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4. Week Four—Living as Aliens

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Words To Live By

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.

1 Peter 2:11-12 (NASB)

At this point in Peter’s first letter, he moves from an emphasis on our salvation and identity as followers of Jesus to guidelines for living in a world hostile to Christianity. Let’s review the overall teaching of 1:1-2:10. It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees, as the old saying goes. That’s particularly true for the Bible because we tend to focus on verses or thoughts that are meaningful to us personally instead of the larger, more prominent themes.

I’ve mentioned many times Peter’s purpose and themes because understanding them is important. He is writing to Christians who were likely resident aliens in their area being persecuted for their faith as a minority group among polytheists. His purpose is to testify of God’s grace and encourage them so that they stand firm in their faith.

To so testify and encourage, Peter begins with several related themes:

  • The gospel of Jesus Christ that brings faith resulting in a new birth into God’s family, a new identity and a purpose based on that new familial relationship
  • The recognition that God saved us by his grace to be obedient by living out that salvation as his people, the church of Jesus Christ
  • The understanding that our faith causes friction with the world, bringing suffering now, but glory later to God’s people.

Part One Study

At this juncture of the book, Peter’s message becomes more specific about living out faith in the midst of a hostile environment. Because he was writing to a people who were being persecuted just short of death, we can’t simply apply the commands as written to our situations, but instead we must carefully consider them in light of the historical context. This principle is always true in Bible study. The more similar our situation is to the historical context of the people being addressed, the simpler the application is. In this case it’s very different, so first we must understand what the scriptures meant to them. Then and only then can we figure out when and how to apply it rightly in our own context.

Go Ahead And Read The Entire Passage For This Week 1 Peter 2:11-3:7, Focusing On 1 Peter 2:11-12 As You Read These Comments:

The term “fleshly desires” (NET) or “fleshly lusts” (NASB) sounds like these must be sexual acts of some kind, but D. Edmond Hiebert explains:

Peter’s words should not be interpreted to mean that desires related to our physical nature are evil, as though the human body in itself was evil. The thought is not limited to sensual indulgences; Peter’s words circumscribe all those cravings associated with the entire nature of man as a fallen being, whether they express themselves through the body or the mind. Flesh is used in its ethical sense to denote fallen mankind as characterized by depraved and corrupting desires.1

Journal About These Bulleted Questions In Your Journal:

  • Why might Peter have decided to remind them that they are foreigners and exiles at this point as he turns to this new topic? Remember that they may have been aliens both literally as residents in the land and also figuratively as believers in the world.
  • What is Peter’s general overall instruction in these verses about living in the midst of people who don’t believe in Jesus? Explain his reasoning.

Jobes says it this way: “Regardless of where Peter’s readers find themselves scattered, they are to live as faithful witnesses to the truth of Christ’s gospel in a way that does not unnecessarily offend the expectations of their society.”2

  • We know that Peter sat under Jesus’ teaching for over three years. Read these scriptures quoting Jesus’ words that would have informed Peter’s letter: Matthew 5:16, 41, 43-48; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 23:33-34. What does Jesus say that helps your understanding of Peter’s message?

*** Read Romans 12:14-21 and James 3:13. What do these passages add to your thoughts?

  • What is God saying to you today from his Word?

Part Two Study

In 1 Peter 2:13-3:12, Peter writes what was then called a household code, which set out the ethical requirements for members of households. These ancient ethical codes were normal in the Greco-Roman culture, and Paul and Peter adopted them in their letters as “a common form of early Christian ethical instruction.”3 (You can read more detail about the First Century culture in the Appendix, as it will aid your understanding of this week’s verses.) We’ll study most of Peter’s code this week, and then complete the final section next week.

As we begin to read about living well in persecuted places, let’s keep in mind Peter’s overall instruction: “. . . maintain good conduct among the non-Christians, so that though they now malign you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God when he appears” (1 Peter 2:12). Jobes explains that both the verb translated doing good (NET) and its noun form in their biblical contexts mean “good works beyond that expected in a given situation, which could be noted by the authorities, by the master or by the husband.”4 (See also Luke 6:35.)

