First Peter was written as a circular letter to churches in five provinces of northwestern Asia Minor. Because of their conversion to Christ these people had been alienated from their culture and their former friends ( 1 Peter 1:14 1 Peter 1:18 ; 2:9 ; 4:3-4 ), and the letter encourages them in the midst of slander, personal abuse, and ostracism ( 1:6 ; 2:12 ; 3:15-16 ; 4:4 ). Peter instructs them to understand their sufferings as an emulation of the passion of Christ ( 2:21 ; 4:13 ), to anticipate the glory they will enjoy when Christ is revealed to the whole world ( 1:13 ; 4:13 ), and to recognize that the church has become their primary social group ( 2:1-10 ; 3:8-12 ; 4:7-11 ). The message of this letter is the genuine grace of God ( 5:12 ) to be realized in their disciplined response to persecution.
The author calls himself Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ ( 1:1 ), a fellow elder, a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a participant in the eschatological glory ( 5:1 ). He has written by means of Silvanus ( 5:12 , or Silas; cf. Acts 15:22 Acts 15:27 Acts 15:32 ), with greetings from his "son, " Mark ( Acts 12:12 ; 15:37 ; Col 4:10 ) as well as from the elect church in "Babylon" a symbolic name for Rome ( 5:13 ; cf. Revelation 17:5 Revelation 17:18 ; Revelation 18:2 Revelation 18:10 ).
Some scholars have questioned apostolic authorship on the basis of the quality of Greek, the absence of personal references to the life of Jesus, and the absence of persecution by the state during the lifetime of Peter. Yet Peter was to some degree bilingual with thirty years of preaching experience, and the skills of Silvanus would have been significant. The purpose of the letter is exhortation, not a rehearsal of the gospel or personal experiences. And finally, the internal description of persecution is that it was spontaneous, local, and sporadic ( 3:13-15 ), not official persecution by the state ( 2:13-17 ). This would suggest that the letter was written prior to Nero's attack on Christians in a.d. 64. Peter's authorship is also supported by the early use of the letter, the consistent affirmation in Christian tradition that he was its author, and its early acceptance in the developing canon.
The dominant theological emphasis of 1 Peter is an ecclesiology that provides believers a self-understanding for the outworking of their salvation in a hostile society. The importance of ecclesiology is indicated by the appearance of ecclesiological emphases at the end of each major section in the letter ( 2:1-10 ; 3:8-12 ; 4:7-11 ; 5:1-7 ), even though the word "church" is not used in the letter.
The church is comprised of the elect ( 1:1 ), regenerate persons ( 1:3 ) who have been baptized ( 3:21 ) and are being built into the temple of God ( 2:5 ) as a royal priesthood; they thus actualize the titles and purposes of Israel ( 2:9-10 ). The church's members engage in the disciplines of eschatological hope, reverent fear of God, love for each other, and worship of Christ (1:13-2:10).
The church lives in the world as an alternate society. Her members have been marginalized by their conversion and departure from the ignorance and evils of the traditions of their former culture, and have thereby become aliens and sojourners in the world ( 1:1 ; 2:11 ). Their purpose is to live in the fear of God as his slaves ( 2:16 ) and still fulfill the obligations placed on each of them by their position in society. By this submission to their societal counterparts the unconverted governors, masters, and husbands believers maintain an honorable lifestyle that will repudiate false accusations and prepare those "Gentiles" for divine visitation ( 2:12 ). Even husbands must reject the shameful way that society treats women and give honor to their wives as equals ( 3:7 ), who of necessity converted with them. The secret to a good and happy life comes from living with other members of the church in harmony, love, and humility, not from societal recognition or personal achievement ( 3:8-12 ). Peter thus recognizes the affirmative nature of a societal organization and emphasizes that while these Christians were in no position to modify social structures, yet they were able to live within them and have a dynamic effect on the non-Christian members of society.
