Editor’s note: The purpose of this series is to walk our readers through 1 Peter in order to help them understand what it teaches and how to apply it to our lives. This series is part of our larger commitment to help Christians learn to read, interpret, reflect, and apply the Bible to their own lives.

1 Peter 2:11-17, “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.”

Since human beings are social beings, we long to “fit” our surroundings in ways great and small. Consider parities: no one wants to come dressed formally to a casual even tor casually to a formal event. Even if we are dressed correctly, some of us worry about the theme of the evening. A sports enthusiast might hesitate to attend a poetry-and-lute- theme soiree. Academics will avoid a party hosted by a celebrity-gossip monger. And almost everyone quails at the thought of an event held at the home of a theologian. The social man hates to be out of place, yet everyone has walked through a door and felt, like a punch in the belly, “These are not my people, and I don’t belong here.” In 1 Peter 2:11-17 Peter tells us that the “I don’t belong here” sensation is endemic to the experience of Christians in this world.

The Life of a Pilgrim

In the first sentence of this letter, Peter told his churches that they are “strangers’ (NIV) or “exiles” (ESV) in this world. 1 Peter 2 repeats the principles that God’s people do not fully belong in this world. We are “aliens and strangers” (NIV) or “sojourners and exiles” (ESV) because Jesus redeemed us from a futile life and gave us a new one. By repentance and faith, we became God’s people, His prized possession. By the same act, we necessarily became—and ought to remain—partially estranged from this age.

1 Peter 2:11-17 occupies a pivotal place in Peter’s epistle. The author tells his readers in 1 Peter 1 that they have been purified by the Word of truth, that is, the gospel. He then presents a theology of the Word of God, which concludes with the central exhortation to “crave pure spiritual milk” (1 Peter 2:2). After presenting a concise theology of the Word, Peter turns to a theology of the Christian’s identity in 1 Peter 2:4-10. We are living stones in God’s spiritual house. Further, we are a holy and a royal priesthood, a chosen people, a holy nation (1 Peter 2:5; 1 Peter 2:9).

1 Peter 2:11-17 does not present the gospel, but assumes and builds on the message that we are “redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers…with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18-19). Because we belong to Jesus, because He is our Judge and King, Redeemer and Lawgiver, we have become “aliens and strangers in the world” (1 Peter 2:11). We belong to a Ruler who transcends this world’s rulers and follow Him, so we inevitably experience a partial alienation from this age. Because Jesus is Lord (1 Peter 1:3), all earthly lords take second place.

Nonetheless, we must live beautiful lives “among the pagans”(1 Peter 2:11-12). To fashion a beautiful life, we must know how to live as free men operating in a hierarchical world (1 Peter 2:13-17). Thus, 1 Peter 2:11-17 reviews the status of believers (1 Peter 2:11-12) and then moves to their right conduct in this world—a way of life that is consistent with our identity and follows our convictions (1 Peter 2:13-17).

New Fully At Home

Given his status as apostle and elder, Peter could have commanded his readers to behave in a certain way. Instead, he appeals to them as “dear friends,” saying, “I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). The “alien” is a long-term resident, someone not born here he now lives, yet someone who has lived in the new land for a long season. The stranger by contrast is a temporary resident, the traveler whose stay is shorter. But both terms suggest that believers belong elsewhere. When Peter calls disciples “aliens and strangers,” he means that we are never fully at home in this world. Strangers have no permanent residence. Aliens rarely hold positions of power and privilege. Indeed there is no sign that Peter’s people ever held special rank.

Peter’s point challenges a certain conception of the relationship between Christianity and their cultures. Decades ago, Richard Niebuhr categorized the dispositions that Christians can take toward their surrounding society and declared, with some justification, that the Calvinist’s posture is “Christ transforms culture.”[i] That is, we neither flee nor avoid “the world.” We believe we should critique the culture, engage the culture, and even “make culture”[ii] Calvinists take some pride in affirming their confidence, to use Richard Niebuhr’s phrase, that “Christ transforms culture.” Those who believe that Christians can transform culture will not boycott “the world.” We balk at talk of alienation and powerlessness. We detect and reject whiffs of world-negating thought. We aim to engage and change the culture by maintaining a faithful presence in it.[iii]

But Peter’s statement that we are aliens and exiles summons us to trace the Bible’s view of culture and to assess our confidence approach to the culture. In the beginning, Adam was perfectly at ease in this world, since the Lord shaped the world to be humanity’s perfect home. And the day will come when heaven and earth will be one in the life after the life after death. But between creation and the fall, harmony disappears. Whether the lost feel alienated or not, they are alienated from God’s world. The redeemed, Paul explains, put off the “former way of life” (Eph. 4:22). As a result, according to Peter, we will inevitably be at odds with family and neighbors who remain committed to idolatry, sensuality, and drunkenness (1 Peter 4:1-5).

