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 Introduction to the First Letter of Peter

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Author

The letter is from Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ (1:1). He calls himself a fellow elder, a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed (5:1). Peter was an eyewitness of Jesus's trial (Mt 26:58,67-69), actually having seen Jesus being reviled and not revile in return, and when he suffered he did not threaten (1:23). Peter was not a witness to the crucifixion, unless he watched from afar. He refers to "my son Mark" (5:13). Mark is known to have been closely associated with Peter in Rome.

In 2 Peter, he says, "This is the second letter I have written to you" (2 Pet 3:1), probably referring back to 1 Peter.

External evidence

Clement, writing in AD 95, refers to the precious blood of Christ, without mentioning 1 Pet 1:19. "Let us look steadfastly to the blood of Christ, and see how preciousthat blood is to God" (1 Clement 7)

Polycarp, who died in AD 155, quotes 1 Peter several times, without quoting his name.

Irenaeus quoted 1 Pet 1:8 twice and 2:16 once, by name in his work, Against Heresies: Peter says in his Epistle: "Whom, not seeing, ye love; in whom, though now ye see Him not, ye have believed, ye shall rejoice with joy unspeakable; (Against Heresies 4:9:2)

And for this reason Peter says "that we have not liberty as a cloak of maliciousness," but as the means of testing and evidencing faith (Against Heresies 4:16:5)

And this it is which has been said also by Peter: "Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom now also, not seeing, ye believe; and believing, ye shall rejoice with joy unspeakable. (Against Heresies 5:7:2)

There has never been any serious doubt that Peter the apostle was the author of this book, although some think that 1 Peter is pseudonymous and from a later date.

Arguments against Peter as author

The first argument is that the Greek is too good for an uneducated fisherman (Acts 4:13), as the letter contains some of the best written Greek in the NT. Many scholars wonder how Peter, an Aramaic speaking fisherman from Galilee, with a local accent (Lk 22:59), could write such good Greek. However, Peter and his fellow disciples were not being accused of being illiterate (Acts 4:13), but rather of not being officially trained as Jewish rabbis, and therefore having no authority to teach on theology.

The best solution is that Peter used Silas as a secretary (1 Pet 5:12). The secretary would probably have freedom to improve the language as was dictated. Silas was a Roman citizen and an important figure in the church, so was probably well educated and fluent in Greek.

The second argument is that there was not much persecution during Peter's lifetime in Asia Minor. The persecution is described later in this article.

Written from

The only evidence for where the letter was written from is at the end, "She who is at Babylon, sends you greetings" (5:13). This is definitely not referring to historical Babylon, which was uninhabited at this time, and there was certainly no church there. Also there is no evidence that Peter, Silas or Mark ever visited there. There was another Babylon in Egypt, a Roman frontier post on the Nile, there was no reason for Peter to be there.

Normally this is understood to be a cryptic reference to Rome (as in Rev 14:8, 17:5,18). In the O.T., Babylon was the centre of opposition to God and his people. In the same way, Rome is the N.T. symbol of opposition to the gospel. There is much evidence from the early church that Peter ended his life in Rome. Jerome believed that Peter was using the name Babylon to refer cryptically to Rome: "Peter also mentions this Mark in his first epistle, figuratively indicating Rome under the name of Babylon "She who is in Babylon elect together with you saluteth you and so doth Mark my son." (Lives of Illustrious Men 8)

Date

The only internal indication of the date is the reference to Mark being with the author (5:13). 1 Peter was probably written after the death of Paul or after Paul had left Rome. Silas and Mark, who originally worked with Paul, were now associated with Peter and no greetings from Paul are included in the letter. Church evidence shows that Mark was with Peter in Rome at this time, when Mark's gospel was written, from Peter's information. A reasonable date for 1 Peter would be between AD 62 and 64, before Peter’s martyrdom during the persecution by Nero after the fire of Rome.

