1 Peter 3:22
The confessional statement in 1 Peter 3:22 has a pattern similar to the “Christ hymns” we have been examining in these notes. Indeed, it is altogether possible that there is preserved here a primitive formula, which hews more closely to the early kerygma, with its focus on the exaltation of Jesus—that is, his death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven at the “right hand” of God. As I have discussed repeatedly, this exaltation-aspect represents the earliest Christology, to which a pre-existence aspect developed alongside during the second half of the 1st century A.D. The great “Christ hymns” of Philippians (2:6-11) and Colossians (1:15-20) combine both aspects, holding them closely in tandem, while they are blended together even more carefully in the letter of Hebrews (cf. the recent notes on the hymnic statements in 1:2b-4).
The date and composition of 1 Peter remain in dispute among New Testament scholars and commentators. The text itself (1:1) indicates that the apostle Peter was the author, but some critical commentators are inclined to view the letter as pseudonymous (though not nearly so many as who hold this view for 2 Peter). If the letter is genuinely the work of Peter, then this, combined with the reference to “Babylon” (presumably Rome) in 5:13, suggests a date sometime around 60 A.D. (or shortly thereafter). A date in the early/mid-60’s would have to be posited even if one were to accept the theory that the letter was primarily composed by Silvanus (5:12), writing under the (posthumous) authority of Peter.
Such dating, under the assumption of Petrine authorship (in one form or another), is significant in terms of the Christological development that took place during the 1st century. It was precisely in the period of the late-50s to early-60s that we find the first evidence for the rise of a pre-existence Christology—i.e., the belief that Jesus must have had existence as the Son of God even prior to his life on earth. Such a belief is first attested, in a limited, rudimentary manner, in Paul’s letters (1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Romans) written during the mid-late 50’s. It is then expressed more directly in the Christ hymns of Philippians (c. 60) and Colossians; the latter, if genuinely a Pauline work (rather than pseudonymous), was probably written a year or two after Philippians.
Thus, according to the common traditional-conservative view, 1 Peter would have been written at roughly the same time as Philippians and Colossians. Whether or not the “Christ hymns” in those letters represent earlier statements adapted by Paul, or are his own compositions, it is clear that Paul affirms and makes use of the Christology they contain. The possibility that the Philippians hymn, in particular, is drawn from an earlier hymnic composition, along with the evidence from Hebrews, shows that the blending of exaltation and pre-existence Christology was not unique to Paul at this time; indeed, it was likely held and shared by many believers during the period c. 60-90 A.D. At the same time, the relative newness of the pre-existence view of Jesus’ divine Sonship perhaps explains the rise of poetic/hymnic formulae (i.e., these numerous “Christ hymns”) to establish it and make it more familiar to believers in congregations throughout the Greco-Roman world.
As noted above, the statement in 1 Pet 3:22 only represents the exaltation-aspect. However, there is evidence that the author (identified as Peter), at the time of writing (c. 60-64?), held at least a rudimentary pre-existence view as well. In speaking of Jesus’ sacrificial death (1:19), comparing it to that of a pure lamb (alluding to the Passover ritual) “without blame and without spot”, the author goes on to refer to him as:
“having been known before(hand), before (the) casting down [i.e. foundation/creation] of (the) world, but (now hav)ing been made to shine forth upon th(ese) last times, for you…” (1:20)
The me\n…de/ construction in this verse establishes a contrastive juxtaposition (i.e., “on the one hand…on the other…”). Jesus’ “being known (by God) beforehand” is contrasted with his “being made to shine forth” (on earth, to be seen/known by human beings). This implies a (pre-existent) life with God prior to his life on earth (cp. Phil 2:6-8).
Turning to the statement in 3:22, it follows the basic pattern of the other “Christ hymns”, opening with a relative pronoun (o%$), characterized by traditional kerygmatic terms and phrases, with a poetic/hymnic rhythm, and containing a decided emphasis on the exalted place/position of Jesus in heaven. Here is the statement, beginning with the tail end of v. 21:
“…through (the) standing up [i.e. resurrection] of Yeshua (the) Anointed,
who [o%$] is
on (the) giving [i.e. right] (hand) of God,
(hav)ing traveled into heaven,
(hav)ing been put in order under him
(the) Messengers and authorities and powers.”
