Who are the 144,000 in the Revelation to John?

Posted by R. Fowler White

I. Two proposed answers

A. The Christian remnant of ethnic Jews either at the end of the 1st century, or in the future tribulation, or at the 2nd Coming; the number is usually interpreted as figurative, occasionally as literal.

B. The Christian remnant from all nations, Jews and Gentiles; the number is figurative.

II. My answer: The Christian remnant from all nations, Jews and Gentiles, the Church; the number is figurative.

A. The list in Rev 7 is a military census list, and the vision in Rev 14 describes the army of the Lamb. Both chapters in Rev follow the pattern of the military census lists in the OT: see Num 1; 2 Sam 24.

B. The number “1,000” is technical terminology for a military division, as it was in the OT. – It is comparable to the name Legion, which means “thousands,” a word taken from a Latin term for a large group of soldiers that could vary in number from as few as 3,000 to as many as 6,000 men.

C. The 144,000 are an all-male army, 14:4, as the armies of the OT ordinarily were.

D. The 12 tribes of Rev 7 are the 12 tribes of the New Jerusalem in Rev 21. The New Jerusalem is the Church Triumphant, the True Israel composed of the innumerable remnant from all nations, 21:12, 14, 24; 22:2-5. Gentile Christians receive the name of the New Jerusalem, 3:12. These tribes are the Israel of God from whom the idolatrous tribe of Dan (Judg 18) has been omitted. They are Israel according to the Spirit, not Israel according to the flesh.

E. The number “144” is evidently the number of apostles (12) multiplied by the number of tribes (12) of the New Jerusalem in Rev 21. It represents the complete number and perfection of the Church, the whole of God’s people, 21:9-10.

F. The number “144,000” describes the totality of the army of the redeemed, conscripted, and made ready by Christ the Lamb to fight in His holy war.

G. In Revelation John takes OT labels (names, epithets, titles) for Israel away from unbelieving Jews and applies them to the Church, which included both believing Jews and believing Gentiles.

1. Rev 2:9; 3:9 – John takes the name “Jew” away from unbelieving Jews and gives it to believing Gentiles, 2:17; 3:12. They are Israel according to the flesh; they are not the True Israel who worships God in Spirit and truth.

2. Rev 1:5-6; 5:9-10 – John takes the label of “kingdom of priests” from Israel and applies it to believers from all nations, regardless of ethnic origin.

H. This is consistent with the rest of the NT.

1. Christ Jesus declared that the kingdom would be taken from Israel and given to a new nation and people, the Church, Matt 21:43. Israel forfeited its kingdom identity in the fall of Jerusalem.

2. The Apostle Paul takes OT labels for Israel away from unbelieving Jews and applies them to the Church, in which Jews and Gentiles together are the one new people of God, Rom 2:28-29; Gal 6:15-16; Phil 3:3; Eph 2:14-21.

3. The Apostle Peter takes OT labels for Israel away from unbelieving Jews and applies them to the Church, 1 Pet 1:1; 2:9.

I. This is consistent with the OT.

1. Unbelieving Israelites, who didn’t share Abraham’s faith, were declared “Not My People” – they lost the labels of Israel. They lost their national identity in the exile.

2. Believing Gentiles, who like Rahab and Ruth shared Abraham’s faith, received the labels of Israel.

III. Summary: The 144,000 is a symbol representing the Lamb’s army of holy warriors from among the Jews and the Gentiles. They are the Church Militant who becomes the Church Triumphant, the “overcomers” of Revelation. They are not Israel according to the flesh, but the True Israel who worships God in Spirit and truth. They are the true Israel sealed by Christ the Lamb to keep them from apostasy. As many as believe in Christ alone for salvation are among the 144,000.

Discipline in PCA BCO 27-3: Its Proper Usage and Ends

Posted by R. Fowler White

Elders in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) affirm that they “approve of the form of government and discipline of the denomination, in conformity with the general principles of biblical polity” (The Book of Church Order 21-5). Consequently, they affirm the following statement that appears in the BCO of the PCA, Part II The Rules of Discipline, Paragraph 27-3:

27-3. The exercise of discipline is highly important and necessary. In its proper usage discipline maintains:

a. the glory of God,

b. the purity of His Church,

c. the keeping and reclaiming of disobedient sinners. Discipline is for the purpose of godliness (1 Timothy 4:7); therefore, it demands a self-examination under Scripture.

Its ends, so far as it involves judicial action, are the rebuke of offenses, the removal of scandal, the vindication of the honor of Christ, the promotion of the purity and general edification of the Church, and the spiritual good of offenders themselves.

There would be wide agreement that the above statement is a good and faithful expression of what Scripture teaches. When reading that section, however, the question might arise: as good and faithful as the statement is, does it say all that it should say? Posing that question does not disparage the care with which the BCO generally or paragraph 27-3 specifically expresses “the general principles of biblical polity.” It is understandable and agreeable that the statement should in fact be both general and principial and not exhaustive. Even so, it might be asked if the statement has in fact identified all the general principles that are necessary and sufficient. For example, two related questions emerge: 1) Does the statement above contain what is necessary to express the proper usage of discipline? 2) Does the statement above contain what is necessary to express the ends of discipline?

Scripturally speaking, the statement is accurate … as far as it goes. But it is, arguably, not complete. Here is what I mean. In WCF 15.6, we affirm that “he that scandalizeth his brother, or the church of Christ, ought to be willing, by a private or public confession, and sorrow for his sin, to declare his repentance to those that are offended, who are thereupon to be reconciled to him, and in love to receive him.” It seems reasonably clear here that the Confession envisions a usage of discipline that BCO 27-3 does not mention, namely, the recuperation of those whom the offender had scandalized and their reconciliation with the offender. Is it not the case, then, that the proper usage of discipline will maintain not only the glory of God, the purity of the church, and the keeping and reclaiming of disobedient sinners, but also the wellbeing of the offended parties, whether they be the church generally or the injured church members specifically (e.g., 2 Cor 2:5-11). Is it not the case also that the ends of discipline will include not only the rebuke of offenses, the removal of scandal, the vindication of the honor of Christ, the promotion of the purity and general edification of the Church, and the spiritual good of offenders themselves, but also the spiritual good of the offended parties (e.g., Matt 18:15)?

