Loving the Unseen Christ

1 Peter 1:8-9

“Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (I Peter 1:8-9).

 

My text is a lovely passage that is often quoted, but not always properly understood. It is all about loving the unseen Christ, but that thought cannot and must not be divorced from its context. I can state that context in just two words: “fiery trials.” Peter writes to encourage believers going through fiery trials, and his encouragement comes in the form of godly consolation in these two verses.

Already we have seen in this book that Peter wants his readers to understand that they aren’t like the people of the world. We are strangers and pilgrims whose real home is in heaven. Therefore, we don’t think like the people of the world, we don’t talk like the people of the world, we don’t act like the people of the world, and even though in many ways we may seem just like them, down deep we are fundamentally different.

We are square pegs in round holes. We don’t quite fit in the world. But sometimes we try very hard to fit in anyway. A few days ago I met a young couple, recently married, both of them sheriffs at the Cook County Jail. They told me some fascinating stories about working with prisoners in the courts. We were talking at one point about how some people like to bend the rules. The husband said, “You know what they say about how to make a square peg fit into a round hole: pound to fit, paint to match.” I laughed because it’s so true. Many Christians take their faith and they “pound to fit and paint to match,” but it never works very well.

These two verses explain the basis of true Christianity. And they help us understand what keeps us going during fiery trials and when we don’t really fit in. Why do we do what we do? Here is the simple answer: We are what we are and we do what we do because of Jesus Christ. Christianity is Christ. Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. The world doesn’t understand this because the world doesn’t know Jesus. But that’s the real explanation.

We can unpack this text in four simple statements.

1) We Love Him. v. 8a

“Though you have not seen him, you love him.” Note the word “you.” Peter had seen Christ face to face, his readers had not. Peter had known Christ intimately. Most of his readers had never met anyone who had seen our Lord in the flesh. Though they were only a generation away from the actual events recorded in the gospels, to them it was history just as it is to us today.

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have seen Jesus when he walked on the earth? Let me ask you a purely hypothetical question. Suppose you could be transported back in time to view any one part of Christ’s life, which one would you choose? Would it be one of the miracles? Perhaps the feeding of the 5,000? Or Jesus walking on water? Or the raising of Lazarus? Or would you listen in to his discussion with Nicodemus? What about listening to the Sermon on the Mount? Or joining him for a meal at Zaccheus’ house? Would you choose to stand by his side at the cross? Or would you prefer to run with Peter and John to see the empty tomb?

Have you ever thought to yourself, “If only I could have seen him with my own eyes, my faith would be much stronger?” I confess that I have thought that occasionally. In times of doubt and struggle, it’s easy to say to yourself, “If only I could have walked with him when he talked to his disciples, if I could have seen him raise Jairus’ daughter, I would never doubt again.” It is so easy to think that way because we live in a sensual world. We were raised on television and the movies, and now we have the Internet. We are bombarded by images day and night. The world judges everything by the five senses. If we can’t see it or touch it or feel it, if the image is not before us, we wonder if it can be real at all. The world around us says, “Seeing is believing.” But that is not true.

Seeing is not believing. Most of the people who saw Jesus in the flesh did not believe in him. The religious leaders by and large rejected him. Though the common people heard him gladly, they had no clear idea of who he was or why he came (see Matthew 16:13-14). Certainly they did not grasp that he was the Son of God from heaven, the Savior of the world, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Only a few people, a tiny handful it seems, grasped his true identity. You can even argue that seeing Christ in the flesh only confused matters. One of our great Christmas hymns says, “Veiled in flesh, the godhead see.” His humanity was a veil that hid his true identity from most people. Only those with faith saw through the veil to understand who he really was. That answers a question that surfaces from time to time. What would happen if Jesus came to Oak Park as he came to the earth 2,000 years ago? The answer is, not much. Most people seeing him walking down Lake Street would assume he was on his way to lunch at Winberie’s. If they thought about him at all, they would figure he lived in an apartment or a condo.

That leads to another common question: What did Jesus look like? The answer is, we don’t know. The Bible doesn’t give us any specific physical descriptions. We don’t know if he was short or tall, if he had blue eyes or brown eyes, if he was stocky or thin, if he had dark hair or light hair. We don’t even know for certain about the color of his skin. Most people assume he had a “Mediterranean complexion,” but that’s not a fact from the Bible. Isaiah 53:2 implies that he was a common man in his appearance, but beyond that we cannot be specific. Artists have tried for centuries to depict him, but every attempt is only a guess. I think it’s better that we don’t know, and better that we don’t have any pictures or descriptions. He lives in our hearts by faith. That’s the only thing that matters.

He is unseen—but he is not unloved. We understand that in other walks of life. My son, Josh, called me at the office one day this week. Right now he’s on the coast of China and will be moving to Beijing soon, and will be there through next June. It was late in the morning in Oak Park, which meant it was near midnight in China. When the call came, I was busy doing something, but I dropped everything to talk to my son. His call was the best thing that happened to me that day. He may be in China and I may be in Oak Park, but love knows no distance. Our Lord may be hidden from our eyes, but that doesn’t matter. Love knows no distance.

