The HB began somewhere around 2006 primarily as a way to comment on and apply the Heidelberg Catechism. After about 300 posts (232 on this iteration of the HB) the first draft of the commentary is complete.1 The HB remains committed to recovering the Reformed theology, piety, and practice. To that end we commence a new series on the epistles of Peter.
The last we see of the Apostle Peter in Acts is at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) where he defended salvation by grace alone against the attempt of the Judaizers to corrupt the gospel by making a works a condition of justification and salvation:
Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will (Acts 15:7–11; ESV).
Though there are some chronological questions, I consider that Peter made this speech after Paul had confronted him about his own denial of the gospel. The verbal similarities between Paul’s remonstrance with Peter (Gal 2:11–15) are striking. After standing for the gospel Peter disappears from Luke’s narrative but not from the history of the church. The ancient tradition of the church is that Peter was martyred in Rome (1 Clem. 5:4; Ignatius Rom. 4:3).2 Of course we cannot be certain about this but I do not see a compelling reason to doubt it. To be sure, there is not a shred of evidence that Peter established an episcopal diocese (administrative region) in Rome nor is there the slightest bit of evidence that Peter thought of himself or was regarded by the 1st or 2nd century as a pope.
1 Peter was dictated by the Apostle Peter to his secretary, Silvanus, sometime between A.D. 64-66. Traditionally, Peter was thought to have been martyred under Nero about A.D. 66. The original hearers of this letter were recent gentile (non-Jewish) converts to Christianity. 1 Peter’s letter was intended to be circulated among churches (visible, organized congregations) in Northern, Western, and Central Asia Minor (Modern Turkey) beginning at Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bythinia.3
1 Peter 1:1–2
|Πέτρος ἀπόστολος Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ἐκλεκτοῖς παρεπιδήμοις διασπορᾶς Πόντου, Γαλατίας, Καππαδοκίας, Ἀσίας καὶ Βιθυνίας, 2
| Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,
To those who are elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, 2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood:
May grace and peace be multiplied to you (ESV).
This passage is what the commentators regard as a classic example of the ancient salutation. Certainly it is more than that. This is no mere formula. God’s’ Word offers us two of the most wonderful gifts one can imagine, “grace” and “peace”. For these men have spent entire fortunes.
What is the grace of God and who needs it? Scripture considers God’s grace to be his undeserved favor, his eternal, unchanging, saving good favor toward us which is grounded in his own unconditioned freedom and will. What is “peace”? Put negatively, it is the cessation of hostility. Positively, peace is atmosphere or precondition to good relations. In Scripture it is sometimes a subjective state of being, but just as often it is an objective state of affairs. In Peter’s mind, in the mind of the Spirit as that is revealed in Scripture, both aspects would seem to be present here in the passage.
To whom does God offer peace here? Peter addresses “elect strangers,” scattered through parts of Asia Minor. What is a stranger? Peter’s point is not first of all to describe their actual, physical homelessness, as it were, but to describe the relations between Christians and the prevailing culture. For Peter, a stranger is someone at odds with the prevailing world religion, belief system, which produces a hostile culture.
As the words themselves suggest, cult and culture are closely related, but they can and should be distinguished. Culture, is a summarizes the ordinary and sometimes extraordinary things we say to one another and the way we do it. Culture, the expression of who were are, flows from cult, what we worship. Thus, if a culture tosses infants into the fiery belly of an idol, or its unborn into a dumpster behind a clinic, that says volumes not only about the culture, but about what that culture worships.
Nevertheless, though it is well and good to make trenchant and cutting observations about the decay of the culture around us, the fact remains that here we are. We Christians have always been called to live in some culture, somewhere. Wherever we are, there is a culture. By describing us as “strangers and aliens” and by offering us God’s abounding graces, Peter is giving us a way to think about our relations to any prevailing postlapsarian culture.
As the rest of the epistle makes clear, he is not calling us to escape from the prevailing secular-pagan culture for then we should have to “go out of the world” (1 Cor 5:10). Call this the retreat strategy. In Christian history, that program has been a failure. It confuses moral and physical separation. Whenever we have retreated into the monastery or into isolated Christian communities we have only created smaller sub-cultures, which no matter how ideal at first, have always become corrupted because we always take our sins with us. This is because everything we are and do flows from what we worship, and we are fallen, corrupted and idolaters by nature. Paul certainly did not support this strategy. Nor is Peter calling us “to re-claim” the culture for Christ. Some of the Greek Fathers suggested this by arguing that Plato had stolen from Moses and thus, by using Plato, we were only re-appropriating what belonged to us. In our time, some evangelicals have held rallies designed to stimulate Christians to “take back the country for Christ.” We do not see such rhetoric in the New Testament.
Rather, Peter is calling us to a third way of living in a hostile culture. .His calling us to consider ourselves elect strangers, dependent upon the grace and people of God
Its Dispersed Objects
Peter was writing to Christians who had undergone a certain amount of suffering for Christ, which Peter suggests by the noun “sprinkling” in vs.2. We are aliens, for an even more profound reason, however. That is because our Savior was alienated from this world system. The Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. He was alienated from the power structure. He was marginalized. What Herod, Judas, the Pharisees and many others did not understand (and many have yet to see) is that this is precisely what he intended.
