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New Testament: 1 Peter

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Peter, Peter Paul RubensThis letter is one of the most hope-filled books in the New Testament. Its purpose is to encourage Christian converts living in the midst of a hostile society. It does this by emphasizing their new life and salvation in the risen Christ (who is their "living hope"), showing how they became heirs of the people of God described in the Old Testament, and helping them understand what it means to live faithfully among people who ridicule and harass them. Throughout this letter, Jesus Christ's life, and especially his suffering, is used as an example of how they are to understand and bear their sufferings as they seek to do God's will.

So What?

This letter expresses the gospel in rich, varied, and powerful ways and then draws from it interesting, complex, and specific implications for how Christians might think about living faithfully in their society. The distance between 1 Peter's context in the first century and the context of the modern world is huge in many ways, requiring us to avoid making too easy applications of the letter's words to our own lives. On the other hand, the daring and creative ways in which the letter works out its view of faith and life challenge us to take these ideas seriously and to think with equal daring and creativity regarding the challenges facing Christians today.

Where Do I Find It?

The First Letter of Peter is the twenty-first book in the New Testament. It is situated among the books typically referred to as the "Catholic Letters" (James through Jude)--"catholic" in the sense of being generally applicable.

Who Wrote It?

A pseudonymous work, 1 Peter is the work of an unknown author, writing from Rome, in the name and memory of the Apostle Peter.

When Was It Written?

Most scholars support a date between 75 and 95 C.E., with the early 90s being most likely. This would mean that 1 Peter was written a generation after the deaths of Peter and Paul in the mid 60s.

What's It About?

Believers have reasons for hope, even in times of apparent hopelessness and persecution, because Christ is raised and living, and God is at work in the world.

How Do I Read It?

First Peter is carefully written and repays careful reading. Read it as good news for bad times: truth from the One who is the truth, hope from the One who is our living hope, and encouragement from the One who has promised to be faithful to us all the way through eternity, no matter how difficult and chaotic the present may seem.

AUTHOR: Marc Kolden, Professor of Systematic Theology

I. Introduction (1 Peter 1:1-2)
The author addresses the letter's recipients as "exiles of the Dispersion," names the cities in Asia Minor (mostly in present-day Turkey) where they live, and describes them as having been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ.

II. Praise for What God Has Done in Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:3-12)
God is praised in lavish terms for having given both the writer and the readers a new birth and a living hope by raising Jesus from the dead. This hope, promised by the Old Testament prophets, involves an inheritance in heaven as well as divine protection until the end.

III. A Call to Live as God's Holy People (1 Peter 1:13-2:3)
A series of exhortations calls on readers to discipline themselves, to set their faith and hope only on Jesus Christ, to be holy as God is holy, and to live in reverent fear of God, because they have been rescued by Christ from the futility of their former life. As new beings they are to love each other and rid themselves of destructive attitudes.

IV. The Foundation on Which New Life Is Built (1 Peter 2:4-10)
Jesus Christ is a cornerstone on which the holy people are built into a spiritual house. They are further described in terms reminiscent of the Old Testament: a royal priesthood, a chosen race, a holy nation, and God's own people.

V. Living Faithfully in a Hostile Society (1 Peter 2:11-4:11)
Readers are to live in their society in constructive and exemplary ways, despite the criticism and rejection they experience for being followers of Christ. Specific instances are described for living faithfully: in relation to the majority population, to the government, to slave masters and superiors, to one's spouse, and to anyone they encounter.

VI. A Final Word of Exhortation and Hope (1 Peter 4:12-5:11)
Readers should not be surprised if persecution increases, for this enables them to share now in Christ's sufferings even as they soon will share in his glory. Leaders are to care for their congregations; all are to humble themselves before God and resist the devil; and God will restore and establish them at the end.

VII. Closing Words (1 Peter 5:12-14)
The author says that the letter is written to encourage its recipients. It expresses greetings from their sister church in Babylon (that is, Rome) as well as from other leaders of the early Christian church, before ending by extending the peace of Christ.

AUTHOR: Marc Kolden, Professor of Systematic Theology

By the last decade of the first century C.E., Christianity had spread throughout much of the Roman Empire--far beyond its origins in Palestine following the crucifixion of Jesus some sixty years earlier. Although Jesus' earliest followers existed for a while as a Jewish sect, by the time 1 Peter was written Christianity and Judaism had largely gone their separate ways, a development hastened by the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E. While most of the earliest Christians were Jewish, after that time most new converts were Gentiles. Therefore, while this letter mentions many figures from the Old Testament as well as many acts and words of God therein, there is no mention of the Jews as the people of Israel or of the history of relationships and problems between Christians and Jews. The declaration to the letter's (mostly Gentile) recipients is that they too are inheritors of the Old Testament's promises. They too are Israel; they too are the elect and God's own people. As such, they will be at odds with the values, customs, and lifestyles of the non-Christian Gentiles among whom they live. They will be as aliens and strangers, different even from non-Christian members of their families and friends. They probably would have been excluded from many occupations and social occasions as well as scorned and criticized for joining a cult or belonging to a possibly dangerous and unpatriotic sect. In such a situation of being an unwelcome minority, Christians' natural tendency might have been to withdraw even further from the majority culture, increasing their isolation and arousing additional suspicion. First Peter urges the opposite response: engage in the society and be better than the ordinary citizens, so that good conduct will be noticed and the truth of the readers' faith will be demonstrated. This will not be easy, but it will be to obey the God who is the creator and redeemer of all people and all societies. God has called these scattered followers of Christ to proclaim the mighty acts of God.

