Thursday, August 06, 2009

Explanatory Notes: 1 Peter 2:11-17

I started this on Sunday since I preached on the text. Since I'm also teaching 1 Peter this Fall, it was hard to resist. Thought I'd finish it today.
2:11 Beloved, I urge [you] as aliens and foreigners, to abstain from fleshly desires, which are warring against the soul,
With this verse 1 Peter begins a new section of the letter, a section that we believe continues through 4:11. This section generally has to do with living good lives in a society that is hostile toward the people of God. In general, we should read all of 1 Peter against the understanding that judgment has begun with the house of God (4:17) and will eventually lead to judgment on the rest of the world.

We have already discussed the description of the audience as "foreigners" in 1:1, and they were also called "aliens" in 1:17. The idea again is of someone who is not native or indigenous to a particular place, someone who is not a citizen of a location. There are connotations of being in the minority, of being in the "out" group. One always has a sense of not truly belonging because your true home is elsewhere. In the next verse, 1 Peter will distinguish the audience from the Gentiles, which adds an additional layer of foreignness, ironically despite the fact that most of the audience was probably Gentile by birth!

Since 1 Peter finishes the thought by telling the audience to refrain from giving in to the desires of the flesh, it would seem that the body (in its current weak state in relation to the power of Sin) is part of what is meant by being aliens and foreigners. Many interpreters have difficulty with this suggestion, as we alluded back in 1:1. But the idea that "in the body" we are in some ways in a context foreign to our truly "spiritual" identity would seem to be part of the imagery of 1 Peter. Such an understanding renders the train of thought here most intelligible and need not be forced further into some Gnostic or Platonic framework.

The similarity to Pauline thought here is striking. Indeed, it is at the very least intriguing to think that the flesh-spirit dichotomy would roll from Peter's categories as naturally as it did from Paul's. Certainly we do not have enough evidence to say how widespread such ways of thinking were among the early Christians. The similarity to Paul's categories does fit nicely with our hunch that Silas had as much to do with the writing of 1 Peter as Peter himself (cf. 1 Pet. 5:12).

Although it may not seem so at first, mention of "soul" is somewhat ambiguous. The idea of an immaterial soul largely arose in the 1600s. The idea of a detachable soul existed at the time of the New Testament, but the New Testament generally thinks more of a separable spirit. And those few places where the New Testament might refer to a separable soul are not actually very clear.

For example, 1 Peter 3:20 uses the word soul in its more normal Hebrew sense of a whole living person. Although nothing would keep this letter from using the same word in different ways, the usage later in the letter pushes us at least to try to understand the soul in 2:11 in reference to one's life. Fleshly passions war against one's life.

On the other hand, the use here does not seem quite the same as in 3:20. The mention of fleshly desires and alienation from one's true identity at least seem to fit better with the soul here as some part of a person. And the sense that we have an "inner person" in 3:4, along with the body-spirit dualism of 3:18-19, perhaps tip the scales toward soul here having to do with an inner, spiritual part of a person in some way.

2:12 ... having your good conduct among the Gentiles, so that--though they are slandering you as wrongdoers--looking on your good works, they might glorify God on the Day of Oversight.
This in our opinion is the key verse of the section that goes from 2:11 to 4:11. The instructions that follow are instructions on how slaves, wives, and those under Roman rule in general, might live respectable first century lives. The strategy is one of endurance under suffering, not one that looks to change the social structures of society. As in most of Paul's writings, there seems to be an underlying expectation that the Lord will return soon. 1 Peter takes no thought for changing social institutions but assumes them.

Given that the primary audience of 1 Peter would seem to be Gentile, it is striking that the audience is addressed as non-Gentiles. They are "foreigners" among Gentiles, with the connotation that they are no longer such. As 1:10 has indicated, they have gone from not being in the people of God to being in the people of God. Although it is not said that they have become a part of Israel, this is the underlying connotation. 1 Peter knows nothing of Christians as some "third race."

We best understand the thought assumptions of 1 Peter, then, if we think of the Gentile audience as transplants into the people of God in some sense. At the same time, this assumption comes through very weakly, far more weakly than in Paul's writings. While we are prone to miss this fact, it is a striking feature of the letter, especially if we are hearing Peter in his natural categories. On the other hand, it might fit better with a Silas as principal composer (5:12), especially if he were a Diaspora Jew who was raised with a much weaker sense of his Jewish identity.

As we have already seen, 1 Peter pictures widespread hostility in Asia Minor toward believers. And as we have mentioned, it is hard to infer concretely what accusations of wrongdoing or evildoing might have applied. The immediate mention of human authorities, including the empire, might suggest that Christians were perceived to be politically subversive. Certainly confessing a supreme Lord and king who was not Caesar would seem to fall into that category.

