The living and enduring word of God (1 Peter 1; Easter 3A)

A second excerpt from the letter we know as 1 Peter is offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday (1 Peter 1:17–23). We explored the letter as a whole through the first lectionary offering in this blog:

The recipients of this letter that is attributed to Peter appeared to reside in no less than five Roman provinces (1 Pet 1:1), indicating that the letter must have been composed as a general letter for a wide audience. It is not sent to a specific local community (as with Paul’s authentic letters) but is written for a generalised audience of believers (as with James, and probably also Ephesians).

The recipients are initially identified as “the exiles of the dispersion” (1:1) and later as “aliens and exiles” (2:11). “Dispersion” is a term drawn from Hebrew scripture (Ps 106:27; Isa 11:12; Jer 25:34; Ezek 12:15; 20:23; 22:15; 29:12; 30:23, 26; 36:19; Tob 4:4), as is the phrase “aliens and exiles” (Gen 23:4; each noun appears individually many times in scripture). This language has a primary reference to Jews living as non-citizens in a foreign land; there were many such individuals in many nations of the eastern Mediterranean in the first century.

Other terms used reflect the common Jewish discourse shared by author and recipients, such as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (2:9), and “living stones…a spiritual house…a holy priesthood” who offer “spiritual sacrifices” (2:5). Holiness, sacrifice, priesthood, royalty, and a spiritual house are all ideas found often in Hebrew Scripture. The description of the community of believers as “living stones” is supported by a string of scripture citations (Isa 28:16; Ps 117:22; Isa 8:14; quoted at 2:6–8), whilst the appellation of “God’s own people” is explained by a poetic allusion to the prophet Hosea (Hos 1:6, 9; 2:25; at 1 Pet 2:10).

This Jewish scriptural focus is a prominent feature of this letter, which indicates a reverence for “the living and enduring word of God” (1:23). For the nominal author, Peter (and possibly also for his colleague, Silvanus; see 5:12), this must refer to the Hebrew Scriptures. The letter includes other scripture citations and scriptural imagery. The early focus of the letter on holy living, for instance, is supported by reference to Lev 11:44–45; 19:2 (quoted at 1:16). The role of “the word of God” is indicated by Isa 40:6–8 (quoted at 1:24–25).

The sacrificial suffering of Jesus is interpreted with reference to the fourth servant hymn of Isaiah 53. The direct citation of Isa 53:9 at 1 Pet 2:22 introduces a series of intertextual connections weaving together the death of Jesus with the servant song (2:23–25 refers to Isa 53:4, 5, 6 and 12).

The contrast between good and evil is expounded at one point by a long Psalm citation (Ps 34:13–17, quoted at 3:10–12) and later by drawing on a proverb (Prov 11:31, quoted at 4:18). Likewise, a proverb contrasting the proud and the humble is quoted as a justification for the exhortation, “humble yourselves” (5:5–6, citing Prov 3:34).

Other scriptural elements include an allusion to the “day of visitation” (2:12, referring to Isa 10:3); a proverbial phrase (4:8 quotes some words from Prov 10:12); a reference to the spirit of God (4:14 alludes to Isa 11:2); and a Christologically-expanded interpretation of the story of Noah and the flood (3:18–20, in reference to Gen 7). As this letter regularly intertwines Hebrew scripture with guidance about the way of Jesus, it surely reflects a continuing Jewish presence in the Jesus movement.

However, the key words “aliens and exiles” (2:11) also carry symbolic significance. They both derive from scriptural usage in the scrolls of Hebrew Scripture, collected into the books of the Old Testament. The purpose of the letter is to reinforce the identity of the community of believers as “aliens and exiles”, an especially important process because of the pressures which are being experienced by those members from the society in which they lived.

The language which is applied to them ought not to be taken purely at the literal level, for it is often metaphorical. This is obvious with regard to references to “newborn infants” and “spiritual milk” (2:2), “living stones” and the “spiritual house” (2:5), and being “born anew” (1:23). It applies also to the references to “aliens and exiles”; we cannot assume that all believers addressed were literally living in a foreign country. Rather, the force of the image is to describe the alienation that has taken place between the wider society and the group of believers who follow the way of Jesus.

Indeed, there are various indications that the recipients of the letter had previously been Gentiles living in sinful and idolatrous ways, but now were striving to live by standards which set them apart from others, and may at times have caused them intense difficulties. The author hints that they were “going astray like sheep” (2:25) and followed “futile ways” (1:18) which were characterised by “desires that you formerly had in ignorance” (1:14). These are spelled out as “malice…guile, insincerity, envy…slander” (2:1) and “living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry” (4:3).

