Sojourners and Strangers
Passage: 1 Peter 1:1–1:2
Soujournerns and Strangers
“As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold, I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back.”
Those are the opening lines to John Bunyan’s famous story, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Written in 1678, the book recounts the journey of Christian, a man traveling from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. The book is an allegory, meant to depict the journey of the Christian life. The people and places of the journey represent different facets of a believer’s life in this world. Throughout the book, Christian encounters a number of dangers that seek to derail him and keep him from the Celestial City. There is the Slough of Despond that traps Christian at the outset of his journey. There is the Giant Despair that locks Christian in his dreadful castle. There are a number of characters that distract Christian, characters like Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Obstinate, and Ignorance. But there are also a number of characters that help him, characters like Good Will, Faithful, and Hopeful. It’s a difficult road for Christian, but at the end of the story, with the help of his friend Hopeful, Christian final crosses the River of Death and reaches the Celestial City.
Bunyan’s story is one of the more influential books in the history of English literature. Since its publication in 1678, it has never been out of print! For hundreds of years, people have been drawn to Bunyan’s simple allegory. Part of what makes Bunyan’s tale so engrossing is that he vividly captures the essence of the Christian life – it is a pilgrimage, at times, a difficult one. Believers are journeying from this world to the next, and along the way, like Bunyan’s Christian, we encounter a number of difficulties and countless enemies that would seek to keep us locked in the City of Destruction. You don’t have to live very long as a believer to realize that this is true. This Christian life is not fairy tales and flowers. It is, to use Bunyan’s words, a pilgrimage. We Christians are strangers in this world, and we are journeying together by faith until we reach our true home, the heavenly city. It’s that reality that makes Bunyan’s tale such an enduring classic.
Today we begin our sermon series on 1 Peter, and the reason I bring up Bunyan’s classic story is that 1 Peter also addresses Christians as pilgrims. In this letter, the apostle Peter writes to a number of churches in northern Asia Minor, the northern part of what we now know as Turkey. And he writes to help them understand how to live as Christians in a world that is not their home. Like Bunyan’s Christian, Peter’s readers are journeying from this world to the next, and the journey is often filled with difficulties. For Peter’s first readers, some of those difficulties included persecution and suffering for their faith. Peter writes in order to help those believers faithfully progress in the Christian life. And in writing to help those first readers, the apostle also helps us.
The opening of 1 Peter is much more than a simple greeting. It’s a theological roadmap to the entire letter. Where is Peter coming from? What truths does he seek to communicate, and what is he burdened to accomplish in these five chapters? All of that, to one degree or another, is answered in this opening passage. It’s a greeting to Peter’s readers, but it is also much more than a greeting.
In these two verses, Peter introduces us to two important themes of his letter – believers are God’s chosen people, and believers are strangers in the world. Those themes, then, combine to reveal Peter’s great concerning in writing this letter – how, then, should we, God’s chosen people, live in this world that is not our home? It’s a greeting, but it’s also the roadmap to the entire letter. Our plan this morning is to consider these two themes from Peter’s opening verses. And then we will consider how those themes combine to reveal Peter’s great concern in writing.
Believers are God’s Chosen People
We begin with the first theme – believers are God’s chosen people. After briefly identifying himself, Peter addresses his readers. He calls them “elect exiles of the dispersion.” When Peter calls these believers elect, he signals that they are God’s chosen people. The word “elect” could also be translated “chosen.” Saying these believers are God’s elect is the same as calling them God’s chosen people.
But this first theme comes from more than simply the translation of the word. The whole idea echoes the OT and God’s election of Israel to be his covenant people. In numerous OT passages, Israel is described as God’s chosen people. In Deuteronomy 7, Moses says to the Israelites, “The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” The prophet Isaiah frequently made reference to God’s choosing of Israel. In Isaiah 41.8-9, the Lord says, “But you, Israel, my servant Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, ‘You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off.” That’s only a small sampling; there’s more we could cite. The point is that all throughout the OT, we see reference to God’s election of Israel, to his choosing Israel to be his covenant people. When Peter calls these believers elect exiles, he identifies them as God’s chosen people, those whom God has called from the ends of the earth and brought into covenant relationship with himself.
