I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things (2 Peter 1:13-15 ESV).
Christian tradition holds that the apostle Peter was crucified in Rome around 68 AD. The words above were written by Peter to early Christian believers not long before his death. We all know Peter – his brashness, his pride, his great failure on the night of Christ’s arrest and his bitter repentance (Matt. 26:69-75). As we glimpse his life through the pages of the New Testament most of all we see his humanity. He was, like us, a complex mixture of faith and fear, an individual capable of reaching great spiritual heights who also experienced a deep crisis of faith. We shouldn’t think of Peter or any of the other early church leaders as super saints unfamiliar with the spiritual struggles we also frequently experience. Peter’s apostleship was by appointment, not by merit.
But something else is revealed here in Peter’s epistle that exposes a gaping chasm between those earliest Christ-followers and those of the present day, and it’s this:
Peter, Paul and other early believers lived with the expectation of imminent death.
Peter’s letter was meant for circulation among the believers, in the same way as we today might share emails, blog or social media posts. He first speaks to them of God’s great power and grace, through Christ, to provide them with everything they need for Christian growth. He later goes on to remind them to respect scriptural prophecy and beware of false prophets and false teachers. And here, sandwiched in between these apostolic instructions, is this brief, almost throw-away comment. Paraphrased, Peter is telling them: “and by the way I expect my martyrdom is imminent, just as Jesus showed me all those years ago (Jn. 21:18-19), so I am sending you a written reminder of these things before I leave you so they can encourage you after I’ve gone.”
I find this short, simple passage poignant, but at the same time it fills me with intense sorrow for the gospel we in contemporary western Christianity have all but lost. When did we stop preaching the gospel of Peter, John, Paul, and, most importantly, Christ Himself? When did we convince ourselves that carrying the cross is optional? When did we embrace the lie that we can walk in the power of His resurrection but avoid the fellowship of His sufferings?
And how will we give account to the One who paid for our souls by His Blood for the false, tepid, diluted gospel with which we have preached to the poor and polluted the nations?
Strong words? Perhaps, but I have seen the fruit of this false gospel firsthand and it has made my heart sick. I have seen it preached. I have witnessed its poisonous effects both in Africa and Asia, and other non-western countries. More than once I have seen so-called ‘men of God’ berating congregations who can barely feed their children for not giving enough in tithes and offerings. I have seen church leaders teaching people who cannot even read that the Bible says Christ died so they can be wealthy. I have seen their shiny new cars and fancy houses, while their congregations endure poverty in unsanitary, run down dwellings. I have seen them building their personal kingdoms as they compete for visiting western ministries with western dollars that will impress their followers. I have seen them rebuke sin in their congregations while they themselves secretly dabble with adultery and fraud. Most often they deliver this false gospel because it is the gospel they have received from western sources.
And I have seen many of these things occur too, as perhaps you have, in my own and other western nations.
Too often this downgraded western gospel that is preached and also exported to poorer nations tells lies. It lies when it teaches poor people that giving beyond their means will ensure God’s favour. It lies when it engenders a false sense of entitlement and tells people that wealth, prosperity, and material blessings are God’s undeniable will for them. It lies when it promises that suffering is not part of the Christian journey. It lies when it upbraids desperate people for not having enough faith. It lies when it endorses the political parties of men as representing the Kingdom of God. It lies when it preaches hate and fear in the name of Christ. It lies when leaders grow fat and wealthy at the expense of those who trust them. It lies when it fails to bring people into the rest of God and instead loads them with religious bondage.
And worst of all, this false western gospel fails most miserably, when it keeps believers weak, immature and ineffective because they have not been taught that trials, persecution, and sometimes even death, should be normal expectations of life in and with Christ.
Peter and his contemporary believers lived with the expectation of imminent death. Daily. And if it didn’t happen, that was a bonus. This daily fact of their lives didn’t make them morose, depressed or fearful, because the gospel they had learned at the feet of Jesus and passed on to others had prepared them for hardship and at times even martyrdom.
Right now there are many Christian believers living under oppressive regimes with this same daily expectation of persecution, and the possibility of imminent death. This is their reality. The gospel they are living is vastly different to the gospel multitudes of western Christians currently feed on, where the expected proof of God’s favour and blessing are comfort, prosperity and a happy, trouble free life. Furthermore many western Christians are primarily consumed with getting political candidates elected who will ensure a comfortable, trouble-free lifestyle can continue for them and their families.
But things are rapidly changing for western Christians. Rights and entitlements that have long been taken for granted are being eroded and challenged as the political atmosphere becomes increasingly unpredictable and volatile. Perhaps God in His grace will send us missionaries from the nations where persecution and martyrdom are daily expectations to teach us how to live our faith in this new and unfamiliar territory.
The church was commissioned to go to the world with the gospel Christ Himself delivered – the Gospel of the Kingdom. By the grace of God, the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit and the sacrificial commitment of many men and women, untold multitudes have received that very gospel and continue to do so.
But equally, perhaps even greater untold multitudes have received an incomplete, false and man-made gospel that has brought them into bondage and confusion. We were entrusted with the responsibility to take the light of Christ to nations and peoples in spiritual darkness but too often we have failed to embrace that light ourselves, preferring to build and export our own kingdoms rather than His.
We have lost something priceless.
The early church believers possessed a secret – a detachment from the world, a Kingdom focus, that allowed them the freedom to lose their lives. Jesus had taught them that whoever desired to save their life in this world would lose it, but whoever lived as if their life was already lost, would save it (Matt. 16:24,25). His words weren’t necessarily about physical death. They were about cultivating and living each day with a Kingdom focus.
We, however, are too often handed a false gospel that teaches us God wants to save our comfortable, worldly lives. So, we don’t know how to live with the expectation of losing them.
This ancient treasure of living a surrendered life, one we are prepared to lay down, expands in us as we learn to hold all we have in this world loosely, whether it be our home, our lifestyle, our possessions, our relationships, even our freedom. Unless we allow the Holy Spirit to work this lifestyle of surrender deep within us, the world and all it apparently offers us becomes our focus. And when the world is our focus and its comforts are our expectation, we find it necessary to adjust the gospel to fit our desires.
The great majority of Christ followers may not be required to literally lose their lives for Him. All Christ followers, however, are required to live an overcoming, surrendered life for Him. And a surrendered life is costly.
May God grant us the grace to disown every false gospel we have embraced, and turn again to the uncompromised gospel of the Kingdom that Christ brought to us.
And may He grant each of us the power to live with the same expectation expressed by another early apostle: “that with full courage now as always Christ will be honoured in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:20,21)
© Cheryl McGrath, Bread for the Bride, 2019 and beyond. Copyright Notice: Permission is granted to freely reproduce any Bread for the Bride articles in emails or internet blogs, unaltered, and providing this copyright notice is included. To permanently display an article on any static website please contact me for permission.