This concept of “strangers” carries significance throughout Peter’s two letters. It refers to a foreigner in a strange land. It could be referring to an ambassador who resides in a foreign land in order to represent his home nation. In this case, seeing as we are God’s ambassadors here, our home nation is heaven, as Paul says, “our citizenship is in heaven.” This means we are of heaven in the sense of being born of God, with his values and life. We are not lead by worldly fashions and values.
This needs to be understood in the Jewish sense in which Peter meant it. In many English commentaries we get the idea that heaven is our ultimate destination and we are just passing through this earth. Earth isn’t seen as important, but is just to be cast off like an old cloth. The Bible speaks metaphorically this way about the old sinful world, but, instead of the common misconception, this more accurately refers to a renewing of the world in righteousness through the gospel. A common view in the Western world comes from the Puritan book Pilgrim’s Progress, where Pilgrim is passing through the word on his way to his eternal home in heaven. Over time, this has contributed to a self-interested gospel, not really related to our communities and our natural world, which God also loves and gave to us to nurture.
Throughout First and Second Peter, Peter is building a temple theme. He sees our pilgrim call in this sense. As citizens from heaven, we are God’s strangers, or God’s ambassadors in a foreign land. It isn’t foreign in the sense of not being owned by God. It was created and has been redeemed by God. It is foreign in the sense that it still contains old, fallen cultures. These are now being renewed by the church. Paul also uses this theme, calling us ambassadors, drawing others into God’s new creation, which is reconciling and transforming the world (2 Cor 5). Just as in Ehp 1:10, Paul said the church shows God’s wisdom to the powers (cultures, governments, faiths), so Peter shows the same.
As strangers and pilgrims, we are God’s new temple in the world. We are sent out into the world, as strangers to the ways of sinful cultures, to be God’s new, transforming temple within the nations. It is the language of Christ in the Great Commission: “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Nations are being renewed. The new temple is that place which God inhabits in a strange land, so that his image and likeness may impact and renew that land. The temple is the place where heaven and earth join for the purpose of earth’s transformation. This was Adam’s call and it was Israel’s call. Peter is writing to the Jews about their ongoing call in Christ. Such a call means that we are God’s temple in our nations.
What did the Jews think of the term “pilgrim” or “stranger”? This term stems from the Jewish exile and captivity in Babylon in the Old Testament period. Paul calls it “the casting away of Israel” and says it was a “blessing to the world.” When the exile of many Jews continued throughout the Greek and Roman Empires, the whole world was impacted by their presence. The presence of synagogues were like transforming temples in the nations, bringing the knowledge of God through the Torah. This greatly impacted the world’s religions and philosophies, from India and Asia through to Greece. Also, many gentile people accepted the God of the Jews and joined the Jewish faith. So when Peter uses the term “pilgrim” as a Jewish believer, he has in mind the blessing of the world.
Our call to pilgrimage is one of the most central parts to the Christian message. Jesus was a pilgrim, or stranger, cut off from his people, rejected and crucified. In so doing – in being cast away – he also became a blessing to the whole world. And this is the identity, the central identity, that Peter assigns to the church in this world. We are not to live as landlords, as occupiers, furnishing ourselves comfortably in this world, settled and content with our possessions, but we are to follow Christ’s example. We are not to follow the examples of violence, corruption, greed and immorality we see around us. Because of this, the world will treat us as strangers. They will cast us off, as Israel and Jesus were cast away, but we are beloved of God and accepted by him. Through being cast away, by entering into our identity as the new Israel, and by partaking of their sufferings and also of Christ’s, we are a transforming blessing to the nations.
In his suffering, Christ opened not his mouth, but instead forgave those who persecuted him. This is how he became a blessing to the world. So, Peter says, following Christ’s example is how the church is called to renew the nations.
