1 PETER 1:1—2:10
The opening section of 1 Peter highlights the transformation its readers have experienced when they became Christians and points forward to the glory that will be the outcome of their faith (1:3–9). The expression “we have been born anew to a living hope” (1:3) sums up the outlook of the entire letter. Older commentaries on 1 Peter often spoke of this opening section as a “baptismal homily.” Some even went so far as to detect the stages of a baptismal liturgy in the letter as a whole (see the summary in T. Martin, 17–37). However, references to conversion do not establish the situation addressed by the letter. For the readers, the moment of conversion and baptism lies in the past. They are now members of the holy people of God (2:9–10). Similarly, the full experience of salvation lies in the future, “setyour hope fully on the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:13).
The letter exhorts readers to live out the holiness that they received in baptism in the present. It does this by reminding them of their life before they became Christians, of their conversion and initiation into the Christian fellowship, and of the future that awaits them. First Peter establishes the framework for interpreting the present experience of its readers. Since the liturgical images used to describe Christian initiation and the topics of ethical exhortation are formed of conventional expressions, this method does not provide a detailed account of the actual experience of individuals. When we ask Christians today to plot their life journey and their faith journey along parallel time lines, the expressions are much more personal than formal. But the technique used by 1 Peter can help Christians today to evaluate their journey of faith. It is easier to experience the call to holiness in the present when we remember the call to holiness by which we became Christians and the holiness we hope to share in the future.
Table 2 (using RSV) lists the attributes of each of the four aspects of life as they are described in this section of 1 Peter. The focus of the imagery in this section is on the present experience of the addressees as members of a Christian community. The descriptions of those who are not Christians contrasts the letter’s recipients who were destined to become part of the holy people of God (1:2) from others who will remain disobedient to the Word (2:8). The descriptive lists refer all vices to the past. They belong to what was put aside when the recipients were reborn through the Word.
Exhortations to rejoicing, hope, obedience, and the like are aimed at ensuring that believers are worthy of the salvation or imperishable inheritance that awaits them. This section of 1 Peter only contains brief hints of the main threat to that hope: the concrete trials that Christians face in their daily lives. Readers are told to rejoice in such trials, since only trials can demonstrate the genuineness of Christian faith (1:6–7). If we take the references to being “exiles” or “visiting residents” (1:1, 17) as indications of the actual, social situation of the addressees, then the references to becoming a “spiritual house” (2:4) and passing from the state of being “no people” to being “God’s people” (2:10) take on additional significance. When referred to their heavenly inheritance (1:4), the “exile” in which Christians live continues to be a pressing reality of life (1:17). In that respect conversion did not change the socioeconomic situation of the addressees.
When read in the context of the transition from the futility of their pre-Christian past to a present reality as “living stones” in God’s house, however, believers already live in a place that they can call “home.” Later in the letter we learn that some members of these churches are household slaves (2:18). First Peter 1:18–19 tells believers that they have been redeemed from the futility of their traditional ways by the blood of Christ, not by gold or silver. Slaves who knew that they could purchase their freedom for an agreed sum or that they could always be sold to another must have found this image a striking affirmation of their new identity in the Christian community. Similarly, the imagery of being built as living stones into a structure founded on Christ must have had particular significance for visiting aliens living in Asia Minor. This geographical area did not include large cities or busy seaports with frequent communications to other ports. Someone living here might know very little about what is happening “at home.” As archaeological evidence has suggested, the Jewish communities in this region did not have strong links with Jerusalem.
Believers have entered into a community that fills these holes in their lives. The slaves are probably exiles as well. As we saw in the Introduction, much of the Jewish community in Rome was descended from persons who had been brought to Rome as slaves. The imagery in 1 Peter assures Christian slaves that Jesus has paid their ransom price. It tells those who are visiting foreigners that they already belong to a “household” even though the inheritance that members of this new family receive is in heaven. Today Christians and churches are often comfortable members of the social and political scene. Those churches face the challenge of adding the new “living stones” that come from different ethnic, racial, or socioeconomic circumstances.
As we have seen in the general Introduction, the opening follows the established pattern for the ancient letter. Each of the elements in the address has been expanded with an epithet or expression that indicates the Christian character of the sender and addressees. Even though it is not likely that Peter, himself, wrote the letter, he is designated as its author. Neither Peter nor those mentioned in the final greetings appear to have direct knowledge of churches in the provinces to which they are writing. Information about conditions there had probably been brought to Rome by others. Even though there are no historical traditions that link Peter with this area, he was known to Gentile converts in this region, as Paul’s references to him in Galatians indicate. The simple phrase “apostle of Jesus Christ” indicates to the recipients that this letter carries the authority of one of Jesus’ most famous disciples. For those who have accepted faith in a Jesus also far removed from their experience (1:8), such a letter would have been an extraordinary event.
