1 Peter, Scot McKnight, NIV Application Commentary
Introductory Materials to 1 Peter
General Editor’s Preface
TELEVISION AND NEWSPAPERS ARE FILLED these days with issues about religious freedom and the relationship between church and state. On the world scene the questions run the gamut from Are Christians really free in China? to Can Christians avoid persecution in Islamic countries? to What is the role of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism in the Northern Ireland conflict? In the United States, the questions center on issues like prayer in public schools, protection of religious minorities, and the Christian Right in politics. It is all but impossible to watch a television newscast or read the morning paper (or browse through increasing numbers of books in Barnes and Noble on contemporary issues) without running into such church/state issues.
As Scot McKnight so aptly points out in this commentary on 1 Peter, it is this concentration on the relationship between church and state in modern life that makes the first-century wisdom of this letter so relevant. Peter, in writing this text, had this relationship on the front burner of his mind. It is almost as if he were writing both to first-century Christians wondering about how to survive as aliens and strangers in the Roman empire and to twentieth-century Christians trying to live holy lives in a secularized, unholy culture. True, important circumstances have put these two communities, separated by 1900 years, on opposite ends of the social and economic spectra: first-century Christians were politically, socially, and economically disadvantaged, while twentieth-century American Christians have the numbers to be politically, socially, and economically powerful. Still, the two groups have much in common in trying to live lives of holy endurance in the face of suffering.
It is important to note a crucial difference between the perspectives given in our books and newspaper articles, however, and the timeless truth given by Peter. In the United States, for example, the public media, in commenting on both the world and national scene, always approach these issues from the point of view of human rights and legality. No matter how sympathetic to the religious dimensions of the controversies these writers are, they have no choice but to talk about United Nations policies on human rights and religious freedom, Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state, the stand that various politicians take on the key religio-political issues of the day, and the ideological makeup of the Supreme Court, the final legal arbiter of such issues.
As important as these perspectives are to Christians today, however, it is instructive to note that Peter does not approach these questions from the point of view of human rights and legality. Rather, he approaches them from the point of view of our relationship to God. He tells us that Christians survive in a hostile environment not by legal proceedings against persecutors but by endurance; not by imposing a lifestyle on others through law but by living holy lives that compel others to watch us; not by destroying unbelievers with sound bites and innuendo but by respecting them even as we witness to the eternal truths of the gospel.
For Peter, the burning questions of place, rights, and attitude have less to do with legal deeds to property than with being at home in a strange and temporary land; much less to do with “I’m okay, you’re okay” relativism than with the gritty realities of family responsibilities and tough love; almost nothing to do with maximizing material advantages in the present and everything to do with seeing this world through the future-oriented lenses of Christian hope and promise. It is this spiritual/theological perspective that makes 1 Peter the primary resource for Christians trying to sort out their place in our modern world. And it is this perspective that Scot McKnight so capably opens up in the following pages for all to see and apply.
Terry C. Muck
THIS REMARKABLE LETTER OF PETER has been with me at every major transition I have made in my academic life. The first class I ever taught, at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the academic year of 1980 – 81, when I was still a student, endured some lectures and meanderings on this letter, and the first class I taught after the same institution hired me was also a class that climaxed with a thorough look at 1 Peter. Even more important, as I was making the decision to become the Karl A. Olsson Professor of Religious Studies at North Park College, I was studying and writing up the results of my study on 1 Peter for this commentary. I will always remember 1 Peter for what I was doing; I hope this will do no disservice to its apostolic author.
One of the key transitions this commentary series serves is the one from the first century to the modern world. Its genius, of which I am thankful to be a part, is that it seriously considers the strategies that we as Christians use to make an ancient text relevant and powerful today. When the reader moves from the first section (Original Meaning) to the second and third sections (Bridging Contexts, Contemporary Significance), the worlds do change, as does the particularity of its meaning. I am not foolish enough to think that the second and third sections are the Word of God; that is reserved only for the first. These latter two sections, then, are human attempts to let the Word speak in modern words. This inevitably involves speaking to one’s own context; if my context differs from yours, which it will often do, I ask only that you follow my meanderings and see if you can learn something from a brother who is seeking to be both faithful to the ancient Word while seeking to gain a hearing in the modern world.
The message of 1 Peter concerns how Christians are to live in a hostile environment, and live in such a way that they not only endure but also have a lasting impact for good on that environment. Our children, Laura Elizabeth and Lukas Norman Matthew, are at critical transitions in their own lives. Laura is now finishing high school and is about to enter college life at Wheaton College; Lukas is finishing his first year at high school. Each of them, in different ways, challenges Kris and me to relate the gospel of Jesus Christ to a massively changing suburban environment. I pray that both of them learn from this short letter of Peter how to live as Christians in their new worlds, as Kris and I have sought to do in our worlds. As a token of our prayers, I dedicate this book to them.
I want to thank Trinity once again for the academic and pastoral environment it has provided for me over the last eleven years. This book, I trust, will serve as a living memorial of what Trinity has done to me and for me. As I write this preface, on a sabbatical, I eagerly await the collegiality of the Humanities Division of North Park College and the fellowship of the Evangelical Covenant Church. Once again, I wish to express my thanks to Terry Muck, our general editor, but especially to Jack Kuhatschek, not only for envisioning this remarkable series of books, but also for his painstaking scrutiny of my manuscript. Time after time he made suggestions that improved my thinking about Peter and our world. Frank Thielman, the author of Philippians in this series, carefully read a draft of this manuscript and made many helpful and encouraging suggestions. Finally, I want to express my thanks to my lovely wife, Kris, who creates a home where a marriage is as joyful as it is meaningful. In our daily walks around Butler Lake near our home, I frequently bounce my latest ideas off her and, nearly always, I have something more to write about by the time we get back. In this way she has enriched my understanding of 1 Peter.
Scot McKnight North Park College
ABD Anchor Bible Dictionary
AJS American Journal of Sociology
BAGD Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament
BDF Blass, Debrunner, Funk, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament
CCCSG Christian College Coalition Study Guides
CT Christianity Today
DCA Dictionary of Christianity in America
DPL Dictionary of Paul and his Letters
EDNT Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament
FCGRW First-Century Christianity in the Graeco-Roman World
GNTE Guides to New Testament Exegesis
HAR Hebrew Annual Review
JBL Journal of Biblical Literature
JETS Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
JTS Journal of Theological Studies
KJV King James Version
LCC Library of Christian Classics
LEC Library of Early Christianity
NIDNTT New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology
NIV New International Version
NRSV New Revised Standard Version
NTS New Testament Studies
QD Quaestiones disputatae
RSV Revised Standard Version
SBG Studies in Biblical Greek
SSNTMS Society for the Study of the New Testament Monograph Series
TDNT Theological Dictionary of the New Testament
TNTC Tyndale New Testament Commentary
TynBul Tyndale Bulletin
WTJ Westminster Theological Journal
EVEN AS I WRITE this introduction, Christians all over the world are posturing themselves over against their culture, their society, their local community with its leaders, “the world” as they perceive it. They are reading newspapers, listening to news broadcasts and watching television news report the latest events, sitting in business and power sessions, researching trends in think tanks, meeting together for discussions — all in an effort to discern what is going on in their society so they can live more responsibly, so they can reach out to their world, and so they can fight against disturbing and disquieting tendencies. Each one in his or her own way is trying to follow Jesus and live the Christian life.
Just how Christians are doing this varies considerably. Consider, for example, these widely different situations:
• the liberationist in Latin America, armed as he or she is with the gospel of liberation, contesting social injustices even to the point of violence.
• the quietist, pacifist “non-efforts” of the Old Order Mennonites or Amish, “armed” as they are with the gospel of peace and holy living, ready to suffer, even die, if society deems it necessary to force them to change their hallowed interpretations of godly living.
• the aggressive actions of the Christian Coalition (part of which was formerly the Moral Majority) or the New Right Wing Conservatives in North American politics, armed as they are with the historical arguments for the preservation of traditional American culture, Judeo-Christian ethics, and free enterprise, analyzing culture and assaulting the media with rapid-fire observations about creeping liberalism, secularism, and pluralism.
• the stance of Christians in countries recently set free from the restrictions of oppressive socialistic or communistic governments, such as Poland and Romania, who are now posturing themselves over against a culture that is changing so rapidly that stances fluctuate weekly. They only know that they are Christians but are unsure of how they fit and how they will fit when the governmental structures begin to settle down.
• the normal activity of Christian citizens in Western democracies who, with no fanatical ideological tendency, simply exist within a society and try to live before God with a clean conscience, witnessing to the salvation of God in Christ, living honorably within their community, and striving to please God in whatever they do — even if they, too, are sometimes confused about how to live.
This is but a smattering of the alternatives Christians living in the world today have. We could go on to detail Christians in China, Indonesia, North Korea, or Japan. Each culture confronts believers in that culture with a different face, a face that nonetheless colors the presentation of the gospel and forces Christians to examine their strategies.
A pressing concern for the entire sweep of church history has been to answer the question: “How should we then live?” Is it to be the activist form taken by Martin Luther King Jr., who led the famous boycotts and marches for civil rights? Is it to be the Utopian communitarianism of the Hutterites? Is it to be the aggressive action of the Moral Majority of the 1980s? Just how should Christians interact with society? To the shame of many modern Christians, this kind of question is simply not being asked, even while passionate activity assumes some theoretical basis — and passionate acitity has not been lacking.
In contemporary eangelicalism, for instance, most are dyed-in-the-wool Republicans because, it is assumed, that is the Christian view. Such shallow thinking masks an entire host of questions and issues that deserve careful thinking and extensive Christian debate. Along the same line, most of these Christians believe that the issues are simple and that the answers can be found in the Bible with exceptional, and alarming, clarity. Such intuitive confidence, however, has not been part of the history of the church’s discussions of the relationship of the church and society.
Church history has seen three dominant theological answers to this question of how Christians are to interact with society and culture. The first, a counterculture of separatism, has been consciously espoused since the Radical Reformation by various branches of the Anabaptists, including the Mennonites, the Amish, and the Hutterites. The foundation for this view is its deep anchor into the teachings and lifestyle of Jesus, a foundation that is sadly missing in many reflections on the relationship of the church and society. While only rarely cloistering themselves in separate communes, these Christians have contended that the church is a separate institution that should in no way allow interference from the state in governing its affairs. It was only a natural extension of this stance to find the Anabaptists not only prohibiting governmental interference, but also refusing to participate in many, if not most, of society’s ways and means. This naturally led at times to a severe separatism, though many of today’s Mennonites, for instance, participate much more in political and social activities — even if often in their own particular ways. But what should be noted is that this view emerges from a people who have had both the practical experience of living an alternative vision for God’s people and the theoretical benefit of sustained reflection on the issues from both political and theological angles.
While this separatist stance has been radical and rare, the majority of Christians in the history of the church, particularly since the development of the Industrial Revolution with its rapid secularization of society, have participated by seeking to extend Christian society into secular society, arguing that if it is God’s will for the individual Christian, it surely is his will for all of society. This has been called the “Reformed view” of the relationship of the church and the state. Here we find a stance of moving from individual Christian ethics to corporate political ethics in whatever manner is appropriate to a local society (from grassroots agitation to powerful acts of legislation). The history of American politics has been dotted with this sort of maneuvering: from Christian activism in the prohibition of alcohol to the attempt to block the teaching of atheistic evolutionism in public schools, from fighting against international warfare to blocking abortion clinics, and especially of late the attempt to lobby and influence major politicians through political rallies.
A third view, rarely with strong political force, is the Lutheran view that there are two realms, the realm of the kingdom of God as found in the church and the realm of the state. Lutheran politics contend that the relation between God and his people (the church) and the relation between God and the world are in fact two kinds of relationships. The strategy of God is different for society than for the church. As a part of evangelicalism for nearly thirty years now, I can say unequivocally that most evangelicals previously adopted a stance, however unwittingly Lutheran they may have been, in which they see the church and the state as governed by two different impulses — but today there has been more political activism than in the last forty years. This activism has led many to a more Reformed orientation. I wonder, however, if this switch in stances was made as a result of theoretical reflection or of some other motivation (economic?). Noll states: “If, in fact, there is a difference between God in relation to the individual and God in relation to the world, then a failure to observe the structural and systematic differences between personal moral vision and comprehensive public crusade becomes an important matter.”
IT IS NOT my intent either to propose an alternative or to resolve the differences among Christians in the academic and public discussions about how they are to be involved in society. Rather, it is to say that one of the earliest Christian documents reflecting on the problem of the relation of the Christian to the state is the First Letter of Peter. It is my contention that we can learn some enduring insights from studying this letter. In fact, the problem discussed in the previous section might be called “Peter’s Problem”: In light of the relationship of Christians to the Roman-led government of Asia Minor, how should Christians live in Peter’s day? Any reading of 1 Peter brings this issue to the surface immediately. It begins in the first verse: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered. …” Peter’s contentions are clear: Believers in Asia Minor are to live honorable and holy lives (1:14 – 16, 18, 22; 2:1, 5, 9, 11 – 12, 15, 20; 3:6, 15, 17; 4:1 – 6), they are to endure suffering (1:6 – 8; 2:18 – 25; 3:13 – 17; 4:1 – 6, 12 – 19; 5:8 – 9, 10), they are to live within social structures (2:13 – 17, 18 – 25; 3:1 – 6, 7, 8 – 12), and they are to be respectful of outsiders (2:11 – 12).
We might be tempted, then, to think that the answer to Peter’s problem was simple: Live holy, be good citizens, participate in society in your own way, endure suffering, and don’t make waves. And then we might be tempted to follow this simple solution by suggesting that this is how we, as modern Western Christians, are to relate to society (live holy, endure suffering, and don’t make waves). But this is surely far too simplistic, and I know of few Christians who adopt such a quietist stance over against society. No, this simplistic procedure will not do.
For one thing, Peter’s social world differs considerably from ours. The three views I sketched above, for instance, are proposals in the history of the church that have been drawn up in social situations dramatically different from first-century Asia Minor. In fact, it might be said that different social situations elicit different strategies for living within society. For example, a beleaguered minority, suffering physically at the hands of a ruthless anti-Christian government, will not think of “extending its virtues” into political activity, any more than a dominant Christian majority will think of remaining separate from governmental and political activity when that same government is begging for its votes and input. Put more graphically, enfranchised Christians in Washington, D.C., Bonn, Edinburgh, and Geneva will think of society and Christian influence in society in completely different categories than those disenfranchised Christians in Bogota, Moscow, Saigon, and Cairo. But it is fundamental for each to plumb the depths of the scriptural witness to God’s activities in the history of his people and how that people has related to the world around it.
Our goal is to study 1 Peter in such a way as to highlight Peter’s proposals for “Christian life in a modern society.” To accomplish this task requires three procedures: (1) We must study the ancient text itself and determine the original meaning of Peter’s text; (2) we must reflect on how we, as modern Westerners, are to move that meaning into our world by bridging the contexts; and (3) I want to suggest some contemporary significance of that original meaning. We begin by looking more particularly at Peter’s world and the world of his audience.
THOSE FOR WHOM Peter intended this letter were “scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia,” regions that comprised the Roman provinces of northwestern Asia Minor (modern Turkey). It has been suggested that the order of the provinces reflects the order in which the letter would have traveled and been read (beginning in the northern region, traveling southerly to Galatia and Cappadocia, and then returning back to Bithynia through the province of Asia). We can be certain that the letter was taken to the major cities in these provinces, cities that were thriving and growing according the pulses of the Roman empire.
While it is possible that evidence like quotations from the Old Testament (e.g., 1:16, 24; 2:3, 6, 9 – 10, 12) and the use of designations for Israel (1:1 [“elect”]; esp. 2:9 – 10) could indicate that the readers were formerly members of non-Christian Judaism, I am persuaded that the readers were mostly Gentiles who had probably previously become attached to Judaism through local synagogues and other forms of Judaism. Thus, their former life was a life of living in ignorance (1:14), which was handed on to them by their fathers (1:18). That they were formerly “not [my] people” (2:10) points in the same direction, as does their earlier pagan lifestyle (4:2 – 4). Yet it is likely that the road to Christianity for these Gentile pagans included a stop at the local synagogue, where they were instructed in the Torah and the ways of the Jewish people. This permits an easy reference to the Old Testament for Peter. It is also likely that some of the Christian converts were formerly Jewish in race and heritage.
What is dramatically interesting about this audience is that though they came from a Gentile background, Peter addresses them as if they were Israel. That is, they have in some sense “replaced” national Israel as the people of God and are now the new and true Israel. From the beginning of the letter to the end Peter describes the church with terms that have been used in defining Israel. They are the “elect” and “scattered” ones (1:1) and a “holy priesthood” (2:5). Most prominent here is 2:9 – 10: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God. … Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” This is the language of fulfillment and replacement.
In general, then, we can safely conclude that the audience of Peter was comprised of Gentile converts to Christianity who had probably been proselytes to Judaism or at least God-fearers. Two other terms give us further insight into the nature of their social conditions: “aliens and strangers in the world” (2:11 – 12). While the letter reveals an audience that has some “free men” (2:16) and “slaves” (2:18 – 20), some wives without Christian husbands (3:1 – 6), and some Christian husbands and wives (3:7), the terms aliens and strangers may be the most revealing of all about the social location of the audience.
It is true that many commentators, sometimes with little thought about the options, interpret these two words as a metaphor for the Christian’s earthly existence while he or she awaits the true heavenly home. But the work of J. H. Elliott has demonstrated that these two terms refer as much (if not more) to their social situation as it does to their spiritual situation. Thus, Elliott argues, the audience of Peter was a group of socially marginalized people who were “resident aliens” and “temporary residents” prior to, and independent of, their conversion to Christianity. In other words, in these two terms we have a window into the social condition of the readers of 1 Peter: They were disenfranchised workers laboring in the cracks of a network that largely excluded them, but they had found the meaning to their existence in the Christian family.
If Elliott’s case is reasonable, as I think it is, that does not mean that the New Testament has no “pilgrimage theme,” for surely this is the heartbeat of the Christian life in the letter to the Hebrews. But two questions surface: “Is such a theme taught in 1 Peter?” and “Do the above-mentioned terms reflect such a theme?” We need to answer these questions before we can go any further. We begin with the terms aliens and strangers. These terms refer respectively to a social status, to “non-citizen residents in some place” (that is, a person residing in a place without rights) and to “temporary residents” in some place. Such a social displacement was normal in the history of Israel, even if it was the result of the hand of God himself (cf. Gen. 15:13). In the Roman empire these terms were used for the group of resident aliens who occupied a special wrung on the social ladder — below citizens and above the slaves and foreigners.
Legally, such aliens were restricted in regard to whom they could marry, the holding of land and succession of property, voting, and participation in certain associations and were subjected to higher taxes and severer forms of civil punishment. Set apart from their host society by their lack of local roots, their ethnic origin, language, culture, and political or religious loyalties, such strangers were commonly viewed as threats to established order and native well-being. Constant exposure to local fear and suspicion, ignorant slander, discrimination and manipulation was the regular lot of these social outsiders.
The “homelessness” of these people, in other words, led them to a “new home”: the church, the family of God, in which they found social acceptance and protection. In interpreting these two terms in social rather than spiritual or metaphorical categories, I do not pretend to think that the message of 1 Peter is entirely social and unspiritual. In fact, the reverse is the case. These social nobodies found that God, in his grace, had chosen them as members of his great family (a spiritual house). Furthermore, the analogy today is clearly to our “homelessness” in our society, whether that be spiritual isolation or social manipulation, and our “at-homeness” in God’s family. Even more, it becomes important for the church of Jesus Christ to find the social cracks and those who have fallen through, and then to minister the gospel of God’s acceptance to them, to show them that God’s true family transcends and neglects the social boundaries that society constructs. The church needs to demonstrate itself to be the family where all can be accepted.
Indeed, Elliott himself allows that the terms we have been discussing may be both social (disenfranchised people) and metaphorical (earthly life while waiting for a heavenly home), but he contends that the social reality is nonetheless the core of the matter. I affirm his perception. That is, the metaphorical description of God’s people derives from their social marginalization. I believe Elliott has proven his case beyond reasonable doubt, and a significant number of scholars today on 1 Peter agree with him. In what follows, I will utilize his thesis that the converts to Christ in Asia Minor were socially deprived and that one of their great discoveries was that in the family of God they were reenfranchised.
