11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 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.
13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. – 1 Peter 2:11-17 ESV
What does it mean to be “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9 ESV)? Peter has told his audience that their new status comes with a responsibility:
…that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. – 1 Peter 2:9 ESV
But what does that look like in real life? Those who have been transformed by God are expected to live in such a way that their character and conduct give evidence of their new status as children of God. What Peter seems to be telling his audience is that, while their circumstances may not have changed for the better, their lives should be radically different than before. At one time, they were living in complete spiritual darkness and, as the apostle Paul puts it, “alienated from God” (Colossians 1:21 BSB). Paul also reminded the believers in Ephesus of their former alienation from God.
Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. You were called “uncircumcised heathens” by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts. In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. – Ephesians 2:11-12 NLT
But Paul went on to give them the good news: “Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13 NLT). And with that same thought in mind, Peter gives his readers a much-needed lesson on what it looks like to be God’s people.
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. – 1 Peter 2:11 ESV
First, he reminds them that they are loved. But in using the word “beloved” (ἀγαπητός), Peter doesn’t seem to be expressing his feelings for them. While there is little doubt that Peter had great affection for those to whom he wrote, he was much more interested in helping them understand that they were loved by God. Another way of translating his statement is “those who are loved by God.” They had experienced the love of God as expressed in the gracious gift of His Son. The apostle Paul expressed the remarkable nature of this love when he wrote: “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8 NLT).
Peter was urging them to return God’s love for them by manifesting the transformed nature of their lives. First, they were to consider themselves to be “temporary residents and foreigners” (1 Peter 2:11 NLT) on this earth. Peter is alluding to their new status as citizens of heaven, exactly what Paul meant when he wrote: “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13 ESV).
These people were wrestling with the reality of being kingdom citizens while still having to live on this earth. They were experiencing what it was like to be God’s ambassadors, charged with the task of living in a “foreign land” and representing their sovereign King. And as His ambassadors, they were expected to represent Him well. Which meant that their behavior was to reflect His character and constantly honor the trust He had placed in them. Which meant that they were to “keep away from worldly desires that wage war against your very souls” (1 Peter 2:11 NLT). They were not to blend in with the local customs and conduct of their assigned posting. As ambassadors, they were forbidden from compromising their divine commission by taking on the qualities of their host country. But at the same time, Peter did not want them to live aloof and isolated lives. They were not to separate themselves from the “riff-raff” of this world, looking down on them in judgment and pride. No, Peter told them to “Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors” (1 Peter 2:12 NLT).
It’s important to consider the context in which these people were having to live their lives. Most, if not all of them, had come to faith out of pagan backgrounds. And their decision to follow Christ had required a great deal of sacrifice. It is likely that they had been treated as outcasts by their own families. Some were suffering ostracization, finding themselves as social pariahs within their own community. They had lost their jobs, their influence, and any sense of social credibility. When they walked down the street, everyone pointed their fingers at them in ridicule. These people were considered outsiders and treated scorn and derision.
And yet, Peter encourages them to keep a close watch on their conduct. They were to behave in such a way that their unbelieving neighbors and friends would see the transformed nature of their lives. But Peter acknowledges that this determination to conduct their lives with care would not be met with praise or applause. But it will make an impact.
Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world. – 1 Peter 2:12 NLT
Peter wanted them to know that their righteous behavior was going to be met with ridicule and defamatory accusations. But Jesus suffered in the same way. He too was treated with scorn. His righteous conduct left Him labeled as a drunkard and a friend of prostitutes and sinners. He was accused of blasphemy and accused of being on the payroll of Satan. But Jesus’ response was to simply keep doing what He had come to do – what He had been sent to do.
Peter is attempting to get his readers to understand the calling God has placed on their lives. In a sense, he is echoing the words of Paul, delivered to the believers in Philippi.
…you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ. – Philippians 1:27 NLT
And just to ensure that they understood the practical nature of his message, Peter gave them a very tangible example.
For the Lord’s sake, submit to all human authority—whether the king as head of state, or the officials he has appointed. For the king has sent them to punish those who do wrong and to honor those who do right. – 1 Peter 2:13-14 NLT
These people were living in a pagan culture ruled over by a godless government. And yet, Peter was telling them to submit to all human authority, including the king. As citizens of heaven living in Asia Minor, they found themselves living under the jurisdiction of the Roman Emperor, Nero. This egotistical and homicidal ruler had made it his personal mission to persecute Christians all throughout the Roman world. He saw them as a threat to the Roman way of life and he was intent on exterminating them. But here we have Peter demanding that these persecuted believers submit to the Emperor and all those who work on his behalf. This is the same message Paul sent to believers who were living in the Roman capital.
Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished. For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you. The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong. So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience. – Romans 13:1-5 NLT
Both Peter and Paul were acknowledging the God-ordained role of government. They were not suggesting that all governments are godly. But they were declaring that the role of government had been determined by God. The fact that governments can become corrupt and godless was obvious to Peter and Paul because they had both suffered at the hands of the Roman authorities. Both had been arrested, imprisoned, beaten, and threatened by agents working on behalf of the Roman government. But at no point did either one of them suggest insurrection or revolution as the proper response to government overreach or abuse. Both of them had been falsely accused, poorly treated, and wrongly incarcerated – simply for doing their jobs as ambassadors for Christ. And Peter wanted his readers to know that their lives would be no different. That’s why he told them:
It is God’s will that your honorable lives should silence those ignorant people who make foolish accusations against you. – 1 Peter 2:15 NLT
It didn’t matter whether those foolish accusations came from the government, a family member, or a neighbor. Followers of Christ were to respond by living honorable lives that reflect their ultimate allegiance and submission to God. And Peter was speaking from personal experience. Early on in his ministry, he had been dragged before the high council of Israel for preaching about the resurrected Christ. And the high priest was infuriated with Peter’s refusal to obey his commands.
“We gave you strict orders never again to teach in this man’s name!” he said. “Instead, you have filled all Jerusalem with your teaching about him, and you want to make us responsible for his death!” – Acts 5:28 NLT
They had been arrested and warned before. They had been commanded to refrain from teaching anything about Jesus, especially His resurrection. But Peter stood before these rulers of Israel and calmly replied, “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29 NLT).
When it came to obeying God or obeying the governmental authorities, Peter drew a distinct line. If earthly authorities demanded compliance that stood in the way of obedience to the call of Christ, the decision was a no-brainer. We must obey God rather than any human authority. For Peter, that meant he was willing to suffer imprisonment for proclaiming Christ. He was willing to suffer the consequences for remaining faithful to his God-given mission. He was going to conduct his life in a manner worthy of the gospel – at all times and at all costs.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.