Our story begins in a boat. The year was 33 A.D., and a man named Peter had chosen to go fishing with his fellow disciples. Fishermen were known for being tough entrepreneurs; Peter had undoubtedly spent a lifetime devoted to the task. At least until he encountered a man named Jesus, a man who asked him to no longer be merely a fisherman, but a fisher of men. Peter followed Jesus with unrivaled zeal—yet when Jesus was betrayed and arrested, Peter chose to deny him three times rather than endure the social and physical consequences. He fled then and in all likelihood, he was fleeing now.
At the end of John’s gospel, we learn that Jesus had returned from the dead. The disciples were amazed at this—yet we can’t help but imagine that for Peter, this joyous news lay on his shoulders like a burial shroud. True, the disciples were never forbidden from going fishing, but the raw emotion of this scene pushes us to see something deeper at work in the heart of Peter.
After an unsuccessful fishing venture, a mysterious figure calls to them from the shore, encouraging them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat. The miraculous catch of fish made them realize just who this man was. When Peter heard that this was the Lord, he put his clothes on, then dove into the water—in that order. He arrived soaking wet, only to find Jesus already there with food prepared. By the fire Jesus asked Peter: “Do you love me more than these?” And Peter said that he loved him. Three times Jesus asked this—as though undoing Peter’s earlier denials—and three times Jesus gives Peter the simple command: “feed my sheep.”
In the presence of grace, this would-be failure became one of the church’s greatest shepherds. Years later, Peter would write at least two letters to the churches of the ancient world—letters we know today as 1 and 2 Peter.
1 Peter opens with a customary greeting:
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,
To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, 2 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)
No one in the ancient church doubted that Peter was, indeed, the author. A few scholars today have raised an eyebrow as to how a mere fishermen would have such polished Greek, but in reality a skilled fisherman living in a Hellenized (that is, Greek-dominated) world would have had ample opportunity—and reason—to learn the language. Paul wrote many letters to various churches throughout the ancient world. Peter’s letters were much fewer, yet were aimed at a broader, non-specific audience—it’s why we call them “general letters.” What was it that Peter wanted to say? What was Peter trying to communicate?
LIVING IN A STATE OF EXILE
The greatest clue actually appears at the end of Peter’s first letter. There, we find that Peter alludes to the presence of the church “in Babylon.” Babylon? Surely this couldn’t be the Babylon we know from the Old Testament—that area had been deserted long before Peter was even born. There had been a Roman military colony named Babylon, but Peter wouldn’t have been writing from there, it seems. So where was Babylon?
Babylon was Rome. Early writers used the word “Babylon” to refer to the self-serving opulence of this great city, not far from the way we might shake our heads and marvel at the decaying values of “Hollywood” or even “Washington.” In Peter’s day, there had yet to be any official persecution of Christians—though history tells us of some localized events. But Rome was hardly friendly to early believers. In a culture dominated by the competing values of “honor” and “shame,” it would have been shameful to associate oneself with a rival religion—especially one that sought to bestow honor on a crucified Savior.
Peter’s concern, then, is articulated in the word “exiles.” To be a Christian in such a world is to run against the flow of an increasingly hostile culture. They were exiles, in Peter’s day. And we are increasingly exiles now.
How so? If you are a follower of Jesus, you occupy a world that has grown increasingly hostile toward people of faith. We can see that in two distinct ways:
- “Athens” became “Babylon:” A decade or so ago we assumed we lived in a world like Paul encountered in the city of Athens. We dealt with the question: “Is Christianity true?” We read books about “worldviews” and philosophy. We equipped ourselves to answer tough questions. But the world we live in is more like Babylon than Athens. We’re less concerned with the question “Is Christianity true?” and more concerned with the question: “Is Christianity good?” And many would say: “No.” A recent study was just released in which young people were asked if religion had a positive impact on society. In 2010, 73% said “yes.” Now, only 55% say yes—an 18% drop in five years.
- “Present shock:” NPR analyst Douglas Rushkoff said that technology has pushed us to become obsessed with the present. We are unmoored from a sense of story and direction. It’s not far from what CBS correspondent Peggy Noonan had lamented in the early 1990’s. She said that ours was the first generation “that actually expected to find happiness here on earth.” Past generations shared some cultural expectation of heaven and the afterlife. We’ve come to value instant gratification. Believe this lie, Noonan warns, then you are not disappointed when the world does not give you a good measure of its riches, you are despairing.”
Thus we can carve out a simple picture of life in Babylon: unhappily unmoored from the promises of eternity, yet openly hostile toward those who place their hope in it.
Yet we are what Peter calls “elect exiles.” We are strangers to the world, true—but we are quite equally chosen by God. Think about what this means for a second: it means that no matter how much believers are pushed to the frayed edges of society, we remain confident in possessing the approval of God even though we lack the approval of man.
This is why Peter makes specific reference to the act of “sprinkling,” an obvious nod to the covenant promises of old (Exodus 24) now made final in the sacrifice of Jesus. In her commentary on 1 Peter, Karen Jobes points out that it’s as if Peter is emphasizing the specific nature of Christianity over “some generic form of spirituality.” That is, Christianity always connects us to a story far greater—and deeper—than the false narratives offered by our culture.
Christianity therefore remains deeply valuable for a world of hostility and confusion. This is the world that Peter speaks into, hoping his voice will be echoed back by one of the “elect exiles,” one of the “chosen strangers.” His letter invites us to live meaningfully by casting our eyes toward a better Kingdom to come while maintaining a faithful presence in the city of man.
 I borrow this distinction from Steve McAlpine, “Stage Two Exile: Are You Ready for It?” http://australia.thegospelcoalition.org/article/stage-two-exile-are-you-ready-for-it
 Hannah Fingerhut, “Millennials’ views of news media, religious organizations grows more negative,” January 4, 2016, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/01/04/millennials-views-of-news-media-religious-organizations-grow-more-negative/
 See Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock.
 Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter, p. 71.