Representing Jesus in a Non-Christian Society
1 Peter 2:11-25
In this long section in the middle of 1 Peter (2:11-4:6), Peter explains how Christians should represent Jesus in a non-Christian society. He begins by using two terms that summarize our role—read 2:11a. When Peter refers to Christians as “aliens and strangers,” he is probably alluding to an important Old Testament motif. When the Jewish people were carried away as exiles to Babylon (c. 600 BC), they were “aliens and strangers” in that foreign city. There they were—members of God’s chosen nation, possessors of God’s revelation—yet they had been placed by God in the midst of a culture that held very different beliefs and values. Likewise, we are Jesus’ chosen people, citizens of his kingdom, possessors of his good news—placed by him in cities and neighborhoods and workplaces and families among people who do not believe in him. What does it look like for Jesus’ people to represent him in this situation?
Of course, representing involves speaking—telling people about Jesus. Peter says we are to “proclaim the excellencies of God” (2:9), and he says we are to be “prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks us” about our faith (3:15). But interestingly, Peter (and Paul) devotes much more space describing how we should live. This is because the way we live commends or belies what we say about Jesus (Titus 2:10). Peter’s instruction on how we should live includes a brief negative and an extensive positive . . .
Resist moral assimilation
First, the negative (read 2:11a). Immigrant populations have their own distinct cultural values. Yet apart from conscious resistance, they tend to succumb to cultural assimilation. In a similar way, Peter says that representing Jesus involves resisting moral assimilation.
“Abstain from sinful desires” does not mean abstaining from all earthly pleasures. Christian faithfulness is not ascetic. We know that sex, good food and drink, fine art and music, etc. are good gifts from God, and we honor God by enjoying them robustly. The Greek word “desires” is epithumia, and it means literally “over-desires.” “Sinful desires” refer to the inordinate desire for created things—expecting them to meet needs that only God can meet, and indulging in them in ways that God never designed (e.g., PORN; SHOPPING ADDICTIONS; CAREERISM; ENTERTAINMENTISM). Sinful desires not only don’t fulfill us; they do violence to our souls—they enslave us and break our hearts and damage the people in our lives.
So an important part of faithfully representing God is being different morally—not in a self-righteous, finger-pointing way, but in a quiet and humble way that firmly refuses to go along with the moral tide of the culture. We abstain from sex outside of marriage so that we can enjoy it fully within marriage. We abstain from over-spending so that we can meet our family’s needs and be generous to those in need. We abstain from excessive entertainment and partying so that we can develop and enjoy healthy relationships. This kind of humble moral self-control honors God. Some will mock us (4:2-4). But others, who are weary of this way of life, will be attracted (EXAMPLES).
Be a blessing to those who don’t believe in Jesus
But moral self-control, while important, is never adequate. It must be accompanied by and suffused with something intensely positive—read 2:12. “Good” is kalos, and means that which is beautiful and attractive. We should not just not be bad, or just be blandly nice. We should be a blessing to those who don’t believe in Jesus—actively and creatively doing good to them, including those who are hostile to him. This is what makes slander about Christianity less plausible, this is what elicits positive curiosity about our message about Jesus. To make this practical, Peter describes what it looks like in three arenas:
Read 2:13-17. Peter describes three distinct ways to be a blessing as citizens:
Be genuinely respectful and cooperative with the governing authorities (2:13,17b). Yes, as citizens of God’s kingdom, we are not ultimately under their authority (2:16). And there are times when we must obey God rather than human rulers (PETER WITH NERO)—though this is very rare in Western nations. But governing authorities play a legitimate and important role in human society (2:14), and we should make their jobs easy—both by obeying the laws and by respecting and appreciating them. Some Christians (and Xenoids) have a cynical attitude about this—stay under the radar, resent their intrusion into your right to have fun, etc. This is misusing your freedom and misrepresenting Jesus!
“Doing good” (2:15) goes beyond being submissive to the governing authorities. Christians should be known for contributing to the well-being of their communities. We should welcome the opportunity to refute negative perceptions of Christianity by doing this. As individuals, we should be good neighbors, volunteer in schools and civic associations, etc. (EXAMPLES). As a church, we should pool our resources to helping the poor and needy outside our church. In this way, even those who are very suspicious and antagonistic sometimes change their minds (EXAMPLES). Follow the advice of my friend Brian Hanna: “Do something for Christ’s sake!” My thing is volunteering at a local food co-op and helping a neighborhood school with their grounds. What’s your thing?
