Last spring we reviewed the biography of Peter as found in the Gospels and the Book of Acts. We found that he changed dramatically from a rough, sometimes wavering fisherman, into a powerful apostle of the faith. The change was brought about by his witness of Jesus resurrection and by the filling of the Holy Spirit.
We do not have canonical documentation of Peter’s subsequent life and ministry. However, there are several late first and second century books and letters that provide some more information about him. (Many modern authors write books that deny that Peter ever went to Rome at all, and, therefore, deny papal succession from Peter.) Two Gnostic accounts of Peter are The Apocalypse of Peter and The Gospel of Peter. The apocryphal Acts of Peter describes a spiritual battle between Simon Magus (see Acts 8:9-25) and Peter in Rome. It also tells of Peter’s martyrdom in Rome.
Peter is writing this letter to a series of Christian churches scattered through what is now central and northern Turkey. This is an apocalyptic Diaspora letter intended as a pastoral encouragement to the believers.
Most commentators say these were written to Gentile believers. However, I think the letters were written to New Jewish believers, possibly dispersed by the persecutions in Jerusalem. There may have been Jewish synagogues in the provinces dating back to the times of the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions. There would have been ‘God-fearers” in the synagogues, gentiles who worshipped with the Jews, and who believed in Yahweh, and now were converting to Christianity.
The churches were in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia… These are Roman provinces in northern and central Asia Minor (Turkey today). One would approach them by sea through the Aegean Sea, the Dardanelles, and the straits of Bosporus into the Black Sea. We have no record of Peter having been there, but I suspect that he did minister in that region. You will recall that Paul thought to go to Asia (a Roman province by that name) and Bithynia, but Paul and Silas were forbidden by the Holy Spirit (Acts 16:6-10). We do not know why Paul was forbidden, but I would postulate that this was Peter’s mission territory, where he ministered on his way to Rome.
Peter has called the believers the elect. He used the term ‘foreknowledge’. This is a constant principle throughout scripture. Divine election is more than ‘predestination’. It involves God’s prescience from before the beginning of the world. It implies
God’s call but requires our response.
1. Called by God: 1 Peter 1:15; 2:9, 21; 3:9; 5:10.
2. Foreknowledge: Acts 2:23; Rom 8:29, 11:2; 1 Pet 1:20.
3. Known by God: Hosea 5:3, 12:1; Amos 3:2; I Cor 8:3; Gal 4:9.
4. Predestinated: Eph 1:5, 11; Rom 8:29-30.
5. Also: Psalm 139.
The First Epistle of Peter was written to newly formed churches located in northern Asia Minor, along the south coast of the Black Sea. The churches consisted of exiles from the persecution of the church in Jerusalem (Diaspora), newly converted Jews living in the communities where they settled, and Gentiles that became believers. Many of these Gentiles could have been ‘god-fearers”, that is Gentiles that found Judaism attractive, and would join the Jews in worship in the synagogues. Eventually large numbers of the Gentile communities became believers, causing consternation amount the political, economic, and religious leadership, which led topersecution of the believers.
See the note at the end of this week’s lesson.
I have postulated that Peter established many of these churches as he traveled through the region on his way from Jerusalem to Rome. We do not have documented evidence of this, and many scholars think that Peter did not know any of these churches personally, and was writing generalized pastoral letters to them. For what it is worth, I think they are wrong.
In his first letter, Peter addressed the new churches that were beginning to undergo some degree of persecution. He encouraged them to stand up to the persecution, and used Jesus as their example of patient endurance while suffering.
Peter’s first letter was written to young churches, many newly formed and filled with excitement that accompanies a new venture. The new believers were warned of impending and real persecution, but are encouraged to face it bravely because Jesus also suffered and died, and because his return was thought to be imminent.
By the time this second letter is being written the churches are well established, but are now undergoing internal problems brought about by false teachings in the church. It is amazing how quickly errors arise in the churches. The churches are not much more than one generation old. This letter is going to the next generation of the churches. The issues now center around the invasion of false teachings about the faith. The gospel is no longer simple. The moral restraints of the Gospel were becoming burdensome. the expected parousia (return of Christ) has not occurred. The facts of Jesus life, death and resurrection are being questioned by the false teachers, and the people are becoming confused. Hellenism (Greek philosophy) is the dominant worldview of the day, and it is being mixed into the teachings of the church. Finally Gnosticism is making inroads into the thinking of the people.
Gnosticism is a poorly defined amalgamation of Greek philosophy, Biblical teachings, and oriental mysticism, that places an emphasis on esoteric knowledge (gr. gnosis) rather than faith for salvation. Jesus resurrection is explained spiritually, but his physical resurrection is denied. In fact, they denied that Jesus came in the flesh, because God could not be tainted by the evil of the material world. Therefore, if the Christ was truly God, he could not have really been a man.
Gnosticism may take the form of severe asceticism or blatant immorality. The asceticform of Gnosticism taught that because the body, and all matter, is evil it must be controlled by rigorous discipline of the flesh. However, immorality was the preferred form, and the teaching said that since body is completely evil it cannot be controlled, and therefore it does not matter what is done in the body. Thankfully, with the right knowledge (gnosis), the spirit can be saved. This led to rampant hedonism among the gnostics. We will look at Gnosticism later in our study to see how it is still present in the churches of our day.
Peter is writing this letter to bring the people back to the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. Jude 3.
