1 Peter 2:11-12 – Living as Aliens and Foreigners Among the Nations

This is a key moment in Peter’s letter, both rhetorically and theologically.

Rhetorically, it heads the major body of the letter (1 Peter 2:11-4:11) as the letter moves from identity to exhortation. Theologically, it describes how disciples of Jesus live faithfully in a hostile culture.

In terms of identity, though exiles and aliens within Roman culture, they are children of God who have been born into Israel. They are now part of the narrative of God’s ancient people; they are a holy nation of priests who constitute God’s new temple within God’s good creation. They are “beloved.”

How, then, do they live faithfully in a hostile culture? This is the substance of 1 Peter 2:11-12.

The Letter’s Structure

Beloved (agapetoi) is how Peter addresses his readers. They are a beloved community; they form a family loved by God, called to love each other (cf. 1 Peter 1:22; 2:17), and one that loves God (1 Peter 1:8).

Peter uses “beloved” twice (1 Peter 2:11; 4:12), and it marks off three distinct sections of the letter, which constitute the letter’s main body (1 Peter 1:13-4:12). The first section defines Christian identity, the second section exhorts believers to live a particular kind of life, and the third interprets their suffering and hope occasioned by that life.

  • Identity: Children of God (1 Peter 1:13-2:10)
  • Exhortation: Live Faithfully (1 Peter 2:11-4:11)
  • Interpretation: The Meaning of Their Suffering (4:12-5:11).

In the light of this structure, 1 Peter 2:11-12 begins the exhortation, which carries the main burden of the letter played out in the middle section of the letter’s body. Given who they are, this how they should live in the culture in which they find themselves.

Part of this identity is their social and theological location as “aliens and exiles” (NRSV). Peter has previously used both identifiers: “aliens” (paroikous) in 1 Peter 1:17 and “exiles” (parepidemous) in 1 Peter 1:1. In 1 Peter 2:11 he brings them together, which carries an emphatic force. It is as if he is saying, “you are aliens and exiles in this culture, now live as such.”

This is part of the Christian identity—disciples of Jesus are different. They live by a different vision for the world, which is the intent God has for the creation. They are different—thus aliens and exiles—from their surrounding culture, and they are not at home in the Roman cultural worldview with its beliefs, commitments, values, and practices.

It is important to note that this word combination (paroikous kai parepidemous) duplicates the description of Abraham in Genesis 23:4. There Abraham says, “I am a stranger and an alien residing among you,” by which he means that he owns no land. It is not his homeland, just as Roman cultural values are not home for disciples of Jesus.

The language, as in 1 Peter 2:4-10, once again identifies disciples of Jesus with Israel. They are like their father Abraham who before them lived as an alien and exile in the land that his descendants would inherit. So, too, Christians live as aliens and exiles in the earth that they will inherit since Abraham is the “heir of the cosmos” and the father of all believers in Jesus (Romans 4:13).

The Exhortation

At the end of the letter, Peter describes his effort as an exhortation and witness to the grace of God (1 Peter 5:12). 1 Peter 2:11-4:11 is the heart of the exhortation, and the term “I exhort” (1 Peter 2:11), which begins this paragraph, heads the whole section.

The exhortation is both negative (abstain from desires of the flesh) and positive (conduct yourselves honorably). The negative is resistance–a courageous perseverance in the face of opposition.  The positive is doing good–even when the situations are discouraging and difficult.

The “desires,” previously referenced in 1 Peter 1:14, are associated with a previous way of life, the time of their “ignorance.” These desires are rooted in the “flesh” (sarkikon). This is not a comment about how the body produces evil desires or passions, but rather about the cultural form in which those desires are expressed within Roman society, the world in which his readers live. These desires are driven by the “flesh;” that is, the human center of selfish interests. The “flesh” empowers ungodly acts.

This is a war—a war between human self-centeredness and sanctified soul. It is a contest between two powers—the flesh and the Spirit, who sanctifies the human person. This is not a battle between the body and the inner person, but a battle between human depravity and the human person (body and spirit). The Holy Spirit wages a war for the soul against the flesh. The contest is between two powers—the flesh and the Spirit, and the soul (the whole human person in body and spirit) is contested prize.

The positive exhortation is about one’s way of life or lifestyle (anastrophen). This is an important word in Peter, which occurs five times (1 Peter 1:15, 18; 2:12; 3:1, 16). Called to holiness in their way of life, disciples of Jesus have been ransomed from their former way of life (1 Peter 1:15, 18). Further, a believing wife’s “way of life” has the potential to win her unbelieving husband without a word (1 Peter 3:1). And live gently and reverently so that no one will be able to malign a “good way of life in Christ” (1 Peter 3:16)

The “way of life” is visible. It is something others see and from which they draw conclusions. This kind of life, despite its the malicious critics, will bring honor to God. It is a life that makes a difference in the world.

It is a public life among the nations or Gentiles. Interestingly, Peter separates the world into two categories here: Jews and Gentiles. Christians are part of the Jewish nation; they participate in the “holy nation,” which is the people of God. However, they live among the other nations or Gentiles.

It is important to note that they do not live in isolation from the nations, but they live among them. Disciples of Jesus do not withdraw from culture, but they live within it.

