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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on 1 Peter

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Commentary spanning earlier chapters

Body of Letter, Part 1: Living as God's People ( 1:13–2:10 )

( 1:13–21 ) Redemption into the Christ Group

The start of the new section is marked by the word ‘therefore’ and the shift into the imperative mood (v. 13 ). Despite NRSV, however, the first word in the imperative is the command to ‘hope’, the previous two verbs are participles (‘discipline yourselves’ is more literally, ‘being perfectly sober’). Many commentators take the participles here and elsewhere in 1 Peter as having imperatival force, but this is not necessarily the case (see Achtemeier 1996 ). The author could be describing his addressees as those who have girded the loins of their minds (the imagery is that of fastening one's outer garment around the waist so that it does not impede one's movements, hence NRSV's ‘prepare your minds for action’) and are perfectly sober, or he may be saying that this is the manner in which they should hope. The object of that hope is eschatological, since it is linked to the Parousia, but the Greek participle (rendered by NRSV as the future ‘will bring you’) suggests that the promised grace can already begin to be experienced now or in the near future.

The author next contrasts his addressees' former way of life (v. 14 ) with the holiness to which they are now called (v. 15 ). Holiness contains the idea of separateness; the addressees are to be a people set apart for God from the surrounding culture. The notion that this holiness is to express itself in conduct (v. 15 ) is one of the pervading themes of the letter. It is repeated already at v. 17 (NRSV's ‘live’ is more literally ‘conduct yourselves’), where it is related to the final judgement of God. At first sight the sentiment of this verse is strongly at odds with the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith, but compare, e.g., Rom 2:6–11 . In any case Paul and ‘Peter’ would have agreed that being right with God necessitated being part of the people of God now constituted through Jesus Christ, and that this must express itself in conduct (cf. Gal 5:13–26 ). Our author is concerned with helping his audience cope with the sense of alienation this brings (on ‘exiles’ see 1 PET 1:1 ), and so immediately upon urging them to appropriate conduct he reminds them once more of their privileged position (vv. 18–19 ), this time in terms of the cost of their redemption, and the futility of the life from which they have been redeemed.

Christ is here described in terms of a sacrificial victim (cf. e.g. Lev 1:3, 10; 3:1, 6 , etc.). It is not said how his sacrifice achieves redemption, but the thought may be that Christ's death deals with sin, enables righteous behaviour ( 2:24 ), and allows access to God ( 2:4 ) to those who were formerly not his people ( 2:10 ). The fledgling Christian church offers a new reference group by which its members measure their conduct, and this enables them to live with a fresh orientation. Our author does not express himself in this sociological language, but he is nevertheless keen to promote the kind of group cohesion and separateness needed. This group is oriented on Christ not only as its redeemer but as its exemplar. Christ, like them ( 1:2 ), was foreknown or ‘destined’ by God (v. 20 ). Like them, he suffered ( 2:21 ), but since God raised him from the dead and gave him glory, those who pattern themselves on him can hope for the same (v. 21 ).

The contrast between ‘destined’ and ‘revealed’ (v. 20 ) is not so much intended to teach predestination (see also 1 PET 2:8 ) as once again to emphasize the privileged status of the believers. What was foreknown from before the creation of the world has only now been made known in the last times (note the eschatological emphasis) and for their sake.

( 1:22–2:3 ) Rebirth through the Word

Patterning on Christ must include Christ-like conduct, or ‘obedience to the truth’ (which is also obedience to God the Father), but can only be sustained in contrast to the world with the aid of a mutually supportive group ( 1:22 ), membership of which is a mark of rebirth (see below).

