Conflict within and conflict without (III)
1 Peter 2:9-12 ESV
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 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.
11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
Last post we considered “conflict within” and previously I reminded you how God’s saints have been made to be God’s people in order to show, declare, proclaim God’s praises and Peter is now urging them to do that. Peter urges them “to abstain” and then, in verse 12, he urges them “to keep your conduct honorable”. We could say that he strongly urges them to abstain and maintain. Stop doing certain things and continue doing certain other things.
Again, it’s worth repeating, these aren’t just instructions that he’s throwing out because they sound like a good idea. They are given in a context that shows that there are important reasons for these instructions.
Peter’s instructions are given because believers in Christ live in a context of conflict and his instructions make it clear that there is both conflict within and there is conflict without.
Let’s now give consideration to the:
We see this conflict in verse 12 where Peter says: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation”. You see the conflict there in the words “when they speak against you”. That’s the language of opposition and conflict again isn’t it? But, this time, it’s not a conflict that is raging within. This is an external conflict. It’s other people who are against us and attacking us. It is an external conflict.
Who is this external enemy who is “against you”?
The answer from the text is that it is “the Gentiles”. What does Peter mean by that? Aren’t we Gentiles? Weren’t his readers mainly Gentiles? Isn’t part of the glory of the church of Jesus Christ that it consists of both Jews and Gentiles? Yes it is but that is referring to those who are Jewish or Gentile in an ethnic sense. In this context, where Peter has just been speaking of believers in Christ as being God’s people, what Peter means by “Gentiles” is unbelievers. It’s those who are to God’s New Covenant people in Christ as the ethnic Gentiles were to God’s Old Covenant people. So, by “Gentiles” here he doesn’t mean those who are ethnically non-Jews. He means all who are not God’s people so he’s referring to all who do not share our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. So, unbelievers are against us and that is where the conflict stems from.
Notice that Peter said “so that when they speak against you as evildoers”. You see, it’s “when” not “if”. Peter is not just saying that there’s a remote possibility of opposition from unbelievers. No, it’s inevitable. There’s a certainty about it. We are to expect it. Peter is eager that we as strangers and sojourners in this world do not take a “head in the sand” approach. He wants us to realise that we can’t just keep our heads down, keep a low profile and expect to live our lives as God’s people in this world and remain unopposed. We face an inevitable external conflict.
So, how are we to handle ourselves in the context of this external conflict?
In the case of the internal conflict we saw that the right response is to run away. Is that how we are to respond to the external conflict as well? Well, no it’s not. This time, in this external conflict, the answer is not to run away. Peter says “keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable”. We’re to “keep”, or we could say “maintain”, something. Rather than saying “run away” he’s now saying “keep, maintain, stand your ground”. So we see that we are to handle ourselves in the context of this external conflict in a proactive way. Peter doesn’t so much tell us how to respond “when they speak against you as evildoers”. Rather, he says “keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable so that when they speak against you as evildoers”. He’s not saying “this is what you must start to do when they speak against you”. He’s saying “this is what you must do because you know that they will speak against you”. It’s not so much a response as a pre-emptive strike!
What weapon are we to use for this pre-emptive strike? Peter has mentioned “when they speak against you as evildoers” so you might expect him to say to speak against them. Fight fire with fire and reply in kind. Get in first by denouncing them and their evil ways before “when they speak against you as evildoers”. But, what he actually says is: “keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable”.
By conduct Peter means “way of life” or “outward behaviour”.
This is an outward, external conflict and our engagement in it is to be in terms of our outward conduct. That conduct is to be “honorable”. Remember that Peter said back in 1 Peter 1v15: “but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct”. Holy conduct is going to be honourable conduct. It will be seen in good, wholesome, inspiring lives. There are a couple of things that we do well to notice about this conduct that is honourable.
Firstly, we need to see the priority of abstaining from the passions of the flesh.
Peter focusses on inner passions before he mentions outward conduct or inner desires before outward behaviour. The fact is that we must first abstain from sinful desires before our conduct can be right. It’s only when you’re fleeing fleshly passions that you’re in a position to maintain good outward conduct. If you don’t abstain from fleshly passions and deny sinful desires your outward conduct won’t be honourable because your conduct is shaped by the desires that you allow to be fulfilled. We saw exactly the same pattern back in 1 Peter 1v14-15 where Peter said: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct”.
The second thing for us to notice about this conduct that is honourable is that it is to be lived out “among the Gentiles”.
It would be very easy to think that, since we’re strangers and sojourners living in a hostile world where unbelievers will oppose us and speak against us, it would be best for us to keep clear of them as far as possible. That will surely give us a much easier and more peaceful life. Over the years there have been plenty of Christians who have reasoned in that way and sought to act upon it. There have been ascetics and hermits and monastical orders that have sought to keep away from the world as much as possible. An extreme example was Simeon Stylites who lived from 390-459AD and is known for spending 37years of his life on a small platform on top of a pillar near Aleppo in Syria. His first pillar was about 9 feet tall but he was eventually up 50 foot pole. He was up the pole in more ways than one!
