“Rejoice With Joy Unspeakable and Full of Glory,” 1 and 2 Peter #BCCSundaySchool2019

I misread the calendar and did not post this last week. I apologize that it’s late, but I hope it may be useful to some.

I. 1 Peter

Peter’s first epistle has some of the most interesting and some of the most misunderstood passages in the new testament. And we’ll look at those passages, but in my view, the more interesting and more overlooked thing to look at is the overall themes and structure of Peter’s first letter.[1] It’s a short letter, but it is dense, and it refers in just a few words or lines to complex ideas that take up whole chapters in Paul’s letters.

The main theme of Peter’s first letter, as I read it, is the same theme that Paul treats repeatedly: the saints have entered into a new kind of life because of Jesus’s sacrifice. He uses a bunch of metaphors to describe this new life: we have been redeemed, purchased, adopted, begotten, or newly born. We are now foreigners and strangers in what used to be our homeland, because we’re not from here anymore, we belong to a different nation. The point is the old ways have no hold on us anymore, and, being converted, we need to learn how to live in a new way. Paradoxically, we live as though we have already received the redemption and sanctification that we will fully receive at the end of time during Jesus’s millennial return.

As I read, it, Peter’s first letter has four parts. The first part of the letter discusses the doctrine of having entered into this new life, the second part discusses the practical application of that doctrine in the saints’ particular circumstances living in a hostile society. The third part returns to the theme of being dead to the world and alive in God, and the last part offers advice about how to live as members of the church.

A. The new life of a saint

Right off the bat, Peter addresses the saints as “strangers” a word that we’d probably translate today as “foreigners” or “immigrants” (1 Peter 1:1). This is the first metaphor he uses for the new life of a convert.

  • How does the gospel make us “strangers”?

The next several verses are a complicated, but poetically trinitarian description of changed status of the saints: the saints are chosen (“elect”) by (1) the foreknowledge of the father, (2) the sanctification of the spirit, and (3) the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus. By thus being chosen, God has begotten us to hope by the resurrection to an imperishable inheritance (1 Peter 1:2-4).

  • How does the gospel make us “begotten” of God?
  • How does the gospel make us heirs to an “imperishable inheritance”?
  • Compare this trinitarian description to Abinadi’s trinitarian description of the atonement (Mosiah 15:1-5). How are they different? How are the similar? Why is it important to Peter or to Abinadi to describe how each member of the godhead is imnvolved in our conversion?

From here, Peter moves on to the idea that, having been thus changed by God, we look forward to end of time, when we will receive all that we’ve been promised, and live as though we have already received it. We’re kept by the power of God to salvation–the same salvation that will be revealed at the end of all things (1 Peter 1:5). And we are still tempted in this life, but being subject to temptation is not an indication that we’re not converted, it’s all part of God’s plan–temptation is a trial to test and refine our faith as fire tests and refines gold, so that we may know the value of our faith (1 Peter 1:6-7). Peter says that the prophets have diligently searched the spirit of Christ to know the salvation that we’re promised, and that we should therefore look forward with hope to the end for the grace we will receive through Jesus (1 Peter 1:10-13).

  • What does it mean to be kept to the salvation we will receive at the end?
  • What does it mean to look forward with hope to the end for grace?

Peter here is saying the same thing that Paul said when he spoke of being dead to sin and walking in newness of life (e.g. Romas 6:4). Through Jesus, God makes us his own, and as his own, we are entitled, as heirs, to grace and to salvation–to be changed. From there, Peter puts an even finer point on it: because we are heirs of salvation, we are called to be holy (1 Peter 1:15-16). And not just to eventually become holy, either. We are called to be holy right now, as if we had already received our inheritance.

