Ours is a world that is changing, and not for the better. Ours is a day when destroying property and stealing what does not belong to you is called “justice” but only if your skin matches a particular shade on the color wheel. Ours is a time when the supposed greatest “threat” to a woman’s happiness is the very purpose for which she was created. Ours is a generation that literally calls what is good “evil” and what is evil “good.” Education has been replaced with satanic indoctrination. Sexual perversions of every variety are championed. Paganism is on the rise. And the evangelical golden boys are almost completely silent on all fronts. What is the church of Jesus Christ to do in times such as these?
There’s no way around it. Times are bad. But have no fear, they will get worse. “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim. 3:12-13). The Scriptures never anticipate a return to “normal” but only a steady downgrade. It would be foolish to think we will ever get back to the good old days when Christian values and Christian culture will ever be respected and implemented in society. But what does that mean for those who are in Christ? How can we live in world that increasingly makes its hatred of our King so abrasively obvious? That is the very question that Peter seeks to answer in his first epistle.
Author: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ”
There is no reason to suspect that the author of this epistle is anyone other than Simon Peter, chief of the twelve disciples. This is the man who gladly and enthusiastically (if not somewhat immaturely) followed Jesus for three years during His earthly ministry. This was the man who, once filled with the Holy Spirit, preached repentance to Israel on the day of Pentecost resulting in over 3000 conversions. This is a man who needs no introduction, for everywhere the gospel of Jesus Christ has been proclaimed, this man’s glorious confession (Matt. 16:16) and ignominious failures (Matt. 26:69-75) have been told alongside. Much time has passed since those early days. Peter has continued to remain faithful to his Lord and has grown in power, humility, and maturity. He now writes as an apostle of Jesus Christ, one who has been sent on a specific mission and bears the full authority of the One who sent him as he carries this mission out. It is for him to bear witness of Jesus Christ to the uttermost part of the earth (Acts. 1:8). This letter is part of the calling.
Setting: This letter is written toward the end of Peter’s life. We safely assume that by “Babylon” in 5:13 he refers to neither the ancient city that is now a ruin in a desolate desecrated desert nor to the remote Roman outpost in Egypt that bears the same name. Rather he refers to the city of Rome, the center of the world, in a coded manner that will not betray the letter’s origin to the uniformed and outside reader. Why would Peter feel the need to take such precautions? Because Rome has already made the first move of organized and authorized persecutions against the church.
In July of 64 a.d. the city of Rome caught fire and the emperor Nero caught much of the heat. Needing a scapegoat, he turned to the Christians and publicly blamed them for starting the blaze. The public did not need much persuasion for these Christians were strange separatists who did not fit in with their Roman way of life. The result was the first of several government sanctioned persecutions of the church in the province of Rome. Peter, writing shortly after these events in late 64 or early 65 a.d. is concerned that what becomes fashionable in Rome will soon be exported throughout the empire. The churches across the Aegean must be prepared to live in a world that is not just unsympathetic, but downright hostile to the gospel.
Audience: “to those who reside as exiles, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who are chosen”
By looking at this list of various places we should recognize that Peter does not name individual cities, but whole regions. Taken together, these are the names of every Roman province that collectively make up almost the entire landmass of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). Beginning in the north with Pontus, Peter works his way east, then south, then north up the western coastline so that this list makes a kind of circle. The idea is that one man will take this letter through the whole of the eastern empire and thus encourage all the churches to stand firm in the faith (5:12).
Some of these provinces we have seen in other passages. Some were represented during Peter’s sermon at Pentecost (Pontus, Cappadocia, and Asia) while others were not (Galatia and Bithynia). It is likely that some who heard the gospel in Jerusalem took it home and proclaimed it there. It is also likely that the gospel spread from one city to another, just as it had in various other places (Col. 1:3-8; 1 Thess. 1:8). We should also recognize some of these places were areas that Paul long ministered (Galatia and Asia) and yet was prohibited by God from entering others (Acts 16:6-8). One way or another, the gospel has now been spread all over Asia Minor.
There has been much ink spilt attempting to answer the question whether the recipients were mainly Jews or Gentiles. The answer is rather obvious if given half a minute to dwell on what we know. As with every early church, there was certainly a Jewish core in the beginning. But after almost three decades these churches would now include many Gentiles. To speak of whether they were mainly Jewish or mainly Gentile misses the entire point of what the gospel has done and continues to do. These churches were certainly a mixed bag of redeemed Jews and Gentiles. But we must not miss the significance of these details. This letter is not written to one specific church, or even a small area of local churches, but all believers that inhabit a rather significant landmass. In other words, this letter is written to one of the widest audiences in the New Testament. With this in mind, we should take note of what Peter says to them and about them for here the gap between meaning and application is quite narrow. What does Peter say about them?
Most translations do not accurately represent the Greek here as they place all the emphasis on ἐκλεκτοῖς (elect/chosen). A more accurate understanding is to take this adjective for what it is and know that it modifies the following noun “sojourners” or “aliens.” Peter is writing to the elect sojourners of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, etc.
This is a very necessary distinction. Peter is not simply writing to the elect in these various places, though they certainly are God’s elect. Peter is writing to those who have been elected as sojourners or aliens. We fail to remember that God’s election results in more than our immediate release from sin’s power and eschatological deliverance from wrath. God’s election also results in our alienation from this present world ruled for the time being by the prince of darkness (Eph. 2:1-3).
An alien or a sojourner are those who live in the same area as the natives, but they are not a part of the native culture nor do they desire to integrate or be assimilated into it. In fact, most aliens are looked upon with no small amount of hostility by the natives. This is how Abraham referred to himself (Gen. 23:4) and how Peter now refers to the saints in Asia Minor. This position is not a spot of bad luck or an unfortunate happenstance. It is part of God’s election where the Triune Godhead is at work to secure all believers as sojourners and aliens until Christ returns to rule and reign His Kingdom. We are citizens of His kingdom and therefore wait as strangers in this land until the King returns. The rest of Peter’s introduction stresses three encouraging realities that all believers must realize concerning their current status as elect and chosen sojourners.
God the Father Ordained
“According to the foreknowledge of God the Father”
This is the first of three prepositional phrases that all modify Peter’s audience as elect aliens who are dispersed. If it is not already obvious, we should note that this election to be aliens and sojourners is the work of the Triune Godhead, the work of God the Father, God the Spirit, and God the Son. Here we read that their election to be sojourners is in accordance with or according to the standard of (κατὰ) the foreknowledge of God the Father.
Many try to limit this “foreknowledge” (πρόγνωσις – where we get our English term “prognosis”) to a simple passive idea where God in His omniscience is able to look down the hall of time, as it were, and see all that will happen. While that is certainly an accurate understanding of God’s omniscience, it is also wholly incomplete. God’s omniscience is not passive, but active. It is in line with His will and decree. It is not just that He is aware of what will happen, as if some force outside of Himself is causing it to happen. He knows beforehand because He has willed it to occur. The verbal form of the same term (προγινώσκω) is found later in this same chapter (v. 20) to speak of Christ and His atonement as being foreknown before the foundations of the world. Was God the Father only aware that Christ would render Himself a guilt offering and provide atonement for many? Or did God the Father plan, will, and decree this to occur from before the dawn of time?
Limiting this “foreknowledge” to a passive awareness is a limp wristed attempt to defend errant theology and in so doing misses the entire point of this passage. Peter is encouraging the saints of Asia Minor by reminding them that God ordained that they would be called to salvation in the context of aliens and sojourners. The fact that they are not welcome in their hometowns and seen as strangers in among their own people is not an unfortunate side-effect of the gospel but is a part of God’s ordained plan for their lives.
God the Holy Spirit Prepares
“by the sanctifying work of the Spirit”
Not only has God the Father ordained these saints to be elect aliens or chosen sojourners, but God the Holy Spirit provides the means to make them more and more alien like. It is He, God the Holy Spirit, who continues the work of sanctification in the lives of believers.
The term “sanctification” (ἁγιασμός) is the noun form of the adjective “holy” (ἅγος) which is related to the verb “sanctify” (ἁγιάζω). Our English does not well reflect the shared roots of these terms, but they all come from the same root. The point Peter is making is that part of his audience’s status as elect aliens is due to the work of the Holy Spirit. It is He who makes them holy.
Nothing will alienate a person from society faster than objective holiness. As light stands out in a dark room, sanctified living is impossible to miss in the dank and dark drudgery that is our world. Peter is reminding his readers (to include you and me) that the more the Holy Spirit works to wash our minds and actions with the Word and so bring us into conformity with Christ, the more we will be alienated from society.
You cannot have it both ways. Either the room is dark, or it is light. Either we are comfortable and accepted in a world that hates God or we are alienated in the world that we live in because we love the God the world hates. The Holy Spirit’s job is to make us more and more alienated by making us more holy. This poses an interesting question for individual contemplation. If we are comfortable and accepted among the pagan, how holy are we really?
God the Son Initiates
“to the obedience of Jesus Christ and the sprinkling of His blood”
God the Father ordained these saints to be elect aliens. God the Holy Spirit works to make them chosen sojourners. And God the Son purposes them to be select strangers.
Technically speaking, we must look at this phrase in two parts. The Greek (εἰς ὑπακοὴν καὶ ῥαντισμὸν αἵματος Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ,) very woodenly translated reads something like: “for the purpose of obedience and sprinkling by the blood of Jesus Christ.” The two ideas of “obedience” and “sprinkling” are certainly connected but should be treated separately.
Obedience – Obedience is the hallmark of a believer. We know that we love Christ if we obey His commands (Jn. 14:15). The one who hears the Word and does not obey it is a man who has no idea who he truly is (Jam. 1:22-25). This “obedience” refers to the whole of the Christian life beginning at conversion when he obeys the call to confess, repent, and believe all the way through to when he stands before his King who will say “well done good and faithful slave!” (Matt. 25:21, 23; 2 Tim. 4:8). The Christian’s election as an alien is purposed for obedience from start to finish. What is it that makes obedience so imperative?
Sprinkling – Peter is a man who knows his Old Testament and by now, only two verses in, it is becoming increasingly obvious. The imagery of sprinkling blood should immediately make us think of the various sacrifices and offerings found in the Old Testament. But there are only a few instances where people are sprinkled rather than the altar or the ark of the covenant. Of those few examples, it is Ex. 24:3-8 that holds our attention. It is here where Moses gathers the nation of Israel in order to ratify the covenant that Yhwh has just made with them on Sinai. It is here where an offering was made, and the people were sprinkled with the blood of the covenant.
But the church, who is not Israel, has been ratified by the blood of Jesus Christ and are the first fruits of the New Covenant. Is this not what our Lord said Himself? “And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matt. 26:27-28).
The point Peter is making is this: You are selected to be aliens for the purpose of obeying because you have been made Christ’s own possession through His blood! As those sprinkled clean from an evil conscience (Heb. 10:22) by Christ’s blood of the New Covenant, these saints must accept and embrace their status as elect aliens. Their position as chosen sojourners has been ordained by the Father, empowered by the Spirit, and made possible by the Son.
Peter’s final words are most remarkable given the circumstances. “May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure.” Here is a summary of the Christian life. Grace, the unmerited and undeserved favor of God upon sinners through Jesus Christ. Peace, a state of well-being that results from God’s grace and flows from the experience of being reconciled and forgiven. What a strange way to introduce a letter written in a time of extreme uncertainty, violence, and anxiety.
Yet as strangers, sojourners, and aliens who have been selected, elected, and chosen for this role in this world, there is no need for fear or anxiety. If they were citizens of this world there would be much reason to fear the things of this world. But as citizens of Christ’s kingdom, they need only fear the King and rest in His grace and peace.
It has become popular to misappropriate this text in an effort to pull all Christian influence out of society in any meaningful way. Big Eva’s big brothers twist the Word of God in order to fool Christians into thinking that there is no reason to get involved in local or national politics because we are simply sojourners in this land. That is a bone-headed conclusion borne from heavy-handed eisegesis. There is a world of difference between standing for truth and righteousness and seeking out a permanent place in this world’s system. It is the Christian’s duty to be salt and light, meaning we are certainly active in this world as we declare the truth of the gospel and use every ounce of our rights and influence to oppose evil. But we do so knowing that we are citizens of Christ’s kingdom and we will never be at home until He returns to rule and reign.
I’m not sure which is worse, (1) the fact that many who profess to know Christ in our nation have no idea what it is like to live as a sojourner, (2) the fact that few pulpits teach that we are saved for the purpose of being sojourners, or (3) the fact that most professing Christians seem to deeply desire a citizenship of this world in rejection of their alien status. There is a widespread effort to be accepted and applauded by the pagan world in which we live. The unpardonable sin in modern evangelicalism is that of rocking the boat. As a result, “Christians” are completely unremarkable and blend so neatly into society so as to be indistinguishable from their Christ-less neighbors. It is not possible to be faithful to Christ while being a friend of the world.
Peter wrote this letter to encourage saints who were feeling the weight of being aliens in their own homes. Yet I read this with great conviction because few are the saints that feel this same weight, and many are the goats who flirt with the world behind their Saviors back. The church must be taught to understand that our alien status is tied to our position as God’s elect. To loathe one is to loathe the other. If we embrace our election as sons of God and joint heirs with Christ, then we must also embrace our status as sojourners and aliens until our King returns. Soli Deo Gloria!