by Roger McCay
24 November 2019
Sermon Passage: 1 Peter 1:1-2
Link to Audio Version
As we come upon Thanksgiving 2019, we recognize that there are so many things to be thankful for. The fact that we call the holiday “Thanksgiving” acknowledges that everything we have and are is a gift from God.
Among God’s many gifts, and perhaps the most important, is our identity in Christ. When we thank God for Jesus; when we thank him for his love; when we thank him for his grace; when we thank him for his salvation; when we thank him for anything at all, it is all encompassed in who we are in relation to him. He is our God. We are his people. Being so, who we are in relation to him is not something that we define ourselves.
Furthermore, as we are in Christ, he defines who we are. Any identity we would create for ourselves could only be fleeting, ephemeral, and limited by our circumstances and the situation of the world at our particular time in history. Such a self or socially determined identity is by definition temporary, in flux, and insecure. Hence, in utter contrast to these shifting sands, our identity in Christ is something that God defines. Since God defines our identity, that identity is our primary identity. It is a rock-solid concrete reality: unassailable, unchanging, and eternal. We really have no option to substitute it with another identity if we are truly the Lord’s. Attempts to do so are simply in vain.
For a true believer, one of the elect, this reality should be a very comforting thing. “Who we are” is utterly secure. Indeed, any notion of identity outside of Jesus Christ is inherently insecure.
Now, “Identity,” the question of “Who am I?” is a complicated thing in this world, about which much has been written. On an everyday practical level, when asked who we are, we might typically say something along the lines of …
– My name is so-and-so.
– I do this for a living.
– Or, I’m a student.
– I have x amount of kids or no kids.
– I live at such-and-such.
– I participate in these activities.
– These are my hobbies.
– I’m of such and such race and gender.
– I’m a Democrat or a Republican.
– And so-on and so-forth.
No problem, as long as we understand that none of these things are our primary identity—who we are. Who we are is much deeper. Think about it. Someone can know all that information about you and not know who you really are.
In recent events, a major hot topic for some folks in the church is the use of identification terms like “I’m a gay Christian.” Less startling statements might be “I’m a white Christian” or “black Christian,” and so on. The problem with such a labeling is that it puts an adjective to the primary identifier of one of God’s people.
An adjective, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a modifier of a noun to denote a quality of the thing named, to indicate its quantity or extent, or to specify a thing as distinct from something else.” As for quality, a person is either a true Christian or a false Christian (and I’d include the term “carnal Christian” into the false Christian category). So, a qualifying adjective is really no problem. It is in the latter two aspects that there can be a problem. Modifying the noun “Christian,” as to its quantity or extent, is to create a falsehood. You either are or you are not a Christian. There are no half-ways. You cannot be a Christian to some extent. Also, modifying the noun “Christian,” as to be something distinct from something else, can be problematic. Hence, terms like “gay Christian” is an identity separate and distinct from a so-called “straight Christian.” Such identifiers are just not helpful, and they risk dividing the body of Christ in an unbiblical way.
Can it be any plainer said that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28)? This does not mean that race, gender, etc., disappears in Christ. It means that those things become secondary identity traits, which might be labeled callings. Our primary identity, our primary calling, is in Christ Jesus. With that singular identity, we are united and not divided in our union with Christ. As such, any secondary identity or calling is to be understood, validated, or rejected within the bounds of our primary identity.
The world throws a lot of smoke screens and confusion towards this reality. And, if you think about it, this makes sense, because those who are not “in Christ” cannot possess anything other than an ephemeral and insecure identity. One has to become “in Christ” for that to change.
As Christians are in the world, we are vulnerable to the influence of worldly philosophy concerning identity. The temptation is always there for the elect to think of their primary identity as being in something other than Jesus. But we are not of the world.
Peter helps to sum up who we are in his introductory greetings here in 1 Peter 1:1-2. He does this using various terms such as elect, exiles, foreknowledge, sanctification, obedience, and the blood of Christ, while wrapping it all up in a Trinitarian formula of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s a beautiful passage.
Peter, in his greeting, indicates how his whole identity is grounded in Christ. His very name, “Peter,” is the name given to him by Jesus. His title “apostle of Jesus Christ” means he is a chosen ambassador for Christ—his primary calling in life. His name, his whole life, is of and in Jesus Christ.
