Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: 1 Peter (Part 2)

(This is a continuation of the article from Part 1)

1 Peter 3:13-22

In the previous sections (2:13-3:12), the ethical-religious instruction in the letter became more practical in approach, dealing with how believers are to conduct themselves in society (and with each other). In the verses that follow, this instruction is increasingly set within an eschatological framework, along with repeated occurrences of one of the key themes of the letter—the need to remain faithful in the face of suffering as the end draws near.

We can see how this plays out in the current section, as the author (Peter) exhorts believers that they have nothing to fear from anyone, if they follow the example of Jesus in their daily life. They may indeed face suffering, but not as the result of their own inappropriate or unlawful conduct. Believers may consider themselves happy if they “suffer through justice [i.e. on account of justice/righteousness]” (v. 14), and should not be afraid; in such instances, they are to remain faithful since “the will of God may intend” that a measure of suffering take place (v. 17). There is unquestionably an eschatological dimension to the “suffering” (pa/sxein) that his readers are currently enduring (and/or that he expects they will have to endure); for more on this, cf. the discussion on 4:17 below.

The main point in this section is that, by enduring suffering, believers are truly following Jesus’ example, and share in his own sufferings—drawing upon the same basic idea of participation in the death (and resurrection) of Jesus that is so prominent in Paul’s letters. This is summarized in verse 18:

“(For it is) that even (the) Anointed suffered once, about [i.e. for the sake of] sins, a just (person) over [i.e. on behalf of] (those who are) without justice [i.e. unjust], (so) that he should lead us toward God, (hav)ing been put to death in the flesh, but (hav)ing been made alive in the Spirit…”

The reference to Jesus’ death leads to mention being made of his proclamation “to the spirits in (the prison) guard” (v. 19). This much-debated verse is the basis for the doctrine of Jesus’ “descent into Hell/Hades”. It would go much too far afield to discuss the subject here in any detail; there remain considerable differences of opinion over how to interpret “the spirits”, whether they are (a) the ‘fallen’ heavenly beings of Gen 6:1-4 (cf. 2 Pet 2:4), (b) the spirits of dead human beings bound in the realm of death (Hades/Sheol)—or some combination of the two. The immediate reference to the great Flood (v. 20) suggests the former, but the sense of the discussion that follows (esp. in 4:1-6, cf. below) seems to have the latter in view. On the relation of the Flood-tradition to Christian baptism (vv. 20b-21), see my recent Christmas-season note.

The great Flood also serves the author’s purpose, as an eschatological motif, a type-pattern of the coming Judgment—just as God destroyed humankind by the Flood in Noah’s time, so the wicked will perish at the end-time (cf. Jesus’ illustration in Matt 24:37-38 par, also in 2 Peter 2:5ff). Traditionally, the most common means by which the current Age would come to end, is through water (as in Noah’s Flood) or by fire (the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah), cf. Luke 17:26-30, and 2 Pet 2:5-9; 3:5-7 (to be discussed). There are other less obvious eschatological details in this passage, of which we may note the following:

    • The connotation of the Beatitude-form in verse 14, with the use of the plural adjective maka/rioi (“happy/blessed”); cf. my earlier discussion on the background of the Beatitude-form.
    • The expression “the hope [e)lpi/$] in you” (v. 15); as noted in Part 1, the early Christian use of the word e)lpi/$ was primarily eschatological—i.e. the future hope that awaits believers (the resurrection and eternal life)—even though this was already realized, at least in part, for believers in the present.
    • There is an allusion to the coming Judgment in verse 16, with the assurance that those speak against believers will “have shame brought down” on them (vb kataisxu/nw).
    • The concluding reference to Jesus’ exaltation (to God’s right hand, v. 22) assumes the future context of the final subjugation of all things to him; Paul assumes a similar context in the discussion of the resurrection in 1 Cor 15:24-28.

1 Peter 4:1-6

The instruction in 4:1-6 builds on the themes of the previous section, in the form of a more forceful ethical exhortation, based on the identity of believers as those who have participated in the sufferings of Christ (v. 1). The wickedness of the surrounding pagan (Greco-Roman) society in Asia Minor is vividly described in verses 2-3, though, to be sure, in rather stereotypical and exaggerated terms. The immorality of pagans was a stock motif in Judaism and early Christianity, but the point of the contrast is clear enough—believers are no longer to conduct themselves as those in the world around them do (v. 4). This is all the more important in light of the impending Judgment:

“th(e one)s who will (have to) give forth an account (of themselves) to the (One who is) ready to judge the (one)s living and dead” (v. 5)

The tradition cited in 3:20 is here given a new interpretation (v. 6), involving the distinction between death in the “flesh” and life in the Spirit (3:19). The idea seems to be that the Gospel is effectively proclaimed to all humankind—those who are dead both literally (physically) and figuratively—and, indeed, all humankind will be judged before God. Those who remain bound in the flesh will face the punishment of death, but those who have already died to the flesh (through trust in Jesus, symbolized by baptism), i.e. believers, will live, according to the same life-giving Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead.

