Introduction to I Peter

 

TO WHOM THE EPISTLE IS ADDRESSED.

 

St. Peter addresses his Epistle to “the strangers scattered throughout

Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” The question at once

arises — Is he writing to all the Christians in those provinces, or to Jewish

believers only? St. Peter is regarded as the apostle of the circumcision;

there was an understanding (see Galatians 2:9) that James, Cephas; and

John, “who seemed to be pillars,” should go to the circumcision, and that

Paul and Barnabas should go unto the heathen. It has been thought that

Peter would have been interfering with the province of Paul if he had

written to the Gentile Christians of the Churches founded by Paul or his

companions. The words also of the address mean, literally translated, to

the sojourners of the dispersion;” and “the dispersion” (διασπορά - diaspora

was the name current in Judaea for the Jews who lived outside the limits of the

Holy Land. On the other hand, if Peter was, as compared with Paul,

an apostle of the circumcision, yet God had made choice (as he himself said

in the council at Jerusalem) that the Gentiles by his mouth should hear the

word of the gospel, and believe. “He did eat with the Gentiles” at Antioch,

and lived after the manner of the Gentiles” (Galatians 2:12, 14),

although for a time “he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them

which were of the circumcision.” Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles, was

wont to offer the gospel first to the Jews, and preached, whenever it was

possible, in the synagogues. It is not likely that Peter at any time

confined his ministrations entirely to the Jews; nor would the supposed

interference with Paul’s field of labor be altogether removed if the

Epistle were addressed to Jewish Christians only rather than to the whole

Christian population. The word “sojourners” (παρεπιδήμοιςparepidaemois)

is used metaphorically, in ch. 2:11, for Christians generally; it is probable

that in ch. 1:1 Peter was adapting Jewish words to Christian

thoughts, as he often does, and meant by the sojourners of the dispersion”

all the citizens of the heavenly country who were then sojourning upon

earth, dispersed among the unbelievers. It is plain, from the narrative in the

Acts of the Apostles, that the Gentile element was predominant in the

Churches of Asia Minor; it would be strange if Peter had addressed his

Epistle exclusively to the small minority. The Epistle itself witnesses to the

universal character which its title suggests. Though it is saturated with

Hebrew thought, and crowded with quotations from the Old Testament,

there is no allusion to the Law of Moses; the word does not once occur in

it — an omission which would be singular indeed if the Epistle were

addressed exclusively to Jewish Christians, but not surprising as coming

from one who once described the Law as a yoke “which neither our fathers

nor we were able to bear” (Acts 15:10). Again, such passages as ch. 1:14;

2:10; 4:3, and perhaps also ch. 1:18, could scarcely have been addressed

exclusively to Jewish Christians; nor could Peter say of Jewish matrons that

they became (ἐγενήθητεegenaethaeteye were become) the daughters of

Sarah if they did well (ch. 3:6). There are no traces at all of a

distinction of Jews and Gentiles in the Churches of Asia Minor such that an

Epistle could be written by an apostle to one section of the Church to the

exclusion of the other. We conclude, therefore, that the readers

contemplated by this, as by all the writings of the New Testament, are

Christians generally of whatever origin. “There is neither Greek nor Jew,

circumcision nor uncircumcision… but Christ is all and in all.”  (Colossians

3:11)

 

 

PROBABLE DATE

 

Though we cannot fix the exact date of the Epistle, there are indications

which help us to determine the limits of time within which it must have

been written. In the first place, the writer was evidently well acquainted

with the Epistle to the Ephesians, which was written about the year 63,

towards the end of St. Paul’s first Roman imprisonment. St. Peter cannot

have written till some little time after that date, for the Epistles to the

Ephesians and Colossians — the former of which was probably a circular

letter addressed to several of the Churches of Asia Minor — give no hints

of such sufferings as those mentioned by St. Peter. But he must have

written before the outbreak of any systematic attempt to crush out

Christianity, or any legalized persecution such as that under Trajan.

Judgment was about to begin at the house of God (ch. 4:17); for

the present there was a possibility that Christians might disarm the fury of

their persecutors by an innocent and upright life (ch. 3:13); there

was room to hope that their good conversation in Christ might shame their

accusers (ibid. v.16); even that some of those accusers might be won

to the faith by beholding the good works of their Christian neighbors. It

was still possible to describe the Roman governors as sent “for the

punishment of evil-doers, and for the praise of them that do well” (ch. 2:14).

All this seems to point to the time of the Neronian persecution. Before that date,

we gather from St. Paul’s Epistles, there was no actual persecution in Asia Minor;

there are allusions here and there to sufferings (see Galatians 3:4; 6:12), but

apparently not nearly so severe as the sufferings of the Macedonian Christians

(see Philippians 1:28, 30; I Thessalonians 2:15; 3:4; II Thessalonians 1:4; 3:2).

