For those who’ve not been here, we’re in a sermon series on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, i.e. someone living for Jesus as Lord. Now so far, we’ve focussed on our personal relationship with Jesus, and we’ve seen that discipleship means trusting in him and obeying his word. But discipleship isn’t just a personal or private thing, so we need next to put our relationship with Jesus into the context of the church and the world. Tonight we’re going to start looking at what the Lord wants us to do for him in his world. And the most urgent thing in that department is to tell the world about him, because the only way that people can come into relationship with God is through Jesus and his death – which means they can’t come into that relationship unless those of us who are already in it tell them how.
The Bible gives us two great motivations for telling them. One is the glory of God. I was at a wedding recently and someone there who was not a believer said to me, ‘I hope you won’t think this is an awful thing to say, but I just don’t feel any need of God. What would you say to that?’ So very gently I tried to say that from the Bible’s point of view, the very reason she could say that was that God had been incredibly good to her – giving her great abilities, a great job, a great family and so on. I.e. the reason she could say she didn’t feel any need of God was precisely that, God had been meeting all her needs while she hadn’t acknowledged that, hadn’t thanked him, and hadn’t faced up to the fact that we all owe God a life of discipleship. So one thing that motivated me to talk was the glory of God that God be honoured in her life as he should be.
The other motivation for telling people about Jesus is the good of our fellow-sinners. Even though this woman didn’t seem to have a felt need in the world, the Bible says we all have one almighty need whether we feel it or not – to be forgiven and reconciled to God before we face him as Judge. So having gently talked to her about that part of the gospel I said, ‘So the question isn’t just whether we feel we can live OK without God, it’s whether we can also die OK. According to Jesus, if we haven’t lived the life we owe God, we’re not OK for dying and meeting him.’ And the Lord was clearly at work in that conversation, because she said, ‘Yes, I see what you mean.’
Now you may be thinking, ‘But is telling others about Jesus really for all of us? Aren’t some people gifted at it and shouldn’t we leave it to them while the rest of us get on with our thing (whether that’s music group, leading a Bible study or whatever)?’ Let’s turn to our Bible passage tonight, 1 Peter 3, to see what it has to say. This is a letter written by the same apostle Peter you read about in the Gospels. Just look at chapter 3 verse 15:
“But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have... ”
That’s addressed to every single Christian. The Bible clearly says, both here and elsewhere, that every one of us who professes to be a disciple is responsible for telling others about Jesus. Now, how we do that will vary from person to person. Some of us here will be very gifted in bringing the gospel into conversations; others will rely much more on inviting people to church, Christianity Explored or other events. Some of us here God will lead into full-time ministry to make telling others their main life’s work both here and overseas; others will be partners with them and supporters of workers all over the world. But every one of us who professes to be a disciple is responsible for telling the world.
Now I don’t know how you react to that, but most of us are a mixture of wanting to do that and being held back by our fears – fears of what people will think of us and how they’ll react. That’s not just an issue for those of us who are already Christians. Again and again, when I’ve asked people what’s holding them back from becoming a Christian, it’s been the fear of what other people will think if they do. Well, those fears are the starting-point of this section of the Bible. I’ve got four headings to take us through verses 13 to 18. They’re not snappy but I think they capture the four main lessons:
Lesson One: IF PEOPLE REACT NEGATIVELY TO YOUR WITNESS FOR JESUS, THEN COUNT YOURSELF BLESSED (verses 13-14a)
Your ‘witness for Jesus’ is Christian jargon for the way our words and lives testify about Jesus. The picture is that the world is like a jury that needs to make up its mind about Jesus, and we Christians are in the witness box giving the evidence. And Peter says: if people react negatively to your witness for Jesus, then count yourself blessed – i.e. fortunate or privileged; the secular world would say ‘lucky’, but we can’t say that because we don’t believe in luck. So look at verse 13:
“Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?”
Now that’s a rhetorical question expecting the answer: in general, no-one. The point is that Peter was writing for believers at a time when the world around them was becoming much more hostile to Christians – as it is in the UK right now. And when the world’s like that, you do get more fearful about negative reactions, especially if you’ve already had some. But in verse 13, Peter’s saying that in general people won’t react negatively if we’re trying to live good lives in the eyes of the Lord, because on the contrary goodness is very attractive. For example, a while back I led a thanksgiving service here for a new baby of some friends, Richard and Rachel. I spoke to an elderly couple who’d come along who were Richard and Rachel’s neighbours. I said, ‘What brought you along?’ And they said, ‘When they invited us, we wanted to come and find out about their faith, because they’ve been such good neighbours.’ Then when I told Richard and Rachel that, they could only think of simple things they’d done, like cutting the grass, doing shopping for them or watching the house while the neighbours were away. In general, goodness is very attractive. But not always. Look at verse 14:
“But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed.”