1 Peter 4:7ff

“And (indeed) the completion [te/lo$] of all (thing)s has come near [h&ggiken].” (v. 7a)

The ethical instruction of vv. 1-6 is followed by more practical teaching, set again in a strong eschatological context that is established in the opening verse. It is hard to imagine a more concise and unequivocal statement of eschatological imminence; and, for commentators who are reluctant to admit the imminent eschatology expressed throughout the New Testament, such a clear statement is virtually impossible to explain any other way. The author (Peter) declares, simply enough, that the end (te/lo$, “completion”) of the current Age (“all [thing]s”) has come near (h&ggiken, perfect tense)—that is, of course, near to his readers (c. 60 A.D.?); doubtless, he expected that most of them would experience the return of Jesus and the end of the Age. On the technical eschatological use of the noun te/lo$ and verb e)ggi/zw (“come near”), cf. the separate study on imminent eschatology.

1 Peter 4:12-19

The eschatological aspect of the instruction in 1 Peter is heightened considerably in this section, beginning with the opening verses (vv. 12-13):

“(Be)loved (one)s, you must not regard as strange the fiery (burn)ing (that is) coming to be among you, toward (the) testing [peirasmo/$] of you, as (if) a strange (thing) is stepping [i.e. coming] together on you; but, according to the way you share (this) in common with the sufferings of the Anointed, you may delight (in it)! that, in the uncovering of his honor/splendor [do/ca], you may have delight, leaping (about for joy).”

As noted in Part 1, the noun peirasmo/$ (“test[ing]”) has a clear eschatological connotation in early Christianity, especially as there crystalized the idea of an end-time period of distress that would come upon humankind, in the time after Jesus’ ascension and before his subsequent return. During this time, believers would be severely tested, experiencing suffering (cf. above) that included persecution on account of their faith in Jesus. This is the “fiery (burn)ing” (pu/rwsi$) that he speaks of, part of the Judgment by fire (cf. below), a fire that tests the faith of believers. The suffering and persecution of this fiery test is described, in part, in verses 14-16, with a clear distinction between suffering because one has genuinely done wrong, and suffering that is experienced by the innocent—i.e. the faithful believer—in the same manner that Jesus himself suffered.

“(For it is) that (this is) the moment of the Judgment beginning, (and) from the house of God! But, if first from us, what is the completion [te/lo$] (of it) for the (one)s being unpersuaded by the good message of God?” (v. 17)

This statement (and rhetorical question) is striking, and a bit difficult to understand at first. After all, is not the Judgment directed against the wicked? How, then, can it be said to begin with the “house of God” (i.e. believers)? Here the pronoun a)po/ (“from”) indicates the point at which, or from which, something occurs. In actuality, the early Christian concept of the end-time Judgment (kri/ma) encompasses the great Judgment proper, but also the preceding period of distress (qli/yi$) and the intervening event of Jesus’ return to earth. Believers are rescued/saved from the Judgment proper, but they do still have to endure the time of distress, as is clear from Jesus’ eschatological discourse (Mark 13:5-13ff par), the visionary narrative of the book of Revelation, and many other passages in the New Testament discussed in this series. It also reflected the practical experience of many believers at the time, as Paul, for example, makes clear at a number of points in his letters (esp. 1 & 2 Thessalonians, and the earlier articles on them in this series).

All of this means that, in going through the period of distress, believers, were, in a sense, experiencing the first stages of God’s Judgment—it begins with the house of God. However, while the fire of Judgment means punishment for the wicked (non-believers, those “unpersuaded” by the Gospel), for believers it serves as a means of testing one’s faith, like precious metal purified in the fire. At the same time, if believers are careless or negligent, they may still escape the punishment, but only narrowly, and through fire that burns away all that is impure or improper. This seems to be the implication, in part, of the citation of Prov 11:31 (LXX) in verse 18; Paul says much the same thing, though in a different context, in 1 Cor 3:12-15. The providential character of the suffering of believers is made clear in the final encouraging words of verse 19, referring to believers as “the (one)s suffering according to the will of God” —it is suffering that, ultimately, serves a beneficial purpose.