2) We Trust Him. v. 8b

“And even though you do not see him now, you believe in him.” After the resurrection of Jesus, Thomas was so wracked with doubt that he told the other disciples he would not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead unless he put his hands into the nail prints and into Jesus’ side. When he finally saw Jesus, the Lord invited him to do just that. Instead, Thomas fell to the ground, exclaiming, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). Jesus replied with these words: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). That describes us exactly. We have not seen, yet we have believed, and therefore we are blessed.

One writer said, “No apostle ever remembered Jesus.” That’s an amazing thought. This is what it means to me: You know the living and you remember the dead. Exactly 30 years ago today Marlene and I were married in Phoenix, Arizona. My father was my best man. That was the last happy time our whole family would be together. Two and a half months later, he died. I remember the smile on his face when he and my mom said goodbye to us as we left for our honeymoon. That was a happy moment as Marlene and I started our new life together. I can apply the truth this way: I remember my father, but I know Marlene. You know the living and you remember the dead. The apostles never remembered Jesus because he was still with them. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ lived in them.

And so it is with us. We know Jesus Christ personally. He is as alive in us as when he walked on the earth. A man may say, “I know Abraham Lincoln,” but he doesn’t mean, “Abraham Lincoln lives in me.” When we say, “We know Jesus Christ,” we mean, “Jesus Christ lives in us.” We don’t remember him; we know him.

Many of you know the name of the famous hymnwriter Fanny Crosby. Born in 1820, she became blind at the age of six weeks due to an eye infection and bungled medical treatment. During her lifetime (she lived to be 95), she wrote over 9,000 hymns, including “Blessed Assurance,” “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” and “He Hideth My Soul.” When asked if she regretted her blindness, she answered, “No. Thanks to my blindness, the first thing I’ll see is the face of my beloved Savior welcoming me to His heaven.”

Those words express the true Christian viewpoint. None of us have seen Jesus. Though we have not seen him, we love him and we trust him. One day we will see him face to face.

3) We Are Filled With Joy. v. 8c

“And are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.” The King James uses the phrase “joy unspeakable and full of glory.” “Unspeakable” literally means “above words.” Joy so great that words cannot express it. We saw it this week when Paul Hamm won the gold medal at the Olympics in Athens. When you hold your grandchild for the first time, when your son comes home from Iraq, when the doctor says, “The operation was a success. Your daughter will live.” There are no words to express what those moments mean. You do not speak because you cannot speak. In those moments words are unnecessary.

But there is a deeper meaning in this phrase. This is the part of the text that unbelievers simply do not understand. And even believers often have a problem with it. Peter’s point is not simply that we are filled with this kind of amazing joy. It is that we are filled with inexpressible and glorious joy in the midst of our fiery trials. We might even say that they go together—fiery trials and inexpressible joy. The harder the trial, the greater the joy seems to be.

Many of you know Catherine Faires. She is a member of our congregation and very active in SC2—Single Christians Serving Christ. A while back she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. After the first round of treatment, the cancer seemed to go into remission. Several months ago, the doctors told her it had come back again. For the last few weeks, Catherine has been keeping her friends informed about her situation through email. Yesterday she sent out her most recent update. Last night I spoke with her on the phone, and she gave me permission to share what she wrote. “If my story can help others and bring glory to God, that’s what I want.” She was released from the hospital yesterday after undergoing the first treatment with a very powerful drug. This is part of what she wrote yesterday to her friends:

The other day I was listening to the radio and heard a song by Avalon called “Testify to Love.” My church sometimes sings it as part of worship. I suddenly saw this line, “As long as I shall live, I will testify to love” from a new perspective. With recurrent, metastatic ovarian cancer, the statistics give me six to eight months to live. I know that “As long as I shall live” isn’t going to be very long (unless God intervenes) and it makes the line all the more powerful for me.

With whatever time and breath I have left, I will testify to what God has done for me and who God is to me. Oh, I forgot to tell you that I think “love” is wishy-washy so I change it to “God” when I’m singing along with the radio. I mean, there are so many kinds of “love” and I want to be clear about what I mean. On second thought, there are several understandings of “God” so maybe I need to specify “the God of the Bible” but that would mess with the rhythm …

So here is what God has done for me recently: God gave me a Christian nurse in the hospital yesterday who encouraged me with her testimony of God’s work in her life. God gives me good friends who call and visit me in the hospital. God has used this illness to put me back in touch with friends from grad school that I’d lost contact with over the years. Since my church’s women’s retreat this spring, I’ve been reminded that God is my first love, so I write my journals to “my love,” and that is making the idea of dying a lot less scary.

