Tag Archives: Bible Study

What does it mean to “fear the LORD”?

Psalm 128:1 “Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in obedience to him.”

What does it mean to “fear the Lord?” Does it mean to be “afraid” of God? Does it mean to have a feeling of reverence and awe? I decided to look through Scripture to see how this phrase was used. While there are certainly more thorough explanations out there, here’s what I discovered:

First, the fear of the LORD is the attitude that comes from a recognition of God’s greatness

Occasions in Scripture in which “fear the LORD” appears often coincide with descriptions of God’s unparalleled greatness. Deuteronomy 10, which includes commands to fear the LORD also includes descriptions of his character: “To the LORD you God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it” (10:14). “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome” (10:17). “He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes” (10:21).

Other passages of Scripture also directly relate the manifestation of the power of God with the fear of the Lord. After crossing the Red Sea Exodus 14:31 says “when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.” And again, after God dried up the Jordan for the Israelites to cross: “He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always fear the LORD your God” (Joshua 4:24). The fear of the LORD is also tied to a recognition of him as Creator, as the one who made the heavens (1 Chronicles 16:26), the one who spoke all things into existence (Psalm 33:8-9), and the one who established the boundaries for the sea (Jeremiah 5:22).

What sort of attitude are the writers describing here? “Reverence” is probably the best description. Psalm 102:15 says “the nations will fear the name of the LORD, all the kings of the earth will revere your glory.” The nature of Hebrew poetry invites us to draw a close parallel between “fear” in the first half of the verse and “revere” in the second half (see also Psalm 33:8-9). Jeremiah links “fear” with “trembling” (Jeremiah 5:22), showing that the sort of reverence intended is that which shakes us to the core.

Does the fear of the LORD imply fear of God’s judgment? While God certainly warns Israel frequently of impending judgment if they should turn away from Him, the phrase “fear the LORD” is not often linked with a threat of judgment. The closest connection comes in 2 Chronicles 19:9-10 where Jehoshaphat warns the judges whom he is appointing that they should “serve carefully and wholeheartedly in the fear of the LORD,” doing justice, or risk the LORD’s wrath coming on them and their community. Again, in Isaiah 8:13, Isaiah says that “The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread.” So, while there is a sense in which fear the LORD has the possibility of judgment for sin in view (indeed, those who lack the fear of the LORD are also those who sin because they do not expect God to judge), it does not appear to be the dominant meaning of the phrase.

Instead, the fear of the LORD is connected with the attitudes of hope and trust. The psalmist parallels the fear of the LORD with “hope in his unfailing love” in both Psalm 33:18 and 147:11. Psalm 40:3 and Exodus 14:31 connect the fear of the Lord with trust in him. It makes sense that the people of God would see the power of God – and the reason for the reverent awe described above – as a reason to put their hope and trust in God, since God so often used his power on their behalf.

Second, the fear of the LORD is equated with obeying God’s commands

But the command to “fear the LORD” does not just describe an attitude, but a concrete action – obedience to the commands of God. Our opening text, Psalm 128:1, shows this parallelism immediately: “Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in obedience to him.” Deuteronomy 10:12-13 expands on this: “to fear the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, to serve the LORD with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the LORD’s commands and decrees.” Deuteronomy 10:20 connects the fear of the LORD with serving him and taking oaths in his name. This is the pattern throughout. See Deuteronomy 6:2 (“keeping all his decrees”), 6:24 (“obey all his decrees”), Joshua 24:14 (“serve him with all faithfulness”), 1 Samuel 12:14 (“serve and obey him and do not rebel against his commands”), 12:24 (“serve him faithfully with all your heart”), Job 28:28 (“shun evil”), Psalm 111:10 (“follow his precepts”), Psalm 112:1 (“find great delight in his commands”), Proverbs 3:7 (“shun evil”), and Proverbs 8:13 (“to fear the LORD is to hate evil”).

This obedience to God’s commands is then tied to the blessings of God (again, see Psalm 128), long life in the land, and the acquisition of knowledge and understanding (which leads to even greater blessings). But the question of what it means to receive the blessings of God is a question for another day.

In summary, then, to fear the Lord begins with an understanding that He is the Creator God who is mighty and powerful. This understanding ought to lead us to a place of reverent awe, even trembling, though this is not the same thing as “being afraid.” (This is especially true for those who are “in Christ” and therefore should no longer have the fear of final judgment.) Finally, this attitude should lead us to love God, serve Him, shun evil, and obey his commands as we hope and trust in Him.

Advertisements

Seven ways reading (and applying) Scripture contributes to spiritual growth

How does reading (and applying) Scripture contribute to spiritual growth? Here are seven answers from Scripture itself.