We have also seen that the terms used to refer to the recipients in 1:1 speak of exiles, aliens temporarily resident in the Roman provinces of northern Asia Minor. The term “diaspora” (NRSV: “Dispersion”) refers to Jews living outside the land of Israel. Jews in exile suffered the hardships of being alien residents. Peter, Silvanus, and Mark were also familiar with the circumstances of such exiles. We soon learn that the addressees are Gentile converts (1:18; 4:3–4). Michaels has suggested that the social stigma attached to Jews was transferred to those who became Christians (Michaels, 6). However, the evidence we have for the Jewish Diaspora in this region suggests that it was unlike that in the larger, cultural centers. The strong Jewish imagery in 1 Peter addresses the plight of the readers by affirming their membership in the worldwide Christian fellowship. Thus, it is a vehicle for overcoming the alienation that was part of their everyday lives. There is no evidence that Christianity’s Jewish origins were the cause of the harassment that the addressees suffered.
Anyone who has ever lived in a traditional, premodern society will be struck by the asymmetry between the brief epithet attached to Peter’s name and the extended statement about the addressees in verse 2. Ordinary conventions of honorific speech attach effusive epithets or words of praise to the more honored party in a relationship. When Paul writes to the Roman church, which he did not found, he follows his own name and apostolic status with several verses recapitulating the early creed and affirming his role as apostle to all the Gentiles including those at Rome (Rom. 1:1–6). The designation of the community is considerably shorter, “to all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints” (Rom. 1:7). Epithets in the greetings of private letters typically indicate differences in status between the parties. Imperial letters are most expansive. Here is the greeting from the letter of Tiberius that included the instructions concerning Alexandrian Jews:
Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus the Emperor, Pontifex Maximus, holder of the tribunician power, consul designate, to the city of the Alexandrians, greeting. (White, 133)
Anyone who did not know that “Peter, apostle of Jesus Christ” was one of the most important of Jesus’ disciples might think that the sender is inferior to those addressed.
The tension between “apostle” and “exile,” the first a term of authority by virtue of the individual for whom the apostle acts; the second a clear indication of inferior status, makes verse 2 even more of a surprise. The “exiles” of the Diaspora are given more honor than Peter. Jesus Christ appears in both verses suggesting that he is the basis for the relationship between sender and recipients. The trinitarian structure of the formula in verse 2 has expanded the more common Pauline references to the Father and Jesus Christ by including the Spirit. The emperor indicates his status both in his lengthy name and in a list of offices. First Peter indicates the dignity of those to whom the letter is addressed by associating their very existence with the Father, Spirit, and Jesus Christ. The terms for the divine activities in this formula are taken from the Old Testament. Israel is the elect people of God (Exod. 19:6; Isa. 43:20–21). The people were sprinkled with blood at the covenant sacrifice (Exod. 24:3–8). However, the sacrifice that cleanses the new people of God occurred on the cross. It ratifies their obedience to Jesus Christ, rather than to the law as in Exodus.
The greeting concludes with a common early Christian phrase, “grace and peace.” The asymmetry in the formulae heightens the significance that Peter attaches to the new life of the addressees. As the elect people of God, they are as great or greater than the apostle himself. Thus the greeting of 1 Peter poses an interesting challenge to Christians today. Rather than use titles and other status indicators as our society normally does, we should use those special images of status with God to exalt the foreigners, the visitors, and the other marginal persons in our midst. Speak to others in a way that shows awareness of the worth those persons have in God’s eyes. A young person working in a homeless shelter came into the office one day. She was very disturbed because some seminarians working at the shelter indicated by their words and actions that they considered the women who came to the shelter worthless. She herself had once been scared of the women in the shelter. Now that she knew many of their stories, she considered these women “people like anyone else.” One way to begin to change the situation would be to require the volunteers to speak to the women in the same way, with the same tone of voice, body language, and the rest that they use when addressing people they meet outside the shelter. Further reflections on speech occur later in the letter as 1 Peter indicates how Christians should respond to hostile or abusive speech directed at them (1 Peter 3:9–11).
Blessing: Born to a New Hope
An extended thanksgiving or blessing section typically followed the greeting in the Pauline letter (2 Cor. 1:3; Eph. 1:3). Conventional letters had a shorter prayer or wish for the health of the recipient. Verse 3 states the basis for praising God: Christians have been reborn to a new hope through Jesus Christ. Verse 9 summarizes the letter’s message to its recipients, a secure faith will bring them salvation. The grammatical structure of verses 3–12 is difficult because the passage consists of a long string of clauses that depend on God as the subject. English translations break the long sentence up into several shorter ones. The most recent Greek editions of the New Testament conclude the opening sentence at the end of verse 9. Some interpreters include verses 10–12 in the construction of the sentence (see T. Martin, 52–68). However, verses 10–12 are better understood as a digression attached to the initial blessing formula. The grammatical subject changes from God’s activity to the Spirit of Christ working through the prophets.
Another grammatical peculiarity of the sentence lies in the shift from the first person plural in verse 3, “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” “having given us new birth” to the second person plural in verse 4 and following. Some ancient scribes apparently felt this difficulty and read “our souls” in verse 9 instead of “your souls.” This grammatical shift creates a distance between the author and the audience being instructed. It also supports the suggestion of some interpreters (see Dalton) that the reference to what the prophets foresaw in verses 10–12 was intended to refer to the inclusion of Gentiles in the people of God.
