1 Peter is a New Testament letter that clearly outlines much of how Christians who are enduring suffering (which seems to be a given) should respond to the situation. This letter not only provided encouragement to believers at the time who were enduring various trials and suffering for the sake of the gospel, but can do the same for people today as well. But what exactly is the situation surrounding its writing, and what are the main themes of the book?
1 Peter’s Audience: Aliens within a Gentile land
1 Peter introduces itself in the very first verse as a letter to “those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,” but what exactly does this mean? Peter was clearly writing to Christians, who presumably had ended up in these far-off lands after meeting him in a more central location of the early church. The importance of this in the context of reading the book is that these are people who aren’t necessarily part of established churches, and who likely spend much of their time around nonbelievers.
As a result, the letter often brings its readers to notice what impression they are giving others in their behavior, such as in 2:12 when he writes, “Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God on the day of visitation.” Specifically, he is concerned with their witness, and the fact that most of what the people around them know about Christianity and the God they worship is seen through their action.
1 Peter’s Problem: Suffering and Persecution
It is also clear throughout the letter that it is meant as an encouragement to endure suffering, but to ensure that the suffering is coming as a result of doing what is right, not from sinning. Early in the book, Peter refers to how they have been “distressed by various trials” (1:6), and continues in the second half of chapter 2 to address how everybody, even servants serving unreasonable masters, should “bear up under sorrows when suffering unjustly” (2:19), spurred on by the example of Jesus Christ in His sufferings on the cross. He concludes with the promise that “after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you” (5:10). It is clear that when believers are surrounded by unbelievers, there will be suffering and persecution.
1 Peter’s Focus: Joy in Godly External Behavior
Although it may seem like just an instruction booklet of lots of rules to follow, such as in the segment in chapter 2 from verse 11 through verse 18, then continuing through much of chapters 3-5 as well, this is not intended as an empty and legalistic approach to religion. Instead, Peter encourages believers to be rejoicing in their sufferings (1:6, 4:13) and to be behaving out of an understanding of their position as being “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1:3). Their purpose is to “proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (2:9), and it is not from a place of empty talking, but from being in His marvelous light and finding enjoyment and wholeness in God!