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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

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1 Peter

Luke Timothy Johnson

Before Beginning…

First Peter bears all the marks of a real letter. It was written to Christians scattered throughout the provinces of Asia Minor. Although written in clear and even elegant Greek, and although containing an exhortation and witness ( 5, 12 ) at once simple and profound, 1 Peter is given far less attention than it deserves. Partly this is because many contemporary scholars think that the letter is pseudonymous and a product of second generation rather than primitive Christianity (see, for example, introduction, NT, pp. 1644–45 ). There are, however, excellent reasons for considering Peter the disciple to have been the author of 1 Peter. In any case, the authority of New Testament writings does not derive from the identity of the author. Whether it was the apostle or someone writing in his name, this letter speaks powerfully to a situation of early believers and retains enduring value for readers in every age.

A Letter to the Gentile Christians

The Situation of the Readers

Since the letter is addressed to Christians spread over a large geographical area ( 1, 1 ), we do not expect the detailed treatment of local problems. By reading between the lines, however, we are able to learn something about their shared characteristics. They seem to have been recently converted. Peter reminds them repeatedly of their former life of vice ( 1, 18–20; 4, 3–4 ), as well as their initiation into the messianic community through baptism ( 1, 3; 1, 22–2, 3 ). They seem, furthermore, to be direct converts from paganism rather than from Judaism. They were themselves Gentiles and continued to live among the symbols and social structures of the Empire. They inevitably felt pulled between an allegiance to their new calling and an attraction to the values of the world they had left. They were, finally, converts who were experiencing suffering. On the basis of 4, 12 , some have considered this to be a state‐sponsored persecution such as was later the lot of Christians. But Peter's positive view of the state ( 2, 12–17 ) does not fit that reconstruction. It is more likely that Peter's readers were experiencing the sort of verbal abuse and social ostracism that Christians experienced from the beginning. The suffering was no less serious. Martyrdom is painful but swift. The corrosion of confidence is slower but terribly effective.

Christian Apologetic

First Peter can best be understood as a form of apologetic literature. This form of writing originated among Diaspora Jews and was taken over by Christians. Ostensibly it explains one's distinctive beliefs to the wider world in terms outsiders can understand. Indirectly, it supports community identity. First Peter has many of the characteristics of this genre. It is positive and open to the dominant culture. Christians are not to flee the world or its structures. They are to be good citizens within those social structures. And they are to be ready to demonstrate by their behavior and their speech that they pose no threat to others ( 3, 15–16 ).

At the same time, Peter works to build up the identity of the community. He reminds his readers that they are called to holiness and a standard of behavior higher than that of their neighbors ( 2, 11–12; 4, 1–2 ). He reminds them of the fundamental transformation they had undergone in their baptism. He assures them that although they are “sojourners” in the world ( 2, 11 ), they are part of the “household of God” ( 2, 4–5; 4, 17 ). In so doing, Peter appropriates for these new Gentile believers all the scriptural titles and symbols used of Israel, to give them a sense of continuity with God's people, even though once they were “no people.” In 1 Peter we observe a thoroughly Gentile Christianity regarding itself as the “New Israel,” taking up a place in the Diaspora not against the world but as a witness to the world.

The Greeting ( 1, 1–2 )

The greeting of this circular letter establishes more than the simple identification of author and addressees. No need to elaborate the simple designation, “Peter, apostle of Jesus Christ,” for Peter's authority is unquestioned (see, in contrast, 2 Peter). But the “diaspora” of Asia Minor has religious as well as geographical connotations. We see here a theme found also in James and Hebrews and in the Christian literature of the second century: Christians are in exile from their true homeland in heaven so long as they are on earth. They are, in fact, “sojourners” precisely because they have been “chosen” by God and have an identity distinct from that of their neighbors. They should therefore cultivate attitudes appropriate to exiles and pilgrims (see, for example, 2, 11 ). The greeting also reminds the readers of the rich complexity of their experience of God: The Father has chosen them; the Son saved them, by his obedient sacrifice; and the Spirit has sanctified them.

The Gift and Call of God ( 1, 3–21 )

The opening prayer ( 1, 3–9 ) is based on the blessing formula of Jewish worship: God is blessed for his gifts to humans. In this case, Peter gives thanks for the new life his readers have been granted through the resurrection of Jesus. Their new life is real, yet not complete. Their inheritance is one that is kept for them in heaven ( 1, 4f ). They, of course, still remain on earth. This tension establishes them as pilgrims and sojourners. As their salvation “waits for them,” so also must they “wait for it.” In the meantime, they must experience the trials and sufferings inherent to the life of faith ( 1, 6f ). Peter places his readers between the “already” of God's grace and the “not yet” of salvation fully achieved ( 1, 9 ), in a manner typical of New Testament writings. But what they hope for is secure, a “living hope” ( 1, 3 ) because it is based not simply in human longing but in the “power of God” at work among them ( 1, 5 ).

