First Peter: Stand Fast in Persecution by Peter Kreeft

Peter writes his first letter to advise Christians in the Roman Empire how to deal with suffering and persecution. The “fiery ordeal” (4:12) endured by these Christians was not yet martyrdom, for Nero’s killings were confined to the city of Rome. Only later did Rome begin killing Christians throughout the empire. The ordeal was probably the scorns and sneers of their neighbors, who resented Christians for being different. It was becoming increasingly clear to the pagans, just as it is to the neo-pagans in our contemporary de-Christianized society, that Christians are a dangerously different people with a dangerously different Lord, love, and lifestyle.

This kind of persecution has not ended with the end of the Roman Empire, of course. As anyone knows who has seriously attempted it, living the whole gospel in a fallen world can be harder than dying for it.

Yet Peter does not blame the state as an institution for its mistreatment of Christians. In fact, like Paul in Romans 13, he tells his readers to submit to its authority as divinely instituted (2:13–14). The state, like the whole world, is seen not as a thing in itself but as relative to God.

Peter’s tone is full of grace and encouragement. He practices what he preaches about being a pastor (shepherd) of souls, an example rather than a lord (5:1–3; compare with Jn 13:12–17). Peter had finally learned Jesus’ simple lesson and learned it well. Like Paul, he preaches service and submission: of citizens to the state, of servants to their masters, wives to their husbands, and generally of all Christians to each other (3:8).

Christian “submission” makes sense only if the state, master, husband, parent, or friend is seen as an icon of Christ. If we really believed our Lord’s words, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40), we would not balk at the idea of “submission”.

There is a consistent teaching throughout the Bible, especially in the New Testament and the Epistles, that the divine order for human society and relationships involves hierarchy, authority, and obedience. But the rivers that run in these hierarchical riverbeds are rivers of love and humility, not power (5:5; compare with Eph 5:21).

First Peter focuses most especially on the problem of suffering. Peter tells his flock three essential practical truths about Christian suffering:

First, that we should not be surprised at it: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you” (4:12). If the Head suffers, His body must also suffer, for otherwise it is not His body. Christ never promised us a rose garden without thorns. Instead, He promised that “if they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also” (Jn 15:20). George MacDonald says, “The Son of God suffered not so that we might not suffer but so that our sufferings might become his.”

Second, because of this real incorporation into His Body, suffering can become joy: “But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (4:13). We must not be bitter or resentful to God for allowing us to suffer, but realize that sufferings are God’s blessings, not His punishments. As Saint Philip Neri said, “The cross is the gift God gives to His friends.”

Third, there is an eschatological dimension to understanding suffering. “After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you” (5:10). Suffering does not weaken us but strengthens us in the long run. The biblical answer to the problem of suffering is not some abstract, timeless truth but two real historical events: the two comings of Christ, one past, one future. The full answer is something that will happen when Christ returns. In this light, read 1:3–10, probably the key passage to the whole letter.

Fourth, in order to transform suffering into joy by its incorporation into Christ, our sufferings must be for good, not for evil. Paradoxically, only unjust suffering is good; suffering justly is evil. “What credit is it if when you do wrong and are beaten for it you take it patiently? But if when you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God’s approval” (2:20; compare with 4:1–16).

Other notable and memorable passages in this little letter include the following:

1. The charter of Christian apologetics: “Always be prepared to make a defense (logos, reason) to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (3:15).

2. The promise that “love covers a multitude of sins” (4:8)—this is agapē, not eros, of course—charity, not romance.

3. The unqualified exhortation to “cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares for you” (5:7).

4. The exhortation to “be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith” (5:8–9). This verse used to be very familiar, in the old days when the idea of spiritual warfare was as commonly taught in the Church as it is in the Scriptures. This passage was repeated every day in the daily Divine Office, prayed by all monks, most priests, and many of the laity.

5. The intriguing passage about Christ preaching to the dead “spirits in prison” (presumably Purgatory) who had lived in Noah’s time. This seems to be what Christ did between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. He was busy even then (see Jn 5:16–17)!

6. The simple statement that “baptism … saves you” (3:21). This is a very embarrassing one for many Protestants who teach that the sacraments are mere symbols.

Kreeft, P. (2005). You Can Understand the Bible: A Practical Guide to Each Book in the Bible (pp. 294–297). San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

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