When we belong to Jesus, our entire identity is shaped by Him, and Him alone. Our identity has nothing to do with our earthly country, or our ethnicity, or our sexual desires. Instead, we are defined by God: chosen by the Father’s foreknowledge, set apart by the Spirit with the sacrifice of Jesus applied to our lives for obedience to His Word. We are no longer at home in this world, but instead, we are strangers, passing through, longing for our true and eternal home.
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Sometimes, when Paul begins his letters, he feels the need to say a little something about his calling or experience. That’s understandable, since Paul, unlike the other apostles, did not personally know Jesus. His calling as an apostle was unusual, different from the calling of the others. Peter, however, feels no need to elaborate about his calling. He is Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ. That’s enough for him.
I want us to notice two things about this. First, Peter could have taken this opportunity to build himself up a bit. He could have said, “Simon-Peter, who walked on the water with our Lord,” or, “Peter, the first to declare that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God,” or “the disciple who was on the mount of transfiguration with our Lord.” But even as Peter ends this letter by explicitly teaching us to be humble, he begins it by demonstrating what humility actually looks like. For all his claims to fame in the Christian world, he offers us only the name that Jesus gave him (Peter, rather than his birth-name, Simon) and the fact that he is an apostle of Jesus.
Second, I do want to mention the fact that at this point in his life, he has quit using the name given to him by his parents, and uses only the name given to him by Jesus. He has allowed Jesus to define him so completely that he identifies himself in only the way that Jesus identifies him. It doesn’t matter that for all of his life up into adulthood, he had a different name. The only thing that matters now is how Jesus thinks of him, and Jesus thinks of him as “Peter,” or, in Greek, “The Rock.” He has accepted the way Jesus sees him as the only genuine way to see himself. By the way, when Jesus named Peter, he invented a name that was not in existence beforehand. There is no record of anyone being named “Peter” prior to that point.
Peter addresses the letter to the “elect exiles, the dispersion.” I mentioned briefly in the introduction that there is a little bit of dispute among commentators about whether Peter addresses the letter primarily to Jews, or to non-Jews (called Gentiles) or to both. One reason some think it was primarily to Jewish readers is because Peter mentions “the dispersion.” Sometimes, that word (in the form of “Diaspora”) was used by Jews to describe any Jewish people who lived outside of the Holy Land, which was considered to be their true home, even if they had never been there. But there are several points in this letter that seem to be speaking to non-Jews also. I raise this point because I don’t want us to sort of think, “Oh, this is just for Jewish Christians.” That, in fact, was an attitude condemned by all of the apostles. In Jesus, Jewishness, or non-Jewishness, are non-issues. In Christ, all are one, whatever their origin. So this letter is for all Christians, of any ethnic background.
I want us to consider what it means when Peter calls his readers “elect exiles, the dispersion,” because those words were written not only for Christians living 2,000 years ago in Turkey, they were also written for us. Scripture is very clear that since we belong to Jesus, this world is no longer our home. Like the Jewish dispersion (diaspora), we are living outside of our true homeland, and the place we live at the moment will never be our true home. Peter will elaborate on this several times in this letter, as do other New Testament writers:
By faith [Abraham] stayed as a foreigner in the land of promise, living in tents as did Isaac and Jacob, coheirs of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:9-10, CSB)
These all died in faith, although they had not received the things that were promised. But they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth. Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they were thinking about where they came from, they would have had an opportunity to return. But they now desire a better place—a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13-16, CSB)
Our citizenship is in heaven, and we eagerly wait for a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philippians 3:20 CSB)
Scripture is clear: our real citizenship is in eternity with the Lord. Our real homeland is someplace to which we have not yet traveled. If we belong to Jesus, then on earth, no matter where we live, we are not at home. We are foreigners, aliens, temporary residents.
I don’t think it is a sin to be patriotic about the country in which we are citizens. However, I do think it is a sin to be more patriotic about your earthly country than you are about your heavenly home. I admit, it is easier for me because of my childhood, but that doesn’t change this truth: we are more truly fellow citizens with Christians around the world than we are with non-Christian people who belong to our earthly country. So, for example, a Chinese Christian is more truly my fellow-citizen than an American who is not a Christian. In addition, both the Chinese Christian and I are not truly at home anywhere in this world. Like Abraham in the verses above, we belong to a country we have never seen, yet we long for it.
This is a reflection of a deeper truth: Jesus Christ fundamentally alters who we are. Our primary identity is now “belonging to Jesus Christ,” and that identity is more important than any other part of who we are. To say it another way, the fact that we belong to Jesus matters more than anything else. And the fact that we belong to Jesus means that we no longer wholly belong to this world. Jesus said that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). If we belong to him, then we too, do not belong fully in this world.
This should be good news. I know for myself, I am often uncomfortable in this world. I don’t fit in. The things are that are important to the world are often not a big deal to me. The things that I care about are sometimes despised, mocked, or even hated by the world. Also, as I get older, I realize more and more that the things I really long for cannot be found in this life. I will never, in this life, truly have everything I deeply desire.
All of this can feel lonely sometimes. It can feel like maybe you are crazy, or stupid, not to just go along with everyone else. You may feel foolish to have such deep longings for things that will never come to pass, sometimes longings you cannot even fully describe. But Peter’s opening words remind us that we do have a home, and we do truly belong somewhere. It just isn’t here. We are travelers, temporary residents waiting until we finally get the chance to travel to our permanent home. It is there, in our permanent home, that all of our longings can be finally and completely fulfilled.
Peter says that his readers are strangers in this world, chosen “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in connection with the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling with his blood to Jesus Christ.”
