Note: The following introduction was written in 2007, as the Hart Haus network was crumbling around me. I have changed a great deal since this moment. Some parts of this make me cringe, as my comments are still very white Evangelical in perspective. Yet, other parts of this essay still ring true as my young Emergent self was breaking through in that moment. Take it with a grain of salt. Context is everything!
I invite your imagination to journey into the past and land in first century Palestine. There, in the Galilean countryside, a renegade rabbi looks over to his impetuous and robust fisherman friend and says, “Yo, Rocky. On you I will build my church.”
When Jesus lived and breathed our air he chose 12 men to be his traveling companions, confidants, and disciples. Among the most colorful and significant of these 12 was one man named Simon. At first glance he was nothing more than a common Jewish fisherman from the north-shore fishing town of Capernaum. It was there that he first encountered Jesus of Nazareth and lent him his fishing boat as a speaking platform. There was something about Simon that drew Jesus to him. Perhaps it was his robust love for life. Perhaps it was his strength and vigor. Or, perhaps it was a genuine honesty that he saw in his eyes. We know one thing for sure; it wasn’t his refined and subdued demeanor that won him Jesus’ favor. Whatever it was, Jesus called Simon away from a life of commercial fishing and into an adventure that would take him through the glorious witness of miracles such as the feeding of the 5,000, walking on water, and the transfiguration. It would also lead him to the bitter sorrow of betraying Jesus, the humility of being forgiven and reinstated by him, and then, after years of faithful service, to the shame of being executed in Rome.
Jesus chose to not call Simon by his given Jewish name. Instead he called him “Petros” which, in the Greek language, means “rock.” It is debated among scholars whether this was Simon’s actual second name, or if Jesus was giving him a descriptive nickname. In either case Jesus was making a point by renaming Simon. To call him “Rock” sent a message both to him and to the other disciples. Simon was strong. Simon was a leader. Simon would be the strength that the rag tag group of disciples would need in order to withstand the violent storm of oppression that was soon to overtake them.
In this study we will be studying the first letter that the Rock wrote. Before we look specifically at this letter we must first step back from the New Testament and take it all in. As we look at the entire New Testament landscape we notice that there is a certain amount of irony about it. In the Gospels the main disciple and leading Apostle was Peter. Jesus said he would build his church upon that rock. Then, in the first nine chapters of Acts we see Peter successfully and powerfully fulfilling that role. Then something changes. After chapter 12 of Acts the focus shifts. Peter fades into the background– into relative obscurity – and Paul surfaces and plays the lead role throughout the rest of the text. Luke’s book of Acts meticulously details Paul’s journeys into the Gentile world. Then, out of the 22 letters in the collection, Paul has 13 and Peter has only 2.
What does this tell us about Paul? More importantly for this study, what does this tell us about Peter? There are two possibilities. The first is to assume that Peter was replaced as the “Rock” upon which the church would be built. Peter must have messed up along the way and Jesus wants us to listen to Paul’s doctrine as the primary source of truth for the church in all ages.
The second possibility is that the focus on Paul is not a focus that Jesus dictated to the universal church, but is the specific focus of those men that decided upon the Canon (established collection of scripture) of the New Testament. When the 27 documents of the New Testament were established as the “standard” or “canon” of scripture for the church (council of Nicea circa A.D. 325) the primary issue for the church was how the gospel of Jesus should be presented to the predominately non-Jewish world. In the beginning of the story, Jesus was a Jew who came to Jews, spoke in Jewish cultural forms, and presented the Jewish Messiah as the fulfillment of the Jewish Scripture. All of the metaphors – the Lamb of God, the atonement for sin, the living water, etc. – were images that spoke to the theological mind of the Jew. When Peter first began preaching his message he spoke to a Jewish audience in the same way Jesus did. It took the Cornelius experience (Acts 10) to rattle his cultural cage and help him begin to see that the gospel was for more than just the Jewish nation. I believe it was very difficult for Peter to bridge the cultural gap and fully understand how to communicate the gospel across the Jewish/Gentile chasm. That’s where Paul comes in. Jesus chose Paul because he knew that he was uniquely fitted for such a task. The teaching of Paul is the first generation of the ongoing process of communicating the global mission of presenting the good news of Jesus in non-Jewish ways to non-Jewish people. The church leaders at the council of Nicea were faced with this task and looked to Paul as their example.
