In 1 Peter 2:11, Peter calls the people of Jesus “foreigners and exiles.” They have green cards. They’re here on work and student visas. It is not their ambition to settle down, though if they can make this a better place, they should. Like the exiles in Babylon, God wants them to earnestly seek the welfare of the city and country where he has placed them (Jer. 29:7).
If we are Christians, we are alien residents. We probably don’t quite fit in. We talk the way other people do; we sound different. Some of the things the people around us value most, we don’t care about at all. The things that fascinate them – the hobbies they love, the things they expend time and money on – are things we don’t get into and can’t understand.
As alien residents and exiles, we have a longing for a better country (Hebrews 11:16). We are wired for it – or, I should say, are being rewired for it. Before God transferred us into his kingdom and issued us citizenship, we stayed current on the latest fads and styles. When our only citizenship was here, we spoke the same language – used all the popular buzzwords, epithets, and insults. We shared the same hope as everyone else: to live hassle-free, build financial security, and enjoy the things that money can buy. What else is there?
But then something happened to us. The Bible describes it in various ways: God called us. We were converted – or better, we entered the conversion process. We received God’s Spirit, were made alive, rescued out of darkness, and transferred into the kingdom His beloved Son (Col. 1:13 NASB).
Now, we are in the process of being rewired. The Bible also describes that in various ways. We are being sanctified. We are being conformed to the likeness of God’s Son. We are being renovated in the image of our creator (Colossians 3:10 NASB). We are being metamorphosed – turned into a new kind of being – through the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2).
As I just said, we are in process, which means we are unfinished. We are somewhere between fleshly and spiritual, between Christlikeness and Adam-likeness. We are in between, which is an uncomfortable place to be. Our desires are changing, but the old desires still have influence—sometimes too much influence. It is still too easy to go back, settle in, and be like everyone else.
Unless we nurture these new desires, we will not grow up in our salvation (1 Peter 2: 2), and if we regularly gratify the old desires, they will hang around. Karen and I feed birds, and they hang around as long as they have any hope of being fed. Desires, like those birds, only go away when we stop feeding them. They only stay away when new desires take their place.
This is why St. Peter urges these alien residents to “abstain,” that is, keep away from “sinful desires” (or “fleshly lusts” as the NASB more literally translates), “that wage war against” our souls. I suspect the NIV opted for “sinful desires” rather than “fleshly lusts” because they feared readers would think only of sexual desire, and Peter has more in mind than that. Any desire is sinful that can only be fulfilled outside of God’s ways and apart from love.
Peter’s wants us to keep such things at a distance. Don’t get too close to them; they wage war against your soul. “Wage war” translates a verb that gives us the word “strategize.” These desires strategize their fulfillment. That explains how we can end up doing something we didn’t intend to do. There was a behind-the-scenes, covert strategy– a strategy whose presence we were almost, but not quite, unaware of – at work inside us.
Now, let’s recap. We have seen saw that our resident status changed when we trusted Christ and were granted citizenship in God’s kingdom. Even though we were born and raised here, we became alien residents – and we are becoming more alien by the day. We also saw that if we continue to feed our pre-conversion desires, they will continue seeking satisfaction. Unless those desires are being replaced and rewired, we will get stuck in the uncomfortable in-between place.
The thing for the follower of Jesus is not to get stuck but to keep moving into God’s kingdom. We must increasingly identify with the people of that country, especially its king, Jesus.
The second keyword in this verse, “exiles,” addresses that. If there is a difference between the two words (and there must be—why else would Peter use both?), it is that this word stresses the transitoriness of our stay here. We are living here, but we’ve not settled here. We are planning a move. In fact, we are moving further up and further into the kingdom of God.
This is a hopeful word. But our hope is not to escape hassles but to become like Christ and live under his rule in a new heaven and earth. We mustn’t let our present circumstances rob us of that hope. We are, in the words of the author of Hebrews, “aliens and strangers” (Hebrews 11:13) here – we don’t deny it – but we “are longing for a better country,” a “country of our own.”
