DEVOTION: The Ladder of Faith (2 Peter 1:1-11)
Nevertheless, the letter is in the bible. And I’m pleased it is so, because the letter has much to tells us. Not least of which is that faith is not the end of the Christian journey, but only the beginning.
Because, according to the letter, Jesus may attract people, and he may give his power to enable people to respond, but people need to give the appropriate response too. And that means not only responding by accepting Jesus by faith, but by committing themselves to continue the journey of faith too.
In short, the passage suggests that faith is like a ladder, with faith beginning at the bottom rung. So, on that ladder, there will be those who willingly climb the rungs and grow in their faith. These are the truly fruitful Christians. But there will also be others who get stuck at a particular level, who resist growing further in the faith, and who hold on to some worldly ways of doing things. These are the barren Christians and they can be very counterproductive to the life of the church.
Now it doesn’t really matter what level people are on—which rung they’ve reached. The different levels don’t make some people better than others. What matters is that people who have believed have gone on with their faith. That they are not stagnant—stuck on a particular rung—but they are committed to the process of climbing the ladder.
And for a church to be truly healthy, it needs to have a great number of fruitful Christians, and it needs to encourage all Christians to climb the ladder. It needs to encourage those who are stuck, to rejoin the climb too. Because, if the church is going to grow, it needs great number to not only climb the ladder themselves, but to help and encourage those who are stuck on the rungs too.
Posted: 3rd August 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Separating Fact from Fiction (2 Peter 1:16-21)
1. False Claims in General
These days we are bombarded with people wanting to sell us things. There are door to door salesman (although they seem to becoming less often). There are telephone callers (although they are probably mainly scams). There are the catalogues in the mailbox, in the newspapers, or even posted to you—because some how you’re got onto someone’s mailing list. And there are the number of emails (which again you have to be careful about, because of those scams). And all this is addition to the usual television advertising, notice boards, and signs in shops telling you how much you could save, if only you would buy a particular product.
Yes, these days there are people who want to sell you all sorts of things. And, unfortunately, there are some who are prepared to go to any lengths in order to make a sale.
Is it any wonder, then, that along with the advertising we are told: “This is the best thing since . . ,” “It’s even better than . . ,” “It’s the only way . . ,” “It’s new and improved . . ,” “It’s a scientific breakthrough . . ,” and, “It’s good old-fashioned reliability . . .” Although the evidence for such a claim is rarely forthcoming.
So the question arises, can we really rely on what we’re told? After all, are the claims that are made about the products really true? And if the advertising is based on truth, has the truth been embellished in order to make a sale? Indeed, how can you prove that what you are being told is true? How can you separate the truth from the lies?
2. False Claims in the Faith
Well, not surprisingly the problem is one we all face. And it is one we face when it comes to matters in regard to our religious faith too. But in matters of faith, it is a far more serious issue. Because our whole life—our whole eternal well-being—may well depend on whether the claims are true or false.
So how can we tell truth from fiction? How can we tell truth from lies? How can we tell who to listen to and who should be ignored?
Well, the short answer to the things that are offered for general sale, is that we need to do our homework. And regarding all things religious . . . We need to do our homework too.
And in the context of religion, that job has been made a whole lot simpler for us, because of the experiences of the apostle Peter. Because Peter faced a similar problem. Only in his case, it was Peter himself who was being accused of being a liar—of embellishing the truth. And as a consequence, he had to come with a way of defending himself against such accusations.
And in his particular instance, Peter had been teaching that Jesus would empower all believers to live the Christian life, and that Jesus would one day come again to bring his people together. And it was because of this teaching that he was being accused of selling people false dreams. As a consequence, Peter’s response was that if they really wanted to know whether he was telling the truth, all they had to do was to follow two simple guidelines.
B. PETER’S SOLUTION
1. He Was an Eyewitness (16-18)
And the first of these was for them to test whether he was a genuine eyewitness or not to the things that Jesus had taught and done.
After all he had been there; he’d seen most of what Jesus had done. Jesus had spoken to him directly and personally. And being one of the inner three disciples, he had been a witness to more about Jesus, than just about any other person alive. Consequently, if he couldn’t be relied upon to tell the truth, then who could?
Yet even Peter acknowledged that being an eyewitness did not necessarily make him truthful. Nevertheless, being one of the inner three disciples, meant that James and John could be called upon to collaborate his story. And, if they said the same, and if their stories didn’t contradict one another, then that would be evidence to whether he was telling the truth or not.