The quotation in 1:24–5a from Isa 40:6–8 is the first of many allusions to Isaiah in this letter. The ‘word’ is here equated with the good news that has been preached to the addressees, and this perhaps illustrates prophets testifying in advance ( 1:10 ). The main point of the quotation, however, is to contrast the transitoriness of natural life with the permanence of the life that springs from God's word. Natural birth is birth into the worldly community. Rebirth by the word comes about through entering the new community that is the redeemed people of God constituted by the word. The worldly community is transitory not only because of normal human mortality, but because it is about to fall under God's judgement ( 4:17 ); the alternative community of the word is guaranteed permanence, provided it stands firm, since it is rooted in God, and will be vindicated by him at the last judgement.

Those who have undergone rebirth may be metaphorically described as ‘newborn infants’ ( 2:2 ). Babes are no doubt best fed on pure milk, but there is a play on words in the Greek, since the word translated ‘pure’ can also mean ‘guileless’, the quality that would result from obeying the injunctions of 2:1 . It is not clear whether the author has primarily in mind his audience's dealings with one another (as the immediate context might suggest) or towards outsiders (as 2:12 indicates). He may well have intended both. Slander is one of the things they seem to have been particularly suffering from outsiders, and they will later be commanded not to revile in turn ( 3:9 ). For now the author wishes to remind his audience that rebirth is not enough by itself, it must be followed by growth towards the desired goal ( 2:2b ). The doubt implied by ‘if’ in 2:3 is a rhetorical device. The recipients will not want to deny that they have tasted God's goodness, and so they will be led into accepting what the author has just said.

( 2:4–10 ) God's Chosen People

The recurrence of the word ‘stone’ throughout this section suggests the thought of a building, in particular the temple (the ‘spiritual house’ of v. 5 ), not in the literal sense of the Jerusalem temple, but in the metaphorical sense of God's people (the use of ‘temple’ to denote one's own elect community is also found in the Qumran literature). The people of God constitutes the other controlling theme in this section, in which language formerly applied to Israel is now applied to the addressees (vv. 5, 9 ). The purpose is to persuade them of their worth as God's chosen people in the face of a hostile environment.

The living stone (Christ) at v. 4 is said to have been rejected, not by the Jews, but by humankind in general; there is little anti-Judaism in this epistle, even though its addressees (unlike Paul's Gentile addressees) are regarded as having taken over the role of Israel without remainder (so Achtemeier 1996 ). The addressees are also to become living stones (v. 5 ), and thus to share the fate of Christ their exemplar. Just as he was rejected by humans but was chosen and honoured (rather than NRSV's ‘precious’) with God, so too those who are experiencing rejection on account of their faith have been chosen and will be honoured by God. Honour, a pivotal value in Mediterranean society (Malina 1983 ), is precisely what these Christians lack in the eyes of their unbelieving neighbours. The phrase ‘chosen and honoured’ thus reassures the audience of their true status, as well as preparing for the quotation from Isa 28:16 that is to follow (v. 6; cf. Rom 9:33 ). Believers are also promised honour at v. 7 (which should be translated ‘so to you who believe is the honour’), in contrast to the stumbling that is the fate of the unbeliever (vv. 7b–8 ). The function of v. 8 is not to teach that some individuals were foreordained to stumble, but rather to reassure the addressees that their persecutors are heading for a fall, and that this is all within God's plan.

Although the language of priesthood and sacrifice (vv. 5, 9 ) is cultic, this probably derives from the use of the temple as a metaphor for God's elect people (rather than referring to Christian worship). It may be, however, that the ‘spiritual sacrifice’ the author intends is that of costly obedience to God in the face of abuse, since he later goes on to stress the passion of Christ as the pattern of uncomplaining suffering for the believer ( 2:21–4; 3:17–19; 4:13–14 ).

v. 10 (like 1:18 ) suggests that the author is addressing converts from paganism rather than Jews (this verse is an allusion to Hos 2:23 ; cf. Paul's use of Hos 1:10 at Rom 9:25–6 ). He concludes this section by again reminding them of their privileges. The implication is that they would be foolish to give up such a glorious state and revert to their former paganism, for that would be to give up light, mercy, and belonging for darkness, no mercy, and non-belonging.