Authorship and Date
IT IS CUSTOMARY for commentaries to include a section on authorship and original date of the book. Many readers tire of such a procedure — and for good reason, because frequently such sections cover old paths with little fresh light. In a commentary of this sort, a rationale needs to be provided for looking at these issues. The essential argument can be stated like this: Our commentary takes history as significant for interpretation; for that reason alone authorship and date may prove to be important. If we can determine these two issues, then we have a firm grasp of the historical realities behind the text and informing the world of that text.
The foundation for this series of commentaries is that one must move from the ancient world to the modern world, using various ways and differing strategies to communicate the ancient message in a relevant way. This observation is grounded on the assumption that the ancient text was embedded in historical, cultural, social, and religious contexts that need to be appreciated if we are to understand the message of the book aright. Throughout the pages of this commentary the reader will be referred to ancient texts, to evidence from Peter’s world, and to observations about cultural and social conditions that need to be understood properly before we can understand what Peter was saying. A famous saying, albeit in German, is regularly bandied about in discussions like this: “Willst den Dichter Du verstehen, musst in Dichters Lande gehen.” This saying, attributed to Goethe, says, “If you want to understand an author, you have to go to his land.” I agree wholeheartedly with this saying. Thus, at the end of this section on Peter’s world, we must pause to survey the issues surrounding the authorship and date of 1 Peter.
Because the letter begins by saying that Peter wrote it, evidence must be presented by any who claim that Peter did not write it. I do not consider this a heavy-handed presupposition. Instead, it is a simple methodological point: If the text says Peter wrote the letter, then to contend that he did not requires proof. If there is no solid counterproof, we can consider the ascription to be solid. Yet I do not want to argue, as a presupposition, that pseudonymity is not found in the Bible, for there can be differing motivations for writing something pseudonymously. On the other hand, if one argues that Peter did write the letter, then one should also provide evidence for that. A good place to begin (but only to begin) is with the letter’s beginning and its supposed author.
Besides the name at the outset of the book, there are elements that confirm Peter as the author of the book. (1) The author has seen the sufferings of Jesus (2:21 – 24; 5:1). (2) Similarities between the teachings of Jesus and 1 Peter support an author who spent time with Jesus (cf. Luke 12:35 and 1 Peter 1:13; Luke 11:2 and 1 Peter 1:17; Matt. 5:16 and 1 Peter 2:12; Luke 6:28 and 1 Peter 3:9; Matt. 5:10 and 1 Peter 3:14). (3) There are also similarities between Peter’s speeches in Acts and 1 Peter (cf. Acts 5:30, 10:39 and 1 Peter 2:24; Acts 2:23 and 1 Peter 1:20). (4) One might also mention the rather vague, but sometimes suggested, idea that the theology and church organization of 1 Peter are early and consistent with what Peter would have taught.
Some, however, have argued that the Greek style of 1 Peter is simply too accomplished for Peter. As Acts 4:13 states, “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” Could an “unschooled” man like Peter have writen this book in such good Greek? The argument is solid but not unimpeachable. In fact, evidence from Acts suggests that Peter was in fact eloquent for someone who had not been educated (in the rabbinic manner?); this eloquence satisfies the evidence of 1 Peter. Furthermore, some contend that 1 Peter 5:12 describes Silas as contributing to the letter — perhaps polishing Peter’s ideas (see comments). In short, while the major obstacle to Petrine authorship style is serious enough that it must be given fair attention, the preponderance of evidence commends the traditional authorship. I will assume that Peter did in fact write this letter.
If Peter can be argued reasonably to be the author, then our letter was written prior to A.D. 64 or 65, when Peter was martyred at the hands of Nero. In light of the number of references to suffering and persecution in 1 Peter, we maintain that Peter wrote this letter near the outset of Nero’s persecution of the church — perhaps between 62 and 65. Indeed, Peter’s conciliatory attitude toward the state (2:13 – 17) and his optimism about Christian life in the context of an unbelieving society (2:11 – 3:12) suggest that Peter wrote this letter near the beginning of Nero’s persecutions and that it is an early strategy for coping with serious problems from the state. We even dare to suggest that if Peter had waited five more years to write this letter, it would have been rearranged considerably. (And Peter could not have written it!)
Writing sometime in the early 60s, then, Peter, through his letter-carrier (or fellow author) Silas, encourages a series of small churches throughout northwestern Asia Minor by asserting their particular Christian identity (the family of God), by exhorting them to love one another, and by explaining to them the apparent inevitable tension that being a Christian will generate in a society that does not look tolerably on religious innovations.
THE ESSENTIAL MESSAGE of Peter can be categorized into three separate features: (1) salvation, (2) church, and (3) the Christian life. Peter’s letter is an exhortation (5:12) to socially disenfranchised Christians to live steadfastly before God with faithfulness, holiness, and love. This steadfastness may lead to suffering, but a genuine understanding of persecution permits them to face it head-on and go forward faithfully. But the foundation of their faithfulness is an understanding of their salvation that Peter paints graphically at the beginning of his letter.
PETER USES A host of words to describe what has happened to those who enter the family of God. In particular, he draws deeply from the cultic imagery of the temple with its rituals and worship to express this matter. They have been sprinkled with blood (1:2), they have been ransomed (1:18 – 19), they have been purified (1:22), they have tasted God (2:3), they have been healed (2:24), and they have been presented before God (3:18). He draws on family imagery when he speaks of their new birth (1:3, 23; 2:2, 24; 3:7, 18), their inheritance (1:4 – 5), and their blessing (3:9). The two terms used most frequently are “salvation” (1:5, 9, 10; 2:2; 3:20 – 21; 4:18) and “grace” (1:10, 13; 3:7; 5:5, 10, 12).
That this understanding of salvation is the foundation of his ethical exhortation to faithfulness in the face of persecution can be seen in how these two themes are interwoven in the introductory section of the letter (1:3 – 12). There Peter praises God for their salvation and future hope, a future that is secured by God, and he rejoices in their current suffering because he knows what it will do for them as they await their final salvation, a salvation that was predicted long ago. The interweaving of these two themes — to the point of extreme grammatical complexity! — highlights how tied together these themes are for the apostle.
A similar twisting together of suffering and salvation can be seen in 2:18 – 25: Peter exhorts slaves not to rebel against even scurrilous masters because, after all, Jesus suffered in the same manner and he trusted God. But Peter’s description of Jesus, the Great Example, tails off into a description of his saving work (2:24 – 25). Similarly in 3:18 – 22, the example of Jesus is described with reference to his saving ministry. Fittingly, in a deft combination of ethical exhortation rooted in the salvation of God, Peter’s final prayer wish is that the “God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (5:10).
AS MENTIONED ABOVE, the church (a term Peter does not use) displaces/replaces Israel in the favor of God as the new, true people of God (see comments at 2:8). Peter has raided the Old Testament for vocabulary about the new people of God. After describing them as the “elect” (1:1), the apostle lays himself down in a bed of images in chapter 2: “living stones” (2:5), “spiritual house” (2:5), “holy priesthood” (2:5); further, they are a “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God … people of God … [those who] have received mercy” (2:9 – 10).
In addition to these, some scholars today argue that the dominant image of the church in 1 Peter is the family of God. The church is a “spiritual house” (2:5) or the “family of God” (4:17). As with other New Testament letters, the directions for specific groups of people are arranged around a family structure (2:11 – 3:12), revealing that Peter sees the church as a family of God. God is the Father (1:2, 3, 17), who gives birth (1:3) to the new children of God (1:14; 2:2), who in turn form a brotherhood (2:17; 5:9) that practices brotherly love (1:22; 3:8). This new home would have been spiritually and psychologically important to the homeless Christians of Asia Minor, for it was here that they found social acceptance and spiritual nurture. In short, they found a place they could call “home.”
Peter leaves behind only residual traces of any church organization. The churches are led by the apostles who give directions to “elders” (5:1 – 4), who, Peter enjoins, are to lead the churches circumspectly and lovingly. While it is probable that these churches met to commemorate the Lord’s Supper, only the rite of baptism is mentioned (3:21).
GROUNDED IN THE salvation that the believers find in Christ through their new birth (1:3), the Christian life is an inevitable manifestation of that salvation. The exhortations in 1 Peter are rooted in this experience. Thus, after detailing salvation and its privileges (1:3 – 12), Peter exhorts his readers to practice hope (1:13), holiness (1:14 – 16), fear before God (1:17 – 21), love (1:22 – 24), and growth (2:1 – 8). The key word at 1:13 is “therefore”: because of salvation, therefore pursue these Christian virtues. For Peter, ethics apart from a grounding in salvation is of no concern because a moral life forms the reverse side of salvation. In the words of Wolfgang Schrage, “Without new birth, there is no new obedience. Without hope, there is no basis for Christian life.”
The social context of the Christian life is crucial in 1 Peter: The audience is socially disenfranchised and has found a home in the family of God. They are experiencing persecution, both because of their social location and their spiritual orientation, and Peter’s exhortations concentrate on their need to endure unjust suffering, just as Jesus did (1:6; 2:18 – 25; 3:13 – 17; 4:1 – 6, 12 – 19; 5:8 – 10). Without doubt, this social context influences his entire letter to such a degree that his message must be rearranged dramatically in order to speak to a situation where Christians experience little social suffering.
Peter’s perspective on the Christian life is that Christians are to live for the salvation that is to come, another indication of the social context of this family of God. God, who judges justly (1:7, 9, 17; 2:12, 23; 3:12; 4:5, 17 – 19), will reward those who faithfully endure suffering for his sake (1:7, 13; 4:13, 14). After all, they are only temporary residents in their social location (1:1); this provides a key for them to understand that they are to live for the future. As they pursue faith (1:5, 8 – 9, 21; 2:6 – 7; 5:9), hope (1:3, 13, 21; 3:5, 15), and joy (1:6, 8; 4:13), they are to be secure in God’s protection of them (1:5). Their primary social group has become the church, the family of God, where they are to love one another (1:22; 2:17; 3:8 – 12; 4:8 – 9; 5:14), be humble (3:4, 15; 5:6), submit to one another (3:1 – 7; 5:1 – 4, 5), and serve one another (4:10 – 11). Above all, they are to be sensitive in their communication with one another (2:1; 4:7 – 11).
A clear ethical orientation for Peter is that God’s family is to be holy and pure. They are to obey God (1:2, 13, 22), be holy because God is holy (1:14 – 16, 18, 22; 2:1 – 2, 5, 9, 11 – 12, 15, 20; 3:6, 15, 17; 4:1 – 6), and live righteous lives (2:24; 3:13; 4:18). Such holiness will serve as a convincing demonstration to outsiders of God’s salvation (2:11 – 12, 13 – 17, 18 – 25; 3:1 – 6); their lives, then, are a means of evangelism (2:12, 15; 3:1 – 6, 16), though such lives are to be accompanied by their verbal witness (1:12, 25; 2:9; 3:15; 4:6).
In essence, then, Peter’s letter is an exhortation to holy endurance of suffering because these Christians have experienced the salvation of God and because that salvation is promised to them in all fullness when the final day arrives. Having received salvation and having been empowered by God with a new life, they must orient their lives toward the future revelation of Christ, love their fellow Christians, and maintain a holy life.
Outline of 1 Peter
MOST OUTLINES OF New Testament books are more precise and organized than careful study seems to justify or demand. Furthermore, outlines involve subjective judgments that cannot demonstrate an appropriate sensitivity to other (just as careful) judgments. The following outline will serve as our guide throughout the book; I heartily urge that students of 1 Peter struggle with its structure themselves.
Salutation (1:1 – 2)
I. Exhortations Based on Salvation (1:3 – 2:10)
A. Salvation (1:3 – 12)
B. Exhortations (1:13 – 2:8)
1. Hope (1:13)
2. Holiness (1:14 – 16)
3. Fearfulness (1:17 – 21)
4. Love (1:22 – 24)
5. Growth (2:1 – 8)
C. The People of God (2:9 – 10)
II. Exhortations Based on Social Groups (2:11 – 4:11)
A. General Principles of the Exhortations (2:11 – 12)
B. Guidelines for Social Groups (2:13 – 3:12)
1. Government (2:13 – 17)
2. Slaves (2:18 – 25)
3. Wives (3:1 – 6)
4. Husbands (3:7)
5. The Family of God (3:8 – 12)
C. Guidelines for Suffering (3:13 – 4:6)
1. Good Behavior Leads to Victory (3:13 – 22)
2. Purging Leads to Life (4:1 – 6)
D. Guidelines for the Family of God (4:7 – 11)
III. Exhortations Based on the Church (4:12 – 5:11)
A. Privilege of Suffering (4:12 – 19)
B. Advice for Leaders (5:1 – 5)
C. Humility and Resistance (5:6 – 9)
D. Doxology (5:10 – 11)
Conclusions (5:12 – 14)
APPLYING 1 PETER TO our world is not as simple as it might seem. If we assume that the letter was (1) sent to those who were socially marginalized (for whatever reasons), (2) encouraging them to endure persecution and to live holy, loving lives because (3) they were in God’s family and (4) their salvation was being protected by God until the revelation of Christ, we can probably assert up front that the first and second aspects of this message are virtually irrelevant to the bulk of Western readers. Furthermore, the assurance that our salvation is being protected by God is anchored to the context of suffering, making it difficult to apply today.
Nonetheless, to speak of disenfranchised people (whether as the result of social status or spiritual orientation does not matter here) is immediately to limit the message of Peter for the Western world, especially for the majority of Christians living in our country. For more than a decade I have met once a week with a dozen or so students, who have never once raised a concern about persecution or outright suffering for their faith. At the same time, in one of the earliest classes I taught at Trinity when I raised this issue of the “irrelevancy” of some of the main elements of Peter’s message, two of my students — one from Yugoslavia (who was pastoring at that time over a dozen separate churches) and the other from Indonesia — explained to me that 1 Peter was the most popular New Testament book among Christians in their countries.
I must admit I have never met any Christians in the United States who have told me that 1 Peter was their favorite book or even high on the priority list. Most Christians enjoy Psalms and Proverbs, many Christians enjoy Philippians or 1 John, active countercultural types like the teachings of Jesus (especially the Sermon on the Mount), academic-theological types like Romans, charismatic types like Acts, practical types like James — but few people raise their hands in Sunday school classes and ask the teacher to expound 1 Peter. Why? The answer is simple: Too much of it is centered on aspects of Christian existence that are far from most Western Christian experiences: social marginalization and suffering.
Does this mean we should actively pursue suffering? Just how we might do this is another matter (should we be more obnoxious in our presentation of the gospel, or should we be less pleasant?), but the pursuit of suffering is clearly not what we ought to be doing. For the letter to make sense to us does not mean we have to suffer. I suppose it would be healthy for us to learn about suffering so that, if a life of suffering ever became more typical for Western Christians, we would be better prepared. But this seems almost silly. No, we must simply admit that the suffering context of the letter makes it more distant for us than for those of our Christian brothers and sisters who are suffering. Making the suffering passages relevant to our world, however, is not something we ought to neglect. In the commentary I will attempt to do this.
What about disenfranchisement? Should we pursue this situation so that 1 Peter can meet our needs? I would say, to begin with, that though this letter is to the socially disenfranchised, it is not an encouragement to live in such a social status. The author does not praise the lower classes, the dispossessed, and (in a Tolstoyan manner) the glory of the proletariat peasant class. He does not offer a sentimental honoring of the beauty of poverty and oppression. Nor does this letter encourage the Christians of Asia Minor to go out and bring in social dropouts. In other words, it is not Peter’s intent to encourage people to become social castaways or to critique the upper classes, the powerful, and the wealthy. His is not a religion of the disinherited, though his message is clearly articulated for the disinherited. Rather, this was their condition, and Peter explains how Christians ought to live in that condition in light of God’s future salvation.
And surely, one of the fundamental aspects of his teaching is to inculcate in his audience a true Christian identity. He wants his readers to understand, appreciate, and appropriate their special relationship to God (as a result of their salvation) and their new relationship to others in the universal family of God. Put differently, he does not want them to focus on their social marginalization or on persecution because of their faith; rather, he wants them to see that no matter what happens, God loves them, protects them, and has promised that when the End comes, they will be vindicated and glorified. Consequently, they can rejoice now with an inexpressible delight in God’s goodness (1:8 – 9). Thus, Peter intends his readers to understand who they are before God so that they can be who they are in society.
The other elements of Peter’s message, of course, are not hard to find relevant: to live loving, holy lives; to find in the church the family of God; and to appreciate God’s protection. These we will find as contemporary now as they were then, even if they emerge from a different social context than ours. First Peter, then, addresses a special situation that is different from ours but which, nonetheless, has much to offer our social context.
The issue facing the Christians in Asia Minor was disturbingly simple: How should we live in this context of social exclusion and persecution? Should we escape into a more sheltered world? Should we withdraw from society? Should we turn a cold shoulder to our world? Should we denounce society in poetic and prophetic tones? How then should we live? Peter’s letter is a window into a situation that even throws light on our world; his letter is one of the first struggles in the church with society. It formed some of the conversation that continues to this day, and in our examination of it, we will reap great reward.
IN THIS COMMENTARY, I have tried to limit myself to studies that most of my (imagined) readers would have access to. Hence, I have tried to omit citation of scholarly and foreign language studies. On the other hand, I have compensated for this omission by continually citing the major commentaries so that my readers do not have to look up other viewpoints on a regular basis. Of the works on 1 Peter, my favorites are: Beare (whom I read first, while a seminarian), Selwyn (whose work influenced my first lectures on 1 Peter), Goppelt (who was the first German commentator I read), and Michaels (the most recent comprehensive study). I also found Marshall’s exposition very helpful. Outside the commentary genre, I find Elliott’s book to be profound and nearly irrefutable at the level of his main theses. First Peter has been anointed with an abundance of wonderful commentaries and studies. I am grateful for the many I have been privileged to read.
Beare, F. W. The First Epistle of Peter: The Greek Text with Introduction and Notes. 3d ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1970. An insightful, provocative, and suggestive exegesis of 1 Peter. Beare’s commentary is written for those who can read Greek, but, with effort, those without Greek can generally understand his points. Beare accepts the theory that the letter is rooted in a baptismal context. He compares the ideas of Peter with Paul throughout.
Best, E. 1 Peter. NCB. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971. Helpful and charming work on 1 Peter. Best always has one hand on the text and the other on church life. It is only slightly dated.
Bigg, C. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude. ICC. Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1902. For six decades, this was the definitive commentary on 1 Peter. Consequently, Bigg shaped the conversation that continues to this day. One departs from old friends only reluctantly. Bigg has always been at my side. This one is only for those with expertise in Greek.
Brox, N. Der erste Petrusbrief. EKKNT 21. Koln: Benziger/Neukirchener, 1979. Exhaustive, comprehensive, critical commentary. It takes into consideration all the latest theories about 1 Peter and the development of early Christian beliefs and practices. Useful for those who can read German, it deserves to be translated into English. Brox is Germany’s leading scholar on pseudepigraphy.
Clowney, E. The Message of 1 Peter. The Bible Speaks Today, ed. J. W. R. Stott. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1988. A readable exposition of the message of 1 Peter. Clowney attempts to synthesize the message of Peter with major themes in the Bible. Unfortunately, he does not give Elliott a careful reading.
Cranfield, C. E. B. The First Epistle of Peter. London: SCM, 1950. This lucid exposition by a brilliant New Testament scholar is unfortunately difficult to obtain. Full of both exegetical and homiletical insights. It is now slightly dated.
Davids, P. H. The First Epistle of Peter. NICNT, ed. G. D. Fee. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990. Solid exegesis of 1 Peter, with helpful introductory essays. Davids’ essays on theology are especially useful for the expositor.
Elliott, J. H. A Home for the Homeless: A Social-Scientific Criticism of 1 Peter, Its Situation and Strategy. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990. Scholarly examination of the meaning of 1 Peter in its social context in Asia Minor. This commentary is especially useful for its study of “aliens and strangers.”
