The Quest for Joy
Peter wrote to Christians living in four Roman provinces: Pontus/Bithynia, Galatia, Cappadocia, and Asia (1 Peter 1:1). These provinces were located in present-day Turkey (Asia was simply a name of a province for the Romans, not the name of a continent as it is today). The four provinces covered an area about the size of today’s New Mexico or Montana. The order in which the provinces are listed would be a typical travel route to carry the apostle’s message to the churches.
The population of that area was about 8.5 million, including a Jewish population of about one million. The area, mainly inland, depended on farming, herding, and mining. Acts 2 describes the Day of Pentecost in which Jews and proselytes from Cappadocia, Pontus, and Asia were in Jerusalem and heard Peter’s preaching. These may well have become some of the first Christians to carry the gospel to this area.
The Christians, about 40 to 80 thousand in number, were spread out across a large territory. Their households would be part of communities that would not likely welcome strangers or strange new religions. Such social tensions could wear down the believers’ resolve.
The first Epistle of Peter calls these Christians “strangers” and “resident aliens” (1:1, 17; 2:11), probably because of the distinctiveness of their faith in their surroundings. They would have been outcasts in the pagan societies in which they lived (4:1–4). They included in their midst both free persons and slaves (2:16–20), wives with unbelieving husbands (3:1–6), husbands likely with believing wives (3:7), community elders and recent converts (5:1–5). Though they saw themselves as an emerging Christian community (4:6), they were suffering significant persecution (2:11–25).
Praising God in Trouble
In the introduction to the letter, 1 Peter 1:3 to 7, the apostle links their situation of suffering to their relationship with God: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In harmony with His great mercy, He gave us rebirth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. This hope looks forward to an inheritance that cannot perish, cannot be defiled, cannot fade away. It is guarded for you in heaven. And by the power of God you are protected through faith for the salvation ready to be revealed at the End of Time. Dwelling in this atmosphere, you rejoice, although for a little while you have to feel the sting of various trials. The purpose of all this is to make your faith tried and true. That dependable quality is worth more than gold refined in fire. Gold will perish, but the tried and true in you will result in praise, glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”1
Notice Peter’s amazing way of expressing himself. The apostle uses alliteration and complex constructions, and intertwines ideas that usually stand in sharp contrast to one another. But pondering these words is well worth the effort because of a better understanding of how to face the trials and tribulations of life.
Beginning With God
Where does Peter begin? God. His first words after the brief introduction of 1 Peter 1:1 and 2 are, “Blessed be God.” It is a typical phrase reminiscent of Old Testament passages: “‘Blessed be the Lord, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians’” (Ex. 18:10, ESV)2; “‘Blessed be the Lord who has given rest to his people Israel’” (1 Kings 8:56); “Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears us up; God is our salvation” (Ps. 68:19). The usual pattern is to praise God for some wonder He has wrought in saving His people or some gracious gift He has given them. The first action is done by God, the response is praise. Thus, Peter’s phrase is based on a prior experience of the goodness of God. And this is exactly where he turns next.
What great thing has God done that calls forth the apostle’s praise? It is redemption, expressed through a number of word pictures: rebirth, hope, inheritance, salvation. The interesting thing about all these ideas is that they originate with God and not human action. Peter goes out of his way to stress that the assurance that these early Christians experienced, the basis of their hope, resided in God and His saving work, with a concomitant emphasis on the safety of their salvation in another location—heaven. He apparently wanted to stress that the turmoil of the present could not intrude upon the peace that resided in the heavenly home preserved for them, safe and secure in that heavenly location.
What Faith Means
But the heavenly perspective does not take the Christians to some mountaintop retreat of hermetic isolation. Nor can it be said that they escape playing a role in the great cosmic battle of good versus evil. Rather, Peter says that they are guarded by God’s power through faith. Today the term “faith” is usually linked to ideas like “belief” and “trust.” We think of it as joined to concepts or truths that we hold within ourselves as central tenets of our worldview. We also think of a sense of confidence or reliance on God based on the experience of salvation and a lifetime of getting to know Him.
These are good concepts that do not run counter to Scripture. But in the world to which Peter wrote, the concept of faith was somewhat different. For them, faith meant being faithful to a relationship, particularly to the external behaviors that illustrate loyalty to a deity, group, or person. As the apostle put it in 1 Peter 1:21, “Your faith and hope are in God.” God is the source of our redemption and the focus of our relationship of salvation. Faith is not simply something we believe about God; it is our loyalty to our friendship with Him, founded and shaped by what He has done for us, but also built through our experience of what life is like for a Christian in this world. Alas, all too often that world brings us trouble.
Trouble changes us. This is a sometimes harsh reality. We go through something traumatic, and we just see the world through different glasses after that. A sight, a smell, a phrase from a book, a phone call, and it all comes back. Focusing on trouble can be both numbing and immobilizing. It certainly has a way of limiting our vision and our ability to see what the future may hold.
Peter lifts our sights. Before he discusses trouble, he talks about God, His grace, His amazing actions in our behalf, and the safe and secure character of the redemption that is ours. As he puts it so nicely, our inheritance “cannot perish, cannot be defiled, cannot fade away. It is guarded for you in heaven.” Not only that, God guards and protects us for that coming kingdom that cannot pass away. It is in this atmosphere that we are to rejoice.
