Breakfast with the Bible, Chelmsford Cathedral 18 September 2016
Imagine you are a Christian, living in some remote part of the world, with no contact with the wider world – there are no phones, no e-mails, not even a postal service. To make matters worse, you are going through a rough time as a Christian – most people around you don’t share your faith – indeed, they think you’re a bit of a weirdo for believing in God. If the truth be told, you are beginning to doubt whether what you believe is true – is it worth continuing to make a stand for Jesus. Then, surprise, surprise, a fellow believer turns up with a letter from a leading Christian statesman, encouraging you to keep going – and reminding you of the certainty of the Christian hope.
That’s the context in which 1 Peter was written. It was a letter of encouragement. Listen to what Peter says right at the end of the letter: “I have written this short letter to encourage, and to testify that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it” (5.12).
THE OPENING ADDRESS
FROM PETER – AN APOSTLE OF JESUS CHRIST
“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ” (1.1), the letter begins. .
This letter claims to be written by Peter the fisherman, the brother of Andrew and a close friend of Jesus. Tradition is all in favour of this claim. Moreover the contents of the letter seem to confirm the tradition. E.g.
• The author speaks of himself as “a witness of the sufferings of Christ” (5.1) – Peter was certainly that.
• From 2.23 it would appear that the author had first-hand knowledge of the trial of Jesus: “When he was abused, he did not return abuse”.
• Furthermore, the content of the letter is very similar to the content of Peter’s sermons recorded in the Book of Acts.
And yet there have been people who have questioned whether it was indeed Peter.
• It has been said that the Greek is too good to have come from an Aramaic-speaking fisherman. On the other hand, the author specifically states (5.12) that he used Silvanus as his secretary: “Through Silvanus, who I consider a faithful brother, I have written this short letter – maybe we can credit Silas with the good Greek.
• Another objection to Peter being the author is that the references to persecution imply a time when it was an offence against the state to be a Christian, which only happened when Domitian was Emperor. But the reality is that it was tough to be a Christian in the Roman empire long before it became a state offence. Indeed, when the great fire of Rome broke out in AD 64, the Emperor Nero blamed the Christians and 1000s of Christians in Rome were put to death. Some were rolled in pitch, then set alight while they were still alive, and then used as living torches to light Nero’s garden. Although this extreme persecution only took place in Rome, the fact is that long before Domitian Christians were unpopular and suffered all kinds of injustice as a result.
Tradition has it that Peter was crucified upside down during Nero’s persecution. If so, then this means that this letter must have been written before AD 64.
Notice that Peter describes himself as “an apostle”.
• Literally, the Greek word ‘apostolos’ means one who is sent – as you will remember, after the resurrection Peter had been commissioned by the Lord Jesus to take care of his lambs, as also of his sheep (John 21).
• Scholars comment that underlying this Greek word is a Jewish word, shaliah, which denotes an authorised agent or representative. Peter had authority as an apostle – but it was not an authority which rested in himself, but in the Lord who sent him. “Whoever welcomes you”, said Jesus to his disciples, “welcomes me” (Matt 10.40).
• In the NT the word apostle has additional significance. An apostle is one who is “a witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 1.21). Not surprisingly we find that here in 1 Peter the resurrection of Jesus comes to the fore.
FROM PETER – IN ROME
It is generally agreed that the letter was written from Rome. For in the penultimate verse of the letter the author writes: “Your sister church in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings” (5.13). The Babylon in question was not the once famous city on the Euphrates with its hanging gardens, but rather, as in the book of Revelation, Babylon stands for Rome.
TO GOD’S PEOPLE WHO LIVE IN EXILE
“To the exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1.1).In other words, it was written to Christians living in the country we now call Turkey. Galatia, Cappadocia, and Asia were all Roman provinces – Pontus & Bithynia formed another Roman province. We have here what scholars term a ‘circular’ letter – we might call it a ‘round Robin’. Unlike Paul’s letters this was not addressed to one church – but to a whole group of churches. As a result1 Peter – together with his 2nd letter, as also the letters of James, John & Jude – are sometimes called the ‘General Epistles’: I.E. written to groups of Christians in general.
But did these Christians belong to a particular ethnic group?
Some think that when Peter writes “the exiles of the Dispersion”, this indicates he was writing to a group of Jewish Christians who belonged to the Jewish Diaspora, Jews who had scattered out from Palestine to all the countries of the known world.
However, almost certainly most of Peter’s readers were Gentiles – Peter uses Jewish terms for the new Israel, the church.
• This explains how Peter could write in 1.14: “Do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance”; the Jews knew the difference between right and wrong.