Most people, it seems really don’t like the idea of grace. We don’t like being in debt. We like to believe that if we have something, it’s because we earned it, or because we’re otherwise entitled to it. So we like to think that if we keep the commandments, we have earned salvation. But Peter turns this all on its head: Yes, we must keep the commandments, and yes we will be saved, but the causation is reversed: because God has begotten us, we are therefore his heirs, and because we are his children and heirs, we must therefore obey him.

  • How does it change our relationship to the commandments to view them as things we are called to obey because we have been born again (and are therefore heirs of salvation) rather than as things we must do in order to earn salvation?

And Peter interweaves with these ideas the contrast between the worldly, which will unavoidably pass away, and the spiritual, which lives forever: We were not redeemed with money, Peter reminds us, but with the blood of Jesus, if we have therefore purified our souls by obeying the truth through the spirit, then we are therefore called to love with a pure heart (1 Peter 1:18-22). We are born again by the word of God, which, unlike money or other human things, lives forever and does not die, wither, or perish (1 Peter 1:23-25).

From here Peter goes into a list of similes about how this conversion changes us:

First, having been begotten by the word of God (1 Peter 1:23), we are babies and should therefore desire the word of God as newborn babies desire milk (1 Peter 2:2). I think it is a mistake to interpret this as setting up an idea of progression from simple doctrines (milk) for the newly converted to more complex doctrines (meat) for the long-established. That idea may be true, but that’s not what Peter is saying here. Peter is drawing on the imagery of the baby’s desire for milk. Think about a hungry baby. He is single-minded. Nothing can distract him from his hunger. He wants it more than he wants anything at all. The point is not progression; the point is desire.

  • What does it mean to desire the word of God as a baby desires milk? How can we change our desires?

Second, just as Jesus is the stone that the builders rejected, but that God chose to be the chief cornerstone, we are like smaller living stones that are to be built up on the foundation of Jesus to become a spiritual house (1 Peter 2:4-8). The lovely thing about this image is that it beautifully captures both how we, the bricks, are patterned after the cornerstone, and how we must fit together with the other bricks in the house to become a place where the spirit can live.

  • How can we be living stones? What does it mean to be a spiritual house built on Jesus?
  • What does it mean to be a stumbling block, just as Jesus was?

Third, we are a “chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people,” called from darkness to light (1 Peter 2:9). Here Peter is drawing on the imagery of Israel as the chosen people, complete with all the trappings of being a nation, including both kingship and priesthood. And let’s note that “peculiar” here doesn’t mean “weird,” the way we use the word today; it means that we belong to God. We are his people. But Peter is not applying this old testament imagery to the nation-state of Israel, he is applying it to those that have been converted by their faith in Christ.

  • How is being a member of Jesus’s church like being a member of a chosen nation? What does this image teach us about our relationship to Jesus?
  • What is the significance of having been called out of darkness into light?
  • How can we apply this image to ourselves today and avoid falling into anti-semitic supercessionist theologies?

Finally, building on this nation imagery, and echoing his opening lines, we are like “strangers and pilgrims” (1 Peter 2:11). We are not from here anymore, we are different now. We are, so to speak, in enemy territory.

B. How a saint must live in the world

From there, Peter transitions from a general discussion of what it means to be converted to a specific discussion of how the saints can apply that doctrine to their own lives in the Roman empire.

First, he says, we must abstain from “fleshly” lusts (1 Peter 2:11). This surely includes sexual temptations, but I think it would be a mistake to limit it to that. “Lust” in King James English simply means desire, and is not limited to sexual desire. Any kind of gluttonly, consumption, greed, or selfishness is part of “fleshly lusts.”

Second, we must be scrupulously honest (1 Peter 2:12).

Third, we must submit to the laws, even if we disagree with them, so that we can remain free, and use our freedom to do God’s work (1 Peter 2:13-20). And this means that we will be be treated unfairly, because the laws are not always just to foreigners and immigrants. But we should remember when we are treated unfairly that Jesus was treated unfairly also, and that he nevertheless submitted, and thus bore our sins on the cross, making us dead to sin, but alive to righteousness (1 Peter 2:20-24). With this language about being dead to sin, Peter is not only echoing Paul, he’s echoing the entire first part of his letter. The point he’s making is that it was precisely through being treated unjustly that Jesus made our conversion possible.