In answer to the question about discipline’s proper usage, we might say that the wellbeing of the offended parties was meant to be implied in the words “the … reclaiming of disobedient sinners.” In answer to the question about discipline’s ends, we might say that the spiritual good of the offended parties was meant to be implied in the phrase “the promotion of the purity and general edification of the Church.” Neither reading seems to be plausible, however. The phrase describing the reclaiming of offenders seems distinctly insufficient to convey the idea of the wellbeing of the offenders’ victims. Likewise, the words describing the ends of discipline seems to have omitted consideration of a necessary element of biblical judicial action, namely, the spiritual good of the offended. As a result, the statement found in BCO 27-3, though good and faithful as far as it goes, looks to be incomplete.

Would PCA BCO 27-3 not be improved if it included explicit reference to the benefits that discipline holds for those offended and injured?

What’s an Exile to Do? Trust in Your God, Stand Firm in His Grace

Posted by R. Fowler White

With this post we come to the end of our series on the Apostle Peter’s first letter, his survival manual for Christian exiles. His letter is as relevant now as it was in the 1st century because, in the ebb and flow of God’s providence, we Christians find ourselves increasingly pushed to the margins of public life, relegated to social-cultural, if not geographical exile. There’s little doubt that we who confess the historic Christian faith are increasingly viewed as terribly outdated by some and as simply insufferable by others. In that light, we ought to know how Peter would have us live life in this world. His closing message to us in 5:10-14 is as fundamental as it gets: mistreated by the world, embattled by indwelling sin, and threatened by the devil, trust in your invincible God (5:10-11) and stand firm in His grace (5:11-14). We should take a closer look at each of these closing exhortations.

First, continuing his theme of humility under God’s mighty hand (5:6-7), Peter urges us to keep trusting God, casting all our anxieties on Him, because He truly cares for us. Trials, even from the devil, are His “provide-ence” for us, meant to purify us, not damage us. Those whom our God calls to glory He brings through suffering. Our destination is not in the valley of the shadow of death. With Him, we walk through that valley, yes, suffering along the way but only for a little while. You see, our suffering is not eternal. It won’t last forever. Only glory is eternal; only glory is forever. Though we’re broken and hurt, stumbling, the God of all grace … will Himself restore us, putting all that was out of order in order, repairing whatever is damaged. He will Himself confirm us, placing us in a firm and fixed position, causing us to stay the course and remain constant in our faith. He will Himself strengthen us, making us courageous to endure all suffering without stumbling beyond recovery. He will Himself establish us, fortifying us to withstand whatever assaults may come. Peter knew this promise in his own life, for after the ordeal of his infamous threefold denial Christ had restored him, so that he reemerged as that first apostle, that rock of foundation, fixed and solid. No wonder Peter is moved to a doxology: to Him be dominion forever and ever! The promise that Peter had lived applies to us, his fellow exiles, as we make our way through this world. The God of all grace permits our suffering but overrules it to purify us. The God of all grace allows the devil to rage, but his rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure! The God of all grace is the Divine Warrior, not only gracious but also omnipotent. The power to accomplish His will is forever His. He will ultimately triumph over evil. What a promise this is from our God! How can we not trust in our invincible God and join Peter in his doxology?

Second and last, Peter exhorts us to stand firm in God’s grace (5:12-14). Here is Peter’s letter in one phrase. Through Silvanus (aka Silas), Peter’s courier, this letter would be circulated among the churches of the Roman provinces in Asia Minor as an exhortation and declaration to them of God’s true grace. As an apostle of Christ, he has laid out the doctrinal and moral truths we need as exiles. He has told us what God has graciously done for us in Christ. Based on Christ’s work, we’re commanded to live holy lives in keeping with that grace. And so, Peter exhorts us one final time to stand firm in grace, to resist all temptations to apostasy. Remember: despite suffering and trial, we’ve been born again to a living hope. We must live therefore in the holiness of that hope. Jesus, having Himself conquered all evil through His suffering, has called us to follow in His steps through suffering into glory. All who do so will be vindicated with Him. Stand firm, then; stand fast in the knowledge of His grace. As we do, we take courage from her who is in Babylon, that is, from our fellow exiles in the church-at-large throughout the known world (in Peter’s time, the Greco-Roman world). Peter may even be referring to the church in ancient Rome, the center of the then world empire and regime as ancient Babylon once was. But here’s Peter’s point: we’re not alone as we stand at the margins. While standing there, we do so firmly, taking courage from others, like John Mark, Peter’s son in the faith (5:13). Peter had known Mark from the earliest days of Jesus and His Church. This same Mark had traveled with Paul and Barnabas on their 1st missionary journey (Acts 13-14). Though Mark had turned back when they got to Asia Minor (Acts 14:24-28) and Paul had rejected him as a co-worker for the next journey, his relationship with Paul had later been restored for ministry together. Having learned of this reunion, Peter had seen the grace of restoration at work. We should see it too and be sure to take encouragement from it. Lastly, while standing firm, we should take courage from each other (5:14a). As we exchange the legendary “holy kiss”—here called the kiss of love, Peter’s point is not a kiss itself, but any outward expression of communion with and affection among us saints as we share in the love and peace of Christ. Fittingly, in that communion of love, we find peace in our God (5:14b). As Peter’s readers, marginalized or worse, we know ourselves to be under some stress, even in distress. How timely it is, then, to hear a benediction of peace from the Apostle who would have us persevere to the end.

