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Most Bible commentaries take us on a one-way trip from the twentieth century to the first century. But they leave us there, assuming that we can somehow make the return journey on our own. In other words, they focus on the original meaning of the passage but don't discuss its contemporary application. The information they offer is valuable — but the job is only half done! The NIV Application Commentary Series helps us with both halves of the interpretive task. This new and unique series shows readers how to bring...
Most Bible commentaries take us on a one-way trip from the twentieth century to the first century. But they leave us there, assuming that we can somehow make the return journey on our own. In other words, they focus on the original meaning of the passage but don't discuss its contemporary application. The information they offer is valuable — but the job is only half done! The NIV Application Commentary Series helps us with both halves of the interpretive task. This new and unique series shows readers how to bring an ancient message into modern context. It explains not only what the Bible means but also how it can speak powerfully today.
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Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God's elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, 2 who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood:
Grace and peace be yours in abundance.
Peter's salutation is one of the richest greetings to open a letter in the New Testament. It contains pastoral warmth and theological sweep. Whereas some salutations orient themselves around Christology (Rom. 1:1-7), salvation (Gal. 1:1-5), or the church (1 Cor. 1:1-3), and others are "bare bones" greetings (e.g., Eph. 1:1-2; Col. 1:1-2; 1 Thess. 1:1-2; 1 Tim. 1:1-2), Peter's salutation contains both a penetrating description of the audience and a theological explanation of how they became Christians. While Paul's greetings are frequently tinged with a necessity to defend himself, Peter's apostolic status is not under question, leaving his title a simple, humble claim to authority (cf. 1 Peter 1:1; 5:1). As with other New Testament letters, the themes of the salutation become central to the letter itself: the status of the people of God and the salvation God provides for them. Peter's letter has been categorized with other ancient hortatory (paraenetic) letters.
Letters of the ancient world began with the author's name and any descriptions needed (here: "Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ"), the addressee and any necessary descriptions (here: "To God's elect ..."), and the greeting proper (here: "Grace and peace be yours in abundance"). Thus, there are three parts. Peter expands the addressee to include a threefold breakdown: the believers in Asia Minor are who they are (1) "according to the foreknowledge of God the Father," (2) "through the sanctifying work of the Spirit," (3) "for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood." The italicized prepositions highlight the triadic description of these believers, and each is connected to a different member of the Trinity.
The Sender. Peter has been categorized in popular writings and sermons as impetuous and impulsive, but we know far too little about him to know whether such psychological descriptions are fair. We do know that he was a fisherman on the northern shore of Galilee, he was called by Jesus to follow him (cf. Luke 5:1-11; John 1:35-42), he become the leader of the apostolic band (Matt. 10:2), he was the first to perceive Jesus as the Messiah (Matt. 16:17-19; Mark 8:27-33), he tried to walk on water (Matt. 14:28-31), he denied Jesus (Luke 22:21-23, 31-34, 54-71), he was restored (John 21:15-19), he was a primary leader of the new church formed at Pentecost (Acts 2-5), he received a magnificent vision about the unity of God's people (Acts 10-11), he was miraculously released from prison (Acts 12:1-17), and he continued to have a ministry as far as Rome (cf. Acts 12:18-19; 15; Gal. 2:7-8; 1 Cor. 1:12; 9:5; 1 Peter; 2 Peter). We know that Peter's ministry in Rome was so extensive that Roman Catholics see the foundation of their church in his ministry there; we also know that Peter's ministry has become far too divisive of an issue between Roman Catholics and Protestants.
Perhaps more important for the interpretation of our letter, we can discern in Peter an "about-face" over the question of Jesus' death: from outright rejection (Matt. 16:22) and denial (Luke 22:54-71), to restoration (John 21), to preaching the death and vindication of Jesus (Acts 2), to finding in the death of Jesus the ultimate paradigm of Christian existence (1 Peter 2:18-25). This trail of Peter's conversion is what lies beneath our letter: a Peter who found in Jesus' death and resurrection the secret of life. Another feature of his life that is fundamental for understanding his letter is that his original name was "Simon" and only through a special calling by Jesus was it changed to "Cephas" (or "Peter"). His name change included Jesus' prediction of his role in the development of the early church: Simon would be a "foundation," a "rock" (petros), upon whom the church would be built. In light of this, Peter developed the metaphor of Christians as "living stones" (2:4-8).
