Introduction to the Bible - 61 - 1 Peter

The First General Epistle of Peter

by Louis Berkhof


 The contents of the Epistle can be divided into four parts:

 I. Introduction, 1:1-12. After the greeting, 1, 2, the apostle praises  God for the blessings of salvation, which should raise the readers  above all temporal sufferings, since they are so great that the  prophets searched them, and the angels were desirous to understand  their mystery, 3-12.

 II. General Exhortations to a worthy Christian Conversation, 1:  13--2:10. The writer exhorts the readers to become ever more firmly  grounded in their Christian hope. To that end the holiness of God  should be the standard of their life, 1:13-16; they must fear God, and  as regenerated persons, love the brethren and seek to increase in  spiritual life, 1:17--2:3. This growth should not only be individual,  however, but also communal, a developing into a spiritual unity, 4-10.

 III. Particular Directions for the special Relations of Life, 2:11--4:  6. The author urges the readers to be dutiful to the authorities, 2:  11-17; more particularly he exhorts the servants among them to follow  the example of Christ in self-denying service, 18-25; the wives to  submit themselves to their husbands, and the husbands to love their  wives and to treat then with consideration, 3:1-7. Then he admonishes  them all to do good and to refrain from evil, that in their sufferings  they may be like their Master, whom they should also follow in their  Christian conversation, 3: 8--4: 6.

 IV. Closing Instructions for the present Needs of the Readers, 4:  7--5:14. The apostle exhorts the readers to prayer, brotherly love,  hospitality, and conscientiousness in the exercise of their official  duties, 4: 7-11. He warns them not to be discouraged by persecutions,  but to regard these as necessary to the imitation of Christ, 12-19.  Further he exhorts the elders to rule the flock of Christ wisely, the  younger ones to submit to the elder; and all to humble themselves and  to place their trust in God, 5:1-9; and ends the letter with good  wishes and a salutation, 10-14.


 1. Though there are some doctrinal statements in the Epistle, its chief  interest is not theoretical but practical, not doctrinal but ethical.  It has been said that, while Paul represents faith and John love, Peter  is the apostle of hope. This distinction, which may easily be  misconstrued, nevertheless contains an element of truth. The basic idea  of the Epistle is that the readers are begotten again unto a lively  hope, the hope of an incorruptable, undefiled and unfading inheritance.  This glorious expectation must be an incentive for them to strive after  holiness in all the relations of life, and to bear patiently the  reproach of Christ, mindful of the fact that He is their great  prototype, and that suffering is the pre-requisite of everlasting  glory.

 2. The Epistle has a characteristic impress of Old Testament modes of  thought and expression. Not only does it, comparatively speaking,  contain more quotations from and references to the Old Testament than  any other New Testament writing, cf. 1: 16, 24, 25; 2: 3, 4, 6, 7, 9,  10, 22-24; 3:10-12, 13, 14; 4:8, 17, 18; 5:5, 7; but the entire  complexion of the letter shows that the author lived and moved in Old  Testament conceptions to such an extent, that he preferably expresses  his thoughts in Old Testament language.

 3. On the other hand, there is great similarity between this Epistle  and some of the New Testament writings, notably the Epistles of Paul to  the Romans and to the Ephesians, and the Epistle of James. And this  likeness is of such a character as to suggest dependence of the one on  the other. Nearly all the thoughts of Rom. 12 and 13 are also found in  this letter; compare 2: 5 with Rom. 12: 1 ;--1:14 with Rom. 12:2  ;--4:10 with Rom. 12: 3-8 ;--1 :22 with Rom. 12: 9 ;--2:17 with Rom.  12:10, etc. The relationship between it and the Epistle to the  Ephesians is evident not only from single passages, but also from the  structure of the letter. There is a certain similarity in the general  and special exhortations, which is probably due to the fact that both  Epistles are of a general character. Compare also the passages 1:3 and  Eph. 1:3;--1:5 and Eph. 1:19;--1:14 and Eph. 2:3;--1:18 and Eph.  4:17;--2: 4, 5 and Eph. 2: 20-22. There are also points of resemblance  between this Epistle and that of James, and though not so numerous, yet  they indicate a relation of dependence; compare 1: 6, 7 with Jas. 1:2,  3;--2:1 with Jas. 1:21;--5:5-9 with Jas. 4:6, 7, 10.

