How to Read the Bible Book by Book: 1 Peter
1 Peter 2:11-12 “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”
We live in a time of great transition. For many years, the Christian faith has been the dominant factor in the cultural life of the West. While there were always many nominal Christians within that culture, it was still true that a Christian worldview and a Christian based philosophy gave structure and meaning to everyone’s life. That has been changing in the last number of years. It has happened more rapidly in Europe than it has in the United States, but all indicators show that we will follow a similar pattern. Because that is true, Christians in the West are going to live in an environment that feels foreign to them. It may be similar to the days of the early church when Christians were a small minority in a vast pagan population. As that continues to happen, Christians can expect more suffering to come our way. The suffering won’t likely come in violent persecution, as it does in other parts of the world, but it may come in various forms of ostracization and shaming.
Because that is true, a letter like First Peter is becoming more and more relevant to us. First Peter is written by the Apostle Peter with the help of Silas (5:12) and is addressed to Christians scattered throughout the Roman world who are facing suffering because of their faith. As with the letter of James, Christians are tempted to respond to suffering in ways that are not becoming of their faith in Christ. Peter will remind his readers that Christ suffered in unjust ways and left an example for us how we are to suffer in the same way. Suffering does not excuse us from holiness. We are a people set apart for a special purpose, and how we live our lives among the godless is an important element of our mission and witness.
The letter divides itself into five different parts. Much like the book of Ephesians, the first section of the letter begins by blessing God for his abundant gifts (1:3-12). Peter offers up praise to the God of mercy who has given them birth into a living hope. This hope comes through the power of the resurrection and brings them into an inheritance that will not spoil or fade. This inheritance is being kept in heaven until the time it will be brought down and revealed in the final days. Because of these truths, we Christians greatly rejoice, even as we face suffering of various different kinds because we know that this suffering proves the genuineness of our faith. The prophets of old longed to see the fullness of the things that we now know, but Peter says their prophecies were not given for their own benefit, but for ours who now have the fullness of revelation in Christ.
Section two of the letter goes from 1:13 to 2:10 and is a call to holiness. Because of the great hope that we have, we are to live as obedient children. No longer are we to live as the godless do, but we are to set apart ourselves as holy to the Lord. After all, Peter says that we are a holy priesthood, a spiritual house. We are the new temple where God resides. We exist to declare God’s praises. Much like Israel, we are chosen to be a royal priesthood. We are both kings and priests, set apart to turn away from darkness and to God’s glorious light.
Having laid the foundation of the great salvation and the holiness they are to live in light of it, in the third section of the letter (2:11-3:7) Peter gives some practical teaching on how they are to live holy lives in a godless society. Here is where we see how the letter of First Peter is more and more relevant to us. The general admonition comes in 2:11-12. We are to live as foreigners and exiles. This world is not our home. Our country is not our primary place of citizenship and allegiance. We are strangers in this world because we have a heavenly home. But even as we live in this world as strangers, Peter teaches us to live such good lives among the godless, that though they often accuse us of doing wrong, when Christ returns they will see that we lived lives of goodness.
Peter then gives three examples of how the church is to live among the godless. First, they are to submit themselves to every human authority. They are not to be rebels against the government. They are good citizens, and only resist whenever the government asks us to do something that is against God’s law. Secondly, slaves in that society were to be obedient to their masters. No doubt, if they were able to get their freedom, Paul would encourage them to do so. But since many could not, and often served under harsh masters, he reminds them to live good lives and to remember that Christ also suffered for doing good. In a similar way, wives with unbelieving husbands are to remain faithful and to live lives of purity and goodness before their husbands, in the hope that they might win them over to salvation. Husbands are told to be considerate as they live with their wives so that nothing will hinder their prayers.
Section four (3:8-4:19) dives deeper into the subject of suffering for doing good. Peter acknowledges the general principle that most people will not harm you if you do good, but even if you should suffer for doing good, you are blessed, because in this way you are like Jesus. It is of no credit to anyone if they suffer for doing wrong. But to suffer for doing what is right brings one into solidarity with Christ. Those who suffer have the advantage of being more readily purified of their sins. Suffering can have a purifying effect if we combine it with faith.
Finally, the letter ends with another call to holiness. Three classes of people are identified in this section. First the elders are admonished to shepherd God’s flock, even in the midst of their suffering. Second, young men are called to live in submission to the elders of the church. And then finally, all of them are called to clothe themselves with humility toward one another because God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. All of them are to be aware of the devil’s schemes and to be on guard, because the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking to devour who he can.
As I noted earlier, the letter of First Peter is continuing to be more relevant on a daily basis. Not since the early days of the faith have Christians in the West felt like such aliens and strangers. But we should not be surprised at such suffering. Just as Christ was called to endure, so are we. We are to live holy lives in the midst of suffering. We hope that suffering does not come, but if it does we live in the light of our living hope, our future inheritance stored in heaven for us.