4 Major Themes in First Peter and the Story of God
Martin Luther called the letter “one of the grandest of the New Testament.” Early church fathers Clement of Rome and Polycarp of Smyrna were inspired by the letter’s consoling, hopeful words. More recently, Karen Jobes said the five-chapter General Epistle is “significant for the church,” especially the Majority World church.
I’m referring to the first letter of Peter, which has a new guide today to help its readers navigate its major themes: Dennis Edwards’ 1 Peter (The Story of God Bible Commentary series). Of this letter Edwards writes:
First Peter will assist us by affirming our Christian identity, guiding us in our relationships within and without the Christian community, with Jesus as our model, and reminding us that salvation is future, something to which we zealously look forward. Despite the present challenges of living among people hostile to Christian faith, we have a “living hope.” (18)
In his introduction, Edwards outlines several major themes, including suffering, holiness, and salvation. And binding them all is their connection with the broader Story of God stemming from the Old Testament.
The Old Testament Brought Forward
While working through the Greek text, Edwards was struck by Peter’s dependence upon the Old Testament, believing it to be theologically important: "Peter uses the OT to connect his readers to the story of God in which God draws people into a community" (22).
One powerful example is Peter's use of the story of Hosea, where the prophet was called by God to remain faithful to his unfaithful wife, Gomer—illustrating God’s own faithful, reconciling love. Edwards explains how Peter brings God’s Story in the OT forward to his readers by directly applying the prophet’s words:
Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:10)
“There are many places where Peter places his readers within the story of God” as told in the Old Testament (22).
Suffering Grief in All Kinds of Trials
Suffering is one of 1 Peter’s major themes. Edwards explains it isn’t so much focused on violent persecution as it is on “alienation, shame, slander, and other abuses" (23)—which Peter describes as being burned in a fire:
These [kinds of trials] have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:7)
Rather than systemic attacks orchestrated by the State—that would come later—such experiences were neighbor-on-Christian barrages of verbal abuse designed to shame believers as social deviants. “By publicly shaming them, they were trying to pressure the believers to conform to the values and behaviors of the larger society” (23).
Peter’s encouraging words, then, were meant “to keep his readers from becoming demoralized and possibly even giving up on their faith” (23).
Be Holy Because God Is Holy
One of the most significant connections Peter makes with the Story of God in the OT is quoting from Leviticus 19: “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.’”
By quoting from this Torah book in 1:16, Peter sets up this major theme, as well as the tone for his later admonitions to his readers. Later, in expositing this verse, Edwards explains, “Holiness describes the essence of God’s nature, one that is very different from human nature” (51). Yet at the same time, God’s holiness both “demands our reverential fear” and “serves as motivation for the ethical behavior of God’s people” (52).
Edwards also reveals, “In particular, he develops how Christian conduct might serve as a witness to unbelievers” (23–24), such as in 2:15 and 3:13.
Salvation of Your Souls
Finally, given the pulse of the Story of God itself, the heart of Peter’s letter is “the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:9). This word, salvation, anchors the letter straight away, “with three of the four occurrences of the word appearing in the first chapter (1:5, 9, 10)” (24).
The third of this occurrence is directly connected to the broader Story of God stemming from the Old Testament, for “the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care” for “this salvation” (1 Peter 1:10).
Edwards identifies four more major movements in Peter’s discourse on our salvation:
- Salvation begins with new birth (1:3)
- Salvation finds its culmination in the future (1:9)
- Salvation is made possible through Jesus’ death and resurrection (1:3; 3:21)
- Salvation will be made complete upon Christ’s return (1:7, 13; 4:7; 5:4, 10)
Edwards hastens to note that “foundational to everything—even Peter’s use of the OT—is the person and ministry of Jesus Christ. These themes of suffering, holiness, and salvation derive their energy from the life of Jesus” (24).
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