Although the blessing does not appear to be an early Christian hymn as some earlier commentators thought, most of the phrases are formulaic descriptions of salvation (cf. Titus 3:5; Heb. 7:19). However, the author has introduced a note of tension into the rejoicing, reference to the trials that will test the 29 faith of Christians (vv. 6–7). First Peter instructs readers to rejoice in such times because a faith that comes through the “testing” is proven to be genuine. Further, such trials are part of the divine order of things. The translation of verse 6, “you have had to suffer” (NRSV), masks the Greek phrase “it being necessary,” a phrase that suggests that God requires such testing. Wisdom of Solomon 3:5–6 understands the suffering of the righteous, who now enjoy peace with God (vv. 1–2) as a form of divine testing:
Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them. (NRSV)
Since Christians will be told to take Christ as their model in suffering, the model of the suffering righteous is central to the account of suffering given in the letter.
In this section, the reference to suffering is imbedded in the image of God as the Father who has established a new, imperishable inheritance for his children. Verse 3 does not refer to the death of Christ, mentioned in the greeting (v. 2), but to his resurrection. Christians can see the resurrection of Christ as evidence for the imperishable, secure inheritance that awaits them in heaven (v. 4). They are also reminded that God’s power will protect them until they attain this inheritance (v. 5). The final petition of the Lord’s Prayer makes a similar point. “Lead us not into temptation (Gr. peirasmos)” uses the same word that is translated “trials” in 1 Peter 1:6. It reminds us that no Christian seeks the “testing” of his or her faith. Nor does God set up such trials as an obstacle course or entrance exam. But Christians have known from the beginning that no genuine faith will exist without them. Just as the book of Wisdom spoke of the “wicked” who sought to kill the righteous person for no other reason than their own dislike of having such persons around (Wisd. Sol. 2:12–20) so all those who seek God’s righteousness suffer (Matt. 5:10). “But deliver us from evil (or ‘the Evil One’)” points to the other side of the process, confident prayer that God will deliver Christians from such trials. As we have seen, the conclusion of 1 Peter will turn from the evils themselves to the Evil One (the devil) who is responsible for their existence. Commentators have frequently argued over the extent to which 1 Peter treats salvation in apocalyptic categories. In this passage it refers to “salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (v. 5) and “praise, glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (v. 7). For the present, Christians believe in a Jesus whom they do not see (v. 8). From this perspective, the imperishable, heavenly inheritance that constitutes the “living hope” of Christians is attained at Christ’s second coming. First Peter does not envisage the “inheritance” as something that each individual Christian attains upon his or her death. Wisdom of Solomon 3:1–6 has an individualized eschatology that presumes that the righteous pass from suffering into peace and eternal life with God (also see Wisd. Sol. 4:20—5:16). However, apocalyptic imagery points toward the restoration of the community of the righteous and the destruction of evil. We have already seen that 1 Peter does not revel in anticipating the condemnation of persecutors as apocalyptic visions do.
Although the reference to a mode of salvation that is yet to come is fairly clear, the question of whether 1 Peter thinks that Christians are now living in those “last days” is more difficult to answer. Verse 6 begins with the prepositional phrase “in this” (Gr. en hōi), which may refer to the previous noun “in the last time” or to the sentence that follows, as in the NRSV translation and in recent editions of the Greek text that conclude verse 5 with a period. In that case, the relationship between the present period of trials and the final coming of salvation remains unspecified. If “in which” refers to the previous phrase, “in the last time,” the sentence might imply that 1 Peter understands suffering Christians to be living in the “last days” (Michaels, 27–28). If the present infinitive, “rejoice,” is understood as a future, then the phrase could mean no more than that Christians will rejoice when the last days come because their faith has been proved genuine by their present trials. First Peter 4:13 assures readers that just as their sufferings are a share in the sufferings of Christ, so they will also rejoice when his glory is revealed. Resistance to the attacks of the devil (1 Peter 5:9) forms part of the image of a community of the righteous that withstands the trials of the end time (so T. Martin, 65).
If 1 Peter sees its own age as the “end time,” then the suffering of the righteous community signals the approach of the revelation of Christ, which means salvation for the faithful. Rather than see such trials as a threat to the community of the faithful, they are a sign of election and unity with Christ. Consequently, 1 Peter calls on readers to rejoice in the sufferings that they experience (Elliott 1981, 142–43). However, this apocalyptic perspective creates a dilemma for modern readers who do not feel that the return of Christ is imminent. Is there any sense in which they might be said to “rejoice” in a faith tested by suffering? As we read through 1 Peter, we discover that the trials to which it refers are those that are in some sense related to a person’s individual Christian confession. They are inflicted by persons who fit the category of “the wicked” in Wisd. Sol. 3:1–6. Testimony to the truth of the gospel stirs up anger, taunting, skepticism, and the like, the aim of which is to demonstrate that the righteous are not in fact what they appear to be. The distinctive behavior of believers under trial witnesses to the power and truth of the gospel. Other forms of suffering such as natural disasters or catastrophic illnesses are not in view.