Goppelt, L. A Commentary on 1 Peter. Ed. F. Hahn. Trans. J. E. Alsup. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993. Profound commentary by a brilliant German theologian of the previous generation (orig. published in 1978). Though heavily influenced by debates about 1 Peter in Europe, Goppelt’s commentary is still exceedingly useful for the patient reader. Occasionally it relates items in 1 Peter to discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Grudem, W. 1 Peter. TNTC. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988. A useful exposition of 1 Peter, with special attention to word studies and synthesizing theological themes in their larger context. Grudem offers an extensive additional note that treats the notoriously difficult text on Christ’s preaching to the spirits (1 Peter 3:18–22).
Kelly, J. N. D. The Epistles of Peter and Jude. Black’s NTC. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1969. A brilliant commentary by a patristics specialist, the best one available of those based on English translations. Time and time again, Kelly offers insightful observations on the message and significance of Peter’s theology. He is influenced to some degree by the baptismal theory of 1 Peter’s origins and often finds tantalizing parallels in early Christian writings.
Luther, M. Commentary on Peter and Jude. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1990 [reprint ed.]. The great Reformer’s insights on 1 Peter, though not as profound as his exegesis of Romans and Galatians, are still helpful. This commentary is hard to use because Luther did not make a distinction between an explanation of the text and theologizing for his churches. But that is what made Luther who he was.
Marshall, I. H. 1 Peter. InterVarsity Press NT Comentary, ed. G. R. Osborne. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1991. A lucid, readable commentary that both expounds 1 Peter and applies its message to our world. Marshall is currently the “veteran” of evangelical scholars in Great Britain.
Michaels, J. Ramsey. 1 Peter. WBC 49. Waco, Tex.: Word, 1988. The best scholarly commentary available on 1 Peter today. It is exegetical, comprehensive, and rich in bibliography. Michaels is cautious about the relationship of Peter’s Christians to the Jewish people.
Selwyn, E. G. The First Epistle of St. Peter. The Greek Text, with Introduction, Notes, and Essays. London: Macmillan, 1961. A magisterial commentary, only for those with an ability to use Greek. For years, this was the only serious commentary in English, though it has now been largely replaced by Michaels and Goppelt. It is still of use for the patient observer; his essays are permanently useful.
Commentary on 1 Peter
1 Peter 1:1 – 2
1 PETER, AN APOSTLE of Jesus Christ,
To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia,2 who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood:
Grace and peace be yours in abundance.
Peter’s salutation is one of the richest greetings to open a letter in the New Testament. It contains pastoral warmth and theological sweep. Whereas some salutations orient themselves around Christology (Rom. 1:1 – 7), salvation (Gal. 1:1 – 5), or the church (1 Cor. 1:1 – 3), and others are “bare bones” greetings (e.g., Eph. 1:1 – 2; Col. 1:1 – 2; 1 Thess. 1:1 – 2; 1 Tim. 1:1 – 2), Peter’s salutation contains both a penetrating description of the audience and a theological explanation of how they became Christians. While Paul’s greetings are frequently tinged with a necessity to defend himself, Peter’s apostolic status is not under question, leaving his title a simple, humble claim to authority (cf. 1 Peter 1:1; 5:1). As with other New Testament letters, the themes of the salutation become central to the letter itself: the status of the people of God and the salvation God provides for them. Peter’s letter has been categorized with other ancient hortatory (paraenetic) letters.
Letters of the ancient world began with the author’s name and any descriptions needed (here: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ”), the addressee and any necessary descriptions (here: “To God’s elect …”), and the greeting proper (here: “Grace and peace be yours in abundance”). Thus, there are three parts. Peter expands the addressee to include a threefold breakdown: the believers in Asia Minor are who they are (1) “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father,” (2) “through the sanctifying work of the Spirit,” (3) “for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood.” The italicized prepositions highlight the triadic description of these believers, and each is connected to a different member of the Trinity.
The Sender. Peter has been categorized in popular writings and sermons as impetuous and impulsive, but we know far too little about him to know whether such psychological descriptions are fair. We do know that he was a fisherman on the northern shore of Galilee, he was called by Jesus to follow him (cf. Luke 5:1 – 11; John 1:35 – 42), he become the leader of the apostolic band (Matt. 10:2), he was the first to perceive Jesus as the Messiah (Matt. 16:17 – 19; Mark 8:27 – 33), he tried to walk on water (Matt. 14:28 – 31), he denied Jesus (Luke 22:21 – 23, 31 – 34, 54 – 71), he was restored (John 21:15 – 19), he was a primary leader of the new church formed at Pentecost (Acts 2 – 5), he received a magnificent vision about the unity of God’s people (Acts 10 – 11), he was miraculously released from prison (Acts 12:1 – 17), and he continued to have a ministry as far as Rome (cf. Acts 12:18 – 19; 15; Gal. 2:7 – 8; 1 Cor. 1:12; 9:5; 1 Peter; 2 Peter). We know that Peter’s ministry in Rome was so extensive that Roman Catholics see the foundation of their church in his ministry there; we also know that Peter’s ministry has become far too divisive of an issue between Roman Catholics and Protestants.
Perhaps more important for the interpretation of our letter, we can discern in Peter an “about-face” over the question of Jesus’ death: from outright rejection (Matt. 16:22) and denial (Luke 22:54 – 71), to restoration (John 21), to preaching the death and vindication of Jesus (Acts 2), to finding in the death of Jesus the ultimate paradigm of Christian existence (1 Peter 2:18 – 25). This trail of Peter’s conversion is what lies beneath our letter: a Peter who found in Jesus’ death and resurrection the secret of life. Another feature of his life that is fundamental for understanding his letter is that his original name was “Simon” and only through a special calling by Jesus was it changed to “Cephas” (or “Peter”). His name change included Jesus’ prediction of his role in the development of the early church: Simon would be a “foundation,” a “rock” (petros), upon whom the church would be built. In light of this, Peter developed the metaphor of Christians as “living stones” (2:4 – 8).
Peter was an “apostle of Jesus Christ.” An apostle is one who was personally called by Jesus to a special ministry of founding the church; the corollary of that calling is that an apostle represents, as an ambassador does a president, the one who sent him. Peter, like the other apostles, was a personal representative of Jesus, and how people responded to Peter reflected how they responded to Jesus (cf. Matt. 10:40 – 42). Yet we should note that Peter does not brandish his authority like a saber; rather, he states his title here and then uses the more humble power of rhetoric and persuasion. Not until 5:12 do we again see his authority, unless it be noted (as it probably can be) in his use of commands and prohibitions. In fact, Peter identifies himself with the leaders of the various churches (5:1). Nonetheless, the “letter is to be seen, not as the pious opinions of a well-wishing friend, but as the authoritative word of one who speaks for the Lord of the church himself.”
The Addressees. The geographical location of Peter’s churches is not as important as the terms he uses to describe their social and spiritual status: “To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood.” Another translation, one that I will refer to occasionally in the discussion that follows, is “To the sojourning elect who are scattered throughout …” (pers. trans.).
To be “elect” means to receive God’s grace; this benefit is the result of God’s initiative, not ours. In other words, God has called us to his love and grace, he has prompted our faith through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, and he claims our allegiance (cf. John 15:16; Rom. 8:28; 1 Cor. 1:9; Eph. 4:1; 2 Thess. 2:14; 2 Tim. 1:9; 1 Peter 1:15; 2:4, 6, 9, 21; 3:9; 5:10). To be one of God’s elect is a source of joy and comfort (for we know God’s will cannot be thwarted) and of exhortation and demand (for we know God is working in us to enable us to do his will).
The Meaning of “Aliens and Strangers”: A Brief Study. Not only did Peter’s churches enjoy a special status with God; Peter uses another term that goes a long way in helping us to understand the social location of his readers. In the introduction I observed that this term “strangers” (or “sojourners”) can refer either metaphorically to their temporary residence on earth as they await final salvation (NIV) — the so-called pilgrimage theme — or literally to the social location in their communities. It is important to pause for a brief study of this term and another one like it, “aliens” (2:11), and of the idea of a pilgrimage theme in this letter. By looking at more than one term at a time, we will have a wider grasp of what Peter is saying and will avoid the hazard of being concerned with only one term apart from its larger contexts.
First, I must observe that the inertia of convention propels us in the direction of a metaphorical sense to these terms. Most popular and scholarly works interpret 1 Peter 1:1 and 2:11 as describing the Christian pilgrimage on earth. Many commentators assume this view without further reflection and give little space to arguing against the unconventional view. Progress in interpretation can never be gained if we simply repeat habitual interpretations; instead, we must look again at the evidence to see what it says. If we arrive at an unconventional conclusion, we may be breaking free from unnecessary restrictions, though we may also be simply wrong. But such are the implications of exploring interpretations.
Second, there is no doubt that the literal meaning of these terms refers to people in specifically low social conditions. The Greek word for “foreigners” or “aliens” (paroikos) refers to people who reside in a given place without the legal protection and rights provided for citizens (i.e., noncitizen residents); the Greek word for “strangers” (parepidemos) refers to people who reside in a place but who stay there only for a brief time (temporary residents). This is the literal senses of these two terms; when used metaphorically (in the rare instances when they are found this way), they emphasize, in some nonliteral sense, sojourning in a place temporarily or being found as an alien in some location.
Third, the issue here, then, is whether there is evidence that the terms in question are being used metaphorically. Good metaphors are drawn from reality, from the hustle and bustle of normal life. Here we have two terms drawn from perceptions of the social rank and how society works. However, a standard principle of interpretation insists that words be taken literally unless there is something in the context that tips the reader off to a metaphorical use of a term. For example, it strains our reading to think that “slaves” in 1 Peter 2:18 does not refer to actual social status but instead to our “slave-minds” and that we are being exhorted to submit to reason, for nothing in the text makes us think that anything other than a social class is in view. The questions we must face, then, are simple: Is there evidence for a metaphorical use here either in the type of literature we are examining or in the immediate context? And how do we discern the difference between a literal meaning and a metaphorical one?
The late G. B. Caird, in his masterful book on language and interpretation, proposes four tests to discern when a given word or phrase is being used metaphorically. (1) At times the biblical author makes an explicit statement that a given expression is metaphorical, as when he uses the word “like,” states that such-and-such is an allegory (Gal. 4:24), or adds a qualifier that shows something other than the literal sense is intended (Matt, 5:3 — “poor in spirit”; Eph. 2:14 — “wall of hostility”; 1 Peter 1:13 — “the loins of your mind”). (2) Sometimes an expression is impossible to understand literally. For example, the believers in Asia Minor are not literally “a royal priesthood” (2:9), their leaders are not really “shepherding flocks of real sheep” but are leading the believers the way a shepherd leads his flocks (5:2), and it is not their literal “brothers” who are suffering throughout the world but their spiritual brothers (5:9). (3) There must be a certain amount of correspondence between an expression and the reality itself for something to be literal; when the correspondence is low, then we have a clue to the use of a metaphor. Thus, just as it is unlikely that Peter was in “Babylon” (5:13), so it is unlikely that Jesus will appear the second time in a Shepherd’s garb (5:4). (4) Sometimes the expression is developed so highly and intensively that it is easy to detect metaphorical imagery. Clearly, Peter is raiding architectural metaphors when he speaks of the church in 2:4 – 8, to the point that one gets lost in the mixing of metaphors (see also 2:9 – 10).
In light of this brief analysis, we can ask whether the terms “aliens and strangers” betray any of these clues. First, there is no explicit statement in 1 Peter that the references in 1:1, 17 and 2:11 are to be understood metaphorically. In 1:1, the addressees are “strangers … scattered throughout” the Diaspora; there is no qualifier here that suggests anything but a literal meaning. Inasmuch as “scattered throughout” leads into a literal description of geography, so we are led to think that “strangers” has the same literal sense. The other two references, however, contain some ambiguity. First Peter 1:17 says, “Live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.” If the readers truly are socially isolated (for whatever reasons), this expression can be literal and makes sense that way; if, however, they are upper-class elites, there is evidence for a pilgrimage theme. But we have no evidence to suggest that a metaphor is being used. Slight ambiguity, however, could be felt in a contrast between life “now” (not “here”) and life “in the future” (1:20 – 21). This could be evidence for a modifier being present. Finally, the use of “as” with “aliens and strangers” in 2:11 is perhaps significant evidence for a conscious use of a metaphor. There is, however, a problem. Does “as” mean (1) “I urge you, as if you were foreigners and strangers,” or (2) “I urge you, because you are literally foreigners and strangers”? The text does not give us a clue as to which of these we should choose. I conclude, therefore, that there is no unambiguous evidence in 1 Peter for a pilgrimage use of these two terms (though there is some evidence).
The second, third, and fourth tests turn up nothing for our concerns. There is nothing impossible at the literal level for any of the references cited above; each could be literal with no problem. The evidence in 1 Peter does not admit of a low correspondence between the condition of the readers and the actual terms used, nor does Peter run wild in developing this imagery (he simply states it each time). Thus, the tests for determining a metaphor do not yield any clear evidence that the expression “aliens and strangers” must be understood as a metaphor. I am not saying it is impossible or wrong to interpret these expressions metaphorically, but I maintain that such a view is highly conventional in modern reading and has little (if anything) to offer on its own behalf. Because of a lack of evidence for such a view, we ought to see here a literal expression. The evidence, then, leads us to think that the expressions in 1 Peter are literal, describing the readers’ social location.
Finally, was the addressees’ literal status as “aliens and strangers” caused by their becoming Christians or by their already being “aliens and strangers” prior to believing? That is, did they suffer social exclusion because of their faith, or were they already targets of persecution, who simply became easier targets when they embraced the faith? Without engaging in a lengthy discussion, it seems best to say that there is no evidence (from 1 Peter) that becoming a Christian in Asia Minor involved a drop in social class (though I am certain such a thing happened frequently); nor is there a shred of evidence from 1 Peter that these believers had at one time been people of power or status. When Peter lists their stations in life (e.g., “slaves” and either “wives” or “husbands”), there is a noticeable absence of other vocations or stations in life. One suspects that these descriptions probably obtain because they did not have any more powerful vocation.
This group of churches, in other words, was composed almost entirely of persons drawn from the slave classes and the disenfranchised. We should, however, contend that the reason the believers were literally “aliens and strangers” was twofold: (1) They were socially marginalized people, and (2) their faith led to an association that had no social acceptance and therefore, at the very least, exacerbated their social conditions.
As well, their homelessness would have naturally been a picture of their spiritual status. They were not only castaways because of their social status; they were also castaways because of their commitment to Jesus, to a life of holiness, and to a group of similarly disenfranchised people — the church. We are, then, to see in this description a picture of hard-working, poor people who had no rights and no protection but who, through the grace of God, had found life in Christ and fellowship in the family of God. Thus in 1:1 – 2, Peter gives both their spiritual status (“elect”) and their social location (“sojourners” in the Diaspora). The gospel of salvation in Christ took root in Asia Minor particularly among the disenfranchised and gave Peter and the early church an important angle on ministry and theology.
The Experience of These Believers. The socially marginalized believers of the Diaspora are who they are (1) “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father,” (2) “through the sanctifying work of the Spirit,” (3) “for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood.” We need to look at each of these expressions. At the outset, observe that each one describes, in a different way and from the angle of a different member of the Trinity, the complex nature of conversion.
According to the NIV, these Diaspora Christians have been chosen “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.” Theological debates have issued forth from this expression and others like it. Is God’s election (and predestination) based on his knowledge that certain people will believe (which gives the human decision paramount importance), or is God’s foreknowledge the determinative factor in choosing certain individuals to be part of his people? If these two options were the only options, then surely the second is to be preferred: God’s foreknowledge is more than prescience (knowing ahead of time), for it is effective, active, and determinative.
However, it is not altogether clear that “according to” is to be restricted only to “elect.” In fact, with the number of words and the additional description of the addressees as “sojourning” between “elect” and “according to,” some have suggested that “according to” modifies all that goes before: thus, Peter is an apostle of Jesus Christ and the Diaspora Christians are elect and the Diaspora Christians are sojourning throughout Asia Minor according to the foreknowledge of God the Father. Moreover, the highly formulaic nature of verse 2 (with its three prepositions and references to Father, Spirit, and Son) may well suggest the adoption of a set liturgical formula, so that the author is not trying to define “elect” in specific categories but rather is simply writing in a formal, liturgical manner that may well run ahead of precise thinking. While it is not easy to decide here, as long as we understand “foreknowledge” as determinative (rather than confirmative of human choice) and as long as we see that “elect” is described by the “sojourning in the Diaspora” phrase, it is probably best to see all three prepositional phrases in verse 2 as modifying “elect.”
Second, the believers in Asia Minor are what they are “by the sanctifying work of the Spirit.” Both theological reasoning and spiritual experience confirm that God prompts us to believe through the convicting and regenerating work of his Spirit. The process of sanctification, a word drawn from Old Testament tabernacle and temple worship, involves God’s setting his people apart and the lifelong work of his Spirit to effect God’s will on earth. Unfortunately, popular theology teaches that sanctification is something that happens after conversion and justification; first one is justified and then, throughout life and into glory, he or she is sanctified. This is not a biblical understanding of sanctification. The term refers to three features of Christian existence: the initial separation from sin (clearly in 1:2; cf. Acts 20:32; 26:18; 1 Cor. 1:2, 30; 6:11; 2 Thess. 2:13), the hard work of growing in holiness throughout life (Rom. 8:13; 2 Cor. 3:18; 7:1; 1 Thess. 5:23; Heb. 12:10, 14), and the final act of God when he makes his holy people completely holy for eternity (Eph. 5:25 – 27). Peter is referring here, then, almost exclusively to the first dimension of our sanctification: God’s gracious act of turning sinners into his people. Later, he emphasizes the lifelong process of sanctification (cf. 1:14 – 16, 22; 2:1 – 2, 9 – 10, 11 – 12; 4:3 – 4).
Third, the addressees are who they are for a purpose: “for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood” (or “for obedience and sprinkling with the blood of Jesus Christ”). These believers have been chosen by God so that they may be obedient, that is, so that they may respond to the demand of the gospel and become children of obedience (1:14) and pure children of God (1:22). The use of the word “obedience” for the initial response to the demand of the gospel is found elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Rom. 1:5; 6:16; 15:18; 16:26; 2 Cor. 7:15; 10:6; 2 Thess. 1:8; 1 Peter 1:22 with 2:8; 4:17). And these people were chosen so that they could be sprinkled with the new blood of the covenant established by the death of Jesus (cf. Ex. 24:3 – 8; Heb. 9:18 – 21; 10:22; 12:24).
In sum, then, Peter sees the electing work of God as leading to the conversion of the disenfranchised sojourners of Asia Minor. Each of the three prepositional phrases in verse 2 is predominantly a reference to conversion, to the act of God’s saving these people. They were effectively called and spiritually made holy, and this election led to their obedience to God’s call and to forgiveness under the new covenant. While the first two emphasize God’s work, the last expression emphasizes the believer’s response.
The Greeting Itself. As with other letters in the New Testament, the addressees are greeted in both a customary Greco-Roman way (“grace”) and in a Jewish way (“peace”). Especially under the influence of early Christian and Jewish theology, these two terms exemplify not only friendliness to others but the rootedness of that friendliness in the gracious and peacemaking ways of God.
IT WOULD NOT be normal for modern Westerners to take a letter from the ancient world, say one from Pliny to Calpurnia Hispulla (about his recent marriage), and apply it to our day (assume Pliny’s insights about marriage are true for us). Why do we do this for the Bible? How can we take a letter from Peter, a first-century apostle of Jesus Christ, to Christians in Asia Minor who were socially excluded and assume that it is also written to us? While I do not pretend that such a maneuver is simple or that it ought to be done without further ado, I do believe that what Peter wrote is as advantageous for us as the Old Testament was for Paul and his readers (cf. 1 Cor. 10:6, 11).
