Lord, every time we get a glimpse of You, our hearts are moved with a deep and unshakable feeling that there is more to this Christian life than we have yet tasted. So, if we hear You today calling us up to the next plateau, give us the boldness and courage to climb with all our hearts. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.
Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart, for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God. For,
“All flesh is like grass,
And all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
And the flower falls off,
But the word of the Lord endures forever.”
And this is the word which was preached to you.
1 Peter 1:22-25
If you have ever had the privilege of entering the vestibule of a European cathedral during the afternoon vespers when the sound of the choir was echoing from inside, then you know what it is like to be stirred with emotions that words cannot possibly express. And once you have arrived at that entryway, nothing in the world could keep you from proceeding on into the expansive sanctuary to view the sublime beauty of that sacred place. In recent weeks I have felt like the first chapter of Peter’s epistle is like the vestibule of an ancient and glorious cathedral. His introductory verses were like a profound cantata praising the Triune God who bought our freedom at infinite cost. And his celebration of our extraordinary redemption beckons us to follow him in deeper, into the inner chancel of his inspired message.
Following his initial doxology of praise, Peter turned to the implications of our salvation — the “imperatives”, as we have called them. This chapter contains four of them: four somber commands that prescribe the lifestyle of those who have been rescued. The first three, which we have already studied, were “Be hopeful” (v. 13), “Be holy” (v. 15), and “Be fearful” (v. 17). We now reach his fourth and final command of the chapter. There is another way we could organize these instructions, however. Some Bible scholars consider the first three commands to essentially be three ways of saying the same thing: “Be holy”, while the rest of the book describes what that entails, in which case we now arrive at the first and most overarching command of that list. But in any case, whether it is the culmination of four ascending stairs of God-fearing holiness, or the first and foremost description of a holy lifestyle, there is no question that the command in these verses is preeminent in Peter’s heart and mind.
Like a sparkling gem at the center of a resplendent crown, the command sits right in the middle of verse 22: “Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart, for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable…” The command, of course, is to love one another, but it is surrounded in front and behind by supporting statements that provide both the means and the motivation for the instruction — the how and the why, if you will.
In the first phrase, Peter paints a picture of the starting point — the ground rules for the rest of the verse. He looks into the recent past, and states his assumptions about his audience’s history. He says to this group of believers, “You have already done something that makes you eligible for the instruction I am about to deliver.” His words start out, “Since you have…”, or in another version “Now that you have…”, which indicates that his readers have already accomplished something. They have arrived at the entrance or entered the vestibule, so to speak. So, what is it they have accomplished? They have “purified their souls by obeying the truth.”
So what does that mean? Commentaries are rather evenly divided between two basic interpretations of this phrase: some believe Peter is referring to their initial salvation, while others think he is referring to their behavior subsequent to salvation (i.e., their “sanctification”). Both interpretations have strengths and weaknesses. Some argue that this cannot apply to salvation, because that would imply that our salvation is the result of “obedience” rather than faith, which clearly contradicts the rest of Scripture. In support of this position it is noted that “obedience” was used earlier in this very chapter to refer to moral conformity to the Father’s standards (v. 14). It is also noted that the word “purified” is usually used in Scripture in reference to the ritual purification that priests and worshippers regularly participated in at the Temple (cf. Jn 11:55, Ac 21:26).
From the other perspective however, to speak of “purifying your souls” seems to imply a much deeper and more seminal act than mere ritual cleansing. It sounds like what Peter preached about in Acts 15:9 when He proclaimed that “God purified their hearts by faith” which was a clear reference to salvation. This seems to be in concord with the next verse in which he specifically mentions their new birth. But if this is the case, then how can we understand this salvation to be the result of “obedience to the truth”? To answer that, we first refer back to verse 3, where Peter proclaims that salvation is a matter of (1) God’s foreknowledge, (2) the Holy Spirit’s sanctification, (3) obedience to Jesus, and (4) sprinkling by His blood. But what kind of obedience are we talking about? Well, there seems to be a clue later in our passage. At the end of verse 25 Peter mentions God’s word, and he clarifies that “this is the word that was ‘evangelized’ to you.” In other words: the gospel. So, if I’m putting this together correctly, then what Peter appears to be saying is that they obeyed the ones who first brought the words of Jesus to them; in other words, they obeyed Jesus’ call and came to Him in faith, and as a result, their souls were purified.