 4. The Greek in which this letter is written is some of the best that  is found in the New Testament. Though the language is simple and  direct, it is not devoid of artistic quality. Simcox, comparing it with  the language of James, says: "St. Peters language is stronger where St.  James is weak, and weaker where he is strong--it is more varied, more  classical, but less eloquent and of less literary power." The Writers  of the New Testament p. 66. The authors vocabulary is very full and  rich, and his sentences flow on with great regularity, sometimes rising  to grandeur. It is noticeable, however, that the writer, though having  a good knowledge of Greek in general, was particularly saturated with  the language of the Septuagint.


 The external authentication of this Epistle is very strong. Irenaeus,  Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen and Cyprian all quote it by  name and without expressing the slightest doubt as to its canonicity.  And Eusebius says: "One Epistle of Peter called his first is  universally received." Salmon suggests that, in view of what Westcott  says, its omission from the Muratorian Canon may be due to the error of  a scribe, who left out a sentence. Cf. Westcott, The canon of the N.  T., Appendix C.

 Aside from the fact that the letter is self-attested there is very  little internal evidence that can help us to determine who the author  was. There is nothing that points definitely to Peter, which is in part  due to the fact that we have no generally recognized standard of  comparison. The speeches in Acts may not have been recorded literally  by Luke; and II Peter is one of the most doubted Epistles of the New  Testament, partly because it is so dissimilar to our letter. If we  leave the first verse out of consideration, we can only say on the  strength of internal evidence that the writer was evidently an  eyewitness of the sufferings of Christ, 3:1; that the central contents  of his teaching is, like that of Peter in the Acts of the Apostles, the  death and the resurrection of Christ; and that his attitude toward the  Christians of the Gentiles is in perfect harmony with that of the  apostle of the circumcision. Moreover the persons mentioned in 5:12, 13  are known to have been acquaintances of Peter, cf. Acts 12:12; 15:22.

 The apostle Peter, originally called Simon, was a native of Bethsaida,  John 1: 42, 44. When the Lord entered on his public ministry, Peter was  married and dwelt at Capernaum, Lk. 4:31, 38. He was the son of Jonas,  Mt. 16:17 and was, with his father and his brother, by occupation a  fisherman, Mk. 1: 16. We find him among the first that were called to  follow the Lord, Mt. 4:18, 19, and he soon received a certain  prominence among the disciples of Jesus. This was in harmony with the  new name, Pe,troj, which the Lord gave him, John 1: 42. With John and  James he formed the inner circle of the disciples; together they were  the most intimate followers of the Saviour and as such enjoyed special  privileges. They only entered with the Lord into the house of Jairus,  Lk. 8: 51; none but they witnessed his glory on the Mount of  Transfiguration, Mt. 17: 1; and they alone beheld him in his hour of  great grief in the garden of Gethsemane, Mt. 26: 37. The trial of Jesus  was also the hour of Peters deepest fall, for on that occasion he  thrice denied his Master, Mt. 26:69-75. He truly repented of his deed,  however, and was restored to his former position by the Lord, John  21:15-17. After the ascension he is found at the head of the disciples  at Jerusalem, guiding them in the choice of an apostle in the place of  Judas, Acts 1: 15-26, and preaching the Pentecostal sermon, Acts  2:14-36. Laboring at first in connection with John, he healed the lame  man, repeatedly addressed the people in the temple, executed judgment  on Ananias and Sapphira, and once and again defended the cause of  Christ before the Sanhedrin, Acts 3-5. During the time of persecution  that followed the death of Stephen, they together went to Samaria to  establish the work of Philip, Acts 8:14 ff. In Lydda he healed Aeneas,  Acts 9:22 f. and raised up Tabitha in Joppa, Acts 9: 36 f. By means of  a vision he was taught that the Gentiles too were to be admitted to the  Church, and was prepared to go and preach Christ to the household of  Cornelius, Acts 10:1-48. After James, the brother of John was killed,  Peter was cast in prison, but, being delivered by an angel, he left  Jerusalem, Acts 12:1-17. Later he returned thither and was present at  the council of Jerusalem, Acts 15. Nothing certain is known of his  movements after this time. From I Cor. 9: 5 we infer that he labored at  various places. On one occasion Paul rebuked him for his dissimulation,  Gal. 2: 11 ff. From all the traditions regarding his later life we can  gather only one piece of reliable information, to the effect that  towards the end of his life he came to Rome, where he labored for the  propagation of the Gospel and suffered martyrdom under Nero.

