If either Paul or Peter had Mrs. Tamminga for their writing teacher, they would have had their fingers rapped for run-on sentences. Actually vv. 3-9 are one sentence in Greek. They are broken up by the translators of the ESV into five separate sentences. But it is useful for us to realize that the dense and beautiful beginning of Peter’s argument is one connected thought.
v.7 Strange as it may seem “praise, glory, and honor” probably refer here not to the praise of God or of Jesus Christ but to the praise of Christians, the honor and glory, that the Lord, the righteous judge, will bestow on those who have been faithful to him. True enough, our praise, glory, and honor is only a participation in that which belongs first to the Lord, but praise, glory, and honor await the Christian on the great day. Peter says as much again in 5:1 and 5:4. [Clowney, 52] The scene is the judgment day, when Jesus Christ is revealed. The scene is very similar to that of Matt. 25:31-33 when the Lord assembles all nations before him and separates the righteous from the unrighteous and sets the righteous on his right hand.
As I mentioned last time, the Bible lists a number of reasons why Christians must suffer in this life. It is by the testing of our faith that its genuineness is revealed. It is an easy thing to imagine oneself to believe in Jesus. Vast multitudes have supposed themselves to have done so and to do so. But real faith, genuine faith in Christ stands the test of the shocks of life. And it is very important that it be tested because there is so much sham faith or imitation faith out there. We must know whether ours is the genuine article because only true and living faith in Jesus will suffice to bring us to heaven.
Here too, as often elsewhere in the Bible, the assurance of faith – our confidence that we really are in Christ, that he really is our savior, that we really do have the forgiveness of our sins and really are heirs of heaven – is a power in the Christian life. The more confident you are of your own salvation, the greater your love for him, the greater your joy in salvation, and the more fruitful your life of service. Biblical writers care that you know, that you are sure that you are saved. A doubtful faith weakens the heart and the life.
This is not the only purpose of suffering, of course. Paul, for example, speaks of suffering as increasing endurance or spiritual strength. As an athlete grows stronger or faster by subjecting his body to increasing demands, so the soul is strengthened by the endurance of trials. [Rom. 5:3]
v.8 Think about it. There is something of great importance here. As everyone who read this letter when it was first written would have fully understood, Peter had seen the Lord. He looked forward to the Lord’s return in a different way than most believers do because he had seen him depart the world with his own eyes. When he thought of Jesus Christ a face came to mind, the sound of a voice, and the recollection of countless scenes that Peter himself had witnessed. He had seen the Lord’s miracles, had been present for at least most of his sermons. He had been at the bedside when the Lord healed his mother-in-law of her fever. He had witnessed the transfiguration of the Lord on the mountain top in Galilee. He had a private conversation with the Lord that first resurrection Sunday. He had watched Jesus ascend to heaven from the Mount of Olives and had seen and heard the two angels assure the Twelve that Jesus would return as he left. No wonder Peter loved the Lord. No wonder his faith was as strong as it usually was. But Peter, of all people Peter, who had that immense privilege reserved for so few believers, is saying that having seen the Lord is not the really important thing. Christians who never saw the Lord in the flesh are not second-class Christians. They are not for that reason prevented from living a happy and fruitful life. What really matters and what brings a person to Christ and to heaven is not sight, but faith. What matters is not whether you were there when Jesus was in the world but whether or not you love him. And you can love Jesus because you can know him and experience his love for you. That is the importance of the Holy Spirit. He brings Jesus and human beings together in a genuinely personal encounter. Indeed, while only a comparatively few people ever saw the Lord between his birth and his ascension to heaven, vast multitudes will rejoice to see him when he comes again. That is the sight that matters and it is reserved for those who really love the Lord.
