That’s what Peter’s talking about in this passage; that’s the goal of his instruction. He tells us we’re exiles and resident aliens in this world. He’s used each of these words before, but now he puts them together to multiply the effect. Then he takes it a step further, adding in the point he’s just made in verse 9: we have a purpose in this world that goes beyond just getting through the day and making a living. We aren’t supposed to just blend in with everyone else, as if we were citizens of this world right along with them. Our citizenship is somewhere else; we’re here on a mission from God.
Let’s unpack that for a minute. Peter doesn’t explicitly use the language of citizenship, but coming hard on the heels of verses 9-10, his point here is right in line with Paul in Philippians 3. It isn’t in the way you probably think, however. The NIV reads, “sinful desires,” but a more literal translation would be “desires of the flesh.” Peter isn’t just talking about things which are obviously sinful—and neither is Paul. The point is broader than that. The desires of the flesh are those desires which are natural to those whose minds are set on earthly things. Yes, obviously, many of those are clearly sinful; but many of them aren’t. There’s nothing wrong with our instinct for self-protection and self-preservation, or with our desire for material comfort and prosperity. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to experience pleasure, or to have a good reputation. They’re just earthly, worldly, of the flesh, and so by themselves, they point us away from God.
Now, does this mean that we shouldn’t have any desires at all? No. We’re not supposed to be enemies of pleasure, as if we worshipped a cosmic killjoy; I’m not going to tell you to put on a hair shirt and go out and sleep in the snow on a bed of nails. We need to understand that Peter was using typical language from both Jewish and Greek moral and ethical teaching, which would have been familiar to his audience; where the NIV reads “desires,” we should understand that to mean unrestrained desires or impulses. The point isn’t that it’s wrong to have desires, but that it’s wrong to just give in to them and let them run the show.
It’s natural to desire pleasure, but that desire needs to be under control. If it’s starting to get away from you—maybe you’re starting to drink a little too much, or your eyes are starting to wander once in a while—then you need to abstain. You need to cut yourself short. It’s normal to want financial and material security, but if you find yourself making all your decisions on that basis—if that desire is running your life—then you need to set that aside, because that way of life doesn’t bring glory to God. It’s perfectly understandable to want a good reputation, but if you catch yourself shading the truth, or maybe spinning things a bit, to make yourself look good, then you need to sacrifice that desire to God, because he’s a God of truth, not of the lie.
We’re called to be a people who respect our earthly rulers, but who fear God alone—not any person around us and not any human power. We’re an organized community of resident aliens in this world, members of another nation living in the midst of this one, owing our allegiance to a greater King, for the purpose of declaring and displaying the character and the glory of that King in the earthly community in which we live and work. Like Joseph, we’re here to tell people the good news of Jesus Christ with such persistent love and such humble grace that even when people attack us and beat us for it, our example will move them to repentance and faith. We’re on a mission from God, alright—a diplomatic mission. We’re his ambassadors to Winona Lake and Warsaw, to Kosciusko County, to Indiana, to America. We’re the designated representatives of the kingdom of heaven to this community and this nation.
As some of you probably know, I’m pulling that language (and the title of this sermon) from 2 Corinthians 5, which we didn’t read this morning. In verse 20 of that chapter, Paul describes himself and his colleagues as ambassadors for Christ because they’re speaking on behalf of Christ, carrying forward his ministry of reconciliation which God has entrusted to them. It isn’t only a ministry for Paul and other special people in the church, however. It’s been given to all of us. Paul implores us to be reconciled to God so that we would then turn and do the same for others, leading them to find the peace with God which we’ve found.