One of the most interesting verses in the New Testament is Mark 6:20. Before I quote it, let me set the background: the prophet John the Baptist has been denouncing Herod the Tetrarch for marrying his brother’s ex-wife, which was against the Law of Moses. As a result, Herod has John imprisoned, and Herod’s wife wants John put to death, but Herod is unwilling to have him executed. Mark tells us in Mark 6:20 why this is the case: “for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.” Have you ever stopped to think about this strange, mixed response to John the Baptist on the part of Herod? On the one hand, he clearly dislikes being told that his marriage is incestuous and, therefore, unlawful. And yet, hearing John preach in prison intrigues him, even making him glad to listen. This paradoxical reaction is what often happens when Christians live courageously holy lives before the unbelieving world. On the one hand, the world hates what we stand for and will reject us for it. John the Baptist did eventually lose his head. And yet, in the midst of that rejection, we have the opportunity to bear witness to the power of the gospel by the holiness of our lives, the strength of our convictions, and the way that we endure suffering with grace. And when the unbelieving world sees that, they are enabled to see more clearly how beautiful the gospel of Jesus Christ is because of its power in us.
The first section of Peter’s letter (1:3-2:10) has been devoted to telling us who we are in Christ. That section culminates with his statement in 2:9-10: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” If that is who we are, it means we are not exactly at home in this rebellious world. Because we are God’s chosen, holy people, whose home and inheritance is kept for us in Heaven, that means we are necessarily “sojourners and exiles” in this world now, as verse 11 calls us. These two terms come right out of Genesis 23:4, where Abraham says to the Hittites when buying a burial plot for his wife Sarah, “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you.” When Peter uses these terms to refer to believers, think of yourself in the same kind of situation as Abraham, a wanderer, chosen by God but not yet in possession of the promise. That’s who we are in this present age.
But if we are sojourners and exiles, we have to live like it. The next two major sections of Peter’s letter will unpack what that looks like. You can tell where these two sections begin because they both begin with the word “Beloved.” In 2:11 he begins a section that runs through 4:11 calling on his readers to live honorably among the Gentiles. In 4:12 he begins a new section that runs through 5:11 that calls on his readers to endure suffering with joy before he gets to the closing matters of the letter.
Exiles are those who are in their current location, but not of it. That’s what Peter is telling us here: be in the world, but not of it. That avoids two major errors toward which we are tempted. One error is to be in the world and of it, taking on its manner of thought and behavior. This is what liberal Christianity does: it simply copies the thought patterns and behaviors of the unbelieving world. And sometimes the pressure of the world that is placed upon us to conform in order to win approval can be so intense that this option can be enticing. On the other hand, you could be neither in the world nor of it, cutting yourself off from the surrounding world and living in an adversarial relationship with the rest of society. This is the error that fundamentalism is prone to: setting up its own subculture in order to stay free of the rest of society, and in the process missing God’s call to us to love our neighbors. I think social media has a tendency to bring this impulse out in us, because it puts us in touch with other members of our “tribe,” with whom we seem to be standing against the rest of the world. And the more we live in that kind of tribal echo chamber, I think the less we will be able to reach outside of it to love our neighbors. May we succumb to neither error. May we be instead live the lives of sojourners and exiles: being in the world, but not of it. So how do we do that? Peter gives two commands in these two verses, one negative and one positive:
His first command is this:
Peter’s command in verse 11 is, “abstain from the passions of the flesh.” Perhaps the word “desires” better captures the meaning of that term for “passions.” Peter acknowledges here that we have desires that well up within us, and those desires are “fleshly” in origin, meaning they are inherently self-focused instead of God-focused. Desires of the flesh seek gratification apart from God. Even pagan philosophers of the ancient world understood that it was necessary to control and subordinate our natural desires to the rule of reason. They understood that feelings and desires, if left to themselves, will often lead us into destruction. In our culture today we have almost completely reversed that way of thinking. Today, feelings and desires reign supreme as the ultimate authority. If a little boy says he feels like a girl, it is now politically incorrect to tell him, “That’s stupid. You’re a boy.” No, we are not allowed to subordinate his feelings to plain reason. Instead, we must submit reason to his feelings and require his parents to dress him as a girl, require society to refer to him with female pronouns, and require a doctor to mutilate his body so that it can at least begin to resemble that of a girl. I do not exaggerate when I say this: as a society, we have lost our minds.
