Lesson 4 of5
In Progress

Introductory Issues in 1 Peter

Christ’s suffering in relation to Isaiah 53

In 1 Peter, Jesus’ suffering is not portrayed or understood primarily in terms of the historical events of his betrayal, trial, beatings, and death on a cross. Instead, Jesus’ sufferings, inflicted on an innocent person, are said to have taken place for others-not least for those to whom 1 Peter is addressed. (In making this case, 1 Peter makes the most extensive use of Isaiah 53 of any New Testament book: 1 Peter 2:21-25 paraphrases Isaiah 53:5-11, and 1 Peter 3:18 draws on Isaiah 53:4-6.) Therefore, Christians also are to suffer undeserved criticism and unjust treatment, so that their faith and good conduct will be apparent: “by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish” (1 Peter 2:15). In this, they follow the example of Christ, who did not seek vengeance, a mark of honorable males in Greek culture, but who suffered for the sins of the unrighteous to bring them back to God (3:18). The idea is not to endure suffering as an end in itself, but to do good even when it brings suffering upon oneself. That is, suffering in this sense is not a strategy, either for Jesus or for the Christian; rather, it is a consequence of faithful existence in relation to the ongoing work of God.

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, but they come 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 implications for obedience to God in specific times and places. For other Christians, in other contexts, the implications for obedience may be 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 Apostle Paul

It has been observed for many centuries that the teachings and theological phrases in 1 Peter have a marked similarity to the letters of the Apostle Paul. Yet, one sees from the book of Acts as well as Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (see Galatians 1:11-2:14) that there likely were some serious differences between the two men. So, what can be made of their apparent agreement as evidenced by 1 Peter? Perhaps the most obvious factor is that by the last decades of the first century C.E., the situation that confronted (and sometimes divided) Paul and the original disciples (including Peter and James) at mid-century had subsided. This situation had concerned the complicated relationship between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, especially whether to require Gentile Christian men to be circumcised, and other issues related to the ongoing function of the Mosaic law for Christians. To the extent that these matters were already settled and because fewer and fewer Jews were converting to Christianity by late in the first century, believers had been able to move away from these earlier arguments. Also, with the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and the move of the center of Christianity away from Jerusalem, second- and third-generation church leaders needed to draw together the common themes and teachings of the first generation for the sake of unity. First Peter is a letter that builds in many ways on Paul’s theology and language, yet it was attributed to Peter and sent from Rome–where Peter’s leadership had long been emphasized, despite the fact that both Peter and Paul probably were killed there in the mid 60s. 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.

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. It is the theological basis that both husband and wife are created by God and both are heirs of new life in Christ that emerges as constant. 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.

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 to slaves were used to justify slavery in many times and places. Interpretations 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 spoke to or about slaves.

The theological worldview of 1 Peter

In seeking to understand this letter it is helpful to try to make explicit its author’s view of the world in terms of the world’s relation to God, because this view is quite different from modern ones. In 1 Peter, the whole world in its temporal or historical existence is seen by the author as (1) God’s creation, made in accordance with (2) God’s will and purposes, (3) ordered in certain ways by God for creation’s own good, and in which (4) God remains active–creating, preserving, providing, sustaining, and judging. In addition, (5) God has acted to save human beings through Jesus Christ, and one day (6) God will bring the created world to its promised end. Notice that God is the subject of statements about the world, suggesting that God is the principal actor in history. Furthermore, God and heaven are not portrayed as being high above the world (that is, not in transcendent terms); rather, God is viewed as being before, during, in, with, and after the created world. The world and history are not pictured as moving along on their own, whether aimlessly or in some deterministic fashion; rather, in the midst of created freedom, God acts to move created reality (including humans) in certain directions. This worldview is quite different from the ways that modern people–Christians and others–think about the world most of the time.