"The Life of
v.7 Strange as it may seem, "praise, glory, and honor" probably refer here not to the praise of God but to the praise of Christians, the honor and glory, that the Lord, the righteous judge, will bestow on those who have been faithful to him. The scene is the judgment day, when Jesus Christ is revealed. The scene is very similar to that of Matt. 25:31-33 when the Lord assembles all nations before him and separates the righteous from the unrighteous and sets the righteous on his right hand.
v.8 Think about it. There is something of great importance here. Peter, of course, as everyone who read this letter would have fully understood, had seen the Lord. He looked forward to the Lord's return in a different way because he had seen him depart the world with his own eyes. When he thought of Jesus Christ a face came to his mind, the remembrance of a voice, the recollection of countless scenes that Peter himself had been part of. But Peter is saying that that is not the really important thing. These Christians who had never seen the Lord do not come behind those who had seen the Lord, for what really matters and what brings a person to Christ and to heaven is not sight, but faith. What matters is not what you can see, but whom you love!
We began the consideration of this paragraph last Lord's Day morning by noticing, in vv. 3-6, the two sides of our salvation: the glorious transformation of life, already begun in this world and stretching away into an eternal future, on the one hand, and, on the other, the griefs and trials of this world through which believers must still pass. We considered that two-sidedness as an objective feature of our faith and our experience as Christians. But there is also in these verses, and especially in vv. 6-9, an emphasis on the more subjective element. That is, in vv. 3-6 we read of the great salvation itself and the accompanying trials. This is the way it is, as a matter of fact. But, there is also here a focus on the experience of this two-sided reality, how believers experience this great renewal in the midst of trial. And the accent falls on joy.
We have it already at the beginning of v. 6: "In this you greatly rejoice..." And then we have it again, as a climax, in v. 8. The argument is not hard to follow.
Not only do afflictions and trials come and with them grief for believers, but, Peter writes in v. 7, they have a specific purpose, the testing of faith. The genuine element in faith is disclosed by a process akin to metal refining in which heat is used to separate the pure and valuable metal from the dross and slag. The Bible often compares the way God disciplines men to the refining of precious metals. And, since faith is even more precious than gold -- for gold will perish with this world while faith will endure forever -- the result of these trials is, therefore, the assurance of salvation. That is where the joy comes from, because the trials make clearer and clearer that you are saved, or, as he puts it in v. 9, that you are receiving the salvation of your souls.
That is, what happens to a Christian under trial, the way in which his faith asserts itself, the way in which the Lord draws near to her, all goes to prove that that great transformation really has taken place; the pure gold is seen in the midst of the ore. You could never know that so surely if life were always calm and serene and happy. You have to have pressure applied to it to know whether your faith is real. Lots of folk think themselves Christians, imagine themselves Christians who are not. The Bible says that all the time and warns us of a superficial commitment. Do men and women have a genuine relationship with Christ? That is the question. And trials come to demonstrate whether they do or not. (Paul says something similar in 1 Cor. 11:19. The trials in the Corinthian church have come, at least in part, "to show which of you have God's approval.") And Peter, writing to true Christians, as he presumes to be doing, speaks of these trials as confirming or proving the genuineness of their faith.
And that is wonderful, because it means that they have a part in the glorious future of the people of God. In v. 8 we read "even though you do not see him now..." There is an implied contrast. "You will see him then! That is why they rejoice and even rejoice in the midst of sharp trials. They know they are saved and are going to be with Christ forever!
Now, this is all highly interesting and important. For here is where our faith becomes most immediately relevant to us and, at the same time, most problematic. It is not the objectivities -- trinity, creation, fall, atonement, salvation, the last judgment -- concerning which most Christians stumble. It is not here that the problems come primarily. At least they don't seem to. It is on the subjective side. It is our feelings, our convictions, our inner states. Christianity would be a much simpler thing if what was true "out there" was also just as true "in here," if our emotional states and our inner convictions and our experience of life always conformed to our beliefs and doctrines.
But here Peter speaks as if they did. He speaks of their glorious and inexpressible joy in this salvation that God has bestowed upon them. And naturally, we wonder about that. Surely those folk in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia were ordinary people with ordinary lives and so ordinary problems. There were folk among them who were poor, folk who were unhappy in love, folk who were alienated from their families -- perhaps precisely because they were Christians --, folk whose health was poor, folk who were inclined to melancholy and who struggled with depression, folk who were lonely. Yet Peter speaks as if all of them were "filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy." Were they? Had we visited those churches, would we have found a very different situation than what one finds in the church today? Would we have found a universal exuberance, a kind of revival gaiety, a perpetual spiritual merriment, a spirit of exhilaration? Were these Christians just brim full of joy every day all day?
No, you can't read First Peter and believe that! Peter has already spoken of their griefs and trials. And he will say a great deal more about such things before he is through.
