“Beloved, I exhort you, as strangers and aliens to abstain from worldly desires which wage war against the soul by keeping your conduct among the heathen excellent, so that, in what they slander you as evil doers, from observing the excellent works, they might glorify God in the day of visitation.”
Peter again refers to his readers as aliens (παρεπίδημος – 1:1) and now adds strangers (πάροικος). The following exhortation introduces a new section in Peter’s letter to the Christians of Asia Minor in that they now must understand what practical sojourning looks like. These two verses stand as a transition point where they summarize all Peter has addressed regarding practical salvation (1:13-2:10) and introduce this new turn of practical sojourning (2:11-3:12). It is as if the words of our Lord from Matt. 5:16 (Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. – NASB) are running through Peter’s mind as he writes this, for we see here an exhortation for believers to be two things. As strangers and aliens, Peter exhorts the church to be both salt and light in a dead and dark world.
Salty Strangers (vv. 11-12a)
With the opening address of beloved, we note a change in Peter’s tone. He is not addressing these Christians from a position of authority, leaning solely upon his position as an apostle, but enters this discussion from the vantage point of one who cares for these people. It is not that Peter does not issue forth a command here, for the following verb “I exhort” (παρακαλῶ) is the first personal appeal to his readers. But this command comes from a genuine concern for their well-being and is coupled as a reminder of the fact that they are beloved of God.
Status as Strangers (v. 11a)
“Beloved, I exhort you, as strangers and aliens”
It is a common mistake among translators to make too little of the Greek verb παρακαλέω (to call alongside). The NKJV uses beg here while the NASB translates this common verb as urge. The NASB is certainly closer to the mark as the sense indicates exhortation. The apostle is personally calling the Christians of Asia Minor alongside, to stand beside him as beloved saints, strangers, and sojourners.
Peter frames his exhortation by reminding his readers of who they are in relation to their environment. He has already referred to his readers as strangers (πάροικος – 1:17) and aliens (παρεπίδημος – 1:1) and now combines the terms to emphasize their status as non-worldly citizens. Technically these terms connect to the coming infinitive (to abstain) but are placed here to bring attention to their status. They are exhorted to abstain from the world because they are not of the world.
Saltiness Urged (v. 11b)
“to abstain from worldly desires which wage war against the soul”
The infinitive (ἀπέχεσθαι) puts meat on the bones of Peter’s personal call for exhortation. This tells us what he is exhorting or calling his readers alongside to do. Because they are strangers living in the world, they must abstain from the desires that mark the world. It is important to understand that these worldly or fleshly desires (σαρκικῶν ἐπιθυμιῶν) speak to more than the outworking of gross immorality. Peter refers to more than sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, drunkenness, etc. He does not speak in terms of actions but of desires. Every evil and sinful action is first a desire in the heart of man. James uses this same term for desire/lust (ἐπιθυμία) to explain the chain of events that brings about sin: “But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.” James 1:14-15 (NASB). Peter’s personal plea is not for Christians to abstain from sinful behavior. He gets ahead of the stampede and exhorts his readers to abstain from the root desires that will lead into sin. Lusting after things like wealth, comfort, status, notoriety, pleasure, and leisure are all encompassed in this reference to worldly desires. Wanting, desiring, and lusting after the things of this world are unhealthy, unhelpful, and will lead to our destruction.
We should take a moment and recognize that when Peter exhorts his readers to abstain from these desires, that means that Christians are not subject to such lusts. They have no power over us. Christians are not victims of inward uncontrollable desires. In fact, this Scripture teaches that Christians must learn to consciously restrain and become separate from all worldly lusts. This is a “needed rebuke to our modern society which takes feelings as a morally neutral ‘given’ and disparages any who would say that some feelings and desires are wrong.”
When Peter says that these desires wage war against the soul, he does not refer to a single struggle or an isolated firefight. What our Bibles translate as wage war (στρατεύω) carries the idea of a planned military campaign with the design of conquest. The soul (ψυχή) refers to the totality of man. What is at stake is a believer’s mind, body, and spirit. This campaign is not won in a single battle but by way of prolonged siege as these desires chip away at a believer’s fortifications and will eventually overrun the totality of his person. Peter’s exhortation is simple: refuse to entertain these desires.
Jesus used the imagery of salt to express the preservative nature of the gospel and those who trust in it. Salt stays off rot by preserving food. Salt can be used as an antiseptic in wounds. Believers are called the salt of the earth (Matt. 5:13) because as redeemed individuals we carry the only message that has the power to fight and overtake the rot of sin. But if we desire the rot instead of the salt, then we trust in sin rather than in the Savior. It is imperative that personal holiness (1:13-2:10) precedes our interactions with the world.
