May 16, 2004

The Church and Society: Our New Identity
1 Peter 1:13-2:10

During our just-completed search for a new youth pastor, the final candidates were asked to describe what they thought were the major issues facing teenagers today. In each case, the candidates listed societal pressures and the related search for self-identity. Teenagers, they all agreed, are involved in a difficult search to discover just who they are. But the issue of identity is hardly limited to teenagers alone, is it? People going through mid-life crises often struggle to redefine their identities. Some even stand before a national audience on reality television shows to have their physical appearances totally altered. At one level or another, all of us think from time to time about our identity. Who are we? Where are we going?

In 1:1-1:12, Peter sought to encourage the Christian community scattered throughout five provinces in Asia Minor. Struggling with their identity and their place within the world, these believers apparently grew increasingly disheartened. In response, Peter reminds them that they have been given a new birth in Christ Jesus. Through this new birth, they have also been promised an inheritance that is eternal and absolutely priceless. “You are a people of hope,” Peter assures them, “and you will indeed receive the salvation of your souls.”

Given this assurance—this eternal hope—the question now arises as to the impact of this new birth and the promise on the lives of these believers. What Peter describes here in 1:13-2:10 is nothing short of an entirely new identity.

This shift of identity, first of all, involves a bolstering of our confidence. “Prepare your minds for action,” Peter begins. “Discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring when he is revealed.” Peter here refers to a rather common scene in the Middle East, even to this day in certain areas. Men typically wore long robes that, much like a wedding gown when a bride climbs these few steps, got in the way when the wearer needed to move quickly. At such times, the man tied up the garment to increase mobility. “Roll up your sleeves,” we might say today in a similar situation.

Note, importantly, that Peter ties this metaphor to our minds, for he clearly understands, as did Charles Allen, that “as we think, so we are.” The world through which we are traveling is complex and often unfriendly. It is full of issues and situations that will stretch us in multiple directions. We might, as was surely the case with these 1st century believers, be overwhelmed by the cruelty and danger in our world, or we might, as is often the case with contemporary Christians in our culture, be lulled to sleep by comfort and indifference. Recognizing our new identity in Christ, then, serves as a wake-up call of sorts. You are in Christ and the heirs of a wonderful inheritance. Therefore, stand to attention, think clearly, and live your lives with confidence. Your welfare, after all, does not rest on the forces of this world, but on the grace of God. Raise your head. Stick our your chest. You belong to God.

Our new birth, secondly, should profoundly affect our conduct. “Like obedient children,” Peter continues, using language that itself alludes to the idea of being born again. Note carefully Peter’s description of the type of conduct that ought to flow out of our new birth and in response to our promised inheritance. We are, first of all, to be holy (v. 15). Holiness, in its simplest form, denotes the idea of being set apart for God’s service. Although we live for a short time in this world, we live knowing that we belong to someone other than ourselves. We are no longer driven by earthly desires or consumed by thoughts of selfish gain. We are different, set apart, and committed to living our lives for God’s pleasure.

We are, furthermore, to live in reverent fear for as long as we have breath. The Bible speaks of two general types of fear. There is that fear which arises when one meets a ravenous lion on a dark night—panic or sheer terror. Peter clearly does not have that type of fear in mind, nor does he want us to imagine our heavenly Father looking scornfully over our shoulder in anticipation of our next slip-up. In fact, the love of God forever casts such fear out of our lives, replacing it with the confidence referred to in v. 13. This fear, rather, is the opposite of complacency and indifference. To live in reverence is to recognize that we have in fact been bought with a price, a price far more costly than any amount of silver or gold. When we recognize that the very blood of
Christ, God the Father’s unblemished lamb from the very beginning of time, bought our salvation, then we live with a certain degree of intentionality and purpose—life matters!

And as we live holy and reverent lives, we are also to live lives of love (v. 22). In holiness, we are set apart for God. In reverence, we are constantly mindful of God. In love, we are relating to others like God. Love lies at the very heart of God. Love is what he is. As a result, it only stands to reason that those of us who are born into his family are to love deeply as well.

It is crucial that we realize, however, that these changes in our conduct grow out of our inner transformation and are a result of our new birth. We too often get things backward here, even those of us who should know better. Peter’s depiction of Christian conduct here does not take the form of a to-do list that is burdensome and overwhelming. These are not commandments that we must follow in order to achieve our new birth or to earn our inheritance. On the contrary, these are alterations that grow out of the new heart that God gives us.

This basic thought Peter makes quite clear in 2:1, when he follows these calls to holiness, reverence and love with a strong imperative for us to remove all the garbage in our lives: “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.” This list, as you well know, mentions but a few of the dastardly deeds and attitudes that ought to fall away when we are born again. Paul’s better known list in Galatians 5 mentions fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, and carousing as other examples. But we miss the point of our passage if we see these instructions as mere rules that we are forced to follow.