The letter's opening verse names the Apostle Peter as the author. The closing verses say that he writes "through Silvanus." The evidence for a later composition (probably in the early 90s) and the letter's use of themes and expressions from the letters of the Apostle Paul suggest that 1 Peter is a pseudonymous work, written in the tradition of Peter after his death.

AUTHOR: Marc Kolden, Professor of Systematic Theology

Christ's suffering in relation to Isaiah 53. In 1 Peter, Jesus' suffering is not portrayed or understood primarily in terms of the historical events of his betrayal, trial, beatings, and death on a cross. Instead, Jesus' sufferings, inflicted on an innocent person, are said to have taken place for others-not least for those to whom 1 Peter is addressed. (In making this case, 1 Peter makes the most extensive use of Isaiah 53 of any New Testament book: 1 Peter 2:21-25 paraphrases Isaiah 53:5-11, and 1 Peter 3:18 draws on Isaiah 53:4-6.) Therefore, Christians also are to suffer undeserved criticism and unjust treatment, so that their faith and good conduct will be apparent: "by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish" (1 Peter 2:15). In this, they follow the example of Christ, who did not seek vengeance, a mark of honorable males in Greek culture, but who suffered for the sins of the unrighteous to bring them back to God (3:18). The idea is not to endure suffering as an end in itself, but to do good even when it brings suffering upon oneself. That is, suffering in this sense is not a strategy, either for Jesus or for the Christian; rather, it is a consequence of faithful existence in relation to the ongoing work of God.

Ethical exhortations and their theological basis. This letter's many imperatives and exhortations to morally good behavior do not simply stand on their own; they are grounded very specifically in the work of the Triune God, especially as that was accomplished in and by Jesus Christ, the Son of God (see 1:3-9; 2:4-10). In addition, throughout the letter most of the specific actions called for are related directly to the ongoing work of God--whether as creator and preserver of the whole world or as redeemer and living presence among Christians. Such grounding of commands in the ongoing work of God is important for at least two reasons: (1) the actions commanded are not understood as ways by which people may become righteous, but they come because Christians have been set free from their old ways and have been born anew to live in ways that bless their neighbors; and (2) the actions are portrayed not as absolute commands or eternal laws for every time and place but as implications for obedience to God in specific times and places. For other Christians, in other contexts, the implications for obedience may be different, although we may learn from 1 Peter about the ways in which human actions follow from our understanding of who God is and what God's will and purposes are, especially as these are made known in Christ.

First Peter and the Apostle Paul. It has been observed for many centuries that the teachings and theological phrases in 1 Peter have a marked similarity to the letters of the Apostle Paul. Yet, one sees from the book of Acts as well as Paul's Letter to the Galatians (see Galatians 1:11-2:14) that there likely were some serious differences between the two men. So, what can be made of their apparent agreement as evidenced by 1 Peter? Perhaps the most obvious factor is that by the last decades of the first century C.E., the situation that confronted (and sometimes divided) Paul and the original disciples (including Peter and James) at mid-century had subsided. This situation had concerned the complicated relationship between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, especially whether to require Gentile Christian men to be circumcised, and other issues related to the ongoing function of the Mosaic law for Christians. To the extent that these matters were already settled and because fewer and fewer Jews were converting to Christianity by late in the first century, believers had been able to move away from these earlier arguments. Also, with the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and the move of the center of Christianity away from Jerusalem, second- and third-generation church leaders needed to draw together the common themes and teachings of the first generation for the sake of unity. First Peter is a letter that builds in many ways on Paul's theology and language, yet it was attributed to Peter and sent from Rome--where Peter's leadership had long been emphasized, despite the fact that both Peter and Paul probably were killed there in the mid 60s. In any case, Martin Luther, who judged nearly all theology in terms of Paul's teaching of justification by faith in Christ alone, praised 1 Peter for expressing that same teaching so clearly.