My assumption of the usefulness of Scripture is based on three foundations. (1) Scriptural. Paul teaches that God gave us the record of his dealings with his people in order that it may be useful to his people in the ages to come (see 2 Tim. 3:16 – 17). (2) Anthropological. Since we are all created in the image of God, what was good for God’s people long ago is good for us now because we, as they, are humans. It is only Western arrogance that makes us think we have such a higher level of development that we can look down at the ancients. To confirm our point about the likeness of humans, one need only read Proverbs or one of the Greek tragedies or comedies to see that what vexed and delighted them is the same as what vexes and delights us. (3) Ecclesiological. Members of the church of Christ, both ancient and modern, are one. While we admit to differences between our world and theirs, the first-century church comprises our ancestors in the faith. And while we will apply the Bible in different ways because of changes that have taken place and because of differences in our culture, they remain our spiritual ancestors, who have bequeathed to us the faith once and for all delivered to the saints of God.
These foundations, however, do not mean that “things are the same”; for surely this working assumption would be foolish. Adjustments have to be made, in the same way as we change our data for a new word-processing program. Most, if not all, of us do not live in Asia Minor (it has changed immensely anyway), and we are probably not socially excluded (at least to the same degree that they were). But nonetheless, what was written was written for Christians of all ages.
We need here to look more directly at the Petrine notion of social exclusion. The Christians of Asia Minor were socially excluded either (1) because they were already nothing more than social sojourners and foreigners, or (2) because they became Christians and so “joined” a disenfranchised religion. Applying this first sense of social exclusion could work in different directions. We could seek to be socially excluded by gaining a station in life that is less than desirable. It is true that the history of the church has found such people; but noble as their desire to follow Jesus is, this is hardly what God expects from us, for the biblical principle seems to be that God wants us to follow him in whatever vocation we have (1 Cor. 7:17 – 24). This form of application is wooden, overly literal, and forced. As the Christians of Asia Minor did not seek lowly wrungs on the ladder of society, so we should not.
Another way of applying such a position of social exclusion is to minister to those who are on the fringes of society. This, I believe, is a valid extension of what Peter is saying, but it is still not what Peter is saying. Not once in 1 or 2 Peter does the apostle urge his fellow Christians to look for, find, and convert the socially excluded. However noble such a ministry would have been, this is not his point in calling his readers “aliens and strangers.”
Most Christians, I am sure, believe that ministry to the socially excluded (AIDS victims, the poor, the homeless, many African-Americans, Cuban refugees, etc.) is demanded by the nature of the gospel (it is for all) and the image of God in everyone. Inasmuch as the original readers of 1 Peter were social outcasts, that letter does crystallize a model for the church to minister to those who are socially deprived as an extension of Peter’s concerns. If we simply, in our imagination, wrote in the words “Cuban refugees who are Christians,” this point becomes clearer. The letter, then, is not primarily an exhortation to minister to Cuban refugees, but a letter to Cuban refugees in the hope that they will be able to learn from Peter how to live as Cuban refugees in their environment. On the other hand, while the letter is not an exhortation to work with such a group of people, it is certainly natural to extend the letter’s message in that direction.
In my judgment, if the first sense of social exclusion is accurate, then the primary application is in another direction, namely, the importance of establishing our identity on the basis of who we are in God’s family rather than who we are in social perceptions. What we find here is Peter’s attempt to make sense of his readers’ present social location in the Roman empire in the light of their new-found social location in the family of God. Because they are members of God’s household, their social location as outcasts has no bearing on who they are in the fullness of reality, on who they are in God’s estimation, or on who they are in the context of God’s ultimate designs for history. While they are socially strange and foreign in Asia Minor, while they are excluded, powerless, and homeless in the Roman empire, in God’s family they are citizens, they are included, they are royalty (2:9 – 10), and they are at home as God’s people. True applications, analogies, and appropriations of Peter’s category of “aliens and strangers” move in the direction of one’s identity, new group consciousness, and cohesion.
If the second sense of the socially excluded is correct (excluded because of an association with Christianity), then other avenues need exploration. Then it is Peter’s message that no matter what social location believers find themselves in, they are still in God’s family, and their fundamental means of coping with the stresses and persecutions of society is to see themselves as God’s people who are being prepared for God’s final kingdom (cf. 1:3 – 12). Problems immediately arise for many Western Christians, of course, because they find that when they embrace the gospel and follow Jesus Christ in obedience, they are not persecuted; instead, they remain accepted and acceptable in our still somewhat Christian society. What does this letter say to Christians who are obedient but not persecuted?
The first observation is the most important but rarely said in evangelical circles: The social exclusion dimension of 1 Peter simply does not apply because so many Christians walk obediently with the Lord and do not, at least very often, experience social exclusion. This inevitably means that some things in 1 Peter are not as important for such a group as it might be for those who are being persecuted. A second observation, however, is that it is rare for Christians to live obediently even in the Western world without experiencing some kind of social exclusion at some point in their lives or at some level of existence — even if it does not go as far as outright persecution. What we are doing here is trading on the notion of “social exclusion for being a Christian.” Even if we cannot identify one kind of social exclusion (persecution; cf. 1:6; 4:1 – 6, 12 – 18) with another (e.g., prevention of career advancement), they remain generically the same: Christians often find that their faith jeopardizes elements and dimensions of their lives (physical, material, social, etc.).
In this discussion about applying this letter to our world, we need to pause for some minor considerations. Our use of Peter’s letter should not be one of slavish imitation. This can be seen in several ways. Peter’s letter does not mean we need to write letters to Christian groups, and it certainly does not mean we have to start our letters in the same way Peter did. After all, no two letters in the New Testament are written in identical ways. It does not mean that we have to find the socially excluded and minister to them. It does not mean that we have to go to Asia Minor or that we need to divide our ministries into five areas (as Peter wrote to churches in five provinces). Peter did not write to give us a stereotype of Christian ministry, though it is altogether clear that we can learn from this great Christian leader. One of the dangers of canonizing letters of the early church, as has been done for 1 Peter, is that its sanctity becomes perversely stereotypical and exemplary. While it is wise to follow the best at something, it is perverse to follow it in a literal, unimaginative manner.
Applying the Bible to our day can be difficult because one of the problems in using the New Testament for our own day and throughout the history of the church is what sociologists call “reification.” This term means turning human relationships and observations into rigid, dehumanized, and immutable laws. While it is a fact that sufficiently heated water turns into steam and eventually all the water is turned into the property of gas (this is a natural law), it is not a fact (to the same degree) that treating others lovingly will inevitably lead others to treat us in a loving manner. We reify love and a relationship when we suggest that love always begets love (even if, in God’s design, it is supposed to). We reify parenting principles when we lay it down as law, as a preacher I recently heard did, that if we teach our kids to love God, we are guaranteed that every one of our kids will love God, on the basis of Proverbs 22:6: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”
We reify different nationalities and races when we ascribe to them a static quality that is “always true”: Irish are hot-tempered, Scottish are stubborn, Americans are brash, and Italians are emotional. We reify pastors when we expect each to be identical; we reify political leaders when we expect each to perform the same functions. We reify the role of the father when, because he is father, he cannot apologize to his children; we reify the role of children when parents never take their feelings and ideas into consideration (because they are, after all, only children); we reify the role of mother when we think mothers cannot work outside the home. As for the issue about women’s ministries, it is not hard to see that the church (even in the twentieth century) has reified the role that women had in the first century (a modern projection of what women were like both in Judea and the Diaspora) and made that role normative and determinative for roles today. The Amish have reified the dress of eighteenth-century central Europe and made that the stopping point of change. The examples could go on.
Reification also takes place in theology and interpretation, not to mention application. Two examples from our passage may be taken to illustrate my point. First, frequently interpreters of our passage find in verse 2 three points about conversion: God’s effectual call through his determinative knowledge, the Spirit’s regenerative work, and the Son’s covenant-binding death that secures our salvation. We “reify” this text when we treat this as the “order of salvation” that is always and immutably followed in God’s working with humans. So reified does this become at times that we think that someone who has suddenly begun to obey Jesus Christ but who has not apprehended the regenerative work of the Spirit has not truly been converted and must (amazingly!) back up in the “law of order” to the regenerative stage in order to be truly converted. A quick glance at 1:3 shows that Peter can connect regeneration with the Father and the Son! Clearly, Peter was not reifying his terms and categories. Pastors and teachers ought to consider their own notes to see how often they have “reified” a text in such a way that it has become an absolutely hardened system. Any reconsideration must take place in the context of the whole of the Bible because other texts might put “hardened systems” to the chase.
A second example from our verses can be seen in the kinds of extrapolations that have been occasionally made from the expression “to God’s elect” (1:1). The theme of election is important in the Bible and to theologizing in the history of the church; furthermore, for many Christians God’s election is fundamental to their contentment. What I wish to point out here is that there are also many Christians who have been severely shaken in their faith (even to the point of a resigned abandonment of the faith) because of a reification of this category of Christian thought. When taken out of context and planted in a garden of sterile ideas and insensitive theology, a reified doctrine of election can be damaging to the gospel and to Christian existence. When election is understood apart from a biblical perspective on human responsibility, it is misunderstood and the gospel message itself is perverted. God never “forces” unbelievers to believe against their will. However true election is, it is not some insensitive and nondialectical act of God; the biblical message always understands humans as participating and responding to God in freedom and choice. When election becomes “violent” and “abusive” of human will, it is no longer biblically accurate; rather, it is an example of reification.
True and accurate interpretation of the Bible always takes care to interpret words and ideas in their immediate and fuller context and with all the necessary qualifications that prevent misunderstanding. To avoid reification in interpretation two things are necessary: (1) a contextual sensitivity that permits an interpretation that is logically and theologically accurate in the context of the whole Bible and larger truth, and (2) a flexibility in application that accounts for changing social circumstances and development in our understanding.
Reification is an important category for those who interpret the Bible. We reify biblical texts most often when we are engaged in heated debates about what we think are important points. The Calvinist and the Arminian are surely guilty of overemphasizing and overusing certain points, just as covenant and dispensational theologians do the same when they debate one another. Often it is the balanced interpreter who gets it right biblically but who also seems not to fit quite right into some systematic category. Reification, then, ought to be seen at times as a category useful to some ideology. Biblical theology is always willing to suspend judgment so that the biblical witness receives its full share of influence.
ONE FRUITFUL LINE of bringing the message of 1 Peter into our world is to examine what was meant by “social exclusion” and how that might apply in our world. In my judgment, the social exclusion for the Christians in Asia Minor was intensified by their conversion to Jesus Christ — certainly they were not put to death simply because of the social class (though it was possible that people of such status were not privileged to normal rights). In this case, the expression “social exclusion” refers mostly to a social status (the homeless). However, in what follows I will examine the implications for today of an interpretation of “aliens and strangers” that makes this realistic social exclusion the result of having become followers of Jesus.
In the Western world I can think of no group to whom “social exclusion” might apply any better than to God-fearing Christians on university campuses. However many qualifiers are needed, it remains a piece of history that nearly all major Western universities were originally designed primarily to prepare clergy for the tasks of ministry. This is clearly the case with American universities. Surely, various denominational skirmishes were involved, the precise role for the university in the burgeoning American culture was disputed, and the relationship of “secular” and “sacred” disciplines was hotly debated. These debates notwithstanding, the formation of our university system was determined by religious needs.
Furthermore, most of my readers are probably aware that American history involved a massive split in its Protestant community, the so-called Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy, with the disastrous result of two communities who for several decades in this century had little or no interactive relationship. Traditional theology was having a hard time surviving at American universities. While the fundamentalists retreated on the whole into separate Bible institutes and colleges, the modernists assumed the leading role in the universities. The result of this history is a university system that has had almost no creative thinking from American conservative Christians and an evangelicalism that developed a mentality that the intellectual life was unhelpful to the churches and unworthy of serious Christian devotion.
Now a word to our universities and evangelicals on those campuses. Whether there is some justification or not, contemporary traditional Christian faith is frequently out of place at American universities. I am not talking about campus impact through campus ministries, like InterVarsity, nor about the religious impact that campus churches have on campuses, like Oxford Bible Fellowship in Miami University (Oxford, Ohio). Rather, I am talking about the intolerance, almost fascist at times, of religiously conservative ideas that deserve to be debated by leading intellectuals and that deserve a place of hearing in the marketplace of ideas. This is what a university is supposed to be — a place where all ideas compete against one another. An alarming statistic indicating this massive (and tragic) polarization is the almost total absence of conservative theologians in American university posts and their almost total congregating in Protestant evangelical colleges and seminaries.
The watchword for American universities is no longer simply truth; rather, the watchword today seems to be pluralism or toleration. In fact, it is a sad story about many American universities that traditional ideas (no matter how well-founded and adaptable they may be for today’s culture) are out, while novel ideas (no matter how radical and illogical) are in. Education becomes indoctrination into the ideas of recent special interest groups. These ideas need to be heard, but not at the expense of all other ideas or of not pursuing truth. Let me reiterate (and not to please special interest groups): It is educationally important to be exposed to all sides and to alter our programs and curricula as we learn and grow; but it is educationally disastrous to think that the newest books are better than the classics unless they are truly better — scholars and time will guide us here.
As I said above, Christians who take a stand for truth and who believe that God’s Word provides a unitary perspective for all disciplines will find the university road rocky and uphill — the whole way. They will more often than not find themselves socially, morally, and intellectually excluded. They may be branded as obscurantist dinosaurs and may even find it difficult to present their ideas in the open market. Furthermore, it comes as no surprise that Christian students who take a stand against casual sexual relations, undisciplined use of time, and partaking of drugs and alcohol will find even less acceptance, just as Peter’s churches did (4:4). Such students will find less social acceptance and so will become marginalized by the majority, who find these activities the essence of weekend recreation. I speak here from ten years of counseling and discussing life with students who have had such experiences throughout North America.
I find this situation of our students (and faculty members and those seeking faculty positions) similar to the situation facing the Christians in Asia Minor. They were socially excluded, at the least, because they were Christians. What is Peter’s word to our students who are finding themselves excluded? It is twofold: (1) Maintain the course of a loving, holy lifestyle, and (2) find your identity in being part of God’s family, not in being part of a society that does not accept you. It ought to be noticed that Peter does not tell them to be coarse, rude, and arrogant, nor does he tell them to segregate themselves into separated communes. Rather, he tells them to live their godly lives right in the midst of the society that rejects them, always ready to answer people with a reason for their hope (3:15). He informs them that their very lives are a witness to God’s glory (2:11 – 12).
Furthermore, Peter tells them that their family, their social group, is the church, not society. There they are to find their social acceptance. They should see that they are part of a worldwide movement, God’s household, the church, which is being persecuted throughout the world. What this means for Christian university students is that they are to seek out fellowship with other Christians who can sustain their spiritual and social needs while they remain faithfully integrated in their campuses as witnesses to God’s love in Christ.
While this first attempt at updating the message of 1 Peter with respect to social exclusion has focused on the university experience of Christians who seek to be faithful to Jesus while growing up in such a massively different environment from home, we will have more than ample opportunity to explore the same theme from different angles (the business world, morality, etc.) in other places. To go into each of these fields here would make it more than difficult to explore direct analogies for our world in those texts that deal with suffering and social exclusion.
What then does this salutation say about the relationship of the Christian to society? Fundamentally, it gives us the general perspective of Peter for Christians who find themselves excluded and oppressed socially. That perspective is that their primary group is God’s family (“God’s elect”) and their secondary group is society. Peter does not address them as “the socially excluded” but as “God’s elect”; their social standing was completely absorbed by their spiritual calling. His directions throughout the letter are concerned with their Christian identity and their Christian family (the church) and how they were to live as Christians within their social setting.
With the rising influence of Christian attempts at political activism in the Western world, particularly in the United States, Peter offers two pieces of advice: (1) Act as Christians and in a Christian manner, and (2) understand that your identity is your church, not your social group. Each of these could easily be developed at length; here we offer only brief remarks.
(1) As for Christian behavior, I find Christian activism to be both good and bad. It is good that Christians are attempting to influence society with the values of the kingdom. Democratic politics, where the one with the most votes wins, are extremely valuable for expressing the rights of the majority and for hearing the voices of the minorities. I am thrilled that Christians are agitating, and I am not speaking here just of the New Right or the Radical Left Evangelicals (like Jim Wallis). I am glad that both are attempting to reach into the community with the message of biblical Christianity, even if at times there are excesses and misunderstandings. I do perceive something exceedingly grotesque, however, when I hear of people murdering “abortion doctors” in the name of Christ and when I see on television divisive animosities being expressed in hateful slogans bantered about on boycott signs. What I like about Western politics is that, if a given position agitates enough and garners the majority, that position gets its chance in the public forum. What I do not like is people, in the name of Christ, claiming to be following Jesus and appearing to most observers to be acting in a manner unworthy of the gospel.
Furthermore, it is not the case that Christians have definitive, biblical “Christian answers” for everything that arises. The arrogance and self-assuredness that are too frequently found in “Christian politicians,” while making that politician’s personal hopes obvious, do little to further the work of Christ. Just as we do not have definitive answers on taxation, so we do not have absolute answers for the issues involving international strife. While we clearly have definitive answers about racism and civil rights, we do not have (in my judgment) absolute answers about capitalism and social welfare. The problem here is that too many people contend their view is the only Christian view on this matter, whether it is the radical left or the capitalist right.
(2) No matter who wins and which position gains the upper hand, the Christian cannot be depressed because, regardless of the intensity of the problem, he or she remains in God’s hands as God’s elect and finds the primary social group in the church of God. This is an area Peter develops, perhaps because he found no other consolation. The socially excluded had no recourse to political democracy or representation in Asia Minor. Nonetheless, his insight here is enduring and penetrating. Do we find our primary identity in being Americans or Canadians or being Christians? Do we find our consolation in that we are Irish, Scottish, English, German, Italian, Russian, or South African, or do we find our principal root in our connection to God in Christ and in the new people of God, the church? Peter exhorts his churches to find their identity in that they are God’s elect and that they have a socially satisfying group. Do we find this same identity?
1 Peter 1:3 – 12
3 PRAISE BE TO the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade — kept in heaven for you,5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.6 In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.7 These have come so that your faith — of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire — may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.8 Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy,9 for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care,11 trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.
PETER HAD LEARNED in the synagogue and from other pious Jews how to pray. The typical Jewish prayer, called the Shemoneh Esreh (“The Eighteen Benedictions”), was a series of “blessings of God.” Thus, when Peter begins to pray, he does so in this customary Jewish manner.
Grammatically, our passage is one massive run-on sentence. While such lengthy sentences (ten verses!) tweak the nose of modern English teachers, Peter’s grammar is wonderfully elegant as well as profoundly expressive of the grandeur of his subject: salvation. We may unravel the grammar as follows: Peter blesses the Father for the new birth he grants his people (v. 3a), which leads to their majestic hope of final salvation (vv. 3b – 5); this expectation of final salvation leads them to rejoice, in spite of suffering, about that final day of Jesus Christ (vv. 6 – 7); this very Jesus Christ they both love and trust, while they rejoice as they await that final day of salvation (vv. 8 – 9); that very salvation was the subject of inquiry and longing for the ancient prophets of Israel, though they did not live to see its fulfillment (vv. 10 – 12). The words in italics demonstrate how one idea leads to a fuller digression on that idea, leading to more and more digressions — all in one breath and in one glorious doxology.
Put more graphically, the following outline suggests both the scope and the digressory nature of these verses:
1. Praise Expressed (vv. 3 – 5)
2. Digression on Joy Despite Their Suffering (vv. 6 – 7)
3. Digression on Love and Joy in Anticipation of End (vv. 8 – 9)
4. Digression on the Prophetic Search for Salvation (vv. 10 – 12)
Thus, our passage is essentially a eulogy to the Father that overflows into a fuller eulogy touching on the joyful expectation of salvation, on how that expectation can sustain Christians in suffering, and on how privileged they ought to feel about being the ones who get to enjoy that salvation after millennia of expectation. Run-ons express it best!
Peter begins with the theme of salvation because he has already made conversion/salvation the foundation of his salutation (1:1 – 2). There, it will be remembered, he focused on three dimensions of the great process of salvation: the determining knowledge of God, the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, and the obedience-generating covenant of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. With this salvation in mind, Peter now sets their social condition (i.e., social exclusion)into the grand scheme of God’s salvation. He will proceed to talk about ethics and lifestyle, but before he doing so, he must make clear the foundation. That foundation is the salvation of God, and it is only on this foundation that Peter constructs the life of the church.
