11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul.
12 Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may on account of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation. [NASB ‘77]
Peter begins to apply the theology he’s taught to this point. If believers are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and God’s own possession, it affects how they live. We are different from those who don’t belong to God and we’re citizens of a different world. Thus, our thoughts and actions shouldn’t look like the natives of this one. We must abstain from the temptations of this world that endanger our soul, and live in such a way that we become a testimony to those who are otherwise enemies of the faith.
The key to understanding these verses is to focus on the first phrase – I urge you as aliens and strangers. The context of everything Peter says here is built around believers’ standing as citizens of another world (it’s the theme we’ve explored throughout the book – living as exiles). He began this letter by addressing it to those who reside as aliens (1:1) and here he wants to remind them again of who they are before admonishing them about their behavior. Their status affects how they live – it’s the foundation for everything in this text.
He says they should – as aliens and strangers – abstain from fleshly lusts. He doesn’t simply say to abstain. He says to abstain because they’re aliens and strangers. Because they’re not of the world, it affects their thoughts and motives.
Remember that he’s just called them a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession. As believers we’re set apart. We are in no way like most people. God has set us apart as His possession; and as His possession we ultimately belong to His world. Paul calls us citizens of Heaven (Phil 3:20). That makes us aliens in this one.
As aliens we shouldn’t be interested in the same things as the world’s natives. What appeals to them and what motivates them shouldn’t appeal to or motivate us. We’re of a different world with different priorities and different precepts. How can we think the same as people who are of an entirely different world than us? They have their minds set on earthly things (Phil 3:19) and we’re to have our minds set on things above (Col 3:2). We’re to aspire to a better country (Heb 11:13-16). And since that’s the case, we should stand out – we should look and act differently. [When I visited China some years ago, I didn’t – as a 6’5” American who speaks only English – have to go around explaining that I wasn’t from China originally. Nobody got confused as to whether or not I was a tourist. I didn’t have to try to stand out. In the same way a believer whose true home is somewhere else should stand out in this one. If he doesn’t – and he looks just like everyone else – then there’s a real question about the authenticity of his citizenship.]
[Aren’t you glad in light of all the events of the past year that this isn’t our home? And aren’t you glad that there aren’t elections or changes in administration at home? We can be invested and we can have strong opinions about all that’s happened in the last few months, but isn’t it awesome that we don’t have to treat it like our whole world’s at stake?]
Implicit in this admonition is that our home has much more to offer than this world. Since Peter puts abstaining in terms of our status as aliens, he must mean that our world has something much better for us than anything here. Thus to give in to the lusts of the flesh isn’t just wrong; it’s foolish.
Ever been to a third world country? When you got home, did you think to yourself, “Man, I wish I could go back because everything seemed nicer and more convenient there?” Probably not, right? Most likely you were glad you went, but very glad to be home because life’s so much easier here. The thought of giving up what we have in the States to move to a third world country – apart from mission – makes no sense.
But I think Peter would say the same thing in terms of this verse. When we give in to the lusts of the flesh we’re turning our back on the rewards of our true home. We’re essentially saying that we don’t want paradise-level, heavenly-rated joys; we’d rather have the passing pleasures of the here and now. When we choose the shiny things of this world, we give up the joy of living for the kingdom in this life – in communion with our Savior – and the eternal joy of experiencing the kingdom in the next. We look at the beauty of the Savior and the greatness of redemption and the sweetness of walking in the Spirit and the promise of glory and say, “No thanks, none of that is better than what’s right in front of me here.” We foolishly and inexplicably decide to walk by sight instead of by faith.
Notice that he admonishes them about lusts instead of actions. He’ll move to actions in verse 12, but in this verse he specifically mentions what happens in the heart and mind. The reason is that there are no actions without thoughts and motives. What’s inside us eventually shows itself in behavior; there is no sin apart from lust. James explains how the cycle works – But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death (James 1:14-15). The first step isn’t death – the first step is always lusting after something that replaces God in our life. So he’s calling us to vigilance in guarding our desires.