1 Peter 5:1-5

In 5:1-5, the instruction shifts to those who are the “elders”, the leading ministers and overseers of the congregations. As ‘shepherds’ who guard and guide the congregation, these persons have a greater responsibility, which includes strengthening the ones who experience suffering and persecution during the time of distress. Along with this responsibility, and a significant share of suffering as well, there is the promise of the heavenly reward, the “honor/splendor [do/ca] th(at is) about to be uncovered” (v. 1) This refers primarily to the end-time return of Jesus, but also to all that awaits for believers once we are gathered to him. This is the future hope (e)lpi/$) mentioned throughout the letter (cf. above, and in Part 1). The promise is stated more precisely in verse 4:

“…and, (at the) shining forth of the Chief Herdsman [i.e. Jesus the Shepherd], you will (receive and) care for a wreath of honor/splendor [do/ca] th(at is) without fading [i.e. that never fades].”

1 Peter 5:6-11

The ethical and religious instruction of the letter reaches it climax in these closing verses, with its sense of eschatological urgency coming through vividly. The sense that time is short, and that danger and persecution are close at hand, permeates the passage, from its initial words:

“So (then) you must lower [i.e. humble] yourselves under the mighty hand of God, (so) that He may lift you high in the (coming) moment…” (v. 6)

This “moment” (kairo/$) has eschatological significance, though the particular aspect may not be immediately apparent on a casual reading (see the other occurrences of the noun in 1:5, 11; 4:17 [above]). Also unquestionably eschatological is the use of the verb grhgoreu/w (“keep awake, keep watch”), as can be seen from similar exhortations in Mark 13:34-37 par (also 14:34ff par); Matt 25:13; Luke 12:37; 1 Thess 5:6, 10; Rev 3:2-3; 16:15. It is part of verse 8, one of the most famous in the letter:

“You must be sober, you must stay awake [grhgorh/sate]! The (one seek)ing decision against you, (the) Dia/bolo$, walks about roaring as a lion, seeking [someone] to gulp down…”

The noun a)nti/diko$, usually translated as “opponent, adversary”, here captures the eschatological Judgment-context. It literally means something like one who seeks “a right (decision) against” someone, i.e. in a court of law. The original meaning of the Hebrew /f*c* (´¹‰¹n, Satan) was also primarily judicial; even the corresponding Greek dia/bolo$ (i.e. Devil) preserves this aspect when understood literally as one who “throws across” accusations against someone. However, the Satan/Devil truly is opposed to believers (and to God), and represents the forces of evil that would attack (i.e. persecute) the faithful (lit. “gulp down”, katapi/nw; cp. the imagery in Revelation 12:4, 15-16). Christians should not despair in the face of such attacks, since believers everywhere are experiencing this (v. 9), and will continue to all the more, as the period of distress intensifies, prior to Jesus’ return.

Some commentators have sought to tie these references to specific instances of persecution against Christians, in the Roman Empire, during the mid-late 1st century, such as the brief (but severe) attack in the city of Rome during Nero’s reign. This would correspond roughly with the likely date of the letter (early 60’s), a letter which, it would seem, was itself written from Rome (“Babylon”, v. 13); even so, there is not enough information to draw any definite conclusions. The author (Peter) does not seem to be referring to direct attacks by the local (or imperial) authorities, though he may envision the possibility of this in his instruction that Christians are to behave honorably, avoiding provocative or anti-social behavior (cf. 2:13-23; 3:13-17). Any opposition toward believers is expected to come more from the surrounding (pagan) society as a whole, rather than from the government.

The final words of encouragement in verse 10, fittingly, bring out the eschatological emphasis that has been maintained throughout the letter:

“And the God of all favor, the (One hav)ing called you into His honor/splendor [do/ca] of the Ages, in (the) Anointed [Yeshua], (hav)ing suffered a little, He will (set you) down fit, He will (set you) firm, He will strengthen (you), He will (keep you) in place.”

At the heart of this statement is a contrast between a brief period of suffering in the present (“[hav]ing suffered a little”), and the eternal reward (“honor, splendor”, do/ca) that awaits for believers. It is to this moment that God has called us, the promise of which we already experience now “in Christ”; after only a little while, it will be realized in full with Jesus’ return in glory to earth. For believers, eternal life follows the consummation of the current Age, a significance that is rightly preserved by a literal translation of the idiom as “honor/splendor of the Age(s) [ai)w/nio$]”.

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