I.e. doing the ‘right’ thing or doing the good thing, in God’s eyes, doesn’t always attract. Sometimes it aggravates. Now cutting the grass for the neighbours is unlikely to do that, but take a different example, I remember a medical student called Patrick who came to faith in Christ here. Before that he’d been a pretty heavy drinker, but having come to Christ he realised that drunkenness had to go. With the Lord’s help and with the Holy Spirit at work in him, he got drinking under control. He then went home for his first university holiday as a Christian and came back the next term. He told me that he’d got a very hard time from his old school friends, because they’d assumed he was the same old Patrick – the old partner in getting drunk. But the new Patrick stopped drinking after a pint or so, and they really hated it. It’s not that he said anything about their drinking. It’s just that they felt convicted by his new life. Verse 14 says that when you get that sort of reaction, you are blessed. I.e. you’re to count yourself fortunate and privileged, and you’re to count it a great thing. Why? Turn over to chapter 4 verse 14:
“If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for [because] the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.”
When his friends started having a go at him, Patrick’s natural reaction would have been to think himself very unfortunate, because none of us enjoys getting a hard time. But according to chapter 4 verse 14, Patrick needed to say to himself, ‘It’s a great thing that I’m getting this flak, because it shows that the work of God’s Spirit is so evident in my life that these friends can see it, and are convicted by it, and that’s why they’re reacting against it.’ So it’s a great thing when people can see enough of Jesus in us to attract them. But it’s also a great thing when people can see enough of Jesus in us to aggravate them and convict them. That’s Lesson One.
Lesson Two: OVERCOME YOUR FEAR OF PEOPLE BY YOUR FEAR OF THE LORD (verses14b-15)
How do you think Patrick felt when his friends starting having a go at him in the pub and saying, ‘Why have you gone weirdo on us?’ Well, among other things, I’d have thought: afraid – afraid that by the end of the night he’d be minus three friends. Or how did I feel when that woman at the wedding said to me, ‘I just don’t feel any need of God. What would you say to that?’ Among other things: afraid – afraid that I’d either bottle out of giving her a straight answer or that I’d put her off by giving a straight answer in the wrong way, and we’d spend the rest of the reception in stony silence. How do you feel about turning conversations to spiritual things, or inviting people to invitation events here at church or elsewhere? You’re pretty unusual if you never feel afraid of what people will think of you and how they’ll react. Look on in 1 Peter 3, from half-way through verse 14 to verse 15:
“ ‘Do not fear what they [those who are not believers] fear; do not be frightened.’ But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord… ”
In the NIV church Bibles, you’ll see a little letter ‘c’ at the end of verse 14. And at the bottom of the page, footnote ‘c’ says Isaiah 8 verse 12. Peter is quoting from a situation in the Old Testament when God’s people were surrounded by a hostile army and full of fear. And God said,
“… do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it.
The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear... ”(Isaiah 8.12-13)
Peter applies that to the parallel situation for us – namely when we’re afraid of hostility to our witness. So verse 14 again:
“ ‘Do not fear what they fear [and what they fear is one another]; do not be frightened.’ But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. [As Isaiah put it, ‘He is the one you’re to fear.’]… ” (verses 14-15)
I.e. we’re to overcome our fear of people by our fear of the Lord. Now for believers, that doesn’t mean fear of his punishment. To fear the Lord means that God, what he thinks of us and having his approval is infinitely more important to us than anything else. So for Patrick in that pub, for me at that wedding reception, and for you turning that conversation or making that invitation, what it means to set apart Christ as Lord in our hearts is this: it means consciously saying to ourselves, ‘Jesus is Lord – Lord of me, Lord of this person I’m trying to talk to or invite. Although I have my fears about how they’ll react, I’m far more fearful of being ashamed of Jesus and failing to reach out to this person as he wants me to. If I experience rejection of some sort, I would infinitely prefer to have their rejection and Christ’s approval, rather than the other way round.’