Third, he says that in the same way, just as Jesus submitted to unjust treatment, wives should submit to their husbands, so that by their example, they may convert their husbands (1 Peter 3:1-6). This is a highly misunderstood passage. As I read him, Peter is not talking about marriage generally, but about a mixed-faith marriages specifically, where the wife is converted and the husband is not. And he is not saying that it is right and just for men to rule over women–quite the opposite: he is comparing a wife submitting to her husband to the saints submitted to unjust laws, and ultimately to the example of Jesus submitting to the unjustness of false conviction and execution by a corrupt Roman government. The point, as I read it, is that even though women are unjustly subject to men in Roman society, those women can, by their example of submitting to injustice as Jesus did, subvert injustice by bringing about the conversion of the unjust.

That’s not to say that Peter is free from all misogyny. He calls women “the weaker vessel” in the next passage (1 Peter 3:7). We could read that literally, or we could read it as a reflection of women’s weaker position in society, not as a statement on their inherent nature. But either way, at least there he is telling men to honor their wives, that their prayers not be hindered.

  • How might men’s failure to honor their wives hinder their prayers? How might our collective failure to honor women hinder our prayers?

From there Peter exhorts the saints to unity, love, pity, and courtesy (1 Peter 3:8-9). In short, he says to give the gentiles no reason to speak evil of them, so that when they do speak evil of them, the saints’ unimpeachable behavior will shame those who speak evil of them. It is better, Peter says, to unjustly suffer for doing good, than to justly suffer for doing evil, circling back again to his theme (1 Peter 3:17): Jesus suffered unjustly and was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit (1 Peter 3:18).

  • Pity is a virtue that we rarely discuss. What does it mean to have pity? Why is pity essential to a Christian life.

C. Death in the flesh, life in the spirit

Peter then picks up on this theme of suffering and death in the flesh and life in the spirit and gives another variation on it: he that suffers in the flesh has ceased from sin (1 Peter 4:1). This echoes Paul’s teachings about being dead to sin and alive in Christ through conversion, but it’s also specifically tied to the theme Peter has been developing of following the example of Jesus’s submission to injustice.

But Peter offers an even more interesting–and kind of surprising–twist on this theme. Not only does this theme apply to being spiritually dead to sin, and alive in Christ, Peter applies it to those who are literally dead in the flesh, but who have received the gospel in the spirit and therefore “live according to God in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18-4:6).

This passage is obviously very important to Latter-day Saints, as it was the catalyst for Joseph F. Smith’s 1918 vision of the redemption of the dead (see D&C 138). That vision builds on our practice of proxy baptism (and other ordinances) for the dead, and is usually seen as a uniquely LDS belief. But it is not wholly unique. It could be viewed as an expansion, with some uniquely Mormon elements, of the traditional Christian doctrine of the harrowing of hell–the belief that Jesus, during the time between his death and his resurrection declared the good news of redemption to the souls of the dead.

But I think in focusing on how these verses relate to our belief in life after death, repentance after death, and proxy ordinances, we sometimes miss what Peter is doing here thematically. He doesn’t seem to be revealing new doctrine about Jesus’s mission to the dead, they way President Smith was in D&C 138. Rather, he’s using what appears to be a teaching already known to the saints to illustrate the theme he’s developing of being dead to sin and made alive in Christ, to illustrate how the saints should not be afraid to follow the example of Jesus to submit to suffering or even death in the flesh, because even the dead who accept the gospel are made alive in the spirit.

