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Introduction to the 1st Epistle of Peter

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General Info

The book’s title comes from the name of the author.  It was Simon Peter’s first canonical letter written to Christians who had been dispersed into several Roman provinces in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey).  The letter encourages Christians to persevere when facing persecution for the faith, in light of their future hope (Gk elpis meaning ‘future certainty’) of sharing in Christ's glory.  He also reminds his readers that they are strangers and aliens in a foreign land while on earth, and that their real home is in heaven.  These truths also hold true for us as believers today.

First Peter was written approximately 30 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It continues the story of the spread of God's kingdom (the church) beyond Israel.

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Brief Survey

In the first section of the letter (1:1 –2:12), Peter encourages his readers to view their present temporary sufferings in the light that they had been born again to a future assurance of heaven.  Because of this possession and their status in Christ, they are called to live holy lives.

The second section (2:13- 4:11) finds Peter addressing the social order, in which he urges Christians to be good citizens, submitting to the proper authorities and to each other.  He also gives instructions for living a virtuous life that God blesses.

The final section (4:12-5:11) contains a final reminder to stand firm in the faith despite times of persecution, knowing that their final reward is guaranteed.

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Key Verses

For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. (1:18-19)

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (2:9-10)

He himself [Jesus] bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. (2:24)

For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit. (3:18)

If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen. (4:11)

Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. (5:8-10)

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Author and Date

The author identifies himself as the apostle Peter (1:1), who was an “eyewitness of the sufferings of Christ” (5:1).  Peter’s authorship is also supported by the contents and personality of the letter, consistently reflecting the character of his experiences, associations and dialogues of the Gospels and Acts.  In addition, the early church fathers recognized Peter as the author and the book as authoritative from the beginning.  Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John, quotes the epistle in his letter to the Philippians.  Second century Church fathers Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, along with the fourth century historian Eusebius were just a few that testified to the letter’s authority and author.

First Peter was probably written from Rome (called Babylon in 5:13) in the early 60s AD, shortly before his death.  Christian tradition places Peter in Rome at the end of his life, where he was martyred at the hands of the Roman emperor Nero about 64 - 67 AD.

These assertions went unchallenged until recently, when liberal scholars began objecting to the book’s author and authority on several grounds which are easily resolved.  The first argument is concerning the Greek in the letter being too polished for Peter, a fisherman by trade.  In the first century, most people of various professions spoke Greek, and Peter tells us that the letter was written with the help of Silas (5:12), who may have acted as a scribe.  In another objection, scholars claim that the persecutions to which Peter refers is descriptive of the Christian life under emperor Domitian (81–96 AD) or Trajan (98–117), however, they are equally descriptive of the reign of Nero (54–68).  Others have argued that Peter would have cited the Hebrew OT instead of the Greek translation (Septuagint), but it is more natural that he would have quoted the Greek translation since he was writing to primarily to Greek readers.  Still others have complained that the book’s theology is too much like Paul’s to have been written by Peter, but we’d actually expect the Apostles, church elders and other close followers of Jesus to have similar theologies (for example, compare 1Peter 5:5-11 with James 4:4-10).  Undoubtedly, they would have been familiar with a portion of each other’s writings, since some of the letters were routinely circulated among the various churches.

The recipients of 1 Peter are noted in the first verse of the book, “to God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia”.  These provinces were located in mostly Gentile area north of the Taurus Mountains in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), but likely also contained some Jewish exiles.

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Historical Background

As we just mentioned, the recipients of Peter’s letter were mostly first century Gentile and Jewish Christians and Jews in Asia Minor.  While these provinces retained much of their ethnic identity, they had been greatly impacted by Greco-Roman culture since they had been under Roman control for over a century.

It is obvious from the letter’s theme that Christians in this area are facing many difficult trials for their faith, but Peter doesn’t specify the exact nature of the persecution, nor does he indicate that their mistreatment was actually government sponsored.  Rome however, was a different story.  Historians tell us that, after the great fire in Rome in 64 AD, it was widely believed that the Emperor Nero had his servants set the fires to clear the way for his ambitious building projects.  To deflect criticism, he made Christians the scapegoat, blamed them for the fire, and had many tortured and killed.  Some were crucified, while others were sewn into animal skins and torn apart by wild dogs.  Still others were covered with tar, hung on poles and set on fire as lights for Nero’s evening festivities.

Meanwhile, in the outer Roman controlled provinces, there appears to have been no official empire-wide state-sponsored policy against Christianity, only occasional outbursts against Christians by the general populace.  These mistreatments in controlled Roman territory may have been quietly encouraged by the empire and fueled by the false rumors that were being spread, but the Roman authorities usually left these cases up to the local officials, most of whom had an unfavorable view of Christianity.

Nevertheless, in the first century, the general populace in Asia Minor looked upon Christians as a strange and superstitious lot, considered disloyal to Roman society.  For example, the practice of observing the Lord’s Supper was considered a strange ritual involving bloody sacrifice and cannibalism.  They did not serve in the Roman army since they refused to take an oath of loyalty to the emperor.  The pressure to go along with the prevailing culture was even stronger than in our modern times, and the refusal by Christians to conform often led to abuse (4:4).  The most common forms of persecution probably included verbal abuse, discrimination in the workplace and marketplace, confiscation of property, and being brought into court on false charges.  Although not specifically stated by Peter, it’s highly probable that some Christians were also suffering physical abuse for their faith (2:20).