While it has been popular since the Enlightenment in the Western world to reduce Christianity to morality and ethics (especially in the United States through the rise of Jeffersonian morality and liberal Protestantism’s ethic of tolerant love), Peter will not let ethics come to the fore until he speaks of salvation, the foundation of morality. He blesses God for salvation; in light of that salvation, he goes on to say, “Therefore, live a good life” (see 1:13 – 2:10).
Praise Expressed (1:3 – 5). It is perhaps easiest to see the grammar and logic of these verses if we diagram the verses graphically (the translation is mine to facilitate this diagram).
Blessed be the God
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ
who gave us new birth
(1) according to his great mercy
(2) unto a living hope
through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead
(3) unto an imperishable, unspoiling and unfading inheritance
which [inheritance] is kept in heaven for you by God’s power
through faith in the salvation prepared to be revealed at the end.
As can be seen, the sentence is simple in that it is a statement of praise to God, and the blessing is directed to the God and Father. This God and Father is blessed because he has given us a new birth. This new birth is the result of his mercy, which grows into a living hope; that hope is defined as an inheritance. Put differently, Peter blesses the God and Father because of salvation and its manifold benefits.
The new birth God has given to Peter and his readers, changing their status before God (2:24; 3:18, 21; Titus 3:5) and their lifestyle before others (1 Peter 1:22 – 23), theologians call regeneration. It is part of the large drama of cosmic regeneration (Matt. 19:28) that finds its climax in the glorious final existence (Rev. 19 – 22). Thus, through the new creation work of Jesus as a result of his resurrection, the new life the church receives through him is part of that grand act of a new creation. Furthermore, it is fundamental for New Testament teaching to see this work of creation as a work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7 – 11), though that dimension is not mentioned here by Peter (but cf. 1 Peter 1:2, 12; 3:18; 4:6).
Peter tells the readers that they have benefited from this new birth because of God’s “mercy.” Mercy is that pity God shows toward humans in spite of their sin and because of their total helplessness to right their wrongs; God permits them to be part of the special people of his favor (2:10). This great new birth sets off a chain reaction in his plan of redemption: His mercy stimulates their new birth, and their new birth stimulates a “living hope.” This orientation toward the future that God will bring through Christ constantly appears in this letter (e.g., 1:3, 13, 21; 3:5, 15). It is not so much that believers are now living “full of hope,” but that they have a fixed “hope,” a clear vision of what God will do for them in the future.
The chain reaction continues: Not only does the new birth stimulate a “living hope,” but that living hope is defined by “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade” (1:4). The children of God, who have received new birth, can look forward to a special inheritance because they are God’s children. That inheritance is their completed salvation (1:3, 4, 5, 6 – 9) and eternal life in the kingdom of God, where they will enjoy worship, praise, and blessing directed toward the Father, Son, and Spirit. This inheritance is kept for God’s people in heaven, guarded by God’s power (1:5). The only condition God sets for his people is that they must have faith (1:5); no biblical author guarantees final salvation apart from faith. This faith is a faith in “the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” In sum, the new birth gives rise to a living hope that is defined as an inheritance that is guarded by faith in that final salvation.
Digression on Joy Despite Their Suffering (1:6 – 7). Abruptly, Peter begins to comment on the joy that suffering believers have as they contemplate that final day: “In this you greatly rejoice” (1:6). That is, contemplating salvation and its forthcoming climax generates great joy in the hearts of the believers, a joy so great they can endure suffering. The problem facing these Christians in Asia Minor is that they are suffering “grief in all kinds of trials” (1:6) — even if it is “now for a little while.” But Peter wants them to see the purpose of their suffering, “so that your faith — of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire — may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1:7). Whereas gold perishes when it is refined by fire, their faith will endure the fire of persecution, and will be proved genuine at the last day. Like James in James 1:3, Peter sees in suffering a situation from which the believers can learn and grow.
These verses depict the heart of Peter: He began theologically with praising God for his great benefits of salvation, but then he pauses pastorally to show that the Christians in Asia Minor can be exceedingly glad about the final day of salvation even though they are presently enduring various kinds of trials. They can be glad because they will survive this trial and find themselves in the glorious situation of salvation. This pause is a pastoral digression and, like many pastors I have heard, it leads to yet another digression.
Digression on Love and Joy in Anticipation of the End (1:8 – 9). Since his readers will be found acceptable to God on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed, Peter turns to the present relationship of these Christians to Jesus. Their current response is that they love Christ in spite of not having seen him; furthermore, though they believe in him and still do not see him, they are “filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1:8). Peter sees this response to the Lord as so potent that he describes it as the inauguration of their final salvation: “for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1:9).
Digression on the Prophetic Search for Salvation (1:10 – 12). Now comes yet another digression, this one stimulated by Peter’s mentioning of “the salvation of your souls.” Peter contends that this salvation, which the Asian Christians have enjoyed and for which they earnestly hope, is the very salvation that the ancient prophets (cf. Matt. 13:17) were seeking in all its details but never found. Peter’s ultimate point is to demonstrate the privilege of enjoying salvation in his era, the privilege of living in the “A.D.” rather than the “B.C.” era.
Thus, Peter begins with the prophetic inquiry (1:10). To emphasize the diligence and intensity of the ancient prophets, Peter uses two terms, “searched intently and with the greatest care” (he includes a cognate of the second word in v. 11). Their passion, whether they knew the exact longing of their hearts or not, was the grace that the Asian Christians found in Christ.
Verse 11 gives the topic of the prophets’ inquiry. They spoke about God’s final salvation and the judgments that preceded that final day. Precisely when and under what circumstances such events were to occur they did not know, but they did inquire into such matters. Peter writes that it was “the Spirit of Christ in them” that prompted their inquiry, and ultimately, they were investigating “the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.” It only makes sense for us to think, since we have so many Jewish prophecies that do not state these facts in outright fashion, that Peter is here clarifying for his readers the ultimate visions of the Jewish prophets, not explaining the precise details of their prophecies.
No matter how intense their search or profound their vision, Peter insists that these prophets, like John the Baptist after them, only served a preliminary role in the plan of God (1:12). They were preparing the world and God’s people for a later time — and that later time is now (cf. 2:10, 21, 24, 25; 3:6, 9) for Peter. This is the great privilege of the church age: the enjoyment of the inauguration of God’s salvation in Christ. It is so great that even the angels are looking down to gain a view, like wedding attendees attempting to steal a glance at the bride before her appearance. The angels are brought in here, not to invite us to speculate about their activities, but to press on our minds the privileges of salvation; neither the prophets nor the angels experience what the church assumes and enjoys.
THIS TEXT RAISES at least four issues that we could explore: the praise and worship of God, Christian hope, suffering, and the privilege of salvation. In this section, I will look at suffering, while in the “Contemporary Significance” section below, I will look more at salvation. However, in separating the two topics, we cannot separate them totally. For Peter, the reason the Christians were suffering was because they had the results of salvation in their lives, and their Christian living was now grating against a sinful society. Thus, our angle here is how suffering flows from salvation. Suffering, when properly understood and applied, is the wake following behind salvation’s boat.
An obvious point of departure for application concerns the suffering of the believers in Asia Minor, along with Peter’s instructions on how to perceive and endure such sufferings, and then contrast this point with the lack of suffering that takes place in the postmodern West. I begin by contending that our lack of suffering is, in part, due to a lack of nerve on the part of the church to challenge our contemporary world with the message of the cross and to live according to the teachings of Jesus with uncompromising rigor. While the Bible never states that every Christian of every age will always suffer, Paul does state that “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). I take this to be not an absolute prediction by Paul for all ages, but a general principle that is rooted in the nature of a fallen world, the kind of statement made so often in Proverbs. As a guiding principle, then, those who live faithful lives in an unbelieving world will find opposition to both their ideas and their practices.
There are, of course, exceptions. One simply has to imagine a fairly Christianized society (e.g., early nineteenth century United States in the specific communities), where most of one’s family and contacts were upright, godly men and women. In such a community one could live a godly life and not be persecuted. But this is not the case today for most readers of this book.
In other words, I am arguing that suffering, while it may not be as much a part of the everyday fabric of our lives as it was when Peter was writing, should probably be more a part of our lives than it is. True, ours is an age of toleration and pluralism. These two characteristic virtues clearly retard a society’s inclination to persecute. Nor is our society as intense about its religious beliefs as other parts of the world, which inculcate both a quicker and more physical response to strange ideas and practices. But even if we bracket out our Western civility, the contrast between the Christian community’s belief in the gospel as well as its commitment to holy living and our culture’s unbelief in the gospel and its permissiveness ought to generate more sparks than it does. I contend that one of the reasons there are so few sparks is because the fires of commitment and unswerving confession of the truth of the gospel are too frequently set on low flame, as if the church grows best if it only simmers rather than boils.
Accordingly, one of the reasons it is hard to apply this feature of 1 Peter to our world is our own problem. We should not then accuse the text of being hopelessly irrelevant; we can only accuse ourselves of being dormant and sleepy. I would also suggest, however, that we must recognize the change of cultures and the distance of time. First-century Asia Minor was made up of totally different kinds of people and religious groups from what we encounter today. With the moving ahead in time and the total change of society — that is, with our concentration of people into cities with a capitalistic culture (modernization), with our disintegration of a theological center for ascertaining meaning and morality (secularization), and with our multiplication of options and denial of the superiority of any one option (pluralization) — there is good reason for stepping back and saying that our culture and Peter’s culture are simply different and, therefore, his message about suffering will have to make some adaptations.
If indeed ours is a more tolerant time and if in certain places the church of Christ has much more significance in its culture, then it must be granted that the times have changed. Peter’s churches enjoyed neither toleration nor significance. Therefore, we cannot expect the same amount or the same degree of suffering as is found in our letter. In the Western world Christians cannot be put to death (legally) simply for believing that Jesus is Lord or for living according to his teachings. We can proclaim the gospel with boldness and live godly lives without fear of suffering as a result. But Christians were put to death in Peter’s day for such beliefs and for living a holy life.
What we must not do, however, in this context is to demythologize the conditions of suffering. Because we want to be accurate in our interpretation, we can never degrade the writings of the early church, a suffering community, by suggesting that “suffering is not the issue” and that what is at issue is “faithful living.” Furthermore, we assault the sensitivities of suffering believers the world over (and throughout the history of the church) when we trivialize the meaning of suffering. How do we do this? At the popular level, I have heard suffering texts trivialized into stresses in life, like the psychological pressure on the student who is preparing for an exam or the emotional drain that an interview with the boss might bring. I have heard it trivialized into “bad breaks in life,” like having a flat tire on a vacation trip or being too far away when a loved one dies. I have heard it trivialized even further when some moderns find suffering to be losing some sports event or not gaining an advancement at work.
While no sensitive or thinking person would want to minimize the reality of stress or the tragedy of losing members of one’s family, such events are not true counterparts to suffering in the early church. While we recognize differences between our world and Peter’s, we are not entitled to trivialize the suffering of that church by finding cheap analogies and then pretend that such things are suffering for faithfulness to the Lord. Peter was addressing the impact salvation had on one’s life and how that changed life (and status) ran counter to the culture in which these Christians lived.
Accordingly, what we need to find in our world, if we want to apply this message to our situation with biblical fidelity, are analogies of experience that correspond significantly to first-century suffering. What would these look like? No matter what happens, it qualifies for “being suffering” only if the opposition occurs exclusively because someone is a Christian. This is why we have to link suffering and salvation together.Flat tires happen because of sharp objects and thin tires, not because someone is a Christian. Bad events in life happen to good, God-fearing people, but bad events in life are not necessarily events of persecution. We need to find events that occur against people as a result of human opposition, that occur solely because of that person’s stand for the gospel of salvation and a decision to proclaim the gospel in word and deed. As an extension of this, sometimes Christians may be opposed at a more indirect level (say politically) because of a stand for the gospel of Jesus. Thus, a Christian stand at the personal level may bring opposition at another level.
I recently spent some time with a young athlete who had some rough experiences at his local high school with his “former” friends. As a senior he had a track record of drinking and drugs but was converted to Christ. His conversion made a sudden and immediate impact on his life, so much that he found himself on an island. After games, he was no longer invited to the parties; during games, he was no longer given the same opportunities to shoot the basketball; and in the hallways at school, he was no longer a “hit” with either the girls or his friends. He came to me for consolation. I explained that at least part of this was suffering and that he needed to guard against retaliatory speech and bitter attitudes. He began to see, in a painful way, that commitment to Christ can involve suffering. Here is an example of “bad events” occurring because this young man was a Christian. If he had become arrogant and obnoxious and these things occurred, one could not rightly call it suffering (2:20). But when such things happen as a result of one’s faithful devotion to Jesus, then we can find fruitful analogies to Peter’s advice to suffering believers (even if we respect the differences).
ONE OF PETER'S major themes is salvation, and this salvation is what led the believers of Asia Minor to experience suffering. Not only did we see this theme in 1:1 – 2, but it emerges at several places in 1:3 – 12. I want to look at two dimensions of this theme: the necessity of salvation and the denial many express today for the need of salvation.
Our world is so pluralistic that it has become anticultural to speak of the necessity of salvation. Furthermore, we have been easily led astray into following socially significant ministries rather than following the path of salvation as the road Christians should travel. The centrality of salvation, a cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith, is offensive to our culture. As a result, suffering often accompanies the preaching of salvation. Thus, the need to refocus our energies on the message of salvation stems in part from our fear of some form of cultural persecution.
Pluralism is the result of the modernizing and secularizing forces in our world. These forces drove from the center of our lives the values and theology that held the various branches of knowledge and behavior in some kind of unity for the masses of the Western world. Once those central forces were driven out, what remained were options but not truth. Furthermore, religious convictions were driven from the public into the private sphere of life, where one can believe what one wants without interference, debate, or prejudice. But such views and affections are not for the public because toleration dominates public discourse. A typical adage of religious pluralism is that “all religions lead to the same God and to heaven.” While it would be foolish to think that religious pluralism exhausts the pluralisms of our day, it is this kind of pluralism that confronts the readers of the Bible the most today.
The second problem staring Peter’s message in the face today is the pervasive lack/denial of a sense of any need for salvation in contemporary society. To speak of such a need is to be old-fashioned in some sense. At the root of this denial is a view that sees people as essentially good, though possibly hurting through some sickness or victimization, but not one as sinners in the sight of God who need divine grace and re-creation. Accordingly, to speak to our society of the need for salvation in order to be acceptable to God is to speak, too often I fear, a language that our culture simply does not hear. While centuries have been crossed since Peter wrote this letter, this strangeness of the message of salvation remains similar. And as this strangeness led to suffering for the early Christians, so also it leads to suffering in our world.
How does Peter’s message of salvation fit into all of this? To begin with, we need to see how Peter describes salvation. It is a “new birth” (1:3) that has already been experienced and is being integrated into lives at an inaugural level (1:9) by people who have received the Holy Spirit through the proclamation of the gospel (1:12); yet it is also their “living hope” (1:3) — an “inheritance” (1:4) and a “salvation” that is still future (1:5). Peter tells us that the ancient prophets researched this salvation and that its components were the death of Jesus and his subsequent glories (1:10 – 12). In other words, for Peter, salvation meant the benefits believers have found, do find, and will find because of their faith in the work of Jesus Christ and the blessed Holy Spirit. And this salvation is an experience only for those who put their faith and focus their obedience on Jesus Christ (1:2, 14, 21). Thus, his message is an exclusivist message: It finds salvation in Christ alone and only for those who trust and obey him.
The church is an exclusive and a privileged community because it is a saved community. It is not a social organization, structured to provide its participants with opportunities for social interaction. It is not organized in this sense at all; rather, it is a group of people who have been called by God to trust in him, obey him, and associate with others that have the same calling, trust, and obedience. Any church today that does not immediately “advertise” itself in this way does not understand what it means to be “in the church.” From beginning to end, the church desires salvation through Christ and through the attending work of the Holy Spirit. It preaches that salvation begins with a “new birth,” continues through the ministry of the gospel, and climaxes at the final day when that praise, honor, and glory are expressed. Whether it stems from the fear of sounding dogmatic or from a desire for respect, any church that denies its calling to announce salvation in Christ alone is denying its primary God-given mission.
We might begin by saying that it takes nerve and backbone to announce this message in our day, just as it did in Peter’s day. But this is our task in making our text significant to our contemporaries. Peter’s text is about salvation, and we need to think about how to proclaim salvation in our world. Our first problem is that we fear what others might say, worry over whether or not our message is palatable, and fret over our acceptance. “And so we settle for the kind of friendliness within which all absolutes perish either for lack of interest or because of the demands of the social etiquette.”
But such a courting of our culture is not the way to lead others to the marriage supper of the Lamb or to woo our world (it leads, in fact to disrespect). A compassionate announcement is profoundly effective while a timid and fearful suggestion about the gospel falls into one more slot in the pluralistic organization. We need to ask God for the courage to proclaim his truth with boldness and love and to announce his truth to a society that is crippled with options. Like someone sitting down in a restaurant who becomes overwhelmed by the number of options on the menu, knows that no chef makes all things well, and finally (in frustration) blurts out to the waiter, “What does your chef make best?” — so we need to announce the goodness of God in his revelation of Christ to those who are befuddled by the menu of pluralistic options available today.
This fear of others and our lack of being stubbornly committed to the truth of Scripture have led some churches today to have virtually no such thing as a “theological confession” or set of “church beliefs” to which its members must subscribe in order to become members. Yet the church is the place where salvation is proclaimed. Indeed, the history of doctrinal debates records some ugly arguments over minor issues that fractured churches and denominations. But in our haste to run away from being stained with having a reputation for doctrinal divisiveness, it is possible to avoid the central doctrines that define the church. We need to advocate “what Christians believe” and then hold to it. Salvation is at the heart of what Christians believe.
A second problem is that Christians, the church, and Christian organizations are easily led off the track of leading people to salvation by following lines that contribute to the well-being of society. It is not that social services are unimportant, for they are critical for the health of our society. It is not that teaching other nations the principles of farming or computing is not useful, for these things do help. It is not that offering psychological counseling is not fundamental for people who are emotionally hurting, for psychology aids our ministries. It is rather that social services are never a substitute for the process of salvation but are instead preparatory to the consequences of salvation. Focusing on the consequences to the neglect of the cause (salvation) distorts the message and ruins the church. Furthermore, the history of the church proves dramatically that when Christians get out of balance here, it is always the message of salvation that gets lost.
Take, for instance, the history of the YMCA/YWCA. These were at one time thoroughly godly organizations, designed to lead men and women into the faith, to educate them theologically, and to provide them with fellowship. But they have succumbed to the spirit of social services — so much so that most of us could be forgiven if we ask why the letter “C” remains on the signs. I speak here of getting off the track that Peter built long ago, the track of salvation in Christ, which can be specifically related to our desire not to bear the brunt of standing up for the gospel. The connection between salvation and suffering, seen so vividly in Peter’s churches, remains a vital link to this day even when we do not see the same kinds of opposition to the gospel.
To be sure, the history of the church in the United States has witnessed an incredible inability to hold in balance the preaching of salvation and social work. Evangelicals have largely focused on the former while liberal Protestantism has worked on the latter; perhaps only the Roman Catholics have remained balanced in this regard. Because of our history, the point I am making could be misunderstood as one more criticism of the so-called social gospel. This would be a gross misunderstanding, for I believe the message of salvation inevitably entails with it a desire for social transformation. But the tasks are not identical and the priority of the Bible is clearly in favor of the message of salvation. Peter’s letter reminds us once more of the centrality of the ministry of salvation through Christ for the church.
The word “centrality” here is important. In ministering the message of salvation to our world, it would be helpful for us to think not in terms of an assembly line (as we capitalists are prone to do), but in terms of a wheel in which the hub is salvation, the spokes the various ministries, and the outer rim our society. Salvation is central and remains central, regardless of the order of our activity. But the minute the spoke becomes dislodged from the hub, the life of salvation can no longer flow to our society.