The Bible is a source of knowledge. The Bible is God’s revelation to us. The Bible does not give us everything there is to know, but it gives us what we need in order to know and please Him. While right knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to right action, right knowledge is necessary for right action. When we read the Bible we attend ourselves to the Source of all true knowledge.

The Bible is a source of light and guidance. The knowledge that we receive from the word has a particular quality – it is a light and guide in our lives (Psalm 119:105). In this journey of life there are many perils, many pits we can fall into, many ways we can get off track. The Bible lights the way. Instead of stumbling around in the darkness we can see clearly where we are going. Most importantly, we can see Jesus, the light of the world, and follow in his footsteps.

The Bible is a source of wisdom. Wisdom can be described as “applied knowledge.” The Bible doesn’t only grant knowledge but it teaches us how it ought to be applied. The psalmist says that because he meditates on God’s laws he is “wiser than [his] enemies” and has “more insight than all of [his] teachers” (Psalm 119:98-99). This wisdom gives us skill in living. It helps us see what is coming down the road. It gives us the long-term perspective, the eternal perspective, and, of critical importance, God’s perspective.

The Bible is a like a nourishing root system. Psalm 1:2-3 describes the righteous man as the one “whose delight is in the law of the LORD and who meditates on his day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose lead does not with – whatever he does prospers.” The tree is firmly planted. It is secure. It produces fruit. God’s word nourishes our souls and it keeps us firmly rooted in the faith, indeed by pointing us continually to the person and work of God it roots us in God himself. And, as we are rooted, we will bear spiritual fruit.

The Bible is a firm foundation. Ephesians 2:20 says that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.” The apostles and the prophets are those who gave us the New and the Old Testaments, both of which point us to Christ. The emphasis in Ephesians 2 is on the foundation of the church, but what is true of the church universal is also true in our lives. The truth of Scripture gives us a firm foundation. Like the trees root system this allows us to survive the storms of life. If we neglect Scripture, as individuals or as a church, our foundation will begin to crumble.

The Bible is a means of resisting temptation. One thing will always get in the way of our spiritual growth – the “sins which so easily entangle” (Hebrews 12:1). So how do we throw off those sins? By reading and applying Scripture. The psalmist states, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I may not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11).

The Bible is an implanted seed. James 1 describes two kinds of birth and two things that grow. On the one hand there is evil desire, which grows and gives birth to sin, which in turn gives birth to death (James 1:14-15). On the other hand, God “chose to give us birth through the word of truth” (James 1:18). That word is also called the “word planted in you” (James 1:21). If we do what the word says, it will lead to freedom and spiritual blessing (James 1:25). When we read and apply Scripture it is like a seed growing within us which, by its nature, will bring about growth and spiritual fruit in the proper time.

 

Important note – Reading the Bible is not enough. When I was younger I thought of reading the Bible in an almost magical way. I assumed that as long as I read the Bible every day I would stop feeling tempted to sin. That didn’t happen. In fact, sometimes in seasons where I was reading the Bible the most the temptations were also the greatest, and so were my falls. At times, I became disillusioned and discouraged. But looking back I realized that I was doing what James warned about:

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. (James 1:22)

I was assuming that listening was enough and so I was deceiving myself. I expected magic, when what God wanted was obedience.

Jesus gives the same warning in Matthew 7:24-27. Both the wise and the foolish man listen to the words of Jesus. But only the wise person puts them into practice. The foolish man hears, but fails to put it into practice.

So, if you want to grow spiritually, continue in the word. But know that just reading the Bible isn’t enough, it needs to be put into practice.

 

Futility and Toil (on Psalm 127 and Ecclesiastes)

Both Ecclesiastes and Psalm 127 are historically attributed to Solomon and it’s easy to see the connection. Both deal with issues of futility and toil. The central theme of Ecclesiastes is the meaninglessness and utter futility of life “under the sun.” Likewise, Psalm 127 warns that if “the LORD does not build the building, the builder labors in vain.” But neither portion of Scripture leaves us without hope. Life need not be futile. Here are two things we can do to deal with the often apparent (and real) futility of our labor and our lives.

Receive

We begin with a basic principle: God gives. The world exists because God gives. Any meaning which we may find in life comes out of this first and most basic of principles. God’s actions are prior to ours, and so his purposes are prior and foundational to our purposes.

God gives wisdom (Ecclesiastes 2:26), he gives life (5:18, 8:15), he gives possessions, and sometimes the ability to enjoy those possessions (5:19), but not always (6:2). In Psalm 127 we see that God gives sleep (Psalm 127:2) and children (127:3). (Apparently he just doesn’t give them at the same time.)

