Romans didn't understand Christians. Upon hearing the terminology of the Lord's Supper—"brothers and sisters" who commune at "love feasts," eating the body and blood of their Lord—many called the Jesus cult incestuous and cannibalistic. They also didn't understand why followers of an executed prophet wouldn't also be able to worship the Roman gods and emperors. As deniers of the emperor's deity, Christians were considered "atheists." Their defiance of Rome's religious culture would, it was feared, undermine society by provoking the gods' wrath. As a result, the first century was marked with seasons of active and growing resentment toward Christians.
This was particularly acute in Rome in the ad 60s when Nero ruled. In 64, a large section of Rome burned, and rumors began to surface that the emperor had started the fires in order to confiscate the land for his own building projects. To counter these rumors, Nero blamed Christians for the fire. Christian-killing became an acceptable and popular indulgence. The emperor himself would sometimes douse believers in tar and set them on fire to be human torches lighting his gardens. Some Christians were sewn into the skins of animals and fed to starving dogs while evil mobs cheered. Others were nailed to crosses. It was during this persecution in Rome that Paul most likely lost his life. Peter followed soon after.
This persecution is the context in which Peter wrote his two letters to Christians scattered across Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The purpose of the first letter was to explain the Christian way of living in exile, especially in an oppressive situation. The second letter warned against the many variations on the gospel and urged believers to cling to the truths they had been taught.
Both of those messages are vital for Christians in any age, including ours. Though most Christians today don't have to worry about physical persecution, some do; there are plenty of places around the world where Christians are treated harshly. Even so, we all face dangers. Haven't you noticed? We are in a relentless, violent spiritual battle against an enemy who doesn't want us to fulfill our calling, either individually or corporately. The obstacles and opposition that come against us take numerous forms—frontal attacks against our faith, adverse circumstances in our lives, "friendly fire" from other Christians, subtle erosion of our understanding of truth, distractions from sensing God's presence, and more. Most Christians go through long seasons of feeling extreme pressure from life's trials. Our struggles can be intense. Whether we have been persecuted like Christians in a hostile culture or not, Peter's words to the persecuted still ring true for us.
Because of the inherent trauma of living a life of faith in a faith-challenged world, Peter's first letter is filled with words of encouragement and promises of strength and hope and glory:
"An inheritance that can never perish" (1:4). "Set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed" (1:13). "Born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable" (1:23). "A chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God" (2:9). "Live such good lives among the pagans . . ." (2:12). "Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example" (2:21). "Do not repay evil with evil" (3:9). "Even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed" (3:14). "Since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude" (4:1). "Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering" (4:12). "Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you" (5:7).
His second epistle was a warning against heresy, and it contains harsh words about the false teachers who infiltrate God's people and lead them astray. While the first letter addresses the external battles we face, the second addresses the internal battles of the mind—specifically the battle against diverting our attention from the one true God and the gospel he gave us. It's a war cry against the lies we believe.
The words of these letters are profound in any season of life, but during an intense crisis, they are life-giving truths. We hang on to them because we have to—and because God wants to fill us with light even in dark moments. And, according to Peter, there's even a hidden benefit in a believer's suffering: it refines faith and proves its authenticity. Pretenders and compromisers don't bear up under persecution and deception. True believers do. Those who count the cost and follow Jesus anyway can know that they are truly his friends.
Peter would live up to his own words. He held fast to the truth. Around ad 64 or 65, he was executed for his faith in Jesus, and he made a major statement when he was. Feeling unworthy to die in the same manner as his Lord, tradition has it that he asked to be crucified upside down. The one who emphasized peace during persecution and hope in the worst of circumstances embraced the truth he wrote about and embraced an eternal perspective.
That's our calling too. When life gets intense, when the pressure builds to unbearable extremes, we are told to embrace the inheritance that can never perish, to set our hope fully on the grace given when Jesus is revealed, and to remember that we are born of imperishable seed. In other words, a Christian focused on his or her true identity and on God's truth will be indestructible—maybe not as the world defines "indestructible," but certainly as God defines it. In a crisis, whatever form it takes, there's no truth more reassuring than that.
Adapted from A Walk Thru the Life of Peter: Growing Bold Faith, a small group study guide from Walk Thru the Bible and Baker Books. This small group study and others can be found at www.walkthruguides.org.