First Peter No. 21 “Don’t be an American!”
1 Peter 4:1-6
April 15, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
Tonight, you are going to hear Peter tell you not to be Americans! In effect that is what he will say in v. 3. His readers were Gentiles, of course, but Peter says, don’t be a Gentile. In our situation, he would say, don’t be an American! I remember first coming across Christians who thought in these very terms in Piraeus, the port city of Athens, Greece. In conversations they referred to their fellow citizens as “Greeks,” as if they were not Greeks, since they were Christians. The Greeks thought this way or acted this way, they would say, to distinguish themselves from them. If you’re aware, “Greek” is the way in which “Gentile” was translated in the King James version of the Bible, and we’re going to hear in just a few moments Peter say, “Don’t be like the Greeks.” Well, Peter will tell us to think and speak the same way. Americans may think and act in this way, but we do not! As Peter continues to deal with his main theme, he picks up the thought of 3:18, and urges these Christians to live in the light and the power of the victory of Christ over sin and death.
v.1 The sense seems to be this. Just as Christ suffered and died for sin when he was on the earth and so will never have to deal with sin again, so Christians must suffer now in this life, while they are in the body, so that they may have the same final victory over sin. As Christ’s death emancipated them from the rule of sin, so now it is theirs to live in that freedom from sin. Throughout the section of the letter leading up to this point, Peter has been comparing the situation of these Christians to that of their Savior and has been urging them to imitate him in his victory over sin and death.
v.3 A clear indication that these Christians were formerly Gentiles, not Jews.
v.4 It has long been observed that the lives of righteous people are an affront to the unrighteous because they amount to an unspoken criticism, proof that men and women really can live as everyone knows he or she ought to live. No one really thinks debauchery is a proper way of life. People know down deep how they ought to live, but they don’t wish to make the sacrifice. They love their sins. So, when someone comes along who rejects the sinful life and lives righteously, he or she pricks the conscience of the sinful and makes them feel guilty and then angry because this person who lives righteously has made them feel bad about themselves. By refusing to participate in their behavior they have as much as called them to account for it.
Of course, I’m using the terms “sinful” and “righteous,” as the Bible does, in a highly specialized sense. “Sinful” doesn’t mean “as bad a possible” and “righteous” doesn’t mean perfect. The terms, when used this way in the Bible, as Peter uses them, say in 3:12, refer to the fundamental orientation of one’s life – either toward or away from sin – and the visible though hardly complete manifestation of that orientation in one’s behavior. Righteous people still commit many sins, of course. The Bible is candid and frank about that. And sinful people do some things that are, in and of themselves, righteous. The Bible admits that as well. But the difference between them is so profound the Bible is willing to describe them in terms of these categories: “sinners” and “righteous.” In the same way, Peter uses the term “Gentile” here to describe the characteristic Gentile way of life. There were many Christian Gentiles, of course; he didn’t mean them!
v.5 They enjoy their sins, but they will pay for them in the end. “There are no greater miseries than false joys.” [Bernard of Clairvaux] This is a principle built into the very fabric of life. The Bible both speaks of and illustrates what it calls “the deceitful pleasures of sin” or “the pleasures of sin for a season.”
v.6 The reference is to the Christians in these churches who have already died. But because they believed the gospel and lived according to it, because they put off their sins for Christ’s sake while they lived in the world, we can be sure of their salvation and eventual resurrection to eternal life. The “live in the spirit the way God does” is like the “made alive in the spirit” in 3:18, which, we said, is a reference to Christ’s resurrection and the nature of Christ’s resurrection life. Christians by faith can enter in to that life, however imperfectly, already in this world; and that’s what Peter is talking about.
To the casual observer it may seem that the gospel has no obvious effect. Some of these Christians were already dead. Christians die just like other people. Some of them also die young or suffer debilitating diseases or disabilities. They can lose their jobs and struggle to find another. Even their marriages can come apart. And so on. And from the human viewpoint, their lifestyle may, so far from commending them to others, actually cause them to be despised or, what is worse, made fun of by others. But the gospel is less a message of bliss and prosperity and popularity in this world than it is a message of final victory over sin and death and of eternal life in next. Just as Christ was judged and condemned by men, but rose to everlasting life, so Christians may have to suffer as he did, but they will also share in his triumph! And the anticipation of that final triumph is a changed life now.
