It is not often that the news coincides with a sermon or biblical commentary so as to provide abundant illustration but it is so in this case. A Christian minority are among those who are fleeing the chaos and violence in Syria. The Christians to whom the Apostle Peter wrote in the early 60s AD were not literal exiles or refugees but metaphorical sojourners. They likely were in the same place they had been when they believed but the sovereign gift of new life and true faith, through which the Spirit united them to Christ, had transformed them into strangers and aliens. The imagery, of course, is drawn (as we have already seen) from the Israelite exodus from Egypt. God, in sovereign grace, gathered and redeemed his people “out of the house of slavery” (Ex 13:3) in order that they might worship him at the foot of the mountain as his (temporary) national, covenant people.
According to the Apostle Peter, in Christ, in the New Covenant, Christians, those who are saved by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone (solo Christo), are the Israel of God—both Jew and Gentile.
1 Peter 2:11–12
|11Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation (ESV).||11Ἀγαπητοί, παρακαλῶ ὡς παροίκους καὶ παρεπιδήμους ἀπέχεσθαι τῶν σαρκικῶν ἐπιθυμιῶν αἵτινες στρατεύονται κατὰ τῆς ψυχῆς· 12τὴν ἀναστροφὴν ὑμῶν ἐν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν ἔχοντες καλήν, ἵνα ἐν ᾧ καταλαλοῦσιν ὑμῶν ὡς κακοποιῶν ἐκ τῶν καλῶν ἔργων ἐποπτεύοντες δοξάσωσιν τὸν θεὸν ἐν ἡμέρᾳ ἐπισκοπῆς.|
v. 11: Sojourners And Exiles
Peter addresses the congregations in Asia Minor (think Western Turkey), as the other NT authors do, on the basis of their profession of faith. Thus, he calls them “beloved” (Ἀγαπητοί). He approaches them as those who are within the visible covenant community and regards them as members of the covenant of grace. That is the first aspect of our identity: beloved by God. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures the same adjective is used for Isaac in Genesis 22:2, 12, and 16. In Psalm 60:5 (LXX; v. 4 in English) David described Israel as God’s “beloved,” about whom he prayed that God would deliver them (“give salvation”) by his powerful right hand. Isaiah sings a song for his “beloved” (Isa 5:1). According to Peter, we, who are in Christ are that beloved. It was important for them to hear that gospel word because their friends, their fellow slaves, their masters, the local synagogues, and members of their cities were telling them just the opposite: that they were despised and hated. True faith believes the gospel of Christ even when their sense experience tells them otherwise.
He also characterizes them as “sojourners” (παροίκους) and “pilgrims” (παρεπιδήμους). This was an important theme in Stephen’s martyrdom sermon (Acts 7:6, 29). Paul uses this language in Ephesians 2:19 to say that believer are no longer “strangers and aliens.” This is a paradox of the Christian faith. Relative to this world we are strangers and aliens but, in Christ, relative to the gospel and the promises we are no longer strangers aliens. We live in two worlds simultaneously.
A sojourner and exile is one who is displaced but also on the way somewhere else. This is the imagery used of believers in Hebrews 11. Abraham was called by God to leave one place and to “go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance” (Heb 11:8; ESV). He did not know where he was going. He went by faith to live in a “foreign land” (v.9). With Isaac and Jacob he lived in tents, “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (v. 10). The writer to the Hebrews says, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Heb 11:13; ESV).
It is in light of our twofold citizenship (Phil 3:20) that we ought to conduct ourselves in this world. Unlike the Platonists, who denied the reality of this world and our existence in it, and unlike other ontological dualists, the Apostle Peter is affirming both the spiritual (or better the Spiritual, i.e., that which is associated with the Holy Spirit) and creation. Those who were influenced by versions of Plato denied the essential goodness of creation and our place in it. Peter does not call us to choose between “spirit and matter” but between living as Christ’s redeemed people in God’s world, as those who are making a pilgrimage in body and soul, to the heavenly promised land and those who have no such hope.
Our most ultimate citizenship is in heaven but our citizenship in this world is truly important. Thus Peter exhorts us, as the Israel of God, to “abstain from the passions of the flesh” (σαρκικῶν ἐπιθυμιῶν). When Peter says “flesh” he refers to the body not as inherently evil (Plato) but as a symbol of the corruption wrought by the fall. We are bodily and we do struggle (or we should) against ungodly desires. We do that in the body. The expression “of the flesh” is a synecdoche, a part stands for the whole.
