Background of 1 Peter
Author, Date, and Recipients
The apostle Peter wrote this letter (1 Peter 1:1). He was once a fisherman but now was a disciple, a “witness of the sufferings of Christ” (1 Peter 5:1). He probably wrote the letter from Rome (see 1 Peter 5:13; “Babylon” almost certainly refers to Rome) around AD 62–63 during Nero’s reign. The letter is addressed to Christians scattered in “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1). This is an area north of the Taurus Mountains in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). These territories had been impacted by Greco-Roman culture and had been under Roman control from the mid-first century BC.
Those who persevere in faith while suffering persecution should be full of hope. They will certainly enjoy end-time salvation, since they already enjoy God’s saving promises through Christ’s death and resurrection.
Peter is writing to encourage his readers to endure suffering and persecution (1 Peter 1:6–7; 2:18–20; 3:9, 13–17; 4:1–4, 12–19; 5:9) by giving themselves entirely to God (1 Peter 4:19). They are to remain faithful in times of distress, knowing that God will vindicate them and that they will certainly enjoy the salvation that the Lord has promised. Christ’s death and resurrection are the model for believers. Just as Christ suffered and then entered into glory, so too his followers will suffer before being exalted.
1. Those who suffer as Christians will be proven faithful when Christ returns (1 Peter 1:6–9; 2:18–25; 3:13–22; 4:12–19).
2. The church is the new temple, the new Israel, the new people of God (1 Peter 1:1–2; 2:4–10).
3. Believers should set their hope on their end-time inheritance (1 Peter 1:3–9, 13–16).
4. Christ died as a substitute for sinners. His death is the basis for their new life (1 Peter 1:17–21; 2:24; 3:13–22).
5. Christ’s suffering is an example to his disciples (1 Peter 2:21–23).
6. At his resurrection, Christ triumphed over his enemies (1 Peter 3:18–22).
7. Christians should live righteously in their homes and in society (1 Peter 2:11–3:7).
8. New life in Christ is the basis for a life of love and holiness (1 Peter 1:3; 1:13–2:3).
I. Opening (1:1–2)
II. Called to Salvation as Exiles (1:3–2:10)
III. Living as Strangers to Bring Glory to God in a Hostile World (2:11–4:11)
IV. Enduring Suffering (4:12–5:11)
V. Concluding Words (5:12–14)
The Setting of 1 Peter
The Global Message of 1 Peter
Peter wrote this letter to encourage believers scattered around the known world to persevere through suffering. For in suffering they are following in the footsteps of their Savior, by whose death and resurrection they are saved.
First Peter and Redemptive History
Peter explicitly connects his letter to the story of redemption that has been unfolding down through history. He cites both characters and quotations from the Old Testament.
Old Testament Characters
Early on in the letter Peter describes the salvation that has come through Jesus Christ and remarks that the Old Testament prophets searched with great diligence to understand the time and identity of the Messiah (1 Peter 1:10–11). In chapter 3 Peter refers to Abraham and Sarah in discussing Christian marriage (1 Peter 3:6), and he later draws on the account of Noah and the flood to describe the significance of Christian baptism (1 Peter 3:18–22).
Old Testament Quotations
Another way we see Peter connecting his letter with redemptive history is by his pervasive use of Old Testament quotations and allusions. Peter quotes from Leviticus (1 Peter 1:16), Psalms (1 Peter 2:7; 3:10–12), and Isaiah (1 Peter 1:24–25; 2:6, 8). He uses the language of the Old Testament sacrificial system in referring to Christ as “a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:19) and in referring to believers as “a spiritual house . . . a holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5). The Gentile believers to whom he is writing are spoken of in the categories of the Old Testament people of God: “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9; compare Exodus 19:6). Chapter 2 of 1 Peter is filled with allusions to Isaiah 53 as Peter describes the redemptive suffering of Christ (1 Peter 2:21–25).
