1 Peter 1:1-2
In an early episode of The Cosby Show, Dr. Cliff Huxtable sits down in his living room with his daughter Denise’s new boyfriend, a young man named David. David is eccentric. He intentionally wears non-matching socks. He tells Cliff that, even though he has been accepted to some of the best colleges in the country, he is not planning to attend any of them, because he doesn’t believe in grades. Cliff asks him, “So if you are not going to college, what are you going to do?” David responds, “Well, I thought I would spend some time just trying to find myself.” Cliff asks, “How much time do you think that will take?” David says, “About five or ten years.” Cliff says, “Well, you would be able to find yourself plus a couple more people.” As they are heading into the dining room, Denise comes out and asks Cliff privately, “So, how do you like him?” Cliff says, “I don’t know if that’s him or not. He hasn’t found himself.”
It’s a funny scene that plays on the differences between an older and a younger generation, but it does raise an important question about identity. Even though the show presents it in a light-hearted way, I think the task of “finding ourselves,” of coming to a firm, secure grasp of our identity and purpose, is immensely important. In fact, it will set the trajectory for our entire lives.
Can you see how a failure to find a secure sense of identity can lead to all kinds of inner turmoil? Perhaps you have experienced it at some point yourself. Or perhaps you have seen it in a loved one. When we don’t know who we are or what our purpose is, we lose sight of the meaning in our lives. And when we lack that sense of meaning, we feel insecure desperation to find it wherever we can. So we are prone to grasp for a sense of identity in a career path, or in the accumulation of wealth, or in gaining status in the eyes of men, or in sexual fulfillment, or in body image, or in countless other things that the world tells us we can have. In other words, when we are not secure in the knowledge of who are, the false gods of this present age will have much more appeal to us, and we will be drawn to a love for this world.
Listen to the words of 1 John 2:15-17: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” So how do we find the strength to fulfill that command? How do we turn away from love for the world when our hearts feel so naturally drawn to it? I think the letter of 1 Peter is a tremendous help here.
Peter identifies himself in verse 1 as “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ.” That title carries weight. We don’t read anywhere in the New Testament someone identify himself as “a teacher of Jesus Christ,” or “a prophet of Jesus Christ,” but we do see on several occasions the title “an apostle of Jesus Christ,” which indicates that Peter is writing with the very authority of Jesus Christ himself. And he is writing from Rome with this authority from Christ to Gentile believers throughout what we know today as Turkey to tell them who they are and to encourage them to live accordingly. He knows that they are suffering for their faith, as their loyalty to Christ has now put them at odds with the surrounding culture. So he writes this letter, knowing that their sufferings could serve as occasions to tempt them to compromise their faith and drift toward love of the world, in order to tell them, “This is who you are, and don’t ever forget it!” That’s a word that we need today. As Christians in the West are beginning to suffer more and more for resisting the onslaught of the sexual revolution, the things of this world may begin to seem more and more alluring to us. If we have not found ourselves by listening to God’s declaration of who we are, our insecure hearts will reach out to find meaning in what the world offers. To guard us from that, let us listen closely to Peter’s instructions.
Can a letter instruct us even in something as simple as a greeting? Yes, it can. It would have been within the conventions of letter-writing in the first century if Peter had simply said, “Peter, to the believers of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia: Greetings.” That would have been sufficient, but Peter is not content with that. Instead, he uses the conventional form of letter writing and packs serious theological content in it to remind his readers who they are. And in doing so, he reminds us as well. What do we learn about ourselves from this two-verse greeting, and how can that help us find ourselves and thus resist the allures of this world? I want to note two things we learn about ourselves, if we are in Christ. If you are not in Christ, what I am about to say does not apply to you…yet. But it can, and I hope that it will. I will speak more to that later. But to those of us who are in Christ, meaning we have been united to him by faith, symbolized in baptism, who are we?
I. We Are the Chosen People of the Triune God.
This world is full of lies, and we hear them constantly. If we are not secure in the truth, we will tend to believe the lies we hear once we have heard them enough times. Those lies include the following: “Your value is determined by what you make of yourself.” “Wealth makes you who you are.” “Status makes you who you are.” “Sexual fulfillment makes you who you are.” “Power makes you who you are.” “The security of your relationship with so-and-so makes you who you are.” And on and on the list goes. And each one of these lies would seek to lead us who are in Christ away from this fundamental truth: grace, and grace alone, makes us who we are.
Notice the grace of God in the description of the recipients of this letter. They are addressed as “those who are elect exiles.” The term “elect” simply means “chosen,” and of course God is the one who chooses. We didn’t choose ourselves. Our election must be attributed to God’s grace alone. The same was true for Israel in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 7:7-8, as the people were preparing to come into the land God had promised to Abraham their forefather, Moses said to them, “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” Israel’s election was by grace. By addressing his Gentile readers as “elect,” Peter is taking an Old Testament concept that applied to Israel and is applying to non-Israelites.
