By Christopher VanDusen
Most believers in the Lord Jesus Christ know that the purpose of them being on earth is to serve as a witness to unbelievers of who Christ is, and what He’s done. This is what the apostle Peter calls proclaiming “the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” in 1 Peter 2:9. The question is, how do believers do this? How do they live in such a way that they’ll proclaim to the world the excellencies of God? Peter answers this question in 1 Peter 2:11-12.
In the letter of 1 Peter, Peter’s writing to Jewish Christians who, either in their own lives or in past generations, had lived in Israel, but now were “aliens” living in what’s now Turkey. Now, not only were they ethnically Jewish, and living among non-Jewish people (Gentiles), but they were also believers in Christ, and so were among unbelievers. As a result, they faced not only the possibility of being mistreated for their ethnicity, but more than that, they faced persecution because of their faith in Christ. Because Peter knew of this persecution they were suffering, and that they lacked some teaching on how to live the Christian life, he wrote 1 Peter as an encouragement to them.
In the first chapter, he begins the main part of the letter by praising God for all the wonderful blessings of salvation that He’s given them. He highlights the past, present, and future aspects of their salvation, focusing specifically on the future completion of it when the Lord comes back. Further, he says that the aliens’ suffering is necessary for them to bring the most glory to God possible, since their faith is being tested and refined. To conclude this section, he notes that the Old Testament prophets had prophesied of their salvation for a long time, and now they were experiencing what the prophets had eagerly sought to understand. After this description of their salvation, Peter instructs them on how to live in light of it by commanding them to be hopeful, holy, and reverent toward God. Then, he explains to them how to love one another as those who have been purified and born again through the gospel.
To begin chapter 2, Peter commands the aliens to stop committing certain sins against one another, and to long for God’s Word, so they can grow spiritually. After this, he describes what’s happening to them as they learn from the Lord by worshiping Him, and tells them that the purpose of this is so they’ll be priests who are able to proclaim who God is to the unbelieving world.
After this section, he begins to tell them how to show the world what God is like in verses 11-12:
“11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (ESV)
In this passage, Peter gives the aliens 2 commands that instruct them on how to show the world the excellencies of God:
- Abstain from the Passions of the Body (v. 11)
- Act Praiseworthy in Your Behavior (v. 12)
Abstain from the Passions of the Body
Peter gives his first command in this way:
“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.”
He begins his command by calling the aliens “beloved”. In the New Testament, at least three apostles call their audiences “beloved”: Peter, John, and Jude. In John’s and Jude’s letters, the term “beloved” is linked to the fact that they both specifically point out that God loves their audiences. Hence, they don’t call them “beloved” mainly because they love their audience, but because God loves their audience. It makes sense to see Peter as doing the same thing here. Although he obviously loves the people to whom he’s writing, he calls them “beloved” to remind them that they’re loved by God. Therefore, the motive of their obedience to his command ought to be a loving response to their knowledge that God loves them, and is giving them a command through Peter.
Rather than simply commanding the aliens to do something, Peter expresses his great earnestness and urgency by saying that he urges them to do what he’s commanding them. The Greek word translated “urge” literally means “call alongside”, and therefore expresses not just an order, but a concern and invitation.
Before Peter gets to what he’s urging the aliens to do, he gives them the way in which they’re to do it. This way is “as sojourners and exiles”. The word “sojourners” is translated from a Greek word that literally means “foreigners” or “strangers”. In other words, it refers to people who are living in a place that isn’t their home. The word “exiles” is translated from a Greek word that literally means “residents alongside”, or those who live alongside people of another place. Although Peter originally used this second word in the beginning of the letter to describe the aliens as exiled Jews, now he’s using it in a spiritual sense to say that they’re citizens of heaven who are living alongside citizens of this world. The aliens’ identity as those who are living away from their eternal home, and among people of another world, forms the basis and manner of their obedience to Peter’s first command.
So, the command is “to abstain from the passions of the flesh”. The word “abstain” means “to keep away from”, or “to avoid”. They are to abstain from “the passions of the flesh”. The Greek word translated “passions” literally means “strong desires”, but these strong desires come from “the flesh”. Since Peter calls this the flesh rather than your flesh, we can understand him as referring to something that is common to all people, rather than distinguished between different individuals. In other words, this is “the flesh” that produces strong desires in all people. The Greek word translate “flesh” literally means “meat”, or the physical stuff that our bodies are made of. Thus, it could also be simply translated “body”.
So, what exactly are the passions of the flesh? Since they’re strong desires, and not just any desires, and not desires of the mind, but of the merely physical part of us, they’re clearly sinful desires. Why? Because, in response to Adam’s sin, God made all people to be naturally spiritually dead, and corrupted by Adam’s sin. As a result, all people have sinful desires that come from their bodies. These include sexual lust for the wrong person, desire for food when inappropriate, unjust anger, and things like these.
