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April 4/5, 2015

Indestructible Joy

Jason Meyer | 1 Peter 1:3-9

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.—1 Peter 1:3–9


Gandalf’s Great Joy in Great Trials

You don’t have to look very hard to see painful, even fearful, circumstances. Some of you just have to look at what is happening in our world in the news. Just this Thursday, Islamic extremists claiming to be part of Al-Shabaab murdered 147 students at a university in Kenya. It was clear that they were targeting Christians. Some of you do not have to look further than your family and friends. How many of you know of people for whom tragedy has struck? Some don’t even need to look beyond their own body. Perhaps there are health problems. Some of them are nagging, like trying to get your blood pressure or your blood sugar to behave. Some health problems have scary labels, and they are like a dark cloud that hangs there over the forecast of your life. I just had a physical this week, and even though my health is good, I was struck by how many boxes there are to fill out—the sheer range of health problems and symptoms struck me. All the check boxes reminded me of how much can go wrong and how fragile we are.

Some of you have problems that feel paralyzing. Some of you are facing situations that you cannot change. You feel like hope took a nosedive into the dirt. Some of you have addictions that you cannot shake. Some of you have slipped into despair and depression and feel like you are hanging on by a thread. Dear friends, we are a fragile people.

How shall we respond to life’s problems? I want to tell you a story. I am going to read you a paragraph from my one of my favorite books, The Lord of the Rings. The story of the Return of the King has taken a dark turn. Matthew Dickerson sets up the paragraph well.

The Fellowship is fractured. Boromir is dead. Aragorn, with Legolas and Gimli, has gone against hope into the Paths of the Dead. Frodo has been bitten by Shelob and captured by Orcs and sits alone as a prisoner in a tower in Cirith Ungol. Sam is alone at the very gates of Mordor. Merry has been left alone with Theoden. Gandalf and Pippin have gone ahead to Minas Tirith, where Gandalf is beginning to see evidence of Denethor’s fall into despair. Gondor is expecting a siege, and none are sure whether any help will arrive from Rohan or from the south. The Nazgul have taken to the air on deadly steeds. Faramir has not yet returned to his home city. And the morning that has no dawn is fast approaching. In short, the world is full of evil tidings, and hope has waned to its lowest point. It is, as Gandalf tells Denethor, a “dark hour” (ROTK, p. 26). Yet as Pippin and Gandalf return from their first meeting with Denethor, the young Hobbit notices something interesting in the wizard.—Matthew Dickerson, Following Gandalf, p. 11

Pippin glanced in some wonder at the face now close beside his own, for the sound of that laugh had been gay and merry. Yet in the wizard’s face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that under all there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth.—Tolkien, Return of the King, p. 31

Gandalf has an awareness of living in two worlds: a world that can bee seen with physical eyes and a world that cannot be seen by physical eyes. Gandalf is one of the characters in the book who can see the unseen. And what he sees gives him great joy—a fountain of joy that could spill over and fill a kingdom with laughter. 

Now you may hear that story and admit that it is a cheerful and slightly inspirational thought, but you may feel like it doesn’t offer any real help when the rubber meets the road of real life. It is fiction, after all. It may seem like responding to great trials with great joy is not a real response—it is just fictional. But the Bible tells us that Gandalf’s story is our story—it is not fictional at all. Our passage says that the various trials of life cannot kill Christian joy. Instead, Christians have a three–part testimony in trials: We find that grief is real, faith is real, and Jesus is real.

Even though trials hurt, they cannot hurt our faith, joy, or hope in Christ. Why? Through fiery trials we rejoice to find that Jesus is really alive and with us in the fire.

1. The Grief is Real (v. 6)

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials,

Notice two things about this verse. First, Peter says that suffering not only happens, it hurts. Do you see that? Look at the end of verse 6: “you have been grieved by various trials.” They have not only experienced many different kinds of trials—they have been grieved by them. Grieved is not a fancy theological word for a super spiritual kind of suffering. I will give you a profound three-word definition for grieved: “Ow, that hurts.” Grief is real, and its sting is real. It happens for real, and it hurts for real.

Some people are surprised that Christians suffer because they believe that God should spare his children from suffering. But he doesn’t. We are not exempt. Others know suffering happens to both Christians and non-Christians, but they are a little surprised by how much it hurts. We are not immune to the pain.