Read 1 Peter 2:13-25 In The Appendix, Noting The Commands As You Go, Underlining Them In Blue As Suggested In Week Two, Part Two Study, For 1:13-21 (Second Bullet Item).

The Greek word for “be subject to” or “submit” used in this whole section “is a compound verb from the Greek words hypo (meaning ‘under’) and tasso (meaning ‘to order, place, appoint’).”5 McKnight defines the combination: “to order oneself under, or according to, a given relationship . . . .”6 He goes on to say, “. . . for Peter and the entire church, ‘submit’ does not imply total obedience, for the Israelites and the early Christians participated in civil disobedience when the demands of society overrode the demands of the Lord….”7

Now Write Down Your Thoughts On This Question:

  • How do you see that overall instruction in 2:12 reinforced throughout this section?

Now Focus On The First Part Of The Household Code In 1 Peter 2:13-17 And Its Counterpart In Romans 13:1-7, Journaling Your Response To This Question:

  • What are the general guidelines in responding to government?

Although we can learn from the commands about government, our situation in democracies is so different from that of Christians living under emperors and kings who had absolute authority. We have laws that allow for peaceful protest and freedom of speech. We can engage in peaceful civil protest as Martin Luther King, Jr. did, accepting any consequences as he and the other civil rights workers did, similarly to the response of the early Christians when asked to quit sharing the gospel message.

McKnight similarly sums up his view:

“… ‘living under the order’ no longer means ‘submission’ in the way it did in the first century. What we do now is to live decently and as good citizens, but we can still be good citizens in vehement protests and civil disobedience in a way that was completely outside the capacity for first-century citizens (and non-citizens). We ought to respect our leaders, but we do not for a minute think we have to obey their every wish—out of a fear of serious punishment.”8

*** Read at least one of these stories about God’s people who refused to submit to those in authority, recording your insights into the limits of godly submission: the Apostles (Acts 4:1-3; 18-20); Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (Daniel 3:4-18) and Daniel (Daniel 6:6-22).

Let’s Look In Detail At The Section On Slaves In 1 Peter 2:18-21.

Peter’s household code makes clear that there was physical abuse going on for some of the slaves in these churches, perhaps because of their faith. Like me, you may wish that Peter had completely denounced slavery at this point. His primary concern in the verses beginning at 1 Peter 2:11, however, is that these Christians bow to the customs of the day so that their good responses, even in suffering, would be a glimpse of the gospel to unbelievers. To understand the differences in first-century slavery and that found in the United States, read the short summary in The First-Century Culture section of the Appendix.

Marshall’s comments are helpful: “Peter’s teaching is about retaliation when you are being persecuted and not about the securing of justice for the oppressed. There is a distinction between the two. Nothing that is said here runs contrary to the expression of Christian love in seeking the rights of the oppressed. But this duty lies outside the horizon of Peter’s concern here….”9

Reread 1 Peter 2:21-25.

Marshall explains the significance of this passage:

In many ways this paragraph, which stands virtually at the center of the letter, is its theological center. Sandwiched into the section on how people are to behave in their different relationships, it may give the impression of being a digression, a mere back-up for the teaching given to slaves in the preceding verses. But in fact what it says goes far beyond the immediate problem and provides the basis for all Christian behavior.10

You may be wondering whether 1 Peter 2:21 means that all Christians are called to suffer, just these specific Christians were called to suffer or whether it’s neither. I found Marshall’s view helpful: “As he [Peter has already made clear, unjust suffering is not necessarily the inevitable lot of each individual reader. Instead he says that if they suffer, they must bear it patiently. When he says that they were called to this, he means that they were called to the patient endurance of suffering”11 (emphasis in the original).

