Well do please take your Bibles in hand once again and turn back, this time to 1 Peter chapter 2. We’ve been working our way through 1 Peter. You’ll find our passage this morning on page 1015; chapter 2, verses 11 and 12. These two verses function something of a hinge at this part in 1 Peter. Up till now, he has been outlining for us general principles, both theological and practical, for our Christian lives. Beginning in the thirteenth verse of chapter 2, he’s going to press some of those principles into the specific context of our various relationships – citizens toward government, as wives and husbands, parents and children, and so on. So he’s about to get very practical indeed. And so verses 11 and 12 function as the hinge between these two major sections of the book.
I sometimes like to paint watercolors, you know. And the way I typically do it is to draw a little pencil sketch; really just an outline to give me a sense of dimension and proportion and make sure that I’ve done the composition correctly. But then, the details come when you start to add the paint and the color. There are washes of color and then there are particular brush strokes and that brings dimension and texture and movement. The details come later. That’s sort of what Paul is doing here. So in 11 and 12 you get the pencil sketch, and then in 13 through the end of the book he starts to fill in the details and apply it and press it home to the specifics of our lives.
Look at verses 11 and 12 with me just a moment before we begin and notice the central concern of the apostle Peter in these two verses. He wants to promote the practice of Christian holiness. That’s his burden in verses 11 and 12. He tells us first negatively, verse 11, “abstain from the passions of the flesh.” And then positively in verse 12, he wants our conduct to be “honorable among the Gentiles” and he wants us to do “good deeds.” So you see both negatively and positively his concern is for a life of Christian holiness. That’s the central concern of these two verses and as we consider it together, I want you to notice that Peter uses not quite two metaphors but two themes to structure his discussion. And so in verse 11 he’s going to tell us that the pursuit of holiness is war. The pursuit of holiness is war. Then in verse 12 he’s going to say the pursuit of holiness is also witness. It is war and it is witness.
Now that said, before we read the passage and begin to consider those themes, let me ask you please to bow your heads again as we pray.
O how we need Your help, Holy Spirit, to bring light into our sin-benighted minds. Show us the truth in the Word. Show us the truth about ourselves and our Savior. Help us to hate our sin and to abstain from the passions of the flesh; to get into and remain in the fight for holiness and to learn to be good witnesses. Would You do that among us now by this portion of Your Word for the glory of the name of Jesus, in whose name we pray, amen.
1 Peter chapter 2 at the eleventh verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“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.”
The Pursuit of Holiness is War
The Westminster Confession of Faith, which is the document that summarizes the sense in which the Presbyterian Church in America understands the Scriptures, the Westminster Confession has a marvelous chapter, chapter 13, that describes the nature and character and progress of holiness, the chapter on sanctification, the pursuit of holiness in the Christian life. And I commend it to you. It’s an extremely helpful chapter. I actually – just as an aside – I actually noticed, I did some work and noticed that the proof texts that are provided for the chapter on sanctification, if you take Sundays out, cover every day of the week. And so you could read through that chapter – every day of the month, rather, you could read through that chapter every day for a month and follow a different Bible text. If you were looking for a way to change up your quiet times and your daily readings from your regular routine, you might consider that. It’s a wonderful chapter on growing in Christian holiness. I want to read to you the second paragraph. It’s only really three paragraphs, the chapter, but the second paragraph is particularly relevant to our discussion this morning. It says that in the Christian, “Sanctification is throughout, in the whole man, yet imperfect in this life. There abideth still some remnants of corruption in every part, whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war; the flesh lusting against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh.”
