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An Introduction into the First Epistle of Peter

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

A New Set of Eyes:

Perspective is vital, and garnering multiple angles grants us access into knowing the truth more deeply. Not that we are not allowed access into truth by our limited finite scope, but rather truth—infinitely conveyed in God Himself—can be accessed by varying vantage points, none more important than God’s self-revelation. As Geerhardus Vos skillfully contends, “The inward hidden content of God’s mind can become the possession of man only through a voluntary disclosure on God’s part. God must come to us before we can go to Him.”[1] Thankfully God has given us His Word and, thus, imputed upon us covenantal access into His redemptive narrative through the blood shed of Christ. Therefore, though mining exegetical nuggets are of the upmost importance, it is vitally and simultaneously clear that obtaining a birds-eye-view is as essential in understanding the different nuances of the biblical narrative. To this aim, we undertake our journey into the first epistle of Peter.

The Man, the Myth, the Legend—the Apostle Peter. There may be no fuller representation of character development within the New Testament narrative—beside the Apostle Paul himself—than in the person of the Apostle Peter. We see him as a rugged ambitious disciple during the earthly ministry of Christ to a humble and “first among equals” apostolic leader championing the developmental infancy stage of the local church at Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:1-31).[2] The fiery and hot-spirited forerunner found his foot within his mouth on multiple occasions. Whether that be rebuking the Messianic Savior to embarking upon an irreligious and racially discriminatory practice within the local assembly, the apostle himself has been a keen example of the grace of God in the Gospel of Jesus Christ (cf. Matt. 16:23; Mk. 8:33; Lk. 4:8; Gal. 2:11-14).[3] These developmental features will pay dividends to our modest journey into the first epistle of Peter and the theological girth that arises from its glorious message. What we will see is a correlation between Peter’s failings and his theological basis conveyed to the covenant assembly of saints. The three characteristics found in his epistle are (1) his self-righteousness, (2) his fear of man, and (3) his perversion toward nationalism.

First, Peter demonstrated a sort of self-righteous appeal to his devotional commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. In foretelling of the Lord’s death and resurrection, Peter responds, naturally, by saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matt. 16:22). Jesus famously and shockingly responds by saying, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me” (Matt. 16:23a). Though Peter responds in good fortune, he quickly realizes (or maybe does not realize) that his appeal was contrary to the purposes of God.[4] Hence, Jesus continues by saying, “For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of men” (Matt. 16:23b). You see, Peter has the audacity to confront the messianic figure foretold of by the prophets of old. As one commentator proposes, “Jesus will be seen persistently trying to undermine the ‘human thoughts’ of the disciples so as to get them to see things from the perspective of the kingdom of heaven (not especially 19:23; 20:20-28).”[5] Peter, in one sense, demonstrates a self-righteous holier-than-thou mentality. Meaning, he is marching to the beat of his own drum!

Second and thirdly, respectively, we see Peter whither toward the all-too-common enemy encapsulated in the fear of man. This common foe annihilates, on the one hand, the witness of believers and, on the other, the unity and solidarity of the covenant community. These idiosyncrasies of Peter resurface on multiple occasions. On one instance, Peter denies his Lord and Savior; not once, not twice, but thrice in time of need (cf. Matt. 26:69-75; Mk. 14:69-70; Lk. 22:59-62; Jn. 13:36-38). In doing so, he puts into question his call to an apostolic witness yet finds grace and mercy from his Savior who reinstates his charge (cf. Jn. 21:20-24). In another instance, he undermines the Gospel by reverting to the Jewish cultural boundary markers rather than submitting himself to the covenantal realities cemented in the blood of Christ (cf. Gal. 2:11-14).[6] The racial and ethnic discrepancy was remarkably severe in the eyes of Paul, so much so that he mentioned Peter’s conduct as “not in step with the truth of the Gospel” (Gal. 2:14). Martin Luther befittingly comments, “Paul would not allow this, and so he reproved Peter, not so Peter might be reproached, but so he might again establish a clear distinction between the two—namely, that the Gospel justifies in heaven, and the law on earth.”[7] Meaning, the justifying work of the Gospel colors our perception in order to rightly walk in accords with God’s created intent; the Gospel renews of mind as well as of heart (cf. Rom. 12:2).

These are but a few of the growing pains that we are privileged—in humility—to recount for our benefit. Yet, we dare not read Peter with distain nor ridicule, but rather in the grace of the Gospel we read Peter as we would read ourselves in Christ, with grace and mercy.

