The first letter from Peter was written in the early 60s AD while he was in Babylon. Its overall theme is Christian behavior in a world that was becoming increasingly hostile to the faith.
Peter was considered the “chief” of the Ambassadors, until Paul began his ministry. Even afterwards he was known as the Ambassador to the Jews, in contrast to Paul being sent to the Gentiles. Many have portrayed him as impetuous and brash, but we need to be careful not to read too much between the lines.
He is writing here to believers in various locations, and refers to them as those who were chosen according to the foreknowledge of the Father. Note that it is foreknowledge, not destiny; God knew they would choose to accept Jesus.
It is our faith in Jesus’ resurrection that results in God giving us this new birth and the inheritance that goes with it. As Paul also wrote, this promise of eternal life is being guarded in heaven for us; it does not depend upon us in any way to keep it.
Further, we are guarded by God’s power right up to the moment of deliverance. We have no need or right to worry about losing it. It is this guarantee that gives us the hope of endurance, the power to keep going through many trials. We love and trust in God even without having seen him.
Peter describes the suffering the people were under as being exalted. The trial of faith in this life is painful, but it will prove whether our faith was genuine or not. And the completion of the test is that we spread the gospel.
God had given hints in Old Testament prophecies about this age of grace we live in, but nobody could figure it out beforehand. And yet what was written was ultimately for our benefit. Even the Messengers are very much interested in these things.
Because of all that, we should be motivated to be self-controlled and prepared for anything. Our focus should remain on Jesus and not self, on holiness and not indulgence. God will judge us impartially, and we must therefore be impartial in our dealings with others, as James discussed in more detail. Peter defines maturity as relying on the grace of God through Jesus. When we reach this maturity we leave the old ways and become holy, meaning set apart for a higher purpose.
Our redemption was not obtained by tradition or material wealth, but by the blood of Jesus, the Lamb. Many today nonetheless put tradition or status over the cross and the Word, thinking that the Word is less trustworthy.
Although chosen from long ago, Jesus was only revealed to us when he came as a man and was raised from the dead. This is where our faith lies, and what has given us birth into a new family.
In light of the nature of our redemption, we must behave as those who are grateful. We should not only give up that which is worthless but also crave that which is good.
Striving for maturity will result in our being used as “living stones” in a spiritual building. We serve as priests, and we must see to it that we serve faithfully, bringing God the spiritual sacrifices of true disciples. Notice that all believers are seen this way, not just an imagined clergy class or just males; we are all equally holy to God.
Jesus, as the cornerstone, is the foundation upon which all of us are to rest. In becoming human, the Master took the lowest position. How can any of us mere “bricks” think that because he did this in order to lift us up, that we are more important? Yet many today believe that a “minister” (which means “servant”) is to rise above the rest and be in charge, but we are to follow Jesus’ example and serve as He did: by getting lower than the rest and serving them to lift them up. If Jesus could do this for us, then we must do this for others.
Before Jesus came the Gentiles (non-Jews) were “not a people” and not shown mercy, but now God’s mercy is for all, and all who come to him in faith are his people.
So because we are described in this way, we are urged to think of ourselves as only temporary residents of this world. We should live in such a way that all charges brought against us will always be false. We do this in part by being good citizens as much as possible. Freedom is not license; instead, we are to value everyone and remember that we are lowly slaves of God. Now Peter will detail the practical outworking of this fact.
Peter specifies three main groups: servants, wives, and husbands. Notice first of all that he does not present these as pairings of master/slave and husband/wife; he addresses servants without addressing masters. The word servant is oiketes which means house servant or “domestic”, and the word for their masters is despotes which means owners or employers when contrasted with domestics. These domestics are to hupotasso their employers. This word is not about subservience to an overmaster but support and identification with a person in some leading capacity.1
As for the word translated “respect” or “fear”, the Greek word is phobos. Like our English word “fear”, it can have a range of nuances: abject terror, a mild sense of foreboding, or a realistic caution. Which one of those it means depends of course on the context. And since Peter speaks of both kind and unkind employers, the nuance will change depending on which kind the domestic is dealing with. We might well ask what kind of fear an employee would have for a good and kind employer, but anyone who has ever held a job understands this kind. At the very least, we fear losing our jobs if we fail to satisfy the directives of the boss. So while one would certainly respect their employer, there is a separate element of fear as well, however mild it may be.
This may all seem very clear and simple, but the plot thickens when we look at the instructions to wives. But before we do, we must know that as in just about every language except English, Greek has what is called “grammatical gender”. It is the assigning of male or female pronouns or word affixes which are completely unrelated to biology. For example, in Hebrew the pronoun for the Spirit of God is feminine (she), and in Greek it is neuter (it). So the way we can tell which parts of a Greek sentence go together is by looking at the grammatical gender. This will prove critical to our understanding of what Peter says to Christian women.
