Living as Christian Exiles

Peter opens his first letter by describing his readers as “God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia.” The idea that Christians are strangers in the world is a key motif in the letter. Peter calls his readers “strangers” or “foreigners” in 1 Peter 1:1 and 1 Peter 1:17 and “aliens and strangers” in 1 Peter 2:11.

Christians are like immigrants, foreigners, temporary residents, refugees. We do not belong. We do not have the rights of citizens. We are outsiders. We are living on the edge of the culture.

John Elliott argued that “strangers” in 1 Peter refers to the social status of Christians before their conversion. They were already outcasts who then found a home among God’s people. Elliott’s thesis, however, has not persuaded most commentators. “It underestimates,” argues Miroslav Volf, “a new estrangement which a Christian way of life creates.”45 It also ignores the way the terms “strangers” and “aliens” were used to describe God’s people in the Old Testament (Genesis 23:4; Leviticus 19:34; Psalms 39:12).

In contrast to Elliott, Karen Jobes argues that “strangers” was a reference to social alienation after conversion.46 She asks how Christians came to be in Asia Minor, a vast, relatively remote area for which we have no evidence of missionary activity in the first century other than the existence of churches in the locations described in 1 Peter 1:1. People have speculated that Peter himself evangelized these regions; hence the association that leads him to write this letter. But again there is no evidence for this. Jobes instead suggests that the Christians were converted elsewhere and then moved to Asia Minor where, no doubt, they continued to spread the message and gain new converts.

Jobes cites the Roman policy of colonizing conquered regions by moving people to new locations. The emperor Claudius is known to have colonized Asia Minor in this way, establishing formal Roman colonies in all the fives areas mentioned in 1 Peter 1:1. Noncitizens were sent to such regions, sometimes because they were perceived to be troublemakers in Rome. The main qualification for such deportation was that one lacked Roman citizenship, and the Latin equivalent of “foreigner” in verse 1 was a legal term referring to a free person who was not a Roman citizen. So such people were perceived as foreigners in the Roman areas from which they were sent and in the colonized areas to which they were sent. The most famous Roman expulsion occurred during the reign of Claudius when he expelled the Jews from Rome, including Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:2). Among these Jews were Christian converts, perhaps disproportionately so. Many might well have found themselves in Asia Minor where they continued to proclaim the gospel and establish churches. Moreover there is a long tradition of Peter’s being based in Rome long before his later death under Nero. Peter, then, would have had personal contact with the Christians who were then deported in this way, and this would explain why he later writes to them in Asia Minor. Peter may have escaped the expulsion of Jews or, like Priscilla and Aquila (Romans 16:3), returned after the death of Claudius. His cryptic reference to Babylon in 1 Peter 5:13 might be because he did not want to reveal his current location in Rome.

Jobes does not claim that this sociopolitical background negates a metaphorical understanding of the term. Rather, the two interrelate. “Peter uses the socio-historical situation of his readers to explain their socio-political situation.”47 Peter is not saying it is as if his readers are on the margins of society. His readers really are on the margins of society.

Whatever the merits of Jobes’s historical reconstruction, the important point to highlight is that the terms “aliens” and “strangers” describe real social realities. Rather than understanding “strangers” as “describing the believer’s transitory life on this earth as a journey toward their heavenly home, it should be understood primarily as defining the relationship between the Christian and unbelieving society.”48 In other words, Peter uses their experience of social marginalization to describe their experience as those in Christ. The church in Asia Minor is socially and culturally on the margins. Miroslav Volf concludes: “That the members of the Petrine community might have become Christians because many of them were socially marginalized seems an intelligent hypothesis. That they became alienated from their social environment in a new way when they became Christians is what the epistle explicitly states.”49

Ask the government how to become a citizen, and they will tell you that you have to live in the country for a certain number of years, be of good character, and pass a citizenship test. Except, of course, that there is an easier way to become a citizen, which is to be born there. That’s the way most people become citizens. It was the same in Rome. Some people could earn citizenship, but most were born as citizens.

It is the same for Christians. We are foreigners and exiles because we have been born anew into a new homeland. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3-4). Peter emphasizes that we have been born into something: a living hope and a new inheritance. We have become citizens of a new homeland. It is not something we earned through good character or by passing a citizenship test. It happened to us by being born again.

Peter is not saying heaven is our new home. Our home is the new creation, which is “kept” in heaven for us. Our inheritance is kept for us (1 Peter 1:4) and we are kept for our inheritance (1 Peter 1:5). Many of the refugees with whom we work in Sheffield have no certainty of returning to their homeland. Indeed most of them have no reason to suppose they will ever go home and every reason to think they will not. But Christians are certain of going home to receive their inheritance. How can we be certain? Through the resurrection. Jesus has returned home ahead of us, opening up the way (1 Peter 1:3). So we may be strangers now on earth, but we are not strangers in God’s kingdom.

The reverse is also true: being members of another kingdom makes us outsiders here on earth. Peter says that your former friends “think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you” (1 Peter 4:4). We have become strangers because we have become strange! Our values, lifestyle, and priorities are radically different from the surrounding culture. Our faith makes us strangers in our own land. We do not fit in. We are on the margins.

Exiles

In his opening description of his readers Peter not only refers to them as “strangers,” but literally as “strangers of the Diaspora.” “Foreigners in exile,” we might say. As a noun, Diaspora was a technical term for Jews scattered beyond Palestine after the Babylonian exile in 587 BC. Peter’s readers almost certainly include Gentile Christians, but he likens them to Jews in Babylonian exile. We are exiles.

Peter seems to be writing in the style of a Jewish Diaspora letter written from Jerusalem to Jewish exiles.50 Indeed there are good reasons to think that his letter is modeled on a letter the prophet Jeremiah wrote back in the sixth century BC to the exiles in Babylon (Jeremiah 29). Jeremiah’s letter is introduced: “This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (Jeremiah 29:1). 1 Peter 2:11-12 and Peter’s quote from Psalms 34 in 1 Peter 3:11 seem to echo Jeremiah’s call to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:7). Psalms 34 is itself a psalm of exile. The Greek version of the Old Testament, which Peter uses, describes God in verse 4 as delivering David from all “his sojournings,” which is related to the word “aliens” that Peter uses to describe Christians.

But here is the key thing. At the end of the letter Peter sends greetings “from Babylon” (1 Peter 5:13)—almost certainly a cryptic reference to Rome. This is not a letter from home in Jerusalem to exiles in Babylon. This is a letter from exile to exile. Exile is not geographically defined. Christians are not strangers because they have moved from their homeland to a new country. They are exiles because their identity has so radically changed that they are no longer at home in their country of birth. The reference to Babylon reminds us of Daniel, who rose to the top of the Babylonian political system, fulfilling Jeremiah’s call to seek the prosperity of the city. We are called to get involved in the world and to bless our cities, but we cannot do so on the basis that our nation is a Christian nation. This is not our home.

Footnotes

45: Miroslav Volf, “Soft Difference: Theological Reflections on the Relation Between Church and Culture in 1 Peter,” Ex Auditu 10 (1994), http://www.yale.edu/faith/downloads/soft-difference-church-culture.pdf.

46: Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005), 23–41.

47: Ibid., 38.

48: Ibid., 38.

49: Volf, “Soft Difference.”

50: J. Ramsey Michaels, 1 Peter, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1988), xlvi–xlix.


Everyday ChurchTaken from Everyday Church: Gospel Communications on Mission by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.

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