So, what’s an exile to do when pushed to the margins of public life, relegated to social-cultural, if not geographical exile? Trust in our invincible God, and stand firm in His grace. The hatred of the world, the fleshly desires at war with our souls, the roar of that diabolical lion—all threaten to undo us. Did we in our own strength confide, we know our striving would be losing. But we’re assured of even more: the right man [is] on our side, the man of God’s own choosing. Christ, it is He, Lord Sabaoth His name, from age to age the same, and He must win the battle. So, again, what’re we exiles to do? We’re to listen to His benediction: Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. … Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid (John 14:27). We’re to read again—and again as needed—the words of His Apostle: 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 Pet 1:8b-9).

What’s an Exile to Do? Resist the Devil

Posted by R. Fowler White

In our last few posts from First Peter, we’ve noticed that the Apostle has been focusing our attention on the type of people we need to be to assure our perseverance in times of persecution. In such contexts, we usually hear or read about our three chief enemies: the world, the flesh, and the devil. In that light, we notice that Peter has talked to us about the world and about the flesh (the sin that indwells us) in 2:11-12. It’s remarkable to realize, then, that in 5:8-9 he nears the finish line by talking about the devil. Peter’s exhortation brings to mind the words that someone has said: “One great error we make is to underestimate the power of Satan. We need a sober and a vigilant understanding of his person and work.” So ask yourself, as I ask myself: do I underestimate Satan’s power? Do I have a sober and vigilant understanding of his person and work? Some might ask, why think about these questions? Because the Apostle tells us that to assure our perseverance in times of marginalization and even persecution, we must resist the devil. To find out just how do we do that, check out the details that Peter provides.

The Apostle declares to us: be sober-minded; be watchful (5:8a). Twice before he has exhorted us in similar terms in chaps. 1 and 4 (1:13; 4:7). He does it again here in chap. 5, and his point is basically the same: “Don’t let the tests and trials of this life make you careless or make you lose sight of the goal.” In other words, Peter doesn’t want us living our lives with distractions or blurred vision. He knows, and we must know, that the trials of exile can divert our attention from our ultimate destination or distract us from the dangers around us. The right state of mind is, therefore, vital to our perseverance. So, he says, stay focused; stay vigilant.

In 5:8b-9, Peter turns specifically to one danger he has in mind, and it’s an enemy whose presence should rivet our attention. Why be sober-minded and watchful? Because your adversary the devil is on the prowl. This is the only place in First Peter where the Apostle mentions the invisible powers of this present darkness who threaten us. This particular foe often works through others whom he has influenced, attacked, or even indwelt. He is said here to prowl around like a roaring lion, looking for and stalking his prey. We hear his roar in the slanderer who undermines God’s word, in the deceiver who distracts us from God’s glory, in the tempter who corrupts our relationships with God and others, particularly His people. He’s a destructive predator whose roar is meant to terrorize us, to force us to cower or even to deny the faith. Don’t give in, says Peter. Resist him. Remain firm in your faith. Continue entrusting yourself to your faithful Creator and the righteous Judge. Through that faith He is protecting us (1:5). Through that faith our souls are on deposit with our trustworthy God for safekeeping (4:19). Clearly, the danger to us is not that we’re helpless; the danger is that we’ll fail to resist. So, Peter says, in effect, hold steady; watch and pray. Stand firm. Resist the devil, and do so knowing that we’re not being singled out. The same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. We’re not the only ones being verbally insulted or physically attacked for Christ. Throughout the world there are others going through exactly what we’re going through—and, yes, some are going through unquestionably worse than we are. So, resist the devil, recognizing that for all of us who suffer unjustly there’s a fellowship in Christ that binds us together. No, we’re not being singled out: the devil’s evil campaign is worldwide, and there are others just like us throughout the world.

Several decades ago, during a presidential campaign, a political ad ran with the following words: There is a bear in the woods. For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don’t see it at all. Some people say the bear is tame. Others say it’s vicious and dangerous. Since no one can really be sure who’s right, isn’t it smart to be as strong as the bear? If there is a bear. Fellow Christian exiles, marginalized or worse, the Apostle Peter reminds us that, unlike that bear in the woods, there’s no “if” about the roaring lion on the prowl. Some don’t see him at all, but there’s no doubt about his sinister presence in this world. He’s vicious and dangerous, seeking unsuspecting prey to devour. In that light, maturing Christians will be alert to the reality that lurking behind various powers and forces that dominate life in this world is a diabolical enemy who roams the earth, hunting for victims. Listen for his roars in those voices that slander God’s word, that distract from God’s glory, that corrupt your relationships. Even as you discern his presence, don’t underestimate his power or his purpose. Don’t be his unsuspecting prey. As the Apostle tells us, resist that lion-like devil, trusting in God’s mighty hand, and watch him flee (Jas 4:7). He’s powerful, but he’s not invincibleand he knows it. In doing so, gain the assurance that you’ll persevere to the end of these times of marginalization and persecution.

What’s an Exile to Do? Submission and Humility in God’s Sheepfold

Posted by R. Fowler White

In Peter’s first letter—his “Survival Manual for Marginalized Christians”—he focuses our attention on the type of people we Christians need to be to assure our perseverance through the time of our present exile (1 Pet 1:17). He’s exhorted us to pursue moral excellence as we deal with both the world and the sinful passions that wage war against our souls (2:11-12). He’s told us our duties to civil authorities, to bosses, to spouses, to our fellow Christians, and to critics and other persecutors. Having turned again to discuss life in God’s sheepfold in 5:1-11, Peter has talked to us about the ministry of discipleship that elders must perform to assure our perseverance (5:1-4). Now, in 5:5-7, he begins his final appeal to those in the flock whom he calls younger (5:5a) and to all of the sheep (5:5b-7).

