The Christian as an elect exile

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you. 1 Pet. 1:1-2 (ESV)

What does the apostle Peter mean by the phrase “elect exiles of the Dispersion”? And how does understanding our identity in this way make a difference in our lives?

“The Dispersion” was a phrase that was usually used to refer to the Jews that had been scattered throughout the world as a result of their exile from their homeland in Judea, in particular to the Greek-speaking Jews throughout the Roman Empire in Peter’s day.  However, there are good reasons to see this as referring, not to Jews only but also to Gentile believers who lived in Asia Minor.  The apostle is spiritualizing this description and turning it to a reference to believers in the Lord.  They are dispersed throughout this world, but like the Jews, they were not in their homeland.  For our home ultimately is not in this world but in the world to come.  

This is why Peter also calls them “elect exiles.”  The King James Version translates this word, exiles, as “strangers.”  According to Wayne Grudem, perhaps the best translation is “sojourners.”  (A similar word is used in verse 17, which the KJV translates as “the time of your sojourning.”)  The word “always refers to a temporary resident in a foreign place.”[1]  As Christians, that is what we are.  No matter how rooted we may begin to imagine ourselves in this world, we are at best temporary residents in it.  But that is true of everyone.  What makes the difference and distinguishes the Christian from those who are not, is that we recognize the fact that we are not only temporary residents, but residents in a foreign place.  As believers in Christ, we need to face up to the reality that this world is not our home.  We are not to find our identity in this world, in our jobs, or in our families, or in our country.  We are to be like Abraham and the patriarchs, who “acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.  If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (Heb. 11:13-16).

Peter does not drop this description of these believers by accident.  This is on purpose.  He wants them to see that the significance of their lives does not depend on how they are perceived in this world.  It does not depend on what other people think of them, or how their usefulness is rated by others.  Our home, and the place in which we will find ultimate rest, is heaven.  

These believers were being persecuted.  So they were acutely aware that they were being rejected by their neighbors and the authorities.  They were seen as being traitors to their country because of their faith.  This is hinted at in verse 18, when the apostle says that they were “ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers.”  In other words, in their conversion to Christ, they were turning their backs on their heritage.  They were almost certainly seen as being unpatriotic and disloyal.  So there would have been this tremendous pressure on them to repent of their repentance.  So Peter is telling them, “Look, don’t worry too much about being rejected by your neighbors.  For remember that you are a resident alien.  You live here and rub shoulders with these people, but this is not your home.  This is not your country.  You don’t owe your ultimate allegiance to a culture which is in revolt against God, who is your true King and to whose Country you belong.”

You will never set your hope fully on the grace that is coming with the End (see verse 13), if your allegiance is to this world.  And your allegiance will land here unless you see that you are an elect exile, a stranger and a pilgrim, a sojourner.

But we also need to remember that pilgrims can do great things.  One thinks of the Pilgrim Fathers of our own nation.  They were a very small group of people, described by some historians as fundamentalist nuts.  They were branded as such by their own countrymen.  They had been “harried out of the land” by the religious leaders of their nation.  They were not wanted.  They were not appreciated.  They were not respected.  And there were barely 100 of them when they reached the New World, and then half of them died in the first winter.  What could such people do?  Yet it was their bravery and pilgrim spirit which laid the foundation for those who would follow.  So don’t worry about being a pilgrim, a sojourner, an exile.  God uses pilgrims in the establishment of his kingdom, too.  Find your identity as an elect exile.

And then there is that word “elect.”  God is of course the one who chose them.  You might be rejected by your countrymen, but if God is for you, who can be against you?  Peter further elucidates what he means by this, when he says that they were elect exiles “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.”  This does not mean that they were chosen by God because he foresaw certain things about them, or that he chose them because they chose him first.  That sense of the word doesn’t hold, for example, in its application to Christ in verse 20.  Rather, what it means is that they were loved by God with the love that a father has for his children.  Let the whole world reject you if God the Father has received you into his fatherly care.  And he is not like some earthly fathers, who are arbitrary in their displays of love towards their children.  Rather, we know that God the Father is relentlessly faithful and loving toward his children.  What more security could anyone ask for?  And what a foundation for your identity! 

By the way, when we adopt the attitude of sojourners and strangers in this world, we are following the example and pattern of our Savior, who was the ultimate Exile in this world.  How could we expect any different, when following Christ?  “Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.  For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:13-14).

[1] Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter [TNTC], (IVP, 1988), p. 48.

By: Jeremiah Bass