Lesson 4 of 6
In Progress

Introductory Issues in 1 Peter

Revised by Kristopher Phan Coffman, 04/23

Ethical exhortations and their theological basis

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

First Peter and the New Testament

First Peter shares themes with many other New Testament books including the use of shepherd imagery similar to the Gospel of John and sacrifice and temple imagery similar to the letter to the Hebrews. As noted in the section (Christ’s suffering in relation to Isaiah 53), 1 Peter contains abundant quotations and allusions to the Old Testament, some of which are also quoted in the Gospels (“the stone that the builders rejected” Psalm 118:22) and the Apostle Paul (“a rock one stumbles over” Isaiah 8:14). Still other quotations are unique to 1 Peter (“… you are not my people and I am not your God.” Hosea 1:8). 1 Peter overlaps with Pauline themes including the behavior of believers after coming to Christ and the relation to the Roman Empire. Other themes such as baptism are treated quite differently and specifically Pauline themes such as the abolition of the Law are absent. In any case, Martin Luther, who judged nearly all theology in terms of Paul’s teaching of justification by faith in Christ alone, praised 1 Peter for expressing that same teaching so clearly.

The present age and the future age

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

Slave-master distinctions

The theme of submission or subordination of slaves to their masters has been a problem for readers of 1 Peter for a long time. The exhortations in the book to slaves were unfortunately used to justify slavery in many times and places. 

Contemporary interpreters of 1 Peter 2:18-25, especially vv. 18-21, must note that in the context of the Roman Empire, slavery existed as a widespread and long-standing part of the economic, social, and political order, and a few scattered Christians were not going to be able to put a stop to it. Therefore, for Christian slaves to accept the authority of their masters (rather than trying to kill them or running away from them) might have been realistic and appropriate in this case and would have avoided bringing even more hostility upon the fragile Christian movement. 

On the other hand, the reader should not fail to see that just prior to 2:18 stands 2:16, written to all Christians, including slaves: “As servants [this is the Greek word for ‘slaves’] of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.” That certainly is much more of a universal Christian teaching than the context-specific word to slaves to accept their masters’ authority. In addition, it is notable that Christian slaves were addressed as being fully human and fully members of the community, which was an important difference from the way that most people in the Roman empire spoke to or about slaves.

Pseudonymity and 1 Peter

In dealing with the question of authorship in 1 Peter (and other New Testament letters), the concept of pseudonymity is often invoked by scholars. Pseudonymity is the claim that it was an acceptable practice in the Greco-Roman world for authors to write in the name of more famous figures. However, the parallels that are often adduced for this practice (i.e., the books of Enoch, the Testament of Moses) are in quite different genres and usually attribute their work to an authority figure from the distant past. In the case of personal letters, if it was discovered that the letter had originated from someone other than the claimed author, it was denounced as a forgery, as happened with the false letter of Paul to the Laodiceans that was rejected in the Muratorian canon, a late 2nd century CE list of New Testament books. 

The letters of the New Testament themselves are concerned with the practice of forgery and often contain attestations that the author has written part of the letter in their own hand in order to prove its provenance (cf. Galatians 6:11). With this in mind, at the very least it should be understood that the original recipients of 1 Peter saw no reason to doubt that it came from the apostle himself as claimed in the letter’s salutation.