Tuesday, July 3, 2018

1 Peter 2:16

The specter of “The Law” hangs over Peter’s first letter in the New Testament. Christianity began as a sect of Judaism, but it rejected some of its most basic tenets, particularly the elaborate system of rules and social conventions that governed Jewish life. Christianity, unlike most religions, doesn’t believe human beings can earn our own salvation. There are no five pillars, like in Islam, or four noble truths, like in Buddhism, and the religious law of the Old Testament no longer applies to us. Christians believe that our actions cannot save us. Only God can. 

Jesus did the work. All we have to do is accept his sacrifice. That’s the freedom the gospel provides. The question, which both Peter and Paul wrestled with in their letters, is what to do with that freedom:
Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.  
- 1 Peter 2:16 
If your sins are forgiven, then you can sin all you want without worrying about the eternal consequences. In that scenario, it’s easy to see how Christianity becomes the first step to anarchy. How do you control people’s behavior if their salvation is guaranteed? Why shouldn’t they do whatever they want? After all, all they have to do is say a prayer before they die, and all the wrong they do in their life is washed away. So what, then, is the upside to being a servant of God?

Billy Joel summed it up on “Only the Good Die Young”:
They say there’s a heaven for those who will wait /
Some say it’s better but I say it ain’t /
I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints /
The sinners are much more fun.  

The Christian response is simple. Sinning only looks like more fun:
“I have the right do anything,” you say -- but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything” -- but not everything is constructive.  
- 1 Corinthians 10:23 
I wouldn’t have understood this before I became a Christian. Now, five years later, I view deathbed conversions differently. It’s good that those people were saved, but they didn’t get one over on anyone else. They wasted their entire lives!

Sex is a perfect example. American society is obsessed with sex, so waiting for marriage to have sex seems insane. I didn’t practice abstinence before I converted, and I didn’t want to give up sex once I became a Christian. It’s a lot to get your head around. I grew up believing that sexual repression was at the root of a lot of misery. As long as you aren’t hurting anyone, what’s the big deal?

What I eventually realized is that sex is never just about sex. The reason Americans are so obsessed with our sexuality is because we get our identity from it. Sex is fun, but half the fun is the validation you get from it. That’s why people brag about it. In our culture, a man who can’t get laid is barely a man at all.

To be sure, plenty of Christians still have premarital sex, and there’s grace for them. That’s the whole point of the gospel. However, as Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. There are real benefits to dating without sex. The point of dating in the Christian world isn’t to get laid. It’s to get married. Me and my wife dated for seven months before we got engaged, and we were married a year and a half after we first met. Would that have happened if we were having sex? No.

Sex hangs over dating in the secular world. As a guy, you go on a date and you are immediately thinking - how can I get in her pants? If she’s not having sex with me, how quickly do I write her off? What happens if we don’t have sexual chemistry? It’s a lot of pressure! Sex makes dating more complicated. It makes it harder to break up with someone, and it blinds you to other issues. That doesn’t even get into the risk of STD’s, or an unwanted pregnancy.

The key point is there are still consequences for your actions, even if they aren’t eternal. As a Christian, I can rob a bank and still go to heaven. That doesn’t mean I won’t go to jail, though. Similarly, I can sleep around with whoever I want, but I will leave heartbreak in my wake, and it will add a lot of unnecessary drama to my life. I became a Christian at 25 and got married at 29. I don’t look at it like I had more fun in my early 20’s than my friends who became Christians in high school and got married after college. I look at it like I would be so much farther ahead in my life if I hadn’t wasted so much time. If you have kids in your early 20s, they will be out of your house by the time you are in your mid-40s! If I have kids, I’m probably going to be paying for their college when I’m in my mid 50’s instead of saving for retirement.

The American way of life is the exact opposite of the culture Jesus grew up in. We don’t want anyone telling us what to do, or judging us for our decisions. The Old Testament Jews believed that living by a strict religious code was the only way to please God. Americans believe that not living by your own desires limits your potential. Christianity is the middle ground: you don’t have to follow God’s commands, but you would be better off if you did.

Christians call God "The Father" because our relationship with Him is meant to mirror our relationship with our fathers. A good father loves his kids no matter, but he still instructs and disciplines them because it’s ultimately for their own good. Kids can’t raise themselves. They don’t want to study or eat well or clean their room or go to sleep at a certain time. Not only are those things worth doing in and of themselves, but doing them at an early age instills disciple that will help them in the rest of their lives. No one really wants to deal with a kid who was spoiled by their parents, particularly when they get older.
Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.  
- Proverbs 13:24 
Swallowing your pride is a huge part of being a Christian. You have to accept that you don’t have all the answers. It’s a different kind of freedom than the one our society offers:
Here’s the thing about defining your own concept of existence: what if you are wrong? Why would you expect to be able to come up with a good answer, much less the right one? The universe is more complicated than we could ever hope to understand. Christians don’t need to worry about that. The answers are given to us.

There are parts of the Bible I don’t understand, and I’m not sure why it prohibits certain things. It doesn’t matter. I’m willing to take God at His word. Giving up control is the ultimate freedom in life. I trust that God knows what’s good for me, and that He has a plan for my life. Before I became a Christian, I was a drug addict working a dead end job. There’s no way I’d be where I am today without the gospel.

Here’s the secret, though: success won’t make you happy. My identity is in Christ, not in my career, my relationships, or my bank account.
I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what is is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.  
- Philippians 4:11-13

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

1 Peter 2:13

In his first letter in the New Testament, Peter emphasized the importance of Christians being a nation apart. He didn’t want them involved in politics. They had more important things to worry about: he wanted them to minister to their neighbors and spread the gospel. He gets even more explicit later in the letter in what is one of the most challenging passages in Scripture for American readers:
Submit yourselves to the Lord's sake to every human authority, whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and commend those who do right.  
- 1 Peter 2:13-14 
What he’s saying goes against everything our country is about. If the Founding Fathers had taken Peter’s advice, the U.S. would not exist. The notion of submitting to authority is alien to us. The whole point of a democracy is that we are the authority. Americans rule ourselves, or at least we think we do. Most of us, if we believe in God, consider it a God-given right.