1:1-2 Simeon Peter,
Simeon is a Greek transliteration of the name Simon. (See Acts 15:4). This was the most common name among Jews during the period from 100 BC to 200 AD. Jesus changed his name to Cephas (or Peter) (John 1:40-42; Matt 16:13-20).
a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ… The term servant is equivalent to bondservant or slave. Paul, James and Jude use this same term to express their relationship to Jesus. He was the one that bought them from slavery to sin, and redeemed them to himself.
How do we see our relationship to Jesus?
To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ:
Peter assures the people that their faith is not in any way inferior to that of the apostles. The teachings of the apostles are as certain in the post-apostolic age as they were in the beginning. The false teachers who are teaching something new are in error.
May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.
The knowledge of God here implies the knowledge that comes with conversion, as opposed to knowledge in v. 5, for example, that implies knowledge attained by study. This is a personal knowledge that has strong practical and ethical implications, and is very different from the secret knowledge of the Gnostics that led to moral libertinism. Peter invokes God’s blessing on the true believers in the churches.
Confirm Your Calling and Election
1:3-4 Historical and theological introduction
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.
How do we become partakers of the divine nature? Do we become gods? Are we to reflect God’s character? Or do we share the divine attributes of immortality and incorruptibility?
Romans 8:11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
1 Cor. 15:50-53 I tell you this, brothers:flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.
1:5-7 Ethical exhortations. A catalogue of virtues
For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.
1. Faith - pistesThis is specifically Christian faith in the Gospel, not Hellenistic ‘loyalty’.
2. Virtue - Areth This is translated ‘excellence’ in Philippians 4:8. Its typical Greek connotation is the achievement of human excellence, but here it implies obedience to God.
3. Knowledge - gnoseiHere knowledge means the wisdom and discernment needed for a virtuous life.
4. Self-control - egkratelan This is a Hellenistic ideal of being master of one’s body and soul, self-restraint and ascetic control of the bodily passions, especially sexual passions. In Galatians 5:23 it warns against the misuse of Christian freedom in libertinism.
5. Steadfastness - upomonen Courageous and steadfast endurance the face of suffering or evil, based on one’s trust in God and his promises.
6. Godliness - eusebeian This is found rarely in Christian use, and is found only in in Paul’s letter to Timothy. 1 Timothy 6:11 But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.
7. Brotherly affection - philadelphian In non-Christian use this denoted family affection between physical brothers and sisters, but in the early church this was used for fellow-believers, brothers and sisters in the faith.
8. Love - agape This occurs in most Biblical catalogues of virtues, and usually finished the lists, while faith, pistis, begins the lists. Love is the crowning virtue that encompasses all the others. Jesus taught that love of God and love of neighbor encompassed all of the commandments. Matthew 22:34-40But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.
And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
1:8-9 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Beware the danger of willful blindness.(Jeremiah 5:21-31).
1:10-11 An eschatological exhortation
Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Can we achieve final salvation if the ethical fruits of faith are absent in our lives?
Communication between the governor Pliny and the emperor Trajan
Pliny was the Roman governor in Pontus and Bithynia. He wrote to Trajan, the Roman Caesar concerning the handling of Christians in his province:
I have never been present at an examination of Christians. Consequently, I do not know the nature or extent of the punishments usually meted out to them, nor the grounds for starting an investigation and how far it should be pressed. Nor am I at all sure…whether a pardon ought to be granted to anyone retracting his beliefs, or if he has once professed Christianity, he shall gain nothing by renouncing it; and whether it is the mere name of Christian which is punishable, even if innocent of crime, or rather the crimes associated with the name.
For the moment this is the line I have taken with all persons brought before me on the charge of being Christians. I have asked them in person if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for their punishment; for, whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakeable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished.
Concerning an anonymous pamphlet which contained the names of a number of accused persons: among these I considered that I should dismiss any who denied that they were or ever had been Christians when they repeated after me a formula of invocation to the gods and had made offerings of wine and incense to your statue, and furthermore had reviled the name of Christ (“cursed Christ,” maledicerent Christo): none of which things, I understand, any genuine Christian can be induced to do. Others, whose names were given to me by the informer, first admitted the charge and then denied it; they said that they had ceased to be Christians two or more years previously, and some of them even twenty years ago. They all did reverence to your statue and the images of the gods in the same way as the others, and reviled the name of Christ (Christo maledixerunt). They also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this; they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honour of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery, to commit no breach of trust and not to deny a deposit when called upon to restore it. After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind; but they had in fact given up this practice since my edict, issued on your instructions, which banned all political societies. This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave-women, whom they called deaconesses. I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.
A great many individuals of every age and class, both men and women, are being brought to trial, and this is likely to continue. It is not only the towns, but also villages and rural districts too which are infected through contact with this wretched cult. I think though that it is still possible for it to be checked and directed to better ends, for there is no doubt that people have begun to throng the temples which had been almost entirely deserted for a long time; the sacred rites which had been allowed to lapse are being performed again, and flesh of sacrificial victims is on sale everywhere, though up till recently scarcely anyone could be found to buy it. It is easy to infer from this that a great many people could be reformed if they were given opportunity to repent.
Trajan’s reply is interesting. You have followed the right course of procedure, my dear Pliny, in your examination of the cases of persons charged with being Christians, for it is impossible to lay down a general rule to a fixed formula. These people must not be hunted out; if they are brought before you and the charge against them is proved, they must be punished, but in the case of anyone who denies that he is a Christian, and makes it clear that he is not by offering prayers to our gods, he is to be pardoned as a result of his repentance however suspect his past conduct may be. But pamphlets circulating anonymously must play no part in any accusation. They create the worst sort of precedent and are quite out of keeping with the spirit of our age.