1 Peter- a Holy People in a Hostile World
There can be no doubt that the storm-clouds are gathering over the church in the Western world. The consensus that we were a Christian culture, in which people generally lived by Christian values, even if they didn’t believe Christian teachings, has long vanished. So far, nothing has replaced it. Instead we have a disarraying array of believes, from aggressive atheism to militant Islam. Which will win is uncertain, one thing all these beliefs have in common is that they are hostile to biblical Christianity, and Christians in the west are in for a hard time in the next few generations.
What can and should Christ’s people do? Christians from diverse backgrounds such as the Evangelical Mark Sayers, and the Eastern Orthodox Rod Dreher, have argued that what is needed is a form of retreat or “strategic withdrawal”. This doesn’t mean that we stop trying to reach the lost with the Gospel. It does mean that we accept and even embrace the fact that Christians in the West will have to live on the margins of our culture, and concentrate on building strong churches of committed disciples that will survive the storm. Part of this is a regular rhythm of retreat into prayer and listening to God’s word, before we go out again into the world. Reformed Christians have always known about this: God has given us a rhythm of one day in seven to rest and spend with each other and with him. Which is partly why it is so important for committed Christians to meet as a church every Sunday, simply in order to be able to survive. A major part of that day should be spent in God’s word, listening to it being read, taught, and proclaimed.
That is why Christ Church Düsseldorf has always been committed to teaching the Bible; and it is why this autumn we will listen to the short letter of 1 Peter- a letter about how to survive and flourish as a holy people in a hostile world. This blog post gives a short introduction to the letter, and I hope it will encourage you to read it for yourself.
Who wrote 1 Peter?
Peter- 1:1. This is Simon, the fisherman from Bethsaida in Galilee, whose house in Capernaum was Jesus’ base for a large part of his ministry. Simon was called by Jesus to follow him and fish for men, which he did, becoming one of Jesus first followers, and the leader of the twelve apostles. He was the first person to openly say that he believed Jesus was God’s promised King, the Son of God. After this, Jesus re-named him “Peter”, which means “the rock”, because, as the first person to profess faith in Christ, Peter was the rock upon which the church was built.
On the night Jesus was arrested, Peter’s cowardice lead him to betray Jesus. But he was one of the first to see Jesus after Jesus rose from the dead, and was forgiven, and restored to his position of leadership. At Pentecost, he gave the first Christian sermon, which lead to the conversion of 3000 people, and became the bold, fearless leader of the early church; although he still had a tendency to give in to peer pressure.
After the book of Acts, nothing certain is known of Peter’s life. In 1 Peter 5:13, he speaks of being in “Babylon”, but this is almost certainly a code word for the great city of Rome. This fits with a very strong tradition from outside the Bible that Peter did go to Rome and become a leader of the church there, and eventually died as a martyr at the command of the Emperor Nero around 62AD.
Peter refers to himself in two ways. First, he says that he is an “Apostle”, (1:1). This is a claim to write with authority as one of Jesus’ specially authorized representatives. So 1 Peter is not just Peter’s private thought and opinions; it is, in effect, an official letter from Jesus Christ, and comes with all his authority. But Peter also refers to himself as an “Elder”, (or “Presbyter”), just like many of those to whom he was writing. There is no indication that he saw himself as the first Pope or the Bishop of Rome, or that he thought that he had an office that he could hand down to successors.
Peter mentions that he had the help of “Silvanus”, or in some translations of the Bible “Silas”. This is probably the Silas who accompanied Paul on some of his missionary journeys, and so would know the area to which Peter’s letter was sent. It is likely that he acted as Peter’s postman, and carried the letter.
Where and when did Peter write?
