Peter’s Principles: An Approach to the First Epistle of Peter

By Terry B. Ball

Terry B. Ball, “Peter’s Principles: An Approach to the First Epistle of Peter,” in Go Ye into All the World: Messages of the New Testament Apostles, 31st Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002), 220–229.

Peter’s Principles: An Approach to the First Epistle of Peter

Terry B. Ball

 

Terry B. Ball was associate dean of religious education at Brigham Young University when this was published.

 

Peter’s first epistle is a challenging text for students and scholars of the New Testament. Even the very purpose of this short letter, written to elect strangers residing in Asia Minor (see 1 Peter 1:1–2), [1] is an issue of debate and differing opinions. Some have viewed it as a baptismal sermon or liturgy, others as a collection of hymnic material and commentary, and still others as a simple ethical treatise. [2]

Yet another widely held and helpful approach is to view the letter as being written to warn, prepare, and bolster the Saints for difficult times ahead—times when their lives would be threatened and their faith challenged. In this context the epistle can be understood to be serving the same purpose as the 58th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, which is a revelation given on 1 August 1831 through Joseph Smith to the Saints then eagerly gathering to Jackson County, Missouri.

The Saints hoped to build Zion in the land and usher in the millennial reign of the Savior. It was a time of great excitement, enthusiasm, and optimism for them. Amid that idealism, the message of the revelation may have seemed confusing, for therein the Prophet issued this warning: “Ye cannot behold with your natural eyes, for the present time, the design of your God concerning those things which shall come hereafter, and the glory which shall follow after much tribulation. For after much tribulation come the blessings” (D&C 58:3–4). The Lord reminded those Saints, “Blessed is he that keepeth my commandments, whether in life or in death; and he that is faithful in tribulation, the reward of the same is greater in the kingdom of heaven” (D&C 58:2). He pled with them to “remember this, which I tell you before, that you may lay it to heart, and receive that which is to follow” (D&C 58:5).

Today we know that the Lord and His prophet were trying to prepare the Saints for the Jackson County persecutions. In the same way, the First Epistle of Peter seems to be trying to prepare the early Saints for the terrible persecutions that they would soon face. For example, in July of A.D. 64, Nero set fire to Rome and then to absolve himself blamed the Christians for the act. The historian Tacitus described the ruthless persecution that followed.

“But all human efforts, all the largesses of the emperor, all the propitiations of the gods, failed to dispel the sinister belief that the conflagration had been ordered. Consequently, to scotch the rumor, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures upon a group hated for their abominations, whom the populace called Christians. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, had been condemned to death in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate, and the pernicious superstition, thus suppressed for the moment, was breaking out again not only in Judea, the original source of this evil, but even in Rome, where all things horrible or shameful from all parts of the world collect and become popular. First, then, those who confessed membership were arrested; then, on their information, great numbers were convicted, not so much of guilt for the conflagration as of hatred of the human race. And mockery was added to their deaths: they were covered with the skins of wild beasts and torn to death by dogs, or they were nailed to crosses and, when daylight failed, were set on fire and burned to provide light at night. Nero had offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was providing circus games, mingling with the populace in the dress of a charioteer or driving a chariot. Hence, though they were deserving of the most extreme punishment, a feeling of pity arose as people felt that they were being sacrificed not for the public good but because of the savagery of one man.” [3]

In addition to the Neronian persecutions, we know early Christians also had to endure brutalities during the reign of the emperor Domitian (ca. A.D. 95) and later Trajan (ca. A.D. 112–13). Perhaps Peter, [4] knowing that these times of pain and persecution lay just over the horizon, sent out his first epistle to bolster and prepare the Saints before the turmoil began.

Studying the letter in this context reveals many powerful principles of how one can endure and respond to persecution while maintaining faith. The counsel given and the principles taught can apply today as well. A father might use this epistle to help a child experiencing negative social pressure and rejection because of his or her righteous standards. A bishop or quorum leader could use the principles taught in the text to counsel someone having difficulty at work due to adherence to gospel values, or who may be sacrificing the opportunity for some reward or advancement because of his or her faith. Those of any age questioning the value of maintaining faith in adversity will find comfort and strength in Peter’s words. His inspired and inspiring counsel is timeless.

Remember Who You Are

Most of us can recall instances when a parent or leader, concerned that we might be about to face some serious temptation or challenge, gave us the admonition, “Remember who you are!” Certainly our choices and actions are better when we follow this admonition in the exercise of our agency. It is difficult to sin or fall away while concentrating on the truth that we are children of God striving to become like Him.

Peter apparently realized that keeping a perspective of our divine heritage and eternal goals is especially important in the face of adversity and persecution. He reminded the Saints that because of their “obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ,” they are the “elect” of God, and have enjoyed “sanctification” through the Spirit (1 Peter 1:2).

