Living among the Pagans

A Study of 1 Peter 2:11 – 3:7

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits us — 1 Peter 2:12

Introduction: Jesus-followers are pilgrims among pagans. First Peter describes Christians as cultural exiles who live as spiritual expatriates in a heathen world. Following Christ is not an easy thing; it is not safe. But every section of 1 Peter unfolds a new dimension of the adventure. For example, 1 Peter 2:11 to 3:7 is a critical passage that sets forth a principle and applies it in three arenas of life.

The Peter Principle (1 Peter 2:11-12)

Peter wrote: Dear friends, I urge you as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits us.

This is Peter’s grand thought. By pagans, he means non-Jesus-followers. We believers are like visitors on this planet, sent here on assignment. We have a responsibility to turn away from sinful patterns and to live such good lives that, even though the pagans may accuse us of doing wrong, when Christ returns they will have to praise Him for the testimony we were to them. In the following verses, Peter applies this, generally, to three areas. I say “generally” because we have to keep Peter’s purpose in mind. In the verses to come, Peter is not trying to establish a comprehensive theology about the three areas he mentions. He is simply telling us how the Peter Principle should work in these three situations.

1. Live a Good Life in the Political Arena (1 Peter 2:13-17)

The first is in the political arena. Verse 13 says: Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, who are sent by Him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil: live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the king.

This is difficult for Christians. Last Sunday I was at Reagan Airport in Washington sitting beside a man who was making copious notes on a stenographer’s pad with three different colored pens and two highlighters. I said, “Excuse me. You have very fine way of recording your notes. I’m curious about it.”

“I’m a reporter for the Washington Post,” he said. So I told him (nicely) I was frustrated because there is so little objective reporting now. Everything in opinion, on all sides of the aisles. He replied, “I hate it now. I’ve never seen this nation the way it is. I’ve reported from Iraq and Afghanistan, but I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve taken my frustrations home with me like I am doing now.”

We are a divided nation, and Christians are in a difficult place. On the one hand, we must stand up for moral issues that represent a biblical perspective. We have a right and a responsibility to speak biblical truth in the public square. On the other hand, we don’t want to alienate the very people we need to win to Jesus. This is the tightrope we’re walking. According to 1 Peter, we should be respectful. We should respect authority, whether it’s the President of the United States or the TSA workers at the airport, or the U.S. Army or the Metro police. We should speak respectfully and be as cooperative as possible. Verse 17 says: “Show proper respect for everyone… fear God, honor the emperor.” And remember, Peter lived during the days of Nero.

We should live such good lives among the pagans in the political arena that, though they accuse us of being wrong, they’ll have to praise God for us when Jesus comes again. But Peter is not crafting a comprehensive philosophy about politics. For example, you might ask, is there a time when we should not submit to governing authorities? Yes, there is. Who told us that? Peter himself, thirty years before. In Acts 5, Peter was hauled before the Counsel in Jerusalem and ordered to cease preaching Christ. He promptly disobeyed. The authorities were livid, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name. Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.” Peter’s answer has rung through the ages: “We must obey God rather than men.”

Thirty years later, he wrote, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority.” Had he changed his mind? No. He was simply showing us the balance. We’re to respect authority, but we must obey God rather than man. Many Christians throughout history today are persecuted because of this balance. It’s important to study Peter’s words and know how the Lord wants us to act as citizens of heaven who, in a lesser and temporary sense, are citizens of a nation like America.

Live such good lives among the pagans in the political arena that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits us.

2. Live a Good Life in the Workforce (1 Peter 2:18-25)

There’s another area in which we must exercise Christian decorum—the workforce. Since in Peter’s day the workforce was made up of slaves, he addressed them in verse 18:

Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps. He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in His mouth. When they hurled their insults at Him, He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly. He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by His wounds you have been healed.” For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

Peter was not giving us a comprehensive view on slavery. Bible-based Christianity has historically and adamantly fought slavery and human trafficking in all its forms. The New Testament provided truth leading to the abolishing of slavery. Paul told slaves to seek their freedom in 1 Corinthians 7 and he told Philemon that the slave Onesimus was their brother and should be treated like Philemon would treat Paul. Peter was simply telling slaves who had become Christians to represent Christ, even under hard conditions. He was telling them to apply his Peter Principle to their situation: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits us.”

We have to understand Peter’s purpose, because slavery demands civil disobedience. Remember the famous story of Frederick Douglass, 16, who rose up against his sadistic master and fought hand-to-hand for two hours. The man never again raised his hand against Frederick; and when the teenager found a chance, he fled to the north, became an AME preacher, and stirred the world with his oratory. Thank God for that. Peter wasn’t telling Roman slaves to perpetuate the institution of slavery. He was saying, If you are slave, as so many of you are, live such a good life among the pagans that even if they abuse you, they will be unable to deny your Christian integrity.

In our setting, we could transfer this principle to the workforce. Be the best employee possible. Don’t be difficult or hard to manage. Don’t do shoddy work. Represent the ethics and personality of Jesus on the job. Live such good lives among the pagans, that though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God when Jesus comes.

3. Live a Good Life at Home (1 Peter 3:1-7)

Finally, Peter applies this principle to marriage in chapter 3: Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the Word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.

In Peter’s day, many women were coming to Christ; but what about their husbands? How to win them? Here again, Peter is not speaking comprehensively. He was not telling wives to never verbally share the Gospel. He was saying: You cannot nag your husband to Christ, and if you’re mean of spirit you may never win him. He must see the beauty of Christ in you.

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.

Here again Peter was not speaking in comprehensive terms. He was not forbidding jewelry, but saying that husbands cannot be won to Christ by bracelets but by the inner beauty of Christ. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.

Peter is not telling women to tolerate abuse. He is simply applying his Peter Principle to marriage: Live such good lives among your family members that, even if they accuse you of wrongdoing, they may see your good deeds and glorify God. Peter ends with a word for husbands: Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.

In in the days of the Roman Empire and even now, men are often physically stronger than women. But husbands must use their use their strength to care for their wives, who are equal partners as heirs of the gift of life. And if a husband doesn’t treat his wife with true respect, it will damage the ability of his prayers to get through to God.

Conclusion: Peter is telling us how to leave a lasting legacy for the Lord, in the political arena, in the workforce, in the home. We want lives of enduring quality. As the Bible says, we come into this world with nothing and will leave with nothing. But our influence for Christ will endure through the generations. It’s easy to get caught up in the emotions of the moment and speak or act in an ugly way.  But Peter’s word is: In your nation, in your workplace, in your home—live such a good life among the pagans that even if they accuse you of being wrong or doing wrong, they will see your good works and praise the Lord Jesus for you when He returns.

In other words — we must be winsome to win some.