Americans believe in a progressive view of history, with all of human history building towards the present. As the Cold War ended, a political scientist named Francis Fukuyama summed up the spirit of the age with a book called “The End of History and The Last Man”. His argument was that capitalist democracies had shown themselves to be the best system of government, so nothing would replace them as they spread to every corner of the globe. They were the final step of human social evolution. Heaven, in other words, had come to Earth.

In the Hollywood version of his story, Peter leads a revolution that overthrows the Roman Emperor and restores the Republic. The Emperor had absolute power in ways most modern-day despots could only dream about. He was literally worshipped as a god. Imagine North Korea, except if they ruled the entire known world, and had done so for as long as anyone could remember. Letting the Emperor “win” seems like cowardice at best, and outright evil at worst. Should Germans in the 1930s not have resisted the Nazis? Should Eastern Europeans not have fought against the Soviets?

These were not hypothetical questions to Peter, or to the people he was writing to. The Romans had not only crucified Jesus, they were a few years away from a devastating wave of persecutions that would nearly destroy the new religion. Peter, as the leader of the church in Rome, was crucified soon after writing this letter. He would have been well within his rights, at least in our understanding, to make common cause with the Jewish rebels in Israel who were planning a long and bloody uprising. They were the good guys. Surely God was on their side.

Instead, Peter is essentially telling his readers to collaborate. Christianity has often been accused of being nothing more than a tool of the elites to keep people content, and it’s easy to read this passage as that. Don’t worry about how you are being exploited - submit to authority and receive a prize when you die. That’s what Karl Marx meant when he called religion “the opiate of the masses”. In Animal Farm, George Orwell mocks Christianity with the character of Moses, the raven whom the human master uses to lie to his animals:
The pigs had an even harder struggle to counteract the lies put about by Moses, the tame raven. Moses, who was Mr. Jones’ special pet, was a spy and a tale-bearer, but he was also a clever talker. He claimed to know the existence of a mysterious country called Sugarcandy Mountain, to which all animals went when they died. It was situated somewhere up in the sky, a little distance beyond the clouds. In Sugarcandy Mountain, it was Sunday seven days a week, clover was in season all year round, and limp sugar and linseed cake grew on the hedges. The animals hated Moses because he told tales and did no work, but some of them believed in Sugarcandy Mountain, and the pigs had to argue very hard to persuade them that there was no such place. 
There are many American politicians, on both sides of the aisle, who act like Moses the raven. They claim to be Christians but show little evidence of it in their personal lives. Religion is a means to an end for them, whether it’s an underlying ideological goal or simply power for its own sake. They don’t believe in Jesus anymore than Moses believed in Sugarcandy Mountain. Who needs God when you have the power of a god at your fingertips? There probably aren’t many genuine believers in the highest corridors of power. In that sense, Washington D.C. and New York City aren’t much different than Imperial Rome.

However, if religion is the opiate of the masses, the reverse is even more true: power is the opiate of the elites. Power is a drug. It consumes your life, it doesn’t last, and it always leaves you wanting more. There aren’t many politicians who get a taste of power and decide to walk away. They stay in the game as long as they possibly can: it gives meaning and purpose to their lives. That’s why U.S. Senators run for re-elections in their 80s. In the end, though, the world chews them up and spits them out, just as it does everyone else. No matter how much power you get, you can’t cheat death. Immortality isn’t possible for any human. As Peter wrote earlier in this letter: “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.”

Peter had no power compared to the Romans who killed him. The Emperor and his minions spent their lives scheming and plotting to climb the ladder and achieve ultimate power. None of it makes a difference now. The Roman Emperors are just names on a paper, and faded etchings on stones. Peter was playing a much longer game than any of them. 300 years after his death, Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. Peter lead no Christian armies in the same sense that Joshua lead the Jewish armies after the death of Moses and Abu Bakr lead Islamic armies after the death of Mohammed, yet his religion was still able to take over Rome from the inside-out.

Power is like any other form of worldly success. In America, we measure success by how much money you make, how far you advance in your career, and how famous you become. Yet you can’t take any of that stuff with you when you die:

And then she had one more thing to teach me -- then she said now it all goes back in the box. All those houses and hotels, all the railroads and utility companies, all that property, and all that wonderful money. None of it was really yours. It was around along time before you sat down at the board, and it will be here after you are gone.  
Players come and players go, but it all goes back in the box: houses and cars, titles and clothes, even your body. Because the fact is everything I clutch and consume and hold is going to go back in the box, and I’m going to lose it all. You have to ask yourself when you get that ultimate promotion, make the ultimate purchase, when you have climbed the ladder to the highest point of success and the thrill wears off ... and it will wear off. Then what? How long do you have to walk down that road before you see where it leads? Surely you will understand it will never be enough. 
Psychologists call it “the hedonic treadmill”: humans quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative life changes. Once you get past a certain level of bare sustenance, no additional money is going to make you happy. We just get used to it after awhile. It becomes the new normal, and all the problems you had before come rearing back, except they are exacerbated by the fact that everyone around you looks at you like a paycheck.

What you realize as you get older is that time is the most precious resource you have. There just isn’t enough time to do everything you want. Human beings can’t have it all. So then it becomes a matter of what you are going to invest in. Are you going to invest in your career, or in your family and the people around you? There’s nothing wrong with trying to do your job to the best of your abilities, but ambition for its own sake will only leave you empty. That has been one of the big lessons for me in my first year of marriage. I could always watch another basketball game, or network with more people in the industry. Those things would make me better at my job, but they would come at the cost of time with my wife. How you spend your time is what economists would call a “revealed preference”. You have to decide what your priorities are.

