THE EPISTLES OF PETER
The apostle Peter was the son of Jonas or John, two different versions of the same name. Peter was not, however, his original name. He was Simeon at first, or Simon, which is the same thing; and the name Peter was given him by Christ in anticipation. The Saviour says to him, "Thou shalt be called Peter "; but with an intimation that he has not yet the spirit which would make that designation a true one; and it is only two years afterward, at least, that Jesus says to him, " Thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my church."
Peter was a fisherman of Bethsaida: that is, Bethsaida was his native place, but at the time he was chosen by Christ he appears to have belonged to the city of Capernaum. There, during the greater part of the Gospel narrative, he had his home; and, like the sons of Zebedee, he pursued the trade of fishing for his livelihood.
Peter seems to have been brought to Christ first by Andrew, his brother. Christ's first call was on the banks of the Jordan, where Peter and Andrew, James and John seem to have gone, amid the multitude who were thronging to John the Baptist, to be baptized. After a slight sojourn with Christ, and having become acquainted with him, Peter, with his brother and with James and John, appears to have gone back to his trade once more and to have pursued it until Jesus met them by the side of the Lake of Galilee, called them to be his permanent companions, and invested them with the responsibilities of apqstleship.
From that time you find Peter continually with Jesus. He becomes one of our Lord's most intimate companions. He is one of those chosen disciples who constituted the innermost circle of the apostolic number. He is with the Saviour when Jesus raises Jairus' daughter from the dead. He is with Jesus upon the Mount of Transfiguration, and beholds his glory; he is with Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, when the Saviour utters that memorable prayer and sweats those drops of blood. Jesus calls Peter to himself, because there is something in Peter which fits him for leadership. I imagine that each one of the disciples had his peculiar gift and qualifications for service. Judas, for example, was a practical administrator. Judas would have made an excellent manipulator and manager. He was treasurer, because there were certain business gifts which were his, more than they belonged to any other of the disciples. He had his opportunity. He had his chance to use what gifts he had for the service of the Lord.
. And Peter had especially an openness and receptivity of heart, an ardent affection and power of recognizing Christ in his personal and divine mission, and then a zealous and enthusiastic activity, which fitted him, in some respects, to be the chief of the apostles. And yet. this ardent affection, this insight into the real person and work of Christ, this enthusiastic activity, were accompanied by a rashness and overconfidence which led Peter to his triple fall and triple denial of his Master, and were followed by the bitterest repentance Jesus looked upon Peter after that denial, and that look broke Peter's heart. He went out and wept bitterly. He repented. But he needed some special assurance of Jesus' forgiving love. After Jesus arose from the dead there was something very affecting in his words to the women, "Go and tell Peter." It was a special message to Peter that his heart might be comforted by the assurance of Christ's forgiving love. Is there not something very beautiful in this, that this denying Peter is made the mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit upon the day of Pentecost? Have we ever thought that our sins would prevent us evermore from being of service in the cause of Christ? Let us remember that it was that denying Peter who was made by Christ the means of bringing three thousand to the knowledge of the truth and of being the first communicator of the gospel to his Jewish countrymen. And it is not only true that Peter becomes the first preacher to the Jews, but he becomes the first preacher to the Gentiles also; for I suppose that is the meaning of the promise to Peter that the keys of the kingdom of heaven shall be given to him. Christ gave him the keys in this sense, that he was the first to unlock the door of the kingdom to the Jews, and he was the first also to unlock the door of the kingdom to the Gentiles. There were two great doors to be opened; Peter opened the first great door when at Pentecost he proclaimed salvation through the crucified One to the Jews who had put the Saviour to death; he opened the second great door when, going to Cornelius at Caesarea, he proclaimed the gospel of Christ to the heathen, and opened the door of salvation to the Gentiles. In a certain sense this denying Peter was given the first place in the kingdom of God; it was upon Peter that Christ built his church. "Thou art Peter; upon this rock I will build my church." The word "Peter" meant "rock."
But it is not upon Peter, as a person alone, that the church is founded, as the Roman Catholic Church imagines; but it is upon Peter as a confessor of Christ. It is upon Peter, as he has Christ in him. Peter can become a rock upon which the church is built, only as he becomes one with Christ, the great corner-stone. Peter can be the means of bringing others into the kingdom of God, only as he is a true confessor of Jesus Christ and a proclaifner of his gospel.
