The Church in Exile – A survey of 1 Peter

The Church in Exile

First of all, check out that cool graphic designed by Becki Watson. That is the graphic that is being used to promote the new Sunday Night series starting this Sunday night at our church and which has been the topic of several recent blog posts, and even a few old ones.

In the last post I reviewed the gospel of John, picking out all the places that identified Jesus as a stranger and exile on this earth. Today I am doing the same thing with the book of 1 Peter, looking at all the key verses that highlight the Christian’s identity as a stranger and exile.

Exiles and Foreigners

1 Peter is a letter written specifically to a church in exile. It is addressed to “God’s elected, exiles scattered throughout the provinces” (1:1). They are called to live “as foreigners here in reverent fear” (1:17). As “foreigners and exiles” they are instructed to “abstain from sinful desires” (2:11). Peter concludes his letter with a salutation from “she who is in Babylon” (5:13). I believe Peter uses this language on purpose so that his hearers might remember their identity as a people who are somewhat out of place in the world from which God had brought them. I believe he also does this in order to call to their minds the exile of God’s people in the Old Testament. The scattered church of Peter’s time finds itself in a position not unlike that of Daniel: a minority worshipper of God amidst a sea of paganism, in constant danger, but nevertheless a recipient of God’s special grace and provision.

They are made exiles because of a transfer of citizenship

Those to whom Peter writes were once “at home” with their surrounding culture. Peter reminds them that they have “spent enough time in the past doing what pagans chose to do” (4:3). Now, however, they have been redeemed from the empty way of life in which they used to live (1:18). They have received new birth in Christ (1:3) and have been born again (1:23). They who were once not a people have become part of the people of God (2:10).

How did the change of citizenship occur? It happened through the mystery of the sovereignty of God and the free response of man. They are the “elect” (1:1) and the “chosen” (1:20). They are also those who have responded to God’s faith. They believed the message of the gospel (1:21) and have “purified themselves by obeying the truth” (1:22). In doing this they have been sanctified (1:2) and set apart as God’s people, a chosen priesthood, a holy nation (2:9-10).

In other words, it was the gospel of Jesus, his death and resurrection, which set apart the Church as exiles in the world. They became a church in exile when they abandoned the false gods which they had previously worshipped and began to worship the true and living God through Jesus.

Despite the fact that this exile in the world leads to frequent danger and persecution this transfer was definitely in the best interest of those who responded in faith. They traded the perishable, dying, and empty for the imperishable, living, and enduring word of God (see 1:17-25). Note the similarities between this passage and Hebrews 11 which describes Abraham as looking forward to “the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10).

As exiles and strangers, they are called to live holy lives

One the key attributes that will set apart the church in exile from its surrounding culture is the holiness of the people of God, especially in comparison to their pagan neighbors. Peter encourages the church to resist conformity to evil desires (1:14), to get rid of malice and deceit (2:1), to abstain from sinful desires (2:11), and to “not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires” (4:2). The sins that Peter has in mind have a striking resemblance to the “works of the flesh” in Galatians. Instead, like Paul’s exhortation, the people of God are to be primarily marked by a deep and sincere love for one another.

This commitment to abstention from sinful pleasures will set them apart as somewhat odd in their culture. Peter tells them that the pagan world is “surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living” and that this surprise will quickly lead to abuse and hostility (4:4).

Even as citizens of heaven, under a higher authority, earthly authorities are still to be honored

One might expect Peter’s sharp distinction between the people of God and the surrounding culture to lead to an oppositional attitude towards earthly authorities. Peter himself was thrown into prison on multiple occasions. He knew better than we that the authorities of this world often stand in opposition to the authority of God.

It might strike us as somewhat odd to read, then, Peter’s plea for, of all things, submission. Specifically, he encourages submission to various earthly “authorities”. Citizens submit to governing authorities (2:13). Slaves submit to masters (2:18). Wives submit to husbands (3:1). Younger people in the church submit to elders (5:5). (Aside: Husbands get an “in the same way…” clause in 3:7 indicating a decree mutual submission).

What we have here, especially in regards to governing authorities, is a recognition of dual citizenship. As it pertains to God, Christians are citizens of heaven and in that way they are to “live as free people.” In regards to their citizenship in heaven they have one single authority above all others: God. However, as strangers in a foreign land God is honored when they honor the authorities of that land. Obedience to the governing authorities ought to be the norm for Christians.

The authority of the civil government, though, has its limits. Peter himself disobeyed the authorities on occasion, because he recognized a higher authority. Daniel also serves as an excellent example. He went out of his way to honor the king in Babylon, but there were certain limits to his obedience. He would not give up prayer. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago would not bow down to the idol.

Nevertheless, those cases are rather extreme. For Peter’s message to the exiles, obedience to civil authorities is the normal way in which we honor God as strangers in a foreign land.