Because of God’s mercy and the Resurrection of Christ, Peter assures them that they have a “lively hope” of receiving an “inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven” for them (1 Peter 1:3–4). He wanted them to remember that they had been redeemed by “the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:19–20), and that they are “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9), even “lively” or living stones from which God would build “a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5). Such a conviction can be a great source of strength for a covenant people in the face of persecution, anciently and today.

Remember the Value of Adversity

Shakespeare wrote:

“Sweet are the uses of adversity,

“Which like the toad, ugly and venomous,

“Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.” [5]

Peter likewise understood that blessings can be found in trials and adversity. He testified to the Saints that “though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations [trials and afflictions]: That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire,” for “the end” of such tried faith will be salvation for their souls (1 Peter 1:6–9). [6] His use of the “tried with fire” imagery perhaps foreshadowed what the Saints would face under the Neronian persecutions. Peter further encouraged the Saints to “rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings” and observed that “if ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you” (1 Peter 4:13–14). Ultimately, “after that ye have suffered a while,” Peter assured those Saints, God will “make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, [and] settle you,” as you “resist steadfast in the faith” (1 Peter 5:9–10).

Endure in Righteousness

In the sixth lecture on faith, Joseph Smith taught that “an actual knowledge to any person, that the course of life which he pursues is according to the will of God, is essentially necessary to enable him to have that confidence in God without which no person can obtain eternal life. It was this that enabled the ancient saints to endure all their afflictions and persecutions, and to take joyfully the spoiling of their goods, knowing (not believing merely) that they had a more enduring substance.” [7]

Peter also understood that we must have confidence that we are trying to live a righteous life in order to maintain faith in adversity. Accordingly, he counseled the Saints, “Gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end . . . as obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts,” but rather “be ye holy” (1 Peter 1:13–14, 16).

He warned that though in times past they may have “walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries,” those doing so now would have to “give account to him that is ready to judge” (1 Peter 4:3, 5).

He further admonished them to lay “aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings” and to “abstain from fleshy lusts . . . having your conversation honest” (1 Peter 2:1, 11–12).

Peter testified that “he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile: let him eschew evil, and do good. . . . For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous” (1 Peter 3:10–12).

Love and Strengthen One Another

When persecution rages, the community of Saints has historically found faith—encouraging love and support within itself. Peter seemed to know that such would be required to endure the trials that lay ahead of the faithful in Asia Minor. He besought them to “love one another with a pure heart fervently” (1 Peter 1:22), to have “compassion one of another, love as brethren,” being tenderhearted and courteous to one another (1 Peter 3:8). [8] He especially encouraged the elders among them to do as he himself was exhorted by the Savior—to willingly “feed the flock of God” by example, neither with constraint nor for reward, with the promise that “when the chief Shepherd shall appear, [they] shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away” (1 Peter 5:1–2, 4; cf. John 21:15–17). He exhorted the younger to respect and follow the elders and for all to humbly care one for another (1 Peter 5:5).

Peter seems to have been especially concerned that families be strong. Certainly the family should be the primary source of love, support, and comfort in difficult times. Accordingly, he gave counsel to husbands and wives to see that their relationships were loving. He encouraged wives to support and “be in subjection” to their husbands, even as “holy women,” such as Sarah, who trusted God and followed their husbands. He suggested that even those husbands who are not converted to the gospel might be “won” by the obedient and righteous example of their wives (1 Peter 3:1, 5–6).

Peter likewise admonished husbands to “dwell” with their wives “according to knowledge,” meaning they should be thoughtful and considerate of their spouses. He further urged them to honor their wives, reminding them that they were “heirs together” of the “grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7). The wording suggests Peter understood that the gift of eternal life is received as couples (see D&C 131:1–3; 132:19–20).

Remember Mortal Suffering Is Only Temporary

While strengthening and supporting one another during times of persecution, Peter wanted the Saints to remember that suffering during mortality is always temporary, but God’s promises are eternal. Keeping that perspective would certainly help them faithfully endure adversity. Likening mortal existence to the grasses and flowers that so quickly complete their life cycles in the Holy Land, Peter testified: “All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: But the word of the Lord endureth for ever” (1 Peter 1:24–25). Later in the text he assured the Saints that “the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer” (1 Peter 4:7). He promised that ultimately they would receive an “inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4).

Give No Justification to Persecutors

Peter was anxious for the Saints to understand that they should live above reproach and thereby give no justification to those looking for excuse to persecute them. He urged the Saints to be honest, law abiding, and obedient to governing entities (see 1 Peter 2:12–14; 4:15). He exhorts them to “honour all men,” as well as those of the faith, and to not only fear God but also “honour the King” (1 Peter 2:17). He commands servants to be subject to their masters whether those masters be good or evil (see 1 Peter 2:18). He promises them that with such “well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men” and that God is pleased if they are willing to “endure grief, suffering wrongfully” for their faith (see 1 Peter 2:15, 19). He reasons that there is no glory in suffering patiently for their faults, but if they patiently suffer for well doing “this is acceptable with God” (1 Peter 2:20). He repeated the admonition later in the text:

“But and if ye suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye: and be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled;

“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear:

“Having a good conscience; that, whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ.