Does that mean that Peter is irrelevant? Absolutely not. It simply means that when we read Peter’s letters we must remember that he has very Jewish lenses on as he writes. Does that taint the pure gospel? Of course not. The good news of Jesus must always be wrapped in a cultural context. It cannot survive in a vacuum. It would be meaningless that way.
Let me explain. Whenever we speak words about Jesus and use metaphors to explain his teaching and grapple with the profound mystery of his death and resurrection we must use culturally bound words and pictures. Please be sure to hear carefully what I’m saying. I’m not suggesting that we, as enlightened missionaries, must cleverly choose culturally relevant language to communicate that which we fully grasp to those “on the other side” who just don’t get it. That kind of colonial thinking can get us into trouble. What I am saying is that language itself is culturally bound. Also, we, as human creatures, are also culturally bound and limited by our own perspectives. So, as culturally bound human creatures, it is impossible for us to communicate the infinite mysteries of the eternal creator without the limited and culturally bound expressions of language and images.
Peter was thoroughly Jewish in his perspective. He grew, of course, but it was a difficult process. Paul’s “horizon” – meaning his perspective on the world — was much broader due to the simple fact that he was born in Tarsus, was a Roman citizen, was well-educated, and had a grasp of the Greco-Roman mind. He chose to submit himself to the way of the Pharisee because he believed it to be the true way, but he retained his broader perspective.
So, why have we spent this time talking about Paul when we are studying a letter written by Peter? Here are some reasons:
Don’t think that Peter is in any way inferior to Paul because he gets less “ink” in the New Testament. Peter was the “Rock” upon which Jesus built his church.
Peter was a dynamic leader in the church who led the first generation of Christians through very difficult times.
When you read Peter, remember that he was primarily speaking to Jewish Christians that lived in Gentile regions. Whereas Paul’s letters were dominated by the issue of Jew/Gentile cultural clashes and unity in the body between different cultures, thus coloring his theology to that end, Peter’s letters are not tangled in that web and deal more directly with a more singlemindedness. Thus should the letters be read and interpreted.
As Peter addresses his audience, we come upon a term that may trip us up. It is a term that has caused great controversy in the church; especially since the Protestant Movement of the 16th century. Peter writes his letter to “God’s elect” What does that mean? At this point we could launch into a long diatribe on the issue of election, predestination, and the role of free will in the process of salvation. Has God chosen those who will be saved and those who will be damned from before time began? Or, does God open and invitation to all people to choose to follow him, and he knew those who would choose before the foundation of the world?
We are not going to discuss that issue for a couple reasons. First, I don’t believe that is the point of this letter, so I do not want to get distracted by it. Second, I don’t think it is a great question. I believe that the perennial Protestant conflict over the issue of election has been based upon some false assumptions. The debate has sprung from the assumption that when Peter addresses the “elect” he is referring to all Christians everywhere in all time. Thus making it possible for us to perceive the position of being a “Christian” or “saved” as a position of election. What if that is a false assumption? What if, when Peter addresses the “elect” he is speaking to a specific group of people? Peter is speaking to the Jews in the region of Western Asia Minor (modern Turkey) that follow Jesus as their Messiah. For centuries the Jews had identified themselves as God’s elect since God had chosen Abraham to be a called out nation in order to bless the nations.
What I’m saying is simply this: Peter is not making a theological statement in this verse, he is simply saying, “this letter is written to the Jews in Asia…” Nothing more.
Now, the rest of verses 2-3 tell us two specific things about these Jews:
- They were Jews living in a specific place. This region of the Roman Empire gets a lot of attention in the New Testament. The main city of this region was Ephesus. It was here that Paul established a thriving ministry that overflowed into church planting throughout the whole region. It was to these churches that the letters of Paul to the Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon were written. It was also to these churches that the letter and vision of Revelation was written. So, what is so special about these regions? It is most likely that the churches in these regions are the focus because it was in this region that the cult of Empower worship was the strongest in the Empire.