So having provided the first guideline, Peter went on to give the only written eyewitness account of the transfiguration of Jesus that we have in the bible. And why did Peter choose to tell the story of the transfiguration at this point? Well, because the story of the transfiguration is a story about Jesus giving believers a foretaste of his power and a foretaste of his second coming—the two things that Peter was accused of making up. And it was a story that the other two eyewitnesses, James and John, could authenticate. (Because although the apostle James would have been dead at this point, what he had shared about Jesus would still have been in circulation at the time.)
Peter’s first defence, then, wasn’t based on whether he was a church leader, even though he was very high up in the church. No! It was based on the fact that he was an eyewitness to the events. And an eyewitness, where the facts of what he had seen and experienced could be verified by the evidence of others.
(And, incidentally, today we have the story of the transfiguration recorded in three gospels—in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And those stories would have been based on second hand, if not third hand accounts. And some of it may have originated from James and John. But none of the versions contradict the story from Peter.)
2. It is Attested by the Prophets (19-21)
For Peter, then, being a credible eyewitness was very important. Yet Peter was not naïve enough to think that people would be convinced on that evidence alone. No, he wasn’t that naïve. As a consequence, Peter’s second principle was to refer them to the scriptures. Indeed, he basically said, “If you don’t believe me, then check the scriptures for yourselves.” In other words he told them not to accept his word on his say so alone, but to check what he had said to see if it was consistent with what had been recognised to be the truth, from what had been taught before.
Now Peter knew that even amongst the Jewish Christians, they would take far more stock in the Old Testament prophets, than in a voice calling to them from the heavens. But then the prophets had been proven to be true, time and time again. As a consequence, at the time there was this feeling that if what was being said fitted what the prophets had said, then that was a measure of whether something was genuine or not.
And, consequently, Peter, who was far more concerned that the people should get the message right, rather than build up accolades for himself, basically said, “Whether you believe me or not, check it out in the scriptures. The scriptures will tell you that the Messiah will empower his people. The scriptures will tell you that the Messiah will not just come just once, but twice. And the second time he will gather his people together.” He basically said, “You may not believe me; you may think I’m selling you false dreams. But read the scriptures for yourself and learn for yourselves that I am telling you the truth. The scriptures will shine a light on what I say. Then you can decide whether I am telling the you the truth or not.”
And with that Peter concluded his defence.
Now let’s get back to our original question: How can you tell if what you are told is the truth? How can you separate truth and lies?
Well, in regard to all things religious, we need to take into account the two tests that Peter wrote in his letter:
Because whilst none of us have been eyewitnesses to the events of the New Testament, from time to time we may all have come across someone who has claimed to be an eyewitness to a spiritual event or who has claimed to have had received special insight in regard to what God wants us to do. And if we have, what did we do? Did we believe them or not?
Well according to Peter, an eyewitness, on their own, is not a guarantee of whether something is truthful or not. Indeed, there needs to be the evidence of corroborating witnesses. As a consequence, if someone claims to be an eyewitness, or have a special message—even for us today—we need to check the authenticity of what they have seen or said.
2. Authentication by Scripture
But in any event, according to Peter, we also need to test what we are told, with what it says in the scriptures. And if what we’re told is not confirmed in the bible, then we should not accept what they say.
Now in all of this, the importance of the scriptures—the Bible—cannot be overstated. Peter’s basic assumption was that the people would know the contents of the Old Testament, and in his case, the twelve books of the prophets in particular. And on that assumption alone, we should know the contents of the scriptures too.
Indeed in order to sort out truth from fiction, and not to be taken in by false teaching, one of our basic practices should be, to immerse ourselves in the pages of the bible. And that will involve reading it regularly, studying it, and even being a member of a bible study group.
And the reason I say that is because those people who don’t have a bible, and those people who have one but leave it to go dusty on a shelf . . . Those are the people who are setting themselves up to be taken in by false teaching. They are also the ones more likely to be living with false hope. Because without a depth of knowledge that the bible can provide, they have no basis to check the validity of what other people say.
a). The Need to have Faith
So if someone should tell us that there are many ways to heaven, and that we can get there by doing good works, by giving money to the poor, by being a member of a Guild, by spending time fundraising, or just by being a good person, we can check out what the bible says. And if we do that, we can read the words of Jesus that clearly says that that sort of teaching is false. Indeed, there is only way to heaven, and that is through faith in him. As Jesus said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6).
b). The Need to Worship
If someone should tell us that going to church isn’t important, that it’s not necessary, that one need only worship in private, and that time can be used for better things, then again, we can read what the bible says on that subject. And we can read the fourth commandment, which emphasizes the need to have a day of rest, and a need to make that day holy: “Remember to keep the Sabbath day holy. You are to labour for six days, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. You are not to do any work—you, your son or daughter, your manservant or maidservant, your animals, or any alien living with you. For the Lord created the heavens, the earth, the sea and all that is in them, in six days. But on the seventh day he rested. For this reason, the LORD has blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11).