Now, what makes this language surprising is that Peter’s readers are primarily Gentiles, not Jews. We might expect Peter to call a church full of Jewish believers God’s chosen people, but these churches were primarily composed of Gentile believers. Remember, Gentiles were strangers to the covenant, outside of God’s promises to Israel. Yet, Peter calls these Gentiles God’s chosen people. That is surprising, considering what we saw from the OT. What this reveals is that the church, made up of both Jews and Gentiles, is the true Israel of God, the true chosen people, the true covenant body. OT Israel related to God through the old covenant, but the church relates to God through the new covenant. The old covenant was initiated with the blood of bulls and goats, but the new covenant has been initiated with the blood of Christ. The old covenant was the shadow of the Messiah, whereas the new covenant reveals his substance.
And since the church is the body of Christ, that means we are God’s new covenant, chosen people. We have inherited the promises of God through Christ in a way that the old covenant Israelites did not. The fact that these Gentile believers are described as God’s elect reveals this important truth – the church is the new covenant, chosen people of God, and thus the heirs of the promises.
Now, this raises an important question. How did these Gentiles become God’s new covenant people? How should we understand this election in v1? If you look in v2, you’ll notice a series of prepositional phrases. You see them there – 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. Those prepositional phrases all modify the word elect. How did these believers come to be God’s chosen, new covenant people? These prepositional phrases tell us. Let’s look at each one:
First phrase – “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.” How were these believers brought in to be God’s chosen people? Not through their own initiative, but through the initiative and plan of God. That is what this phrase means. The emphasis is on God’s action to save these people for himself. The word foreknowledge is the key word. It doesn’t simply mean that God knew what would happen in the future. It does mean that, but it means more than that as well. Foreknowledge refers to God’s eternal plan to purposefully bring about what he plans to bring about. It is God’s ordaining and orchestrating of what he knows the future will hold. His foreknowledge is active, not simply passive. It’s not just what he knows, but what he ordains.
If you look at other NT uses of this word foreknowledge, you see the same thing. In Acts 2, Peter preaches his Pentecost sermon, and in that sermon he says that Jesus was delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God. Now, Peter doesn’t mean simply that God knew Jesus would be delivered up to the cross. He means that God ordained for Jesus to be delivered up on the cross. He planned for Jesus’ crucifixion to happen, and according to his foreknowledge, he accomplished that plan.
The word is also used later in chapter 1 of 1 Peter, where Peter writes that Christ’s role as the sacrificial lamb of God was foreknown before the foundation of the world. This cannot simply mean that God knew what would happen, in a bare knowledge sense. It must mean that before the foundation of the world, God ordained that Christ would be offered as the sacrificial lamb to redeem his people.
We can see from the NT use of the word that God’s foreknowledge is his divine initiative to bring about what he has purposed to accomplish. That means believers are God’s chosen people because God has taken the initiative to accomplish what he purposed to accomplish.
Second phrase – “in the sanctification of the Spirit.” Now, sanctification normally refers to the on-going process of growth in holiness throughout the life of the believer. Over time, we progress more and more in sanctification; we become more and more like Christ. That is the normal use of the word, and that use could be in view here. But more likely, Peter uses this phrase to refer to conversion, to the moment when a person passes from death to life and becomes one of God’s new covenant people. Think of it this way. When God elects his people to salvation, he accomplishes that election by setting them apart through the work of the Spirit to be his holy people. The Spirit sanctifies them as God’s holy people. How did these believers become God’s chosen people? Through the sanctification of the Spirit, where the Spirit set them apart to be God’s holy people.
Third phrase – “for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood.” This is by far the most difficult phrase to interpret. Does the obedience refer to our obedience or to Jesus’ obedience? What does the blood refer to? There are a number of questions. Here is my interpretation. The obedience refers to our obedience to the gospel that happens in the moment of conversion. We obey the gospel when we repent of our sins and put our trust in Christ for salvation. Paul uses a similar phrase in Romans 1.5, where he says, “we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of Jesus’ name among all the nations.” Obedience to Jesus Christ is another way of saying obedience to the gospel by faith in Christ.
