1 Peter

Who wrote 1 Peter?

The writer says he is ‘Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ’ (1:1), and was a ‘witness of Christ’s suffering’ (5:1). He is writing with the help of Silas (Silvanus) from a place he calls ‘Babylon’, where his ‘son’ Mark is with him (5:12–13). As well as this direct evidence that Peter the apostle was the author, the letter frequently alludes to the life and teaching of Jesus (see below). The verdict of F. H. Chase is that ‘No Epistle has caught so much of the spirit of Jesus’ (Dictionary of the Bible, ed. J. Hastings, vol. III, p. 780).

Many early authors referred to the letter and quoted from it, but in recent years five main reasons have been put forward for suggesting that the apostle Peter was not in fact the author.

First, Peter is described in Acts 4:13 as ‘unschooled’, and the style of Greek in which the letter is written is said to be too good for a Galilean fisherman to have used. Also, quotations are taken from the Septuagint (lxx), the Greek rather than the Hebrew version of the OT.

The style is, however, not so ‘educated’ as some would like to make out and in places it is much more the language of ordinary people. There is evidence that in Peter’s time Greek, as well as Aramaic, was spoken in Galilee, and as a fisherman living in Capernaum on one of the great trade routes he would have had to speak Greek regularly. The fact that his own brother’s name, Andrew, is a Greek one suggests that from boyhood Peter would have grown up with this language. Some thirty years’ work of evangelism and teaching in a church which contained an increasing proportion of Gentiles would have made him more fluent in Greek and prepared to quote the lxx as his ‘Authorized Version’. It is not certain, but Silvanus (5:12 may have acted as Peter’s amanuensis (i.e. composing the letter from thoughts Peter shared with him). If he did, then his background as a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37) of some breeding could well have affected the style and language.

Secondly, from the language of 4:14–16 some have built a case to suggest that the letter was written at a time when the very fact of being a Christian was a crime, and this is known not to have been the case until long after Peter’s death.

Peter’s argument in chs. 2–4 is, however, that Christians must take care to live an innocent life, so that, if they are falsely accused, such slanders will be without foundation. The book of Acts (e.g. 13:50; 14:5, 19; 16:19–24; 17:5, 13; 18:12–13; 19:23–29) shows that from the earliest days misunderstanding, personal prejudices and rejection of the gospel could lead to persecution ‘because of the name of Christ’. 4:14–16 need have no further legal implications than similar phrases in Mt. 10:22 and Acts 5:41. In fact, what Peter says about the role of the state in 2:13–14 suggests that he did not expect persecution from that quarter. The relationship between the church and the authorities indicated in the letter is basically the same as in Acts.

Thirdly, some object because the letter contains ideas found in Paul’s writings especially in his letter to the Ephesians.

This argument is only valid if the theory is accepted that the two apostles disagreed and were never finally reconciled. The basic teaching in the early church was fairly standard, and it would have been strange had there been no similarities. If we accept that Peter and Paul may have been together in Rome (see below on where the letter was written) just before the letter was written they would doubtless have talked over many of the issues considered in it (see also Gal. 1:18).

Fourthly, according to Gal. 2:9 Peter and Paul agreed to work in different spheres, and yet the destination of 1 Peter is thought to be an area evangelized by Paul.

The arrangement referred to in Galatians was made at least ten years before the letter was written and in the interval the distinction between Jewish and Gentile churches would have become less clear. 1:12 suggests that Peter had not brought the gospel to his readers, but Acts 16:6–7 suggests that Paul had not visited all of them either.

Finally, some say that this letter does not contain the sort of personal references to Jesus one would expect from a writer who knew him as well as Peter did.

See, however, e.g. 1:8, 13; 2:21–25; 3:14; 4:14; 5:1–2 and other references in the commentary below. Let the readers make up their own minds as they read the letter for themselves.

Taken all in all, none of these objections is conclusive. The majority of the evidence, both external and internal, would appear to support the traditional view that Peter the apostle wrote this letter.

Where and when was the letter written?

In 5:13 the writer sends greetings from ‘she who is in Babylon, chosen together with you’. This seems like a reference to the local church in Babylon, but it is unlikely that Peter would have gone to the former capital of Nebuchadnezzar’s empire. By Peter’s time it was a sparsely inhabited ruin (fulfilling Is. 14:23). In Rev. 16:19 and 17:5 ‘Babylon’ is used as a cryptic name for Rome, and Col. 4:10 and Phm. 24 (most likely written in Rome) show that Mark was there with Paul.