Our world, with its pluralistic contours, deserves to hear the clarity of Peter’s message. Our world both deserves it and needs it, because it is God’s world and because God has brought his Son into the world so that this very world might know truth, the truth that can set us free and give us a center for finding meaning in our culture. It may be the case that we, along with Peter’s churches, will suffer for standing up bold for the message of salvation, but we are called to proclaim God’s salvation.
1 Peter 1:13 – 25
13 THEREFORE, PREPARE YOUR minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.14 As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance.15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do;16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”
17 Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.18 For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers,19 but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.20 He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.21 Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.
22 Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart.23 For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.24 For,
“All men are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
25 but the word of the Lord stands forever.”
And this is the word that was preached to you.
PETER BEGAN THIS letter by singing the praises of the God who had given such a great salvation to the Christians of Asia Minor. Reflection on this salvation now leads him to the heart of his letter: an exhortation on how to live in society as Christians who are oppressed and excluded. His order follows a pattern throughout the whole Bible: Theology prompts ethics. That is, beliefs about God and experiences with God undergird beliefs about what is right and wrong. At 1:13 Peter says, “Therefore” — that is, since you have received the great benefits of salvation, among which are a new birth, a living hope, and an assured inheritance — you ought to be different in how you live. The theme of this passage, indeed 1:13 – 2:10 (with further implications until the end of the letter), is the difference salvation brings to the life of the Christian.
This particular unit (1:13 – 25) is not a tightly woven unit of logic (as can be found frequently in Paul’s letters), but is rather a series of ethical reflections on the difference salvation should make in believer’s life. Peter exhorts his readers in four areas, each of which is grounded in a reflection about salvation. (1) He exhorts them to hope (1:13), grounding this exhortation in the salvation of 1:3 – 12 (cf. “therefore”). (2) He exhorts them to holiness (1:14 – 16), grounding this exhortation in the assumption that they are “obedient children,” an expression denoting their conversion (see below), and in the character of God (1:15 – 16). (3) He exhorts them to fear God (1:17 – 21), grounding this exhortation in their new relationship to God — they can address the very Judge of the Universe as their Father (v. 17), and they have been redeemed by the precious blood of the Lamb of God (vv. 18 – 21). (4) He exhorts them to love one another (1:22 – 25), grounding this exhortation in their purification (1:22) and in their regeneration (1:23 – 25).
Our section, then, contains a series of reflections about Christian ethics for believers living within an unbelieving society, but it also presents a profound, if not elegant, deliberation on the foundation of Christian ethics. This reflective stance of Peter is not some self-conscious piece of theological gamesmanship or of doctrinal speculation; rather, in the heat of the battle for human lives, Peter knows (from his biblical heritage and the teachings of Jesus) how to ground his exhortations in the character and actions of God, and he does so. Put differently, this is not groundless advice that Peter hopes his readers will like; this is theological ethics. Each of these ethical directives (hope, holiness, fear of God, love) deserves more treatment than space permits in this format. Accordingly, I have tried to provide the reader with sources where the discussion can be pursued further.
First Exhortation: Hope (1:13)
PETER'S EXHORTATION TO hope has three parts: two metaphorical images, preparing the reader for the main verb, “set your hope.” His first image is captivating: “Prepare your minds for action” translates an ancient image that literally reads, “gird up the loins of your mind.” This image is drawn from the ancient (and still modern for some in the Middle East) form of dress in which a man’s long outer “shirt” draped down to his ankles, obviously preventing agile and quick motions and strenuous work. As a result, when such actions were needed, a man tucked his shirt into his belt and thus “girded himself for action” (cf. 1 Kings 18:46; Jer. 1:17; Luke 17:8; John 21:18; Acts 12:8). Peter applies the metaphor to mental behavior with the added word “of your minds” (see Luke 12:35). Thus, the NIV rendering captures the image with “prepare your minds for action.” C. E. B. Cranfield suggested that we translate it as “rolling up the shirt-sleeves of your mind,” or “taking off the coat of your mind.” Given our fitness craze, we might translate it today, “Take off your mental warm-up so your mind can move freely.” In light of Peter’s emphasis on hope in 1:3 – 12 and the subordinate nature of this image to the verb “set your hope,” this mental activity involves perceiving this world as transitory and orienting itself around the future hope that God will bring about at the day of Jesus Christ (see 1:13b). Peter wants his churches to maintain a loose grip on this world and a tight grip on the world to come.
The second image is “be totally self-controlled.” This image is drawn from the all-too-realistic world of drunkenness; drunks have no control over themselves or their body. Peter’s expression is metaphorical in that believers are to be totally in tune with God’s plan in history, so much so that they set their hope on the future and live in light of that day. People who look into the future and want to live completely in light of God’s will do not want their eyes blurred by sin or other distractions (cf. 4:7; 5:8; 1 Thess. 5:6, 8; 2 Tim. 4:5).
Christians must be ready to do mental work and be totally focused on God’s plan; that is, they must “set [their] hope [fully] on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.” Living for the future is fundamental for Peter, and a brief sketch of his theology here provides the most important context. Even if believers have begun to share in the salvation of God (1:9), that salvation is presented as only complete in the future (1:5). There will be a penetrating evaluation by God (1:7, 9, 17; 2:12, 23; 3:12; 4:5 – 6, 17 – 19) when Jesus is fully revealed (1:7, 13; 4:13). After the judgment, the faithful followers of Jesus will share his glory (5:1, 4) and receive the full compensation of grace (1:17; 4:13, 14). Peter urges his readers to see history the way God has planned it. Though now they may suffer unjustly at the hands of evil people, someday Christ will return and justice will be fully established. As a result, Christians are to live in light of that day of manifested grace. If they think fellowship in the family of God and tasting of Jesus are good now (2:3), they need to think even more about the future when better things await them. What they can only praise God for now they will then know personally in all its glory (cf. 1:3 – 12).
Second Exhortation: Holiness (1:14 – 16)
VERSES 14 – 16 BEGIN with an assumption of salvation (v. 14a), give the command to holiness (vv. 14b – 15), and then return once again to the assumption of salvation (v. 16). The expression “as obedient children” returns to the foundation of ethics in salvation. The obedience mentioned at 1:2 as the response believers make to the gospel (cf. also 1:22) is clearly an expression for conversion. It is only because in modern discussion the term obedience describes how converts behave after conversion that we miss the meaning of this term here.
The exhortation to holiness begins with a negative statement (“do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance”) that is subordinate to a positive one that follows (“just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do”). As Paul urged the Romans not to be conformed to this world (Rom. 12:2), so Peter urges his readers not to be conformed to their former passions, which dominated their lives prior to their entrance into God’s family. Since they are now children of obedience (1:14a), they are to be holy, just as God is holy. We can assume that Peter has in mind here the similarity children are to have to their parents.
God, who is different and unlike anything the Israelites had ever seen or would see, is altogether holy (Ex. 3:5; 15:11; Lev. 20:26; Ps. 99; Hos. 11:9; cf. Luke 4:34; John 6:69; Rev. 1:16 – 17). Because he had drawn Israel into a special relationship with himself, he expected his people to reflect his nature, including his holiness (Ex. 19:6; Col. 1:2). Those who lived according to God’s commandments and will were considered holy because they were morally excellent (cf. Lev. 20:7 – 8; Hab. 1:12 – 13). The fundamental connection made here is twofold: Christians should be holy both because they have been converted (1:14a) and because they are children of a God who is himself altogether holy (1:15 – 16). In fact, Peter prefaces and concludes the exhortation to holiness with a description of God as holy (1:15a, 16). I can think of no section in the Bible that involves more interweaving of ethical exhortation and theological foundations for ethics than these three verses.
Third Exhortation: Fear of God (1:17 – 21)
THE FLOW OF thought here again emphasizes the foundation of ethics. Peter begins with the foundation for living in the fear of God (1:17a), then exhorts his readers to live that way (1:17b), and finally reflects again on the foundation for living in that fear, this time as it relates to their redemption (1:18 – 21).
Put simply, Peter says that if believers call as Father the one who judges indiscriminately, penetratingly, and absolutely honestly, then they had better live in fear of this God, for he is altogether holy and will judge justly. The notion of God as Judge underlies many exhortations to obedience in the Bible. Furthermore, if there is a God, if the God of Israel and Jesus are the true one God, and if this God is altogether holy, it follows that this God must judge if he is to allow anyone in his presence. He cannot tolerate any sin, for sin is repulsive to his holiness. The God of the Bible is the Judge of all (cf. Gen. 18:25; Ps. 75:7; Acts 5:1 – 10; Heb. 12:23; Revelation), and, as Peter says, he is “ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:5) with a judgment that begins “with the family of God” (4:17). This judgment is according to their works, because these works are the logical result of one’s relationship to God (Matt. 16:27; 25:31 – 46; Rom. 2:6 – 11; 14:9 – 12; 1 Cor. 3:10 – 15; 2 Cor. 5:10). As Stephen Travis has said, “The final judgment means God’s underlining and ratification of the relationship or non-relationship with him which men have chosen in this life.”
Knowing that God is judge and that he judges with absolute fairness drives us to live in a healthy fear and awe of him (cf. 2:17, 18; 3:2, 15; see Prov. 1:7; Matt. 10:28; 2 Cor. 5:11; 7:1; Eph. 5:21; Phil. 2:12; 1 Tim. 5:20; Heb. 4:1; 10:31). This can only refer to the constant knowledge the child of God (1 Peter 1:14) has that whatever he or she is about to think or do is subject to the scrutiny of God’s penetrating holiness and love. And when his beautiful holy love checks our thoughts and our actions, we live in the light of his character and in the fear of him, regardless of social conditions. This fear is neither dread nor anxiety; rather, it is the healthy response of a human being before an altogether different kind of being, God, and is a sign of spiritual health and gratitude. This holy Judge we now call “Father,” a term indicating intimacy and love but also respect and submission. That is, though we now call God “Father” (cf. 1:14), as Jesus taught (Matt. 6:9), we must not let that familiarity with God degrade his holiness, for God is just and his judgment will be just.
To this fear of the Judge Peter adds a second motive for a life of obedience: the nature of redemption (1:18 – 21). The former life of his addressees was an “empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers.” What had been considered venerable tradition was now considered “empty” (cf. Jer. 10:15; Acts 14:15; Rom. 1:21; 8:20; 1 Cor. 3:20; Eph. 4:17); thus, a new tradition, one rooted in Jesus and the apostolic testimony, was needed.
From this former life believers have been redeemed, that is, purchased with a price — the blood of Jesus Christ. The plight of humans is moral offense (Rom. 1:18 – 3:20; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14), sinfulness, and bondage to that vicious condition (Rom. 7:1 – 6; Gal. 3:13; 4:5; Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 1:18); the price paid is the atoning death of God’s Son (Mark 10:45; Rom. 3:21 – 26; 5:1 – 11; Gal. 3:13; 4:4 – 5; 2 Cor. 5:21; Titus 2:14). As a result, we are now back in God’s ownership as his servants, free from sin and death (Rom. 6; 8; 1 Cor. 6:19 – 20; 7:22 – 23; Gal. 5:1). Since we know we have been redeemed by the precious blood of Christ, we should be grateful to God for our new family and live in fear and holiness before him.
Reflection on the redemption accomplished by Christ leads Peter to reflect further on Christ: “He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake” (1:20). Furthermore, this same Christ is the agent in our developing faith and hope in God (1:21).
Fourth Exhortation: Love One Another (1:22 – 25)
PETER'S FINAL EXHORTATION is again rooted in the “before and after” of conversion: Since you have been purified, love one another, because you have been born again. The foundation for love that Peter builds on is that “you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers” (1:22). Their purification was by means of the sprinkling (cf. 1:2; also Ex. 19:10; Acts 21:24, 26; 1 John 3:3), and they responded to God by obeying the truth of the gospel (1 Peter 1:2, 14). The result of obeying the truth was that they were ushered into the realm of brotherly love.
Almost redundantly, Peter exhorts his addressees to “love one another deeply, from the heart” (1:22). The word “deeply” (found also at 4:8) speaks of the effort required for that love, the depth of it for one another, and the duration of it (until the end). The word is frequently associated with characteristics of prayer: fervency, constancy, and effort (cf. Luke 22:44; Acts 12:5). Peter expects his churches to be filled with people who love one another in that way, who try to understand one another, who give the other person the benefit of the doubt, and who reach out to others in the same love. But, as Howard Snyder says,
The church today is suffering a fellowship crisis. … In a world of big, impersonal institutions, the church often looks like just another big, impersonal institution. … One seldom finds within the institutionalized church today that winsome intimacy among people where masks are dropped, honesty prevails, and that sense of communication and community beyond the human abounds — where there is literally the fellowship of and in the Holy Spirit.
Peter wants churches filled with people who love one another and where intimacy is the inevitable result of being made holy by God’s grace.
Peter returns again to the foundation of their love: their regeneration (1:23). The new birth gave them a new likeness to a loving God and a new family, which had the characteristic and ability to love one another. Their new birth came about by means of an “imperishable” seed; like the precious blood of Jesus (1:19), that seed was rooted in the living God (1:23) and, because it was eternally effective (1:24 – 25a), gave them an ultimate foundation for loving one another deeply. Humans and humanly created things are like grass in that they will perish and vanish away. But the Word of God, planted in Christians, is eternal and grows in those same Christians to give them an eternal existence. This effective seed is, in fact, the sure word of God that they heard in the gospel that was preached to them (1:25b).
In summary, Peter exhorts the Christians of Asia Minor to work out their salvation by building a life of ethics that is rooted in the salvation that God has given to them and is based in the holy and loving character of God. Ethics, then, is a part of theology, not something added to theology in a moment of practical urgency. Ethical decisions, in fact, are logical extensions of theology. Without solid theology, that is, a theology that reflects on the character and actions of God, there is no foundation for ethics. If one’s ethics is not rooted in Christian theology, it becomes nothing more than a pluralistic option thrown into the winds of cultural changes.
GENERAL ETHICAL DIRECTIVES like those in our passage are easy to apply, but certain cultural conditions can make specific applications more difficult. For example, someone who grew up under an abusive father may find it exceedingly difficult to want to live in the “fear of the Father,” just as someone who grew up hearing nothing but the threat of God’s judgment may experience an understandable discomfort reading our passage. Thus, we must be aware of the context of our audience and how they will hear such directives. We may need to supplement or explain a given directive for it to gain the kind of force needed.
What is fundamental for applying general ethical directives, however, is to reflect on the foundation of ethics. I find television talk shows fascinating, if not a bit comical at times (not that I spend much time watching them). It is rare that one of these talk shows does not venture at some point into an ethical issue, whether it is homosexuality, abusive husbands, tattoos, losing weight, or confronting one’s boss. What I find amazing is how easily these talk show hosts and their guests slide from a moral dilemma into a moral stance without any reflection on how they got there or how they can make such a decision. A standard line of reflection contends, “If it doesn’t hurt anyone, then … ,” while another one suggests that ethics are based on “doing good in society.” Appeals to authority, even the American Constitution, generate scorn while an appeal to special revelation (the Bible, the Koran) only begets the suggestion of fundamentalism. At their most religious moments, these hosts will strain their necks out far enough to suggest that “some old-fashioned American ideals” are just what we need in our society today. Whatever the discussion, television talk-show hosts struggle with ethical dilemmas, and their audiences are yearning for answers to some of life’s most difficult problems. But where will these hosts and viewers get answers that satisfy both their sense of what is right and wrong and provide a foundation on which others can build?
Deep in the heart of television, ethical reflection is belief in the essential goodness of humans, or at least a hope that such is the case. If we dig down deeply enough or try harder or discipline our lives, so it is argued, we will find we are capable of making our world better. Then, like an explosion of a bomb in a small room, the host is interrupted with the news of ten-year-olds being shot execution-style by fellow gang members who were not much older. Belief in some kind of goodness quickly falls on deaf ears. Any theory of ethics that assumes humans are somehow inherently good and, if they are simply educated, will begin to behave in morally decent ways is about as believable as the Easter bunny — a great story but it belongs to a previous stage of development. Where then do talk hosts — and they are but representatives of their viewers — get their morals? The answer is that they base their ethics on consensus and on what makes sense to most rational people. But to suggest there are moral absolutes that apply to all people is beyond their capacities to announce.
Let’s take “consensus” as a strategy for determining ethics. We must simply ask, “Whose consensus?” Do we take into consideration moral experts, ministers, average people, special interest groups — just whom do we ask? Are we not building a castle in the sky to think there is some consensus? And what about “rational people”? “Rational people” disagree among themselves. They cannot find any kind of unity over abortion, intervention in foreign countries, health care, welfare, or anything that has been politicized. We all agree that murder is wrong, but we refuse to prohibit the sale and use of hand guns “in the name of personal freedom.” We all agree that cigarette smoking is injurious to health, both for the smoker and the one who must breathe the smoke indirectly, but we cannot come to terms morally with prohibiting the act because it breaks down a person’s freedom. I have no faith in “rational people” being able to determine a code of ethics that is both respective of personal freedom and morally sensible.
Tragically, those who may be influencing our culture the most at the moral level are people who refuse to be engaged in a reflective discussion about how to make ethical decisions, for such reflection would expose the superficiality of their ethical decisions. It would also unmask the fear that each hides, namely, that there is no way to make ethical decisions binding for all apart from a belief in a final revelation or in a unique God. If human consensus breaks down and if human rationality will not get us there, then we will either be awash in a sea of relativity (fortunately for us, there is a cooperative sense of some things being good) or be blown by the same winds into the hands of a revealing God.
That’s exactly where Peter is — in the hands of a revealing God, whose character and words chart the course of ethics and morality. Ethics in a Christian context begins, oddly enough, with a belief in the depravity of humans, not their goodness. Thus, Peter says, his readers have been redeemed from a slavery to their former, empty traditions (1:18), they have been given a new life and a living hope (1:3 – 5), and they have been purified (1:22) — the latter two assume the opposite as a condition from which they needed deliverance: hopelessness and moral filthiness. Human beings are in need of repair, restoration, and reformation.
Peter goes on to argue that his readers have been given a new life by God, and this conviction provides the ground of morality for Christianity. Until we have been given God’s life and have partaken of God’s character (cf. 2 Peter 1:4), we have no chance of performing God’s will as he wants us to. Conversion and participation in God’s nature through conversion are the only true and enduring foundations for Christian ethics. John Murray, a brilliant theologian-ethicist, once concluded: “Remove from Scripture the transcendent holiness, righteousness, and truth of God and its ethic disintegrates.”
As we try to move the ethics of Peter into our world, then, we must carry with us the foundations he builds upon: the nature of God, the sinfulness of humans, the need of divine revelation, and the need of salvation. If we urge Peter’s ethics while neglecting his foundation, we are building an edifice that will collapse. Salvation, Peter argues, is necessary in order for God’s people to live like God’s people in our world: “The redemptive process … is the only answer to the impossibility inherent in our depravity.” Or, as C. S. Lewis asks in his inimitable style, “What is the good of telling the ships how to steer so as to avoid collisions if, in fact, they are such crazy old tubs that they cannot be steered at all?” He continues, “You cannot make men good by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society. That is why we must go on to think of the second thing: of morality inside the individual.”
Accordingly, the area where this passage from 1 Peter speaks most clearly to our world is in the area of ethical systems and how to make ethical decisions. Peter’s approach is theological, and the Christian who follows him will establish his or her ethical decisions on the basis of God’s nature and God’s Word.
OUR DISCUSSION ABOVE began to show the significance of Peter’s theoretical framework for our world today. I want to continue that discussion here and then move to a related topic, the importance of living for the future and in light of that future. Living in light of God’s judgment is part of the theme of anchoring ethics in God’s nature and revealed Word because it involves a decision to live in light of God’s holy character, which forms the foundation of his final judgment.
