Having finished the book of Colossians, my regular Bible readings take up with the book of I Peter.
Growing up, I always found Peter’s writings a bit more abstruse than Paul’s. Not unclear or difficult, exactly, but written in a very different style and seeming to assume a frame of reference I didn’t always entirely grasp.
More Jewish, perhaps. This would make sense, given Paul’s testimony in Galatians that he was the Apostle to the Gentiles just as Peter was to the Jews.
Be that as it may, I’m somewhat older now, and I’ve been around the things of God for that much more time. More time to get familiar with them. In addition, I married a woman with a deep sense of the love of God expressed in the Law He gave to His people, and I’ve learned from her some of that frame of reference that usually eluded me as a youth.
I was particularly struck the other day by verse 8 of chapter 1 of Peter’s first letter:
“Though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, you believe in Him and are filled with an inexpressible joy, because you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls”.
It puts me in mind of the Apostle Thomas, possibly my favourite of the Twelve. You remember: the guy who would not dare to hope unless he could see the risen Christ. Yet the same guy who, when he sees, immediately makes the leap to “My Lord and my God!”
Peter was there; he remembers. No doubt he’s deliberately referencing these events, and Jesus’ words to Thomas that “because you have seen Me, you believe. Blessed are those who do not see, and yet believe”.
If any of the disciples knows about faith, it’s Peter. He’s the one that by faith first made the confession that “You are the Christ; the Son of the Living God”. He’s the one that by faith stepped out of the boat to go to Jesus on the water.
He kind of ought to know a little of what he’s talking about when he broaches the subject of faith.
So what does he say here about faith?
The first thing we can draw out of these particular verses is the unseen dimension of faith.
Faith doesn’t depend on what you can perceive with your five senses. It’s part of a whole cluster of things that are immaterial but important. The Bible lists faith, hope and love; we might add to that other things like goodness, mercy, inner peace. You can’t perceive it directly, but you can see its effects. In this, it’s a bit like light. You can’t see a beam of light (sci-fi ray guns notwithstanding); but by it you see everything else. A shaft of sunlight is visible because it strikes particles of dust and water vapour in the air. You don’t really see the light as such.
Because of this unseen dimension, and the fact that faith sometimes works in spite of physical evidence, sceptics sometimes dismiss the idea as ridiculous. “Believing something you know isn’t true”, or any other kind of wilful blindness to facts.
Certainly people have this capacity (Holocaust deniers are a case-in-point), but this is not faith.
Faith is taking the evidence that something is so and applying it where you can’t see directly. Rather like a scientist applying the knowledge that germs cause disease to a new type of infection. We haven’t isolated the particular causative organism, but we can be reasonably sure there is one, and that the syndrome doesn’t arise because of the witches.
In spiritual terms, this is taking the evidence that Jesus rose from the dead and is who He said He is – the eyewitness testimony, the fact that these people were willing to die for their conviction that Jesus is alive, the reliability of the Biblical accounts – and, though you do not personally see Jesus, believing and loving anyway.
The second thing I want to draw out is the joy. Throughout the documented history of the church, people of faith have been people of joy. Paul and Silas were singing hymns in the middle of a Roman jail cell, with chains on their hands and feet. The early martyrs of the church stared death in the face at the hands of their persecutors and tormentors, and prayed God’s forgiveness on their killers. James could honestly write to the church to “consider it pure joy whenever you face trials”. The Protestant martyrs who first took the Bible out of Latin and into the language of the people are recorded as singing the praise of God even while the flames licked around their feet.
What unifies these accounts? Faith in Jesus.
If the material world is all there is, it’s not rational; a skipping-out of the brain. How on earth can someone being killed in one of the most painful ways imaginable have such joy as to sing?
Yet the historical record is pretty clear that they can.
Why? Because we are receiving the goal of our faith. Not suffering and a painful death, but the salvation of our souls, of all that makes us who we are. It seems to be something special that God the Holy Spirit does in and for those who are facing persecutions for the sake of the Name. The decision and moral responsibility to stand firm are ours, but the strength and the joy come from Him. That’s the deal.
And if this is true in special measure for those facing the worst kinds of trials and persecutions, it’s true in all circumstances. Followers of Jesus shouldn’t have any cause for grumbling or whingeing, because His Spirit at work in us springs up an inexpressible joy that fills us without regard to circumstances.
It’s part of faith.