1 Peter 1:17-19: A Devotional Commentary

    “If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your sojourn; knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.” (1 Peter 1:17-19)

So, it was Halloween this week and I have a confession: I didn’t get scared. Really. All the ghosts and zombies — didn’t affect me a bit. No fear this year.

Which is good because, as it happens, I’m not really big on fear. I don’t enjoy horror movies or telling “scary” stories around the campfire. Frankly, I’d be fine with removing fear from my life altogether.

But that presents a bit of a problem when it comes to the passage of Scripture we are about to look at: It’s a little scary.

For the last few studies, we have been looking at the “commands” of Peter. We have moved into the portion of his epistle filled with imperatives. And one thing I’ve noticed is that each one has gotten progressively more challenging to our Western sensitivities. The first one wasn’t bad: “Set your hope fully on the grace that is coming your way” (v. 13; loose translation). That one is pretty easy; we all like grace. The second one got significantly steeper: “Be holy in all of your behavior… because I (God) am holy” (vv 15-16). Oooh. That’s a bit tougher, but… ok, yeah I’m up for holiness.

But now we encounter a command that, on the face of it, is truly jarring. So much so that some translators have a tendency to soften it somewhat.

If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your sojourn. (v. 17)

“Live in FEAR.” What are the implications of this command? What does it really mean to “fear” God? And, for that matter, why would He want us to? Now, if you are studying this verse in a different translation, it might sound quite different than the one I just quoted. The NET version translates the word fear as “reverence”. Some translators encompass both ideas and go with “reverent fear”. Of course, it is true that the word for fear (“phobos” in the Greek) can be used both for respectful reverence and trembling terror. So what exactly did Peter have in mind? To answer that question, we must first carefully evaluate the context in order to determine the most likely interpretation.

The first thing we notice, is that this is one of those words that Peter seems rather fond of; he uses it often. As we examine the other places he employs this term, we begin to get a feel for the “semantic range” of the word:

2:17 – Honor all people, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the king.

2:18 – Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are perverse.

3:2 – Wives, [your husbands should] observe your chaste and respectful behavior.

3:6 – You become her children when you do what is good without fear.

3:14 – If you suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. But do not be terrified of them or be shaken.

3:15 – Always being ready to make a defense…for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.

As you can see, Peter really demonstrates the flexibility of this word. He uses it to describe the attitude of a wife towards her husband, a slave towards his (sometimes cruel) master, and a victim of persecution towards his fearsome oppressors. But unfortunately, while this survey is instructive, it doesn’t necessarily get us closer to determining the meaning of our verse at hand. So where do we turn next?

Clearly the “fear of God” is a concept that is pervasive throughout Scripture. It is mentioned in some form at least 300 times in the Bible. The Old Testament saints who stood at the foot of the smoking, quaking, thunderous mountain of Sinai were well aware of how terrifying the presence of God can be (cf. Heb 12:18-21). I am concerned that in our modern society we as Christians have trivialized our relationship with the Lord. We neglect to concern ourselves with his fearsome majesty. The passage of Scripture which reprimands me the most in this regard is at the end of the book of Isaiah (and, I would suggest, is best grasped if you hear it in the voice of James Earl Jones):

Thus says the Lord:
“Heaven is my throne,
   and the earth is my footstool;
what is the house that you would build for me,
   and what is the place of my rest?
All these things my hand has made,
   and so all these things came to be,
declares the Lord.
But this is the one to whom I will look:
   he who is humble and contrite in spirit
   and who trembles at my word.
Isaiah 66:1-2

Sadly, many modern-day Christians have forged the notion that the fear of God is mainly an Old Testament concept. They somehow believe that, in the New Testament, the love of God finally wins out, and we no longer have anything to fear. It doesn’t take much study to reveal that this is clearly not the case. Look, for example, at the aftermath of the Lord’s deadly judgement against Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5: “And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.” Even Peter himself got a taste of the natural response to the holy presence of God when, after the miraculous catch of fish, he fell on his face and cried, “Get away from me, Lord! I’m a sinner!” (Lk 5:8), and again later when the Transfiguration of Christ (the unveiling of His true identity) reduced Peter to a trembling, babbler (Lk 9:33). The writer to the Hebrews sums it up soberingly: “For we know Him who said, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge His people.’ It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hb 10:30-31; emph. added).