But, however you interpret this opening phrase, one thing is clear: there has been a noticeable change. Something has happened in the lives of Peter’s readers, and he acknowledges the transformation. And what does he provide as the primary evidence? He points to their love for each other. He calls it “a sincere love of the brethren.” The word for sincere is the greek word anupokritos, which could literally be translated “unhypocritical”. It means “undisguised and unfaked”. Peter sees a genuineness in the fondness they express for each other. The word for “love” in this phrase is a word that is even more familiar to us. It is philadelphia, which is often translated “brotherly love.” The apostle is commending these men and women for the evident change that has emerged in their lives and has produced in them a genuine love for each other.
I believe the same thing can be said for all true believers: one of the principal hallmarks of anyone who has been born again is the desire to connect with others in the same Family. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that if such a desire is not present, it should raise suspicion about that individual’s true spiritual nature. It is only natural (in a spiritual sense) to be drawn to fellowship with others who share the same Father as you. Peter says he sees their genuine camaraderie as an indication of their purified souls, and he is evidently pleased by it. And as a human father who loves to see my own children playing happily together, I can only imagine how much it delights the Lord God when he sees his children expressing philadelphia towards each other. I suppose it’s one of his happiest sights.
But, of course, that’s not Peter’s main point here. As you will recall, this was just the entryway.
My apologies in advance for this illustration, but I can’t help but think of the scene in the original Willy Wonka movie, when Gene Wilder, with Top Hat in hand, crouches down in front of the Door at the End of the Hall, and whispers to his privileged visitors, “My dear friends, you are about to enter the nerve center to the entire Wonka factory. Inside this room, all of my dreams become realities, and some of my realities become dreams…. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, … the chocolate room.” (Yeah, such a great movie. Gotta watch that one again…)
If you hadn’t noticed, that’s Peter there with the top hat. He standing here before all of us holders of the Golden Ticket, and he’s saying, “I’m glad you’re here. I’m delighted to see the signs of true Life in your souls. I can see that you have obeyed the truth, I can see that you love each other. But I’m here to tell you, you are only standing in the entry hall; I am inviting you to the next level.”
“Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.” (v. 22, NIV; emphasis added)
Permit me to unpack a few observations about this daunting command. The first thing that Peter’s Greek readers would have noticed, is that he used a different word for “love” than the one in the first phrase. This command uses the word agape. I’m sure anyone who is reading this study has heard many sermons on the similarities and differences between phileo and agape. I would note that sometimes the distinction between these words is overstated, as if phileo is a lower, earthly type of love, and agape is a higher, heavenly type of love. That is an inaccurate understanding. God uses both of these words to describe His love for us, and both words are used in various commands for us to love Him and each other. (See this discussion, for example.)
Nevertheless, the words are clearly not synonymous. Peter himself demonstrates the distinction, both in his conversation with Jesus (Jn 21:15ff), and in his second epistle (2 Pt 1:7). In general (without going into too much detail), suffice it to say that, phileo usually refers to a feeling of deep affection for someone, whereas agape usually refers to a self-sacrificial dedication to a person, regardless of emotional affinity. Vine defines the latter as “the deep and constant love and interest of [someone] towards [potentially] unworthy recipients.” I think a mother’s love for her child probably comes closest, on an earthly level, to exemplify what such love looks like.
But it is not just the verb itself that would have captured the attention of Peter’s readers, but the adverb that modifies it. The NIV translates it “deeply”; other versions say “earnestly” or (my favorite) “fervently”. The word literally means “stretched or strained”. If you want a vivid picture of the real meaning of this word, draw your attention to Luke 22:44. There you will encounter the Lord Jesus as he laid in the garden of Gethsemane. Listen to Luke’s description: “And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.” The word used to describe Jesus’ prayers is the same root word that Peter uses. This is the image that should be seared in our minds when we hear Peter command us to “fervently love each other”. He is calling us to “stretch ourselves out in self-sacrificial love for each other.”
