In the midst of our struggles, Peter reminds us that God’s track record of keeping his promises is pretty good. In Jesus Christ, the Father has caused us to be born again, and through the work of his Spirit, he ensures the salvation of our souls. He has promised to save us from our sins–he has. He has promised to give us a glorious inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading–and he will.
Aliens and Strangers
Why does God allow his people to find themselves as aliens and strangers in their own land? How do Christians find joy in times of trial and suffering? What purpose can there be in suffering such as this? Peter will seek to answer these questions by pointing his struggling readers and hearers back to the promises God makes to us in the gospel. We have been given a living hope grounded in the same power through which God raised Jesus from the dead, a hope to be realized in part in this life, but fully in the next. This hope is not just so many words, but is grounded in the fact that what the Old Testament prophets (and even angels) longed to see, has come to pass in the person and work of Jesus Christ and now the basis of the living hope promised to the people of God.
In Part one, we covered Peter’s greeting (in vv. 1-2), here in part two, we turn to vv. 3-12, which is the apostle Peter’s opening words of encouragement to the elect exiles of the Diaspora in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Peter is writing to Christians and Jews scattered throughout much of Asia Minor, many of whom had been uprooted from their homes by a decree from the Roman emperor Claudius, which granted land in this region to retired Roman soldiers. Many of those uprooted by Claudius’ decree were Christians (both Jewish and Gentile) who were viewed as exiles in their own land because they refused to worship the Roman gods (including Claudius), and because they would not participate in local pagan religious rituals, many of which were part of daily life in the Greco-Roman world.
The apostle opens this letter by declaring, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” The Christians throughout the provinces mentioned were persecuted because of their faith in Jesus Christ. Although hated by their neighbors because of their Christian faith, Peter tells them they can take great comfort in the fact that they are loved by God who has chosen them in Jesus Christ, “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.” Foreknowledge is not merely God’s knowledge of what will happen in the future, but refers to God’s intimate knowledge of the individuals whom he has chosen to save through the merits of Jesus Christ. God knows each of these people personally. He knows their trials and their suffering.
These “elect exiles,” as Peter identifies them, are chosen by God and said to be sanctified by the Holy Spirit, for the purpose of “obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood.” Although Peter’s audience are now exiles in their own land, God has called his elect out from pagan darkness into the wonderful light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The primary meaning of “sanctified” as used here by Peter means to be set apart by God for his purposes. In this case, those called by God through the gospel are sprinkled with the blood of Jesus (the guilt of their sins is washed away) and are set apart for obedience to Jesus, the one who saves them from their sins.
Peter’s greeting to these elect exiles is overtly Trinitarian. God’s people are not merely theists, but they are believers in the one true God who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Their belief in the Triune God, as well as salvation by the merits of Jesus Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit, marks these exiles off as citizens of a heavenly kingdom. They may live as exiles in the civil kingdom with its joys, duties, and dangers, yet they possess a heavenly citizenship for which they long, and which gives this life meaning and purpose. These elect exiles need to know that whatever suffering and persecution they experience during their time in exile during the Diaspora is actually preparing them to receive all of the benefits of their heavenly citizenship by strengthening their faith.
Peter’s use of the term “exile” is not limited to the original audience. There is a sense in which every believer in Jesus Christ is a resident alien (a sojourner, a pilgrim) in whatever society in which they live–their true citizenship is where Christ is, in heaven. The original audience of this epistle were truly exiles–removed from their homes by the Romans. But all Christians are exiles in this world (resident aliens), making the journey to the heavenly city and longing to dwell in the home of righteousness–the new heaven and earth. Peter encourages such exiles by reminding them that through the saving work of the Triune God, “grace and peace are multiplied” to them. These suffering saints experience Roman oppression everywhere in their midst, and they feel the constant sting of life as an exile. They are in desperate need of the encouragement which Peter offers them.