Written to

The letter is addressed to "the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia" (1:1). Geographically, these are Roman provinces in a wide area of Asia Minor, modern day Turkey. Peter had probably visited these churches at some time and possibly founded some of them, although he refers to those who preached the good news in the third person (1:12). As Silas was known to some of the readers, he may have evangelised and planted some of the churches. Some of the churches in the south were founded by Paul, who had written Ephesians, Colossians and Galatians to churches in this area. The Ephesian church evangelised the whole of the province of Asia (Acts 19:10), and may have extended further. Paul never reached the northern areas as far as we know (Acts 16:6). John later addressed some of the churches in the west, in Revelation.

The order of the place names could be the route of the postman carrying the letter, perhaps landing at one of the harbours in Pontus (Amastric, Sinope or Amisos), then travelling through Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and leaving from Bithynia. He could either sail direct from one of the major harbours in Bithynia to Rome, or otherwise travel overland using the regular post road from the east.

The second question is whether the letter is addressed to Jews or Gentiles. The letter is addressed to "the exiles of the Dispersion" (1:1). The Dispersion is the term used to describe the Jews who were scattered around the known world after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC (Jn 7:35). There were large Jewish communities in all the major cities, who visited Jerusalem regularly for the festivals. There were Jews from these regions in Jerusalem who heard the gospel on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:9), who may have brought the gospel back. James also uses this term, addressing his letter to "the twelve tribes in the Dispersion" (James 1:1).

However, there are indications in the letter that Gentiles are being addressed, by the way Peter describes his readers, and their previous lives: "you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers" (1:18), "once you were no people but now you are God's people" (2:10), "let the time that is past suffice for doing what the Gentiles like to do .. licentiousness, passions, drunkenness revels, carousing, lawless idolatry" (4:3) - (these are hardly Jewish sins), "unbelievers are surprised that no longer join them in wild profligacy" - Gentile sins they used to be involved in (4:4).

The churches were probably a mixture of converted Jews and Gentiles. The term "exiles of the Dispersion" is probably another example of Peter applying the OT language for the Jews to the church, referring to Christians dispersed throughout the world and living away from their heavenly homeland which they look forward to reaching. In this way, it addresses all Christians, in all places at all times - "we are aliens and sojourners in this world, with our commonwealth in heaven" (Phil 3:20).

Carried by

The reference to Silvanus could refer to Silvanus (Silas) either as Peter's secretary or as Peter's postman. 5:12 is a recommendation of Silas by Peter, which would only be necessary if he was bringing the letter, not if he had helped Peter write it. It is still probable that Peter used Silas or a different unnamed secretary.

Occasion of the letter

The theme of suffering is throughout the book: suffer various trials (1:6), faith tested by fire (1:7), Christ suffered, follow his example (2:21), when you are abused, those who revile you (3:16), suffering for doing what is right (3:17), fiery ordeal (4:12), share Christ's sufferings (4:13), Devil as roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (5:8), suffering throughout the world (5:9).

In the book of Acts, the real enemies of the church were militant Jews, who made accusations against the Christians to the Roman authorities. During this time, Christianity was seen as a Jewish sect, and therefore no threat to the empire. This changed dramatically with Nero's persecution of Christians from AD 64-67. The Christians were blamed for the fire of Rome in AD 64, which Nero was accused by the people of starting. The people believed that Nero wanted to clear all of Rome and rebuild it as a monument to himself. Public resentment against Nero, forced him to find a scapegoat - the Christians. A savage period of persecution followed, which was most severe in and around Rome, but not in the rest of the empire.

Christianity became illegal. It was previously legal, a "religiones licitae", approved by the state, as part of Judaism. It now became illegal, a "religiones illicitae", making every Christian an outlaw and criminal, simply because he was a believer.

