Updated: Jan 23, 2021
The message of Peter’s first letter turned the world upside-down for his readers. He saw the people of the young church of the first century as strangers, aliens who were only temporary residents, travelers heading for their native land.
Dan Doriani, in his commentary* reminds us that ‘Peter wrote for everyone, but especially for believers.’ He reminded his people of their status, privileges, and responsibilities. The church is God’s elect (1 Pet. 1:2). The elect are redeemed by the triune God. The Father chose them according to his foreknowledge. The Spirit sanctifies them for obedience to the Son, who sprinkled them with his blood and so atoned for their sins. So Peter opens with his great themes: the work of the triune God who elects, gives grace, commands and empowers holiness, and leads us to a mission. Indeed, the first hint of that mission is found in the opening verse (1:1).
The church is privileged by God; we are his chosen ones. Yet, at the same time and for the same reason, the church is disadvantaged in society. Because believers are God’s chosen people, we are ‘strangers’ or ‘exiles’ in our own world. While these terms denote a temporary resident, Peter will use the term ‘alien’ in chapter 2 that suggests a long-term resident. But the significance of these terms is that the person originally belonged elsewhere.
Peter wants believers to realize that we never fully belong in this world. Strangers have no permanent residence. Aliens cannot hold positions of power and rarely enjoy full privileges. This is essential to a Christian’s identity. Historically, people in Reformed churches have committed to engage the culture rather than fleeing from it, and rightly so. Yet we must remember that we are exiles and therefore will never be completely home in this world. That is, we (exiles) live between two worlds.
We need to grasp the right lessons from this. Peter says that we are aliens, but he never tells us to alienate ourselves from this world by abandoning it or cursing it. God did not abandon his creation; he sent his Son to redeem and restore it and fully renew it one day. Since God’s ways are our model, we should remain engaged with this world.
Scripture holds two ideas in tension. We are, simultaneously, exiles in this world and agents of change within it. Because we are exiles, we resist conformity to the patterns of this age. Clearly, we must flee the corrupt world, for judgement will fall upon it (Rev. 18:4). Yet we are reformers, constantly ready to engage society. Jesus notes that his disciples are ‘in the world’ but that ‘they are not of the world’ any more than he is of the world. He continues, ‘My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one’ (John 17:11-15). Moreover, Jesus called his disciples ‘the salt of the earth’ – retarding its decay – and ‘the light of the world’ (Matt. 5:13-14).
So, then, we are engaged exiles. For this calling, we need grace. That is just what we find in First Peter.
Peter opens and closes with grace. As he begins, he tells his people that they have been chosen by the Father, sanctified by the Spirit, and sprinkled by the blood of Jesus Christ (1:1-2). He gives us grace; we owe him obedience (1:2). As Peter closes, he appeals to his readers, ‘exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it’ (5:12). The word this in the phrase ‘this is the true grace of God’ is crucial. Since it comes at the end of the letter, ‘this…grace’ seems to refer to the whole epistle, with its message of hope and salvation in the gospel.
Yet, as Robert Leighton notes in his classic commentary, ‘The grace of God in the heart of man is a tender plant in a strange, unkindly soil. Therefore, it cannot grow unless great care is taken by a skillful hand that cherishes it. To this end God has given the constant ministry of the Word to his church, not only for the first work of conversion, but also for increasing his grace in the hearts of his children.’
Leighton then summarizes Peter’s approach in nurturing this grace:
“The main doctrines are many, but the three dominant ones are faith, obedience, and patience, in order to establish them in believing, to direct them in doing, and to comfort them in suffering. Because faith is the basis for the other two, the first chapter is taken up with persuading the addressees of the truth of the mystery they had received and believed – that is, their redemption and salvation through Christ Jesus, the inheritance of immortality bought for them by his blood, and the evidence and stability of their right and title to it.
“Then he uses this belief, this assurance of the glory to come, as a spur to holy obedience and constant patience, since nothing can be too much to give up or go through in order to attain this blessed state. With this aim in mind, in this first chapter he encourages patience and holiness, and in the following chapters the special duties Christians have who are enduring suffering. He often sets before them the matchless example of the Lord Jesus and their need to follow him.”
You will not want to miss this study of 1 Peter. For the sake of you and your family, you need the grace Peter reveals in order to stand firm in these troubling times. I trust that you will join us for this study of 1 Peter beginning this coming Lord’s Day as we look at 1 Peter 1:1-2. I urge you to follow along either in person or on YouTube live. Don’t miss this.
Grace upon Grace,
*Much of this post was adapted from Dan Doriani’s introduction to 1 Peter in his excellent commentary in the Reformed Expository Commentary series.