Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. —1 Peter 2:21
One of the arguments used against Christianity in our time is that Christianity is socially harmful, it’s a relic from previous ages that didn’t value tolerance. That argument deserves an answer, and we are here to answer it. But the very fact that people raise the point shows how much is at stake in our life together as a church.
What do people expect of a church? They expect to find God here. They have a right to expect that. They have a right to see in us, imperfectly but visibly, something of his beauty. When people get into trouble, where do they turn? Not to some atheist group. They come to church, because they hope God might be here. They hope he might help them, and that maybe we might help too. All these expectations are right. We have a high calling to live up to.
Do you see the word “honorable” in verse 12—“Keep your conduct honorable”? There is nothing harmful or even mediocre about Christian conduct, because there is nothing harmful or mediocre about Christ. Elsewhere in the New Testament this same word is used to mean “beautiful, noble, praiseworthy, pleasing, excellent.” There is a reason why the apostle Paul speaks of “the upward call of God in Christ” (Philippians 3:14). God is calling us to display nobility. How many people in our city today, if a poll were taken, would associate the word “church” with the word “nobility”? But if we will honor Christ with honorable conduct, fewer people will say that Christianity is a threat, and more people will say, “I’m glad these Christians are around, because, when everything was on the line for me, they were there, and I found God.” That’s the kind of impact Peter is talking about.
1 Peter 2:11 begins a new section in this book. It’s about our practical impact as Christians. But we can do this only by God’s mercy. Do you see the word “mercy” at the end of verse 10? “But now you have received mercy.” Think back to how Peter started this letter back in chapter 1, verse 3: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again.” Peter started out on the mercy of God. In 2:10 he wraps up his first major section of this letter by looping back to God’s mercy. So all of chapter 1, through chapter 2 verse 10, is Peter’s theology of the mercy of God. In that section, he doesn’t tell us to do much. He mostly tells us what God has done for us in mercy. Now, in chapter 2, verse 11, we enter the second section of the book. Now Peter starts teaching us how to live under the mercy of God. Now it is about what we do. That’s why Peter says here, “Beloved, I urge you….” He is urging us to show the positive difference God’s mercy makes in our world here and now. And Peter’s basic message for the rest of the book is this: “We don’t demand that others treat us well, because God does treat us well. What we do in our other relationships is adapt, fit in, submit, make it work, make it succeed as much as we can, even though it costs us.” So, the mercy of God (1:3-2:10) creates people who serve and suffer well (2:11-5:14). God is coaching us now in the nobility of Christian conduct, and how far that nobility is willing to go.
In today’s passage, Peter coaches us in three ways. One, our real battle (2:11-12). Two, our respectful citizenship (2:13-17). Three, our humble employee (2:18-25).
Our real battle
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 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 2:11-12
We are “sojourners and exiles” in this life. Not that we blow this world off. Peter is about to tell us how to be good citizens. But if you have ever gone on a summer missions trip, you were very aware of three things. One, you are there for a purpose. Two, your stay there won’t last long. Three, soon you’re going home. What God wants us to see is that this life is a missions trip. When God made us alive to himself–he caused us to be born again–something started happening to us. Part of that new birth is, we fall in love with the future more than the present. We long for heaven now, where we won’t be sojourners and exiles. But for now, we’re here for a reason, we don’t have long, and soon we’re going home. We are sojourners and exiles on mission.
And while we are here, our basic attitude is not to protest our world but quietly to abstain from everything non-noble. “Abstain from the passions of the flesh.” What are “the passions of the flesh”? They are more than sexual lust. “The passions of the flesh” is biblical code language for the whole range of our desires that just come naturally, desires that most people take for granted. They may not be noble desires, but neither are they stigmatized. We ourselves might think, “I can’t help what I feel. How can natural desires be wrong? Why abstain from what’s intuitive?” It’s true that our feelings and passions and motives just bubble up from deep within. They are natural. But are they noble? For example, we feel greed, and we can’t help that. We just feel it. We feel bitterness and hatred and despair and desperation, and we can’t help it. That’s how deeply we need God’s mercy. You and I are nice people with evil hearts. But if you are in Christ, God in mercy has caused you to be born again with a new heart. You and I are still a mixture inside. So we have a battle to fight every day. But our fight is not with people. Nothing external to us, no social trend, no political power, can keep us from living in the mercy of God within. The Bible says, “Guard your heart, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23). Our fight is with our own desires that drag us down from the honorable conduct of true Christianity.