We can then go on to letter to the Hebrews, which emphasizes the need to meet together: “Do not stop meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encourage one another—and even more so as you see the Day of the Lord approaching.” (Hebrews 10:25)
c). The Need to Care
If someone should say that as far as helping others in the community, that we should do our bit, give money, and help someone in need, but only in a token way, because there are other things in life. That we shouldn’t get our hands too dirty, and that it’s dangerous to get too involved. Then again, we can check out the words of Jesus. Particularly the story he told about separating the sheep from the goats. The sheep—the ones who cared for people and were prepared to get their hands dirty. And the goats—the ones who didn’t want to do any more than just a token gesture. And to the people’s question: “Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a foreigner, or poorly clothed, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t take care of you?” the answer to the goats was: “Truly I tell you in so far as you didn’t do it for the least of these brothers of mine, you didn’t do it for me” (Matthew 25:44-45).
d). The Need to Share
And if someone should say that their Christian faith is a private concern, that it’s something between themselves and God only, and not something we should talk about to others, then again we can read the bible and see the words of Jesus to his disciples: “He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. If anyone believes and is baptized, they will be saved, but if anyone does not believe they will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15).
Now, of course, we could go on and talk about numerous other things. Things that are said, which people believe, whether they are true or false. Things that people may well have gained from personal experience. But all things which can and should be validated by the authority of scripture . . .
So yes, we should still be listening to eyewitness accounts. But we should be checking them for their validity too.
As I said at the beginning, we seem today to be inundated with people wanting to sell us things. However as you know and I know, things aren’t always what they are claimed to be. And because of that, in life we need to have ways to check the validity of what people say.
And just as that is true regarding claims about the latest soap powder, so is it true regarding claims about all things religious too.
But fortunately for us the Apostle Peter has given us some guidelines. He’s given us a way to check whether what people say in Christian terms is true or not. As an eyewitness himself, he emphasized the need to check with others the validity of what he had seen and heard. And, perhaps more importantly, he also advised the importance of checking up what one is told with the evidence of scripture.
Consequently, if we really want to know truth from fiction, fact from lie, reality from embellishment, in terms of the Christian faith, we need to use the readymade tool we have been given for this very purpose—the Bible. Because without it—without using and referring to it on a regular basis—we have the recipe for getting it all wrong, for not knowing fact from fiction. Without it, we risk not only going astray ourselves, but leading others astray too. But with it, we have an invaluable tool to test everything religious—and maybe even beyond that—to test whether what we are told is right.
Posted: 14th January 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Defending the Faith from Within (2 Peter 3:8-15a)
In today’s world the Christian faith—and the Christian Church—is under attack from a number of sources.
1. Under Attack from Outside
There are a number of countries and places where it’s not safe for Christians to live—and to do so means living in constant fear of one’s life. There are countries and places where Christians are ridiculed and persecuted for what they believe—and punishment for practicing the faith can be quite harsh. And there are places and people who dismiss the whole concept of the Christian faith as being irrelevant nonsense or just a crutch for the weak and the elderly. (And you don’t have to go far to hear that kind of attitude either).
The world, then, is not an easy place for Christians to live. And even ourselves, who live in a relatively peaceful and tolerant country, can face attacks for our beliefs.
2. Under Attack from Within
However, those are all attacks from outside the church. But there is also the problem of being under attack from within. Because some who proclaim to have faith, and some who claim to be part of the church, are also a problem for those who want to follow the Christian faith too.
3. The Early Church’s Experience
And having said that, I need to explain what I mean. And to do so I‘d like to refer back to the New Testament church. Because the Apostle Peter faced not only attacks from outside the church but attacks from within as well.
And how we know that is because the Apostle Peter wrote at least two letters—the two that are in our Bibles today. And the first is all about surviving and growing a church that was facing attacks from outside the church. And the second deals with more internal problems—attacks from within. And in Peter’s case the problem of attacks from within related principally to false teaching and bad living.
B. ALTERED BELIEFS (5-10)
1. The New Testament Example
Now at the heart of the problem in New Testament times was the teaching of the Second Coming of Christ. The belief that having been resurrected from the dead—and after a delay—Jesus would come again to judge the world and to gather his people together.
