Chapter 7: First Peter

Many Witnesses, One Lord
by William Barclay

Chapter 7: First Peter

The Gospel of Obligation

The pervading characteristic of the First Letter of Peter is its tremendous sense of the obligation which the work of Christ has laid upon the Christian. Peter hardly ever mentions a gift which the Christian has received without insisting on the responsibility and the obligation which go with it. The Good News has come to Christians, news of things into which the angels long to look, therefore they must gird up their minds and be sober in hope and in obedience (1:10-14). He who has called them is holy, therefore they must he holy too (1:15, 16). They have been given the great privilege of calling God Father, therefore they must walk in godly fear (1:17). At great cost they have been ransomed from their futile ways, therefore they must purify their souls by their obedience (1:18-22). The word of God, the Good News, has been preached to them, therefore they must put away all malice and all guile and all unchristian things (1:25,2:1). At the moment they may be babes, but they must grow up into salvation because they have experienced the kindness of God (2:2). They are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, therefore they must live with the discipline of strangers and pilgrims (2:9-11). Since Jesus Christ lived in uncomplaining meekness, whatever men might do to him, therefore the Christian servant must do the same (2:18-25). Christ died for the righteous and the unrighteous, therefore the Christian must be prepared to suffer for the right (3:17, 18). Because Jesus Christ suffered when he was on this earth in a mortal body, therefore the Christian must arm himself with the same intention (4:1, 2). The Christian must keep sane and sober for his prayers because the end of the world is at hand (4:7). As E. G. Selwyn puts it, the Christian believer is a man who has "the Lord's example behind him, and the hope of glory in front of him", and by these two things the tone and character of his life is dominated and dictated. All through the letter there runs this constant sense of the obligation and the responsibility which the mercy and the grace and the love of God in Jesus Christ have laid upon the Christian.

As Peter sees it, this obligation of the Christian extends in another direction. The Christian is deeply involved in the world; no NT book is less other-worldly than First Peter. As E. G. Selwyn puts it, it was the conviction of Peter that the Christian by his patience, his suffering and his activity in life "should mould society into closer conformity with the will of God". Selwyn quotes a saying of Toynbee which well expresses Peter's point of view: "The antithesis between trying to save one's own soul by seeking and following God, and trying to do one's duty to one's neighbour, is false. The two activities are indissoluble."

Because of this no one in the NT is more aware than Peter of the fact that a Christian life is far and away the best apologetic for, and commendation of, Christianity. In a time of hostility and persecution Christianity's only defence is Christianity. To put it very crudely, Peter is vividly aware of the propaganda value of the Christian life. If the heathen malign the Christians, the Christian's answer must be his good deeds (2:12). It is by doing right that the Christian must put to silence the ignorance of foolish men (2:15). A wife by the sheer radiant loveliness of her life must, without a word ever being spoken, be the means of her heathen husband's conversion (3:1, 2). The conscience of the Christian must be so clear and his behaviour must be so Christlike that he will put to shame those who revile Christ and Christianity (3:16). No Christian must ever suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, a mischief-maker (4:15). The only defence the Christian has, and the supreme missionary weapon a Christian possesses, must be the example and the demonstration of a Christian life.

Because of this it has been said that Peter has an exemplarist Christology. An exemplarist Christology is a view of Jesus Christ, which sees in him a great example whose moral power has a changing effect on men; it sees in Jesus Christ, not a sacrifice and not a reconciliation, but an example and a pattern, so magnetic and so powerful that it transforms men into its own image. Is it then true that Peter sees in Jesus no more than a dynamic example?

In the first place, we must return to something which we mentioned at the beginning of this book. Men of different temperaments will necessarily have a difference in the character of their religion. Charles Bigg in his commentary on I Peter draws a very useful distinction between the two main temperaments, the temperament of the Mystic and the temperament of the Disciplinarian:

A Disciplinarian is one who hears God speaking to him; a mystic is one who feels the presence of God within. The former says, "Christ is my Saviour, Shepherd, Friend, my Judge, my Rewarder"; the latter says, "Not I live, but Christ liveth in me". The former sedulously distinguishes the human personality from the divine; the latter desires to sink his own personality in the divine. Hence the leading Disciplinarian ideas are Grace considered as a gift, Law, Learning, Continuity, Godly Fear -- in all these human responsibility is steadily kept in view. But the leading Mystic ideas are Grace as an indwelling power, Freedom, the Inner Light, Discontinuity (Law and Gospel, Flesh and Spirit, World and God).

This differentiation is essentially true, and most of us will easily recognize ourselves as belonging to one or other of these categories. To put the matter at its widest, Paul is the typical Mystic and Peter is the typical Disciplinarian. Therefore, Peter will always stress the responsibility and the ethical obligation of Christianity, and will always see in Jesus Christ an example, however much more he sees, while Paul will always think in terms of inner communion and unity with Jesus Christ.

