You will understand that I’m interrupting our series of sermons on the book of Joshua for Palm Sunday and Easter. For this morning I chose a text apropos the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus. To be sure, in the paragraph we are about to read, the atonement — the death of Christ for our salvation — is not the main point. This entire section of the letter — it extends from 1:13-3:3 — one commentator entitles: “The Challenge to Live Differently.” [Stibbs, TNTC, 83] “The cry for holiness rings through the Bible.” [F.B. Meyer, Tried by Fire, 52] From the beginning to the end of the Bible the Lord shows himself deeply interested in the life his children live. We have been created and re-created in Christ to live in a God-like way. We have been saved, we read in Paul, to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, God’s son. As sinners we are still much inclined to live as the world does and to excuse our failures to do God’s will. But we know better! And we aspire to better. We not only know but we fully agree that God’s salvation, everywhere in the Word of God, has as its object not only our rescue from punishment but our restoration to a holy life, a life of love for God and man, a life like Christ’s and pleasing to God. No one put it more simply or more beautifully than Cecil Francis Alexander in her beloved hymn:
“He died that we might be forgiven; he died to make us good.”
What we need, you and I and every Christian, is motivation. We have the capacity to live as we should, even the desire, but we need a shove; in fact, we need a lot of shoves. And so Peter in our text this morning. He is motivating us to live a godly life. And to do so he reminds us of the way were saved and by whom we were saved and does so in some of the most memorable and elegant language we find anywhere in the Bible. These are not the only motivations that the Bible provides us, or even that Peter provides us here. There are several others mentioned in this single paragraph. We have many reasons to live for God! But what Peter says about our redemption in Christ is what I want us to concentrate on this Palm Sunday morning.
v.13 Peter literally wrote, “Gird up the loins of your mind…” It evokes the image of a man in those days lifting up his long outer garment and tucking it into his belt to leave himself free for action. [Kelly, 65] Nowadays we would say, “Roll up the sleeves of your mind…” In other words, the Christian life requires us to get ready, to mean business, and to be serious! [Stibbs, 85] And here we are given our first motivation: we are to live in view of the Second Coming, what is here called “the revelation of Jesus Christ.” How will we want to have lived when Christ appears?
v.16 As is typical of the New Testament, we are instructed in this new life both negatively and positively. We are told not to live as we used to live, not to live as the world does, and to live instead according to the nature of God, in obedience to the commandments of God, imitating the example of Christ, and conducting ourselves according to the principles of the gospel that we have learned.
Here are two more motivations: the ignorance of that former way of life — a Christian knows how foolish it is, how unworthy it is to live as if Jesus were not the Lord — and the holiness of God. “Be holy for I am holy,” you remember, is a refrain that runs through the book of Leviticus. [Kelly, 69] Obviously, if we are God’s children we ought to honor our Father and there is no more sincere form of paying respect than imitation.
v.17 Still another motivation for a godly life: we must give an account for our lives to God on the great day. God is no respecter of persons; no one has any “pull” with him. A very expensive lawyer may secure a verdict in an American court that a poor man would never get, but in God’s judgment everyone will answer for his conduct on the same terms, on God’s terms. But this God is not only our Judge, but the Father who loves us and whom we love. And he has done what needed to be done to secure our acquittal. So if we must still give answer for our lives, the lives we have lived as his beloved children, we have all the more reason to strive to please him. One’s attitude toward God has everything to do with how one lives his or her life! [Clark, New Heavens, New Earth: A Commentary on First and Second Peter, 44]
“The time of our exile” is a reference to our life in this world. Don’t live, in other words, as if this world were your permanent home. Still another motivation for a godly life: the brevity of life.
v.20 The key thought: Christ came into the world for your sake. This is said in many ways in the Bible: the came to save his people from their sins, the angel said to Joseph; he was born of a woman, born under law to redeem those under law, Paul says; and Christ himself said that he came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many; and so on. But always this thought: God the Son would not have taken on a human nature, he would never have appeared in the world, we would never have known him as Jesus of Nazareth if it hadn’t been that you and I were in desperate trouble and only he could deliver us from it. Theologians call this the “consequent, absolute necessity of the atonement.” God did not have to save you, but once he decided to (consequent) he had to do it in the way in which he did, (absolute necessity). There was only one way to save you that both met your need and and was consistent with his own character and justice. That way was by the incarnation, suffering, death, and resurrection of the Son of God.