The danger at hand is that such trials will shake the faith of Christians, especially through the consistent prodding of friends and associates. First Peter presumes that Christians are interacting with persons who do not share their faith much of the time. It is easy for believers to feel that something must be wrong with their witness to the faith when family and friends do not come to share that faith. Grandparents often speak with frustration over the lack of religion among their grandchildren. Why isn’t Christianity more effective? people often ask. One parishioner decided to lay the blame at the feet of the risen Jesus. He should have appeared to Pilate, Caiaphas, and other leaders and that would have accomplished more to make Christianity effective! Of course, if that were really the point, then Jesus’ suffering as the righteous one would not make sense. Jesus did not choose to overwhelm his enemies with power. Persuasion, love, and faith are very different realities. They leave the pathway for rejection or merely civilized disregard wide open. So “rejoice,” 1 Peter says. Trials show that individuals and their churches are succeeding in placing the challenge of the gospel before the world.
The eschatological perspective of 1 Peter provides a corrective to the tendency to evaluate the performance of Christians in the present. Sometimes the Christian message is “sold” with the promise that accepting Jesus as Savior will lead to personal peace and prosperity in this life. First Peter insists that such promises are false. All that counts is the “faith proved by trials.” Its worth cannot be evaluated in the present. The value of testimony to the Lord will only be known when he returns in glory (v. 7). However, this warning about future judgment should not shake Christian confidence in salvation. As we have seen, most of this section of the letter stresses the present experience of salvation in Christian life. Christians have already experienced the mercy of God as they turned from ancestral traditions to the Lord.
Revealed in the Prophets
Verse 10 picks up the term “salvation” from verses 5 and 9 in order to establish the principle that this salvation was the object of Old Testament prophecy. The idea that the prophets did not speak about their own times but about those events that would initiate the “last days” commonly appears in apocalyptic texts. The term “time” (Gr. kairos) in verse 11 is also picked up from verse 5. Once again, the passage consists of a long series of dependent clauses that modern translators and editors of the Greek text have divided into two sentences by placing a full stop at the end of verse 11 and converting the relative pronoun “to whom” of verse 12 into the indirect object of the verb “it was revealed.” The prophets are said to have investigated two facts: (a) the salvation [= grace] experienced by Christians (v. 10); and (b) the time of the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow that suffering (v. 11). The Spirit of Christ made the facts of his suffering and glory clear to the prophets. Verse 12 indicates that the prophets knew that the things now preached as the gospel to believers did not refer to their times but to the future. Their inquiries also have shown them things even the angels desired to know.
Scholars today generally agree that the “prophets” referred to must be the Old Testament prophets, not Christian prophets. The idea that ancient prophets received a revelation whose meaning could not be understood until the “last days” appears in apocalyptic writings. Daniel 9:1–19 describes the prophet looking back into the prophecies of Jeremiah in order to determine the time that must elapse between the exile and restoration. Daniel’s own words are to remain sealed until the end time (Dan. 12:5–13). The prophet will not see God’s deliverance during his lifetime but will be resurrected at the end (v. 13). Second Esdras 4:51–52 has the prophet ask whether he will be alive during the end time about which he has spoken. The angel says he can give only a partial answer to the prophet’s questions, but he cannot respond to the question about Ezra’s own life (see Stone, 101–5). Mark 13:32 points to a similar ignorance of the timing of the end. Even the Son does not know the hour that the Father has determined.
This topos explains the final comment in verse 12, “into which angels long to look.” Jesus’ death and glory are the events of the “last days” that angels did not know. The affirmation that the readers know things unknown to the angels points to the certainty of Christian salvation. Essene commentaries on the prophets found at Qumran presume that the Old Testament prophets spoke of their community as the eschatological gathering of the righteous in the last days. According to the author of their commentary on Habakkuk (lQpHab) God revealed to the prophet what would happen in the last days but not the time. The community’s founder was able to explain all the secrets contained in the prophets to his followers:
and God told Habakkuk to write down that which would happen to the final generation, but He did not make known to him when time would come to an end. And as for that which He said, “That he who reads may read it speedily” (Hab. 2:2): interpreted this concerns the Teacher of Righteousness, to whom God made known all the mysteries of the words of His servants the Prophets. (lQpHab 7:1–2; Vermes, 286)
The question of “time” as key to the prophetic quest appears in verse 11a. The Greek expression “tina ē poion kairon” should be rendered as though both pronouns referred to time, “which or what sort of time” (Michaels, 41), not as though the Greek tina referred to a person, leading to the NRSV: “about the person or time.” As in the Qumran example, then, the prophets asked either about the time or about the particulars of the endtime events.
The Qumran commentary on Habakkuk suggests that the community’s founder had special insight into the hidden meaning of the prophets. First Peter 1:12 attributes similar inspiration to those who preached the gospel to the readers. They were not merely the agents of a human institution but evangelized along with the Holy Spirit (v. 12), which the readers have experienced as the source of their sanctification (v. 2).
