As I near my graduation from Covenant Seminary, I am revisiting a few of my assignments (papers, etc.) that I completed. Below is a paper I wrote on 1 Peter in 2008 for Dr. Chapman’s New Testament History and Theology course. Thanks to friend and fellow elder Don Lusk for his review of my original paper and his helpful suggestions. (For this version, I have removed the footnoting to make reading easier).
Author, Audience, Location and Date
Despite the fact that from the earliest time the letter circulated in the church it was known and accepted as a letter written by the Apostle Peter, a significant number, perhaps even a majority of contemporary scholars deny that Peter was the author of the letter. They claim that the book is pseudonymous, written perhaps by someone in a “Petrine school” after his death. Yet, the case against Petrine authorship is not at all a strong one.
The book was probably written in A.D. 62-63 in Rome, as external historical evidence indicates that Peter was in Rome with Paul near the end of his life. Babylon was often used as a code word for Rome. Calvin disputed the Rome location, instead stating that there is not reason to doubt that the letter was actually written from Babylon as Peter expressly declares.
The destination of the letter is stated in the opening verse: “elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia.” Although the rapid growth of the church would have meant that there were both Jewish and Gentile Christians in all of these churches, Peter’s intended audience is mainly, if not exclusively Gentile.
The epistle was probably a circular letter, like Ephesians. The purpose of the epistle is to encourage the readers to grow in their trust of God and their obedience to him throughout their lives, but especially when they suffer. Yet, in a letter to suffering Christians, Peter is able to offer his readers hope. On the basis of this epistle, Peter has been called “the apostle of hope.”
For Peter, hope can never be divorced from the work of Christ in bringing salvation. He writes in 1:3 that we are “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Peter was an eyewitness of the resurrection. The resurrection of Christ from the dead is the basis of this hope, for it is evidence of regeneration. Regeneration was not accomplished without cost, for the believers were redeemed by the blood of Christ, a fact that should mark their lives with reverential awe.
The central issue in 1 Peter is the problem of suffering, with which all Christians will be confronted with. Morris indicates that the most important part of Peter’s teaching on suffering is that he links man’s suffering with the sufferings of Christ. Christians are given suffering as a privilege. Christ suffered, and because he suffered they too are allowed to suffer.
Peter taught his readers how to live victoriously in the midst of that hostility without losing hope or becoming bitter, while trusting in their Lord and looking for His second coming.
Several other subjects occur quite frequently in this letter, such as holiness of life, God’s sovereignty in salvation and life, the grace of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, the church as new people of God, the reality of the unseen spiritual world, and trusting in God regarding daily circumstances.
Eschatology plays a large role in the epistle. Peter’s main concern in this area is with the importance of the Christian hope to enable believers to meet suffering in this life. Peter believes that the end is near. Christians have only a little time to suffer before Christ will deliver them.
Peter’s concept of the church is prominent as well. He regards the church as the true Israel.
The historical situation of the communities addressed by the letter is characterized decisively by conflict in society. It is apparent that the readers were suffering persecution for their faith. But nothing in the letter indicates an official persecution. Rather, their sufferings were the trials common to first century Christians, and included insults and slanderous accusations or wrongdoings.
The preoccupation with Christ’s suffering is no accident, for it reflects the difficult circumstances of the communities addressed by the letter. Because they bear the stigma of the name “Christian,” they are victimized by various forms of abuse within their social world.
The Cross in 1 Peter
Peter mentions the death of Jesus in every chapter of 1 Peter. (A.2). He has an interesting series of interpretations of the death of Christ. At the beginning of this epistle he refers to the “sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ” (1:2), an allusion to Exodus 24:8. “Blood” by itself might mean no more than violent death, but “sprinkling of blood” points to the sacrifices. There the most solemn moment was when the priest took the blood of the victim and “sprinkled” it on the altar. This terminology shows that Peter sees Christ’s death as a sacrifice. What the sacrifices of the Old Testament foreshadowed, Christ fulfilled. Scholars estimate that no other book in the New Testament, with the exception of Hebrews and Revelation, depends so heavily on the Old Testament.