“For it is better, if the will of God be so, that ye suffer for well doing, than for evil doing” (1 Peter 3:14–17).

Moreover, when the Saints were being persecuted, Peter wanted them to know that they should not strike back, “not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing” (1 Peter 3:9). Certainly striking back at persecutors would only give those persecutors more justification to continue their attacks.

Remember the Savior’s Example

Perhaps more than anything else, Peter wanted the Saints to look to the Savior as an example of how to faithfully endure suffering. He testified:

“Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps:

“Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth:

“Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously” (1 Peter 2:21–23; see 3:18).

Peter’s counsel suggests that Christ asks us to do as He had done—to cleave to our faith and do the will of the Father, even if it requires us to suffer pain and grief. “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit” (1 Peter 3:18).

Conclusion

Peter had firsthand experience at applying these principles, for he had faithfully faced great persecution and grief. He had been arrested, threatened, and beaten by the Sanhedrin yet boldly bore testimony of Christ to them and his countrymen (see Acts 4:1–23; 5:17–42). He mourned the martyrdoms of Stephen and James and was himself imprisoned in chains under heavy guard, likely to face the same fate. Upon being miraculously delivered, he continued in the ministry knowing that doing so put his own life in jeopardy (see Acts 7:54–60; 12:1–19). He knew as he bore witness in his second epistle that he, like Christ, would soon be called upon to surrender his life for the gospel’s sake, yet he did not abandon his faith (see 2 Peter 1:14). Thus, not only did Peter teach but he also modeled the principles by which the faithful should endure trial and adversity. Saints in any dispensation can find strength in Peter’s example, and will be able to follow that example in the face of persecution if they will apply the principles he taught:

Remember Who You Are.

Remember the Value of Adversity.

Endure in Righteousness.

Love and Strengthen One Another.

Remember Mortal Suffering is Temporary, but God’s Promises are Eternal.

Give No Justification to Persecutors.

Remember the Savior’s Example.

Notes

[1] The Greek word translated as “strangers” in this context means resident aliens, while “elect” seems to refer to faithful followers of Christ. Thus the epistle is written to members of the Church who are, in a very real sense, strangers, or resident aliens, living in a wicked world. In particular this epistle was initially addressed to such “strangers” living in several provinces of Asia Minor; i.e. Pontus, Galatia, Cappodocia, Asia, and Bithynia.

[2] For a discussion of various views on the purpose of the epistle, see A. R. C. Leany, The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible: The Letters of Peter and Jude (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 8–9; John H. Elliott, The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 5:270, s.v. “Peter, First Epistle of ; J. Ramsey Michaels, Word Biblical Commentary: I Peter (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1988), 49:xliii; Bo Reicke, The Anchor Bible: The Epistles of James, Peter, and Jude (Garden City, New York: Doubleday 1964), 37:74; W. C. van Unnik The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962), 3:760, s.v., “Peter, First Epistle of.”

[3] Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Reinhold, eds., Roman Civilization (New York: Columbia University Press, 1955), 2:226–27.

[4] While the opening verse of this letter clearly states that Peter was the author, some modern researchers, especially those trained in the discipline of textual criticism, question his authorship for a variety of reasons. For a review of the issue see: Leany, 7–12; Elliott, 276–8; Michaels, lv-lxvii; Reicke, 69–73; van Unnik, 762–64. It should be noted however that early Church leaders and historians, centuries closer to the issue than modern scholars, accepted this epistle as genuine, written by Peter. The list of those so accepting Peters authorship includes Eusebius, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria. (For a good discussion and a list of primary sources for early church acceptance of Peter s authorship of 1 Peter, see “Peter, First Letter of,” 761.) I likewise accept the epistle as being written by Peter, likely from Rome around A.D. 62–65 just before the Neronian persecutions. It is perhaps worth noting that regardless of the authorship, the principles taught in this beautiful epistle are true and inspiring.

[5] William Shakespeare, As You Like It, act 2, scene 1, lines 12–14.

[6] The Greek word translated as “temptations” in 1 Peter 1:6 is perhaps more properly translated as “trials” or “afflictions.”

[7] Joseph Smith, Lectures on Faith, comp. N. B. Lundwall (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1985), 5:7.

[8] The Greek word translated as “pitiful” in 1 Peter 3:8 literally means “healthy bowels” or “good insides” and in this context is best understood to mean “tenderhearted.”