Commentary on 1 Peter 1:17-23
In this letter’s opening (1 Peter 1:1-12), the author has focused the audience’s attention on their present and future identity and reality as members of God’s family, which has been decided by God and established through Jesus Christ. In the transition to the body of the letter (1:13—5:11), the author now focuses the audience’s attention on their proper conduct as a result of their God-established identity and reality. Indeed, through the use of the initial “Therefore” in 1:13, the author is essentially explaining to the audience that because of who and whose you have been made by God, here is what your conduct is to entail.
When it comes to the opening of the lectionary’s boundaries in 1 Peter 1:17, the translation of the New International Version (“Since”) is to be preferred over the translation of the New Revised Standard Version (“If”). The author is presuming that the audience does indeed call upon God as Father in prayer (building on the familial relational identity of God as Father in 1:2, 3). In addition, because God is both the inclusive and impartial eschatological judge, the audience is commanded to live in awe and reverence (“reverent fear,” New Revised Standard Version and New International Version) in the midst of their exile. As in 1:1, their exile involves their status as resident aliens amidst the pagan cultural realities in which they reside.
In 1 Peter 1:18-19 through the use of charged imagery, the audience is reminded how they were liberated from their former pagan reality (with its principles, ideals, and norms) through the death of Christ. The use of the word “ransomed” (1:18 by the New Revised Standard Version) is potentially fraught with difficulties because almost inevitably contemporary readers and listeners will shift their focus and wonder to whom such a ransom was paid (Satan? God?). A better contemporary translation of the Greek verb lytroō could well be “liberated” because this verb is used regularly in the Septuagint to depict God’s act of liberating Israel from both its bondage in Egypt (Exodus 6:6; 15:13; Deuteronomy 7:8; 9:26; 15:15; 21:8) and its exile in Babylon (Isaiah 44:22-23; 45:13; 51:11; 52:3). Here in 1 Peter the divine liberation accomplished through Christ’s death is not from sin but liberation from their former reality and conduct depicted as “the futile ways inherited from your ancestors” (1:18; New Revised Standard Version). In the context of 1 Peter, such “futile ways” would include the expected values, standards, actions, and attitudes anticipated of people by the pagan, dominant culture. In saying these were “inherited from their ancestors” the author is tipping such values upside down. Normally such an ancestral inheritance would be highly valued and honored in their society, but in the context of 1 Peter, this type of inheritance is deemed worthless and useless (on their imperishable inheritance see 1:4).
Another esteemed cultural value which is being rejected involves the means by which their liberation was accomplished. In that culture, as in most cultures, silver and gold were very highly valued and coveted commodities, but here the author dismisses them as subject to decay (“perishable” in New Revised Standard Version, New International Version). Ironically, in and of themselves silver and gold are not subject to decay, which is a property ensuring their great and continued worth, but in the divine economy they are utterly useless. Instead, their liberation has been accomplished by means of that which has extreme value, the blood of Christ (recalling 1:2). This imagery for Christ’s death is metaphorically described as “that of a lamb without defect or blemish” (verse 19b; New Revised Standard Version). On the one hand, the comparison of Christ’s death to a lamb is most likely an echo of “suffering servant” imagery from Isaiah 53:7 (see subsequent “suffering servant” links to Christ in 1 Peter 2:22-25). On the other hand, the imagery of an unblemished lamb echoes Israel’s sacrificial system in which the divinely sanctioned sacrifice of an unblemished lamb has significant beneficial effects for the lives of God’s people.
In 1 Peter 1:20, Christ is now placed within the overarching, divine span of time. Christ was part of God’s plan prior to creation (verse 20a), and (using an implicit divine passive) Christ was revealed in what is now the end of the ages (recalling 1:5, 7). The emphasis in verse 20, however, is ultimately on the final phrase of the verse, “for your sake”. In other words, the author of 1 Peter does not theologize on God’s actions through Christ just to tell the audience about Christ. Rather, he presents God’s actions in and through Christ in order to tell the audience about themselves; about their new reality; about their new conduct as a result of such divine activity which stretches across the span of time. The author concludes the single, long sentence of which 1:17-21 consists by reminding the audience that their own trust/faith and hope in God are through Christ, the very one whom God both raised from the dead and exalted (verse 21).
In 1 Peter 1:22, the author returns to the implications of the audience’s reality of being holy which he had first depicted in 1:15-16. In those verses he called for their holy conduct based on the holiness of God who first called them into their new reality. Here, he reminds them that their holy reality (in other words, their purification of their souls, verse 22a) was a result of their obedience to the truth (in other words, to God’s word in verses 23, 25) and has been for the purpose of generating deep, genuine, mutual love for the each other. In 1:23 the author returns to the theme of their being born anew (first introduced in 1:3). Their new birth did not occur through perishable seed as did their original, physical birth. Rather, it occurred through the imperishable seed which is the living, enduring word of God, and in 1:24-25, Isaiah 40:6-8 is quoted to give scriptural warrant regarding the enduring nature and results of God’s word.
That which holds this text together is the divine act of liberation accomplished through the sacrificial death of Christ. God planned such deliverance prior to designing creation itself, and at the same time this act of liberation ushers in the end of the ages. On the one hand, liberation is realized in an individual’s existence through the proclamation of God’s word. On the other hand, its goal is to birth each individual believer into a communal reality in which deep, mutual love is a core characteristic. The divine liberation through Christ’s death is both alienating and empowering. Those born anew now live as resident aliens in their pagan environment so that their former ways and values are worthless. At the same time, their new reality empowers them to manifest their new God-reflected conduct within and for the members of the family of God.