Praise God for all these gifts from his hand. Praise God for my participation in the State University Retirement System (SURS) that is keeping me with disability checks and an excellent health insurance program. Please continue to pray for my body to respond to the new drug, although I’d rather my *hair* didn’t respond by falling out (a likely side effect). Please pray for the Holy Spirit to fill and use me to testify about my Lord.

Thank you, each and every one.

Catherine

I submit to you that Catherine Faires is a living proof of “joy unspeakable and full of glory.” We join with Catherine in praying fervently for a miracle according to God’s will. And we praise God that in the midst of this fiery trial, she can write and talk like this.

4) We are Filled With Hope. v. 9

“For you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” The word “receiving” is an athletic term that speaks of receiving an award at the end of a long struggle. You receive the gold medal when the battle is over and the victory is won. If the Christian life is a football game, here is our problem. We know that final score; we don’t know if we’re in the first quarter, the second quarter, halftime, or if there are three minutes left in the third quarter, or if we’re at the two minute warning. The final victory is assured. It’s getting from here to there that challenges our faith. That’s why Peter says, “You are even now receiving your salvation, and one day you will possess it fully.” Keep your eyes on the prize. That will give you hope in the midst of fiery trials.

Here is our full situation, plainly stated:

In the world we are strangers and pilgrims.

The world does not and cannot understand us.

We constantly swim upstream against a godless culture.

We are square pegs in round holes.

But that’s okay with us.

We have come to know Jesus Christ—and that makes all the difference.

Right now we love him.

Right now we trust him.

Right now we rejoice in him.

One day we will see him face to face.

One day we will receive the goal of our faith.

One day our salvation will be complete.

That’s not enough to make it easy.

But that’s more than enough to satisfy us.

The Triumph of Karen Watson

One final story and I am done. Karen Watson of Bakersfield, California, accepted Christ as her Savior in 1997 after a period of intense personal grief. Her boyfriend whom she planned to marry, her father and her grandmother all died within a two-year span. After coming to Christ, she joined others from her local church on short-term missions trips. She went twice to El Salvador and once to Kosovo, Macedonia and Greece. Eventually she felt God calling her to fulltime service, so she resigned her job as a detention officer in the sheriff’s department in Bakersfield, sold her car and her house, and joined the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. She packed all her worldly possessions in a single duffel bag. Because she was a natural leader, she was asked to coordinate refugee work in Jordan during the war in Iraq. Soon after major combat ended, she was assigned to Iraq itself. Though she was fully aware of the dangers, she did not hesitate to obey the call.

On March 15 of this year, she and four other missionaries were in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul when they were attacked in a drive-by shooting. The assailants fired automatic weapons and rocket-powered grenades. Four of the missionaries died; one was critically injured. Karen Watson, 38, was among the dead.

Before she went to Iraq, she gave her pastor a handwritten letter, to be opened only on the event of her death. This is what she wrote:

March 7, 2003

Dear Pastor Phil & Pastor Roger,

You should only be opening this letter in the event of my death.

When God calls there are no regrets. I tried to share my heart with you as much as possible, my heart for the Nations. I wasn’t called to a place. I was called to Him. To obey was my objective, to suffer was expected, His glory was my reward, His glory is my reward.

One of the most important things to remember right now is to preserve the work. … I am writing this as if I am still working among my people group.

I thank you all so much for your prayers and support. Surely your reward in Heaven will be great. Thank you for investing in my life and spiritual well being. Keep sending missionaries out. Keep raising up fine young pastors.

In regards to any service, keep it small and simple. Yes simple, just preach the gospel. Be bold and preach the life saving, life changing, forever eternal GOSPEL. Give glory and honor to our Father.

The Missionary Heart

Care more than some think is wise.

Risk more than some think is safe.

Dream more than some think is practical.

Expect more than some think is possible.

I was called not to comfort or success but to obedience.

There is no joy outside of knowing Jesus and serving Him. I love you two and my church family.

In His care,

Salaam, Karen

(Source: Baptist Press News, March 24, 2004)

At her funeral, Pastor Roger Spradlin asked, “Does it pay to serve God … [when] kindness is greeted by a hail of bullets?” Then he gave the answer: “It pays if you value the attention of God more than the approval of men. It pays if you value others more than yourself,” he said. “If we were to ask Karen, she would say, ‘Oh yes!’”

The world doesn’t understand Catherine Faires, and it doesn’t understand Karen Watson either. But that’s okay, it doesn’t really matter what the world thinks. The only thing that matters is knowing Jesus.

When the fiery trials come, we have the Word of God as our hope and strength. Fear not and trust in Him. Rejoice in Christ whom having not seen, we love. And by loving and believing in him, we are even now receiving the salvation of our souls. That counts for more than life or death. Knowing Christ is life. Compared to that, living or dying is a small thing indeed. Karen Watson has seen him face to face. Her joy is complete. This is God’s promise to his faithful children. We love Christ now; we will see him later. We trust Christ now; we will see him face to face. We have joy now, and soon our joy will be made complete. Amen.

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