This explains why Peter then goes on to say that the saints should not be surprised at their trials, but should rejoice in them, because through their trials they are joining Jesus in suffering, so they can also join him in glory (1 Peter 4:13). And this is, again, echoing his introduction, where he discusses the saints having become heirs with Christ of an imperishable inheritance because they have been begotten of God through their conversion.

Here Peter uses the word “Christian” (1 Peter 4:16). It is one of the few times that we find that word in scripture. Usually the members of the church are called saints in the new testament. But Peter does not seem bothered to use it. He seems to be reclaiming a slur that others had used as an insult against the church.

 D. How a saint must live in the church

Finally, Peter ends by offering some more advice. This sounds a lot like the advice he gave already, but there seems to be a subtle difference. His advice before was mostly about how the saints should conduct themselves with respect to the world they live in. But this advice seems to be more directed at how the saints should conduct themselves towards one another.

First he addresses the elders, and exhorts them to “feed the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:1-4). He also identifies himself as an elder (1 Peter 5:1:1). He then addresses the youth and exhorts them to submit to the elders (1 Peter 5:5). Finally, he addresses all the church members and exhorts them to “be subject to one another” (1 Peter 5:5-6, quoting a proverb: “be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.”

I think it is noteworthy that Peter advises wives to submit to their husbands above, when, as I read him, he is addressing how to live in an unjust world, but when he is addressing how the saints should live in the church, he instead advises the young to submit to the old, but ultimately advises all to “be subject to one another.”

  • Is Peter here talking about the priesthood office of an elder, or is he talking about older members of the congregation, or both?
  • Do older people in the church have an obligation to spiritually feed younger people in the church, apart from any formal calling they might have?
  • How do we reconcile Peter’s counsel to all to be subject one to another with notions of presiding authority? How can a presiding officer follow Peter’s counsel to be subject to those that he presides over?

II. 2 Peter

Maybe it’s just me, but 2 Peter sounds grumpier than 1 Peter. It’s got a little bit of a “per my last email” vibe.

Peter starts off basically recapping the doctrine he taught in his first letter: Jesus has given us “all things that pertain to life and godliness” and therefore he has “called us to glory and virtue” (2 Peter 1:3) In other words, we have been called out the world and chosen because of our faith in Jesus and his atonement, and therefore we are called to keep God’s commandments.

He then gives a list of important virtues that we ought to develop in order to answer that call: diligence, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity (2 Peter 1:4-8). And he promises that if we have these things, we will not be “unfruitful” in the knowledge of Jesus. This list should sound familiar. It was super important to Joseph Smith and he repeated it often in the revelations of the D&C (see, e.g. D&C 4). With it’s mention to being “fruitful,” it also kind of echoes Paul’s list of the “fruits of the spirit” (Galatian 5:22). And Moroni gives a similar list (Moroni 7:42-45). But whether we’re looking at Peter’s, Paul’s, Moroni’s or Joseph Smith’s list, the point is that we deepen our discipleship by seeking these and similar virtues.

  • What specific things can we do to develop these virtues?
  • How do we avoid falling into both the trap of thinking that developing these virtues earns us a place in heaven and the trap of thinking that we don’t need to develop these virtues?

And that leads Peter to his next point: we have been called and chosen, as he already discussed, but it is by developing these virtues that we can make that calling and that chosen-ness (“election”) “sure” (2 Peter 1:10). And to this end, Peter is going to keep reminding the saints of these things until he dies, and he hopes they will keep remembering them after he is dead (2 Peter 1:12-15), because the gospel isn’t just a fable, it’s real, and he and the other apostles are eyewitnesses of Jesus’s divinity, testified to by the father on the mount of transfiguration (2 Peter 1:16-18). But not just that, they also have the “more sure word of prophecy”–the direct witness of the Holy Ghost (2 Peter 1:19-21).