 Peter was a man of action rather than of deep thought. He was always  eager and impulsive, but, as is often the case with such persons, was  wanting in the necessary stability of character. Burning with love  towards the Saviour, he was always ready to defend his cause, Mt.  17:24, 25; 16:22; Lk. 22: 33; John 18:10, and to confess his name, John  6: 68 f.; Mt. 16:16. But his action was often characterized by undue  haste, as f. i. when he rebuked Christ, Mt. 16:22, smote the servant of  the high priest, John 18:10, and refused to let the Saviour wash his  feet, John 13:6; and by too much reliance on his own strength, as when  he went out upon the sea, Mt. 14:28-31, and declared himself ready to  die with the Lord, Mt. 26: 35. It was this rashness and great  self-confidence that led to his fall. By that painful experience Peter  had to be taught his own weakness before he could really develop into  the Rock among the apostles. After his restoration we see him as a firm  confessor, ready, if need be, to lay down his life for the Saviour.

 Until the previous century the Epistle was generally regarded as the  work of Peter, and even now the great majority of New Testament  scholars have reached no other conclusion. Still there are several,  especially since the time of Baur, that deny its authenticity, as  Hilgenfeld, Pfleiderer, Weizsacker, Hausrath, Keim, Schurer, Von Soden  e. a. The most important objections urged against the traditional view,  are the following: (1) The Epistle is clearly dependent on Pauline  letters, while it contains very few traces of the Lords teaching. This  is not what one would expect of Peter, who had been so intimate with  the Lord and had taken a different stand than Paul, Gal. 2: 11ff.  Harnack regards this argument as decisive, for he says: "Were it not  for the dependence (of I Peter) on the Pauline Epistles, I might  perhaps allow myself to maintain its genuineness; that dependence,  however, is not accidental, but is of the essence of the Epistle."  Quoted by Chase, Hastings D. B. Art. I Peter. (2) It is written in far  better Greek than one can reasonably expect of a Galilean fisherman  like Peter, of whom we know that on his missionary journeys he needed  Mark as an interpreter. Davidson regards it as probable that he never  was able to write Greek. (3) The Epistle reflects conditions that did  not exist in the lifetime of Peter. The Christians of Asia Minor were  evidently persecuted, simply because they were Christians, persecuted  for the Name, and this, it is said, did not take place until the time  of Trajan, A. D. 98-117. (4) It is very unlikely that Peter would write  a letter to churches founded by Paul, while the latter was still  living.

 As to the first argument, we need not deny with Weiss and his pupil  Kuhl that Peter is dependent on some of the writings of Paul,  especially on Romans and Ephesians. In all probability he read both of  these Epistles, or if he did not see Ephesians, Paul may have spoken to  him a good deal about its contents. And being the receptive character  that he was, it was but natural that he should incorporate some of  Paul's thoughts in his Epistle. There was no such antagonism between  him and Paul as to make him averse to the teachings of his  fellow-apostle. The idea of an evident hostility between the two is  exploded, and the theory of Baur that this letter is a Unionsschrift,  is destitute of all historical basis and is burdened with a great many,  improbabilities. Moreover it need not cause surprise that the teaching  of this Epistle resembles the teaching of Paul more than it does that  of Christ, because the emphasis had shifted with the resurrection of  the Lord, which now, in connection with his death, became the central  element in the teaching of the apostles. Compare the sermons of Peter  in the Acts of the Apostles.

