BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: 1 Peter is one of the “general epistles” (along with James, 2 Peter, 1-2-3 John, and Jude). These are letters written by church leaders addressed, not to specific churches, but to Christians in a more general way, maybe Christians in a particular region.
There are questions about authorship and, related to that, dates. Marg Mowczko has a fluent discussion of the background issues, which surface all over everywhere; there are links from those notes to specific study notes on our text, which are well worth consulting. She also has a really good [copyrighted] map of the region.
The main way “who wrote this” and “when” may affect our reading of the letter is that it would mean something about the kind of persecution the Christians who received the letter would probably have been experiencing. If the letter is written by Peter, early, in the early 60s, the persecution was probably informal – being rejected by family and friends, maybe being roughed up by bullies “in town” or losing customers in the local marketplace. If the letter is later, not by Peter, maybe during the time of the persecution under Trajan (97-117), the readers could be facing arrest, torture, and death.
1 Peter 1:17-23 is in the lectionary for the third Sunday of Easter (Year A), along with the story in Luke about Emmaus, Acts 2:36-41 (the conclusion to Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost), and part of Psalm 116. There, it is part of a series of readings drawn from 1 Peter.
The first century readers of the letter would have been living in what is now Turkey – so, the provincial Roman empire. Some might have lived in principle regional cities, like Ephesus or Colossae, but others would have been living in smaller places – a trait we Christians in Corydon might share with them.
One of the overall themes of the letter is that steadfastness and endurance through trials (like the persecution that we think these Christians were undergoing) will be amply rewarded. These relatively new Christians have found a better way of life, based on a much more secure and substantive foundation, than they had before. Clarity about that will help them endure.
Our text comes near the beginning of the letter, and contains the author’s first general words of exhortation and appeal to holy living (“Gird up the loins of your mind …”), following an initial description of their status as reborn into a new and living hope. The letter will continue with a set of specific instructions about what this holy living entails, concluding with specific instructions to the elders (5:1-4), and then concluding instructive words of encouragement in the time of trial, along with concluding greetings.
In other words, in our specific text Peter is laying out the overarching direction of the letter, which he will proceed to elaborate in more specific detail.
CLOSER READING: One striking feature of the text is that there are unusually many unique words, that is, words that only occur once in the Bible, or that only occur in this one book of the Bible. It’s hard to know what to make of this. It is probably one of the reasons at least some people doubt that Peter, a presumably poorly-educated Galilean fisherman, actually wrote this letter.
But there are all kinds of reasons for using unique language. I don’t know enough Greek to be able to assess whether these particular words are “elevated” speech, or are more ordinary but just unique to this author for some other reason, regional or personal. (For instance, if the Bible were being written in the US today, almost all the authors might say “soda” but one might say “pop.” It might be like that.)
The very first word is one of these, literally “gird up the loins of your(all’s) mind”, which if we think about it is a really complex metaphor. It’s not just “roll up your sleeves,” and get ready for work – although it is that – but it transfers that getting ready for work specifically to the mind. That is, the faculty of understanding and critical thinking. Then, this mind needs to be sharp and clear (sober, as in, not drunk – so, why was that particular word of advice needed?), and then hoping, in a way, “to the end” or “all the way”, which captures the sense of purpose or ultimate goal that is tucked into the word that’s sometimes translated “fully” here. It’s another one of those unique words, btw.
So, strenuous effort, specifically mental effort, with a goal in mind is in view here.
The goal in mind, the hope, is the grace being brought to them in the revelation [same as in the book of Revelation] of Jesus Christ. The author seems to be thinking of the final appearance of Jesus Christ here.
The “conformed” language in v14 is the same as in Romans 12. In Romans 12, Paul tells the Romans not to be conformed to the world. Here, Peter tells these Christians not to be conformed to their former desires, desires they had because they were ignorant.
This makes me think of social media, pinterest, selfies, all the efforts we (well, some of us) make to be “Instagram-worthy” etc. That all seems like one example of being conformed to some desire or other.
The alternative is to be different, holy, in accordance with the holiness of the one “having called you-all”. It is not entirely clear who this is, whether God (the Father), or Christ. However, Peter quotes Leviticus (maybe Leviticus 11:44-45; maybe Leviticus 19:2), so we might lean towards the God of Israel.
The word translated “conduct”, which we can think of as “manner of living,” is used 3 times in our text, 6 times in this letter, which is something like half of the times it is used in the whole New Testament. That is, this “conduct” is one of the author’s central concerns.
One way to think of the fear with which the author suggests the readers “conduct” themselves, since they are calling “Father” the ultimate, genuinely impartial judge of all human deeds, might be to think of the legitimate concern we would have if we understand our conduct to be shaping us. The concern we might have about “whether this will leave a mark,” and what kind of mark it will leave – whatever “this” is, in the way of conduct.
In v18, the word for “ransomed” would apparently have brought to mind the manumission of slaves. The word translated “futile” could also have the sense of “vain” or “empty” – as in Ecclesiastes, transient and ultimately valueless pursuits. In another one of the unique words, these ways are specifically “handed down from your fathers”. [This characterization would definitely work for Gentile Christians, but might conceivably work for Jewish Christians as well, depending on what specific “conduct” or “way of life” was being referred to.]
The audience has not been ransomed from these empty, meaningless forms of life with “decay-prone” resources like silver and gold. This is surprising, in a way, because we don’t generally think of silver and gold as prone to decay. Still, we will understand how the “precious blood of Christ” would be even more eternal than those material resources. Nevertheless, this contrast probably represents a re-appraisal of values, setting what would have previously been considered precious (silver and gold) as less precious than the blood of Christ.
The word translated “destined” in v20 is literally “foreknown” or “recognized beforehand.” We have the impression of a blueprint or plan that has always already been in effect, but has only recently become clear.
Peter’s readers have purified their souls (v22) with obedience to the truth, and have been born anew (v23), which echoes v3, through the living and abiding word of God. This seems to make the word both the truth (v22) and the imperishable or non-decaying seed (v23) that germinates into new birth. The fruit of both processes is earnest love
Peter quotes Isaiah 40:6-8 to the effect that the word of God abides forever, and specifies that the word here is the gospel message.
The overall effect of this message, then, is one of a contrast between a forward-looking, goal-directed hope that is set on something valuable, enduring, and imperishable, namely the grace that already is and that will be experienced in Jesus Christ, vs. an attachment to the empty, decay-prone way of life that they used to pursue, which followed the traditions of their human ancestral fathers, rather than their Father who really knows what human deeds are worth, the One who raised Jesus Christ out of death, and gave him glory.