Twice Peter refers to how this is “good” conduct; it is living well. In 1 Peter 2:12 the term kalos (good, beautiful) is used twice: (1) literally, “having a good way of life among the Gentiles”(or nations) and (2) “your good works.”

While some suggest that this refers to public benefaction, where Christians contribute to the welfare or the common good of the society in which they are living, it is better to see this in the larger picture the letter itself. This “good way of life” is the content of the exhortation that fills 1 Peter 2:13-3:16, through which we will walk in future posts. The “good way of life” is a life filled with goodness, mercy, love, and works for the sake of the other (benevolence, for example).

This way of life has a purpose, and it is the glory of God. The question is when will it bring glory to God? Peter says it will happen on the “day of visitation,” which is interpreted in primarily two ways. Some suggest this that day is like a conversion, that is, some will see the good life, God will visit them, and they will glorify God as a result of their conversion. Others suggest that the day is the final judgment (NRSV), the eschatological “day” when Jesus is fully revealed and all nations will honor God.

The visitation language in rooted in the Hebrew Bible, and there it can be a divine visit in grace and blessing (e.g., Exodus 3:16) or a divine visit in judgment (e.g., Jeremiah 6:15), but almost all instances are corporate in character rather than individualistic. In other words, this is not about personal conversion, but it is about God’s visit upon a community. Since Peter often refers to the eschatological judgment (cf. 1 Peter 1:5, 7, 13; 4:7, 13, 17; 5:1), it seems rather certain that this is his meaning here.

The end-result, then, of a “good way of life” is the glory of God. As difficult as this life is in the present—especially as the nations “malign” the people of God and call them “evildoers”—its fruit is that on the day when Christ is fully revealed, even the nations who once maligned the people of God will glorify God.

There is a link between the Christians “good deeds”—living gently and reverently among the nations—and God’s glorification. The nations will “see” and they will, in the end, glorify God.

Consequently, while we may be easily disheartened by the slander, malicious talk, and hostile opposition, if we live gently and reverently, God will be glorified. The difficult path is worth the result!

Contemporary Word

I have found Miroslav Volf’s “soft difference” understanding of the relationship between state (culture) and church helpful in this regard (particularly as he understands the theology of 1 Peter; cf. http://www.pas.rochester.edu/~tim/study/Miroslav%20Volf%201%20Peter.pdf). “Soft” means “gentle and kind” rather than “weak.”

Our “difference” with any particular aspect of the culture in which disciples of Jesus live (where disciples of Jesus seem out of sync with their surrounding culture) is a “soft” one, that is, we seek to live in a peaceful, loving, kind relationship even though we have different understandings of any specific cultural practice or belief.

“Soft difference” is not about how the culture acts toward the church. That is sometimes hostile and harsh in the case of 1 Peter and Revelation within the New Testament, or even hostile to Jesus himself in the Gospels. [And we must remember–and confess–that the church has often been harsh and violent toward people within culture!] Rather, “soft difference” is how disciples of Jesus respond to culture, that is, we recognize differences (and do not yield our convictions to culture) but we live softly in relation to the culture (kindness, gentleness, love). A wave of some kind of cultural marginalization (even persecution as some are predicting) may come (but maybe not)—whether it does or not, but our response is a soft one. We neither revolt (as in some violent revolutionary takeover), nor assimilate (yield our convictions), nor withdraw (hide out and isolate), but we engage softly (with gentle love).

Recent cultural directions within the United States of America may constitute a fearful “difference” for many as fear, anger, and distrust emerge as the primary emotions and perspectives. However, given our status as “exiles” or “resident aliens” who live out of an eschatological hope and vision based on a new birth, we do not operate out of fear, hatred, or manipulation. We neither hate nor oppress any social group. Rather, we bear witness with gentleness, kindness, and love. We model life, and we resist evil (that is, persevering courageously though opposed), but we do not revolt, assimilate, or withdraw. We engage, but we engage in love; we engage softly.

So, let us live softly out of a vibrant hope rather than live harshly or anxiously out of fear.

The goal is not a “Christian nation,” as the church—rather than the human political structures—is itself a “holy nation.” The goal is that on the “day of visitation,” God will be glorified by all nations. And the disciples of Jesus move toward that goal through their “good way of life,” living gently and reverently among the nations.


4 Responses to “1 Peter 2:11-12 – Living as Aliens and Foreigners Among the Nations”

  1.   Byron Says:

    Thanks for this word, I needed this today. May God be glorified!

  2.   Darryl Lewis Says:

    What a timely, relevant, needed message! Every Christian needs to read this!

  3.   Ray Downen Says:

    I notice that Peter, as does Paul, contrasts flesh and (human) spirit, and translators here insist on capitalizing “spirit” to make it a contrast between human flesh and God’s Spirit. But the contrast is within US humans, with the good fighting against the bad inclinations which afflict us all since we are human. “Spirit” does NOT always mean God’s Spirit in apostolic writing. Whenever contrasted with flesh, the reference is to the HUMAN spirit which in Christians is HELPED BY God’s Spirit but the decisions are made by the human, not dictated by God’s Spirit.

  4.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I’m confused, Ray. The word pneuma does not even occur in this text, so I don’t quite know to what you are responding. The text refers to the human soul (person), and I comment that the war between flesh and soul is a war in which the Holy Spirit helps the human person against the powers of the flesh. The work of sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit in 1 Peter 1:1-2.

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