We began the consideration of this paragraph last Lord’s Day evening by noticing, in vv. 3-6, the two sides of our salvation: the glorious transformation of life, already begun in this world and stretching away into an eternal future, on the one hand, and, on the other, the griefs and trials of this world through which believers must still pass. We considered that two-sidedness as an objective feature of our faith and our experience as Christians. Every believer experiences salvation in both of these ways. But there is also in these verses, and especially in vv. 6-9, an emphasis on the more subjective element. That is, in vv. 3-6 we read of the great salvation itself and the accompanying trials. This is the way it is, as a matter of fact. Whether or not we understand why, this will be our experience. But, there is also here a focus on the experience of this two-sided reality, how believers experience this great renewal in the midst of trial. And the accent falls on love and joy. There is a sense, of course, in which love and joy are very similar things insofar as most of our deepest joys are directly related to our deepest loves. The loveless person does not rejoice and the joyful person certainly loves!
Since Peter is here most emphatic about joy, we’ll consider joy this evening, but always remembering that in the Bible as in human life joy is a reflex of love. It is the emotion that love produces. We have joy as the Christian experience already at the beginning of v. 6: “In this you greatly rejoice…” He is talking about our salvation. And then we have it again, as a climax, in v. 8. The argument is not hard to follow.
Not only do afflictions and trials come and with them grief for believers, but they have a specific purpose: the testing of our faith. The genuine element in faith is disclosed by a process akin to metal refining in which heat is used to separate the pure and valuable metal from the dross and slag. [I’ve only seen this once in my life, but I saw gold being poured as a liquid out of an immense and red-hot vat into a mold that, when cooled, produced a 55-pound button of gold, one of seven or eight or ten produced every week by the gold mine near Cripple Creek, Colorado.] The Bible often compares the way God disciplines men to the refining of precious metals. And, since faith is even more precious than gold – for gold will perish with this world while faith will endure forever – the result of these trials is therefore the assurance of salvation. That is where the joy comes from. The trials make more and more obvious that you are saved, or, as he puts it in v. 9, that you are receiving the salvation of your souls.
There is something about the way a Christian endures trial that adds to a believer’s assurance. That is, what happens to a Christian under trial – the way his or her faith asserts itself, the way in which the Lord draws near to him or her, the endurance he or she exhibits when the outward props are removed – all of this goes to prove that that great transformation really has taken place; the pure gold is found in the midst of the unrefined ore. You could never know that so surely if life were always calm and serene and happy. How could you know that this was not simply the effect of your outward circumstances? You have to have pressure applied to know whether your faith is real. Lots of folk think themselves Christians, imagine themselves Christians who are not. The Bible says that all the time and warns us of a superficial commitment. Do men and women have a genuine relationship with Christ? That is the question. And trials come to demonstrate whether they do or not. (Paul says something similar in 1 Cor. 11:19. The trials in the Corinthian church have come, at least in part, “to show which of you have God’s approval.”) And Peter, writing to true Christians, as he presumes to be doing, speaks of these trials as confirming or proving the genuineness of their faith.
And that is wonderful, because it means that they have a part in the glorious future of the people of God, that praise, honor and glory await them on the Great Day. In v. 8 we read “even though you do not see him now…” There is an implied contrast. “You will see him then!” That is why they rejoice and even rejoice in the midst of sharp trials. They know they are soon to be in heaven with the Lord! The trials make that the more certain.
Now, this is all highly interesting and important. For here is where our faith becomes most immediately relevant to us and, at the same time, most problematic. It is not the objectivities – Trinity, creation, fall, atonement, salvation, the last judgment – concerning which most Christians stumble. It is not here that the problems come primarily. At least they don’t seem to. It is more often on the subjective side. Our faith wavers because we find ourselves loving something else more than Christ, or because we are unhappy or discouraged and feel that we ought not to be, or because the Christian faith doesn’t seem to be working for us. Christian faith would be a much simpler if only what was true “out there” was also just as true “in here;” if our emotional states and our inner convictions and our experience of life always conformed to our beliefs and doctrines. And in particular, the Christian faith and life would be so much easier and so much less complicated if we were only always happy, really happy to know the Lord and to be going to heaven!
