RPM, Volume 16, Number 11, March 9 to March 15, 2014

Alien Life

1 Peter 2:11,12

By D. Marion Clark

1 Peter 2:11,12
Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. 12 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 us.

This passage introduces the epistle's section on Christian living and its overall theme. To borrow from Francis Schaeffer, it is "How Should We Then Live?" How should Christians conduct themselves in a world that is non-Christian, i.e. where the citizenry do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as Redeemer and Lord. How should they understand their situation in this world?

This World is Not My Home

The starting point in knowing how to live is having the right perspective about their place in the world. Actually, Peter has been putting their lives into proper perspective all along. They are the chosen of God, belonging to him; they have been redeemed by the precious blood of Christ, given new birth into a living hope of a glorious future that will come to pass when Christ returns again. Meanwhile, they together are being built into a temple of God whereby they may have access to him and offer him acceptable worship.

Having said that, the world does not share this wonderful opinion of them, and, quite frankly, life right now is pretty tough. They are being slandered and persecuted, and it is getting more and more difficult to carry on. Why is this happening and what should they do about it?

First, they must understand their place in the world. Peter calls them "loved ones." That is the actual Greek term. The NIV's translation Dear friends, seems to miss Peter's emphasis. It is not so much that these people are loved by Peter as they are by God. He has just said to them, Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Now, you beloved of God, you are aliens and strangers in the world. Peter has already used both terms for his readers. The Greek term for aliens is the same term used in 1:17, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear. He originally addressed them as God's elect, strangers in the world, the same Greek term translated as strangers here. The second term translated "strangers" is used of foreigners dwelling in a different land for a temporary period of time. It would be the term applied to international students today. The first term, alien, speaks to the status or lack of status of certain foreigners. It would apply more to foreigners who are in the states illegally.

Peter is saying, this world is not your home. It is not where your citizenship belongs. This understanding of their position in the world is critical to understanding what is happening to them and how they should respond. What is meant by not being citizens? Do Christians not have the same rights as non-Christians? Yes and no. We have to be careful to understand Peter's use of terminology. A danger we often make in interpreting the Bible is taking an analogy or concept and carrying it further than the particular scripture passage intends. To the Christians Peter is writing he would affirm that they are citizens of their particular country. He would affirm that they are the same as their neighbors in having a place in their community. The difference is not about rights and privileges; it is about our own perspective of what really matters and where we really belong.

An immigrant to this country may become a naturalized citizen and, yet, still consider himself as not really a citizen because his heart belongs to his original country. That is the land that warms his heart; the customs of that land are what hold real meaning to him. In the same way, we may be citizens of the world, but our hearts do not belong here. We may enjoy the blessings of the world; we may make our own contribution to the world, but there is a greater world to which we belong and our true allegiance belongs to it.

If that is the case, that our true allegiance belongs to another world, the rights and privileges of this world should not be our primary interest. It is the cause of that other world that now motivates us. This is Peter's premise. We belong to God; we are his nation; therefore, what he wants of us should be uppermost in our minds. Every instruction that he then gives will be based on this premise.

What is it that God wants of his people? We've already learned: he wants us to declare his praises; he wants us to glorify him. And, specifically, he wants us to win others into his kingdom. Skip to the end of our passage. He wants our pagan neighbors to glorify God on the day he visits us. The Greek literally reads "on a day of visitation." Commentators differ over the meaning of visitation. The NIV translators evidently interpret the word to refer to Christ's return. "He visits us" would mean, God visiting us all. That is a possible meaning. Peter has already made reference to the final revealing of Christ. And, yet, if that is what Peter means, it is odd that he would not have been as clear about that last day as he was in chapter 1. The other interpretation is that visitation refers to God's saving work in a person's life. God visits the person, bringing salvation. This seems to better fit the context, because Peter will be instructing his readers on how to be good witnesses to their neighbors. It is not we who he hopes will glorify God, but our neighbors, and Scripture consistently uses that term "to glorify" of people who desire to glorify God with praise and obedience.

So, what do we have so far? The Christians are to understand themselves to belong not to this world, but to another — the kingdom of God. Though they don't belong to this world, they nevertheless have a mission — to lead their neighbors into God's kingdom so that they may glorify God as well. This now gives perspective on two fundamental issues or challenges in the Christian life — sinful desires and good behavior.