As we know from many prophesies in the Old Testament this was all along the plan of God; that is the sense of “foreknown” in v. 20. The cross was no afterthought; Christ was the “lamb slain before the foundation of the world.” He had to come and die in history and at the right time, but before the world was made or ever a human being was created the cross of Christ stood at history’s crossroads in the plan and purpose of God.
v.21 A final motivation: the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. We are to live as those who are to live forever! A segue to Easter!
The long and the short of this paragraph, quite like many others in the New Testament, is that Christians should strive to live a holy life because God is who he is, because events in human history — both events in the past and events still to come — are what they are, because of who Jesus Christ is, and because of what he did to save his people from their sins. Here as everywhere else, ethics depend upon and derive from theology. There is reality under our feet as Christians living in this world. We are to live a godly life because of the facts.
And one of those facts is that we were redeemed by the precious blood of Christ. We should certainly fear God and live in reverence before him because God is to be feared for his majesty and his holiness. We should be scrupulous in our obedience to and service of God and in our imitation of the love of Christ because we must answer to God for our lives at the coming judgment. But the truest and deepest motive for an obedient and holy life, the consecrated life of a Christian, is the recollection of the price of our redemption and the consideration of who it is who paid it on our behalf.
Now there are some important terms among the famous words of vv. 18-19, terms that every Christian should be able to define and explain. Three in particular: “ransomed” (or “redeemed,” as in other English translations; the English words are synonyms); “blood,” and “lamb” (particularly a lamb “without blemish or spot”.) These are familiar concepts in the Bible and are joined here in a most important way.
Redemption was not only an idea, but a fact of life in the world of Peter’s day. Some of his readers, no doubt, were slaves. In those days it was often possible for slaves to buy themselves out of bondage. That was called redemption. Redemption or ransoming refers to the deliverance from bondage by the payment of a ransom, a price. If the slave could earn enough money, he might buy his freedom from his master. The money paid for that purpose was called a “ransom.” It bought deliverance. We use it today in regard to kidnapping, but for little else. Peter’s readers knew all about ransoming or redemption. Probably some who first heard this letter read had been redeemed from slavery by paying a ransom, by their paying it themselves, or by a relative paying it for them.
But the idea goes back much further. Peter is not so much using an illustration from his readers’ daily life as he is taking them back to the Old Testament and the history of Israel. The practice of redemption is all over the Old Testament: property lost through debt could be bought back, liberated as it were, by the payment of a ransom price; an Israelite who sold himself into slavery to pay his debts could be redeemed, often by a relative who was known as a “kinsmen redeemer.” A redeemer is someone who pays the ransom price. But, supremely, Israel is said many times to have been redeemed from bondage in Egypt. The great act of salvation in Israel’s history was a redemption. And the price, as you remember, was the sacrificial lamb, whose blood was smeared on the doorposts of the homes of Israelites the night of the first Passover so that they would be spared the death that the Lord’s avenging angel visited upon the firstborn of the families of Egypt.
A person might be able to buy his way out of some forms of slavery, but no one could have bought his way out of bondage in Egypt, and, more to the point, no one can ever buy his or her way out of bondage to sin and death. If ever a human being escapes that slavery, it will be because someone else paid the ransom for him or for her. Some remarkable someone else would have to pay that ransom. And this is what Jesus did. You remember his famous declaration in Mark 10:45: “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
That then leads us to blood, obviously in this context the blood of the sacrificial lamb. People can be put off by such references to blood in the Bible. It can sound primitive and repugnant to modern ears. I have told you before that in the early years of Covenant College, a donor offered to give the College a quarter of a million dollars if only they would remove William Cowper’s hymn There is a Fountain Filled with Blood from the College’s hymnal. That was a lot of money in those days for a young institution in desperate need of money. But they rightly refused because such “blood,” the blood of Cowper’s great hymn, when rightly understood, is and should be precious to Christians, as Peter here says it is.