This passage contains an unusual affirmation about Christ, he is active in the prophets (Achtemeier, 186; Goppelt, 107). This expression suggests a Christology that attributes preexistence to Christ. It also distinguishes 1 Peter’s account of prophetic inspiration from the Jewish tradition. In 1 Peter the one about whom the prophets speak has inspired what they say about him. First Peter insists that all the events of salvation were predestined by God, including the election of believers (1:2, 17). The prophetic testimony is less concerned with the community than with the suffering and exaltation of Jesus that made its existence possible (v. 11). Readers will learn the details of that prophetic testimony when Christ is presented as the suffering servant of Isaiah (2:21–25; Achtemeier).
The difficulty that this section of 1 Peter poses for Christians today lies in its appropriation of the Old Testament. The letter never suggests that there is another community of Jewish readers for whom the prophets do not describe Jesus. Attempts to detect some theology of two covenant communities in 1 Peter fail to acknowledge the author’s description of a single community of faith (Michaels, xlix-I). Liturgical use of prophetic texts during the Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter seasons often conveys a similarly naive understanding of the relationship between the prophets and Christianity. Even after several weeks of Bible study on Isaiah during Advent, several parishioners commented that it was “just amazing that he could predict everything about Jesus.”
No doubt persons who had grown up as members of the Qumran sect might say the same about the prophets and their origins. But in the world today, Christians need to be more self-conscious than 1 Peter about the difference between reading the prophets as witnesses to their own time, as commentators on the Jewish Torah, and reading them as witnesses to Christ. We cannot suppose, as 1 Peter argues, that God had only the Christian community of faith in mind throughout the Old Testament. We might prefer to begin from the other end. Jesus himself and those who formulated the gospel about him already understood their times by reflecting on the prophets, psalms, and the like. This understanding was incorporated into the preaching of the early community and into the narratives about the events of salvation. Christians cannot understand the traditions that have been handed down to them without knowing the Old Testament texts that formed and informed the New Testament. But the story of Jesus does not form the sole framework for understanding the faith of the Old Testament.
First Peter 1:11 appears to narrow Christian reading of the Old Testament to what can be said to point to Christ. If we say instead that the God who is the source of our salvation revealed many dimensions of faith in the experiences of Israel, then Christians may learn about God in the prophets and other writings of the Old Testament without assuming that everything points directly to Christ. Christians can acknowledge the possibility that the Jewish community can be obedient to the word of the Lord in the law and the prophets without being obedient to the word of the gospel.
You Are Called to Holiness
“Therefore” plus the imperative “hope in the grace being brought to you” (v. 13) marks the transition to the body of the letter (T. Martin, 70–71). Two participles prior to the command have the force of imperatives as well, “gird up [the loins of] your mind” (NRSV: “prepare your minds for action”) and “sober up”. They summon the reader to pay attention to what follows. The tone of the letter shifts from the descriptions of salvation in the opening section to direct exhortation. Christians must live with the holiness of those who have been reborn. Though the image of “girding up loins” suggests the Exodus command (Exod. 12: 11), 1 Peter does not use the Exodus metaphors of wilderness, wandering, or journey. Instead, 1 Peter focuses on the imagery of exile (v. 17).
The blessing section introduced the image of God as Father who will give his children an imperishable inheritance (1:3–5). The familial imagery returns in verses 14–16. The addressees are reminded to be “obedient children” and model their behavior on their divine Father by substituting holiness for the passions characteristic of their pre-Christian lives. Since 1 Peter 36 refers to the former lives of its readers as “ignorance” and later speaks of the “folly of your ancestral way of life” (v. 18), the readers are clearly Gentiles who did not know God (cf. Acts 17:23, 30). First Peter returns to the association between believers as “children” and “obedience” in the exhortation to Christian wives (3:6). The command to be holy as God is holy has been taken from Lev. 19:2. Christians are more familiar with the variant that Matt. 5:48 uses in summarizing the sayings on love of enemies, “You, therefore, must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” First Peter applies the injunction generally to “all your conduct” (v. 15). This exhortation does not have particular moral virtues in mind. There is no evidence that 1 Peter has detailed information about the churches to which it is addressed.
Many Christians find the injunction to “be holy as God is holy” objectionable. After all, we are fragile human beings in need of God’s forgiveness, not saints. Matthew’s version, which uses the word “perfection,” is even more offensive to those who have grown up with a sense of being unable to fulfill the expectations of a demanding parent. When asked why they felt so angry that such statements were in the Bible, a group of adult parishioners quickly identified the tensions they could not resolve in their lives: (a) mothers who have to work, struggling to meet all the claims on their time; (b) fathers whose careers have been sidetracked in the economic downturn; (c) parents whose adult children are in various sorts of difficulty, and the like. Life is just too tough to have God requiring perfection, they insisted. No doubt 1 Peter’s audience could come up with a list of hardships to justify such a conclusion. The letter seeks to encourage them not to slide away from the new life they had adopted as Christians. In today’s terms, when the list of obligations and demands on our time seems impossible to manage, God is often the first to go.
