Reflection | These next two verses serve as the hinge between all the ground Peter has covered to this point and what follows next. If what came before centered around a full understanding of our identity in Christ, then what Peter is about to share in the remainder of his letter is what living out of that identity looks like practically. This progression ought not be overlooked as many us live our lives in the opposite direction.
We strive to do in order to be somebody. Our sense of self comes from our work and our accomplishments, hence the pressure to perform, our fear of failure, and our need to succeed. Peter, however, is declaring a different way of living – one that is more freeing, more peaceful, and honestly, more fulfilling. Rather than doing in order to be, Peter has called us to realize that who we are is established in Christ. Our value and worth are reflected in what God has done and continues to do, both for and in us, through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Therefore, all our doing is no longer about proving or validating ourselves but serving others in order to glorify God and experience the fullness of who we are in Christ.
Sadly, the NIV translation of verse 11 does not fully convey the pastoral tenderness with which Peter begins the next part of his message. Our reading of “Dear friends” is better translated as “Beloved.” Peter’s specific choice of address matters because in acknowledging them (and us) as those who are loved, Peter is extending the divine tenderness – the love of God he has just spent the first half of his letter talking about. More than this, “Beloved” also echoes the way the Father speaks of the Son, Jesus (see Matthew 3:17, 17:5). Using this particular designation in relation to those who follow Christ further reinforces that we are loved with the same love that the Father has for His Son, Jesus.
We who are “beloved” to God, Peter goes on to categorize “as foreigners and exiles.” (verse 11). Or as another English translation expresses Peter’s sentiments here, we are “resident aliens.” If this sounds odd, let us consider that a person can be a foreigner in a place but still be a resident. For example, if a citizen of the United States moves temporarily to South Africa for school or for a job, they can become as a foreigner a temporary resident there.
In much the same way, Peter is acknowledging the reality of the living situation of those to whom he is writing. His audience is a collection of both Jews and Gentiles who are residents within the geographical region of Asia Minor. And yet because they are following Jesus, they are being treated like outsiders – foreigners – by their surrounding neighbors – those who practice Judaism and those who pledge their allegiance to the Roman Empire.
All followers of Jesus at all times face this same tension. All those who serve the Lord stand in a long tradition of people going all the way back to Abraham in being called to view themselves as “foreigners and strangers” (see Genesis 23:4). We, who are, in Christ, “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation” live in this world but we are not to be of this world. On the one hand, we have been called to go into the world around us – to engage and not withdraw from others who are not Christians – in terms of doing business, making friendships, and fostering the neighborhood. On the other hand, our ultimate sense of both longing and belonging is not to be of the world in which we are now taking residence but the world to come – a world made new, made right in the Kingdom of God.
Given this, the question becomes how does a follower of Jesus live day in and day out in between these two worlds? This is the question Peter seeks to answer in these two verses. He begins by advising us “to abstain from sinful desires” (verse 11). The first obstacle that gets in the way is the inclination that still lingers from our brokenness – our former separation from God, before Christ’s intervention – of living life on our own terms rather than the Lord’s.
“Old habits die hard,” we like to say. In the midst of God’s grace unleashed and working in us through the Holy Spirit, there remain passionate longings to indulge mindsets, feelings, and ultimately behaviors that we know are wrong. The wrongness of catering to such desires is that they lead to excesses and selfishness – often at the expense of others. Case in point, our desire for food and drink is the normal, natural, God-programmed response of our physical bodies when we need energy and sustenance. Yielding, however, before the impulse to over-consume of food and drink – eating and drinking out of a sense of boredom or for the sake of showing off – is gluttony. It is both wasteful and unjust in light of those who are dying of hunger and malnutrition.
Not all of the sinful desires to which Peter is referring are physical in nature. Internal compulsions towards self-indulgence in terms of vanity, envy, jealousy, or arrogance also fall under the category of what Peter is warning us to avoid. In fact, so great is the immediate danger posed by such desires that he describes their threat using military language: “which wage war against your soul.” Who we are becoming in Christ is regularly under siege by who we once believed we were – whatever we and/or those around us told us about ourselves – either puffing us up or tearing us down.