Now, there is nothing particularly difficult in the teaching of these six verses. I mean we have no severe difficulties of interpretation such as we had to face in 3:19-20. There is no “baptism saves you” in these verses! In fact, Peter’s argument in the opening verses of chapter 4 is quite conventional. That is, it is very much like quite a number of other passages in the New Testament. They have this same character: “You were once a pagan, living according to sinful desires, but now that you have found Christ, you have both the motivation and the freedom to live a holy life, and Christ will not fail to smile on your effort to do so.”
Even the details are conventional. For example, the catalog of sins mentioned in 4:3 is very similar to the lists of sins given in Romans 13:13 or Galatians 5:19-21. In all three cases sexual sins and drunkenness are front and center and both Galatians and 1 Peter mention idolatry. In fact, even the vocabulary is much the same.
So, the trick for us here, as usually in the Bible, is not to figure out what Peter means. That is plain enough. Our task is to realize in a new, fresh, and galvanizing way how life-changing, even if terribly demanding, this familiar teaching is. We know that Christians are saved to live their lives for God. Jesus told us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. We know that Christ redeemed us that we should be holy people, eager to do what is good. We know that he gives us, by his Spirit, power to resist the desires of this world and live according to the will of God. We also know that the effort to live a holy life is no small thing; it requires a great deal of us and takes a great deal out of us. So much, in fact, that sometimes we grow weary of constantly having to resist sinful desires and, as a result, alas, give in to them almost completely. But we know that when we stand before the Lord we are going to want, want more than we have wanted anything in our lives, to have lived worthy of the grace we have received, to have lived our lives, as Paul says, “making the teaching about God our Savior attractive.”
We all know that, or we should. We are Christians after all. But how to bring it home to the heart? How to make this theology, this truth live in our consciences and govern our lives? That is the question. And Peter’s answer seems to be: by speaking candidly of sin and righteousness, refusing to allow these great issues to be made to seem insignificant by polite speech that sounds spiritual but has no bite. Not so the Bible and not so Peter here. He tells Christians not to live in debauchery, lust and drunkenness, not to go to orgies or spend their time carousing or bowing down to idols. The last may be less a reference to one more vice than to the social context in which the other evils took place – religious rites where excessive drinking and sexual orgies also took place. In that time in the Greco-Roman world feasts with religious overtones often degenerated into drinking parties which then degenerated into orgies. For Peter’s readers this is a bucket of cold water to the face!
Now in our day we can be almost offended that Peter should speak this way. “Of course, we are not going to do that! We are Christians for goodness sake!” Who would ever suppose that Christians could justify drinking parties or orgies or idolatry? Of course, in that day, those practices were commonplace and these new believers had practiced them for years; they were a habit. What is more, they were being asked to attend to these parties by their friends, by their workmates, by their neighbors. What were they supposed to do? Say no, after having said yes for years on end? Throughout the history of Christian missions, the gospel has made its way into cultures in which all manner of the most debased behavior was commonplace. Christians had to learn not to continue practices that were wildly incompatible with faith in Christ, from polygamy to cannibalism to consulting witch doctors. But in our day many Christians wonder why Peter mentioned these sins and didn’t address himself to the evils we think were more important to expose and condemn. What of those evils, we ask, by which in Greco-Roman culture the poor and defenseless were abused by the wealthy and the powerful, were made merchandise of as if they weren’t human beings at all? Why did Peter not mention the great evils that corrupted and benighted the social and political life of the empire – abortion or the exposure of infants, slavery, the treatment of women, the huge disparity between the poor and the rich, corrupt government, punitive taxation, a judicial system that regularly awarded bribery, and the like? We are tempted to think that Peter only cared about sex and drinking and not about justice and mercy! Is this not a problem with American evangelicalism: an overconcentration on a few private sins at the expense of great social injustices, condemning smoking while ignoring racism, for example – as many evangelical Christians did and churches did?
Many modern western Christians, thankfully, are now again, as before they regularly used to be, sensitive to the injustices of our society, a society that more and more resembles the first century Greco-Roman world. In fact, it may be true to say that for two thousand years no people have lived in a society that so much resembles that of the Roman world in the first century as we do in the Western world today. Income disparity was hardly unique to that world but it was certainly a feature of it; so was the immense role of entertainment in life – often violent or sensual entertainment –, sexual licentiousness was taken for granted, so was the exploitation of women, abortion, and pornography. The combination of these forms of human degradation are features of our public landscape in a way that, taken together, they have not been in the western world since the days of the Roman Empire. Some other public sins, hardly unique to Roman times or to our own, such as racism or the exploitation of the poor, are also features of our social life as they were then.
