Years ago, we had the privilege of taking our two daughters Andrea and Rachel to Disney World. That was such a memorable vacation. While there, we ate at a restaurant that was enclosed on a couple of sides with an enormous aquarium where, for a fee, people could be lowered in a cage and, in a sense, be ‘swimming with the sharks.’
Yet, spiritually speaking, we swim with the sharks everyday as believers. We are living in an environment that is foreign and dangerous to living a victorious Christian life. In the first century, Christians were accused of all kinds of terrible things. People who march to a different drumbeat than the rest of the culture will be held in suspicion and this was certainly true of the early beginnings of Christianity. To think and act differently often creates tensions with others. Howard Marshall points out:
…the standing temptation to non-Christians is to ‘run down’ Christians as evildoers and perhaps even accuse them of being criminals (3:16, cf. 2:1). …Stories circulated that Christians engaged in incest and even cannibalism at their church meetings. Even Tacitus, who was a responsible Roman historian, commented that they [Christians] were ‘loathed for their vices.[i]
In this segment of Peter’s letter we have the introduction of how believers needed to interact with the society in which they found themselves in. What was true then is still true today. We find ourselves living in a world that is growing more overtly hostile to Christians. As my title suggests then, how do we swim with the sharks? How can we live a life that will help destroy the image that being a follower of Jesus is an evil thing, especially when the institutional church has often failed, sinned and abused people? How can we live a holy life in an unholy world, dealing with misconceptions and accusations that may or may not be justified? How should we live now that we are God’s beloved people and function in an environment that is hostile to living a holy life?
THE FIRST WAY WE ARE TO ENGAGE WITH OUR CURRENT WORLD IS BY ABSTAINING FROM CERTAIN THINGS AND EMBRACING OTHERS
There are things we need to learn to flee from and others we need to follow in order to grow, mature and become established in our relationship with Jesus. As Christ-followers we need to reveal God’s spiritual kingdom to a world that is spiritually dead to the true and living God. “Dear friends, I urge you as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul (1 Peter 2:11).”
The NIV translates the term as ‘dear friends,’ but that wording is somewhat weak because the Greek word, agapetoi, speaks of God’s kind of love. The term often translated by other versions is the word: ‘beloved.’ Those whom God has shown his mercy to in the previous verses are deeply loved by God. We are those whom God loves and as a result we need to respond to that love by allowing it to transform our lives. Now as we approach this section of Peter, we find that he is dealing with our relationship with our sinful past so that we can bring a message of light and love to his current culture, and by application, we can bring it to our current culture. How are we going to live in this world when we are now citizens of a new world?
The language here of being foreigners and exiles is the language used throughout the Scriptures of the people of faith. It means that this world ultimately, with its ungodly values, is not our home. Abraham, the father of faith, was a nomad traveling through this life. He is described in the book of Hebrews as a stranger in a foreign land living in tents, looking forward to the city whose architect and builder was God (cf. Hebrew 11:9-10).
Peter Davids explains that what Peter is doing is challenging believers that this life is only temporal and not our eternal destination. Whenever we think and then act as if this life is our ultimate world, it leads to an unspiritual and wrong approach to what our part is in this world is.
The knowledge that they do not belong does not lead to withdrawal, but to their taking their standards of behavior, not from the culture in which they live, but from their ‘home’ culture of heaven, so that their life always fits the place they are headed to, rather than their temporary lodging in this world.[ii]
The apostle Peter stresses that our citizenship is in heaven. R. C. Sproul rightly points out: “Peter stresses this because one’s citizenship is where one learns his customs and mores.”[iii] In other words, this is how we learn to live as a person growing up in a culture. Where we live shapes our values. However, having been born in a society where sin has tainted every culture, we need to understand that once we become Christ followers, we now have a new citizenship with a new culture and values. This is not to suggest that every culture is wrong. Within all cultures there are wonderful things but also sinful aspects that need to be avoided.
The behavior of a fallen people should never become the standard of right and wrong. A big problem in the church today is that even after people are converted to Christ, they still take their marching orders from what is acceptable and expected in the culture. We must remember that we do not belong to the culture.[iv]
The command is that we ‘abstain from sinful or fleshly desires.’ What is meant by this statement? It has at times meant ‘uncontrolled impulses to do what is wrong,’ but in Paul’s writings the ‘flesh,’ is often translated from the Greek word, sarx, and is speaking of the ‘fallen human nature, which is expressed in our selfishness, and manifests itself not only in bodily appetites but also in all kinds of social sins as well (slander, gossip, malice, hatred, etc.). Sinful desires are anything contrary to the will of God for our lives. If the Bible warns us against certain attitudes and actions, then we need to forsake them, or if the Scriptures explicitly tell us what we ought to do certain things and we fail to do it, then that also is yielding to sinful desires. One example of this is the need to forgive, even when we don’t feel like it. To remain in unforgiveness toward another is simply a sin. It also hinders our own relationship with God because sin creates a barrier between ourselves and God. That is why Jesus in teaching us to pray or commune with God addressed the forgiveness issue and stated that our forgiveness is conditional upon forgiving others.