There’s a marvelous pastoral balance in that statement, isn’t there? On the one hand, there’s some real encouragement. As the Confession summarizes the Scripture of teaching it says, “Look, the grace of God, when it’s broken into your life, when you became a Christian, has made you a new creature so that in every faculty of your human nature, there is renovation taking place. You are completely and in every sphere being remade into the image of Jesus Christ. It is throughout, in the whole man.” But there’s also marvelously helpful realism alongside of that. This renovation of our natures is imperfect in this life. Everywhere that grace touches and changes us, there still remains some remnants of our native corruption so that, the Confession says, reflecting the teaching of the Scriptures, that the whole Christian life, the normal Christian life is a life of conflict – “whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war.” That’s the Christian life – “continual and irreconcilable war.” It will never stop raging in your heart or mine if you’re a Christian until you’re face to face with Jesus; the conflict with sin in your heart. It is continual and it is irreconcilable. There is no truce to be signed, no peace to be made. The only way to end the war is in the final and absolute victory of holiness, of the principle of holiness implanted into your heart by the Holy Spirit over the remnants of our correction still festering within us. There is no surrender possible – “a continual and irreconcilable war.”
That’s actually what Peter is teaching us here in the eleventh verse of 1 Peter chapter 2. Would you look at it with me please? “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” It’s so important that we get this right. The passions of the flesh are not adorable puppies, you know, that merely need some house training as if our sinful passions only require some regulation to keep them moderate and out of sight. Our passions are not delightful eccentricities to be indulged as if our sinful passions were nothing more than the peculiarities of our nature. “It’s just the way I’m wired. I can’t help myself.” Our sinful passions are not old friends bringing us comfort as though our sinful passions were sent to be helpers bringing us relief at the end of a stressful day.
What are our passions really? Peter says they are our enemy, implacable, relentless, filled with hate. Their desire is our destruction. To be sure, the war that rages in our heart is sometimes prosecuted by our enemy, our passions, in a direct, frontal assault. Right? We’ve experienced that. There’s pressure brought to bear upon us to yield to the demands of lust or greed of pride or hate. Sometimes though, perhaps more often, our sinful passions wage a subtle and covert war. They lie to us about where peace, where rest can be found. Don’t they? They lure us into a deadly trap. They offer us satisfaction and they deliver only death. They sometimes point to good things – the good things with which God has blessed us in His grace, and then they carefully, slowly train us to love the gift more than the Giver and to assign meaning and find identity in possessing the gifts rather than in knowing and being known by the Lord Jesus Christ. Whatever the strategy, whether direct and overt or subtle and covert, the point is our hearts are battlefields. If we’re believers in Jesus, our hearts are battlefields and the combat never ceases.
And do notice the nature of the enemy. In our text, it is not the devil. He is our enemy, an angel of light seeking to deceive if such a thing were possible, even the elect of God. He’s our enemy – a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. The devil is our enemy, but not here in this text. The world is our enemy, often bringing to bear upon us peer pressure and gentle cultural influences that drip feed into our consciousness patterns of thinking and behaving that are contradictory to the law and character of our God. The world is our enemy, but not here in this text.
What is our enemy in this text? Peter says it is the “passions of the flesh.” In other words, there are enemies outside of us – the devil, the world – and we need to be aware of them, but we must be particularly alert to the enemy within; the enemy within. You know the famous Pogo political cartoon – “We have seen the enemy and he is us.” That’s Peter’s point. Or G.K. Chesterton’s, sadly probably apocryphal reply to the London newspaper essay question, “What is wrong with the world today?” Chesterton wrote in, “Dear Sir, I am. Yours sincerely, G.K. Chesterton.” That’s Peter’s point, isn’t it? That’s his point precisely. Or you remember the teaching of the Lord Jesus, Matthew 15:10 and following. “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person. What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart; and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.” The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. Sin resides not just in the words we say or the thoughts we think, not just in the duties we have left undone or in the indulgences to which we set our hands to perform. Sin blossoms to full flower in those things, to be sure, but its roots lie sunk deep in our hearts, in our passions. And so notice, Peter calls us to abstain from them not to toy with them, not to give them a little room to grow.
