Presented on The Lutheran Hour on May 7, 2023
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2023 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: 1 Peter 2:11-12
Stoyan, I'm told, is a common Eastern European name, which means "stand strong." Stoyan grew up in Eastern Europe in the 1950s and '60s, in the years following World War II when communist, dictatorships, and religious intolerance spread over Eastern Europe like an iron curtain. Stoyan's father was a Christian pastor. When Stoyan was 12, his father was arrested for preaching and teaching about Jesus.
Before his father was sent to the labor camp, he was held in custody by the local secret police. While this pastor was there, one of the more spiteful guards, never tired of playing a cruel trick on him. Every morning the guard brought him a piece of toast for breakfast, and every morning that guard would take some of his own human waste and spread it over the top of the toast.
Nine months later, the pastor, Stoyan's father, was transferred from the secret police station to the labor camp where he would spend the next decade of his life. Stoyan and his mother were allowed to come to the police station to say goodbye. When they saw the starved man before them, they didn't recognize him at first, not until they saw his eyes.
The boy rushed forward to his father. "I'm so proud of you, papa," he said. Stoyan's mother quietly passed a pocket version of the New Testament to her husband. She knew it would be the thing that he needed most during his imprisonment. When the guard saw her, he confiscated it.
He turned the book over and saw what it was. "Woman," he said to her, "Don't you realize that it is because of this book and because of your God that your husband is here? I can kill him. I can kill you. I can kill your son, and I would be applauded for it." Stoyan's mother answered, "Sir, you are right. You can kill my husband. You can kill me. I know you can even kill our son, but nothing you can do will separate us from the love that is in Christ Jesus."
After their father was sent away, Stoyan, his mother and three brothers were forced from their home. Members of a church nearby, provided a home for them, scraped together enough food and supplies to support them while their father was away in prison. That small Christian community surrounded and supported the family until he was released ten years later.
Author Nik Ripken recounts Stoyan's story and story in his book titled, The Insanity of God. In 1998, Nik, that author, who is an American, traveled throughout Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe, interviewing people who had lived under that old Iron Curtain. Nik heard hundreds of stories like Stoyan's, and he would ask them, "Where did you learn to live like this? And why hasn't someone written a book with all these stories?" It was an old Ukrainian pastor who gave him an answer. The weathered man reached out his hand, took hold of Nik's shoulder and says to him, "Son, when did you stop reading your Bible? All our stories are in the Bible. God has already written them down." The old pastor was right.
The Old Testament book of Daniel, the New Testament book of Acts, all the Gospel biographies of Jesus—they all tell the story of God upholding His people under pressure. "Don't be surprised," says Peter the apostle, one of the original disciples commissioned by Jesus. "Don't be surprised," Peter said in a letter. He wrote, "Don't be surprised when the fiery trial comes upon you to test you. Don't be surprised as though something strange were happening to you. Rejoice, since you share in the sufferings of Jesus Christ so that you may also rejoice when Christ is revealed in glory."
Peter tells us Christians to think of ourselves as sojourners and exiles in this present age. Sojourners and exiles, not in the sense that we are just passing through and we don't plan to get involved, but sojourners and exiles like the ordinary people of Russia and Ukraine and many other Eastern European nations who suffered and resisted the iron rule of the former Soviet regime, people who had become exiles in their own homeland.
The Bible would have us picture ourselves like that, like exiles in our own homeland, stationed in a good creation temporarily under the rule of an evil regime, the evil regime: not a particular political system or a government, but a spiritual captivity spread overall systems and all persons.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a Russian man whose faith in Jesus was reborn while he suffered in a Soviet prison camp. He wrote about the terrors of the Soviet regime in his book, The Gulag Archipelago. In the preface of that book, Solzhenitsyn gave a prophetic warning: "Don't assume that the Soviets were somehow worse than you. The evil they committed—it is possible everywhere on earth."
Why? Because the line separating good and evil passes through every human heart, an iron curtain drawn through all human hearts. It is from this evil that Jesus the Messiah, has saved us by His death and resurrection. It is from this evil that Jesus will save us by His present rule over all things and by His promised return to make all things new. And until then, "Don't be surprised," says Peter, "when the fiery trial comes." But I am surprised when it does come. I think it's partly because I am an American Christian. And American Christians like me can get confused about what Jesus promises to His followers. Sometimes we think Jesus promises us prosperity if we have enough faith, it's often said.
Now prosperity isn't bad in and of itself. One of the writers of the New Testament specifically prays for the prosperity of his people. He says, "I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health just as your soul prospers" (see, 3 John 2). Prosperity is good and those who preach a Gospel of prosperity get at least two things right.
First, God is the source of all true prosperity, and Jesus, His crucified and risen Son is already exalted. Jesus is already the possessor of all the money and property and honor and blessing offered in the universe. The second thing a prosperity Gospel gets right is that God is not stingy. He truly wants to share all of these blessings by faith in Jesus Christ and is sharing them now like an oasis, moments of refreshment for world-weary travelers. But here's the thing that a prosperity Gospel gets all wrong: it's the timing. See, all of these blessings will come to the followers of Jesus eventually, but not until Jesus returns in glory.