Believers therefore experience at least a partial alienation from their age, whatever that age may be. Abraham said that he was “an alien and a stranger” in Canaan (Gen. 23:4). Likewise, Peter’s people are “aliens” because they live “literally) “among the nations” (1 Peter 2:12). This is a striking statement. We wonder how Peter’s people can be aliens among the Gentiles, given that they are Gentiles and had been fully immersed in the Gentile life until they came to faith. Yet when they trusted in Jesus, they belonged to a new nation, one without orders, one determined by neither race nor nationality. Believers are no longer part of “the nations”; we are God’s people, God’s nation (1 Peter 2:9).

Because we are aliens, we often feel ill at ease in our own culture. We walk into a conversation, read a piece on a new trend, and find ourselves amazed at what we hear or read. We watch a popular movie that, to our surprise, suddenly turns sordid or debauched and wonder, “Who thought people would enjoy this? How can it be that they were right, that masses of people would come to this and approve it?” We hear a degrading joke and marvel, “What kind of person could find this funny?” We sometimes ask, “Is this really my land, my culture?”

Peter proposes two responses to the challenge of life in a world that first tempts to seduce us and then mocks those who resist its lures: first, we fight: second, we live beautiful.

Ready for a Battle

First, Peter urges us, as aliens and strangers, “to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). As aliens, we strive to abstain from the sinful paths that our culture presents. Indeed, each society panders to certain “sinful desires,” presenting certain sins as plausible and easily indulged. The disciple both abstains from them and fights them, because they battle against us.

The disciples aim neither to rationalize self-indulgence nor to readily acquiesce to temptation. We age war against the flesh because it wages war against us.

Paul using the same language as Peter “passion of the flesh” (1 Peter 2:11) who lists fifteen desires or works of the flesh in Galatians 5. He starts with sexual immorality and debauchery and ends with drunkenness and orgies, yet the bulk of the list looks more like sins of mind, will, and emotions: idolatry, hatred, discord, dissension, jealousy, rage, and selfish ambition (Gal. 5:19-21). Thus we commit sins of the flesh with all our faculties, physical or mental. Therefore, while we resist physical lusts, we also wage war against idolatry, discord, rage, selfish ambition, and even sins such as despair. Peter knew his culture was corrupt, but he never let his people blame the culture for their problems. There are evil desire sin us (James 4:1-3). Therefore, we must abstain from sinful desires,” whether they be physical or spiritual (1 Peter 2:11). Sins that begin in the mind and the body are equally evil, equally troublesome. The apostles suggest this by labeling both classes of sin the same way: “passions of the flesh.” And we age war against all of them because all wound our spirit and grieve God’s Spirit.

Since Peter says that the Christian life is like war, we should be prepared for battle. We should be ready to fight our misdirected physical appetites and to combat bad moods, evil ambitions, and unruly emotions. As they sit in the counselor’s chair, pastors see too many people who are surprised by desires that entice them to forsake wedding vows and duties to children, friends, and relatives. We must endure in the contest with our unruly desires, lest we grow weary of battling sin and surrender to it.

Leading A Beautiful life

A good, holy life is desirable intrinsically, for its own sake. We should also be holy because God is holy (1 Peter 1:16). But Peter also thinks of the good life instrumentally: “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.” (1 Peter 2:12). When we lead a beautiful life among secular people, we can anticipate a positive result, at least occasionally. In 1 Peter 3, Peter teaches that pagan men, “may be won over without talk by the behavior of their wives” (1 Peter 3:1, 4-5).

But Peter knowing that slander “is always a favored weapon of persecutors” expects that pagans will commonly (not constantly) vilify Christians. Whenever pagans do resort to slander, the believer counters with good deeds, a life so attractive that pagans will at least glorify God for it one day—on the day of visitation. This is a dense statement and several sub points will help explain it.

First, Peter expects us to stay in this world, living “among the pagans” (1 Peter 2:12a). We may be strangers in this world, but we don’t flee from it.