In 2 Tim. 4:11 Mark is in Asia Minor, and Paul sends for him to come, most probably to Rome. The fact that neither Peter nor Paul mentions the other in the list of those sending greetings from Rome merely suggests that they were not together at the time of writing their letters. All this points to the theory that Peter was writing from Rome, which is supported by the evidence of Tertullian (Against Heresies, 36) and Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History, 2.25.8; 2.15.2 and 3.1.2–3).

In view of what was said above about Christians being persecuted, a date in the reign of Nero (ad 54–68) would seem best. Since Peter makes no reference to Paul’s martyrdom, which is thought to have taken place during the out-burst of persecution in Rome in 64, the letter was probably written before then (see also 2:13). Links with other writings are thought to suggest a date after 60. So far as we can draw any conclusions from the evidence, the letter was probably written c. 63–64.

To whom was the letter written?

Peter answers the question in 1:1. The region described was in the Roman provinces in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) north of the Taurus mountains. It is difficult to be precise as the place-names can refer to both ancient kingdoms and contemporary Roman provinces, and the two did not always have the same boundaries. The map illustrates the theory of Colin Hemer (ExpT 89 [1978], pp. 239–243, The Address of 1 Peter) about the most likely route to have been followed by a messenger taking this letter to the main churches in these areas, where it would have been copied for distribution to the smaller centres of Christian witness (see Col. 4:16).

The social status of the recipients probably reflected that of most of the churches of the day, as a cross-section of the community. There were husbands and wives (3:1, 7), slaves (2:18—but no reference to masters as in Eph. 6:5–9; Col. 3:22–4:1), younger men (5:5) and an eldership giving pastoral care (5:1–4). Some of the women appear to have been able to afford a comfortable lifestyle (3:3). The description of the readers’ pre-Christian manner of life (4:3–4) suggests that some of them might have been involved in the local pagan trade-guilds. Peter calls them ‘strangers in the world’ (1:1 cf. 1:17; 2:11) and this technical term has led John H. Elliott in A Home for the Homeless (SCM, 1982), to develop the theory that they were ‘resident aliens’. But the case is far from proven and the wording could be being used figuratively to reflect the way in which their Christian life-style had distanced them from their pagan neighbours. It also picks up the OT language of David and Solomon as they saw their life on this earth in the light of eternity (see Ps. 39:12 and 1 Ch. 29:15).

The religious background of the original readers appears to have been both Jewish and Gentile. We know from Acts 2:9 that there were Jewish visitors from Asia Minor in Jerusalem for Pentecost, and those among them who were converted at that time would have taken the gospel message back with them. Converts at Pisidian Antioch and Iconium came from the synagogue (Acts 13:43; 14:1), and Luke specifically mentions in the latter case that the church was formed both of Jews and Gentiles. So Peter’s writing reflects such a mixed gathering of believers. He uses the OT to prove his points (1:24–25; 2:6, 7–8, 22–24; 3:10–12; 4:18; 5:5) and makes other allusions that would be meaningful to Jewish readers (e.g. in 1:1 ‘scattered’ [Gk. diaspora] is the technical term for the Jewish community outside Israel; see also 2:4–10 and 3:20). Other comments he makes would be more relevant to Gentile readers (e.g. 1:18, ‘the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers’; 2:10, ‘Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God’; 4:3, ‘you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans[Gentiles] choose to do’).

Whether his readers were Jewish or Gentile Christians, Peter is keen to encourage them to believe that they are the ‘new Israel’. In the Christian church they inherit all that God promised his chosen people in the OT (see 1:1; 2:5, 9–10).

Is the letter a unity?

Those who say the letter is not a unity follow three main lines of argument:

a Some say that 1:1 and 5:12–14 were added after the letter had been written. There is no MS evidence for this, and there is still the reference in 5:1.

b Others say the letter originally ended at 4:11 and that the remainder was added at a later date. They argue that the possibility of suffering is remote in 3:17 but already being experienced in 4:12. 1:6 points, however, to the same situation as 4:12. It seems more likely that Peter’s mind was moving between the experience of the church as a corporate body and that of its individual members. It is unlikely that 3:17 would apply to each reader. All churches may well suffer persecution in the near future, so that all members will suffer with one another (1 Cor. 12:26), but few individuals are likely to be called on to suffer in each wave of persecution. The doxology of 4:11 is not necessarily a conclusion. Rom. 11:33–36; 15:33 and Eph. 3:20–21 are other examples where the writer was so thrilled by the truths he was expressing that he was carried away into an outpouring of praise.

c Others see the letter as a liturgy written for baptismal use, a collection of sermons, instructions for new converts or fragments of early hymns. Peter may well have quoted a variety of sources for his purpose (or they may have quoted him!), but there is no reason to dismiss his own statement in 5:12.

