Having established that his readers are people who rest on the sure foundation of Christ and have been knit into the family of God through the ongoing presence and activity of Spirit, Peter shifts his interest from the big picture to daily life. In 2:11, he begins a new theme for his dear friends, and kicks it off with a warning.: abstain from sinful desires.
Abstain is borrowed from the first thing we know Peter wrote: a letter to Gentiles in Antioch (a city to the north of Jerusalem) who had questions in light of their recent and dramatic conversion to Christianity (see Acts 15:29). That letter was co-edited by the apostles and leaders who wanted to encourage these new believers as they tried to carve out a God-honoring life in the midst of a culture that was hostile or indifferent to God. As history shows, this group in Antioch went on to grow into a significant Christian community.
That first letter had some specific behaviors from which to abstain, but in his later correspondence, Peter does not go into detail, other than to warn his readers about that which will war against your soul. A graphic image, and one which we can understand when we recall times we have moved toward something, or have sat with the aftermath, and tasted the ash in our gut. Peter knows the forces that push and pull; his urgings would steer us along another path.
But aren’t we free? Should there be such interest in behavior? Must lines be drawn? Paul, who also has a strong interest in Christian ethics, replies to such questions like this: everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial (see 1 Corinthians 6:12, 10:23). It’s a view Peter shares. Yes, there is great freedom for those walking with Spirit in Christ–but it is not so much freedom for whatever we please as it is freedom from what had previously bound us. The life we live now–this life in Christ–this is a life that is Godward, and no longer self-focused. Once that orientation is grasped, the rest can flow.
Which, of course, is not easy. But notice what Peter does not do: he does not advocate crawling into a hole to wait until Jesus returns. He does not counsel withdrawal. He does not even recommend building a stockade where only Christians (that is, good Christians) can live. Rather, his letter assumes readers will be in the thick of life, present in a daily world. It is here–not there–that interests Peter for the moment, and leads him to express that interest in a rather nuanced manner.
The world you left, Peter says–the world in which you now live as aliens and strangers–is not your home, and you owe no allegiance to it. At the same time, this world still exerts influence, still reaches toward you to pull you back in. So you need to resist–to abstain. The trick, however, is to live well as a resister. For instance, you must still be aware of those around you; you must still go through your days with a watch and a newspaper. You live not in fear or in hiding, but well; you live good lives that others will see.
This life has several dimensions. In addition to maintaining the perspective that the One who calls and is preparing a salvation that will be revealed in the last time (1:5), there is the matter of living now, today. That life has a personal aspect: I must give careful thought to the choices, commitments, and investments I make. It also has a public side, in that I live not as an individual cut off or insulated from ‘pagan’ (i.e. that which is yet unaware of on warm towards God) society but as a member of it. That membership is tenuous, admittedly–one interacts as an alien, stranger, expatriate–but absence or indifference is not the right idea. There is still much in this world which is precious to God, and thus can be–should be–to God’s children as well.
Will the multi-dimensional life we lead result in evident good deeds that lead many to glorify God? This is Peter’s warm hope, and strong encouragement.