This made me think about those bonsai trees. Do you know the ones I’m talking about? Those little miniature Japanese trees that are carefully cultivated? I always thought they were a special species of tree. I turns out they’re not and they grow to normal sizes in nature, but it has to do with the way they’re cultivated that miniaturizes them. And I think we think about our sin like one of those little bonsai trees. We really don’t want a full sized lust tree or a full sized rage tree or a full sized greed tree to grow in our hearts. That’s unseemly, embarrassing even. “But one of those little bonsai things in just a little carefully cultivated, closely pruned lust you know? Kept in its place; never allowed to take over. Just a little greed, a little pride. Where’s the harm in that?” Abstain, Peter says, from the passions of the flesh. There’s no place in the Christian life for a little hate or a little idolatry or a little covetousness.
We never get to say to our sin what you might sometimes find yourself in the awkward position of having to say to a former college roommate who shows up at your door unannounced one day and asks for a place to stay. You might have to say to them, “Oh well, okay. You can stay. But stay quietly. You can stay, just don’t make a mess. You can stay so long as you don’t disrupt my routine.” You may have to say that to an old college roommate who shows up unannounced one day, but you never get to say that to your sin. Sin will lie to you. Sin will say, “If you let me stay, I’ll be a great houseguest. Just let me stay on the sofa. You know, you’ll never know I was here.” And all the while your enemy is plotting your destruction; sowing the seeds of your downfall. Peter says sin is never a safe houseguest in your heart. “Never. Abstain. Do not touch. Do not handle. Do not taste” – when it comes to sin, is good advice. Zero tolerance is the Christian’s rule. Maybe we need to be uprooting some of those little bonsai trees in our hearts. You know, they’re not out of control but they’ve been so carefully cultivated. Peter says get rid of it. Abstain. Don’t touch. Well look, that’s easier said than done. Isn’t it? Haven’t you found that to be true? “I hate my sin, but I love my sin. And so the battle rages on. Sometimes it’s a particularly ferocious fight.
Well Peter gives us two encouragements in verse 11, if you’ll look at it carefully, to help us stay in the combat zone. Look at what he calls them, how he speaks to them first at the beginning of verse 11. Do you see it? “Beloved,” he says, “I urge you to abstain.” He only called them “beloved” twice in this letter. First here and again in chapter 4 verse 12. So it’s significant when he does. I think one Bible version says something like, “Dear friends, I urge you.” That’s a particularly lame translation. Peter’s language is much stronger. We need to give it the full force of the word. He loves them. He loves them! He wants them to know that he loves them because he knows that they’re being called to costly spiritual combat with sin. In fact, he’s going to go on to explain in the remainder of the book that obedience to the claims of Jesus in their life will set them on a collision course with the culture so that they will suffer for Him. In fact verse 12, the very next verse, says something to that same effect. “They will speak against you as evildoers if you follow Jesus.”
And so he knows, he knows that following Christ sets you on a collision course with the values and priorities of the world. He knows that rooting up those little bonsai trees that are growing in your heart that you’ve been cultivating so long is costly. It’s hard and sore. And so he wants them to know as he gives them those exhortations that he loves them deeply. Love has been a theme we’ve noticed more than once in 1 Peter. Chapter 1 verse 1, remember, we saw that we are foreknown by God, which we said is really another way of saying we are foreloved by God. Chapter 1:22, “because you are loved by God, brothers, love one another,” he says. And now he says, “and to brothers, I love you as well.” We do need to know that we are loved by God. Above all else, in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, He has loved us and given His Son for us, but we mustn’t underestimate the impact and power of Christian love – one for another – in staying in the fight and making progress in our combat with sin. To know that we have each other’s back, that what accountability we find in the fellowship of the church is never a “gotcha” moment but always an expression of genuine brotherly love. We really do care and we’re in it together. And so he calls them “beloved.” It helps to know we are not fighting alone.
And the second help he gives us is the reminder of our identity. Notice in verse 11 he calls them “sojourners and exiles.” That echoes verse 1 of chapter 1, “elect exiles of the dispersion.” It echoes verse 17 of chapter 1, “conduct yourselves throughout the time of your exile with fear.” This is our identity. We are marginal, fringe, minority people if we follow Jesus in the eyes of the world. But this is the language – sojourner and exile – that Abraham used, precisely this language, to describe himself – Genesis 23:14. It’s the same language King David used to describe himself – Psalm 39:12. And now that is also true of us. We are their heirs, Peter is saying. We belong in their lineage.
