Aliens and Strangers

Dear friends, I warn you as “temporary residents and foreigners” to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against your very souls. Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world.

1 Peter 2:11-12, NLT

The instant God united us with Christ, our status changed. God naturalized us as citizens of heaven (Colossians 3:20). In the meantime, we reside as foreigners on earth –simply passing through this life. Living as a temporary resident in a foreign land entails a certain lifestyle and presents some unique challenges.

Foreigners don’t adopt the lifestyle of the country in which they’re visiting.[i]

My parents emigrated from the Philippines in the early 1960s, leaving behind many of their relatives. Throughout my childhood, I recall aunts and uncles coming to stay with us when they came to visit from the Philippines. At times, my relatives would stay with us for weeks and months at a time. My Filipino relatives never attempted to assimilate into American culture during their stay. They didn’t alter the way they dressed, unless it was a blustery Chicago winter. My relatives sampled a variety of American foods but they mostly ate Filipino food during their stay. Why? They planned on returning to their country. Likewise, Peter peels our eyelids back to help us see we’re merely travelers passing through this world.    

But we’re not merely passing through this world; the world itself is passing away. The Apostle John warns us not to let our world’s values seduce us away from God.

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you…For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. (1 John 2:15-17)

John uses the Greek word kosmos for “world,” which refers to a system of values that stands opposed to God. John pleads with us to resist the world’s overtures since the “world is fading away.” Unlike our world today, the citizens of our heavenly home will not organize their lives around the pursuit of sensuality, soulless materialism or success-inflamed egotism. Two values will tower above all others in our heavenly country. The citizens of heaven will absorb themselves in finding ways to enhance their relationships with God and with people.

After all, these will be the only things left standing after Christ’s return. The Apostle Peter warns: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare” (2 Peter 3:10-11a). Peter concludes, “Since everything will be destroyed in this way…You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming” (2 Peter 3:11b-12).

People tend to watch foreigners closely.

We often view foreign people’s behavior as odd because it’s different. Several years ago, refugees from our Nepali ministry celebrated a special occasion by slaughtering a chicken on the sidewalk near the main entrance of our building. I remember the look of horror on people’s faces as they filed into the parking lot after the morning service. Likewise, people in our world look upon radical commitment to Christ as odd. This response dates back to ancient times.

As Christianity exploded in the Roman world, accusations began circulating about its practices. During the 2nd century AD, people accused Christians of a variety of crimes that included cannibalism and incest.[ii] Of course, we can easily imagine how they came to these conclusions. Believers referred to each other as “brother” and “sister” even though they were married. The charge of cannibalism probably stemmed from confusion over communion. Non-Christians observed believers talking about eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood. They concluded Christians were literally consuming human flesh and drinking blood.

Today, we come under even greater scrutiny when people discover we’re Christians. They furrow their brows when they see us live below our means to give generously to the poor. Or they raise questions about our sanity when we walk away from a promising career to maintain our involvement at church.    

Foreign people often face mockery and rejection.

At times, our peculiar behavior may draw ill-treatment from our family and friends. People fear and distrust that which they don’t understand. Our family, friends or co-workers may mock us for straying from what our world expects.

Noah faced this during his day. God warned Noah about a catastrophic deluge he would send on the land for the evil deeds of the people. And he instructed Noah to build an enormous ark, a flat-bottomed boat, made of gopher wood.

Can you imagine the ridicule you would face building an enormous ark in the middle of a semi-arid region? Your neighbor comes out of her house and asks, “What are you working on?” You respond, “An enormous barge. God told me he plans to send a worldwide flood to destroy all life on earth.” She raises their eyebrows with a slight chuckle and asks, “A flood?”

Noah must’ve endured this for years as he built the Ark. His neighbors walk by his property. “How’s the boat coming along? Did you hear the forecast?” they ask. “Cloudy, with the chance of a worldwide flood,” they snicker.   

Put yourself in Noah’s position. God warns you he will send a worldwide flood as judgment upon human evil. Year after year, decade after decade, you construct an ark that will save you and your family. Your neighbors shake their heads when they see you. They point, covering their mouths as they sneer. Then one day, you feel a rain drop.

The Apostle Peter sheds further light on Noah’s life. “If [God] did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others... then the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials” (2 Peter 2:5). I’ve always projected a picture of Noah in my mind as this crazy recluse, mumbling to himself in desert. Instead, he was actively warning people about God’s coming judgment. In the same way, we shouldn’t sit back smugly awaiting God’s vindication. We should warn people of God’s judgment and lovingly plead with them to receive Christ’s forgiveness.

The Apostle John reveals the motive, which drives the world to mistreat God’s followers. It’s the same motive that resulted in the first murder.

Why did [Cain] kill [Abel]? Because Cain had been doing what was evil, and his brother had been doing what was righteous. So don’t be surprised, dear brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. (1 John 3:12-13)

Abel’s righteous life exposed Cain’s sin by way of contrast. In the same way, living for God will draw an attack from the world since living for God uncovers its rebellion. 

Persecution catches some believers off guard. Many enter the Christian life in the midst of a fiery trial. They often look to Christianity for relief from suffering. Yet, Jesus cautions all who seek to follow him. 

If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first. The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you…Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you. (John 15:18-20, NLT)

The Christian life doesn’t provide a way to flee from suffering; it provides a way to face suffering. Our identity in Christ makes us a target for persecution. The certainty of Jesus’ statement might even make you ask this question: What does it mean if I rarely face persecution or rejection for Christ?

Our Response

Peter advises his audience to remove any valid accusations that was drawing negative attention. “Keep away from worldly desires that wage war against your very souls. Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors” (1 Peter 2:11). Peter uses the Greek word for “keep away,” which often refers to maintaining self-control over one’s appetites and desires. This word frequently appears in Greek ethical writing.[iii] The Greek moral philosophers held up self-control as a virtue. Thus, Peter entreats his audience to maintain (at the very least) his culture’s standard of moral conduct.

However, Peter wasn’t suggesting this so they could escape suffering. He wants their conduct to bring people to know Christ. “Even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world” (1 Peter 2:12).

As false accusations about the church were swirling around the ancient world, people could not ignore its good deeds. The Roman Emperor, Julian the Apostate, who virulently persecuted church in the 300s AD, wrote:

Why do we not observe that it is [the Christians’] benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead, and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism [ironically this meant Christianity]? For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.[iv]

Even though rumors circulated about Christians in the early church, the watching world could not deny the love they expressed in caring for the poor. This love eventually won over most of the known world to Christ.   

Lord, may we never grow discouraged as we face rejection for sharing the message of Christ and living radically for you. I pray that we would neither retaliate nor retreat. Instead, help us to live in such a way that causes people to scratch their heads and marvel at the love we radiate. Amen. 

[i]Jobes, Karen H. 1 Peter. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005. 169.

[ii] Marcus Minucius Felix,Octavius

[iii]Jobes, 1 Peter, 170. “As far back as Plato (e.g., Phaedo 82.C; 83.B; Laws 8.835E), the collocation of this verb and noun is found in the Greek ethical tradition

[iv] Julian, Letter to Arsacius, 429C (Wright, LCL).