But here Peter speaks as if we always are! He speaks of these believers’ glorious and inexpressible joy in their salvation in Christ. And naturally we wonder about that. Surely those folk in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia were ordinary people with ordinary lives and so ordinary problems. Surely, they were like us. There were Christians among them who were poor and struggled to make ends meet. Lots of people in the Greco-Roman world were like that. Surely there were people who struggled with depression. There have always been such. Surely there were Christians who were unhappy in love. Surely there were among these Christians people who had troubles at work or troubles at home – in some cases precisely because they were Christians – people who struggled with ill-health, people who were lonely. Yet Peter speaks as if all of them were “filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.” Were they really? Had we visited those churches, would we have found a very different situation than what one finds in the church today? Would we have found congregations bubbling with exuberant cheer, sizzling with a sense of the presence of God among them; and perpetually merry? Were these Christians brimful of joy every day all day, so much so that unbelievers who observed them were always commenting on the fact? “Have you seen how happy those Christians are? What’s wrong with those people?”
No, you can’t even read First Peter and believe that! Peter has already spoken of their griefs and trials. And he will say a great deal more about such things before he is through. And yet he speaks of their glorious and inexpressible joy. We want to know what this means! We want to live in joy. Everyone does. But, the Scripture teaches Christians to believe it is their special inheritance to live in joy. As one writer has put it:
“It is astonishing, and certainly does not need to be verified by quotations, how many references there are in the Old and New Testaments to delight, joy, bliss, exultation, merry-making and rejoicing, and how emphatically these are demanded from the Book of Psalms to the Epistle to the Philippians.” [Barth, CD, vol. 4, 375]
The 17th century Puritan pastor, Nathaniel Ward was the man whose saying I have always remembered (the Puritans were masters of the apt adage or maxim), I say it was Ward who said, “I have two consolations in life – the perfections of Christ and the imperfections of everybody else.” In any case, it was Ward who, having bought a home in Ipswich, found engraved on the mantel three words that the former owner apparently considered the sum of Christian virtue: “sobriety,” “justice,” and “piety.” Ward hired a craftsman to add a fourth: “laughter.” Does not Paul say, in Rom. 14:17, that the kingdom of God is a matter of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit? “Rejoice in the Lord, always, and again I say, rejoice,” he writes to the Philippians.
Oh yes, we know that joy is to be a part of the Christian life and experience. But how can Peter speak of joy in such extravagant terms as if it were always and everywhere the Christian’s state of mind and heart? We understand how Christians can experience moments of very intense joy. We remember David dancing before the ark of the Lord and we understand that. We have felt that way ourselves from time to time. And we hear John Bunyan speak of once, before he was a Christian, listening in on a conversation of some Christian women in Bedford, sitting on a stoop in the morning sun, talking of Christ and salvation, and speaking, he said, “as if joy did make them speak.” And we can understand that. We have had moments like that and conversations like that. But, the exhilaration of a moment of luminous insight into the glory and love of God, or the first discovery of those things, is one thing. But joy as a permanent condition of life, that is another. Even when things are going well it is hardly the fact that we are usually giddy with joy!
So what does Peter mean? This is, I think, a most important question. It has a lot to do with how we are going to think about our own lives and how we are going to explain the Christian life to others. And the answer to it lies, I believe, in the two adjectives that Peter employs to describe this joy that the Christians have: “inexpressible and glorious.”
- To speak of Christian joy as an “inexpressible” or “unspeakable” joy is to say that it is mysterious, there is something about this joy that is difficult to explain and describe, that defies ordinary expectations.
We think we know what joy is. We think we could explain what it is to someone else. But this joy is inexpressible and unspeakable. Here begins the distinctively Christian doctrine and experience of joy. There is something about Christian joy which is distinctly mysterious and, even, confusing, especially to those who have not experienced it. For example, in the Bible you find joy mixed with other inner states that, at first glance, would seem to be destructive of joy. The women who visited the tomb that first resurrection Sunday and found it empty, left the garden “afraid yet filled with joy.” Paul describes the Christian experience in general in 2 Cor. 6 as that of someone who is “sorrowful but always rejoicing.” We wonder how you can be afraid and sorrowing and yet be full of joy, and yet this is possible for Christians.