As a Christian, I have to trust that God will provide for me, and that whatever happens to the U.S. is part of His plan. We cannot control the world, no matter what the media may tell us. The forces of history are much bigger than any one person, or any one nation. All we can really control is our own lives, and the way we interact with the people around us. Let hyper-ambitious people play the game of thrones in D.C., or try to be a billionaire in NYC, or be famous in L.A, or chase a vision of a techno-utopia in San Francisco. None of that will make them happy:
The daily activities most associated with happiness are sex, socializing after work and having dinner with others. The daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting. According to one study, joining a group that meets even just once a month produces the same happiness gain as doubling your income. [Emphasis added] According to another, being married produces a psychic gain equivalent to more than $100,000 a year.  
The overall impression from this research is that economic and professional success exists on the surface of life, and that they emerge out of interpersonal relationships, which are much deeper and more important. 
There are a lot of unhappy people who throw themselves into politics and look for it to solve their own personal problems. It never will. Human beings just aren’t wired that way. We are micro-creatures in a macro-world. Invest in community instead of yourself, and love your neighbor. That’s the Christian way of life in a nutshell. Maybe it’s for suckers. Or maybe the real suckers are the ones who give their lives to a game they can’t win.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on Earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 
- Matthew 6:19-21

Thursday, March 8, 2018

1 Peter 2:5-9

Peter spends a lot of his first letter in the New Testament drawing boundary lines between Christianity and Judaism. The first Christians were Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah their people had been waiting for. Peter’s job was to turn them into a new people. He references his childhood religion to explain how this new religion was going to work. Christians were tearing down the old building, but they were keeping the foundation in place:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

- 1 Peter 2:9 
Israel was supposed to be all those things. The Jews were chosen by God. He rescued them from slavery in Egypt and gave them the Promised Land so they could create a holy nation of priests. Israel wasn’t supposed to be like the countries around them. They were to live according to religious law. A person who followed the law would be a person worth following. The same thing applied on the societal level. The problem was no flawed human being (or society) could. The Old Testament is the story of Israel continually falling short of the standard God set for them, and then being redeemed anyway.

There was a system to receive forgiveness for breaking the law. A priest would offer a domesticated animal (like a lamb, goat, or bull) as a sacrifice on behalf of a sinner, and the blood of the animal would cleanse them of their sins. The Temple in Jerusalem was an assembly line where thousands of animals were sacrificed every year. PETA would have been horrified. Priests offered daily sacrifices on behalf of themselves and then society at large, while the big holidays saw Jews from all over the world return to be purified.

Christians call Jesus “the lamb of God” (1 Peter 1:19) because he was God’s sacrifice for us. It was an entirely different type of sacrifice than what had come before. Jesus followed the law to every last detail: he lived the perfect life we never could. His sacrifice changed the relationship between God and His people, making a new type of society possible:
Now there have been many of these priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.  
Such a high priest truly meets our need -- one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once and for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men in all their weakness; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.   
- Hebrews 7:23-28 
The blood of an animal only covered someone once since they only died once. The blood of Jesus covers people permanently since he rose from the dead and now lives forever. His sacrifice atones for every sin a person committed in the past, present, and future. A Jew who accepted that sacrifice became a Christian. They no longer needed a priest to be the intermediary between them and God. They could be intermediaries for other people:
You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 
- 1 Peter 2:5 
The Jewish religious leaders were expecting the Messiah to overthrow the Romans and Make Israel Great Again. Jesus came to establish a different kind of kingdom. There was not going to be an Israel 2.0. He did not tell his disciples to create an independent Christian nation. He told them to go out into the nations, live among the people, and spread the gospel. All Christians have to do is “declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness and into his wonderful light.” It sounds unrealistic. That’s it? Shouldn’t there be more to it? How would that ever work? And yet here we are. Every nation that was around at the time of the Gospels is gone. All their armies, all their might, and all their money: none of it could outlast one simple message.

People who think religion is on the wrong side of history don’t understand either. The United States, like the entire Western world, has been getting less religious over the last 50 years. The seeds of that decline were planted during the Enlightenment over 300 years ago. It’s easy to project that decline forward and assume Christianity is doomed. Zoom out to the perspective of 2,000 years, though, and these last few hundred look like more of a minor blip. Christianity has been around 7x longer than the US. It has proven staying power.

The things Peter wrote in his letter might seem archaic and old-fashioned, but people have grappled with his ideas and tried to apply them to their lives for thousands of years. While the interpretations might change over time, there’s always a baseline for them to come back to. The same doesn’t exist in our society. Ideas that were liberal 25 years ago are conservative today. Ones that were commonplace a century ago would be unthinkable these days. The spirit of the age is always changing. There’s no way to know how it will change in the future. We just know that it will.

Modernity is relative. The people of imperial Rome thought of themselves as modern. The court of Augustus Caesar had long since outgrown belief in the Roman gods. They would have laughed at the idea of a primitive religion based around blood sacrifice outlasting their empire. Americans are more advanced than them technologically, but have human beings really changed that much since? Has human nature changed? Has our biology? Maybe the same things that happened to the Romans will happen to us to.

In 500 years, there will still be Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and they will still be reading from the same texts we are reading from. There won’t be Republicans or Democrats. There may not be Americans at all. Winning a political argument means nothing in the big picture. Christians are in the business of winning souls not votes. It does people no good to live by the standards of Christian morality if they don’t accept the sacrifice Jesus made for them. There’s no point in giving them a long list of rules they won’t be able to follow. That’s what went wrong with Israel and the law. Jesus come so that there would be another way.

A Christian’s first loyalty is not to any nation but to God. The line commonly used in the church is that Christians “are in the world but not of the world”. Our identity is based on our relationship to God. Christians are not Americans who believe in Jesus. We are believers who live in America. We want what is best for this country, but our fate is not tied to it. If America falls, Christianity will be fine. Christianity will be around long after America is gone. The Western world losing interest in Christianity says more about the former than the latter. As the Western world has gotten less religious, the birth rates in those countries have all dropped below the replacement level of 2. These countries are dying and they don’t even know it (numbers via the CIA World Factbook):

2 is the replacement level for obvious reasons. The difference between 2.25 and 1.75 doesn't seem like a lot until you start getting into exponential growth over multiple generations. Here are the numbers for five:

2.25^5 (the rate of births) - 2^5 (the rate of deaths) = 25.6
1.75^5 - 2^5 = -15.18

The numbers are even more stark when you look at worldwide fertility rates between religious and secular people:

Secular people just don’t have as many children as religious ones. Mitt Romney has 23 grandchildren. Bill Clinton has 2. Take a look at this family picture, and now imagine each of his grandchildren having a similar picture with their grandchildren, and so on. The numbers start adding up really quickly:

The obvious objection is that religion doesn’t have the same appeal to modern people that it did for our ancestors. Just because religious people have more kids doesn’t mean those kids will stay religious. If a secular lifestyle makes people happier, that lifestyle will win out. However, if that were the case, why are rates of anxiety disorders and mental illness skyrocketing? Why does all the scientific research indicate that Americans are significantly less happy than they were 30 years ago?
“The main cause is a decline in the so-called social capital -- increased loneliness, increased perception of others as untrustworthy and unfair,” said Stefano Bartolini, one of the authors of the study. “Social contacts have worsened, people have less and less relationships among neighbors, relatives, and friends.” 
Translated into Christianese, what he is saying is that people aren’t living in community anymore. They have fewer friends and smaller families. Falling birthrates means fewer people have siblings, which means their kids will have fewer aunts, uncles, and cousins. I’ve seen the difference first-hand. I was the only child in a non-religious family, while my wife was one of four children in a Christian one. She has deep relationships with each of her three siblings. Dinner with her family takes forever just because there are so many different people there. Dinner with my family is over in an hour. It’s just me and mom. At a certain point, there’s only so much two people can say to each other.

My wife’s two younger siblings are still in school. They may not stay in the faith as they get older. There’s no way to know. Here’s the thing, though. The way exponential growth works means that it doesn’t matter how many kids leave the faith. As long as some stay, they will have more kids than their less religious siblings. Think of it like a family tree. The branches who stay faithful will have branches of their own. The ones that don’t will wither and die away:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes to that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.   
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.  
- John 15:1-6 
Before I became a Christian, I thought church was like a weekly Ted Cruz rally, with the pastor talking about abortion and the Supreme Court. That couldn’t have been farther from the truth. The New York Times spends more time talking about Christianity than Christians spend talking about the New York Times. The people at my church talk about politics less than society at large does. There are people who voted for Bernie Sanders and people who voted for Donald Trump. It doesn’t really matter. Those things don’t divide us. America isn’t really our country. We don’t need to take it back. We are part of a better one.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

1 Peter 1:18-19

In his first letter in the New Testament, Peter encourages Christians to love their fellow believers and be involved in their lives. He didn’t want them to just sit in church once a week. He wanted them to know the people at the church. The goal was for the church to be the foundation of a genuine Christian community. His letters were the closest thing to an instruction manual for how to build one. The first generation of Christians didn’t have much else to go on. They were starting a religion from scratch.

Christianity has its roots in Judaism, but the two don’t have that much in common. You can see that in this letter, where Peter has some fighting words for his childhood faith:
For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.  
- 1 Peter 1:18-19 
Religious law was the foundation of the Jewish way of life. It had been given to them during their exodus out of Egypt, and they had applied and interpreted it to their lives for more than 1,000 years. The law was the covenant between them and God. He would make them His people if they followed His rules. They were supposed to faithful stewards of the promised land, and a model for the rest of the world. The Ten Commandments were just the beginning. There were a whole series of customs and traditions that covered everything they did, no matter how small. Orthodox Jews keep many to this day.

The law was the glue that held Jewish society together. Israel was never an independent kingdom for long. It was ruled at different times by Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and Rome. The Jewish people were conquered, enslaved, and exiled. They should have disappeared from history like the Canaanites, Philistines, and every other smaller tribe from that period. The law allowed them to maintain a Jewish identity regardless of who was in charge, or what country they lived in. Following so many rules kept them separate from their neighbors and prevented them from assimilating into a broader society.

The law was how they defined themselves as a people. The more a person followed the law, the more Jewish they were. Holiness became a status competition in their society. The people at the top were constantly trying to outdo each other in terms of how much they fasted and gave to charity. Everything was for show. They claimed to be doing it for God when they were really doing it for themselves. That attitude is what Jesus was talking about when he describes the right way to pray:
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.  
- Matthew 6:2-5 
It didn’t matter whether other people thought they were holy, and it certainly didn’t matter if other people were holier than them. The whole competition was pointless. The law was designed to compare people to a holy and perfect God, not each other. No human being could follow the law completely because no human being is perfect. Gandhi fought for segregation in South Africa. Martin Luther King Jr. cheated on his wife. Nelson Mandela was one of the founders of a group that wrapped people in tires and burned them alive. There are no saints in this world. Put anyone on a pedestal and they will end up disappointing you.

We can’t even keep the Ten Commandments. Try to imagine a person who has never lied, lusted, or coveted after something. It’s impossible. Flawed human beings should not be a benchmark for righteousness. Who cares if you scored 10 more points than someone else on a test if they scored a 40? You still failed. Trying to follow the law should instill humility, not pride:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of what I get.’  
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’  
I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.  
- Luke 18:9-14 
The Pharisees and tax collectors were on opposite ends of the social spectrum. The Pharisees were leaders of a movement devoted to a strict understanding of the law. When the Romans tried to make the Jews worship the Emperor as a god, a blatant violation of the First Commandment (Thou shall have no other gods before me), the Pharisees lead the pushback. The tax collectors worked for the Roman equivalent of the IRS. Many of them lined their own pockets before sending the money back to Rome. They were collaborators who were selling out their neighbors to foreigners and making themselves rich in the process. The Pharisees were the best of the best, and the tax collectors were the worst of the worst. Jesus didn’t care. All he cared about was their hearts.

The biggest distinction between Christianity and Judaism is the way they view salvation. The Pharisees believed they became righteous through their deeds. Christians believe we can’t become righteous. That can only be given to us by God. Salvation can be accepted or refused by anyone, whether they are a Pharisee or a tax collector or anywhere in between. No one is so holy they don’t need it, or so evil they can’t receive it. It’s a truly radical definition of equality.

Every human being falls short in comparison to the glory of God, and there’s nothing we can do to make up the difference. The gap is too wide. Competing to be holy is pointless because we can never be God. The only thing He needs from us is to recognize that. It’s only when we accept that we need help that we can take it. God does all the work. We are just along for the ride. Trying to earn our own salvation becomes, as Peter said, “an empty way of life”.