But does this land closer to home? Are there any moments in your life when your feelings and desires collide with what you know God has spoken? How many evangelicals have decided to call it quits on their marriages because their hearts told them to? How many have fallen into adultery or other kinds of sexual immorality because they were just following their hearts? How many have said, “I know I need to forgive my brother or sister, but since my heart doesn’t really want to, I guess I won’t”? How many have become weary in the struggle against same-sex attraction, and out of exasperation finally decided, “This is just who I am.” How many have been attracted to the party scene, knowing full well they were walking into debauchery, because their hearts told them it was important to be considered part of a certain group of people?
Because we live in a setting in which inner feelings and desires are regarded as the standard of personal truth, what Peter says here can sound very oppressive. Abstain from desires of the flesh? Really? If I do that, won’t I be suppressing my authentic self and letting society dictate what I must be? Won’t I be giving in to the oppressive systems of cultural expectations? Surely Peter can’t mean that we are required to deny our natural impulses, right? Does God really ask us to do that?
No, God doesn’t ask us to deny our natural impulses that contradict his design for us. He commands it. Later in 4:3, Peter will write, “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.” These are the actions that the desires of the flesh lead to. Peter says, “Abstain from them! Avoid them! Cut them off!” In doing so, we are not denying our authentic selves. We are becoming our authentic selves, as God designed us to be. For the full experience of what we are designed to be is found in holiness.
But Peter doesn’t just tell us to abstain from the acts of sin. He says “Abstain from the passions of the flesh.” He addresses us at the heart level, telling us that we must not only not do what is wrong, but we must also not desire what is wrong. Jesus made that clear in the Sermon on the Mount, when he traced the commands of the Law back to the condition of our hearts. If outwardly you are sexually pure, but inwardly you are given over to all kinds of lusts that you never put to death, you are not walking in holiness. If outwardly you have never stolen anything in your life, but inwardly you are full of jealousy over what another person has, and you never put that to death, you are not walking in holiness. Sin must be fought, not merely at the level of our actions, but at the level of our desires. Our goal is not to be merely well-behaved. It is to be pure in heart. For remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
One reason we must kill sin is because we are sojourners and exiles in the present age, and living for sin is simply not in keeping with who we are. But in addition to that, Peter tells us that the stakes in the fight against sin are incredibly high. Notice again verse 11: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” Do you see the threat that fleshly desires pose to us? They wage war against our soul, threatening the core of our being. If given free reign, sin will destroy you, not only in this life, but it will send you to hell. As John Owen said, “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.”
How does that biblical truth cohere with our treasured doctrine of justification by faith alone? Are we justified by faith, or by faith plus staying away from sin? We are justified by faith alone, but true faith necessarily turns away from sin and fights against it. If you have turned to Jesus Christ in faith to deliver you from sin, you necessarily are turning to him to be delivered from sin comprehensively, both its penalty and power. But if you continue to live in a way that is given over to sin, your profession of faith in Christ rings hollow, and Scripture warns that your very soul is at risk. So the faith that clings to Christ for justification necessarily also fights against sin.
So it’s one thing to say, “Fight sin,” but another thing to implement actual strategies for doing so. How do you proceed with this fight? Ask God to show you where your heart is disordered. Confess all known sin to God, claiming the promise of forgiveness in Christ, and then fight with the power of faith. You can’t really fight sin by focusing on sin, anymore than you can diet successfully by thinking about food all the time. Cultivate a heart that loves God and is full of the experience of his love for you in Christ. Your goal is not just not to sin, but not even to want to sin because the beauty of knowing God in Christ has eclipsed its appeal to you. Of course, recognizing your own weakness, you have to put structures in place to protect you during the times when you do want to sin. If pornography is something that tempts you, you have to put in place structures of accountability. If sexual immorality tempts you, you must keep yourself accountable to the rule of not allowing yourself to be alone with someone in a setting that could lead to it. If alcohol tempts you to drunkenness, you have to cut yourself off from it and get people involved in your life who can help you fight during those moments when you need support. Fighting sin is a twofold strategy: negatively, it means setting up proper boundaries of protection around you, knowing that you will face moments of weakness. Positively, it means using those boundaries to create space for your heart to grow and mature in love for God so that the desire for sin weakens, with the goal of killing that desire completely.