Shouldn’t knowing God take the edge off the pain? Don’t God’s presence and love keep it from hurting as much? This is a funny thought, like thinking that when Christians go to the doctor to get a shot, it will not hurt. As if the doctor would say, “This will sting a little. It doesn’t? Oh, you must be a Christian.”

God does not give a special immunity to Christians so that they do not feel the sting of suffering. It hurts everyone—Christians included. So here is my plea: please don’t pretend suffering doesn’t hurt as if we are supposed to be compliant and numb—that’s just dumb. 

Second, Peter says something that may turn your world upside down. Rather than looking at the pain in their life, shaking their fist at God and saying, “I don’t need this,” Christians look at the pain in their life and say, “This hurts, but I need this.” Most people think that suffering is something to escape, but Peter says suffering is something to embrace. This doesn’t mean that we romanticize suffering—it still stings—but it does mean that we embrace suffering as something necessary, something we need. Non-Christians often say that suffering is a good reason to give up on faith, lose heart, and lose hope. They often ask how we can believe in a good God when there is pain in this world. They believe that the presence of pain proves that God cannot exist. If he does exist and pain is in the world, then he must not be good and should not be praised.

Christians say something radically different: Even though suffering hurts us, it cannot hurt our faith. In fact, it has the opposite effect. That is the second part of our testimony. 

2. Our Faith is Real (v. 7)

so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Peter is answering why various trials are necessary for our faith. Did you see the “so that” of verse 7? He is showing us that the pain has a point. Pain may hurt us, but it cannot hurt our faith. In fact, it does not harm faith; it purifies faith. In God’s strange design, he uses pain to prove and purify faith. Peter uses the imagery of refining or purifying. Faith is like a precious metal that has impurities or dross. How do you get rid of the dross and get pure gold? Fire. The fire destroys the dross, not the gold. The fire proves whether something is genuine or fake. True gold does not need to fear the fire. The fire can only make gold purer and shine brighter.

So what does tested genuineness mean? It means that something is real and not fake. It has passed the test of genuineness and has been proven to be the real deal, not a cheap knockoff. There are two types of faith: genuine faith and counterfeit faith. This counterfeit faith is a cheap imitation of genuine faith. Counterfeit faith claims to believe in God, but only as long as it doesn’t cost anything. If everything goes our way and God gives us bright, happy days, then faith is fine. It is fair-weather faith. It is like we are fair-weather fans. We are on board when everything is going well, but when the road gets bumpy and jarring, we jump off the God bandwagon. Real faith is not fickle. It does not crop up a couple of times a year—like at Christmas and Easter—and say, “Look, I have faith.” 

Pain certainly comes around more than twice a year. What does faith say when it comes knocking? Faith rejoices not in pain, but in what pain produces. For example, when the emperor moth comes out of the cocoon, it is a thing of beauty. But coming out of the cocoon is not a beautiful process. The moth has a swollen body, and the opening is really a tight squeeze. There is a long struggle to squeeze through. Someone that doesn’t know any better may think it would be good to mercifully snip the cocoon open with a scissors to spare the moth from being so squeezed. But the squeeze is God’s way of taking the fluid from the swollen body and moving it to the wings. If the moth skips this painful process, the final product is a swollen body with tiny, useless wings.

In the same way, real faith that goes through the refiner’s fire has a happy ending: it will result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus returns. Jesus will be happy with the refining work he did.

What will Jesus say to false faith that did not go through the refiner’s fire? He will say, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” Depart where? False faith that does not go through the refiner’s fire will suffer the agonies of hell’s fire. If you see that the refiner’s fire is sparing you from hell’s fire, you will rejoice as you look to the future. That is why Peter calls the various trials a “fiery trial” in 4:12. Notice all the links with this passage.

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.—2 Corinthians 4:12–13

Our text is talking about rejoicing now, not just when Jesus comes. How can we rejoice now? In the fiery trial, we rejoice to find that Jesus is alive and with us in the fire.

3. Jesus is Real (vv. 8–9)

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

This is like in the book of Daniel where Daniel’s three friends (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) are cast into the fire because they will not worship anyone but God. The fire doesn’t destroy them, and they find someone else with them in the fire. That is the experience of every believer—it is hot and it hurts, but Jesus is alive and with us in the fire.

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.—1 Peter 1: 8–9

One of the charges against Christianity is that Christians believe in what can’t be seen with physical eyes (empirical data). “Where is Jesus?” these people ask, “If we can’t see him in our microscope or telescope, we won’t believe.” Peter says Christians don’t need to see Jesus to love him. We know he is there. This seems like nonsense to many people.

