Pilgrims Among Pagans – Lesson 3: Holy Living in a Hostile World (1)

Key Verse: “…as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy.’” I Peter 1:15–16

Holy—if any single word captures the uniqueness of God and His people, it is this word holy. Holiness, our theology textbooks teach us, denotes separation from sin, moral purity and perfection. Add to these the differentness belonging to covenantal living, the distinctiveness characterizing God’s people in the world.



People hate God for His holiness; their wickedness is exposed and they flee from His presence. And worldlings hate God’s children for their holiness, because it accuses the world of sin and unbelief. How desperately we need, in our age of surging conformism (emphasizing that we should all think alike, act alike, dress and drink alike), the call to spiritual and moral differentness.

Be holy! That’s the call Peter sounds in this passage. Stick to your Bible-based, God-given distinctives! People around you will change; lifestyles will unravel; institutions may crumble. But God and His grace endure forever.

Holy living born of living hope (read 1:13–16)

The first word of our passage is “therefore”; it ties together these verses with what has preceded, particularly verses 3–12. If those preceding verses stressed believers’ privilege in Christ, the verses of our lesson emphasize their responsibility.

The central thought of verse 13 is: “rest your hope fully on grace.” Christian hope is to be wholehearted and unwavering. It requires intellectual effort, for which Peter uses a metaphor drawn from men’s clothing of his day: literally, “by girding up the loins of your [plural] mind.” Before a man engaged in strenuous work requiring movement and speed, he had to gather up his robe and tuck it under his belt. Peter’s formulation emphasizes communal understanding (not “your minds,” but “the mind of all of you together”), a mental exercise that draws out the implications of our future glory for present obedience. Our hope must be guided by thinking that is correct, clear and concentrated.

Another characteristic of Christian hope is its sobriety or self-control. The opposite is self-indulgence and fanaticism. Even though our eyes look heavenward, our feet must be planted firmly on earth. (Question 1)

The foundation or resting-place for Christian hope is divine grace that will be given believers when Christ appears (see 1:5). We often tend to think of grace as a possession; people either have grace or they don’t. But the Bible describes grace also in terms of a time-line: inaugurated at Christmas (Titus 2:11), grace is now being communicated to us by the Spirit through gospel preaching and the sacraments, and will be consummated when Christ returns in glory. Our hope must be built on that grace; there lies the certainty, the glory and power of our hope.

Setting our hope upon God’s grace requires the attitude or posture of obedient children (v. 14). The literal phrase is “children of obedience,” denoting obedience as the defining quality, the essential feature, of a child of God.

Negatively, God’s children must not conform themselves (note the active voice; see Rom. 12:2) to their pre-conversion appetites and desires.

These desires lose their attractiveness the moment one turns to “the Holy One who has called you” (v.15–16). This positive definition of obedience emphasizes the motif of calling. The Holy One is also the Calling One, the One who summons and requisitions everyone and everything to His service.

The standard and motive for Christian holiness are God Himself and His holiness. “As, He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy” (vv. 15–16). In other words: like Father, like children. God’s moral distinctiveness must radiate through the lives of His obedient children. He, not they, determines what is and is not holy. He, not they, fixes the boundaries of rightful obedience. (Question 2)

Holy living in godly fear (read 1:17–21)

The main statement of these verses is: “Conduct yourselves throughout the time of your sojourning in fear” (v. 17). Everything else in these verses qualifies or further characterizes this conduct.

For example, pilgrims who call upon Father must know Him to be at the same time their impartial Judge. Verse 17 corrects a common, wicked heresy which claims that God is either Father (loving, kind, patient) or Judge (strict, rule-keeping, discriminating)—but not both at the same time.

Because our Heavenly Father is also our Eternal Judge, we must live before Him with deep respect and reverence. He is not like the father who indulges his children’s whims in order to stay their friend. He will call us to account for our life’s work.

Christian pilgrims living in a hostile world might sometimes expect God to go a little easy on them. After all, they take so much guff and give up so much for Him. But by calling us to conduct our pilgrimage in holy fear before our Father-Judge, Peter reminds us that God’s standards never slacken. (Question 3)

Greater incentive to holy living in godly fear comes by knowing how much our liberation cost and what we were delivered from (vv. 18–19). Verses 18–19 are constructed this way:

You were not redeemed with corruptible things like silver or gold from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers but (you were redeemed) with precious blood as of a lamb without blemish and without spot—Christ. Redemption requires a ransom, the payment of a price. The higher the price and the more durable the medium of exchange, the more sure the purchase. Silver and gold couldn’t have ransomed us, but only the precious blood of the Substitute (Gen. 22) sprinkled upon the people (Ex. 12), the Lamb who bore our guilt (see Isa. 53), even Jesus Christ.

Notice Peter’s description of what believers are redeemed from, emphasized at the center of these verses: “your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers.” Not all tradition is good! Some of it is no more than religious superstition expressed in habits of heartless piety, passed down from one generation to the next.