“For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps… He did not retaliate when he was insulted, nor threaten revenge when he suffered. He left his case in the hands of God, who always judges fairly.” (1 Pet 2:21, 23)
“Now, who will want to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you suffer for doing what is right, God will reward you for it. So don’t worry or be afraid of their threats. Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ. Remember, it is better to suffer for doing good, if that is what God wants, than to suffer for doing wrong! Christ suffered for our sins once for all time. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God. He suffered physical death, but he was raised to life in the Spirit.” (1 Pet 3:13-18)
“So then, since Christ suffered physical pain, you must arm yourselves with the same attitude he had, and be ready to suffer, too. For if you have suffered physically for Christ, you have finished with sin. You won’t spend the rest of your lives chasing your own desires, but you will be anxious to do the will of God.” (1 Pet 4:1-2)
We can see here Peter’s world-evangelism strategy. He didn’t say, “Arrange a program and get in a well-known evangelist to win everyone to the Lord.” Why didn’t he say that? Because, in the end, that won’t transform us or the world. The strategy that Peter very clearly laid out was about our life style of love and respect for others. He said that, when people see us living that way (instead of for self as people in the Roman world did), and when they ask us why we live like this and what our hope is if it isn’t in the same things other people go after, then we share our hope with them in respect and love. He said preaching the gospel is secondary action: it comes as an explanation for the way we live. If it doesn’t come out of how we live, then we have no gospel to preach. If we all lived this way today, we wouldn’t have the divisions we have, and we would have shown Christ to the whole world by now. Our call to evangelism is our call to follow Christ in the world as his new community and temple, showing his glory.
The world isn’t changed by landlords putting sinners on the cross, like they did to Jesus, but by strangers and pilgrims taking up their cross.
Peter is showing us that the way we impact the world, as God’s temple, is to live out the life of Christ in our communities. He is saying that we live out an opposite way of life to the self-centeredness around us. The most basic ways he expresses this is by our non-retaliation for evil and our counterrespect for all people, even for those who harm us. It’s the compassion of Christ who forgave and prayed for those who crucified him. We understand that those people are captives to the real enemy and that they need help. This is the way the light of Christ shines in our world. “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, and honour the emperor.” (1 Pet 2:17)
The temple theme serves as two bookends in Peter’s two letters. His letters open with the establishment of the new temple in Christ, and close with the then soon coming destruction of the old temple in Jerusalem. This theme was prevalent in most of the New Testament books, from the Gospels, to Acts, Paul, Hebrews, James, Peter and Revelation. The new temple has come to bring about new creation, by the coming of God’s kingdom to the whole world in Christ; and the old temple is defunct and is passing away. Taking Peter’s two letters as a whole, this is his theme.
“You are coming to Christ, who is the living cornerstone of God’s temple. He was rejected by people, but he was chosen by God for great honour. And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God.” (1 Pet 2:4-5)
“But you are not like that (not like the old world) for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Pet 2:9)
God’s purpose in making us his temple is that he might inhabit the world through us. His glory, shekinah, is shown to the world through the Spirit and the lives of the believers. Grace operates in his temple, and, as our praises go to God, his blessing comes down through our lives, into the nations. The grace comes through Christ and his reign at God’s right hand. Again, we see the same themes in Genesis 1 & 2 and the first temple, wherein Adam and Eve were the priesthood, reflecting God’s image into the world. Now it’s the church. Peter speaks of the living word, the Spirit and the light overcoming darkness – all creational themes – now all returned through the church, bringing the world into new creation. We are born again – brought into new creation – by the living word, and by God’s first new creation act, the resurrection of Christ from the dead. (1 Pet 1:3, 23) Peter’s letters are, from start to finish, Hebrew themed letters.
Peter then speaks of God’s judgement in this present world. This comprises much of the theme in 2 Peter. Sinners perish, but God’s judgment doesn’t consist of destroying the world, but renewing it. This has almost immediate application in Peter’s own day: the coming judgement of Jerusalem, its ruin and the destruction of the temple. These events had been foretold by the prophets since long before Jesus came. Jesus also spoke clearly about this coming to pass in that very generation. This was to be fulfilled near Peter’s own time, but it also speaks to the whole world which God is transforming.
The Jerusalem temple represents this present age, which is passing away. Those who cling to the ways of this present age perish with it. But those who follow Christ have his promise of eternal life and inclusion in the new heavens and new earth. But, before Jerusalem was to be destroyed, God was waiting till the gospel had gone out to that generation, especially all the diaspora in the Roman world.