From there Peter goes on to discuss the opposite what he just discussed: unlike the apostles, who are eyewitnesses, there are also false prophets and there will be still more false teachers to come (2 Peter 2:1). And as Peter wants to remind the saints to develop virtue, the false teachers will stir people up to lusts (2 Peter 2:2). And the result will be that they will bring God’s judgment on themselves. Peter here refers to several examples of others that did not escape judgment: the angels that rebelled, the “old world” before Noah’s flood (Peter seems to really like Noah), and Sodom and Gomorrah (2 Peter 2:4-8). But he holds out hope for the faithful, whom God can preserve from judgment, just as he preserved Lot and Noah (2 Peter 2:9). He ends this chapter though, on a rather pessimistic note–teaching that those saints that forsake their new life as disciples will be judged more harshly than the wicked that never knew the truth (2 Peter 2: 11-22).

In the last chapter, Peter again notes that he’s writing as a reminder of what he already said before (2 Peter 3:1-2), and then warns the saints not to listen to those who say that Jesus is delaying his coming or forgetting his promise (2 Peter 3:3-4). His apparent delay, Peter says, is not because Jesus has forgotten his promise; it is that he is giving us time to repent before he comes again (2 Peter 3:9). But no matter how long he takes, he still ought to look forward to that day and the promise of a new heavens and a new earth, and be diligent in developing those virtues he spoke of, thus living as though we were already in that new world (2 Peter 3:12-14).

Again, this talk of living as though the new world had already come echoes Peter’s first letter, where he speaks of being dead to sin, and alive in Christ. It also echoes Paul, as Peter explicitly acknowledges here (2 Peter 15-16).

  • Here Peter says that some of Paul’s writings are “hard to understand” and that ignorant people have wrested them to their own destruction. How do you think Paul’s writings could be misread? How to we avoid misreading them? In correcting against these misreadings, how can we avoid overcorrecting to the point that we miss the important teachings Paul gives us?

[1] There is some dispute about the authorship of the Petrine epistles. I’m no expert, but from what I’ve read, it appears that the minority position is that they were actually written by the apostle Peter, while the majority position is they were written by someone else, though there is no consensus as to who. I don’t think resolving the authorship question is really important to understand the letters, because I don’t think it significantly changes their meaning–though the second letter does make a more definite claim that the author was an eyewitness of Jesus’s transfiguration. So for purposes of this post, we’ll refer to the author as Peter, but be aware that the authorship issue is out there.

Comments

  1. First of all, great summary. I hope one day to be able to summarize as well as you do. I get lost in specific verses and miss the overarching narrative.
    Last week when I was reading 1 Peter, and in the part about being subject to earthly governments, I wondered if there was wiggle room for rebellion. It also made me wonder if the reason why the church was restored post American Revolution, was not due to US religious liberty, but because church members might have used their belief in the scriptures as justification to remain loyal to the British Empire. Joseph Smith’s grandfathers were Revolutionary soldiers after all. Given that Peter was talking about being a new nation, I think he was clarifying his earlier point to make sure that Christians wouldn’t use the gospel as motivation for rebellion. So if you’re going to rebel, make sure to leave religious motivation out of it. Don’t go storming government buildings and then declare yourself a modern day Captain Moroni, or anything like that.
    As for your last question about people misunderstanding Paul: I think that Romans, James and 1&2 Peter are all going after the same idea: Now that you’ve heard of Paul’s teachings, some of you are overcorrecting on the whole “not needing the Law” aspect. And now you want to say that all you need is to just say that Jesus is your God. But righteous living is a side effect of someone who is truly converted. So if you’re not living righteously, you need some introspection. But righteous living isn’t necessarily end-all be-all either.

  2. Thank you for this post! I also had some questions about being subject to government when government is corrupt. Same questions for 12th article of faith. There are heroes in scripture stories who stood up to their governments, directly or indirectly, like Nephi against the corrupt judges, Abinadi, Daniel (lion’s den). I suppose the tension comes when the government does not obey the law, or when the laws themselves are contrary to God’s laws (assuming we can even agree on when that might be).