No one has, to my knowledge, ever produced a television series or movie entitled, “Strangers.” We prefer our shows to have titles like, “Friends.” So Peter’s first letter’s repeated references to “strangers” may seem to have no place in either our longings our culture. After all, few people want to be strangers. Most of us prefer to be in places where “everybody knows your name.”
But Peter may be speaking to a deep reality, not just in the first century, but also in the twenty-first. Almost all people, after all, know what it’s like to be a stranger. Nearly everyone knows how difficult a first day of a new school or on the job can be. Some people even know what it’s like to feel like a stranger in our families or circles of acquaintances.
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson Peter calls his readers to live their “lives as strangers (paroikias) here.” At first glance, it sounds like a familiar call. In both 1:1 and 2:11, after all, the apostle also calls his fellow exiles, “strangers in the world”. But while there’s similarity between the meanings of those three instances of the use of the word “strangers,” there is also a subtle difference.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s preachers need not show off their Greek proficiency by talking about that difference. But they might look for ways to distinguish Peter’s two uses of the word “strangers.” That difference will, after all, allow the Spirit to help Christians to get a good sense of what Peter may be getting at in 1 Peter 1:17-22.
In both 1:1 and 2:11 the Greek word most translations render as “strangers” is derived from the root word epedemeo. It’s an adjective which literally means something like “foreign.” It suggests that Peter is reminding his letter’s readers of their status as outsiders in the world, society and culture.
In 1 Peter 1:17, the Greek word most translations render as “strangers” is derived from the root word paroikias. It’s a noun that literally means something like a dwelling in a foreign land. That may suggest that Peter is comparing the Christians to whom he writes more to a cottage alongside a lake than to some kind of permanent residence.
Those who preach on this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might choose to compare the impermanence of our dwellings to the permanence of Jesus’ followers’ new life in Christ as well as “the living and enduring word of God” (22). 1 Peter 1:17-22 is, after all, at least arguably all about what’s “perishable” and “imperishable.”
Christians are what Peter literally calls in verse 17 temporary residences in the world. We are, in other words, something like a cabin in the woods. Or, perhaps, an Airbnb in a foreign land. Jesus’ friends spend time in the temporary dwelling that is our earthly selves. But whether that time is enjoyable or painful, it’s only temporary. All sorts of people or circumstances have the power to alter or even destroy that perishable “residence.”
The “silver” (argyrio) and “gold” (chrysio) that Peter mentions in verse 17 are similarly “perishable” (phthartois). No matter how valuable those elements may be, they are only temporary. Silver and gold are, like the residences that are people’s earthly lives, destructible.
Peter may also at least be hinting at the perishable nature of what he calls, in verse 18, the “empty” (mataias) way of life (anastrophes) handed down to you from your forefathers” (patraparadotou). After all, that way of trying to please God by obedience to Torah wasn’t just empty in the sense that it couldn’t rescue anyone. It’s also empty in the sense that it was already dying off among God’s beloved people by the time that Peter wrote to them.
Peter uses the word that we translate as “imperishable” once more in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. In verse 23 he insists that Jesus’ friends have been “born again (anagegennemenoi), not of perishable seed” (phthartes sporas). “Perishable seed” is, however, an admittedly strange concept. Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrases verse 23 as, “Your old life came from mortal sperm.”
That’s consistent with one shade of meaning of the Greek word sporas that is “parentage.” It’s also a mirror image of Peter’s reference in 1:3 to the “new birth” that God gives God’s dearly beloved people. If that’s, in fact, what Peter has in mind, it’s as if he’s reminding his readers that human parents’ offspring are only temporary. The life they help produce is perishable.
That concept of perishable “seed” serves as the foil for Peter’s only explicit reference to imperishability in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. In verse 23 he writes, “You have been born again … of imperishable (aphthartou) [seed], through the living (zontos) and enduring (menontos) word of God.”
It’s as if Peter wants to emphasize the imperishable nature of several things in chapter 1 of his first letter. The new life with which God graces Jesus’ friends is imperishable. It can’t be altered or destroyed the way that the perishable dwelling that is our earthly lives can be harmed.
However, God’s Word also endures in ways earthly lives don’t. Peter doesn’t, after all, simply refer to that Word as “imperishable.” He also speaks of God’s word as “enduring” (23). The apostle reminds those to whom he writes that people, traditions and elements are quite simply temporary and destructible. God’s word, by contrast, is imperishable. It can’t be destroyed because it abides. God’s word, in fact, endures forever.
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, however, the apostle also at least alludes to other permanence. In verse 20 he speaks of Christ as “chosen (proegnosmenou) before the creation (kataboles) of the world (kosmou).” In doing so, the apostle insists that the Son of God is not some “Johnny-come-lately.” He didn’t simply burst on the scene in the past 2,000 years. As the Message paraphrases verse 20, God always knew what Christ was going to do for God’s dearly beloved people.
Yet it’s as if Peter goes on to say that even though Christians’ lives are perishable, Jesus’ friends can invest themselves in the lives of others who are similarly perishable. Even Jesus’ friends who feel like temporary dwellings can cultivate “sincere (anypokriton) love (phildelphian)” for their brothers and sisters in Christ (22). Even perishable people can, as a result “love one another deeply, from the heart (ektenos).
We might infer from this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson that Christians don’t have to worry about investing ourselves too deeply in people because they too are temporary. Peter summons Jesus’ perishable friends and followers to instead, in the Message’s words, love other people as if our “lives depended on it.”
In a sermon entitled, “Abraham’s Continuing Journey,” in a collection of his sermons entitled, The Collected Sermons of William Sloan Coffin: The Riverside Years, vol. 1, Coffin describes a man who was very proud his lawn. However, as Coffin noted, the man “found himself with a large crop of dandelions.
“He tried every method he knew to get rid of them; still they plagued him. Finally [the man] wrote to the Department of Agriculture. After listing all the things he had tried, he closed with the question, ‘What shall I do now?’
“In due course came the reply, ‘We suggest you learn to love them’.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 23, 2023
1 Peter 1:17-23 Commentary