1 Peter: How Shall We then Live in the Pagan Culture?
My wife and I are from India; we are aliens and foreigners in this country. No matter how long we live here, because of our skin color and the way we speak, we will always be treated as foreigners. Living as foreigners and aliens in a foreign culture has its own typical problems.
For example, you always face the food problem, at least in the initial stage. I cannot forget the first time I took a bite out of a hamburger. A friend took me for lunch and bought me a hamburger. I asked, “What do you call this?” He said, “A hamburger.” I had to take a big gulp of water to swallow it, and the rest went in the trash. You see, in India, pigs are raised in very dirty places, and people don’t eat ham. Of course, I did not realize that there is no ham in a hamburger. Well, knowing it has beef would not have helped much. It took me at least six months before I could eat hot dogs, for the obvious reason – we don’t eat dogs in India!
Then many a time you come across some ethical dilemma. Once I was traveling to Cameroon, a small country in West Africa. As a rule, I had to have with me a valid certificate of having had my yellow fever shots. I had taken the shots but was not carrying the certificate with me. At the airport going through the check-in, the man told me something in French. I did understand the words, “yellow fever certificate,” but did not know what he was saying, so I asked, “What?” He repeated the same thing, and I repeated the same question. Finally, now in English, he said, “Give me some money, and I will let you go.” This time with a big surprise, I almost shouted, “Wha...t?” The man, obviously frustrated, said, “You don’t understand, I’ll let you go” and stamped my passport!
Then many times you face the language problem. Many of you have traveled to other countries and know what it is like. Even if they speak English, you cannot understand, just as when I speak here! In a Paris hotel elevator, a sign read, “Please leave your values at the front desk.” A sign in a hotel in Athens read, “Visitors are expected to complain at the office between the hours of 9 and 11 a.m. daily.” In a Zurich hotel, a sign read, “Because of the impropriety of entertaining guests of the opposite sex in the bedroom, it is suggested that the lobby be used for this purpose.” In the lobby of a Moscow hotel across from a monastery, a sign read, “You are welcome to visit the cemetery where famous Russian and Soviet composers, artists and writers are buried daily except Thursday.” An ad by a Hong Kong dentist read, “Teeth extracted by the latest Methodists.” A Copenhagen airport sign announced, “We take your bags and send them in all directions.” Posted in a Budapest zoo was this: “Please do not feed the animals. If you have any suitable food, give it to the guard on duty.” An Acapulco hotel sign bragged, “The manager has personally passed all the water served here.”
All of this is very funny. However, it is no joke when you are living as a small minority in a foreign culture that is totally hostile to you. Imagine that as a missionary couple you are living in a small remote town. After trying for a long time, you find a small rent house. One evening your landlord comes home from the market and without saying a word, throws your stuff outside the house, and tells you to leave because he has been threatened by the villagers that nobody in the village would relate to him unless he threw you out of his house. Or you are a foreign missionary living with your husband and a young son. Your husband has taken a short trip with your son. Late in the evening as you wait for your husband’s and son’s return, you get a message from a villager that your husband and son were stopped by a large crowd, they were tied up in the jeep, people poured gas and burned the jeep, and they were burned alive.
Of course, these are real examples. How would you like to live in such situations? How would you live under the constant threat of your life? The people to whom Peter addressed his letter were living in exactly the same situation, and even worse.
The Christians during Peter’s time were going through intense persecution. Socially they were ostracized, abused, insulted and ridiculed. Politically they had no civil rights. And Peter realized that the situation was getting worse. So, before the time of the Roman Emperor Nero when the severe persecution broke out, Peter wrote this letter to encourage and prepare the Christians scattered in the Asia Minor area. As we know from history, later during the time of the infamous Nero (54-68 A.D.), it did become worse. During Nero’s time, Christians were nailed to crosses, were sewn up in the skins of wild beasts and left in the sun to die a horrible and painful death. They were used as torches to illumine Nero’s parties.
Those Christians were mistreated and insulted (1 Peter 3:9); they were slandered and reviled for their good behavior (1 Peter 3:16) and maligned because they did not participate in the “flood of dissipation” of the non-believers. Peter wrote to them, “They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you” (1 Peter 4:4)433. And all this was “because of the name of Christ” (1 Peter 4:14). The main reason for their persecution was their life-style as aliens and foreigners in the heathen culture.
