Standing in the True Grace of God, Lesson 8

Originally posted November 3, 2017, at Women of Purpose.

Our passage this week is pivotal to the epistle of 1 Peter. Thus far, Peter has taught us about our gracious, pre-ordained salvation from God the Father; the brevity of our lives, and therefore our trials, in view of the eternality of our living hope and the inheritance kept in heaven for us; the holiness to which we are called—and enabled to live out—by the Holy Spirit; the eternal significance of God’s Word to our salvation; and our identity in Christ: our precious, suffering substitute, and eternal, glorious Lord. We are now going to learn what significance these spiritual realities hold for our daily lives. What difference does all this make when we wake up in the morning and go about our daily lives?

We begin our study with 1 Peter 2:11, 12:

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 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.

Peter has all the authority of an apostle of Jesus Christ, but instead of commanding his readers how to behave, he lovingly and tenderly urges us in compassionate tones. He bases his appeal in the love of the Father for us and the mutual love we have for one another. Because we are beloved, we are to live as those who are loved by the Father. As beloved sojourners, we are to do good and glorify God with our lives.

Belonging to God as his own chosen and holy people means that we will be strangers and exiles in the world out of which he has saved us. This special status with God elevates us out of the mire and bondage of sin to live in a way that shows forth the beauty and freedom of belonging to Christ. Daniel Doriani puts it this way: “By repentance and faith we became God’s people, his prized possession. By the same act, we necessarily became—and ought to remain—partially estranged from this age.”[1]

After all, from the beginning, God’s people have lived as sojourners and strangers, at times, literally exiled from their homes. Beginning with Adam and Eve being cast out of their perfect garden home to toil in the wilderness, to Abraham called to wander through the land of promise without ever owning more than a burial plot, to the children of Israel living in Egypt, first as guests, then as slaves, before called out to follow Moses and wander in the desert for 40 years until taking possession of the land of Israel. The Israelites were thrust again into exile after their generations of disobedience to God, carried away to Babylon. Jesus himself wandered from place to place as he preached. We stand in a long tradition of people, who were strangers where they lived: not quite fitting in; aliens, even in their homelands.

Even though we are exiles, we are also obedient children of our loving and holy Father—enabled and expected to live holy lives. Peter has just finished telling us that we are “a people for his own possession, that we may proclaim the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.” How are we to proclaim such things if our lives are driven by the passions of our flesh, leading to dishonorable conduct before the unbelievers among us who need to hear the gospel? Belonging to God means we are free from bondage to the passions of our former ignorance (1:14).

By “passions of the flesh,” Peter is referring to the sins of body and mind. We can’t blame the culture around us for our sin problem—it resides within us. Yes, there are temptations in the world to which our passions draw us, but giving in to them begins in our hearts. James teaches that, “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:14, 15). Even if we were to live a monastic life, these sins would still plague us. Peter is not encouraging further exile from the world, but that, as exiles in the world we are to live honorably.

When Peter says that these passions wage war against our souls he is not employing hyperbole for the sake of making his point, he is writing precisely what he means. As the verses from James quoted above make clear, battling sinful desires is deadly serious business. On this, Kistemaker writes: “These desires give a person temporary physical satisfaction but in reality wage decisive warfare against his soul. Fully aware of the dangers of this warfare, however, the believer abstains from these desires. By his conduct and good deeds, he shows unbelievers the way to God.”[2]

What kind of desires are we talking about? There are several places in Scripture where we find them spelled out.

For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. . . . Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. (Galatians 5:17, 19-21)

For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. (1 Peter 4:3)

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! (James 4:1-4)

Both Paul, in his letter to the Galatian church, and Peter, later in this epistle, list vices which we expect to see indulged in by the world, and Peter points out that these are the very vices in which the believers to whom he writes also indulged before they were born again by God. But James is addressing the behavior of believers within the church. Oh, sisters, if we are to share God’s marvelous light and life with an unbelieving world we must look and live differently from that world. How can we preach of freedom when we are returning to the very sins from which we have been set free? And how can we hold out the blessings of belonging to the covenant community of Christ when we are destroying the community from within by our own passions and petty quarrelling?

We must diligently guard against these sins for the sake of the peace and purity of the church, and for the honor of God’s holy name.