 With respect to the objection that Peter could not write. such Greek as  we find in this Epistle, we refer to what Mayor says regarding James,  cf. p. 286 above. The fact that Mark is said to have been the  interpreter of Peter does not imply that the latter did not know Greek,  cf. p. 80 above. It is also possible, however, that the Greek of this  Epistle is not that of the apostle. Zahn argues with great plausibility  from 5 :12, Dia. Silouanou/, that Silvanus took an active part in the  composition of the letter, and in all probability wrote it under the  immediate direction rather than at the verbal dictation of Peter, Einl.  II p. 10 f. Cf. also Brown on I Peter in loco,, and J. H. A. Hart, Exp.  Gk. Test. IV p. 13 f. Against this, however, cf. Chase, Hastings D. B.  Art. I Peter. It is possible that Silvanus was both the amanuensis of  Peter and the bearer of the Epistle.

 The third argument is open to two objections. On the one hand it rests  on a faulty interpretation of the passages that speak of the sufferings  endured by the Christians of Asia Minor, as 1:6; 3: 9-17; 4:4 f., and  especially 4:12-19; 5: 8-12. And on the other hand it is based on a  misunderstanding of the correspondence between Pliny and Trajan A. D.  112. The passages referred to do not imply and do not even favor the  idea that the Christians were persecuted by the state, though they do  point to an ever increasing severity of their sufferings. There is no  hint of judicial trials, of the confiscation of property, of  imprisonments or of bloody deaths. The import of the Epistle is that  the readers were placed under the necessity of bearing the reproach of  Christ in a different form. As Christians they were subject to  ridicule, to slander, to ill treatment, and to social ostracism; they  were the outcasts of the world, 4:14. And this, of course, brought with  it manifold temptations, 1: 6. At the same time the correspondence of  Pliny and Trajan does not imply that Rome did not persecute Christians  as such until about A. D. 112. Ramsay says that this state of affairs  may have arisen as early as the year 80; and Mommsen, the greatest  authority on Roman history, is of the opinion that it may have existed  as early as the time of Nero.

 The last objection is of a rather subjective character. Peter was  undoubtedly greatly interested in the work among the Christians of Asia  Minor; and it is possible that he himself had labored there for some  time among the Jews and thus became acquainted with the churches of  that region. And does it not seem likely that he, being informed of  their present sufferings, and knowing of the antagonism of the Jews,  who had occasionally used his name to undermine the authority and to  subvert the doctrine of Paul, would consider it expedient to send them  a letter of exhortation, urging them to abide in the truth in which  they stood, and thus indirectly strengthening their confidence in his  fellow-apostle?


 The letter is addressed to "the elect who are sojourners of the  dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia," 1:1. The  use of the strictly Jewish term diaspora, is apt to create the  impression that the letter was sent to Jewish Christians. Origen said,  presumably on the strength of this suPerscription, that Peter seems to  have preached to the Jews in the dispersion. And Eusebius felt sure  that this letter was sent to Hebrews or to Jewish Christians. The great  majority of the church fathers agreed with them. Among recent scholars  Weiss and Kuhl defend the position that the letter was addressed to  Jewish congregations founded in Asia Minor by Peter. But the idea that  the original readers of this Epistle were Christians of Jewish  extraction is not favored by internal evidence. Notice especially (1)  the passages that point to the past moral condition of the readers, as  1:14 (comp. Gal. 4: 8; Eph. 4:18); 1:18 (comp. Eph. 1:17); 4:2-4 (comp.  I Thess. 4: 5; Eph. 2: 11); and (2) the emphatic use of "you" as  distinguished from the "us" found in the context, to mark the readers  as persons that were destined to receive the blessings of the gospel  and to whom these at last came. Moreover this is in perfect agreement  with what we know of the churches of Asia Minor; they certainly  consisted primarily of Gentile Christians. But the question is  naturally asked, whether this view is not contradicted by the address.  And to that question we answer that it certainly is, if the word  diasporas must be taken literally; but this will also bear, and, in  harmony with the contents of the Epistle, is now generally given a  figurative interpretation. The word diasporas is a Genitivus  appostitivus (for which cf. Blass, Grammatik p. 101) with parepidemois)  Taken by itself the address is a figurative description of all  believers, whether they be Jewish or Gentile Christians, as sojourners  on earth, who have here no abiding dwellingplace, but look for a  heavenly city; and who constitute a dispersion, because they are  separated from that eternal home of which the earthly Jerusalem was but  a symbol. In agreement with this the apostle elsewhere addresses the  readers as "pilgrims and strangers," 2:11, and exhorts them "to pass  the time of their sojourning here in fear," 1: 17. Cf. the Comm. of  Huther, Brown, and Hart (Exp. Gk. Test.), and the Introductions of  Zahn, Holtzmann, Davidson and Barth. Salmon admits the possibility of  this interpretation, but is yet inclined to take the word diaspora/j  literally, and to believe that Peter wrote his letter to members of the  Roman church that were scattered through Asia Minor as a result of  Neros persecution. Introd. p. 485.

