Chapter 14: The First Epistle of Peter

The Story of the New Testament
by Edgar J. Goodspeed

Chapter 14: The First Epistle of Peter

The Empire’s condemnation put a peculiar strain upon the churches all over the Roman world. The ignorant masses already regarded the Christians as depraved and vicious and credited them with eating human flesh and with other monstrous practices. But quite aside from this the Empire had adjudged being a Christian a crime punishable by death. The Christian had neither the protection of the state nor the sympathy of his fellows.

In this situation a Christian elder of Rome wrote to his brethren throughout Asia Minor a letter of advice and encouragement. Perhaps the Epistle to the Hebrews had already reached Rome and its ringing challenge to the Romans to be teachers stirred him to write. He styles himself a witness of Christ’s sufferings, which may mean that he was himself a Christian confessor, that is, one who had risked his life by acknowledging his faith before the authorities. He sends to the Christians of the chief provinces of Asia Minor a message of hope. They already enjoy a salvation of unutterable worth, and have awaiting them in heaven an imperishable inheritance. All their present trials are to prove and refine their faith. As Christians they are to live lives of holiness and love. By their pure and unobjectionable conduct they must disarm the public suspicion of their practices. They must obey the emperor and his appointed governors. Government is for the restraint of evildoers and for the encouragement of the good. The example of Christ’s sufferings should encourage servants when they are mistreated to imitate his patience and self-command. All must cultivate sympathy, humility, and love.

No one can reasonably molest them if they live uprightly, but if they should suffer for their very righteousness they would be only the more blessed. It is better to suffer for welldoing than for evildoing. They must not be afraid, but be ready to give respectful and honest answers to magistrates who examine them, and by their uprightness of life must silence and condemn the popular calumnies. Christ too suffered to bring them to God, and they must live the new Christian life which he opened to them, not their old gross heathen life of sin.

The fiery trial to which they are now exposed must not be thought strange. Through it they may share in Christ’s sufferings, and so in his coming glory too. It is a privilege to endure reproach for the name of Christ. To be punished for committing crime carries disgrace along with it, but to endure punishment for being a Christian does honor to God. They can only commit their lives to God, and keep on doing what is right.

Their elders must do their work in a noble and high-minded way, as true shepherds of the flock of God under the chief shepherd Christ. They must all humble themselves under God’s mighty hand, and he will in his good time lift them up again. Everywhere their Christian brethren are being compelled to endure this same bitter experience. God is the source of all their help, and after they have suffered a little while he will give them deliverance

Among the messages which conclude the letter, is one from the church at Rome -- here as in the Revelation called Babylon -- in which the writer is an elder. Who he was it is not possible to say; but in later times the church at Rome came to regard itself as the heir and spokesman of Peter, and if one of the purposes of this letter is to correct the seditious attitude toward the Empire that marked the Revelation, and if the publication of Paul’s letters in collected form had recently drawn universal attention to him as an apostolic writer, we can understand how the Roman church might have felt justified in claiming the great name of Peter, its martyr apostle, as the one whose authority really speaks in this letter to the Christian groups which Revelation was most likely to affect. But, whoever wrote it, it gave the imperiled Christians all through Asia Minor a message of hope and courage during the persecution of Domitian, pointed out the difference between suffering for being a criminal and suffering for being a Christian, and inspired them to overcome by lives of purity and goodness the hatred and slanders of the heathen world.