Despite the fact that his readers have converted from paganism, Peter inserts them into the story of Israel. In speaking of an “inheritance in heaven,” Peter implies a contrast to the “inheritance of the land,” which was the hope of Israel. Likewise, 1, 10–12 develops a contrast between stages in the story. Peter asserts that the prophets of old did not speak of their own times ( 1, 12 ) but spoke of the “sufferings destined for Christ and the glories to follow them” ( 1, 11 ). Three aspects of this striking statement deserve notice. First, the superiority of the Christians' present experience is clearly asserted; as in Hebrews the claims of the earlier covenant are made secondary. What the Christians have received in the gospel transcends even what angels can know ( 1, 12 )! Second, Scripture is taken over completely as messianic prophecy. Everything in Scripture points to Jesus. Third, as in Luke‐Acts, the pattern of the Messiah is spelled out in terms of “suffering, then glory.” That his readers must follow after this same pattern becomes explicit later in the letter.

Having asserted the reality of God's gift, Peter now sketches the demands it places on those who receive it ( 1, 13–21 ). They are to direct their lives by the new form of existence given to them. This means a radical obedience to the giver of the gift, an obedience spelled out in terms of holiness ( 1, 15f ). As their lives have changed, so must their behavior. They must not act as they formerly did but are to become “different.” They are to shape themselves in a manner consonant with the one who called them with the gift of the “precious blood of Christ” ( 1, 19 ). Peter again calls his readers “sojourners” ( 1, 17 ). Jews of the Diaspora were to be different from pagans; Christians are to be “different” (holy) in the world as they wait for the fulfillment of their salvation (see 1, 9). They are not defined by the norms of others ( 1, 14.18 ) but by their allegiance to God, so that “your faith and hope are in God” ( 1, 21 ).

A Gospel People ( 1, 22–2, 10 )

To strengthen their grasp on their special identity Peter reminds his readers of the basis of their new life in “the living and abiding word of God” ( 1, 23 ). By this, Peter explicitly means the good news ( 1, 25 ). This is the message of a crucified Messiah who was raised to new life. By the obedient acceptance of that strange proclamation, they were given “new birth” ( 1, 23 ). Immediately, however, Peter asserts the need for them to grow. The “spiritual milk” they now imbibe is appropriate to new converts who have just “tasted and seen that the Lord is good” (see also 1 Cor 3, 1–3; Heb 6, 13 ), but they are to mature “in Christ” by patterning their life according to a new standard of moral behavior. They must leave aside deceit in favor of truth, envy for love.

Peter is not only concerned with the transformation of individuals, but, as much as Paul, with the identity of the community also. In 2, 4–10 , therefore, he reminds them of their communal identity as God's house and people. This section interweaves scriptural passages and allusions. The references at the bottom of New Testament pages 1646–47 provide valuable assistance. The choice of passages is strikingly similar to that in Romans 9, 25–33 . It is less likely that Peter used Romans than that both Paul and Peter used community traditions of scriptural interpretation developed from the first days of the church.

The first set of passages ( 2, 6–8 ) portrays the paradox of Christian faith. The stone that God intended to be the basis for his people Israel was rejected by them; yet the rejected one became the basis of a new people, a “spiritual house” made up of living persons ( 2, 4 ). The reference here is clearly to the crucified Jesus who was a scandal (a stone of stumbling) to his fellow Jews who expected a messiah with more obvious and impressive credentials than suffering for others (see 1 Cor 1, 18–23 ).

For the Christian community, however, the rejected Messiah is the basis for a new life and shared identity. In the second set of texts, Peter strings together the most precious epithets applied to Israel as God's people in Torah. Now, they apply to these Gentiles, “once no people, but now God's people.” In the messianic community, these aliens have a home (see also Eph 2, 19–22 ).

Where is the place of the historical Jewish people? It must be confessed that 1 Peter simply does not take them into account. He appropriates the symbols of Torah for the exclusive use of Gentile believers. Readers today cannot expect to find in this text an answer to the many questions concerning the relations of Christians to Jews, for 1 Peter does not address them.

Life within the World's Structures ( 2, 11–3, 7 )

Christians are to maintain distance from the values of this world as “aliens and sojourners” ( 2, 11 ). At the same time, they must live within the social structures of the world. Peter is convinced that if they are good citizens, they will turn away from slander and persecution. The practice of “good works” is the community's basic witness ( 2, 12 ).

Peter uses the traditional form of “household ethics” to sketch the Christians' social obligations. Greek philosophy had elaborated the mutual duties of people who lived in a stratified social order. Over the empire as a whole, the emperor was considered head of the household. In individual families, husbands ruled wives, parents ruled children, and masters ruled slaves. This was simply the conventional arrangement of that time. Neither Paul (see Col 3, 18–4, 1 ) nor Peter thought that the Christian message demanded the dismantling of society's structures.

In 2, 13–17 , Peter portrays the empire and its agents in positive terms. Submission to legitimate authority is both right and expedient, since the state punishes only the wicked: such an outlook is inconceivable if Christians were in fact being harassed by the state as such. Yet, even here, the relationship with God is primary. Social obligations, if they conflict with that relationship, must give way to it: “Be free, yet without using freedom as a pretext for evil, but as slaves of God” ( 2, 16 ). Obedience to God comes before all; and before God, all are slaves.