We Christians are alienated from the prevailing culture because Christ was a stranger on this earth, because he came and identified with us, took our place, suffered outside the city walls (Heb 13:11–13), endured our punishment, and because he has graciously identified us with himself, we now have the privilege of being identified with Christ, regarded in the world as Christ was. Peter calls us “elect strangers” because we are elect in Christ who was estranged from this world, and on the cross, estranged from his Father, for our sakes. For the same reason Paul said, “it has been given to you not only to believe but also to suffer.”
This is Peter’s “law” as it were, his account of reality, of our neediness. Those who are lonely, and helpless, in themselves, are they who are ready for that which only God can give, abundant grace and peace.
Its Trinitarian Source
The passage does not merely call us aliens, but aliens elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in Christ, through the Spirit. The source of the abounding graces with which Peter blesses us, is our Triune God.
The strangers whom this passages addresses are so because they have been elected to that status. That is why Peter is able to offer them grace and peace. He is’t presumptuous or sentimental. He is speaking factually. There is grace and peace abounding to us, because our Triune God has known and loved us from all eternity. God the father loved and chose us. God the Son loved and became incarnate for us. God the Spirit has loved and indwelt us to sanctify us.
Peter speaks of the “foreknowledge” of God the Father. This foreknowledge of, course doesn’t mean end with cognition (though it does entail that), but as we read Scripture, we learn that “knowledge” and more intensively, “foreknowledge” describes a type of intimacy the best analogy for which is the marital union. We are elect, and strangers, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father. Our identity with Christ and his identity with is, is the result of the fact that we were foreknown, loved, and comprehended in the Father’s will from all eternity.
So our alien status in the world is the result of the Father’s providence. Here Peter deftly unites perhaps the two greatest and most difficult facts of the Christian faith. It is impossible for sinners to earn God’s favor, and it is impossible for sinners to live outside of God’s providence. Whatever circumstances in which we find ourselves are the result of God’s good and perfect will.
Its Pious Purpose
We are elect however, not only to be elect. One of our theologians, Caspar Olevianus (1536–87) said, Christ died not only to justify us but also to sanctify us. The goal, the purpose, the end, of God’s election, in this life, is that we might not just enjoy our status as those identified with Christ, but that we might actually begin to live as those with whom Christ identified himself and who are in turn identified with him. In the early church, as for the Apostles, it was considered that the greatest and highest privilege which could be granted a Christian was the privilege of martyrdom. Some of the Fathers, it seems, were even a bit to anxious for the glory of martyrdom.
I suspect this sort of idea is difficult for some of us to receive with joy. It is not on many of our agendas to be so identified with Christ, in this hostile world, as to be required to suffer and die for him. It was only Peter’s agenda, however, and therefore on God’s agenda. Remember, the Lord Jesus had promised Peter, “when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18). Jesus predicted Peter’s martyrdom and Peter was, in effect predicting suffering, if not martyrdom for his readers.
Before that end, however, there is “sanctification” of the Spirit. That Spirit there is of course, to be spelt with a capital S. This is why I say that the abounding graces Peter pronounces flow from the Triune God.
In the administration of salvation, and in God’s sovereign administration of our Christian life, we’re to think of the Father has having willed our lot, but we’re to think of the Spirit as the means, the sustenance, the power of our life.
The life of an elect alien maybe lonely, but it is not barren. When we are not friends with the culture, “the World” in the Johannine vocabulary, then we are friends with God. The very essence of that friendship with God is the union we have with Christ through the person and ministry of the Holy Spirit. It is he who draws us to Christ, who writes the Word on our hearts, who teaches us the Word, who transforms our mind, who sanctifies our hearts, who communicates to us God’s abounding graces.
It is the Spirit who enables us to realize, i.e., manifest our alien status, in Christ. Thus Peter says that the purpose of the Father’s election and the Spirit’s ministry is our “obedience” and “sprinkling of the blood of Jesus the Messiah.”
When we live in Christ, in this hostile world, we will inevitably face the hatred of the enemy, and sometimes even to death. This is almost certainly the force of this powerful shorthand. “obedience of the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ” evokes the myriad of OT sacrifices, finished by the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus himself.
But evidently Jesus is not, in some sense, finished bleeding. Paul says that in our Christian suffering, we “fill up Christ’s afflictions” (Col 1:24). Because of our identity with Christ, the world does to us what it can no longer do to Jesus. There is no reason here or anywhere in Scripture to think that Peter and Paul were teaching that Christ’s work remains unfinished. Rather, Peter is speaking of our identification with Christ. The alienation which Christ experienced is extended to and in us. In Christ’s suffering is our sanctity and Christian suffering becomes, as it were, a sort of seal of that identity with Christ.
God offers grace and peace to you Christian aliens and strangers. Contrary to the prevailing “theology of glory” which looks to a triumphal glory age on the earth, Peter’s eschatology taught him to expect suffering in identity with Jesus the Suffering Servant. Glory belongs to heaven and to the new heavens and the new earth. We are pilgrims, aliens, and strangers. This eschatology, Peter’s eschatology, may not sell many books nor will it create a great and glorious movement but it is true and it points us to Christ and that should be enough to commend it to us.
Look to Christ and be assured of God’s undeserved saving good favor toward you. Rest in the Father’s perfect, unconditional election and his perfect providence, in Christ, and obey his will by the power of the Holy Spirit who indwells you and unites you, through faith alone, to the ascended Christ.
1. The HB began on Squarespace as an adjunct to another blog. It moved to WordPress.com and then finally to Heidelblog.net.
2. Allen C. Myers, The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 819.
3. Myers, ibid.