Selwyn writes that it is the meekness of Christ that is the trait that is most important to Peter. It is Peter’s view of the meekness of Christ that influences what he has to say about Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. (91). He goes on to write that the doctrine of atonement grows out of Christ’s meekness and patience in suffering.
1 Peter 1:11 mentions “the sufferings of Christ”; 4:1 states that “Christ suffered in the flesh”; 4:13 mentions that we share Christ’s sufferings and in 5:1 Peter mentions that he was “a witness of the sufferings of Christ.” Within the epistle there are three main Christological sections – 1:18-22, 2:22-25 and 3:18-22. It is portions of these passages from the English Standard Version that we will spend the most time looking at.
“…knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.”
“Ransomed” refers to being freed from the bondage of sin by the payment of a price. Christ’s blood is at one and the same time the offering of a sacrifice which avails for men, and the payment of a price which avails for men. We are atoned for and we are purchased. The “blood of Christ” means his death in its saving aspect, the atoning death of the Savior.
The death of Jesus was seen through the images of ransom and sacrifice. Jesus’ death has ransomed the readers from the spiritual bondage of their pagan past, and the price of that redemption was the blood of Christ, like that of a sacrificial lamb, free of blemish or spot.
Slavery was a reality to the readers of this epistle. Peter’s words in verse 18 would have had relevance to them, for in their assemblies most likely there were slaves or former slaves. Occasionally a slave could be redeemed by payment of a price. Peter writes that Christ, the Lamb of God is the Redeemer who shed his precious blood as the ransom.
The references to “lamb” and blood” point to the Old Testament sacrifices and to Christ as the Passover Lamb (Exodus 12.5). Just as the Passover lamb was connected to the deliverance of God’s people from bondage, now Jesus’ death has delivered God’s people from their sins and the reign of sin. That Christ was “without blemish” and “without spot” indicate the total perfection of Christ as a sacrifice.
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”
Howe includes a helpful comparison of seven statements in this passage that allude to phrases in the Suffering Servant passage from Isaiah 53. Jesus was obviously familiar with this passage and knew what he was to face. Howe’s comparisons are listed below:
1 Peter 2: 22 – He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.
Isaiah 53: 9 – Although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
1 Peter 2: 23– When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.
Isaiah 53: 7 – He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.
1 Peter 2: 24 – He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.
Isaiah 53:4 – Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.
Isaiah 53:5 – And with his stripes we are healed.
Isaiah 53:11 – And he shall bear their iniquities
Isaiah 53:12 – Yet he bore the sin of many.
1 Peter 2: 25 – For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
Isaiah 53:6 – All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Selwyn makes the statement that the point Peter is making in this passage is that in Christ’s patience and meekness before his accusers, and in his meek acceptance for our sakes of a felon’s death, he gives us an example which we are to follow.
Peter emphasizes that Christ’s obedience through unjust suffering has given us an example to imitate, an example of the kind of life that is perfectly pleasing in God’s sight. Peter presents Jesus as a model of innocent suffering. He is a model of faithful obedience and trust in God to be emulated by the Christian. Peter points out what we are to imitate in Christ, including to calmly bear wrongs and not avenge them. At the same time, Peter reminds us that not all suffering is commendable, only suffering unjustly or for the sake of righteousness.
This teaching fits well as an encouragement to suffering slaves, for they were concerned with doing right. Jesus was perfectly innocent in every way, yet he suffered. Thus, their innocent suffering can be part of their identification with Christ. It is not just that Jesus suffered innocently, but how he reacted to his suffering.
In v. 24, Peter writes that Jesus bore our sins on the tree, one of the three significant trees in the history of salvation. “Tree” was often used as a synonym for “cross” in first century Judaism. In the Old Testament, dead bodies were occasionally hung on a tree as a warning. Such a body was regarded as accursed and had to be removed and buried before night came. This practice accounts for the reference here to Christ’s cross as a tree, a symbol of humiliation.