But there is a wrong way to conceive of the election of these Gentile readers (and us) in relation to Israel and a right way. The wrong way would be to look at this way: “Yes, God chose Israel to be his people and to represent him to the world, but of course, most Israelites failed in that calling. In fact, when God’s own Son came to Israel, they rejected him. So most of Israel has now been cut off, and God has now chosen Gentiles to replace them.” That way of thinking would make it look like our election is God’s contingency plan when his election of Israel failed. But Peter makes it clear that he is speaking of our election as something that happened long before the world was ever created. In verse 2 there are three prepositional phrases, all of which seem to modify the word “elect.” The first phrase is “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.” So what does “foreknowledge” mean here? It does not refer to the mere knowledge of information, as though God merely knew some things about us in advance. You will see that Christ was “foreknown before the foundation of the world” in verse 20. That doesn’t mean that the Father simply knew things about Christ. It means that, in love, God the Father foreordained a plan for the exaltation of his Son. I think the meaning is the same here: God’s foreknowledge of us is his covenantal affection set on us in eternity past, which has destined us for glory as his children, a sharing in the very sonship of Jesus Christ. Our election is not a “plan B” to replace Israel. God planned it this way from the beginning to incorporate us in Christ into the true Israel, a worldwide family of children of Abraham from all nations.
So that means the unconditional grace of God in eternity past is what has determined our destiny. We are elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father. But there are two other prepositional phrases tied to that word “elect,” and both of them refer to the manifestation of our election in our own lives when we come to faith in Christ. Notice that we are elect “in the sanctification of the Spirit.” The word “sanctification” is often used to refer to our ongoing growth in holiness, but here it seems to refer to a definitive event, the moment when the Holy Spirit consecrated us to God. That moment happened when, through hearing the gospel, we were born again by the regenerating power of the Spirit and brought to faith for the first time. In other words, conversion is a moment of sanctification, when we are welcomed into God’s presence and devoted to his service. Again, it is grace that makes us who we are.
And then the third prepositional phrase says that we are elect “for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood.” Our election by God’s grace has a goal, here described in two ways: “obedience” and “sprinkling with the blood of Jesus Christ.” Both terms seem to recall Exodus 24, when Israel, newly freed from slavery in Egypt, stood at Mount Sinai and entered into covenant with their God. In the ceremony of covenant ratification, the people, who had received the Law of God through Moses, declared, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do,” pledging their obedience to the covenant. And then Moses took the blood of oxen and sprinkled some of it on the altar (representing God) and the rest of it on the people. The fact that both parties received the same blood was an indication that, in this covenant, God and Israel had been joined together in a bond as close as that of blood relatives. They were married to one another and had become family. And so the Sinai Covenant was originally sealed by a pledge of obedience and a sprinkling with blood.
But of course, that covenant did not change their hearts, and it ended up being broken, sending the nation of Israel into exile centuries later. By contrast, Peter tells us that we who are believers in Christ have been joined to our God in a better covenant, the new covenant. We have been chosen for obedience, the kind of obedience that Israel was never able to offer, and joined to God in a marriage covenant sealed by a better sacrifice, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ himself. It is his blood that brought us near to God and has made us family. And so our conversion, the public manifestation of our election, is presented in one verse as consecration to God’s service (sanctification of the Spirit) and covenantal union with our God (obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ).
You should also notice something when we put the three prepositional phrases together: “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood.” Father, Spirit, Son. We have here one of the numerous passages of the New Testament that led to the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. We see here three agents of our salvation, mentioned alongside one another, which implies their equality. And yet, we are not talking about three different gods. The Bible is clear from Genesis to Revelation that there is only one God. But neither are we talking about one divine Person who simply puts on three different masks, as though he is sometimes Father, sometimes Son, and sometimes Spirit. As the church of the first four centuries wrestled with the teaching of the Bible on who God is, it gradually came to the doctrine of the Trinity, which is easily stated this way:
The Trinity: God is three Persons (three “who’s”) and one nature (one “what”).
But the church also was careful to say that these three Persons don’t each do their own thing. There is one will in God, and so you never have the Son acting apart from the Father and Spirit, or the Spirit apart from the Father and the Son. This became known as the doctrine of
Inseparable operations: In all of God’s actions outside of himself, the three Persons of the Trinity act together.
And so our triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—has chosen us to belong to him, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling with the blood of Jesus Christ. Our identity is entirely based on grace, the grace of the triune God. It is no accident that Peter greets his readers by saying, “May grace and peace be multiplied to you.” Where he could have simply said “greetings,” he speaks of the lavish grace of our triune God, grace that produces the peace of right relationship with God and others. Peter doesn’t just greet. He blesses.
I am the father of a two-year-old girl. I love every opportunity I have to pick her up and hold her in my arms. I love it, not only because she is a delight to me, but also because I know that those moments are forming her heart. I realize my limitations. I know that I cannot guarantee that she will always be protected from evil. But for my part, I want to be a father who instills in his daughter a profound sense of security in my love for her. I want her to receive regular, consistent affection from me because I know that, as she grows up, if she is starved for my affection, she will be more likely to seek affection from the first boy who shows interest, and his intentions may not be good for her. Do you see what these two verses are for us? They are God’s way of scooping us up in his arms and showing us how loved we are. They are his way of saying to us, “Don’t run after the things of this world to find security, affection, approval. You have all of those things from me. They come from my grace.” We are the chosen people of the triune God.
