1 Peter 1 : 1 - 2
First Peter 5 : 1 reads ‘I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who will also share in the glory to be revealed’. The writer thus places himself at Calvary. Verse twelve tells us that ‘With the help of Silvanus, whom I regard as a faithful brother, I have written to you briefly, encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it’. These are given as evidences that the writer of 1 and 2 Peter was actually Peter the disciple, the rock, Jesus’ right hand man. There are plenty of scholarly sceptics who doubt this, citing the fluency of the Greek language. Some think it unlikely for a Galilean fisherman. Intellectual snobbery has existed in university theological faculties for centuries. What is the difference between this and ‘the heavenly taught ploughman’? The text tells us that Silvanus was the writer of the letter. No doubt, Peter dictated it to him. That was a common a practice at the time. Paul makes the exceptional point in 2 Thessalonians 3 : 17 and in Philemon 1 : 19 that he is writing ‘in his own hand’. There are many examples of self taught men and women who with little formal education produced great works of literature, for example, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, H G Wells and G B Shaw. It is perfectly possible that Peter’s mind matured in the later years of his life. In any case would not such articulation come by the gift of the Holy Spirit?
The verses of 2 Peter 3 : 15 – 16 are also helpful in the discussion about whether it really is Peter who wrote the letters given in his name. We know that Peter and Paul made a watershed agreement in Jerusalem in 52 AD over the desire of some for Jewish law keeping and circumcision to continue within the Christian Church. Peter agreed that these requirements should not be imposed on new Christian converts. However in Galatians 2 : 11 - 14 Paul recounts another confrontation in Antioch. ‘When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?' Paul’s arguments won the day. In 2 Peter 3 : 15 – 16 the writer, if it be Peter indeed has a mildly retaliatory dig at Paul’s theological writings. ‘Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction’. This is a barbed reference to Paul’s style (in Romans for example). 1 and 2 Peter are pastoral rather than theological and these letters were much used and quoted in the early Christian Church.
Verse 1 Peter describes himself as ‘an apostle’. There used to be a custom in Scotland when someone would introduce himself saying ‘I am a John Brown’ or ‘I am a Willie Smith’. It seemed to me to be an admission of anonymity and of the commonplace rather than an affirmation of self. Perhaps it was a legacy of class divisions. It suggested low self-esteem and perhaps lack of success in life. I used to counter with ‘You are THE John Brown’ or ‘You are THE Willie Smith’. Peter describing himself as ‘an apostle’ was self-effacing. Peter had that in him. In Acts 10 : 25 – 26 we read ‘As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.”
These letters of Peter were written about 62 AD. Peter does not introduce himself as the Leader of the Christian Church. He does not say ‘I am the first Pope’. He does not use the words bishop or archbishop to describe his status. Yet had not Jesus said to him ‘And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16 : 18 – 19) This latter power was later claimed and manipulated by successive Popes in later centuries to exercise arbitrary power over people's lives. So corrupted, it became the underlying cause of The Reformation during which Protestants abolished it disavowing any human the right that belonged to Jesus Christ Himself.
Peter is one of the great actors and large characters of the New Testament. He shares that status with Paul who is known to us through Luke’s writing of Acts and through his own letters to various churches. Paul was an intellectual, a Pharisee and a scholar. Peter was a self-employed fisherman. He was not poor. He had a fine house in Capernaum. He comes over as a extravagant personality, larger than life, unstable, with great enthusiasms and deep troughs of despair. He was weak and vacillating but capable of courage. He also was possessed of spiritual insight. ‘When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven’. (Matthew 16 : 13 – 17) Peter writes that he is an apostle of Jesus Christ. Paul sometimes described himself as ‘an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God’ (Ephesians 1 : 1) denoting the distance between himself and the historic Jesus whereas Peter had known and lived with Jesus for the longevity of His public ministry.
Verse 2 ‘To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood’. This language is very like Paul’s in Ephesians 1 : 4 – 5. ‘For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will’. There is no avoiding the issue of predestination. In later Christian centuries it became a ‘cause celebre’ in post-Reformation Protestantism where it expanded into double predestination, that is, salvation for the chosen with damnation for the rejected. What was an a priori (before the fact) affirmation and observation in the time of Peter and Paul, later became an a posteriori (after the fact) conclusion. The damage and danger however was that the conclusion became foremost in people’s minds. As Robert Burns wrote satirically in his poem ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ ‘O Thou that in the Heavens does dwell! Wha, as it pleases best thysel, Sends ane to Heaven and ten to Hell, A’ for Thy glory! And no for ony gude or ill They’ve done before Thee’. Double predestination immobilised the church, stultified mission and petrified evangelism. If God had predestined you to heaven there was nothing you need much do. If God had predestined you to hell there was nothing you could do.