Peter basically tells them two things: One, their position as aliens and foreigners in this world (1 Peter 1:1-12), and two, their practice as aliens and foreigners in this world (1 Peter 1:13-5:14).
As to our position in this world, we Christians are aliens and foreigners in this world, because we are “called out” from this world to be God’s own people. Peter uses the word “chosen” or “God’s elect” (Eklektois, 1 Peter 1:1) which has a sense of choosing out as a group of people to make them His own people. As Peter later says, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).
They are God’s own possession, God’s property, because they were bought “not with perishable things such as silver and gold. . .but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18,19). As Paul said, “You are not your own; you were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
As to our practice as foreigners and liens in this world, there is so much that Peter has to tell these people as to the instructions about how they should live among the people who do not know God and who live a life that is not pleasing to God. But Peter’s instructions can be summed up in three “do not’s”:
1. Do not be like them, but be like your Father who has called you.
2. Do not be surprised when you are mistreated, but live an exemplary life.
3. Do not be at home here, but look forward to your home in heaven.
Look at my wife and me! We look different, we dress different – at least my wife does. We speak differently. We sometimes act strange. We eat a different kind of food. No matter how long we both live here, we will always be different and treated as foreigners and aliens in this country because we are from a different country, a different culture. We are like our parents who are Indians.
And that is exactly what Peter tells his readers here. You are now born into a different family (1 Peter 1:3). And so now you have to be like your new Father; “Just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:14-17). Now you eat different food; you are to crave the pure spiritual milk of His Word so that you can grow in your salvation (1 Peter 2:2). You now have to live for a different purpose in life, “to declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).
Now you have a different culture. You do not choose to do what the others choose:
He does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do – living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry (1 Peter 4:2-3).
One thing that Peter would never advise his readers is “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
Today what has happened is that when we are in the world, we do what the world does. Instead of the church penetrating the world, the world culture has penetrated the church. We have the same, if not higher, divorce rate and family breakdown as the world does. We have the same rate, if not higher, of malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander of every kind as in the secular world (1 Peter 2:1). Peter says, “Just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16).
No wonder the outside world does not see us Christians as any different than them. According to the recent Barna research, less than one-fourth of non-Christians surveyed think of their Christian neighbors with high respect.
How about our goals and priorities in life? Are we not running after material things just as the people of the world are? Let us take the Christmas celebration as an example. Have you started Christmas shopping yet? If not, you are in the minority. We spend weeks, and sometimes months, “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” buying gifts for those who don’t need anything and don’t like what we give, and who have to spend days waiting in exchange/return lines afterwards. Whose birthday is it anyway? Why should I get any gifts? In all this running around, does anyone ever pause and think where is the birthday Boy? Instead of giving gifts to one another, why don’t we give it to Jesus, in His Name, to someone who really needs it and will really appreciate it?
And how about our food? Do we not feed on the same food of violence, sex, and a perverted life-style that has been dished out through most of our TV shows? Do we not devour that for hours like hungry dogs? Or, do we, like newborn babes, crave the pure spiritual milk, so that by it we may grow up in our salvation (1 Peter 2:2)?
Speaking about pure spiritual milk, what kind of spiritual food do we demand from our preachers today? Paul said,
For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
You must have seen the article that came out a few days ago in the Dallas Morning News.434 The author in this article mentions that because the cross is offensive to modern people, Robert W. Funk and other scholars of Westar Institute have been looking for new symbols to represent Christianity:
The Lord’s Supper would stay, but it would omit any mention of sacrifice. Consuming the blood and body of Jesus would probably be out. Instead, he (Funk) envisioned a dinner, open to everybody, representing the kinship of all humans. . . .Salt might replace the cross as a central symbol because followers of the historical Jesus typically don’t believe that Jesus died for humanity’s sins and was physically resurrected. Salt has ancient spiritual meanings in many faiths, which would meet Dr. Funk’s goal to form a faith that could communicate across cultural boundaries. . . .Most often the search for new symbols arises among mainline Christians and those who might like to follow Christ’s teachings but feel constrained by church doctrines that they don’t accept. . . .Even some evangelical churches are engaging new images and giving old ones less prominence. Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago left the cross out of the church sanctuary because its presence might intimidate newcomers not raised in a church setting. Another ministry attempting to attract postmodern converts allows worshippers to write their sins in a bowlful of sand and then wipe them away.
You cannot call yourself a born again Christian and accept the prevalent culture.