The image of God as impartial judge (v. 17) that 1 Peter uses to underline the importance of a concern for holiness during their time of exile also creates difficulty for many Christians today. First Peter tells readers to “conduct yourselves with fear.” For most of its readers that injunction would not seem as harsh as it does to twentieth century Americans. “Fear” or “reverence” was the way in which one related to more powerful superiors in an hierarchical society. Martin cites a section of the first-century Stoic Musonius Rufus that exemplifies the obedience of a son toward his father:
As a student of philosphy he will certainly be most eager to treat his father with the greatest possible consideration and will be most well-behaved and gentle in his relations with his father. He will never be contentious or self willed, nor hasty or prone to anger; furthermore, he will control his tongue and his appetite whether for food or for sexual temptations, and he will stand fast in the face of danger and hardships. (Musonius Rufus 16, 17; T. Martin, 170)
The privilege of calling God “Father” only came to the letter’s readers with their conversion. They must be reminded of its responsibilities. First Peter 2:18 turns to another group in the ancient patriarchal household, slaves. They must obey their masters with “fear” or “reverence.” Since God is impartial, those who call on him as “Father” should not expect special exemptions for their conduct.
This emphasis on obedience does not wipe out the mercy that readers have experienced in their call to become Christians. As 2 Esd. 7:52–70 observes, without the compassion that God shows his creatures, only a few would survive divine judgment (Goppelt, 120). The inheritance that Christians expect because they belong to this new household is far greater than anything they might lose by obedience to the will of God.
Verses 18–21 remind Christians of the price paid for their redemption. This complex sentence has combined an allusion to Isaiah 52:3 LXX, “sold for nothing, redeemed without silver” (v. 18), and hymnic or creedal phrases (vv. 20–21; Michaels, 53). The center of the passage highlights the ransom paid by Christ as unblemished lamb. First Timothy 2:5–6 contains a hymnic phrase that refers to Christ’s giving himself as “ransom.” Since many resident foreigners came to live in other cities because they had been taken there as slaves, the reference to “ransoming” may have connected the readers’ experience with the biblical imagery of Exodus (Exod. 6:6; 15:13). Though they have been ransomed, the letter’s readers remain in exile and subject to the constraints of obedience. However, readers have been “freed” from another form of slavery, that of their ancestral way of life. The hold of ancestral customs and religious cults may have been weaker for the slaves and alien residents of the cities in Asia Minor. For ancient society, the idea that ancestral laws could be set aside would seem “ironic.” Jews in the Diaspora maintained their identity by insisting on the right to practice ancestral traditions. To other aliens in the region, Jewish refusal to assimilate and even the “hatred of humanity” for which they were known in intellectual circles (Feldman, 42–47) may have indicated an ancestral tradition that was more vital than their own. Christ’s death makes it possible for others to enter that tradition. The author does not distinguish Christian and Jewish versions of the “holy people of God.” He invites readers to replace their ancestral ways with the holy customs of Israel (Spicq, 67).
The final verses of this section (vv. 22–25) pick up the imagery of purity and obedience along with the contrast between what is transient and the security of God’s promise. At the same time, attention shifts from the Christian and outsiders to the community of believers. The command that governs their relationships does not echo the reverent obedience of the patriarchal household but the egalitarian love between brothers. The command to “love one another” (v. 22) appears in numerous variants in the New Testament as a characteristic mark of the Christian community (e.g., Rom. 12:10; 1 Thess. 4:9; Heb. 13:1; 1 John 3:11, 14; 4:11–12, 20–21). In the Qumran rule, “love the sons of light” carries with it an overtone of firm adherence to sectarian boundaries (1QS 1:9–11; 3:4–9; 4:20f.), an emphasis that is evident in 1 John as well. Since nothing in the context suggests a threat to the loyalty of its addressees, there is no reason to assume that the exhortation carried such implications.
First Peter shifts its metaphors for “new birth” from the family to seed (v. 23). Mutual love becomes evidence that members of the Christian community have not been born of “perishable seed but of imperishable.” God’s word is the agent of this birth. Old Testament images of the enduring word of God (Ps. 33:9) and its fruitfulness (Isa. 55:10–11) underlie the image. First Peter l:24–25a cites Isa. 40:6–8 LXX to establish the contrast between God’s word and what comes into being through merely natural processes. It then reminds the audience of their own encounter with that word, the preaching that was responsible for their faith (v. 25b; cf. 1:12).
The metaphors of the concluding section are easier to apply to a contemporary context than those in the earlier verses. Sincere mutual love between members of the community fits into our metaphors of familial relationships. Reverent deference in speech, desires, and actions to the will of a family patriarch does not. Acknowledgment that our faith was born and nourished when others spoke God’s word to us is a common Christian experience. Being purchased from slavery at the cost of someone’s blood, whether human or animal, is not. We can understand the correlation between the unfamiliar metaphors and the lives of 1 Peter’s recipients. Effective preaching of the word of God must always speak in a way that permits God to transform the lives of those who receive it. The key to new life in 1 Peter lies with the Christian community that acknowledges God as Father. The philosophical tradition extols obedience regardless of the character of one’s father. First Peter’s readers know a great deal about the “Father” whom they are encouraged to revere. God’s mercy has made them heirs of an imperishable reward that cannot be lost unless Christians turn away from the traditions of God’s household.