The later the writing of 1 Peter, the more likely that Christian Jews might be seen as politically subversive. It would be anachronistic, however, to think that the Roman Empire had some standing policy about Christianity being illegal. This was not even the case in the early second century. There was no official list of legal religions, nor was there a hard and fast understanding that Judaism was a religio licita, a "legal religion." Any persecution of Christians was situational and cultural, not official or empire wide.

The fact that 1 Peter goes on to give advice about slaves and wives bespeaks the possibility of persecution based on a sense that Christianity was socially subversive. Perhaps letters like Colossians, 1 Peter, Ephesians, and 1 Timothy all belong to a layer of early Christian tradition where an initial social freedom was undergoing a certain retrenchment because of the resultant social turmoil.

1 Peter does not anticipate that the surrounding society will be won over by good conduct. Rather, it is on the "Day of Overseeing," the day of judgment, that they will have to admit that they had no legitimate basis for accusation. If they follow 1 Peter's admonition, Christians will have respected all human authority; slaves will have submitted to their masters, and first century women will have obeyed their husbands.

2:13-14 Be subject to every human authority because of the Lord, whether to the king as ruler, or to governors as being sent by Him for the punishment of wrongdoers and for praise of those who do good,
Part of the "live good lives" theme is a life that gives no legitimate basis for emperors or governors to find cause for concern in Christians. It is quite possible that Paul has already died before Nero by the time these words were written, as well as that the persecution of Christians in Rome around 64-65 had already taken place. If 1 Peter were pseudonymous, written after Peter's death, then we would even have the ironic situation where Peter himself was put to death by the emperor. Mention of "Babylon" in 5:13 would then evoke the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome as well.

Whatever the answers to these questions, the admonitions to be good people under Roman rule have a richness because no Christian would have suffered under the illusion that it was always just and fair. 1 Peter urges submission to human authorities who do not as people merit such submission. At the same time, this instruction is still arguably part of the defensive strategy to fly as much as possible below the radar of hostile powers. The manner of Acts' presentation arguably also flows from this concern for Christians not to be seen as troublemakers or subversive.

These verses evoke a picture of government as one of rule to maintain social order (cf. Rom. 13:1-7). Those who do wrong, understood in general terms with which most in society would agree, must be restrained. Those who do right, again, apparently based on common understanding, should be rewarded. 1 Peter reinforces this kind of general sense of right and wrong without any apparent reference to the Jewish Law at this point.

2:15 ... because the will of God is thus: for those who do good to muzzle the ignorance of foolish people.
Such muzzling is not understood as the active pursuit of justice by God's people. Human authorities outside the household of God enact justice and reward. Rather, the message of this section seems more "passive aggressive." Those who ignorantly malign Christians will be shown to be ignorant because the good living of such believers will be beyond reproach. The good lives they live among the nations will "muzzle" the foolish slander of their detractors--if not in this life, on the Day of Overseeing.

2:16-17 As free individuals yet not using the freedom as a cover for wickedness, but as slaves of God, honor all people. Love the family [of Christian brothers and sisters]. Be fearing of God. Honor the king.
Wickedness and fleshly desires again in this section seem to be connected directly with matters of social order. Striking familiar Pauline themes, the audience is to live as free without that freedom leading to evil action (cf. Gal. 5:13). The difference from Paul is the fact that such statements do not engage the Jewish Law as Paul's do. This would be quite striking if we were only hearing Peter's voice in his most natural categories, since from all appearances he was more "conservative" than Paul on such matters. On the other hand, we might expect such an abstracted Paul from a Silas (cf. 5:12), whose categories were perhaps less concretely enmeshed in Palestinian Jewish thought.

Living as slaves of God ironically means to honor human authorities. It means to show respect for all people, even if they are unbelievers, and of course it implies loving the family of God. Once again, the injunction to honor the king is deeply ironic and/or profound, given that it was the emperor Nero who likely had Peter crucified. If 1 Peter were written after Peter's death, the implication of the injunction would be deeply profound. On the other hand, one might argue that 1 Peter would not so commend emperors as punishers of those who do wrong if in fact Peter had died at the hands of the emperor.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Does this assume that the Iranians who protested their government's political outcome were not being "obedient to scripture"?

Should the journalists who were taken hostage in N. Korea not seek their freedom from a "labor camp" or wait for someone like Bill Clinton to "rescue them"? (Is Clinton, their "savior", then?

the language of "savior" has political overtones. A savior from what? Are we to "sit back politically" when we think that there is abuse of power? Otherwise, we are not "bible believing Christians?

Ken Schenck said...

All good applicational questions. My task in these notes is however only explanatory. Preaching requires consideration of these sorts of things, yes...

Josh Mann said...

Great thoughts! I've recently written some thoughts on this section of 1 Peter here. I don't see Peter's exhortations as an attempt to keep Christians 'under radar'. Conversely, I think Peter is concerned about non-retaliation for the sake of Gospel witness. Whatever the case, I think determining the precise reason is an important part of the passage. Thanks for your post!