Limiting Persecution’s Power
It is at this point in the passage that Peter faces up to the troubles of persecution facing his readers. However, he delimits their significance with three ideas. First, he says in verse 6 that the experience is for “a little while.” Every parent has traveled with children small and not so small when the pressing question comes, “When are we going to get there?” The time-honored response is, “In a little while.” The problem is, of course, that for the child a “little while” is a lot longer than for the parent.
We are much like the small child when it comes to understanding the troubles of our lives. The problems seem large, the time and stress drawn out, seemingly unbearable. To be told by the apostle that suffering will be for “a little while” may seem like a cruel underestimation of its importance. He is not minimizing the magnitude or power of suffering, however, but rather its duration. And God’s chronometer has a different scale. In verse 5, the apostle talks about our salvation prepared to be revealed “at the End of Time” (literally “in the last time”). This changes our viewpoint. In one day, six hours is a significant portion of time. In one year, it is much smaller by comparison. Peter uses God’s timescale to talk about trouble, not to diminish its significance but to put it in perspective, something very helpful when one is going through the endless fog.
Next, Peter delimits suffering’s reach by stating, “if it must be.” You will notice in the translation above, “although for a little while you may well have to feel the sting of various trials.” The literal translation with the “if” may make it sound optional. But the construction in Greek indicates a real condition at least for argument’s sake, perhaps best translated here as “if it has to be” or as above, “you may well have to feel.” This may not seem to delimit or limit suffering at all, but the way it does so is by its recognition of the real possibility of suffering persecution.
Jesus said it in a twofold way in His last days discourse in Matthew 24:6: “‘You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place,but the end is not yet.”3 So, first, Jesus says, “‘This must take place.’” It is a sinful world where terrible things happen. He doesn’t cover over the evil results of sin’s reign as though all were smiley faces. Christians sometimes get caught in the crossfire, either because of their own mistakes or because of the weight of sin’s results accrued over thousands of years.
But Jesus doesn’t stop with the present, “‘This must take place.’” His second point is that “‘the end is not yet.’” The present circumstance of trouble is placed within the wider context of the march toward His return. In this way we see the necessity of perseverance and get some sense of how long we will have to hold on. If you have one quart of water to drink for a day, you don’t drink it all at 8:00 a.m. Forewarned is forearmed.
Peter’s third delimitation of suffering is that it will result in a good outcome: “The purpose of all this is to make your faith tried and true.” The word for “tried and true” in Greek means “testing,” “means of testing,” “genuine,” “without alloy.” In the ancient world the word group associated with this term was used to describe the kind of scrutiny undergone to test fitness for holding office, citizenship, or for a right to speak in an assembly. It was also used to refer to an assay of metals for purity. Peter’s use plays on the testing of a metal when he refers to gold being tried by fire. He links this to the testing of our covenant faith relationship with God by the trials of persecution. As fire removes base metal from molten gold, so trials remove the dross of self-sufficiency from our experience. Gold, as precious and unchangeable as it is, cannot compare with the durability of a tested and reliable character.
What We Will Receive
We might say that the experience of becoming a reliable person is its own reward, as hard as it may be to endure at the time. But Peter raises our sights again. The end result of such a tried-and-true faith experience is the threefold benefit of praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ when He returns the second time. This may sound rather self-serving and proud to our ears, but Peter’s society was built on the values of honor and shame. You did things that would increase the former and avoided things that would bring the latter. Your place in society depended on this honor and shame balance.
Peter isn’t saying that we earn our way to heaven, but he does note that God honors those who have passed the test of a lived faith. Perhaps the apostle was recalling something Jesus said to him. In Matthew 19, the rich young ruler came to Jesus wanting to know how to inherit eternal life (a very important question). Jesus talked to him about obeying the commandments, which the young man seemed to think he had done quite well. But he still felt a lack and asked what else he needed to do. “‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me’” is what Jesus said (Matt. 19:21). The young man went away sad because he was very rich. Jesus went on to say that the only way to get in to heaven was by God’s power (“‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible’” (vs. 26).
Then Peter asked Jesus a question that seems to miss the point, “‘See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’” (Matt. 19:27). You and I might say to him, “Rank materialist! Don’t you get it? Just being with Jesus is the point. That’s where the ‘great reward’ is!” But that is not how Jesus responded. He took seriously this sincere question and He responded with a promise of honor and wealth to His faithful followers in Matthew 19:28 to 30: “‘Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.’”
Heaven is a real place with real mansions and a central street paved with gold (see Rev. 21:21). There we will experience the deepest joys, plan enterprises that people have never dreamed of here, go to worlds no earthly traveler has ever seen, and continually grow in our knowledge and appreciation of God’s incredible grace. Our inheritance there is secure, guarded by God Himself.
In light of these great truths that Peter presents to us at the opening of his letter, we can better understand his declaration of joy in the face of the bonds of suffering in our present life. Financial setbacks, deprivations, even deeper troubles like persecution and imprisonment must not be allowed to tarnish our joy.
NOTES AND REFERENCES