This can be well seen in Peter's way of speaking of faith and of salvation. The Christian is guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed at the last time. (1:5) A true and genuine faith is like metal tried, tested and purified in the fire (1:7). As the outcome of his faith the Christian receives the salvation of his soul (1:9). It is the power of God demonstrated in the resurrection of Jesus Christ which gives us faith and hope in him (1:21). The Christian must resist the devil, firm in his faith (5:9). Peter's readers are babes in the faith, but they must grow up into salvation (2:2). From this it emerges that for Peter faith is a combination of unshakable loyalty and equally unshakable hope. It is not for Peter, as it is for Paul, a kind of inner union with Jesus Christ; it is rather deathless loyalty responding to deathless love in immortal hope. Salvation for Peter is something which is at the end of the road, rather than it is for Paul a present experience. Someone has put it like this. For Paul religion is "an experience which ends in an experiment" and for Peter "religion is an experiment which ends in an experience". Peter had no Damascus road. He began by following Jesus and in that following had a progressive experience of the wonder of Jesus Christ. Paul would have said: "I came in a flash to know Jesus Christ, and then I set out on the Christian way." Peter would have said: "I set out on the Christian way, and the longer I walk it the more I know and love my Lord." But let us return to our question. Is this to say that for Peter Jesus is mainly a magnetic example? We can answer that question by looking at the pictures in which Peter thinks of Jesus.

1. To Peter Jesus is the perfect example. He left us an example that we should follow in his steps (2:2 1). The word is hupogrammos, and it means the line of copperplate handwriting at the top of the page of a writing exercise book, which the scholar must copy as best he can. Jesus is the pattern for life which the Christian must ever try to reproduce.

2. To Peter Jesus is Lord In your hearts, he says, reverence Christ as Lord (3:15). The word is kurios. It means the absolute master and owner of any person or thing, it is the word used for the Roman Emperor; it is the word which in the Greek OT is used to translate the name of God. To Peter Jesus is the undisputed Lord and Master of his life, to whom is owed an absolute loyalty and an absolute obedience and a humble worship.

3. To Peter Jesus is the Stone. Peter works this out fully in 2:6-8. He uses three OT quotations. He quotes Isaiah 28:16 where it is God's expressed intention to lay a tested cornerstone, a sure foundation. He quotes Psalm 118:22 which speaks of the stone which was rejected but which has become the head of the corner. He quotes Isaiah 8.14, 15 which speaks of the stone over which men will stumble and fall. So then to Peter Jesus is the only sure foundation of life; he is the one whom men rejected but who is to become head over all; he is the one over whom the unbeliever will stumble to ruin but on whom the believer will build his life.

4. To Peter Jesus is the Judge. Men will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead (4:5). Jesus is not only the pattern in this life; he is also the judge in the life to come.

5.To Peter Jesus is the Shepherd. Pasture in Palestine was scanty and hard to find. Such pasture as there was was surrounded with deserts and cliffs in which the straying sheep might perish of hunger and thirst or over which it might plunge to disaster. The shepherd had to be for ever on the watch day and night, and had to be at any time ready to risk his life to seek and to find the sheep which had strayed away. Jesus is the sentinel of his people's safety and the rescuer of their lost souls at the cost of his own life

6. So far it would be possible to class Peter as an exemplarist, and so far it is not necessary to see in Jesus anything other than a great example. But now we come on two pictures which lift the whole matter on to another plane.

To Peter Jesus was the Passover Lamb. Christans have been redeemed, not by any human currency of silver and gold, but by the precious blood of Christ, like that of a Iamb without blemish and without spot (1:18, 19; cp. Exodus 12:5). The reference to the lamb without blemish and without spot can hardly be anything other than a reference to the Passover lamb (Exodus 12:1-27). And it was the blood of that lamb smeared upon the lintel and the doorposts of their houses which kept the people of Israel safe when the angel of death strode in destruction through the land of Egypt. So then it is the blood of Jesus Christ, the sacrifice of his life, which saves his people from their sins, and from the judgment of God.

7. To Peter Jesus was the scapegoat. It is most probable that this is the picture in the mind of Peter, when he speaks of Jesus bearing our sins in his own body to the tree, or on the tree (2:24). The scapegoat (or, as the modern translations more correctly have it, the goat for Azazel) was part of the ritual of the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:6-10, 20-22). At a certain stage in the ritual the High Priest confessed all the iniquities and transgressions of the people with his hands resting on the head of the goat. The sins of the people were then, as it were, transferred to the goat. The goat was then sent away and bore "all their iniquities upon him to a solitary land". ln some way the sins of the people were transferred to the animal and thus borne away. Even so Jesus bore upon himself the sins of mankind.

