First Peter, more than any other epistle, speaks of the relation between the Church and society. Peter, rather than giving a five-fold tool for evaluating the interaction the believers have between themselves and society, understands the tension that new believers have between their old way of life and their new. Peter teaches the first century believers that a proper understanding of who they are in Christ will give them a proper understanding of how they are to conduct themselves in society.
From the outset of the letter, Peter is forming the believer’s identity. He addresses them as the “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 the sprinkling with his blood.” Already he is establishing their identity both in who they are in God and by their social status. Peter’s first label for them is “elect.” The Greek word evklekto,j is a term that refers to an action performed by God. This is a fairly common designation for New Testament Christians, not only carrying the weight of their election in God, but it also refers to “their present historical existence and their final vindication;” both are actions that are performed by God. Their identity is not contained only in who they are now, but who God has called them to be from eternity with an eschatological focus. They not only exist in their present situation, but have an eschatological designation awaiting them. This allows Peter their second labeling: “exiles.” Because they have been elected by God, they are now “strangers” or “exiles.” The Greek parepi,dhmoj refers to temporary residence in a foreign land. In the first verse of his epistle, Peter is trying to stress to them that this is a temporary home for them. This is not to preclude them from establishing themselves in their communities, but it allows them to be free from partaking in the sin that the world offers. Finally, Peter labels them as the diaspora, “Diaspora.” This, probably more than any other word, is bound up with a Jewish identity, however, commentators generally agree that Peter is writing to Gentile believers. By using terms that would generally be used with Israel, Peter is including the Gentiles in the long history of redemption that God has been working since creation. Peter opens up a great deal of understanding for the way they are then to live.
One such understanding comes from the last time Israel was called “exiles” in Jeremiah 29:4-7. Jeremiah, much in the same way that Peter does, instructs Israel exiled in Babylon how to live. He writes, “‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.’” Instead of instructing Israel to stay outside the city walls, as they are wont to do, Jeremiah tells them to move into the city and to put down roots. They have the promise that they will be returned to the land of Israel, but are still instructed to establish themselves. Why? By seeking the welfare of the city and praying for it, they too will benefit from its prosperity. And while this is the answer that the text gives us, I would like to offer another answer.
God is not only concerned for the Israelites, but also for the Babylonians, and therefore the people of “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia.” It is at the heart of God to redeem all that he has created. However, if the elect is not living in and amongst those who do not (yet) know God, then they have no witness to who God is and what he had done in other’s lives. Peter emphasizes this further in his epistle: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” The Gentiles, those who are not in Christ, are in the same position that the elect once were. Their task then is found in the preceding verse, “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Proclaiming carries with it the sense of an audience and I would posit that Peter intends that their audience be the Gentile communities where they live.