Commentary on 1 Peter 1:3-9
These verses are part of this letter’s opening section (1:1-12). 1 Peter 1:1-2 is the salutation (identifying the sender and the intended audience of the letter) while 1:3-12 comprises the thanksgiving. Though 1:1-2 is not within the lectionary’s boundaries, they establish a foundational perspective for 1:3-9 and so should be investigated prior to examining the lectionary’s verses.
1 Peter 1:1a names the epistle’s authorized sender, the Apostle Peter, while 1c establishes the audience’s geographic location (five Roman provinces in western, modern-day Turkey). More important is the identity given to the audience in 1:1b. They are described as the “elect exiles of diaspora” (literally in the Greek, but rephrased in most English translations). By using the term “elect” (or “chosen”) the author draws upon Israel’s unique status in the Old Testament as chosen by God (for example, Deuteronomy 4:37; 10:15; Isaiah 41:8-9; 45:4; 65:9,22; Psalm 106:5) but applies such chosen status directly to the letter’s Christian audience. Their election (described in more detail in 2:4-10) is based on Christ’s own election (1:20; 2:4). In depicting them as “exiles of diaspora,” the audience are essentially strangers in a strange land so that God’s chosen are resident aliens in the pagan culture and society in which they reside.
1 Peter 1:2 ties their election to the activity of God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ. Their election is rooted in God’s predetermined plan accomplished by the sanctifying action of the Holy Spirit (verse 2a-b). The source of their election involves Christ’s obedience to God’s predetermined, salvific plan which includes Christ’s bloody death (drawing upon the covenant-sealing ceremony depicted in Exodus 24). Thus, in this short salutation, the audience is being reminded that they do not belong to the pagan reality in which they dwell. Instead, they belong to the God who chose them before the foundations of creation as the Spirit has made them God’s holy people through Christ’s obedient, sacrificial death.
1 Peter 1:3-12, one long sentence in the Greek, comprises the thanksgiving which celebrates God’s merciful actions impacting Christians’ past, present, and future transformed existence as members of God’s holy family. Christians have been born anew (literally “born again” in the Greek of verse 3; so English Standard Version). Here it is important to recognize a number of aspects of our “new birth” (New Revised Standard Version; New International Version). First, it is generated by God’s enormous mercy rather than by our faith decisions (version 3a). Second, it is not simply something that happened in our past. Rather through the use of the perfect tense in the Greek, the author is stressing that new birth is part of our ongoing, transformed reality in the present. Third, through Christ’s resurrection our new birth reality has three results which intertwines our present God-generated transformed reality with our God-promised future destiny.
The first result is that we have a living hope (verse 3) instead of a dead, illusory, or transitory hope. Hope is not wishful thinking that our life circumstances will soon change for the better. Our hope lives and breathes both from Christ’s resurrection and God’s promise of eternal life. The second result is that we have an inheritance whose permanence is stressed through the triple adjectives “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (verse 4, New Revised Standard Version). This is quite different from the Old Testament promise of land in that our inheritance is in heaven and eternally protected by God’s power (verses 4-5). Thus, our eschatological inheritance is already a heavenly, divine reality which we do not yet experience in our present time. Instead, we trust not only in God’s protective power, but we also trust that God will realize God’s eternal plans. This, in turn, involves the third result of our ongoing, new birth reality: a salvation which will be revealed at the end of time (verse 5). Salvation, then, is a “not yet” for us in the present but an “already” for God.
In 1 Peter 1:6-9, there is a shift regarding the tension of Christian life in the present as it moves from the not yet/already tension of salvation to the tension between our joy and our suffering in the present as well as the tension between faith and sight. We rejoice in all aspects of the transformation God has accomplished according to God’s own preset plan for our salvation (the “in this you rejoice” of verse 7a as referring to the whole of God’s work enumerated in verses 3-5). At the same time, because Christians exist as transformed, resident aliens in hostile, pagan environs, they can expect to suffer at the hand of those environs. In other words, suffering comes with the territory of faith (verses 6b-7a). This note of suffering in the thanksgiving sets the stage for the subsequent emphasis on Christian suffering (see 1 Peter 2:19-20; 3:13-1; 4:1,12-19; 5:8-9,10 which is grounded in Christ’s suffering; see 1:11; 2:4,7,21-24; 3:18; 4:1,13; 5:1). Not only is there a cause of our suffering in the present (albeit a temporary one, verse 6b), there is a purpose to it. Our suffering is a testing ground to manifest the proven nature of faith in and faithfulness to Christ (verse 7a) which will result in our receiving divine accolades of praise, glory, and honor at the eschatological revelation of Jesus Christ (verse 7b).
This reference to the eschatological revelation of Christ at the end of verse 7 sets up the present faith/sight tension explicated in verse 8. While Christians currently do not physically see Christ, Christians do love and believe in Christ. Our loving and believing in Christ despite our not seeing him is an additional springboard for Christian rejoicing that abounds “with an indescribable and glorious joy” (verse 8b, New Revised Standard Version). Finally, the text goes further to link our loving, believing, and rejoicing in the present with the reality of our future salvation which is the very goal of our believing in the midst of our current transformed and yet suffering reality (verse 9).
1 Peter is a letter that is brimming with imperatives (35 in all) which call forth particular actions and attitudes on the part of the letter’s Christian audience. Yet in this, the letter’s opening (1:1-11), there is not a single imperative. Instead, this text builds a foundation for the letter’s upcoming command, and this foundation involves the divine decisions and actions of the past, present, and future which give shape to our reality and our identity.
April 16, 2023