The Apostle Peter is the author of this letter, with an estimated writing date of around AD 64 – 65. Several pieces of evidence support this belief, starting with the introduction of the letter. It says, “Peter, an Apostle of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:1). He introduces himself in the very beginning of the letter, which was common practice in ancient times even as it is today. There is also other internal evidence in the epistle of Petrine authorship. We see Peter call himself a “witness of Christ’s sufferings” (1 Pet 5:1), which clearly is true of the Apostle Peter, as seen in the Gospels. The author also uses phrases that would seem to reflect Peter’s correspondence with Christ. For instance, Peter calls for the elders of the congregations to “be shepherds of God’s flock” (1 Pet 5:2). This certainly is reminiscent of Peter’s restoration after denying his Lord. Christ repeatedly said to Peter “tend my sheep” and “feed my lambs” (John 21). Peter now says the same to the elders of the churches.
Also, Peter calls each believer “living stones” being built into a spiritual house for God (1 Pet 2:5). We see this clearly in the fact that Peter’s original name was Simon but Christ called him Peter, which means “stone” or “rock.” Christ also told Peter that on this “rock” he would build his church (Matt 16:18). In addition, we see Peter’s warning to these churches to be self-controlled and alert for the devil is roaming around like a lion seeking whom he could devour (1 Pet 5:8). This cannot but conjure up the picture of Christ warning Peter about how Satan had asked to sift him like wheat (Luke 22:31). Again, Peter speaks to the churches in a similar manner to how Christ spoke to him. Throughout the letter, the experiences of the Apostle Peter radiate, therefore, confirming his authorship.
Who was Peter? Obviously, Peter was one of the original disciples who was called to follow Christ during his early ministry (Mark 1:16, 17), and later on, he was called to be one of the twelve Apostles (Matt 10:12). There is ample evidence that suggests that Peter was actually the head of the twelve. In each of the list of Apostles, he is always placed first, which showed his importance (Matt 10, Mark 3, Luke 6, Acts 1). The Gospel writers focused on Peter throughout the narratives, as there is more material written about him than anybody else besides Christ. Also in the book of Acts, we see his importance in the establishment of the church. He leads the Apostles in the selection of the replacement for Judas (Acts 1) and he preaches several sermons that led to the salvation of thousands (Acts 2, 3 and 4).
God also gave him the vision that led to the salvation of Cornelius and the welcoming of Gentiles into the church (Acts 10 and 11). He is the prominent figure in Acts until the commissioning of the Apostle Paul in Acts 13. Tradition says that soon after the writing of this letter, Peter was crucified in Rome around AD 67 or 68. His wife was crucified before him, and he encouraged her with the words, “Remember the Lord.” After the crucifixion of his wife, he begged to be crucified upside down because he was not worthy to die in the same manner of his Lord, and his request was granted.
There are those from liberal traditions who have tried to cast doubt upon Petrine authorship. One of the primary reasons is because of the high level of classical Greek in which the letter is written. Is it possible for a fishermen who was called “unlearned” (Acts 4:13) by the Pharisees to be able to speak and write in such high-level Greek?
There are several ways one could respond to this. The first is the fact that Peter being called “unlearned” does not mean that he was illiterate or unable to write in high-level Greek. Being called “unlearned” simply meant that he had never been trained in an official rabbinical school. It is very probable because of Hellenization (the influence of Greek culture) that Peter did speak Greek as a second language behind Aramaic. Also, since Peter had been preaching and serving in missions for over thirty years by this time, he had probably grown in his understanding of Greek because of his teaching ministry. Finally, in chapter 5, it is possible that Peter is saying that Silas (or Silvanus, depending on the version) was his scribe. We see this in 1 Peter 5:12, “With the help of Silas, whom I regard as a faithful brother, I have written to you briefly, encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it.”
“With the help of Silas” can also be translated “by Silas.” This could mean that Peter sent the letter by Silas to these congregations or that Silas was his scribe in the writing of this letter. This was a very common practice in the ancient world. In fact, we see this practiced by Paul as seen in Romans 16:22, “Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord.” It is very possible that Silas helped in both facets. He served Peter as a scribe for the letter and also manually carried the letter to the churches. This would help explain the high level of Greek. Either way, certainly we must not downplay the work of the Holy Spirit in the writing of every letter of Scripture (2 Tim 3:16).