Charles Cranfield makes a very important point about the context in which Peter offers praise and thanksgiving to God in the opening words (v. 3). Cranfield writes, “only a few months and the Neronian persecution will have burst upon the Church in Rome, where the Apostle is writing, and have it cost many martyrs–among them, the Apostle himself.” Cranfield goes on to say, “Already the storm clouds are gathering. There is an oppressive sense of insecurity. The Christians in Asia Minor to whom this letter is addressed are apparently also seriously alarmed, and, we suspect, prone to self-pity.” In other words, they were likely wrestling with the question of why it was that God was allowing this terrible hardship to happen to them.
Cranfield points out that this letter was written by Peter “to confirm feeble knees” among his hearers. So, how does Peter begin his letter? “Not by offering sympathy, not by trying to convince them that what they fear will never happen, nor yet with a rehearsal of [Peter’s] own troubles.” No, Peter opens this letter to the elect exiles throughout Asia Minor “with an ascription of praise to God.” Christian pilgrims should not ignore or deny the reality of their suffering as a Greek stoic might do, but they can only gain a proper perspective their trials and travails by considering who God is, what he has done for his people, and the promises he makes to those whom he has chosen in Jesus Christ. Peter begins with praise unto God the Father for what he has done in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.
A Trinitarian Affirmation
The ascription of praise which opens verse 3, “blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” is typical of Jewish prayers. The act of “blessing” means to direct our praise unto God the Father because of (or on the grounds of) who he is (our Creator), as well as what he has done for us as our redeemer–sending his Son to save us from our sins. We were chosen to be sprinkled with the saving blood of Jesus, and then we are set apart for God’s purposes (sanctification) and for obedience to God’s commands. On the contrary, pagan letters from the period profusely thank the “gods” thereby seeking to gain their favor. The apostle gives praise unto God even in times of suffering and trial, knowing that God has a purpose for everything, and that he will redeem his people even in the midst of their struggles.
When we direct our praise to God the Father in the Son and through the Holy Spirit, we are giving thanks for all of the blessings of the gospel. Peter spells out these blessings in the string of clauses and prepositional phrases in verses 3-5. The first of these is “according to his great mercy.” Peter does not begin with the justice of God–knowing that if the Triune God poured out his judgment upon us, we would face him as guilty criminals standing before an omnipotent, omniscient, and holy God who knows everything about us and how sinful we truly are. Instead, Peter says, God deals with his elect exiles according to his mercy–specifically that he demonstrates his mercy to us through the work of his Son.
A Living Hope
Furthermore, Peter says, “he [the father] has caused us to be born again to a living hope.” Notice that God initiates our salvation–God is the one who acts in mercy upon us while we are dead in sin. The word Peter uses (anagennēsas) refers to a “rebegetting or begetting anew rather than being born anew,” just as in 1 Peter 1:23, “where believers are said to be begotten (anagegennēmenoi) by the imperishable seed of God’s word.” God “causes” (or brings about) the new birth when he makes those dead in sin to be alive through the preaching of the gospel. This is what we mean when we say the Holy Spirit works through means–in this case, the preaching of the gospel (the “word”).
It is very common to hear Christian evangelists command those in their audience to “be born again,” as though we could raise ourselves from the dead by repeating a prayer after the minister, walking the aisle, or by inviting Jesus into our hearts. People who are dead in sin cannot raise themselves from the dead. In fact, the Bible nowhere commands us to “born ourselves again” (even in John 3 and the account of Nicodemus). Rather, the Bible everywhere tells us that unless we are born again (regenerated, made alive) by an act of God, we cannot see the kingdom of heaven. We will remain dead in our sins. This is the simple distinction between the imperative mood (a command) and the indicative mood (a statement of fact). Peter could not be any more direct than it is God who has caused us to be born again. Through his word and in the power of the Holy Spirit, God raises us from death to life, and in doing so, gives us a living hope–that is a hope tied to the future life (heaven) and to the resurrection of Jesus Christ as indicated in the next clause, “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”