1 Peter- a Holy People in a Hostile World
1 Peter 1:1-2
Sermon Preached at Christ Church Duesseldorf, 2nd September 2018
Some of you may remember the cartoonist Gary Larson, and the Far Side cartoons. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, google will get you there. One of my favourites shows a crowd of absolutely identical penguins. But one is jumping up with its wing in the air, singing “I just gotta be me!”. Now that sums up how a lot of us feel- we want to be special, we want to stand out from the crowd. On the other hand, we don’t want to stand out from the crowd, because then people would think we are strange and weird. So when we are teenagers, we might dress in ways that show we are different from our parents, because we want to be special. But we might also dress in the same way as everyone else, because we don’t want to be strange.
So which is it? Well, one thing Peter has to tell us write and the beginning of his letter is that Christians are both strange and special.
1. Christians are strange -v1
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,
To God’s elect, exiles, scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia -1 Peter 1:1 NIV
First of all, who wrote this? That’s always a good question to ask about any Bible passage, because every book of the Bible has two authors. The simple answer is “God did”, God is the author. But God used human beings to write the Bible. In this case the answer is easy to find out. Ancient letters were like modern emails which begin with the name of the sender; which is a much more sensible way of writing a letter than the modern one, where you have to wait until the end of the letter to find out who has written. So the first word of this letter is “Peter”. This is Simon Peter, the fisherman from Galilee, who Jesus called to follow him, and nick-named “Peter”, the Rock. In 5:12 he says that he had the help of a man called “Silas”, who was probably his postman who delivered the letter for him.
So why should we listen to what Peter says? Look at what he says next: “Peter, an Apostle”. The Apostles were the special group of 12 men who had been personally trained by Jesus, who had seen him after he rose from the dead, and who had been appointed by Jesus as his Special Representatives- the word Apostle means “Messenger”. Jesus had promised that his Spirit would guide them into the truth. Later on one more man, Paul, was added to the Apostles, but after that there were no more Apostles, and there is certainly no one today who can claim to be an Apostle. So when Peter wrote his letter, he wasn’t just writing as Simon the fisherman; he was writing as Peter the Apostle. He isn’t just telling us what he thinks and feels, or giving us his ideas and opinions, which we could accept or reject as we like. He is writing as an official representative of Jesus Christ, on his authority. So this is a letter from Jesus Christ to his church- to you and me. What does he have to tell us here?
First, Christians are strangers. Peter says that his readers are “exiles”, or as the New Living Translation says “foreigners”. They are “resident aliens”; Peter’s point is that they are strangers living in a foreign land. An exile is someone who has had to leave his homeland, and go to live in a foreign country, where he is a stranger, and the language and way of life is strange. However much she longs to be able to go back home, she doesn’t know when that will happen. So you could say that Peter’s readers are refugees, Fluchtlinge.
Peter is drawing on the experience of God’s people the Israelites, the Jews. Five centuries before this, Jerusalem had been captured by the Babylonians, and the Jews had been carted off to exile in Babylon. Some had settled down there, and adopted the Babylonian lifestyle and religion. But most had longed desperately for their true home, Zion, the city of God, and sang beautiful songs, longing and yearning for the day when they would return home again. Now turn over to 5:13- Peter says that he is writing from the church in Babylon! That probably doesn’t mean the actual city of Babylon, near Mosul in what is now Iraq; it is almost certainly a code-word for the great city of Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire, where Peter spent the last year of his life. His point is that like them, he is a resident alien, a stranger, an exile.
So Christians are strangers, exiles, like the Jews twenty-five centuries ago. Like them, our real home is with God in his city. Not the Jerusalem on earth; but the heavenly city, the true Zion where God lives. This world is not our home, we’re only passing through, and we will always feel like resident aliens here. We have to get on with life, but there should always be that yearning for our homeland.