The recently concluded 20th century, was a period during which on a scale hitherto unknown in human history, men perpetrated outrageous cruelties on uncounted numbers of human beings, all in the name of the use of the power of the state supposedly to improve the world. The Nazis planned to cleanse the human race by eugenics, eliminating Jews, gypsies, Slavs, and other “Untermenschen,” while the Communists intended to eliminate, for the sake of the world, the exploiters among the bourgeoisie, and introduce a new man without acquisitive or selfish instincts. Both involved murder on an unprecedented scale and both brought down upon the heads of immense populations more suffering and degradation than it had ever been possible to inflict in previous ages. Men determined to enact their own laws and rule by their own lights rejected what they contemptuously scorned as the outmoded and oppressive law of God.
In our new century and our new millennium much remains unchanged but the moral corruption of society continues to define our existence as a civilization. And in some ways not so dissimilar to the state-sponsored efforts to create some utopian future. Not today the old visions – fascist or communist – but rather those of innovators promising to employ new technologies to improve the human condition, even to create a new human being, or new ideologies that promise to rid the culture of outdated social and ethical mores so as to unleash a new flowering of the human personality. These people typically think in much the same way as the Nazis and the Communists did. They have contempt for absolutes in truth or in morals, they believe that mankind should be free to fashion a new ethic, and they believe that the elite, the cognoscenti, the gifted, the illuminated should have the freedom to impose on mankind their vision of the future, since they can see what others cannot.
As a result, longstanding moral certainties have come under direct attack in our day and more will come under attack as the years to come. Think, for example, of the unique nature and value of human life, of the respect that every human being owes to every other, of the importance of fidelity to obligations freely undertaken, of honesty, purity, and so on. So much of this has already been openly rejected or cast into doubt in our time. Groups once on the lunatic fringe of western civilization are now safely fixed in the mainstream, their opinions being taken seriously by the academy and the political class. Euthanasia is now the law of the land in some states, abortion is throughout the country, animal rights activists no longer see the need carefully to distinguish between animals and human beings. Ingrid Newkirk, the Founder of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), an organization that nowadays is usually mentioned favorably in the news, said several years ago, “Six million Jews died in concentration camps but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses.” The one thing isn’t exactly the same as the other, apparently; the holocaust of the chickens is worse!
We have already crossed some red lines that will, that must lead eventually to still more ghastly developments, which in turn will only further obliterate the ethical principles upon which a just civilization might be built. Remember, the Greco-Roman world was the furthest thing from a just civilization; it was a hard place for most people to live. Think of abortion as a means of selecting the sex of one’s baby, cloning human beings for spare parts or euthanizing infants born with defects. Iceland boasts that it has virtually eliminated Downs Syndrome, but it has done so by killing the babies that have it. Surely, we would expect a contemporary Apostle Paul to decry these sins as the great sins of our day? Are not those the real threats to human life and society? Were they not in the first century, are they not today? Why didn’t Peter address that kind of evil in the Greco-Roman world in which his readers lived? Instead he first of all ordered them not to be drunks or to engage in sexually licentious behavior.
Well, the Bible has a great deal to say about heretical theologies and social injustices of all kinds and can speak as frankly, as bluntly about those sins as about these. You have only to read the prophets or the preaching of Jesus himself to find pitiless and very explicit condemnations of the mistreatment of the poor by the rich, the abuse of slaves, of corrupt government, and so on. But Peter was hitting these folk where they lived every day. They were not slave holders and they were not power brokers in the empire. What is more, a fabulously important biblical insight is that the truly good life always begins in the personal, private dimension of life and moves outward toward society from there. Genuine integrity begins at home! These Christians had appetites and desires that they must learn to hold in check, to deny. Their new life required that! And those particular appetites were being whetted all the time by the speech and the behavior of people all around them every day. They lived in a radioactively sensual and pleasure oriented culture, as we do today. How much more difficult it is to be pure when impurity is paraded before you all day every day! How much less a problem – still a problem, but how much less a problem would pornography be if it were still, as it was a generation ago, hard to find. But, no matter, all true righteousness, including that of societies or cultures as a whole, requires righteousness first at the individual, personal level, and the more outrageous the wickedness of a society, the more demanding a task living in righteousness will be. But it is in those ways that are obviously wicked a Christian in a society finds his or opportunity to distinguish his or her life from the life of those around him, to distinguish a Christian life from that of the Americans. And so, of the great social evils of our time: they begin in the individual human heart and must be put to death there as well. We have, in fact, as a society – on purpose, many people on both sides are talking about this – embarked on a great experiment to see if social justice can be created without regard to personal righteousness, if a society can be formed in which people, all people, are treated justly and mercifully without, at the same time, requiring individual members of that society to be humble, pure, honest, and self-controlled themselves. Previous societies, of course, often only paid lip-service to the need for private integrity as the foundation of public morality and justice, but we’re not even doing that much, and, predictably, we are getting less of both: private and public morality. We’ll see if it is possible to create a just society with people who live largely at the beck and call of their sensual desires. The preliminary findings are not encouraging!
