One of the most reliable principles of scripture interpretation you’ll ever come across is this one: “It’s not what you think it is.”
Case in point. As the Apostle Peter begins reminding church leaders across his section of the world of the last days, he speaks specifically of three activities to which they should devote themselves. But they’re not what we might expect.
Tell the typical church member today that the Lord could come back at any time and he will automatically begin reflecting on aspects of the end we’ve all heard talk about: armageddon, the Antichrist, one world governments, date-setting, sign-studying, Israel, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the like.
None of that. In fact, there is not one word in Scripture that I know of which encourages the Lord’s people to spend their time and energy speculating on the meaning of these things. To the contrary, we are cautioned not to waste time on pointless speculation, haggling over philosophies and arguing over subjects that have no answer.
The three activities the Apostle Peter calls for are surprising in their simplicity but fundamental in the role they play in God’s work in our world.
Here’s the text:
“The end of all things is at hand; therefore be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer;
Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.
Be hospitable to one another without complaint.
As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.
Whoever speaks, let him speak, as it were, the utterances of God; whoever serves, let him do so as by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”(I Peter 4:7-11)
The end is near, right? Well, yes. Evidently it is.
First, the end has been near since the beginning. In Heaven, a zillion years from now, the lifespan of Planet Earth will seem about the length of a fruit fly’s life cycle. We will look back and wonder why we seemed so put out with the Lord for delaying His return.
Secondly, in his Second Epistle, the Apostle Peter points out that God does not follow the human or earthly calendar. He has His own way of computing time. “One day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day.” (II Peter 3:8) Clearly, one gets that way when one lives in eternity. Clocks and calendars become meaningless.
Thirdly, we’ve been in what the Scriptures call “the last days” ever since Jesus returned to Heaven.
Fourthly, no matter when the Lord does return to earth and call history to its summation, one thing will become evident: we’re nearer now than we have ever been.
Therefore, in light of that, how are we to live? What are we to do?
Peter calls on us to keep our wits about us. “Sound judgment” is a call for “clear thinking.” And “sober spirit” means “self-controlled.”
We are neither to be darkly pessimistic about the future nor giddily optimistic. Be realistic.
Our first priority is to pray. Common sensical prayers, the way solid disciples should be praying for God’s will to be done in this world.
Nothing tells the tale on us like prayer does. Nothing speaks of faith like our prayer life. Nothing betrays the presence or absence of faith like prayer does.
Our prayer is driven by faith or it is worthless. Jesus asked, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8)
“For the purpose of prayer.” Our prayers should be purposeful. We should be purposeful in praying and in teaching prayer to God’s people. Most praying that I know of in churches is haphazard and chaotic. Purposeful praying is a foreign concept to many of us.
Last Sunday I spoke in a church in lower St. Bernard Parish, many miles below New Orleans. That day, June 27, was designated a day of prayer by governors of states abutting the Gulf of Mexico. We were being asked to intercede for the Lord to stop the gusher in the deep Gulf, to give wisdom to our leaders and workers, and to bless the cleanup, protect the wildlife, and such.
As the guest preacher, I sat back to see if the congregation of this pastorless church would be offering up such prayers. They did, I was glad to see. Later, when I rose to preach, I asked for a show of hands and found that almost all had friends or family in the fishing business, who worked off-shore on oil rigs, and whose livelihoods were affected by the tragic events associated with the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon Platform. Then, I invited them to join me in prayer.
The next night, a friend in South Carolina e-mailed to say he had heard my prayer on NPR radio. Unbeknownst to me Sunday morning, a reporter was in the service and taping everything we did for broadcast. We were pleased, of course, but frankly, I was glad not to know my words would be broadcast to the nation. No one wants his prayers to be tailored for man, but for God Himself. (A note of explanation: the reporter asked for and was given permission to tape the service, but we did not know for what purpose.)
Love one another.
Doubtless, if we went through the New Testament and compiled all texts calling on God’s people to love one another, it would fill several pages. Earlier in this First Epistle, Peter says, “Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart” (I Peter 1:22).
Jesus told the disciples, “By this shall all men know you are my disciples, that you love one another” (John 13:35). It’s the mark of a believer.
This love the apostle calls for is directed not toward the world, not toward the unsaved and lost, but toward “one another.” It is the glue that holds the congregation together. Paul says God’s people are “knit together in love” (Colossians 2:2).
