1 Peter: Serving the World as Resident Alien Priests
Writing to a group of Christians who are being slandered, falsely accused, and perhaps even physically abused because of their allegiance to Jesus (1 Pet. 2:12, 18–20; 3:13–17; 4:4, 14, 19), Peter explains how Christians are called to transform their suffering into service to the world. Christ has called us to follow him in a world that does not recognize him. We are resident aliens in this strange land, which is not yet our true home. Therefore, we are bound to experience “various trials” (1 Pet. 1:6). Yet we are not victims of the world, but servants to the world—“a holy priesthood” as Peter puts it (1 Pet. 2:5)—bringing God’s blessings to the world. The job of the Christian, then, is to live in this alien land, blessing it until Christ returns and restores the territory to his kingdom.
In the opening line of his letter, Peter addresses his readers as “exiles . . . who have been chosen” (1 Pet. 1:1), a phrase that foreshadows Peter’s entire message. This phrase has two parts, “exiles” and “chosen.”
If you are a citizen of Christ’s kingdom, you are an exile, because at present the world around you is not under Christ’s rule. You are living under foreign rule. While you await Christ’s return, your true citizenship in his kingdom is “kept in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:4). Like exiles in any country, you do not necessarily enjoy the favor of the rulers of the land where you live. Christ came to this land himself but was “rejected by mortals” (1 Pet. 2:4), and all citizens of his kingdom should expect the same treatment. Nonetheless, God has called us to stay here, to reside in this alien land while conducting the work of Christ (1 Pet. 1:15–17).
Although couched in a political metaphor, Peter’s discussion rings with workplace terminology: “deeds” (1 Pet. 1:17), “silver or gold” (1 Pet. 1:18), “tested by fire” (1 Pet. 1:7), “purified” (1 Pet. 1:22), and “built into a . . . house” (1 Pet. 2:5). Peter’s workplace terms remind us that we live in a world of work, and we have to find a way of following Christ in the midst of the working world around us.
Having described what it means to be “exiles,” Peter takes up the other term from 1 Peter 1:1—“chosen.” If you’re a Christian, you have been chosen by God. For what purpose? To be one of God’s priests in the foreign country you inhabit. “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5). The title of priest, or “royal priesthood,” is repeated in 1 Peter 2:9.
Priests in Ancient Israel Offer Sacrifices and Blessings for Israel
Before continuing, we must understand what it meant to be a priest in ancient Israel. Priests performed two chief functions: offering sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem, and pronouncing the priestly blessing. In order to perform their duty of offering sacrifices, priests had to be able to enter the inner portions of the temple and—once a year, in the case of the high priest—to stand in the Holy of Holies before the divine presence. In order to say the priestly blessing, priests had to speak for God himself. Both of these duties required priests to enter God’s presence. This in turn required exceptional purity or holiness, since God’s presence cannot abide anything impure or polluted. Yet priests served part time according to a rotation system (Luke 1:8) and had ordinary jobs as their chief means of livelihood. They could not sequester themselves from daily life but had to maintain purity despite the dirt and corruption of the world. (Click here for more on priests in ancient Israel in Numbers and Work.)
Christians as Priests Offer Self-Sacrifice and Blessings for Others in Need
Don Flow, CEO Of Flow Automotive, On Priesthood At Work
A priest bears the burdens of people by absorbing those burdens and bringing them before God and bringing God’s blessing to the people. Paul made it clear that to fulfill the law of Christ meant to bear each other’s burdens. Both John and Peter call us a “Kingdom of Priests.” As Christian leaders, we must lean into the burdens of the people in our organizations. This means that we must genuinely know the people with whom we work. For Christian leaders, who a person is and what they do are fully integrated. People cannot be reduced to instruments of production.
Christian leadership requires that prayer be fully integrated into the life of work. The whole world groans with the burden of the fall and it is our calling to participate in the healing of this world. In prayer, we can lift the burdens of others before God and we can bring God’s refreshing touch to the world. I believe we are called to pray for the people with whom we interact every day, for His in-breaking into our day, that our organization would be a blessing, that it would do good, that it would be a positive force for shalom, and for God’s blessing, which is the source of all abundance in this world. Prayer is central to the calling of leadership.
Talk given at Seattle Pacific University, October 2008
So for Peter to call Christians “a holy priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:5) and “a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9) does not mean that all Christians should think of themselves as professional pastors. It does not mean that becoming an evangelist or missionary is the highest way of fulfilling God’s call to be chosen people. It means that Christians are to live lives of exceptional purity in the midst of whatever our livelihoods are. Only so can we offer sacrifices to God and blessings from God on behalf of the people around us.
Peter states this directly: “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge” (1 Pet. 2:11–12). (Notice the concern to glorify God’s presence “when he comes to judge.”)
Of course, Christians do not perform the same sacrifice as Jewish priests (we do not slaughter animals). Instead, we perform the kind of sacrifice our Lord did: self-sacrifice for the benefit of others in need. “To this you have been called,” Peter says, “because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21). This is not to be taken over-literally as death on a cross, but is to be understood as “spiritual sacrifices” (1 Pet. 2:5)—meaning acts performed at the expense of self for the benefit of others in need (1 Pet. 4:10). Our workplaces offer daily opportunities for self-sacrifices—small or large.