Peter, like every other biblical writer, is making no bones about the fact that the Christian life must be different, so different indeed that it will inevitably prove offensive to people around them.
“What, our life isn’t good enough for you? You think you are so much better than we are? These things we do, these things everybody does in our world, are beneath you? You’re above us? Who makes you so righteous?”
They are like the men of Sodom when Lot refused to participate with them in their evil plans, who said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and now he wants to play the judge.” All Lot had done was to refuse to have a part in their radioactive evil; all he did was attempt to prevent a rape; but they saw it, as people always will, as a condemnation of them and their lifestyle – as, indeed, it was.
Christian preaching has very often through the ages held the attention of Christians and helped them with their temptations and strengthened them to answer Christ’s summons to holiness and purity of life precisely by being as candid as Peter is here. He is telling us precisely how and in what way we must be different from the society around us precisely because we are Christians. One of Alexander Whyte’s favorite phrases was generalia non pungunt, that is, “generalities don’t penetrate; they don’t prick the conscience.” John the Baptist was a preacher of righteousness; he inveighed against sin; and King Herod heard John the Baptist gladly, until the great preacher descended to particulars and began to deal with Herod’s having married his brother’s wife, having arranged a divorce in the first place so he could marry his brother’s wife. Then Herod wanted John’s head. Sin in general was fine – preach about it all you want, go get ‘um – but that particular sin was none of his business! Generalia non pungunt!
Peter is descending to particulars here. The famous John Chrysostom, the most famous preacher of early Christianity – his pulpit ministry in 4th century Antioch and Constantinople is deservedly legendary – I say, Chrysostom sometimes embarrassed his huge congregations by the frankness with which he spoke about their daily lives and about their sins. Here he is, in a sermon preached on July 13, A.D. 399, dealing with the sexual temptations that Christian people subject themselves to in the theater. We would speak of television and movies today, movies seen in theaters and movies watched at home.
“Even in the street a man’s self-control can be knocked off balance when he passes a pretty woman, but in the theatre his eyes are fixed on a slut shamelessly parading her charms, singing lewd songs, making suggestive movements and gestures. Of course, he falls under her spell, for his body is only flesh and blood, and in his imagination, he slips into having sex with her. Nor is that all: when the theatre shuts its doors and he returns home, he in effect takes her with him, for he cannot get her glances, the swaying of her body, her provocative poses out of his mind. So besotted is he with these sexual fantasies that his wife and family seem dull and commonplace by comparison and, as the blaze the temptress has kindled spreads, the stability of his home and the happiness of his marriage go up in smoke.” [Kelly, Golden Mouth, 135]
In our day, we can easily imagine how frank the great preacher would be regarding the use of pornography or promiscuity before marriage. Chrysostom was even more frank when speaking about the sexual relationship that should characterize the love of a husband and a wife and how the pleasure of that act, as he says in one sermon, “fusing and commingling their two bodies just as when we pour myrrh into olive oil,” accomplishes their union and welds the two spouses together. “There is no need,” he said, “to blush when talking openly about marriage which is an honorable estate and an image of the presence of Christ.” [134-135] I remember years ago being under a minister who was magnificently straightforward and direct in applying the Bible to certain areas of life, but not to this area. He would skip over parts of the Song of Songs as he read the book from the pulpit because he thought them too explicit and too sensual. No, that was not right. The Bible deals with life explicitly and honestly and so it deals with sex directly, and drinking directly, and the handling of money directly, and speaks about these things as explicitly and as powerfully as it must to bring home the necessity of righteousness in these fundamentally important parts of life. And for those worried about racism or income disparity, take note: no porn addict or alcoholic can be counted on to accomplish the transformation of society!
The Bible is full of the sins of drunkenness and of sexual impurity. And it is full of the proper enjoyment of wine and of the importance of a sexually fulfilling marriage. If we are followers of Christ, if our lives are to reflect his holiness and goodness, if we are to imitate him in living for the will of God, we will have to do it here, in these ways of moderation and chastity, in sobriety and in a pure sexual life, rich and full of pleasure, but confined to our marriage. This, Peter says, is what it means to follow Christ and to prepare to live in the spirit as God does.