Daniel Cargill was a Scottish preacher sentenced to death for his beliefs in the 1600’s. As he walked up to the gallows to be hanged, he said this, ‘Lord knows I go up this ladder with less fear... than I ever entered a pulpit to preach.’ So he was saying that it’s all too easy when we’re speaking to people to fear them, for our minds to be focussed on them and what they’ll think and how they’ll react. Whereas on his way to die and meet Christ, Cargill understood just how irrelevant it ultimately is what people think of us, and whether or not they like us or reject us. And to set apart Christ as Lord in our hearts means consciously having the kind of focus on the Lord which Daniel Cargill had as he mounted the gallows to die. Which is why it’s so important to pray about our opportunities to talk or to make invitations – to pray before them, and in the thick of them. Because praying gives us that focus on Christ that can carry us over our fears.
And what will be the result? Read on in verse 15. The result will be that we’ll…
“… Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have… ”
I.e. we will actually speak. We’ll win the battle of the temptation not to say anything, not to make that invitation, or to say less than we should. Now notice that verse 15 isn’t talking about preaching from a pulpit. It’s talking about normal conversation: when people ask us about what we believe, like that woman at the wedding who said to me, ‘I just don’t feel any need of God. What would you say to that?’ Or like the person who asks you, ‘Why don’t you sleep with your boyfriend or girlfriend?’ Or whatever. Lots of questions give us the opportunity to say something that points to Jesus, to touch on at least part of the gospel.
One fear for Christians who want to talk about their faith is the fear that the other person won’t want to, and that it’ll all be very awkward. But verse 15 is talking about when we’re asked a question. And the great thing is that then, by definition, we do have permission to speak. If someone’s asked us a question, they want us to say something. And we should.
So the next fear is that we won’t be able to answer their question, or at least get very far in answering it. For example, imagine someone says to you, ‘How can you trust the Gospels when they were all written long after the events by people who were all biased?’ Maybe you’ve not yet read anything on the dates, authorship and trustworthiness of the Gospels, but that’s not a missed opportunity. It is because you can still say, ‘I don’t really know the answer to that, but I’ll give it a bit of thought, and tell you what I come up with.’ But let me say this: if we’re asked a question we don’t know the answer to, we owe it to those around us and we have to find out the answer before we’re asked it again. For example, on that question I just mentioned, you could read the leaflet I wrote called Why Trust Them? which is about the four Gospels, available on the Welcome Desk. And if, in obedience to verse 15, you want to get better prepared, I think the best resource is the book Know & Tell The Gospel by John Chapman (Matthias Media, available from www.thegoodbook.co.uk). If you need help on a particular issue like ‘How can a loving God allow so much suffering?’ or ‘What about other religions?’, do ask at the bookstall at the back, or for students there’s also the student bookstall. When you’re asked a question, don’t worry about how much or little you can say, or about getting out of your depth (which we all do). In your heart, set apart Christ as Lord, worry about what he thinks, trust him to use whatever you can say, and say it.
But if we really care about the glory of God and the eternal good of our fellow-sinners, we won’t just wait to be asked questions. It’s too urgent for that. We should be trying to create opportunities by prompting questions from people. There are three obvious ways to do that, alongside praying for God to give opportunities.
One way is simply to live an open, unashamed and distinctive Christian life. That’s bound to prompt questions about why we live the way we do. For example, ‘Why don’t you sleep with your boyfriend or girlfriend?’ So ask yourself: do people around me actually know I’m a Christian? And if they do, am I openly living like one?
A second way is to ‘fish’ for questions in conversation. For example, when we go back to our halls or houses later on and someone asks what we’ve been up to, we could be thoroughly upfront and say something like, ‘I’ve been to church, and the sermon was all about how to get people interested in Jesus.’ They might then ask you, ‘Why should we be interested?’ There’s an opportunity. ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you... ’
And a third way is to invite people along to a Christian event like the carol services, the Christianity Explored Taster sessions in January, and the other events that go on in different groups within church throughout the year. It is because often conversations never get remotely near the gospel. The atmosphere is so secular out there. That’s where inviting people into a different atmosphere, where they actually hear something Christian for once, can be the next step. But we need to be on the ball afterwards and be prepared to ask them, ‘What did you think of what was said?’