It is like when a little boy surrendered to Christ at a church service. His non-Christian friends were kind of taunting him about how silly it sounded. “You found Jesus, huh? Did you see him physically?” The kid said, “No,” and his friends asked, “Did you hear his audible voice?” “No.” “How do you know it was Jesus then?” He said, “I guess it was kind of like fishing. You know you have a fish on the line, even when you don’t see the fish or hear the fish. You know you have a fish because the fish tugs hard on the line. I felt Jesus tugging hard on my heart.”

How does this happen? It is a miracle. It is not natural for trials to strengthen faith and joy. The trials prove that something supernatural has happened to you when they don’t produce natural results. 

What supernatural thing has happened? “According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again” (v. 3). We bless him, even in trials, because we are born again. That is why the faith and joy found in this passage are not natural—they are supernatural.

What is the new birth? There are certain things that all humanity has in common because we all have experienced natural birth. It is natural to enjoy enjoyable circumstances. It is natural to keep believing in God’s goodness when all you see are good things in your life. That kind of joy or faith does not require a new birth. You don’t need a new heart. You don’t need the power of the Holy Spirit.

Before the new birth, things that can only be seen spiritually, like the beauty of Jesus, did not excite us. We had no spiritual taste buds to savor the taste of Christ’s glory and victory. Then God made us alive. It was like waking up from a deep sleep – a coming to life. The biggest change is who Jesus is to you. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy” (v.8).Everything about him has changed. Christ went from being boring to being beautiful. He is no longer a joke—he is your one true joy.

What kind of joy can you have in a Christ you can’t see? Peter uses two participles to describe this joy: “joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory (v. 8).”

If we were going to translate those two phrases about joy literally, this verse would say this: “rejoice with joy beyond words and having been glorified.” We rejoice with an inexpressible joy and a glorified joy. What is a glorified joy? Why is it beyond our words? Have you ever heard someone say they want to make it to glory? They are talking about heaven. A glorified joy is a foretaste of heavenly glory. When you connect it with verse 9, it means that we get a foretaste now of the fullness of our salvation that is coming. Faith doesn’t just bring your soul to heaven someday—it brings heaven to your soul today.

You must understand that the new birth is a spiritual resurrection. We move from being spiritually dead to being spiritually alive. Ephesians 2 spells it out. We were spiritually dead. We did not have spiritual life. But God had mercy. Because of the great love with which he loved us he made us alive. This is like Peter saying that he caused us to be born again. Then what happened? Can you imagine nothing changing? Paul says that we are spiritually raised up and seated with Christ in heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6). Did you think the Bible was exaggerating when it says that you are raised up with Christ in heavenly places while still being on earth? Do you see it now? This is why our joy does not depend upon earthly circumstances. It is not earthly joy but heavenly joy, a joy from glory.

Now you can see that counterfeit joy is entirely dependent upon enjoyable circumstances. Take the enjoyable circumstances away, and the joy goes away. Genuine faith has something deeper: a joy that does not depend upon circumstances. Take the enjoyable circumstances away and replace them with painful circumstances, and the joy does not go away.

Do you know why? Christian joy does not come from circumstances; it comes from Jesus. He is the only explanation. Because faith is a tasting and prizing of Christ, joy is what we have when Christ is present with us and in us by faith.


Living Hope Through the Resurrection

Now I want to let someone else tell you a story. What would an atheist story look like in terms of hope or joy? Gay Byrne interviewed atheist Stephen Fry on the meaning of life. As an atheist, he said God is not part of the equation. Byrne asked him what he would do if he was wrong and he had to stand before God. 

Stephen Fry answered that he would tell God, “Bone cancer in children, what is that about? How dare you. How dare you create a world in which there is such misery—that is not our fault. It is not right. It is utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain? The God who created the universe if he was good is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac, totally selfish—we have to spend our lives on our knees thanking him. What kind of god would do that? Yes, the world is very splendid, but it also has an insect whose whole life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind and eat outward from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that? You could have easily made a creation in which that did not exist. It is simply not acceptable. So atheism is not just about not believing that there is a god, but on the assumption that there is one—what kind of God is He? It is perfectly apparent. He is monstrous, utterly monstrous and deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish him your life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, and more worth living in my opinion.”

The atheist story of trials is simple. This life is all that there is. Life is one big accident, and we just end up getting recycled like everything else. If there is a god, they won’t go down without a fight. They say, “If there is a god, then it is all his fault.” But Stephen Fry does not even attempt to get the Christian story right. There are many things wrong with this answer, but let me just point out what I regard as the two most fatal mistakes.

