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NEW TESTAMENT SURVEY NewTestament Survey


STUDY 18 - THE FIRST EPISTLE OF PETER


For this study see: M.C.Tenney, pp.344-354; R.H.Gundry, pp.437-443. Further reading: D.A.Carson, et al., An Introduction to the New Testament, pp.421-431.

1. AUTHORSHIP AND BACKGROUND

Authorship
"Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ" (1:1).  The first verse of the epistle supports Petrine authorship, as does its sense of apostolic authority, although this is often questioned today.  The story of Peter's discipleship is fully told in the Gospels, beginning with his call (Mk.1:16-20; cf., Lk.5:1-11).  He was one of the inner circle of the disciples (Mk.5:37; 9:2; 14:33).  At times he related to the Lord in a special way (Lk.5:4-10; Mt.16:13-20; Lk.22:31-34; Jn.13:6-10).  His denial of the Lord was followed by repentance, forgiveness and recommission (Mt.26:69-75; Jn.21:15-19).  In the Acts Peter is pictured as the leader of the disciples.  On the day of Pentecost it is Peter who represents the other apostles and preaches the gospel with power.  His ministry in the first part of Acts compares with that of Paul in the latter part of the book.  The apostle opened the door of the gospel to Jews (Acts 2) and Gentiles (Acts 10).  Tradition says that Peter was crucified head downward in Rome during the persecution of Nero, not later than A.D. 68.

Date and place of writing
M.C.Tenney comments:

"First Peter states that it was written from 'Babylon' (5:13). There are three possible interpretations of this location: (1) the historical Babylon in Mesopotamia, where there was a Jewish settlement until much later in the Christian era, and where Peter could well have founded a church; (2) a town in Egypt; and (3) a mystic name for Rome, by which Christians applied to it all the evil connotations that had been historically associated with the Babylon on the Euphrates, and by which they could vent their feelings without being detected." [1]

Supporting the idea that 'Babylon' represents Rome is the fact that John Mark, who was with Peter at the time of the writing of the epistle, was in Rome at the time of Paul's imprisonment (Col.4:10).  Patristic evidence places Paul in Rome at the end of his life. This does not infer that Peter founded the church in Rome.  Dating may be c.A.D. 60-70.

The readers
"God's elect, strangers in the world..." (1:1).  There is some doubt as to whom this refers, whether it addresses dispersed Jews who are Christians or simply Christians who are dispersed in the provinces of Asia Minor, and are pictured as the spiritual Israel, a spiritual Diaspora (cf., Gal.6:16).  The teaching: "But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light" (2:9) compares with Ex.19:6 and supports this analogy.

The occasion of writing
The occasion of the letter is clearly indicated by its content, which refers to suffering some sixteen times - it is to encourage and strengthen Christians who are being persecuted for Christ. But from which section of society did the persecution come? It may have risen from the state when it saw that the faith was not a religio licita. As M.C.Tenney points out the reaction against Christians in Rome under Nero was the product of this popular dislike, activated by Nero's spiteful accusations.  Against this H.F.Vos notes: "Though some think these persecutions originated with the state, the epistle itself seems to indicate that they were initiated by unsaved neighbours of those addressed. In this regard note especially chapter 4 (e.g., 4:4)". [2]

2. CONTENT

Suffering
'Suffering' is a keynote of the letter.  Note the reference to 'all kinds of trials' (1:6), 'unjust suffering' (2:19), 'suffer for what is right' (3:14), 'suffer for doing good' (3:17).  Again, some see 'refined as fire' as a reference to the Neronian persecution, when Christians were burned to death.  The reference to suffering as Christians (4:12-16) is significant (cf., Acts 11:26). Persecution may be seen as widespread (5:9).  The example of Christ's suffering is applied in a meaningful way in 2:20-25.

