Lesson 6 of 6
In Progress

Bible in the World – 1 Peter

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. The constant of these passages is the theological claim that both husband and wife are created by God and both are heirs of new life in Christ. 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.


In his conflict with the Roman papacy, Martin Luther sought to establish the primacy of Scripture and not tradition or ecclesiastical authority as the foundation of the life of the church. His followers began to use 1 Peter 1:24-25 as a shorthand to show their support in this conflict. By proclaiming that “the word of the Lord endures forever,” they sought to maintain that while traditions and human authorities may change, God’s truth in Scripture does not. Because the Latin Vulgate was still the official translation of the western church, they adopted the Latin form of these words “Verbum domini manet in aeternum” as their motto. The first use of this motto appears to have been in the court of Frederick the Wise, a German prince who was Luther’s patron and protector. Frederick had the verse sewn onto the clothing of his court officials, and other Lutheran princes including his brother John the Steadfast, adopted this practice. In the subsequent conflicts between Lutherans and Catholics, the phrase or its abbreviation VDMA was inscribed on banners, armor, coins and buildings. The abbreviation, often arranged in the quadrants of a cross, continues to be used by Lutheran groups today as can be seen on the cover of the journal Lutheran Quarterly

Satan Prowling Like a Roaring Lion

At the end of his letter, the author of 1 Peter exhorts the new followers of Jesus to discipline themselves and “keep alert” (5:8). He emphasizes this command with vivid imagery of the threat that they face from the devil, whom he describes as “Like a roaring lion” who “prowls around, looking for someone to devour” (5:8). For the people at the time of the writing of 1 Peter, the image would have resonated with their everyday concerns; lions roamed across Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) up until the 19th century. Though Christians in the western world do not encounter lions as an existential threat, the image of the devil as a lion continues to inspire preaching and music, especially within the contemporary worship and camp ministry space. In some contemporary theologies, the verse has become a shorthand for teaching children the nature of the devil. This can be seen in such songs as “Who is Satan?” from Dana Dirksen’s Songs for Saplings collection. Within the Bible camp setting, the band Lost and Found achieved a following in the early 2000s for their song “Lions” based on this verse. The song was a favorite during their concerts for its creative use of a Slinky as a rhythm instrument.

The Harrowing of Hell  

One of the questions that perplexed early Christian theologians was what Christ did during the three days that he lay in the tomb. They found three texts in the New Testament especially important in answering this question. The first came from Ephesians in which an analogy is made to the ascension: “When it says, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:9-19). The other two came from 1 Peter in which the author states that Christ “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison” (3:19) and that “the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead” (4:6). The early church fathers took these verses together to mean that Christ had descended into the realm of the dead in order to preach to the patriarchs of the Old Testament, especially Adam, and to rescue them from the power of Satan. This preaching and rescue is commemorated in the Eastern Orthodox icon known as the Anastasis (Greek for “resurrection”) in which Christ leads Adam out of death by the hand. In medieval England, the descent of Christ into hell became a theme of Anglo-Saxon poetry, including works by the poets Caedmon and Cynewulf. It is in the Anglo-Saxon literature that the descent first becomes known as the “harrowing” of hell, harrowing being an old term for destruction. In 21st century American theology, the doctrine has fallen out of favor, both among mainline Protestants on account of their discomfort with the idea of hell in general and among evangelicals who consider the biblical evidence too scanty.

The Apostles’ Creed

Two petitions of the Apostles’ Creed trace their origin to 1 Peter. Both occur at the end of the second article and have to do with the work of Christ after his crucifixion. The first petition clarifies two matters that were left ambiguous in the Nicene Creed. In dealing with the immediate aftermath of the crucifixion, the Nicene Creed states that Christ “suffered and was buried.” The Apostles’ Creed, however, draws upon 1 Peter 3:18 “He was put to death in the flesh” and adds the qualification that Jesus “died and was buried.” The emphasis on the reality of Christ’s death was probably a response to the theological position known as docetism, which claimed that Jesus was not actually a human, but only seemed to be so. The Apostles’ Creed, on the other hand, seeks to establish that Jesus was an actual person who really died. 