When we turn to 5:5a, Peter issues a call to be subject that we’ve heard before (2:13, 18; 3:1), but translators and commentators differ as to who the younger and the elders are. Do both terms refer to men? Do they differ in age, or in Christian maturity, or in office? The Apostle’s immediately preceding reference to the elders as shepherds of God’s flock and the specific duty he enjoins on the younger (be subject) tell us that he’s shifting his focus from what the elders owe the flock to what the flock, particularly those younger in the faith, owe those installed as their elders. Presuming, then, that the flock has recognized their shepherds, Peter instructs us how we non-elders must respond to their ministry. He tells the younger sheep, likewise, be subject to the elders (5:5a; cf. 2:13, 18; 3:1). Clearly, the Apostle doesn’t look on the younger as mere consumers shopping for a church that meets their every preference. No, for Peter, church life is about entering a sheepfold in which there are shepherds qualified to care for God’s sheep. It’s about submitting ourselves to those overseers, placing ourselves in their care, taking our place responsibly under them (cf. 1 Thess 5:12-13; Heb 13:17). Furthermore, as Peter showed in 5:1-3 and will show again in 5:5b-6, the relationship of God’s flock to the elders is not about us non-elders adopting servile, much less rebellious dispositions and behaviors toward our shepherds. On the contrary, flawed and finite as elders are, our submission to them is conditioned first by our obedient humility before God. As such, submission in the sheepfold is, as in every other human relationship, an act of faith: we who are non-elders keep entrusting ourselves to God as we subordinate ourselves to elders, knowing that the Chief Shepherd holds them accountable.

Having called us non-elders to take our place under our elders’ care, the Apostle moves promptly to call all of us to clothe ourselves with humility toward one another (5:5b). Interestingly, Peter’s command is for us all to put on one and the same garment, and not just any garment: he specifies that we put on humility. Perhaps Peter here is thinking of what Jesus did (John 13:4-15) when He girded Himself with a towel and taught the disciples—Peter in particular (John 13:6-11)—the lesson of humility (John 13:15). Why humility? Because, as Peter has already told us (3:8), in a colony of exiles, competition for privilege or power is toxic; commitment to the common good is essential (cf. Phil 1:27–2:5). In times of social marginalization or even persecution, then, mutual humility within the sheepfold is an indispensable virtue. We must mortify dispositions and behaviors that domineer, usurp, or withdraw, and instead find our places in honoring and serving others according to our gifts (4:10). But there’s something even more fundamental that lies behind Peter’s exhortation: God’s actions toward the proud and the humble. The former He resists; the latter He favors (cf. 2:19-20). Once again, Peter engages critically with the world’s expectations: he shows us how God deals with the proud and the humble and, in the process, he reforms how we should order our social relationships.

The truth that it is God’s prerogative to apportion honor leads Peter to reassert his call for humility in 5:6-7, but now he underscores that God’s actions toward the proud and the humble require our humility under His almighty hand. Peter has told us that suffering comes to faithful Christians and is part of God’s providence. He’s told us that painful trials are part of the normal Christian life and are the way God purifies us. It is for us, then, to bow ourselves low before Him and to entrust ourselves to Him. If we confess that He really does use even unjust suffering to accomplish His refining purpose in our lives, we must also confess that He has it under His control and us under His care. Our mighty God is more concerned about our welfare than we could possibly be: after all, both His glory and our good are at stake. What greater incentive could there be for us to cast all our anxieties on Him?

So, fellow exiles, do we wish to assure our endurance throughout this time of our present exile (1:17)? Then we must heed the pointed word that Peter has for us in 5:5-7. He would have us recognize what social marginalization and even persecution do to us: they tempt us, out of pride and its fruit anxiety, to compete for the privilege and power denied to us. But such carnal competition has neither efficacy nor place in God’s sheepfold. Why? Because God resists the proud and favors the humble. The Apostle, therefore, commands us to mortify all desire to domineer, usurp, or withdraw and to take our places in honoring and serving others according to our gifts, whether we’re elders or non-elders. He commands all of us in God’s flock to humble ourselves before Him, because His hand is mighty to bring down the proud and to raise up the humble at the proper time. These are our duties, says Peter, because God has made submission and humility twin means of our perseverance in this time of our exile.

What’s an Exile to Do? Elders, Shepherd God’s Exiled Flock

Posted by R. Fowler White

For well over a year now, the congregations of Christ’s church in our nation and world have been dealing with fast-developing, stress-producing changes in public health, economics, politics, and culture. In more ways than we Christians may realize, this current season of testing has offered us a trial run for future times when our marginalization may worsen. If that’s the case, we elders ought to ask: how’s it gone for us and the sheep in our care? Constrained by recent providence, have we elders learned what’s required of us, particularly in seasons of harder trials? Do those in our care regard us as examples to emulate in times of difficult testing? It’s not too late to examine ourselves in light of the instruction Peter has for elders in 1 Pet 5:1-4.

