In a word St. John’s Gospel and his epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know even if you were never to see or know any other book or doctrine”- Martin Luther, “Prefaces to the New Testament” (LW 35:362)
+This is the second part of a two-part essay on preaching through 1 Peter. If you’d like the first part, click here.
The New Life in the Old World
Having addressed the particular estates or places of life, Peter swings back in 3:8ff to virtues which should characterize all disciples regardless of their station in life. His exhortation includes a call to express unity of spirit, sympathy and love, and, “a tender heart and humble mind” (3:8). In words reminiscent of Romans 12:14-21, Peter reminds his readers, in verse 9, disciples are to bless as they have been called to receive a blessing thus drawing them back to the God who called them in 1:3-9 and 2:9-10. This leads to his citation of Psalm 34:13-16 in 3:10-12 where the Psalmist admonishes those who love life to turn from evil and do right. Those who suffer for righteousness will be blessed.
In the face of those who would do evil to them, disciples live in confidence without fearful or troubled hearts. This stance is taken by reverencing Christ as Lord in the heart. There are echoes here, perhaps, of Jesus’ words in John 14:27 (“Let not your hearts be troubled”). Christ gives His disciples a, “clear conscience” (3:16), so they may not stand accused amid those who revile their good works. With this knowledge, disciples are to be prepared for the apologetic task.
Christ gives His disciples a, “clear conscience” (3:16), so they may not stand accused amid those who revile their good works. With this knowledge, disciples are to be prepared for the apologetic task.
Peter had already characterized the Christian as possessing and being possessed by a living hope (1:3), now he calls on disciples to be ready to give an account for this hope (3:15). Living in a world where belief in the old gods was fading and notions of post-mortem existence were shadowy at best, the disciples of Jesus lived with the confident expectation of a destiny beyond death through the resurrection of Jesus. Ethically, their lives were lived in marked contrast to their pagan neighbors. The lives of disciples were not spent in denial of the dark reality of fate by intoxicating themselves with carnal pleasures. When reviled or attacked, these Christians do not respond in kind. Peter anticipates others who will see the lives of Christians as different from their own and this difference will prompt inquiry. This passage, often taken as something of a “proof text” for the enterprise of apologetics, reminds disciples that these questions which are put to them are an occasion for a confession of the faith. This confession is made in the context of suffering for doing right.
The Descent into Hell
Once again Peter draws his exhortation back to Christ and his death for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous (3:18). This passage is an extension of 1:18-21 and 2:21-24. Here, Peter locates the “descend into hell” after Christ’s vivification. To use the traditional language of classical dogmatics, Christ descent into hell falls under the heading of His exaltation not His humiliation. Although 3:18-20 is not directly cited in Article IX (“Concerning Christ’s Descent into Hell”) or in Luther’s 1533 Torgau sermon which lies behind it, the confession is that Jesus Christ, true God and true man, descended into hell not to suffer but to proclaim His victory over death and the devil. In a helpful essay which broadly recounts the history of the interpretation of this text, Martin Scharlemann concludes: “By way of summary it may be said therefore that I Peter 3:18-20 quite evidently tells us that Christ, according to His glorified body descended into hell to make proclamation there of Himself as the Messiah. This was the first step in His exaltation by which He ‘disarmed principalities and dominions and displayed them openly, triumphing over them’ through the cross’ (Colossians 2:15).
We have observed allusions to Baptism in Peter’s language of rebirth. Now in 3:21-22, he is explicit with the declaration that Baptism, which corresponds to God’s saving of Noah and family through flood, now saves. Just as the flood delivered death to the unrighteous of Noah’s day and yet brought deliverance to Noah, so Baptism now puts to death our unrighteousness and delivers us alive in Christ. It is not ritual cleansing of dirt from the body but the acquisition of a good conscience through Christ redeeming work. There is a contrast between Baptism and the ablutions of Judaism. Baptism saves because it is God’s eschatological act of deliverance from sin, death, and hell.
Baptism does not exempt disciples from suffering but, rather, they are outfitted with Christ who suffered in the flesh for us (4:1). Faith in the crucified Christ means death to the carnal passions whose lethal impulses characterize paganism in its attempt to escape from the ever-present wrath under which they live. They stand under divine judgment. Rather than living in the light of the Last Day, they live in its ever-deepening shadow. But to those who were dead in sin (see Ephesians 2:1-9) the Gospel was preached that they might have the life of God.