Peter was an "apostle of Jesus Christ." An apostle is one who was personally called by Jesus to a special ministry of founding the church; the corollary of that calling is that an apostle represents, as an ambassador does a president, the one who sent him. Peter, like the other apostles, was a personal representative of Jesus, and how people responded to Peter reflected how they responded to Jesus (cf. Matt. 10:40-42). Yet we should note that Peter does not brandish his authority like a saber; rather, he states his title here and then uses the more humble power of rhetoric and persuasion. Not until 5:12 do we again see his authority, unless it be noted (as it probably can be) in his use of commands and prohibitions. In fact, Peter identifies himself with the leaders of the various churches (5:1). Nonetheless, the "letter is to be seen, not as the pious opinions of a well-wishing friend, but as the authoritative word of one who speaks for the Lord of the church himself."
The Addressees. The geographical location of Peter's churches is not as important as the terms he uses to describe their social and spiritual status: "To God's elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood." Another translation, one that I will refer to occasionally in the discussion that follows, is "To the sojourning elect who are scattered throughout ..." (pers. trans.).
To be "elect" means to receive God's grace; this benefit is the result of God's initiative, not ours. In other words, God has called us to his love and grace, he has prompted our faith through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, and he claims our allegiance (cf. John 15:16; Rom. 8:28; 1 Cor. 1:9; Eph. 4:1; 2 Thess. 2:14; 2 Tim. 1:9; 1 Peter 1:15; 2:4, 6, 9, 21; 3:9; 5:10). To be one of God's elect is a source of joy and comfort (for we know God's will cannot be thwarted) and of exhortation and demand (for we know God is working in us to enable us to do his will).
The Meaning of "Aliens and Strangers": A Brief Study. Not only did Peter's churches enjoy a special status with God; Peter uses another term that goes a long way in helping us to understand the social location of his readers. In the introduction I observed that this term "strangers" (or "sojourners") can refer either metaphorically to their temporary residence on earth as they await final salvation (NIV)-the so-called pilgrimage theme-or literally to the social location in their communities. It is important to pause for a brief study of this term and another one like it, "aliens" (2:11), and of the idea of a pilgrimage theme in this letter. By looking at more than one term at a time, we will have a wider grasp of what Peter is saying and will avoid the hazard of being concerned with only one term apart from its larger contexts.
First, I must observe that the inertia of convention propels us in the direction of a metaphorical sense to these terms. Most popular and scholarly works interpret 1 Peter 1:1 and 2:11 as describing the Christian pilgrimage on earth. Many commentators assume this view without further reflection and give little space to arguing against the unconventional view. Progress in interpretation can never be gained if we simply repeat habitual interpretations; instead, we must look again at the evidence to see what it says. If we arrive at an unconventional conclusion, we may be breaking free from unnecessary restrictions, though we may also be simply wrong. But such are the implications of exploring interpretations.
Second, there is no doubt that the literal meaning of these terms refers to people in specifically low social conditions. The Greek word for "foreigners" or "aliens" (paroikos) refers to people who reside in a given place without the legal protection and rights provided for citizens (i.e., noncitizen residents); the Greek word for "strangers" (parepidemos) refers to people who reside in a place but who stay there only for a brief time (temporary residents). This is the literal senses of these two terms; when used metaphorically (in the rare instances when they are found this way), they emphasize, in some nonliteral sense, sojourning in a place temporarily or being found as an alien in some location.
