Studying the biography of the apostle Peter has brought us to two letters penned near the end of his extraordinary life. In the previous issue we examined the first chapter of his first letter (see The Apostles, Part 13). In chapter 2, Peter expands on the theme of interpersonal responsibility that he has introduced. He draws the conclusion that a person who is guided by God’s Spirit will set aside the normal human tendencies to malign and deceive others (1 Peter 2:1–3). This is written by a very different man than the one described in Mark’s Gospel. On one occasion, when Jesus spoke of His impending death, “Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. But when He had turned around and looked at His disciples, He rebuked Peter, saying, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men’” (Mark 8:32–33, New King James Version). Jesus saw Satan behind Peter’s response. Thankfully, the apostle had come to understand many things since those days, including the depth of the archenemy’s work of deceiving humans.
Peter had also recognized that Jesus is the living foundation stone for the house God is building from specially called and chosen human beings (1 Peter 2:4–5). This truth that God is not calling everyone in this life was something Peter gave voice to on the day of Pentecost, following the coming of the Holy Spirit. He told the assembled crowd, “The promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39, NKJV, emphasis added). People cannot come to God unless He calls them. This is why Peter continues in his letter to the Church, “You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9, NKJV).
The remarkable change of heart that had come over those called out is the basis of Peter’s appeal that they continue to live very different lives in respect of Christ’s anticipated return, when other people will recognize their good works and give God the credit (verses 11–12).
“Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world.”
This mode of expression is an indication of Peter’s familiarity with Jesus’ teaching. A similar thought is found in Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus is recorded as saying, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
In reality, Peter had not ceased to talk about Jesus’ identity since the beginning of his own realization of whom he was dealing with. Jesus had asked the disciples, “‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they told him, ‘John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.’ And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Christ’” (Mark 8:27–29).
Appreciation of the fact that God had sent His Son to show the way out of sin and the dilemma of human moral frailty led Peter to write a lengthy section in his first letter about a common problem and a common failing.
The common problem is mistreatment by humans around us. The common failing is unwillingness to be submissive to God in such circumstances. Peter cites several situations where the right thing to do is simply to be submissive and let time pass as a demonstration of faith that God will work everything out in His time.
Lessons in Submission
Peter’s first example concerns everyone’s necessary submission to human government. In a first-century context he writes, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:13–17).
Of course, this advice runs counter to the way of the world. Loyalty to a higher power whose ways are not our ways demands a different approach. Peter had demonstrated how that can be accomplished shortly after he and the other disciples received the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. The Jewish religious leaders had tried to prevent them from teaching about Jesus. In response, Peter and the other apostles had expressed the conviction that they “ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:28–29, NKJV).
In his letter, Peter turns next to servants (slaves, in Roman times). What should a slave who was a follower of Jesus do in the difficult circumstance of serving an unconverted master? Today we might substitute the word employee for “servant” or “slave” and ask how a convert should relate to a boss who is unconverted. Peter instructs: “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust” (1 Peter 2:18).
The idea of continuing to work for someone who is unjust does not sit well in today’s world, though Peter is not saying that there are no circumstances in which a servant should attempt to leave such employment. What he is saying is that followers of Jesus will try to do all in their power to serve well, despite employer opposition. After all, Jesus suffered greatly for doing right, and He is the follower’s primary example (verse 21).
Peter cites Christ’s physical suffering as the ultimate example of what may be endured to demonstrate commitment to doing things the right way. In a sense Jesus’ followers have been called to endure suffering, should that be required to follow God’s way. Some might wonder how much they should put up with. There are limits, of course. But first there will usually be a period of endurance while we wait for God’s intervention.