Peter has just told us we are now a holy and royal priesthood (verses 5, 9). God is calling us to serve the world as priests, bringing the mercy of God to more people. That raises the bar. We can’t accept an emotional world within that is self-absorbed and negative and whiney, even though it comes naturally to us and no one would find fault with it. But the mercy of God is all about change deep inside, a new world within—feeling loved by God, feeling forgiven, feeling alive to Christ. Our most sinful emotions that come naturally are not greed and lust; our most sinful emotions are when we feel that God isn’t merciful to us. And that’s when our outward behavior falls to something less than noble. In verse 12 Peter calls us to the outward nobility that people can see in us—and they should see it in us. But here in verse 11 he calls us the inner nobility that no one but God can see. And our battle for outward credibility is not fought in the court of human opinion. It is fought, and it is won or lost, deep inside us. The Bible says, “Keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 21).
Here is why we must stay in the zone of believing that God loves us. Our natural desires are dangerous: “Abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” We are under attack—from within! For example, our escapist longings war against our strength of resolve. Our grudges war against our capacity for compassion. Our hunger for recognition wars against contentment. Our self-pity wars against our enjoyment of God. There is a battle going on inside. It’s a battle for our very souls. We can’t accept whatever we feel. Jesus suffered on the cross for our feelings as much as for our actions. So we abstain, we say No to many of our feelings. We bring those feelings under the judgment of the Word of God. We call them what they are. We say to ourselves, moment by moment, “Sure, this feeling right now is unpremeditated. And other people might have no problem with it. But God has said, ‘I will give you a new heart’ (Ezekiel 36:26). So this dark feeling has no claim on me. It offers me nothing. I’m turning to the Lord.”
Deep inside is where our credibility begins—not in our outward behavior but in inward renewal. Evangelizing our friends starts with our own hearts becoming noble by the gospel. It makes a noticeable difference: “…so that they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” The visitation of God is when others can see that their anti-Christian stereotypes are wrong and there is real beauty here. The glory of God is here. And they want it for themselves. So we should be thinking like this: “I don’t need to change anybody else. I need to change. What am I thinking and feeling that conceals the glory of God and makes me less than noble to the people around me?” Whatever the answer is, that’s why God has shown us mercy—to make us honorable in ways people can see, for his glory.
Now, I am guessing that most of us agree with that. Who could disagree? But what does it look like in practical ways? Peter breaks it down, in two major areas of life—politics and employment. What does it look like to demonstrate nobility as citizens and as employees?
Our respectful citizenship
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good [not by doing nothing and just keeping a low profile] you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. —1 Peter 2:13-17
The key is “for the Lord’s sake” in verse 13 and “the will of God” in verse 15. Our citizenship is for the Lord’s sake. The will of God enters into our politics. But not in the way some Christians think. The basic point in these verses is clear: fit in, cooperate, make a positive contribution. I see no room in these verses for waging a culture war. But if we don’t do that kind of “Christian politics,” how do we know if we’re getting it about right? Not by winning an election but by silencing those who disparage the gospel: “…put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” Our politics are really Christian not when “our party”–whichever that may be for you–pulls ahead in the polls but when more people respect the name of Christ. That is Christian politics.
I can’t read this passage without thinking of George Thomas. That name may not resonate with you. But he was Speaker of the House of Commons in Britain when we lived there back in the 1980s. He was a member of the Labour Party. He was lay preacher in the Welsh Methodist Church and, as a politician, conducted himself with Christlike courtesy and respect to all around. I found this tribute yesterday on the internet:
I was working as a taxi driver in Cardiff. [George Thomas] used the taxi firm I worked for, and I had the pleasure of picking him up on numerous occasions. Once, just after he had been given the all-clear for throat cancer, he got into my cab and said, “Now tell me your troubles.” Here was a man who had just got over cancer asking me about my problems. He was always a gentleman, and a person I admired very much indeed.
God is calling us to a high standard in our political involvement, whatever others may do. These verses are saying to us, “Don’t have a chip on your shoulder. Don’t ridicule the politicians you disagree with. But enter in, and show honor to everyone involved. You don’t have to agree with them. You don’t have to vote for them. But you must respect them, for the Lord’s sake.” Isn’t that what we really want? We can be so defiant. Sometimes we mouth off. But the call of Christ is noble, and isn’t that what we really want? The call of Christ is to show mercy, because he has shown us mercy.