Peter wrote the letter from Rome around A.D. 65, during the reign of the emperor Nero. It is addressed to Christians “in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,” which were Roman provinces in Asia Minor, what we know as Turkey. These Christians were “those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion” (ESV). The NIV translates it, “God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces.”
Dispersion carries the idea of being scattered. It is the term used for the Jews who had dispersed from the land of Israel over the centuries. Many of them were taken by the Assyrians during the exile of the Northern Kingdom, and later, more were taken by the Babylonians from the Southern Kingdom. They were scattered from the land given to them by God to a land not their own—hence the “Jewish diaspora.” There is some discussion out there as to whether Peter was referring to only exiled and dispersed Jews. Yet, it is unlikely due to the context of the letter and how this language is used for believers before and after Christ in the New Testament. Indeed, as the epistle is written to all of God’s elect, there are far more Gentiles being addressed than Jews.
Historically, God’s people have often been referred to exiles. Hebrews 11:13 refers to Moses and Abraham specifically as exiles, as they “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.” Hebrews 11:16 goes on to say, that they were looking for “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” God’s people were often physical exiles, but, even more, they were spiritual exiles who longed for their true home—the Kingdom of God in Christ.
As for Christians of every age, John Piper puts it this way:
In a profound sense, this world is not our home. When we are away from our bodies we will be “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). We are not to be “conformed to this age” (Rom. 12:2). Our lives “are hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). We have been “transferred out of the dominion of darkness into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col. 1:13). We have “passed out of death and into life” (1 John 3:14). We are exiles and strangers here.
Christians are exiles, dispersed throughout the world. We are sojourners, foreigners, aliens, strangers in strange lands, living temporarily somewhere on this earth until we go home to be with Christ. This is a key aspect of our identity.
When you identify as an exile, you want to assimilate with your present culture to a point, but only to a point (see for instance God’s command to the exiles in Babylon in Jeremiah 29:4-14). You want to contribute in a positive way. You want to benefit from the blessings of that community. Yet, you cannot, nor do you want to, lose your distinct identity. When you are a citizen of God’s Kingdom, you cannot give your whole allegiance to any earthly country or leader. Your allegiance is wholly with the Lord, and any other allegiance is subordinate to that reality. Likewise, your actions cannot help but reflect your identity.
Critical to this identity is the fact that Christians are “Elect.” We didn’t just decide we were going to take on this identity. God decided for us. God chose us. Election is tied in with predestination. God, out of love, elected/predestined/chose some people for eternal life, and he did this before the foundation of the world (Rom 9:22-23; Eph 1:4-6, 11). Whom God chose was totally up to him and for his own reasons (Rom 8:30; Eph 1:9). God elected no-one based on any condition that a person might somehow meet, including any good that person would do or any trait that he or she would possess (Rom 9:11, 16; 2 Tm 1:9). Further, election involves both corporate and individual predestination. God elects both individuals and “corporate identities,” which includes Israel (in the OT) and the Church (which is the continuation of true Israel) in the NT and into eternity.
Christians are elect exiles, dispersed throughout the world. Peter elaborates, in v. 2, saying that this identity is “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.” What is this foreknowledge? We see this term used by Paul in Romans 8:29-30:
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Paul draws, in this passage, a sketch of events from eternity to eternity, which helps us to understand the thrust of what Peter meant when he used this powerful term. God knew us, his people, loving us before the universe had even been created (Eph. 1:4). So, God had a plan that he put in place for our benefit, to his glory. He knew that the fall would happen, and that we would be sinners—that his image in which we were created would be horribly marred. In his love, he would not let this stand. So, in his foreknowledge, his “fore-love,” he planned for his Son, Jesus Christ, to come and die for our sins on the cross. He determined to save us, his people. And it is by the blood of Christ, we, who hear the call and believe, are forgiven our sins, justified and made righteous.
God the Father loved his people before the foundation of the world. So, he elected us for salvation, and took steps to make sure we would be saved. We can’t mess this up. It’s a done deal accomplished by him. Again, if you are a Christian saved by the blood of Christ, you are not a Christian because you chose to be one. You are a Christian because God chose you. You are one of the elect. Election is based on God’s will and grace, not by God somehow foreseeing someone’s faith. Faith is not a condition for election, but a result of election.