The Roman Catholic Church errs very greatly when she fancies that there is a sort of apostolic succession, and that, in an external way, through persons, there can be communicated the grace of God. No, it is not in any external way, or by any external means, that salvation comes down to man. It is through Peter as a confessor. It is through Peter as he has Christ in him; and, therefore, every one who is a confessor of Christ and is joined to Christ has the privilege of bringing in others also, and upon every true confessor of Christ the church is built. Protestants have sometimes erred in thinking it is simply the confession upon which the church is built; as if some external creed alone could be the means of bringing men to the kingdom of God. That is no more true than the Roman Catholic doctrine. You must have the person and his confession. You must have Peter plus the truth. The truth alone, as an abstract thing, will not bring men to God; but the person plus the truth brings men to God. The "rock," therefore, is both confession and heart. It is personality plus the truth.
So Peter becomes the means of bringing in both Jews and Gentiles. At the Apostolic Council, when Paul comes to narrate what God has done for the Gentiles, Peter is one of the first to acquiesce in the decision which James has uttered and to sanction this opening of the door to the Gentiles without their becoming Jews. Afterward Peter was privately and individually unfaithful to this position which he took; for, at Antioch, he refused to associate with certain Gentile Christians, in order that he might gratify those who were prejudiced in favor of Jewish doctrine; but he was rebuked by Paul; and we do not find that this error of his continued at all; in fact, we do not find that he ever preached it. It was simply an instance of unfaithfulness in his private conduct to the truth which he had publicly proclaimed.
After having opened the door of the kingdom both to Jews and Gentiles, by the keys of faith and confession which Christ had committed to him, Peter appears to have less prominence in the apostolic history. Why? Because there was to be a transition from the Jews to the Gentiles. Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles par excellence; and, although we find Peter most prominent at the beginning of the Acts, in the latter part of the Acts we find that Paul occupies most of the room and attracts to himself most of the attention.
Tradition relates that Peter went to the East, that he preached to the Jews in Babylon. In fact, this First Epistle declares itself to have been written from Babylon, and Babylon, I suppose, was not a mythical name for Rome, as some have supposed. It never assumed that mythical signification until after John had written his Apocalypse. At the time when this Epistle was written we have no reason to believe that the word "Babylon" was used for Rome. In an Epistle like this, in plain prose, we should hardly expect that the word Babylon would be used in that figurative, rhe-* torical, poetical sense.
There was a very large colony of Jews at Babylon: and Peter seems to have gravitated toward the East of the Roman Empire, as Paul gravitated toward the West. As the larger part of the Jews were in the East rather than in the West, the apostle to the Jews seems to have had the chosen sphere of his activity there, while Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, had his chosen sphere of activity westward, toward Rome, ever tending toward Rome, until at Rome he died. Some one will ask: Is it, therefore, entirely a mythical thing that Peter was crucified at Rome, that he was the founder of the Roman church, that he suffered martyrdom there by being crucified with his head downward? Well, with regard to that, the historians of the church are at variance to this very day. It certainly appears that Peter had not been at Rome at the time that Paul wrote his Epistle to the Romans. It would be almost inexplicable that there should be no mention of Peter if Peter had founded the Roman church. It would be impossible for Paul to have written the Epistle to the Romans without mentioning Peter, if Peter was there or had been there. We have no evidence in all the Epistles which Paul wrote during his imprisonment at
Rome that Peter was there in Rome or that he had ever preached there at all. I think, therefore, that the Epistle to the Romans is, in itself, a strong argument against the claims of the papacy, against the claim that the bishops of Rome derived their apostolic descent directly from Peter. It never can be proved that Peter was in Rome at all. If Peter ever was in Rome, it seems to me altogether probable that he was in Rome after Paul had suffered martyrdom, and that he went to Rome to take Paul's place and preach the gospel after Paul was taken away. But I think we shall have to leave the question in abeyance. With the light we now have it cannot be decided. All we know in regard to the First Epistle of Peter is that it was written from Babylon, the far east of the Roman Empire.