But we must understand how the term “blood” is used in the Bible. When Peter wrote his letter there were mystery religions in the Greco-Roman world that used animal blood in their rituals. In one case, the cult of Mythros, people would descend into a pit which was then covered by a grid or grate. As they stood below, a bull would be killed and its blood, pouring form its slit throat, would splash and drip all over them. In such rites blood was thought to have some magical, life-giving, or purifying properties. That gory superstition disgusts us and rightly so.
The sight of blood often produces a kind of repulsion or fear, if not nausea. I remember when I was a boy taking a class fieldtrip to a local hospital and watching a lab worker make an incision in a live rabbit. The blood began to flow and I began to get sick! But in the Bible the blood itself is not the point. It has no mystical power or virtue. Blood simply stands for death and, in particular, sacrificial death.” Blood,” in its biblical usage, is a figure of speech. It is metonymy for sacrificial death. Metonymy is a figure of speech in which one word suggests another. Death is not necessarily bloody, but sacrificial death was always bloody.
The ancients knew very well that when a person lost his blood he lost his life. The lamb’s blood was smeared on the doorposts of Israel’s homes in Egypt as evidence that a lamb had been killed there! A sacrifice had been made for the sake of the people living in that home. When we read in Hebrews 9 that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins, what is meant is that without a sacrificial death there is no forgiveness of sins.
In the Bible such references to blood as we have here always refer to blood shed or to life lost. Among Peter’s readers were certainly a number of Jewish Christians; indeed, as his address in v. 1 suggests, they were mostly Jewish Christians. They would have immediately recognized this reference to blood for what it was. It summoned up images of their temple sacrifices. Anyone who had ever been to the temple knew immediately what this meant. And so blood in a context like this means death, the death of a substitute, of a sacrifice. And not just any death; but violent, sudden death: the sort of death an animal died in the temple when its throat was slit and it bled out. That death, in Israel’s sacrificial ritual, cleansed the Israelite of his sin because it represented and foreshadowed and prophesied the greater death that would someday atone for all sins.
In Leviticus we read on and on about this sacrifice and that; of the deaths of lambs and goats and bulls, even birds, and how their blood was then sprinkled on the altar (and in that that the death was offered to God), and how in this way Israel’s sins were atoned for. But, remember, as Peter writes here and as we often read in the Bible, the death of Christ on the cross was all along the divine plan for the redemption of the world. Calvary does not take its shape from Leviticus. Leviticus takes its shape from Calvary. The cross being the very center of history, God saw to it that the history leading up to it would be preparing his people for it and enabling them to understand what happened when it happened. [Meyer, 62]
And so finally we come to the lamb without blemish and without spot. Peter’s Jewish readers understood this reference to Jesus as the lamb. They were accustomed to lambs as sacrificial animals. They knew very well that their Scriptures required them to bring lambs for sacrifice that had no defect. That too was part of the prophecy of the death of Jesus Christ: he was to be the only sinless man who ever lived; the only one who could die for the sins of others because he had none of his own to pay for. When John the Baptist identified Jesus as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” Jews might not have believed him, but they knew what he meant. Jesus would die as a sacrifice for sin. He would die to redeem his people from bondage to sin and to death. “The death of Jesus on the cross was not some unavoidable calamity, or the death of a martyr, it was rather the result of a deliberate purpose to offer a sacrifice for sin.” [Clark, 57]
All of this vocabulary — redemption or ransoming, blood, and lamb — presupposes the realities of 1) our sin and guilt — guilt in the sense of liability to divine punishment –, 2) of God’s justice demanding punishment for the guilty, and 3) of substitutionary atonement, the death of a substitute in the place of the sinner to pay for his sins. This reality of divine justice and God’s provision of a substitute is what lies at the heart of the good news and of the Christian faith. Sin must be paid for. But God, in his love, contrived a way for him, in the person of his Son, to pay for our sin himself. Justice demanded a death; love provided one in our place. The whole purpose of Christmas was Good Friday. God came into the world as a man so that he could die in our place. If you have to reduce the Christian faith to a single phrase, this is that phrase: “Christ died for us.”
