Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the elect who are sojourners of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1 Peter 1:1).
Peter wrote to the Christians in many Roman provinces of what we today call Asia Minor, or Turkey. He speaks of them as “elect who are sojourners” (ASV) or “elect exiles” (ESV) of the “Dispersion” (1 Peter 1:1). It would be easy to assume that he wrote specifically to Jewish Christians who considered themselves part of the Diaspora, the Jewish community outside of the land of Israel based on this terminology; it is similar to James 1:1, and of all the nations only Israel would see itself in exile as dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. And yet Peter considered his audience as having been redeemed “from [their] vain manner of life handed down from [their] fathers” (1 Peter 1:17); they were a people who had once not been a people, but were made the people of God (1 Peter 2:10). While the latter prophecy was given specifically to Israel (Hosea 1:1-3:5), and Peter himself considered the Law a burden he nor his people Israel could bear (Acts 15:10), no Israelite would presume that his ancestors had lived in a vain matter, or speak of their people as not the people of God; instead, Peter has Christians converted out of the Gentile world in view (cf. Ephesians 2:11-18, etc.).
Peter appropriated Israelite imagery to describe Christians throughout 1 Peter. Christians are the temple and its priests (1 Peter 2:3-5); titles and concepts associated with Israel are now appropriated for Christians in 1 Peter 2:9-10. Peter used the term “Gentiles” with all of its negative connotations of hostile pagans (1 Peter 2:12, 4:3), even though according to ethnic heritage many of the Christians to whom he wrote would be reckoned as Gentiles. Thus Peter envisioned Christians as the people of God, speaking of them in terms of Israel, and spoke of their opponents among the nations in terms of the Gentiles.
And uniquely among all the letters of the New Testament Peter also appropriated the imagery of sojourn and exile experienced by Israel and applied it to the present circumstance of Christians in the world. Peter addressed the Christians as exiles/sojourners (1 Peter 1:1); exhorted them to reverence before God during their sojourn (1 Peter 1:17-21); encouraged them as sojourners and exiles to conduct themselves appropriately before the Gentiles (1 Peter 2:11-12); and spoke of his current location as “Babylon” (1 Peter 5:13). In this way exile and sojourn proves to be a running theme in 1 Peter: as Israel was exiled by Babylon and had to learn to live as exiles and sojourners, so Christians are to see themselves as exiles/sojourners under “Babylon,” or Rome, and live accordingly.
“Sojourners” and “exiles” are terms often used interchangeably and yet maintain important distinctions and nuances. A sojourner is a person who voluntarily leaves his homeland to go and live somewhere else; Abraham is the model sojourner, following God’s call to leave Ur and Haran and live in Canaan, in which he never owned any property beyond a gravesite (cf. Hebrews 11:9-10). An exile is a person who less than voluntarily leaves his homeland to live somewhere else; Israel in the days of Babylon is the model of exile, a people forced to go somewhere else (Psalm 137:1-9). A sojourner often has good reasons for leaving the homeland and has little desire to return; they are tempted to assimilate into their new land and culture. The exile tends to want nothing more than to return to his homeland; they are tempted to have nothing at all to do with their new land and culture and idolize their country of origin.
Christians are to be as both sojourners and exiles in different ways. Christians are as sojourners inasmuch as they should have no desire to return from the “land” of sin and darkness from which they have been redeemed (Romans 6:21, Ephesians 2:1-18). Christians are exiles inasmuch as they should not feel too comfortable in the land, culture, and nation-state in which they reside, always maintaining primary loyalty to their “real home,” the Kingdom of God in Christ (cf. Philippians 3:20-21). Christians must resist the temptation to assimilate to the land in which they live (Romans 12:2); likewise, Christians must resist the temptation to be so focused on separation from the world so as to be no earthly good, not showing the love God would have us show to those around us (Matthew 22:34-40, Galatians 2:10, 6:10).
Peter did well to speak of the life of the Christian in terms of exile and sojourn. We today rarely speak in those terms; instead, our preferred concept is that of the refugee. A refugee feels compelled to flee their homeland because of strife, war, famine, plague, or other ravages; they seek asylum in another land. Some refugees want nothing more than to forget the past and assimilate into a new land; other refugees desperately cling to their identity from their former land. Christians are to have fled to God for refuge in order to lay hold of the hope of resurrection (Hebrews 6:18); their primary citizenship, and thus loyalty, is to the Kingdom of God, even though they are also to obey earthly authorities (Philippians 3:20-21, 1 Peter 2:11-18). There is no land in which they are to feel fully comfortable; it is not for Christians to plant their flag anywhere and declare it their own in the name of God in Christ. The refugee always remains in a precarious situation, the quality of their life dependent on the goodwill and hospitability of their land of refuge; Christians are always likewise in a precarious situation under any nation-state. Christians cannot get too settled; they cannot too closely align with or be identified with earthly power, lest they prove no longer refugees for God’s Kingdom. As refugees we can identify with those who are marginalized, neglected, oppressed, or in danger; we know that God has special concern for such people (Matthew 25:31-46, James 1:27). As refugees we must be skeptical of the nation-states of man even as we prove obedient to rulers, understanding that the principalities and powers of this present darkness empower the nation-states (Matthew 4:8-9, Ephesians 6:12, 1 Peter 2:11-18). Christians must know their comfort must not come from their environment but from their God (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).
We find it difficult to understand ourselves as refugees because we have not physically gone anywhere; we live in a strange tension, remaining the same demographically as before, and often even within the same nation-state, and yet so fully transformed spiritually so as to be a different person than before. Such was true as well for the Christians to whom Peter wrote. It helps us understand and cope with the fractured relationships and hostility we encounter from those whom we knew beforehand who see our new conduct in Christ and prove hostile to it (cf. 1 Peter 4:1-6). But it also helps us develop a mindset and posture that glorifies God in Christ as distinct from that of the nation-state and culture around us. We may maintain friendship and association with people in the world, and yet they remain as “Gentiles.” We may appreciate the privileges of living under a given nation-state, and yet we remain as refugees within it. If we lose our distinctiveness, we prove unprofitable (Matthew 5:13).
Christians are exiles and sojourners on the earth: refugees for the Kingdom of God in Christ. We must flee the world and its ways so as to find refuge for our souls in God and hope for the resurrection and a world of righteousness in Jesus. May we live in the world as refugees of the Kingdom and glorify God in Christ in all things!
Ethan R. Longhenry