Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example (1 Peter 2; Easter 4A)

Another excerpt from the letter we know as 1 Peter is offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday (1 Peter 2:19–25). This letter as a whole envisages the community of faith in terms drawn from the household, and this particular passage sits within a section of the letter which is known as a “household table” (2:18–3:7).

Believers within the communities of faith which are addressed are said to comprise a “spiritual house” (2:5), the “household of God” (4:17), a “family of believers” (2:17) who are intimately related to their “brothers and sisters in all the world” (5:9). Hospitality is important (4:9), as was the case in all ancient societies. Both husbands and wives are “heirs of the gracious gift of life” (2:7); they are called to “inherit a blessing” (3:9) and have already been born into their inheritance (1:4).

As befits life in the patriarchal society of the day, there is also an emphasis on matters of honour and shame. Whilst honour is viewed as an eschatological goal, to be expected “when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1:7), it remains the benchmark for daily living, as the firm exhortations of 2:12 and 2:17, just before our chosen passage, clearly indicate. Shame is alien to the life of the believer (2:6) and even a husband must show honour to his wife (3:7)

These two features—the language of the household and the concepts of honour and shame— coalesce in the use that is made in this letter of the familiar household table, a form of ethical instruction which we have seen used in some of the debated letters of Paul. Here, the table is introduced with a programmatic statement about honour (2:12) and a series of general injunctions (2:13–17) which urge subordination to authority and the honouring of leaders.

The address then turns to slaves, but not masters (2:18–25), and then wives as well as husbands (3:1–7); however, it stops short of dealing with children and parents (which regularly figured in the typical household table form—see Col 3:18–4:1; Eph 5:21–6:9). The stance is clear: slaves are to “accept the authority of your masters” (2:18), just as wives likewise are to “accept the authority of your husbands” (3:1). Obedience is undoubtedly a quality to be emulated, both within the community of faith (5:5) as well as within society (2:13).

The people of Israel had maintained the daily offering of a lamb without blemish for centuries; each day, a lamb in the morning, another lamb in the evening (Exod 29:38–41). It sounds to us moderns like a terrible waste of good stock; to the ancients, however, it confirmed the covenant between the nation, Israel, and their God, the Lord (Exod 39:43–46). The writer of this letter can see Jesus taking the place of that daily sacrificial lamb, quoting from a well-known song (Isa 53:9) about his sinless nature.

For more on the way that the New Testament interprets the sacrificial death of Jesus as a means of atonement with God, see

In the Gospel for this coming Sunday, Jesus speaks about the shepherd (John 10:1–10). In the excerpt from this letter which is offered on this coming Sunday (1 Pet 2:19–25), Jesus takes on the role of the lamb, offered up as a sacrificial victim: “he himself bore our sins in his body on the cross” (1 Pet 2:24).

The language and concepts used here relate to ancient practices of sacrifice. They also undergird later Christian understandings of the significance of Jesus and the process of atonement that, it is believed, he effected through his death.

The humility of submission to the violence of sacrificial slaughter is central to the story of the death of Jesus. The lamb is unable to fight back. Chosen for this role, as one who was perfect, without blemish, the lamb can do no other than submit. That humble submission, evident in the lamb, is the vehicle for effecting atonement of sins and a life in righteousness, when found in Jesus—this is the understanding of the cross that has held fast through centuries of theological debate about the death of Jesus. It is an ancient custom, addressing a contemporary need, speaking to current concerns about the proliferation of violence in our world.

So slaves are offered the positive example of Jesus as the model for their submission (2:21–25), in a manner which picks up the cultural and religious Jewish practices of the day and adapts them into the developing Christian context. It demonstrates an awareness of how traditions can be adopted and adapted into new understandings.

By contrast, the instructions to wives are grounded in a reading of scripture which is thoroughly traditional and patriarchal (3:1– 6). In reality, the instructions to wives are based on the expectations of Hellenistic society: reverence, modesty, a quiet spirit, subdued external adornment. They are declared to be “the weaker sex” (3:7) and twice commanded to “accept the authority of their husbands” (3:1, 5).

In fact, the ethics of this letter frequently draw from many elements familiar to Gentiles in the Hellenistic society. Despite the rhetoric of holiness already noted, the believers are not encouraged to live a completely separate life, isolated from wider society. Continued interaction with Gentiles is envisaged at 2:12; believers are to “be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting of the hope that is in you” (3:15). The behaviour of believers should be honourable, and not draw shame upon them; on the contrary, appropriate behaviour will result in the aggressive non-believers being shamed (3:15–16).

In contrast to the letter of James, the brother of Jesus, the specific teachings of Jesus are rarely in view in this letter attributed to Peter, a disciple of Jesus. For James, Jesus taught the righteousness of God and the need for the followers of Jesus to live in a distinctive manner; “true religion” required them “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).

Rather, the ethics of 1 Peter reflect an ethos of temperate behaviour, moderated in a manner which is appropriate to the wider society: “Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor.” (2:7). Although there is a polemic against the base ways of the gentiles, a number of the positive characteristics which were valued within gentile society are also praised in this letter: discipline (1:13; 4:7; 5:7), obedience (1:14, 22; 2:8, 13–14; 3:1, 6) and reverence (3:2, 16).

In short, the ethics of 1 Peter reflect a process of adaptation, in which the Gospel has been accommodated to the cultural patterns of the Hellenistic world. It offers a useful insight into this process, which occurs in all places and all times, as received traditions are incorporated into the life of believers in varied cultural contexts. It is not something to be afraid of; it is something to be acknowledged, understood, and appreciated.

See also

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

Back to the lake, back to fishing: a late resurrection story (John 21; Easter 3C)

The Gospel of John seems to come to a clear cut end with a summary and conclusion at the end of chapter 20: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31).