Peter is alerting us to the ongoing battle we face as followers of Jesus. On the one hand, we can choose to believe and act as who God declares us to be in Christ. Or, on the other hand, we can choose to feed desires that we falsely convince ourselves will define us and/or make us feel better about ourselves. To be clear, what is at stake is not the forgiveness and salvation that the Lord has given us. What we risk is not enjoying the freedom we have been afforded from the authority – the ability to think, speak, and live differently now – through the power of God’s Spirit.
That there is even more at stake in our choice of how to live than the experience of our own freedom in Christ, Peter makes clear with the next verse. “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” (verse 12). Although, as ambassadors of the Kingdom of God, we live as foreigners and temporary residents on this side of eternity, the rest of the world is watching.
Peter acknowledges the temperament of those around us who do not share our faith in Christ can be hostile, cynical, and therefore, critical. His appeal is for believers not to validate the world’s critiques against Christianity – not to reflect a poor and false witness of who Jesus is. In fact, the adjective Peter uses twice to describe our lives and our deeds, translated into English as “good,” has a much wider range of meaning akin to “beautiful,” “proper” or “noble.”
Peter is calling for us as followers of Jesus to live in such a way that even though our neighbors may have nothing positive to say about us, the visibility and the virtuousness of how we live and treat others as Christians remains undeniable.
Sadly, both the recent history and the present situation in the Church seems to generally demonstrate, we as the Body of Christ have not heeded Peter’s words. Most Christians tend to be more focused on their perceived sense of persecution and the protection of their rights rather than an honest evaluation of the attractiveness and integrity of their witness. Unlike Jesus, we as the Church are known more for what we are against rather than who we are for. Unlike Christ, the criticisms and charges leveled against we who profess to follow Him, tend to be true rather than false.
Peter calls us as those who profess to believe in Jesus to live lives that actually demonstrate we are following Christ. For Peter, choosing to live out of who we are becoming in Christ is more than a pious, inward disposition. It is our most visible and strongest means of evangelism – of pointing to and sharing Jesus with others. As Christians, people are watching us, and we do have an influence on them – either positive or negative. The way we live our lives will either draw people to Jesus or create an obstacle to receiving Christ.
Consider & Discuss | A pilgrim is a person who journeys in a foreign land. Does the passport of your life reflect that you are citizen of God’s Kingdom? From a pilgrim’s point of view, are there any things in the world you love too much?
Is the example of your life – how you speak, how you listen, how you engage and respond to the world around you – a public testimony to Christ’s glory or shame? Does your life make the case for Jesus and the Gospel? Would an unbeliever be drawn to follow Jesus based on following how you live your life? In what ways is God challenging you today through this passage to live a more “distinctive” life for Him?
Prayer Focus | Loving Father, thank You for all your blessings – for everything You have done for me and for all that You are even now doing both in and through me. I confess that old habits die hard within me. Especially when I am under stress or facing challenges, I can be tempted to go back and seek my sense of self in what I do, what others say about me, and/or what I can control. When I give into this temptation, I confess that I allow healthy desires to become disordered desires. Instead of being satisfied with what You provide, I become consumed by excess – full of myself rather than full of Your Spirit. Protect me from such temptations by reminding and encouraging me of who I am according to You – my worth and my value in Christ. Free from any other measure, basis or assurance of my identity.
I know that this world is not my home. As I journey through this life, direct and strengthen me to choose to live out of who You say I am in Christ – through what You have done and the work You are continuing to do in me through Your Spirit. Help me to be a faithful witness to You in body, soul and spirit so that I may reflect Your glory – the beauty of Your Son, Jesus Christ, and in so doing, point and lead others to Him and to Your Kingdom. Amen.