The problem was that the faithful had expected the event to happen sooner rather than later. And as a consequence of its apparent delay, yes, people still believed in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but they became increasing sceptical about the whole idea of a Second Coming. And as a result of this, there was a movement away from the idea of a second coming.
Indeed, people had become disappointed, and disillusioned. And as a consequence, they had altered their beliefs to deny the Second Coming. They also made other moves to make the Christian faith more comfortable and more palatable.
People began to rearrange their faith to suit their sensibilities. To such an extent that they threw out the whole idea of Jesus coming again. And, by doing so, they dismissed the whole concept of there being a Judgement Day. They dismissed the day when they would be held personally responsible for everything they said and did (and even the things that they failed to say and do too). And that created a real problem in the church.
So accepting that the Christian faith can be under attack from outside of the church is one thing, but we also need to accept that the faith—and the church—can come under attack from within as well. Indeed, in this one example from the early church, we can see how easy it is to lose the plot, and how easy it is to modify the Christian faith to take it away from its true meaning.
Now, of course, modifying anything to do with the Gospel is a practice that needs to be seriously opposed. Which is why Peter’s response to the situation in the first century was to try to get the people back on track.
a). Peter Argues from History (5-7)
To the new argument that the world was stable and unchanging—and therefore there would be no punishment, no judgement, and no Second Coming, Peter’s response was blunt. He suggested that people who thought that way had rocks in their head. After all, the world had a history of people being punished for their sins by God—including the great flood. So to dismiss an event like the Second Coming—which was consistent with God’s practices in the past—made no sense at all.
b). Peter Argues from Scripture (8)
To the argument that the Second Coming—and Judgement Day—would never happen because it hadn’t happened when they thought it should, Peter’s response was that they had got the completely wrong idea about God. And he showed from scripture that God was concerned that as many people as possible should have the opportunity to repent and be saved before the end should come. God’s priorities were not based on what they thought was good for themselves but based on what was good for all people. And he consequently reminded them that God’s idea of timing—and his concerns—were often quite different from their own.
c). Peter Argues from the Character of God (9)
To combat the criticism of the slackness of God in him not responding sooner, Peter’s response was to remind them of the longsuffering nature of God. That God wanted to hold the door open for repentant sinners and wanted to give scoffers (even them) the opportunity to change.
d). Peter Argues from the Promises of Christ (10)
And to combat the growing disbelief in the Second Coming—that it would never happen—Peter’s response was to quote a saying of Jesus about the unpredictability of the coming of the day. That it would come like a “thief in the night.” That it would come suddenly and at a time least expected and would be as disastrous to the unprepared as a night-time burglary.
Far from the church being attacked from the outside, Peter was responding to attacks from within—attacks on some very basic of Christian beliefs. The Second Coming hadn’t come when people had expected or wanted, and people had begun to modify their beliefs and behaviour. So to combat that he reinforced the teaching on the Second Coming and challenged people’s modified beliefs and behaviour.
From the very beginning, people have tried to dismiss important planks of the Christian gospel. They have tried to modify the faith to fit their own preferred beliefs. Consequently the idea that the church may be under attack from within should not be an idea that we dismiss lightly, even today.
2. Modern-Day Experience
Indeed as we look around at the church today, it is evident that the modification of the gospel—and the modification of Christian behaviour—continues on. In many ways, it’s like we’ve learnt nothing. And at the heart of the problems of the church today, I believe, are still our responses to the Second Coming and Judgement Day.
The church may still experience opposition from without but it’s the opposition from within that still causes the most damage.
Indeed, the church today is beset by the idea that the supernatural events of the past (and even of today) all have a rational explanation. In other words, there is a move to dismiss the works of God as things that can be explained away as natural events.
The church today is a place where there is more interest in compromise than in upholding biblical truths. And as a consequence the lowest common denominator often rules, often at the expense of the gospel itself.
The church today is a place where a great distinction has been drawn around God, outside of which he is not allowed to operate. As though God can somehow be excluded from any part of his creation.
And the church today is a place where a lack of activity and a lack of proclaiming the gospel can be explained away by the need to employ someone to carry out such tasks.
And yet none of those ideas take seriously the concepts that the Second Coming will come or that Judgement Day will be a reality. None of those ideas take seriously the idea that each and every one of us, Christians included, will one day be asked to account for everything that we have ever said and done (and everything we have failed to say and do too). And none of those ideas takes seriously the obligations of every single Christian to participate fully in the life of the church.