Before I became a Christian, my view of it was similar to the premise of the TV show The Good Place. Everyone was supposed to be as good as possible, and then, at the end of our lives, all our actions would be weighed to see if we were a good or a bad person:

Jesus freed us from that burden. He lived the perfect and sinless life we never could. He never broke a commandment. He never broke even the most obscure passage from Leviticus and Deuteronomy. He is the only human being worthy of being worshipped because he wasn’t just a human being. He was the son of God. Jesus truly was a good person. Everyone else is bad. We don’t have to pretend to be something we are not. That was the point of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. We can fool other people, but we can’t fool God. He can see right through us, and He loved us anyway. 

Humans build societies like pyramids. There are a few people on top, and a great mass of people on the bottom trying to get there. Everything is a competition, and life is about out-competing others to advance. The Pharisees ruled a society where advancement came from being (or at least seeming) righteous, but it was not a righteous society. There were still people on bottom, and there were still people on top. Christianity is different because there’s nowhere to advance. God is on top and we are all at the same level.

Adding God to the picture is the only way to create equality between people. There will always be people who are more successful than you, who are smarter than you, richer than you, more attractive than you, and even more righteous than you. The reverse is also true. None of us are really equal by the world’s standards. We are only equal when we look at ourselves by God’s.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

1 Peter 1:22

In his first letter in the New Testament, Peter defines Christians as people who build their identity on Jesus Christ, and his sacrifice on the cross. That is only the beginning. Christianity is about more than what you believe. It’s a way of life. Peter wasn’t just converting random people he met along the road and then sending them on their way. They had to be taught, just like Jesus taught him, and they had to be plugged into a local church. Christianity is not something you can do alone. It’s a communal religion.

Building your identity on Christ changes how you relate to other people. Peter talks about it in the next section of the letter:
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.  
- 1 Peter 1:22 
It’s hard to love sincerely without a stable identity. Most Americans define ourselves through our relationships to other people, which is why we are so insecure. We are someone’s spouse, parent, child, sibling, and friend. We don’t know who we are without them. Loving someone else because of how they make you feel about yourself is one of the most selfish things you can do.

We all do it. I love my wife, and I love the way she looks. There is nothing wrong with that. The problem is when I love the way she looks because of how it makes other people look at me. Instead of wanting her to be happy with who she is, I want her to look a certain way for the sake of my own ego. It’s not the basis for a healthy marriage.

In those moments, I have to remind myself where my identity comes from. It doesn’t matter how other people look at me. It doesn’t even matter how my wife does. Our relationship is not the most important thing about me. My relationship with Jesus is. I can’t love her the way she needs me to if I need her love to be happy. Both people in a relationship have to be willing to say no to the other. One of two things happen when you get your identity from your spouse: either you let them walk all over you or you try to control them. You become more worried about losing them than loving them. It’s why parents spoil their children: they want to be their friends instead of doing what’s best for them. That mentality poisons relationships.
Anyone who loves their father or more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. 
- Matthew 10:37-39
The movie I, Tonya is about a co-dependent relationship. It tells the story of the disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding, and the heart of that story is her relationship with her ex-husband.

The marriage was doomed from the start. Tonya needed a man to give her the affirmation she never got from her mother. Her husband needed a woman to give him the validation he never got from society. He didn’t have much else going on besides being married to an Olympic figure skater. When she tries to leave him, he threatens to kill himself. They were looking for things in each other that they could only get from Jesus.
Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  
- 1 John 4:8-11 
There are two places we can look for love: from God or each other. The problem with depending on someone else for love is eventually they run out. They aren’t going to be able to fill all of our needs. They have needs of their own. We need perfection. We need God.

Knowing God changes you. You start to view other people differently. You don’t need as much from them. Their opinion becomes less important. You can love them not because of what they do for you but because they need it. You can give instead of take. Love goes from something you keep for yourself to something you give away. We are all on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean: we are dying of thirst and there is water all around us. We just need someone who can show us how to drink it.
Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life. 
- John 4:14
I didn’t really see the point of church before I became a Christian. It seemed like a boring thing people did because they felt like they had to. I preferred to watch football. Church isn’t a building, and it’s not an activity either. A church is ultimately just the people in it. You don’t go to hear a sermon. You go to experience the love of God with other people.
For where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.  
- Matthew 18:20 
At our church, people get together once a week in a smaller group in someone’s home to hang out, talk about their lives, study the Bible, and worship together. We call it a lifegroup. Other churches call it community group, or home group, or home church. The name doesn’t matter. Those small gatherings are the heart of the church. It’s hard to get to know people on Sunday mornings. There are a lot of people competing for your attention, and everyone has a million things to do after the service. You can go to the same church once a week for years and not really know anyone there, or be known by someone else. There’s no real point in doing that. Doing that misses the whole point.

I will never forget the first time I went to a lifegroup. It was unlike anything I had ever been part of before. I had three takeaways:

1. It was like a party, except with no alcohol. Alcohol used to be my crutch in social situations, particularly when I didn’t know people. I drank to lower my guard. I was self-conscious without it. I couldn’t enjoy myself without worrying about what other people were thinking about me. I felt like I was performing all the time. It was exhausting.

2. No one there had an agenda. The only reason me and my friends would even go to a party was to try and hook up with a girl there. We viewed the people we met, and each other, transactionally. What was the point of hanging out with random married people? We had moves to make.

3. When everyone started singing about Jesus, and how they loved each other, all I could think was: this is a cult. Who are these people? Why are they so nice to each other? And why are they so nice to me?

The only part of the night where I felt comfortable came at the end, when we split off into pairs and prayed for each other. Talking to just one other person felt less overwhelming. I prayed with a guy named Matt. He was nice, but he wasn’t weird about it. We mostly talked about college football.

I got to know a different guy every time I came back, but it still took me awhile to feel at ease in the group setting. Lifegroup ended at 9:00 PM, and I was out the door by 9:05. Things started to change when I began focusing less on myself and more on everybody else. As I learned more about them, and their lives, and what they were going through, I started caring more about them. Spend enough time with people and they go from strangers to acquaintances to friends. I went from being nervous about lifegroup to looking forward to it. It feels good to be somewhere where everyone cares about you. Sometimes you just want to go to a place where everybody knows your name.

