April 4, 2010
Wise coaches don’t take anything for granted; they know that it is critical for their teams to understand the basics. Jesus similarly focused His attention on teaching His disciples the key themes of His ministry. In this Easter Sunday message, Alistair Begg unpacks the lesson of undeserved forgiveness and the good news of new life that Jesus drove home to the apostle Peter.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn in your Bible to 1 Peter and chapter 1. If you would like to use one of the church Bibles, the reading is on page 857. Page 857. I commend that to you. You’ll find them around you in the pews. I’m always a little more comfortable if I know that people have their Bible out so that they can check to see whether what I’m saying is actually in the Bible. I don’t mean that in any flippant sense at all. If it’s not in the Bible, you shouldn’t pay attention to anything I have to say, really—certainly if it’s not helpful.
And incidentally, if Jesus Christ is not alive, then let’s all go out for pancakes. If he is alive, then let’s pay very careful attention to what the Bible has to say, because it is a matter of life and death. It certainly was for Peter, who died—they reckon crucified upside down at his own request—for his conviction concerning Jesus. And it is this Peter who writes to the scattered believers of his day. We’re going to read from 1 Peter 1:3 through to verse 9.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; … even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with … inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
A brief prayer as we look at this passage:
Make the Book live to me, O Lord.
Show me yourself within your Word.
Show me myself and show me my Savior,
And make the Book live to me.
For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Some years ago now, I had the privilege of meeting John Wooden. I didn’t realize what a privilege it was. It was on a golf course, and I didn’t know that he was a celebrated basketball player and then basketball coach. He was such a nice man that I began to investigate him and what made him tick and how things worked for him. And in the course of my investigation, I discovered that he was a man about the basics of things. Indeed, it is reported, and accurately so, that when he brought in a freshman class to UCLA and was dealing with them in their first practice session, the first talk that he gave was a talk on how to put on your socks properly. That is very basic. Vince Lombardi—or “Lom-bar-di,” I’m not sure how you pronounce it—began his preseason training always with the legendary line “This is a football.” You can’t get more basic than that.
And I want to take a leaf out of that book this morning. I want to be as basic as possible. Some of us are not as familiar with the Bible as we might think we are. Some of us think the Epistles were actually the wives of the apostles, and we’d be hard-pressed to come up with a number of the Commandments. But I’m not saying that to make you feel bad. It’s good just to be honest about things.
So let’s just be as basic as we can: this is a Bible. This is a Bible. That’s where we’re going to start. You have one in the pew. I suggested that you read it. We’re offering you a Bible because we believe that the Bible is God’s Word, that he speaks to us through it, that it is not just a compendium of legendary tales, but it is living and it is active. This Bible is a book about Jesus. It is a story that you will not find in any other ideology or religion anywhere in the world. It is the story of free forgiveness and of new life, granted to those who have done nothing to deserve it and who could never in three lifetimes achieve it.
And we’re going to discover that here Peter encapsulates for us, in just a matter of a few phrases, this good news. And I want to pay particular attention to what he says in verse 3 of the passage that we’ve read: God “in his great mercy … has given us new birth”—and here’s the phraseology—“into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” “A living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” If you want a title for this morning’s study, my title is this: “A Hope That Stands the Test of Time.” “A Hope That Stands the Test of Time.”
By the way, we should keep in mind that the Peter who is writing this is the same Peter who denied Jesus on the night that he was betrayed, when one of the servant maids in the high priest’s courtyard suggested to others around her that this man, this Peter, had actually been with Jesus. And Peter turned to her and said, “Woman, I don’t [even] know him.” And yet the Gospel writers tell us that Peter, within a matter of a short time—six weeks or so—was out on the Jerusalem streets with an entirely different message from what had been theirs on Good Friday.
Because, you see, for Peter and the rest of the disciples, the death of Jesus had meant the end of the road. They had begun to follow Jesus with all kind of hopes about his messiahship. They had things in their minds that were accurate, many that were inaccurate. But when they finally looked to find him taken into custody and then brutalized in the way he was, they all deserted him and fled. They all went and ran away, and understandably so. Because all of their hopes had collapsed. All of their dreams had faltered. And they had a beginning to their story, but they had no end to it. And so, if we had encountered them in Jerusalem, we would have been hard-pressed to find them, but they would have been sequestered away for fear that what had been done to Jesus might be done to them.
