What is 1 Peter all about?

1 PeterIn 5:12 we read, “I have written to you briefly, encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it.” Peter gives us a threefold purpose for writing, to: encourage Christians; testify to the grace of God; and help us stand fast or persevere. Throughout the letter, Peter does just this. So under a few – far from comprehensive – headings we are going to explore how Peter achieves his purpose: encouraging, testifying, and strengthening.

We have a living hope

In 1:3 the letter opens by praising God who in his great mercy (see 2:9-10) has given us a living hope. What God has promised us is certain and can never be taken from us (1:5). The word ‘salvation’ is often used to refer to becoming a Christian, or being born again, but notice that in 1:5-6 we rejoice in our hoped for salvation that is still to be revealed. This is what Peter comes back to in 1:8-9, “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” Christians should rejoice as we await our glorious future, despite the shifting sands and struggles of this life. We must live in light of our sure salvation that is to come. And as we persevere in this life our faith is proven genuine (1:6-7; 4:12).

That hope is found in Jesus Christ

Peter suggests this a few times in his opening: “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1:3); “you believe in him” (1:8); and “the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow” (1:11). But 2:24 is perhaps clearest, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross.” Christ’s death is our hope, for on the cross he bears our sins in order for us to be forgiven. Christians throughout the ages have called this the ‘wonderful exchange’. Something Peter lays out in 1:18-19, “It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed…but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” Therefore we must confidently trust in that costly work of Christ on our behalf, for both forgiveness and our future.

But in 2:21-25 Peter says that Christ’s suffering does not only save us and give us real hope, for he also calls it an “example” (2:21; also see 4:19), an example of how we should suffer as Christians.

Suffering as Christians

Suffering is not inconsistent with our faith but part of the Christian life, while we await our glorious salvation (5:9-10). Because 1 Peter was written to churches that were suffering the letter has much to teach us about it: God commends those who suffer for doing good (2:18-25), going as far as calling it a blessing (3:8-17), since it is blessed to do good not evil; on at least three occasions we read that suffering fits within the will of God (3:17; 4:2, 19) explaining why it might be necessary for us to suffer for a time (1:6, see ESV); and similarly to Christ, all affliction, hardship, suffering, and grief will give way to glory (4:13; 5:1, 10). One of the dangers we face as those who are not persecuted for our faith, suffer little, and enjoy many first world comforts is that we forget that glory is yet to be revealed and fall into the trap of living for this world

Though it might be part of God’s will that we suffer, and suffering certainly has a place within the economy of God to test, strengthen, and ultimately prove our faith, we know that we have a living hope and the promise of glory if we persevere. That hope is found through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ alone. But, knowing all of this, how should we live as Christians while we wait?

Holiness

Coming back to the wondrous exchange that took place as Christ died on the cross (2:24), where he sets us an example for suffering, Peter writes, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness.” God has saved us with purpose, which we will read more about below, and that purpose requires holiness, being noticeably set apart or distinct. We can no longer lived like we used to, when we were ignorant (1:13-14). We must pursue holiness (1:15-17), for we have been redeemed or bought by Christ’s precious blood (1:18-19), and should therefore “live as God’s slaves” (2:16). We are not our own; we belong to God. As Peter writes in 2:10, “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

Our salvation, past and present results from the work of Christ and a persevering faith. But Peter is warning us against accepting the mercies of God and not responding to them by becoming increasingly holy. Practically, this touches on all sorts of things: abstaining from passions of the flesh (2:11); obedience to God’s truth, his word (1:22-25); speech (2:1-3); serving each other as the people of God (2:4-10; 4:7-11); submission to authorities (2:13-15); and our relationships with each other (2:17; 3:1-7).

Why should we pursue holiness, purity, and transformed lives? Is it just because Christians are better people than everyone else? No, Peter gives two reasons, under the next two headings.

Purpose of holiness: witness

In 2:11-12 we are told to, “Abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 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” (also see 4:4). There is an evangelistic edge to godliness. More than merely silencing the ignorant (2:15), our holiness, eager hope, and how we suffer can point others to Christ and the glory that awaits those with faith in him.

Our ultimate purpose: God’s glory

The word “glory” is frequent in 1 Peter. While we are promised to share in God’s glory, for that is an aspect of our future hope (5:1, 10), the purpose of final salvation, holiness in the present, and Christ’s work on the cross is foremost for the glory of God. On the day that he is revealed, our witness may be the cause of some glorifying God rather than being judged (2:11-12). In using whatever gifts God has given us we must readily acknowledge him so that he is glorified, not us (4:7-11). Even our suffering, so long as it is for good and involves persevering faith can be to the glory of God (1:6-7; 4:16). Christ’s death and resurrection, which we must place our faith in, meant glory for the Jesus (1:11, 21). Is this your perspective, your purpose? All that we do and don’t do can be for the glory of God.

Peter’s challenge to you

“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (5:1-4).