God Himself sought out and destined this spotless Lamb for the altar (v. 20). Before time began Christ was destined for the cross, and now at the end of time He has been revealed as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Jn. 1:29, 36). Christ’s suffering and death were not accidental or an alternative to a supposed divine failure with Israel. They were planned from eternity.

Here we have a biblical argument for Christ’s pre-existence, that is, His existence before Christmas. From eternity God the Father prepared His willing Son for the altar of His wrath. But we also see clearly that Jesus Christ is the center, the mid-point of history. In Him God’s pre-creation plan is realized, and by Him, who suffered, died, arose and ascended, the creation and its history are being steered and governed to their goal.

All of this, writes Peter, was and is “for you” (v. 20). What an astounding thought: the Father’s foreordination of Christ as the Sacrificial Lamb was “for you”! Bethlehem, Golgotha, the empty tomb and the now-occupied throne were “for you.” God had the church’s redemption in mind all along!

Conversely, believers must then be wholly directed toward God (v. 21). That is the payoff of Christ’s work: believers have been brought near to God. Only through Him can people come to faith and call upon God as Father. The core of this faith is the confession that God raised Christ from the dead and exalted Him to His right hand.

The result of the Father’s exaltation of His Son is that “your faith and hope are in God.” God-directed faith and hope are fruits of Christ’s redemption from the former lifestyle of futility.

Holy living in mutual love (read 1:22–25)

The central exhortation of these verses is, “Love one another fervently.” Peter says two things about this love: it arises from a pure heart and it endures. Each of these qualities is given a theological foundation; love’s purity roots in believers’ completed cleansing, and its durability rests upon the permanence of God’s Word.

Purification is a word used often in the Old Testament in connection with cultic (worship-related) activities. Here Peter is speaking of a moral purification of heart and life, to which believers are called and which they can perform. Believers are able to purify themselves because within them dwells the Holy Spirit who was given them for sanctification (1:2).

This purification, and along with it, sincere love of fellow-believers, are based on obedience to the truth of the gospel. True faith in the gospel’s truth is a prerequisite for genuine love among Christians.

The origin of this cleansing, however, lay in the work of God. Mutual love in the church is anchored in God’s love. For believers are born of God and by Him; their new life is a concrete result of God’s creative grace.

Notice that believers are born of incorruptible seed through the Word of God. The metaphor is one of insemination: God’s seed of new life is carried along and implanted by the preached Word. The apostle John speaks in similar language when he says that those who are born of God cannot sin, for God’s seed abides in them (1 Jn. 3:9). This Word of God is living and abiding, serving as the continuing basis for exercising mutual love.

Christian pilgrims, living in a hostile world where faith survives often at the cost of social contacts, need to work hard at preserving fellowship. The ransom price paid for their salvation is precious and enduring. Their new life, conceived within them by God Himself through His Word, is lasting, Together these create in the congregation a light and permanent bond of affection for one another. Because Christian holiness and congregational love go hand in hand, the breakdown of one inevitably leads to the collapse of the other. And the cultivation of one requires the support of the other. (Question 4)

In verses 24–25 Peter quotes Isaiah 40:6–8 and provides a brief application. This quotation fits well here for two reasons. First, the situations of this letter’s first readers and of the people of Israel to whom Isaiah was speaking were similar. Second, both were living in a hostile society as minorities; both needed assurance about unchanging values.

“All flesh is as grass, and all of man’s glory as the flower of the grass. Withered is the grass and its flower has fallen. But the word of the Lord remains forever.” The form of the quotation emphasizes withering and fading, pointing to the quick passing of man and his glory. The word of prophecy (to which Isaiah was pointing) survived the prophet himself; Peter applies that quality to the message preached by the apostles. What God said in time remains true for eternity.

The Spirit saw to it that the good news of grace, prophesied by the prophets, was carried to the farthest corner of Asia Minor. It was carried, writes Peter with emphasis, “to you” (v. 25). As a result, those who believe obey. Their life obtains a new impulse and bears fresh fruit. Such is the kind of holiness to which believers are called and for which they are born.

Holy living in a hostile world requires a future orientation, a confident hope that living differently in moral purity really matters, finally. God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, both now and in eternity. Therefore, this holy living must be directed toward God (vertical) and fostered by mutual love among fellow believers (horizontal).

Questions for Reflection and Reply

1. Explain why unchecked deficit spending, sports fanaticism, and unpunished crime demonstrate unbelieving hopelessness. What are some distinctive (that is: holy) Christian responses to the hopelessness expressed in these?

2. Review the first three paragraphs of this lesson, and explain why being pilgrims and being holy necessarily go together. Or: explain why Christians who lose their differentness from the world will no longer live like pilgrims.

3. What does it mean that God is both impartial and discriminating in His judgment? What is the standard of His discrimination? On what basis may human judges discriminate? How docs it comfort you to know that God will someday judge everyone’s works?

4. Illustrate how Christian holiness and congregational love depend on each other.