And yet, within six weeks or so, Peter is on the streets of Jerusalem, speaking for the rest of his colleagues and making this great declaration: “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.” He doesn’t get on the streets of Jerusalem and say, “Jesus is dead, but he said a lot of good things, and he did a lot of good things. And so we have collected the best of what he said he did, and we’ve determined that we will hold on to these tenets of the Nazarene carpenter, and we’re going to try and introduce them to the world.” No! No, they wouldn’t have been interested in that for a moment. No, what he has to say is something far more dramatic: “Jesus is risen from the dead, and we’re the witnesses.”
Now, the skeptic will not be convinced by this. This fact, this affirmation, is not enough to convince the skeptic of the fact of the resurrection. But it ought to give the earnest and honest seeker pause—that is, pause with an a-u, not an a-w. It ought to give them pause to think, “What shall I do with these claims of Jesus?” Because when we read, we discover that the Peter who was devastated on Good Friday was very quickly reinstated when Jesus met with him on the beach in a memorable meeting around breakfast time. And as a result of that reinstatement, in which he was entrusted with the responsibility of feeding the followers of Jesus, Peter writes this first letter and then, again, a second letter.
Now, in writing this letter, what he’s doing—and you will discover this to be true if you read it for yourself—he’s writing to the followers of Jesus; he’s not writing to people to try and convince them to be followers, but he’s writing to the followers of Jesus to encourage them to live for Christ, to declare him as the risen Lord despite opposition and despite persecution. In other words, he’s not writing to a group of people who are enjoying the privileges we enjoy this morning. It is a different place, it is a different time, and it is clearly a different context.
These people’s lives were in jeopardy. They lived on the very knife-edge of things, because many of them had turned their backs on the formal religion of their upbringing, they were challenging the religious and political authorities of the day, and so Peter writes to them, and he says, “Now, I want you to understand: these things are true of a Christian, and they will help you in what you’re facing.” In fact, he anticipates that they will get ahold of this to such an extent that there will be occasions when people will actually ask them to give them a reason for the “hope” that they have—that they will be so defined by being engaged with a hope that stands the test of time that those who don’t have that hope, who might wonder at it, will come and ask them about it.
Now, that’s perfectly understandable in the first century and, indeed, in every century. Because nobody can live without hope. As soon as hope goes, our bodies and our minds shut down. Psychiatrists deal with this all the time. When hope is finally removed with a cancer diagnosis, it is amazing how quickly someone may slip away. As long as hope remains, you may find that we fight on and that we engage for as long as possible. It is hope about the future that helps us often to do a good job at work. And when hope fades, we find that all we can do is the best we can for as long as we can. And without hope, a deep, dark shadow falls over every enterprise, every achievement, every enjoyment.
We understand this. That’s why politicians often speak about hope. That’s why our president was elected under the banner of hope and change: because he tapped into the human psyche. And he knew what we know: that everybody longs for hope, and everybody enjoys a change if it’s for the better. He actually was taking a leaf out of Jesse Jackson’s book. And if you remember in the last decade or beyond, maybe you had this in your home, but we had a Jesse Jackson slogan that rang around our kitchen table with great frequency. When one of the children was a little despondent, or when they were facing a challenge that was before them as they were taking a test at school, or whatever it might be, my son used to say, “Keep hope alive!” “Keep hope alive!” And he was just simply speaking out that the human psyche longs for a reason to exist, to be. And even in the hardest of circumstances, as long as there is hope, it is radically different. Somebody can live in squalor with hope, but they cannot live in a castle without hope.
Now, Peter is not here referring to fond hopes that may or may not be realized. When we think in terms of hope, many of us think immediately that we’re talking about that which by very definition is uncertain: “I hope it won’t rain tomorrow,” “I hope the stock market will recover,” “I hope that I will make it to my retirement,” and so on. That is not what he’s referring to. What he’s referring to—Christian hope, the hope that is here in the New Testament—is not the hope which clings to a mere possibility, but it is a hope, a joyful, confident expectation, in the fulfillment of the promises of God. It is, if you like, entering into a reality that is based on that which is verifiable, which produces a change in the present and helps us to look to the future.
Now, essentially, I want you to notice those three elements: past, present, and future.
First of all, to notice that the hope of which Peter speaks here, a hope that stands the test of time, is one that is anchored in the past. I chose my verb purposefully: anchored in the past. It is not swinging in the breeze. It is not flimsy. It is not subjective. It is not a hope that is clutched out of the air so that we psych ourselves up to something. No, the hope of which he speaks, you will notice, is anchored in the past.
Verse 3: “In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope.” So there are two foundational elements to the hope of which he writes and the reality of hope in the Christian life: one, the mercy or the grace of God, which has nothing to do with our achievements or attainments; and two, the reality, the historicity, the anchor-based conviction that Jesus Christ is alive.