To whom was the First Epistle of Peter written? It appears to have been written to the churches that were founded by Paul. If you notice the address of the First Epistle you will see that it purports to come from Peter, "an apostle of our Lord Jesus Christ, to the elect sojourners of the Dispersion." By the Dispersion Peter meant the true Israel of God, those Christians who were scattered abroad. After the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities, the Jews were scattered among all the nations of the earth; they had synagogues in every large city of the Roman Empire; and there were multitudes of them throughout Asia Minor. As Jews were scattered about through the Roman Empire, and Christians constituted the true Israel, this word " Dispersion " came to be applied to the scattered Christians; and Peter writes his Epistle to the "elect sojourners of the Dispersion," that is, the Christians that were dispersed throughout the whole of Asia. ) Minor; then he proceeds to mention them in the order that would naturally occur to one w iting from the East. He begins, for example, with Pontus, which was farthest to the east; then he mentions Galatia; then Cappadocia; and finally he mentions the two provinces that were farthest westward, namely, Asia, in the narrow sense, and Bithynia. So, in the very order of the provinces we have a new evidence that it was from Babylon, and not from Rome, that the Epistle was written. But all these churches of Asia Minor were churches that had directly or indirectly owed their foundation to the apostle Paul; and it was a sort of rule with the apostles not to invade the sphere of one another's labors. There was no place or church that had Epistles written to it, near the same time, by two of the apostles. Paul would not invade the sphere of another man's labors; he built on his own foundations: and just so, Peter would not invade Paul's sphere of labor, if the apostle Paul were still living.
These Epistles of Peter, therefore, could not have been written until after the death of the apostle Paul, or at least after Paul had withdrawn from active work. Possibly this First Epistle may have been written during Paul's first imprisonment, when he could not attend to the churches; but it is more likely that both the First and the Second Epistles were written after Paul's death. Peter then assumed the charge of the churches for which Paul had cared; and so, in a similar manner, the Epistles to the seven churches, which we find in the book of Revelation, were not written until after Paul had suffered martyrdom. The Epistles of Peter, then,
were written from the East, after the death of the apostle Paul; and as the apostle Paul suffered martyrdom in the year 64, 0* some part of the year 65, we certainly cannot put the date of the First Epistle of Peter earlier than the year 66. This is as near to the date of the two Epistles as any year that we can assign; and we - find that Peter is striving "to assist and encourage these churches of Asia Minor, after the great leader, the apostle to the Gentiles, has been taken away.
There are indications that much apostolic labor had preceded Peter's writing, and this labor Peter himself had not performed. He takes it for granted that these churches have already a complete system of Christian doctrine. He does not seek to indoctrinate them, but assumes that they already know the truth, and that they need only to have the truth brought vividly to their remembrance. The churches to which he writes are not only in possession of this complete system of doctrine, but they are now involved in persecution; not apparently persecution by the civil power, but persecution of a social sort from their Jewish countrymen, and from overweening and arrogant heathen. They need strengthening against this persecution from those who ought to help them in their Christian life. They also need instruction with regard to their conduct toward the heathen about them, lest evil example tempt them to impurity of life. And finally, there are tendencies to critical and censorious judgment among them, and their pastors and leaders are somewhat in danger of being infected by ambition and of lording it over God's people. These are the influences which Peter, in his First Epistle, tries to counteract.
There is something striking in the Epistles of Peter as to the style and method of address. Peter's Epistles show very strong traces of the influence of the apostle Paul. In that respect too, we have an evidence that the apostle Peter wrote after the apostle Paul. Peter was one of those open-hearted souls that receive from every hand. He had insensibly taken in many of the ideas of the apostle Paul, and not only the ideas of Paul, but some of Paul's methods of expression. Peter had seen writings of the apostle Paul before he himself wrote; in fact, in the Second Epistle, he says of Paul's Epistles that in them " there are many things hard to be understood, which those who are unstable wrest to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures."
