The First Epistle of Peter
- Recipients, Author and Time of Writing
- Subject and purpose of writing
- Contents (overview)
The author of the epistle introduces himself as “Peter, (an) apostle of Jesus Christ” (chap. 1:1). His proper name was Simon (from the Hebrew Simeon meaning “hearkening”). He got the name Peter (Greek: “stone”, Aramaic: Cephas) from the Lord Jesus (John 1:41-42). Peter was one of the first disciples of the Lord (Mark 1:16-18). He was a fisherman from Bethsaida (John 1:44) living in Capernaum (Mark 1:21, 29). Peter was married and later on his wife accompanied him when he was travelling as an apostle (Mark 1:30; 1 Cor. 9:5). Peter was brought to the Lord through his own brother Andrew and soon he belonged to the inner circle of the Lord's disciples together with James and John (John 1:42; Mark 5:37; Matt. 17:1; 26:37). All four enumerations of the apostles list Peter first (Matt. 10:2; Mark 3:16; Luke 6:14; Acts 1:13).
Peter was a vivacious man full of devotion for his Lord. He had to suffer many a humiliation by being so very eager (Matt. 14:28-31; 16:16-23; 26:33-34; John 18:10-11). His deepest fall was when he denied his Lord who stood in front of his accusers (Luke 22:54-62). After the Lord's resurrection Peter had a personal meeting with the Lord (Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5) followed by a public talk (John 21:15-22). During this talk the Lord refreshed and completed his formerly given commissions to Peter (compare Mark 16:19; Luke 22:32).
In the first part of the book of Acts (chap. 1 – 12) Peter is the most important instrument of the Holy Spirit to spread the gospel with the Jews (Acts 2), the Samaritans (Acts 8) and also the Gentiles (Acts 10). As we learn from Gal. 2:7-9 he was “the apostle of circumcision” (that is: to the Jews) first of all. Thus he probably fulfilled his ministry during the following years in various areas mainly amongst the Jews. We do not know much about this latter ministry though. The last testimonies of Peter are his two epistles.
The first obvious testimony to the first epistle is found with Polycarp of Smyrna (around 70 to 155 AC) in his letter to the Philippians. Irenaeus (around 140 to 202 AC), Clemens of Alexandria (around 150 to 215 AC), Tertullian (around 160 to 220 AC) and Origines (around 185 to 254 AC) all testify that Peter is the author of this epistle.
Only in recent times critical voices have been raised against this old tradition. The good Greek and the similarity with Paul's epistles pretendedly do not fit in with Peter! Most scientists however do not think these arguments hold water. The author introduces himself as witness of the sufferings of Christ (chap. 5:1), he remembers the Lord's announcement of the assembly (chap. 2:4-5; compare Matt. 16:18) and also the Lord's commandment to Peter for a pastoral ministry (chap. 5:1-4; compare John 21:15-17). We also find various parallels to Peter's speeches in the Acts.
Time and Place of Writing
Tradition claims that Peter lived in Rome during his last years and that there he suffered martyrdom. This tradition, however old, is unproved. Paul who wrote various epistles from Rome does not mention Peter once. In 2 Tim. 4:11 Paul writes that only Luke is with him and in verse 16: “At my first answer (judicial hearing) no man stood with me, but all forsook me.” Should Peter have done so? This is unthinkable. And yet most expositors keep to the idea of Peter having been killed in Rome and shortly before that having written his first epistle. The epistle itself does not mention any time of writing. It is generally dated though to the years 60 to 64 AC. Peter himself mentions Babylon as his residence in 5:13 “She that is elected with (you) in Babylon” (JND). There are many different opinions about this verse. Who was she that is elected? Some think of the local church in this place. The election of God in the NT however always refers to the believers and never to the church as a whole (compare Rom. 8:33; 16:13; Eph. 1:4; Col. 3:12; 1 Thess. 1:4; 2 Thess. 2:13; Titus 1:1; 1 Peter 1:2; 2 Peter 1:10). Surely Peter is speaking of his own wife as according to 1 Cor. 9:5 he took her with him when travelling (compare 2 John 1 + 13).
But what does Peter want to say with “Babylon”? This name has long been declared as an encoded, mystical name of the city with seven hills which is Rome (see especially Rev. 14:8; 17:1-9 and 18:2). But John wrote the book of Revelation probably only 25 to 30 years later and we ignore that this name for Rome was in circulation before that. Those who affirm Peter's stay in Rome inevitably must come to this conclusion (compare Notes on The Epistle to the Romans, 3.a, “The Apostle Peter and Rome”).
Others think of Babylon being a city by the same name in Upper Egypt.
The most obvious explanation that Babylon on the river Euphrates is spoken of is refused by most scientists nowadays. Babylon at Peter's time had lost its former lustre but it still remained inhabited up to 1000 AC when it definitely became a heap of ruins. According to Josephus (around 37 to 100 AC; Jewish Antiquities 15.3.1) thousands of Jews still used to live there. Acts 2:9 also mentions Jews from Mesopotamia. It therefore is very likely that there were believers in Babylon whom Peter the apostle of circumcision used to visit. He wrote his epistle from there also.
The first epistle is addressed to “the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia" (chap. 1:1). All these areas were to be found in Northern and Central Minor Asia which corresponds to the actual Turkey. One cannot exactly locate the geographical location as we do not know whether these areas were the old tribal territories or the Roman provinces. Also one does not know if Peter ever had seen these believers. The NT does not record any journeys (of Peter) in these areas.
The First Epistle of Peter is not directed to all believers in one place as for example the epistle to the Romans. Nor is it directed to all churches of one area as the epistle to the Galatians. The believing “strangers scattered” (chap. 1:1.17; 2:11) were former Jews who had come to believe in the Lord Jesus and who now were strangers in a twofold manner: firstly strangers scattered from their own country Palestine and secondly as Christians who by faith now had received a living, heavenly hope. As apostle of the circumcision Peter had the special duty to bring the Jews the tidings of God's grace and salvation in Christ. This he does in this epistle as Origines remarked already. And yet many scientists today think the epistle is directed to Gentile Christians or to a mixed audience of Gentile and Jewish Christians.
Peter had not only received the keys to the kingdom of heaven from the Lord Jesus but also the commission to pasture and shepherd His flock (John 21) and to strengthen his brethren (Luke 22:32). Peter does so in this epistle in four steps:
- He reminds the believers of their blessed heavenly position before God.
- He teaches them on their relations and duties as strangers in this world.
- He shows them that they are subject to God's just government in their demeanour.
- He encourages them to persevere in sufferings.
As an experienced man Peter deals more with the walking than with the teaching. The teaching however is penetrating everywhere. Again and again he presents the Lord Jesus as subject of consideration and example of imitation. See chapters 1:11.19-20; 2:4.21-25; 3:18-22: 4:1.
The subject of sufferings runs through the whole epistle. Peter several times reminds of the sufferings of Christ in chapter 1:11; 2:21; 4:1; 5:1. But he also encourages to perseverance in sufferings. Saying this he does not think of official persecutions of Christians as they soon after were started by the Roman emperors. He rather speaks of
- Trials which God sends to prove our faith (chap. 1:6-7)
- Grief for conscience sake towards God (chap. 2:19)
- Trials for the name of Christ (chap. 4:12-14)
- Sufferings from the adversary, the devil (chap. 5:8-10)
But Peter also presents his readers the future glory which will follow upon these sufferings. He does not think of the rapture of the believers to the Father's house though. According to the character of the epistle which sees the kingdom of God, he is rather speaking of the revelation of Christ's glory at his appearing on this earth when he enters upon the Millennium (chap. 1:7; 4:13; 5:4).
One could think of chap. 4:12-13 being the key verses: “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: But rejoice, inasmuch as you are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, you may be glad also with exceeding joy.”
a) Some Keywords
Various expressions which are important for the epistle have been mentioned already. Following are some of the most important keywords.
Sufferings/to suffer/Afflictions (15 times)
- Chap. 1:11; 2:220.127.116.11; 3:14.17.18; 4:1 (2x).13.15; 5:1.9.10
Glories/to glory/Praise (14 times)
- Chap. 1:18.104.22.168.24; 2:12; 4:11 (2x).13.14.16; 5:1.4.10
Conversation/Sojourning (7 times)
- Chap. 1:15.17.18; 2:12; 3:1.2.16
The Name Christian as such
In 1 Peter 4:16 we have the only passage in the NT where a believer uses the term Christian . Two more references to the same word are found in the NT where we find unbelievers using the word Christian (Acts 11:26; 26:28).
• 1 Peter 1:1-2 Greetings
• 1 Peter 1:3 – 2:10 Blessings and Privileges of God's Elect
• 1 Peter 2:11 – 3:12 Relations of Believing Strangers in the World
• 1 Peter 3.13 – 4:19 Comfort and Hope in Sufferings for Christ
• 1 Peter 5:1-11 Flock and Shepherd
• 1 Peter 5:12-14 End