The Disciple’s Life Before the End
Disciples live in view of the eschatological horizon. The reality that the end is at hand calls for sanity and sobriety in contrast to the intoxicating debauchery blinding those given to idolatry about their impending destruction. Rather than the ego-centric sensual celebrations catalogued in 4:3, the life of the disciple is marked by openness to the other in love covering a multitude of sin and the practice of hospitality (4:9). Varied gifts are deployed for the well-being of the Body in 4:10-11, recalling the language of Paul, and once again in Romans 12. “There is no basis for personal pride or envy on account of the gifts of grace. It is to be noted that the author does not enumerate gifts of tongue or other extreme manifestations as illustrations of this grace, but only such basis church activities as preaching, stewardship, and works of mercy. Common practices and ordinary deeds are regarded by the author as holy gifts of God’s grace.” This section ends with a doxology to God through Jesus Christ.
The Disciple’s Life Under the Cross
In 4:12-19, Peter returns to the theme of the inevitable suffering that awaits disciples as a “fiery ordeal” and how it is not something strange or extraordinary. Such suffering is a fruit of sharing in Christ’s suffering. John H. Elliot writes: “Not only is suffering innocently a divine test of faith (v.12), a sign of solidarity with the suffering of Christ (v 13a), a cause for rejoicing (v13bc), and a mark of the Spirit’s presence (v 14); it is also an opportunity for actively glorifying God. Reproached believers who are honored by God (v14bc), honor God in return.”
Suffering can result from wrongdoing. Criminals suffer on account of their misdeeds. Christians suffer not from crimes but for a righteous confession. The judgment that awaits the world first begins in, “the household of God,” (4:17) and will come to a profound climax in the judgment of the world. Yet, suffering is also tied to rejoicing for in it God’s glory is being revealed (4:13). In the face of all this Peter calls on disciples to entrust themselves to the hands of a Faithful Creator (see Psalm 31:5; Luke 23:46). This language is picked up in Luther’s morning and evening prayers in the Small Catechism.
The Pastor’s Call
An exhortation to the elders comes from Peter who identifies himself as an elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ (5:1). The nature of the oversight given to those who bear the office is summarized in the command to, “tend the flock of God” (also see John 21:15-17; Acts 20:28). This work is not done by compulsion or out of greed for gain but willingly. It is not an opportunity for domineering or lordship but for service born out of humility patterned on the basis of the Chief Shepherd who laid down His life for the sheep (compare with Philippians 2:5-11). Pastors are to be examples of such humility for the sheep under their curacy.
Ending on the Promises
The final section, 5:6-11, is packed full of promises to sustain faithful endurance during Satan’s attack. He is to be resisted firm in the faith. Peter reminds his readers, yet again, that this experience of suffering is not unique but is catholic, required of the Christian brotherhood throughout the world (5:9). The “little while” of suffering will finally give way to the weight of an eternal glory. It is in this light Peter concludes the body of his letter with a doxological blessing, confident the God of grace will give His disciples endurance to the end even as He restores, establishes, and strengthens them along the way. For this reason, disciples are invited to cast all anxieties on the Lord for He cares about them (5:7; also see Psalm 55:22; Matthew 6:25-32; Luke 12:22-31).
The “little while” of suffering will finally give way to the weight of an eternal glory
Appended to the epistle is a greeting coupled with a final admonition to stand firm. The holy kiss and the blessing of peace in 5:14 may be reflective of the liturgical reading of the letter.
Postscript: I Peter as Catechetical Preaching
Prior to the Second World War, the Anglican early church historian, Philip Carrington, wrote The Primitive Christian Catechism in which he identified I Peter as a catechetical document.
More recently the Australian Lutheran theologian, Andrew Pfeiffer, has suggested I Peter along with Ephesians and Colossians provide a template for catechesis centered in thanksgiving and praise, witness, watchfulness against the devil, and service to the neighbor in one’s station in life that integrates well with the Small Catechism.
The most recent version of Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation, published by the LCMS in 2017, makes use of 25 citations from this epistle. We see a connection between I Peter and central themes in the Small Catechism including the Ten Commandments, the work of the Triune God, the atonement of Christ, the life of repentance and faith, prayer, Baptism, and the table of duties. Not only is there a parallel between I Peter and the Small Catechism in terms of content, but also in practice. Oswald Bayer has contrasted Luther’s approach to theology with that of Anselm. For Anselm, theology was faith seeking understanding. For Luther, it was faith enduring attack.
Luther’s own words in the Large Catechism could well be taken as a summary of I Peter: “For where God’s Word is preached, accepted, or believed, and bears fruit, there the holy and blessed cross will not be far behind. And let no one think that he will have peace; rather we must sacrifice all we have on earth - possessions, honor, house and farm, spouse, children, body and life. Now this grieves the old creature, for it means we must remain steadfast, suffer patiently whatever befalls us, and let go of whatever is taken from us” (LC III 65-66; K-W, 448-449). Yet, under this suffering there is the inexpressible joy of a living hope sustaining those who belong to Christ Jesus (1:6-9).