Body of Letter, Part 2: Good Conduct in the Face of Suffering ( 2:11–4:11 )

The word ‘beloved’ ( 2:11 ) marks the start of a major new division both here and at 4:12 . The first section lays down general principles of conduct, which are then exemplified in the ‘household code’ of 2:18–3:7 . This is followed by further general advice on how the beleaguered believers should respond to the sufferings inflicted on them by hostile neighbours.

( 2:11–17 ) Principles of Conduct in Human Society

The author is anxious to preserve the distinctness of the communities he is addressing vis-à-vis their cultural context, but he does not do so in a straightforwardly counter-cultural way, any more than he is straightforwardly conformist. On the one hand Christians are to abstain from fleshly desires (v. 11 ), which the author regards as characteristic of the pagan society from which they are now alienated (cf. 4:3 ). On the other their conduct in that society is to be good and seen to be good, even by pagan standards (vv. 11–12 ; although the NRSV translates ‘honourably’ in v. 11 and ‘honourable deeds’ in v. 12 , the underlying Greek word kalos means ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’). To be sure, their conduct must also be good by God's standards, and will then receive divine vindication at the final judgement. The evildoing of which these Christians may have been suspected could include the suspicion of ‘atheism’, that is refusing to honour the traditional gods, so risking their displeasure. It may also have included political disloyalty, not simply through refusal to take part in the emperor cult, but through forming an unauthorized grouping (or collegium) which could appear political in nature to the Roman authorities.

It may be for this reason that the author urges due submission to the political authorities (vv. 13–14; cf. Rom 13:1–5 ). Believers are not to court persecution, but rather to silence the ‘ignorance of idiots’ by right conduct. The ‘idiots’ may be those who make trouble for Christians by reporting their alleged misconduct to the authorities; the Christians' good conduct is to give the lie to such slanders. Being urged to live as servants (lit. slaves) of God (v. 16 ) is double-edged: it entails obedience to God, but it also implies security and status. In so far as God is superior to the emperor, so God's servants are superior to Caesar's. In any case, the apparently conformist advice is given a firm counter-cultural ground, since it is to be motivated by ultimate loyalty to God's will (vv. 13, 15 ) rather than to any human institution.

This nuanced exhortation to counter-cultural conformity is summed up at v. 17 (cf. Mk 12:17 ). At the extremities of this verse, honour (the pivotal value of the culture) is to be paid to all outsiders, and to the emperor in particular (cf. Rom 13:7 ). At its core, however, the Christian fellowship is to be loved and God is to be ‘feared’, that is, reverenced. How this works out in detail is exemplified in the discussion that follows.

( 2:18–3:22 ) The Principles in Practice

At first sight, this section resembles the household codes found, for example, at Col 3:18–4:1 and Eph 5:21–6:9 (on household codes in the NT see EPH 5:21–6:9 and Balch 1981 ). This section may indeed derive from such material, but this is not its primary purpose here. A household code would normally give advice on the duties of parents and children, slaves and masters, and husbands and wives. Here no advice is given to parents, children, or masters, and that given to husbands is perfunctory. By focusing on slaves and wives, the author concentrates on two specially vulnerable groups. He thus both directly gives advice to these two groups and indirectly employs them as examples of proper submission for all Christians.

NRSV translates the Greek participles of 2:18 and 3:1 as imperatives (‘accept the authority’), but it may be that they should be understood as participles expanding on 2:17 (‘Honour all men…by accepting’) (so Achtemeier 1996 ). Slaves and women thus provide paradigms for the injunctions of 2:17 .

