How to be gripped by the same hope
‘Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened’, the Apostle Peter writes, quoting Isaiah 8.12.
For some time now, I have been following with a mixture of grief and intrigue the prolific blogger, Andrew White. White is the Canon of St. George’s Church in Baghdad, the only remaining Anglican church in Baghdad, and, indeed, in the whole of Iraq. He’s often nicknamed the ‘Vicar of Baghdad’. Apart from pastoring this church, since arriving in 2005 he has spend the best part of his time trying to broker some kind of dialogue between the warring Shia and Sunni leaders.
Over many years, White has lived with danger at his doorstep. Since 2007, he has been held up at gunpoint many times, hijacked, kidnapped, and locked up. So have many of his staff. Indeed, a number of them have been killed. But despite the very real threat to his own life, he’s still there.
And if you haven’t heard of him before, perhaps he has come to your attention in recent days. Presently, he’s one of the few channels of information about the severe persecution of Christians that has erupted in Northern Iraq, as he desperately tries to grab the attention of a sleepy, disinterested West with one harrowing tale after another.
A couple of weeks ago, he spoke on his Facebook page of a photo he’d just received, too awful to publish, he said. It was a photo of a family of eight who had all been shot in the face, point blank in their own home. It was enough simply to describe the picture, the pool of blood, the bible open on the couch. There wasn’t much to say, really: ‘They would not convert, and it cost them their life’. ‘And this is Iraq today’, he said, as if there’s nothing particularly extraordinary about this one tragedy among many untold others; not just in Iraq, of course, but throughout Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Nigeria, the Sudan, North Korea, and so on.
‘Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened’
(1 Pet 3.14)
In reflecting upon this passage recently, I couldn’t help but wonder, how is it that I can repeat these words without sounding glib? It seems to me that the reprehensible apathy and moral indifference of the West is, alas, simply mirrored in my own prayerlessness for these precious brothers and sisters, in my own small-minded obsession with life’s relatively petty concerns, in my own cowardly quest for comfort and respectability in this cosseted little neck of the globe.
Perhaps it even sounds a bit rich coming from the Apostle Peter. Remember Peter? Three times he denied the Lord Jesus because he was afraid, terrified that he too would be hustled in to stand before the High Priest, only to end up on a cross just as Jesus would.
What authority do I, what authority does Peter have to speak on this subject? Shouldn’t we rather be listening to the voice of that family in Northern Iraq, to the voice of the martyrs, as it were? We should. Indeed, how can we not? But of course we should also listen to the Apostle Peter—not just because he speaks with the authority of the Holy Spirit, and not even because tradition has it that he too would eventually suffer a horrific fate—but because in this marvellous letter he gives us the antidote to fear. And it’s an antidote that this once terrified follower of Jesus came to discover with great power and conviction.
See, when Peter writes, ‘do not fear’, I don’t think he’s saying, ‘be masochists’, urging some reckless disregard of our bodies or our welfare. Fear is a complex thing. As the great Puritan John Flavel realised, there is such a thing as perfectly natural fear. It’s natural to fear some approaching evil or danger. Fear might always be the consequence of sin in a fallen and broken world, but the fear itself need not be sinful. It’s natural to fear the ravages of disease and bodily decay, because death itself is not natural; it’s a curse.
But there is a kind of fear that is sinful and specifically unbecoming to the Christian. What does it look like? At its heart, I think it’s the kind of thing that blows up something finite and creaturely so that it ends up being bigger than God. It could be our bodies. It could be another person. It could be Nero. It could be the Taliban. It’s the kind of fear that so over-inflates the power and significance of these things that it leads us to water-down or compromise our profession, to take moral short cuts, to lash out in vengeance, or to take an easier route of assimilation in order to minimise any threat.
I think that’s the kind of fear Peter urges his readers to renounce. But, as I say, he is able to press this upon them without any trace of glibness or naivety because he knows the antidote: ‘“Do not fear their threats; to not be frightened”’, he writes, ‘But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord’ (3.14-5).
But on what basis are we to ‘revere’ or ‘set apart’ Christ as Lord? In this very passage, he underlines it in what must surely be one of the most infamously difficult but wonderfully reassuring sections of the New Testament:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him (1 Pet 3.18-22).
This passage has caused such difficulty for bible readers that even Martin Luther famously remarked that he had no idea what it means! But its basic point is surely crystal clear. And it’s wonderful. In ascending to heaven, Peter says, Jesus has issued a death sentence to anything that would rival his universal, cosmic rule. Whatever its foreboding artillery or celestial influence, ‘it’s over’, Peter says. Why? Because Jesus has risen and ascended on high.
And he brings up Noah. The story of Noah provides a particularly apt illustration for his tiny, suffering Christian audience scattered throughout modern day Turkey. Against all odds, Noah and those eight believed the word of God and heeded the warning of judgment. Because they climbed into that ark he had built there in the desert, the very water which crushed the world in a flood of judgment was no less than their salvation.
In effect, what Peter is saying, then, is that those who have climbed into the ark called ‘Jesus Christ’ by trusting him can be sure that what is literally a death sentence to an evil world—Jesus’ resurrection from the grave—is a guarantee of life and salvation and glory for those who belong to him.
In other words, to revere Christ Jesus as Lord is to live under his victory.
If I know that by taking my family to church one Sunday, I could well be risking my life and theirs—and yet I still do—at that moment, it’s pretty easy to tell that I’m living under the victory of the Lord Jesus.
But for whatever sacrifices you and I have made in the name of Christ, we all know that in our comfortable neck of the woods, it’s perfectly possible to be captive to something else—to the approval of others, to our own bodily pleasure or well-being—captive to something whose power and influence is over-inflated; captive to something that attempts to rival the power and influence of the risen and victorious Lord Jesus.
These things only blunt our witness and our voice. If our voice and witness is to speak anywhere near as powerfully and eloquently as that of our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world right now, we too need to be gripped by the same hope and live under the victory of Christ.
Mercifully, we may be spared from the kinds of courageous choices they are forced to make. But fuelled by the same hope, we too can have the courage to put aside our fears—our captivity to rival authorities, sentenced to death—and instead have the courage to love (3.8), to return evil with blessing (3.9), to do good (3.13), and to speak up for the hope that we have (3.15). Just maybe, then, ‘though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us’ (2.12).
Feature photo: UNHCR/ACNUR Américas