Means of Staying Salty (v. 12a) – “by keeping your conduct among the heathen excellent”
There is no new sentence in the Greek and this clause before us reveals the means by which believers abstain from worldly desires. Our conduct must be excellent in full view of the unbelieving world. “Conduct” seems to be a favorite term of Peter’s (1:15, 18; 3:1-2, 16). The Greek ἀναστροφή describes one’s habitual actions as they depict a way of living or lifestyle. By describing the believer’s lifestyle or conduct as excellent, Peter employs the loaded term καλός. Usually translated simply as “good” this term indicates an inherent beauty, usefulness, attractiveness, and worth. This is the term used by the LXX to translate Gen. 1:31: “God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” (NASB). It is imperative that believers live lives that express and display the inherent goodness of God’s original creation. In other words, believers must live consistently with their confession.
To keep our conduct excellent is to live in total obedience to God’s Word. The law was given to Israel for their good and for their survival (Deut. 6:24). To live as submissive servants to God is to live consistently with His good creation. This will certainly keep us separate from the world, but at the same time there will be an objective and observable worth, beauty, and excellence in our conduct. True obedience from the heart through the hands in every aspect of our living is the means by which we stay salty.
Illuminating Aliens (v. 12b)
“So that, in what they slander you as evil doers, from observing the excellent works, they might glorify God in the day of visitation.”
Christians are not only to be salt but are also light in a dark world. Light reveals what the darkness hides. Light penetrates and overpowers the darkness every time. It is not enough that we live in such a way to stave off the rot of society. We must also let our light shine before men for their good and God’s glory.
Peter introduces this clause with a purpose statement “so that” (ἵνα), though the purpose is not expressed until the end: that they might glorify God in the day of visitation. What lies between are two prepositional phrases that help paint a picture of context.
Good Works as an Apologetic
When Peter writes “in what they slander you as evil doers” he paints the context of hostility. As his readers withdraw from pagan and heathen desires, they naturally ostracize themselves from the culture. They won’t be participating in pagan feasts and worship that normally would be times of community. For a first century Christian to come out of paganism and shun all pagan activity would be to break with nearly every societal structure and thus draw the ire and scrutiny of the whole community. The world that was once their home has become their judge and accuses them of being evil doers.
“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” – Matt. 5:10-12 (NASB)
The sense behind κακοποιός (mischief makers, evil doers, good for nothings) is more general than an accusation of being legitimate criminals yet marks Peter’s readers as cut off from society and as such a nuisance and a menace. How are Christians to defend themselves against such baseless accusations? By their good works. “Peter did not summon believers to a verbal campaign of self-defense or to the writing of tracts in which they defend their morality. He enjoined believers to pursue virtue and goodness, so that their goodness would be apparent to all in society.”
Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
The greatest defense for Christianity is obedient Christians living out their faith. Yet this faith is not only a defense or an apology of Christianity. Our conduct must have an evangelistic edge to it as well.
Good Works as Evangelistic
The purpose statement works toward the potential conversion of those pagans who observe these good works. The participle that we translated “observing” (ἐποπτεύοντες) indicates more than a passing glance. The verbal root describes a careful scrutiny as one analyzes and examines the subject in question. When the pagans scrutinize the good works of Christians, there is the potential for conversion whereby they glorify God.
The phrase in the day of visitation (ἐν ἡμέρᾳ ἐπισκοπῆς) is hotly debated as to its origin and meaning. The term “visitation” (ἐπισκοπή) only refers to the act of being present to watching over someone/thing or to take control of the situation or assignment. The visitation is neither positive nor negative in of itself and can refer to either judgment (Is. 10:3) or mercy (Lk. 19:44). The visitation referred to here is time of visitation upon the Gentiles for salvation.
It is almost as if Peter reflects upon the Jerusalem council and James’ words to the church: “Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name” – Acts 15:14 (NASB). This age in which we live is a time of visitation by which God is selected for Himself a people from the Gentiles, the church. Our lives must adorn the gospel of grace so as to acquit us of any wrongdoing but also to attract those who take the time to fully investigate the matter.
Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
These two verses stand at the head of the coming section. They make clear that personal holiness is essential to survival and must precede our efforts of evangelism. They also remind us of the blessing and necessity of obedience. Obedience is always for our good and for our survival. Through our obedience we are protected from the campaign against our souls while at the same time display an invitation through the light of Christ which illumines us. Our personal lives matter. Our public lives matter. Our obedience matters. For our good and for God’s glory.
Soli Deo Gloria!
 Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter, vol. 17, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2009), p. 122. Thomas Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2003), p. 122-3.