Second, Peter says that Christians are scattered –v1c. Peter says that his readers are the “diaspora”- the “scattering”. That was another word that was used for Jews who lived outside the Promised Land. Most probably weren’t Jews- 4:3-4 I think makes it clear that most of them were Gentiles, so they were living in the places where they had been born. But Peter talks to them as the “diaspora”, because when someone puts their trust in Christ and is baptized, whatever their national, or family, or cultural background, they become part of God’s people. That’s a wonderful thing! It means that we can read the Old Testament, and all those glorious promises that God made to his people- that one day he would gather them together, and return them to their homeland, are meant for us. But it’s also a painful thing; because when someone becomes a Christian, they will probably start to feel out of place in their home culture. And that now includes British and Americans and Germans as much as anyone else.
So Peter’s readers are scattered. As we said with the children, Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, are in what we now call Turkey. So Silas would have travelled by foot through this big area, visiting little, scattered, isolated groups of Christians, reading Peter’s letter out aloud when the churches met- usually before sunrise on Sunday morning, so that those who were slaves could get to their work. Imagine how exciting and encouraging it must have been to come to church and find that a letter had come from Peter!
Now, a lot of us here know what it is like to be a stranger, don’t we? Most of us here this morning, weren’t born in Germany- my apologies to those who were. We come from lots of different countries. We’ve had to learn a strange language, with weird grammatical rules, that sticks verbs to the end of sentences. We do strange things, like crossing the road when the red man is showing. And we really don’t get currywurst. Some of us will have experienced hostility and racism because we are foreigners. And as strangers in a strange country do, we stick together. The very fact that we are here in an English speaking church shows that. Some of you children go to English language schools, and others belong to things like the British Women’s Club or the British Business Club. Even after the service, I’ve noticed that the British talk to the British, and the Igbo to the Igbo, and the Dutch to the Dutch, and so on. And a lot of us feel homesick- I know that I do. So we can imagine how Peter’s readers felt.
Christians are strange- because Christians are scattered strangers. Peter is telling us that that is what we already are in the world-exiles, resident aliens, strangers, scattered here and there. That’s why Christians will often feel out of place and uncomfortable. That’s a good feeling! We should feel strange, it’s a sign that someone is really a Christian when they feel like that. If someone claims to be a Christian, but doesn’t feel like stranger, but instead feels completely at home and at ease in the world, that is a very bad sign.
Also, Christians should seem strange to other people as well. The world will look at us and think that we are weird and strange- that we speak a different language, that we follow different customs, that we live a different way of life. We will seem weird to them- and that sense is I think going to increase, as western culture moves farther and farther from its Christian roots. And the more strange we seem, the more hostile the world will be to be to us.
But we should be strange. As we will see, Peter in his letter says that we live as what we already are- we are strangers, so we should be strange, we should be different to those around us. The Bible’s word for that strangeness is “holiness”. We are to be a holy people in a hostile world. If that’s who we are, don’t we need to stick together, like exiles and foreigners do? Look down at 5:12-14, the end of Peter’s letter. He tells the Christians to stand firm, he sends them greetings from other churches, and he tells them to greet one another in an affectionate way, with a kiss. My fellow exiles, if we are going to stand firm as a holy people in a hostile world, we need each other, and we need the support of other churches, and they need us. So we need to meet together at least once a week, to show each other Christian affection, and we need to meet other churches as well. Because Christians are strange, and…
2. Christians are special -v2
…who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood:
Grace and peace be yours in abundance. -1 Peter 1:2
Christians are a very special people- and we are strange because we are special. This is the other side of the coin to being strange. To be “holy” is to be “special”. So what makes us special?
We are “chosen” or “elect”- v1b. To “elect” someone is to choose them. We elect someone as Prime Minister or Bundeskanzler or President, we choose them for that role, and set them apart for it. They are now dedicated to that position, or should be. So Peter says in v1 that his readers are “elect exiles”- “chosen strangers”. That’s why they are strangers. It isn’t an accident, and they didn’t decide to be strangers. Instead God chose them- as he chose us- to be strangers, exiles, in a hostile world.
