Hope is a powerful thing. People can endure almost anything if they can see the light at the end of the tunnel. A marathon runner, exhausted and on the verge of collapse, rounds the last bend to see the finish line in the distance. A surge of adrenaline takes over and with new energy he pushes through to the goal.
It is the same with the Christian life. We can persevere through the greatest challenges if we keep our destination in sight. In this letter, Peter writes to Christians who are suffering and even dying for their faith. As a fellow-sufferer with them, Peter assures and encourages them that, though in this life they could lose everything—possessions, family and friends, even one’s own life—they have a sure inheritance that is “kept in heaven for you,” one “that can never perish, spoil or fade” (1 Peter 1:4). The sure hope that we have is that the trials of this life are a mere flicker of a candle compared to the incalculable glory of eternity with God.
Who Was Peter?
The author’s given name was Simon, or Simeon. He and his brother Andrew were fishermen from Galilee. Andrew had been directed to Jesus by John the Baptist (John 1:35–39), and then Andrew introduced Simon to Jesus, who nicknamed him “Peter” (Greek) or “Cephas” (Aramaic), meaning “a rock” (John 1:40–42).
Peter became the most prominent of Jesus’ disciples. He always heads the lists of disciples. We know from the Gospel accounts about Peter’s personality: rash, impetuous, wavering in commitment. It was Peter who denied he knew Christ three times and who repeatedly failed when challenged to greater faith (Matt. 14:31; 16:23; 26:34, 40). But Jesus saw in him great potential. It was Peter who confessed Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” and in response Jesus entrusted to him the authoritative “keys of the kingdom” (Matt. 16:13–20). This pastoral and leadership role was confirmed following the resurrection when Jesus commissioned him to “feed my sheep” (John 21:15–17).
After the resurrection Peter assumed the leadership role that Jesus had predicted. He preached the first sermon on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) and opened the door of the Gospel to the Jews (Acts 2:14–41) and to the Gentiles (10:1–48). He stayed in Israel for the early years of the church and was active in the Jerusalem Council’s decision concerning the salvation of Gentiles (Acts 15).
What do we know about Peter’s later life? From his own writings and from Paul we know he traveled with his wife (1 Cor. 9:5) throughout Asia Minor (1 Peter 1:1) and eventually to Rome (called “Babylon” in 1 Peter 5:13). Tradition tells us he was crucified upside down in Rome during the persecutions instigated by the emperor Nero (about AD 65).
Peter addresses this letter to “God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia” (1:1). These Roman provinces make up much of modern Turkey. These believers were experiencing increasing opposition and persecution (1:6, 3:13–17, 4:12–19). In the Greco-Roman world Christians were increasingly viewed with suspicion because they had different moral values, did not take part in pagan festivals, and refused to worship the gods of Rome or to participate in emperor worship. This last in particular was viewed as unpatriotic. Persecution increased dramatically in the 60s of the first century, especially sparked by the Emperor Nero’s state-sanctioned persecution of the church in Rome.
Why Did Peter Write?
Though many theological themes are woven throughout the letter, the one that the author repeatedly returns to is standing firm in the face of suffering and persecution. Every chapter has references to suffering: 1:6–9; 2:19–25; 3:8–22; 4:1–2, 4:12–19. Peter’s purpose may be seen in 1 Peter 5:12: “I have written to you briefly, encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it.” The ultimate example of righteous suffering is Jesus himself: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (2:21).
Key Themes in First Peter
The Value of Suffering. Peter affirms that for believers, suffering is a part of their calling in Christ (2:21; 4:12–13) and produces spiritual growth and maturity (4:1, 14). As believers “he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade” (1:3–5). We can endure suffering, knowing it is temporary (1:6). Suffering has great value because it proves our faith is genuine and brings glory to God (1:7).
The Believer’s Identity. Believers suffer because they are foreigners and strangers in this world (1:1, 17; 2:9, 11). The identity of believers is another major theme in 1 Peter. There are many parallels drawn from the Old Testament people of God. Believers are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” (2:9). In light of this status as God’s special people, believers are to live lives that are set apart by their positive example. Peter urges believers to, “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” (2:11–12).
First Peter is a reminder that although my passport may say I’m a citizen of United States, or China, or Mexico, or Ethiopia, or wherever, my ultimate citizenship is in heaven and my ultimate loyalty is to the kingdom of God.