Even then, it seems, there were no formal laws against Christianity; probably

it had not yet become a religio illicita, though Tertullian, apparently without

sufficient evidence, asserts the contrary. The Christians of Rome were

accused of burning the city; the fury excited against them doubtless

extended to the provinces; the heathen would naturally catch the infection

of cruelty from the imperial city; Christians would be accused of disloyalty,

of contempt of law, of these supposed crimes that Tacitus lays to their

charge (‘Ann.,’ 15:44). The persecutions would be irregular, intermittent,

perhaps illegal, caused rather by tumultuous violence than by formal

accusations; but often severe and all the harder to bear because it was the

first outburst. Christians regarded persecution as a strange thing (ch. 4:12);

the Church had to become inured to the fiery trial.  Again, we read in ch. 5:13

that “Marcus my son” was with St. Peter at Babylon. In all probability

common opinion is right in identifying this Marcus with the “John whose surname

was Mark” of the Acts of the Apostles. Now, we know from Colossians 4:10 that

St. Mark was at Rome when St. Paul wrote the Epistle to the Colossians, but was

thinking of going into Asia Minor; while St. Paul’s Second Epistle to Timothy

(II Timothy 4:11) makes it probable that he was at Ephesus about the

year 67. He may, therefore, have spent some portion of the interval

between the dates of the two Epistles at Babylon with St. Peter. The

alternative hypothesis, that Mark joined St. Peter after the death of St.

Paul, is scarcely possible; for St. Peter himself in all probability suffered

martyrdom at Rome under the Emperor Nero, and room must be left for

the writing of the Second Epistle before his journey to Rome. It seems,

therefore, most probable that the First Epistle was written about the year A.D. 65.

 

OBJECTS OF THE EPISTLE.

 

St. Peter is often called the apostle of hope. He begins his Epistle with a

thanksgiving for the living hope which God, in His abundant mercy, has

granted to His chosen. Evidently the grace of hope was a living power in

the heart of the apostle; he is constantly dwelling upon it; it occupies that

central place in this Epistle which faith has in the writings of St. Paul, and

love in those of St. John (see especially ch. 1:3, 7, 9, 13; 3:9-15; 4:13; 5:4).

Throughout the Epistle his eye seems fixed on the glorious hope

which lies before the true Christian; he employs that hope as the principal

topic of consolation in the prospect of the afflictions which were coming

upon the Church. This is just what we should expect from the optomistic

character of the apostle. Indeed, that character was not what it had been

when he said to Christ, “Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee;

what shall we have therefore?”  (Matthew 19:27)  It had been chastened and

refined; the old impetuosity and forwardness had been subdued; but there was

still the same natural temperament, the same sanguine hope, not now directed

to self-exaltation and pre-eminence above his brethren, but guided by the

refining influences of the Holy Spirit to dwell on the glorious prospects

open to all faithful souls. One object which St. Peter had in view when

writing this Epistle was evidently to comfort the Christians of Asia Minor

by directing their thoughts away from the sufferings which were gathering

round them, to dwell in holy hope apart the inheritance reserved for them

in heaven. Another, not the primary object, but secondary and incidental,

was to show his entire sympathy with the teaching of his brother apostle.

There had been differences between them; those differences may probably

have been greatly exaggerated in the apostolic times, as they certainly have

been by modern writers. St. Peter seems bent on showing that the two

apostles held THE ONE FAITH!

 

He fills his Epistle with thoughts apparently taken from St. Paul’s Epistles,

especially from the Epistle to the Ephesians (which, as a circular letter

addressed to several Churches of Asia Minor, must have been well known

to his readers) and from the great Epistle to the Romans (also, in the

opinion of some scholars, sent with various endings to several Churches,

one of which was probably the Church of Ephesus). He shows, too (ch. 2:16

compared with Galatians 5:13), that he was acquainted with the Epistle

to the Galatians. Writing now to the Churches of Galatia, where

St. Paul’s authority had been questioned and his teaching controverted, the

apostle of the circumcision sides, not with the Judaizers, but with St. Paul.

The agreement between the two great apostles is complete. They present

the same truths, sometimes with a different coloring, sometimes from

different points of view. Their early training, their mental characteristics,

their habits of thought, were not the same; but the truths are the same —

the writers are in perfect accord with one another. St. Peter had received

from the Lord the solemn charge, “When thou art converted, strengthen

thy brethren.” He was converted — his old forwardness, self-reliance,

impetuosity, were all subdued, he was not only an apostle, but a saint,

sanctified by the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. He was now fulfilling

the commandment of the Savior; he was strengthening his brethren in the

prospect of fiery trial. He had begun his ministry with that great sermon on

the Day of Pentecost, when “with many words he did testify and exhort”

(Acts 2:40): he does the same now; he writes “exhorting and testifying

that this is the true grace of God wherein ye stand [or, ‘stand ye fast

therein’]. This is the great object of his Epistle. It is full of exhortation —

the earnest exhortation of one who knew from his own experience the

certainty of the Christian’s faith, and the sure unshaken foundation of the

Christian’s hope. It is full of comfort — the comfort which only a true

Christian, rich in faith and rich in love, can give to the suffering. And the

apostle bears his testimony, with the full weight of his apostolic authority,

with the sure knowledge of an eye-witness who had received his

commission from the Savior’s lips, who had seen the risen Lord, had

witnessed His ascension, had felt the mighty presence of the Holy Ghost

sent down from heaven; he bears his testimony that the teaching which the

Christians of Asia Minor had received was the true gospel of God, that the

grace which they felt working within them was the true grace of God: he

bids them “stand fast therein.”

 

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