As sojourners and exiles, you must abstain from passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. There is too much at stake not to. We who are in the world must not be of the world. Peter then gives a second command:
The second command of this passage comes in verse 12: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable.” One question that arises here is this: Is Peter really saying anything different here than he has already said? That is, is abstaining from the passions of the flesh the same thing as keeping our conduct among the Gentiles honorable? While they are both related, I don’t think they are exactly the same. The reason I say this is in part because of what Peter says later in 4:4: “With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you.” There, Peter acknowledges the reality that, in a society that is given over to the passions of the flesh, we may become social outcasts if we abstain from those passions. But in verse 12 he speaks of conduct that is “honorable” among the Gentiles, which I take to mean conduct that even the unbelieving Gentiles have to admire. So I am drawn to the conclusion that Peter is drawing out another aspect of our obedience in verse 12, namely, how we live as good neighbors in our society. Yes, Peter says, unbelievers may malign you if you refuse to affirm their lusts, but when you show yourself to be one who genuinely cares about their good and the good of society, they will notice that too.
What does it look like to keep our conduct among the Gentiles honorable? In the remaining section of this letter, Peter speaks of submission to authorities: governing authorities and household authorities. He tells us that even if those in authority over us are unjust, we should still respect them and submit to them, showing them that our hope is not in this present age. He tells us that when others revile us, we must return to them good for evil and bless them. And then he paints a picture of a church community that is full of love and service to one another. In our setting, I think this looks like Christians who love their neighbors, their neighborhoods, and their communities. They are law-abiding citizens who care about the well-being of the people and institutions around them. They are ready to give a listening ear to a coworker who’s having a difficult time. They enjoy having kids from the neighborhood playing in their yard. Their homes are open to guests frequently. They suffer, but they don’t complain about it. And when an unbeliever gets to know one of these Christians, he comes away with the impression, “Wow! That person genuinely cares about me.” And if he ever decides to visit the church that Christian belongs to, he comes away with the impression, “Wow! Those Christians really care about each other.” In all of these ways and more, our lives adorn the gospel we proclaim and reveal something of its power.
And that public adorning of the gospel with our lives has an impact. Notice again all of verse 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.” In that one “so that” clause there is a bit of complexity: unbelievers have always slandered Christians. In the Roman Empire, Christians were maligned as atheists because they didn’t worship images. They were called incestuous because of the family terms they used to refer to one another. They were accused of being cannibals because of the meal they shared that included something about the body and blood of Jesus. Today, Christians are routinely maligned as bigots and haters. And yet, Peter says, even in the context of being slandered, the honorable lives we live among our neighbors can’t help but have an effect on at least some of them. For as they see our good works in the face of the suffering we face, some of them will be drawn to the evident power of the gospel that we proclaim, and they themselves will come to faith. As a result, they will “glorify God on the day of visitation.” In Luke 19:44, Jesus lamented over Jerusalem, saying, “you did not know the time of your visitation.” The “visitation” in that context refers to Christ’s first coming. It seems that by “the day of visitation” here, Peter means his second coming. Our hope is, then, that as we live honorable lives among the Gentiles, being good neighbors, submitting to authorities, seeking the good of our communities, and refusing to complain or retaliate when we are slandered, we will adorn the gospel in such a way that some unbelievers will be drawn to it, and in coming to faith, they will then glorify God as redeemed worshipers when Christ comes again. We preach the gospel with our words, for the gospel is a verbal message. But in addition to preaching it, we adorn it with honorable lives, and our lives give greater power to our evangelism.
