1 Peter: The Background, The Author, and His Audience

1peter_1

First Peter has a certain prescience to it (a “foreknowledge” if you will).  In speaking to the churches in the eastern part of 1st century Rome, Peter prepares them for persecution, and for how to conduct life, church, and themselves in the midst of unbelievers; particularly hostile unbelievers.  Peter covers a lot of ground, but yet does not become so specific that the book loses relevance to a modern audience.  God used Peter to communicate not only the “aliens and strangers” but also, unsurprisingly, to all believers at all times.  It would not simply be those who reside in Cappadocia, Bithynia, et. al. that would benefit from learning these things, rather we ALL can benefit; particularly if we, like they, are on the cusp of persecution.

The Background:
1 Peter was written in the early to mid-60s AD, around 30 years after Jesus was resurrected and ascended. A lot had changed about the church since Jesus had returned to Heaven. It had gone from a collection of disciples in a room, praying, to a religion that covered the known world. It had gone from being an offshoot of Judaism to being considered its own religion altogether. It had grown so much that is was a cultural front, a force, in the Roman Empire. Enough of a cultural front that it was well known to oppose the traditional Roman lifestyle and a persuasive enough force that it became the target of the world that opposed it.

Peter writes his letter just as the world’s push back begins. Nero is emperor in Rome, where Peter is likely located. It is shortly before Peter’s martyrdom. The persecution is just about to begin. Nero is early in his reign and is beginning to draw battle lines. Even early, he begins to torture Christians and use the entire group as a scapegoat. His favorite method was to tie Christians to stakes in his garden, cover them with wax, and set them on fire; making them torches for his garden. That this was occurring was well known within the city of Rome, and for a long time was confined (with some exceptions) to the city itself. But, that wasn’t going to last for long. Already the cultural tide was turning throughout the Empire. Already there was a sense of Christians not being “real Romans” or second class citizens. Peter could see it coming, and he writes this letter to prepare his friends in Asia.

The Author:

Crucifixion of St. Peter by Giordano Luca

Crucifixion of St. Peter by Giordano Luca

Peter opens the Epistle declaring himself to be an Apostle. Peter was the leader of the 12 Apostles and the early church’s first leader. He wasn’t a perfect man but contributed greatly to the development of the church.  In many ways, Peter was a man defined by dichotomies.  We see his boldness and faith in Matt 16 as he unquestionably declares Jesus to be God and Messiah…

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” Then He warned the disciples that they should tell no one that He was the Christ. {Matt 16:13-20 NASB}

…yet we also see his pride and propensity to get caught up in error in the same chapter as he vows that Jesus will never be killed by His enemies.

From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.” But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. {Matt 16:21-25 NASB}

The same man we see preach brilliantly in Acts 2, not long after falls in with the Judaizers in Galatia.  This kind of dichotomy was part and parcel of Peter’s life.

A word about Apostleship:
ApostleNonetheless, Peter was an apostle. The office of apostle was a temporary one that existed in the early church before the canon of Scripture was complete. They had a unique authority over churches and sometimes spoke on behalf of God. Most unique to apostles were the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit involving miracles which served as bona fides to their apostolic authority:

The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles. {2 Cor 12:12 NASB}

It was the apostles and close associates, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that wrote the New Testament.  Peter actually has a lot to say about this matter, particularly in his second letter.  Consider:

But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. {2 Pet 1:20-21 NASB}

Peter believed firmly in divine inspiration.  And also:

This is now, beloved, the second letter I am writing to you in which I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the words spoken beforehand by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken by your apostles. … Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless, … as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. {2 Pet 3:1-2, 14, 16-18 NASB}

Peter did not simply defend his own apostleship and his own writings as Scripture, but made a point of naming Paul and instructing believers to regard his works as Scripture too.

His audience:
Peter writes to Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia claiming those there “reside as aliens”. Residing as aliens means they are citizens of heaven and don’t belong to this world.  Vine’s Expository Dictionary defines the word παρεπίδημος (parepidēmos), which is translated in the NASB at 1 Peter 1:1 as “aliens”, as “one who comes from a foreign country into a city or land to reside there by the side of the natives”.  It is translated in Hebrews 11:13 as “exiles” and later in 1 Peter 2:11 as “strangers”. The instance later in 1 Peter is particularly useful in helping us to understand Peter’s intention here.  Not because of a the translators word choice, but because of Peter’s context.

Asia-Minor1In 2:11, Peter says: “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.” We see there that Peter juxtaposes his audience’s status as “strangers” against those “fleshly lusts” that “wage war against the soul”.  This pushes us toward a heavenly, as opposed to worldly, understanding of the word in Peter’s context.  In 2:10, Peter declares his audience to be “the people of God”.  So, following his logic, the “aliens” are “people of God’ who are having a war waged against them by the world, from whose lusts they ought to abstain.

The circumstances of the Epistle also lend support to this interpretation. Peter is likely writing from Rome and is observing the slow and steady decline in the status of the Christian in the eyes of the state, and the increasing disparity between Christians and the worldly culture around them. Yet, legally and logically, these Christians remain (like Paul) Roman citizens.

These are not displaced people living in a foreign country but instead are homegrown citizens whose culture has rejected them and whose state is declaring them to be enemies. They no longer look like or belong to the world around them. Instead, they are citizens of heaven; aliens in a strange and sinful world.  And it is to those strangers, living in a strange and hostile world, that Peter pens his letter.  We’ll discuss the first few verses next week.

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