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Bible Commentaries
1 Peter

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

- 1 Peter

by Editor - William Robertson Nicoll


THE two letters which bear the name of St. Peter have from the earliest times met with very different degrees of acceptance. The genuineness of the First Epistle is attested by the unanimous voice of primitive Christendom. As it is addressed to Christians dwelling in different parts of Asia Minor, it is natural to look for a knowledge of it in those countries. And nowhere is it earlier noticed. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, a contemporary of the last surviving Apostle, and whose martyrdom took place about the middle of the second century, has repeated quotations from this Epistle. It was known also to Papias (163), Bishop of Hierapolis, and to Melito (170), Bishop of Sardis. That it was known to the Greeks is seen from the Epistle to Diognetus, which for a long time was attributed to Justin Martyr (165), while the "Shepherd" of Hermas, written at Rome, testifies that it was known there also at about the same date. The inclusion of it in the Peschito-Syriac Version bears witness to its early circulation in the Eastern Church, as also does its quotation in the writings of Theophilus of Antioch (178). Heretics, no less than the faithful, regarded it as a portion of authoritative Christian literature. Basilides in Alexandria and the Marcosians and Theodotus in Syria all knew and cited this Epistle. The Latin Church of Africa accepted it, as we can see from a few quotations in Tertullian (218) and a greater number in the writings of Cyprian (258). In the Alexandrian Church it is often quoted by both Clement (218) and Origen (254); while for Gaul we have the testimony of the Church of Vienne in the touching letter sent by the Christians there to their "brethren in Asia and Phrygia" (177), and of Irenaeus, who was Bishop of Lyons shortly afterwards, and who, coming from Asia to fill that see, is a witness both for the East and the West. From the Christian Church of the early centuries it is hardly possible to produce stronger attestation.

But although so abundantly vouched for in ancient days, the Epistle has not been exempt from the assaults of modern criticism. Primitive Christendom regarded St. Peter, St. John, and St. Paul as heralds of one and the same Gospel, founded on the same promises, strengthened by the same faith. They were at one in what they taught and what they opposed. But some modern thinkers, taking as a thesis that the Gospel as set forth by the Apostle of the Circumcision differed widely from the doctrines of St. Paul, have proceeded to make an eclectic Christian literature, out of which the First Epistle of St. Peter has been rejected. Its language is too much in harmony with accepted writings of St. Paul. It can only have been compiled by some later hand to promote the opinion that there was no discord between the teachings of the first Christian preachers. Moreover, it is inconceivable, they consider, that a letter should be addressed by St. Peter to the Christians in those very lands where the missionary labors of St. Paul had been specially exerted, where the converts were in a peculiar sense his "little children."

Now in this first letter of St. Peter there is unquestionably much that corresponds in tone with the Epistle to the Romans, especially with the twelfth and thirteenth chapters. In both letters Christians are exhorted to offer their bodies as spiritual sacrifices, to shun conformity with the world, to study to be sober in mind, and to use daily all the gifts which they possess; the same unfeigned love of the brethren is inculcated, the same patience under suffering. Christians are not to retaliate, but to overcome evil with good; they are to be in subjection to all lawful authority, and this for conscience’ sake; to avoid all excesses, rioting, drunkenness, chambering, and wantonness, and to be ever looking forward to the coming of the Lord.

In like manner there will be found numerous passages in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians which in spirit and tone greatly resemble the words of St. Peter. At the very outset St. Paul addresses his converts as "chosen of God in Christ before the foundation of the world, that they should be holy and without blemish before Him in love"; tells them that they were "foreordained unto adoption as sons through Jesus Christ according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise and glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on them in the Beloved". {Ephesians 1:3-6} Similarly St. Peter writes to "the elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ," and presently he adds that "according to God’s great mercy they were begotten again by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead". {1 Peter 1:1-3} In both epistles there is the same teaching, the same election in love, the same sonship, the same progress in holiness, the same free gift through Jesus Christ. But in neither is there a word that can be taken to militate against independent authorship. And the same remark applies to all the resemblances which exist between the two epistles in the exhortations to servants, wives, and husbands; in the commendations of humility, pity, courtesy; in the entreaties to the believers to gird up the loins of the mind and to lay aside all malice and hatred; in those passages which speak of them as strangers and pilgrims, as called from darkness to light, as being a spiritual house, built upon Christ as the head cornerstone. Of all these exhortations undoubted parallels are to be found; but they are only evidence of the common character which would pervade all the teaching of the apostolic missionaries where the people addressed were the same, the times not far apart, and the dangers and temptations known alike to all the writers. Hence parallels to St. Peter may be found in St. James too, but they are no proof that the one Apostle (or, as some critics say, some one writing under his name) copied from the other.

Nor is it easy to see reason why St. Peter might not be expected to write a letter to the congregations formed first by St. Paul. No Evangelist or Apostle could publish the message of the Gospel-that is, the life and works-of Christ without telling of His chosen followers; and amongst them, if our Gospels be a true picture, St. Peter must ever have filled a prominent place. The Churches in Asia assuredly had heard much of him, and in a time of persecution or impending trial nothing could be more fit than that the Apostle who had been most prominent amid Christ’s companions should write from Babylon or from Rome, it may be, where the signs of the times would proclaim most clearly the sufferings for which the Christian inhabitants of the provinces should be prepared, to encourage the believers in Asia to steadfastness and to remind them that the same afflictions were being accomplished in their brethren that were elsewhere in the world.

This was likely enough, even had St. Peter never visited the districts to which his letter was addressed. But we seem to find traces of him in Corinth, {1 Corinthians 9:5; cf. also 1 Corinthians 15:5} and he certainly was not unknown by name to the Christians of that city.

And if so, why need we question his journeying through Asia Minor? And he was aware of the labors of his fellow-apostle. From personal intercourse and discussion, especially in connection with the council at Jerusalem, he would be sure that they were of one mind. It may be that he had learnt something of St. Paul’s letters to the Churches. Under such circumstances it is not foreign to St. Peter’s character, nay rather quite in harmony with it, that he should fulfill the Lord’s command to "strengthen the brethren"; that he should send them an earnest assurance that, spite of sufferings and trials, this was the true grace of God, in which they should rejoice to stand. But there are internal tokens in the Epistle which seem more powerful evidence of its genuineness than anything else. The writer calls himself "Peter, an Apostle of Jesus Christ"; and he declares his personality by touches and allusions which a forger would never have fabricated. Thus he says, "All of you gird yourselves with humility, to serve one another." {1 Peter 5:5} The verb which he employs here indicates a sort of girding about with some towel or apron, which a slave put on for doing some menial service. It is almost impossible that the writer had not in his thoughts the act of Christ when He gave His great lesson of humility; "If I have washed your feet, ye ought also to Wash one another’s feet." So, too, the Master’s exhortation, "Feed My sheep," "Feed My lambs," comes to mind as we read, "Tend the flock of God which is among you, exercising the oversight, not of constraint, but willingly". {1 Peter 5:2} And St. Peter’s own words spoken in the house of Cornelius are reproduced when the Father is declared to be One "who, without respect of persons, judgeth according to each man’s work". {1 Peter 1:17}

But it is in the allusions to Christ’s passion and resurrection, those events which marked the deep fall and the rising again of St. Peter, that the personality of the Apostle becomes most manifest. He has been himself "a witness of the sufferings of Christ". {1 Peter 5:1} He can speak as an eyewitness of the Lord’s death in the flesh {1 Peter 3:18-22; 1 Peter 4:1} and His quickening in the spirit; can exhort men to courage because they are partakers of the sufferings of Christ. {1 Peter 4:13} Who does not feel that the writer of the words, "Let them also that suffer according to the will of God commit their souls in well-doing unto a faithful Creator," {1 Peter 4:19} is thinking of the scene on the cross, of the Savior’s finished work, of the dying cry, "Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit?"

Perhaps the most striking instance of this peculiarity, this tendency to dwell on the events of the Passion, is found in 1 Peter 2:19-24. Speaking to servants, he argues, "What glory is it if when ye sin and are buffeted for it ye shall take it patiently?" And having used the word by which the Evangelists describe {Matthew 26:67; Mark 14:65} the insults heaped upon the Lord at His trial, the writer is carried away in mind to the whole scene: "He did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth; when He was reviled, He reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not, but committed Himself to Him that judgeth righteously; in His own self He bare our sins in His own body upon the tree, that we, having died unto sins, might live unto righteousness, by whose stripes ye were healed." And in the last clause especially we see traces of one who had been present through the painful history. The word rendered "stripes" means "bruises" or "weals," such as come from savage blows, and is just the word which would occur to one who had seen the bruised body taken down from the cross, but hardly to any one else.

Again, the writer makes you feel without quoting that he has the words of Jesus constantly in his mind. Thus in the exhortation, "Cast all your anxiety upon God, for He careth for you"; {1 Peter 5:7} when he says, "If ye are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are ye," {1 Peter 4:14} or "Be sober; be vigilant," {1 Peter 5:8} or "Be sober unto prayer," {1 Peter 4:7} or commends "not rendering evil for evil, or reviling for reviling, but contrariwise blessing," {1 Peter 3:9} at each of the sentences -and the letter abounds with examples-there rise in the reader’s mind some similar words of Christ, making him feel that he is perusing a writing of one to whom the Lord’s language was abundantly familiar.

With the marks of personal character and associations meeting us constantly, and with the unbroken consensus of antiquity in favor of St. Peter’s authorship, we shall not lightly allow speculations about hypothetical differences between the teaching of the Apostles of the Gentiles and of the circumcision to disturb our acceptance of this letter for what it proclaims itself to be: the work of the Apostle St. Peter, of one who was himself a witness of the sufferings of Christ.

Of the Second Epistle the whole history is very different. It appears to have been little known in the early Church, and is included by Eusebius (330) among the αντιλεγομενα , "books to which objection was raised "as late as his day. It is true that in Clement of Rome there is a sentence {Ephesians 1:11} which many have accepted as containing a clear allusion to the passage {2 Peter 2:6-7} which speaks of Lot and the destruction of Sodom. And if this could be demonstrated with certainty, it would be most valuable testimony. It would prove the Epistle to have been accepted at a very early date and by the important Church in Rome. But we have so far to go before we come upon any other notice that the silence makes us doubtful of the evidence from Clement. Moreover, such other witness as we do find is not of a very direct character. Firmilian, Bishop of Caesarea, in Cappadocia, about 256 A.D., in a letter of which a Latin version is preserved among the writings of Cyprian, uses words which probably indicate that he knew both the epistles of St. Peter; but he gives no quotation. The Second Epistle was no doubt meant for the same readers as the First; and that is addressed, among others, to the Christians of Cappadocia, so that there is no improbability in supposing the letter to have been early known there. Theophilus of Antioch (170) uses the comparison of the word to a lamp shining in a dark place in such a way as to give the impression that he knew the Epistle, and a similar possible reference is found in the writings of Ephraem Syrus (378). Palladius (400), who was a friend of Chrysostom, and wrote at Rome, makes a clear allusion to 2 Peter; and in the Apology of Melito, Bishop of Sardis, there is a passage concerning the destruction of the world by fire at the last day which is strikingly parallel to 2 Peter 3:5-7, and can hardly have been written without a knowledge of the Epistle.

This is a very small amount of early evidence, and among the more voluminous writers of the first three centuries we find no mention of the Epistle. We cannot, therefore, be surprised that by Eusebius it is classed among the works of less acceptance. But the same fate befell larger and more important writings than this Epistle. The Apocalypse and the Epistle to the Hebrews stand in the same list in Eusebius. And St. Peter’s second letter has not the same general interest as the first, and therefore is likely to have been less widely circulated; and this is all that Eusebius’s classification means. The books were not generally received because there was a less general knowledge of their existence and history.