Second Peter says that “the pagans accuse you of doing wrong (1 Peter 2:12), rightly assuming that Christians would often be slandered.

Third, the believer must live so well that the pagan can make no valid accusations. An excellent life shines as an alternative to pagan ways. The antidote is a beautiful way of life. The Greek behind the phrase “live such good lives” in 1 Peter 2:12 is literally “having a beautiful lifestyle.” Peter’s term for good (kalos) typically means “beautiful” or “attractive,” rather than “morally good”. And his word for life is not the common bios or zoe but anastrophe, which denotes a way of life. The Christian life entails more than law-keeping. It is a way of life, a style that slowly attracts people to its beauty.

Christians should have a beautiful life. Such a lifestyle might include a good supply of social graces, since kindness and politeness can be tokens of genuine love, not mere social conventions. But the beautiful life transcends law, personality, and manners. Secular friends might notice that we have a good time and laugh hard without needing alcohol. At a restaurant, our server hears us talking about our faith; she also notices that we treat her with dignity and leave a generous tip. There is a beauty in the way in which some godly women always seem to have a friendly meal for the hungry and a soft bed for the weary. There is a beauty in the life-affirming response that so many Christians have when they learn that their unborn child has Down Syndrome. Medical personnel often offer such parents a genetic counselor who presents “options.” As such times, we are glad to be aliens. We belong to another homeland, one that has another code, a code that extends love to every unborn child. All these things are beautiful, although we might not recognize it, since our style is often more visible to others than it is to us.

At best, we perform acts of kindness and grace automatically, just as we automatically make the turns on the familiar roads heading home. These habits seem to be a factor in the happy surprises that await us on the day of the Lord. Then Jesus will bless His people, saying, “34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’” (Matthew 25:34-39).

Jesus points out that this lifestyle is the result of our union with Him. The life He gives becomes “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14; John 15). Paul says that these changes are also the fruits of the Spirit. According to Peter, a beautiful life is also the result of our battle against sin (1 Peter 2:11).

A noble life can inspire others by giving them a model of righteousness that incarnates God’s wisdom (James 3:13). Peter promises that our good life will be recognized, even if not in this life. The pagans may glorify God “on the day he visits us” that is judgment day (1 Peter 2:12). Then the Lord will review mankind and reveal that all we have done and all it means. The pagans might glorify God for the beautiful lives of Jesus’ disciples before then, but at least it will happen on the last day.

A Sober View of Culture

Since we are “aliens and strangers in the world” (1 Peter 2:11), we cannot fully approve the triumphalist-sounding motto “Christ transforms culture” without caveats. Calvinists do rightly stress the Lordship of Christ over all of life. Fallen as our culture is, we prefer to critique it rather than condemn it. We prefer to engage it and to transform it if we can, rather than flee from it or accommodate ourselves to it. In Culture Making, Andy Crouch persuasively argues that cultural engagement is more than criticism of secular worldviews. Worldviews must be embodied in things as hard as to pin down as language and high art, and in concrete things such as houses (Crouch Culture Making, 53-64). Historically, the Reformed view of culture is optimistic.

But Peter’s comments, I 1 Peter 2:11-12 and later in 1 Peter 4:4-, should adjust our view. He warns against too much optimism and too much familiarity with the world. This world can be an implacable foe, steadfastly opposed to the influence of Christ. We will never fit perfectly in this age. We cannot laugh at some jokes, cannot enjoy some parties, cannot take some books seriously. We may never fully agree about what is funny, what constitutes a good topic of conversation, and what counts as a good argument. Peter writing during a time of persecution, may see this better than we do. We want our light to shine, but we must accept that those do not want to see it. So, then, our goal is to live a good life whether any human recognizes it or not.

The Life of a Resident

Because the Christian is a pilgrim, he/she will never be fully at home in this world. Yet we do reside here, and what we do matters. Therefore Peter tells disciples how to conduct ourselves in public. 1 Peter 2:13-14, “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.”

A Residents First Duty: Submission to His Governors

We submit to authority for God’s sake. He ordains this world’s authorities so we should submit to the human authorities He created. We submit to all authorities: first to the king or emperor, for he is the supreme authority from whom (theoretically) all authority flows (Matt. 8:8-9). After the king, we submit to governors, that is, to the array of local authorities, procurators, proconsuls, and lesser magistrates. Every nation has its supreme and lesser governors, and we must submit to them, even to local commissioners who rule roads, commerce, the military, markets, even (today) parking and sewers. The authorities that rule us most directly are local. These are the authorities at work, in schools, in the family, even in the church.