At this point it is important to describe what the state of being was in the Empire at this point in history and how the church fit into it. If you lived in this region of the world at that time, then it was apparent to you that the single most powerful force in the universe was the Roman Empire. It stretched out as far as the mind could imagine: to the ends of the Earth. We must remember that they had no concept of the spherical globe that we know, consisting of 7 continents and two hemispheres. For them, the Roman Empire touched all four corners of the earth and had seemingly conquered it all. At the top of this powerful force sat the greatest authority of them all, the emperor. He was so powerful that many believed him to be a god on earth. He was a savior of sorts, having brought peace to the world through his domination. He was also a savior in that, unlike the gods of the ancient religions that were aloof and mischievous, the emperor god was human and connected to his people, like a father watching over his children. He blessed them with peace and prosperity and offered them a good life. He was Lord of all, and under his throne and authority were all of his local principalities – the governors and local rulers – spread throughout the empire.
- The second thing we learn about these Jews is that they were Jews of the New Covenant. No longer did they acknowledge the rigidly monotheistic concept of God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They had been exposed to a radical new revelation of God as one existing in three persons. Through the encounter with Jesus of Nazareth they now knew that God was a relational dynamic within himself, consisting of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They were in a relational dynamic with God as Father, being known by Him. God was not just an aloof, non-personal entity to be feared and appeased. He is a loving Father who can be known. The relationship with God was not just a static position of familial bond; it existed for the purpose of transformation and the continuing process of becoming mature children. The Holy Spirit of God indwells His people and transforms them – sanctifies them – from the inside out; always convicting and instructing them in the ways of their Father. Finally, and most radically, God was not simply an abstract idea or an empowering force, God had revealed himself in a concrete, practical way through the human being named Jesus. A god/human that lived in the dynamic relationship of Father/Son came to demonstrate to us the “law” of God – the law of love. He came to teach us the ways of God, and to demonstrate the love of God through laying down his own life for us. Through the blood that symbolizes this self-sacrifice – using a Jewish metaphor – they were sprinkled. The sprinkling was a ritual of cleansing at the Jewish temple that made a person ready to come before God. Jesus is the link between human and God.
So, these “elect” scattered throughout western Turkey were a strange breed. As Jews they were already in the minority. But now, as Trinitarian Jesus-following Jews, they were a minority among a minority. At every turn they felt like aliens and strangers in their homes. They were the first generation of people to swim upstream in the cultural, social, political, and religious flow of life in the Empire.
Swimming upstream is never easy. So, when Peter used the greeting “grace and peace to you” it must have felt both like a strange oddity and a longed-for balm of healing. Where was grace in a world surrounded by prejudice and abuse? Where was peace in a time of persecution?
This brings us to our last piece of introduction before we can examine the main body of this letter. The “elect” were a persecuted people. It is most likely that Peter was in the city of Rome when he wrote this letter. In Rome the god-man emperor was named Nero. During Nero’s reign the city had burned and the people were confused and began to question the emperor as to how he could let this happen. Nero needed a scapegoat. His wife was a Jewish sympathizer so he could not touch them. The newly formed sect of Judaism that followed a Messiah they called “Chrestus” was a good target. They were a relatively small group. They were rejected by both Romans and Jews. He would blame them and their refusal to worship the emperor as the reason for the calamity that had befallen the beloved city. Under this pretense he persecuted Jesus-followers. He threw them to the lions, he burned them as human torches in his garden, and he publicly defrocked them of position and property. He drove them out of Rome. He spread prejudice and hatred for them throughout the Empire, making it difficult for them to live peaceful lives. Eventually he executed their two most prominent leaders – Paul and Peter.
It was under this dark shadow that Peter wrote his letter. It must have been written as the shadow was just starting to form in Rome that he wrote. It was as if he was warning his people in Asia to be aware that shadow of severe oppression was starting to stretch across the empire and engulf them as well. The persecution would be most fierce in their region where emperor worship was strongest.