Peter teaches that Jesus in his death endured the penalty for our sins. This is an explicit statement of the heart of the gospel: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.” The Father thought of our sins as belonging to Christ, and then punished him with anger against sin, separation from God, and consequent death which we deserved. Christ became the substitute for his people, one who stood in their place, thus satisfying a holy God. This is the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement, which is the heart of the gospel. Calvin states that Christ’s death was a sacrifice for the expiation of our sins.
In looking at the word “atonement”, we see that Jesus is represented in the New Testament as the priest who offers the atonement sacrifice, as the One who is himself the sacrifice of atonement, and as the place where atonement occurs. Everything we need for forgiveness, for the removal of God’s anger, and for reconciliation with him can be found in Jesus.
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.”
This is another key statement on the doctrine of the substitutionary and vicarious atonement of Christ. He suffered and died as the righteous one in place of the unrighteous, in order to bring us to God. He is the just and the justifier. The sins that kept us away from God no longer do so, thanks to the sacrifice of Christ. He, who personally never sinned and had no sin nature, took the place of sinners. Christ suffered innocently, and not just innocently, but on behalf of other’s sins, who deserved death.
Under the Old Covenant, the Jewish people offered sacrifice after sacrifice, and then repeated it all the next year, especially at the Passover. But Christ’s sacrifice for sins was such that it was sufficient for all and would never have to be repeated. By this sacrifice, Christ satisfied God’s just penalty for sin required by the law and opened the way to God for all who repentantly believe.
Peter wished to encourage his readers in their suffering by reminding them that even Christ suffered unjustly because it was God’s will. Ultimately, Christ was triumphant to the point of being exalted to the right hand of God. Later, Peter will write that humility leads to exaltation.
Peter’s speaking of the undeserved suffering endured by Jesus spoke directly to the situation of the letter’s recipients. Like Christ, they too might suffer even though they are innocent of wrongdoing. The fact that Christ suffered for us makes us willing to suffer in imitation of him. The Christian will complete this identification in resurrection and glorification with Christ
The contrast “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” fits in with the emphasis in entire epistle on the relative unimportance of temporary suffering in the world as compared to the enjoying of an eternal inheritance in the next.
The doctrine of the atonement is central to all Christian theology. Throughout the epistle and especially in these three passages, Peter sets forth what the cross has come to mean to him in a clear teaching on the important doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ. In 5:1 he writes that he was “a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed.” Peter has some of the most noteworthy statements in the New Testament about the atoning value of Christ’s suffering. For a relatively short writing, 1 Peter has a great deal to say about the atonement.
It is clear that Peter has his own distinctive view of the atonement. He sees very clearly the overall sovereignty of God and the way salvation proceeds from him alone. The epistle contains an extensive Christology. Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension are recurring themes throughout the book. Peter traces the blessings his readers now enjoy or hope to enjoy to Christ’s death and resurrection. Jesus’ suffering stands as a model for Christians to imitate.
From the three Christological passages we looked at, we can see several major themes emerge:
• Christ suffered for us, the righteous for the unrighteous. This is the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ. As sinful human beings, we are debtors who cannot pay for our sins. Atonement must be made for us.
• Christ’s death was vicarious. He bore our sins on the tree so that we may die to sin and live to righteousness. He did not die for himself, but for us. He was our substitute.
• Christ suffered once for sins to bring us to God. Atonement must be made in order for us to have fellowship with God.
• His sacrifice was a one time occurrence, and would not have to be repeated as the sacrifices had to be in the Old Testament or as takes place in the Roman Catholic mass.
• Christ’s sufferings on the cross (his wounds) and the spilling of his precious blood have healed and ransomed us. He took our place as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
• Christ set the example for Peter’s readers (and us) to imitate in order to suffer unjustly and not retaliate.
The doctrine of the atonement is central to all Christian theology. Luther called Christianity a theology of the Cross. 1 Peter gives us a clear view of the substitutionary atonement of Christ.