Back in the 1970s Uganda was ruled by a Muslim dictator named Idi Amin. He was despicable. But God was showing mercy to East Africa. There was revival. And one of the bishops of the Anglican church in Uganda, Festo Kivengere, responded to the political crisis by writing a book. The title was, I Love Idi Amin. And Bishop Kivengere meant it. So, for the Lord’s sake, we do not use our right of free speech as a cover-up or pretext for abusive talk. We voluntarily moderate ourselves. We are here to show Christ. What if we do win an election but alienate people from Christ? How can that be the will of God? Here is the gospel applied to politics: “Honor everyone” (verse 17).
Our humble employee
Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it [that is, how is it Christian] if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. —1 Peter 2:18-25
We are hearing echoes here of Isaiah 53. It’s the famous passage in the Old Testament about the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, who was wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. All we like sheep have gone astray, but the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was a lamb led to the slaughter, but he opened not his mouth. You know that passage. It paints the picture of Jesus as our atoning substitute. He lived the perfect life for us we have never lived. He died the guilty death for us we don’t want to die. He identified with us so radically, he put himself in our place. He stood in for us at the cross. And he is why we have peace with God now. He is the only reason why. He did for us what we have always failed to do. Jesus as our substitute is the heart of the gospel.
But the Lord’s substitutionary role is not the only truth in the gospel. Look at verse 21: “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” In previous generations preachers so under-emphasized the Lord’s substitution and so over-emphasized his example that people didn’t experience the freedom of the gospel. Christianity was a moral performance.That was wrong. But today, with the gospel rediscovery going on, and substitution being re-emphasized and celebrated, which is so good, the Lord’s example is the part of the gospel now being overlooked. That’s wrong too, because the gospel should change how we act. Jesus is both our substitute and our example. He lived and died for us, so that we will follow him: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (verse 24). If you want to know if his substitution is getting through to you, ask yourself if you’re following his example—including, at work.
Peter addresses “servants” here. The equivalent today is employees. And some bosses are the living incarnation of Satan. But that is not in itself a reason to quit. It’s not even a reason to do little things to get back at them. Some bosses are unreasonable and harsh and grouchy and never say thank you and break their promises and treat you badly. What does the gospel tell us about that? “To this you have been called” (verse 21). The things you hate about your job are not an accident; they are a calling. You’re there because the job stinks. You have been sent there to represent Christ. You may be the only Jesus your boss ever sees. You may be his or her only chance. What’s wrong with your wacko boss? He or she doesn’t believe in the love of Christ. In our part of the country, they may go to church. But if they’re not showing Christ at work, they don’t really believe in his love. Your calling is to surprise them by your Christlikeness.
Let’s hear the gospel again. When we were demanding and abusive and faultfinding and unsatisfiable and we took our negativity out on God, what did he do? He didn’t quit. He came down and took the form of a servant. God let us boss him around. We even killed him. And he took it. God in Christ was a dream employee, and we gave him a bad performance review and fired him. He did that both as our substitute, to take our sin away, and as our example, to lead us into a new way of life.
How did Jesus do it? How did he keep up being so noble and honorable, when we were mistreating him? “He continued entrusting himself to God who judges justly” (verse 23). There is no justice in this world. Only God is just. So, how was Jesus able to be meek? Moment by moment, he kept saying to God, “Father, I’m in your hands right now. You are here with me, right now in my pain, and this is going to turn out well. I am trusting you to use this, to bring more people back to yourself.” And it worked. Everything was against Jesus—everything but God! And God made sure that the example of Jesus would win our hearts. He has brought us back to “the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls” (verse 25).We’re his employees now, and he’s a good boss to work for. He knows everything about us, including our sins. He understands us to the depths of our souls. We matter to him, when we matter to no one else. We are in his hands, and he is taking care of us. He is our Shepherd and Overseer. He has taken us on as his responsibility. Let’s trust him, moment by moment. Whatever rotten job you have, Christ is in it with you, for you, ahead of you, so that you can follow him. Let him tell your story, and he will surprise you with your redemptive impact at work.