As much as anyone in the history of American Christendom, Thomas Jefferson (who was himself merely a brilliant spokesman for a larger worldwide trend) reduced Christianity to morals, and he founded those morals on an appreciation of classical writers, the innate goodness of humans, the Creator’s implanting in humans an instinct for what is right, and the Enlightenment understanding of reason. Hence, Jeffersonian morals are really a reflection of a European trend toward rational ethics. His rational, or better yet instinctive, morality became the essence of liberal Protestantism that has gripped North America for the better part of this century. The following equation expresses the mood of many Western societies: A Christian is someone who is good and loving; a loving and good person is a Christian. While biblical Christianity affirms the first, it does not necessarily affirm the second. The problem with rational morality as the definition of Christianity is that the two are not distinguished.
Our concern here, however, is not with the history of American ethics or Jeffersonian ideals. Rather, our concern is with the foundation of ethics. Where do we begin when we want to state a moral good? To simplify greatly, ethics are either founded in ourselves (e.g., through reason, intuition, nature, moral instinct, conscience) or outside ourselves (e.g., through revelation, an established code of ethics, the Constitution). Christian orthodoxy teaches that ethics flows from salvation and that humans, by themselves, cannot discern the will of God — for personal salvation, for personal ethics, or for the social order. We know God’s will because in his grace he has made his will known to us through his revelation, the Bible being the primary mode of this revelation. The same construction applies to our knowledge of ethics: We know what is good from what is bad because God has told us in his Word, beginning with the Mosaic legislation and climaxing in the teachings of Jesus and the apostolic testimony.
Recently I zipped home from teaching to grab a round of golf in what I thought would be one of the last nice days of the year. Rarely do golf courses let someone play alone, so I assumed I would be paired with other golfers whom I did not know. The course was empty for three holes, and I caught up to two distinguished African-American gentlemen, whom I joined for the rest of the round. We made enough light talk for me to discover that one of them was a social worker and the other a pastor. After a few holes I raised the issue of the problems of inner-city violence, hoping to generate an ethical conversation: “What do you think is the solution to the problems in the inner city?” Tony, the first one to speak, said, “God’s Word! In one of the last Scriptures of the Old Testament [Mal. 4:6], it says that in the last days God will return the hearts of the fathers to their children. Unless hearts are made right,” he went on to say, “there is no hope for the inner city.” Then he made a stunning observation about our official “American policy”: “All the money and programs in the world will not change people’s hearts.”
I agreed wholeheartedly with their solution: salvation. I also agreed that commitment to salvation as central to ethical problems does not alleviate us from seeking to help people in their socially deprived conditions. Will, the other man, said quite tersely: “Don’t get me wrong. Those babies didn’t choose to come into this world, and we can’t choose to neglect them. We need welfare for those kids.” In my judgment, these two men crystallize the testimony of God’s people in the history of the church. Ethics begin with salvation, but we dare not neglect our social duties.
But what if others in society do not believe in salvation in Christ? Can we expect to stop society until it becomes Christian before we can go on profitably with ethical issues? Obviously not. But Peter knows of no foundation for proper conduct before God that does not begin with salvation and the life that comes in Christ. Precisely at this point too many Christians have compromised themselves. Ours is a pluralistic world, and this means that public discourse has to be tolerant of opposing viewpoints and alternative foundations for ethical discussions. But Christians must never pretend that the ethics of Christianity can be discovered by pure reason (as was attempted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) or by legislation. The proper motive for morals comes only from God’s work of grace, and a life pleasing to God finds its blueprint in the pages of the Bible. While we may have to tolerate alternate viewpoints, we must learn in our toleration not to compromise the foundation on which we stand. In our desire to be influential or to be acceptable, too frequently we have adopted the level of public discourse as the only level for ethical discussions.
Christians desire biblical ethics for society, but our society is frequently against Christian ethics. Thus, the only way we can work for Christian ethics in society is by way of the normal means of public discourse. This requires toleration. But tolerating other views does not mean accepting them (just as the materialist does not have to accept the Christian view) or permitting them to ruin the foundation of Christian ethics. We dare not be silent about our foundation, for it is a silence that can eventually lead to erosion. So let us be political, and let us be involved; but we must avoid surrendering why we do what we do.
There is no question about the historical development of public morals in America. We now know that the need to be “nonsectarian” or “nondenominational” but still broadly Christian in our public discourse eventually led to a total breakdown of the foundation itself (biblical morality). We now find public morals at low ebb, characterized by antireligious sentiments, secularism, and blanket toleration of everyone except the one who believes in divine mandates for proper conduct. The corroding effects of pluralism have not only rusted away at public morals; indeed, evangelicalism has been assaulted by the same forces in modernity. To resist this erosion, Christians must construct again the strong walls of theology and ethics both within the church and in interaction with our cultural world.
Another issue for Peter that emerges from this section concerns living in light of and for the future, what Peter calls hope. This hope is grounded in God’s holiness. Peter wants believers to live in light of God’s judgment, a judgment that is at the same time the Christian’s hope for vindication and justice. This judgment satisfies our desire for justice.
While hope is an ethical directive, it partakes of ethics in a different way because it manifests itself not so much in behavior as in attitude and disposition. The one who lives for the future does concrete things (like living in a loving manner), but it is the orientation that leads to a system of checks and balances with love. Those who live for the future have their eyes on the horizon rather than at their feet. Because of this, they exude an attitude about this world and its brevity. We must look further at this idea of living for the future.
Peter manifests two primary emphases in the attitude of living for the future. (1) We must live in light of God’s righteous judgment of our lives (cf. 1:17; 4:5, 17), and (2) we must live in the hope of the joy of final salvation (1:6 – 9; 2:23; 4:11, 19). These attitudes ought to govern the entirety of our ethical behavior. Every step we take and every move we make should be in light of what God thinks of what we are doing. This is not some form of perverse legalism, any more than my desire to please my wife, Kris, is legalism. A desire to please God is the noblest motivation in life; to reject such a desire in the name of legalism is to misunderstand our family relationship to God. This perspective on our own future ought to influence every area of life with forceful impact. I will mention three.
We ought to shape our attitude toward materialism in light of this future orientation in life. The Western world is a comfortable world, especially when compared to places like Zaire (racked now by a deadly virus) or the former Yugoslavia. And while it is proper and good for wealthy Christians to share with the rest of the world, they will still probably live in comfort. We need to look at this issue, however, from another angle. Material things, like large homes, extra cars, special video and computer equipment, involvement in sports entertainment that costs unreasonable amounts, boats, vacation homes, and special trips to exotic parts of the world, are all tempting. But the joy and delight we take in such things (I can get as excited as anyone about professional sports) can easily detract our attention from living before God in light of his final judgment and can steal any desire for the joy that can only come when our salvation is complete. We need in our materialistic culture a special grace from God to give us a desire for what lies beyond our days and our culture, and we need a new vision of just how great God’s salvation and glory will eventually be. This vision will no doubt lead us to tone down our purchases and to rearrange our schedules so that first things are first.
Understanding our present in light of God’s future will also impact how we plan our lives. In my judgment, far too many Christians waste too much time planning for a future, especially as it concerns insurances, investments, and retirement, and do not consider that future sufficiently enough in light of its contingency and God’s providence. I do not want to sound here like some curmudgeon who believes that planning for the future is wrong, for that is neither biblical nor wise. What I am pointing to is an orientation and a preoccupation. Pastors who plan their ministries in light of sure benefits or profits, leaders of institutions whose plans are subjected only to the bottom line and not to God’s will and his truth, and evangelists who think only in terms of the kinds of churches where profits are large are all guilty of the sin of planning without regard to God’s final judgment and the beauty of final salvation. Planning for our future is wise, but being preoccupied with it may well evince a lack of faith in God’s control of that future.
I have a friend who is constantly in demand to preach and teach at churches throughout the nation. He is regularly asked “what his price is.” His response is always the same. “Please,” he says, “give me an outline of what you need in the way of preaching, the kind of audience I will face, and the dates, and I will seek the face of God to see if this engagement is what God wants me to do because someday I will have to answer to him.” Then he adds, “I will take whatever you give me because I do not preach for money. I preach to announce the good news of Christ, to serve God, and to strengthen the church.” Such an attitude is one that focuses on living for the future, and it has safeguards to prevent one from making plans without regard to that future.
Finally, our health ought also to be subjected to God’s final plans for history. Several ideas come to mind. While it is not wrong to be fit and strong, some motivations for being fit are wrong. We are not immortal, and no matter how hard we work at being fit, we will still die. Some people, however, are motivated to be fit by a fear of death. Fear of death is not a Christian emotion; joy at the prospects of fellowship with God is. We ought, rather, to desire to be fit so that we can serve God (maybe longer than otherwise) better and more energetically. This puts us right back in the lap of Peter’s church. Believers in his day were suffering for their obedience to Christ, and Peter exhorts them not to worry about suffering but to live in constant expectation of God’s final vindication, just as Jesus lived (2:18 – 25; 3:18 – 22). Peter shows them how they could adopt an entirely different attitude toward suffering: to trust in God, to look forward to God’s final glory, and in the meantime to enjoy the fellowship with his people as a substitute for what they were losing in society because of their decisions to be Christians.
I conclude with a conversation I recently had with Lukas, my son, when he was fourteen years old — a conversation not unlike I have had with both of my children. We had been at a local sports event, and the vulgarity of the coach and his team was quite noticeable. When we got in the car to ride home, I raised this issue with my son and asked if he noticed. He said that he had heard the vulgarity. What was funny and entertaining to that team, and to some of the spectators, was sad to me. What I said to Lukas that day goes for more than just vulgarity but any moral decision we make: “You and I can talk any way we want. But we need to realize that someday we will stand before a holy God and will have to give a justification for how we have talked. That, in itself, ought to make us pause before we speak and to transform how we talk.” This is living in the light of the future.
In summary, therefore, Peter’s little passage of four exhortations contains strong pillars on which we can construct Christian ethics. He provides us with at least three foundations for determining whether an action is right or wrong. (1) Does it conform to the character of God? (2) Is it the natural outcome of a life that has benefited from the salvation of God? (3) Will it stand up to God’s scrutiny in that final day when he ushers us into his glorious presence?
1 Peter 2:1 – 10
1 THEREFORE, RID YOURSELVES of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.2 Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation,3 now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.
4 As you come to him, the living Stone — rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him —5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.6 For in Scripture it says:
“See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
will never be put to shame.”
7 Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,
“The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone, “
“A stone that causes men to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.”
They stumble because they disobey the message — which is also what they were destined for.
9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
ONCE AGAIN, PETER'S style here — weaving in and out of topics, exhorting and then stating the foundation for the exhortation, and digressing to cover important ideas — prevents many readers from finding any logical sequence. This section continues what began at 1:13, where Peter drew out the practical manifestations of salvation and hope. Here we have exhortations five (2:1 – 3) and six (2:4 – 5), along with two digressions.
The flow of the passage begins with an exhortation to desire the word of God (2:1 – 3), which derives from Peter’s mention of God’s preached word in 1:23 – 25. This unit includes the exhortation itself (2:1 – 2a), its purpose (2:2b), and its foundation (2:3). Peter then exhorts the Christians to build themselves into a spiritual house (2:5), an exhortation that is prepared for by his comment that the one to whom they are coming was rejected by humans but accepted by God (2:4). This preparation leads Peter to digress in 2:6 – 8 for a more complete discussion of what is meant by this rejection-acceptance theme. Finally, Peter digresses even further by contrasting the rejection group (cf. 2:7b – 8) with the church itself (2:9 – 10). The “acceptance group” (cf. 2:7a) is thus the complement of the digression in 2:9 – 10. And it is here, with a digression on the nature of the church, that Peter finishes the first major section of the letter.
Fifth Exhortation: Desire the Word (2:1 – 3)
“THEREFORE,” PETER SAYS — THAT is, because his readers have been born again through the word of the living God (1:23) — they must “crave pure spiritual milk” (2:2). This does not refer to having home Bible studies or personal Bible study, or to going to church and Sunday school classes, or to attending Christian colleges or seminaries. Rather, it describes the spiritual nature of their craving as opposed to the former fleshly cravings (cf. 1:18; 2:11). As the “word” through which they received a new birth (1:3) was from the living and abiding God (1:23), so now the word they are to desire is spiritual. “Pure spiritual milk” refers to the very things that nourish the Christian community in its growth: knowledge of God, prayer, instruction in the gospel, faithful obedience, and hearing God’s preached word. The desire for spiritual nourishment is the desire of any church that wants to know the Lord and live in light of his will.
This desire is accompanied by learning to “rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind” (2:1) — problems that arise in Christian assemblies when spiritual things are not desired. In early Christian literature it was common to speak of Christians “stripping themselves” of vices and “clothing themselves” with virtues (cf. Rom. 13:12 – 14; Gal. 3:27; Eph. 4:22 – 24; Col. 3:8 – 12; Heb. 13:1; James 1:21). This image draws a picture of bad habits that need to be eliminated and good habits that need to be developed. Peter contains only the “rid yourselves” part.
Good habits come from craving pure spiritual milk, “like newborn babies” (2:2). While some have seen here a subtle hint that the readers of 1 Peter are young, immature Christians who need to be reminded to desire good things, it is more likely that Peter is referring to the manner of their desire. Their craving for spiritual nourishment should be like the cravings of nursing children for milk. When a church yearns for spiritual nourishment, that church will not be involved in bitter disputes with hypocritical showings or deceitful communications.
If you, Peter says to his readers, learn to yearn for spiritual nourishment, you will “grow up in your salvation” (2:2). Peter is not concerned here about “church growth” in a numerical sense, but about the church, regardless of its numerical strength, becoming desirous of spiritual nourishment and spiritual growth. As John Stott said at the Lausanne Conference, “We confess that we have sometimes pursued church growth at the expense of church depth, and divorced evangelism from Christian nurture.” This leads, not to church growth, but to stunting the growth of the church.
This spiritual growth is in the direction of “salvation,” and for Peter that salvation is future (1:5, 9 – 10). Thus, what Peter has in mind here is essentially their “hope” and perhaps their final vindication. That is, if they yearn for spiritual nourishment, they will grow into that final salvation that is being protected for them by God as they continue in their faith (1:4 – 5).
All of this is founded on the fact “that you have tasted that the Lord is good” (2:3). The psalmist exhorted his readers to “taste and see that the L ORD is good” (Ps. 34:8). Peter uses this text in his argument, contending that the foundation for spiritual craving is the fact that believers have already found spiritual nourishment to be good and tasty. Because the Lord himself is spiritually satisfying (again, an allusion to conversion as the foundation for ethics; cf. Matt. 11:25 – 30), they are to focus their lives on spiritual nourishment and growth, for it is through this kind of development that they will attain their hope of salvation.
Sixth Exhortation: Build a Spiritual House (2:4 – 5)
CHRISTIANS WHO TOGETHER crave for spiritual nourishment should also be fashioned as part of a spiritual house. In coming to Jesus, the one who tastes good, they will in fact build a spiritual house. In these two verses Peter raises two distinct themes, both of which are developed in what follows: (1) the twofold response to Christ in his earthly and heavenly ministries (acceptance or rejection, discussed in 2:6 – 8), and (2) the spiritual nature of the church (developed in 2:9 – 10).
Peter exhorts believers to build a spiritual house: “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house.” It is preferable to translate “are being built” as “build yourselves.” The churches in Asia Minor must see themselves as “living stones,” connected to the “living Stone” (2:4), and they must unify themselves (1:22 – 2:3) so that they may become a spiritual house. That is, instead of being a simple group of social outcasts, they must find their identity and cohesion in their spiritual relationship to the living Stone. In fact, Peter states that the church is a “spiritual house,” that is, the temple of God. Presumably, he sees this temple as the replacement of the old temple as the dwelling place of God.
The spiritual connection of Peter’s readers to the living Stone is the foundation of the spiritual house they are forming: “As you come to him, the living Stone — rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him,” you will make this connection (2:4). Peter has in mind the effects of craving pure spiritual milk; that is, their yearning for spiritual nourishment is another way of urging them to come to Christ for spiritual satisfaction.
What Peter says here of Jesus Christ is fundamental to his understanding not only of Jesus himself, but also of the Christian life. Jesus was rejected by human beings but chosen by God, just as his readers were being rejected by humans. Later he exhorts his readers to look beyond their present rejection and see God’s final chapter of vindication as the concluding chapter of this story (see 2:18 – 25; 3:18 – 22; 4:1 – 6). This reflection about Christ is developed at 2:6 – 8.
The impact of their spiritual house is that are to become “a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (2:5). The metaphorical emphasis of their ministry provides both a breadth of vision and a lack of specific clarity when we try to unravel this image. Just what is a spiritual sacrifice? The wide variety of possibilities prevents us from contending that it is only one specific thing. It is probably best to see something like the list of behaviors typical of early Christian churches (e.g., 4:7 – 11).
Digression on Christ, the Rejected-Accepted Messiah (2:6 – 8)
AS STATED ABOVE, these verses digress from the exhortations that form the heartbeat of our larger section (1:13 – 2:10). This digression concerns the themes of 2:4 – 5, especially as found in 2:4: the one who was rejected by human beings but who was considered precious by God. By rooting this theme in an Old Testament text (Isa. 28:16), Peter establishes that this theme was in fact predicted long ago by the prophet Isaiah.
Peter first cites the text:
“See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
will never be put to shame.”
From a section that concerns the sovereign rule of Yahweh over history in spite of appearances (Isa. 28:1 – 37:38), Peter draws from the first prophecy concerning Ephraim. The leaders of Israel have been given great promises, symbolized by the stone laid in Zion, but they have chosen disobedience, apathy, and indulgence. The promises of God are founded in the city itself, but, as the context shows, the people do not trust in God. Therefore, God’s justice will sweep them away in “his strange work” [judgment] (28:16 – 29). Thus, the verses Peter draws from concern the promises of God to provide a way of salvation, but this salvation is not accepted by the people. What Peter sees in Isaiah is an analogous situation in the response of the contemporaries of Jesus; just as the leaders of Israel rejected God’s offer in the stone laid in Zion, so people in Peter’s time were rejecting the one who is precious to God.
We ought to observe that Peter’s quotation is only one prophetic word drawn from the context in Isaiah (“stone”), but he assumes the entirety of the context in applying it. While the words can be seen positively, clearly Peter sees in this word from Scripture a larger context that shows that the saying itself is to be understood in its former tragic sense: The Stone has been laid, but those who walk in Zion trip over it.
Peter then applies the text to the contemporary responses to Christ in Asia Minor and probably elsewhere (2:7 – 8). To those who respond in faith (“to you who believe”) the Stone is “precious,” just as it is “precious” to God (2:4). But the positive response of believing is not developed until 2:9 – 10; Peter’s prior concern is with those who disbelieve (2:7b – 8). What he sees happening is an unfolding of two other “stone” passages: Psalm 118:22 and Isaiah 8:14. That is, the living Stone laid in Zion is interpreted messianically in light of these two texts. From Psalm 118:22 Peter argues that Jesus has become much more than a rejected stone; he has become the “capstone.” From Isaiah 8:14 Peter draws from a passage where Yahweh, the Almighty, is the one to fear because he will be for both Israel and Judah a stone that causes human beings to stumble and fall in judgment. Peter finds the responses of unbelievers to Christ to be just as Israel and Judah responded to Yahweh in their history: He became a source of judgment instead of salvation.
Several observations follow from this sketch. (1) The tragedy is that those who thought Jesus was nothing more than a cause of ridicule will discover that, though they rejected him, he has become the pinnacle of God’s house (1 Peter 2:7). (2) Peter clearly has in mind the responses of his contemporaries to the preaching of the word, for “they stumble because they disobey the message” (2:8b) — the “message” being the preaching of the gospel accomplished through the church and by Peter (cf. 1:12, 25; 2:9; 3:1; 4:17). (3) None of this surprises God. Those who know Scripture know that this “is also what they were destined for.” God’s act of appointing Jesus as the living Stone has become both honor for believers and judgment for unbelievers; this was God’s design, and everything happens according to his will.
Digression on the Church, the Acceptance Group (2:9 – 10)
PETER DIGRESSES ONE more time from his exhortations to develop an idea implicitly raised at 2:4 and mentioned at the beginning of 2:7, namely, the faith of Christians and what that faith does for them. In contrast to the unbelieving “stumblers-over-the-stone,” Christians are the true people of God, who continue God’s purposes that began with Abraham and Moses. There is no passage in the New Testament that more explicitly associates the Old Testament terms for Israel with the New Testament church than this one. Peter gives four descriptions for the church, followed by a declaration of its purpose. This, in turn, is followed by another description of the church.
