Commentary on 1 Peter 1:3-9
The First Letter of Peter is addressed to several Gentile Christian communities living in northern Asia Minor, a geographical region usually associated with the Apostle Paul.
The author of the epistle was most likely an elder of a community established in Rome that could trace its origin back to the teachings and traditions of Simon bar Jonah. This conclusion is based on two internal characteristics of the text: the Greek is more eloquent than one would expect from an Aramaic-speaking, Galilean fisherman, and there are clear references to historical circumstances that are consistent with a late first-century date, well after Peter’s death (c. 64 CE). The recipients of this epistle appear to be enduring the kinds of persecutions that had increasingly become a part of Roman policy toward followers of Christ. Peter’s letter is thus an offering of encouragement featuring rich theological insight into how the present circumstances conform to the will of the Father, to the suffering of the Son, and to the sustaining work of the Spirit.
Peter’s Jewish background appears to be the dominant lens through which the events in question are being interpreted. The voices of the prophets can be heard in this text, and we will see that the work of Christ is illuminated by drawing on the ritual imagery of Passover (1:18-19) and the Exodus narrative. Not to be overlooked in this pericope (1:3-9) is the clear reference to the experience that Peter himself had shortly after Jesus’ resurrection when he and the apostles were confronted by the risen Christ and were themselves given new life in community as ekklesia, those “called out” and set apart for God’s purpose (John 20:19-29).
This defining event in the life of the church might be thought of as a kind of post-resurrection creation story, one inaugurating in a very tangible way the presence of God’s Kingdom on earth. Like the Creator in the Garden kneeling over the lifeless form of Adam, Jesus — the Word, through whom all things were made — breathes the breath of the Spirit into the broken body of his disciples. From this point onward they become the new Adam, the enduring incarnation of Christ living as those set apart to fulfill God’s will for creation.
The problem, of course, is that this new Adam has to withstand “for a short time” the lamentable defects of an old and fallen world, and this is the impetus behind Peter’s words of encouragement. While our tendency today is to think of “new birth” in highly individualistic terms, the concerns of the solitary person are here secondary to the experience of the body of believers. The regeneration is not simply the result of one’s baptism; on the contrary, the faithful are ever in the process of being born again. The church as community is moving toward that final day when the pangs of birth will finally be resolved, “at the last time” (1:5).
Peter is speaking directly to the new Adam: through the resurrection “God has given us a new birth into a living hope” (1:3). And with this hope for the future, Peter’s words of encouragement serve a purpose similar to that of the risen Christ speaking to a huddled and fearful group of disciples: “Peace be with you” (John 20:21). Even more, Peter can repeat to these newly baptized Christians the charge that so profoundly convicted him of his own life’s calling all those years ago: “As the Father sent me, so am I sending you”(John 20:21).
As the new Adam living in an old world, the church can draw on a wealth of tradition reaching back as far as their father Abraham. Just as the great patriarch wandered in faith and hope toward an inheritance which had been promised to him by God, just as the Hebrews sojourned in the desert on their way to Canaan, and just as the exiles held out hope in Babylon awaiting the day when they could return to Zion, so too must the faithful keep ever before them their faith in God. The first step toward the New Jerusalem began with the resurrection of their savior, Jesus Christ, and through their faith in his sacrifice they will surely reach their divinely appointed destination.
We can imagine that the words of the Psalmist must have provided great comfort in this context:
I keep the Lord before me always,
for with him at my right hand,
nothing can shake me.
…For you will not abandon me to Sheol,
You cannot allow your faithful servant to see the abyss (Psalm 16:8,10).
The Psalmist concludes with words that are equally applicable to our first-century epistle: “You will teach me the path of life…” (16:11). Peter will subsequently embark on a series of instructions for how these resident aliens can maintain their faith amidst their embattled circumstances. For now, though, the good news has been established: through the resurrection of Christ and the comfort of the Spirit, God continues to work toward the consummation of history, the establishment of God’s Kingdom. This is where we can enjoy our truest citizenship.
What should give us pause as we reflect on the contemporary significance of this passage is just how irrelevant it has become in our daily lives. Despite a resurgence of interest among some in the possibility of being eternally left behind, Peter’s eschatological perspective really has little or no bearing on how most of us live. Even more striking is the way that suffering has come to be interpreted not as political persecution but rather as an assault on our personal health; we endure an illness but have little fear that our faith will ever be contested by the powers that be. Indeed, the powers themselves, more times than not, claim the Prince of Peace as one of their own.
Should we be concerned that our expressions of faith no longer defy the dictates of empire, that our lifestyles rarely oppose the “path of life” offered by our free market economy? Would Peter himself recognize the church today as moving in all things toward the hope of a heavenly Jerusalem, or would he see this new Adam as fallen once again, compromised in the pursuit of earthly power and perishable gold?
May 1, 2011