• Likewise, in 1.18 Peter must have had Gentiles in mind when he wrote: “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors”. Yes, there were probably some Jewish Christians reading this letter – but most will have been non-Jews, i.e. Gentiles.
Peter describes his readers as “exiles” in the sense that they had yet to arrive at their true home, which is heaven. As the writer to the Hebrews put it: “Here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Hebs 13.14).
The North American NT scholar, Joel Green wrote: “These are people whose commitments to the lordship of Jesus Christ have led to transformed dispositions and behaviours that place them on the margins of respectable society. Their allegiance to Christ had won for them animosity, scorn and vilification. Their lack of acculturation to prevailing social values marked them as misfits worthy of contempt.”
To use the title of a book by Stanley Hauerwas, Christians are ‘resident aliens’ in this world. Christians do not belong to this world.
Or in the words of the AV translation of 1 Peter 2.9: we are “a peculiar people”.
TO GOD’S PEOPLE – CHOSEN TO BE HOLY
“To exiles….who have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to the sprinkled blood” (1.1,2).
In a way which defies understanding, God’s love has gone ahead of us & drawn us to himself. CHS, the founder of the college of which I was once Principal, used to say that as we enter the Kingdom we go under an arch on which is written: “God so loved the world that… whoever believes in him should not perish”. But once we are inside we look back and see on the reverse side of the arch the words: You did not choose me, but I chose you”.
We have been not just been chosen, but we have been chosen for a purpose – we have been chosen to be holy. This theme of holiness permeates 1 Peter.
• 1.15: “As he who called you is holy, be holy in all your conduct”
• 2.4: “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood”
• 2.9: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people”
God has called us to be different –for difference is what holiness is all about. We are different in the way we behave – and this difference is down to the fact that we belong to God.
GRACE AND PEACE TO YOU
“May grace and peace be yours in abundance”
Like Paul, Peter combines a Greek and Hebrew form of greeting, but gives them deeper significance.
• Most Greeks greet one another with the word chairein – “Greetings”. – Peter uses a related word, charis, ‘grace be yours’. Grace is God’s undeserved loving favour which he shows to sinners, and which we see above all in Jesus. God, as Peter says in 1 Peter 5.10 is “the God of all grace”.
• Most Jews greet one another with the word ‘Shalom’ – peace; however, in the context of grace, this ancient greeting is given new meaning – for it is God’s grace displayed in Jesus that makes peace a reality. The peace which Peter has in mind is not inner tranquillity – but the result of being put right with God. At the end of the letter Peter repeats this greeting as a blessing: “Peace be to all who are in Christ”. (5.14)
Peterson in The Message paraphrases the opening greeting: “May everything good from God be yours!” Frankly, I feel that is somewhat anaemic. Let’s name those things which are good from God – grace and peace!
“Blessed be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” (v3).
Peter begins his First Letter on a wonderful note of ‘benediction’, i.e. of praise. Peter declares that God is to be ‘blessed’ (praised) because of what he has done for us in Jesus.
God is worthy of praise because “he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (v3).
It is significant that in this opening hymn of praise God is defined as “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v3). Jesus is not declared as the Son of God, but rather God is described as the “Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”. It is not that the Son has usurped the place of the Father, but rather it is the Son who makes the Father known. In that sense all truly Christian preaching has to begin with Jesus.
Notice too that Jesus is described as “our Lord Jesus Christ”. Peter underlines the special bond not only between him and his Lord, but also between the Lord and all those who “love him!” (1.8). The Christian religion is a personal religion. Christians do not in the first place believe in a set of doctrines. They believe in the Lord who “loved them and gave himself for them” (see Gal 2.20)
By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead
Perhaps as a result of his own personal experience of having let down the Lord Jesus, Peter was mindful of God’s “great mercy” extended him (see also 2.10) The fact, however, is that it is not only Peter, but in fact none of us deserve the new beginning that God has given us in Christ. Here in itself is cause for praise.
He has given us new birth: Peter uses a simple past (aorist) participle to indicate that God “has caused us to be born again” (anagennesas). Within the New Testament this particular Greek verb (anagennaan) is only found here and in v23, but it is closely related to the Greek expression found in John 3.3,7 (gennan anothen) where Jesus talks to Nicodemus of the necessity of being “born again” if he is to “see the kingdom of God”.
Here of course we are dealing with a metaphor. Nobody is literally born again. And yet the underlying truth is that in this life the Christian undergoes a radical change. Already we can experience something of Jesus’ resurrection life. Listen to Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase: “Because Jesus was raised from the dead we’ve been given a grand –new life and have everything to live for, including a future in heaven – AND THE FUTURE STARTS NOW”
A LIVING HOPE
A living hope: It is living in the sense that it it has been engendered by the resurrection of Jesus and remains focused on the resurrection life that is in Jesus.