To be a Jesus-follower in that day, in that place, meant certain suffering. Unjust suffering. Prejudicial suffering. Loss of job, loss of property, and even loss of life.
Peter’s first letter could be entitled as a question, “How can we be Jesus-followers in the light of unjust suffering?”
I have organized the study as answers to this question. Here are two ways to look at this letter. The first is my attempt to distill the entire letter down to its basic message. The second is a straight-forward outline of the letter.
1 Peter is a treatise on suffering. It could be titled, “How can we authentically follow Jesus in the face of unjust suffering?”
- Remember that you are a resident alien in the world.
- Remember that Jesus modeled humility and submission in the face of unjust persecution.
- You should not violently resist authority or flaunt your freedom in Christ.
- Play by the rules.
- Submit to the norms of societal roles
- Take the higher road and live in humility.
Above all else, you should love everyone. It is only through love that you will prevail.
- Remember that Jesus is faithful. God is the judge, not you. Put your trust in God and don’t get needlessly mixed up in controversy.
- Blessing and Preamble (1:3-12)
- Live as Holy Aliens (1:13-2:12)
- Renew your mind (1:13-2:3)
- Renew your identity (2:4-12)
- Submit to Social Mores (2:13-3:7)
- Be a Loving Community (3:8-3:12)
- A Treatise on Suffering (3:13-5:11)
- You can suffer for doing good because Jesus did it (3:13-22)
- Don’t feed desire, instead live in love (4:1-11 )
- Good suffering (4:12-19)
- Leadership in the face of suffering (5:1-5)
- Humility and Hope (5:6-11 )
- Final Greetings (5:12-14)
What About Us?
At this point you may be wondering, “Why should I study this letter? I’m not a Jewish Christian and I’m not suffering persecution.”
Good question. I am a middle-class, white, American, male who has been raised in an Evangelical perspective throughout my whole life. I can’t change that. It is the root structure from which my person emerges. In my life I have never experienced persecution for following Jesus. Sure I may have been snickered at by a few zit-faced junior high kids because I didn’t swear or ogle the cheerleaders, but in the end I was usually respected by my mid-western peers for the “high moral standards” that I stood for. In fact, I was usually on top of the heap in all of my social contacts. As an adult, my Christian standing usually brought perks of salary, position, and the seduction of self-importance as I navigated the strange waters of the organized Christian sub-culture called the church.
My guess is that your life has been similar. Perhaps you haven’t been in Christian leadership, but you probably have never lost your job, been evicted, or been imprisoned because you claim Jesus as your Lord. You have probably never felt the pain of an oppressor’s fist striking you across the cheek or of severe hunger biting through your gut. In short, we are pampered, privileged, and spoiled Christians.
If you do not fall into this category then please excuse yourself from this challenge and simply engage directly in the message of Peter.
However, if you join me in the class of the pampered, I have a challenge for us as we study through 1 Peter. I came across a quote from an American author named John Steinbeck. I don’t know the context of the quote, but the words as they stand communicate a deep and painful truth.
“I have named the destroyers of nations: comfort, plenty, and security – out of which grow a bored and slothful cynicism, in which rebellion against the world as it is, and myself as I am, are submerged in listless self-satisfaction.”
- As we read Peter’s letter I ask us to do the following:
Wear reverse lenses. As Peter speaks to the oppressed, as yourself why he asks them to do the things he does. Then ask yourself if would take persecution for you to be able to accept the challenge he gives.
- Remember those who are currently oppressed. We live in a bubble. While we may not be experiencing the persecution that Peter’s audience did, there are millions of people today who are. Right now, as you read these words, people are being beaten, fired, evicted, imprisoned, exiled, and executed for their faith. Many others are being beaten down by the ravages of civil war, famine, and plague. We, as the comfortable and privileged, have a calling by the loving Heavenly Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, in obedience to the modeling of the Son, to love these people and be the kind of people that Peter urges his church to become.