“But the day of the Lord will come as unexpectedly as a thief. Then the heavens will pass away with a terrible noise, and the very elements themselves will disappear in fire, and the earth and everything on it will be found to deserve judgment.” (2 Pet 3:10)
This verse needs to be read in its Hebrew sense. In Greek culture, the idea became prevalent that the world and material things were evil and could not be redeemed. This, even today, has become a position that is completely opposite to the Hebrew faith. Greek beliefs speak of the coming entire destruction of the earth and the whole material cosmos (the natural heavens, or stars). This notion holds that eternity is only for spirits in heaven. When the Greek fathers became leaders in the church, and when the church began to persecute the Jews, the Hebrew background to scripture either became unknown or was rejected due to hatred of the Jews. For many years, certain sections of the church have laboured under many interpretations of scripture that don’t have a genuine basis in scripture itself. Much of the present end-times teaching today, even in much of the church, is Greek in its origan.
So, how do we read this text in Second Peter from its Hebrew base? The Old Testament shows how Jewish believers like Peter thought, and how they understood metaphors and scripture. Here is an example from Isaiah:
“The heavens above will melt away and disappear like a rolled-up scroll. The stars will fall from the sky…” (Isaiah 34:4)
This is the exact language Peter used in our reference above. In Hebrew text, this is well known as metaphor. It isn’t literal. So, when Peter uses texts like this, he is not speaking literally. To say that he is speaking literally is to take Peter out of his own context, to deny his Jewish roots and put words in his mouth about which he knows nothing. The passage from Isaiah 34 is speaking of the judgment and destruction of Edom. It is God’s judgement on a city and region. The heavens represent the leaders, being above the people like stars. Their destruction means the utter destruction of the Edomite nation. This was fulfilled after Isaiah spoke it.
Those in Peter’s time who understood the scriptures, as Hebrew believers in Christ, knew about the coming judgment on Jerusalem. It had been foretold since Isaiah’s time. All the prophets said it was coming. Jesus spoke of it in detail. Peter is just reiterating what Jesus had earlier told the disciples. Jerusalem will be destroyed, including its leaders, its priests, and its temple. This was fulfilled soon after Peter spoke it, in AD 70. Peter was not speaking about the end of the world.
“But we are looking forward to the new heavens and new earth he has promised, a world filled with God’s righteousness.” (2 Pet 3:13)
In scripture, the fall of Jerusalem represents the fall of all nations. The Old Testament links rebellious Israel with Edom and the gentile nations. The old temple came to represent those in the world who cling to the lusts of the current world, not serving others, but serving only themselves. This is what the Pharisees represented. The fall of Jerusalem is also the fall of this type of world. It is all coming under judgment and passing away.
While this is happening, we are leaving that world, we are coming out of those types of lifestyles, and looking for the new world which God is creating through his kingdom and church and, finally, by the resurrection. In the resurrection, all corruption shall be put off and there will be no more curse on the earth. We are to live in that expectation now, spreading this new way of life through the nations as God’s new temple. We are God’s prophetic people, rejoicing today in new heavens and new earth, showing them by our faith and love for each other and our cross-shaped, self-giving love for our enemies. This is the display of our faith and the evidence of the coming resurrection that will renew all things.
So here we have it: Peter’s two letters. The gospel is presented as God’s new temple through which God is present in all nations, bringing forth new life. We are witnesses to the renewing of the world. The old ways are perishing and new ways have already come through God’s new Jesus-following community. We shall participate in eternal life, which has already started, and which culminates in fully renewed heavens and earth. It’s the Revelation 21-22 vision come to pass through the church. In Genesis 1 & 2 we see God’s coupling theme. Heaven and earth are coupled. Light and darkness, land and sea, the waters above and below, male and female. Male and female represent God and his bride, his covenant commitment to redeem humanity through Christ, and this marriage represents the final coupling of heaven and earth in the new creation. And so Revelation finishes with the bride, the New Jerusalem, the habitation on earth, prepared by God in heaven.