There is an interesting chiastic structure to the lines of the ‘hymn’ in v. 22, which may be outlined as follows:
- Heavenly realm—the “right hand” of God (His throne)
- Exaltation—ascension into heaven [active/Jesus the subject]
- Exaltation—granting of divine rule [passive/Jesus the object]
- Heavenly realm—rule over all other (heavenly) beings
- Heavenly realm—the “right hand” of God (His throne)
The emphasis on Jesus’ position of rule is central to the Christ hymns of Philippians and Colossians, and is very much in focus here as well. The outer phrases summarize the heavenly domain where Jesus exercises rule, while the inner phrases (aorist participial phrases) describe the process of the exalted Jesus coming to rule. This process has two components, indicated by each of the aorist participles:
- poreuqei/$ (“[hav]ing traveled”)—that is, “into heaven”, i.e., Jesus’ ascension following his death and resurrection
- u(potage/ntwn (“[hav]ing been arranged under”)—the location parallel to “into heaven” is “under him” (i.e. under Jesus)
The latter phrase and its verb (u(pota/ssw) requires additional comment. The participle u(potage/ntwn is a plural passive form, the subject of which is not Jesus, but the three groups mentioned in the following line. The verb u(pota/ssw means “arrange under” or “put in order under”, and can specifically connote persons who are under the authority of a superior. It is used most frequently in the Pauline letters (23 of 38 NT occurrences), but also five other times here in 1 Peter (2:13, 18; 3:1, 5; 5:5). In all these instances in 1 Peter, the verb is used in the context of believers humbly (and willingly) submitting to governmental authorities—whether within the household, the Christian congregation, or society at large. Similarly here, the groups mentioned in the final line are placed (by God) under the authority of the exalted Jesus (“[under] him,” au)tw=|).
The triad of “Messengers” (a&ggeloi, i.e. Angels), “authorities” (e)cousi/ai), and “powers” (du/nami$, pl.) is a comprehensive reference to the heavenly beings. There is a similar reference in the Christ hymn of Colossians (1:16), while 1 Tim 3:16 has only the first term (a&ggeloi). The Philippians hymn expresses the universality of Jesus’ rule with a different triad, referencing three parts of the cosmos (2:10)—cp. Col 1:20, “the (thing)s upon the earth and the (thing)s in the heavens”. The noun e)cousi/a, rather difficult to translate literally in English, generally signifies something which a person has the ability to do, an ability that resides in the person’s own being (and control), though the power/ability to act may also be granted to him/her by a superior. The English word “authority” is typically used to render e)cousi/a, and that is as good a translation as any.
The terms “authorities” and “powers” can refer either to physical (human) beings or heavenly spirit-beings, though the context here is clearly to heavenly beings (in Col 1:16 both heavenly and earthly realms are in view); cp. Mk 13:25 par; Rom 8:38; 1 Cor 15:24-27; Col 2:15; Eph 1:21; 6:12; Heb 6:5, etc. The idea is that there are spirit-beings which exercise governing control over the universe; this very much reflects the basic polytheistic worldview of the time, though filtered through monotheistic Israelite/Jewish (and subsequently early Christian) sensibilities. Angels were seen as having control over various parts of the universe, but it was a contingent power granted to them by the one Creator God (El-Yahweh). Moreover, as the world—the current world-order (ko/smo$)—came to be viewed as predominantly sinful and wicked, an additional layer of immediate control was attributed to evil/rebellious spirit-beings (or ‘fallen’ angels), in direct opposition to God. Such cosmic dualism was increasingly common among Jews in the first centuries B.C./A.D. (most notably, the Community of Qumran texts), and was inherited by early Christians as well. It is especially prominent in the Johannine tradition (cf. the many occurrences of the work ko/smo$ in the Gospel and first Letter of John), but can be found throughout the New Testament; Paul’s references to ‘authorities and powers’ also tend to have this negative association (cf. above).
However, here in 1 Pet 3:22, the terms are neutral, and comprehensive—they include the wicked ‘powers’ that exert influence over the world, but are scarcely limited to them. We may fairly understand the triad of “messengers, authorities, and powers” as a reference to all heavenly beings, especially those who exercise governing control over the universe. They all are subject to the exalted Jesus, who shares the authority of God the Father Himself. This is the significance of his position “at the right hand” of God, a key motif of the early Christology and kerygma (cf. the earlier note on Heb 1:3).