Commentary on 1 Peter 1:3-23
First Peter is a letter of encouragement and strategy. Most readers miss the tactical response it offers. Yes, it encourages Christian membership to extend mutuality (1 Pet 3:8) and hospitality (4:8–10) to each other. Yes, it exhorts them to brace for the inevitability of trials, attacks, and persecution (1:6, 2:19; 4:19). Yes, it stresses the importance of the community understanding its identity as a Christian race, priesthood, nation, and people (2:9). The letter even counsels its readers to regularly “bless” each other in 3:9 (personally, my favorite salutation)! Without question, 1 Peter champions Christian community and promotes collective resilience.
But it also encourages accommodation. The letter instructs its readers to accept their social location in the caste system of the Roman Empire as enslaved people (2:16, 18), believers of Jesus married to non-believers (3:1, 7), and people subordinate to their society’s governors and rulers (2:13–14, 17). This raises the question, to what end are the reassurances of 1 Peter penned?
The rhetorical strategy of 1 Peter is not passive, but intentional. The letter writer pens encouragements to counteract how its Christian readers are treated by non-Christians who target the collective from outside it (2:12–17). According to the letter, its communities are susceptible to local investigations (1:6; 3:15) launched in response to the accusation that they are christianos (“Christians,” 4:14–16). In 1 Peter, we discover something potentially jarring—Christianity was not a popular attribution, but a stigma (2:12; cf 1:17). To be called “Christian” was to suffer the trauma and shame of diminished status piled on top of pre-existing realities of subordination and servitude.
Thus, to read 1 Peter, we leave behind experiences of Christianity as normative for societal arrangement and expression, as is the case for Western social and religious contexts. We must travel to the margins of an ancient society, established on social and political theologies of polytheism, military conquest, group-oriented identities, and hierarchy. First Peter is addressed from the margins to the margins. Its believing communities face possibilities of localized social dishonor and ostracism under the weight of the stigmas of “suspiciously deviant” and “strange acting” (1:14–17; 2:9–11). In turn, the letter coaches its readers on how to cope with antagonism directed at their diverse and dispersed communities “all over the world” (5:9).
The challenge facing preachers of 1 Peter is helping communities to hear the letter from the right social situation. Contemporary readers should not interpret the letter from a place of ease, acceptance, and access. Rather, they must journey to the margins where subsistence level existence is normal, literacy is rare, the mortality rate surges, and most people are in the situation of the enslaved (or not far from it). This is not a letter addressed to a community composed of governors, masters, property owners, and those with social capital and political power. This is a letter addressed to people accustomed to political powers and natural resources being wielded against them.
If preachers of 1 Peter can get their communities to read the letter from this uncomfortable and dangerous position each time, then the entire message of the letter takes on new meaning: strategy, encouragement, accommodation, and double consciousness. We move behind the dividing lines of separation and view a particular set of coping mechanisms for ancient believers facing censure. In the letter, social options are weighed, and decisions are made and cast within a theological frame.
Week 1 (July 10, 2022)
Preaching text: 1 Peter 1:3–23; accompanying text: Matthew 5:11-12
The author begins by portraying readers as members of 5 regional communities. They are a dispersed network of “elect” people, operating as “strangers” in their local homelands. Yet, they are not strangers to each other. They know the realities of their local non-Christian environments, but the letter urges them to relate to others located elsewhere. Penned as a circular letter intended to travel from one community to the next, the letter writer ensures each local, regional community is aware of its kinship to other communities (1:1–2). It is likely that its regional list maps the letter carrier’s travel itinerary!
In this way, 1 Peter is a discourse of dispersed communities unified across regional and cultural differences. For the letter, there is something more to the Christian experience and story than just membership in a local body. The letter re-imagines the Christian community as a connected, diaspora people (1:5–6). No local community is independent of others. They are not isolated actors striving alone to survive a world that responds to them with great cruelty, disregard, and violence.
Diaspora, in 1 Peter, is an image deployed to cultivate understanding about the nature of Christian identity and kinship. A fundamental characteristic of the community, cast in the letter, is choice. Christian membership and ethnic identity are a status that members opt into, choosing to be a part of a larger body that is not limited to a singular location. The Christian collective are a unified but diverse body of people who are obedient to a new social ethic and arrangement (1:14) not yet represented in their larger world (1:21).
Read commentary on Week 2 texts (July 17, 2022).