In democracies, it is tempting to balk at this, especially if our candidate lost the vote. But everyone can submit “for the Lord’s sake” (1 Peter 2:13). At a minimum, we respect the office and pray for the governor. When Peter wrote this, Nero was emperor. Few had less merit than he. Beyond his cruelties, he ruled poorly for most of his reign, and more than most other emperors, claimed deity. If Peter could command the church to submit to Nero, we can certainly submit if our governor takes a stand that we consider erroneous.

Submit is an ugly word for many of us. In our parlance, we submit when we have been dominated, even humiliated. In certain forms of combative athletics, a wrestler or fighter submits when someone has him in a hold that would allow the winner to injure him.

But submit did not have sharply negative connotations in biblical times and languages. Submit (hupotasso) does convey the idea that someone in authority can give orders that others ought to follow, but there are differences. Submit can be a milder term than obey. To submit means to arrange one’s life under the authority of guidance of another. That is, a person who submits still has some freedom because he or she decides how to follow the leader.

In Scripture, the believer’s submission to human authorities is always partial and proximate; blind obedience is never required. Early Christians practiced civil disobedience “when the demands of society” threatened to override the demands of the Lord. The Christian is always, in principle, ready to rebel, ready to say, “No” in the face of a wicked command, for we “must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Wolfgang Schrage summarized our position, saying that Christians “are free with respect to the authorities, and normally this freedom manifests itself in.. submission and honor” (1 Cor. 7:17-24).[iv]

A Governor’s Duty to His people

Governors have a twofold task, “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:14). It is universally accepted that government must maintain public order by punishing public crime. Even profoundly flawed governors promote order and preserve some semblance of conformity to pagan standards of good, and that is better than chaos. We might disagree with their methods, but governments do some good. There is criminal law in the Old Testament[v], and Peter joins Paul in affirming that pagan governors have both a right and an obligation to punish misconduct (Romans 13:1-4).

Although we pay little attention to it, authorities often do single out certain people for praise for special community service. Peter says that it is right for authorities to praise what is good. Therefore, whether we have political, economic, scholastic, or familial authority, we should use it to commend proper behavior.

Other Scriptures mention the additional tasks of governors. They must defend their people from attack by hostile powers. They should abide by the laws of the land, for they should consider themselves one of the people (Deut. 17:14-20).

Justice is God’s primary demand on human authorities.”[vi] They must judge fairly, shunning bribes, so that they may be impartial in their judgments. They must protect the rights and property of all, but especially of the poor, the needy, and the weak (Deut. 16:18-20; Ps. 72:1-4; Jer. 22:2-5).

Rulers must not become too fond of the privileges of their office, lest they betray their calling. Isaiah chastises judges who are better at mixing drinks than providing justice (Isa. 5:22-23). Jeremiah denounces King Shallum, son of Josiah, for building great houses and pursuing dishonest gain rather than administering justice (Jer. 22:13-17). Ezekiel flogs rapacious “shepherds” who attend the flock only to plunder it, while ignoring their wounds and hunger. Proverbs warns rulers of the somewhat milder problem of distraction in Proverbs 31:4-5, 8-9, “It is not for kings, O Lemuel,
it is not for kings to drink wine,
or for rulers to take strong drink,
lest they drink and forget what has been decreed
and pervert the rights of all the afflicted. Open your mouth for the mute,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

Failures notwithstanding, even flawed governors do much that is good. The threat of punishment of evil presents anarchy. Governors defend a nation’s borders, build roads, and promote public order. Even if we disapprove of a governor’s goals or methods, even if a government is corrupt, we should respect it (1 Peter 2:17). In a democracy, political activity is a duty as well as a privilege. At a minimum, we vote in elections, carefully considering the candidates and the issues, comparing all to God’s will.

The next verse, 1 Peter 2:15, summarizes the result of obedience to the previous commands, “For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.” Peter is well aware that believers might suffer because of persecution and false condemnation. Still, we do good as much as we can. This includes obedience to civil law (unless it requires sin), but there is more. We should “do good” in ways small and large, from picking up trash to volunteering in homeless shelters. Peter knows that accusations will never finally disappear, but hopes that good deeds may silence that most ignorant and foolish slanders. If we live well enough, people simply refuse to believe the lies.

