The First Epistle of Peter
The First Epistle of Peter belongs to a group of writings in the New Testament that are termed the Catholic Epistles (or sometimes the General Epistles). These epistles are so named because they are addressed to the church at large and not to a specific congregation. The seven letters that are usually included in this designation are: Hebrews; James; 1,2 Peter; 1,2,3 John; and Jude.
The primary concern of the First Epistle of Peter is the concern of a pastor for those who are entrusted into his care. The document is written to encourage and build up its readers so that they may endure. The recipients were already undergoing persecution and this persecution was expected to worsen. They were "exiles" and "aliens" living in a world that had become foreign to them. Because their perspective and their hope in the world to come were so different from those that were around them, they must live differently. In particular, they must live lives that reflected God's own holiness. "You shall be holy; for I am holy." The holiness of God that was now a part of their lives made them aliens and exiles in their own world.
This has been the transcending interest of the First Epistle of Peter to the church. This Epistle teaches us to live distinct lives. We are to be engaged with the world, but apart from it. We are to live in the world, but not of the world. This is possible because of the saving work of Jesus Christ, our savior. In this work Jesus is figured as the Passover lamb and as the capstone that was rejected by men yet approved by God. It is through the work of Christ that the Spirit sanctifies us. It is Christ who teaches us to live as an alien in this life and to work toward the life that is to come.
A word should be spoken here about the authorship of this epistle. Modern scholarship has called into question the traditional authorship of this work by Peter, the spokesman of the original Twelve Apostles. There are several legitimate reasons for this questioning. First, there is little biographical information given other than the assertion of the first verse and little to definitively connect it to Peter. Then there is the strong connection to many parts of this letter and the writings of the Apostle Paul. Many of the phrases and the way that Old Testament scriptures are used are very representative of the Pauline epistles. But, perhaps the most conclusive evidence for some people is that this epistle is written in some of the best Greek of the New Testament. While it is likely that Peter, who was a fisherman by trade and not a scholar, may have spoken some Greek, it is doubtful that he used the language with a facility that is rivaled only by the Gospel of John and passages within the Gospel of Luke (which was written by a Gentile raised and educated in Greek culture). Moreover, the Greek of 2 Peter is different from 1 Peter and more in keeping with what we know of Peter's background.
There is an explanation that is found in the text that would resolve most of the objections that have been raised to this epistle being authored by Peter. In 5:12, we read that a person named "Silvanus" has assisted in writing this letter. If this Silvanus is the same Silvanus, or Silas, that was a companion of Paul and if he assisted Peter in writing this letter then most of the objections are answered. In fact, the reasonableness of the objections leads us to the conclusion that Silvanus may have had a considerable influence on this work. If this work were written while Peter was imprisoned in Rome, as many believe that it was, it is possible that Peter merely sketched out the broad outline of the letter and that Silvanus did the bulk of the writing.
There are three theological concepts that are emphasized in this work. The first is that of community. Christians are spoken of as a nation, a tribe and a race. We are the people of God and His flock. Salvation is found within the larger community of believers. The persecutions that believers were beginning to experience were a reason for them to come together and to draw resources from one another. They were to build one another up and find God's strength within their community.
The second concept that is emphasized here is one I have already mentioned, holiness. By setting themselves apart from the surrounding culture, the Christians emphasized their own communal identity apart from the world around them. In seeking to obtain personal and corporate holiness, they showed their complete dependence on God and the resources of the Spirit of God that works within them. We are to be different from the world because God is different.
Lastly, there is an emphasis in this letter on hope, another parallel with the writings of Paul. Even though hope is only literally mentioned five times in this letter, it is one of the central themes. Christians are born into a new hope. The sure hope of all that God has promised us is the foundation on which we stand as aliens and strangers in this world. God has adopted us and made us a holy nation; therefore, we may stand up to persecution and intolerance. We are God's flock; therefore, we do not need to fear anything that man can do against us.
Here we can find the courage to stand with God against persecutions and trials of all kinds. We are reminded of all that Christians have endured before us. We are reminded that the call of Christ is a call that leads us out of this world to a world that is better. God is leading us away from the values of this world and this culture. We are aliens and strangers here. We are exiles for now. Soon we will be home.