Desire, in itself, is not sin. Scripture also makes clear that there are good things which we ought to desire. Peter has just told us to desire the pure spiritual milk of God’s Word. The Psalms are filled with exhortations to desire the things of God:

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. (Psalm 19:7-10)

May he grant you your heart’s desire and fulfill all your plans! May we shout for joy over your salvation, and in the name of our God set up our banners! May the Lord fulfill all your petitions! (Psalm 20:4, 5)

Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4)

Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:25, 26)

And finally, Paul follows his list of desires of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit, which we should all, as believers, desire to grow in our lives, because in Christ our fleshly desires have been crucified:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:22-24)

Let us seek diligently to replace our sinful desires with these soul-nurturing desires and fruits. When we are satisfied with the beauty of Christ through our love of his Word and the fruit of the Spirit we will be better equipped to do good and glorify God in our lives.

In verse 12, Peter exhorts us to live honorably before the unbelieving world, to the end that God is glorified. Jesus taught the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). Whether Peter means that God will be glorified by unrepentant unbelievers on the day of judgement, or that these unbelievers, seeing our good works, will become believers and thereby glorify God when he visits them with his saving grace is unclear. What is clear is that the purpose for our living honorably before unbelievers is—and will ultimately be—the glory of God.

As we go through our daily routines, are we mindful that an unbelieving world is watching how we live? We just celebrated Halloween. I know that it was also the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, but that’s not what our unbelieving neighbors were celebrating, was it? Two years ago, David Mathis wrote an excellent little article at Desiring God Ministries about how we can reach out to our neighbors on this night of the year which has been at least confusing, if not off-limits to Christians. In it, he encourages believers with the opportunity neighborhood trick-or-treating presents us:

“We turn the porch lights on to chase away the darkness. We have the best candy on the street and give with generosity, not the cheapest fair with a miser’s hand.

We open the door wide and linger in conversation. We plan ahead about how to make the most of this unique opportunity, when a society of people who increasingly keep to themselves in the neighborhood turn on lights and knock on doors.”[3]

Daniel Doriani, in a more general context, offers similar encouragement. “When we lead a beautiful life among secular people, we can anticipate a positive result, at least occasionally.”[4]

Now that Halloween is behind us, we are entering that special time of the year when, from every department store and restaurant we will hear Christians proclaiming those magical words: “It’s MERRY CHRISTMAS! Not Happy Holidays! Keep Christ in CHRISTMAS!” Perhaps, just perhaps, a kind, polite, and even cheerful response is called for rather than a complaint. Let’s extend the beauty of loving grace to our neighbors (and overworked & weary servers at checkout registers and in restaurants—tip generously). They’re watching: honor God.

In verses 13 and following, Peter discusses one particular way Christians should lead good lives.

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13-17)

Simply put: we are to honor earthly authorities. Simpler to say than to do? Yes. Given that we are chosen, royal, holy, and God’s prized possession (2:9, 10), we may despise earthly leaders who don’t live up to the standards of conduct which we have been given by our Lord. It is easy to look at our leaders and feel disrespect, even contempt. But Peter is telling us to honor them and be subject to their rule over us. And he was writing during the reign of Nero!

But we aren’t told to honor them because they themselves are worthy of our honor, but for the sake of the Lord. Our behavior, as Peter makes the point here and for the next chapter or so, reflects upon the Lord, our Master and the highest authority over all creation. In subjecting ourselves to earthly authorities we are living out our recognition that God is sovereign over our government and those in positions of trust. Paul also wrote about how we are to live under the earthly authorities under whom God has placed our lives. “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:1-2). His exhortation in Romans almost reads like a commentary on what Peter is writing in our passage, read it slowly:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:1-7)

Paul, when arrested and beaten, appealed to the emperor, based upon his rights as a Roman citizen, pursued justice for his cause, and by those means was given the opportunity to share the gospel with people in high (and low) places with whom he otherwise would not have come into contact. For Paul, the gospel was always the objective, and his honorable conduct under the wicked reign of Rome allowed for the continuation of his gospel ministry for a time. Let’s also not forget that Peter and Paul were both eventually martyred by order of the emperor.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, for whose sake and following whose example we are encouraged to subject ourselves to the ruling authorities, was also put to death by those very authorities. His death was for an eternally-destined purpose, as is the unjust suffering of every child of God. The promised blessing of our subjection is not that the governments and authorities to which we submit will then become tolerant of our convictions, but that the Lord will be glorified. In the passage we will study next week, Peter tells us that it is “a gracious thing in the sight of God” when we “endure sorrows while suffering unjustly” (2:19). He follows this with a reminder of how our Lord responded to the unjust treatment—and execution—he received at the hands of the earthly authorities under whom he lived. He neither reviled nor threatened, but “continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (2:23).