Journal Your Thoughts About The Passage In Light Of These Questions:

  • What does Jesus’ example teach Christians generally about how to think from God’s kingdom perspective when facing persecution or suffering for their faith—or even in today’s culture when we are dismissed or ridiculed?
  • What is God saying to you today from his Word?

Part Three Study

Read 1 Peter 3:1-7, A Continuation Of The Household Code.

I need to say this to wives before we go any further: submission does not require submitting to abuse. That is an evil which the commands to the husband in 3:7 would prohibit. We’ll look at it in more depth, but first, let’s consider what Peter says to wives.

Write Down Your Thoughts On These Questions As You Read:

  • Describe the character qualities that Peter commends in wives. (Note that submission was expected of first-century wives, including the Greco-Roman cultures.)12
  • What again is Peter’s main teaching for these minority Christian people being subjected to persecution (1 Peter 2:11-12)? How do you see that relate to what he commands wives?
  • Do you see any boundaries to Peter’s command to submit in the wording?

FYI: The external beauty or outward adornment that Peter references in 3:3 was a gaudy show of wealth meant to attract attention, not simple jewelry.13

Now We Turn To Husbands In The Household Codes, So Reread 3:7 Before Journaling About The Bullets Below.

What does it mean that the wife is the “weaker partner”? McKnight says, “Inasmuch as the preponderance of evidence in the ancient world uses identical or similar language when describing a woman’s physical condition, it is almost certain that Peter has in mind a wife’s physical capacities.”14

  • What does Peter say to husbands that would rule out abusing their wives?
  • Rewrite 3:7 in your own words.

Peter’s comments to husbands don’t include concern for a non-Christian spouse that his message to wives did, likely because wives were expected to adopt their husbands’ religions.15 That would mean that most, if not all, Christian men would have had Christian wives.

Keep in mind that Peter’s theme throughout this letter is that these persecuted believers not act in ways that non-Christians would consider morally wrong, thereby undermining the gospel message. Thus, to interpret his words in its context means that we can’t say that a letter written to persecuted people guiding them about marriage in a hostile climate in the Roman Empire provides guidelines for the ideal marriage in other situations.

Marshall says, “We can argue that Peter is concerned with marital obligations that are recognized by society. Christians must uphold these but they may go beyond them. … In other words, the command here may be transcended in a Christian marriage, which makes the command unnecessary except perhaps as a fall-back position.”16 He feels that “where the new law of love given by Christ is fulfilled, the relationships between husband and wife will partake of this quality.”17

The new law of love is found in John 15:12-13: “My commandment is this—to love one another just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this—that one lays down his life for his friends.” Jesus calls for a cruciform life, selflessly laying down our rights for others as he did. When believing husbands and wives live that way, they look very different from our culture that teaches us to stand up for our rights and prioritize ourselves.

Take Some Time To Go Back And Meditate On All The Verses We’ve Covered This Week (2:11-3:7), Recording Your Thoughts On This Question:

  • What is God saying to you from his Word?

*** Journal about unresolved questions and lingering issues you have with the verses we’ve considered. Sometimes it takes years of prayer and listening to God’s people who have studied it to settle into such big issues. Ask God to guide you as you consider these topics.

Ask God to show you how to better show Christ’s sacrificial love and your faith to others through your actions and attitudes in a world that is desperate for love.

1 D. Edmond Hiebert, First Peter: An Expositional Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1984), 144.

2 Jobes, 166.

3 McKnight,142.

4 Jobes, 175.

5 McKnight, 143.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 144.

8 McKnight, 152.

9 Marshall, I. Howard. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: 1 Peter. Grant Osborne, Series Ed., D. Stuart Briscoe and Haddon Robinson, Consulting Editors (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1991), 97.

10 Ibid., 91.

11 Marshall, 92.

12 Keener, Craig. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1993), 715.

13 Ibid., 716.

14 McKnight, 186.

15 Marshall, 98.

16 Ibid., 100-101.

17 Ibid., 100.

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