And, yet, he speaks of their glorious and inexpressible joy. We want to know what this means! We want to live in joy. Everyone does. But, the Scripture teaches Christians to believe it is their special inheritance to live in joy.
As one writer has put it:
"It is astonishing, and certainly does not need to be verified by quotations, how many references there are in the Old and New Testaments to delight, joy, bliss, exultation, merry-making and rejoicing, and how emphatically these are demanded from the Book of Psalms to the Epistle to the Philippians." [Barth, CD, vol. 4, 375]
When the 17th century Puritan pastor, Nathaniel Ward, bought a home in Ipswich from another Puritan, he found engraved on the mantel three words that the former owner apparently considered the sum of the Christian way of life: "sobriety," "justice," and "piety." Ward hired a craftsman to add a fourth: "laughter." Does not Paul say, in Rom. 14:17, that the kingdom of God is a matter of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit? "Rejoice in the Lord, always, and again I say, rejoice."
Oh, yes, we know that joy is to be a part of the Christian life and experience. But how can Peter speak of joy in such extravagant terms as if it were always and everywhere the Christian's possession and experience? We understand how Christians can experience moments of very intense joy. We see David dancing before the ark of the Lord and we understand that. We have felt that way ourselves from time to time. And we hear John Bunyan speak of once, before he was a Christian, listening in on a conversation of some Christian women in Bedford, sitting on a stoop in the morning sun, talking of Christ and salvation, and speaking, he said, "as if joy did make them speak." And we can understand that. We have had moments like that! But, the exhilaration of a moment of luminous insight into the glory and love of God, or the first discovery of those things, is one thing. To be filled with joy as a condition of life, that is another.
What does Peter mean? This is, I think, a most important question. And the answer to it lies, I believe, in the two adjectives that Peter employs to describe this joy that the Christians have: "inexpressible and glorious."
I. To speak of it as an "inexpressible" or "unspeakable" joy is to say that it is mysterious, there is something about this joy that is difficult to explain and describe, that defies outward expectations.
Here begins the distinctively Christian doctrine and experience of joy. There is something about Christian joy which is distinctly mysterious and, even, confusing, especially to those who have not experienced it. For example, in the Bible you find joy mixed with other inner states that, at first glance, would seem to be destructive of joy. The women who visited the tomb that first resurrection Sunday and found it empty, left the garden "afraid yet filled with joy." Paul describes the Christian experience in general in 2 Cor. 6 as that of someone who is "sorrowful but always rejoicing." We wonder how you can be afraid and sorrowing and yet be full of joy, and yet it is possible in the case of Christians.
Clearly, then, Peter is not talking about a natural gaiety nor even about actual merriment or hilarity, such as we see when folk are laughing together over a good joke or when they are exuberantly pleased and show it in their rejoicing over something good that has happened to them or to someone they love, that kind of joy does not go with fear and sorrow. This is not the joy of a crowd whose team just won a game, nor even quite the joy of a mother who holds her new baby in her arms. One could not call that joy inexpressible, however wonderful it may be. The joy Peter is speaking about is something deeper, more fundamental, more structural. It is a joy that lies deep in the heart as something permanent, something that creates effects in the life that can be seen on the surface from time to time, but which itself lies hidden in the core of one's self-consciousness, even some of it below the level of self-consciousness, down at the place where God is at work on the new creation, down in the heart that he changes and out of which flow the issues of life.
C.S. Lewis used to speak a great deal about joy you remember. He entitled his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy. But by "joy" he did not mean "merriment" in the ordinary sense of the word. He meant that ineffable experience that one has in the encounter with something that is truly beautiful, an experience that transforms the life, alters its horizons, changes its standards, creates longings, opens up new and glorious possibilities that were unknown before. There is now this glorious longing, this hunger, but it is hunger and longing for what one now knows does exist.
Lewis tells of his first memory of this "joy" when his nursery door opened and his brother, Warnie, brought in "the lid of a biscuit tin which he had covered with moss and garnished with twigs and flowers so as to make it a toy garden or a toy forest -- that was the first beauty I ever knew... As long as I live my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother's toy garden." [Surprised by Joy, 7]
But that joy of which Lewis spoke is just the beginning of what Christians know, whether they think about it in just that way or not. Lewis himself would find that there is in Christ a joy far deeper, far more wonderful, far more solid, far more pure than what he had found in the world. But, in a way, it is the same kind of joy -- a sense of goodness, and purity, and love deep in the heart, that transforms our outlook on life and the world, a joy that is, as the Scripture says, indestructible because it is founded in the deepest and surest reality and not on the shifting tides of worldly experience. This joy is a fixed point deep in the soul, impervious even to the sorrows and trials of life. We may have to strive and struggle, we may have to shed bitter tears for all that happens in the world -- even our Savior himself had to do so -- but always there was this "joy before him" -- even in Gethsemane, even at the cross, there was this joy before him and beneath him -- and always there is this joy for his people too.