So how do we know what the lusts of the flesh are? Most likely all of us could come up with a list that’s applicable to ourselves, but it probably pays to look at it in its broadest sense. Paul describes the enemies of the cross as those who worship their appetite (whose god is their belly – Phil 3:19). They make a god out of their desires and live as if nothing is more important than satisfying them. They ultimately place themselves and their happiness on the throne of their lives and then pursue the things that serve those rulers. That’s what he means by the lusts of the flesh. It includes all the things we think of – sexual immorality, drunkenness, overeating, materialism, etc. – but it ultimately means a lifestyle that centers on satisfying ourselves with the passing pleasures of this world. It’s anything we seek for satisfaction apart from God. It’s the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life that John describes as what’s in the world that we can’t love if the love of the Father is in us (I Jn 2:15-16). It’s more than just specific sins – it’s an overall way of looking at life that’s in complete opposition to the biblical view.
That’s why we can’t have anything to do with them. And that’s why they wage war against the soul. It’s interesting that he specifically mentions the soul. He could’ve said they war against us or against our righteousness. But he calls out our soul. The reason is likely because there’s an eternal component to this war. If we lose and give in and make serving our desires the overall direction of our lives, our soul could be destroyed. Paul says in I Thess 4 that we reject God when we engage in immoral behavior and that He’s the avenger in these things. Our eternity is at stake in this war.
But short of eternal destruction, there’s also what we do to our souls in this life. If we fill our minds with fleshly lusts, we begin to change inwardly over time. It may be that we see our dalliances with the world in terms of just something we have to deal with, and as long as we pick ourselves up after failure we can go on and be fine. But long-term lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and boastful pride of life affects our soul, and over time we train it to love things other than God. We lose the ability to worship and appreciate the beauty of God and enjoy the love inherent in the community of faith. Our soul becomes damaged. And that damage is part of the descent into destruction. Again, the stakes couldn’t be higher on all fronts in regard to what Peter’s saying.
He uses two verbs to describe both what we should do – abstain – and what the lusts do – wage war. Notice that both are in the present tense. This is a war that never ends as long as we live in this world. We’ll never get away from it no matter our age or maturity or station in life. It will evolve and the foes will somewhat change, and the victories will hopefully become more common, but it will never end. And, as is true in any war, there will be battles won and lost. What we must remember throughout all of it, however, is that we can never stop fighting – never give up. And remember that we’re no longer slaves to lust but have been liberated from it (I Pet 1:14-16). The stakes are high and the ultimate victory is worth it regardless of how things look at any given moment. We must be vigilant from salvation to glory.
That vigilance is worth thinking through. We know from other texts that Peter doesn’t expect us to abstain in our own strength. Jesus said without Him we can do nothing, so we obviously have to resist in the strength of His Spirit. And it’s that resistance that shows us just how strong the Spirit is (…because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world – I Jn 4:4b). If we give in to sin we’ll never know either how strong it is (you only understand the strength of an adversary when you fight him) or how strong the Spirit can be in us. As we spend lives abstaining from worldly lusts we grow stronger in and more dependent on the Spirit. The fight itself strengthens us in Him. Thus, there’s a warning in Peter’s words, but there’s also great encouragement. Abstaining brings us closer to our Savior.
Abstaining from fleshly lusts leads to right behavior, and that’s what Peter addresses in verse 12. Part of living in this world as aliens is making sure our behavior in front of the natives is beyond reproach. The reason for this is more than our reputation; it’s about God’s glory. When we live as we should – abstaining from fleshly lusts and living righteously – we bring glory to the One whose name we claim and whose Spirit we depend on. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven (Matt 5:16).
This goes right along with what we learned last week. In verse 9 it says we’re set apart to proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. If we put that together with verse 12, then it would seem that we can fulfill our calling both through words and actions. He called us out of darkness to proclaim His glory, and we’re to proclaim that glory through our conduct in front of unbelievers.
That lends weightiness to our actions, doesn’t it? We aren’t just responsible for ourselves and our own wellbeing. We’re also responsible for carrying the name of Christ to a world that doesn’t know him. And that means when we blow it there are ramifications beyond the damage to our good name. When we live lives that are just like the natives – and that’s ultimately the danger Peter warns against – we show unbelievers that our belief is just a religion like any other. We show them we don’t have a relationship that fundamentally changes and governs us, we just have a religion that’s part of our lives and doesn’t really intrude on real life too much. We effectively let them off the hook. They no longer have to deal with a gospel that demands everything of them – they can just write us off as religious people who don’t let our faith get in the way of what we really want. Our behavior makes Jesus safe to reject. [I’ve watched this happen in the workplace. Believers who had the grudging respect of others slowly started to act like everyone else. The effect on those around them was noticeable. No one said anything and no one was overt, but there was a change. The unbelievers could relax around them and no longer feel like they had to treat them differently. It was like their attitude was, “You go to church and you don’t cuss, but at the end of the day you’re really just like us after all.” And sadly, it takes forever to change that perception.]