The church must understand the accusations, abuse, and ostracism she experiences from hostile neighbors. This is her opportunity to articulate her faith ( 3:15-17 ), to enjoy a fresh release from sin ( 4:1-6 ), and to express, with eschatological expectation, the gifts of the Spirit in the life of the church ( 4:7-11 ).
Persecution is to be accepted as a blessed partnership in the messianic sufferings. Like Christ, believers must commit their lives to God, who is the faithful Creator ( 4:19 ), and realize that if judgment begins with God's people in this life, then the final judgment of the unrepentant is incomprehensible ( 4:17-18 ). In contrast the church will share in the glory that belongs to Jesus Christ when he is revealed to the entire world ( 1 Peter 5:1 1 Peter 5:10 ). That is why she must resist the devil, who, as the ultimate source of all persecution, seeks to destroy the church.
The church lives under the authority of Jesus Christ through his apostle ( 1:1 ) and the elders ( 5:1-4 ). The elders are responsible for the particular implementation of this letter, which they must do in an exemplary and honorable fashion. Younger men must submit to these elders, and all Christians must live in humility toward each other ( 5:5-7 ), especially before God, who gives honor at the appropriate time, when they will inherit the fullness of their salvation ( 1:4-5 ).
Christology is central to the church's understanding of salvation and persecution. By Christ's sacrificial death she has been redeemed from her vain and futile life, and by his resurrection she has been regenerated to a living hope and an imperishable inheritance ( 1 Peter 1:3 1 Peter 1:18-20 ; 3:18 ). According to God's eternal plan Christ has already been presented to the church ( 1 Peter 1:11 1 Peter 1:20 1 Peter 1:25 ), and his revelation to the entire world will be the completion of her salvation when she will share in his glory ( 1:11 ; 4:13 ; 1 Peter 5:4 1 Peter 5:10 ).
Jesus Christ is the cornerstone (or capstone) of the church, and the priest through whom she offers spiritual sacrifices to God ( 2:5-7 ). He is also the model for understanding and enduring abuse and persecution ( 1:11 ; 1 Peter 4:1 1 Peter 4:13-15 ). His demeanor in crucifixion is exemplary for slaves with cruel masters ( 2:21-25 ). His resurrection and ascension affirm the church's ultimate triumph over her enemies, just as Jesus announced his triumph to the spirits in prison on his journey through the heavens ( 3:18-22 ). Jesus Christ is the Son of God ( 1:3 ), seated at his right hand; he shares with God the title of Lord ( 1:25 ; 2:3 ; 1 Peter 3:12 1 Peter 3:15 ).
The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ who spoke through the prophets ( 1:11 ), has been given to the church through the preaching of the gospel ( 1:12 ), and is engaged in the sanctification of the church ( 1:2 ). This unity of the Godhead is made explicit in salvation by the election of the Father, the sanctifying of the Spirit, and the sacrificial death of Christ ( 1:2 ).
God is also the caring Father of believers by regeneration ( 1 Peter 1:2 1 Peter 1:17 1 Peter 1:23 ). The church has placed her faith in him who is the Creator ( 1:21 ; 4:19 ) and who provides the gifts of the Spirit ( 4:10-11 ). She humbly fears God as her impartial judge ( 1:17 ; 4:17 ) in order to live according to his will and holiness ( 1:15 ; 1 Peter 2:16 1 Peter 2:19 ; 4:2 ) and to be honored by him ( 5:5 ). The ultimate purpose of the church is to glorify God ( 1:3 ; 2:12 ; 1 Peter 4:11 1 Peter 4:16 ; 5:11 ).
Norman R. Ericson
Bibliography. R. J. Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter; P. Davids, The Book of 1 Peter; D. Guthrie, New Testament Theology; S. J. Kistemaker, Peter and Jude; G. E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament; J. R. Michaels, 1 Peter; L. Morris, New Testament Theology.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Peter, First, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".