The sprinkling with blood likely refers back to an OT passage, Exodus 24, where the covenant between God and Israel was ratified with the blood of sacrifice. An animal was sacrificed on the altar, and the people pledged their obedience to God. Moses then sprinkled the people with the blood of the sacrifice, signifying the forgiveness of their sin. The people needed that cleansing in order to stand before God. What we see in this phrase is both forgiveness through Christ’s blood and our response of faith in Christ.
Now, back to that key question. How did these Gentiles become God’s chosen people? Answer – only through the initiating grace of the Triune God! They did not contribute to their own election. It was according to the plan of God the Father, through the sacrifice of God the Son, through the sanctifying work of God the Spirit. In other words, their election owed entirely to God’s grace in Christ. God has made them his people. That is how these Gentiles, who were strangers to God’s promises, have now become God’s chosen people – only by God’s grace.
And this is true for us as well. If you belong to Christ this to morning, it is entirely because of God’s grace. In his grace, God the Father took the initiative to save you and call you to himself. In his grace, God the Son laid down his life for you, in order to atone for your sin. And in his grace, God the Spirit set you apart as one of God’s chosen, holy people. Our status as God’s chosen people owes entirely to God’s grace, given to us in Christ.
This is good news for these believers, and for us. If our status as God’s chosen people owes entirely to God’s grace and not to our own effort, that means there is nothing in this world that can change that status. Those who are saved by God’s grace are kept secure by God’s grace. This is important to remember because often, God’s people face suffering and persecution in this life. The believers addressed in Peter’s letter were facing persecution. What would give them comfort in the midst of that persecution? The reality of God’s gracious work to make them his own, and the fact that nothing, not even persecution, could change that reality. Those who belong to Christ are God’s chosen people, and nothing can change that gracious reality.
Believers are Strangers in the World
That’s the first theme. Peter’s greeting also introduces us to a second important theme for his letter – believers are strangers in the world. We see this in Peter’s description of his readers as exiles of the dispersion. We could paraphrase Peter’s description with words like aliens or scattered strangers. In using these words, Peter indicates that his readers are strangers in the world. They are like exiles, living in a place that is not their home. They are like resident aliens; their lives happen in this place, but this world is not where they belong. They are not literal exiles; Peter uses the phrase metaphorically. He calls on both the OT and the normal usage of these words to bring to mind an important reality – God’s people are strangers in this world.
But why are they exiles and aliens? What makes them sojourners and strangers? God’s election of them as his people – that is what makes them exiles and strangers. As God’s chosen people, they have been given a new identity in Christ. And that new identity in Christ leads to new character in their lives. As God is holy, so too they are now called to be holy. It’s a new character. And that new character is out of step with the character of this world. As the world sees the difference between itself and God’s chosen people, we are like strangers. It becomes clear that we do not belong here. We are exiles in that our new identity in Christ does not match the identity of this world.
By highlighting this theme at the outset, Peter reminds his readers that their hope must always be rooted in the city that is to come. In this world, we should expect trouble – suffering, persecution, difficulty. We should expect those things because we do not belong here; we are strangers, and the world will see us as strangers. Our hope must be not for a home here, but for a home in the presence of God himself. We do not belong to any earthly city, but we await the city that is from above. In living with this kind of hope, we follow in the footsteps of the faithful saints of old, people like Abraham. He was promised land and an inheritance. He went out from his earthly home, trusting God’s word of promise. The writer to the Hebrews says Abraham “was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” Later the writes says Abraham “died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that he was a stranger and exile on the earth.”
This notion of being a stranger or an exile is how God’s chosen people have always lived. Peter uses the idea here to remind us that our hope is in the heavenly city. But he also reminds us that we belong to a long heritage of sojourners and exiles. We are not the first to walk through this world as strangers; many have gone before us, and we follow in their footsteps as exiles ourselves.