It's kind of telling that the song was the theme for a TV show about a bar. Americans don’t really have a place outside of work where we can be known by a community of people. The closest things we have are bars, clubs, and social media. Looking for identity in those places leads to alcoholism at best and crippling depression at worst. Probably both.
Cuz them dudes that you went to school with / will catch you while you in your new whip / and turn your brains into Cool Whip / Dudes that you running around getting ass with / ain't gonna help you do nothing but carry your casket / Got the nerve to ask Kiss why I smoke so much / And how I'm such a young dude that seem to know so much. 
- Jadakiss
College has taken the role of church in our society. That’s where we expect to meet our closest friends, our future spouses, and learn about our place in the world. The reason most people say college was the best time in their lives is because it was the last time they were in a genuine community.

The problem is that it can’t last, and it costs more than we can afford. Giving 10% to a church is nothing compared to making student loan payments. They will garnish your Social Security checks to pay your student loans. You can’t get out of paying them unless you literally die, and even then they might go after your co-signers. That’s the way the world looks at you. You want anything different and you better look somewhere else. The only thing free in this world is the grace of God.

I had a great time in college, but I would be pretty lonely if I was still depending on the friends I met there for community. They are all over the world, and they are all in different seasons of their lives. Human beings are meant to live in close-knit communities. We all need a church. Not having one is why we are so unhappy.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

1 Peter 1:13

Peter starts his first letter in the New Testament by consoling his readers. Being a Christian wasn’t easy in those days. Most of the first Christians were Jews, and they had to leave behind their friends and family to practice their new religion. Many had been driven from their homes and forced into exile. It was enough to make anyone bitter. Peter encourages them not to dwell on the past, and to hold onto the promises of the gospel instead. They had to live out their faith when times were tough.

But what did that look like practically? How should their beliefs impact their daily lives? What did being a Christian really mean? Peter dives into those questions in the next section of the letter.
Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.  
- 1 Peter 1:13 
We have a hard time understanding what it means to worship Jesus Christ because we think of worship as something that only happens in a church on Sunday morning. Human beings are wired to worship. We are worshipping something each and every day, and in every decision we make. It doesn’t have to be God. Worshipping is treating something like a god. You treat something like a god when you put your hope in it, when your relationship with it is the most important thing in your life, and when you build your identity on it.

Everyone puts their hope in something. Just ask yourself: what makes me a worthwhile person? Or, what has to happen for me to become a worthwhile person? What defines you as a human being? We all have an answer. We all need an identity.

Before I became a Christian, work was my god. I loved my job, and how it made me feel. People were impressed when I told them what I did. It gave me a feeling of accomplishment, like I had done something with my life. No matter what else was going on, I could fall back on my job. It gave me security. Everyone needs to make a living, but it was more than that. My job was my identity. I didn’t know what I would be without it. When you identify as something, you give it power over you. You feel like you can’t lose it. I treated work like a matter of life and death. I was constantly worrying about what I would write, whether it would be good enough, and whether people would like it. 

Anxiety comes from worrying about things we can’t control, and that’s what I spent most of my time doing. I was hardly the only one. The numbers from this New York Times article are staggering:
In its annual survey of students, the American College Health Association found a significant increase -- to 62 percent in 2016 from 50 percent in 2011 -- of undergraduates reporting “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year. Surveys that look at symptoms related to anxiety are also telling. In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA began asking incoming college freshman if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent. Those numbers -- combined with a doubling of hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers over the last 10 years, with the highest rates occurring soon after they returned to school each fall -- came as little surprise to high school administrators across the country, who increasingly report a glut of anxious, overwhelmed students. 
There are a million reasons for the rise of anxiety, but the underlying sources is the same. We don’t give kids stable identities. They are terrified of failure because they think failure defines who they are as people. I thought this comment from the teenager profiled in the New York Times piece was particularly revealing:
He had already spent weeks challenging his own thinking, which often persuaded him that if he failed a single quiz at school, “then I’ll get a bad grade in the class, I won’t get into the college I want, I won’t get a good job and I’ll be a total failure.” 
One of the most liberating moments in my life came a few months after I became a Christian. I was praying for someone who was struggling after breaking up with his girlfriend. I could see what was happening because it’s always easier to diagnose someone else’s problems. He had built his identity on that relationship. Dating her had given him purpose in his life. I told him he was defined by his relationship with Jesus Christ, not any human being. At that moment, I realized I saw work the way he saw his ex-girlfriend. If I got fired, I would be exactly where he was.

I had to change the way I saw myself. My life still had meaning if I got fired, and I didn’t make it as a writer. It still had meaning if I didn’t have a cool job. It had meaning if I didn’t have one at all. I wasn’t a writer who practiced Christianity. I was a Christian who happened to write. I had spent all my life pushing myself to be successful, but I didn’t have to anymore. I was free.
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. 
-- Matthew 7:24-27 
If your house is built on sand, you should be anxious. When you base your identity on how much money you have, and how far you advance in your career, you are basing your view of yourself on something that can be taken away from you at any time. You can get fired. Your job can be downsized. Your savings can be wiped out in the stock market. There are no guarantees, no matter how hard you work. The things you were counting on to get you through tough times may not be there when you need them. How could you not worry?
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on Earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  
-- Matthew 6:19-21 
There’s a big difference between deciding something with your head, and believing it with your heart. There are still days where I get my self-worth from my job, and I start comparing myself to other people. One of the most challenging things I’ve felt like I had to pray for recently is for Kevin O’Connor, one of the other basketball writers at The Ringer, to be more successful than me. I used to be really competitive with other writers. I would read their articles and look for things I could have done better instead of trying to learn from them. I didn’t want anyone else to be better than me because I got security from the idea that I was the best. When your identity is grounded in Christ, you don’t have to be better than other people to feel good about yourself. You can build people up instead of trying to tear them down.

There are so many negative habits and mindsets that I’ve had to unlearn as I’ve walked with God. That’s why praying and spending time with God every day is so important. Building a house takes time, and you have to partner with God at every step. That’s what Peter is telling his readers. Set your hope in Jesus. Define yourself by your relationship to him. Build your house on a rock.

