I had lunch recently with a very close friend whom I’ve known for over 50 years. In the course of our conversation he told me about the trouble he faced when he and his wife decided to sell their home and purchase a new one. When they applied for a mortgage loan, they were denied funding because his credit rating came back at a horribly low level. After a bit of investigation, he discovered that his identity had been stolen. One credit agency had him living in Texas, although he was living in Oklahoma and had all his life. Another had him listed as dead! It took him nearly two years to set the record straight and restore his credit rating!
I suspect that more than a few of you have had your identity stolen and have experienced the massive inconvenience that it entails.
I want you to think with me in this article in terms of identity theft, but not the sort that my friend endured. I’m talking about your identity as a Christian, one who has been created in the image of God and redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ. I’m also talking about the corporate identity of the people of God, the church.
Many Christians have suffered the loss of their identity or at minimum are very confused about it. They simply don’t know who they are. And the results are devastating. It’s no less true when it comes to our corporate identity as the church. Who are we? How do we think of ourselves? What image comes to mind when you think of your local church? What gives shape to your self-understanding? Is it the culture that defines who you are? Or perhaps it’s the secular media or the government in some capacity.
Who are you? Whose are we? Perhaps at no time in the history of the church has this been so urgent a question and so crucial an issue.
Asking that sort of question typically generates all sorts of answers. You are what you eat. You are what you drive. You are what you wear. You are what other people perceive you to be. You are whatever you want yourself to be.
For the Christian, our identity is defined by God and our relationship to him. Who you are is not in the power of anyone else to determine. You are not what your parents called you or did to you. You are not what you earn in terms of annual income. You are not how people have treated you. You are not what you look like. You are not how you feel. You are, instead, always and ever who God says you are. You are what he is in the process of making you to be.
One of Satan's primary weapons is the lie. He is committed to deceiving you into believing you are not what, in fact, you are, and that you cannot do what, in fact, you can. Why is this important to know? Because as Neil Anderson has said, “No person can consistently behave in a way that is inconsistent with the way he perceives himself” (43). If you perceive yourself to be a failure and a fool, of no use to God or other Christians, you’ll end up living that way. If your core identity is that you are worthless and an embarrassment to the Lord Jesus, that will shape and govern what you do or don’t do. That is why Satan will try to persuade you that you are:
• wasting your time to confess your sins (God won't listen),
• inferior to other believers,
• destined always to fall short of their successes,
• a hopeless victim of your past,
• helpless to change your future,
• a pathetic excuse for a Christian,
• owned by Satan,
• now what you will always be (no hope for improvement),
• beyond the reach of prayer, etc.
This is why we need to listen carefully to what the apostle Peter says in his opening greetings in 1 Peter 1:1-2.
“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you” (1 Peter 1:1-2).
The apostle’s purpose for writing was to encourage Christians who were suffering persecution, calling on them to persevere and to live upright and godly lives in the presence of their Christ-rejecting enemies.
Most of those to whom he wrote were Gentile converts to Christianity. They are further identified in v. 1 as “exiles” and again in 1:17 as being in “exile” and again in 2:11 as “sojourners and exiles.”
Some argue that this terminology refers literally to their political and social status. In other words, the people were literally foreigners in the land where they lived. They lacked citizenship and the rights that come with it. They probably lived on the fringes of society, disenfranchised, suffering both economic and political oppression. Whereas that’s possible, I don’t think that is what Peter had in mind in using this language.
My sense is that Peter is describing not so much their social standing but their spiritual condition. Christians, whether in Pontus in the first century or Pittsburg in the 21st, are God’s pilgrim people, sojourners on the earth. Followers of Jesus, whether in Galatia or Germany, Bithynia or Bosnia, are aliens in this world, displaced from their true home, which is the New Jerusalem, the heavenly city that God has prepared for those who love him. We are but resident aliens on this earth.
Referring to Abraham and the other patriarchs of Israel, the author of Hebrews describes them in these terms:
“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. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (Heb. 11:13-16).
Peter’s way of describing the recipients of his epistle brings us directly back to this issue of our core identity as the people of God. So let’s unpack his language and see what we can learn about who we are and whose we are!
The first and most important thing Peter says about them (and us, all who are believers in Jesus) is that they are not merely “exiles” but elect or chosen exiles.
All Christians who believe in the authority of the Bible believe in election. They differ greatly over what election means and the basis on which God chooses sinners to inherit eternal life. But if you believe in the Bible you believe in election.
(1) The verb to “choose” or to “elect” (eklego) is found twenty-two times in the New Testament, seven of which refer to men and women as the objects of election to eternal life (Mark 13:20; Acts 13:17; 1 Cor. 1:27 (twice),28; Eph. 1:4; James 2:5).
(2) The noun “elect” (eklektos) is also used twenty-two times in the New Testament, seventeen of which remaining refer to men and women as God’s “elect,” those chosen to eternal life (Matt. 22:14; 24:22,24,31; Mark 13:20,22,27; Luke 18:7; Rom. 8:33; Col. 3:12; 2 Tim. 2:10; Titus 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1; 2:9; 2 John 1,13; Rev. 17:14).
(3) The word which means “election” (ekloge) is used seven times, all of which refer to salvation (Acts 9:15; Rom. 9:11; 11:5,7,28; 1 Thess. 1:4; 2 Peter 1:10).
(4) The word frequently translated “to predestine” or “to predestinate” (proorizo) is found six times in the New Testament, four of which refer to the predestination of people to salvation (Rom. 8:29,30; Eph. 1:5,11).
There are other Greek words that are used to describe this act of God’s sovereign, saving choice of sinners, but that’s enough for now!
Note carefully how Peter describes them and us: elect exiles! At first glance, that seems like a contradiction in terms. To be an exile is to be rejected. To be elect is to be selected! But there’s no contradiction here. We are rejected by this world precisely because we’ve been elected by God. God has made us exiles in the earth, resident aliens, when he chose us out of the world for himself and destined us for an eternal and heavenly inheritance.
Although they are scattered and dispersed to the far fringes of the Roman Empire, they are central to God’s purposes, held with great affection in his heart, chosen and called to an extremely privileged position.
Although they are currently in exile, socially marginalized, on the fringes of society, exposed to hostile powers, they are God’s chosen ones and destined for eternal and heavenly glory.
Their social standing and disenfranchised status may have led to a feeling of being forgotten and cast aside, but the Father has drawn them near and close to his heart. Though excluded, powerless, homeless, ill-at-ease in a foreign land, they are on their way to that eternal inheritance kept for us in heaven (v. 3).
As God’s elect and chosen children we are always “at home” in our relationship with God although we are “exiles” when it comes to this earth.
It’s important for us to see that the first thing Peter wants his readers to understand about themselves (and the first thing you need to understand about yourself), is that we are all God’s elect, his chosen children. Our identity isn’t fundamentally that this world has rejected us but that God has selected us. Our rejection is the result of his election!
Peter isn’t afraid of the doctrine of election: he trumpets it aloud as foundational to our understanding of who we are. Our existence finds its meaning in our being chosen by God.
Many today are afraid of doctrine and of theology. They regard it as stifling, divisive, and lacking practical value. I think Peter would greatly disagree. Understanding God’s sovereign initiative in our salvation, understanding how and why and to what end he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world is absolutely essential to successfully navigating our way through this alien world as exiles; it is absolutely essential to our living holy and righteous lives in a lost and morally corrupt world.
In fact, Peter goes so far as to teach us three things about election here in the very first sentence of his letter. We’ll look at this in some detail in the next post.