Our first response as part of God’s creation, then, is to simply receive those gifts with gratitude – to enjoy them. While receiving a gift seems simple enough, it’s harder than it looks. Those who do not receive the gift of God’s rest, but instead buck against it in self-reliance, rise early and stay up late, toiling away “in vain” (Psalm 127:2). Those who receive great wealth, but not the ability to enjoy that wealth, suffer a grievous evil (Ecclesiastes 6:2).

The writer of Ecclesiastes himself was a man of great wealth, great wisdom, and great accomplishments, and yet he spent much of his time in misery. One of the great lessons he learned was that it was in a man’s best interest to enjoy the life which God had given him (Ecclesiastes 9:9).[1]

Our first response to the futility of life is to receive what God has given us, and enjoy it as a gift from him.

Align

Our second basic principle is this: God’s actions have the ability to establish our actions.

Psalm 127:1 establishes this principle.

“Unless the Lord builds the house,
the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the guards stand watch in vain.”

There are two ways to express this. Positively we can say that if God’s actions coincide with our actions (God builds and the builder builds, God watches and the guard watches) our actions are not in vain. They are “established” (Psalm 90:17). Negatively, we must say that if God is not present with us in our actions, or if he opposes our actions, then our actions will be in vain.

Our task, then, is to align our deeds with God’s deeds. But how do we do this? How can we know what God is doing? Do we need to discern God’s will? The answer is “yes” and “no.” There is a distinction between God’s sovereign will and his moral will. His sovereign will – much of it anyway – is a mystery to us and will remain so this side of Heaven. But his moral will is something he has made known. It is available to us in his Word.

When I say we need to “align” our actions with God’s I mean, simply, that we must obey what we know of his moral will. To do so will lead to our actions being established. This can most easily be seen by looking at its opposite.  Consider the following syllogism:

  1. If God is does not participate in an action, it will be futile.
  2. And, God never participates in sin.
  3. Then, our sinful actions are always futile.

Conversely, then, it would make sense that our actions which are “in step with the Holy Spirit” are of the sort that God would establish, make “stick.”

But this is certainly not always our experience. Often sin appears to be profitable. The wicked prosper while the righteous suffer loss. Does not this reality contradict my claim above? Only if we view things from a purely human perspective. In the end, God the Judge will bring to judgment – for good or for ill – all of our deeds done in the body. Even if our good deeds have no apparent “earthly” reward, we can be assured of God’s heavenly reward, his commendation of us as “good and faithful” servants.

This is another way of restating the preacher’s conclusion of Ecclesiastes 12:13-14:

13 Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.

To keep God’s commandments is to align ourselves with his moral will. To align ourselves with God’s will is to trust in his final judgment.

How does this relate to the futility of life?

First, work done apart from God is futile.[2] If we want the possibility of our works being “established” we need to seek God’s participation, and that means seeking his moral will and obeying his commands.

Second, since God’s works are foundational and decisive, we can trust that He will establish those things he wants to establish. He will give meaning to our lives. Sometimes he works with us. Sometimes he works in spite of us. And, sometimes he opposes us. Even if we do not see meaning or purpose in our lives, we can trust that God is still moving history towards a grander purpose.

Third, and finally, we need to broaden our understanding of “success.” If we determine success only by outward criteria, many of our sacrifices will appear to be wasted effort. But, if we view “success” through God’s eyes we will be able to see that our efforts are not wasted. Our deeds, when done to the glory of God, no matter how small, find their meaning and value in God Himself, the Person of infinite value, the meaning Maker.

Notes

[1] There is a strong note of irony in Ecclesiastes 9:9

Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun.

It feels like a mixed message. We should enjoy our lives (true), but are those lives truly meaningless? Your life is a gift from God (true), but is that gift no more than days filled with toilsome labor, with spinning your wheels? This is one of the central tensions in the book of Ecclesiastes. The tension arises from the fact that we live in the world post-Fall. God’s gifts are good and we are to receive them with joy, but even all those good gifts are tainted with sin and brokenness.

[2] One of the incredible things about God is that he is able to make meaning and value out of acts that are in direct rebellion to his moral will. Think: Joseph’s brothers selling him to Egypt. This is a wonderful reality, but it doesn’t invalidate the ultimate futility of the act itself. God uses futile deeds to bring about meaningful results.