But when the Church entered on the settlement of the New Testament Canon at the Council of Laodicea (366), the Second Epistle of St. Peter was accepted; and no doubt there was evidence then before the assembled Fathers which time has now destroyed. Yet in the letter itself there are points which no doubt weighed with them, and which are patent to us as they were then. The writer claims to be St. Peter, an Apostle and the writer of a previous epistle. He speaks solemnly of his death as near at hand; and still more solemn, when viewed as evidence, is the declaration that he had been one of the witnesses of Christ’s transfiguration. It is almost inconceivable that a forger, writing to warn against false teachers, writing in the interest of truth, should have thus deliberately assumed a name and experience to which he had no claim. These statements must have influenced the opinion of the Laodicaean Council, and we know that they did not act on light evidence; they did not on the strength of a name accept into their canon, but excluded works at the time widely circulated and passing for histories or letters of some of the Apostles. Moreover, when we consider the kind of teaching against which St. Peter’s epistle is directed, it is difficult to place it anywhere except at about the same date as St. Paul’s epistles. It speaks of the "fables," {μυθοι, 1 Peter 1:16} the groundless, baseless fancies, of the early heretics, in the same manner which we find in St. Paul .{cf. 1 Timothy 1:4-20; 1 Timothy 2:1-15; 1 Timothy 3:1-16; 1 Timothy 4:1-7} The same greed and covetousness (πλεονεξια) is noted by both the Apostles in the teachers against whom their voice is raised. {cf. 2 Peter 2:3 1 Timothy 6:5 Titus 1:2} There are the same beguiling promises of liberty, {cf. 2 Peter 2:19 1 Corinthians 10:29 Galatians 5:13} a perversion of the freedom of which St. Paul speaks so much to the Galatian converts; and just as he warns against "false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty" {Galatians 2:4} so does St. Peter condemn those "who privily bring in heresies of destruction". {2 Peter 2:1} With so many common features in the two pictures, we can scarcely be wrong in referring them to the same times. No other period in early Church history suits the language of St. Peter so well as the few years before his martyrdom. The First Epistle may be dated eight or ten years earlier.

There is another morsel of evidence from the New Testament which is worth notice. St. Peter describes the heretics against whom he writes as following the error of Balaam the son of Beor, and notes this among the tokens of their covetousness. In the Apocalypse {Revelation 2:14-15} the same people are described, and in the same terms, but with an addition. They have received a definite name, and St. John terms them several times over "the Nicolaitanes." Such a distinctive title marks a later date than St. Peter’s descriptive one, which is drawn from the Old Testament. The Apocalypse was assuredly written before the destruction of Jerusalem. If then we may take the mention of the Nicolaitanes by that designation as an indication of a later date than 2 Peter, we are again brought to the time to which we have already referred the Epistle: some time between 68 and 70 A. D.

Considerable discussion has arisen about the passages in 2 Peter which are like the language of St. Jude. There can be no doubt that either one Apostle copied the words of the other, or that both drew from a common original. But this point, in whatever way it be settled, need not militate against St. Peter’s authorship. It is nothing unworthy of the Apostle, if he find to his hand the words of a fellow-teacher which will serve his need, to use what he finds. Nay, the letter itself tells us that he was prepared to do this. For he refers his readers {1 Peter 3:15} to the writings of St. Paul for support of his own exhortations. St. Peter’s seems, however, to be the earlier of the two epistles, if we compare his words, "There shall be false teachers, who shall bring in heresies of destruction," etc. (1 Peter 2:1), with St. Jude, who speaks of these misleading teachers as already existent and active: "There are certain men crept in unawares"; "These are spots now existing in the feasts of charity"; "They are feasting among the brethren without fear." And St. Jude seems clearly to be alluding to St. Peter’s {2 Peter 3:3} when he says, "Remember ye the words which were spokes before of the Apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, how that they told you there should be mockers" (εμπαικται) "in the last time." This word for "mockers" is found only in St. Peter’s epistle. It is nowhere else in the New Testament; and while St. Peter’s words are a direct utterance, St. Jude’s are a quotation.

But there are two or three features of resemblance between the style of St. Peter’s First Epistle and the Second which support strongly the genuineness of the latter. The First Epistle has a large proportion of words found nowhere else in the New Testament. There are a score of such words in this short composition. Now the Second Epistle presents us with the same peculiarity in rather larger abundance. There are twenty-four words there which appear in no other New Testament writing. It seems to have been a peculiarity of the writer of both letters to use somewhat uncommon and striking words. Now take the Second Epistle to have been the work of an imitator. He would be sure to notice such a characteristic, and sure also to repeat, for the sake of connection, some distinctive expressions of the first letter in the second. But the case is much otherwise. There is the same abundance of unusual words in both epistles, but not a single repetition; the same peculiarity is manifest, but displays itself in entirely new material. This is an index of authorship, not of imitation.

