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By Mark Chen

Preached at Life BPC 10.30am service, 2004-02-08

Text: 2 Peter 1:5-8

In the introduction to this series of messages, there was an important question asked: 'How far have I progressed in the process of sanctification, since the day I came to know Christ? What stage have I reached in my growth in the image of Christ?' Meaning, how holy are you and how much are you like Christ now? Are you holier, more Christ-like, and more spiritual this year than you were last year or the year before? These are important questions! Remember, the goal of our religion is not only to be saved and to get to heaven; but the goal is to get into heaven well. Definitely, if we are saved, we are assured a place in eternity - whether we enter first or last place, we'll still get in. But that isn't the point. Scripture tells us that we who are saved are in a race, and we are all competing against ourselves, NOT each other - we're not rivals competing against each other, but the one that we are competing against is ourselves. We know what is good and required of us, but we don't do it. We know what is bad, but we can't help but do it. And that is what Paul says of the Christian struggle in Romans 7: 19 'For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.' This of course, this is not a license for us to sin, but it just goes to show how difficult it is to run this race. But then again, since when has running a race been easy?

The athlete prepares for a race by hours of training and hard work. He has to eat the right kinds of foods to at least keep his weight to a specified class - long-distanced runners are usually leaner with longer muscles whereas sprinters are usually bigger with large hamstrings. The athlete must monitor himself carefully. Some even shave excess body hair to make themselves more streamlined. He has a system. Not only does he spend time monitoring his diet, but he adds to that - training. He trains everyday for a certain number of hours, not only doing his stretches, but lifting weights; and adding to that a system of exercises to increase his distance or his speed. All these work in conjunction to help him win. If he fails to add one of those elements in, he may not be as prepared to run the race. In fact, he would be at a severe disadvantage. 

These things take time to build up. Stamina takes time to build up. But once an athlete has these things under his belt, running races will be increasingly easier - the 2.4 km run he did last year would be of no difficulty to him if he has been training for a 5 km run. Once he is able to conquer the marathon, the half-marathon would be of little difficulty for him. And so he progresses, applying himself as he goes along. Each step of the way with challenges no doubt, but he has his training to back him up. It is tough to become a good athlete.

Which is why, certain athletes feel that they are at a disadvantage, often times resorting to other means of achieving success. Anaerobic steroids, methamphetamines, and other performance enhancing drugs become secrets, or rather, not-so-secrets of success. Time-honored effort and the work ethic are put away. But their triumphs are empty for they haven't been true to themselves.

Let me give another example. A pastry chef has to train and undergo years of apprenticeship before he can qualify to be an under chef, and even years after that before he can be a master. He must first learn to mix the dough, to which he adds the knowledge of how to roll the dough, to which he adds the knowledge of how to shape the dough. Then he must know how to make the fillings. Then he must know at what temperature to bake and for how long. Even a home maker needs years of experience. Our mothers don't become expert cooks overnight. To know how to make a real authentic rendang requires skill and knowledge of spices and how to combine them. But some mothers have a secret recipe. It is called Maggi pre-packed rendang spices - just mix in the meat and fry.

So it is no surprise that with performance enhancing drugs and instant award-winning seasonings, Christians often look for the easy way out to grow spiritually. With such secrets to winning races and creating the perfect meal, what then is the secret to spiritual growth? Well, there really isn't a secret. The recipe for spiritual maturity and the regime for spiritual growth are listed quite clearly in our passage this morning. It is a tough regime - there are no short cuts. We see here that to grow spiritually, not only do you need faith, but you need virtue. And on top of that, knowledge, followed by temperance, patience, and so on. No secret, just hard work. 

And when you have these things, and when they abound in you, according to verse 8, you will neither be barren nor unfruitful in your knowledge of Christ. If we have these things and are full of these things, then it can be said that we are growing in the knowledge of Jesus. But this knowledge of Christ is more than just an intellectual knowledge. Sure, intellectual knowledge is important. In verse 5, we are told that we should add on to virtue, knowledge - knowledge being the knowledge of doctrine, knowledge of the Bible. So this kind of knowledge does have a place. But Peter is talking about growing in a very personal kind of knowledge of Christ. For example, it is one thing to say you know about someone and a completely different thing to say you know someone personally.

So Peter isn't talking about a factual knowledge, but a personal and intimate knowledge. And the more we develop these characteristics, the more we will really 'know' Jesus. After all, he is the embodiment of these characteristics. Who was the most faithful person? Jesus. Who was the most virtuous person? Jesus. Who was the most knowledgeable, temperate, patient, godly, kind, and loving person? Jesus. And when we know Jesus, to be thoroughly acquainted with and to know accurately and well, we are growing spiritually. Our church theme this year is 'That I May Know Christ.' And the way that one can truly know him is to follow this regime - this recipe. 