Desire and Goodness

In regard to the first, Peter says, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. The literal term is "fleshly lusts or desires." Our natural assumption would be that Peter is referring to sexual sins, but in keeping with the context and other scriptural references with this term, sinful desires embraces the whole spectrum of desires that we have.

What are sinful desires? One way that commentators and preachers describe them is that they are unbridled desires. That's what a lust is — a desire that has become inordinately strong in your life. The desire itself may be neutral or even good — enjoy good food, enjoy a "good time" the problem is carrying the desire too far. With every desire, we must exercise a certain amount of restraint; otherwise, the desire becomes a lust that controls you and carries you over the boundaries of what is proper and good.

But I prefer to focus on the first word — sinful or fleshly. The problem with the desires is that the desires themselves are misdirected towards sinful ends. The lust for food is not so much a problem of unbridled desire for delicious food as it is a self-centered desire for personal pleasure. Food is merely the tool to satisfy the self. What we all want is to get high, to have personal pleasure; we want as much as we can get as often as we can get it.

And Peter is telling his readers to abstain from these kinds of desires; don't just control them; don't engage in them at all. Why? Because these sinful desires are out to destroy the very people engaged in them. He says that they war against your soul. They hate you. They want to destroy you and any good that you can do.

What is this war? The desires are relentless in their attack against you. They pull after you. If it's not food, it's sex; if it's not sex, it's drugs; if it's not drugs, it's alcohol; if not alcohol, then gossip, stealing, money, power and on and on. "I will make you happy; I will give you what you want." What you lose in the end, if you give in, is your soul, either literally or effectively.

You, if you are not in the Savior's grasp, lose your soul to hell. But, even you are saved, your effectiveness in serving the Lord is lost. How many Christian leaders and servants have lost their ability to serve the Lord because of a lust they could not give up? How many have lost their ability to witness to their neighbor because of their sinful desires they could not abstain from?


So, negatively, we are to abstain from sinful desires that we may protect ourselves from our own harm. Positively, we are to Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds. Remember, the Christians to whom Peter is writing are being slandered. Christians back then were considered atheists because they had no visible god. They were accused of incest (everyone was a brother or sister). Some were even accused of cannibalism (the Lord's Supper).

How best to counteract slander? By living such good lives that the slander is made foolish. But Peter's interest is not limited to Christians vindicating their reputations; his concern is through their good lives they will win their neighbors to the gospel: they may see your good deeds and glorify God.

If the believers' primary interest was merely to clear their names, then they would be guilty of sinful desire — the desire that they be respected for their own sake. And, eventually, the result would be that they lose either their souls or their ability to win souls, because, eventually, what would rise to the surface was their self-centeredness, their desire for personal gain.


Think carefully through the implications of Peter's teaching. One could take these verses and conclude that Christianity is about cutting out fun. Put the clamps on any desires and put on a show of being respectable. That is an easy interpretation to make by non-Christians, especially when they observe the lives of professing Christians. Christians are self-righteous people unable to enjoy life themselves and determined to spoil life for others. Lionel Richey had a song about that. He says he has had enough of being told what he cannot do, and he is going to enjoy life.

I would have to say that there is a measure of truth to such an observation. There is a strain of Christianity that is focused on law and abstaining from worldly pleasure. Its religious observance is characterized by somberness and suspicion of the world, because of emphasis on law keeping as the means of pleasing God.

All Christians seeking to honor the Lord wrestle to one agree or another with keeping a proper perspective on the pleasures of life. When does appreciation for beauty cross over to lust? When does appreciation for good food cross over to gluttony, and so on? This is the very thing that we are criticized for by the secular world. They say that we Christians have hang-ups about indulging in the pleasures of life. Everything is an enemy to us. We need to throw off our inhibitions and enjoy the natural pleasures of life.

The introduction of a letter for a magazine expresses well this philosophy: You know it's out there… A wonderful, wide-open world filled with adventure, passion, opportunity and all kinds of special turn-ons. And you want a generous taste of it all. You've always craved excitement. Always loved being out front, ahead of the crowd. Searching for new ways to satisfy your desire and fulfill your fantasies. To make the most of what you've got and enjoy your great life.