Can the American Church be Restored? Or, Beware the Egyptians

Since preaching on Psalm 126 last Sunday (link to the sermon) I have been reflecting on the history of Israel, on their fall, and on their restoration. At the same time, I have seen a lot of worry over the status of the American church. Sometimes that worry is overblown, but there is cause for concern. Many are asking, can the American church be restored? And, what would it take for that to happen?

First, let me frame the question: I am not asking whether or not America can be restored, but whether or not the American church can be restored. In the Old Testament national Israel is the people of God. The closest correlation to Israel, is not America, but the Church, the people of God in Christ. Second, I am not asking whether the Church can be restored to cultural prominence – though that would be great, or political power – a mixed bag of good and bad, but whether we can be restored to faithfulness to the new covenant of Jesus, whether we can be restored with spiritual life and vitality, whether our dim light can once again shine brightly in a dark world.

I want to connect that question with the story of Israel.

God brought Israel into the Promised Land and he laid before them the promise of blessings – full, abundant, gracious, and glorious blessings. Read Deuteronomy 28:1-14 to understand the scope and nature of that blessing. God also set before them “covenant curses”, consequences from deciding not follow God. Those curses (warning, tough reading) are spelled out in the rest of Deuteronomy 28. The culmination of those curses is exile, expulsion from the Promised Land.

What we see next is a long and tortured history. Israel falls into a series rebellion and repentance, first under judges and then under kings. Collectively, Israel chooses to turn away from God and God, being faithful to his covenant, brings judgment. That judgment takes the form of foreign nations invading the land and taking the captives of Israel into exile. Israel messed up and they were facing the consequences.

As the threat of invasion loomed and the prophets warned of God’s judgment the leaders and people of Israel looked to Egypt for answers. Remember, it was the Egyptians who enslaved Israel. The Egyptians were still enemies of God and they were still under God’s judgment. Going to Egypt was a tactical move, but it was not a move that pleased God. Going to Egypt was an attempt to thwart or escape the Babylonians, but it was also a moral compromise.

Jeremiah warned Israel that their peace with Egypt would prove futile: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of me, ‘Pharaoh’s army, which has marched out to support you, will go back to its own land, to Egypt. Then the Babylonians will return and attack this city; they will capture it and burn it to the ground” (Jeremiah 37:7-8). If you go to the Egyptians, Jeremiah says, “You will be disappointed by Egypt as you were by Assyria” (Jeremiah 2:36).

As Jeremiah predicted, the Babylonians captured Jerusalem. In the aftermath of this terrible event the people asked Jeremiah what God wanted them to do. Jeremiah gave them this encouraging word of God: stay in the land, don’t be afraid of the king of the Babylonians, I have had compassion (Jeremiah 42:10-12). He also gave them this stern warning: Do not go to Egypt! “If you are determined to go to Egypt and settle there, then the sword you fear will overtake you there, and the famine you dread will follow you to Egypt, and there you will die” (Jeremiah 42:15b-16). Why this stern warning? Because Egypt was still under God’s judgment. To go to Egypt would be moral compromise. And here I think is one of the moral principles of this text: If moral compromise is what got you into the mess, moral compromise won’t get you out!

Israel would have been better to listen to the words of Moses when he predicted the exile in the first place: Repent and return to God and lean on his mercy and covenant faithfulness! (See Deuteronomy 30:1-6)

So is spiritual renewal and restoration possible for the American church? Yes. God makes restoration possible in any and all circumstances. But how will we get there?

Repentance and faithfulness to God.

We will not get there through moral compromise. And, to the extent that reliance on political power, or cultural influence, or methodologies, take us into a place of moral compromise, we will be led deeper into judgment, not out of it. It might lead to short term gain, but it will lead to long-term loss. Going to Egypt isn’t the answer.

I have up in the background of my computer the live stream of #Together2016, a one-day event at the Washington Mall. One thing they are getting exactly right is a call to repentance, not a call to national repentance, but a call to repentance of the church. Louis Giglio put it well, in citing 2 Chronicles 7:14, he said “God is saying ‘my people’, not ‘those people’ or ‘some people’, but ‘my people.’” And the “my people” of 2 Chronicles 7:14 is the redeemed people, the people called by the name God.

If we want renewal within the church, it begins within the church. Recognition of sin starts with recognition of our sin. That recognition leads to repentance. And that repentance opens up the possibility of renewal.

 

Discipleship and the Body of Christ

Every church is faced with the following question: How do we go about making disciples, mature followers of Jesus. One way we try to do this at our church is by having a “discipleship process.” This process is intended to cover the basics of what it means to follow Jesus. The “steps” of this process are Worship, Connect, Grow, and Reach.

Worship is what we do on Sunday mornings, singing together, praying together, and listening to the preached Word of God.