Peter finishes his plea to abstain from bodily passions by warning that they “wage war against your soul”. By “soul”, he doesn’t simply mean the non-physical part of them, but their entire persons, including their minds, hearts, affections, emotions, and wills. So, the passions of the flesh seek to destroy the aliens’ very lives. How do they do this? By putting strong desires in their hearts to do sinful things, thus tempting them to sin. That’s why Peter urges the aliens to abstain from them, and not control them, or try to change them. No, they must be ignored, and replaced with good desires. If fleshly passions are acted upon, or given in to, this means that the person is sinning, and marring the picture of God that he reflects through his goodness, bringing displeasure to God and himself.
Act Praiseworthy in Your Behavior
The second command that Peter gives the aliens is to behave excellently among their unbelieving neighbors:
“Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”
In this verse, Peter begins with the command itself. Since he’s just given them the negative command of responding to sinful desires by ignoring them, he now gives them the positive command of seeking to do what’s right. However, now he takes into consideration their effect on unbelievers, whom he calls “Gentiles”. The Greek word translated “Gentiles” simply means “nations” or “peoples”, so Peter isn’t necessarily saying that the unbelievers were only non-Jews. In fact, it’s more likely that he meant the “nations of the world” in contrast to God’s nation, the church, which he just called “a holy nation” and “a chosen race” in verse 9. Either way, he means “unbelievers” by “Gentiles”.
So, he commands the aliens to “keep [their] conduct . . . honorable” while they’re among unbelievers. The Greek word translated “honorable” literally means “beautiful” or “good” in the ultimate sense. It’s simply a general term to refer to living that pleases God, and therefore benefits others by reflecting His goodness to them.
The reason Peter gives the aliens for acting honorably among their unbelieving neighbors is “so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation”. First, he recognizes that unbelievers will “speak against” the aliens “as evildoers”. In other words, even though they’re acting righteously, unbelievers will still accuse them of doing evil, since unbelievers hate some behavior that pleases God. Nevertheless, Peter says that the hope is that those same unbelievers will “see [their] good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation”.
What does Peter mean by “the day of visitation”? The only other place where the New Testament uses a similar phrase is in Luke 19:41-44, where it says,
“And when he [Jesus] drew near and saw the city [of Jerusalem], he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”” (ESV)
In this passage, Jesus calls His arrival to Jerusalem as “the time of your visitation”. This phrase actually has a solid background in the Old Testament, where similar wording is used to describe God’s “visiting” of people in judgment. However, when Jesus uses it, He’s not referring to Him visiting Jerusalem in judgment, but in redemption, since He went to Jerusalem for the specific purpose of being crucified in order to suffer and die for our sins.
So, there are two reasonable interpretations of Peter’s “day of visitation”. The first is that he’s saying that when God judges the unbelievers who are slandering the aliens, they’ll glorify Him. The second is that they’ll do this when God visits them by redeeming them, or saving them from their sins. I believe the best view is the second, since that’s the way “visitation” is used by Jesus; the phrase “glorify God” is usually, if not only, used in the New Testament as an act done by believers who aren’t judged in the way proposed; and it makes more sense that Peter would motivate the aliens to obey his command with the purpose of seeking the salvation of those who are slandering them.
Therefore, it’s almost certain that Peter’s telling the aliens to act honorably among unbelievers, so that they’ll see their good deeds while they’re calling them evildoers, and be persuaded to glorify, or praise, God because of those good deeds. And this will happen on the day that He visits them with salvation, when they change their minds and believe the gospel.
Resist Temptation for Your Sake and Live Right for Others’ Sake
So, if you’re a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, how does this passage apply to you?
First, you are a foreigner and alien in this world, so you ought to abstain from the sinful desires of your body, which wage war against your whole life. If you give in to those desires, then you’re life will be harmed.
Second, you ought to always do what’s right, especially when next to unbelievers, so that, even if they call you an evildoer, they can see your good deeds, and eventually glorify God if He visits them with salvation. Your righteous living can serve as evidence that the gospel is true, and lead someone to repent and believe it.
If you’re enslaved by your sinful desires, so that you live a lifestyle of giving in to your bodily desires by sinning, then that proves that you aren’t a foreigner and alien in this world, but are a part of this world. If that’s the case, you’re rebelling against God, and are heading toward His judgement and eternal punishment. The good news is that He sent His eternal and divine Son to earth to become a man, Jesus, to live the perfect life, to suffer and die on a Roman cross to take God’s punishment for our sins, to rise from the dead, and to go into heaven as our King. He commands everyone to change their minds and trust in Christ as their Savior from sin and King to receive His forgiveness, since He’s going to judge everyone perfectly through Jesus, and punish those who are in rebellion against Him in a place of eternal torment. Please make sure you’ve repented of your rebellion and are trusting only in Christ as your Savior from sin and God’s wrath, and your King, for God’s peace and mercy. If you’ve done that, then the Lord commands His people to be baptized in water by a member of His church as an appeal to God for a good conscience, and a profession of faith in Him.
All Scripture quotations are taken from the:
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.