This brief survey of 1 Peter 1:3–2:10 fills out the picture Peter paints when he calls his readers “exiles . . . who have been chosen.” The term “exiles” means that we live out this vocation as resident aliens in a land that is yet to be our home—a place currently characterized by systemic injustice and corruption. The term “chosen” affirms that followers of Jesus—a “royal priesthood”—have the priest’s vocation to be a blessing to the world, especially through self-sacrifice.
The priestly blessing was commanded by God to be offered by priests in Numbers 6:23–24 and consists of the words in Numbers 6:24–26, “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”
For God’s holiness and the consequent need for human holiness in his presence, see Leviticus 11:44–45. For the extensive cleansing and consecration process of the high priest on the Day of Atonement, see Leviticus 11:44–45. For the extensive cleansing and consecration process of the high priest on the Day of Atonement, see Leviticus 16.
David Hataj, CEO, Egerton Gear, Inc., on Non-Judgmental Corporate Culture Change
I returned home after 8 years to assume leadership of my father’s gear manufacturing company. To my eyes, the business was in trouble. Relationships on the shop floor were tense and deliveries to customers were often late or defective. The problems might have been related to the copious quantities of alcohol consumed by the employees, led by the CEO, my father. There was always a quarter barrel of beer in the break room, and a group accompanied my dad to the local bar every day at lunch to get a start on the day’s drinking.
As a believer, I objected to these behaviors, but I sensed God’s call to come back to the family business to be a blessing to my parents and the employees. It was an opportunity to be a witness for Christ’s love, forgiveness and redemption. I treated every employee with compassion and respect. I instituted more effective manufacturing processes and quality control. The business started turning around.
But I received harsh treatment by my father’s drinking buddies. I was ridiculed for not getting drunk. Rather than defending myself and retaliating, I strove to follow Jesus’ example as the suffering servant. When cursed, I tried to bless. When ridiculed, I quietly went about my job without condemning. Although I had major disagreements with my father, I always tried to show him honor and respect.
The experience turned into my own personal hell. But over the course of several years, the tide began to turn. Fewer people hung around after work for free beer. Some employees left the company, while others begin to embrace the new values. A sign of the mantle of leadership being passed to me came one day as my dad (not me) removed the beer barrel.
In this situation, my calling as a resident alien and priest could only be incarnated with a posture of humility and self-sacrifice.
- Letter to the Theology of Work Project, Aug., 19, 2010
What might it look like for Christians to exercise our calling as resident aliens and priests in the work environment? Peter addresses this directly in instructions to his readers as foreigners and slaves. As foreigners, we are to honor and submit to the civil rule of whatever country we find ourselves in (1 Pet. 2:13–14), even though our citizenship in God’s kingdom entitles us to live as “free people” (1 Pet. 2:16). As slaves—which apparently constituted a large segment of Peter’s readers, since he does not address any other class of workers—we should submit ourselves to our masters, whether they treat us justly or unjustly (1 Pet. 2:18–19). In fact, unjust treatment is to be expected (1 Pet. 4:12), and it offers us an opportunity to follow in Christ’s footsteps by suffering without retaliating (1 Pet. 2:21). Notice that Peter is talking about suffering unjustly, not suffering from the consequences of your own incompetence, arrogance, or ignorance. Of course, you need to suffer obediently when receiving just punishment.
In practical terms, you are not free to disobey those in authority even in order to get what you think is rightfully yours. You will surely find yourself in situations where you don’t get what you deserve—a promotion, a raise, an office with a window, a decent health care plan. You may even find your employer actively cheating you, forcing you to work off the clock, punishing you for your boss’s errors. It might seem ethical to cheat your employer just enough to make up what you were cheated out of—calling in sick when you’re not, charging personal items to the company, stealing office supplies or goofing off on company time. But no, “It is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil” (1 Pet. 3:17). God does not give you the option to take back what was wrongfully taken from you. The fact that you lied to or cheated someone to make up for how they lied to or cheated you does not make your action less evil. Your call is to do right, even in a hostile work environment (1 Pet. 2:20). “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult” (1 Pet. 3:9). Instead, Christians should treat those in authority—even harsh and unjust masters—with respect and honor.
Why? Because our vocation as priests is to bless people, and we can’t do that while defending ourselves, just as Christ could not die for the salvation of the world while defending himself (1 Pet. 2:21–25). Christ, of course, was not afraid to exercise power and challenge authority in certain circumstances, and Peter is not claiming to recapitulate the entire gospel here. Other parts of the Bible—especially the Prophets—emphasize God’s call to resist oppressive and illegitimate authority. And submission doesn’t always mean obedience. We can submit to authority by disobeying openly and accepting the consequences, as Jesus himself did. Here and throughout the epistle, Peter draws us almost exclusively to the self-sacrifice of Christ as a model.
Peter now gives instructions for church leaders, termed “elders” (“presbyters” and “bishops” in the Anglicized Greek derivations used in many churches today). The advice is good for workplace leaders, too. It focuses on serving others. “Tend the flock of God . . . willingly [and] eagerly” (1 Pet. 5:2). Don’t be greedy for money (1 Pet. 5:2). Don’t lord it over others, but be an example for others to emulate (1 Pet. 5:3). Peter advises humility to the young—in fact, to everyone—when he quotes Proverbs 3:34, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet. 5:5). These are not unique to 1 Peter, and we will not expand on them here. It is enough to remember that the concept of servant-leadership, circulating widely in today’s workplace, is well known to Peter. How could it be otherwise, since Jesus is the servant-leader par excellence (1 Pet. 4:1–2, 6)?