We are aliens and foreigners here,
We cannot do what the Romans do.
We have a different Father,
We cannot act like Satan’s brood.
We are members of God’s family,
We cannot follow the norms of the world.
We grow by a different kind of food,
We cannot feed ourselves on junk.
We now serve a different Master,
We now follow His commands.
His Kingdom is our priority,
His service and glory is our goal.
So the first thing Peter tells his readers, and us, is, “Do not be like them, but be like your Father who has called you.”
Because we are different, we are aliens and foreigners in this culture, and we will be ridiculed. “They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you” (1 Peter 4:4). Either conform to the world, or be ridiculed. As Jesus told His disciples,
If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world. . . That is why the world hates you (John 15:19).
Of course, Christians should never give outsiders just cause for mistreatment. They should never use the freedom as a cover-up for evil: “Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God” (1 Peter 2:16). It should never be “as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler” (1 Peter 4:15). The Christians have to live as law-abiding citizens (1 Peter 2:13-17). They have to be faithful to their employees and masters even when they are harsh and unfair (1 Peter 2:18-20). Wives have to be faithful and submissive to their husbands even when they are not Christians (1 Peter 3:1-6).
Peter uses none other than Christ as our example in this: “Because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). He gave His life for those who ridiculed Him, mistreated Him and hung Him on the cross (1 Peter 2:24-25). Peter says, “Therefore, since Christ suffered in His body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude” (1 Peter 4:1).
In Christ’s suffering, one of the things that Peter points out is that “Christ suffered for you” (1 Peter 2:21). He says,
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by His wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray (1 Peter 2:24-25).
In a sense, what Peter is saying is that we were the ones who inflicted suffering on Him. As one hymn puts it, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord. . . .Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” 435
In suffering, even while doing right, the goal is the glory of God. As the Westminster Confession tells us, “The chief aim of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” That is a very lofty goal, and we as Christians want to live our life with that aim. However, Peter gives an even loftier aim for the Christian’s life. He is not speaking of just Christians glorifying God. He is speaking of unbelievers, those who persecute Christians now, glorifying God:
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 (1 Peter 2:12).
What Peter means is that, because of your testimony for Christ, these people will have accepted Jesus as their own Lord and Savior, so at the time of Jesus’ coming, they will be rejoicing and glorifying God. Peter cannot forget the words His Master told him and other disciples, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
And that is why Peter tells his readers,
But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).
One of the main blessings of the Christian life is the salvation of souls. But you have to be prepared to give an explanation when they ask.
Do you know the difference between belief and conviction? Belief is knowing what you believe. Conviction is not only knowing what you believe, but also knowing why you believe. The vast majority of Christians today do not even know what they believe, much less why they believe. Because of this, they are swayed by every wind of doctrine. But the time has come now when you will need not just your beliefs, but also your convictions. Otherwise you will not be able to stand. Conviction is something you are ready to die for. It is something worth living for. It is the conviction, albeit misdirected, that prepares a suicide bomber to give his life. Do we have that kind of conviction today? It may not be too long that our beliefs will be questioned and our convictions will be tested.
So we have seen two “do not’s.” As aliens and foreigners here on the earth, do not be like them, but be different because we serve a different Master; we follow His standards. Secondly, do not be surprised when mistreated, but be prepared to give a reason for the hope that you have in Christ, for what you believe, so that those who persecute you today may turn to Christ tomorrow.
3. Do not be at home here, but look forward to your home in heaven.
How do you feel when you travel away from home? We like to take vacations. But within a few days, we get homesick, don’t we? That’s how we should feel about living here on earth. Homesick for our eternal home. That’s how the apostle Paul felt: “We groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling” and, “We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:2, 8). No matter how long we live here on this earth, how big of a house we live in, how much we accumulate, the world is not our home. We live here as aliens and foreigners. We are on a brief visit here and cannot wait to get back to our real home.
Peter gives an example of the people who felt at home here – the people of Noah’s time (1 Peter 3:20). Jesus described how these people felt at home here,
For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them away (Matthew 24:38-39).
Of course, we also know many examples of the people who did not feel at home here. For example, the author of Hebrews notes about Abraham,
By faith he made home in the Promised Land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents… For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Hebrews 11:9-10).
And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they have been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).