The letter reads as a unity written to encourage Christian people, especially those new to the faith, and to declare to them the truth and reality of the grace of God in which they can stand firm with every confidence.

Why was the letter written?

From what has been said in the last section it will be seen that theories abound concerning the purpose of the letter. Fuller details of these can be found in other commentaries on 1 Peter. For our purposes it is sufficient to take Peter’s words in 5:12 at face value.

Peter sees Christians in danger of persecution (1:6) and not prepared for it (4:12). In the light of this he aimed to do two things: to encourage and to testify to the true grace of God (5:12) in which he urged his readers to stand. These two purposes are intertwined as Peter gives encouragement by declaring God’s gracious acts in Christ, made known and mediated by his Spirit. We can list some of the encouragements as follows:

The scope and goal of God’s purposes (1:3–9)The excitement of the prophets and eagerness of the angels to grasp this wonderful plan (1:10–12)

The costliness of our redemption (1:18–21)

The enduring nature of God’s promises (1:22–25)

The privilege of belonging to God’s people (2:4–10)

The example of Jesus (2:22–25)

What Jesus has done for us (3:18–22)

The confidence we can have in our Creator and his faithfulness (4:17–19)

The certainty that God will triumph in the end, and that his own will share the victory (5:10–11; cf. 1:7).

Such encouragements, and such a statement of the grace of God, offer an equally firm foothold for Christian believers facing whatever the twenty-first century after Christ may bring.

Is 1 Peter like other NT writings?

The author comes across as someone who knew his OT well, and ready to back up his teaching by quoting it, especially Isaiah and the Psalms (see on 1:18–20, 24–25; 2:6–8, 22ff.; 3:10–12; 4:17–18). While he does not quote directly from the gospels, Peter frequently uses words and phrases which remind us of incidents and teachings they contain. We shall draw attention to these in the commentary.

There are also similarities with Peter’s speeches in the Acts, e.g. Acts 2:23/1 Pet. 1:20; Acts 2:31/1Pet. 1:11; Acts 2:34–35/1 Pet. 3:22; Acts 4:11/1 Pet. 2:7; Acts 4:12/1 Pet. 3:21; Acts 10:34/1 Pet. 1:17; Acts 10:39/1 Pet. 2:24. These are the main places where ideas overlap, and a detailed study of the passages will show many more words and phrases in common.

Peter also uses many key words which are also found in Romans and Hebrews. It could be said that the writers of all three ‘breathed the same spiritual atmosphere’. By the time Peter was writing certain words and phrases would have become the accepted language of spiritual experience. There are also strong similarities of theme with Ephesians and James. These are interesting, and details will be found in a fuller commentary, but it is unwise to construct theories on them.

What theology does 1 Peter contain?

Peter wrote, as we have seen, with a practical purpose, and would no doubt have been surprised if asked about the letter’s theological content. He did not write to set out a theology (as Paul did in Romans or Colossians) but, as a pastor, he based his ethical advice on his knowledge of the character of God. So the doctrines set out in the letter are those which provide a motive for Christian living.

Doctrine of God

In 1:1–2 Peter clearly sets out the practical relationship between the three persons of the Trinity. God is sovereign, and so can be trusted (4:19). He is holy, and so is to be copied (1:15–16). He is a Father, and so his children must live up to the family name (1:17), and the fact that he has redeemed his people is a ground for assurance (1:18–21).

Doctrine of Christ

Christ is sinless, obedient and prepared to suffer to the limit. This is an example for us (2:21–24). He died and rose again, so we must die to sin and live by his risen power (2:24; 4:1). His work is described in terms of redemption (1:18–19), reconciliation and being the sin offering and the substitute (3:18), and he was predestined for this very purpose by the Father’s love (1:20–21). He is also the foundation of God’s church, providing the ground of faith and hope, and inspiring to holiness and love (2:16; 1:21–22).

Doctrine of the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is seen as the agent of sanctification (1:2), the author of Scripture (1:11), the enabler of Christian ministry (1:12) and the encourager of Christians undergoing persecution (4:14).