A Bird’s Eye View:

Therefore, when we enter into our study of the first epistle from Peter, we are not merely observing a growing man, but God’s Word coming through apostolic agency. We see development from failure and shortcomings to a Gospel-centeredness that is saturated amid Holy Spirit superintendence. Meaning, from the fallibility of narcissistic gain, God wields in Peter—a crooked stick—the infallible and inerrant Word of God. Hence, in the midst of suffering—a large portion of what the epistle is seeking to convey—Peter draws from the well of darkness and despair derived from his own missteps and failings and, in turn, encourages the community of saints to drink from the sweetness and lifegiving water of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Suffering, as is communicated in the epistle, is multifaceted. Meaning, there are varying degrees to how suffering is experienced within the Christian life. Peter, who is not new to such ways of living, seeks to encourage “believers to endure in the face of difficult times. He did this by promoting a biblical worldview among the believers.”[8] The brutal reality, according to one commentator, is that the “believers in 1 Peter are the new people of God, but as God’s people they are disenfranchised, discriminated against, and mistreated. Their home is not earth but heaven.”[9] What is received thematically throughout this epistle, then, are three central topics rooted amid suffering: (1) holiness, (2) being a witness of Christ, and (3) the family of God.

Holiness. The call to holiness is evident throughout the entire epistle of first Peter. The adjective holy, hagios in the Greek, is utilized eight times throughout the entire epistle, and of those eight references five are directed toward believers.[10] Accordingly, Peter mounts the community of saints, whom he calls “elect exiles” (1:1), upon the Person and work of Jesus Christ. He assures them that they have been “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1:3). All of which has been construed by the infinite wisdom of God portrayed through the prophets of old—who were carried by the power of the Holy Spirit—in order that His redemptive purpose may be revealed to the people of God (cf. 1:10-12). Thus, holiness would be the hallmark of His people. The Apostle cites Leviticus 11:44 in 1 Peter 1:16 which says, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” He gives the predominantly Gentile congregation a charge that was accustomed for the nation of Israel. In this since, the Gentiles church, in the eyes of the apostle, has been grafted into the people of God (cf. Rom. 11:11-24). Hence, the call to holiness would be the characteristic that shapes and defines the covenant community.

Furthermore, the mark of holiness does not waver amid suffering and persecution. This charge ultimately would stand amidst the brutal winds and devilish waves of worldly currents. The Apostle reminds the church that they are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (2:9, italics mine;). This holiness, then, would be apparent amid ecclesial and societal interactions. Submission to governmental, managerial, and familial structures would mark the holiness of God’s people (cf. 2:13-3:7). “Live as people who are free,” says Peter, “not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God” (2:16). Hence, the obedience displayed within the wider audience does not and would not terminate upon societal structures, but rather would elevate as burnt offerings giving off worshipful aroma to the trinitarian God of the universe.

A Witness of Christ. What is intrinsically tied to holiness is the believers’ call to represent their life of conduct as an act of worship toward their living God. Said differently, the covenant people of God are to be distinct from the world in order to speak into the world for the sake of Christ Jesus. Though contrary to modern church growth movements, the biblical mandate is not to surrender ourselves to the cultural climate, but rather to mark ourselves with holiness and love as an appeal toward divine realities (cf. Jn 13:31-33; 1 Pet. 1:16; see also Lev. 11:44). As those who operate contrary to the polytheistic culture, the church in Peter’s day embodied considerably more pressure to showcase their distinctiveness amid a high moral call. Meaning, due to the church’s monotheistic commitment, according to most scholars, “they would have been viewed with suspicion, not only as being ‘godless’ but also as potentially subversive (‘evildoers’).”[11] In this sense, the Apostle’s charge for moral obedience is in line with displaying the truths of the Gospel.

The next appeal to Christian witness is what one commentator calls “lifestyle evangelism.”[12] Thus, the Apostle Peter calls the people of God to “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (2:12). Peter will, then, elaborate further amid the societal, managerial, and familial spheres as was stated above. And yet, even if by good conduct the church is placed under persecution, Peter charges the community of saints to remain steadfast in their commitment toward holiness. “For it is better to suffer for doing good,” says Peter, “if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (3:17). “In a phrase,” says D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, “Peter calls on his readers to exhibit ‘piety under pressure’ as a means of glorifying God and of witnessing to a hostile but watchful world.”[13]

The Family of God. In concert with the previous two headings is the notion of the family of God. Two central images are apparent in the epistle. The first is the church as God’s temple and the second is the people of God as family. Peter asserts that the church is “being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifice acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (2:5). Again, the predominantly Gentile audience is grafted into the narrative of God’s redemptive aim. One author articulates, “[the] point is that the reborn people are the chosen people, heirs of the promises and purposes of God that He spoke to Israel through Moses and Isaiah.”[14] Meaning, the people of God embody the covenantal framework of God’s indwelling presence. They are, in fact, “living stones” who make up the dwelling place of God (cf. 2:5). This is a result of the OT imagery that conveyed God’s presence through the tabernacle of Israel’s wilderness wandering and, consequently, the temple structure of their theocratic reign.

The next communal imagery that is pressed forward is the familial structure of God’s covenant people. Two times within the epistle, Peter exhorts the assembly of saints toward “brotherly love” (cf. 1:22; 3:8). In another instance, the Apostle drives the imperative of “love the brotherhood” (cf. 2:17). Like any natural family who lives within a broken and depraved world; anger, animosity, and hostility are easily erected especially amid communal interaction. Regardless, Peter gives the charge to “keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (4:8; italics mine). The Apostle anticipates that wrongdoing and calamity will occur, yet the source for healing, reconciliation, and redemption are found mounted within the church of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Takeaways from the Journey:

In our short survey on the first epistle of Peter, we have found that God has not left us to fend for ourselves. He has fueled the church and by His omniscient wisdom there is purpose in our suffering. Thus, every ounce of pain, strife, and tension that is experienced within the Christian life is not without meaning. It has a telos; it is applied to work for the good of His people and the glory of God (cf. Rom. 8:29). Hence, Peter encourages the saints that “after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To Him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (5:10-11). Three points, then, for consideration amid suffering.