Though this is often treated as a passage on those in leadership in the local church. It is almost an assumption in the New Testament that older or maturer Christians will be leaders in the local church. The responsibility is given to watch over and care for others in the church, like shepherds. There is no gain in this but the promise of glory for those who eagerly serve in humility and set an example of holiness for others.

If you enjoyed this overview I have written a few others like it: wisdom and works in the epistle of James; Exodus as the journey of God; and a series of posts in Galatians.

John Calvin on Suffering

Institutes volume 1One of my goals for 2017 has been to work through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion in its entirety, with the hope of engaging with it in 2018 by way of blogging. I have drawn on his work in the past: challenging comfortable Christianity and in thinking about God’s sovereignty. But the reason I am writing this post now – as one untimely born – is because over the past few weeks I have found myself drawing on the Institutes for both pastoral counseling and preaching. While this post will focus on some gleanings from Calvin and suffering, I hope that it will be an encouragement to the reader that studying theology has practical value. Theological study is far more than a rite of passage to pastoral ministry; it is a vital aspect of any pastoral ministry.

Distinguish between punishment and discipline

I am sure you have heard, ‘I don’t think God sends suffering, because he loves us.’ But when you read the Bible we learn that it is precicely because God loves us that he sends suffering. Calvin captures this well, “Children are beaten with rods, not to pay the penalty for their sins to God, but in order thereby to lead to repentance” (3.4.33). So he says that suffering in the Christian life is future and not past orientated, “While we as children of God are afflicted by the hand of the Heavenly Father, this is not a penalty to confound us, but only a chastisement to instruct us” (3.4.33). The point Calvin drives home is that when we face trials and afflictions God is growing us through the experience, he is strengthening our faith. When we suffer we generally think it is the result of three things: (a) the work of Satan, (b) the result of our sin, or (c) the absence of God’s love. Calvin deals with the first of those under the next heading and he encourages us to consider the possibility of the second along with the absurdity of the third. “He who in the end profits by God’s scourges is the man who considers God angry at his vices, but merciful and kindly toward himself” (3.4.34). Grasping this biblical truth is a comfort and balm for Christians who suffer: our Father loves us and in his sovereignty sends both happiness and hardship, to turn us away from sin and back to himself.

Learning from the suffering of Job

William BlakeDiscussing the sovereign will of God, Calvin (2.4.2) looks at Job 1, where Job suffers at the hands of the Chaldeans. Though it is the Chaldeans who kill his shepherds and ravage his flocks (Job 1:17), if we look back a few verses we learn that this stems from Satan (Job 1:12). However, Calvin writes, “Job recognizes the Lord’s work in it” (Job 1:21). Considering these three verses, Calvin asks, “How may we attribute this same work to God, to Satan, and to man as author, without either excusing Satan as associated with God, or making God the author of evil?” That is an important question to which Calvin offers an excellent answer: Satan sought to drive Job to desperation; the Chaldeans are motivated by greed or envy, or both; and God’s purpose is to exercise the patience of his servant. It is that last point that we battle with, even if it is undeniable as we read the text (Job 1:11; 2:6). Even if we emphasise that God allows this suffering to come upon Job, we cannot evade the fact that God is sovereign in Job’s suffering. Calvin argues that we must observe the distinction between purpose (or end) and manner. For while the deed (or manner) is simultaneously attributed to God, Satan, and men, the outcome is that God’s righteousness and the faithfulness of Job is made apparent and contrast with the wickedness of Satan and the Chaldeans. The point for us to take away is that God is sovereign in suffering, but his purpose is that he is glorified through our genuine and persevering faith (1 Peter 1:6-7).

True biblical hope

In a lengthy section on the continuity between Old and New Testaments, Calvin shows how the promises made to Israel were for future blessedness, eternal life in the presence of God. Calvin is astounded that some think God promised the Jews “nothing but a full belly, delights of the flesh, flourishing wealth, outward power, fruitfulness of offspring, and whatever the natural man prizes” (2.10.23), the same things many false teachers promise God’s people today. So in 2.10.7-22 he outlines a few conclusions we can draw from Israel’s faith that are analogous to our own: happiness is elusive and ephemeral, many of us experience it only in snatches; death still stalks our world and therefore we must hope for immortality; and the abundant blessings promised to God’s people are surely not known in this groaning creation. The hope for them, as it is for us, is to know God and enjoy him forever. Thus Calvin writes, “Souls, unless they be joined to God through righteousness, remain estranged from him in death. On the other hand, such a union when present will bring everlasting salvation with it” (2.10.8); “They whom he, who is judge of death and life, had received into his tutelage, care, and protection are not snuffed out even by death” (2.10.9). That is biblical hope: the certainty of an imperishable and unfading future kept for us by God as we are kept by his strength (1 Peter 1:3-5).

In conclusion, Calvin does not deny the joy of knowing God in the present life. But we should not deny its troubles. Taking Calvin’s three points together we can have confidence in our afflictions, which come from God and are designed for our good and his glory. Suffering comes in order to train our faith and fix our eyes on the hope that will not fail. For we know a God who is sovereign and in control. He will use all things for his glory and the good of those who love him.