When I was growing up, I had a picture on the wall from my father’s great friend, Tom Swanston (who ministered in the West Parish, Inverness until he died in 1991). It was of a glorious sunrise, overlaid with the words ‘We are an Easter people, and Hallelujah is our song!’ My father loved the expression, and more than once I recall it being on the wayside pulpit outside Holyrood Abbey, to be read by the passengers on the buses continually passing by, as they slowed down for the bus stop beside the church.
I was reminded of it recently while preparing to speak from 1 Peter at one of the Glasgow CUs. (Bob has also been preaching this Epistle in our lunchtime service on Wednesdays.) Peter’s letter certainly rings with the message of glory, Easter glory. God raised Jesus from the dead and gave him glory so that we too might have certain hope of glory (1:21). It is ‘through the resurrection of Jesus Christ’ our consciences are cleansed (3:21), and ‘through the resurrection of Jesus Christ’ we have been born again into a living hope, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading (1:3-4). So glorious is our hope that even though we do not yet see the revelation of Jesus, we nevertheless ‘rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory’. Hallelujah is indeed our song!
Yet there is nothing the least bit superficial or trite about the music of rejoicing that permeates Peter’s writing. Bob captured it with vivid clarity when he said, ‘It is a bracing letter, filled with the smell of resurrection hope, yet underneath is the tread of the jackboot and the sound of the prison door’. It is a letter full of the utmost realism. Peter recognises that precisely because true followers of Jesus are Easter people, they are at the same time an elect people, special to God, yet an exiled people, still strangers on earth. And so their song, though triumphant, is not triumphalistic; it will as often ring with grievous lament as with glad laughter – at least for ‘a little while’.
To Peter’s first readers, ‘elect exiles of the dispersion’ scattered around the edges of the Empire, the exiled nature of their experience was immediately obvious. Many were slaves, and very few the ‘in’ or ‘with it’ people of their culture. Living under Nero, probably before systemic, state persecution arose, Christians were however becoming marginalised; they were distasteful to society, shut out by its institutions and facing increasing hostility from the populace. Already conscious of being ‘grieved by various trial’, Peter warns them of worse ‘fiery trial’ to come (1:6, 4:12). Nor is it so difficult today for us to empathise; more and more we feel like strangers in our own culture. Our newspapers recently noted Richard Dawkins’ own study could not show the UK to have properly become a ‘secularist’ nation (with a majority still claiming some allegiance to Christianity), but they simultaneously reported the ruling of the High Court against Bideford Council (thus banning prayers at the start of meetings), and also the failure of the appeal of the elderly couple, the Bulls, against a malicious prosecution by the homosexual lobby (simply for seeking to maintain a ‘married only’ policy for double beds in the Christian Guest House run in their own home). The tread of the jackboot may not be as distant as we imagine in Britain today. But Peter’s instruction (the heart of the letter) tells us how to respond: ‘Keep your conduct...honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers they may see your good deeds and glorify God on a day of visitation’ (2:12).
But to live like this we need to be assured of who and whose we are, which is why Peter first reminds us that we are an elect people, and all that this means. Chosen ‘according to God’s foreknowledge’ (1:2), ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation…God’s people’ (2:9-10) — these wonderful brackets encapsulate the opening chapter and a half of the letter which lay out the privilege that is ours, and certainty, even as we walk the path of uncertainty and hostility in this world. There is glory, but not yet; it is an inheritance kept in heaven for us by the same power that is keeping us for a salvation ready to be revealed when Jesus returns. It’s so important to realise that, isn’t it? Especially when we are struggling, perhaps facing abuse for being a Christian, or wrestling painfully with sin or failure in our lives. This is not as good as it gets! In truth, our real experience of God’s redeeming power has hardly begun.
But what of our experience now, if our full salvation still lies in the future? The answer, according to Peter, is that we will know both joy inexpressible and pain that seems often inexplicable. In the real Christian life now, both grief and glory will fill our songs; our Hallelujahs need a minor as well as a major key. Unless we keep hold of both sides of this truly biblical perspective, we will end up with a very unbalanced Christianity. Either we shall think we should always be feeling gloriously ‘up’, and if not then something is wrong with us and our faith, or God is displeased with us and his Spirit has abandoned us.
Or, we shall always be morose and depressed, so full of earth’s sorrows we are never able to rejoice with joy at all. But no, says Peter. We are elect people who are still exiled people, and we must not underplay either. ‘This is the true grace of God’, says Peter, ‘stand firm in it’.
In truth, our real experience of God’s redeeming power has hardly begun.
Moreover, it is not simply a matter of balancing these two sides of our Christian experience – the present suffering and the glory that is to come – but of understanding it. These two things hold together and are explained because, through faith in Jesus we also are, above all, an Easter people. It is this third theme in Peter’s letter that holds everything together, and is the greatest encouragement of all to us. ‘In this we rejoice’ he says, not just because grievous trials are only for a short while, and the glory to come will be eternal (though that is wonderfully true, and should cheer us greatly when we suffer); it is much more than that. Christians are those who have been granted the extraordinary privilege of sharing the pattern of Christ himself in their lives of discipleship, and the unique joy of sharing the path of Christ himself on the road to glory. ‘We rejoice’, therefore, that we are counted worthy of being a people who, like our Lord Jesus, are being shaped now, through grievous trials, for glory! These very sufferings are the crucible in which is being forged something that will be glorious for eternity; the present battles that bring us such pain are testing and refining us for ‘praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ!’
In other words, what God has promised us, and has kept for us in heaven, he is achieving in us already as he guards our faith through all the trials of life. In all this he is shaping us gloriously, like a master craftsman, for glory! For an Easter people, a people united to their Saviour, Jesus Christ, the road to glory is the road to Calvary; the road to the crown is the road to the cross. There is simply no other way to be shaped for Jesus’ glory, and no other glory will outlast the sun.
So when grievous trials come to your life, as come they will, do not despair. It does not mean that your faith has failed, far less that God has abandoned you. It means he is committed to you, that he loves you, and that he is, even now, determinedly fitting you for glory everlasting! And if ‘the fiery trial’ should come upon us all, to test us to the very limit, we will not be surprised, as though something strange were happening to us. Rather, together let us ‘rejoice insofar as we share Christ’s sufferings that we may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed’, for we know that ‘after we have suffered a little while, the God of all grace who has called us to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish us.’ (1 Peter 4:13; 5:10). And in the meantime, if we do suffer increasing hostility in the world, and opprobrium from the worldly church because we seek to preserve the honour of the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (and we will), remember Peter’s words: ‘if you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.’ (4:14)
What an encouragement! But this is the true grace of God; so let us stand firm in it. For we are an Easter People, and Hallelujah is our song!
Yours in living hope,
William J U Philip,