But Peter says more about us. Not only are we God’s elect, but also
II. We Are Strangers in This World.
It is gracious of God to tell us this fact about ourselves. If he didn’t, we would be prone to conclude that the experience of being oddballs in our society must mean that we have done something wrong. We must not be walking in our faith correctly because, after all, it can be so difficult and make us feel so out of place in our society. But as Peter tells us here, that feeling of being the oddball is actually not a bug; it’s a feature. This is how it is supposed to be. Know that going in, calibrate your expectations, and enjoy the ride.
Peter addresses his readers not only as “elect” but as “exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” The term “exiles” seems to mean something like “strangers.” Peter does not mean that we have been driven out of our homes as punishment (the way Israel was during the exile), but rather that we are not at home in this world. Our hearts are oriented in a different direction from those of our neighbors, and so our lives are going to be odd by comparison to those around us. The word “dispersion” is the Greek word diaspora, the term that referred to the Jews who had been scattered all over the world by the Babylonian exile. So once again, Peter takes Israel language and applies it to believers in Christ, showing that in Christ we have been incorporated into the true Israel.
It will become clear throughout this letter that one result of being strangers in this world is that we will suffer for our loyalty to Christ. But there is one tremendous comfort we can draw in the midst of suffering from this passage. And that is the connection between my two points today. When Peter calls his readers “elect exiles,” I think he means we are exiles because we are elect. In other words, it is the grace of God that has transformed us and, as a result, has made us misfits in this world. And given that connection, it should actually be a profound comfort to us to experience that sense of alienation from the world. So when you’re talking to a coworker who says, “I have really been dealing with some bad migraines lately,” and your response is, “Can I lay my hand on you and pray for your healing right now?” you can expect that doing that will make you look weird. The average person does not pray for healing in the name of Jesus on the spot. But if we believe that God heals in response to prayer, why wouldn’t we do that? And if you pray for your neighbors, and God does indeed bless them, think of the door that has just been opened in their hearts to listen to what you have to say about Jesus. Or when one of your neighbors invites you to her same-sex wedding, and you decline to go because you know that being a witness at a wedding implies your approval of the marriage and your commitment to hold the couple accountable to their vows, you will come across as a stranger. You may be the only friend she has who refuses to celebrate this occasion with her. How can you, who claim to love people, withhold your approval from something that is so deeply meaningful to your neighbor? In that moment, you will feel odd. But remember: God’s grace has made you a stranger to this unbelieving world.
As I heard about different cults growing up, I am ashamed to admit that it became easy for me to think of cult members as almost less than human. Whether we’re talking about small groups of people who gather into an isolated community, such as the Branch Davidians in Waco, or larger movements who claim to be Christian and aggressively pursue converts, such as the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, there was one thing I was sure about: I never wanted my neighbors to think that I was in any way like any of those movements. I wanted to be able to stand with my unbelieving neighbors and say, “Yes, those people are just crazy! I’m glad that you and I are normal people who can see that.” I hope that I have come to terms with the fact that, if I want to follow Jesus, I have to be comfortable being viewed by my neighbors more or less like a cult member, a religious fanatic who is living in an irrational way. You know, we could stand to be a bit more like cults. Of course, I don’t mean that we need authoritarian leaders who will micromanage our lives, or that we should withdraw ourselves from society, or that we should follow any human teachings over the Bible. But I mean that in this sense: we should be a close community of people who are devoted to our teachings and who are comfortable being on the margins of society. Respectability is overrated. Don’t let it become an idol to you. It is well worth it to be an exile if your exile status is determined by God’s gracious election of you.
We all need to find ourselves, but not through a journey of personal discovery. Instead, we must find ourselves by listening to what God has told us: we are his chosen people, made his own by grace, who as a result have become strangers to this world. I mentioned earlier that this description only applies to those who are in Christ, meaning those who are trusting in Jesus Christ alone for the forgiveness of sins and have been marked as his followers through baptism. What if that’s not you? Does this passage have anything to say to you? Yes, it does. It tells you to stop looking to the things of this world to find yourself. As a human being, you are made in the image of God, and thus the design of your heart is oriented toward fulfillment in him alone. But your sin has cut you off from him. It has turned your heart toward other things, causing you to look to those things as your gods, and it has put you under the threat of the coming judgment, when the one true God will set all wrongs right. It is grace alone that can deliver you from that judgment and give you a new start, and the grace of God is now extended to you through the message of Jesus Christ, the innocent one who was crucified for sinners and raised from the dead to give new life to all who belong to him. As the Holy Spirit draws you now, look to Jesus Christ alone for forgiveness, for renewal, and for a new life. Take hold of Christ, and identify yourself with him by baptism.
If you are in Christ, a baptized believer who is a member in good standing with a church, I invite you to eat and drink at the Lord’s Table. Just as baptism marks us out one time as those who have a new identity in Christ by the grace of God, the Lord’s Supper marks us out weekly as those who continue to find ourselves in him. So come and welcome to Jesus Christ. Amen.