You know it’s not uncommon in countries like the United States – if I may speak for a moment as an immigrant – for immigrants to form societies with their fellow compatriots from their homeland to hold on to their culture and heritage and language and customs because it’s hard when you are an immigrant in a new cultural context to preserve that cultural identity, to hold onto the distinctives of your homeland. Peter is really saying to us, when he calls us sojourners and exiles, he’s saying this is not home. This is not home. These are not your people and this is not your culture. You are a citizen of another world and I want you to be sure to embody and live out the characteristics, the cultural traits as it were, the language and manners of another world, of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. That’s where your citizenship really is. And I want you to live in the world as citizens of another world.
In Timothy Dudley-Smith’s two volume biography of John Stott, which I think is out of print but if you ever find it on Amazon or wherever, do yourself a favor and purchase a copy of both volumes. It’s an amazing and encouraging read. But in the first volume he tells the story of a Cambridge professor by the name of Basil Atkinson. He was an older man, a bachelor lifelong, an eccentric, a well-known eccentric in Cambridge, but he was also a bright, vibrant Christian man. And he loved particularly to preach in the open air to students in Cambridge which put him in the crosshairs for all sorts of ridicule, as you might imagine. He’s a Cambridge don; he’s a professor in an elite institution of higher learning and here he is preaching on street corners. And sometimes students would heckle him, as you might be unsurprised to learn, and one heckler one day asked him, “What do you know about heaven?” thinking the whole idea of heaven is preposterous and he’s making Professor Atkinson look foolish. But Atkinson smiled in that meek, sort of godly manner at the question, “What do you know about heaven?” He simply smiled and said, “I live there. I live there. I’m a citizen of heaven. I’ve come from another world. The definitive characteristics of a different culture are mine.”
How come he was able to stick his neck out like that and suffer such regular ridicule in the halls of learning? How come he was such a bright, godly man when following Jesus in that environment was so very costly? He was able to do it because he knew that his true homeland was not here, but it is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ and he lived and loved that homeland and wanted to embody its culture, its heritage, its language, and its manners. So he abstained from the passions of the flesh and learned to live for the praises of Jesus Christ. So Peter is saying first of all – do you see this – the pursuit of holiness is war. We need to know we’re loving one another, standing together in the conflict, and we need to remember who we really are. This is not home. We’re living for another world; living as citizens of that other world in the midst of these dark days. But we need to press on in the fight and abstain from the passions of the flesh. The pursuit of holiness is war.
The Pursuit of Holiness is Witness
But then secondly, look at verse 12. The pursuit of holiness is not just war but it’s also witness. The pursuit of holiness is witness. “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.” Verse 11 is the negative counsel, right? Abstain. Don’t touch. Don’t toy with sin. Leave it alone. It’s toxic. It’s poison. It’s your enemy trying to destroy you. The negative counsel. Verse 12 now is the positive counsel. “I want honorable conduct. I want good deeds.” And Peter, interestingly back in chapter 1:17, he reminded us that our Father is also our Judge who “will judge each one according to deeds and therefore we are to conduct” – that word is important – “conduct ourselves during the time of our exile with fear.” In other words, he’s saying, “You live Coram Deo – before the face of God. God sees, God judges, so conduct yourselves appropriately.” Now he says, “God is not the only one who is watching. The world is watching too.” That’s what he means by the Gentiles – the nations, the world of unbelief all around us. The world is watching too. And so again, he talks about being an exile and again he talks about how we should conduct ourselves. “Let your conduct be honorable because not only do we live Coram Deo, before the face of God, we live before the gaze of the world.”