All ingredients are necessary. Growing in Christ requires all these characteristics. And we must add these characteristics to each other - just as you build up on the ingredients to make a dish. The word 'add' in verse 5, in the Greek, is where we get the word 'choreograph.' This word was a musical term - it means to support a chorus, to lead a choir, or to keep in tune. When a conductor leads a choir, he has to make sure that the voices of the men blend with the voices of the ladies. When ladies sing, they usually have a certain light tonal quality. Their voices are supposed to soar. They are like birds flying effortlessly through the air. Then when you blend in the men, and if they are controlled and are able to support the ladies, then they are like the thermal winds that lift a bird up. But if they are too over-powering, they will act like the head wind, that will cause the bird to struggle in flight and tire easily. But if the choir is carefully choreographed, the end result is a wonderful piece of music that uplifts the soul. 

So, in our spiritual growth, these ingredients are all necessary - and this word 'add' suggests that they must work together in perfect harmony in order to produce an overall piece of work that is without rival. And that is what the Christian would be when he carefully choreographs his spiritual life, not to neglect any one of these ingredients. Each ingredient or activity builds up on another. Faith without virtue can't make it. Neither can virtue make it without knowledge. If any of these ingredients are lacking or are not abounding, then the end result is a poor intimate knowledge of Christ - the end result is poor spiritual growth. 

That is why Peter tells us repeatedly in verses 5 and 10 to give all diligence to do these things. Diligence means 'zeal, earnestness, and urgency.' Hence, it requires haste to grow in this intimate knowledge of Christ. And 'diligence' also gives us the idea of desire. How much do you desire growth? An athlete doesn't win a race by just sitting down - if he did that, he wouldn't develop the lightning speed and muscles required to win. But victory is achieved through diligence. Well, what if we do not apply ourselves diligently? There's this story of a school teacher who had taught for 25 years. One day, she heard about a job offer in the same school - and if she were to get it, it would be a promotion for her. So she applied for it. However, another person who had only 1 year's experience teaching was hired instead of her. So, puzzled, she inquired with the principal. And he told her that though she had taught for 25 years, she didn't have 25 years of experience; she had only one year's experience 25 times. Throughout those years, she hadn't improved one bit. No diligence. 

So how diligent are we in nurturing and developing these characteristics? Are we even training? And because training is not easy, many are prone to lying low. Many aren't growing, because as mentioned, it is very tough. 

Among the characteristics listed here, I believe one of the toughest to develop is 'virtue.' And virtue is the characteristic most needed today. What firstly is virtue? Most people will define virtue as decency. A virtuous person is a decent, respectable, and a moral person. In one sense, that is not incorrect. But what Peter has in mind is different. The sense we get from this word can even be seen in the word itself. Virtue is related to the word virility. Both of these words come from the Latin word virtus. Vir means 'man', hence virtus means manliness, courage, and strength. When a man is said to be very virile, we get the idea that he's a man's man. He is courageous in the face of opposition. And in the Latin translation of the Bible, this word is used. But more than just meaning manliness or courage, it has a specific context. It refers to moral courage. Wycliffe translated it as moral excellence. Another translated it as manly excellence. Yet another, fortitude. 

So we get the idea that to be virtuous in the sense that Peter meant it, the Christian is not only to be looking to be a very moral person, a holy person, but he is also willing to stick to his guns in being holy. He will be courageous to do the right thing regardless of temptation to sin and the pressures to conform to the world. Virtue includes such characteristics as goodness, nobility, dignity, modesty, purity - and all with a strength and resolve to stick to it. And hence you see in this word the idea of hungering and thirsting after righteousness. That's one of the Beatitudes. Jesus told his disciples and those who were with him at the time during the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, that blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness, that blessed are they who are the pure in heart, that blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness' sake. So to be virtuous is to hunger after purity.

Here's an illustration. In many parts of the world, especially in the north, there is an animal called an ermine. It's a small rodent well-known for its gleaming white fur. It takes very good care of its fur, grooming it and preventing it from getting dirty or dull. And hence, hunters will take advantage of this. The hunters don't set any traps to capture this animal. What they would do is firstly find its home, which would be a small cave or a dead log, then they would put black tar at the entrance and also inside. Then the hunters would then call forth their dogs to frighten the ermine by the loud barking and chasing. The ermine would run towards its home, but once finding that the entrance and interior covered with this substance, it would not enter in. Rather than dirty its glossy white fur, it would rather face the dogs and the hunters with courage. Its purity was far dearer than its own life. 

There are many biblical examples as well of this characteristic of virtue. Genesis 39 tells of Joseph who refused to commit fornication with Mrs Potiphar for fear of sinning against God. It's remarkable what he said. He said in Genesis 39:9, 'There is none greater in this house than I; neither hath he kept back any thing from me but thee, because thou art his wife: how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?' Here it is revealed that Joseph had the opportunity because he was well trusted and almost ungoverned, that he could've accepted the advances of such a woman. But virtue kicked in and he refused. 

