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

The Letter of 1 Peter

The two Petrine letters are the most thoroughly eschatological of all the New Testament writings (apart from the book of Revelation). It is hard to say how much our understanding of the early Christian eschatology in these letters is to be affected by longstanding questions regarding their authorship. Both letters claim to have been written by the apostle Simon Peter, and yet commentators have expressed doubt over the authenticity of this detail, though less so in the case of 1 Peter. If the reference in 1 Pet 1:1 is genuine (and not a mark of pseudonymity), then the letter is probably to be dated around 60 A.D. Even so, there are several ways to understand Peter’s role in the composition of the letter (and of the reference to Silvanus in 5:12): (1) Peter dictated the letter to Silvanus who presented it in more polished Greek, (2) it was co-authored with Silvanus, or (3) it was sent in the name of Peter, on his behalf, by an unknown author (together with Silvanus). Of these traditional-conservative approaches, the second makes most sense. If this “Silvanus” is the same as the “Silas” who served as an apostolic missionary together with Paul, it might explain some of the apparent similarity, in thought and expression, between 1 Peter and the Pauline letters.

In my view, the eschatology of the letter is fully in accord with a date of c. 60 A.D. It generally corresponds to the eschatological orientation in the Pauline letters we have examined (mainly in the period c. 50-58 A.D.), as well as the letter of James (cf. the previous article). Which is not to say that there are not some significant differences in emphasis, as we shall consider here below. Space will not allow detailed exegesis of every eschatological section in 1 Peter; instead, each important section will be surveyed, with special attention paid to the key eschatological phrases and expressions in the passage.

1 Peter 1:3-12

Following the epistolary prescript (opening/greeting), the exordium (introduction/thanksgiving) in verses 3-12 demonstrates the strong eschatological orientation of the letter. Verses 3-9 comprise a single long sentence in Greek, which becomes quite impractical in a modern English translation. However, I make every attempt here to preserve this syntax, as it is vital to maintain a sense of the force and flow of the author’s rhetoric. To aid the reader, I give this here in a syntactical outline form:

  • “(Of) good account (is)
    the God and Father of our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed,
    • the (One who), according to (how) much (there is) of His mercy,
      • (hav)ing caused us to be (born) again
        • into a living hope through the standing up (again) of Yeshua out of the dead,
        • into the lot (that is) without decay and without stain and without fading (away),
          • having been kept watch (over) in (the) heavens unto [i.e. for] you,
            • the (one)s (who) in the power of God (are) being watched before (Him), through trust, into (the) salvation
              • made ready to be uncovered in (the) last moment,
                • in which you leap (for joy), if a little (while) now (your) being saddened [is] necessary, in (your) various (time)s of testing,
                  • (so) that the consideration of your trust, more valuable than (the) gold th(at is) going to ruin, but (now) being considered through fire, should be found unto praise and honor and value in (the) uncovering of Yeshua (the) Anointed,
                    • who, not (hav)ing seen, you (still) love,
                    • in whom, not perceiving him now, but (still) trusting,
                      • you leap (about) in joy (that is) without (any) calling out and (yet) having been esteemed,
                        • taking care (to receive) the completion of [your] trust—
                          • the salvation of your souls.”

Let us briefly consider the main eschatological phrases and statements within this extraordinary opening sentence.

“…into a living hope through the standing up (again) of Yeshua out of the dead, into the lot (that is) without decay and without stain and without fading (away), having been kept watch (over) in heaven unto [i.e. for] you” (vv. 3b-4)

The twin prepositional phrases, governed by the preposition ei)$, indicate what believers have come to be born into—(1) a living hope (e)lpi/$), and (2) inheriting the lot portioned out (klhronomi/a) that is without decay, etc. In the New Testament the word e)lpi/$ (“hope”) is fundamentally eschatological—i.e., the future hope. Paul uses it most frequently, where it often alludes to the future resurrection; cf. especially Rom 8:24-25 (and my earlier article on this passage), also 1 Cor 15:19; 2 Cor 3:12; Gal 5:5, etc. We may note in particular the similar wording in Col 1:5, of a future hope that is waiting for believers in heaven. Here, indeed, in v. 3b hope is connected with the resurrection, though it is Jesus’ own resurrection that is emphasized. The statement agrees with Paul, in terms of the idea that believers participate in the life-giving resurrection of Jesus—we are “born into” it, and it is a “living” hope. Almost certainly, the context of baptism is in view, along with our union with Christ through the presence of the Spirit. This is “realized” for believers already in the present, but we still await its fulfillment in the future.

Even more traditional is the reference to this new life in terms of inheritance, using the noun klhronomi/a, which refers to a person receiving the lot or share that has been portioned out. Again Paul makes frequent use of this idiom, but its occurrence is widespread. The contrast with an ordinary earthly inheritance (cf. further in v. 7) is made by the use of a trio of a)-privative adjectives (“without…”); in other words, it is a heavenly, eternal inheritance, as is made explicit with the final phrase “having been kept watch (over) in the heavens”. God Himself watches over this inheritance, and it is reserved for believers (“unto you”).