Peter's lessons from the life of Christ
"The personal experience of Peter with Christ is reflected in this epistle to his friends who were imperiled by impending persecutions.  He had known the feeling of helplessness when he realised that Jesus was dead, but his hope had become living when Jesus rose (1:3).  His reference to love for Christ (1:8) recalls Jesus' challenge to him, 'Lovest thou me more than these?' (Jn.21:15ff.), and his exhortation to 'tend the flock of God' (1 Pet.5:2) is an echo of Jesus' injunction to him to do the same thing (Jn.21:15-17).  The command, 'gird yourselves with humility' (1 Pet.5:5), means 'to put on a slave's apron', which recalls Jesus' girding himself with a towel to wash the feet of the disciples (Jn.13:4).  Five times he speaks of the sufferings of Christ (1 Pet.2:23; 3:18; 4:1,13; 5:1) as if the scene of Gethsemane and the crucifixion left an indelible impression on him" (M.C.Tenney). [3]

Peter's Christology
The apostle refers to: Christ's death and resurrection (1:3,19-21; 3:18-22), Christ as the living stone and chief cornerstone (2:1-8), the example of Christ (2:21-25; 4:1), Jesus as Lord (3:15), and Jesus as the Chief Shepherd (5:4).  He also speaks of the triune nature of God (1:2), especially the Fatherhood of God (e.g., 1:3, 13-17), thus giving a sense of purpose and strength to suffering.

Peter's apostolic authority
A continuous chain of concerned injunctions runs through the epistle.  Note:

  1. In chapter 1: Be self-controlled (1:13); Set your hope (1:13); Be holy (1:15); Live your lives (1:17); Love one another (1:22);

  2. In chapter 2: Crave pure spiritual milk (2:2); Be subject (2:13); Respect everyone (2:17); Love the brotherhood (2:17); Fear God (2:17); Honour the Caesar (2:17);

  3. In chapter 3: Do not fear (3:14); Do not be frightened (3:14); Set apart Christ as Lord (3:15);

  4. In chapter 4: Arm yourselves (4:1); Be clear-minded (4:7); Be self-controlled (4:7); Do not be surprised (4:12); Rejoice (4:13); Do not suffer as a thief (4:15); Do not be ashamed (4:16); Praise God (4:16); Commit themselves (4:19);

  5. In chapter 5: Be shepherds (5:2); Be submissive (5:5) Clothe yourselves with humility (5:5); Humble yourselves (5:6); Be self-controlled (5:8); Be alert (5:8); Resist the devil (5:9).

3. OUTLINE

M.C.Tenney's outline is headed appropriately, Salvation through Suffering:

  • 1 Peter: Salvation through Suffering

  • Introduction (1:1-2)

  • The character of salvation: preservation (1:3-12)

  • The claims of salvation: holiness (1:13-2:10)

  • The conduct of the saved (2:11-3:12)

  • The confidence of the saved (3:13-4:11)

  • The counsel for the saved who are suffering (4:12-5:11)

  • Concluding salutations (5:12-14).


4. EVALUATION

"The chief value of the epistle is that it shows Christians how to live out their redemption in a hostile world.  Salvation may involve suffering, but is also brings hope, as the grace of God is amplified in the individual life" (M.C.Tenney). [4]

Difficult passages
Two passages in Peter present exegetical problems:

"God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell (tartaros), putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment" (2:4).  The Greek word tartaros (hell, a name for the underworld) is only found here in the NT - as is its verbal form 'to cast into hell' (tartaroō).  A theological speculation holds that of the angels that fell with Satan some were fettered and imprisoned (as Peter states), while others were free as Satan's angels or demons.

The passage that pictures Christ ministering to 'spirits in prison' (3:18-22) is a difficult one to exegete.  Does this passage mean that Christ preached in the unseen world of spirits between his death and resurrection? If so did he give them a 'second chance' to repent (cf., 4:6) or did he simply announce to them the results of his atoning work? Are the 'spirits' those who died during the Flood? Another question: Does baptism save?


ENDNOTES

1. M.C.Tenney, p.349.

2. M.C.Tenney, pp.352f.

3. H.V.Vos, Beginnings in the New Testament, p.97.

4. M.C.Tenney, p.353.



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