Slaves should follow the example of Christ ( 2:18–25 ):

The ‘slaves’ of 2:18 are literally ‘household servants’ (ciketai). In a non-Christian household they might find themselves under pressure to conform to their master's religion. Although household slaves in the Roman empire were by no means universally mistreated, they were always liable to punishment or abuse from those they served. The advice given is outwardly conformist, namely to submit to the master's authority, but they are not to submit to the extent of renouncing their faith or their place in the Christian community, and if they suffer for this alone (rather than for any actual misdemeanour), they will have God's approval even if they do not enjoy that of their master (vv. 19–20 ). This limited conformity informed by a counter-cultural loyalty is very similar to the attitude of the early church to the Roman state, and thus serves as a suitable illustration of 2:11–17 .

The greater part of this advice to slaves is taken up with expounding the example of the innocent suffering of Christ (vv. 21–5 ), who, as we have already seen, is the pattern for all believers (v. 21 ). The description of Christ's behaviour in vv. 22–3 is thus the ideal to which suffering slaves, and indeed any suffering Christians, should aspire, even if they could not expect to be totally without sin. The language in which Christ's suffering is described here reflects the servant poem in Isa 53 . The precise notion of atonement in v. 24 is hard to discern. The language might almost suggest that he took our sins into his body and made a sacrificial offering of them upon the cross, but such a thought would have no parallel in the NT, not least because the notions of offering sins as a sacrifice would be very odd. Given the other allusions to Isa 53 one might do better to see this verse as an adaptation of Isa 53:4–5 to fit Christ's death on the cross, without any clearly worked out theory of atonement behind it: the notion of vicarious punishment is not stated, although the notion that innocent suffering vicariously deals with others' sins may be presupposed. Apogenomenoi (v. 24 , NRSV, ‘free’) could be rendered ‘having been made to have no part in’ but could also mean ‘dead’. Here one should probably translate ‘having died to sin’, contrasted with ‘live for righteousness’. What should have died for the addressees is the former identity that let itself be defined by the surrounding pagan culture ( 4:3 ).

Wives should follow the example of Sarah ( 3:1–6 ):

Much of the advice given to wives is outwardly conformist. That wives should accept their husband's authority and not answer back (v. 1 ) would be a commonplace, and there are both pagan and Jewish parallels (Isa 3:18–24; Prov 11:22; 31:10–30 ) to preferring inward beauty to outward adornment (vv. 3–4 ). The author gives his advice a religious slant by appealing to examples from the biblical past, appealing especially to Sarah who, as Abraham's wife, might be the natural type of the faithful female as Abraham was of the faithful male (Beare 1970 ). The advice becomes counter-cultural in two places. First, the wives' silent submission is to be part of a strategy for winning the unbelieving husband to the faith (vv. 1–2 ), rather than the total surrender that would entail adopting the husband's faith, as the surrounding culture would expect (Balch 1981 ). Secondly, the wives are not to fear intimidation (NRSV ‘never let fears alarm you’, v. 6 ), which may again mean they are to stand their ground on the issue of their faith.

Husbands must honour their wives ( 3:7 ):

The brief advice to husbands further undermines a conventional reading of the female submission urged in 3:1–6 . In Mediterranean society, honour was primarily a pivotal value to be sought by men, but here men are urged to ascribe it to their wives. The reason for paying them honour is directly counter-cultural and characteristically Christian, namely that they are the weaker sex (literally ‘vessel’). Here, ‘weaker’ means merely physically weaker; women are certainly not to be regarded as less valuable, but rather as co-heirs. The way husbands live with their wives should reflect this; it should be done ‘according to knowledge’. This could mean ‘show[ing] consideration’ (as NRSV), but might equally refer to the knowledge that women are co-heirs and thus equally valued by God (Selwyn 1958 ). Failure to recognize this may result in a breakdown of one's prayer-life, perhaps through a false conception of God.