“…into (the) salvation made ready to be uncovered in (the) last moment” (v. 5b)

Even as God keeps watch (vb thre/w) over the heavenly inheritance of believers, so also He watches over believers themselves, in the time while they are yet on earth. In verse 5a, believers are characterized as “the (one)s (who) in the power of God (are) being watched before (Him)”. The verb froure/w is a bit difficult to translate; it refers to someone keeping an eye on (i.e. watching) something that is before him. Here, again, the implication is that it is God doing the watching. That He watches believers is clear by the expression “through trust” (dia\ pi/stew$); this is parallel with the expression “in the power of God”, giving both sides of the dynamic—the divine protection involves both God’s power and our trust.

The purpose, or goal, of this protection is indicated by the prepositional phrase in verse 5b, again using the preposition ei)$ (“into”)—believers are guarded unto/into salvation. On numerous occasions in this series, I have noted how, for early Christians, the idea of salvation (swthri/a) is primarily eschatological, with the emphasis on being saved from God’s end-time Judgment on humankind. The eschatological orientation is made explicit here, as this salvation is “made ready to be uncovered in (the) last moment”. That the author (Peter) believes he and his readers are living at the time when this “last moment” will come, is clear enough from the context of the passage, and the letter as a whole (cf. below). It is unquestionably an imminent eschatology.

“…in (your) various (time)s of testing, (so) that the consideration of your trust, more valuable than (the) gold th(at is) going to ruin, but (now) being considered through fire, should be found unto praise and honor and value in (the) uncovering of Yeshua (the) Anointed” (vv. 6b-7)

Currently, the trust of believers is being tested, indicated here by the plural noun peirasmoi/, in the expression e)n poiki/loi$ peirasmoi=$, which I have translated as “in various (time)s of testing”. The noun peirasmo/$ is often rendered as “temptation”, but this can be misleading; it more properly means “test(ing)”, i.e. being put to the test. It has a specific eschatological connotation in early Christianity, as a number of occurrences in the New Testament make clear. This is certainly the case, for example, in Revelation 3:10, and also elsewhere in the Petrine letters (4:12, discussed in Part 2; and 2 Pet 2:9). Yet even in Jesus’ use of the word—in the Lord’s Prayer and Garden scene of his Passion (Matt 6:13 par; Mark 14:38 par), there is a strong eschatological aspect which is often overlooked. The context of 4:12, with the same motif of fire, suggests that the sense of the “testing” is also eschatological here. The proof of the believer’s faith and devotion will be manifest at the “uncovering” of Jesus, i.e. his end-time return, which is thought to be imminent.

“…taking care (to receive) the completion of [your] trust—the salvation of your souls.” (v. 9b)

This final statement brings out the exhortational dimension of the entire passage. Believers are to take care to remain faithful, even during the moments of testing in the end-time, so that they/we may receive the inheritance that awaits for us in heaven. Again, it must be emphasized that the early Christian understanding of salvation was fundamentally eschatological, a point brought out here vividly at the conclusion of the sentence (cp. Jesus’ words in Mark 13:13 par). The use of the word te/lo$ (“completion”) likely has eschatological significance here as well (cf. 4:7).

More is said about this “salvation” that awaits for believers, in verses 10-12. It is possible to regard these verses as part of the same sentence as vv. 3-9, separating with a pause, or semi-colon; however, I think it better to treat vv. 10-12 as a separate sentence:

“About which salvation the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets] sought out and searched out… to whom it was uncovered that (it was) not for themselves, but for us, (that) they served (God in) th(ese thing)s, which are now given up as a message to you by the holy Spirit…”

This brings out a basic concept in early Christianity, one expressed by Paul with the use of the term musth/rion (“secret”)—that the Gospel message of Jesus Christ was a secret, hidden through the Ages, but only now being revealed, at the end-time. It was made known to the Prophets, but only in a veiled way, so that they did not fully understand what was being revealed to them, but had to “search out” the truth. The Spirit now makes clear this message for believers. Since Jesus was the Anointed One (Messiah), who has expected to appear at the end-time, the prophecies regarding him were eschatological prophecies. For early Christians, there was no significant separation between Jesus’ first coming and his eventual return—they were part of the same Prophetic message.

1 Peter 1:13-21ff

The exhortation of vv. 3-12 sharpens into a more precise ethical instruction in vv. 13-16ff; however, the eschatological orientation remains firmly in view. The imminence of Jesus’ return is expressed in verse 13, giving urgency to the instruction:

“Therefore, binding [i.e. girding] up the thighs/loins of (what goes) through your mind, (always) being sober, you must hope complete(ly) upon the favor (that is) being brought [lit. borne/carried] to you in the uncovering of Yeshua (the) Anointed.”

The adverb telei/w$ (“complete[ly]”), related to te/lo$ (“completion, end”), likely has a specific eschatological connotation here as well (cf. above, and on 4:7). Again, the “hope” (e)lpi/$) of believers is fundamentally eschatological, and rests on the end-time coming of Jesus, who will usher in the Judgment and save/deliver those who trust in him and remain faithful.

Verses 14-16 introduce the theme of believers as the chosen people of God; as such, the need to preserve the holiness of God, is central to the ethical instruction in the letter. The people of God are also his children (“offspring”, te/kna, v. 14), and so God is truly for them the Father (v. 17). This identity of believers as pure and holy people/children of God frames the passage in vv. 17-21, with its strong eschatological message. To begin with, the impending Judgment is mentioned in v. 17. Believers do not belong to the world (upon which the Judgment is coming), but are merely travelers passing through, in temporary dwellings (paroiki/a, “housing alongside”), living so for only a brief time (“you turn over [i.e. spend] your time”). While this may be understood generally, in terms of the relative brevity and transitory nature of human life (a common theme of Wisdom literature), it is all the more significant when the time remaining before the end is so short. The letter of James expresses this same eschatological aspect of the Wisdom tradition (cf. 1:9-11; 4:11-5:11).

Believers in Christ were set free from bondage to the transitory and corrupt existence of the world, and, as God’s own people (and children), now belong to the eternal and heavenly realm instead. This is experienced in the present, but will only be realized fully at the end-time. Both aspects—present and future—are expressed powerfully in the Christological statement of verses 19-20:

“(you were loosed from bondage) by the valuable blood of (the) Anointed, as (of) a lamb without fault and without spot, having been known before(hand), before the casting down [i.e. founding] of the world, but (having) been made to shine forth (now) upon the last times, through you [i.e. for your sake]”

There can be no doubt that, according to this statement, Jesus’ coming to earth took place in the “last times” (cp. Acts 2:17, “last days”, etc). If that is true of his initial appearance, it applies all the more to his return. Keep in mind that, for New Testament believers, c. 40-70 A.D., there was thought to be only a short gap of time between Jesus’ ascension and his return—both appearances reflect his identity as the Anointed One of the end-time, and both take place in the “last times”.

1 Peter 2:1-12

The same sort of ethical-religious instruction is found in 2:1-12, but presented in a more homiletic form, typical of the early Gospel preaching, in which the proclamation (kerygma) is set in the context of an Old Testament Scripture. Here the Scripture is a citation of Psalm 118:22 (also Isa 8:14), along with an allusion to Isa 28:16. The same Scripture was cited by Jesus in the Gospel tradition (Mark 12:10-11 par), and is also quoted or referenced in Acts 4:11 and Eph 2:20. In these passages, the emphasis is on Jesus as the foundation-stone or “cornerstone”; however, 1 Peter adds to this interpretation the image of believers as precious “living stones” (vv. 4-5, Isa 28:16; cp. Eph 2:21-22). This is important in light of the continuing theme of believers as the holy and chosen people of God (vv. 9-10). Because of this essential identity we possess, believers must live and act in a pure and upright manner that reflects this identity. The goal and purpose is that we would “grow into salvation” (v. 2). Again, this sense of salvation (swthri/a) is primarily eschatological—the eschatological aspect of the passage here is only brought out clearly in the closing exhortation of vv. 11-12:

“(Be)loved (one)s, I call (you) alongside, as (one)s (who only) house alongside and live alongside (the) people (of the world), to hold (yourself) away from (the) impulses upon fleshly (thing)s which make war (like) soldiers against the soul; (instead), (you should be) holding fine (the manner of) your turning up among the nations, (so) that, in the (way) that they speak against you as (one)s doing bad (things), (yet) casting (their) eyes upon (what comes) out of (your) fine works, they might honor God in the day of His (coming to) look (things) over [e)piskoph/].”

The vocabulary and syntax of these verses create certain difficulties in translation; preserving a literal rendering requires a fair amount of glossing and use of parenthetical words to fill out the passage. The sense of the exhortation is clear enough, though the precise meaning of the last clause remains a bit uncertain. Unquestionably, it refers to the end-time appearance of God, when he comes to bring Judgment. The idea seems to be that, even though at the moment many non-believers will disparage and speak evil of believers, they also (perhaps reluctantly) recognize the good that Christians do. And, as a result, this witness may eventually lead to the conversion of at least some non-believers, so that they will give honor to God at the time of Judgment. Compare Paul’s discussion, along similar lines, within a mixed marital setting (believer and non-believer), in 1 Cor 7:12-16.

In any case, the key word here is e)piskoph/ (literally, a “looking over”), sometimes used specifically in the sense of a supervising official coming (i.e. making an official visit) to look things over. In Hellenistic Judaism of the period, and in early Christianity, it came to have a technical meaning, referring to God’s (end-time) appearance on earth to look things over and render the Judgment accordingly. This could be understood as taking place through God’s appointed representative, i.e. the Messiah, or a similar heavenly/divine being. It has this meaning most clearly in Luke 19:44, where, in an early Christian (Gospel) setting, it functions as an allusion to Jesus’ end-time return.

(The remainder of this article follows in Part 2)

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