First, Fry does a sleight of hand when he equates the corruption of creation with the original creation itself. If God created it corrupt, then it is God’s fault. But God did not make creation corrupted—he made it good. Bone cancer and eye-eating insects testify to the evil of sin—our evil, not God’s. This is cosmic blame shifting that forgets we are the cause of the corruption.

Second, Fry should not be amazed by the suffering of creation but by the suffering of the Creator. God suffered. The very symbol of Christianity says it loud and clear. We should not be asking, “Bone cancer in children, what is that about?” We should be asking, “You came to earth and took on flesh and suffered excruciating pain and death when it wasn’t your fault? What is that about?” Christ did it to make us right with God. 

You may ask, “Then why do I still suffer?” Christ suffered not to rescue us from earthly suffering but from eternal suffering. Our singular hope in suffering is our Savior’s suffering for us.

The resurrection highlights where this story is headed. God is going to make all things new. No more corruption or impurity or fading in the future world—our future inheritance there is “imperishable, undefiled, unfading” (v. 4). There is a single key that opens the heavenly door of our future hope. Go back a verse and you will see it: “living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (v. 3).

Do you see the link between his resurrection and ours? Resurrection Sunday for us means resurrection some day. It is coming. His resurrection guarantees ours. The resurrection of Jesus is the greatest victory in human history. It is the hinge of the whole story that tells where the rest of the story is heading. If you believe in your heart God raised Jesus from the dead, you will be saved. Hope lives or dies with Jesus. If he is alive, you have hope that cannot die. If he is still dead, then your hope is dead and buried.

So you see, suffering is not an embarrassment. It is a boast. God used suffering to bring good when Christ died on the cross, and he is still doing it today. All things work for good for those who love God. We are not just conquerors in suffering—we are more than conquerors. Don’t let the phrase “more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37) become a cliché. What does that mean?To understand the more, you have to start by subtracting it. What would it mean only to conquer these things? Let’s start by looking at the original question. 

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?—Romans 8:35

Therefore, conquering would mean that threats upon your life from physical harm, lack of food and clothes, or physical attack would not succeed in separating you from the love of Christ. They come up against you and threaten to separate you from Christ’s love, and they fail. You have conquered them. 

But what would it look like to be more than a mere conqueror? It means that God is so strong and so sovereign and so good that these things not only fail to separate us from God’s love, but they actually do the opposite. God has such command over them that they do not take us further from God’s love; they only draw us closer to him. When we lose everything, we find the one thing we can’t lose: his love. It becomes our only hope and joy, which can’t be taken or killed.

Here is our problem. We tend to let our circumstances define God’s love. The Bible tells us to let God’s love define our circumstances. Instead of judging how much God loves us by how well things are going, we must judge our circumstances by how much God loves us.

Dear friends, the tomb is empty, so our hope is full. He is raised on high, so we say,  “Let your name be lifted higher.” See yourself in his nail-scarred hand. His victory is beyond the reach of any weapon, any threat, or any sickness. 

Everyone can remember the taunt of a big bully that would take something from you and hold it over your head so that you could not reach it. Jesus is doing that over all of our enemies. He is saying, “Just try to touch my beloved. You can’t reach her. You can’t take her.” They can’t take our joy because they cannot even touch our victory. He is reigning on high. Look at him with the eyes of faith. Our living hope is that we are in the nail-scarred hands of our living Savior.


Sermon Discussion Questions

1. Grief is Real (v. 6)
2. Our Faith is Real (v. 7)
3. Jesus is Real (vv. 8–9)

Main Point: Through trials we rejoice to find that Jesus is really alive.

Discussion Questions
1. How do Christians and non-Christians experience trials? What do they have in common and how are they different?

  1. What is the difference between real faith and counterfeit faith as it relates to trials? How do trials prove the genuineness of faith?
  2. What does it mean to be “more than a conqueror” in trials? 

Application Questions
1. What objections to Christianity do you hear most frequently? Which objections are most difficult for you personally? How does the sermon help respond to some of them?

  1. What trials are you currently facing? Can you testify of an experience in which suffering strengthened your faith and drew you closer to God?
  2. Pray that God would sustain your living hope through Christ’s resurrection and that your faith and joy would be strengthened in trials. Pray that you would be able to let God’s love define your circumstances, rather than your circumstances define God’s love.