Now, see, all of you are paying attention! Isn’t that interesting! You always do when I speak from Holy Scripture about drinking and about sex. God knows that; Peter knew that! This is where human beings live. It has so much to do, for good or ill, with the happiness and fruitfulness of their lives. And so, it likewise has much to do with the divide that separates Christians from non-Christians. It certainly does in our society and increasingly so. Answer honestly. Would you be paying the same attention if I were speaking about first century income disparity?
Sexual chastity outside of marriage, a sexual life strictly limited to hetero-sexual marriage are increasingly bizarre notions in our culture. Every TV show, every movie now simply assumes that normal human beings will have sex with a number of different partners and that it is perfectly proper for them to do so. A few months ago, a candidate for the governor’s office in Ohio, a sitting judge, flippantly responding to the barrage of national news stories about the sexual transgressions of various politicians and public figures, and, so he said, to remove any suspicion that there were skeletons in his closet, boasted that he had had consensual sex with some 50 women over the course of his life and the last one, quite recently, was a beautiful redhead. Imagine a man saying that 30 or 40 years ago and thinking that people would applaud him. In the 1960s Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential ambitions were dashed when he divorced his wife to marry another woman. People then supposed that such a man was not to be trusted. And here is an Ohio judge in 2018 boasting of his sexual conquests. See how things are moving? Imagine a woman boasting that she had had sex with 50 different men! If recent history is anything to go by, that too will come in due time. Our society no longer teaches sexual self-control to be an important virtue, an essential feature of adult responsibility, especially of male responsibility. It has mainstreamed pornography, which is a mockery of sexual self-control. And what shall we say of the penchant of our culture for drunkenness, either that brought about by drinking or that by drugs. We worry about college students binge-drinking, but we do nothing about it. We have in Washington State endorsed inebriation as entertainment by the legalization of marijuana. That’s what we now call it: the recreational use of marijuana. Drunkenness as recreation! No one smokes pot for the taste; no one stops smoking weed before it has an inebriating effect! You young people need to realize just how debouched your culture is; as, indeed human culture has always been. If not in one way, in another. You can’t live the way those around you are living. You’ve got to be different, really different! In this culture sexual purity and sobriety will make you different; noticeably different! We wouldn’t today say that we’re not to be like the Gentiles, but we can certainly say, we’re not to be like the Americans!
One of the most prominent Christian converts of the last generation was Chuck Colson, one of President Nixon’s aides, who went to prison for crimes committed as part of the cover-up of the break-in at the Democratic Party offices in the Watergate building. When it was reported that Colson had become a Christian in the middle of the Watergate scandal the media howled with derision and mockery. They were sure his claim to have become a Christian was nothing more than still more cover-up, a way of deflecting condemnation. Cartoonists had a field day placing a halo on the head of Nixon’s now famous henchman and master of the dirty trick. But as time passed, as Colson devoted himself to prison ministry and prison reform, as his life changed root and branch, the laughter died down and genuine respect took its place. The Christian life is different, and it tells even in this world! [Clowney, 173] Live so as to make the Americans back down and acknowledge the goodness of your life! That’s what Peter is telling us.
So great is the divide when Christians live pure and holy lives in respect to drinking and sex – I say, when Christians enjoy God’s gifts without abusing them, when they are a sober and chaste but a happy people who enjoy the good without abusing it – they will be a people apart. As they were in Peter’s day. If you want to know how to influence the people around you, here is the place to begin.
This isn’t the whole of the Christian life, of course. Peter knows that. He is going on in the next verses to speak of many other ways that Christians are to serve God, many other parts of the obedience they owe to God. In those ways too their lives will move apart from the lives of those who do not know God. But these two ways, with which Peter begins, were then and are now two extraordinarily important parts of that godliness that not only distinguishes Christians in the world but forces non-Christians to reckon with the difference. Often, they will not like it and will criticize Christians for it. But they will someday have to give an account, and, in the meantime, we will prove to them that God’s way is always the happiest, the most fruitful, and the most fulfilling way.
Peter doesn’t say that it is easy to live a holy life. It is not. It was not for Christ and it will not be for us. But, as he said in 3:17: “…it is better to suffer for doing good…than for doing evil.”
I worship Thee, sweet will of God!
And all thy ways adore,
And every day I live, I seem
To love thee more and more.
Thou wert the end, the blessed rule
Of Jesus’ toils and tears;
Thou wert the passion of his heart
Those three and thirty years.
He always wins who sides with God,
To him no chance is lost;
God’s will is sweetest to him when
It triumphs at his cost.