The demand for holiness is not embodied in an extended series of rules. It begins with God’s gracious reaching out to bring human beings into relationship with himself. In this way, 1 Peter continues the structure of the covenant faith of Israel that is oriented toward Jesus. Human obedience follows upon God’s merciful concern to liberate those in slavery. It would be irrational to be disobedient and ungrateful in the face of such a gift. Preachers can find modern examples of family relationships that are more suitable to our society. We are much more outraged when young persons from loving families reject all the opportunities they have been given and engage in behavior that harms themselves and others than we are when the offenders have had no opportunities. For 1 Peter, God has reached out to those who had no reason to expect anything from him. How could they be anything but grateful and obedient?
You Are the New People of God
The previous section introduced the importance of relationships within the community. First Peter uses Old Testament images to depict the church in this section. These metaphors will once again remind his readers to rejoice in the unexpected grace of God. Those who had no claim to being a people have become God’s people (2:4–10). The social consequences of their new identity appear to be complex. The language of separation from ancestral traditions and the exhortation to be obedient children in the new household of God has led Elliott to suggest that the churches were a conversionist sect. Believers were encouraged to turn to one another and away from the world of their past associations (Elliott 1981; 1986). Balch, who focuses on the parallels to Greco-Roman ethics in the next section of the letter (2:11—3:12) insists that Christians are being encouraged to live within the larger society, not merely within the church (Balch 1981; 1986). The evidence from studies of Diaspora Judaism in Asia Minor suggests that both proposals represent the author’s agenda. Christians cannot help but break some of their past ties. The distinctive character of their association is evidence enough to provoke hostility. First Peter must remind readers of how special that new community is. However, the socioeconomic situation of those addressed makes it impossible for them to be isolated from the larger society. Whatever the tensions, they will also have to live within its confines. If they accomplish that task well, others may be drawn to their way of life.
The motif of reborn children forms the center of another exhortation to a transformation in the believer’s life (2:1–3). Since the community will be depicted in cultic metaphors, its holiness requires setting aside all evil. Verse 3 reiterates the letter’s progressive picture of salvation. It begins with an experience of the goodness of God that continues to be a reality that structures Christian growth. The image of tasting the goodness of the Lord (v. 3) echoes Ps. 33:9 LXX. Verse 1 uses a conventional list of vices to characterize the past life that is put aside. Although such catalogues are usually conventional, the list of vices may be related to the concrete situation of the readers (Michaels). Such evils as deceit and slander characterize the sufferings that Christians will experience at the hands of others (2:12, 15; 3:16). Christ will teach them how to suffer without speaking out in deceit (2:22). When insulted by others, Christians must learn not to respond in kind (3:9). Although 1 Peter has not begun to address the particular sufferings of his readers directly, this advice already warns them against adopting the behavior of those who harass them.
The metaphor of milk being given to babes (v. 2) was commonly used for elementary teaching to be given those who were just beginning to convert from past evils to the new way of life prescribed by philosophy (used for Christianity in 1 Cor. 3:1–2; Heb. 5:12–13). “Milk” indicates the primary instruction required before real doctrine can be learned:
First, then, it [= soul husbandry] makes it its aim to sow or plant nothing that has no produce, but all that is fitted for cultivation and fruit-bearing.... But who else could the man that is in each of us be save the mind whose job it is to reap the benefits derived from all that has been sown or planted? But seeing that for babes milk is food, but for grown men wheaten bread, there must also be milk-like nourishment for the soul, suited to the time of childhood, in the shape of the preliminary stages of school learning. (Philo, On Husbandry 8–9)
First Peter lacks the contrast between preliminary, childish food and adult nourishment. However, the adjectives attached to the term “milk,” “pure, spiritual,” indicate that the metaphor does refer to the true teaching necessary for growth as Christians. Perhaps the readers are to conclude that the exhortation contained in the letter constitutes such “pure milk.” The reference to tasting the goodness of the Lord in verse 3 provides another referent for the image of babies drinking milk.
First Peter takes the term “Lord” from the psalm as a reference to Christ. Verse 4 shifts to the metaphor of a building constructed out of the “rejected” stone Christ and then the Christians as stones of the building. Unlike the saying about the rejected cornerstone (Mark 12:10; Acts 4:11), 1 Peter does not refer to the Jews. Those who rejected the stone are simply identified as “human beings.” There is no indication that 1 Peter thinks of Jews as those who were responsible for the rejected stone. In the Pauline tradition, the image of building was associated with the church as body of Christ (Eph. 2:21; 4:12, 16). First Peter does not use the metaphor of the community as “body.” The house can also be identified as a temple in which the faithful offer “spiritual sacrifices” to God (v. 5; cf. Rom. 12:1).