Using Freedom Correctly

Peter anticipated that some of his readers would object that the demand of submission to human rulers vitiates the principle of freedom that believers have in Christ. They might say, “but I am a free man, liberated by Jesus. How can I submit to human rule?” To this Peter replies in 1 Peter 2:16, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.” We are free from sin, from the law, and from death, but this is no excuse for insubordination. The Christian is free from sin, but is a slave of God. “For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave” (1 Cor. 7:22; Rom. 6:22). As Martin Luther observed, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”[vii] There are many ways to abuse freedom. In Peter’s day, some wanted to rebel against Rome, an idea that was doomed to fail and lacks biblical warrant. Others simply wanted to follow their own ideas or desires. Some Corinthians adopted the slogan, “All things are lawful for me” (1 Cor. 6:12a). they considered themselves liberated from all laws and plunged into an array of sexual sins (1 Cor. 5-6). Paul retorted that even if, in some unusual sense “all things are lawful,” it is also true that “not everything is beneficial” (1 Corinthians 6:12b). Some “freedoms” hurt others. Some freedoms enslave the one who exercises that freedom (1 Cor. 6:12c). We must use our freedom correctly: to love neighbors and to serve God. He brought us out of slavery for something more than self-indulgence.

The Duty of Honor: Love the Brothers, Fear God, Honor the King

Finally Peter says, “Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17). Thus he reiterates the summons to honor the emperors and governors, but arranges it as four commands that govern many relationships. Structurally, honor comes first and last, while love and respect (literally, fear) stand in the middle. First, we “honor all men,” treat everyone with a respect they deserve, if only because they bear God’s image. Second, we love the brothers, showing affection and offering aid to all within the family of faith. Third, we fear God. This is affectionate fear, not cringing or servile terror, that we owe to a person we respect. We revere the Almighty. Fourth, we honor the king—or the emperor, president, or prime minister.

The particular way we apply the political commands will vary from nation to nation. If we live in an autocratic nation, the duties of submission and honor are clear enough. Today, many Christians live in democracies where submission and honor take gentler forms because of the nature of our form of government. If the constitution and authorities tell us that we have a right and duty to choose our leaders by examining the qualities of the candidates and the context of their policies, then it is right for us to choose. If our critical analysis leads us to reject a governor’s policies, we should vote him (or her) out of office. But we must still honor that authority, even while we protest or vote against it.

In a democracy, governors themselves say that we need not adopt every policy or yield to every government plan. We can resist. Civil disobedience is even an option, although we must bear the consequences of rebellion. Indeed, our governments often invite us to get involved, individually and collectively. This is a right that Peter’s poor and powerless people never enjoyed a right that should increase our desire to honor our governors. Sadly, in democracies, too many people (even Christians) take pleasure in the harshest criticism of the authorities.

Our political order allows, even recommends, candid disagreements, especially when great issues of the economy and justice, war and peace, life and death, are debated. But we must disagree honorably, respectfully. We may think of Martin Luther King’s protests against racism and segregation. His people ignored some laws, including laws about who sits where on a bus. Rallies swelled to vast numbers, but the protests were nonviolent and respected the authorities even as they opposed those same authorities. We, too, can speak and work to reform the ills of our society, remaining peaceful, loving our foes through accurate critique and respectful talk.

Meanwhile, we should remember that the greatest forces are not political and economic but personal, mental, and spiritual. For that reason, the church of Christ is a force in this world, even if we never fully belong here. Better yet, we are a force precisely because we have a dual citizenship. So let us give honor, respect, justice to all, always submitting to the Lord Jesus first, and to every human authority as we then can. In this way we silence slanders, live as servants of God, and honor the King of Kings Jesus Christ.

[i] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (1951; rep., New York: Harper and Row, 1975

[ii] Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove, IL; Intervarsity Press, 2008.

[iii] James Davison Hunter, To change the world: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Later Modern World (New York, Oxford University Press, 2010), 243-52.

[iv] Wolfgang Schrage, The Ethics of the New Testament, trans. David Green (Philadelphia: Fortress, 19888), 278.

[v] Christopher J.W. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 289-92

[vi] Wright, Old Testament Ethics, 269-75

[vii] Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy Lull and William Russell (Minneapolis: Ausburg Fortress, 2005), 393.