Four Descriptions of the Church. Since it is not possible to do a fair analysis of each of these terms, I will offer general remarks. It is important to recognize that these are Old Testament descriptions of Israel (cf. Ex. 19:6; Isa. 43:20 – 21), now applied to the church of Jesus Christ and giving rise to the important teaching that the church is the fulfillment and continuation of Israel. God’s purposes in Israel were not frustrated by the unbelieving rejection and crucifixion of Jesus Christ; instead, that event was planned by God to be the weighty foundation stone of the new people of God, who were to emerge after that crucifixion and vindication.
I mention in passing that these four terms do not describe individual Christians; rather, they describe the church as a whole. This fundamental category is a “stumbling stone” for contemporary Western Christians, who have been taught through their culture to think in an individualistic manner. Peter is not describing individual Christians here as a chosen people or a royal priesthood; rather, these are states and functions of the church. However, the function of the individual is a mirroring of the larger body, so that Christians individually enjoy the privilege of access to God (because the church is made up of people who are together the priesthood).
The Purpose of the Church. Peter cites the purpose of the church as declaring “the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” The church as a whole is expected to announce the good tidings of peace and joy that can be found in Christ. While some have seen here a “worship” understanding of “declare,” it is more likely that this word should be seen along with the other instances of evangelism in 1 Peter (1:12, 25; 3:1; 4:17).
A Final Description of the Church. “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” Peter appropriates the story of Hosea for the church, except that here “not a people” and “had not received mercy” describe their pagan past, while in Hosea these phrases describe God’s judgment on Israel for their disobedience.
Peter’s digression ends abruptly here. This section has continued the exhortations that began at 1:13 and ends with digressions on the various responses to the preaching of the gospel: Some reject the precious living Stone (Christ), while others believe. This group of believers has become the church — in Paul’s terms, the “true Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16). At 2:11, Peter begins a new section.
BEFORE WE CAN even begin to apply Peter’s exhortations and digressions to our world and churches, we need to perform surgery on our minds and hearts to see why Peter can have such a profoundly positive and exalted view of the church. It is not that Peter’s churches were so much more pure, more godly, more evangelistic, more worshipful, more interrelated in fellowship, and more theological than contemporary churches. A close look at his churches, I am sure, would turn up the same kind of factors present in Pauline and modern churches: envy and jealousy, sexual immorality and perversions, insubordination and rebellion. In order to appreciate Peter’s perspective on the church of Christ, it is important to grasp what constituted that church: a group of sinful people who had come to Christ for salvation and who were committed to walking in obedience. And that is no different from our churches today.
This fact is what raises the problem: Why is it that we are so critical of the church? Surely we do not need to pretend, like a little girl coming home from class and teaching her own “make-believe” class in the quiet of her bedroom, that we have all the right credentials, skills, and knowledge that are required to go on. Nor do we need to pretend that we are dressed in holiness, righteousness, justice, and mercy. It is entirely proper for the church to turn inward to denounce its sins and shortcomings; it is proper for the theologians of the church to turn against the intellectual depravity of the church; and it is expected that prophets and preachers will point to the problems in our world. But the issue is: How often do we resonate with this theme, and how do we criticize when we do? The issue becomes even more complex when we factor in the inherent beauty of the church as the bride of Christ, as the community of grace, and as the channel through which God has chosen to express his grace in our world. When we understand the nature of the church as Peter does here in such a profound manner, then, and only then, are we licensed to proceed into critique and battle.
But before we can cross that bridge of evaluation of our own churches, we must stand on God’s side and see how that church is constructed and discover its true nature. We are presently living in a (cess)pool of criticism and negativism, in which we find satisfaction in dirtying ourselves even more with criticisms and accusations of weaknesses. Of course there are weaknesses; the church is after all a community of redeemed sinners. Perhaps we could apply the words of C. S. Lewis to the church and world as a whole and not just to individuals within those larger communities.
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day [in glory] be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.
Lewis is saying that humans, when they are finally in the eternal state, have so much potential that, if we could see that potential now, it would either throw us to our knees in awe or make us turn and run in fear. It is no stretch of the imagination to think this way of the church and the world. And if we can turn our thoughts this way, we can only be ashamed of our constant reprehending of the church. Some day this church will be so full of God’s glory and so like the glory of Christ that we ought to pause before we start hammering away at its structures and substructures. In other words, before we get to the business of application, we need to repent from a state of critical evaluation of the church, which Christ has bought and for which God has planned a great future.
Another issue of importance before applying this passage is that we must update the images before they can be meaningful in our cultural contexts. Peter uses some images that do not resonate with most readers of the Bible in the Western world. Such terms as “living stones,” “a holy priesthood,” “spiritual sacrifices,” “a chosen nation,” and “a royal priesthood” are all difficult for us to understand, let alone to appreciate or even to jump up and down in joy for their beauty. We must sit down with some books and tools to get to the bottom of these images. Only an insensitive preacher holds these images up before modern congregations as “great images to live by.” Concordances help readers find parallel expressions, commentaries (like those cited in the notes) elucidate their meaning, and dictionaries provide further information. We must use these tools if we want this text to have meaning in our world.
While we do not have the space to explain each of these terms in detail, I want to illustrate my point for one of them: “royal priesthood.” Many of my readers have grown up in a country where there is no royalty, and they may well have experienced either an unchurched or low-church background. For this kind of person (I am one of them), neither “royal” nor “priesthood” has any natural reverberations as a significant religious expression. To unpack its meaning, we need to know what it meant then and what analogies it might have in our world.
For a Jewish reader, to be a part of royalty was beyond one’s natural abilities because royalty was inherited; and I suspect most Jews would have thought of the line of King David. Unless one was part of David’s genealogy, being a part of royalty was unthinkable. For such people, the new-found privilege of being part of royalty would have been understood as a fantastic opportunity, however metaphorical it may have sounded. Again, the Christian gospel leveled all peoples and gave them status in God’s kingdom that they would not otherwise have had. For a reader in the Roman empire, the natural connection would be with the emperor and his family. Once again, this was beyond the scope of most people’s imagination and probably outside their desires. But the message of the gospel is that by believing in Jesus, these people became adopted members of the family connected with King Jesus, and they too became royalty.
But Peter adds to this notion of royalty the idea of priesthood, and here the Jewish connection is fundamentally important. Peter does not have in mind the priesthood of pagans but the inherited privilege of direct access to God. The priests were from special families among the nation of Israel, who served God by mediating between the people and God. To be a priest was a privilege beyond comparison because it involved entry into the special courts and holy places of the temple in order to take human concerns before God and apply God’s forgiveness.
So what we have here is a distinct calling: the dual role of having an inherited privilege of ruling God’s people and of serving as mediators between God and his people. To call all members of the new family of God, a royal priesthood meant (1) to wipe away any sense of physical lineage and heritage, and (2) to grant to these same people the highest statuses that one could imagine in Judaism: kings and priests. There is simply no analogy to this in our world because we today have no concept of ruling God’s people (we envision Jesus as the King of his people, the church) and because we have been raised to think that we have direct access to God through Christ’s work. Nonetheless, we must imagine the incredible rise in status that would have been granted to those who perceived this image in its true Jewish background. Precisely at this point we can make an application: To become a Christian is to be raised to the ultimate height in status because we suddenly become children of the God of the universe, and we have direct access to him because we are his children.
To aid in this perception, we should find analogies in our world that provide similarity to kings and priests in Peter’s world. Thus, we might think of CEOs or office bosses or presidents of institutions or governments and compare them with office staff, menial workers, and even the unemployed. We need to challenge the imagination of Christians and ask them to visualize their being the president of their country or being related to that president, or to visualize being the most important religious figure in their culture or suddenly becoming a CEO. At this point we can suggest that this is what we have become in Christ — people with unique and enduring privileges, with a massive status change, living before the holy and sovereign God, who by his grace has made us his people forever. We have been elevated to the greatest places in God’s kingdom: those who rule with Jesus and minister God’s grace to others.
Another issue for us in interpreting this passage concerns our inherent individualism. Recent applications of sociological knowledge to the New Testament has clearly demonstrated that the ancient world was much less individualistic than our world. While I think some of these scholars have exaggerated both contemporary individualism and ancient relational understandings (dyadism), the basic insight cannot be gainsaid: Ancients thought less individualistically than moderns.
That is to say, ancients did not think first of themselves and then of the group to which they belonged (family, church, synagogue, nation); instead, they thought first through the eyes of others and how a given fact could be processed for the group. Their “self-understanding” (to use a modern category that did not exist then as it does today) was determined by their relatedness to others. Thus, Malina has concluded that “if our sort of individualism leads us to perceive ourselves as unique because we are set apart from other unique and set-apart beings, then the first-century persons would perceive themselves as unique because they were set within other like beings within unique and distinctive groups.” Such is “a person whose total self-awareness emphatically depends upon such group embeddedness.” The question they might ask in getting to know another person would not have been, “What do you do that makes you something?” but, “To whom are you related?”
Recently Trinity’s faculty had a retreat in which one of the discussion groups concerned international students and how we, as American Western professors, can understand and teach them. Dr. Paul Hiebert made a comment that was arresting (even if it may have been a slight exaggeration) and illustrates my point. He stated that many of our African students do not like to stand out, do not always strive to get the best grade they can get, and do not like to demonstrate their knowledge by answering the teacher’s questions. He suggested that this was related to their culture where being part of the group was more fundamental than standing apart from the group. If he is correct, and my experience with some African students confirms his observation, then we have here an illustration of how first-century Jewish and Gentile Christians would have behaved.
Simply put, most applications of our text move immediately to its value for individual piety and only rarely to its value for a corporate understanding of the church and our society. Such a context for interpretation prevents us (1) from understanding the ancient text the way it was supposed to be understood, and (2) from experiencing the nature of the church as it ought to be — a community rather than a collection of individuals.
Before we can proceed into our world, therefore, we need to admit that how we describe the purpose of the church has too frequently been cast in isolated, culturally conditioned categories. When the American church sees itself primarily in terms of the Republican or Democratic party, when the English church sees itself in terms of the culture created and formed at Oxbridge, when the European church sees itself in terms of the economy of a united Europe, or when the Korean church sees itself in terms of national recovery, then we are seeing a culturally conditioned definition of the church. The church gains its identity and its purposes from the Lord and Spirit who created it. That identity and those purposes have been spelled out in the pages of the Bible, and modern cultures or subcultures in which local or national churches abide can only be dialectically related to that Bible. Culture cannot define or determine the parameters of the church, nor can it define its mission. When this happens, the church loses its bearings, begins to wobble, and eventually falls into a state of lethargy and ineffectiveness.
We are not suggesting that the specific culture in which a church dwells does not affect either its identity or purposes, for that would be foolish. But we are suggesting that culture cannot determine the mission of a church; it can only influence its directions and forms if that church wishes to remain faithful to its heritage and to its Lord. The church’s mission is to exalt the Lord, evangelize the world, and edify believers. These are the kinds of missions the Bible provides for the church. But the church today can easily get sidetracked, and an apparatus for getting the church back on its rails is what reformation is all about.
Our text addresses this issue because Peter makes several statements that are sweeping and directly relevant to the entire history of the church. Thus, the church is to grow into salvation (2:3), is to be a spiritual house that offers to God spiritual sacrifices (2:5), and is to declare the virtues of God (2:9). While these are not the only missions given to the church, the church is not the church if it is not performing these particular missions. Culture, however, has within it the capacity to substitute its own goals for the goals of the church, and we must learn to discern what God has called the church and churches to do in the present world.
WE BEGIN BY observing that one of Peter’s major concerns in this letter can be broadly labeled “the relationship of the church to the state,” though he did not think in those terms. This text provides some important grist for the mill if we want to produce healthy ideas for a living church. In particular, it seems that Peter sees the relationship of the church to society in rather “sectarian” terms. That is, he sees the primary business of the church to be concerned with itself, its own identity, and its own formation, not in terms of how it can either counter or enhance the state. The primary mission of the church is to grow as a spiritual community and to declare the virtues of God. Peter does not deny that Christians should be involved in society, nor does he insist (as nearly all sectarian movements do) that they must insulate themselves from the world’s values by separating from the world. Nonetheless, his concern is inward, and in that sense, he reflects what is seen today by sociologists and others as a “sectarian approach” to life.
It just so happens that Peter’s and our worlds dramatically differ in this regard. That means we must be careful of importing a world (which does not exist for modern Westerners) rather than importing theological direction for the church. The entire sweep of the Bible teaches that Christians in non-Christian environments are not to be worried so much about changing their environments as they are to remain faithful in whatever kind of environment they find themselves. In fact, the New Testament is unified on this point: Christian teaching concerns Christian theology and behavior, not social institutions and how they might be changed. Accordingly, the tasks of the church are transnational and universal, not culturally restricted. Thus, the mission of the church as defined by Peter here helps to form, and together with the rest of the New Testament does form, the foundation of church’s mission everywhere and in all ages.
In other words, Peter’s agenda here of spiritual formation and evangelistic outreach identifies the preeminent purpose of the church in society. Just how that might be done differs from culture to culture. Peter’s churches, for example, would probably not have held massive rallies in the city square, but that is no reason why Western churches cannot do so. In addition, Peter’s comments are also restrictive in that they define the primary tasks of the church. From day one the church of Christ was involved in spiritual formation and evangelistic outreach. In fact, one might contend that these are the two primary human- oriented missions of the church, alongside the primary task of bringing glory to God through corporate and individual worship.
What this means is that other tasks are to be seen either as subordinate to these goals or a means of accomplishing them. In applying this passage to our culture, therefore, we should begin with a fruitful analysis of the purpose of the church and of local churches in terms of what Peter brings to the fore is: spiritual formation (2:2, 5) and evangelism (2:7 – 8, 9). He envisions a spiritually formed, evangelistic people. As Richard Foster has said, “Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.”
How are we to accomplish these purposes? I will make suggestions, largely the conventions of Christian wisdom, for both purposes. First, how are we to develop spiritual formation? It begins with our theology, as David Wells has amply demonstrated. We must understand that true spirituality is neither just an experience nor a technique but a relationship of obedience and trust to the one and only living God, the Father of Jesus Christ, that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God, and that he has sent the Holy Spirit to guide and nurture us in our spiritual formation. Until we understand theology (and let this overwhelm our ideas and practices), we will not develop true spiritual formation. All true Christian development is the result of knowing God the Father, participating in the work of the Son, and submitting to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to spiritual development today is that people are too busy. “In contemporary society our Adversary majors in three things: noise, hurry, and crowds. If he can keep us engaged in ‘muchness’ and ‘manyness,’ he will rest satisfied. … Hurry is not of the Devil; it is the Devil.” In the development of spiritual maturity in our churches, we need to ask for time and for focus so that the noise of modern society can be eliminated to hear the glorious tones of God’s Word. This is best done in the context of a community.
It follows, then, that we will seek for Christian fellowship in the church of Jesus Christ and will find a special place for our Christian brothers and sisters. We will find a special bond with them and will nurture those friendships in the context of a local church. We will receive instruction and rebuke, as well as fellowship and guidance, from fellow Christians. We will find the contribution (our giftedness) we can make to that fellowship, and we will be thankful to God for what he permits and enables us to do. We will dedicate ourselves to praying for one another and about important items together.
It also follows that we will find a place for personal devotion, including the regular reading of the Bible and prayer, because through these disciplines we come to know God and his will. We will delight in the knowledge of God and will want to learn what is true about ourselves in light of that knowledge. In short, for spiritual formation to take place, we will desire a deepening of our understanding of God’s will and his work in this world (a theological and cosmic view of reality), will foster spiritual fellowship with other Christians, and will devote ourselves to time-honored disciplines.
To develop spiritual formation does not involve any special experience (such as speaking in tongues, experiencing a miracle, or acquiring an education), nor does it necessarily involve any special techniques. Techniques often are “post-event” reflections on what we did prior to a special experience. But more often it was not the technique that brought on the event; rather, it was an event produced by God that we were privileged to experience because we were waiting on God, who was ready to give. To think that by repeating certain words we will meet God in a deeper way is a Christian version of magic. God comes to us in powerful ways when he wants. As with Narnia, so with God: It was not in the Pevensie children’s power to make the wardrobe itself turn into a gateway into Narnia. Sometimes, yes; sometimes, no. It was all of Aslan, and when Aslan wanted them there, they got there. So it is with our experience of God: Sometimes certain “techniques” lead us to God; sometimes not. It is all of God and his Spirit.
How can we develop an evangelistic outreach ministry in our churches today? Once again, it begins with theology. We need to understand that bringing people to himself is God’s great design, which makes heaven resound with praise (Luke 15). This design finds its power and effectiveness through the Holy Spirit, whose mission is to convict and convert (John 16:8 – 11). Evangelism always has as its subject the work God has done for humans in Jesus Christ, in his life, his teachings, his death, and his resurrection. Christian evangelism takes people beyond a belief in God to a trust in the cross of Christ and his resurrection. First Peter demonstrates this admirably: Peter tells his readers that they are to be Christian in their behavior because they have been redeemed by the blood of Christ (1:18 – 19), and that the cross is the essential model of Christian behavior (2:21 – 25). Further, he hopes to instill in his readers a hope grounded in the resurrection of Christ (1:3).
Evangelism runs aground when it roots itself in shabby and superficial theology; apart from a grasp of God’s holiness, which unmasks the sinfulness of humans, and apart from the love of God shown to people in the Cross and Resurrection, there is no basis for Christians declaring that they know the truth. And apart from the conviction that conversion takes place through the work of the Holy Spirit, Christians will resort to techniques and manipulations. But once we are standing on the greatness of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit), Christians can fervently declare the truth of the gospel and trust in God to bring conversion about.
But in saying that theology is the foundation, we dare not forget the important role the church plays in the preaching of the gospel. Emphasis needs to be given to two dimensions here: the gospel creates the church, and then to the church is given the task of preaching the gospel.
The gospel is the message of Christ’s salvation; the church is its most important corporate expression. The truth about Christ and his death, therefore, should find tangible expression in the church. Thus the gospel that created the church should also be modeled by the church.
Methods and techniques are important for evangelism as long as they are subordinate to and in the context of trusting God to do the work and the Spirit to convert people. Whether one is trained to evangelize through the use of tracts or uses a technique like that of a well-known evangelist does not matter as much as the person who is evangelizing. Good methods in the hands of poor evangelists can be damaging, just as poor methods in the hands of good evangelists can get the task done. I am firmly convinced that mature Christians do not need “methods or techniques” any more than experienced carpenters need directions on how to operate a saw or a drill. Experienced evangelists trust in God, discern through the Spirit the person they are evangelizing, and know (like Jesus) how to adapt the message to the person and situation.
Let me express these concerns about the church’s mission to evangelize in a more educational manner. (1) What the local church needs to do in training evangelists is to instruct its members fully in the basics of the gospel, discerning that those who are evangelizing are genuine Christians and adequately educated in the message itself. I have been with young Christians who have evangelized and who have offered some of the most (theologically) incredible arguments in their zeal to convert others.
(2) We need to instruct our churches and evangelists so that they have a profound grasp of our world and its culture, from its materialism to its cultural diversity. I am not saying that evangelists have to be psychologists, sociologists, and philosophers, but the learned insights from each of these disciplines will help the evangelist in understanding his or her audience. A sensitive evangelist may perceive that a person is in the clutches of some materialistic philosophy and so will expound on the message of the Bible concerning the temporality of riches and this world. Understanding people, sometimes called sympathy or empathy, forms the heart of solid evangelism. But ultimately what we are talking about is spiritual discernment — discernment of what a particular person needs to hear as we preach the gospel to him or her.
(3) Finally, as we educate our churches in evangelism, we must give the priority of our focus to prayer and spiritual direction. We must emphasize that it since it is God’s work, we must be in tune with God; since it is the Spirit who convicts, we must depend on the Spirit; and since it is the cross of the Son, we must focus on the glorious achievements of Christ