The state of the church today, then, is a reflection of the fact that many people have modified the Christian faith to suit themselves. Unfortunately, as Peter attests, modifying any belief will only take believers, the church—and even non-believers—further away from God.
C. APPROPRIATE PRACTICES (11-14)
Of course, recognising and outlining the problem within the church—either historically or in a modern context—is one thing, doing something about it is another thing altogether.
1. A New Testament Example
But if we follow Peter’s example—having got to the crux of the issue and having reiterated the basics of the Christian faith, which include the idea of Jesus’s Second Coming and Judgement Day—we too should be able to consider a series of solutions to the problem of the church being under attack from within.
And these are the solutions that Peter offered:
a). To Live Holy and Godly Lives (11-13)
Instead of being indifferent, leaving matters to others—living one life outside church and another within—Peter encouraged the people to conduct themselves in three ways. To live a holy life; to fill it with the worship of God; and to be actively involved in helping others. These three qualities, Peter suggested, were meant to be permanently present in our lives. Indeed, they were an essential response to the Gospel.
In other words, Peter’s emphasis is on the need for action. The Christian faith should not be one of inactivity or even pious inactivity. It should not be one of designing one’s beliefs to fit one’s wants and desires—or even to fit our preferred behaviour. Indeed, the Christian faith is one where believers—all believers—get involved, and freely and willingly contribute to the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal being . . . being prepared for the Second Coming of Christ.
The Second Coming should be at the heart of everything we believe and say and do. And that means putting aside our wants and preferences and desires for this one goal.
Furthermore, Peter suggested, in some way the Second Coming is related to the amount of our activity. For if believers sit around being idle, then God will need more time to give people the opportunity to respond to him. In contrast, an active vibrant church—with each person carrying out their roles—is the very thing that will hasten it.
b). To Live Spotless and Blameless Lives (14-15a)
Furthermore, we are to make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with God (14-15a). Indeed, contrary to it not mattering how people behave—because people change their beliefs and actions to what they are comfortable with—Peter stated that their behaviour was vitally important. Indeed, people needed to live upright and righteous lives. But this time, not to hasten in the Kingdom of God, but because only the righteous will live in the new heaven and the new earth.
Behaviour must match beliefs. And false beliefs will only encourage false behaviour. In the end, it will be Jesus who will confront people based on their beliefs and their behaviour. And he is the standard by which all will be judged.
Consequently, according to Peter, true Christians are only those who try to conform to the spotless, blameless pattern of God’s Son. And that means the need to believe in the unadulterated original version of the faith, and by exercising behaviour that matches those beliefs.
2. A Modern-Day Experience
Peter’s lesson, then, was a sharp rebuke to the faith and practices of the early church. And in a way it is a sharp rebuke to the faith and practices of today’s church too. Because true faith is not something which you can fashion to suit – to what you are comfortable with. Nor is Christian behaviour something to be fiddled with either.
People may like to change their Christian beliefs to suit. People may like to behave differently from the Christian model. But if anyone wants to be a true Christian then they have to forgo the things that make the gospel easier or more palatable, and stand firm on the original unmodified beliefs and behaviour instead. That is, behaviour that includes living a holy life, filling one’s life with the worship of God, and being actively involved in the service of God’s church.
The Christian faith is active, not passive. And anyone who is not actively involved in the spiritual life and growth of God’s church has missed the vital lesson and application of the Gospel.
Now without a doubt, the Christian faith, today, is under attack from outside the church. But it is also under attack from within. But that’s the way it’s always been.
So the way to defend the faith is not only to uphold the belief in the Second Coming and Judgement Day, but to behave in an appropriate manner too.
Faith is active and not passive, and the challenge for today is to examine ourselves—our beliefs and practices—and see whether we have modified anything relating to the Gospel at all. Not only that, we also need to check whether our behaviour fits those original and unadulterated beliefs on which we should all stand.
Posted: 13th November 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Life Is a Journey (2 Peter 3:17-18)
The trouble is, if we don’t, we can get stuck in the past, and become staid and stale. Now that doesn’t mean we can’t fondly remember the things that have happened. All it means, is that we shouldn’t get stuck there.
Having said that, we need to be very careful. The world can be a minefield. And one of the tricks we need to master is to be able to distinguish between good growth and bad growth; things that are helpful, and things that can lead us into trouble.
And that’s why these two verses from Peter are so important. Because, they were written to a group of people who were on a journey. And Peter knew that the only sure way to avoid life’s pitfalls was to depend upon divine help. And that’s advice worth remembering as we move on in life, and as we all travel along life’s journey.
Posted: 30th August 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis