We have been reborn to new life in Christ. This rebirth makes us strangers in our own land.
Catching up on the Story
Have you ever felt out of place, like you don’t belong? Maybe you’ve moved to a new town, and things are done differently there, like when I moved from my native Lancaster County, PA, with its rolling hills of farmland with dairy cows and horse-drawn buggies of both the Amish and the Mennonites making their rhythmic clops along the pavement, to the barren wasteland, (comparatively speaking) of Oklahoma. It wasn’t just that the landscape and the weather were vastly different; the people with their culture were different.
In the halls of my high school, most people walked with their heads down, avoiding eye contact (that might have just been me, I think I tried really hard to fly under everyone’s radar) and at a quick pace.
Even in the grocery store where I worked, people did not converse with strangers. Just keep to yourself, get in, and get out. Now, people were friendly enough, just not unnecessarily so. And you didn’t ask for people’s opinions unless you really wanted to know because they would tell you, even if it hurt your feelings.
This is different from how things were done in Oklahoma. I got to the campus of Southern Nazarene University, and the pace was much different. People walked slowly and with their heads up. They made eye contact, smiled, and asked how you were doing.
I later learned that they weren’t concerned with how I was doing. It was only the expected greeting. I usually responded with how I was doing, and nobody seemed to care. In fact, they seemed a little confused as to why I was actually telling them how I was doing. People there were polite and nice but on a surface level.
And they talked funny. Yet, at the same time, they thought I talked funny too. I was a stranger in a strange land. Had it not been my choice to attend college there, it would have been as if I were in exile, knowing no one, seeking to be faithful to myself and my upbringing, but all the while desperately trying to navigate this new world so that I might fit in.
The author of 1 Peter greets his intended recipients from places like Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia as if they were exiles, strangers in a strange land. In the traditional sense, they were not actual exiles living in a land not of their birth. Nevertheless, we find out from Peter’s greeting that his friends are exiled because of whom they follow, the crucified yet resurrected Jesus of Nazareth.
By virtue of their being called, chosen, and set apart as holy by God so that they might be obedient followers of Jesus, they are exiles. By the way, Peter intends this letter to be read in many places, and the content he expresses is directed toward all who seek to follow Jesus. Being chosen and set apart as holy is not only for the super-spiritual but for all of us.
Peter sees his friends and fellow Christians as exiles because their commitment to following Jesus puts them at constant odds with the culture surrounding them. Joel Green, one commentator I read on 1 Peter, says this,
“Rather, these are people whose commitments to the lordship of Jesus Christ have led to transformed dispositions and behaviors that place them on the margins of respectable society. Their allegiance to Christ had won for them animosity, scorn, and vilification. Their lack of acculturation to prevailing social values marked them as misfits worthy of contempt” (Green, 196).
Peter assumes this to be the case for his intended readers, and if he were alive today, he would also assume this of us. We are exiles living in a strange land whose culture marginalizes us because we fail to allow it to shape us more than we have allowed Christ to shape us. Or, at least, that’s how it should be.
Peter’s letter, then, is aimed at helping us navigate such a world as God’s holy people living in exile.
Peter begins his letter, in earnest, with blessing, stating unequivocally his belief about who God is and who Jesus is in relation to God. Who is God, according to Peter?
God is a God of great mercy. The nature of mercy is always giving; it is always directed at someone or something. In this context, God has given us mercy and has not treated us as we should have been treated because of our sins.
No, God’s mercy goes beyond merely not giving us what we deserve to actively working toward our good. Because of God’s great mercy, God has given us a new birth into a living hope. God has given us an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. Let’s unpack some of these statements.
A New Birth
If you’ve hung around Christians long enough, you’ll hear language about being “born again.” Admittedly, this phrase doesn’t make much logical sense. In John’s gospel, Jesus used language like this, and it confused people who were genuinely curious about what Jesus had to offer.
In one instance, Jesus tells a person coming to find out about salvation that the person must be born from above. Shocked and surprised, the man responds, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born? (John 3:4).
Indeed, those of you who are mothers would not like this to happen! But Jesus isn’t talking about physical rebirth. The new birth is a conversion of the imagination (Joel Green, comment on 1:3). Our imagination helps to form our understanding of the world and interpretations of our experience in the world.
I’m not talking about creative imagination like our kids often express with wild creatures or objects that turn into cars or spaceships. I’m talking about our ability to conceive of something as possible. I can imagine what lunch will be like because I have had experience with lunch before, even if I imagine that the lunch will be unlike any lunch I’ve had before. It’s that type of imagination.
The new birth that we have received by virtue of God’s great mercy is the ability to see the world differently and then act differently.
According to Joel Green, this new birth, this conversion of our imagination, is a reconstruction of our web of relationships, the entering into a new community that is shaped differently and functions differently than the world around us.
This new birth sets us apart. It makes us different. And, if we’re doing it right, we become exiles in our homeland.
Living Hope…an Imperishable Inheritance…Salvation
Our new birth gives us a living hope. This hope is more than, “I hope I get a new video game for my birthday.” Or even, “I hope the Phillies win the World Series sometime again before I die.” This is a unique kind of hope, a living hope.
Living hope is alive and well, moving, breathing, a hope that rests confidently in the steadfast love of God. It’s living because it comes about through a particular means, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. What makes Jesus’ resurrection special, unlike that of Lazarus that we read about in John’s gospel, is that Jesus never again dies as Lazarus does. Instead, Jesus ascends to sit at the right hand of God the Father almighty, from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead as the creed confesses.
Our belief is that because Jesus died for us because Jesus rose again from the dead, and because Jesus did not die again, but that he ascended to be with the Father forever, sin and death, hopelessness and despair, have been and will be completely defeated.
All of the junk we deal with here and now won’t have the last word, God’s great mercy will. Our new birth gives us an imperishable inheritance. At this point, Peter is working off imagery from the Old Testament, specifically the promise God made to Abraham about the promised land. To use Peter's words, the promised land was perishable, defiled, and fading.
It was those things because of Israel’s unfaithfulness, though. But the inheritance we now receive through our new birth is eternal communion with God, something that will last eternally. In reality, our inheritance is citizenship in the kingdom of God. God keeps this inheritance for us.
We have to be careful with this kind of language, however. If we’re not, we’ll believe Peter doesn’t care about what’s happening here and now. We might begin to think that all that matters is us receiving our imperishable inheritance someday.
No, Peter understands that there are trials that his friends are facing now. They suffer, and yet they remain faithful. Peter sees these trials as a test, not given by God, but by the world. Peter’s friends, because God’s great mercy has transformed them and because their life has been conformed to the likeness of Christ, they have been persecuted, and that persecution proves that their faith is genuine and brings about glory to God.
Our new birth gives us salvation. The language of verse nine says we are “receiving the outcome of our faith, the salvation of our souls.”
A few things to notice here. First, the grammar of the text is present tense. We are, at this moment, receiving this salvation. Our living hope bears fruit for us here and now, and it frees us from bondage, empowers us to resist temptation, and helps us become more like Jesus. While we are receiving our salvation, it is not yet complete. Peter expects that God’s present salvation for us will one day be completed.
Second, Peter mentions that our souls are receiving this salvation. There was no distinction between our bodies and souls in Peter's thought world. They are one congruous thing. So, when we talk about the soul, we aren’t talking about some disembodied bit of us waiting to be liberated from our mortal body. No, that would have been a foreign idea to Peter. The completion of our salvation is not our liberation from our body but the redemption and restoration, the healing and mending of our body, and the completeness of who we are. The completion of our salvation comes with our resurrection.
As we begin our study of 1 Peter, I want us to understand that Peter is talking straight to us. We are or should be, exiles living in our homeland. Resident aliens or immigrants, if you will. A people whose thoughts, minds, and imaginations have so been transformed by the love and grace of God that our mode of being is at odds with the world around us. We are still learning what this means, and Peter is here to help us understand.
Have you ever felt like you don’t belong somewhere? What was that like?
Have you ever felt like you don’t belong because of your faith?
Do you think Peter expected his Christian brothers and sisters to feel like exiles? Do you think Peter would think that about us? Why or why not?
What does “new birth” mean?
What does a living hope look like?
What do you think God might be saying to us?
What might God be calling us to do?
Green, Joel B.. 1 Peter. United Kingdom: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.