So when we come to Peter’s command in this passage to live out our lives in fear, we must not be too quick to dismiss his words with a wave of our hands, relieved that the term he chose could just as easily be interpreted as “respectful reverence”. Friends, I am deeply concerned that many of us have become far too casual in our relationship to the Almighty God of the Universe. We must not forget that, in the immediately preceding context, Peter based his admonition to fear on the realization that our God is a “judge” — and an “impartial” one at that: He will judge every man on the exact same criteria (v. 17). We trivialize this fearsome warning at our own peril.

This of course does not diminish the fact that God’s love and mercy has been celebrated vividly in the entire first half of this very chapter. He is our loving Father, and we are His adoring children, and Peter is the first to embrace that delightful reality. But when it comes to our relationship to God, we must never forget that love and fear are inextricably intertwined.

My dog seems to understand this concept. My dog loves me. When I come home in the evenings, he welcomes me with a body-wagging enthusiasm that borders on worship. He truly delights to be in my presence, and his love is as genuine as it is heartwarming. But make no mistake: My dog fears me. He knows that I have the power to crush him. Though I don’t recall ever swatting him in discipline, he knows that I could; he knows that I am far bigger and stronger than he is, and he jumps at my command. Such fear doesn’t diminish his love; it energizes it. In fact, in some remarkable way, his fear of me draws him closer to me, not farther away.

~~~~

I have reason to believe that Peter is thinking something along the same lines. In fact, I think he says as much in the second half of his sentence. (Don’t let the verse break between verses 17 and 18 hide the fact that this is one unbroken sentence. There is a critical connection between both clauses). A fair translation of his words might be “Live your lives in fear, because you know.…” And then, in the second half, Peter presents the ultimate reason and motivation for the fear that he prescribed in the first half.

…Because you know that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. (v. 18)

“You were … redeemed.”

There is a story I heard long ago — anecdotal, I’m sure, but deeply stirring nonetheless. It is the story of an auction that took place in an old western town. The men of the town were gathered around a small makeshift stage in the center of town, and slaves were being brought forward, one by one, in chains or ropes, to be perused and purchased by the unruly crowd. The final slave to be offered was a young woman. The recalcitrant audience came alive at this point — hooting and whistling, shouting out all the things they would do with her if they could purchase her. The bidding escalated swiftly: 25, 50, 75 gold pieces were offered. But at that moment, a voice rang out that nobody had heard before. A stranger from out of town called out from the back of the throng.

“I’ll take her,” he said, plainly.

The gavel-wielding auctioneer squinted his eyes at the stranger. “Is that so?” he asked, suspiciously. “Do you have any money to back your wish?”

The stranger reached into his coat and pulled out a bag. “I’ve got 400 gold coins in this bag. I reckon that’ll be enough.”

The raucous jeers grew louder now, but the crowd parted and let him approach the platform. The slave woman scowled at him as he drew near. Her hands were tied behind her back, and a rope-leash was used to guide her.

The man took her from the platform and led her across the street to a small windowed office. She fought and resisted, growling with resentment the entire way. “You’re disgusting!” she sneered. “I hate you! You’re filth, do you know that?” He ignored her, fastened her rope to a hitching post, and disappeared into the office. A few moments later he returned and began to untie her ropes. “Get away from me!” she yelled, and then she spit in his face. The man paused for a moment, calmly reached up and wiped his cheek, and then proceeded to untie her. When he was done, he took a piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to her.

“What’s this?” she murmured.

“That’s your emancipation papers ma’am,” he said.

“My what? What are you talking about?”

“It means you’re free to go, ma’am. It’s all right there in the document. You’ve been redeemed.” And with that, the man turned and began to walk away. The woman crouched down, clutching  the paper with both hands and began to cry.

“Wait!” she called a moment later, her voice cracked with tears. The man stopped and turned around. She ran up to him and fell at his knees.

“I don’t know why you did this,” she cried. “But I have never known a man like you before. Please don’t leave me! Take me with you. I will serve you wherever you go!”

That, my friends, is literally what Greek the word for “redeemed” means: purchased out of slavery. And I think that is such a compelling picture of what our Savior did for us: lovingly, sacrificially paying the price so that we could finally be free.

But there is something particular about this passage in Peter that radically changes the analogy, and makes this old Western story pale by comparison. Did you see it? Look again: Peter reminds us that our Lord did not redeem us with the paltry ransom price of gold and silver. He paid with something far more precious.

As I was contemplating this price over the last few days, it occurred to me that Peter was one of those few privileged souls who was permitted to witness redemption on both sides of the Cross. I imagine there were many times as a child when he would travel with his family to Jerusalem for the annual festivals. There he would have had a front row seat to watch as lambs were ushered to their sacrificial death. What a sight it must have been! I can’t help but believe that thoughtful Jews must have often questioned why these animals had to die on their behalf. I can imagine young Simon noticing how beautiful these little lambs were: not a mark on them, not a flaw in their wool, not the slightest wound or scar — the very picture of innocence! Slitting their throats must have seemed so heartless and cruel. Why can’t we just kill the ones that are wounded or worthless?

But then there was the day when Peter stood at the foot of the Cross — perhaps not that exact day, but sometime soon thereafter — and it all suddenly dawned on him: This is the Lamb. God’s Lamb. All those other lambs had to be spotless and perfect because HE is. They all pointed to Him, to the truly Innocent One. And from that day onward, Peter never lost sight of how exceptionally precious the blood was that puddled on Calvary’s dry soil.

My friends, when we ponder that moment deeply we finally realize what should terrify us more than anything: the thought of dismissing the price of our redemption. I can tell you with all honesty that I am not afraid of punishment. I am not afraid of God’s judgement. But I am terribly afraid of living in such a way as to demonstrate that I don’t consider the blood of my savior precious. That’s why I live in fear: not just that I fear God, but I fear myself — because I know the sin I am capable of. And I don’t want anything to do with it.

This comes out even more poignantly when you notice another detail that Peter points out. Look back at verse 18 and ask yourself: what exactly did Christ redeem us from? It doesn’t say He redeemed us from sin, or Hell, or judgement (although, of course, all those things are true as well and proclaimed in other Scriptures). It says He redeemed us from “the empty/meaningless/broken way of life handed down from our fathers.” Remember what we studied last time: about our broken “wanters” — the broken, defective desires that we were formerly enslaved to. That’s what Jesus’ blood freed us from: those worthless, meaningless, joyless lives. And so, every time I succumb to the temptation to return to those old desires, I am essentially saying that my Lord’s blood doesn’t mean much to me. When I choose those worthless ways over holiness, I am trampling on the Savior’s blood and calling it valueless.

Nothing scares me more than the thought of living my life so flippantly, so casually, so mindlessly, that I lose sight of the infinite price that my Lord Jesus paid to buy me off of that auction block. And that, if I understand him correctly, is exactly what Peter meant when he challenged us to “live our lives in fear, because we know what our redemption cost.”