As the Apostle has worked through his plan for “the perseverance of the exiled saints,” he reminded us in 4:12-19 that trials of suffering for righteousness are part of the process by which God removes sin and its impurities from His church and ultimately the world. Following the order of Ezekiel’s prophecy, Peter addresses the church’s elders first, commanding them to shepherd the flock of God in their care (cf. 5:1-4 with Ezek 9:6). As we read these words, let’s recall that the eldership is one of two special offices in God’s house (the other being deacons; cf. Phil 1:1). Pointedly, elders are not a board of directors among whom one is a paid chief executive officer accountable to the others. No, the context in 1 Peter shows us that the terms elder, overseer (bishop), and shepherd (pastor) are essentially interchangeable titles, referring to all those men who by their example and instruction distinguish themselves as those who live a life of faith and practice worthy for others to emulate and who are therefore set apart for the ministry of discipleship, whether they make their living in that ministry or not (1 Tim 3:1-7; 4:12, 16; 5:17-18; 2 Tim 2:2, 24-25; Titus 1:5-9; Eph 4:11; Heb 13:7, 17 with 1 Pet 5:1-3). Having been recognized by congregations for their qualifications, Peter presumes that the non-elder members will submit themselves to their elders’ care, holding them in high esteem because they keep watch over them, give them instruction, serve as judges on their behalf, and otherwise manage the flock’s affairs (1 Thess 5:12-13; 1 Tim 3:5; 5:17-18; 1 Cor 6:4, 5 with Exod 18:21-26; Num 11:16-17). Given their responsibilities, it’s easy to see why Peter addresses the elders first.

Interestingly, to start off his exhortation, the Apostle Peter (1:1) cites his own qualifications as a fellow elder (5:1). He acknowledges his official connection with the other elders in the Dispersion (1:1) and presumably elsewhere. He also reminds readers that he’s a witness of Christ’s sufferings. Though Peter did not see Jesus’ crucifixion, he did remain with Jesus during the trials of His ministry (Luke 22:28) and certainly did know about the crucifixion and proclaimed it to others (Acts 2:23; 5:30; 10:39). Faithful, then, as a witness of and to Christ’s sufferings, the Apostle is assured that eternal glory will be his reward (5:1, 10). With his own qualifications laid out, Peter has now let his fellow elders know that he’s not asking them to undertake a ministry that he himself hasn’t undertaken. The particular tasks he has in mind follow.

Knowing that sheep need shepherds to keep them from straying as they suffer unjustly, Peter exhorts us who are elders to give a shepherd’s care to God’s flock among us (5:2a NET). As shepherds, we’re obligated to know, feed (teach), guide, and guard the sheep under us. To clarify what he means by shepherding, Peter adds exercising oversight (5:2a), that is, watching over or supervising the sheep whom God has assigned to our care. As overseers, we’re stewards and guardians of the flock (cf. 2:25b), particularly as we defend them against any teaching, belief, or behavior that threatens to scatter or devour them (5:2a). But what attitude and approach are we to take in our work? Peter tells us, first negatively, then positively (5:2b-3). “Shepherd God’s flock,” he says, “not reluctantly or against your will, not because you’re coerced into doing it; but voluntarily, in keeping with God’s revealed character and will. Watch over His sheep, not to get money (like Judas) or influence, but to give care with a holy zeal. Exercise oversight, not by treating the sheep as your subjects or slaves, certainly not by bullying or intimidating them or by being abusive or harsh to them (2 Cor 1:23-24 with 11:20), but by setting an example for them to follow.” In sum, just as Peter framed husbands’ authority within limits defined by obedience to God and by Christ’s example, so he does the same with us who are elders. The Apostle emphatically forbids us shepherds from adopting ways that marginalize or otherwise injure the flock of God in our care.

Lastly, as if his qualifications weren’t enough to motivate us, Peter urges us elders to comply with his directions by pointing us to the future reward for faithful shepherds (5:4). It’s true, of course, that Paul requires elders who do their work well to receive a reward matching their labor now (1 Tim 5:17). Peter, however, looks to the future: if we elders do our work as undershepherds accountable to Jesus the Chief Shepherd, we who have shepherded as God would have us do it (5:2) will receive the unfading crown of glory. The Greco-Roman world rewarded athletes, soldiers, and politicians with crowns of unfading flowers. Peter, however, like Paul, sees God Himself granting that special reward on the last day (e.g., 1 Cor 9:25; 2 Tim 4:8). His point is clear: when Christ returns, God will openly acknowledge and honor faithful elders, even though the world may reject and vilify them now (2:4-8; 4:12-19).

According to Peter, God’s process of purifying the church and the world of sin and its impurities has begun with fiery trials at His house, and first in line for purification are the elders. And so our assignment is set before us: would we who are elders show others the lessons of perseverance that we have learned during recent providence? Would we prove ourselves worthy to be emulated by others moving forward? Then, following Peter’s example, we must devote ourselves, as the Chief Shepherd’s undershepherds, to knowing, feeding, guiding, and guarding the sheep in our care. Only then will we show that we’ve made good use of the current season of hardship and are worthy of emulation by others, particularly exiled (i.e., marginalized) saints.

What’s an Exile to Do? Brace Yourself to Face Fiery Trials with Joy

Posted by R. Fowler White

The sobering truth from Peter is that suffering for what’s right as God defines it is an essential part, an indispensable part, of the normal Christian life. So intent is the Apostle on getting this message across to us that he mentions it in every chapter of his first letter (1:6-7; 2:19-20; 3:13-17; 4:12-16; 5:8-10). This is his message because he’s well aware that, according to many in this world, Christians should be shamed and pressured to conform or be canceled. Peter says, “Don’t give in. Brace yourself to face whatever trials come your way with joy.” Wait, what? Please elaborate, Peter. He does in 4:12-19.

First, he wants us to understand that for Christians, fiery trials are normal, not strange (4:12). He begins the final section of his letter by returning to that theme he’s mentioned over and over: don’t be shocked by fiery trials for Christ; anticipate them; expect them. At the same time, bear in mind that as even the Prophets of old (like Malachi; Mal 3:1-5) teach us, there’s a central principle in the life of saving faith: God uses suffering to test, refine, purify His people. Knowing that truth, Peter exhorts us to face our fiery trials with joy: they’re normal, not strange for Christians.