8.To Peter Jesus was the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. Peter says of Jesus:

He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were like straying sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls (2:22-25).

Here Jesus is distinctly seen in terms of the Suffering Servant, and the Suffering Servant, however mysterious a figure he may be, was one whose vicarious sufferings were for the sake of the healing of his people.

9. To Peter Jesus is the Guardian of our souls (2:25). The word is episkopos, and the AV, now misleadingly translates the word bishop. Episkopos literally means one who watches over. It can be used quite simply in the sense of a taskmaster (Isaiah 60:17). But it can also be used in the sense of a guardian. In Rhodes there were five episkopai, whose task it was to be the guardians of the rights and privileges of the whole community. God, says Philo, is the episkopos of the universe. Heaven is the episkopos of all men, and the stars are a thousand eyes which look down and keep watch. So then to Peter Jesus is the Guardian and the Protector of the souls of men.

It can easily be seen that Peter has a far more than exemplarist view of the work of Jesus Christ. True, be sees Jesus as example, but he sees him also as the Saviour who died to deliver men from sin, and as the risen Lord who lives to guard, to shepherd and to guide.

Out of all the riches of I Peter we have space to choose only one other line of thought. I Peter was clearly written in a time of suffering and of trial (1:6; 3:14; 4:12-14). It was probably written at a time when the savagery of persecution was just beginning to break upon the Christian Church. It is therefore of very special interest to see what it has to say about the Christian attitude to suffering.

1. Suffering, as Peter sees it, is not something which should come to the Christian as a surprise; it is an integral and inevitable part of the Christian situation, which a man should expect and for which he should be prepared (4:12).

2. The Christian must never suffer as a criminal or a wrong-doer (4:15). One of the great tests of any man is his reaction to undeserved and unjust suffering (2:20; 3:17). It is as a Christian that the Christian will suffer, for in the days of Peter the Christian's only crime was Christ (4:14, 16).

3. To suffer ought to give a man a sense of unity with those who throughout the world are undergoing the same experiences (5:9). To suffer for the right is to undergo an experience as old as time and as wide as the world.

4. Suffering provides one of the basic tests of life. It is not simply an experience; it is an ordeal (4:12); and a faith which has really stood the test is like precious metal tried and purified in the fire (1:6, 7). Suffering is neither purposeless nor profitless; it is designed to produce a life and character that a trouble-free existence could never create.

5. To suffer is to experience unity with the experience of Jesus Christ. In his suffering he left us an example that we should follow in his steps (2:21). To suffer for doing right is exactly to repeat the experience of Jesus himself (3:17, 18); and to share the sufferings of Jesus is something which should make a Christian rejoice (4:13). A common experience of suffering forges an intimate bond between sufferers, and it is that way between the Christian and Christ.

6.The acceptance of suffering for the right and for Christ certainly brings blessedness to follow (3:14). If we share the sufferings of Christ, we shall assuredly share the glory of Christ (4:13; 5:10). God will be in no man's debt; there is in life a law of ultimate compensation. Without the cross there can be no crown; but with the cross the crown is certain.

7. Therefore, the ultimate duty is to do right and trust in God (4.19). To trust in God and do the right would be not far from being a summary of Peter's message.

And this is all the more so because the eyes of the Christian are ever upon the beyond. It is true that the Christian is deeply involved in the world; but nonetheless there is a real sense in which he is in the world as an exile (1:17). He is an alien and an exile, a stranger and a pilgrim (2:11). The world matters, and it matters for the very reason that it points beyond itself. The Christian is at once the gladiator of time and the pilgrim of eternity. As the apocryphal saying of Jesus has it: "The world is a bridge. The wise man will pass over it, but he will not build his house upon it."

It remains to look at one doctrine which has its special source and origin in I Peter. In the Apostles' Creed it is said of Jesus "He descended into hell" and the doctrine in question is known as the Descent into Hell. There are two passages in First Peter which are the basis of that doctrine:

Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah (3:18-20).

This is why the Gospel was preached even to the dead (4:6).

It is on the basis of these and certain other NT passages that the doctrine of the Descent into Hell is founded.

We must begin by noting that the expression the Descent into Hell begins with the wrong idea. Correctly, we ought to speak of the Descent into Hades, for whatever this line of thought actually came to mean, it began by meaning, not that Jesus descended into the place of punishment, but that Jesus descended into the place where according to Jewish thought all the dead go. The Jews had no firm belief in the after-life. They believed that all the dead went to the same place where they lived a grey, shadowy, strengthless existence, like ghosts and wraiths, separated from man and God alike (Psalm 6:5; 39:13; 88.10-I2; 115:17; Eccelesiastes 9:4, 5, 10). True, there were brief glimpses of a higher belief and of a communion with God which not even death could sever (Psalm 16:8-11; 17:15; 49:10-15; 73:23, 24; Job 14:7-14; 19:25-27; Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:2, 3), but the orthodox Jewish belief was that Hades or the Pit was the twilight land to which all the dead went. It is to that place of the dead that the doctrine originally held that Jesus went between his crucifixion and his resurrection. The other passages in which some reference to this doctrine may be found are Acts 2:27; Romans 10:6, 7; Ephesians 4:8-10; John 5:25; Philippians 2.9-11; Revelation 5.13.