Professors (and fellow-servants of the Lord and my friends) Dan Crawford and Al Meredith have put together an impressive little volume they call “One-Anothering.” What they did was to walk through the entire New Testament and assemble every command for God’s people to do anything toward one another. Ruling out the duplications, they came up with 31 separate commands and wrote a chapter on each.
Pray for one another. James 5:16
Be at peace with one another. Mark 9:50
Wash one another’s feet. John 13:14
Love one another. John 13:34-35; 15:12,17 and many other places.
Be members of one another. Romans 12:5
Be devoted to one another. Romans 12:10
Honor one another. Romans 12:10
Let us not judge one another. Romans 14:13
Be of the same mind with one another. Romans 15:5
Receive one another. Romans 15:7
Admonish one another. Romans 15:14
Greet one another. Romans 16:16; I Corinthians 16:20; I Peter 5:14
Wait for one another. I Corinthians 11:33
Care for one another. I Corinthians 12:25
Serve one another. Galatians 5:13
Do not bite or devour lest you consume one another. Galatians 5:15
Do not provoke one another. Galatians 5:26
Do not envy one another. Galatians 5:26
Bear one another’s burdens. Galatians 6:2
Bear with one another. Ephesians 4:2 and Colossians 3:13
Be kind to one another. Ephesians 4:32
Submit to one another. Ephesians 5:21 and I Peter 5:5
Do not lie to one another. Colossians 3:9
Comfort one another. I Thessalonians 4:18
Edify one another. I Thessalonians 5:11
Consider one another. Hebrews 10:24
Do not speak evil of one another. James 4:11
Do not grumble against one another. James 5:9
Confess to one another. James 5:16
Be hospitable to one another. I Peter 4:9
Fellowship with one another. I John 1:7
Sort of makes a point, doesn’t it? Clearly, we have a great responsibility toward fellow members of the Christian family.
Listen to some of us preach and you go away with the impression that the church meeting on Sunday is just a place for people to get saved and nothing else. That is completely foreign to Scripture. The gathering of God’s people is for their mutual encouragement and edifying.
This command to love has three qualifiers:
–it is to be fervent love. The word “fervent” means “deep” or “at full stretch.”
–it is to be a covering love. This love “covers a lot of sin.” That is, it overlooks faults and weaknesses in those it loves. Some of the people you will find yourself loving in Christ may be smelly, grumbling, talkative, argumentative, and all-around pests in general. Some are fresh from prison, some have been victimized by life and some have been their own worst enemies. In Christ, you love them.
–it is a hospitable love. This kind of love opens its arms and receives people into its home and loves them with the love of Christ.
Do your job.
–Use your spiritual gift. The Bible makes it plain that each believer was given one or more spiritual gifts from the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 12:7). Finding your gift and putting it to work in the service of the Lord is one of the most exciting aspects of the believer’s life.
–Do the task the Lord called you to. In I Corinthians 14, Paul speaks to the temptation to get your eyes off the Lord and onto your neighbor. His gift seems more exotic than yours, his work more productive. Paul draws lessons for the church from the human body. Some aspects such as the eyes or ears play significant roles. Some are less dramatic or obvious, such as toes, fingers, and the like. But they are just as needful. It takes everyone.
Two ministries in particular he mentions are speaking and serving. One commentator said this verse gives “a compact summary of the New Testament’s teaching on ministry.”
–And stay in Christ. Go in His grace, work in His strength, serve for His glory. It’s about Him, not you or me.
As the end draws near–and someday, unexpectedly, we will learn the end was upon us and we did not know it–we are to stay with the basics.
Somewhere I have a publication from the late 1980s from a man claiming to be some kind of NASA scientist who had studied the Scripture, decoded its imagery, plotted its numbers, and announced that the date for Jesus’ return would be in 1988. He was a media star for a short period…until 1988 came and went. He briefly caused a minor stir with a subsequent piece telling how he had miscalculated and 1989 was the year. No one has heard from him since, thankfully.
There is nothing in the Bible to warrant such fruitless speculation. Everytime I see where someone is bringing a sermon warning against a one-world government or identifying the antichrist, I shake my head in wonder at the gullibility of Christian people. Even if we knew these things and were correct in our knowledge, someone show me in the Bible where we are to do anything other than keep on being Christians and serving the Lord.
I believe it was Francis of Asissi who was working in his garden when a neighbor asked what he would do if he learned Jesus was coming back the next day. “I would keep right on working with the flowers,” he answered.
When you are in your rightful place, doing your assigned task, you can live in that peace every day.