We might expect in the next section exhortations to both masters and slaves (compare Col 3, 22–4, 1 ). Perhaps the absence of masters says something about the Christians' social status. But since Peter thinks of all Christians as slaves ( 2, 16 ), this exhortation to servants becomes a general teaching to the community at large. The most striking aspect of this teaching is the invocation of Jesus as an explicit example to be imitated, for all who suffer unjustly ( 2, 21–23 ). Jesus not only won salvation for others by his death on the cross. In his very manner of suffering, he provided the model for how Christians were to act. Not only what Jesus did but also how he did it becomes a source of life to the community.

The exhortation to wives ( 3, 1–6 ) is much more extensive than that to husbands ( 3, 7 ). Traditional Jewish and Greek motifs, which stress the value of internal virtue over external adornment, are used to support the command to be submissive. Women are to be subordinate, we notice, not to all men, but to their husbands ( 3, 1.5 ). In return, men are to regard women as fully equal in their relationship before the Lord. Women are “joint heirs of the gift of life” ( 3, 7 ).

In these instructions, we do not find a divinely inspired blueprint for the ideal social order or Christian family structure. What we find is the best available moral teaching applied to the real world of that age. Just as the social structures of the past cannot be transferred directly to the present, neither can the relationships appropriate to those structures be directly imitated. Yet for families both ancient and modern, for societies then and now, good order, mutual respect, obedience, and authority are very much required. The style of those structures, happily, is left to human creativity.

Witness in a Hostile World ( 3, 8–4, 6 )

The Christians of Asia Minor were not suffering persecution, torture, and death. Their suffering was nevertheless real and painful. Social ostracism works a slow and insidious poison into a community's sense of identity. They were being “insulted” ( 3, 9 ), maligned and defamed ( 3, 16 ), and “vilified” ( 4, 4 ). Why? Probably they were abused because they no longer followed the ways of their neighbors ( 4, 3f ). They have become different (holy), and people who insist on being different generate resentment.

Peter's response to the community's experience of suffering is remarkable. He does not advocate withdrawal from society or hostility toward outsiders. Instead, Christians are to remain in the world (see 2, 13–3, 7 ) and are to engage outsiders in dialogue. They are to be ready to “give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” ( 3, 15 ). The expectation that such explanation would be helpful pays a high compliment to the basic reasonableness and goodwill of outsiders. Christians are also to follow the exhortation of Jesus to return a blessing for a curse (see Mt 5, 44 ). In order to act in this way toward outsiders, they must cultivate the same qualities of sympathy and love toward each other in the community ( 3, 8 ). Within their own hearts, furthermore, they are to “sanctify Christ as Lord” ( 3, 15 ), which, Peter asserts, will free them from fear of outsiders ( 3, 14 ). How will this happen?

They are to remember how Jesus not only “suffered for sins once” ( 3, 18 ) but also how he was raised from the dead in power. Using traditions found in apocalyptic literature (such as 1 Enoch), Peter symbolically expresses the conviction that the resurrection was not simply an event concerning the person Jesus but had cosmic extension. “In the spirit” Jesus went to the spirits in prison to preach the good news ( 3, 19–22 ). This dramatic announcement is the basis for the statement in the Apostles' Creed that says Jesus “descended into hell.” It means that God's power to save reaches everywhere, even to the farthest reaches of human sin and alienation.

Peter's immediate point, however, is that by baptism ( 3, 21 ), the Christians of Asia Minor have been given the same power. They need not fear human slander, for the power of God is at work among them. They are like those to whom Jesus preached after his resurrection, “though condemned in the flesh in human estimation…alive in the spirit in the estimation of God” ( 4, 6 ).

Community Attitudes ( 4, 7–5, 14 )

First Peter does not portray the Christians' moral situation in stark black‐and‐white tones, but like most New Testament writings it has a keen sense that the time for decision is now. The final exhortations are colored by the conviction that “the end of all things is at hand” ( 4, 7 ). The time of judgment is soon ( 4, 17 ). Therefore, Christian life means “resisting the devil” who through affliction such as they are experiencing “seeks to devour them” ( 5, 8f ). Such circumstances call for a “serious, sober” attitude and one that is “vigilant” ( 4, 7; 5, 8 ). Those who experience affliction are to regard their sufferings as a share in Christ's own ( 5, 13f ), knowing that they will share in his glory ( 4, 13; 5, 10 ). Within the community, attitudes of mutual service are to prevail ( 4, 9–11 ), demonstrated by good order and humility ( 5, 1–16 ).

When exhorting the community's leaders, Peter forbids lording it over the flock. Leaders are rather to provide a positive example ( 5, 3 ). The image of the shepherd recalls the portrayal of Jesus as the “shepherd and guardian of your souls” (in 2, 25 ). The connection is made explicit in 5, 4 : with characteristic optimism, Peter promises such good leaders that, “when the chief Shepherd is revealed, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.”

The New Testament contains no writing more positive in its evaluation of the world yet more compelling in its call to holiness than 1 Peter. As Martin Luther correctly noted, it is one of the New Testament compositions that truly “show thee Christ.”

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