Notice that Peter states that the real battle that is being waged against our soul is primarily the sinful nature. What Peter is explaining is that we are now engaged in a battle that didn’t exist before we were believers. Prior to experiencing Christ in our lives, we were living in a place of ‘spiritual death,’ cut off from life and these aspects of our fallen human nature controlled our lives. However, now coming to Christ, a new power is at work in our lives where we can say no to the power of sin. Yet, there is now a recognition of that battle such as we have never known before. The desire to please God, which is a result of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives, is now battling against our former fallen sinful nature.
Peter warns us here that to succumb or yield to our former condition is now detrimental to our soul.
The ‘soul’ here does not refer to the immaterial part of human beings. The whole person is in view, showing that sinful desires, if they are allowed to triumph, ultimately destroy human beings.[v]
Having said that, two things come to my mind. If God commands us to do something, then we have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to overcome. Secondly, we have in the very next verse the approach that we need to take. We are not only to abstain from the sinful nature, but we need to engage in doing good. The opposite of abstaining is engaging, and here we are told what we need to engage in. “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of wrong doing, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us (1 Peter 2:12).”
In Scripture we find a principle or a law of displacement. This simply means when we are ridding ourselves of what is wrong. We do so by acknowledging it as sin, turning from it and simply doing the opposite, right behavior. Here Peter is saying that instead of yielding to sinful desires, we are to be engaged in better activities. The apostle Paul develops this principle in detail in his letter to the Ephesians.
You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need. Do not let unwholesome talk come out of your mouth, but only what is helpful for building up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
Don’t steal or take, rather work and give to those in need. In the area of speaking; don’t tear people apart with our words, rather use words to build others up.[vi]
We need to be less critical and more affirming and encouraging. So, what is the result of living a godly life? It will prove to be a witness to our unbelieving, critical and angry world. People often attack that which they don’t understand or feel threatened by. What does Peter mean when he says that when the unbelievers see our good works, they will glorify God on the day he visits us? This is speaking of the day of judgment. In other words, because we have lived an exemplary life, some unbelievers will come to faith in Christ as a result. Peter is challenging believers to engage in our world by benefitting the world around us, not by neglecting or withdrawing from it, but rather engaging it in positive, helpful ways.
Jesus challenges us to be the salt and light, which helps preserve, heals and enlightens others. Rather than responding to the culture’s attack against us as believers with anger and evil, we should respond is goodness. Peter is actually restating Jesus’ message fromthe sermon on the mount.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.
Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.
In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.[vii]
THE SECOND WAY WE ARE TO ENGAGE WITH OUR CURRENT WORLD IS BY LIVING A SUBMITTED LIFE
In a world that promotes self-expression and personal freedoms, here we find a totally different approach to human relationships. I was reading a blog by Mark Clark, lead pastor of Village Church on the cultural shifts in our western world today, which were in essence adaptations of Mark Sayers’ book, ‘Disappearing Church’. One of the main ideas expressed is simply, ‘How I feel and what I think is the deciding factor of my reality and thus the reality around me.
…Traditions, regulations and social ties that restrict freedom, happiness, and self-expression are being de-construction or destroyed. …that the world will get better through progress, technology, and education. …we have moved away from addressing problems and issues through facts, science, objective conclusions that apply to everyone. We now make decisions based on subjective conclusions, and how we feel about a certain thing and its impact on our lifestyle. For the first time in history, the church- even among Christians- is used as a tool of personal fulfillment. Rather than saying I’m part of the church for the good of society or for the good of others, people select churches based on their own personal fulfillment.[viii]
Jesus said that the mandate of the church was to make ‘disciples.’ It is a call to a new life. A disciple speaks of a learner or follower, in this case of Jesus. The issue of coming to Christ is literally giving up your agenda to embrace Christ’s agenda. That’s what it means to repent and to make Him Lord. This is only realized when we begin to live a life of submission to God and this is expressed very practically in how we relate to others.
A. We are to live a life of submission to those in authority.
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people.[ix]
What does it mean to submit?
Submission does not mean slavery or subjugation but simply the recognition of God’s authority in our lives. God has established the home, human government, and the church, and He has the right to tell us how these institutions should be run. God wants each of us to exercise authority; but before we can exercise authority, we must be under authority. Satan’s offer to our first parents was freedom without authority, but they ended up losing both freedom and authority. The Prodigal Son found his freedom when he yielded to his father’s will.[x]
Submission should be our response to those in authority, with the only exception being when earthly authorities ask us to violate the ultimate authority, which is God. In other words, when we are being told to do what God forbids or asks of us.