In 5:12, Peter says “She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings”. “She” is the church that Peter is writing from. “Babylon” is almost certainly not the Babylon of the Old Testament, which was near Mosul in modern Iraq, but is a code word for Rome. Tradition has it that Peter was crucified on the orders of the Emperor Nero, in his persecution of Christians in Rome in 64AD; if this true, then the letter must have been written before this. But the letter doesn’t sound as if serious persecution had started yet, and the tradition is that Peter was in Rome only at the end of his life. Paul wrote several letters from Rome in 60-62AD, which make no mention of Peter. S0 62-63AD, roughly 30 years after Jesus rose from the dead, is the best guess as to when 1 Peter was written.
To whom did Peter write?
He says in 1:1 “To God’s elect, exiles, scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia”, (NIV). “Asia” isn’t the continent of Asia as we now know it, but the Roman province of Asia, roughly what is now western Turkey. The other places cover Northern, central, and Eastern Turkey; all were under the Rule of the Roman Empire. Paul had crossed this area on his great missionary journeys, and it was one of the first areas where Christianity took deep root. So Peter is writing to small, scattered, isolated groups of Christians across a large area. His letter wasn’t addressed to one church, but Silas would have walked from place to place, (the list of names follows the natural route he would have taken), reading the letter aloud in the different churches.
The membership of these churches seems to have been largely of Gentile, not Jewish, origin. Peter says “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers” (1:18) and “let the time that is past suffice for doing what the Gentiles do… They are surprised they you do not join them in their reckless wild living” (4:3-4), which would have been very strange things to say to Jews. Peter addressed these Gentiles as “the chosen exiles of the dispersion”- terms used for the Jewish people. He wants them to think of themselves as being like the Jewish people in exile; they are now God’s people, and are the heirs to the promises God made with Israel. From 5:1-4, they are clearly organized into churches lead by “Elders”, whose job it is to act as “shepherds” or “pastors”.
Why did Peter write?
This is perhaps the most important question that we can ask of any biblical book. In this case, Peter tells us directly: he wanted to encourage is readers, (5:12). In particular, he wanted to encourage them to stand firm against the pressure of the society in which they lived. There was pressure to slip back into their old, immoral, hedonistic way of life, (2:11-12, 4:1-6); and the readers were facing painful suffering and fiery persecution for being Christians (3:8-17, 4:12-19). So Peter wrote to encourage them to live as a holy people in a hostile world. But it is not a gloomy letter; 1 Peter bubbles over with joy and excitement both at the privileges Christians have now, and the glorious future to come (1:3-9, 5:10-11).
A great place to start would be to read 1 Peter through at one go; this can easily be done in an hour. Then, as we travel through it, follow the readings that we have on each Sunday. On Saturday evening or Sunday morning, read the passage that will be preached on, and then read it again after the service. The schedule is below, followed by some suggestions for further reading. In the Vine Groups, we will look at the passage that has been preached on the previous Sunday.
1 Peter- A Holy People in a Hostile World
September 2 1 Peter 1:1-2, 5:12-14
September 9 1 Peter 1:3-12
September 16 1 Peter 1:13-21
September 23 Weekend away- no service at church
September 30 1 Peter 1:22 –2:3
October 7 1 Peter 2:4-10
October 14 1 Peter 2:11-25
October 21 1 Peter 3:1-12
October 28 1 Peter 3:13-22
November 4 1 Peter 4:1-11
November 11 Remembrance Sunday
November 18 1 Peter 4:12-19
November 25 1 Peter 5:1-11
On 1 Peter
Edmund Clowney The Message of 1 Peter (IVP)
Angus Macleay Teaching 1 Peter (Christian Focus)
Wayne Grudem 1 Peter (IVP)
Robert Leighton A Practical Commentary Upon the First Epistle General of St Peter (Out of print, but free e-book at monergism.com/practical)
On living as a holy people in a hostile world:
J.C Ryle Holiness (Various Publishers)
Mark Sayers Disappearing Church (Moody Publishers)
Rod Dreher The Benedict Option (Penguin)
Jerry Bridges The Pursuit of Holiness (Tyndale House)