There was sporadic persecution elsewhere in the empire at the whim of local officials. The letter is clearly addressed to suffering churches. The call is to share in the sufferings of Christ with rejoicing in hope of his return. Peter exhorts Christians not to think it strange that they should suffer, Jesus had suffered. Peter was probably martyred not long after writing this letter.

It is amazing that in the midst of this, Peter exhorts his readers to honour the emperor (2:17) and be subject to human institutions (2:14). Paul also gives the same instruction (Rom 13:1-7). It was essential for the Christians to give the Roman authorities absolutely no justification for their persecution. Christians should always show by the quality of their lives that they do not behave like criminals, and therefore should not be treated as such (4:15).

It is likely that some of the persecution may be coming from their neighbours: "servants to be submissive to overbearing masters" (2:18), "surprised that you no longer join their wild profligacy, they abuse you" (4:4).

Themes in the book

These are some of the major themes of the book: the holiness of life, the sufferings of Christ, suffering as a Christian, God's sovereignty in salvation and life, the grace of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, the church as the new people of God, the reality of the unseen spirit world, trusting God in daily circumstances, and the hope of Jesus's return.

Sharing in Christ's sufferings

To encourage his readers who are experiencing persecution, he describes how Christ also suffered, and that they are now sharing his suffering: they suffer various trials, to test genuineness of their faith (1:6), prophets predicted Christ's suffering (1:11), approved for suffering unjustly (2:9-10), Christ suffered for you (2:21), Christ suffered but did not threaten (2:23), blessed for suffering for righteousness sake (3:14), better to suffer for doing right (3:17), Christ died, suffered for sins once and for all (3:18), Christ suffered in flesh, ceased to sin (4:1), rejoice as you share Christ's suffering (4:13), let no one suffer as murderer (4:15), not ashamed to suffer as Christian (4:16), suffer according to God's will (4:19), Peter - a witness of Christ's sufferings (5:1), same experience of suffering in brotherhood (5:9), suffer a little while, then glory (5:10).

"Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to test you, as thought something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed." (4:12-13)

Jesus' second coming

There is a strong emphasis on the second coming of Christ, perhaps as an encouragement to those suffering persecution: "salvation ready to be revealed in the last time" (1:5), "the genuineness of their faith will result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1:7), "grace is coming at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1:13), "God will be glorified on the day of his visitation" (2:12), "the end of all things is at hand" (4:7), "those who share Christ's sufferings will rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed" (4:13), "judgement will begin with the household of God" (4:17), Peter will be a partaker of the glory that will be revealed (5:1), "when the Chief Shepherd is manifested, you will obtain the unfading crown of glory" (5:4).

Theology of the book

The theology of the book matches the theology of the early church as found in the book of Acts. especially Peter's preaching. C.H. Dodd identified five basic ingredients of their message:

1. The age of fulfilment has dawned. The Messianic age has begun. This is God's final word. A new order is being inaugurated and men and women are summoned to join the new community. (Acts 2:14-16, 3:12-26, 4:8-12, 10:34-43) (1 Pet 1:3,10-12, 4:7)

2. The new age has come through the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All of these were foretold by the prophets and is therefore a result of the will and foreknowledge of God. (Acts 2:20-31, 3:13-14, 10:43) (1 Pet 1:20-21)

3. As a result of his resurrection, Jesus has been exalted to the right hand of God and is the Messianic head of God's new people. (Acts 2:22-26, 3:13, 4:11, 5:30-31, 10:39-42) (1 Pet 1:21, 2:7, 3:21-22)

4. These Messianic events will shortly reach their culmination in the Parousia, when Jesus returns in glory and judges the living and the dead. (Acts 3:19-23, 10:42) (1 Pet 1:5,7,13, 4:5,13,17-18, 5:1,4)

5. These facts are the grounds of an appeal for repentance, the offer of forgiveness, the gift of the Holy Spirit and the promise of eternal life. (Acts 2:38-39, 3:19, 5:31, 10:43) (1 Pet 1:13-25, 2:1-3, 4:1-5)


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