Second, be sure to appreciate that fiery trials are a privilege now and a promise of joy to come (4:13). Perhaps Peter is remembering the day that Luke recounts in Acts 5:27-42. On that day Peter and the rest of the Twelve were brought before the Sanhedrin and accused by Israel’s high priest of disobeying that Court’s strict orders not to teach in Jesus’ name. Though the Apostles’ response provoked the Sanhedrin to have them flogged and to repeat their orders not to speak in Jesus’ name, they left court that day, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the name of Jesus (5:41). We should realize what the Apostles realized: present suffering for Christ points to future glory with Him. Appreciate this then: fiery trials are a cause for joy right now and a promise of greater joy to come.

Third, realize that fiery trials for the right reasons say that we’re blessed (4:14-16). For example, have we been insulted for Christ? Remember this: verbal abuse for bearing Christ’s name shows that we’re the resting place of the Spirit of glory and of God (4:14)! Don’t make the mistake of thinking, however, that all suffering says that we’re blessed. Suffering for the wrong reasons—say, for being a murderer, thief, evildoer, or troublemaker—is no cause for thinking we’re blessed, much less for being joyful (4:15). Make sure, then, that you do the right thing and suffer only for that. No shame there at all. In fact, our God gets glory when we suffer for what’s right (4:16). As Jesus taught us, Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account (Matt 5:11). So, brace yourself to face trials with joy: when you suffer for what’s right, you’re blessed.

Fourth, recognize that present trials are the beginning of God’s judgment process to purify the world of sin and its effects (4:17-18). Recalling that the church is God’s house (2:4-8), Peter reminds us that it’s time for judgment to begin at the house of God. Drawing primarily on Malachi’s prophecy (2:17–3:5, 4:1; see also Jer 25:29, Ezek 9:5-6, Amos 3:2, Zech 13:9), the Apostle emphasizes that the fiery trials of those in God’s house signal, not His absence from their midst, but His presence among them to refine them, both collectively and individually. Admittedly, the fire that comes first to test and prove the righteous is hard. How much harder, however, will be the fire that comes later to punish the wicked forever? Rejoice in the truth, then, that we have suffering only now and only glory later. By contrast, the lost have glory only now and only suffering later.

Fifth and finally, Peter exhorts us to follow in Christ’s steps when He suffered (2:21): entrust your souls to your faithful Creator as you do His will (4:19). Boiling down his teaching, the Apostle uses a banking term—entrust—to describe what we’re to do as we suffer. Basically, he tells us to leave our souls on deposit with our trustworthy Creator for safekeeping. God has made it so that trials do to faith what fire does to gold (1:7). Since He sends fiery trials to burn away impurities in His house, we should commit ourselves to Him for safekeeping, knowing that He cannot and will not fail us. Refuse to take a kind of health-and-wealth approach to Christian living: “do good to avoid suffering.” Know that our God has His good purposes in our suffering for His will, and that He sets the limits of how intense our suffering is and how long it lasts. Take the Apostle’s approach: do good and, if suffering comes, trust God to refine you and confirm you through it. Trust Him because He is trustworthy. Have faith in Him because He is faithful, both to His promises and to His people.

In 1 Pet 4:12-19, the Apostle reminds us as God’s exiles: don’t be surprised, confused, or ashamed when fiery trials come our way as we do what’s right. Suffering, he tells us, is an essential part, an indispensable part, of the normal Christian life. We, therefore, brace ourselves and face the fiery trials that come on us. And we even do so with joy, because we know that suffering while doing God’s will is His refining fire, and He is so radically in control of all things—even of our suffering—that He has made it so that trials do to our faith what fire does to gold.

What’s an Exile to Do? Live Your Life Now with the End in View

Posted by R. Fowler White

Martin Luther is quoted as saying, “There are two days in my calendar. This day and that Day.” Several texts in Scripture express that sentiment, but few are quite as clear as 1 Pet 4:7-11. Here the Apostles tells us explicitly to live now in view of the end of all things. As we look closely at the details, Peter’s remarkable vision for us exiles emerges.

He told us earlier that Christ appeared in these last times for our sakes (1:20), and now he tells us that the end-goal toward which all historical events are headed is at hand (4:7). We live at the culminating point—a point of unparalleled privilege—in the history of revelation and redemption. Though we’re exiles in this world, we’re to live as those upon whom the end of the ages has come (1 Cor 10:11). We live in the final phase of God’s redemptive process, in the days of Christ’s reign from heaven on earth. Because we benefit now from His past victories (3:18–4:4) and we’ll be vindicated in the future (4:5-6), our past conversion to Christ and our future vindication by Him reshape our present attitude and actions. In that light, Peter exhorts us: take seriously, right now, four duties that will ensure your endurance as the colony of exiles in these times of test and trial.

First, be self-controlled and sober-minded (4:7a). Since you’ve left behind the passions and debauchery of your Gentile days (1:13-17; 4:1-4), stay vigilant with sound judgment and moral restraint. The Apostle’s exhortation here is almost the same as the one he gave us in 1:13. His point is, “Gear up and stay alert. Live intentionally. Lock in on the end-goal that’s approaching. Don’t let the tests and trials of this life make you careless or make you lose sight of that goal! Be vigilant, especially for the sake of prayers” (4:7b; cf. Acts 2:42). Come together to offer prayers of all kinds: of praise, petition, confessing sin, and thanksgiving. In this we’ll show that prayer is a means of grace that increases and strengthens our faith for this time of exile (3:12).

Second and above all, Peter urges us to attend to “the communion of the saints”: keep loving one another earnestly (4:8a). Strikingly, the priority (above all) within God’s household of shared truth is the Second Great Commandment: earnest love for each other. After the love of our God, there is no higher good. If we ask why love gets such high priority, the reason Peter gives here is that it covers a multitude of sins (4:8b). Notice: it’s not that love ‘covers up’ the sins of others; it’s that love covers them. It keeps personal and private offenses personal and private. It exacts no revenge for those offenses by making them public, and it keeps no running tab of them. In short, love forgives those who confess their sins (Ps 32:1; 85:2; cf. Prov 10:12; Gal 6:1; Matt 18:21-22). Just as the Apostle said earlier (1:22), so he says again: keep loving your siblings in the faith—and this time he reminds us that love forgives.

