Commentary on 1 Peter 1:3-9
The First Letter of Peter is addressed to the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. One commentator suggests that geographically speaking this would be 300,000 square miles!
Peter has been the accepted author of these letters from the earliest days of the church. If Peter is indeed the author then the letter must be dated prior to 64 A.D., the date of Peter’s death in Rome. There are voices that contend that Peter is not the author of this epistle and that the date of the letter needs to be set somewhat later.
The major purpose of the letter appears to be an appeal to Christian believers not to turn away from the gospel they have heard proclaimed. A very interesting theory of the usage of the letter is that it was a letter intended to be read at a baptismal service with the purpose of strengthening the faith of the baptized as they find themselves living as exiles in an alien culture. We note, e.g., that I Peter 1.3 refers to new birth. Cf. the reference to being “born anew” in 1.23.
Others assert that the letter itself is structured after a baptismal liturgy. This theory is built on the hypothesis that I Peter is based on a liturgy containing various prayers and homilies spoken by a bishop at the various stages of an Easter baptismal service. This theory divides the book of I Peter as follows:
- Opening Prayer [1.3-12]
- Charge to a baptismal candidate [1.13-21]
followed by a baptism.
- Welcome to the newly baptized. [1.22-25]
- Homily on the sacraments. [2.1-10]
followed by the eucharist.
- Homily on duties of the Christian disciple. [2.11-4.6]
A description of the audience for this letter of I Peter would include the fact that they were relative newcomers to Christianity [1.4; 1.17; 1.25; 2.2]. They were an immature group of believers who were encountering a hostile environment. They were foreigners in their own country because of their election [1.2], their worship of God [4.14-15], their origin [1.3, 23; 2.2], their lifestyle [2.16], and their innocent suffering [2.12; 3.13, 16]. They needed guidance on their way. One interpreter of this letter sees, therefore, a two-fold purpose for its writing: 1] It is a call to young Christians to hold fast their faith. “Become who you are,” might summarize Peter’s message on this point. 2] It is a description for how young believers can be Christians in a hostile cultural environment. This message is fashioned for those who have suffered much for their new faith. The role of suffering, the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of his followers pervades the epistle.
This text from I Peter is appointed for the Second Sunday after Easter. One sermon possibility for preaching is to take up the theme of Easter hope in a world of decay and death. Vv. 3-5 are a flourish of praise for baptism; new birth! Note how the hope of new birth is dominated by images of the resurrection. Our salvation here is pointed toward the end of history! As Easter people we live between the NOW and the NOT YET. Easter people live between the times!
A second sermon possibility is to focus on the reality of Baptism. We mentioned above theories that I Peter is structured after a baptismal liturgy or meant to be read at services of Holy Baptism. Baptism speaks of God’s relationship to us in the indicative mode. God has given us a new birth. [See also I Peter 1.23-25. This is next week’s text]. The word of salvation is announced to us! According to Luther’s writings we are invited to speak of three tenses of time in our understanding of baptism. Luther could have gained this understanding from these verses in I Peter.
- Past tense: God has given [indicative] us new birth, v.3.
- Future tense: In the last time all will be revealed, vv.4-5.
- Present tense: suffering various trials, v. 6. In vv. 13ff we hear the imperatives of the new life.
A third sermon possibility would be to treat the theme of suffering in this text and throughout I Peter. “…now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials….” v.6.
Vv. 6-7 lift up the theme of suffering. The content of their suffering is mixed throughout the epistle although the primary “suffering” focus would seem to be the fact that those to whom Peter wrote are, indeed, “the chosen strangers of the diaspora.” They live in a hostile faith environment. If one chooses this theme it would be best to connect it to the ways in which our present culture is hostile to the faith of believers.
We have indicated above that one of the basic themes of this epistle is counsel on the way to be a Christian in a hostile cultural environment. Peter continually cites the suffering of Christ as the great hope for the beleaguered believer: 2.21-23; 3.18-23; 4.1-2, 13f. [Some interpreters identify the theme of suffering and hope as the key themes in I Peter.] In these texts Peter gives expression to a profound theology of the cross. There is much wise guidance here for us.
A final sermon possibility is to explore Peter’s understanding of faith. He mentions faith three times in our assigned text: vv. 5, 7, 9. Faith in these passages has a strong eschatological emphasis. Faith, that is, lives toward the future and the future has been revealed to us in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave.
There is a strong theological content in each of these sermon possibilities. In order to resist a sermon that is a “mini-theological lecture” it would be wise to thread stories with the ideas of these texts. Stories and ideas can dance well together in our proclamation of the gospel.