Monday, November 27, 2017

1 Peter 1:1-11

First Peter was written on the eve of war. It had been more than 30 years since the events of the Gospels, and Christians were being hunted down left and right. The other Jews thought they were heretics, while the Romans thought they were all troublemakers. Israel was a Roman province, and revolution was in the air. The first Christians couldn’t stay, but they had nowhere to go. They had enemies behind them and enemies in front of them, and no friends on either side.

Peter writes “to the exiles scattered throughout the [Roman] provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia [modern-day Turkey]” (1 Peter 1:1). He starts by reminding them that what they lost didn’t compare to what they gained:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.  
- 1 Peter 1:3-4 

Peter is trying to separate politics and religion in the minds of his people. The deliverance they received was not what they were expecting. They grew up believing the Messiah would return Israel to the days of David and Solomon, when they were one of the most powerful kingdoms in the Middle East. The Jews were waiting for their version of Julius Caesar, and their desire for power blinded them. No political victory is ever permanent. Nations rise to the top, but they don’t stay there forever. Israel had been ruled by the Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians before the Romans, and they would be ruled by many others after. It didn’t matter who the king was anymore. Jesus hadn’t come to play the game of thrones. He had come to end it.

It’s a lesson Americans need to learn. Like the Israelites, we have always thought we had a special destiny. We were taught that the course of history had been building to this moment, when America spread democracy, liberty and tolerance to people in every corner of the globe. America is the new Rome. We treat the President in much the same way as the Romans treated the Emperor, and we have convinced ourselves that the fate of mankind is in the balance every four years. Our elections don’t just decide which political party controls the federal bureaucracy in Washington D.C. The American people had been given a solemn responsibility to pick the leader of the free world.

The entire thing is a religious spectacle. The ballot box is the church, and the politicians are the preachers. When it is all over, the nation comes together and listens to a sermon from the new President. This is from George W. Bush’s inaugural address in 2004:
America’s vital interests and deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and Earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time. 
There was less talk of God when Barack Obama won in 2008, but the overall message remained. His speech on Election Night was a call for spiritual revival:
And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world -- our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down -- we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security -- we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright -- tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope. 
I was an organizer for the Obama campaign in the summer of 2008. Before we started, we had a three-day orientation where we got a crash course in campaign strategy. The goal was to contact, either on the phone or in person, every person in every battleground state whom their database indicated was a potential voter. The only way to do that was with an army of volunteers. Our job was to find and train them. To get them to devote months of their lives for no pay, we had to offer them more than politics. We had to offer a purpose. It was a lot like being a missionary. We had to show people how we were changed by working in the campaign. We spent those three days crafting our stories. How had Barack come into our lives? How had he touched us?

A presidential campaign has to inspire voters, and turn the candidate into a symbol of something greater than themselves. Electing Obama was supposed to be the next step in America’s journey towards racial equality. Hillary Clinton’s election was sold the same way, except for women. Instead, a country raised on TV and movies found out that life doesn’t always turn out like it does on the big screen. Election Night was a profound shock to half of the country. The foundations of their belief system were challenged. How could something like this be happening in 2016? Maybe history went in more than one direction. Maybe progress wasn’t inevitable. Maybe the moral arc of the universe was even longer than we thought. Maybe it didn’t exist at all.

Multiply that despair one hundred fold. That’s how the Israelites felt when their rebellion was crushed by the Romans, a few years after Peter’s letter was written. Caligula had demanded the Jews worship him like a god, and they were certain God would destroy the Roman armies who tried to make them. Surely He would show them favor if they were fighting in His name? The war lasted for seven years, but the outcome was never really in doubt. The Romans had built the most fearsome military machine in human history. Over a million Jews were killed for a cause that was doomed from the beginning. When it was over, the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the center of their religious and political life, was razed to the ground. The Romans began ethnically cleansing Israel and re-settling the Jews throughout their Empire. They would not regain political control of the Promised Land for almost 2,000 years.

Peter didn’t want Christians putting their hope in war. None of it mattered anyway, not in the big picture:
For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For, ‘all people are like grass, and all the glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.’  
- 1 Peter 1:23-24 
The quote is from the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament. One way or another, Peter is right. Either Judgment Day is coming, humans will wipe ourselves out, or the sun will go supernova. Even if we escape to the stars, they will eventually burn out too. If this life is all there is, nothing is forever. However, if it is only a prelude to something greater, we can see it in a new light.
In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.
- 1 Peter 1:6 
This is where Peter puts theory to practice. He is asking these people to rejoice after they had been exiled, their lives had been destroyed, and with the fear of persecution hanging over their head. The only way it makes sense if they really believed God became a human being, walked the Earth and died for their sins.  It was the perfect opportunity to live out the gospel. If the first Christians really had something better waiting for them on the other side, even exile wasn’t so bad. And if they were joyful and thankful in desperate circumstances, their new neighbors would notice. Their actions had to align with their words, or their words wouldn’t mean anything.
These [trials] have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith -- of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire -- may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.  
- 1 Peter 1:7 
You don’t need faith as much when things are going well. It becomes real when you have to depend on it. The Jews weren’t looking for the Messiah in the Golden Age of Israel, when Solomon was king. God sent Jesus when He knew people would listen. Once they heard, He gave them a push out the door. The trauma of exile and persecution, and watching their homeland be destroyed by the Romans, is what shaped Christianity into a global religion. The first Christians couldn’t put their faith in politics. They had been molded into something new.

That is where the analogy to gold comes from. Gold is not pure when it comes out of the ground. It needs to be refined. Modern jewelers use chemicals to remove the other elements that have been mixed in. In Biblical times, they held the gold over a furnace and let the flames strip the imperfections from the metal. Going through fire is what makes gold beautiful. The analogy is simple. We are the gold, the flames are our trials, and God is the craftsman. We can trust God as we go through our trials because He is using them to craft us into something beautiful. The flames are part of the process. They aren’t just happening for no reason. There’s a greater purpose behind them.