I remember a conversation I had once with a close family friend, a life-long Christian. We were walking together in the Colorado mountains. She admitted frankly that she had been troubled for some time by all the blood and death in the Old Testament. Why was that necessary? It seemed somewhat repugnant to her. And why should God have emphasized such violent death in the faith he taught his children? All of that blood! I began by agreeing with her that there was a great deal of blood and death in Israel’s religion. Indeed, there was more of it than she probably realized. I described to her as best I could what it must have been like on a typical summer’s day at the temple in Jerusalem. Under the hot sun, everywhere one looked animals were being killed and butchered. As the animals brought for sacrifice smelled the blood they would have reacted in fear: squealing and struggling to get away. The entire supply of every animal’s blood, apart from the small part of it used to sprinkle the altar, would have flowed over the pavement. Immense amounts of water were necessary to wash the blood off the pavement, and flowing gutters would have carried the bright red water away. Water was necessary as well to wash the hands and arms of the worshippers and the priests whose hands and arms and no doubt garments were stained in red with the blood like a butcher’s apron. Fire would have been roaring under the altar, making a hot day hotter still, and the smell of meat cooking would have pervaded the inner court. Altogether it was a violent, noisy, and gruesome affair, busy with death, overwhelming to the senses.
But I also reminded her that all of this was the way Israel was schooled in the way of her redemption; schooled in the fact that most human beings find the most difficult of all facts to grasp: that their salvation should require something as great and something as terrible as the death of the Son of God on the cross. A grotesque death lies at the very center of our faith. All of this sacrificial death was necessary to prepare God’s people for what was yet to come, the far more appalling death of the Son of God, the creator of heaven and earth, on the cross. There were certainly more explicit prophesies about the coming sacrifice in the OT. Could anything be a more explicit than this, written 700 years before the appearance of Jesus in the world?
“… he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — everyone — to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. …it was the Lord’s will to crush him… he shall bear their iniquities… he bore the sin of many…” [Isa. 53:4-12]
But, still, it was the practice of sacrifice that fixed this most fundamental reality, this crucial article of Israel’s faith, in her mind and heart. Only the sacrifice of another, of some other perfect substitute, could free her from bondage to sin and from the death that is the just punishment of sin. Day after day, year after year, this truth was portrayed before her eyes in the most unforgettable, dramatic, and impressive way.
I think most of us, apart from a few hunters here, are repulsed by the idea of killing an animal. We eat the meat, but the acts of killing and of butchering the animal we prefer to keep out of sight. We want nothing to do with it. It hardly registers that the hamburger we are eating was not so long ago part of a living cow. I remember a few years ago in Manipur they wanted to pay me the honor of allowing me to shoot and kill one of the bulls that was going to be butchered for the feast that was part of the celebration of the denomination’s 25th anniversary. I didn’t want to shoot the bull and I managed to give the privilege to someone else, generous as I am. (I gave it to Florence and after she shot the bull she was asking around if they had any other animals they needed killed. It was really kind of embarrassing actually. But most of us are repelled.) What you see in that squealing animal, the blood spurting from its throat, the butchering of the carcass, I say what you see is a little something of what it takes to deliver sinners like you and me from the guilt and the power of our sin. As the saintly Andrew Bonar put it: “To get a deeper sense of sin is to look at the price paid for our pardon.” [A. Bonar, Diary and Life, 508]
You know that you belong to a redeemed race, don’t you? Many men do not belong to the company of the redeemed and they neither know nor care. But, as Peter reminds us here in v. 18, you know this. You know you were redeemed not by silver and gold, but by the precious blood of Christ. Happy are the men and women who not only know that they have been redeemed, but who, as Peter urges us to do, allow that fact to mold and shape their entire life.