Clearly, then, Peter is not talking about natural gaiety nor even about actual merriment or hilarity, such as we see when folk are laughing together over a good joke or when they are exuberantly pleased about something good that has happened to them or to someone they love. That kind of joy cannot co-exist with fear or sorrow. The joy Peter is talking about is not the joy of a crowd whose team just won a game, nor even quite the joy of a mother who holds her new baby in her arms. One could not call that joy inexpressible, however wonderful it may be. The joy Peter is speaking about is something deeper, more fundamental, more structural if you will. It is a joy that lies deep in the heart as something permanent, something that creates effects in the life that can be seen on the surface from time to time, but which itself lies hidden in the core of one’s self-consciousness, even perhaps below the level of self-consciousness, down at the place where God is at work on the new creation, down in the heart he has changed, the heart out of which flow the issues of life.
Many of you will remember that C.S. Lewis used to speak a great deal about joy. He entitled his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy. But by “joy” he did not mean “merriment” in the ordinary sense of the word. He meant that ineffable experience that one has in the encounter with something that is truly beautiful, an experience that transforms the life, alters its horizons, changes its standards, creates longings, and opens the mind to glorious possibilities that were unknown before. Joy remains a longing, a hunger, but it is hunger and longing for what one now knows actually exists. For Lewis, one scholar writes, “joy” was a synonym for the German sehnsucht, the longing for some lost paradise; but even the longing for it is itself a kind of paradise. This joy is never quite possessed; the fingers never close around it; it never becomes something that you have and can use as you please; it is always over there; it’s always drawing you forward; it in any case, it was Ward who, having Jesus Christ is the fact of all facts in human history. He who is always, as it were, on the periphery of your life and your experience. [Downing, The Most Reluctant Convert, 28]
Lewis tells of his first memory of this “joy” when his nursery door opened and his brother Warnie brought in “the lid of a biscuit tin which he had covered with moss and garnished with twigs and flowers so as to make it a toy garden or a toy forest — that was the first beauty I ever knew… As long as I live my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother’s toy garden.” [Surprised by Joy, 7]
But that joy of which Lewis spoke is just the beginning of what Christians know, whether they think about it in just that way or not. Lewis himself would find that there is in Christ a joy far deeper, greater than any joy he knew actually existed in the universe, far more wonderful, solid, and pure than what he had glimpsed from time to time in his pre-Christian life. in the world. But, in a way, it is the same kind of joy – a sense of goodness, and purity, and love deep in the heart, that transforms our outlook on life and the world, a joy that is, as the Scripture says, indestructible because it is founded in the deepest and surest reality and not on the shifting tides of worldly experience. This joy is a fixed point deep in the soul, impervious even to the sorrows and trials of life. We may have to strive and struggle, we may have to shed bitter tears for all that happens in the world – even our Savior himself had to do so – but always there was this “joy before him” — even in the bitterness and darkness of Gethsemane, even at the cross, there was this joy before him and beneath him – and always there is this joy for his people too.
I cannot fully explain it. That is why Peter calls it “inexpressible,” but Christians know of what I speak! Their feet are on a rock – even when the gales are blowing they feel that solid rock under their feet – and they know, because they have glimpsed it, the beauty of the Lord. It is there ahead of them, beckoning them.
- Then, to speak of this joy as “glorious” is to say that it is a theological joy, a joy founded upon the realities of the living God, the God of glory, and his love for sinners, upon the promises of the gospel and the hope of everlasting life.
G.K. Chesterton was saying this in a different way when he wrote that “For the Christian joy is the central thing in life, sorrow is peripheral.” That is, for the believer in Christ the great questions of life have been answered and answered wonderfully, happily, and certainly. Their happy future – glory, honor, praise – is secure.
John Newton made the same point in verse in one of his hymns.
A bleeding Saviour, seen by faith,
A sense of pardoning love,
A hope that triumphs over death,
Give joys like those above.
To take a glimpse within the veil,
To know that God is mine,
Are springs of joy that never fail,
These are the joys which satisfy,
And sanctify the mind;
Which make the spirit mount on high,
And leave the world behind.
It is because Christian joy is rooted in such ultimate and powerful things, because, by definition, no present sorrow is at all equal to this joy, that it is not and cannot be nullified or silenced by the shocks and griefs of this life.