~~~~

The fear of God may not be a popular topic in today’s Christian culture, but it is an essential aspect of the believer’s life. I challenge you to cultivate not just a polite respect or casual reverence for the Lord, but a deep and abiding awe and a trembling worship before the Almighty Creator of the constellations. Not only because he is the holy judge of all men, but also because he is the Blessed purchaser of our redemption.

There is an amazing verse in the Old Testament  that combines these two thoughts together in a profound and mysterious way.

If you, O Lord, kept record of sins,
  O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
   that you may be feared. (Ps 130:3-4)

The Judge of our souls could in a moment crush us. If He held our sins against us, we would truly be without hope. But what brings true fear to our hearts is His extraordinary forgiveness. Lord, let me never forget either side of that equation.

And before I leave this topic, I can’t help but quote one of my most favorite dialogs in all of English literature. It is the famous exchange between the children who visited Narnia when they were first told of Aslan, the great King of the land. The picture these words paint bring me to tears every time I read them to my children, because I know of Whom they really speak.

“Is he a man?” asked Lucy.

“Aslan a man!” said Mr Beaver sternly. Certainly not. I tell you he is King of the wood and the son of the great emperor-beyond- the-sea. Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great lion.”

“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake” said Mrs Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe… But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Lord, You alone are King. May we never cease to praise You for being fearful… and good.

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