I cannot fully explain it. That is why Peter calls it "inexpressible," but Christians know of what I speak! Their feet are on a rock -- even when the gales are blowing they feel that solid rock under their feet -- and they know, because they have seen it, the beauty of the Lord. It beckons them!
II. Then, to speak of this joy as "glorious" is to say that it is a theological joy, a joy founded upon the realities of the living God, the God of glory, and his love for sinners, upon the promises of the gospel and the hope of everlasting life.
G.K. Chesterton was saying this in a different way when he wrote that "For the Christian joy is the central thing in life, sorrow is peripheral." That is, the great questions of life have been answered and answered wonderfully, certainly, and delightfully. The future is sure and happy beyond words.
John Newton made the same point in verse in one of his hymns.
A bleeding Saviour, seen by faith,
To take a glimpse within the veil,
These are the joys which satisfy,
It is because Christian joy is rooted in such ultimate, powerful things, because, by definition, no present sorrow is at all equal to this joy, founded as it is in the knowledge of God himself and the certain hope of everlasting life in the world of joy, that it is not and cannot be nullified or even finally silenced by the shocks and griefs of this life.
Many of us have now lived long enough to discover this amazing and wonderful fact. I cannot describe this to you exactly either, but it is that wonderful warmth that the Christian feels on his back when in the midst of a terrible storm he discovers the glory of God is still shining on him. I found this true in the sadness of my sister's death almost two years ago. Such an appalling loss for everyone who loved her, her family especially, such a genuine tragedy in human terms to die so young with so much left undone. And yet, there it was -- the joy, capital "J," the glorious, beautiful knowledge of God and heaven, of the gospel and Jesus Christ, of eternity stretching away before us where all of the present sorrow would be forgotten. This joy does not hold back the tears, it does not deaden the pain -- it transforms them rather into a sorrow and a grief that is pure and does no harm, that can be experienced without guilt and without despair.
How often Christians through the ages have commented on this fact -- this glorious joy that steadies Christians and restores their balance even in the darkest and heaviest of times.
You perhaps remember the immortal scene in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (Part II), following the despoiling of Doubting Castle and the killing of Giant Despair. Mr. Ready-to-Halt danced with Miss Much-afraid in the road. "True," Bunyan says, "he could not dance without one crutch in his hand; but I promise you, he footed it well!" Joy and weakness, joy and pain, joy and troubles, joy and sorrow. And now I have my own sister's testimony to add to so many others I have read of this joy that rests just below the surface and supports the believer in his or her hour of greatest trial.
And it all so because our joy is a "glorious" joy, a joy that is rooted in God himself and our knowledge of him, in God's great promises, in Christ's salvation, and in the hope of everlasting life. Or as Bishop Ryle put it, it is a joy rooted in the Christian's ability, his or her freedom, to face the facts, all the facts, square in the face.
"The true Christian is the only happy man because he can sit down quietly and think about his soul. He can look behind him... [think of how unhinged so many people are because of their past] He can think calmly about things to come, and yet not be afraid. Sickness is painful; death is solemn; the Judgment Day is an awful thing: but having Christ for him, he has nothing to fear. He can think calmly about the Holy God, whose eyes are on all this ways, and feel 'He is my Father -- I am weak, I am unprofitable; yet in Christ he regards me as His dear child, and is well pleased.' Oh what a ... privilege it is to be able to think and not be afraid."
That is what a glorious joy is. It partakes of, it takes its nature from the God of glory and from a glorious salvation. With these things let the world do its worst! If God be for us, who can be against us?
But, then, let's take Peter's point. Such a joy as this -- which is, of course, what every human being craves because it is what every human being was made for; we all have the capacity for it -- (how sad, how unspeakable sad and tragic then, that so many who could experience this joy do not and never will!) -- cannot be found in any other place, cannot be obtained in any other way, than through faith in Christ and participation in the salvation he gives to those who trust in him. There is no other way onto that road that stretches away into the future and leads to the City of God where you shall see things that will still be taking your breath away ten thousand thousand years from now.
C.S. Lewis, who knew a great deal about this inexpressible and glorious joy and who thought about it more than most men do, saw this very clearly.
"There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made. Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire; if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy... you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has it. It is not a sort of prize which God could, if he chose, just hand out to anyone. [It is] a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very center of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you; if you are not, you will remain dry." [Mere Christianity, 153]
That is just another, beautiful, way of saying what Peter says to his readers and to us: "even though you don't see him now -- that is Jesus Christ who is coming again -- you believe in him and are -- consequently -- filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy. In every Christian life, this joy will, now and then, -- Oh! that it were more often -- bubble to the surface and bring us moments of ecstasy, but, much more important than that, is the fact that through thick and thin, come wind, come weather, that joy is always there. How right of Peter to say, "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for such a gift, such a salvation!"