The book of First Peter describes a church situation that bears striking resemblance to the Church in America today. During the writing of First Peter, Christians were regularly marginalized and viewed with suspicion. This was not government sanctioned persecution, that would begin later under the Roman Emperor Nero.
Rather the Christians during the writing of 1 Peter experienced the soft persecution of verbal attacks, slander, and social ostracism. Those challenges sound eerily similar to what followers of Jesus experience today. What is astounding is that in the midst of these trials Peter felt the need to remind these churches that they were living in exile.
Peter addresses Christians living in Asia Minor (essentially modern day Turkey). These Churches were suffering, struggling and desperately looking for hope. And in verse one we read, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion…” (1 Peter 1:1). The very first thing that Peter does is remind these Christians that they are exiles.
The Church in Exile
The Biblical theme of exile becomes for Peter the lens by which the church ought to view herself and the posture by which she lives in the world and engages the broader culture. Exiles are foreigners, living in a land that is not their home, temporarily residing in the place of their exile. Using the notion of “foreignness,” New Testament scholar Karen H. Jobes says,
“The controlling concept for how Peter wishes his readers to understand themselves and their engagement with society is as visiting foreigners and resident aliens. Foreignness is one of the hallmarks of God’s ancient people Israel, as they were scattered, first by the Assyrians and finally by the Babylonians, away from Jerusalem’s theocracy with its temple, priest, prophet and king, and into various cultures and societies around the Mesopotamian and Mediterranean worlds.”
Very few Christians in America today understand themselves as exiles. Even fewer churches understand themselves as an exilic community. At best followers of Jesus think of the exile as something that happened “back then.” But it is my contention that if the church in America is going to remain resilient under pressure and continue to be salt and salt to the world, then she needs to rediscover her exilic identity.
The History of the Exile
In Old Testament history the people of God experienced the painful reality of exile. First, the Assyrian Empire brought Israel into exile. Then over a hundred years later, the Babylonian Empire brought Judah into exile. The most famous Biblical character during the exile was Daniel. He was a prophet of God, uprooted from his home, made to live and work in Babylon. He was surrounded by an anti-God culture that ridiculed him, slandered him, and at key moments legally required him to worship other gods. Against these challenges he resists. When ordered to stop praying to his God, Daniel refused and would rather face the lion’s den than compromise his faith.
Neither does Daniel go to the other extreme. He doesn’t plot the destruction of Babylon. He doesn’t take up arms against Babylon or lead a violent mob. In fact he uses his God given wisdom to help the king (Dan 1:20)! He interprets the king’s dream, saving the lives of countless so-called “wise men” while earning favor and position within this pagan society (Dan 2:24). Even the evil men seeking to do Daniel harm conclude that they “could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent” (Dan 6:4).
The Way of the Exile
In his devotion to God, there were some lines Daniel would never cross, and he was ready to die rather than compromise. And yet, in countless other situations Daniel used his gifts to bless the corrupt city. Time and time again in the face of persecution and threats, Daniel entrusted himself to God. He resisted conformity to the culture, preserving his faith, but neither did he run away or lead a revolt. Daniel stayed, refusing compromise while seeking the good of the city. Neither conformity or withdrawal, despair or violence. That is what life is like for the people of God in exile. Daniel would live on in the memory of God’s people as a model of faith in a time of exile (Ezekiel 14:14).
The wonderful people at the BibleProject created a video that describes The Way of the Exile. If you have 5 minutes, this video is worth your time.
A Theology of the Exile
The historic exile refers to a specific event in history, but the theological idea of exile goes all the way back to Genesis 3. God “exiled” Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden after they sinned. Made to sojourn as foreigners in the wilderness, they were homeless and uprooted from the garden. The great hall of faith in Hebrews 11 describes the patriarch Abraham and countless other heroes of the faith as sojourning in exile.
“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13).
If we are going to be the church as God designed us to be, then we need to reckon with the reality of our status as exiles. In fact, Jesus lived as a man in exile. Leaving His home (Heaven) He came as a sojourner to foreign place ravaged by sin. On earth Jesus found Himself misunderstood, slandered, and ultimately crucified. All of this was part of His mission to bring the people of God out of their spiritual exile. Even something as mundane as the genealogy of Jesus found in Matthew 1 makes the point that the life and ministry of Jesus is one of exile. Jesus recapitulates the exile of the people of God, He suffers the pain of exile so that He can lead sinful people out of sin and into salvation.
The Church in Exile Today
The letter of 1 Peter is a modern day manual for Christians who know themselves to be living in exile. “Peter is writing a travellers’ guide for Christian pilgrims.” Peter brings up the theme of exile again at the end of his letter, “She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings...” (1 Pet 5:13).
Babylon is not a reference to the physical city (in the first century it was puny & desolate), instead Edmund Clowney explains that Peter uses the name Babylon,
“in a symbolic way. He thinks of the Christian church as the people of God in exile and dispersion (1:1, 17; 2:9-11). Babylon was the great city of world empire for the Old Testament prophets; it was also the city of exile, where Israel lived as resident aliens. Peter’s use of the name ‘Babylon’ reminds his hearers that he, too, shares their status as a ‘displaced person’”
Christians are sojourners on earth, pilgrims in a sinful world on their way to their true home in Heaven. This is the life of the Church in exile. This is the way of Jesus.
The Way of Jesus is the Way of Exile
Jesus is the pioneer of our exilic faith. He charts the course and gives to us the supreme example of faithfulness in exile. His way is our way.
“21 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. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 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” – 1 Peter 2:21-23
Taking their cues from the life of Christ, exiles live as peculiar people in the world, avoiding the extremes of sinful conformity, complete withdrawal and violent revolt. Exiles refuse to conform to the world (1 Peter 1:14). But exiles also know that their biggest problem is not the sinful world outside of them, but the sinful heart within them (1 Peter 2:11).
Exiles don’t whine and complain about their loss of social and cultural influence. Instead, exiles never lose hope (1 Pet 1:3-9). They stand firm in the grace of God (1 Pet 5:12), living out their witness in word and deed (1 Pet 3:13-22). Exiles neither retreat nor riot. They don’t let the sin around them inflame the sin within them. They stay true to the way of Christ.
Exiles witness they don’t withdraw. They endure, they don’t revile. They resist, they don’t conform. How is that even possible? How can a community of redeemed people maintain their integrity under the pressure of persecution? When the world hates you, how do you maintain your faith in Christ with beauty and grace? Answer: you have an unshakeable hope in Christ, who will one day return in glory (1 Peter 1:13).
That is why at North Bay we are excited to begin a new sermon series on Sunday, January 31 called: 1 Peter: Unshakeable Hope for Exiles.