Male-female distinctions. The words directed to wives to "accept the authority of their husbands" (3:1) have been debated for centuries, never more seriously than in modern times, especially because of growing awareness of the extent of abusive treatment of wives by husbands that is considered to have been exacerbated by biblical verses such as this. The commands and statements of 1 Peter 3:1-7 do not express some eternal law. They offer context-specific counsel that honors the existing social order, but for a Christian reason. It is the theological basis that both husband and wife are created by God and both are heirs of new life in Christ that emerges as constant. The particular acts of obedience are related to specific times and places. Contemporary readers must connect the theological basis to the particulars of their own context.

The present age and the future age. This letter, like many other parts of the New Testament, speaks about human beings both in terms of their natural (or historical) life in this present age and their being born anew into the age to come. Because the present age (or this "old age," as it often is called) is one of finitude, mortality, and sin, it will end short of the fulfillment God intended for it when it was created. Jesus was sent by God the Father to announce the beginning of the future "age to come" and to inaugurate it through his earthly ministry, his suffering and death for our sins, and God the Father's raising him from the dead to be Lord of all. For believers, the present age and the age to come "overlap" until the end of the world. Christians live with a foot in each age, so to speak--still sinful in terms of this present age and yet righteous in terms of belonging to Christ in the already-begun age to come. Faith, hope, and love, as well as grace, peace, and righteousness are characteristic of the age to come. Law, order, morality, good works, justice, and all the institutions and systems of the created world are part of the present age--good, yet also sinful; God-given, but not eternal; beautiful and significant, yet also tragic and disappointing.

Slave-master distinctions. The theme of submission or subordination of slaves to their masters has been a problem for readers of 1 Peter for a long time. The exhortations to slaves were used to justify slavery in many times and places. Interpretations of 1 Peter 2:18-25, especially vv. 18-21, must note that in the context of the Roman Empire slavery existed as a widespread and long-standing part of the economic, social, and political order, and a few scattered Christians were not going to be able to put a stop to it. Therefore, for Christian slaves to accept the authority of their masters (rather than trying to kill them or running away from them) might have been realistic and appropriate in this case and would have avoided bringing even more hostility upon the fragile Christian movement. On the other hand, the reader should not fail to see that just prior to 2:18 stands 2:16, written to all Christians, including slaves: "As servants [this is the Greek word for 'slaves'] of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil." That certainly is much more of a universal Christian teaching than the context-specific word to slaves to accept their masters' authority. In addition, it is notable that Christian slaves were addressed as being fully human and fully members of the community, which was an important difference from the way that most people spoke to or about slaves.

The theological worldview of 1 Peter. In seeking to understand this letter it is helpful to try to make explicit its author's view of the world in terms of the world's relation to God, because this view is quite different from modern ones. In 1 Peter, the whole world in its temporal or historical existence is seen by the author as (1) God's creation, made in accordance with (2) God's will and purposes, (3) ordered in certain ways by God for creation's own good, and in which (4) God remains active--creating, preserving, providing, sustaining, and judging. In addition, (5) God has acted to save human beings through Jesus Christ, and one day (6) God will bring the created world to its promised end. Notice that God is the subject of statements about the world, suggesting that God is the principal actor in history. Furthermore, God and heaven are not portrayed as being high above the world (that is, not in transcendent terms); rather, God is viewed as being before, during, in, with, and after the created world. The world and history are not pictured as moving along on their own, whether aimlessly or in some deterministic fashion; rather, in the midst of created freedom, God acts to move created reality (including humans) in certain directions. This worldview is quite different from the ways that modern people--Christians and others--think about the world most of the time.

AUTHOR: Marc Kolden, Professor of Systematic Theology

Good works. Exhortations to do good works and to do what is right come with acknowledgements that in a hostile world these actions will often bring unwelcome consequences. The point is, for people who have been born anew and set free from this world's judgment, this behavior not only will accomplish good things that God needs for the world, but it also will bear witness to the truth of the Christian faith to unbelievers.

Hope. Hope refers to a sure and certain future reality (promised or otherwise guaranteed by God) in which we are to put our hope. The Bible might be said to speak of hope as something "objective," to which our "subjective" attitude of hope corresponds. Therefore, in 1 Peter 1:3 the risen Christ is our living hope; in 1:13 we are to set our hope on the grace Jesus Christ will bring; in 1:21 faith and hope are pictured as set on God; in 3:15 Christians are expected to be able to give persuasive reasons for their hope.

Unjust suffering. A clear distinction is to be made between suffering that is justly deserved and suffering that is undeserved because people have not done something bad but nevertheless are treated badly. Such unjust suffering is an important theme in 1 Peter because it could have been misunderstood by Christian converts as meaning that the Christian faith was not true and that they were being punished by other gods for the actions that follow from faith in Christ. There is no glorification of suffering in this letter; suffering simply is to be expected in the sense that Christians who do right and suffer for it do so in a way that is similar to Jesus' sufferings. Only this specific way of sharing in Jesus' sufferings is to be seen as an occasion for rejoicing about suffering (4:13).

AUTHOR: Marc Kolden, Professor of Systematic Theology