 As to the condition of the readers, the one outstanding fact is that  they were subject to hardships and persecutions because of their  allegiance to Christ, 1: 17; 2:12-19. There is no sufficient evidence  that they were persecuted by the state; they suffered at the hands of  their associates in daily life. The Gentiles round about them spoke  evil of them, because they did not take part in their revelry and  idolatry, 4: 2-4. This constituted the trial of their faith, and it  seems that some were in danger of becoming identified with the heathen  way of living, 2: 11, 12, 16. They were in need of encouragement and of  a firm hand to guide their feeble steps.


 1.Occasion and Purpose. In a general way we can say that the condition  just described led Peter to write this Epistle. He may have received  information regarding the state of affairs from Mark or Silvanus, who  is undoubtedly to be indentified with Paul's companion of that name,  and was therefore well acquainted with the churches of Asia Minor.  Probably the direct occasion for Peter's writing must be found in a  prospective journey of Silvanus to those churches.

 The writers purpose was not doctrinal but practical. He did not intend  to give an exposition of the truth, but to emphasize its bearings on  life, especially in the condition in which the Christians of Asia Minor  were placed. The Tubingen critics are mistaken, however, when they hold  that the unknown writer, impersonating Peter, desired to make it appear  as if there was really no conflict between the apostle of the  circumcision and the apostle of the Gentiles, and to unite the  discordant factions in the Church; for (1) such antagonistic parties  did not exist in the second century, and (2) the Epistle does not  reveal a single trace of such a tendency. The writer incidentally and  in a general way states his aim, when he says in 5:12, "By Silvanus I  have written briefly, exhorting and testifying that this is the true  grace of God wherein ye stand." The main purpose of the author was  evidently to exhort the readers to suffer, not as evil-doers, but as  well-doers, to see to it that they should suffer for the sake of Christ  only; to suffer patiently, remaining steadfast in spite of all  temptations; and to bear their sufferings with a joyful hope, since  they would issue in a glory that never fades away. And because these  sufferings might lead them to doubt and discouragement, the writer  makes it a point to testify that the grace in which they stand, and  with which the sufferings of this present time are inseparably  connected, is yet the true grace of God, thus confirming the work of  Paul.