It makes all the difference in the world to know that you are a creature, that you have a maker; that there is someone who gave you your life. It matters greatly that you know that someone very great thought about you and brought you into being. There are many people who have at least an inkling that God gave them life. But we are finding out what an immense difference it makes when many people come to believe that human life is an accident; that we have no one to thank for it and are accountable to no one for how we live it.
But to know that you have been redeemed: that is truth of a still higher order. You have been bought with a price. The great God set out to deliver you from bondage into the glorious freedom of the children of God. And he did that even though the cost of your freedom, your ransom was immeasurably great: the humiliation, the suffering, and the cruel and ignominious death of his own beloved Son.
You are familiar with Ernest Shackleton, the famous explorer of the Antarctic. You are particularly familiar with the catastrophe of his third expedition, when his ship Endurance was caught and eventually broken in the ice and Shackleton and his men had to fight for their lives in the bitter cold and inhospitable conditions of that coldest place on earth. It was to rescue his men, marooned and running out of food, that Shackleton and four men crossed 800 miles of very stormy seas in a twenty-foot lifeboat to reach the nearest human habitation on the island of South Georgia.
But some years before, on his second expedition to Antarctica, an exploration of the continent toward the South Pole, disaster had also struck. On that expedition Shackleton and three of his men got closer to the South Pole than any explorer had before, only some hundred miles short. But the journey back to the ship became a race against starvation. They had not brought a sufficient supply of food and they only barely survived the trek. Shackleton was once asked to tell a group of interested listeners at a London club what had been his most terrible moment during his expeditions. He began by saying that there were many such moments, but one immediately sprang to mind. It was on that journey back to the ship, the four men virtually out of food with a long way still to travel, the intense cold making food even more vitally necessary. It was night and the four men were trying to sleep. Only a few biscuits remained for each man; the last ration having been distributed.
Unable to sleep he was weighing their prospects and how they ought to proceed. Shackleton was a leader who always felt the burden of responsibility for his men. In the middle of the night he more sensed than saw a movement. He stared into the darkness and then saw a man ease himself up on his arm and stretch out his hand over the man sleeping next to him. His hand closed around the man’s biscuit bag and picked it up and lifted it back to himself. Shackleton would have staked his life on the honor of that man, but it appeared he was stealing food from a man who was starving as he was. As he watched, however, Shackleton saw that far from stealing his fellow’s biscuit, he had taken one from his own bag, put it into the bag of his neighbor, and then quietly returned the sleeping man’s bag to its place. He later said it was one of the bravest acts of self-sacrifice he had ever witnessed. [Marcus Loane, The Place Called Calvary, 155-156]
A man thinks he is going to die. He is giving his life so far as he knows for the life of another. We know how and why that moves us. We know what impresses us about such a sacrifice. And so we know what substitutionary sacrifice is, don’t we? One man giving his life for another. But the substitutionary sacrifice Peter is talking about is of another order entirely: not just a brave man, but the King of Kings and Lord of Lords; not just a noble sacrifice made on behalf of a friend, but a sacrifice offered for a world full of enemies; not just any death, but the cruelest of deaths and a death in which the lamb of God bore the punishment of a holy God against all the sins of men; that death in which Jesus took upon himself the ferocious wrath of a just and holy God, called forth and rightly called forth by all the lifetime’s worth of conceit, cruelty, indifference to others, violence, impurity, greed, small-mindedness, irreverence toward God, and constant, unbroken selfishness that mark the life of every single human being.
What makes this blood so precious? Whose blood it was: the Son of God. What this blood represents: the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. What it accomplished: delivering a great multitude no man can number from the corrupting power of sin and from its guilt not only in this world but in the world to come. And why this blood was shed: because God so loved the world.
No wonder we are so often we are told in the Bible to believe in Jesus Christ and be reconciled to God. How else can a person like you or me, with hearts and lives like ours, be put right with God, except that someone who has the wherewithal should pay the price of our redemption. Jesus alone could; and so he did.