In all this we see that Peter views the coming of Christ and especially his death and resurrection as the climax of human history. The entire Old Testament culminates in Christ. Christ “was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you . . .” (1 Peter 1:20). And one day soon he will come again (1 Peter 1:7). While we are still awaiting the fullness of salvation with the end of the age (1 Peter 1:5), we also live in the knowledge that we are already in the last days due to Christ’s first coming.
Universal Themes in 1 Peter
This World Is Not Our Home
Peter calls his readers “elect exiles of the Dispersion” (1 Peter 1:1). He is drawing on the Jewish experience of being exiled from their homeland and “dispersed” in the centuries before Christ came. Peter’s point is that Christians are those whose true home is heaven. In chapter 2 he underscores this, calling believers “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11). We are pilgrims in this world, journeying on to our true home in the restored new earth. For this reason the theme of hope resounds through 1 Peter, as we eagerly await our inheritance and the end of all suffering (1 Peter 1:3–9, 13, 21; 3:15; 4:7; 5:4, 10). Wherever believers live around the globe, this fallen world is not our home. As Paul put it, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20).
Christ’s Suffering as Both Exemplary and Substitutionary
Throughout this letter, Peter exults in the work of Christ. He speaks of it as an example to follow (1 Peter 2:21–23; 4:1, 13–14) as well as a saving work on our behalf (1 Peter 1:18–19; 2:24; 3:18). Our own suffering adds nothing to the sufficiency of Christ’s suffering in paying the price for our sins. Nonetheless, we should imitate the humble and trusting way in which he suffered. If we seek to emulate Christ’s example of suffering without understanding how his suffering saved us, we will experience only feelings of guilt and and our suffering will be joyless. On the other hand, receiving Christ’s work on our behalf while neglecting to earnestly follow his example of suffering (Matthew 16:24) is also lopsided and unhealthy.
Holy Living in Society and in the Home
Because of the great salvation in which Christians have been included, they are called to live accordingly. Since we are now God’s children, we are to be holy as he is holy (1 Peter 1:14–16). Peter especially highlights our conduct in the home and in our dealings with the unbelieving and often hostile society all around us. In the home, for example, wives and husbands are called to treat one another in accordance with their salvation (1 Peter 3:1–7). In society, believers are to be subject to the governing authorities (1 Peter 2:13–17). Above all, Peter urges believers to endure the suffering that comes their way due to their loyalty to Christ (1 Peter 2:19–21; 3:8–17; 4:12–19; 5:10).
The Global Message of 1 Peter for Today
Peter’s first epistle is strong medicine for the global church today.
A Royal Priesthood
Peter describes the church in terms used of the single nation of Israel in the Old Testament—“a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9). Yet he has already said in his greeting that he is writing to Gentile believers scattered around the Roman empire, “in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1). Christians all around the world, however different they might live or look, are part of the single family of God. As we engage the world, then, in both word and deed, we do so with a glad sense of solidarity with all other believers worldwide. And just as the nation of Israel was to be a royal priesthood, mediating the blessing of God to the nations, so we today are priests of God. We as the church mediate the blessing of the gospel to all people everywhere.
Hope Amid Suffering
The solidarity that binds all believers together extends to our afflictions. As we suffer, we suffer together—interceding for one another, bearing one another’s burdens, advocating for one another, extending mercy and kindness to one another. As is the case for Christians today in many ways and in many places, the people to whom Peter wrote were suffering various kinds of hostility. We therefore heed Peter’s call to lift our eyes to the magnificent hope to which we have been called. Our inheritance awaits us with glorious inevitability (1 Peter 1:4). The righteous reign of Christ, so often difficult to discern amid the moral chaos of the world, will one day soon burst onto the scene with triumphant victory.
We Suffer Now
But only for “a little while” (1 Peter 1:6; 5:10). The king is coming a second time—this time in open might and glory, not obscurity (Revelation 19:11–16). Justice will be executed with perfection. His saints will be vindicated. All will be set right.