Tim Keller planted Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and served as pastor there for years before stepping aside recently so that he could devote his energy to overseeing the work of church planting through the Redeemer City to City network. One goal that Keller has articulated for New York city is the goal of reaching enough people to the point that New York City becomes 15% evangelical. Keller’s argument is that if 15% of the residents of New York City are evangelical, then almost everybody in New York will be likely to know at least one evangelical Christian (that is certainly not the case right now). And once you know an evangelical personally and can see his or her life up close, it becomes a lot harder to believe the caricature about evangelicals that you have been given by the media and Hollywood. And with that kind of influence in the city, Keller has said the gospel could reach a major tipping point. It’s a worthy goal, and we should pray and labor for it, even as we have done by sending the Ortizes to New York.
I want you to imagine a scenario. Of course, the details probably won’t play out just this way, but I believe this kind of story will. Let’s say there is a coffee shop owner in Sunnyside, a neighborhood of Queens, New York. And let’s say he has a very secular outlook, has never been a churchgoer, and thinks that evangelical Christians are crazy, bigoted wackos who ruin everything they touch. What is going to happen when Christopher Ortiz, one of the most genuine, loving, compassionate, and hospitable people you could ever meet, starts to visit that coffee shop? And what if he becomes a regular customer, coming in several times a week to get some coffee, support the local business, and mingle with folks from the neighborhood? And what happens when this coffee shop owner begins talking to Christopher and discovers two things: (1) Christopher genuinely cares about me and about Sunnyside; and (2) Christopher is an evangelical Christian who is planting a church here? All of a sudden, his preconceptions about evangelical Christians have been shattered, and he has to rethink what he thought he knew. At the very least, he may now be intrigued by Christianity and the message that Christopher has brought to the neighborhood. And if you introduce Christopher’s wife Sarah into the mix, you only double the impact, as this coffee shop owner comes to see not just one, but two evangelical Christians who are living honorably in Sunnyside. And before he knows it, that coffee shop owner has decided to visit a gathering of the newly-forming church, where he sees other people from the neighborhood who have had similar experiences with the Ortiz family and other believers who have joined with them. And then one day, that coffee shop owner suddenly realizes, “I believe in the Jesus that Christopher proclaims!” And when the day of visitation comes, that man will glorify God as a worshiper who has been redeemed by faith.
That is the vision Peter holds out for us. It can happen in Sunnyside, and it can happen right here in Jackson as we not only fight sinful desires in our hearts, but also live for the good of our neighbors. Though we are not of the world, we must nevertheless be in it as we bear witness to the power of the gospel with our lives.
We are sojourners and exiles. Like Abraham, we wander through a land that is not our own, all the while holding to the promise that one day, God will give us a home. But until then, we must strive to walk wisely among our neighbors: fighting to the death the sinful passions that threaten our souls and living honorably among unbelievers so that, even as they slander us, they may see our good works and glorify God on the day of visitation.
As we hold to the promise, we eat and drink at the Lord’s table every week as a foretaste of a greater feast to come when Christ is with us again. This table is for believers in the Lord Jesus Christ who have been marked out as such by baptism and are walking under the oversight of a local church, the one institution on earth delegated with Christ’s authority to identify publicly those who belong to Christ. So if you are a baptized believer who is a member of a church, you are welcome to eat and drink and to taste once more the promise of home.
But if that is not you, my hope is that you will turn to Christ now. Perhaps you need to turn to him for the very first time in faith, calling upon him for the forgiveness of your sins, trusting in his death and resurrection for your salvation. If that is you, you need to be marked publicly as a believer through baptism. We can do that. We are an authorized baptizer. So come and tell us that you want to seek baptism. Or perhaps you have been baptized as a believer, but somewhere along the way you have wandered from faithfulness, to the point that you can’t really in any meaningful sense call yourself a member of a church. If that’s you, I want to call you to Christ as well, by which I mean I want to call you to the institution that Christ established to represent him on earth: the local church. If your desire is to follow Christ faithfully by uniting with this church, I likewise invite you to talk to us.
So come and welcome, to Jesus Christ. Amen.