The addition of another chapter, featuring the scene beside the Sea of Tiberias in which Simon Peter figures prominently (21:7, 11), and the subsequent focus on Peter as Jesus affirms and commissions him (21:15-17), are curious. My view is that, together, they provide a later “corrective” to the Johannine focus on the Beloved Disciple, over and above Simon Peter. We have already noted this as being a distinctive perspective within this Gospel. See

That is one reason for viewing this scene as a later addition to the Gospel, which has already come to a clear and definitive conclusion (20:30-31). Why was this chapter added?

In Mark’s earliest narrative, Peter is one of four disciples called at the start of Jesus’ activities in Galilee (Mark 1:16-20). Luke transforms this call narrative so that it both focusses almost exclusively on Peter, and also highlights his calling to a special vocation (Luke 5:1-11). This account briefly notes the presence of two other disciples (“James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon”, 5:10), and omits any mention of Peter’s brother Andrew, in maintaining a clear focus on Peter as the counterfoil to Jesus in what takes place.

John’s Gospel includes a story that is remarkably similar to this Lukan call narrative, but locates it at the very end of the narrative, rather than in the earlier stages of the story. The many similarities within the story include: the location, by the Sea of Tiberias (John 21:1) or beside the lake of Gennesaret (Luke 5:1); Simon Peter as a key character (John 21:3, 7, 11, 15–17; Luke 5:3–8, 10); a lack of fish after a night of fishing (John 21:3; Luke 5:5); an appearance of Jesus (John 21:4; Luke 5:3); a command to try again to catch fish, to cast the net to the other side (John 21:6) or to “put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4); a miraculous catch of many fish (John 21:6–8; Luke 5:6); and a confession of faith in Jesus as “the Lord” (John 21:7, 12; Luke 5:8).

Whereas for Luke, it is Peter who makes the confession of faith in Jesus (Luke 5:8), in John’s narrative it is “the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’” (John 21:7). This is reminiscent of the way that John reshapes the high christological confession of Peter, “you are the Messiah” (Mark 8:30), so that this high claim is spoken by Martha, sister of Lazarus: “yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11:27). If the author of the book of signs knew the Synoptic traditions, he has apparently intentionally removed these confessional statements from Peter’s mouth.

The scene on the sea in Luke ends with the command, “from now on you will be catching people” (5:10), maintaining the earlier Markan report of the words of Jesus, “follow me and I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1:17). By contrast, the Johannine scene is extended with a potent vignette; the invitation to follow is delayed until the end of this extended scene (John 21:19).

In the extended vignette in John’s version, a threefold “rehabilitation” of Peter takes place (John 21:15–17). Three times, Jesus asks a question of Peter, to which he responds in the affirmative; each time, Jesus issues a command to Peter: “feed my lambs … tend my sheep … feed my sheep”.

This triple sequence of question—affirmation—command is often linked to the threefold denial of Jesus by Peter found in all three Synoptics (Mark 14:68, 70, 71; Matt 26:70, 72, 74; Luke 22:57, 58, 60) and also John (18:15, 25, 27). Indeed, the Synoptic accounts explicitly note that Jesus says to Peter, “you will deny me three times” (Mark 14:72; Matt 26:75; Luke 22:61), and each narrative indicates that this has fulfilled a prediction made by Jesus (Mark 14:30; Matt 26:34; Luke 22:34).

This precise prediction is missing from the Johannine narrative; nor does this version make anything of there being three denials. This account simply ends, “again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed” (John 18:27). There is nothing explicit in the account of John 21:15–17 to suggest that it is explicitly looking back to “three denials” by Peter and seeking to redeem him with the threefold question—response—command of the Johannine account.

If the source of chapter 21 of John’s Gospel is other than the context in which the body of the Gospel (chapters 1–20) was formed, then it could well be that the insertion of this short scene does intend to refer back, not to the way that the book of signs portrays the denial of Jesus by Peter, but to the Synoptic account with its explicit noting of the “three times”. The “primacy of Peter” is laid over the narrative which has accorded that place to the Beloved Disciple.

Nevertheless, it is striking, I think, that after this interaction between Peter and Jesus, we are offered commentary on the way in which Peter would die (21:18) and a final invitation, “follow me” (21:19). “Follow me” is what Jesus says to various people during his active public ministry: Peter and Andrew (Mark 1:17), Levi the tax collector (Mark 2:14), an unnamed rich man (Mark 10:21), an unnamed traveller on the road (Luke 9:59), and, in the initial scenes in John’s book of signs, to Philip (John 1:43). Indeed, in John’s account, Jesus explicitly tells Peter, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward” (13:36–37).

Immediately after this comes the prediction of his betrayal by Peter (13:38). Peter is unable to follow Jesus at any point in the story that follows—he denies him (18:15–18, 25–27) and then disappears from the story until he is drawn back into the narrative by Mary (20:2). His “redemption” is not complete until the explicit invitation from Jesus, “follow me”, beside the Sea of Tiberias (21:19). John has reworked and reshaped traditions that we can see in one form in the Synoptic tradition; his reshaping serves his own agenda in terms of the leadership of the Beloved Disciple.

It is that disciple who has the last word in this Gospel, with the curious interaction about his own death (21:20–23) and then the ultimate concluding claim by the author: “this is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true” (21:24). The claim provides a neat segue into the claims made by the author of the letter we know as 1 John: “we declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1 John 1:1).

And the final, final word (John 21:25) hearkens back to the initial claims about God acting in and through Jesus as Word (1:1); concerning the full extent of what God does in and through Jesus, “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25). The all-knowing author has knowledge beyond even what the present Gospel conveys.