Resident aliens – wherever you find them – tend to stick together. They understand each other, but other people don’t understand them. They feel most at home when they are with each other. They appreciate the people who share their story, customs, and values. Some people treat them as unwanted intruders, but there is a place where they know they’ll be accepted. It’s not that they don’t enjoy other people – they do. But they are most comfortable with other resident aliens.
Now, look at verse 12. “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”
Peter was not the only person to warn against sinful desires in the first century. Many contemporary philosophers did too. Their reason for avoiding such desires was to free the soul from earthly distractions. That was not what Peter had in mind. He wanted Jesus’s people to avoid sinful desires so that could live good lives among the pagans, or as the New American Standard Bible put it, so they could “keep their behavior excellent among the Gentiles.”
The word the NASB rendered “behavior” is most often translated as “way of life” in the NIV. Peter wants Christians to have a distinctive way of life that is distinguishable from their neighbors. There really is a Christian way to live.
Our former elder Dave Knapp and I once met with two young Muslim men who had come to a worship service at Lockwood and then stomped out in protest. We got in touch with them afterward and set up a meeting at a local restaurant. As we talked, it became clear that they held numerous misconceptions about Christians and the Christian faith.
At one point, the more outspoken of the two said to us: “There is a Muslim way to do everything.” He gave several examples, ending with, “There is a Muslim way to tie your shoes.” I took advantage of that comment to say, “There is a Christian way to do everything too.” He looked at me inquiringly. Then I added, “The Christian way is to do everything in love.” (That, by the way, is 1 Corinthians 16:14).
Peter would have agreed, but here he states it differently. He says, “Live such good lives among the pagans…” “Good” is how the NIV translates the Greek word καλός, which is one of two New Testament words routinely translated that way. This one carries the connotation of a good that is attractive.
Peter wants his Christian friends to lead lives that are attractive to outsiders. Let’s pause right there to ask if our way of life is attractive to family members, friends, and co-workers who are not Christians. If our way of life is just like theirs, they will not find it attractive, for most people are discontented with their lives. Peter assumes, as does every biblical author, that a Christian’s life will differ from a non-Christian’s.
What kinds of differences might prove attractive? Hope, for one. Our society is increasingly hopeless. When people encounter genuine hope, it piques their interest. That is why Peter will, in the next part of this letter, counsel Christians: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Does hope characterize your life? Are you increasingly hopeful?
Contentment is another. People who are richly contented and vocally grateful are attractive. People who complain constantly are not. In St. Paul’s words, we must learn the secret of contentment. We owe it to ourselves, our non-Christian friends, but, most of all, our Redeemer to find contentment in our lives.
Our relationships in the church should also be attractive to others. That will only be true if we give them priority. Our relationships need to be genuine, honest, and richly rewarding. A natural give-and-take and an atmosphere of family-like love should characterize them. For that to happen, we must give more time to our church family relationships than just the hour or two we spend here on Sunday mornings.
But even if our way of life is attractive and good, Peter sees trouble coming. This is verse 12: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong ….” Let’s pause there for a moment. Peter expects people to say negative things about Christians even though they live good lives.
The NIV’s “accuse” translates a Greek compound word comprised of the prefix “against” and the root “to speak.” They speak against you, Peter says, as evildoers. Does that sound at all familiar? Christians are routinely being accused of evildoing these days. NBC reported that racism is higher among white Christians than among the general public. Blaming Christians for the suicides of gay and transgender students is almost a reflex action on the part of some. Politico recently ran an article titled “It’s Time to Talk About Violent Christian Extremism.”
The same kind of thing was going on in Peter’s day. Christians were accused of causing political turmoil (see Acts 17:6 for one example.) People said that Christians were sexually perverted, accused them of cannibalism, and blamed natural disasters (like the famine of the late 40s) on their atheism. (Christians were called atheists because they did not acknowledge the gods of the Greek and Roman pantheon.) Even the reputable historian Tacitus reported that Christians were “hated because of their vices.” Because of these wild accusations, more and more Christians were finding themselves in the court system.