And Peter, throughout this letter, is concerned about the response of the world and our testimony to the world. He says specifically that our conduct should be “honorable.” That’s an important and strategic word. It means “noble” or “virtuous” or “praiseworthy.” And it was used even by pagan Greek writers to celebrate civic virtue and nobility of character. So Peter is really saying to the Christians, “I want your conduct to be so honorable, decent, kind, generous, I want you to be good in your conduct and behavior to such an extent that even the pagans must acknowledge your fundamental decency. They can’t deny it. Even by their standards it’s clear that you are living on a different set of values.”
The whole point is, your life matters to your witness. Your life matters to your witness. You may well be zealous to speak about Jesus in the office, but if you can’t be trusted, you’re a shameless gossip, you’re lazy in self-indulgent. No matter how often you open your mouth to speak about Jesus, no one will listen to you, no one will take you seriously. Your life matters to your witness. But if you seek humbly, imperfectly to be sure, to live for Christ, you should expect two things. Verse 12 – not just that your non-Christian friends and colleagues and neighbors will notice – they will see your good deeds, he says – but also that they will not react well. You should expect that they will not react well. “Keep your conduct among them honorable, so that” – listen – “when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds.” Not, “if they speak against you,” but “when.” It’s an expectation that if you’re faithful to Jesus in your life, the world won’t like it.
Christians are an irritating lot. Aren’t they? And holy Christians are the worst of the bunch. They are kind and patient and they care about you and they’re guided by an ethic that is not derived from the expectations of their peers. And so they don’t just go with the flow and they don’t join in when everyone else is deriding and mocking that person in the office two doors down. They don’t pass along the juicy gossip. They don’t bend the rules just to be one of the gang. And it’s infuriating. But why is it infuriating? It’s infuriating mainly because Christians like that sting our consciences. We’re exposed. They expose us. They remind us of the sin festering in our own hearts and we don’t like it. So what do we do? Peter says we “speak against them as evildoers” – slander and mockery and subtle slights and social exclusion and the cold shoulder. Some of you here have been on the receiving end of some of that and you know how painful it can be. The pressure to compromise, to fit in, to be one of the guys, one of the gals, and just go along to get along. It can be enormous.
So why should you stick your neck out, stand your ground, live a painful life as an exile, an outsider for Jesus Christ, when to do so means they will speak against you as an evildoer? What does Peter say? Do it “so that when they speak against you as evildoers they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” Now it should be admitted that scholars are divided over that last phrase, “the day of visitation.” The majority report is that it is a reference to the return of Christ in judgment, and so they read Peter as saying something like, “I want you to live in such a manner that no matter what slander is thrown against you, when judgment day rolls around, even unbelievers will be forced to confess against themselves, in testimony against themselves, that you were a person of godly integrity.” And so they must concede in chagrin the glory of God, even as they are dispatched in the judgment to the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. It’s a solemn picture.
There is another group of scholars, however, who suggest that the day of visitation may also refer not only to the final day of judgment, the day of visitation, of wrath, but to another day – a day of the visitation of grace, the visitation of mercy erupting into a person’s life, as it were, ahead of time, long before judgment day rolls around in the wake of your witness as you live a life that is honorable before the Gentiles and they see your good deeds. Though once they slandered you, because of your witness, because you’re consistent, because the words you say and the life you lead match. God made you the human instrument that led that person to Christ, so that now where once they slandered you, now they give glory to God in the day of visitation.
Peter is saying, “What is your purpose as a Christian?” It is not comfort. It is not pleasure. It is not a happy, healthy home. It is not material prosperity. It is not temporal security. Your purpose is the glory of God. That is your great delight. It is your animating and governing concern – the glory of God. And he’s saying if only you would remember and fix your eyes on that as your great purpose you will see that, though painful, living for Jesus is the only way to achieve it. A costly life as a sojourner and an exile, abstaining from the passions of the flesh, staying in the fight for holiness and likeness to Jesus, that’s how God will be glorified – not only directly by you in praise and in obedience, but through you as His instrument either in the conversion of your unbelieving friends and family and neighbors or in their judgment as your obedient life leads them without excuse in the day of the visitation of the Lord. Keep the end in view. Make sure your goals and God’s design in your life align. You are for His glory, and when that becomes the great motive of your heart, you will endure every trial and all the slander hurled at you if you may make much of Him and display Him before the watching world.