Third, Peter continues to focus on “the communion of the saints” by exhorting us to show hospitality to one another without grumbling (4:9). If we ask how we’re to show love, one way is by offering, without reluctance or complaint, the comforts of home to our fellow exiles, especially those traveling for ministry (e.g., 3 John). The WCF [MESV] summarizes the point for us: it’s our duty “as professing saints to come to the aid of one another in material things according to [our] various abilities and needs” (26.2). Particularly in times when Christians are being pushed to the margins of society, it’s vital that our fellow exiles have a standing invitation to make themselves at home among us for meetings, lodging, meals, and the like.

Fourth and finally, the Apostle completes his portrait of “the communion of the saints” by directing each of us to use our gifts for the church’s good and for God’s glory (4:10-11). Filling out the picture of how we’re to love each other, he reminds us that no believer needs to despair of usefulness in Christ’s church. Why? Because through the Spirit (1:2, 12; 4:6, 14) Christ distributes gifts among His people. In fact, the Spirit and the gifts are Christ’s enablements to unite His church in love through the ministries of word (speaking) and deed (serving). Each believer, then, has a stewardship from Christ to love others in keeping with his or her gifting. Matching our abilities in word or deed to our congregation’s needs, we devote ourselves to our common good. Thus, in everything our God will be glorified through Jesus Christ, with one resounding doxology (4:11): to Him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen!

The more we reflect on Peter’s instructions in 4:7-11, the more we see the ethos that he expects from us as a holy haven for marginalized exiles. In a phrase, he sets before us “the communion of the saints.” It is a vision in which we’re “united to one another in love,” so that we “participate in each other’s gifts and graces” and see ourselves as “obligated to perform those public and private duties which lead to [our] mutual good, both inwardly and outwardly” (WCF 26.1). It is a vision in which we “maintain a holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God and in performing such other spiritual services as help [us] to edify one another” (WCF 26.2). What beauty the world sees, what doxology the world hears, when “the communion of the saints” is ours as the end gets ever closer.

What’s an Exile to Do? Show the Uniqueness of Christian Employees

Posted by R. Fowler White

In this continuing series of posts on the Apostle Peter’s “Survival Manual for Christian Exiles” (aka First Peter), we’ve seen him exhort us his readers, as the New Israel (2:9-10), to live lives of moral excellence in Gentile society (2:11-12). Moving through three spheres of our societal life in 2:13–3:12, he presupposes that his Christian readers are treated by non-Christians as “Repugnant Cultural Others” (thanks to Susan Friend Harding for that phrase). Having focused on our civic conduct in 2:13-17, he will next concentrate on our household conduct in 2:18–3:7. To the extent that our conduct involves economic relations, he’ll tell us that a Christian employee should behave differently from a non-Christian employee. Just how is the behavior of Christian employees different? For perspective on this question, we need to orient ourselves to the slave-master relationship in Peter’s first-century Greco-Roman world.

For our purposes, it’s important to understand that slavery in the NT era was quite different from slavery in North America during the 17th through 19th centuries. Slavery was an accepted fact of Mediterranean economic life and labor structure. Slaves were not only domestic or field workers, but also semiskilled laborers, craftsmen, architects, physicians, philosophers, teachers, grammarians, writers, librarians, administrators, accountants, or estate managers. Though most Greco-Roman slaves got into their position involuntarily (because of war, kidnapping, or birth), some non-slaves actually sold themselves into slavery to climb the social ladder for a better standard of living. While many lived in miserable conditions, many others enjoyed more favorable living conditions than free laborers. In addition, manumission was on the rise, and under Roman law slaves could expect to be set free at least by the time they reached age 30. In Peter’s day, then, there was no general mood of unrest among slaves, and, though slave rebellions did occur, neither slaves nor government took up the cause of abolition. In general, the status and experience of NT-era slaves within a family household approximated that of a semi-permanent employee with less legal, social, and economic freedom than others. (In that light, we’re justified in seeing ancient servants and masters as analogies to present-day employees and bosses.) As Peter’s words suggest, however, a person’s experience as a slave depended primarily on the character and social status of his or her master. There were cruel, brutal, and unjust masters. As a rule, however, a master’s treatment of his children was a predictor of his treatment of his slaves. Still, there was a wildcard that might complicate matters in a household: if slaves converted to a credo outside the culturally accepted emperor worship or polytheism, their standing could sink even more among the “Repugnant Cultural Others.”

Against that background, Peter commands us Christian employee-servants to be subject … to our boss-masters, to take our place under them, to submit to them (2:18). Emphatically, our duty is not conditioned on their being good and gentle (considerate); it applies even if they’re unjust (corrupt, unscrupulous). Pressing home his point, the Apostle specifies the attitude with which we take our place: with all respect. Having started his teaching on Christian duties by highlighting the fear of God (1:17; 2:17), Peter states here for the first of three times (2:18; 3:2; 3:16) the respectful attitude that Christians are to exhibit toward others at home, in church, or in society. He declares, in effect, “let non-Christian employee-servants be disrespectful: we Christian employee-servants will be different. We’ll treat our boss-masters with the respect their position demands. In the service of our God, we’re not free to dishonor them. To the contrary, God obligates us to subject ourselves to them with all due respect.”