1 Pet. 3:1 begins with “likewise”, so there is similarity (witness by behavior) between what Peter said to employees and what he will say to wives. As noted in the commentary on Ephesians under “Be filled with the Spirit”, there was a Roman law at the time called “the marriage without hand” wherein a woman’s allegiance was to her father for life, not to any husband. Her father could take her back at any time and give her to another man. So the instruction, both from Paul and Peter, is for Christian women to identify with their husbands instead.
But Peter adds the purpose for this instruction: to win over unbelieving husbands; remember the larger context of minding our behavior for the world to see. The phrase in Greek, “if any are-being-stubborn [apeitheo] to-the word” is always used in a context of rejecting the gospel message; it is not used in any context where the topic is backslidden believers. It literally means to not be persuaded and is held in opposition to faith, not obedience.2 So it clearly refers to unbelievers and not backslidden or immature believers.
So rather than a general instruction to all Christian wives, Peter specifies here that his instructions are to Christian wives of non-Christian husbands. Theirs was a most difficult position to be in, since they could be divorced or killed by their husbands if they tried to convert them. They had little opportunity to speak to their husbands about religious or spiritual matters. That is why Peter leans so heavily here on behavior and depth of character, qualities the culture did not believe women possessed. Christian husbands, in contrast, had no right to silence their wives and no need to be converted. If they were sinning, they needed to repent, and their wives had every right in Christ to say so.
Continuing in verse 2, Peter shows exactly how this behavior will be a witness to the gospel. Here is the literal English rendering:
observing of-the in fear pure behavior of-you
The blue words are grammatically masculine, and the red words are grammatically feminine. So we can easily see that it is not the women but the unbelieving men who will “fear”. This ties in with the phrase about being “apeitheo to-the word”, because the “fear” of God is what such people lack. And it is these unbelieving husbands who will “observe” the pure (not “chaste”, which denotes sexual purity whereas this word refers to the inner person) behavior of their Christian wives and thus “fear” this wordless gospel message.
Peter goes on to emphasize the inner strength of character a Christian woman must develop. But we encounter another debatable passage in vs. 5 and 6. Verse five is in the present tense, not the past as it is typically translated. And again we see the word hupotasso in conjunction with “their own husbands”. It is only verse 6 which has to be in the past tense because it refers to people who were long dead, Sarah and Abraham. But instead of hupotasso we have Sarah rendering hupakouo to Abraham, which means “to attend to” (same word as when a servant “answered” the door for Peter after his miraculous escape from prison in Acts 12:13).
But what of Sarah calling Abraham ‘master’? And what does it have to do with women not being afraid or dismayed? The only recorded instance we have of Sarah calling Abraham ‘master’ is in Gen. 18:12 when she laughed to herself at the prospect of becoming pregnant by her very old husband. The times we see her doing what Abraham said are when he twice passed her off as his sister in order to save his own skin (Gen. 12:13, 26:9), and she also stood up to him regarding the slave woman Hagar (Gen. 21:10). Is it not this strong, fearless Sarah that Peter is telling Christian women to be like? Peter does not say they are like her if they call their husbands ‘master’, but if they do not fear and are not dismayed.
Now we can see why taking the traditional rendering of vs. 2 creates a contradiction: first Peter tells women to fear, and then he tells them not to fear. Rather, he tells them to bring the fear of God to their unbelieving husbands through character and quality, then tells them to fear nothing nor be dismayed.
The last point to cover is vs. 7, which also begins with “likewise”, continuing the list of ways to live the Christian witness. The Christian husband is to “make a home together with” his wife, not build a castle with her as his maid. And Peter appeals to the men’s “realization” that women have “the less stable income”. This is typically translated more literally as “weaker vessel” even though there is apparently no firm consensus on what it means. But it is likely an idiom, and in classical literature it did refer to being at an economic disadvantage. Peter says this along with calling women “joint heirs”, so he is drawing an analogy between social inheritance and spiritual inheritance.
Regarding the matter of how the husband treats his wife, Peter does not merely say that if he fails to honor her then God will not answer his prayers, but that God will block them and refuse to hear them. The Greek word is egkopto and is much stronger than the idea of merely ignoring something. God will actively oppose and hinder the prayers of a Christian man who fails to honor his wife.
Note also that Peter is addressing husbands, not all men, so the weakness their wives have is because they are wives, not just women. Just as slaves were not disadvantaged because of something intrinsic to them as people but because of their position in that society, so also wives were not “the weaker vessel” due to their being women but to their position in that society.
Let’s summarize the list now:
After focusing on husbands and wives, Peter extends the command of mutual submission to all believers. Our unity comes not from everyone being forced to follow a domineering leader, but from being saturated in the Word.
Again Peter deals with the problem of suffering, and he encourages the people to be brave. If we do that, we will always be ready to answer any who want to know why we believe as we do. Some take this as a blanket condemnation of all passion and challenge when we are confronted by unbelievers, but notice that Peter is talking about being asked what we believe–- not about being harassed, villified, thrown in jail, slandered, or any other openly hostile attack. The gentle and respectful treatment Peter commands here is for those who are honestly asking us why we believe. It is not to be used as a gag on us when we encounter a hostile opponent who is attacking our faith. To ignore this is to ignore the examples of Jesus and the Ambassadors. Good shepherds are only kind to sheep, not wolves. A “potential sheep” will not come with hostility.
Like Paul, Peter manages to stir some controversy. He writes of Jesus preaching to “the spirits in prison”, who long ago were disobedient while God waited patiently before flooding the earth. We can only guess what this means, but it appears to say that Jesus had a message for those people while he was physically dead but of course still spiritually alive. Some take it to mean he preached the gospel to them and gave them a second chance, but scripture does not say so. Peter will, however, give us a small hint in the next section.
Then he points out that the Flood symbolized the immersion that saves us now. First, note the direction of the symbolism: the Flood was symbolic of immersion, not immersion symbolic of the Flood. Second, this immersion is not the washing of our bodies with water (water baptism), but “a matter of a good conscience.” This contradicts the claim that we must be baptized in water to be saved, or even just to be obedient. Faith in Jesus’ resurrection immerses us in God via the Holy Spirit indwelling us. Such people have symbolically died to the flesh, so they should live for God.
Those who insist upon being pampered and always comforted are the first to turn from God in the face of suffering, because they have not developed endurance. The world is guaranteed to heap insults on all who follow Jesus, so we should expect it instead of demanding that God explain why he has apparently abandoned us.
Now Peter gives a clue about what Jesus said to the people who died in the Flood: “The Gospel was also brought to the dead so they could be judged.” Not as specific as we’d like, but a clue all the same. What we can say is that God judges fairly and would not send someone to hell on a technicality. If the world of the Flood was so vile as to need mass destruction, it is all the more significant that Jesus should go and speak to them.
And in spite of the fact that almost 2000 years have passed since this letter was written, the time has always been short. Jesus can return at any time, and we must be found faithful in the use of the spiritual gifts we’ve received. We never know how long we have to use them.
Love is the underlying motivation, and hospitality is one of its results. Another is the sharing of our spiritual gifts among ourselves. Gifts are meant to be used for the betterment of others, and exercised to the best of our ability. This brings honor to God instead of to ourselves. And of course if we love others we will pray for them.
Suffering is normal for us, not something to be terribly upset about. This life is a test, and nobody enjoys taking tests. But there is great reward awaiting all who remain true through persecution. Putting up with suffering we deserve is of no credit to us, but it is a great honor to suffer for being a Christian. As legitimate children of God, testing and refinement and judgment begin with us. But if God will punish his own children, how will he treat people who are not of his family? A sobering thought for the lost.
However, let us not sin against our sisters and brothers by calling domestic violence “suffering for Christ”. The suffering scripture describes is that which comes from those who are hostile to the faith, not from fellow believers. Anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus, yet who abuses or mistreats a fellow believer, is living in denial of the basic tenets of the faith. This applies equally to Christian leaders who browbeat or oppress those who follow them. Tolerance or denial of abuse is one of the ways in which Christians give a very bad witness to the world, which seems at times to have a better sense of love and compassion than Christians.
Peter now turns to the Elders in the churches and appeals to them as an eyewitness of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus: be good shepherds. It should not be viewed as a job or a chore, but as grateful and humble service to God. This is not a position of prestige or profit or domination, but the tender nurturing of those who have not yet matured. To act as masters (trad. lording over), even if done benevolently or gently, is a direct violation of scripture.
Likewise, the new and inexperienced should respect the mature and wise, but everyone must remain humble. Arrogance has no place in the Congregation.
All believers need to stay alert for attacks from the evil one, who roams around like a roaring lion searching for prey. We are commanded to stand strong against him, to be stubborn in our faith.
We cannot stand strong without the proper armor and weapons, which only come from God. Such weapons and power are to be used for his glory alone.
In closing, Peter mentions that he had dictated the letter to Silas, a faithful believer who had also been with Paul (Acts 15-18, 1 and 2 Thessalonians). He also mentions “she in Babylon who was chosen along with you(pl.)” who sends greetings, along with that of “my son Mark”. Some believe the “she” is a literal woman, while others take it as a reference to the Congregation there. Scholars are also divided over whether Babylon is literal or figurative. As for Mark, most commentators seem to think he was not the literal son of Peter but his spiritual son, one he had led to salvation, who was with him at this time.