Those are the two themes that Peter presents in this greeting – we are God’s chosen people, and we are strangers in this world. Now, when we combine these two themes, we see Peter’s great concern in writing this letter. How, then, should we live, as God’s chosen people yet strangers in this world? How should we live in a way that is true to our identity when our identity is so alien to the world around us? Because we are God’s chosen people, we have a homeland with God. But because we are exiles, this place is not that homeland. Those two realities make us pilgrims. A pilgrim is someone who is on a journey to a particular destination. We are pilgrims, journeying together until we reach the heavenly city. Peter’s burden as he writes this letter is to inform believers how they can faithfully complete their pilgrimage. How do we get from the dispersion of exile to the joy of the Promised Land?
This is important because during this pilgrimage we will face persecution. Throughout the letter, Peter addresses the issue of suffering and persecution. His readers were either facing persecution or about to face persecution. It doesn’t appear that this persecution was officially sanctioned by the Roman Empire. It seems more like local persecution, the kind Paul experienced throughout the book of Acts. In the face of that persecution, how should God’s people live? How can they remain faithful? How can they endure such suffering? And more importantly, how can they pursue lives of holiness in the face of such persecution? If they are God’s chosen people, that means their lives must match God’s character. How do they pursue holiness in a hostile world?
In that sense, there is much we can learn from this letter. The world has always been a hostile place for believers. It may seem like the hostility is increasing these days, and that might be the case in some ways. The past history of our country might prove to be an exception to the rule in the history of the church. We have had relative peace for some time, but that seems to be ending. But, on the other hand, there has always been hostility toward the people of God.
How do live in the face of hostility? How do we remain faithful when we face hostility for pursuing lives of holiness? How do we remain faithful when we face hostility for upholding and celebrating God’s standards for marriage and family? How do we remain faithful when we face hostility for doing business with honesty and integrity, or for protecting human life, even unborn lives? That kind of holy lifestyle will incur the world’s hostility; it seems strange, dangerous even. How do we remain faithful? Those are the questions 1 Peter will answer as we work through the letter.
But these questions are also important because during this pilgrimage we are called to be ambassadors of the heavenly city. While we sojourn here, we are called to spread the good news of the gospel. We don’t keep our new identity to ourselves. We winsomely order our lives so that those around us might see and hear the truth of Christ. Throughout his letter, Peter teaches his readers how to suffer, even for doing good, how to submit to rightful authority, even the authority of the government, and how to honor others, even those who are not believers. We are exiles, but we’re also ambassadors. We’re looking for the heavenly city, but while we sojourn here, we represent the gospel of Jesus Christ to those around us. We don’t ignore those around us simply because we don’t belong to this place. No, quite the opposite. We use our lives to demonstrate that there is a better city to come, a city with foundations, whose designer and builder is God.
As we study this letter, I believe we will find it to be hopeful and encouraging. Yes, there is a lot of talk about persecution and suffering and trials. But there is much hope in this letter as well. And that hope comes from the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel undergirds this entire letter. In almost every instance when Peter gives a command, he follows it up with some truth about the person and work of Jesus Christ. The commands of the Christian life are intertwined with the truths of the gospel throughout the letter. And the result is hope, an unshakeable hope, even in the midst of our exile.
The reason we can have hope is that Jesus has gone through the exile for us. He was the ultimate stranger in this world. He left his heavenly throne, came to earth, born of a virgin. He lived life as a stranger; his identity as the Son of God put him out of step with the ways of this world in every way. Yet, he remained faithful to his Father, all the way to the cross. And on that cross, he suffered, even though he did not deserve to suffer. On that cross, he was persecuted, even though he was always righteous and just and good. And then he was exiled to the grave for three days, a grave that we deserved. But that exile ended when he rose again in glory. And where is he now? No longer an exile and stranger on earth, Jesus has ascended again to heaven, where he prepares a place for his people. And one day, he will come again, bringing that heavenly city with him. One day, our exile will end because Jesus’ work on the cross and in the resurrection has guaranteed it.
As we sojourn here on earth, making our pilgrimage to the heavenly city, we do so with great hope. Jesus the Great Shepherd of God’s people has gone before us, making a way for God’s people to arrive safely in the city with foundations, whose designer and builder is God.