Is it not a sign of the nobility of this apostle that, with all his prestige and influence, he should declare his approval and give his sanction to the writings of the apostle Paul; that he should recognize them as Scripture like the Old Testament (for, when he speaks of "other Scriptures," it is the Old Testament, unquestionably, of which he speaks) ; that he should assign to them an equal authority with the writings of the prophets, and say that the things in them which are difficult to be understood are worthy of all respect, as if they were the very utterances of Christ himself? How devoid of jealousy, how generous, how magnanimous, how full of the spirit of love and self-sacrifice! How well he has subdued all private feeling to the interest of Christ! There is something very noble in all this. But it is not surprising. Paul, a long time before, had put the Christian truth into correct form, and in this respect was the greatest of the apostles. Only
James had preceded Paul, and the Epistle of James had no such currency as had the writings of the apostle Paul, being destined for a narrow circle of Jews, while Paul's were sent abroad to all the Gentile churches and Were spread quickly through the world. It is not surprising that Peter should have been greatly influenced by Paul's doctrine and by Paul's method of expression. If you will take the First Epistle of Peter and read the opening of it, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ," you will see that there is something to remind you very vividly of Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians. Peter unquestionably had in his hands the writings of Paul; he had studied them carefully and had been influenced by them. In Peter's First Epistle we find Silvanus, or Silas, mentioned, and Mark also, two of Paul's principal helpers. Here is a link of connection between Peter and Paul. We can trace the history of Silas and the history of Mark down to the close of Paul's life. After Paul's martyrdom it would seem that these friends and companions of his made their way to the East to the apostle Peter; that they brought with them the letters which Paul had written to the various churches; that Peter made them a subject of study; and that Peter then wrote to the churches that were now orphans by the apostle's death, expressed his sanction of all that Paul had written, and then added his own instructions for their present condition and needs.
When we come to the Second Epistle of Peter we find that it is written to practically the same persons or communities, because, in the third chapter and first verse, Peter says, "This second epistle I write unto you, brethren." But this Second Epistle has a slightly different object from the first. The dangers and difficulties counteracted in the second are internal, whereas those in the first are external. As, in the first, it was the heathen with whom the people of God had to deal and who persecuted them, so, in the Second Epistle, it seems to be the false teachers within the church. Licentious professors of religion, and profane scoffers, seem to be within the body. Trouble had already arisen, and the object of the Second Epistle is to counteract these internal difficulties; whereas the object of the First Epistle is to strengthen and comfort and encourage the churches in their endurance of persecutions from without.
This Second Epistle of Peter is the Epistle of all the New Testament with regard to whose genuineness there has been most dispute. Many people who are convinced of the authenticity and genuineness of all the other books of the New Testament, declare that with regard to this Second Epistle of Peter they are in great doubt; and it is well for us to understand the exact state of the case. The fact seems to be that it is not until the year 230, almost two centuries after the Saviour's death, that we have an express mention of this Second Epistle of Peter. This first mention of the Epistle is by Origen, the church Father, and he mentions it in a very peculiar way. He says: "We have one Epistle of Peter which is universally accepted; and, if you will, a second, for this is questioned." While he mentions the Second Epistle of Peter as being in existence, he says that it is questionable whether it is a genuine work of the apostle. It is not until the year 250 that we have the first clear witness to the Second Epistle of Peter, with an acceptance of the Epistle; this is by Firmilian, a bishop of Cappadocia. The church historians mention it among the Antilegomena, the books that are spoken against. Jerome, in the fourth century, investigated the claims of the Epistle and admitted it to the Latin Vulgate, while, at the same time, he recorded the objections against it.
It was not until the year 372 that the Council of Laodicea formally admitted it to the canon. But that was a council held in the East; and it was not until the year 397, almost four hundred years after Christ, that the Council of Carthage, in the West, admitted it formally to the canon. The history of this Epistle is manifestly quite different from that of any other New Testament document.
How can we account for all this strange lateness in getting into circulation and acceptance in the Christian church? Is all this consistent with the genuineness and the inspiration of the Epistle? I think it is; and I venture an explanation, though my explanation can be only a plausible hypothesis. These Epistles were certainly written very late in the apostle's life. Peter must have been a somewhat old man in the year 66, when we say the Epistle was probably written. How old was Peter at the time of the Saviour's death? We should think, should we not, that the apostle Peter was older than our Lord? Then, in the year 66, he was thirty-three years older than when Jesus died. He must have been sixty-six, if he was born at the same time with Christ; but if older than Christ, then he must have been, say, seventy-six or possibly eighty. We think of him as much older than the apostle John; and in the Second Epistle we see the marks of age; he is getting toward his end; he says the time of his departure is at hand; he wishes to leave his remembrance to the church, and to give them something that will instruct them and comfort them and encourage them after he is gone. These are the words of an old man. These two Epistles seem to be written in the old age of the apostle, and just before his death.