Coming to faith in Jesus was like being called out of darkness (2:9), being raised from the dead (1:21), being born anew (1:23). Such believers are to stand in a different relationship to the customs and practices in which they were raised: “now that you have purified your souls” (1:22), “do not be conformed” (1:14), “abstain from the desires of the flesh” (2:11), “live no longer by human desires” (4:2). People addressed in these terms by a Jew (such as Peter, the nominal author of the letter) could not have been Jews; they must have been Gentiles. Perhaps some of them were Godfearers, such as are identified in Acts?

At any rate, the language and ideas of Hebrew Scripture permeates this letter and undergirds its key ideas, whether the recipients were Jews, Godfearers, Gentiles, or a combination of all three. It is an enticing mixture, to be sure.


See also

John Wycliffe: heretic? or hero?

One of the gifts that is treasured by many believers around the world is the ability to read the scriptures on their own language. It is something that we take for granted; but it is not something that has always been available to people of faith.

On this day it is good to pause and remember that we have the Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic writings of scripture translated into English and available for us to read. On this day perhaps we English-speaking people might spare a thought for the 14th century theologian and preacher, John Wycliffe (1328–1384), who is remembered as the person who made the first English translation of the Bible.

This copy is a facsimile reproduction of the very first translation of the Scriptures into the English language. The Wycliffe translations were hand-written manuscript Bibles, pre-dating printing by 70 years [Gutenberg, 1455].

That is the legend; in fact, scholars believe that Wycliffe translated the Gospels, oversaw the translation of the rest of the New Testament, and outsourced the translation of the Old Testament to a team led by Nicholas of Hereford; the whole was later edited and revised by John Purvey. See

In fact, the Anglican Church designates today, 31 December, as a day to recall John Wycliffe. See Wycliffe is also often honoured as “the father of English prose”, because the clarity and the popularity of his writings and his sermons in the Middle English dialect did much to shape our language today; see

From his theological writings, it has been deduced that Wycliffe believed that “scripture was the only authoritative reliable guide to the truth about God”. That was a view that was later expressed by the key figures in the various Reformations that took place in the 16th century. Wycliffe therefore maintained that all Christians should rely on the Bible rather than on the teachings of popes and clerics—a position that drove Martin Luther two centuries later, in his criticisms of the church.

It follows from this, that all Christians should have direct access to those scriptures to nurture their own faith. “Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English”, he wrote; “Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue; so did Christ’s apostles.” The many translations of the Bible into English that were made in the ensuing centuries stand on the foundation of Wycliffe’s work.

Blogger MJH writes that, as a translator of the Bible, “John Wycliffe and his successors such as Tyndale and Coverdale stand in line with Christian tradition, with the anonymous Latinisers and Jerome, with the anonymous translators of the Coptic Bible and the Syriac Peshitta, with Cyril and Methodius.” See

Certainly, the long list of people who translated the scriptures into their own vernacular attest to the importance of contextualising scripture and making it widely available to the people of God—a commitment that has enriched the lives of believers over the centuries. My own denomination continues that commitment with an affirmation that “the Uniting Church lays upon its members the serious duty of reading the Scriptures [and] commits its ministers to preach from these” (Basis of Union, para.5).

As a pre-Reformation protestor, Wycliffe said that there was no scriptural justification for the papacy (as did Luther). He also taught predestination (as did Calvin and Zwingli) and the consubstantiation of the elements in communion (as is sometimes attributed to Luther), in distinction from the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. His theology also prefigured the Reformers in his affirmation that “faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is sufficient for salvation” (cf. Luther’s sola fide).

All of this, of course, set Wycliffe up for conflict with the authorities in the Roman Catholic Church. The “Constitutions of Oxford” of 1408 were issued after a synod called by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas of Arundel. This decree aimed to reclaim authority in all ecclesiastical matters, and specifically named John Wycliffe as it banned certain writings, and noted that translation of Scripture into English by unlicensed laity was a crime punishable by charges of heresy.

In May 1377, Pope Gregory XI issued five bulls against John Wycliffe for heresy. In all, the Catholic Church in England tried him three times, and two Popes summoned him to Rome, but Wycliffe was never imprisoned nor ever went to Rome.

Three decades after his death, the Council of Constance declared Wycliffe a heretic on 4 May 1415, and banned his writings, effectively both excommunicating him retroactively and making him an early forerunner of Protestantism. Many Protestants consider Wycliffe to be something of a hero, for he stood against the Roman Church by insisting that the scriptures should not be locked up in Medieval Latin, but rather should be available in the vernacular—in his case, Middle English.

So, John Wycliffe: Bible translator and theologian, preacher and pre-Reformation protestor, a Roman Catholic declared a heretic whose name is remembered and highly valued by Protestants … how do you assess him: heretic? or hero?