Connect covers the fellowship portion of discipleship. We get together in “Bible Fellowship Groups.” We work together to apply the Word to our lives. We develop deeper relationships that enable us to meet each other’s needs.

Grow refers to those things we do which deepen our understanding of Scripture. It includes special Bible studies and the Sunday night service.

Reach refers to all those ministries that either directly serve within the church (like working on the building and grounds team, visiting our shut-ins, etc.) or serve those outside of our church (like working in Attic After School or putting on our Fall Carnival).

Put another way Worship means to love God. Connect means to love one another. Grow means loving God’s word. And, Reach means love God’s world.

I was also thinking about these components of discipleship in relation to a metaphor common in Scripture, that of the church as the “body of Christ.”

If we relate discipleship process to the body of Christ metaphor we can see, through a new perspective, why each of these is important.

The goal of worship is to strengthen our connect to the head; to Christ. A church cannot function if it is disconnected from Christ. He is the one who gives us direction and from him springs the life and vitality of the church. A church disconnected from Christ has lost its identity. This is one of the purposes of worship, to ensure that we are single-mindedly focused on Jesus and to ensure that we regularly enter into his presence through the Holy Spirit. When we gather in His name, He is present with us. When we forsake that fellowship, spiritual life wanes and spiritual direction disappears.

The goal of connect is to strengthen our relationship with one another. A hand cannot function as a hand if it is disconnected from the body. A foot cannot function as a foot if it is not disconnected to the body. A collection of parts cannot function unless those parts are built together in love. Discipleship is part and parcel with obedience and there are a great number of commands, like the “one another” commands, which we simply cannot perform apart from connection to the body of Christ. If you are not connected in a meaningful relational way with a church, you will be less effective as a Christian. If you are connected then not only will you be more effective, but so will those around you.

The goal of grow is to increase the fitness of each individual part. A hand is not effective if it is disconnected from the head (worship) or if it is disconnected from the rest of the body (connect). But it is also ineffective if it is itself weak or diseased (or, in my case, had a dislocated finger). A believer grows, becomes more spiritually mature, in direct relation to their understanding of and obedience to the Word of God. As we let that word take root and as we nourish ourselves on it, we become more effective within the body.

Finally, the goal of reach is to provide action and function to the body as a whole. Some parts of the body serve primarily within the body. I have internal organs which keep me healthy and active but which is not particularly visible to the outside world. But with other parts of my body, like my hands or my mouth, I can serve and communicate with the world around me. A body with no movement, no matter how well connected with the head, or within itself, even if it is physically fit, is still useless. Without movement, without mission, without action, a body will do no good. And a body with no movement will eventually become lifeless itself.

We need all of these elements in order to become fully mature in Christ, as individuals and as communities. How we do all of these things will be different based on the individual and the church, but each of these (corporate worship, fellowship, study and application of God’s word, and service to others) is an essential aspect of the Christian walk and of discipleship.

16 characteristics of a foreigner/stranger

“Better to be lowly in spirit along with the oppressed than to share plunder with the proud” Proverbs 25:16

“By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.” Hebrews 11:24-26

This is part of a continuing series on what it means for the Church to be a community of exiles and foreigners. The study this week is on Hebrews 11 and 13. I was short on time this week though, so instead of a full blog post I will just offer a list.

  1. They know that they are, indeed, foreigners and strangers on earth (11:13)
  2. They are grounded by faith in the eternal and unseen God (11:1)
  3. They are pulled forward into hope and obedience by the promise of God (11:10)
  4. They accept temporary living conditions (uncertainty) now for permanent living conditions later (11:9-10)
  5. They take the warnings of God seriously (11:6)
  6. They step out of a comfortable life in order to follow where God leads (11:8)
  7. They refuse to return to where they came from, because they know God has something better in store (11:15-16)
  8. They fear God more than they fear unjust rulers (11:23)
  9. They consider it better to identify with the oppressed people of God than to enjoy position and pleasure in the halls of power (11:24-26; also Proverbs 25:16)
  10. They trust in the salvation of God, through the sacrifice he provides (11:28)
  11. Despite their state of vulnerability, they experience God’s protection, either here on earth, or in the resurrection (11:32-37)
  12. They are willing to identify with the persecuted Church (13:3)
  13. They make holiness a priority (13:4-5)
  14. They identify with Jesus who suffered disgrace “outside the gate”, bearing the same disgrace that he did (13:12-13)…
  15. … knowing that God will vindicate them in the end (13:14)
  16. Therefore, their lives are marked by worship and good deeds (13:15-16)

See also:

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.