You Are Not An Exile: Communication Breakdown in 1 Peter 2:11
“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11, NIV)
“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11, ESV).
Heed this warning: I am about to get on my pedantic high-horse. Still with me? Ok, let’s go. I dislike both the NIV and ESV translation of this verse. For the sake of brevity, I will focus my ire on two points:
- 1) By translating “Ἀγαπητοί” as “dear friends” the editors of the NIV ignore Peter’s allusion to how this word was used in the OT, and thereby miss his point: the Gentiles have been brought into God’s family, and have become his beloved in Christ.
- 2) By translating “παρεπιδήμους” as “exiles” the editors of the NIV and ESV evoke false imagery that points back to Israel’s time in captivity, rather than Abraham’s trek to the promised land by faith.
The translation “dear friends” does not do justice to semantic weight God has invested in the word “Ἀγαπητοί.” Of course, one could retort, “Doesn’t Jesus call us his friends (Jn 15:15)?” Yes, and praise God! As Carson explains, Jesus’ friends are the objects of his love (v. 13), and “his friends are informed of his thinking, enjoy his confidence and learn to obey with a sense of privilege and with full understanding of their master’s heart.” But Jesus calls us his “φίλους” (friends)—not “Ἀγαπητοί” (beloved)—and that’s not what Peter is talking about. Peter is bestowing the title “beloved" (i.e., loved by God), the title formerly reserved for Israel, on the new people of God constituted in the church.
Only two verses prior, Peter writes, “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…Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:9, 11, ESV emphasis added).
If you will allow me, I will take these out of order.
- Chosen Race/People: In Isa 43:20 God promises to provide for his “chosen people” during their exile in Babylon, and later promises a new exodus patterned after their deliverance from Egypt; yet infinitely better. The good news announced in Isaiah (cf. Isaiah 52:7) promised their return to the land (dwelling in God’s presence), forgiveness of sins, reconciliation into God’s grace, a new exodus, a new temple, and worldwide peace and salvation.
- People For His Own Possession: While not as clear cut as the other allusions, God speaks of Israel as a “people whom I formed for myself” (Isaiah 43:21, ESV), and he calls penitent Israel “mine“ and ”my treasured possession" (Malachi 3:17, ESV).
- Kingdom of Priests/Holy Nation: The Lord calls Israel “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). In Daniel 7, after seeing ”one like the son of man"(v. 14) receive all authority and dominion, Daniel is told that “the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever’” (Daniel 7:18, ESV). In case the temporal emphasis was missed on you, allow me to state that again: The saints of the Most High shall “receive” and “possess” this kingdom forever, forever, and ever. The kingdom they receive is the very same one received by “one like a son of man” (Daniel 7:13–14). Lest we confuse whose kingdom it is, Daniel points out that the saints receive and possess “his kingdom” (Daniel 7:27). Moving back to the background of Genesis, after creating the world, God bestowed dominion on the one in his image and likeness: Adam. So, too, in the restoration of his world, the one like the son of Adam will “exercise dominion over God’s kingdom, which will be held by God’s holy ones, his saints.”
- Beloved: In the Psalms, David exalts God before the nations for his steadfast love, and asks that God would deliver his “beloved ones” (Psalm 108:6). In Isaiah, God describes Israel as “his beloved” (Isaiah 5:1, ESV).
The Jews saw themselves as God’s beloved, chosen people, whom he made for himself and subsequently linked themselves to these “saints of the Most High” who would receive the kingdom (cf. Acts 1:6). Peter, however, applies the terms formerly used specifically for Israel to this mixed community of Jews and Gentiles. By calling his readers (Jews and Gentiles) “ἐκλεκτόνhis” (chosen v. 9), “βασίλειον ἱεράτευμα” (kingdom of priests v. 9), “ἔθνος ἅγιον” (holy nation v. 9), “λαὸς εἰς περιποίησιν” (people for his own possession v. 9), and “Ἀγαπητοί” (beloved v. 11), Peter informs his readers that God’s kingdom promised in Daniel 7 has arrived, and it is possessed by all the nations of the world. These Gentiles, “were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Pet 2:10; cf. Hos 2:23 and Eph 2:12–13). In fact, as Schreiner points out, “Peter also replicated the exact words of Exod 19:6 in identifying the church as a ‘holy nation’ (ethnos hagion; cf. Exod 23:22, LXX). The church of Jesus is a people now set apart for the Lord, enjoying his special presence and favor.”