All must love one another and bear suffering righteously ( 3:8–17 ):

The word ‘finally’ suggests that what follows rounds off the section; having advised specific groups the author now describes how the commands of 2:17 are to be realized by all believers. Here, the author seems to be thinking of how Christians should behave towards one another, and in so doing again urges attitudes that aid group cohesion.

v. 9 again begins with a participle (‘not repaying’), indicating that the author is still expanding on 2:17 . The advice is similar to Rom 12:14 or Mt 5:44 , and so the author is plausibly reminding the addressees of teaching they have already received when he tells them that they have been called to this task. The quotation from Ps 34:12–15 (vv. 10–12 ) makes the point that the Lord favours those who do and speak good things, and opposes those who do the opposite. v. 9 thus most probably means that the believers' calling is to bless at all times, not only when reviled. They will then be blessed in turn, whereas the punishment of their persecutors can be left to God.

Nonetheless, it is the audience's behaviour in the face of abuse that is the author's prime concern, and he is anxious that the beleaguered communities addressed should make the best possible impression on outsiders, both to avoid provoking unnecessary persecution (v. 13 ) and to attract further converts (v. 15 ). Aggressive evangelizing is discouraged, however (vv. 15–16 ). Believers should explain their hope when asked, but do so respectfully. Ideally, their conduct will bear out the genuineness of their faith (v. 16b ). It is not clear precisely how those who revile Christians for their good conduct will be ‘put to shame’. This could mean that they will be seen as malicious slanderers by more fair-minded non-believers, thereby winning sympathy for believers, but the phrase could also suggest an unfavourable verdict at the last judgement. Perhaps this ambiguity is deliberate. In any case, the author sees innocent suffering nobly borne as valuable in itself (vv. 14, 17 ). The idea that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong (v. 17 ) was not uncommon in the ancient world, but here it is given a distinctive theological underpinning, and so neatly sums up the author's main message. At v. 17 it is related to God's will (NRSV correctly brings out the Greek optative by translating ‘if suffering should be God's will’; the author tactfully allows that it may not necessarily be); at vv. 14–15 the language recalls that of Isa 8:12b–13 .

Since the suffering Christ has conquered evil ( 3:18–22 ):

The word ‘For’ with which v. 18 opens grammatically connects this section with what has immediately preceded, but since the theme of unmerited suffering has formed a continuous thread throughout the exhortations following 2:17 , this concluding section gives the Christological ground for all that has gone before. Rhetorically, these verses serve to reassure the addressees that their suffering, if borne rightly, really will lead to blessing, since the suffering Christ (their pattern) has overcome all evil powers.

The immediate connection between the suffering believer in 3:17 and the suffering Christ in v. 18 reminds the addressees that Christ is their pattern. Whether one reads ‘you’ or ‘us’ at v. 18 , the point remains the same: Christ's righteous suffering has freed the believers from their former sins and given them access to God. They are accordingly reminded of their baptism, by which they appropriated the benefits of Christ's death. This baptism takes its effectiveness not from the cleansing power of the water, but from Christ's resurrection (v. 21 ). v. 18b is unlikely to mean that Christ was put to death as a physical being but raised as a spiritual one. It is also unlikely to mean that Christ was put to death by humans (cf. the meaning of ‘flesh’ at 1:24 ) but raised by the Spirit, although this would be grammatically possible (so Achtemeier 1996 ). It is most likely to mean that Christ was put to death in the human, worldly sphere but raised to life in the spiritual sphere (Best 1971 ). This is not a denial of bodily resurrection. Instead it underlines the fact that Christ's risen life is no mere continuation of natural, earthly existence but is rather an anticipation of the age to come, ‘spiritual’ because lived directly in the presence of God (cf. 1 Cor 15:35–57 ). It was in the spiritual sphere that Christ made a proclamation to the imprisoned spirits (vv. 19–20 ). Traditionally these puzzling verses have been interpreted as Christ's preaching the good news to the pre-Christian dead in the underworld. This is probably not what the author meant, however. First, there is nothing in the text to suggest a descent. Secondly, the Greek word for ‘made a proclamation’ (ekēruxen) need not imply preaching good news; here it probably means that Christ proclaimed his victory. Thirdly, the description of these imprisoned spirits at vv. 19–20 suggests that they are the angelic beings of Gen 6:1–6 whose disobedience ultimately led to the Flood (cf. Jub. 7:21 ; 1 Enoch 6–10; 18:12–19:2 ). It would, in any case, be strange if Christ's preaching to the spirits of deceased humans were restricted to the disobedient contemporaries of Noah, even if ‘spirits’ most naturally referred to dead humans, which it does not. The point is then that at his resurrection Christ proclaimed his victory to the archetypally wicked spirits that had troubled humanity; as a consequence of his resurrection Christ now reigns with God and all spiritual powers have been made subject to him (v. 22 ). This is intended to reassure those who pattern themselves on Christ that the powers to which they are temporarily subject, including potentially hostile political authorities and abusive neighbours, have already been defeated in their spiritual backers. The Flood story provides a further link with their own experience by relating the waters through which Noah's family was brought safely to the saving water of baptism (vv. 20–1 ). A further implication may be that the ark is a type of the believing community, and that now is not a good time to jump ship (the Flood being a type of the coming judgement).