We should not be surprised when people call us the bad guys. Jesus told us it was coming. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” Let’s just make sure that when they accuse us of evil, their accusations are false. Let’s ensure that no gay or trans student ever despairs because of some flippant or caustic remark we made on social media. Let’s never say anything that might inspire hatred or violence. We can speak confidently about what the Bible affirms without speaking negatively about the people who disagree. If we can’t, we’d do well to keep our mouths shut.
And let’s not whine. People will (sometimes willfully) misunderstand us, impugn our character, question our motives, and falsely accuse us. If that happens, let’s not follow social media norms by attacking them on Twitter or throwing tantrums on Facebook. The good and beautiful life that Peter describes is not a whiner’s life. No one is attracted to that.
But it is a life of good deeds. Let’s pick back up with verse 12: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” Peter knows that the negative reviews that were bandied about the social media of his day would not be stopped by whining or verbal counterattacks.
So, he takes the long view. Nothing short of a good life will change people’s minds, and some people will not be convinced even by that. Good lives are comprised of many good deeds, not just one or two, so this project will take time. Peter uses an unusual word here (it only appears twice in the New Testament, and both are in this letter). The NIV translates it as “see your good deeds,” but it might better be translated as “oversee” (in a sense similar to “overhear”). People can’t help but notice “your good deeds.”
In the other place this word is used, a non-Christian husband can’t help but notice the difference that faith in Christ makes in his wife’s life. Something like that doesn’t happen overnight. It can take years. In the same way, we need to know that the good life/good deeds project Peter advocates will take time.
The hope is that they – non-Christian neighbors, friends, and even enemies – may glorify God on the day he visits us. A literal translation runs: “…may glorify God on the day of visitation.” That phrase is used one other time in the New Testament and four times in the Old. It can refer to the day God visits with salvation or, as in Isaiah 10:3, when he comes to judge. Either way, people will glorify God and admit he is right, but what if we could help neighbors, friends, and even enemies experience his coming as the day of their salvation?
We need to take the long view. We must not get impatient, lash out, or whine. Jesus told us this would happen, and Peter gave us a plan for dealing with it. But we will need each other – it is hard to be criticized – so we’d better have some encouraging friends helping us stick to the plan. We need to be the family we discussed two weeks ago.
How can we apply what we’ve seen in the ancient past to our contemporary situation? The place to begin is with an honest look – we’ll need God’s help with that – at ourselves. Is there anything in our lives that would attract an unbeliever to Christ? Are there things in our lives that might keep them from faith: a judgmental spirit, anger, pride, or hypocrisy? If there are, we need to admit that to God, and we may need to ask for forgiveness from people.
If we have been accused of wrongdoing, the first thing to do is make sure that the accusation is false. We should confide in a friend or pastor and pray together about the accusation. We must be careful (these are St. Paul’s words) that “nobody pays back wrong for wrong” (1 Thessalonians 5:15). This is so easy to do, especially in our day when even our highest officials publicly engage in verbal attacks and counterattacks. They may do so; we may not. Whether we are on Twitter or not, we are in Christ; let’s act like it.
Peter’s plan involves doing good deeds that non-Christians can observe. The implication is that we are out where people can see us. That may be as simple as praying before a meal at a restaurant. Or it may mean volunteering at the free health clinic, the food pantry, or Beginnings Care for Life. It may mean sticking up for the teenage cashier when someone insults her for taking too long. We don’t do these things to be seen but to love, to “live a life of love,” as the Apostle puts it.
Nevertheless, we know that we are being observed. That is true whether people notice our good deeds or not. Our Father is watching, and he will be pleased.
Jesus’s word in John 15 struck me this week. In verses 12 and 17, he restates his central command to his followers: Love each other. What I noticed this week is the context in which he gave that command. In verses 12 and 17, he tells his disciples to love each other. Then in verse 18, he warns them that the world may hate them.
Do you see the connection? When the world hates us, we love each other. We don’t go into hiding, and we don’t throw tantrums. We love. We love the people that hate us, as Jesus taught us to do, and we love each other. Jesus knew that our love and support for each other would be vital. When society speaks against us, we speak for each other. When society condemns us, we accept each other. When people we know walk away from us, our brothers and sisters walk beside us.
If you don’t have that kind of relationship with people at church, I encourage you to begin to develop it. It is not too late. It is right on time.