“Sojourners and exiles.” When Peter wrote his first letter to new believers living in Asia Minor, that’s how he addressed them. Not that they had relocated. For all we know, they were living in the same homes in the same towns that they’d always lived in. They hadn’t moved. But they had become resident aliens – living in one country, belonging to another.
What exactly made them aliens? How were they meant to stand out?
Christians aren’t set off by a specific sort of clothing. We don’t have our own styles of music. We don’t have our own language or even a distinct way of talking. We don’t belong to a specific class or ethnicity. We don’t have unique dietary restrictions. We don’t all live in or hail from a specific geographical area. We aren’t defined or distinguished by any of the things that normally mark off one people from another.
So, what is it that makes Christians to be aliens wherever we go? Peter’s answer is crucial for how we understand our place and engage the communities and cultures where God has placed us. What makes Christians aliens, even in their hometowns, is hope. Hope defines us and distinguishes us.
In 1 Peter 1:3, Peter says God has “caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Born again to a living hope. Think of “birth” as a shorthand for the things that make up who you are.
Peter’s readers were born into an identity. Maybe some were Romans. Maybe others were born into specific tribes with long histories and strong group solidarity. Perhaps they came into a family trade like fishing or carpentry.
Whatever may have defined them before, because of God’s love, by the power of God’s Spirit, they now were born again. And what identity comes with this new birth? Hope. Hope is the family resemblance people recognize. Hope is the family culture. And hope is the family birthright.
In 1 Peter 1:4, Peter explains this hope as an inheritance so precious and unprecedented that he can only describe what it is by describing what it’s not:
> Imperishable: It won’t wither and die like everything else.
> Undefiled: It can’t be corrupted by our selfishness, our fear of losing it, our pride over it, or our unrealistic and disappointed expectations of it.
> Unfading: It won’t bring joy that flares up and then burns out, leaving you wondering what’s next.
This inheritance, grounded on the work of Christ and guarded by God’s power, defines the life of the Christian.
This same hope that grounds our lives as Christians also sets our lives apart from who we once were and from the lives of those whose hopes are different. In Peter’s first chapter, setting up a section on Christian holiness, he describes a before and after that hinges on hope. “Do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance.” (1 Peter 1:14). That was then. Now, instead, “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:13)
It’s not that Christians are hopeful now when they weren’t hopeful before. It’s that we now live with a different hope than what we lived with before, and it fuels a different passion. In our ignorance, we set our hopes in the near-at-hand and kept our horizons low. We were carried along by our wants, wave by wave, rolling toward all sorts of quick-hitting pleasures and short-term possessions. We look for a meaningful life in the realm of the perishable, the defiled, and the fading.
One mark of the new birth is a new perspective on the impermanence of those hopes on which we were tempted to build our lives. I think that’s why Peter, writing again of the new birth (1 Peter 1:23–24), fills out his meaning with a quote from Isaiah:
Isaiah 40:1 “All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.”
Peter reminds them that everything they formerly hoped in withers, and why they’ve now built on the only hope that can stand the test of time.
It’s with the image of withering grass as his backdrop that Peter describes the Christian as a spiritual house built on a new and better cornerstone, “a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious.” (1 Peter 2:4–5). It’s an unmistakable contrast: the grass that withers, the flower that falls, and the cornerstone that rests in its place forever.
Of course, many ways exist for Christians to show their alien identity. Much of what Peter writes from this point lays out these differences, one by one. But behind them all, fuelling them, is this living stone of hope on which the Christian’s life depends for everything.
This hope implies a different way of treating each other (1 Peter 2:1–3). When you know the glory of flesh falls like a dried-up flower, why envy what others have or pretend you’re better than you are? Why cling to what you can’t keep when you know you have an imperishable inheritance nothing can take away?
This hope creates a different posture toward power (1 Peter 2:13–3:7). If only the fittest survive, then power is everything, but if your life is guarded by God’s power, you’re free to honour Him in any condition and do good even to those who don’t deserve it.
This hope inspires a different response to suffering (1 Peter 3:13–17; 4:12–19). When our horizons don’t stretch beyond life in this world, suffering is only ever loss. We might see it as shameful and deserved, or it might be tragic and unexpected, but one way or another it is always and only loss. But not with Christ as the cornerstone. One with Him, we expect something of what He went through. But one with Him, we also expect our suffering to be productive and fully redeemed, just like His was.
Surely all of us resonate with Peter’s categories in one way or another. But his list was never meant to be exhaustive. His letter is an invitation to take up the work of lifelong self-examination, in the context of our Christian communities, asking one another: How has hope changed you?