At the end of the day, if we look like the natives and talk like the natives and act like the natives, we sound a little foolish claiming to be an alien, and there’s ultimately no point to our calling.
If we live our lives in such a way that they don’t point people to the glory of God, then our lives are without positive significance from a Christian standpoint. What we become is just an echo of a God-neglecting culture. We fit into the world so well that our lives don’t point beyond the world. We are no longer aliens and strangers, but simply conforming citizens of the God-ignoring world. (John Piper, The War Against the Soul and the Glory of God, sermon on 5/22/94.)
And since God’s glory is at stake, He takes this very seriously. Perhaps the biggest example in the Bible of a follower of God blowing it for all to see is David and his adultery with Bathsheba. You probably know the story, but Nathan the prophet comes to David and exposes his sin, causing David to repent and ask for forgiveness. Nathan reassures David that God forgives him, but then says something really interesting in light of our text here. He says (II Sam 12:13b-14), “The Lord also has taken away your sin; you shall not die. However, because by this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also that is born to you shall surely die.” Pretty sobering, isn’t it? If our good behavior causes unbelievers to glorify God, then our unrighteous behavior can lead them to blaspheme His name or ignore Him completely. And since the whole point of creation is God’s glory, that’s a serious responsibility to have. Just as the stakes are high in regard to our soul and fleshly lusts, so the stakes are high in how we conduct ourselves in front of a watching world.
Along with the responsibility, however, is great privilege. Our good behavior can actually cause unbelievers to glorify God in the day of visitation. It’s not entirely clear what the day of visitation is, but it seems to refer to unbelievers coming to Christ. And notice what kind of people these are – they slander us as evildoers. They accuse us falsely; they hate us probably because we’re Christians. In Chapter 4 Peter talks about people who malign us because we no longer act as they do – we’ve turned our back on what they value. That’s probably true here. The people who slander us are those who resent our stand against the fleshly lusts of the world, so they likely aren’t open to hearing the gospel. But Peter says our good conduct in the midst of the accusations – in the midst of trial – can be a silent witness that brings them to Christ (he’ll make the same point in Chapter 3 in regard to righteous wives quietly witnessing to their unbelieving husbands). Think about that. Our lives become a powerful tool for evangelism, and people otherwise antagonistic to the gospel will glorify God as a result of our righteous conduct.
So that means that yes, we have a great responsibility in how we conduct ourselves in the world, but it also means we have enormous opportunity. God gives us the privilege of leading people to Him – people who otherwise resent us and what we stand for – through our abstaining from fleshly lusts and living righteously. What a privilege!
There are two implications to this truth. First, there are no mundane days or insignificant jobs or low-value roles in the kingdom. No matter our situation in this world, we have the God-ordained opportunity to lead others to the King through our righteous behavior. Second, since this verse specifically points to righteousness in the midst of suffering or persecution, it means we can’t be plugged into this world if we’re going to be a witness. Only exiles can make this work. There’s no way to use our lives as an instrument for evangelism if our mind’s set on earthly things. It’s only through a heaven-centered vision that we can set aside our pride and conduct ourselves in a way that brings our enemies to Christ.
So what should we take away from these verses? [You should never listen to a sermon or Bible lesson without thinking through what you’re going to take with you.] There’s a lot here, isn’t there? Here are some take-aways:
- Be vigilant about guarding your affections and desires because your soul is at stake.
- Be vigilant about guarding your affections and desires because your righteous behavior in front of a watching world is at stake.
- Be vigilant about guarding your affections and desires because the glory of God is at stake.
- Be vigilant about guarding your affections and desires because the salvation of those around you could be at stake.
The worst thing we can do is to live like citizens of this world. The best thing we can do is to remember that we’re exiles from heaven whose desires should be set on God, so that our lives give witness to our great Savior and lead people who otherwise wouldn’t know Him to Him. God’s given us an AMAZING opportunity – let’s not waste it by giving in to the allure of the rewards and temptations of a world that’s not our home. Let’s instead celebrate our status as God’s own possession and glorify Him with lives worthy of His calling.