READ : 1 Peter 4:7-11
If you struggle with the feeling that you have a multitude of sins in your life, here’s some good news for you: love covers them all!
I’m reading from 1 Peter, chapter 4:
The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
1 Peter 4:7-11, esv
Surprisingly little is known at least from the New Testament about the later part of Peter’s life and work. We see him so frequently in the Gospels and the early chapters of the book of Acts that it comes as something of a shock to realize that Peter is hardly mentioned in the New Testament after the middle of Acts. The apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians, mentions in passing that Peter traveled as a missionary with his wife (1 Corinthians 9:5). Most of Peter’s ministry was probably invested in northern Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), where the provinces mentioned in the opening of First Peter were all located (cf. 1:1).
But when he wrote this letter Peter was no longer living in that region to the south of the Black Sea. He mentions his current location cryptically at the very end of the letter when he extends greetings from the church where he presently was: “She who is in Babylon . . . sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark” (1 Peter 5:13). “Babylon” was a well-known code word among the early Christians for the city of Rome. “She” refers to the church there, the community of Christians in the imperial capital. And the Mark whom Peter figuratively calls his son was later to be the author of the second Gospel.
So there in one brief reference we find confirmation for two of the strongest post-biblical traditions of early Christianity. First, that Peter spent his last years in Rome leading the church there; hence the belief that Peter was the first pope. And second, that Mark served as Peter’s assistant in Rome and derived the material for his Gospel from that aged fisherman turned apostle.
The same ancient tradition says that not long after Peter dictated his two letters, he was killed (martyred) in the great persecution which Nero instigated against the Christians of Rome in the year a.d. 64. As leader of the Roman church, Peter was an obvious target for the mad emperor who wanted to pin the blame for a great fire in the city on the unpopular sect of the Christians. Unlike an earlier occasion many years before, now Peter was steadfast in his witness to the Lord. He sealed his testimony to Jesus Christ with his life’s blood, being crucified head downwards according to witnesses in Nero’s pleasure gardens at the site of today’s Vatican. So we have good reason to pay careful attention to the great apostle’s written instructions and commands. This is his final testament for the church of Jesus Christ.
As noted in the last message, much of First Peter has to do with how Christians should face suffering for the sake of their faith, and the Lord in whom that faith is placed.
The verses from chapter four that I read at the outset address other practical matters. They comprise a series of commands that in one way or another cover behavior in the Christian community. Many passages like this occur in the New Testament letters offering practical instructions for the Christian lifestyle in a sort of shopping-list format. Biblical scholars call them Haustafeln, which is German for “Household Rules.” Maybe you’ve seen a copy of one of those old boarding house signs listing the rules of the house. They’re always short and come right to the point: “Here are the do’s and don’ts of this establishment. This is how you must behave if you want to live here.”
The Christian church is just the same. If you want to be part of it, you must behave a certain way. And our rules are usually simple and straightforward as well. Here are some of the common rules for the Christian household (I’m paraphrasing a bit): “Don’t fight. Be nice to each other. Live clean. Help your neighbor. Give generously. And most of all, love.”
Above All, Love
That’s the one behavior Peter focuses on here: “Above all, love each other deeply, for love covers a multitude of sins.” That’s the most important gospel rule, the universal law of New Testament Christianity. There’s a common misapprehension that tends to divide the Bible into two distinct sections, often labeled “Law” and “Gospel,” and further, to see the fault line between those two as running between the two testaments. So the Old Testament, it is thought, is all rules and legalism and judgment, and the New Testament is just filled with love, grace and forgiveness.
But that is an inaccurate picture. Law and gospel are always together throughout the Bible. The law prepares us to embrace the gospel by convincing us that we can’t make ourselves acceptable to God by our own moral striving. The gospel enables us to begin to obey the law as a means of glorifying God by opening our hearts to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit who comes to live within us. There is only one story in the Bible, one way of salvation from beginning to end. The grace of God is proclaimed throughout the Old Testament, and the Law of God is commanded throughout the New. After all, it was Jesus who said that the law is all about love: “Love God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” “Owe no one anything, except to love each other,” echoed the apostle Paul, “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law . . . love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:8,10).
So we return to Peter. “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” What does he mean by that, “Love covers a multitude of sins?” Is he saying we can get away with just about anything as long as we try to love people sort of, somehow, after a fashion? Is Peter suggesting that it’s alright if you lie, cheat, steal, or commit adultery just as long as you’re a lovable rogue? I don’t think so. Love for God and other people doesn’t cause us to cover up our own sins. Rather, it causes us to repent of them, to confess them, and to turn away from them.
I think what Peter has in mind here in this word about love covering a multitude of offenses is the way love acts toward the sins of other people, not my sins but your sins, in particular, the sins and offenses you might commit against me personally. You know, we all have a tendency to want to remember such sins, to keep them on file so to speak. We like to have them near the surface where we can dredge them up quickly whenever we need to refresh our hatred for a particular person. Every offense that’s ever been committed against us, every failing of every friend, every hurt from every enemy, they’re all there to be recalled and dwelt upon. We rehearse these sins in our memory, playing the scenes over and over like a sex-addict watching pornography so that we can feed our indignation and call forth fresh waves of self-righteous anger.
But love doesn’t do that. Love does not act that way toward offenses against our pride, toward personal slights and ego-damaging injuries. Love covers over such sins hides them away, dismisses them, forgets about them, however great a multitude they might be. Love erases these sins from our mental hard drives and sends them to the trash bin. That’s exactly what God’s love in Christ does for our sins against him. Listen to some of the most remarkable statements in the whole Bible.
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over transgression
for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger forever,
because he delights in steadfast love.
He will again have compassion on us;
he will tread our iniquities under foot.
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea.
Micah 7:18-19, esv
. . . but in love you have delivered my life
from the pit of destruction,
for you have cast all my sins
behind your back.
Isaiah 38:17, esv
I, I am he
who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
and I will not remember your sins.
Isaiah 43:25, esv
Now that is nothing short of amazing! How can a God who knows everything ever forget anything? How can a God who is everywhere possibly put something where he can no longer find it? But of our sins, the Bible says that God will not remember them, that he will hide them in the depths of the sea, that he will turn his back upon them forever. What this startling language means is that our sins will all be forgiven fully and forever. And they will no longer matter, at least as far as our relationship with God is concerned. They will no longer come between us and our Heavenly Father. He shines his face upon us, but our sins are all in the shadow behind his back. The reason they won’t matter is because God has paid for them. He’s given the atoning price in the death of his own Son. God doesn’t just ignore our sins; he deals with them, he settles the account, he wipes out the debt.
So how wonderful is that? Aren’t you glad that the Lord’s love covers a multitude of offenses and makes them disappear? Don’t you think we should try to do likewise in our relationships with one other?