There are certain interpretations of I Peter 3:18-20 which eliminate the doctrine altogether.

1. It has been suggested that what the passage means is that Christ through the Spirit preached to the men of Noah's time in Noah's time when they were still alive and sinning upon this earth. It has already been said that the Spirit of Christ spoke through the prophets (1:10-12), and it is suggested that in and through the Spirit Christ preached to the men of Noah's time and unsuccessfully pled with them to repent. 3:18-20 could mean this, but certainly 4:6 could not.

2. It has been suggested that the spirits in prison are the rebellious angels mentioned in II Peter 2:4, and are not men at all, and that to them Christ preached final doom and condemnation.

3. It has been suggested that the word Enoch has dropped out. This suggestion, made by Rendel Harns, is accepted by Moffatt who renders:

In the flesh he was put to death, but he came to life in the Spirit. It was in the Spirit that Enoch also went and preached to the imprisoned spirits who disobeyed at the time when God's patience held out during the construction of the ark in the days of Noah.

The explanation offered for the alleged omission of the word Enoch is as follows. We transliterate the Greek and under each Greek word put its English translation

thanatotheis sarki zoopoietheis

Having been put to death in the flesh having been raised to life

pneumati en ho kai tois en phuIake pneumasin

in the spirit in which also to the in prison spirits

poreutheis ekeruxen

having gone he preached.

When two very similar looking or sounding words came together it was by no means uncommon for the scribes who copied the manuscripts accidentally to omit one of them. So it is suggested that the original text ran en ho kai Enoch, and that en ho kai sounds so like Enoch, that the word Enoch was omitted in copying.

It is in fact the case that Enoch plays a very important part in the intertestamental literature, and that in that literature he is actually depicted as announcing their doom to the rebellious angels. But there is not in fact the slightest evidence that Enoch ever stood in the text and this suggestion must be discarded.

Assuming then that the passage does mean that Jesus went to the place of the dead, what interpretations of it have been suggested?

1. Calvin took it in the sense that Jesus did descend to Hell, the place of punishment, and that in Hell he actually bore the pains of Hell which all men should have borne. "He bore that death which is inflicted by God on sinners." That interpretation cannot be accepted because the place to which Jesus descended was Hades and not Hell.

2. In the early Church the commonest of all interpretations was that Jesus descended to the place of the dead and preached the Gospel to the patriarchs, the saints, the prophets and the martyrs of the OT, and then lead them out of Hades into heaven. He went, as Tertullian put it (On the Soul 55), that he might make the patriarchs and prophets partakers of himself.

3. This was developed by Clement of Alexandria (The Miscellanies 2:2; 6:6) who extended the preaching of Jesus in the place of the dead to those Gentiles who had lived in righteousness according to the law and philosophy. Clement had always seen in pagan philosophy, and especially in Greek philosophy. a very real preparation for Christ, and in the Descent he saw the philosophers receive their opportunity to hear the Gospel. This is one of the most beautiful, attractive and adventurous ideas to which early Christian thought ever attained.

4. In its most developed form the Descent into Hades became the Harrowing of Hell in which death is finally defeated, Hell harrowed, and all the saints set free.

5. Attractive and dramatic as many of these ideas are, it is very unlikely that they are what the doctrine originally meant. The phrase he descended into hell is not in the Nicene Creed, nor is it in the confession of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Rufinus, one of the very early fifth century commentators on the creed, noted that this phrase was in neither the Roman nor the Eastern creed, and he held that it was simply another way of saying that Jesus was really and truly dead, that he did in every way experience death. As Tertullian put it, "By remaining in Hades he fully complied with the form and condition of a dead man (On the Soul, 55). There were those in the early Church who so stressed the divinity of Christ and so neglected the manhood of Christ that they held that he only seemed to suffer and die. It was against them that this article was inserted into the creed, with the intention of affirming the faith of the Church that Jesus Christ really and truly experienced death for the sake of the men whom he came to save.

So Peter with an extraordinary completeness presents us with the Christ who pre-existed in history and before history began (1:10, 11, 20), the Christ who came to this earth and who suffered and died for men on the cross (1:16-22; 2:24), the Christ who descended into Hades and so tasted the full bitterness of death (3:19), the Christ who rose from death (1:3, 21; 3:21), the Christ who ascended into glory (1:11; 3:22), and the Christ who will come again (1:7, 13; 4:7; 5:1, 4).