If you are a Christian today, then you have been removed from the realm of hopelessness. That is one of the distinguishing features of a Christian. When Paul writes about it to the Ephesians, he says, “You were once without God and without hope in the world. That’s what you were.” He says, “But now, since you are in Christ, you live in the realm of those who are filled with hope.”
The Christian—a genuine Christian—is not someone who has decided just to be a little bit better. There are a lot of people who are a lot better, and some of them are a lot better a lot of the time than those who are genuine Christians! That’s always a little worrying, but it’s a fact. I know a lot of really, really nice people who are better than me a lot of the time. “Well,” you say, “then what is your Christianity?” Well, it is founded in grace and in mercy. If you had to be a better person in order to be accepted, then some of my friends would have been accepted long before me. But it’s when you’re a stinker that you’re accepted on the basis of God’s grace.
You see, many people think if there is a God and he’s paying attention to anything at all, then if he is a good God, then he will reward nice people for doing their best. But that’s not what Peter is saying here. No, he’s saying that this living hope is found not in the person who has decided to become better, or the immoral person who’s decided to turn over a new leaf, or the person who’s been largely secular getting into “spirituality.” All of that may be done by human endeavor. But this cannot be done by human endeavor. What he’s describing here is something that is done by God in us, not done by us for God.
And he speaks of it as a birth. And it is a birth that takes place on the basis of what Jesus has done. The hope is found in the death of Jesus. So, as we sang, “I stand in Christ, with sins forgiven; and Christ in me, the hope of heaven!” That’s what he’s saying: that it is because of what has happened in that which we commemorate on Good Friday and what has been achieved in the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday that the Christian has a living hope, because their confidence is placed there.
It is a “living hope” because Jesus is alive. And a Christian is someone who has been united with Jesus, both in his death for sin and in his resurrection. And because Jesus is alive, therefore, I am alive. The Christian is not the person that he or she once was. That is something that many of us have a difficult time getting our heads around, because we’ve tended to think that a Christian experience is something that we adopt—we get up one morning and decide, “I think I ought to do this, you know. I think I ought to be a better person, more moral, get church into my life. After all, you know, it’s Easter Sunday. This is as good a time to start as any.” And it’s a wonderful desire, but it will not bring about the change. You can no more make yourself a Christian than you could make yourself alive.
When you were born, were you surprised? “Oh,” you say, “I don’t remember.” I can guarantee you were surprised. When they gave you the old pow and you did the “Wow!”—now you entered a world that you never knew. You had people looking at you that spoke a language that you didn’t understand. You entered into an entirely new sphere. And that was something that came about as a result of the agencies entirely beyond ourselves and over which we had no control. Isn’t it interesting that that’s the very terminology that Jesus uses with the religious man Nicodemus and Peter picks up here to describe a genuine Christian? You have been born anew! A transformation has been taking place inside of you that is not engendered by you but is as a result of the regeneration which God granted you on account of his mercy and guaranteed in his resurrection.
In England, they make some funny assignments—I mean the UK—they make funny assignments for homework. And one teacher set the class the responsibility of going away to discover where they had come from. And so the boy had gone home from school and asked his grandpa where his mother came from and how she emerged. And the grandfather, not wanting to really get into things, said that a stork had come and brought her and left her in the family room. And so the boy said, “Okay, fair enough.” He went to his mum, and he asked his mum, “Where did I come from?” and she gave him the stork story as well. And he went to an older brother, who was married, and they had a little one, and he said, “Where’d the little one come from?” and they said, “Yeah, it was a stork brought it to our family room.” So he wrote his paper and took it back, and the teacher read it, and it said, “I went home, and I conducted my investigation, and I’m forced to conclude that there hasn’t been a natural birth in our family for four generations.”
And some people are attending church with great zeal, but there’s been no birth, no regeneration—the hanging on of Christmas ornaments that look Christian, but no life in the inside. There’s no living hope in that. There’s no living hope in that! That will not stand the test of time. That will not face the beckoning grave. No, the only way that we’re ever put right to anticipate that, put right with God, is as a result of his mercy and in the power of his resurrection. It is anchored in the past.
Also, it is a hope that is active in the present. It’s not something that’s locked away in the past, like an heirloom or something. No, it’s active in the present. And that’s, of course, what we need, isn’t it? Because we’re living in the present, and life throws at us all kinds of things. Sometimes we feel as though we’re treading water, sometimes as though we feel we’ve been put in a miry pit.