Exiles and strangers should expect opposition

The congregations to which Peter is writing are clearly in a state of active persecution and are expecting more to come. Opposition, hostility, and suffering are major themes in the book. Peter writes “do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come upon you to test you, as though something strange is happening to you” (4:12). For Peter, opposition is the norm of Christian life.

Opposition is the norm for followers of Jesus because they are exiles and strangers in the same way that Jesus himself was an exile and stranger (see study on John). If the world hated Jesus, the world will hate his followers. Jesus himself predicted this. Jesus is held up again and again as the example of how to endure suffering: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (2:21). Again in 4:1 “since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves with the same attitude.”

Why should Christians expect opposition? Four reasons might be given. (1) Identification with Christ (4:13, 14, 16). (2) Because they will not join in the immoral behavior of their unbelieving neighbors (4:4). (3) For doing good, or for no good reason (2:20; 3:14). (4) Because of immoral behavior (4:15). Peter does not commend those who suffer because of legitimate wrongs done. His emphasis in the letter, however, is on the first three.

How should believers respond to opposition? First there is an internal commitment. Like Jesus we are to commit ourselves to our faithful Creator (4:19). This Creator is also the one who is the judge of all things and will vindicate the people of God at the proper time, just as he vindicated Christ by raising him from the dead. He is also the God who has stored away for us a glorious inheritance and an enduring and sure hope. He is the one who is able to make us strong, firm, and steadfast (5:10). He is the one who holds the journey and the end of the journey in his hands.

Second, having committed themselves to God, exiles and strangers find joy and honor in opposition. “Rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” and “you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory rests on you” and “praise God that you bear [the name of Christ]” (4:13-16). Joy is set up as the opposite of the fear and fright which hostility naturally engenders (3:14).

Third, the exile and stranger patiently endures and refuses to take revenge. “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing” (3:9). When the Christian responds with hope instead of fear and blessing instead of insult the natural response of the persecutor will be surprise. When the questions are asked Christians are called to always be ready with an answer and then respond with gentleness and a clear conscience.

Fourth and finally Peter encourages his congregation to avoid any unnecessary conflict by always doing what is right. Again, it is no benefit to suffer for doing wrong. To always do right would certainly deflect much of the unfair criticism. However, Peter is not optimistic that it would deflect all hostility. At its core, hostility against Christians comes from hostility against Christ. The inevitable hypocrisy of Christians adds fuel to the flames, to be sure. And, to be sure, Christians should always live with a clear conscience before God. Nevertheless, hostility towards Christians simply because of identification with Christ appears to be part of the normal Christian life in most places and ages.

Exiles and strangers don’t go it alone

A final and essential component of 1 Peter as it relates to exiles is the place of the church. Those who accept the message of the gospel have a transferred citizenship. This means a new ultimate authority (God) and a new life. It also means that they are part of a new people. Acceptance of Christ set the people apart from their still unbelieving neighbors. They became outcasts from the world’s perspective. But from God’s perspective they became part of an enduring community and a spiritual house (2:4). The cornerstone of this house is Christ, rejected by man but glorified by God. The house shares the same fate as its Cornerstone (2:4-9).

As a church in exile, made up of people scattered throughout the earth, the people of God have the privilege of being God’s special possession and of declaring the praises of God (2:10).

The people of God is to be characterized by love as a direct response to the gospel: “Love one another deeply from the heart,” (2:23) “love one another,” (4:8) “above all, love each other deeply” (4:8). In this way the church forms a sort of countercurrent to the current of the surrounding culture. Where the systems of the world are primarily selfish, the norm for the church is to be self-giving. Where the systems of the world are primarily prideful, the norm for the church should be humility. Where the systems of the world focus on self-love, the norm for the church seeks above all to honor and love the living and true God.

In this short Q & A from John Piper, Piper offers a great metaphor for the life of the foreigner and stranger. The foreigner should be like a dolphin and not like a jelly fish. The jelly fish simply moves with the current. The dolphin is able to cut across the current. Impacted but no controlled by the movement of the water. The jelly fish Christian simply moves along with the current of culture. The dolphin Christian is able to cut across culture, being counter-cultural where necessary, perhaps moving with the current when doing so honors God (all cultures are mixed bag). We can’t remove ourselves with culture any more than a dolphin can swim out of water, but we can develop the skills necessary to navigate it with Christ’s help.

This metaphor seems to jive well with the message of 1 Peter. Peter doesn’t call God’s people to escape from culture, but he does tell them to resist sinful desires, a command that will set them apart from their neighbors. He calls them to navigate a sometimes hostile world by relying on the gospel and committing themselves to God.

I want to conclude by expanding the metaphor just a little bit. The church, I believe, can function as a sort of undercurrent or counterculture amidst the ocean of culture and I believe that the church is called to such a task. The Christian is wise to seek out that undercurrent which is moving in the way of Christ. This is important in every day and age, but perhaps even more important in places and ages more openly hostile to the gospel.


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