Right now, we're still under the iron curtain of sin and death and the devil's power. Right now, God is working subversively under that curtain to bring people to faith in Jesus. Right now, faith is God's highest priority for us. Because without faith, without trust in Jesus, no true blessing can last. That's how we put ourselves behind this iron curtain in the first place. We tried to take God's blessings without faith, without trust in God.
So now is the time when God sends His Word to work behind the curtain to create faith. A prosperity Gospel has the timing all wrong—like a traveler who wants to settle down when there's still a long way to go, like an appeasement that tries to settle for peace while a raging tyrant still wages war.
Now is the time for the Word of God to work subversively to save us and refresh us until the day Jesus brings the Kingdom in glory. Now is the time of exile. Now is the time to sojourn. Maybe this was all easier for the first hearers of Peter's letter to accept. Many of those Christians were sojourners and exiles in the Roman Empire. Not just figuratively, but literally. They were non-citizens, foreigners.
Ancient Rome was a highly stratified, hierarchical society with emperor and other governors on the top and at the bottom, sojourners and exiles, foreigners, residing within the empire. And because of their lack of status, the Roman government could deprive them of life, of liberty and property without any due process of law. A step above these foreigners were slaves. Sometimes foreigners would even try to become a slave in a Roman household because slavery could be a path toward freedom and citizenship.
Slavery was an unquestioned institution in Roman society. And the earliest Christians, even though their view of human dignity was grounded in Jesus' sacrifice for all people, even though their faith taught them the infinite worth of every human being, even though their values would eventually subvert slavery at its foundations, Christians in Roman times had no means to do anything about slavery other than live with it.
But they were called to live with it in a peculiar Christian way because they knew the time, they knew that this was a time of sojourning and exile. They knew their struggle was not ultimately against political systems but against the sin in their own hearts. And they were longing for the day when the curtain would be lifted and Jesus revealed as true King.
Peter told them in the second chapter of his letter, "Beloved," he says to them, "I urge you as sojourners and exiles, abstain from the sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the unbelieving nations that though they accuse you of wrongdoing, they may see your good deeds and give glory to God on the day He visits us when Jesus returns.
"Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human creature, whether to the emperor as supreme or to governors sent by him to punish those who do wrong and commend those who do right. Because it is God's will that you all by doing good would put to silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as people who are free, but don't use your freedom as a coverup for evil. Instead, live as slaves of God.
"Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood, the family of believers. Fear God, honor the king. Household slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all reverence. Not only to those who are good and kind, but also to those who are crooked, to those who are harsh. Because it is a gracious thing when a person endures sorrows while suffering unjustly because he is conscious of God. To this you were called because the Christ, the Messiah, suffered for you, leaving you an example, a template that you should follow in His footsteps. He committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth. When they hurled their insults at Him, He did not retaliate. When He suffered, He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted Himself to the One, to the One who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in His body, on the tree, on the cross, so that we would die to sin and live for what is right. By His wounds, you have been healed."
That's from 1 Peter 2. Peter does not preach a prosperity Gospel, but neither does he simply promise a free pass to heaven after we die.
Now what Peter does promise in the Name of Jesus is free. It's free to us because Jesus paid the price already with His blood shed on the cross. And what God promises does guarantee that we will be with Him and He will be with us even if we die before Jesus returns to raise the dead. But there is more to God's promise. There is a present tense to God's promise. You don't have to wait till your next of kin collects your death certificate. It's given to you now in Baptism, in faith. Baptized into Jesus, we've already died with Him. We are no longer captive to the powers of this present evil age. These powers have no more power over you.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, that Russian author I mentioned earlier, endured eight years of imprisonment in a Soviet gulag and in that iron prison, Jesus found him. Aleksandr realized that when you have ceased to be afraid of threats and are not chasing after rewards, there you find true freedom in Christ. In his letter the apostle Peter promises this freedom. He makes a promise in the Name of Jesus that gives us hope now and for the life to come. Jesus doesn't promise prosperity now. He doesn't promise appeasement to the powers of this age, but neither does He only promise a pass to heaven.
What does He promise? He promises to provide a path on which we can walk. He promises a template of love to follow through suffering and sacrifice. He promises to purify us from the sin that wages war against our souls. He promises pure milk of God's Word to make us grow up in our salvation. He promises power for good works that put spiteful accusations to silence. He promises to appear on the Last Day to give us a place with Him forever. And He promises to be with us all the days until then. Why does He promise this? Because you are His beloved. He loves enough to die and to rise and to reign and to return for you.
Even under the Iron Curtain, Stoyan and his family found hope in these promises of Jesus. Stoyan's father was eventually released from that prison. The world-weary man went back to his home, back to his family, back to being a pastor.