Is there a hope that comes and meets us in the pit? Yes! This living hope. Is there a hope that comes to us when we just need strength for another day, when we find ourselves saying, “If I can just make it through today, that’ll be fantastic”? Is there a hope that gives strength for every passing day? Yes, there is. Is there a hope that comes and speaks to us when doubts arise and niggle at us and assail us and say, “Do you really believe that Jesus is alive? Do you really believe that he has conquered death?” Is there a hope that can deal with that? Yes, there is. Is there a hope that lifts our eyes up beyond ourselves? Absolutely.
Last Labor Day weekend, I was in San Francisco—or the San Francisco region, the Palo Alto region—and I was speaking at a conference, and at the conference, a lady came up to me after I had said something. I don’t remember what I was speaking about, but she came up, and she said, “Alistair, I have an illustration for you.” I said, “Good. I’d cross the burning desert in my bare feet for a good illustration. Shoot!” And so she gave it to me; I wrote it down and filed it away. I assumed there would be a moment when it would be useful, and now is the moment. And here it is. Is this a hope that may be active in the present? Yes.
The lady told me that she had a friend that she was visiting in hospital, a gentleman who had been hospitalized, suffering from brain cancer. He was impaired deeply by it, and the treatments that he was receiving were phenomenally daunting. But his trust and his hope in Christ was such that it was striking to those who were caring for him. And one of the nurses in duty, seeing this man, wrote in his chart as a critical comment—as a critical comment—“Mr. X this morning is inappropriately joyful.” He is “inappropriately joyful.” What a wonderful testimony! Because the secular mind looks at that and says, “There is no possibility of joy. You’re dying, Mr. X. What do you mean, you’ve had a good night? What do you mean, it is a fine day? What do you mean?” Well, you see, he has a hope that stands the test of time. He has been born again to a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Mr. X is not a moralist. Mr. X is not a religionist. Mr. X is not a self-help guru. Mr. X is a Christian!
A hope that is anchored in the past, a hope that is active in the present, and finally, a hope that anticipates the future. A hope that anticipates the future. Because we need to deal with our future, don’t we? What hope, now that my savings are gone? What hope, now that my house is devalued? What hope, now that I owe this, I owe that? What am I going to do now? Is there any hope for the future?
Well, yes; I’m going to point it out to you. But let me just say this: this is a hope that out-hopes even our best hopes. In other words, I’m not going to let you off the hook—those of you who are skeptics—by suddenly saying, “Aha! I’ve got it now. This is for the people who are deadbeats. They have lost out, they’re feeling a little miserable, they’re looking for a crutch, and so on. And I’m not that person. My portfolio is fine, my husband’s waistline is average—and gravity has not completely collapsed his chest into his drawers—my children are relatively respectable, and so on. Therefore, thank you for the hope thing about the future, but just so you know, I’ve got it covered.”
Listen to C. S. Lewis: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in the world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. … Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy … but only to arouse [the longing for satisfaction].” So that helps me to understand the longings in the human heart when we first fall in love; or the longings in the human heart when you’re in Barnes & Noble or Borders, and you’re reading the travel magazines, and you say, “I’d like to go to that place”; or the longings in our hearts when we matriculate into a master’s program in a fine university like Case. All of those longings are no longer longings which our marriage or our travel or our learning can satisfy—and even in the best of cases, so that with a great wife, with super travel, with a terrific job, that man or that woman will also, if honest in their heart of hearts, have to admit, “I do not have a hope that stands the test of time.”
And you’ll notice here that it is “an inheritance.” And you don’t earn an inheritance. It is, again, on account of God’s grace and mercy. It’s safely deposited, it’s guaranteed, because ultimately, our inheritance is Jesus himself. That, incidentally, explains Philippians 1, doesn’t it? “To me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Bernard of Clairvaux, in the twelfth century, put it in a poem: “Jesus, our only joy be thou, as thou our prize [will] be.” “Be my joy now so that you may be my prize then.” He will never be our prize then if he’s not our joy now. If it is not active in the present, there is no anticipation for the future. That’s why people listen to me talk, and they go, “I don’t get this at all.” No, you won’t get it at all until God makes you brand new from the inside out. But when he does, boy, you’ll get it then!
And this inheritance, unlike any other human, earthly inheritance, is not going to perish, it’s not going to spoil, and it’s not going to fade. We could say more about that, but our time is gone.
Let me finish in this way: if we have living hope and it’s built, if you like, on these… So, we’ll call… Living hope is now the stool that I made in woodwork when I was fourteen or something: a miserable looking stool that never, ever did anything except wobble like crazy. I remember it was in the shape of an artist’s easel. Very, you know—looked really terrible. And it had screw-in legs, and my legs were worthless. You know, when I was getting married, I said to my father, “Should I wear a kilt?” And he said, “Son, with your legs, I don’t think so.” So… It just made me think of worthless legs there for a moment. But, so, my legs were worthless in the kilt and worthless on the stool. And if you imagine now my worthless stool, but the stool is called “living hope,” and one leg is the mercy and grace of God, and the other is the resurrection: Is there a third leg which holds this stool up? Yes, there is. I want to tell you what it is.
