bible, and love the bible, more and more. And 2 Peter 3:16 is a lovely verse as we see Peter commending the apostle Paul to them. Just see how much verse 16 tells us about God’s word:

First, Paul’s letters were widely known and read. Though as far as we know they were all written to individual people and churches, Peter has clearly read lots of them and expects his readers to read them too.

Second, Paul’s letters were regarded as being ‘scripture’. Peter says,  in v16, that people twist them “…as they do the other scriptures.” That’s an extraordinary claim and shows us that right from the earliest days the church regarded Paul as a man writing truth from God, with, v15, “the wisdom given to him”.  It shows that the ‘canon’ of NT books was already formulating in the early days of the church, as their God-breathed authority was recognised. Some people will tell you that church councils hundreds of years later arbitrarily decided what to put in the New Testament. Purely from a historical point of view, that is utter nonsense. Paul’s writings were already, in perhaps AD65 here, regarded as part of Scripture.

But today Paul’s writings are not always treated with respect, just as they weren’t then. For example, you may well hear people saying that the words of Jesus in the gospels are what it’s really all about: far more reliable than the words of that maverick, misogynist, megalomaniac Paul. That might sound plausible, but it’s totally wrong, because the letters of Paul are, to quote Peter, up there alongside “the other scriptures”. We can’t just rip out the bits of Paul we don’t like, such as what he said about sexual ethics or about the differences between men and women, just as we can’t write off the bits of the Gospels that we don’t like, such as what Jesus said about divorce and remarriage, or his many warnings about the grim reality of hell. And there’s an integrity in scripture which means that Paul’s message and Jesus’ message are actually the same. God spoke them all. And Paul is neither a misogynist nor a megalomaniac.

The third thing we learn from this verse is that “there are some things in them hard to understand”. Isn’t it refreshing to hear that? I’m so glad I’m not the only one who’s wrestled with the way Paul describes our future resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, or the struggle against sin in Romans 7. If you don’t always find the Bible easy, then join Peter’s club! That’s what it’s sometimes supposed to be like! Barry Cooper, one of the writers of the Discipleship Explored course, puts it really well in this quote:

“Some books we read, but the best books read us. They assess us, make demands of us. And that’s a good thing. First, because hard texts have a way of humbling us. They remind us that God’s wisdom infinitely outpaces our own. And second, hard texts are good for us because God the Father wants us to become more like his Son. The only way this can happen is if our minds and hearts are exercised. The person who never wants the bible to be hard is like the person who goes to the gym and never wants to sweat.” [paraphrased]

Wise words!

Fourth thing: the scriptures can be twisted. That’s what the false teachers were doing – quoting the bible but twisting it to say something different from what it actually means. It’s a dreadfully serious thing, because Peter says that those ignorant and unstable people – note the contrast there between the ‘unstable’ people in v16, and our ‘stability’ in v17 as believers – he says those who twist the bible do so to their own destruction.

There are many ways to twist someone’s words, but let’s just focus in now on one of the simplest: Take it out of context. You often see that when a new film comes out, don’t you, and a selection of quotes from the reviews appears on the poster adverts. A few years back, one film had a quote from Entertainment Weekly under its title: “A small masterpiece.” But if you read their review, Entertainment Weekly had not been particularly positive about the film at all. They had used the words “a small masterpiece”, but only to describe the opening credits as “a small masterpiece of dementia.” Their words were twisted – taken right out of context.

We can easily do the same. Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength!” makes me sound like a Christian superhero, and is frequently quoted that way. Read it in context, and you see that it’s more about being contented in suffering hardship and poverty. A different twist on what it means to be victorious.

And it’s easy to take things out of context on a bigger scale too. Recently I was looking through the official bible reading scheme which the Church of England produces for Sunday services. It’s a bit like it’s been put through the sanitizer. For example, there’s a glorious passage in 1 Corinthians 6:

“Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God…”

Guess where the official lectionary starts the reading? Verse 11: “And this is what some of you were…”.

Of course it’s easier not to read the unpleasant bit – but it twists the message! Because without the ‘bad news’ there can be no ‘good news’.

So we need to be careful. And it’s easy to point the finger at others while having a cherry-picking approach to the bible ourselves, isn’t it. Let’s be honest, we’re all prone to picking our favourite bits, or the bits we feel we can stomach. But in the long run that will make us unbalanced Christians. Maybe with 2015 not far round the corner, now is a good time to find a daily bible reading routine that will take you right through the bible, so you make sure you get the balance of the whole. Be realistic – you don’t necessarily need to read 6 chapters a day. And sometimes it is great just to open the bible anywhere, to pray that God will lead us to a part that’s particularly useful for us today, and even to read our favourite bits! But it’s good also to be systematic and to make sure we read the whole thing.

Now might be a good time to recommend some books on the Good Book!

Two short books written this year :

also:

  • “Dig Deeper”. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for life.” A book like this will help you learn to fish – to understand and apply the bible yourself, so you can grow, and not lose your stability as a Christian. And maybe it’ll help you to teach someone else to fish too.

So, how do we grow in the knowledge of Jesus Christ? We talk to him, we walk with him, and we listen to him in the bible. We show Paul and the other apostles the respect they deserve in their scriptural writings.

But finally, note that it’s not enough just to grow in the knowledge of Jesus. We need also to grow in his grace. It’s an ugly thing to be very learned in the scriptures, and then very ungracious in the way we treat others. It’s by and large the attitude that Jesus condemned the Pharisees for. So be careful. Make sure you’re growing in love and in character, as well as in knowledge. And let it all be for the glory of Jesus Christ, because all glory is his, v18.

How can we keep going as a Christian? Wait. Strive. Grow. I think of that keen young Christian singer I mentioned at the beginning. I could mention numerous others I have known. And I look around tonight, and I pray that God will keep all of us from losing our stability.

Wait for him to come back for you. Strive to be found ready and waiting for him. And grow in the grace and knowledge of him, our Lord and Saviour.

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