So, how is our faith in Christ a result of our election? Peter addresses that next. Verse 2: We are exiles “in the sanctification of the Spirit.” What does this mean? Kathleen Nielson provides a concise explanation:
This means we’ve been set apart as God’s holy people through the work of his Holy Spirit. Again, we cannot make this happen ourselves. Now, sanctification often refers to the whole process of becoming holy and conformed to the image of Christ, but it can also refer to the initial setting apart as holy that happens when the Spirit brings new life to a dead soul—what Paul calls “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). It’s through this initial work of the Holy Spirit that we actually become exiles. Set apart for God, we have a new citizenship, and we’re given a new inheritance in heaven. Our whole relationship to this world is changed.
We are elect exiles because God knew us and loved us before the creation of the world. So, loving us, he set us apart, made us holy, through the work of his Spirit, imparting the benefits of God’s grace in Jesus Christ upon us. It is all his doing. Eph. 2:8: “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Grace, Salvation, and Faith are each a gift from God.
So, what is the goal of our being dispersed elect exiles based on the predetermination of the Father, consisting in the sanctification of the Spirit? Peter gives a simple answer at the end of v. 2. The goal is “for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you.” God chose his people not only to be saved, but with the goal of doing good works in obedience to Christ, which realizes the salvation effected by his death.
This is nothing new for God’s people. The terminology of “sprinkling with his blood” harkens back to the Old Testament, concerning God’s covenant with Israel. In Exodus 24:1–8, the Israelites were gathered at Mount Sinai. Moses read the Lord’s word to them, including all the rules. He built a huge altar and offered sacrifices. Basins were filled with blood from the sacrifices. He threw half the blood against the altar. The people then vowed to obey all of God’s word. Finally, in v. 8, “Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” Hence, the Lord made a covenant with his people, sealed in the sprinkling of blood. They were his people, and he was their God.
Now, the people to whom Peter wrote had been included with the people of God through a new covenant, the covenant in Christ’s blood. As 1 Peter 1:18–19 tells us, they were ransomed “not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” Hence, as Nielson puts it, “Their obedience to Jesus Christ is first and foremost the obedience of faith in that blood.”
Jesus died on the cross so that we might be saved, so that we might be his people, so that we might follow him in obedience of faith as full citizens of his Kingdom. We do not obey so that we might be saved. We obey because we have been saved.
So it is, that in that obedience of faith, grace and peace is multiplied to us. Peter states this in v. 2 as a blessing. We receive grace, unmerited favor, demonstrated in the fact we are elect. Resting in Christ’s salvation, resting in our identity as God’s elect, God’s people, an unchangeable reality, we cannot help but find peace. The world might fall to pieces all around us. Our country may fall into a civil war with starvation and death all around us. We might find ourselves brutally persecuted, imprisoned, even tortured for our faith. Yet we can find peace in Christ, for our citizenship is sure. Our identity is given to us by God, and no-one can take it away. Galatians 2:20:
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
God himself is our life. And it is in Christ that we find who we are.
My friends, let us not succumb to the temptations of the philosophies of the world. The world would have us choose an identity, and say, “This is who I am.” Reject such a mindset. If you are a Christian, it is not because you made some choice to identify as a Christian. You are a Christian according to God’s will and work. It is a more permanent identity than the cosmos itself. It cannot ever be changed. Remember that you are not a “fill in the blank, dash, Christian.” You either are a Christian, period, or you are not a Christian. If you are a Christian, any sub-identity you might have, what we might rightly label a calling, is subordinate to your primary identity in Christ. If a supposed sub-identity is not consistent with your primary identity, then it is not a valid sub-identity or calling.
Also, if you are not a Christian, trust in Jesus! It is the only sane course of action. …
How you understand who you are will determine what you do in life. Let us fulfill our callings in obedience to Christ, denying ourselves, taking up our crosses to mortify our sin, and let us follow Jesus.
It is normal to focus on material blessings when we celebrate Thanksgiving, and rightly so. Don’t forget, however, the most important thing, the primary thing, from which all blessings flow. That primary thing is the grace of God bestowed in Jesus Christ. From this flows your identity as an elect exile, your reason for being, your calling, and eternal life as a citizen of the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ.
With who you are in mind, this gift of God, resolve to live accordingly. Because God defines the identity of his people, our lifestyles must reflect that reality.
 John Piper, “Christian Exiles,” Ligonier Ministries, last modified May 1, 2011, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/christian-exiles/.
 Kathleen B. Nielson, “Born Again to a Living Hope (1 Peter 1:1–12),” in Resurrection Life in a World of Suffering: 1 Peter, ed. D. A. Carson and Kathleen B. Nielson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 44.
 Ibid., 45.