But why does Peter constrain us employee-servants to do our duty even to the worst boss-masters? His reason is not to keep us from gaining our freedom (1 Cor 7:21) or changing our circumstances. No, his reason is that subjection to those over us finds favor with God; it pleases Him (2:19-20). Even when we suffer unjustly while doing good, God looks on our good works in Christ and is pleased to accept and reward them (3:13-17; see WCF 16.5). Peter’s words are particularly encouraging if our bosses mistreat us, but he has more encouragement to offer. Adding to God’s favor, he reminds us of our call to Christ (2:21), of our conversion to new life in Christ (2:25). Like no other NT author, Peter’s teaching in 2:21-25 takes full advantage of Isaiah 53, building on the Passion itself wherein Jesus suffered a death reserved, fittingly enough, for slaves, criminals, and others lacking full Roman citizenship. Jesus was the consummate suffering Servant, and all of us Christians, employee-servants or not, share a likeness to Him. In what way? Certainly not as the substitute suffering unjustly for sinners (2:24), but as His servant-people (2:16) who suffer unjustly. So, as Christ suffered for us, we who are His must suffer as He did. While suffering unjustly, He never sinned or deceived (2:22), reviled or threatened (2:23); even so we must not sin or deceive, revile or threaten. While suffering unjustly, He kept entrusting Himself, His people, and His persecutors to the righteous Judge (2:23); even so we, while suffering unjustly, must keep entrusting ourselves and our persecutors to the righteous Judge. We do these things because His sin-bearing changed the direction of our lives: He secured our death to sin, our new life to righteousness, our healing from sins (2:24), our conversion to the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls (2:25).

Christian employees, has your Christian confession made you “Repugnant Cultural Others” to your bosses? If so, Peter exhorts you: show them, especially the non-Christians, the honor that their position calls for. Show them that, though you’re under them, you’re first under Christ, the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls, following His example. You’re being conformed to His image, living righteously, suffering unjustly, and enjoying divine favor that no boss can ever take away. In other words, show them the uniqueness of Christian employees.

About Those Prophecies of Trump’s Re-election

Posted by R. Fowler White

During the recent election cycle, many continuationists (who believe, among other things, that the NT gift of prophecy continues today) reportedly predicted former President Trump’s re-election, and those prophecies failed to come to pass. These failures have led certain continuationist leaders to issue strongly-worded rebukes to those whose predictions proved false. Other leaders have called for renewed humility, and still others, while also calling for humility, have denied that any penalty is applicable. As an alternative to penalties, the failed but humbled predictors are told that they should admit their inaccuracies, recommit to exercising discernment, and, to prevent future such failures, submit themselves for review by and accountability to church overseers.

I don’t bring up this topic to debate (again) whether the gift of prophecy continues today. I raise it to reflect on how the churches should treat the prophesiers and their overseers. I’m particularly interested in the claim that there’s no need to apply any penalty. That response, it seems to me, presupposes the absence of relevant standards and sanctions in Scripture. And, in fact, some leaders tell us that there is nothing relevant in either the OT or the NT for what the recent prophesiers did. We can’t take up the full sweep of that argument in this format, but I’m not convinced, and I’m sure others aren’t either. In the NT, we do read of prophetic ministries in the churches that failed. Christ’s letter to the church in Thyatira (Rev 2:18-29) presents just such a case, and it’s not presented as an isolated concern. Pointedly, Christ makes Thyatira an example from which “all the churches” should learn (2:23). Of course, the issue at Thyatira is not necessarily identical to recent failures, but it is analogous to them and relevant in ways that we should consider. So let’s take a look.

To begin, it’s striking to notice Christ’s opening and closing commendations to the Thyatira church. They were a congregation where love was bearing fruit in service, and where faithfulness was bearing fruit in endurance (2:19). They had congregants who held fast to what was true and good and abstained from what was false and evil (2:24-25; cf. 1 Thess 5:21-22). How, then, did an unsound ministry emerge in such a church? The clues are reasonably clear: the church had not corrected one of their own who was calling herself a prophetess and was teaching what was false and evil (2:20). Instead, the church had tolerated her ministry and had done so long enough to see her multiply herself in a troubling number of the congregants (2:20, 22-23). The negligence was such that it had spurred Christ Himself to do what the church had not done. He had warned the self-identified prophetess to repent and had given her time to do so (2:21a). Subsequently, He had uncovered her refusal to repent (2:21b). Finally, He had determined to afflict her and her followers with temporal punishment (2:22a) and even final punishment if they did not repent (2:22b, 23b). From the details of Christ’s letter to the Thyatira church, then, we learn that they had failed to deal properly with a prophetess whose ministry had become a notorious contagion in the church. They had taken no action through the formative-preventive oversight of instruction, nor through the corrective oversight of admonition, suspension from the Lord’s Table, or excommunication. In short, the church’s inaction was blameworthy. Why? Because Christ hates what is false and evil in His visible church, and so He commands all His congregations to carry out the oversight necessary to foster what is true and good. Wherever and whenever we do not give that oversight, we can expect the Lord of the church to do what He deems necessary, because He intends to reclaim guilty Christians, to deter others from sin, to turn away God’s wrath from His own, to purge leaven from our midst, and, above all, to vindicate His honor and the holy profession of His gospel.

In saying all this, I am not contending that those who made false predictions about the election should be prejudged as guilty of a particular sin and therefore liable to a particular penalty. I am contending that there are now, as there were in the NT era, relevant standards and sanctions in Scripture to apply to prophesiers and their overseers. I am contending, for example, that, because the fifth and ninth commandments still apply to us, congregations should at least investigate such issues as whether the recent predictors bore false witness (with or without intent to harm), whether they were in submission to church overseers, and whether church overseers adhered to a proper process of review and accountability before the predictions were made. If violations did occur, then penalties would presumably need to be determined and applied. These concerns would appear to be consistent with the implications of the lesson of the Thyatira letter for “all the churches.”

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