Where is our home? Even to raise that question sounds out of place in a church like this where the Word of God is taught with sincerity and conviction. But it still is good to be reminded that this is not our home; our eternal home is in heaven. We have the living hope for inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade…kept in heaven, and that is what we rejoice in; that is what we are looking forward to (1 Peter 1:4-5).
What is included in that inheritance? A life full of glory. A life full of joy and peace. A life in the very presence of God. A life spent in worship and adoration of God our Savior. That’s where our commendations and rewards are.
During my first year at Dallas Theological Seminary some 28 years ago, I read a missionary biography as part of an assignment. I do not remember the title of the book or the names of the missionary couple. But I will never forget the end of the book. This couple had served almost all their grown up life as missionaries in Kenya. In their early 70’s, they finally retired and were headed for home in the United States. They boarded a plane in Nairobi, Kenya. Their plane stopped at Heathrow Airport in London. Some of the passengers got off there, and a group of people boarded the plane. Finally when the couple reached New York and came out of the customs check, they saw a large crowd of people outside the airport shouting, “Welcome to America!” The missionary wife, with a twinkle in her eye, told her husband, “Wow! Look, honey, what a grand welcome our church has arranged for us!”
Of course, it did not take too long for them to realize that the large crowd of people was not for them. Unknown to them, among the group of people who boarded the plane in London were the Beatles, making their first historic trip to America, and the crowd was to welcome them. Even the couple who was supposed to pick them up was delayed because of the unusual rush.
Standing by themselves in a corner of the airport, dejected and disappointed, the missionary wife told her husband, “Look, honey, we have spent all our lives serving the Lord in a very difficult situation, and when we come home, this is the kind of welcome we receive. And look at these people, the kind of welcome they are getting.” To which the missionary husband replied, “Honey, we are not home yet.” No, we are not home yet. And we should never feel at home here.
That missionary story ended there. But later I came to know something else about the Beatles’ historic visit to America. They had not come alone. They brought somebody else with them, their spiritual advisor and guru, Maharshi Mahesh Yogi. And the welcome the Beatles received was nothing compared to the welcome that was awarded to Mahesh Yogi. Within months of his arrival in the United States, he was touring all over the United States teaching his philosophy and promoting Transcendental Meditation (TM). In less than a couple of years, there were TM centers established all across America, and TM became a household word.
Seeing the welcome awarded to Mahesh Yogi and making use of the secular immigration laws of the United States, hordes of Yogis and Gurus invaded the United States, and today there is not a single major city in America where you would not find Hindu temples. The Hindus are burning churches in India and building temples all across America. What we see today — pluralism, agnosticism, humanism, making gods out of trees and birds and sea creatures and forests in the name of environmental concerns, anything and everything that is antagonistic to the Christian and to the Judeo-Christian worldview — all have their roots in that historic arrival in New York some 40 years ago when Christianity was pushed into a corner, and the heathen worldview was accorded a royal welcome.
What Peter was writing to his contemporaries has never been truer for modern history than right now, right here in the United States of America. You will be swept away in the whirlwind of doubts and worldly thinking and the headlong rush into heathen beliefs and practices if you are not prepared. If ever, now is the time when your beliefs will be questioned and your convictions will be tested, even to the point of death.
What are you living for? Where is your heart set? How are you living? When in Rome, do you do as the Romans do? Or, “just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do” (1 Peter1:15)?
[We] are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that we may declare the praises of Him who called us out of darkness into His wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9).
We know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that we were redeemed from the empty way of life that we see all around us, but with the precious blood of Christ, a Lamb without blemish or defect (1 Peter 1:18).
The Book of First Peter, more than any other book in the whole Bible, tells us as much as it did its original readers that now is the time to wake up from our complacency. Because,
In the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 24:38-39).
Paul summarizes the letter of First Peter well (of course, Paul wrote his letters before Peter did, 2 Peter 3:15-16):
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good (Titus 2:11-14).
That is what the Christian life is all about. Sometimes it takes a faithful and suffering saint like Stephen to produce a serving saint like Paul.
432 This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 106 in the From Creation to the Cross series prepared by Imanuel Christian on December 8, 2002.
433 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright Ó 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission.
434 Christine Wicker, “At Cross Purposes: Are Christian Symbols Ripe for Change?” Dallas Morning News, November 16, 2002.
435 Words and tune “Were You There?” Traditional Negro spiritual; adapted, John W. Work, Jr., and Frederick J. Work, 1907.
Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word)