How do you react to that statement? Perhaps you are appalled by its blatant appeal to personal, self-centered desire. Perhaps it strikes a cord with you, expressing your inner desire to experience real pleasure. In either case, if you are a Christian or at least inculcated with Christian values, you undoubtedly sense some kind of conflict between the world's take on pleasure and Christianity's. There is a conflict, but not along the lines we might think. The conflict is not between those who desire pleasure and those who abstain from it; rather, it is between those who are satisfied with less and those who want more.

I did not read the sentence that appears at the top of this letter's page. It says that the magazine is "all about you and everything you want — fashion, beauty, style, travel, people, sensational sex and a ton of fun." (By the way, this is a magazine for teenage girls.) This magazine is "dedicated to a simple, straightforward goal: Helping you get everything you want in life!"

I am actually sympathetic to that goal. The problem with this magazine's premise and the world's is not the pursuit of pleasure, but the avenues in which pleasure is sought. The problem with the avenues taken (besides being sinful transgressions of the law!) is that they are cheap substitutes that rob their adherents of true, lasting joy.

When you read that line "everything you want — fashion, beauty, style, travel, people, sensational sex and a ton of fun," I hope your response was, "That's it? That's everything?" I hope that you concluded that this magazine knows nothing about real pleasure, real joy. Real joy comes from doing what we were made to really want. It is living out our purpose in life. This magazine might help you get cheap thrills, but it won't take you to the heights of joy for which you were created; indeed, it will take you away from those heights. You were created to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. Or as John Piper has rephrased it: you were created to glorify God by enjoying him forever. How do you glorify God? By taking delight in him and the blessings he has given you.

What has God given you? Redemption. We've already explored that subject in the previous chapters. We have been redeemed, given new birth into a living hope of glory, of joy beyond what we experience now and that will last for eternity. Meditate on such blessing every day of your lives. That is one pleasure that you cannot enjoy too much.

But, as if that were not enough, God gives us blessings now to enjoy. What are they? There is the pleasure of doing good for others. "Oh, please. Here we go back to a do-gooder religion." If that is your reaction, you don't know pleasure. You may have gone through the motions of doing good and being nice, but they were just that — motions either to appease others or to manipulate them for your own gain. But, we were made to be ourselves a source of blessing to others, to take joy in being a blessing.

We were not made to be selfish and to please our ego. We do that now because we have fallen into sin. Our bent is to go that way, and we are satisfied now with the cheap thrills we can get in our sinful condition. These cheap thrills then pull us away from what really matters and is fulfilling, just like a TV program attracts the attention of those sitting in front of it who are in the midst of a deep conversation. Something significant is taking place between them, but the noise of the show diverts their attention. That's what the sinful desires Peter is talking about do. They divert you from the real business and joy of glorifying God and being a blessing to others. They demoralize you and keep you from becoming what you can be in Christ.

But as those redeemed in Christ, recreated in him, we are being restored day by day to our original condition of desiring to glorify God. We are still sinful and so we struggle between the cheap pleasures and the real ones. But as we are able to comprehend the greatness of Christ's redemption, and as we engage in the activities of doing good to others, we find pleasure and joy beyond what we had ever known living for ourselves.

And the greatest joy we can know here in this life, is the joy of leading others into the blessed redemption of Christ. We need to keep our focus; otherwise we turn even worship and service into cheap sinful desires. This is the greatest danger for sincere Christians. We turn our calling as Christians into a calling to focus on ourselves — study the Bible for our own growth, pray for our own needs, fellowship for our own encouragement. Remember, we are called into a kingdom for the purpose of extending that kingdom. The battle waged against our souls is not simply about our welfare, but to keep us from battling for the souls of others. We are to declare God's praises, that others may declare his praises. We are to live good lives that others may be won over and give glory to God.

To live for God's glory — that is what life is all about; that is what true pleasure and lasting joy is about. Open your eyes to the redemption of Christ; lift them up to the glory of God, and I assure you, you will get everything you really want. You may struggle now abstaining from the sinful desires of this world and living good lives, but you will find, if you persevere, your deepest desires for which you were made being fulfilled.

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