Treat all people with honor (2:17a). “Show proper respect” means far more than “be polite.” Such “courtesy” is usually nothing more than selfish social pragmatism. Timao means “show honor because of the intrinsic value.” We are to treat all people well. This one phrase condemns every kind of prejudice as misrepresenting Jesus (e.g., race, socio-economic/cultural, political, age, physical functionality, sexual preference; religious belief). Why? Because all people are made in God’s image—so they are literally awesome. And all people are dearly loved by Jesus (his love for outcasts & interest in “interruptions”). Do you view people as ends in themselves—worthy of love and respect as humans—or do you view them mainly as means to your ends (including conversion)? Are you cultivating the ability to delight in discovering another human being—or do you justify your right to be bored and repulsed? Ask God to expose and change your heart! You will be grieved at what he shows you about your prejudice and selfishness—but you will begin to experience the joy of his love flowing through you to others!
Peter describes a very practical way to be a blessing at work:
Submit yourself to your supervisors (2:18a). To “submit” means to place yourself at the disposal of their legitimate requests. What does this look like? Those of you who are supervisors: What do you want from your employees? (PUNCTUALITY; HARD WORK; HONESTY; COOPERATION; FRIENDLY & HELPFUL TO ASSOCIATES). These are legitimate requests! They contribute to a healthy and productive work environment.
Christians should be exemplary in this area! Why? Because jobs are precious during the recession? Because you’re more likely to get promoted (not 1st century house-servants)? These may be true—but they are not the main reason! The main reason is: Because you represent Jesus!
This is why it is grievous for Christians to be lousy employees (SBX XENOID)! Does this convict you? Go to God and confess and ask him to help you to be a blessing at work for Jesus’ sake! Prayerfully consider apologizing to your supervisor for your poor performance and attitude, and make a commitment to him/her to become this kind of employee!
If you think 2:18a is challenging, how about the rest of this paragraph (read 2:18b-20)? Representing Jesus in society involves being a blessing (by patiently enduring and doing good) to those who mistreat you. “Harsh” doesn’t merely mean someone who is rude on a bad day. It means “crooked” (skolios)—wicked, cruel, malicious. Peter says the same thing in 3:9a (read)—and he is simply echoing what Jesus taught (read Lk. 6:32-36). How are you different in the way you treat that boss who is a power-tripping jerk? That neighbor who is rude and nasty? That family member who is mean or overbearing or even abusive?
“This is complicated!” Yes it is. Sometimes you do need to change jobs. Sometimes you do need to call the police on your neighbor. Sometimes you do need to confront your family member. God isn’t telling you that you can never take such measures. But representing Jesus means rejecting the principle of “paying people back.” It means laying down the right to hate and take vengeance on people who have mistreated you. It means taking up the responsibility to somehow practice love toward people who do not deserve it.
“This is not fair!” That’s right—it’s not fair. Christians are not called to give people what is fair—we are called to follow Jesus’ example (read 2:21-25). This is a very deep passage—but the heart of it is this: Jesus didn’t give you what is fair. Was it fair that Jesus went to the cross to die for you? Was it fair that Jesus took the penalty that your sins require even though he never committed a sin? Jesus voluntarily endured what was unfair to him (your guilt and God’s judgment) so that he could give you what is unfair to you (God’s forgiveness and loving care).
How can I look at what he did for me without it affecting how I view/respond to the people who treat me poorly? How can I receive this kind of undeserved mercy that Jesus extended to me—and then insist on my right to be treated well before I extend mercy to others? How can I allow Jesus’ sacrifice to melt my heart to repentance without extending this same sacrifice to others and giving them the same motivation to repent?
Don’t you see that if you are outraged by God’s command to bless your enemies, it is because you don’t really appreciate what Jesus did for you? Don’t you see that the real reason for refusing to bless your enemies is your own blind, hypocritical self-righteousness? Ask God to open your eyes to how much you violated him, to the right that he had to judge you, to the amazing cost he paid to give you the chance to repent. Then ask him to open your heart to do for others what he did for you!
The great Chinese Christian leader, Watchman Nee, explains this and gives a moving example (Sit, Walk, Stand, pp. 31-33). Let us ask God to teach us to represent Jesus this way, and we may see many people turn to him!