One Sunday, an elderly woman from his church came and asked him for help. She told the pastor that she had a diabetic son at home. Her son had gone blind and was now close to death, and she needed medication for him to help manage his pain. But since she was a Christian, she had no access to this medicine. Stoyan's father said he would try to help. Eventually, he secured the medicine and brought it to her for her son. Grateful, the woman welcomed him in, "Please," she said, "Let me introduce you to my son so you can pray for him." In the back room, he saw a helpless, dying man lying in a small bed. And he recognized that man, he would never forget that face. It was that guard, that very same spiteful guard, the one who used to bring him that defiled breakfast every morning for nine months. Stoyan's father froze and offered a desperate prayer, "Oh Lord, do not let me fail You now."
And there, in a weathered-traveler's soul, a ray of light passed through the curtain. The enemy was routed, and the way forward revealed. Without identifying himself to the man, he helped his mother administer the medicine that would soothe his pain. And like an oasis, a sojourner found strength to forgive his former torturer and to pray that he too would be healed by the wounds of Christ.
Reflections for May 7, 2023
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to lutheranhour.org. Once again, here's Lutheran Hour Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. I'm visiting with Dr. Dale Meyer, emeritus Speaker of the Lutheran Hour, emeritus president of Concordia Seminary, retired guy at large. Welcome, Dale.
Dale Meyer: Thank you, Dr. Zeigler. It sounds old.
Mike Zeigler: Emeritus. So, Dale, before we dig deep into the letter, let's talk about an idea I've heard you use, this image of Bible blinders. So, I'm picturing a horse with blinders on the bridle so that it can't see its surroundings. Is that basically what you mean by Bible blinders?
Dale Meyer: Yes. We read the Bible in our own context as Americans, Canadians, English-speaking people, and it was a different world back then.
Think about going to visit a foreign country where they speak a different language and have different customs. You say, "Wow, life is different here than back home." Well, time travel is the same way. And studying the Bible takes us back in time; it also takes us forward in time. But many things we take for granted just weren't true in Bible times.
Americans, Canadians, Europeans—we're individualists. We've been conditioned to think of our individual rights, individual liberties, to assert our rights and liberties. But other cultures, and especially in the first-century Roman Empire, those cultures were not as individualistic as we are today. It was far more collective back then, not just about me and my rights, but about us, family, community.
One of the problems that Roman citizens had with this new Christian movement was that it threatened the welfare of the community; so that's an example. We Americans are hyper individualists. You can see this on the news all the time. Some person, some group of like-minded people are protesting their rights. Well, yes, we are individuals, and people in the Roman Empire were individuals too, but they had a far more collective sense of the good of the whole.
Mike Zeigler: So, Peter's writing to people who have that collective sense of their place in the world. If we approach Peter's letter with this individualistic lens, how does it distort what we see there?
Dale Meyer: Well, that's a great question and it's very important. When we read 1 Peter, when we hear 1 Peter in church or hear on The Lutheran Hour, we will often hear the word, "You." Y-O-U. Now, as people conditioned to think individualistically, we think that you is singular. It's about me, but it's not. When you read or hear, "you" in first Peter, it's plural. As they say in Texas, it's all y'all. That little point has profound implications on how we hear God's Word and deal with one another.
Mike Zeigler: Or as they say in Wisconsin, isn't it, "yous guys"?
Mike Zeigler: So Peter wants us to see ourselves, not merely as individuals relating to God, but as a people who relate to God.
Dale Meyer: Yes. He's writing to the people in Asia Minor who follow Jesus as a group, as a whole, as the church, not as individuals. Although being members of the church does carry individual responsibilities and duties.
Mike Zeigler: I was reading some of your translation of 1 Peter. You're writing this commentary, which includes preparing a fresh translation of the Greek text. And one of the places that really struck me that is different than any other translation I've seen is how you translate 1 Peter 2:13, which normally says, "Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human authority or every human institution." And I check the Greek and it's like, oh, "every human creation," maybe, like everything that humans set up as an institution maybe that's the idea. But you translate it—well, tell us how you translate it and why.
Dale Meyer: Well, thanks for asking. And I think it highlights the fact that sin can happen, especially when we're overly individualistic and not willing to honor other people. Most translations of 2:13 say, "Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution." Scholars who are smarter than I am tell me that the Greek word is never translated as "institution" in other Greek literature. This would be one-of-a-kind translation. But the scholars do say that it is usually translated, "human creature." And that's significant because a person can say, "I honor the government; I respect the government; I pay my taxes." But how does that person react when the officer pulls him over for speeding? When you're sitting in front of an IRS agent? Or when you're incarcerated and have a mean guard? All of that talk about respecting the government should be shown in the dealing with that human being. And so, I think translating it, "Be subject to every human creature," which is a literal way of saying it. We just say, "Every human being," actually takes the honor and puts it into interpersonal relationships.
Mike Zeigler: And that makes perfect sense for what he says later. He says, "Show the proper honor to everyone." No one is left out of this. Putting yourself under them as a servant, as Christ put Himself under everyone, like you said, not to be served, but to serve.
Dale Meyer: And it's interesting also that this comes at the heading of the middle section, instructions about how slaves should act, how wives should act, how everyone should act. "Be subject to every human creature."
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"At the Lamb's High Feast" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.