Some interpreters have suggested that “living stone” reflects a traditional use of the expression for stones that have not been cut (T. Martin, 175–76). However, 1 Peter has used the term “living” to modify other nouns: (a) the hope that reborn Christians now possess (1:3) and (b) God (1:23). Here, both Christ and believers are “living stones.” The epithet marks the building that is built up as God’s work, a spiritual and not a human reality. Romans 12:1 indicates that the language of spiritual sacrifices pleasing to God refers to the moral life of Christians. First Peter probably reflects conventional exhortation. Sirach 35:1–7 treats the virtues of a righteous life as equivalent to sacrifice:
The one who returns a kindness offers choice flour, and one who gives alms sacrifices a thank offering. To keep from wickedness is pleasing to the Lord, and to forsake unrighteousness is an atonement. (Sir. 35:3–5)
First Peter departs slightly from this tradition by emphasizing God’s agency in creating the new spiritual house in which these sacrifices are offered. The verb oikodomeisthe is a passive imperative, “let yourselves be built” (T. Martin, 181). The image suggests that the readers are the ideal temple that God was expected to establish in the end time.
The Community Rule found at Qumran describes that group as the holy dwelling for Aaron that has been established on the foundation stone of Isa. 28:16:
It shall be an Everlasting Plantation, a House of Holiness for Israel, an Assembly of Supreme Holiness for Aaron .... It shall be that tried wall, that precious corner-stone, whose foundations shall neither rock nor sway in their place (Isa. 28:16). It shall be a Most Holy Dwelling for Aaron, with everlasting knowledge of the Covenant of justice and shall offer up sweet fragrance. It shall be a House of Perfection and Truth in Israel. (1QS 8:5–10; Vermes, 72f.)
This example indicates how the metaphors in 1 Peter were used by a sectarian Jewish community to describe its own destiny. But in 1 Peter these images do not carry with them the requirement that believers adhere to the precepts of the law. Instead, the metaphors that define God’s holy people are extended to Gentiles. They would have been familiar with the necessity of ensuring that sacrifices were acceptable to the deities from their past observance of pagan religious cults.
Verses 6–10 support the exhortation with citations from the Old Testament: Isa. 28:6 (v. 6); Ps. 118:22 (v. 7); Isa. 8:14 (v. 8); and “elect people” Isa. 43:20 LXX; “royal priesthood” Exod. 19:6; Isa. 61:6; “holy nation” Exod. 19:6; “a people for possession to declare the great deeds” Isa. 43:21 LXX (v. 9). Verses 9b–10 echo two other prophetic passages: “darkness into light” Isa. 9:2 (v. 9b) and “once no people, now people of God” Hos. 2:23 (v. 10). The comments that punctuate the series of quotations remind readers of their own past and the new reality that separates them from others. The stone that the Lord has laid is precious to believers but a stumbling stone to those who do not believe (v. 7a). Unlike the readers, who obeyed the word that was preached to them, unbelievers were destined to reject it (v. 8b).
The imagery in this passage highlights the dignity of the community that is built on Christ, the “elect and precious cornerstone.” By emphasizing God’s mercy and election, readers can understand the hostility shown by outsiders as a sign that others have not been chosen to receive this precious gift. Instead of shaking the faith of the community, its experiences of rejection serve as reminders of what God has done for them. This passage also points out the obligation that follows from being God’s people, “declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into light” (v. 9). The expression to “declare the wonderful deeds of God” can refer to singing God’s praises in worship (Ps. 118). But another dimension of “declaring the deeds of God” becomes evident when the letter addresses the situation of its readers. Their lives and words will have to be testimony to outsiders so that they too might glorify God (2:12).
Although the images in this section are familiar from the Old Testament, many Christians find them somewhat alien. A number of Americans do not consider identification with a particular church community central to their identity even though they describe themselves as practicing Christians when asked. God may be at work building up the church in some global sense, but they feel that local churches are human institutions. These “grand metaphors” do not seem to describe our day-today experience as Christians. Of course, the same may have been true for the addressees of this letter. After all, they did not even have separate buildings dedicated to worship. If they lived, whether as slaves, dependents, or wives, in a pagan household, they were surrounded by pagan religious art even at home. Temples and other shrines were everywhere. Christians had no art, no buildings, no sacred places. Everything took place within the assembled community of believers.
Our images of community have an important impact on our behavior and relationships with others. An ongoing conflict in our local church pits those who want silence before worship against those who greet friends, exchange news, and the like. One group thinks of the church as a place where the mystery and awe of God ought to be respected, hence silence. The other group thinks of the church as a large, extended family. If people are happy to be together, they will express it in exchanging greetings. Many of the older widowed adults are particularly pleased when young people come over to say hello or even sit with them. While we try to build quiet time into the service, the noisier crowd prevails. People join our church because they feel that others are genuinely glad to see them walk in the door. The church as extended family has prevailed over the church as sacred space.