 2.Time and Place. There are especially three theories regarding the  place of composition, viz. (1) that the Epistle was sent from Babylon  on the Euphrates; (2) that it was composed at Rome; and (3) that it was  written from Babylon near Cairo in Egypt. The last hypothesis found no  support and need not be considered. The answer to the question  respecting the place of composition depends on the interpretation of  5:13, where we read: "She (the church) that is in Babylon, elect  together with you, saluteth you." The prima facie impression made by  these words is that the writer was at ancient Babylon, the well known  city on the Euphrates. Many of the early church fathers, however,  (Papias, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Eusebius, Jerome) and  several later commentators and writers on Introduction (Bigg, Hart,  Salmon, Holtzmann, Zahn, Chase) regard the name Babylon as a figurative  designation of Rome, just as it is in the Apocalypse, 17: 5; 18: 2, 10.  In favor of the literal interpretation it is argued, (1) that it's  figurative use is very unlikely in a matter-of-fact statement; and (2)  that in 1: 1 the order in which the provinces of Asia Minor are named  is from the East to the West, thus indicating the location of the  writer. Aside from the fact, however, that the last argument needs some  qualification, these considerations seem to be more than off-set by the  following facts: (1) An old and reliable tradition, that can be traced  to the second century, informs us that Peter was at Rome towards the  end of his life, and finally died there as a martyr. This must be  distinguished from that fourth century tradition to the effect that he  resided at Rome for a period of twenty-five years as its first bishop.  On the other hand there is not the slightest record of his having been  at Babylon. Not until the Middle Ages was it inferred from 5:13 that he  had visited the city on the Euphrates. (2) In the Revelation of John  Rome is called Babylon, a terminology that was likely to come into  general use, as soon as Rome showed herself the true counterpart of  ancient Babylon, the representative of the world as over against the  Church of God. The Neronian persecution certainly began to reveal her  character as such. (3) The symbolical sense is in perfect harmony with  the figurative interpretation of the address, and with the designation  of the readers as "pilgrims and strangers in the earth." (4) In view of  what Josephus says in Ant. XVIII 9. it is doubtful, whether Babylon  would offer the apostle a field for missionary labors at the time, when  this Epistle was composed. We regard it as very likely that the writer  refers to Rome in 5:13.

 With respect to the time when this Epistle was written, the greatest  uncertainty prevails. Dates have been suggested all the way from 54 to  147 A. D. Of those who deny the authorship of Peter the great majority  refer the letter to the time of Trajan after A. D. 112, the date of  Trajan's rescript, for reasons which we already discussed. Thus Baur,  Keim, Lipsius, Pfleiderer, Hausrath, Weizsacker, Hilgenfeld, Davidson  e. a. In determining the time of writing we must be guided by the  following data: (1) The Epistle cannot have been written later than A.  D. 67 or 68, the traditional date of Peter's death, which some, however  place in the year 64. Cf. Zahn Einl. II p. 19. (2) Peter had evidently  read the Epistles of Paul to the Romans (58) and that to the Ephesians  (62), and therefore cannot have written his letter before A. D. 62. (3)  The letter makes no mention whatever of Paul, so that presumably it was  written at a time when this apostle was not at Rome. (4) The fact that  Peter writes to Pauline churches favors the idea that Paul had  temporarily withdrawn from his field of labor. We are inclined to think  that he composed the Epistle, when Paul was on his jojurney to Spain,  about A. D. 64 or 65.


 The canonicity of the letter has never been subject to doubt in the  opening centuries of our era. It is referred to in II Peter 3:1. Papias  evidently used it and there are clear traces of its language in Clement  of Rome, Hermas and Polycarp. The old Latin and Syriac Versions contain  it, while it is quoted in the Epistle of the churches of Vienne and  Lyons, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian all quote it by  name, and Eusebius classes it with the Homologoumena.

 Some scholars objected to this Epistle that it was characterized by a  want of distinctive character. But the objection is not well founded,  since the letter certainly has a unique significance among the writings  of the New Testament. It emphasizes the great importance which the hope  of a blessed and eternal inheritance has in the life of God's children.  Viewed in the light of their future glory, the present life of  believers, with all its trials and sufferings, recedes into the  background, and they realize that they are strangers and pilgrims in  the earth. From that point of view they understand the significance of  the sufferings of Christ as opening up the way to God, and they also  learn to value their own hardships as these minister to the development  of faith and to their everlasting glory. And then, living in  expectation of the speedy return of their Lord, they realize that their  sufferings are of short duration, and therefore bear them joyfully. In  the midst of all her struggles the Church of God should never forget to  look forward to her future glory,--the object of her living hope.