All that Jesus has accomplished for us is of no value to us as long as we remain outside of Christ. All that Jesus has accomplished for us is of no value to us as long as we remain outside of Christ. So in other words, here is the essence of it: genuine Christian faith, which brings us into a living hope, is found in Christ alone. He is the only Savior, for he is the only one qualified to save. No one else has risen from the dead. No one else has made an atonement for your sins. It is in Christ alone, it is by grace alone—we don’t deserve it, and we could never achieve it—and it is through faith alone. Through faith alone.
Now, don’t for a moment think that faith is a work that replaces endeavor, and so God looks on us and says, “Well, he had faith; therefore, I will reward him for his faith.” No, in actual fact, it is not like that at all. One of the Puritan writers put it masterfully when he said, “God justifies the believer not because of the worthiness of his belief, but because of the worthiness of the one in whom he believes.” In other words, we’re put right with God not because we manage to believe but because our believing is in the strength of who Jesus is and what Jesus has done.
You see, the real question is, in this whole religion issue—it’s about ascent and descent. Religion essentially is an ascendant thing. Man says, “Whatever else is in doubt, I’m really not the person I need to be. If there is a God, then there is a vast gap between myself and him. Therefore, what I need to do is I need to ascend to God. I need to get myself sorted out. And so, by means of mysticism or by means of moralism or by means of selfism, I will endeavor to close the gap.” And many people’s lives are engaged in that pursuit, and in a way that makes as much meaning of their existence as it can, but it doesn’t answer the deepest issues.
If that person then will turn to the New Testament, what they will discover is that in actual fact, the story of Christianity is not the story of ascent, but it is the story of descent—that it is the story of a God who comes down into our time, a God who indwells our humanity, a God who dies in our place, a God who is raised for our justification, a God who rules over the sovereign affairs of the world and who will bring history to completion in his own good time. What, then, is faith? Faith is nothing other than the empty hand which reaches out to the initiative-taking grace of God and accepts, as an offer of free mercy and kindness, the gift of forgiveness, and hope, and a future, and a whole new family.
So I say to you today: understand clearly, you are not put right with God because you’re good; you will start to be good when you’re put right with God. If you set your heart against God this morning, don’t assume that there will be another morning when you can open your heart to him. Thirty-five years of pastoral ministry have convinced me that instead of the passage of time—as people listen to this story of hope, of forgiveness—instead of the passage of time softening them to the prospect of believing this truth, in my experience, it has hardened them more than softened them, so that in actual fact, it becomes not easier to accept God’s offer of forgiveness but harder. Which makes sense of why the Bible always speaks in the present tense, always says, “April 4, 2010, is the accepted time. April 4, 2010, is the day of salvation.”
Come to him. He made you. He loves you. He’s patient with you. Ask him to forgive you. Tell him you’re done with pretending you’re alive. Ask him to make you alive. He will! He’s promised!
O God our gracious Father, we bow down before you. You are a good God. You’re not like the gods of the nations. You’re not an idol made of wood that topples. You’re not an invention in the mind of man. We would know nothing of you, had you not made yourself known. It’s in our pride that we deny that we are your creatures. It’s our pride that denies the reality of your creative handiwork. It’s our pride that wants to look at the floral display and attribute it to the machinations of the human experience.
O God, forgive us our pride, and grant that we might come to you, a loving, patient heavenly Father, and accept from your hand the gift of forgiveness by dint of your mercy, and anchored to the reality of the death and resurrection of Christ, your Son, and so applied to our hearts and minds in a way that will be unmistakable, by the Holy Spirit. And then help us, when people ask us about the hope we have, to tell them, “Yes, this is a hope that stands the test of time.” For we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
 R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943). Language modernized.
 See Hebrews 4:12.
 Luke 22:57 (NIV 1984).
 Acts 2:32 (NIV 1984).
 See John 21:1–19.
 1 Peter 3:15 (NIV 1984).
 Ephesians 2:12–13 (paraphrased).
 Stuart Townend and Mark Edwards, “There Is a Hope” (2007).
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2000), 136–37.
 Philippians 1:21 (NIV 1984).
 Bernard of Clairvaux, trans. Edward Caswall, “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee.”
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.1.1.
 Richard Hooker, “Definition of Justification,” in Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1593). Paraphrased.
 See Isaiah 40:20.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.