These conditions, under which the first century believers lived, should be kept in mind while reading Peter’s first epistle.

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Peter's 1st Epistle was written in the mid-sixties AD.

27 or 30 (1) Peter called to be a Disciple of Jesus
30 or 33 (1) Last Supper (Passover), Jesus’ Arrest, Peter’s Denial, Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection
30 or 33 (1) Pentecost (birth of the Church in Jerusalem); 3000 Saved at Peter’s Sermon (Acts 2)
~ 41-44 Peter imprisoned by Agrippa, Miraculous Escape & Leaves Jerusalem
~ 49-50 The Council at Jerusalem
~ 54 Peter arrives in Rome
54-68 Reign of Nero
~ 60-63 Peter writes his First Epistle
64 Fire at Rome, Nero blames Christians
~ 64-67 Persecution of Christians under Nero
~ 64-67 Peter writes his Second Epistle; Peter martyred in Rome
70 Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem

(1)  These dates are either one or the other (Nisan 14 Passover falling between Thursday sundown to Friday sundown on the Jewish calendar).  The earlier date is the most popular, but there are good evidences and arguments to support either date.

~ Dates are approximated.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

The main purpose of Peter’s letter is to encourage his readers to continue to persevere during times of suffering and persecution.  They, and us by extension, are to remain faithful to God knowing that, just as Jesus Christ suffered before entering into glory, so too shall all believers suffer before jointly inheriting the Kingdom.

Despite the short length of the letter, Peter manages to touch upon several doctrines and themes about Christian living, morals and ethics.  The most obvious is seen in the just mentioned main purpose, that of living for and glorifying God in the midst of persecution, trials and suffering prior to our promised exaltation; however, we also recognize several other contributing themes including the establishment of many imperatives or principles throughout the text.

Peter applies the words of Moses, Isaiah and Hosea to the church, calling believers “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and God’s people” (2:9-10), thus declaring the church to be the new Israel and the new people of God.  Peter is not advocating “Replacement Theology”, which teaches that the church has replaced Israel in God’s plan.  The true church currently enjoys the spiritual blessings promised to Israel (election, adoption, gift of the Holy Spirit, inheritance of the Kingdom etc), but when the fullness of the Gentiles (church) have come into the kingdom, God’s promises to ethnic Israel will be fulfilled (see Romans 9-11).

We also see Christ’s substitutionary atonement of sins and His triumph over the forces of darkness, which becomes the basis of a new life for believers (1:17-21, 2:24, 3:18-22).  Jesus Christ’s suffering for righteousness provides us with an example to follow (2:21).

Peter also instructs his readers to be subject to civil authorities (2:13-25, see also Rom 13:1-7 for similar instructions from Paul).  This includes authorities which are unfriendly to believers such as the majority of those in power today (keep in mind that Peter is writing during the reign of Nero).  The only exception is if we are asked to violate God’s explicit commands (Acts 4:18-20).

Finally, just as Jesus had commanded Peter to “tend His sheep” (Jn 21:15-17), he passes on the responsibility of shepherding the flock to the church (5:1-4) and leaves a few concluding instructions for all believers (5:5-11).

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

First Peter should not only be read with the knowledge of its historical background, but with the understanding that those who have experienced true salvation are foreigners and aliens in this world.  Just as the world rejected Jesus, so it will reject His followers.

Next, we should notice the shifts between doctrinal and practical teachings.  Unlike Paul, who usually composed the first half of his letters with doctrinal teaching followed by practical applications, Peter alternates back and forth between the two. We can thus see Peter’s concern not only with correct doctrine, but with the proper conduct of his readers.  By this lifestyle, Christians serving as God’s people may win over many pagans (3:1).

Many of the commands regarding relationships of slaves and masters (chapter 2), and husband and wives (chapter 3) must be understood within the culture of the first century rather than reading today’s customs into the text.

Regarding practical teachings, Peter  encourages us, as believers, to maintain a life of holiness, even within the anti-Christian environment in which we live today.  This requires that we understand the identity that we have in Christ, possessing the salvation and inheritance that God promised through the prophets and apostles.  We are God’s holy people (2:9-10), not based upon our own merit, but on the foundation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1:18-19, 3:18).

Next, because of who we are in Christ, we need to pursue a lifestyle that embodies the values of heaven, not those of this world.  We need to imitate our Father and become holy, as he is holy (1:14-16), loving one another (1:22), having respect for authorities (2:13-25) and using our trials to testify to the grace of God (4:12-19).

We should not be surprised by persecution and trials (4:12) if we are living in obedience to God, since this will result in a countercultural lifestyle and worldview, prompting hostility from the world culture.  Our response to these situations can provide powerful opportunities to model and share our faith.

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This letter is divided into three basic parts.  The first, which ends with 2:12, is a call for holiness based upon our status as the new covenant people of God.  The second section (2:13-4:11) instructs believers on how to live in an alien and hostile world.  The final section calls for Christians to stand firm and persevere in the face of trials and persecution.

1:1 - 1:2 Greeting
1:3 - 2:12 Call to Salvation;  Holiness;  Living as People of God
2:13 - 3:12 Submission to Authorities
3:13 - 4:11 Response to Suffering
4:12 - 5:11 Perseverance;  Instructions to Various Groups
5:12 - 5:14 Concluding Words

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