And as if that’s not enough, he adds that we are to do so “from the heart.” The “heart” in Peter’s thought is a synonym for “the inner person” (3:4) and the seat of the Savior’s lordship (3:15). It is analogous to the unhypocritical genuineness with which he described our brotherly love, but it goes deeper. He is saying that this is an intense, earnest, fervent love that should be welling up from the very core of our souls and overflowing on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Perhaps you understand now what I meant when I said that Peter is charging us, challenging us, commanding us, to come up to the next level in our devotion to God and, in particular, to His children. Can anyone doubt that the words of his Savior were still ringing in Peter’s ears — the words he heard mere hours before the cross: “This is the new commandment I give to you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (Jn 13:34)
If I could expand Peter’s charge in modern vernacular, I think it would sound something like this: “My dear friends, I see that you love each other: you are kind and considerate, you gather together every Sunday and sometimes more often than that. You take interest in each other and pray for each other and share jokes and Facebook accounts with each other. You have a genuine mutual love that the world sees and (for the most part) admires. And I commend you for it. But, as your pastor and mentor, I need to implore you: It is time to go deeper. It is time to stretch yourselves out — to strain yourselves far beyond what you ever thought possible before. It is time to lay yourselves out for your spiritual siblings in deep, genuine, Christ-like, self-sacrificial love — the kind of love that leaves scars.”
Friends, do you have any idea what it would look like if we really obeyed that command? It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? Earlier this week, as I was trying to think of an example of this type of commitment, I happened to read the words of a Navy SEAL who described the tight-knit community exhibited in his squadron. Listen to this elite warrior’s piercing words: “The last person a SEAL thinks of is himself. We value our brother next to us more than our self. We never have to cover our backs, because we know our SEAL brothers will. As a Navy SEAL, everything I do is for the sake of my brother next to me. We believe this to the very core of our being. We are trained not to think of ourselves as individuals, but as a unit. When we are on a mission, we are absolutely dedicated to ensure that every single brother gets back home. This is our number one agenda. We all have different jobs to do, but we are all there for each other. At any cost. Each one values the man next to him more than himself and is willing to die for a cause bigger than himself” (Source: Killing Kryptonite, p. 46).
So, right now, in whatever seat you are sitting as you read this, I want to ask you to lean back, and close your eyes, and just imagine what the Church of our Lord Jesus would look like if we learned to love each other like that. Imagine what your church would look like if there were one, or two, or three dozen people who had that kind of at-all-cost devotion to the spiritual welfare of those around them. Fervent. Heart-felt. Agape.
That, brothers and sisters, is what the Apostle Peter is calling us to. I don’t know about you, gang, but to me, that is deeply convicting. Because I will be the first to admit that my love is pretty far from that ideal. I have very few scars to prove my love for the brethren. Just the thought of this makes me take a deep breath and bow my head and whisper to the Lord, I really need to up my game.
But before we leave this passage, there is one last observation that I want to point out. Peter, you see, doesn’t just drop a command on us like this and walk away without providing a little motivation. If, after receiving this command, we are brash enough to ask “Why should we do this?” he doesn’t just respond, “Because I told you.” Instead, he gives us a reason, and a deeply profound one at that. Let’s read the rest of the passage again:
…Fervently love one another from the heart, for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God. For,
“All flesh is like grass,
And all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
And the flower falls off,
But the word of the Lord endures forever.”
And this is the word which was preached to you.
I’ll have to admit, when I first studied this passage, I kept coming back to it again and again over several days, and for the life of me, I couldn’t understand how all these verses fit together. Peter seems to be bouncing from one thought to another without any connection between them. Frankly, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the Apostle might have had some age-induced dementia that side-tracked his train of thought. (It certainly happens to me a lot these days!)
But as I looked at it closer and prayerfully scrutinized it, I finally found that there is a theme that is intricately woven through this entire paragraph. If you haven’t noticed it yet, let me try to trace it out for you.
On the face of it, the motivation for the love command appears to be trivial: “Love each other fervently, because you have been born again.” Of course, we all know that once we’re born again, once we become a Christian, we are obligated to love each other. But, to be brutally honest, that “motivation” doesn’t exactly put any fire in my engine, if you know what I mean.
But, as it turns out, that’s not the real incentive that Peter is leaning upon. It is not the fact of our new birth that lights Peter’s fire. It’s the nature of that new birth. Look at those verses once more, and notice the adjectives and terms that keep coming up over and over again:
He mentions a seed that is “not perishable, but imperishable.” (These are among Peter’s favorite words. He has already used them several times in this chapter to describe the permanence and unending certainty of our inheritance and our faith.) He says this is the nature of the seed with which you were born. But he continues…
That seed is the “word of God”. That makes sense, but notice the adjectives he uses to describe that “word”. He doesn’t say the “true and holy word of God”, or “the sharp and powerful word of God”, (all of which are true). How does Peter describe it? He says the “living and enduring word of God.” Once again, he is emphasizing the eternal nature of the seed from which our lives have sprung.