These bodily desires, which are implicitly sinful desires, are not neutral. There were some in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD who said that because the body is not real, it does not matter what we do with it. That led to false asceticism, the abuse of the body in the name of piety, and to libertinism, i.e., the notion that since the body matters not we may do as we please. Both are wrong. Because we are bodily, we are body and soul, what we do with our bodies (e.g., sexual immorality, gluttony) has real spiritual consequences. We have a soul (ψυχῆς). That is as much a part of us, of our humanity, as our body. If in time past, under the influence of Platonism, Christians denied the reality of the body, in the late-modern age, under the influence of materialism, we have tended to deny the reality of the soul. Sometimes this happens under the aegis of anti-dualism. Some modern Reformed folk, in reaction to the influence of Platonism, have virtually denied the existence of the soul as a distinct entity from the body. Of course our Lord Jesus did no such thing. In Matthew 10:28 he explicitly and unequivocally distinguished (and affirmed) both the human body and the human soul. The Apostle Paul says that it is possible to be before the Lord without the body (2 Cor 5:1–5). When we sin, we go to war against our own soul and war leaves scars and lasting damage.
v. 12: Give Them No Grounds
Because we have been redeemed by God’s grace, in Christ, because we belong to him body and soul, in life and in death (Heidelberg Catechism 1), because, in Christ, we are the Israel of God we are to keep our “conduct (ἀναστροφὴν) among the Gentiles (ἐν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν)” literally “having good” (ἔχοντες καλήν), which the ESV translates appropriately as “honorable.” Please do not miss the implication of the contrast. The Christians to whom Peter writes are the Israel of God. Those outside Christ’s people are the nations or the Gentiles. For those who are in Christ there is no more distinction between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. This is Peter’s way of implying that the dividing wall has been broken down. What distinguishes us from “the nations” or “the Gentiles” is not race, language, culture, clothing, circumcision, or washing rituals. What distinguishes us from “the nations” is Christ. We are his and he is ours. We must live among the metaphorical Gentiles (which includes Jews and God-fearers who do not believe in Christ) so as not to bring Christ and his church into disrepute.
Peter says that “the Gentiles” will speak against Christ as evildoers. In fact, Christians were falsely accused of wrongdoing. Justin Martyr wrote to the authorities begging them to investigate the Christians so that they would see that what was being said of the Christians was false. When Pliny the Younger (c. 112), in this same region, investigated the Christians (during which he tortured two deaconesses for information) he found no evidence of wrongdoing and he reported it to the Emperor Trajan. The Pagans were frustrated with the Christians because the Christians did not conform to Greco-Roman religious culture. They did not participate in the civic religion. They did not pour out offerings to the gods and to Caesar. They did not buy sacrificial meat. They were accursed by pagan critics as “haters of humanity” because they asked to be allowed to live in peace as good citizens but to be allowed to distinguish between common culture (food, clothing, taxes) and religious culture (cultus). The Christians were asking to be allowed to distinguish between the sacred and the secular.
This what Paul had taught in 1 Corinthians. Christians are free to eat meat offered to idols, because the idols do not really exist as gods but the moment a meal becomes a pagan sacred feast, then the Christian must demur. He cannot participate because that crosses a line. The surrounding Greco-Roman world did not have that distinction and they did not like the Christian attempt to live among them without cooperating with the dominant civil religion. The pagans were willing to add Jesus to tolerate Jesus as a local deity (they were polytheists) but they could not tolerate Christian exclusivism, the claim that Christ is the only way to God (John 14:6).
Peter, like Justin and Tertullian after him, was confident that, upon examination, the Plinys of the 60s AD would also find that the Christians would be without civil or moral blame and that they would be forced to testify to that reality at the judgment. Peter’s hope for justice was eschatological, not this-worldly. Peter did not identity the final state with this world or a this-worldly utopia.
In this respect good works (καλῶν ἔργων) are more important for evidence than they are for our salvation. We do them because we have been saved, we are being saved, and we shall be saved by grace alone, through faith alone. We do them as a testimony, as evidence of what is true of us: that we were in the Egypt of sin and death and that God pried open the jaws of death by the resurrection of Christ and by the Spirit has applied Christ’s life and righteousness to us.
There is not much we can control about what ignorant pagans think about us but consider how much better things might be without the high-profile or even local scandals involving Christians. We might grimace when we see Burt Lancaster portraying Elmer Gantry on the late movie but we must admit that Sinclair Lewis had every right to tell that story. The history of American evangelicalism is full of Elmer Gantrys—Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, ad infin. Think of all the damage those and other scandals have done to the reputation of the Christian faith among those who know nothing of the faith.
If we are to be hated, and we are, let it be because we believe in a crucified rabbi who was raised on the third day and who is coming again. Let it not be because we say one thing but do another and so bring the faith into scandal before the eyes of an unbelieving world.