We laugh at such foolishness. As 21st century Christians certainly don’t do daft things like that do we? Nonetheless, we might be guilty of finding ways of keeping ourselves a bit apart. We perhaps don’t spend time among unbelievers any more than we need to because that avoids conflict and confrontation. But, you see, Peter doesn’t only say that we’re to “abstain from the passions of the flesh” so that our conduct can be honourable. That’s relatively easy in a holy huddle but we’re to do it “among the Gentiles”. We’re to live holy lives in the midst of unbelievers and in the face of opposition. We’re not to flee from this battle but engage in it by keeping our conduct honourable. That is by living holy and Godly lives.
What is our objective in this conflict?
The object in any conflict is surely to win. So, what does winning this conflict look like for the believer in Christ? What is “keeping your conduct among the Gentiles honorable” intended to accomplish? Peter says that it’s that “they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation”. The word that has been translated as “see” there doesn’t just mean “notice”. Rather, it means “look upon and watch”. Such observation is consistent with what we noted about being among them.
Now, victory for the believer in this conflict is when, having seen your consistent honourable conduct and good deeds among them, the Gentiles, or unbelievers, “glorify God”. Jesus said something very similar in Matthew 5v16 where we read: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven”. There, He referred to unbelievers as “others” and He spoke of them “giving glory to your Father who is in heaven” as result of “seeing your good works” which is exactly what Peter went on to say as another way of speaking of honourable conduct. So, our objective in fighting this conflict by letting our good deeds be seen is that unbelievers come to glorify God.
That sounds very pious and spiritual but what does it actually mean?
How do unbelievers glorify God as a result of seeing our honourable conduct and good deeds? How and when does that glorifying God come about? Well, notice that Peter spoke of them glorifying God “on the day of visitation”. How are we to understand that expression? Well, some commentators take that to be a reference to the day of judgement. It is certainly true that this idea of visitation is sometimes a reference to judgement. For instance, we read in Isaiah 29v5-6: “But the multitude of your foreign foes shall be like small dust, and the multitude of the ruthless like passing chaff. And in an instant, suddenly, you will be visited by the Lord of hosts with thunder and with earthquake and great noise, with whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire”. That’s clearly speaking of a visitation by the Lord in judgement.
However, this idea of visitation is also sometimes a reference to deliverance or salvation. For instance, in Luke 1 we find the prophecy that Zechariah the father of John the Baptist made when filled with the Holy Spirit and, in verses 68 and 69, we read: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David”. That is speaking of God visiting in order to redeem and save.
So, when Peter speaks of people “glorifying God on the day of visitation” does he mean on the day of judgement or the day of salvation? I have to say that I find it hard to comprehend how our good deeds being seen now leads to unbelievers glorifying God when He visits them in judgement. Look, for instance, at Revelation 16v8-9 where we read: “The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give him glory”. That’s a graphic depiction of God’s judgement. To be sure, God is glorified in His righteous judgement of unbelievers but that is not to say that they glorify Him or that they give Him glory. No, they curse His name and refuse to repent and give Him glory.
It’s very different when the Lord visits with salvation.
In Acts 13 we read of Paul preaching the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ and we see the result of that in verse 48 where we read: “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed”. You see, when they believed and were saved “they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord”.
In Romans 4v20, speaking of Abraham, Paul said: “No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God”. You see, because he believed God and was saved “he gave glory to God”.
If we look at Romans 15v8-9 we read: “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy”. That is referring to ethnic Gentiles who are saved by the gospel of Jesus Christ as promised long ago. What is the result of their salvation? We see that they “glorify God for his mercy”.
All things considered, I think we have to conclude that Peter is saying that God uses our good deeds in bringing unbelievers to salvation. On seeing our good deeds, some will repent and believe and will then, as saved people, glorify God.
Peter will go on to mention a specific example of this in chapter 3 verses 15 and 16 where we read: “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct”. This is addressed to the believing wives of unbelieving husbands. Peter is saying that unbelieving husbands can be won. By that he means brought to believe and so saved. How? Well, it’s through what they “see”. That’s the same word that we have in our text, meaning “look upon and watch” or “observe over a prolonged period of time”. What do they see? Peter says “your respectful and pure conduct”. That’s the same word, “conduct”, which we have in our text, meaning “way of life” or “outward behaviour”.
So we’ve seen that as believers in Christ in this world we face a conflict within and a conflict without. The conflict within is a battle for our souls and we win that battle by running away from “the passions of the flesh”. The conflict without is with a hostile unbelieving world and we win that battle by living such good lives that some come to repent and believe in Christ and so glorify God.
Dr. Steve Orr
Dr Orr has served the Body of Christ in the United Kingdom for many years and in various capacities (preaching, teaching, etc.,). Steve is a regular contributor to the pages of Christ My Covenant. His insights into the Word of God will serve you in your personal study of God’s Word. Learn of Christ!