Another example is that of Daniel. It was said of him in Daniel 1:8 that 'Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king's meat, nor with the wine which he drank: therefore he requested of the prince of the eunuchs that he might not defile himself.' The very act of purposing showed his virtue, courage in the face of great opposition. How do you fare in business ventures, business dinners, entertaining guests, going out with friends, your conversations with them, your work ethic, taking exams, doing reports, even the nature of your occupation? How do you fare? How virtuous are you? 

Yet another example was Stephen, who was not afraid to rebuke the Jews for their unbelief, by saying in Acts 7:51, 'Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye.' And for that he was stoned and killed. But even as he died, he remained virtuous, courageous to stick to what was right and good, even though he had every so-called right to be angry, yet in moral excellence, he forgave his murderers, 'Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.'

Aside from Biblical examples, there are also many examples in history of virtuous Christians. I'd like to take two examples from Foxe's Book of Martyrs. The first is of the Thebian Legion � a group of soldiers numbering 6,666 men. And they all happened to be Christian. This was in the year AD 286. The Roman emperor Maximian sent them to fight in France. About halfway there, they stopped, and the emperor ordered a sacrifice to the Gods, in which the whole army was to participate. He also commanded that they should swear an oath to exterminate all the Christians in France. Of course, the Thebian Legion refused to do both. So the emperor executed every tenth man to try to get them to change their minds. But when this had failed to weaken their resolve, again, he executed every tenth man. And when this had failed again to weaken their resolve, he commanded that the whole legion executed. All perished. They never budged from their spiritual decision. This was moral courage.

The second example is of a bishop named Quirinus. He was ordered by the governor of Croatia in AD 308 to sacrifice to the pagan deities. He refused and was sent to jail and torture. The governor could not weaken his resolve, so he sent Quirinus to Hungary, to be tortured under a more ruthless governor. Ridiculed, mocked, and beaten, yet this bishop was still resolved. So the governor decided to execute him by drowning. There he was in the river Danube trying to stay afloat with a millstone around his neck, preaching to the people to live holy livese2C he finally ended with this prayer before drowning: 'It is no new thing, O all-powerful Jesus, for Thee to stop the course of rivers, or to cause a man to walk upon the water, as Thou didst Thy servant Peter; the people have already seen the proof of Thy power in me; grant me now to lay down my life for Thy sake, O my God.'

In these words, we see that Quirinus knew that it did not require some great miracle like walking on water for the people to see Jesus, for it was through Quirinus' virtue and holy living that they saw Him. And from this, we kno7 that virtuous living has certain results. 1 Peter 2:11-12 says, 'Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation.' Virtuous living causes others to respect us and glorify God. 

That's what happened with Quirinus - many people who witnessed his drowning respected Him and glorified God. Learning to build and show forth Godly standards will cause others to desire a more Godly life. And this will lead people to Christ. If you are a person who is easily angered, or reacts poorly in times of anger, people cannot see your moral excellence. But if you react graciously, with much love, even when you've been hurt, people notice something different about you. Now, which is better? Which is more Christ-like? When you have been hurt and others have spoken maliciously of you, do you react in anger and stir up the feelings of others against your enemies? Or do you surrender to God and let him soothe your hurts? How you react shows how virtuous you are.

2 Timothy 2:21 says, 'If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honor, sanctified, and meet for the master's use, and prepared unto every good work.' Focusing on moral excellence will cause you to be used by God. If we are not morally excellent people, it should come as no surprise that God is not using us for any spiritual endeavor.

James 4:7 says, 'Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.' This tells us that courage to resist sin and courage to lead a pure life will result in exactly that - a life victorious over sin filled with purity. But the question is 'Do you desire to live a pure life?' With no desire, with no diligence, with no courage or virtue, all is lost. All is lost. No intimate knowledge - no spiritual growth. How did you run the race? Badly or well? 

I mentioned during this message that many of us say that to live this kind of Christian life is tough. That is true, to a certain extent. But let us remember too that we have help from the Holy Spirit, and only when we submit and surrender to Him, will He grant us success in living the Christian life. 1 John 5:3-4 says, 'For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous. For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.' We can be virtuous, we can be courageous.

But a word of caution. Yes, having virtue is vital for Christian growth. But it must also be tempered by and choreographed with knowledge. Virtue without knowledge of the Bible leads to self-righteousness. You may have zeal, but is it according to knowledge? Romans 10:2-3 says, 'They have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.' We can get courageous over many things and righteous over many small and ridiculous things. Care must be taken that our virtue be harmonized with knowledge of the Bible. And it goes without saying too, that knowledge must be harmonized with virtue, for if not, it leads us to a very theoretical Christianity. Is our Christianity emasculated? Is it just a theoretical Christianity? Important questions, but that's another sermon. 

So how do you run? How diligent are you? How brave and moral are you? May the Lord help us and excite us to live a life filled with virtue that we may know Him more intimately each day.

Vision & Mission

 

To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

October 15 & 22 - The Cost of Discipleship

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. Matthew 16:25