Next, he underscores this comment about God’s enduring word with a quotation out of Isaiah. In this passage, Isaiah contrasts the eternally abiding word of the Lord with… what? With the temporary, fleeting mortality of flesh. Mankind is like grass, he says; all our achievements are like fast-dying flowers. We are all about to wither away and die. And that, indeed, would be our ultimate fate…
Unless a new seed was planted in our soul. A magical seed. A miraculous seed. A seed that never dies. Peter is here proclaiming one of the most astounding realities of Christianity. A pronouncement that sounds so preposterous it borders on the mythological:
He says we… believers… have been born of immortal stock. THAT is Peter’s audacious claim. We are now eternal! We will never die! This blip of a moment on planet earth will certainly fade away like the wintery grass in my backyard. But our souls will endure forever! And THAT, Peter exclaims, makes all the difference in your relationship with other believers.
Do me a favor: the next time you gather at church or at a small group Bible study, look around the room. Look at each face. Intentionally study them. And then remind yourself that everything else in the room, everything else on this PLANET will be gone in a few hundred years. But the souls of the people that you see across the room, the true hearts of the people that you greet in the church foyer this Sunday will be standing with you, worshipping our Allmighty God, for ever and ever! We alone are the immortals! Together we are God’s children. Together we will delight in His presence. The rest of the props in this dandy little play will dissolve when the curtain falls, but the cast and the Director shall never be separated. (But, don’t let that frighten you: all the sins and selfishnesses that make some of those people so unbearable right now, will be obliterated as well!)
I don’t know about you, but that changes my perspective dramatically. This world is such a fleeting garden. For all of eternity I will be loving the Lord… and YOU… far more than I can even imagine right now. Every one of us will love each other JUST like the Lord loves us! Can you imagine the bliss of that kind of fellowship? And the revered Apostle Peter is saying, “Don’t wait for it! Enter into that type of communion now! Pour yourself out, stretch yourselves beyond the breaking point, earnestly strive to give of yourself to the point of perspiration and pain and blood for your eternal brothers and sisters. THIS is the Forever Family, and YOU have been invited in.”
Have you ever known anyone who loves like that? In my opinion, they are very rare. But I have had the privilege of experiencing a few tastes of that kind of love before.
I recall my best friend in college, Randy Lawrence. I could tell he loved me like this just from his prayers for me. When he prayed for me, he really entered into my world. He told me once that when he interceded for me, he didn’t just think of me as how I was, but he saw me as how he knew I would one day become. His love profoundly changed my life.
I think also of my good friends, Darrie and Debbie Turner. This sweet couple have been missionaries nearly all of their lives. I had the honor of serving with them in ministry for a few years. I got a front-row seat to watch how they spent themselves in their tireless commitment — not only to their own (large) family, but also to the college class in the church we attended. Darrie worked full-time in a print shop, went to school full-time at the Bible college (while Debbie home-schooled their children), and they still had time to open their home regularly for the church, and to mentor me in my early ministry years, and to pour their lives into people all around them. At the age when other people start thinking about retirement, the Turners decided to move to Uganda, to invest themselves in fervent love to yet another whole body of believers. They taught me what genuine agape looks like.
It is people like this (and a number of others) who have been my role models over the years. But sadly (and here I think you’ll have to agree with me), there are far too few of their tribe. And I say this as I look straight in the mirror because — I need to be totally honest with you: I’m not there yet either. I will admit it right now, and perhaps some of you can echo these words with me: I have been in the entry hall far too long in this regard. It’s time I enter in the Sanctuary. It’s time to raise my love to the next level. It’s time, my friends, for some serious, heart-felt agape.
So I urge you to join with me in this quest. Decide now to set aside some time this week to earnestly and prayerfully ask the Lord: what would it look like if I were to become an earnest lover of His children? What would fervent agape sound like in my conversations and my prayer life? In what ways would it transform my home, my Bible study, and my free time, if I were to embrace this command with all my heart? And then the most important question of all: Lord, how can I get to the next level?