And so to you who are waging the warfare for Christian holiness and it’s hard and sore and costly, Peter says keep the end in view. Keep God’s design at the center of your own great purpose and mission, His glory, and press on. And to you who find yourself still irritated by the testimony of that Christian roommate or Christian colleague or spouse or brother or sister or neighbor or friend, please will you understand what’s really going on, why you’re so irritated. It’s not that they think they’re better than you. “Oh look at him. He thinks he’s so superior.” That’s what you think, isn’t it? But it’s not that they think they’re superior to you. On the contrary, they know themselves to be guilty sinners. The difference is, they fled to Jesus for mercy and He’s forgiven them and now that forgiveness has erupted into their life, all they want to do is live to please Him. Sure, they sin and stumble. Of course they’re hypocrites. Who isn’t? Put your hand up if you’re not a hypocrite. Of course they are, but they are clinging to Jesus and trying to follow Him, and that’s why they live the way they do. Mercy has visited them. That’s why they live the way they live.
But friend, if you’re not a believer today, I want you to know that mercy, the same mercy that visited them is ready to visit you. Grace is ready to visit you. Jesus is ready to visit your heart. Maybe, instead of speaking against them a evildoers it’s time to join them. You know, to stop going with the flow and start beginning to swim against the stream a little bit; by the grace of God become a sojourner and an exile, a citizen of a different world through faith in Jesus Christ. This is not the home of those who know Him. We are headed for the home of righteousness and a land of glory and we would love for you to join us.
Well, Peter says, pursuing holiness is war. It’s war. If your life is one of endless peace and ease, it may be that you are not a Christian. Those who follow Jesus, the normal Christian life is a hard fought battle. There’s enormous comfort in that, isn’t there? Sometimes I’ve found myself wondering, “Why is it so difficult? I’m weary in this endless combat with the remaining sin.” And then you read the Scriptures and they say, “Oh yeah, that’s the normal Christian life. That’s how it will be till Jesus comes. It’s not special; it’s not unusual. You’re not unique. This is the way it is, so press on. Stay in the fight.” Abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul. Time to tear up those little bonsai trees you’ve been cultivating so carefully for so long. They are poison to your soul.
And pursuing holiness is witness. Peter says following Jesus is going to be noticed by the world and they’re not going to like it; it’s going to be hard. So get God’s glory firmly in your sights and go hard after His praise. Make that your great priority. We want to live for Jesus, don’t we? Brothers and sisters, don’t we want to live for Jesus so that the Gentiles might see our good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation? May it be a day of the visitation of grace ahead of time that they may join us in giving glory to God for Jesus Christ and not just a day of the visitation of judgment when our Savior returns, when the door closes, the window closes, opportunity is over. And so let’s live for Jesus, Peter says. Get in the fight and stay in the fight and bear bright eloquent testimony, witness to King Jesus who is now Lord and King in your heart.
Let’s pray together.
Lord we confess there have been times when we’ve tried to sign a truce with sin, where we’ve played with it, toyed with it like a pet, where we’re groomed and cultivated it like one of those little bonsai trees thinking, “What’s the harm in a little lust, a little pride, a little rage, a little hate, little idolatry?” not knowing and not seeing the subtle ways that sin poisons our souls, distorts our minds, and dishonors your name. Please will you forgive us for our indulgence and help us to hear again Peter’s call to abstain, to get in the fight and to wage a good warfare. And teach us too as we live for Christ that we live not only before Your gaze but before the eyes of the watching world so that we can live for Your glory through our testimony and perhaps even through the conversion of those who see and hear our testimony. Grant, O Lord, that our lives and our lips might match and mirror one another that what we say and how we behave might be consistent. Help us, by Your grace, for Jesus’ sake, amen.
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