After stating that Christ died and was buried, the Apostles’ Creed goes on to maintain that Christ descended to the dead, a topic on which the Nicene Creed is silent. Christ’s descent to the dead, which developed into the later doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell, was drawn out of two verses in 1 Peter in which the author states that Christ “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison” (3:19) and that “the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead” (4:6). The final contribution of 1 Peter to the Apostles’ Creed comes from 1 Peter 3:22 in which the author maintains that Christ “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God.” Both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed contain petitions with similar wording, proclaiming that Jesus “ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty.” 

Drowning in Baptism

The New Testament contains many references to the practice of baptism with different authors emphasizing different aspects of the practice. For instance, the Gospel of Matthew begins and ends Jesus’ ministry with reference to baptism, first through John the Baptist’s distinction between his baptism of repentance and Jesus’ baptism of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11) and then through Jesus’ command to baptize all nations in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). Paul links baptism to Christ’s death and resurrection, symbolizing the death of the old sinner and their raising to new life (Romans 6:3-4) and the letter to Titus talks of baptism as a “washing of rebirth and renewal” (Titus 3:5). 

1 Peter set a foundation for later theology by linking together baptism and the Flood (3:20-21). The author of 1 Peter identifies the Flood as a “prefiguring” of baptism and in doing so, draws a distinction between baptism as a purity rite and baptism as a symbol of God’s action through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. 1 Peter continues to make the claim that baptism “saves” (3:21), an idea taken up by Luther in his Small Catechism, where he maintains that baptism “works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this.” Drawing on the connection between baptism and the Flood, later theologians would go on to identify Christians not with Noah, but with those who perished in the Flood. As Luther would also write, “[baptism] indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die.”  

A Sacristy Prayer

Similar to the Gospel of John, 1 Peter makes use of sheep and shepherd imagery to describe the relationship between Jesus and his followers. While John refers to Jesus as the “good shepherd,” 1 Peter expands on that language to describe Jesus as the “shepherd and guardian of your souls” (2:25). The word translated as “guardian” is episkopon. The English word “episcopal” is derived from this, and in the early church it came to be the title given to what English speakers call a bishop. The translation of this verse in the King James Bible reflects this when it calls Jesus the “shepherd and bishop of your souls.” 

The parallel imagery of sheep going astray and Jesus as shepherd and bishop inspired a prayer, often attributed to Martin Luther, that is hung in some churches’ sacristies (in liturgical church traditions, a sacristy is the place where a pastor puts on their robes). This “Sacristy Prayer” was meant to inspire and encourage pastors by reminding them that though they are, like straying sheep, “unworthy of the office and ministry,” Jesus himself has called them to it and will be their helper. The prayer ends by invoking 1 Peter 2:25 “O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, shepherd and bishop of our souls, send Your Holy Spirit that He may work with me to will and to do through Your divine strength according to Your good pleasure. Amen.”

The Priesthood of All Believers

First Peter, along with the Epistle to the Hebrews, is one of the few books of the New Testament to make use of priest imagery. Hebrews uses this imagery to illustrate the work of Jesus as the “great high priest who passed through the heavens” (Hebrews 4:14). First Peter, on the other hand, applies this imagery to the followers of Jesus. They are a “holy priesthood” and a “royal priesthood” (2:5, 9). This broad application of the language of priesthood inspired the Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. In opposition to the Roman Catholic doctrine that priesthood was only connected with the sacrament of ordination, the reformers advocated for understanding every Christian as a priest. This priesthood manifested itself in two functions: 1) Every Christian had the ability to pray to Jesus without the need for a mediator. As priests, they could intercede and offer prayers to God. 2) Every Christian was authorized and obligated to preach the Gospel to their family and neighbors. The reformers argued that the work of spreading the good news was not restricted to religious professionals, but was the duty and joy of every Christian.