Third, the issue here, then, is whether there is evidence that the terms in question are being used metaphorically. Good metaphors are drawn from reality, from the hustle and bustle of normal life. Here we have two terms drawn from perceptions of the social rank and how society works. However, a standard principle of interpretation insists that words be taken literally unless there is something in the context that tips the reader off to a metaphorical use of a term. For example, it strains our reading to think that "slaves" in 1 Peter 2:18 does not refer to actual social status but instead to our "slave-minds" and that we are being exhorted to submit to reason, for nothing in the text makes us think that anything other than a social class is in view. The questions we must face, then, are simple: Is there evidence for a metaphorical use here either in the type of literature we are examining or in the immediate context? And how do we discern the difference between a literal meaning and a metaphorical one?
The late G. B. Caird, in his masterful book on language and interpretation, proposes four tests to discern when a given word or phrase is being used metaphorically. (1) At times the biblical author makes an explicit statement that a given expression is metaphorical, as when he uses the word "like," states that such-and-such is an allegory (Gal. 4:24), or adds a qualifier that shows something other than the literal sense is intended (Matt, 5:3-"poor in spirit"; Eph. 2:14-"wall of hostility"; 1 Peter 1:13-"the loins of your mind"). (2) Sometimes an expression is impossible to understand literally. For example, the believers in Asia Minor are not literally "a royal priesthood" (2:9), their leaders are not really "shepherding flocks of real sheep" but are leading the believers the way a shepherd leads his flocks (5:2), and it is not their literal "brothers" who are suffering throughout the world but their spiritual brothers (5:9). (3) There must be a certain amount of correspondence between an expression and the reality itself for something to be literal; when the correspondence is low, then we have a clue to the use of a metaphor. Thus, just as it is unlikely that Peter was in "Babylon" (5:13), so it is unlikely that Jesus will appear the second time in a Shepherd's garb (5:4). (4) Sometimes the expression is developed so highly and intensively that it is easy to detect metaphorical imagery. Clearly, Peter is raiding architectural metaphors when he speaks of the church in 2:4-8, to the point that one gets lost in the mixing of metaphors (see also 2:9-10).
In light of this brief analysis, we can ask whether the terms "aliens and strangers" betray any of these clues. First, there is no explicit statement in 1 Peter that the references in 1:1, 17 and 2:11 are to be understood metaphorically. In 1:1, the addressees are "strangers ... scattered throughout" the Diaspora; there is no qualifier here that suggests anything but a literal meaning. Inasmuch as "scattered throughout" leads into a literal description of geography, so we are led to think that "strangers" has the same literal sense. The other two references, however, contain some ambiguity. First Peter 1:17 says, "Live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear." If the readers truly are socially isolated (for whatever reasons), this expression can be literal and makes sense that way; if, however, they are upper-class elites, there is evidence for a pilgrimage theme. But we have no evidence to suggest that a metaphor is being used. Slight ambiguity, however, could be felt in a contrast between life "now" (not "here") and life "in the future" (1:20-21). This could be evidence for a modifier being present. Finally, the use of "as" with "aliens and strangers" in 2:11 is perhaps significant evidence for a conscious use of a metaphor. There is, however, a problem. Does "as" mean (1) "I urge you, as if you were foreigners and strangers," or (2) "I urge you, because you are literally foreigners and strangers"? The text does not give us a clue as to which of these we should choose. I conclude, therefore, that there is no unambiguous evidence in 1 Peter for a pilgrimage use of these two terms (though there is some evidence).
The second, third, and fourth tests turn up nothing for our concerns. There is nothing impossible at the literal level for any of the references cited above; each could be literal with no problem. The evidence in 1 Peter does not admit of a low correspondence between the condition of the readers and the actual terms used, nor does Peter run wild in developing this imagery (he simply states it each time). Thus, the tests for determining a metaphor do not yield any clear evidence that the expression "aliens and strangers" must be understood as a metaphor. I am not saying it is impossible or wrong to interpret these expressions metaphorically, but I maintain that such a view is highly conventional in modern reading and has little (if anything) to offer on its own behalf. Because of a lack of evidence for such a view, we ought to see here a literal expression. The evidence, then, leads us to think that the expressions in 1 Peter are literal, describing the readers' social location.
Excerpted from 1 Peter by Scot McKnight Copyright © 1996 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted February 20, 2012
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