“Baptism…now saves you…” (1 Peter 3:21): this is the climax of 1 Peter, a letter by the apostle with the same first name written to congregations in Asia Minor. Peter’s goal was to strengthen the faith of believers in the face of oncoming persecution; persecution he was probably already feeling at the hands of Emperor Nero in Rome. His letter is awash in the language of baptism, reminding his readers they are, “born again to a living hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). It is a fitting theme in line with the sermons of Peter we have recorded in Acts. Here, he admonishes those asking what they must do to be saved to, “repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38-39).
Yet the focus of 1 Peter on baptism is one that has puzzled many people. Some assume Peter must have been writing only to those who are about to be baptized or who have recently been baptized. But this interpretation fails to recognize the importance of baptism in the Christian life. Too often, baptism is considered a one-time action in the past. Even worse, it is regarded as a work of repentance by the believer that carries little meaning after the fact.
Yet the focus of 1 Peter on baptism is one that has puzzled many people.
Such views hinder a proper understanding of 1 Peter. For the apostles and the early church, baptism was the foundation for and reality of the entire Christian life. Baptism is something to be lived in and remembered throughout the Christian life because Christ designated it as the means through which he would deliver his promises, new life, and hope. In baptism, we are consecrated body and soul to new life in Christ by which we are called through the gospel. Baptism is not a past event (like a graduation) but an ongoing reality (like a marriage). This is the context Paul gives to baptism in Ephesians 5:26 when he talks of Christ sanctifying his bride through the washing of water with the word. It is a means of grace which stays with you even through death. It is in baptism that we are incorporated into Christ’s body, and it is for this reason that Peter can make his second point in the letter: Those who suffer with Christ also share in his glory (1 Peter 4:13).
This theme can also be traced through the writings of Paul. In fact, the Pauline manner of thought coupled with a rich Greek vocabulary in 1 Peter has led many scholars to question the authorship of this letter. They argue it’s more likely the epistle came from a native speaker than a Galilean fisherman. But the early church had no such concerns, and early church authors such as Polycarp happily accepted the letter as Peter’s.
If we assume the apostles wrote letters like a person today would write an email, we might be able to make such an argument for confused authorship. However, the end of 1 Peter reveals to us how our modern sensitivities do not make sense here. We learn in chapter five that Peter wrote this letter “by” Silvanus. In the ancient world, Silvanus and Silas were two names for the same person. Acts first introduces us to Silas where we read he worked with Peter before accompanying Paul on his missionary travels. In first-century antiquity, letters were rarely written by the author’s hand or even dictated to a scribe. Instead, authors would first discuss the content of what they wanted to write with an educated person like Silvanus. It would then be the job of the writer to translate those thoughts from Aramaic or broken Greek into the polished Greek that we find in this letter. The author would then approve the final draft before sending it in his name.
The two apostles knew it was Christ who had caused them both to be born again to a living hope shared by all those baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection.
We know that Peter and Paul were both in Rome at the same time and met similar fates under Nero’s persecution. Paul, a Roman citizen, was beheaded because he could not be tortured under Roman law. Peter did not consider himself worthy to die in the same manner as Jesus and so asked to be crucified upside down -- a request the cruel Roman soldiers were only too happy to oblige. It would make sense, then, that Peter would have had access to Silas who had long accompanied Paul, and that Silas would have used Pauline concepts and language to convey the thoughts of Peter. Despite their squabble in Antioch, Peter and Paul were both one in Jesus Christ. The two apostles knew it was Christ who had caused them both to be born again to a living hope shared by all those baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection.
In the coming weeks, we will take a closer look chapter by chapter at 1 and 2 Peter. We will see that they are very different letters addressing very different contexts and themes, but in them, we hope that you will be strengthened in the gospel and come to a greater appreciation for Peter who is often lost under Paul’s shadow in the New Testament.