Let’s unpack this a little bit. Peter mentions here the Father, the Spirit and the Son. The Father, Spirit and Son are all one being, which we call God. God is made up of three persons, but not three beings.
We can imagine something that is like a person, but somehow less than a human person. Our pets are like this. They are like us, but they are not quite actual people. They don’t have the same sense of self-awareness or sentience that human beings have, and they have other limitations. Now, just as pets are like persons, but somehow less-than, so God is a person, but is more–than a human person. We are all mono-persons. I am Tom, and Tom is just one person/one being. But God is a “three-person being,” which is more than a mono-person. If God is in fact God, we should expect him to be more than us, exponentially more. We do not mean that there are three Gods. There is only one being, called God. But that being is a three-person, rather than a mono-person.
The three persons of God are part of the same being, which means that that each person shares the power, honor and glory of God. But the three persons, though the same being, are not the same person. They each have different roles. The Father does unique things, and so does the Spirit, and the Son. Peter here describes some of the uniqueness of the three persons.
God the Father knows all – past, present and future. His foreknowledge was involved somehow in the fact that we have been chosen to belong to Jesus and become citizens of God’s kingdom, strangers in this world. The bible does not describe in detail exactly how God’s foreknowledge relates to our being chosen, only that it does, in some way.
The person of the Spirit is involved in our sanctification. In case your head is still hurting from my pathetic attempt to describe the Trinity, let’s at least make “sanctification,” easier to understand. To “sanctify” something is to make it holy. When something is holy, or “sanctified,” it is special, no longer ordinary. One silly example might come from clothes. I think most of you readers live in places where you can afford more than one outfit of clothing. When that is the case, usually people have “everyday” clothes and then also “fancy” clothes. We don’t use our fancy clothes very often. Usually they are more expensive than other clothes We save them for a special occasion. I would never clean a toilet in my suit and tie. My suit and tie are reserved for times when I want to feel exceptionally uncomfortable. No, sorry, that ruins the analogy. Let me try again: My suit and tie are reserved for special occasions, like when I perform a wedding ceremony, or when I want to take Kari on a very special date. They are set-apart from other clothes, special, and I wear them to communicate that the occasion is very important.
So, God has set us aside. We are not like all people. The Holy Spirit has chosen us to be special to God, precious to him, important to Him. We are no longer ordinary. This is not something we have done for ourselves, so there is no cause for us to be arrogant or smug about it. There is no cause for us to judge anyone else, because God chose us for his own reasons, not because of anything we have done, or even who we are. It is his choice that makes us special, and that is not our doing.
Now, isn’t everyone special and precious in God’s eyes? In this day and age, it sounds like blasphemy to say “no.” But the answer is no, in a technical sense. God would make everyone who has ever existed into his holy people (1 Timothy 2:3-5). However, not everyone wants to be his holy people. Many, many, many people instead reject his salvation. Jesus himself said:
13 “You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. 14 But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it. (Matthew 7:13-14, NLT)
One of the major themes of the book of Revelation is that God offers salvation again and again to the people of this world. Over and over he gives people a chance to repent. But over and over, most people reject God’s terms, insisting on their own way instead. The Father, in his fore-knowledge saw who the Spirit would make holy, and who would not.
Getting back to the business of being set-apart, and special (that is, sanctified) we can see why we are strangers and exiles in this world. When so many people reject God’s salvation, then we who are set apart by God look like weirdos. Jesus told us that since the world hated him, we should expect it to hate us also.
18 “If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first. 19 The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you. 20 Do you remember what I told you? ‘A slave is not greater than the master.’ Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you. And if they had listened to me, they would listen to you. 21 They will do all this to you because of me, for they have rejected the one who sent me. 22 They would not be guilty if I had not come and spoken to them. But now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Anyone who hates me also hates my Father. (John 15:18-23, NLT)
The foreknowledge of the Father, and the sanctifying work of the Spirit (setting us apart) lead to two additional things: our obedience, and us being “sprinkled with the blood of Jesus.”
Let’s take the blood sprinkling first. If you have grown up in church, this might not even register, but it sounds kind of gross and shocking if you hear it for the first time. In ancient Israel, when animals were sacrificed to represent the seriousness of sin, some of the blood of the animal was sprinkled. This sprinkling of the blood in a sense “applied” the sacrifice to people. So what Peter means by “sprinkling of the blood” is that the sacrifice that Jesus made has been applied to our hearts and lives.
We all know what obedience is. What I want to point out is that our obedience is the result of being chosen and sanctified, and comes as the sacrifice of Jesus is applied to our souls. It is not the cause of salvation, but the result of salvation.
Let’s take a few moments to apply these words to our lives. We are strangers and aliens in this world precisely because we have been chosen and set apart for obedience and forgiveness. Although it can feel lonely and scary when the whole world looks down on us for following Jesus, our differentness is, in fact, a reminder that God is saving us. It can actually become a comfort to us.
Maybe we need to remember that we are holy (that is set apart) not because of anything within ourselves, but rather because God foreknew and chose us. Again that should be a comfort, because I know that I don’t have, within myself, what it takes to become holy. I don’t need to. God has already done it.
Perhaps we need to be reminded that we have been sprinkled by the blood of Jesus. His sacrifice has been applied to your life. Now, if we can get out of our own way, we can let Him live a life of obedience through us.
Another possible application is to take the example of Peter, who let Jesus change his name, and was content to be defined entirely by the fact that he belonged to Jesus. We can resist the temptation to pursue an “identity” as a person with this or that ethnic background. We can stand out from our culture, and stop seeking identity in being part of a group of victims or minorities or being a person with certain minority sexual desires. The only identity we should seek is as a chosen one of God, a foreigner here on earth, but a citizen of His kingdom.