( 4:1–11 ) Living a Christian Life

The author now urges his addressees to behave in a manner that will preserve their distinctiveness as Christian communities, first by refraining from their former pagan excesses and so maintaining their boundary with the world (vv. 1–6 ), and secondly by acting in ways that promote the cohesion of their believing communities (vv. 7–11 ).

In relation to outsiders ( 4:1–6 ):

The author again refers to Christ's suffering, but this time as the basis not so much for suffering as for conduct that is distinctive from that of the surrounding culture. Many pagan moralists would also have condemned most of the pursuits listed at v. 3 , but the believers are to be distinctive in actually avoiding them, and doing so as an expression of God's will (v. 2 ). This will alienate (a possible meaning of the word translated ‘surprised’ at v. 4 ) their former companions, but this is the price that must be paid for standing firm in the redeemed community of God's people. By warning that those who persist in this stream of dissipation will have to face judgement (v. 5 ) the author not only comforts his audience with the thought that these outsiders will get their requital, but also warns them not to lapse from their faith and so rejoin the community of the condemned.

The preaching of the gospel to the dead (v. 6 ) has been variously interpreted in relation to the imprisoned spirits of 3:19 , or to the pre-Christian dead (so Best 1971 ), or to the spiritually dead. Another option is to see this verse as a reference to Christians who have died (taking ‘proclaimed even to the dead’ to mean ‘proclaimed to those who have since died’), rejected by the world (judged in the realm of the flesh) but alive in the spirit according to God's standards (so Achtemeier 1996 ). The function of the verse is then to reassure the addressees that those of their number who have died did not believe in vain. None of these interpretations is without its problems, however, and although the last one perhaps fits the context best, it is not the most obvious way of construing the text.

In relation to other believers ( 4:7–11 ):

The author proceeds to urge his hearers towards conduct that will strengthen their pressurized communities: they are to practise mutual love (v. 8 ) and uncomplaining hospitality (v. 9 ), and to use their several gifts in the service of the community (vv. 10–11 ). Hospitality would be necessary for Christians travelling, either for missionary work or to escape persecution elsewhere or even on their own business. Within a settled community it would also be necessary for those with larger houses to offer hospitality for the congregation to meet.

This is set against a background of eschatological urgency (v. 7 ), which serves a dual function. On the one hand it reassures the hearers that they do not have long to wait for relief and vindication; on the other it warns them that they will not have much time left if they fall away now. They are accordingly urged to be serious and sober, in contrast to the drunken debauchery of their pagan peers.

The doxology at v. 11 is brief; it concludes a major division of the letter, but not the letter itself (cf. 5:11 ). Grammatically ‘To him’ would most naturally refer back to Jesus Christ, but it is more likely meant to refer back to God, for whom glory is desired in the immediately preceding sentence (cf. 2:12; 5:11 ).

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