B. Peter gives us the reason we should submit.
We submit for the Lord’s sake. God is the one who designed leadership. Whenever we have
everybody doing what they think is right, we have all kinds of evil. That is the lesson from the book of Judges, which describes the historical chaos, disorder and fragmentation that was happening at that time in the nation of Israel. The theme of the book of Judges is expressed in the very last verse. “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit (Judges 21:25).”
In other words, there was no authority. One of the problems when people are placed in positions of authority is that at times, they will make bad decisions that affect everyone in a negative way. That’s why we are urged as believers to pray for those in authority.
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people- for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.[xi]
What is important to understand is that every person in a position of authority will ultimately answer to God, and God can quickly bring a leader down. A biblical model of leadership is seen by Jesus who served. When leaders serve those they lead, they are not abusing people. So, by doing good, one expression of that good is seen in submitting to those in authority, with the understanding that we don’t disobey God, but live with the assurance that as believers this is part of the good that we are doing to silence those who are unbelievers. Thomas Schreiner explains, “By submitting to government, Christians demonstrate that they are good citizens, not anarchists. Hence, they extinguish the criticisms of those who are ignorant and revile them.”[xii]
C. The argument that we are advocating for political freedom and that is why we are in rebellion against those in authority is an untenable Christian position.
Is political freedom the grounds that Jesus and the apostles would argue for civil disobedience? If that were the case then Jesus would have supported the cause of the Zealots, but Jesus didn’t advocate that means of protest. The best means of advocating for freedom is the promotion of the gospel, where people are delivered from a greater bondage: namely sin and death and where ultimate freedom originates out of. Notice how Peter expresses this argument.
Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.
Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.[xiii]
Edward Selwyn explains the ancient concept of freedom as a means of escape from their current bondage.
But the element of ‘escapism’ so often found in the ancients’ ideas of liberty is wholly obviated [prevented] by the Christian insistence on the service of God: Christian freedom rests not on escape from service, but on a change of master.[xiv]
True freedom comes as we become God’s love slave, doing His will and in the process, furthering His purposes to bring about good in our society. Here in verse 17, we are to show value and honor to everyone, no matter their social status or lack of status in society. Everyone has dignity in God’s eyes. When people we disagree with do evil, the temptation is to show disrespect. However, we never overcome evil by retaliating with evil. Howard Marshall reminds us:
They are not to be despised because they are not believers, nor hated because they are persecutors, nor treated with contempt because they are of lower rank or status, but treated with honor. It inevitably follows that people are not to be regarded as second-class citizens because they are of a different race or color.[xv]
Having spoken of how we should treat people, the only person we should fear is God. If He is the only person we fear, then that delivers us from our fear of people. This includes our fear of those in authority. Peter makes that distinction when he states that they should be honored, but never feared. Wayne Grudem makes this important observation.
While positively affirming the obligation to honor the emperor (consistent with vv. 13-15), he also subtly implies that, contrary to the claims of Roman emperors to be divine, the emperor was by no means equal to God or worthy of the fear due to God alone. Christians have obligations to the state, but their obligations to God and to the brotherhood of believers are higher.[xvi]
So how do we swim with the sharks? How do we live a holy life in an unholy world? We abstain from fulfilling our sinful desires because God’s powerful Spirit is living in us to help us to say no to sin and empowers us to do what is good and right instead. We need to learn how to do good, and one of the ways of doing good is submitting to those in authority. The only reason we wouldn’t yield to those in authority is if they are asking us to do what is contrary to God’s word, or neglecting what God is asking us to do, again as it is stated in his word.
We are to be God’s love slaves. We are either servants of God and righteousness or we are servants of sin and Satan. Whose master are you willing to serve under? Scott McKnight states it so succinctly. “The entire sweep of the Bible teaches that Christians in non-Christian environments are not to be worried about changing the environments as they are to remain faithful in whatever kind of environment they find themselves in.[xvii]
Environments can only be changed as people are transformed!
[i] I Howard Marshall, 1 Peter, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, (Downers Grove, IL: I. V. P Academic, 1991), 81-82.
[ii] Peter H. Davids, The First Epistle Of Peter, The New International Commentary of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 95.
[iii] R. C. Sproul, 1-2 Peter: An Expositional Commentary, (Orlando, Fl: Reformation Trust, 2019), 58.
[v] Thomas Schreiner, I, 2 Peter, Jude, The New American Commentary, vol. 37, (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2003), 121.
[vi] Ephesians 4:22-29, The New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[vii] Matthew 5:11-16.
[ix] 1 Peter 2:13-15.
[x] Wiersbe, W. W. The Bible exposition commentary, Vol. 2, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 403.
[xi] 1 Timothy 2:1-2.
[xii] Thomas Schreiner, I, 2 Peter, Jude, 130.
[xiii] 1 Peter 2:16-17.
[xiv] Edward Gordon Selwyn, The First Epistle of St. Peter, Second Edition, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1981), 174.
[xv] I Howard Marshall, 1 Peter, 85.
[xvi] Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 123.
[xvii] Scott McKnight, 1 Peter, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 118.