Wives and Husbands
Peter’s third area of discussion is the role of the wife whose husband is not a follower of Jesus. In a passage that sounds strangely archaic in the 21st century, he writes, “Wives, be subject to your own husbands” (1 Peter 3:1). In this long section on submission, Peter is actually dealing with social relationships in the ancient world—individuals and government, servants and masters, and now husbands and wives. He teaches that a wife must be submissive to her husband in his role of family leader. This is not about submission to autocratic and abusive men but rather submission with the goal of family harmony.
It is possible that the godly wife’s right behavior may in fact persuade her husband that following the way of God is beneficial. Peter’s instruction also includes appropriate forms of dress and grooming for such women (verses 3–4). Not conforming to the world around means not following every fad and fashion, yet at the same time not looking like a misfit. It’s about a balanced, middle-of-the-road approach. Peter also emphasizes that women give priority to caring for the inner self and develop “the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (verse 4) over outward beauty.
In his instruction to husbands who are believers, Peter begins with the word likewise. The word is easily passed over; but Peter means “in the same way as wives,” as regards submission. Husbands have to live with wives according to understanding: How does a woman function? What are her needs? How do they differ from the man’s needs? If he is to be an effective husband, he is required to step outside his comfort zone and submit to his wife’s needs and recognize that there is an equally valid way of viewing situations that may be foreign to a man: “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (verse 7).
Peter’s fifth example includes everyone once again, but this time not in the context of submission to government but to each other: “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (verse 8). He reminds his audience that revenge, or countering evil with evil, is not God’s way. Better to bless than revile, to avoid practicing deceit, and to seek peace with others. That way guarantees God’s willingness to see and hear us (verses 9–12).
Again, this is a very different Peter than the one who wondered in his earlier life what he would get for his devotion to Jesus’ cause: “We have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (Matthew 19:27). Or the younger Peter, who engaged in vigorous debate about who among the disciples would be the greatest (Mark 9:33–34).
Peter had learned that there is a submissive way of dealing with life’s many circumstances. It is harmless and brings only good results, even when we suffer for doing what is right (1 Peter 3:13–14). And here is another echo of Jesus’ teaching. Peter had heard Jesus say, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10).
In his letter he continues with the reminder that Jesus’ followers must not be afraid of opposition; rather, he instructs, “always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:15–17).
The true followers of Jesus are to be prepared to patiently struggle at times. That may mean not going along with the world around and its pressures to conform. Peter’s readers had formerly experienced a different way of life—“living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry.” Now that they no longer joined in, their former friends were surprised and then angry (1 Peter 4:3–4).
But the people of God must behave differently than others around, especially in light of their time in history: “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” (verse 7). This does not mean that it will always be easy to live as a follower of Jesus. Peter warns that they should anticipate times of the testing of their faith: “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (verse 12). If any suffer as followers of Christ, they should rather rejoice that they are sharing in Christ’s own sufferings and will be blessed accordingly (verses 13–19).
Peter the Shepherd
What Jesus said to Peter in one of their last encounters now returns as a theme. Peter was told, “Feed my sheep” (John 21). That is to say, in effect, “Take care of my followers.” In the concluding part of his letter, Peter explains how this is to be accomplished by truly caring ministers: “Exercis[e] oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:2–4).
“Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’”
Returning to the essentials of humility and mutual submission as keys to right living in God’s sight, he says this to those who are in the care of the ministry: “You who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (verses 5–7).
Recall that Peter is the same person who fell into Satan’s traps at times. Now he has come to understand the importance of resisting him. We know that Jesus rebuked Peter for allowing Satan to influence his thinking: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23). He had also warned Peter that Satan was actively against him: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat” (Luke 22:31).
Now, near the end of his life, Peter is able to say: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith . . .” (1 Peter 5:8–9).
“Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith. . . .”
Peter had made great progress in his own spiritual journey. Suffering for following Christ’s way and submission to God’s will, as well as faith in the eventual positive outcome of a life lived under God’s guiding hand, are all acknowledged in this marvelous product of a mature mind: “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, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (verses 10–11).
Next time, the conclusion of Peter’s lifelong journey.