This is why Peter has been leaning heavily on reminders that this world is not our home, we have an eternal inheritance awaiting us, and our sovereign God is protecting us by his power for the day when Jesus will be revealed. The people to whom he wrote then, and multitudes of Christians since—even now—lived under wicked regimes which did not reward their honorable conduct. There are no disclaimers in these or any other passages of Scripture which allow for loopholes. Rather, there are repeated exhortations to remember that this world is opposed to our Lord Jesus Christ and his followers, and we are nevertheless to live holy, humble lives. As beloved sojourners, even living under governments hostile to our faith, we are still to do good, live honorably, and bring glory to God.

Peter is not telling us that we are to submit to or obey any laws which would result in disobedience to God. Doing good and living honorably may take the shape of advocating for better laws to lift the oppressed and bring justice to the marginalized. In fact, it is our duty as Christians to stand for what is right against that which is wrong, even if it means disobeying the laws of our government. But we conduct our disobedience as honorable citizens, not as revolutionaries. This disobedience may lead to changes which will bring glory to God, as in the Civil Rights marches and civil disobedience in our own nation back in the 1960s. Or it may lead to further marginalization, persecution, and even death, as it did during the 1930s and 40s in Europe, when Christians hid their Jewish neighbors from the Nazis—which brought glory to God.

(And, may I here point out that the Nazi regime was brought to a decisive end by the actions of the earthly authorities of allied nations acting together, under the direction and plan of our sovereign God. There was a measure of earthly justice then, and there will be ultimate, perfect justice, on the final Day.)

As Paul wrote to us in Romans and 1 Timothy, our attitudes and actions toward our leaders, whether we voted for them or not (what blessings we enjoy in this country! Freedom to vote! Freedom to move if the local laws are too stifling! Freedom to serve in positions of trust and advocate for change!), ought to be respectful and prayerful. Remember that God is sovereign over every area of our lives, including when and where we are born and live, and the human institutions to which we are subject. When we find this challenging because we see the ungodliness of our leaders: obey God anyway.

In verse 16 Peter tells us to “Live as people who are free, . . . but live as servants of God.” This sounds like a contradiction. Every commentary I used to prepare for this lesson (except for Calvin) quoted Martin Luther on this point:

“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”

How do we make sense of this? Simon Kistemaker helpfully writes that, “We use our freedom from sin and evil to serve God and love our fellow man. The more we demonstrate our willingness to serve, the more we experience true freedom. We demonstrate our complete freedom when we wholeheartedly serve God.”[5] In other words, because we have been freed from the sin which entangled us to fear of our fellow man or feeling the need to be our own savior, we can now serve God and love our fellow man even in frightful circumstances. We can love our neighbors by openly sharing the gospel without fearing their opinions of us or the social or financial consequences. Because we understand that God mercifully saved us when we deserved hell, we can see others through the lenses of the same mercy and serve dinner at the homeless shelter, volunteer at Options for Life, open our homes and hearts to foster children, and in a thousand other ways show love to a hurting world full of people who need Jesus!

Our passage ends with four short commands. The first is a blanket command to “Honor everyone.” This should be the basis for how we treat everyone we meet. The proper way to treat each category of people in our lives follows with, first, “Love the brotherhood.” This means, of course, our brothers and sisters in Christ. Peter then reminds us to “Fear God.” The fear of God is to guide our other interactions: loving our covenant community and honoring others. Finally, he tells us, “Honor the emperor.” Even Nero. Even President Trump. This also applied to President Obama. But notice, we don’t fear the emperor, we fear the One who put him in his place of authority, whether the emperor recognizes the fact or not. The emperor rules over a temporary kingdom. We are chosen and precious children of the God of the eternal Kingdom.

It may not be easy, but which part of sanctification is easy? Though it is difficult, our obedience in this will bring glory and honor to our King.

[1] Daniel M. Doriani, Reformed Expository Commentary, 1 Peter, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2014), 77.

[2] Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of 1 Peter, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1986/1987), 96.

[3] David Mathis, I am not in any way suggest that if you, by conviction, don’t celebrate Halloween, you are wrong. This is suggesting at least a new way to view the holiday, and certainly some substantial Biblical truth with which to arm yourself against the darkness the day represents for so many.

[4] Doriani, 82.

[5] Kistemaker, 102.

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