Lesson Three: LET THE WAY YOU SPEAK AND LIVE FOR JESUS GIVE NO GROUND FOR CRITICISM (verses 15b-16)
Look at verse 15 again:
“… Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” (verses 15-16)
That’s telling us to take care how we speak for the Lord: ‘But do this with gentleness and respect.’ ‘Respect’ is a bad translation, because it’s the same word as is translated ‘fear’ in verse 14. So I don’t think it’s talking about respecting the person you’re talking to (although, obviously, we should – that’s just not what this verse is saying). I think it’s still talking about fearing the Lord, because it’s highly unlikely that in verse 14 Peter would say, ‘Don’t fear people’, only then to say in verse 15, ‘But do this with gentleness and fear of people.’ So I take it that Peter is saying, ‘But do this with gentleness toward the other person as well as the fear of the Lord I’ve just talked about.’ The point is we need our fear of the Lord to stop us being cowardly, and saying nothing or less than we should. But we could then end up going to the other extreme of being tactless and off-putting, for example, re-inviting someone repeatedly to an event when they’ve already made it perfectly clear that they’re not interested. So that’s why we also need gentleness towards the other person because we mustn’t be pushy or insensitive. But we can also go to the extreme where ‘sensitivity’ is in fact cowardice, and then we’re back to needing the fear of the Lord again. We especially need gentleness when we get negative reactions. The word translated ‘gentleness’ includes the idea of self-control that holds back an angry or sharp reaction. For example, I remember telling someone a while ago that Jesus clearly said that he is the only way to God. And this guy got so angry that he was shaking as he had a go at me (or, rather, at Jesus via me, which is what was really going on). We need self-control to bite our tongues and answer gently, so that there’s no ground for criticism in what we say.
Verse 16 goes on to say that the way we live also needs to give no ground for criticism. Look at verse 16:
“keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”
I remember asking my cousin what had put her off Christian things, given the Christian background she’d had. And she said, ‘I guess seeing two vicars in a row running off with other peoples’ wives didn’t help.’ Our hypocrisy is a massive stumbling block to people. Now we can’t be perfect this side of heaven, but we can be on guard against conscious hypocrisy – which is why Peter says we’re to keep a clear conscience, we’re to be careful about practicing what we profess, so that even if people do criticise us (like Patrick’s friends having a go at his new drinking habits) they know deep down that it’s groundless.
Lesson Four: BE WILLING TO SUFFER FOR THE GOSPEL, JUST AS JESUS WAS WILLING TO SUFFER SO THERE COULD BE A GOSPEL (verses 17-18)
Just finally look at how this section of 1 Peter ends, verses 17-18:
“It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good [e.g. Patrick getting flak for not getting drunk any more] than for doing evil. For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God… ”
Our witness to Jesus won’t always get a negative reaction, but it will sometimes. In which case we’re to remember that as servants of the Lord Jesus, we’re not above our Master, and we’re not to expect a different experience to his in this world that rejects him. He was willing to suffer death so that there could be a gospel. So we have no right to say, ‘I’m not willing to suffer in getting that gospel to others.’
There’s a book on telling others about Jesus with the title How to share your faith without losing your friends. I’d have no objection if the title was ‘How to share your faith without putting them off by doing it badly’ or ‘How to share your faith without being a hypocrite’, because that’s exactly what 1 Peter 3 is on about. In my view, ‘How to share your faith without losing your friends’ is a really bad title. It is because there is no guarantee that we won’t lose some friends, or at least strain some relationships, or lose some respect. In fact, the only way to guarantee getting no negative reactions to the gospel is to stop telling people the gospel.
But if we believe the gospel, that’s not an option. If we believe the gospel, we will say to ourselves, ‘Other people’s salvation is more important than my comfort.’ That’s the attitude that took Jesus to the cross, so that there could be a gospel. That’s the only attitude that will keep us trying to get that gospel out to others, whatever they think of us and however they react.
The best single book I recommend on preparing ourselves better:
• Know & Tell The Gospel, John Chapman, Matthias Media [goes over what the gospel message actually is, learning a gospel outline, motivations for sharing the gospel, practical ways of sharing it]
Books written for inquirers that are good to read a) to learn how to explain the gospel and b) to have confidence for lending or giving them to people:
• Christianity Explored, Rico Tice, Authentic [based on the Christianity Explored course – introduces people to Jesus and his claims form the key bits of Mark’s Gospel]
• Turning Points, Vaughan Roberts, Authentic [an overview of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation written with an inquirer in mind]
On the issue of suffering:
• If I were God I’d end all the pain, John Dickson, Matthias Media [short and readable]
• The Problem of Pain, C.S.Lewis, Fount [longer classic on the realities of suffering and hell]
On the issue of other religions:
• But don’t all religions lead to God? Michael Green, IVP
On the issue of the reliability of the NT/Bible:
• The NT documents: are they reliable? F.F.Bruce, IVP [dating, authorship and manuscripts of the NT; the ‘canon’ – what went into the NT and what didn’t and why]
• The Truth About Jesus, Paul Barnett, Aquila Press [looks at the reliability of the NT evidence and defends the virgin birth, the resurrection, the diety of Jesus]
On the issue of science:
• Unnatural Enemies, Kirsten Birkett, Matthias Media