Many of us have now lived long enough to discover this amazing and wonderful fact. I cannot describe this to you exactly either, but it is that wonderful warmth that the Christian feels on his back when in the midst of a terrible storm he discovers the glory of God still shining on him. I found this true, perhaps for the first time in my life, in a powerful way in the sadness of my sister’s death years ago. Such an appalling loss for everyone who loved her, her family especially, such a genuine tragedy in human terms to die so young with so much left undone. And I had a particularly close and affectionate relationship with my sister; I spent virtually every day for the last month of her life with her on the telephone reading and talking in the morning. And then she was gone at the end of a long and painful illness. And yet, there it was – the joy capital “J” – the glorious, beautiful knowledge of God and heaven, of the gospel and Jesus Christ, of eternity stretching away before us where all of the present sorrow would be forgotten. This joy does not hold back the tears, it does not deaden the pain – it transforms them rather into a sorrow and a grief that is pure and does no harm, that can be experienced without guilt and without despair.
How often Christians through the ages have commented on this fact – this glorious joy that steadies Christians and restores their balance even in the darkest and heaviest of times. You perhaps remember the scene in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (Part II), following the despoiling of Doubting Castle and the killing of Giant Despair. Mr. Ready-to-Halt danced with Miss Much-afraid in the road. “True,” Bunyan says, “he could not dance without one crutch in his hand; but I promise you, he footed it well!” Joy and weakness, joy and pain, joy and troubles, joy and sorrow. And now I have my own sister’s testimony to add to so many others I have read of this joy that rests just below the surface and supports the believer in his or her hour of greatest trial.
And it is so because our joy is a “glorious” joy, a joy that is rooted in God himself and our knowledge of him, in God’s great promises, in Christ’s salvation, and in the hope of everlasting life. Or as Bishop Ryle put it, it is a joy rooted in the Christian’s ability, his or her freedom, to face the facts, all the facts, square in the face, no matter how challenging, no matter how, in some respects, depressing.
“The true Christian is the only happy man because he can sit down quietly and think about his soul. He can look behind him… [think of how unhinged so many people are because of their past] He can think calmly about things to come [think of how many are undone by their worries about the future], and yet not be afraid. Sickness is painful; death is solemn; the Judgment Day is an awful thing: but having Christ for him, he has nothing to fear. He can think calmly about the Holy God, whose eyes are on all this ways, and feel ‘He is my Father — I am weak, I am unprofitable; yet in Christ he regards me as His dear child, and is well pleased.’ Oh what a … privilege it is to be able to think and not be afraid.”
That is what a glorious joy is. It partakes of, it takes its nature from the God of glory and from a glorious salvation. With these things let the world do its worst! If God be for us, who can be against us?
But, then, let’s take Peter’s point. Such a joy as this — which is, of course, what every human being craves because it is what every human being was made for; what every human being has the capacity for – (how sad, how unspeakable sad and tragic then, that so many who could experience this joy do not and never will!) – cannot be found in any other place, cannot be obtained in any other way, than through faith in Christ and participation in the salvation he gives to those who trust in him. There is no other way onto that beautiful road that stretches away into the still more exquisite future because it leads to the City of God where we shall see things that will still be taking our breath away ten thousand years from now.
C.S. Lewis, who knew a great deal about this inexpressible and glorious joy and who thought about it more than most men do, saw this very clearly. This is a famous passage from his Mere Christianity.
“There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made. Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire; if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy… you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has it. It is not a sort of prize which God could, if he chose, just hand out to anyone. [It is] a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very center of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you; if you are not, you will remain dry.” [Mere Christianity, 153]
That is just another, beautiful, way of saying what Peter says to his readers and to us: “even though you don’t see him now – he is speaking of Jesus Christ who is coming again – you believe in him and are consequently filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy. In every Christian life, this joy will, now and then – Oh that it were more often! – bubble to the surface and bring us moments of ecstasy. But much more important than that meantime is the fact that through thick and thin, come wind, come weather, that joy is always there, beckoning to us from the periphery of our sight. How right of Peter to say, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for such a gift, such a salvation!”