And how did he die? Why, tradition says that he suffered martyrdom. This is an indication of persecution, and the persecution would have been persecution not simply of himself, but persecution of other Christians also. An Epistle written just before his martyrdom, and just before a general persecution of the church, would certainly find some difficulties in the way of its rapid dissemination. Persecution might require it to be hidden for a time. Years may have passed before it safely could be brought out from its obscurity. I think we can easily see that there may have been reasons why this Epistle should have come later into general circulation than any of the other Epistles of the New Testament. Written far away at the East, with no daily mails, no express-trains, no post-office, no press, it had to be transcribed word by word, a single copy at a time. It took long to circulate the documents of the New Testament through the Christian church. To make an Epistle written in Babylon fully known in western Rome may have required a whole generation, and intervening persecution may have prevented the multiplication of copies for a century.
There are some curious analogies in modern times which may throw light upon this matter. Some have questioned whether it was possible that Epistles, hidden so long, could have come out to the light at last and then be accepted by the whole Christian church. But De Wette found, not seventy-five years ago, a number of important letters by Luther, the great reformer, that the world had never seen before. Three hundred years had passed since Luther's death. De Wette brought out these letters and printed them. They were accepted at once as veritable letters of the reformer, although they had been hidden for three hundred years. John Milton wrote a treatise on Christian doctrine— an important work—but it was two hundred years after John Milton's death before the world knew of its existence; then only was it printed and circulated. Sir William Hamilton tells us that there are now actually in existence important treatises by great philosophers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that are lying hidden away, and unknown, not only to the world but even to the chosen biographers of these philosophers. Or if one desires an illustration from ancient times, we have it in the case of the later works of Aristotle. These works were lost for a hundred and fifty years after his death, but they were recognized as genuine so soon as they were recovered from the cellar of the family of Neleus in Asia. So I think it not without parallel or analogy that this Epistle of the apostle Peter should have remained hidden for many years, should have been then brought out, and finally, through many difficulties, should have won its way to the confidence of the Christian church.
Our evidence of the genuineness and value of the Epistle is in part external. But there is an internal evidence just as valuable as the external. By internal evidence I mean the spiritual value of the Epistle itself, the appeal that it makes to our Christian sympathies and affections, and the power it has to stir and arouse and warn. There is a spirit in the sacred writings which is very different from that of secular literature. Take the first chapter of the Second Epistle of Peter and read it through; if you are a Christian, you will feel that the Holy Spirit appeals to you through that first chapter as clearly and indubitably as it appeals to you through any other chapter of the New Testament. There is a power here, an elevation, an illumination, that are manifestly the work of the Spirit of God; and I confess that, for my part, I should greatly feel the loss of the Second Epistle of Peter, if it should be taken from us. I do not think the question whether the Second Epistle of Peter is genuine or not is one upon which the whole New Testament stands or falls. Still I think there was a divine will guiding the formation of the canon, and that the church was inspired as to which portions of the ancient writings to accept. I believe most firmly in the inspiration and genuineness of this Second Epistle of Peter, but I believe it not so much upon the external evidence as I believe it upon the internal evidence, the power it has to touch my heart and speak to me as by the very voice of the Holy Spirit.
It has been said that the apostle Paul is the apostle of faith, that the apostle John is the apostle of love, and that the apostle Peter is the apostle of hope. Let us read these Epistles in the light of that general remark. Hopefulness is the most characteristic thing about them. You cannot read these two Epistles without feeling something of their broad and noble hopefulness.
Peter was a man of sanguine temperament; a man who found it easy to believe; and a man who, as he believed most heartily in the facts of Christianity, had a most unwavering faith in the triumph of Christianity. Read the first chapter of the First Epistle of Peter in the light of this remark. You will notice that Peter based his hopes on historical facts. He takes us back to the suffering and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ; then he takes us forward to the future, and the certainty that the Lord Jesus Christ will come again. One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. So he bids us to be pure, even in the midst of darkness and persecution, for the day of the Lord draweth nigh.
You remember that Jesus told Peter to strengthen his brethren. Obedience to that command led to the writing of these First and Second Epistles. Peter would strengthen his brethren, to undergo the trials and persecutions with which they are beset here in this present life, with the assurance that there is laid up for them a crown of glory, incorruptible, and undented, and that fadeth not away. There is a spirit of cheer, there is a spirit of brightness, a spirit of hope in the Epistles of Peter, which differences them from all the other Epistles of the New Testament. Peter's own soul is full of hope and brightness and cheer, and he expresses that innermost nature of his in both the First and the Second Epistles.