We have a Living Hope. Peter, from the start of his epistle, reminds us that we have been saved into a “living hope” (cf. 1:3). Our redemption is not one of fear nor one of hopelessness nor one of death, but rather one of power, life, victory, and triumph in Christ Jesus (cf. Jn. 1:4-5; 14:6; Rom. 8:15; 1 Cor. 15:57; 2Cor. 2:14; 1 Jn. 4:5). Therefore, suffering cannot hinder nor break the reality that we have in Christ Jesus, in whom we have the honor and privilege of calling out, “Abba! Father!” (cf. Rom. 8:15). Thus, Paul in Romans 8:35-39 can rightfully join Peter by saying,

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? . . . 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The Ancestral People of God. Next, our suffering is not isolated nor is it confined. Rather, we share in the sufferings of Christ as the universal church, as a local congregation, and as the people of God (cf. Rom. 8:15; 2 Cor. 1:5; Col. 1:24; 2 Tim. 2:3). Peter reminds us befittingly to “Resist [the devil], firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (5:9).

A Christocentric Aim. Lastly, we will find that the Apostle Peter graciously and fervently anchors the covenant community in the work and Person of Christ. All efforts to persevere, to endure, and to persist in suffering are mounted upon the example and reality that we—His brothers/sisters—have in Christ Jesus our Lord. “For Christ also suffered once for sins,” says Peter, “the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God” (3:18a; italics mine). In conclusion, Thomas R. Schreiner correctly contends,

Peter wanted his readers to conceive of themselves as the people of God. They had become part of Israel by believing in Jesus Christ and were God’s holy nation and special people. . . . The encouragement to live as sojourners and set their hope only on God is also matched by the threat that they will be judged if they turn away from the Gospel. The promise and threat are corollaries in the letter, for the threat of final judgement also spurs the readers to set their hope entirely on the promise. They realized that the future reward is also matched by future judgment and that hoping in God is not trivial but momentous.[15]
 

***footnotes***


[1] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testament (Eugene, OR; Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2003), 3-4. [2] See Alexander Strauch. Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership, revised edition. Colorado Springs, CO: Lewis & Roth Publishers, 2005. [3] This notion speaks apologetically against the idea that the apostles construed a religious narrative to fortify their own religious inquiries. If these Gospel-narratives were mere fabrications of human ingenuity, the storyline and representation of a champion-like character within the apostolic representation would have looked quite differently than what is showcased within the canonical Scriptures. The weaknesses and flaws of the early apostolic leadership evidences the supernatural dependence in salvation upon a deity that is beyond human effort and credence. The warts and wrinkles of the apostolic witness assures us that they are not the main point of the narrative. [4] See Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 143-165. Pennington argues rightly that the Gospel writers are not merely producing a script for historical purposes (though it is historical and, hence, significant), rather they see the narrative in hindsight view which grants them theological and pastoral grounds to convey the narrative didactically as well as forcefully. Hence, Peter’s claim, though intended with genuine resolve, does not align to the death and resurrection telos. [5] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 635. [6] See Douglas J. Moo, “Justification in Galatians,” Understanding the Times: New Testament Studies in the 21st Century (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 160-195. Moo argues convincingly that the forensic understanding of justification as well as the covenantal inclusion of Gentile believers held by NPP has exegetical warrant. The fallacy lies when Wright, a proponent of the NPP, wants to press the notion of inclusion into the covenantal community over and against the forensic sentiment which creates, in Moo’s mind, faulty binary. [7] Martin Luther, Galatians: Crossway Classic Commentaries, trans. Alister McGrath and J. I. Packer (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1998), 84. [8] Andreas J. Kostenberger, L. Scott Kellum, & Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, The Cross, and The Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville, TN: 2009), 737. [9] Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, NAC (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 41. [10] Williams B. Barcley, “1 Peter,” A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the New Testament: The Gospel Realized, ed. Michael J. Kruger (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 462. [11] Ibid., 463. [12] See Karen Jobes, 1 Peter, BECNT (Grand Rapid, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 167. [13] D. A. Carson & Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 636. [14] Peter H. Davids, A Theology of James, Peter, and Jude: Living in the Light of the Coming King, BTOTNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 134-135. [15] Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, 46.

 

McYoung Y. Yang (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; ThM, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the husband to Debbie and the father to McCayden (12), McCoy (10), McColsen (8), and DeYoung (5).  He is a Teaching Pastors at Covenant City Church in St. Paul, MN. McYoung is continuing his doctoral studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO. His ambition is to use his training as a means to serve the local church in living life through the Gospel lens.

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