In reality, Peter invites us to “rid ourselves” of such thoughts and activities, an invitation not possible outside of Christ. The image he uses is one of removing clothing—“take them off.” During the summer between my senior year in high school and my freshman year in college, I worked for ALPO pet foods. My responsibilities varied from night to night—I worked 3rd shift—and all of the college students were in a cycle of sorts. As I recall, there were four or five stations. One involved tapping cans as they passed by on a conveyor belt in order to isolate any that were empty or only half full. Another required us to throw bones into a grinder to produce a mush that was then added to the dog food. But my favorite job that summer—I could hardly wait for my turn!—required me to shovel dog food off of a long drain that ran parallel to the canners. Any food that fell off of the canners ended up on this drain, and my job was to retrieve it and return it to the canners. It was 126 degrees on that drain! Do you have any idea what I looked like after an 8-hour shift? Do you think anyone had to force me to take a shower when the bell finally rang?!? I could hardly wait to take those sweaty, stinky clothes off, jump in the shower, cover myself with soap, rinse, and finally put some fresh, clean clothes on. What a wonderful feeling.

So it is here with respect to our former ways of life. When we are born anew into God’s family, those old ways of living begin to stink—or at least they should. Being told to remove them is hardly burdensome, then, any more than it was burdensome for me to take off my work clothes and shower after a long night at ALPO. It’s not law. It’s grace. Take them off—those nagging habits and sinful ways. Those burdensome attitudes and destructive thought-patterns. Take them off, and put these clean clothes on instead—holiness, reverence and love. When we recognize the possibilities that come with our new birth, we should want to jump into the shower. We really have an entirely new identity. God is not seeking simply to make us church goers. He has set his sights considerably higher than that. God wants to transform each and every one of us into entirely new creations.

Realizing that we have been born again and that a wonderful inheritance awaits us affects our confidence and our conduct. But Peter isn’t quite finished just yet. Such a realization, he concludes, should also profoundly affect our concentration. Did you notice that in 2:2? “Like newborn infants”—the new birth language again—“long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation.” Peter then throws in what appears to be a rather humorous side comment—“…if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” In Peter’s mind, one can hardly taste the goodness of God without wanting more. To not long for true spiritual milk suggests to him that a person has never actually tasted of God in the first place.

And it is true, isn’t it? Once you have tasted the real thing, you’re never quite satisfied with anything less. I don’t know about you, but fat free, sugarless ice cream—if we can even call it ice cream—is hardly a substitute for the real thing. For those who have been born anew, our concentration shifts from the many substitutes and attractions offered by the world to the Lord himself. Other things just lose their value.

Soren Kierkegaard, the Dutch philosopher, referred to this new level of concentration—this shift in focus—as the ability for us as Christians to will one thing. “Father in Heaven!” Kierkegaard writes,
What are we without You! What is all that we know, vast accumulation though it be, but a chipped fragment if we do not know You! What is all our striving, could it ever encompass a world, but a half-finished work if we do not know You: You the One, who is one thing and who is all!
Give to us—young and old—the perseverance, patience and resolution to will only one thing.

Peter here clearly assumes that our new identity in Christ will move our concentration away from ourselves and onto the Lord. Viktor Frankl described such a movement, though in a far different context, as a movement from thoughts of self-actualization to thoughts of self-transcendance. In Peter’s description of our identity in Christ, we stop thinking so much about ourselves—our needs, our wants, our hurts, our pains—and we think more and more about God and the work that he is doing in and through us. We move, once we begin to fully realize our new identity, from obsessing on ourselves to obsessing on God. And when we do, it makes an incomprehensible difference in terms of how we live our lives in the world around us.

Peter, so it seems, wants desperately for these threatened believers to recognize just who they are. “This is who you are,” he repeats again and again. “Though rejected by mortals, you are chosen and precious in God’s sight.” Now, live like you believe it. Be confident. Take off your dirty rags and put on clean clothing. Eat real food. Enjoy the Lord. Peter, in fact, wants so much for his readers to appreciate their new identity that he concludes this section of his letter with one more stirring image. Once again, he reaches back to the Old Testament and applies here to Gentile believers terms that would formally have been reserved for Jews. Writing to these early Christians who struggled with their identity and felt relegated to the fringes of their society, Peter simply states: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” These same people who were once nobodies are now God’s prized possession, entrusted with the task of declaring his mighty acts throughout the world.

Our situation is in many ways different from that of these Christians in Asia Minor, but we too face the ongoing questions of what it means to be a Christian in the world. Who are we? How do we relate to our society? What is our role in the world? I know of no better response than the one given by Peter nearly 2000 years ago to a collection of believers who ate, breathed, and slept just like we do. This is who you are:
…a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
Once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.
Now be confident. Put on clean clothes. And enjoy the Lord.