Doctrine of Scripture

The authority of Scripture is stressed by the way Peter appeals to the OT to support his teaching (e.g. 1:24–25; 2:6–8; 3:10–12; 4:18). Its source is seen to be in the guiding of the writers by the Holy Spirit (1:11; cf. 2 Pet. 1:21) and its enduring quality is underlined by a quotation from Is. 40:6–8 (1:23–25). Scripture is also pictured as a seed, by which the new birth is effected in human lives as people hear and respond to the preaching of the gospel (cf. 1:23 with 25), and as the means of Christian growth (if 2:2 is translated ‘milk of the word’).

Doctrine of the church

Peter has a high regard for the corporate nature of the people of God, entered into by the individual believer at his or her new birth (2:2–5; cf. 1:22–23). The church is God’s building, on the foundation of Christ himself (2:4–8), and as such it is the inheritor of the blessings promised to Israel (2:9–10). Its twofold function is to offer worship to God and witness before people (2:5, 9). Already in Peter’s day the church had a corporate eldership, seen as a responsible and sacred office (5:1–4), but also encouraged the development and use of spiritual gifts by each member (4:10–11).

Doctrine of the last days

Peter writes as one who looks forward to the great unveiling in the last days, and he uses the Greek root apocalyp—(‘revelation’) to describe the return of Christ. So he reminds his readers that the unseen Christ is never far away, and points them to the glories they will share when Christ is revealed. Their salvation will be fully realized and they will enter into their full inheritance (1:5). Their faith will be finally honoured (1:7; 4:13), and the full extent of God’s grace discovered (1:13). Christ’s glory will be shared (5:1) and faithful service rewarded (5:4). The expectation of Christ’s return is a most compelling argument for holy living and careful stewardship now (4:7–11, 17–18).

What does Peter say to his readers?

Those who originally received this letter were Christians who were in danger of losing their way. Their new-found faith had severed the ties which had bound them to their non-Christian relatives and neighbours and was itself being tested because they were facing suffering. This situation was probably not what they had expected when they had first heard the gospel, and it is an experience faced by every generation since then.

Peter met their needs by reassuring them of the gospel. Father, Son and Holy Spirit work together to bring us a new life (1:3–5; 2:2; 4:1–6) in which the past is forgiven (2:24; 3:18), the present is protected (1:5) and motivated (4:2), and the future assured (1:4, 7). This is a way of life to be lived out in practical terms (1:13–16) and in everyday relationships (2:16; 3:1, 7). It equips the followers of Jesus for living in the real world of the here and now (4:1–4) and for that world of eternal glory for which Jesus is even now preparing us (5:10).

So Peter’s response to the question of suffering is that it is a part of the journey of faith. It tests the seriousness of our discipleship (1:7), joins us to our fellow-Christians (5:9), and will be vindicated on the day of judgment (4:16–19). Though believers are ‘strangers’ and ‘scattered’ in this world (1:1), they are part of the pilgrim people of God (2:5, 9), journeying to the Father’s home (1:4). They look forward to the day when Jesus will return for his own (1:7; 2:12; 5:4). These are truths which can motivate today’s Christians to live for God’s glory, just as they encouraged Peter’s original readers.

Peter writes as one whose heart has lost none of the fire of love stirred up by the Master at the Sea of Tiberias (cf. Jn. 21:1, 15–19 with 1 Pet. 1:8). In this letter there is all the vividness of the personal recollections of a follower of Jesus Christ.

See also the article on Reading the letters.

Further reading

E. P. Clowney, The Message of 1 Peter, BST (IVP, 1988).

I. H. Marshall, 1 Peter IVPNTC (IVP, 1991).

W. Grudem, 1 Peter, TNTC (IVP/UK/Eerdmans, 1988).

P. H. Davids, The First Epistle of Peter, NICNT (Eerdmans, 1990).

J. N. D. Kelly, The Epistles of Peter and Jude, BNTC (A. and C. Black, 1969).

J. R. Michaels, 1 Peter, WBC (Word, 1988).

C. E. B. Cranfield, 1 and 2 Peter and Jude, TBC (SCM, 1960).

E. M. B. Green, 2 Peter and Jude, TNTC (IVP/UK/Eerdmans, 1968).

R. Bauckham, Jude and 2 Peter, WBC (Word, 1983).

lxx Septuagint (Gk. version of OT)

OT Old Testament

c. circa, about (with dates)

ExpT Expository Times

cf. compare

Gk. Greek

MS manuscript(s)

BST The Bible Speaks Today

IVPNTC IVP New Testament Commentary

TNTC Tyndale New Testament Commentary

NICNT The New International Commentary on the New Testament

BNTC Black’s New Testament Commentaries

WBC Word Biblical Commentary

TBC Torch Bible Commentaries

Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (1 P 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.