The end result is something worth far more than gold. Like everything else in this world, gold perishes. Human beings are created in the image of God, and our souls are eternal. Jesus once asked, “What good is it for someone to gain the world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36) The answer is nothing. Our souls will last a lot longer. God gets more glory from the life of one man than from the rest of His creation combined.

Horatio Spafford wrote the hymn “It Is Well” when he was traveling across the Atlantic Ocean to see his wife, who had survived a shipwreck that killed their four daughters. The lyrics came to him as he passed the spot where they died:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way /
When sorrows like sea billows roll /
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know /
It is well, it is well, with my soul. 
Spafford could hold onto three promises in the face of unimaginable tragedy: his daughters were in a better place, he would see them again, and God would use their death for good. His life is a beautiful example of how Christians can respond to loss. He was a prominent lawyer in Chicago before the tragedy. After he re-united with his wife, they devoted themselves to their faith, had three more kids and moved to Jerusalem, where they founded a ministry that helped people of all religious backgrounds. They ran soup kitchens, orphanages and hospitals, and they were a critical part of relief efforts during World War I. The communal residence where they lived became a symbol of religious reconciliation. After their death, a hotel was built there, and that is where the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the PLO were first negotiated.
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 end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.  
- 1 Peter 1:8-9 
Peter is writing to the second generation of Christians, people who had not seen Jesus themselves or witnessed his miracles. They had learned their faith from people like Peter who had. He had watched Jesus turn water into wine, raise men from the dead and feed thousands of people with a few loaves of bread. And yet, despite everything he saw, he still denied knowing Jesus three times before the crucifixion. Peter knew what these people were going through because he had gone through it himself.

Before he was a disciple, Peter was an uneducated fisherman. Some historians believe he didn’t actually write this letter because of how well it was written. Whoever wrote it had an excellent command of the Greek language, as well as a clear understanding of formal philosophy and logic. It’s as if a high-school dropout wrote a law review article. However, just because Peter shouldn’t have been able to write it doesn’t mean he didn’t. His lack of education was the whole point. Jesus purposely chose common men to spread his message. He didn’t want people thinking there was something special about them. It made what they did even more impressive.
When the [Jewish High Council] saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took that these men had been with Jesus.  
- Acts 4:13 
Peter starts the Bible as a student and ends it as a teacher. Jesus spent most of his ministry personally teaching his 12 disciples. He knew that the spending time with someone is the best way to change their life. The idea was that the disciples would pay it forward. The power of exponential growth did the rest. Peter had disciples, and his disciples had disciples of their own, and the cycle has continued all the way to the present. Every Christian is a link in a chain that goes back 2,000 years. When I became a Christian, an older believer began a Bible study with me. The same thing happened to him, and to the guy who taught him. Faith is a torch passed down from one generation to the next.
Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow.  
- 1 Peter 1:11 
Prophecy was a huge part of early Christianity. When Peter and the other apostles preached in the synagogues, they weren’t just asking people to take them on faith. They were citing Scripture to prove that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies about the Messiah. God had given His people the clues to figure out whether or not Jesus was telling the truth. He wasn’t just going to send His son into the world without the context necessary for people to understand what was happening. The whole thing had to be set up. Take a look at this prophecy from Isaiah, which was written 700 hundred years before Jesus:
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed by our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.  
- Isaiah 53:4-6 
It’s hard for modern Americans to wrap our heads around prophecies. They seem like something out of Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, not real life. Jason Concepcion, my colleague at The Ringer, wrote a beautiful column about the way fantasy stories appeal to a deep need in the human heart:
Think of Harry Potter's story without magic: A child—a baby, really—loses his parents to a car accident. Scarred, physically and psychologically, he goes to live with distant relatives. Resentful of the burden his care puts on them, they bully and ignore him. He sleeps in a storage space filled with spiders under the stairs. Every day, he watches the mail carrier bring in the mail, and he imagines that one of those letters would be for him, calling him away to someplace better, and none of them ever do. Gradually, a darkness, which has always been there inside of him, which he can't express and doesn't understand, grows. And one day, he just decides to walk into the woods, intent on ending his own life. Pulls his jacket tight about him and thinks about his parents. Wonders what they would say if they were there with him now.  
Or think about Game of Thrones without the magic. A boy grows up, never knowing his mother. His father's wife hates him. Desperate for a place to call home and to make his father proud he joins the military. When he's gone, his father and half brother are murdered. An orphan, a refugee from war, on the streets in a foreign land, is sold to a stranger like a piece of furniture by her own brother. 
The Christmas story starts like a fairy tale. A child is born in a manger. His parents are too poor to afford a room at the inn. He is the son of the true king, but he is raised by a carpenter. He grows up and becomes a preacher who challenges the pretender to the throne. His disciples were expecting a triumphant ending, where the Messiah was crowned as the rightful king. Instead, the story takes an unexpected turn. Jesus is betrayed by one of his closest friends. His followers abandon him. He is publicly executed, and he becomes a laughingstock as he dies on the cross. His revolution had failed in humiliating fashion. His story should have ended right there.
It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. 
- Isaiah 49:6 
When this prophecy was written, the Jews were a conquered people being sent into exile in Babylon. It’s a miracle they survived at all. The vast majority of tribes in their position didn’t. The Middle East was the crossroads of the ancient world, and the mighty empires who clashed over it didn’t leave many traces of the people they conquered. Most disappeared from the historical record. The only reason we know about the Canaanites and the Philistines is because they appear in the Bible. Their story ended long ago. There is no modern religion that worships Baal, the god of the Philistines. The Jews were told their God would spread His salvation to the ends of the Earth, and that's exactly what happened. Was that luck? Or providence?

A few years after this letter was written, Peter was killed by the Roman authorities, just like Jesus. He was writing to a few thousand people scattered throughout the Empire. They were the persecuted religious minority of a persecuted religious minority. There was nothing special about them. There was no reason to think Christianity would survive. Unlike Moses and Mohammed, Jesus didn’t die at the head of an army.  He was barely mentioned in the contemporary records. So how did a man who died penniless and alone become the most influential person in human history? And why does his life mirror so many prophecies written hundreds of years before his time? The simplest answer is that we are living inside of a fantasy story. The only thing the first Christians needed was faith. Everything else would take care of itself.