Christian hope has nothing in common with that false hope which many of us experience when we go on a diet! We can be certain of the future, because of what has happened in the past. Our “hope” is based on the resurrection of Jesus (1.3).
It was this “hope” in the resurrection which separated Christians from their non-Christian neighbours. The non-Christian world at that time was a world “without hope and without God” (Eph 2.12). In the ancient world death in particular was a force to be dreaded. According to Aristotle, “Death is the most terrifying of things, for it is the end”.
Sophocles expressed a similar dread: “Not to be born at all – that is by far the best fortune; the second best is as soon as one is born with all speed to return thither one has come”.
Into this darkness the light of the Gospel of Life shone.
A SECURE FUTURE
“an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade – kept in heaven for you” (v4). Peter uses three negative adjectives to describe that life which is ultimately beyond description.
1. It is “imperishable” – unlike my poor old teeth the blessings of the life to come cannot decay with age. The life God has for us in Christ will never come to an end.
2. It is “undefiled”. i.e. the blessing of the life to come cannot be spoint by sin The life God has for us in Christ is perfection itself.
3. Iit is “unfading”: i.e. it cannot be debased with the passing of time. What with inflation, any money we put on one side seems to have little value. The life God offers in Christ will never lose its value.
In addition Peter writes that this inheritance is “kept for you in heaven”. Peter employs a Greek perfect passive participle (teteremenen) to indicate a past activity with results that continue into the present.
• The participle can have the sense that this life has been indefinitely reserved for the people of faith.
• Alternatively, it can have the sense that this life in heaven will remain immune from disaster (see Matt 6.19-20; Lk 12.33).
This resurrection hope belongs to men and women who “are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (v5).
Peter employs a military term to describe the security of Christian believers. What’s more, Peter expresses this term by means of a present participle (phrouroumenos). The implication is that God’s power remains in constant guard over those who put their trust in the God of resurrection. Indeed, it is the power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead which is the power that ensures the safety of those who have been born again.
AN UNSPEAKABLE JOY
In this you rejoice
It is the experience of God’s resurrection power at work in the lives of those who have faith as also the hope of resurrection to come that is the cause for great rejoicing, in spite of present “trials” and tribulations (v6).
The verb (agalliao) used here (and in v8) is found in the opening lines of the Magnificat, where Mary cries out, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour (Lk 1.46,47). The NIV translates the term here as “greatly rejoice” – “exult” would be a good alternative translation.
Peter elaborates on this joy, a joy which has its roots in a love for the risen Lord Jesus, unseen and yet present by his Spirit. “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy” (v8).
Unlike Peter the Christians to whom he wrote had never had the privilege of physically seeing the Lord Jesus. Yet they had come to “love him”. Here again is a reminder that the Christian faith is primarily a relationship and not a philosophy or a moral code.. Until the day when they will indeed see him ‘face to face’ (1 Cor 13.12), they “now” are called to” believe” in him.
It is difficult to believe that Peter is not alluding to the words of the Risen Lord Jesus recorded after Thomas’ encounter with him: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (Jn 20.29).
As a result of their relationship with the risen Lord Jesus and the hope that is theirs in him they ‘exult with a joy which is beyond description and which is shot through with that glory which belongs to God himself’ (see 1.7).
THE SALVATION OF YOUR SOULS
V9: “For you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls”
This joy is deepened all the more, because as a result of their faith in the risen Lord Jesus, they are “receiving… the salvation” of their “souls”.
Peter employs a present participle (koimizomenoi): their future salvation is already in the process of being worked out in the present. Already they have been born again – however, their “hope” of sharing in the resurrection of Jesus has yet to be realised.
The “salvation of your souls” is the nearest to which Peter comes to the Pauline doctrine of the resurrection of the body. The soul for Peter undoubtedly has the Semitic sense of the essential self, and refers to humans as “living beings” (see Gen 2.7). In other words, the salvation Peter has in mind is not some shadowy kind of disembodied spirit familiar to the spiritualist seance, but rather a new and fuller life lived together in the Kingdom of God, a life described by Eugene Peterson in The Message as “total” salvation.
Questions for discussion
- The Christian ‘living hope’ (v3) forms an implicit contrast with the ‘dead-end’ hopes of the world. What if any, were your hopes before you came to know Christ? What do you think are the hopes of your non-Christian friends?
- Is your hope essentially personal (‘eternal life’ – “the salvation of your souls”)/ Or does it focus primarily on a new set of relationships (‘life in the Kingdom of God’)
- What difference did your hope make to the way you lived your life last week?