Again, Peter is talking about them and us as if we were the Jews. You probably know that in the OT, the Jews are God’s chosen people, his elect. And they still are- the Bible says that the Jews still are a special people, with a special place in God’s plan, which is why anti-Semitism is such a terrible evil. In Deuteronomy 7:7, God told the Jews that he chose them out of all the other nations. There was nothing special about them to make them special, or make them stand out, they were just like all the rest. But God chose them as his special people, and decided to love them. He didn’t chose them because they were special- they were special because he chose them. Peter is saying that the same thing applies to those who belong to Jesus. We are his elect, his chosen. We didn’t choose God; he chose us. He didn’t choose us because we are special; we are special because he chose us. Then he explains a little bit how that choice works.
First, we have been chosen by God the Father –v2a. When the Bible talks about God’s “foreknowledge”, that doesn’t just mean that God knew what would happen in the future, like a weatherman can predict the weather. It doesn’t mean that God looked forward in time and thought “I know that she will lead a particularly good life, I’ll choose her”, or “I know that he will believe in Jesus, I’ll choose him”. “Foreknowledge” in the Bible is a way of talking about God’s plan or God’s decision. So it means that before the universe began, God had a plan, and that plan included choosing certain people to be special. Also, when the Bible talks about “knowing” someone, it means knowing them personally, in a close, intimate relationship. So one writer, Edmund Clowney, puts it this way: “We were the objects of God’s loving concern from all eternity”. I put it like this: “before creation, God took an interest in us, he cared about us”. So we were chosen by God the Father, not because of anything we’d done, not because of what we would be like, but because of his plan and purpose. What an encouragement for scattered, isolated, marginalized Christians!
Second, we have been chosen through God the Spirit- v2b. Peter says that the Spirit has “sanctified” us, or “made us holy”. In other words the Spirit puts the Father’s plans into action. The Father chose us in eternity, and the Spirit puts that choice into effect in time. Peter explains that in v3, when he says that we have been “born again”. He’s talking about something that happens when someone first becomes a Christian, and is pictured in baptism. The Spirit comes to those whom the Father has chosen, and gives them a whole new nature. He separates them from the rest of the world, and sets them apart as God’s special people. That’s what it means to be “holy” or “sanctified”, we are set apart as God’s special people. I think I’ve said this before, but I have something holy in my bathroom: my toothbrush. It’s set apart for me, and I’m the only one allowed to use. Well, the Spirit has sanctified all Christians, and set us apart for God’s special use.
Third, we have been chosen for God the Son –v2c. So this is God’s purpose, this is why he chose us- he chose us for his Son. We thought about this last week, when we looked at John 10. There believers in Christ are the sheep that God has given to his Son Jesus, and they believe in Jesus because they are given, not the other way round. What an honour God has given us! We are his present to his beloved Son. You could say that it is the Spirit’s role to gift-wrap us, so we are a special present for the Son.
Peter then expands that purpose in two ways. First he says that God has chosen us for obedience to Jesus. So God’s purpose for us is that we obey Jesus Christ. That happens when we first become Christians: we obey the truth, as Peter says in 1:22, and accept Jesus as Lord, we give him our allegiance. Then that leads to a life of obedience to Jesus’ command: that’s what makes us seem strange and weird to the world, that we live to obey Jesus. Then Peter says that we have been chosen to be sprinkled with Christ’s blood. That is, we were once like everyone else. We wallowed in the same moral filth, the same corruption of sin. But Jesus Christ died as a sacrifice. And his blood, shed for his people, is the great detergent, which washes us clean of every last little stain and spot of sin. So in God’s eyes we are clean and pure and beautiful: we are his special people.
Christians are special. We are not chosen because we are special; we are special because we are chosen. We are chosen by the Father, through the Spirit, for the Son. What makes us special is that we have these three key relationships with God, Father, Spirit, and Son, which gives our life a very distinctive, special shape. That’s what makes us stand out from others. And our job is to live as what we are: God’s special, chosen people.
Christians are both strange and special. And over the next few months, as we travel through 1 Peter, we will see what that looks like- what it is like to be a holy people in a hostile world.