There are one or two differences between the two epistles which in their way are of equal interest. The first letter was one of encouragement and consolation; the second is full of warning. Hence, though the coming of the Lord is dwelt on alike in the two, in the former it is set forth as a revelation, {1 Peter 1:5}, as a day for which believers were looking, and in which their hopes would be realized, and their afflictions at an end; in the second letter the same event is called a coming (παρουσια) an appearing, a presence, but one which will usher in the great and terrible day of the Lord, and be the prelude of judgment to them that have fallen away.

Again, the sufferings of Christ are a theme much dwelt on in the First Epistle, where they are pointed to as the lot which Christians are to expect, and the Lord is the pattern which they are to imitate; in the Second they are hardly noticed. But was there not a cause for such reticence? Was it a time to urge on men the imitation of Christ when the danger was great that they would deny Him altogether?

No doubt many other points of evidence, which are lost to us, were presented to the Fathers of the Laodicaean Council, and with the result that the Second Epistle of St. Peter was received into the Canon side by side with the First. But the three centuries of want of acknowledgment have left their mark on its subsequent history, and many earnest minds have treated it as of less authority than other more accepted portions of the New Testament. Among these is Luther, who speaks of the First Epistle as one of the noblest in the New Testament, but is doubtful about the claims of the Second. Similar was the judgment of Erasmus and of Calvin.

We cannot, however, go back to the evidence produced at Laodicea. Time has swept that away, but, while doing so, has left us the result thereof; and the acceptance of the Epistle by the Fathers there assembled will be judged by most men to stand in lieu of the evidence. No court of law would permit a decision so authenticated and of such standing to be disturbed or overruled. And we ourselves can observe some points still which draw to the same conclusion. The letter harmonizes in tone with the other New Testament writings, and some of its linguistic peculiarities are strikingly in accord with the universally accepted letter of St. Peter. We are therefore not unwilling, though we have not the early testimony which we could desire, and though the primitive Church held its genuineness for doubtful, to believe that ere this second letter was classed with the other New Testament writings these doubts were cleared away, and would be cleared away for us could we hear all the evidence tendered before those who fixed the contents of the Canon.

The discovery recently in Egypt of some fragments of the Gospel and Apocalypse once current under the name of St. Peter has drawn attention once more to the genuineness and authenticity of the Second Epistle in our Canon. But the difference in character between it and these apocryphal documents is very great. The Gospel ascribed to Peter seems to have been written by some one who held the opinion, current among the early heretics, that the Incarnation was unreal, and that the Divine in Christ Jesus had no participation in the sufferings at the Crucifixion. Hence our Lord is represented as having no sense of pain at that time. He is said to have been deserted by His "power" in the moment of death. The stature of the angels at the Resurrection is represented as very great, but that of the risen Christ much greater. To these peculiar features may be added the response made by the cross to a voice which was heard from heaven, the cross having followed the risen Christ from the tomb. In the fragments of the Apocalypse we have a description of the torments of the wicked utterly foreign to the character of the New Testament writings, in which the veil of the unseen world is rarely withdrawn. The circumstance and detail given in the apocryphal fragment to the punishments of sinners mark it as the parent of those mediaeval legends of which the "Visions of Furseus" and "St. Patrick’s Purgatory" afford well-known examples.

The study of these fragments, of which the Gospel may be dated about 170 A.D., sends us back to the contemplation of the Second Epistle of St. Peter more conscious than before at what a very early date errors, both of history and doctrine, were promulgated among the Christian societies, while at the same time we are impressed more strongly with the sense that the accord of the Second Epistle with Gospel history, where it is alluded to, as well as the simplicity of Christian doctrine which it enforces, mark it as not unworthy of that place in the Canon which was accorded to it in the very earliest councils which dealt with the contents of New Testament Scripture.

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