What is the background to this letter? It is clear that these congregations spread throughout the Roman Empire were going through intense persecution. We see this in many aspects of the letter (1 Pet 4:12, 13). Because of the dating of this letter it seems clear that these Christians are experiencing the after-effects of the Great Fire of Rome. In July AD 64, there was great fire in Rome that spread throughout ten of the fourteen districts.
There was a rumor spread saying that Emperor Nero was the arsonist who started the fire. In fact, there were some reports that he was playing a harp and singing while the fire was happening.1 It was said that Nero had a great lust to build and did not like the current construction of Rome; therefore, he started the fire in order to rebuild. The fact that he built his new home soon after the fire, called the Golden House, in the center of the city only added to this rumor. In order to combat this growing suspicion and resentment toward himself, Nero used the Christians as a scapegoat. They were an easy target because they were already a hated group in Rome. They were hated because of their association with the Jews and the fact that they did not worship the Roman deities. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, there were reports that some Christians were forced to confess by torture that they started the fire. This led to vicious persecution that spread throughout the Roman Empire.
The persecution of Christians took place in many ways. It was said that Nero would place tar on Christians and burn them at night to light up his garden. It was also common for the flesh of animals to be placed on Christians, and they were allowed to be torn apart by dogs. In addition, many Christians were killed by crucifixion. This resulted in Christians spreading throughout the Empire in order to escape persecution.
In fact, many believe that the letter of First Peter was written from Rome and that Babylon was a name used in 1 Peter 5:13 as a pseudonym to protect Peter and the churches that were in hiding. The title Babylon could certainly be referring to ancient Babylon in Mesopotamia. However, there is really no historical witness that Peter went to this city. Therefore, the most probable destination is that of Rome and that it was used to protect the people from further persecution.
Babylon was an apt name for Rome during this period, for throughout Scripture Babylon is seen as a nation that constantly defied God and his people. This began in Babel, as Nimrod built a city where the people revolted against God (Gen 11). It rose up again during the time of the divided monarchy, as it conquered and exiled the Southern Kingdom of Israel. While the Israelites were living in Babylon, they were persecuted for not worshiping the same gods (Daniel 3). Finally, we see another city named Babylon rise up in the end times which also persecutes the people of God in the book of Revelation (chapters 17 and 18). Therefore, the code name Babylon for Rome would be an apt name to describe its worship of false gods and persecution of believers. Using this pseudonym would help protect Peter and the other saints serving in Rome. Similarly, contemporary missionaries from nations where Christians are persecuted often are very careful about using their names or publishing their sermons online lest it create persecution for their family or church. This was the background for the letter of First Peter.
Peter writes this letter to Christians in order to comfort them in the midst of their suffering. He comforts them with the reality of their salvation. In fact, in the introduction of the letter Peter starts off by calling them “elect” and speaks of the benefits of their election (1 Pet 1:1, 2). He then continues by praising God for their new birth and the unfading benefits of it (1 Pet 1:3–5). This is not the normal way you would comfort someone who is going through a hard time. However, if these believers, and us as well, could begin to comprehend how special and great our salvation really is, it would continually comfort us in the worst of situations.
Peter not only comforts them with the greatness of their salvation but he begins to teach them how to live and respond to persecution (1 Pet 1:6; 2:19–21; 4:1, 12 and 13). Listen to what Peter says:
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.
1 Peter 4:12–13
Finally, Peter teaches these believers that their obedient and respectful responses in persecution to pagan governments, masters, and even unsaved husbands could potentially lead to evangelization even in a hostile environment (1 Pet 2:12–15; 3:1–6; 3:15). Certainly, we have seen this throughout history. Church father Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Where persecution has happened and Christians have practiced the truths of First Peter, great waves of evangelism have taken place.
The message of First Peter has been tremendously comforting to Christians in Muslim and Communist societies, where they are undergoing constant persecution for their faith. For them, this letter has been a manual on how to live as a Christian amidst persecution. Even in Western societies this letter is becoming more relevant. There was a time where being a practicing Christian in society was not just tolerated but honored. However, now with the change of thinking on what marriage is, the woman’s right to abort her children and many other aspects of society, persecution is constantly growing. Jesus said, “Do not be surprised if they hate you, for they hated me first.” This letter to the scattered and persecuted saints of the Roman Empire is tremendously relevant. It is a manual for pilgrims living in a hostile society. Let its words and message comfort you and prepare you for what lies ahead.
Copyright 2014 Gregory Brown
Unless otherwise noted, the primary Scriptures used are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version ®, Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved.
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Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
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1 Suetonius, The Lives of Twelve Caesars, Life of Nero,38; Cassius Dio, Roman History LXII.16
Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines