Both texts for Nov. 17 and 24 are from letters attributed to the Apostle Peter. Both take the gospel of Jesus from its Jewish origins into different ethnic contexts later in the first century. Both emphasize holy living in new and challenging situations.
Reading 1 Peter literally, we find that it was not written to middle-class North Americans. Rather, it was written to “exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1-2), four provinces in what is now northern Turkey. But these believers are not native to this region. They are not citizens, but “aliens and exiles” who have fled there for economic reasons or political persecution.
The Greek word for “exile” is paroikos — meaning “one who is away from home.” Perhaps they lost their land because they couldn’t pay their taxes. Paroikoi have legal restrictions and few political rights. They are like undocumented people in the United States who live in the shadows but long for a path to citizenship.
“Aliens” — parapidemoi — have no human rights. They may be refugees fleeing war, violence or a plague. Many will end up as slaves torn from their families. They are like the 35,000 people waiting in Mexico to apply for asylum in the U.S. or separated from their children while waiting for a court hearing. Or like refugees fleeing war and crammed into camps in Turkey or on Greek islands.
The recipients of 1 Peter may have been dispersed to strange lands because of religious persecution. They are the “huddled masses” without social status. Read 1:13-25 (or the whole letter!) from that perspective.
Note how the author encourages these marginalized people to remember their true social status as “chosen” (1:2), a “royal priesthood and a holy nation” (2:9). They are “born anew” and ransomed with “the precious blood of Christ . . . who was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake” (1:19-20). Amazingly, even in their desperate situations, they are called to holy living (1:15).
The rest of the letter is written to build up these people, to gather them together as “living stones” (2:4-5) into house churches, to provide, as John H. Elliott demonstrates in his research on 1 Peter, a “home for the homeless.”
If we already have homes and basic human rights, does 1 Peter have a different message for us? What might it be?
Our lessons on holy living end with a somewhat different message — one that integrates Christian ethics with pagan or secular virtues.
Second Peter is called testamentary literature. In 1:12-15, Peter says, “I know that my death will come soon,” so he writes his “last will and testament” in order to “refresh your memory.” At the same time, the situation described in the letter relates better to the late first century. At this time, Peter’s followers in Rome were struggling with two aspects of the surrounding culture: a denial of the apocalyptic end of the age, and moral laxity (2 Peter 2:1-2; 3:4).
Rome is far from the Jewish context where Jesus had promised he would return on the clouds to “gather his elect from the four winds” (Matt. 24:29-31). The most that Roman pagans believed in was an individual, non-bodily immortality not necessarily tied to morality.
In contrast, Peter stresses both aspects. Moral behavior and an apocalyptic hope must relate to each other. The believers’ eagerness to conform to the ethical practices mentioned in verses 5 to 7 will assure their “entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord” (1:8-11).
Nevertheless, this is not a quid pro quo that earns an entry into heaven. The original power comes from God, who “has given us everything we need” (1:3-4). This includes becoming “participants of the divine nature,” which means being granted eternal life by God, not becoming a god oneself.
Verses 5 to 7 include a ladder of moral values, each built on the previous rung. New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham notes that the list begins with “faith” and ends with “love,” distinctive Jewish qualities. Faith, for instance, implies a believer’s appropriation of God’s unearned grace.
In between are six virtues Bauckham identifies as ideals of Hellenistic religion: goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness and mutual-affection. In this way, 1 Peter integrates the biblical qualities of faith and love with the best of Greco-Roman culture.
What secular values or ideals in the land where you live could be substituted in this ladder of virtues between faith and love? For example, the Bill of Rights?
Since retiring from teaching New Testament at Messiah College, Reta Halteman Finger adjuncts at Eastern Mennonite University, is a contributing editor at Sojourners magazine and writes a bimonthly Bible study blog, Reta’s Reflections, at eewc.com.