I began this post by stating my displeasure at both the NIV and ESV translation of this passage, and have only dealt with the NIV thus far. If this was your concern, fret no more, because here I go. Peter has nearly exhausted the bank of unique titles reserved for Israel and spent them to describe the New Covenant community (i.e., the church), which is comprised of people from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev 5:9). He has situated those who “were not a people” into the people of God by showering them in indicatives (statements of fact). Peter wants these new believers to know what is true of them in Christ before he relays the imperatives (commands) because he knows that what they do flows from who they are—or in this case, whose they are. Furthermore, as Douglas Wilson succinctly puts it, “When the imperatives are placed before the indicative of the gospel, the result is some sort of attempt to earn salvation. When the indicative of the gospel is placed first, the result is the fruit of obedience; obedience to God’s imperatives.” Because God’s gospel brings about the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5), the biblical indicatives are almost always followed by imperatives. If the indicatives are lightening, the imperatives are thunder. And this is exactly what we see in 1 Peter 2:9–11.
“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11, ESV emphasis added).
In case syntax isn’t your forte I have emboldened the imperative (command): I urge you to abstain from the passions of the flesh. Notice that this command is interrupted by a metaphor: “as sojourners and exiles.” Schreiner explains that “The language of strangers and exiles is appropriated theologically, signifying that the readers are like foreigners because of their allegiance to Jesus Christ.” And herein lies the problem.
There is a difference between an exile—expelled/taken from God’s land/presence as a result of egregious violations of his covenant (think of Israel in Babylon)—and a sojourner—recipient of a covenant promise who situates his identity in where he is going, rather than where he is (think Abraham). The NIV and RSV/ESV (ESV was a reboot of RSV) are the major translations that use the word “exile,” while NASB has “strangers,” NKJV has “pilgrims,” and LEB has “temporary residents.” The case I am making is that exile is a bad translation, as it evokes false imagery. “παρεπιδήμους” (the word translated “exile”) was not the word used by the LXX (Greek translation of the OT) to describe Israel’s exile (e.g. Jeremiah 36:27 LXX ἀποστέλλω; 4 Kingdoms 25:11 LXX μεταίρω). Peter was not pointing his readers back to Israel and her time in captivity, but to Abraham on his trek to the city of God.
When Sarah died, Abraham went to the Hittites to ask for a place to bury his wife, since he had no property. There he refers to himself as a “sojourner and foreigner” (Gen 23:4) “Πάροικος καὶ παρεπίδημος” (Gen 23:4, LXX). What is mind boggling is that the editors of NIV and ESV have rendered this same phrase in Genesis as “alien and stranger” and “sojourner and foreigner” respectively (see also their translation of the phrase in Ps 38:13).
What’s the big deal? The big deal is that the word “exile” is derogatory, and adopting this word changes the whole meaning of the text. To illustrate this point, imagine if I changed Jesus’ charge to be as “innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16) to “ignorant as doves.” Worse, imagine if I changed “For God so loved the world,” (John 3:16, ESV) to “For God so loathed the world.” One word shifts the entire thrust of the passage.
Biblically speaking, exiles are expelled and barred from their land because of sin—ironically, this is how I often hear this verse used (e.g. We want our country back!, 2 Chron 7:14 prayer events). If we think of ourselves as exiles we will likely conclude that God has left us here on earth—barring us from our forever home with him—because of our sin. Being a sojourn is another thing entirely.
The author of Hebrews tells us that “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:8–10, ESV). In the same vein, Peter calls the church to abstain from gratifying the flesh—which wages war in your soul—by living in faith as stranger/foreigner and sojourner/temporary resident in this world. It is a foolish thing to spend money renovating the kitchenette in your hotel room. You’re not staying! This is what Jesus is getting at when he says ““Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19–20, ESV). When we live with this mentality, and keep our conduct honorable, the evildoers who speak against us at the judgment will be put to shame, since they have witnessed a gospel life in action and have no excuse (see 1 Peter 2:12). All that to say, you are not an exile, you are an alien (not that kind).
D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 522–3. ↩
James M. Hamilton Jr, With the Clouds of Heaven: The Book of Daniel in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 93. ↩
Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 115. ↩
Douglas Wilson, “Indicatives and Imperatives,” Blog & Mablog, October 1, 2012, https://dougwils.com/books/indicatives-and-imperatives–2.html. ↩
It is generally accepted that the six chapters of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is broken down in two halves: chs. 1–3 (indicatives) and chs. 4–6 (imperatives). Admittedly this is a little too neat, but it is a helpful way to conceptualize the organization of the content. ↩
Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, 120 emphasis added. ↩