It remains a very large mystery as to why one person becomes a Christian and another does not. Jesus accepted it was a truth. ‘Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. (Matthew 24 : 40 – 41) Even he did not explain it theologically. Predestination and double predestination can be balanced by the universally applicable inclusive invitations of Jesus to all humanity for all time - that which has inspired the centuries of Christian evangelism, mission and the world expansion of his Church. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3 : 16 – 17) Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28 : 18 – 20)
Is your Christian life your own choice or God’s invitation? Psalm 53 : 2 - 3 reads, ‘God looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. Everyone has turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one’. The dynamic here is that humans have an inbuilt capacity to seek God but do not do so. Jesus spoke of God seeking out the lost. ‘What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off’. (Matthew 18 : 12 – 14) Christianity is certainly about God’s initiative towards humanity. But there is still a division between those who believe and those who do not.
In John’s Gospel 12 : 37 – 43 the issue is laid bare. ‘Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. This was to fulfil the word of Isaiah the prophet: “Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere: “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them.” Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him. Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human praise more than praise from God’.
This is double predestination. This is Holy Willie’s Prayer. God is responsible for the rejection by some of his Son Jesus. This is a turn off for many who argue that they want nothing to do with a God who deliberately makes it impossible for people to respond to him. There are profoundly evil people in the world. How they came by their evil we do not really know. Did God make them evil? The whole Christian Gospel story is that God offers redemption to anyone who will take it. So, we must concentrate on the positive and not the negative. We must give thanks for such salvation and rejoice that we have received it. We can pray always for those who have not availed themselves of such blessing and Christian history is full of stories of seriously bad people becoming Christians. There are many in American jails, some on death row.
But Peter and Paul are saying that Christians have been chosen by the foreknowledge of God and before the creation of the world. The context for this thinking can be found in John’s Gospel. ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made…. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God’. (1: 1 – 3 and 9 – 12) Early Christians had to fend off arguments that they were an after thought of God. That Jesus was kind of ‘ad hoc’ rescue mission for things gone wrong in human life. That Christianity was a recent innovation. That Jesus was not equal to God in any way but merely an intermediary. It was for these reasons that Peter and Paul grounded Christian life and calling in God’s original plan of salvation. It was part of Plan A. It was not Plan B or Plan C.
We cannot fully understand these things. We are offered a very great present. Eternal life through Jesus who rose from the dead and returned to eternal life. Christians are those who accept this present with thanksgiving. Christian calling is to then offer the same present to anyone and to everyone. That is enough for our salvation and for the salvation of the world. The evidence of this actually working is sanctification, the purifying of human life and mind and heart. This is a spiritual process. It means cleaning out false, bad and wicked thoughts and actions in a new way by ‘the renewing of your mind’ (Romans 12 : 3). This is a means of disposing of negative thoughts, depressions, self-harming, low self esteem, human misery, temptations and bad behaviour and replacing these with what Paul described thus ‘whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things’ (Philippians 4 : 8). After all, Paul claimed ‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!’ (2 Corinthians 5 : 17)
This sanctifying results in obedience. The Christian is not torn apart by conflicting inclinations. At least, not to the extent he or she was previously. No-one is perfect while on earth. But the fight is over and won in the deepest sense. We are redeemed. We continue to live in the world with its absurdities and distractions and we are assaulted by ideas and thoughts that are most unwelcome and injurious to our spiritual health and our relationship with the risen Jesus. Even so ‘we are sprinkled with his blood’. That is, we are forgiven our ongoing sins as Christians by Jesus’ blood sacrifice on Calvary. It is not our own efforts that saves us. It has been completed for us.
Peter wants his letters to be circulated and read to the ‘exiles’ or ‘pilgrims’ scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia. Some Christians had had to flee persecution and settle elsewhere. But it is axiomatic that the more Christian a human being becomes the less he or she feels at home in this world. Its violence and decadence jar on the souls of Christians. The posturing and pride of great egos is an embarrassment to followers of Jesus. The shallowness and futility of much personal conduct contrasts with the riches of grace in Jesus Christ. There is also direct opposition to Christians in many places among many people. There is hatred and there is persecution, more so in the 20th and 21st centuries than there has ever been. Jesus Himself warned his disciples ‘If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first’. (John 15 : 18) There is a Gospel song which expresses these sentiments. ‘This world is not my home I'm just a-passin' through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue. The angels beckon me from heaven's open door. And I can't feel at home in this world anymore’.
So Peter says ‘Grace and peace be yours in abundance’. Grace is God’s free loving kindness towards us. Peace is heavenly peace experienced within our being while here on earth. It is the peace that Jesus spoke of. ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives’. (John 14 : 27) The world is not a peaceful place. Volcanoes erupt, storms blow and hurt and destroy. Floods spread out from fast flowing rivers. Tsunamis occur. There are droughts and famines. Worse though is the conduct of human beings for no species has been so destructive of itself and its environs. There are fights and arguments, rivalries and struggles, fall outs and estrangements. Scarcely a visit to a supermarket or an outing anywhere will not causing us to hear routine swearing on many people’s breath. There is rubbish television and media. There are appalling crimes and there are new wars.
The peace resulting from reconciliation with our Maker is a profound and lasting peace. It is one which insulates us against the torments of life. It can guide us through our early years and carry us through our final hours on earth. It is part of the promise of eternal life. ‘Finish, then, thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be. Let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee. Changed from glory into glory, till in heav’n we take our place, till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise’. (Love divine all loves excelling, Charles Wesley).