1 Peter: Towards a Community of the Resurrection
The epistle of 1 Peter begins with a vivid description of the living hope of Christians brought about by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It’s a powerful statement of the certainty of our Easter faith and would have come as a vibrant, encouraging message to those churches who first received it, just as it is a vibrant and encouraging message for us who read it today.
It appears to have been a circular letter addressed not just to one Christian community, but to a whole group of Christian communities. “To God’s chosen people who live as refugees scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia” (1: 1). The purpose of the letter was to encourage those churches to be communities of the Resurrection.
The name comes from The Community of the Resurrection at Mirield in the English county of West Yorkshire.
It’s an Anglican religious order. Yet really every Christian congregation should be a community of the Resurrection.
The Resurrection brought the church into being. Without a risen Christ there would be no church. We meet for worship on the day of the Resurrection, Sunday, the first day of the week. And when we meet we take part, as the first believers did, in a meal with the risen Christ. We celebrate the Resurrection in the liturgy for that meal:
“Glory to you, Lord Christ…Your Resurrection we proclaim.”
We are a community of the Resurrection. How can we build into our communal life something of the joy and vitality of resurrection faith? How did the author of 1 Peter do the same for the Christians to whom he was writing his letter?
Or is it a letter? It has the appearance of a letter. It begins by addressing the people to whom it’s written. And it ends in the style of the epistles in the Christian Scriptures with a personal greeting (5: 12-14). Yet there’s little between the opening and the ending to suggest it was intentionally written as a letter.
Can it be that the body of the epistle originally served some other purpose and later had an introduction and ending tacked on to it to make it into a letter? Let’s hold that question in the back of our minds while we look at how the primitive church celebrated Easter. Easter, as we said earlier, is fundamental to the church’s existence.
So it was celebrated from the earliest times. It was observed universally by all the primitive Christian communities and it went by the Semitic name of Pasch (or “Passover”) — a pointer to its observance before Christianity spread into the Greek-speaking world. We know this because its name was Jewish and it was always observed at the precise season of the Jewish feast.
The first generation of Christians would take this over, just as they did so much other baggage from their former Jewish religion. The fact that these early Christian communities accepted Jesus as Messiah did not require them to abandon the Passover, any more than it required them to abandon the Hebrew Scriptures.
To be sure, when the feast was taken over by the early church, it was given a fresh meaning that centred in the saving events of the gospel that were once enacted precisely at Passover time. Evidence has come to light, in document form, of how the Easter feast was kept by churches in different places.
One of these is the Homily On The Passion by Melito of Sardis. This is a carefully composed text for an actual Easter celebration and it takes us straight into the spirit of the primitive observance of Easter in a way that no other document does.
Then we have the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, one section of which deals with the Paschal Feast and so gives us evidence for how Easter was celebrated in Rome from the late second century onward. Another section may also refer to Easter and describes the paschal Baptism and Confirmation rite, followed by the Eucharist.
So this document is a liturgical book showing that Easter was pre-eminently the season for Baptism, a piece of information confirmed by other early sources, which also confirm the arrangements for Baptism described by Hippolytus.
Another example would be fragments of a discourse by Hippolytus, Concerning The Passion, which, when put together, look as if they belong to a Paschal Vigil homily that was widely circulated and widely read.
The intention of the primitive observance of Easter was to commemorate the redemptive work of Christ in his death and Resurrection together.
It was a holistic celebration of the entire Easter event, not a fragmented commemoration of the Passion on Good Friday and the Resurrection on Easter Day. It was Good Friday and Easter Day in the same celebration. It was not until the fourth century that historic realism separated out thee two into separate observances.
The primitive church had a single commemoration, which was not a fast alone nor a feast alone, but a transition from one to the other. So Passion and Resurrection were themes commemorated in one celebration.
In 1 Peter, coming back now to that epistle, we have the same phenomenon. We have already noted the theme of Resurrection with which the epistle boldly starts. Yet cheek by jowl with this are long passages on suffering.
The large number of references to suffering in the epistle is most remarkable. There are references to the suffering of Christ and to the suffering of Christians. These form a kind of Ariadne’s thread through the whole epistle. These references to suffering have normally been interpreted as referring to persecution. However there are difficulties with that theory.
The persecution under the Emperor Nero was limited to Rome and did not extend to the provinces where the Christians addressed in 1 Peter lived. And the persecutions under the Emperors Domitian and Trajan were too late, if we believe the apostle Peter to be the author, because Peter died in the Neronian persecution. This makes it difficult to date the epistle in relation to the persecution of Christians by any known emperor.
Even if we could, there are still difficulties. The civil power, says the writer, is to be obeyed in a spirit of calm submission (2: 13-17). Such respect is very right and proper, but it is hardly conceivable in a situation where persecution is threatened or is actually taking place.
So the imminent suffering to which the writer refers is not necessarily to be identified with any official governmental persecution. The suffering, calumny and persecution seem to come from pagan neighbours who revile and abuse these Christians for the name of Christ (4: 14).
The theme of suffering is introduced to encourage these persecuted Christians with the message “Christ himself suffered for you and left you an example, that you would follow in his footsteps” (2: 21).
Granted all the references to suffering, we might easily expect the epistle to be full of gloom and doom, pointing to a stoical fortitude, if not to a philosophy of despair. However this is not the case. The whole epistle, from beginning to end, rings with a triumphant note of joy and exultation.
The reason is that behind it all lie the sufferings of the victorious Christ, proclaiming the joy of the Resurrection and the hope of salvation. The suffering is real and deep, but it is a suffering already overcome. It’s not a case of future joy awaiting the Christian in the next world as a compensation for the sufferings in this one. It’s a joy “which words can not express” (1: 8) and it’s a present joy.
So we observe here a co-presence of joy and sorrow. The co-existence of joy and suffering is precisely the dominant note in the ethos of Easter. It belongs to the Easter feast from the very earliest times, going back behind the time when the Good Friday theme of Passion and the Easter Day theme of Resurrection became divorced in liturgy and in theology.
Nowhere in the Christian Scriptures do we find more clearly than in 1 Peter the praise of the victorious Christ in triumph over evil powers, Christ not reigning in heaven, but reigning from the Cross, already victorious on the Cross. So 1 Peter is an Easter document.
From the earliest times the Exodus has been for the church the leading prefigurement of Easter from the Hebrew Scriptures. The deliverance of Israel from Egypt at the time of the Exodus included the celebration of the first Passover.
So, by an extension of the Christian typology, Christ becomes the Passover Lamb. “For you know what was paid to set you free…it was the costly sacrifice of Christ, who was like a lamb without defect or flaw” 1: 18-19).
The same theme is picked up in Melito and Hippolytus. So, when 1 Peter interprets our redemption through the death of Christ as the fulfilment of the liberation of the Israelites by the blood of the paschal lamb, the writer is using the regular Easter imagery.
Grant this Easter reference and we’re hardly wrong in seeing 1: 13 as another Passover reference. “So then have your minds ready for action”, literally “girding up the loins of your mind”, a figure of speech which expresses vigilance.
We must compare the Passover text at Exodus 12: 11: “You are to eat it quickly for you are to be dressed for travel (literally “…with your loins girded”), your shoes on your feet, your stick in your hand. It is the Passover Festival to honour me, the Lord.”
We have another backward glance at the Exodus cycle of events when 1 Peter says in 1: 15 “…be holy in all that you do, just as God who called you is holy. The Scripture says, ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’”
This is a quotation from Leviticus 11: 44-45, where God’s claim for the holiness of the people rests on their redemption from Egypt at the time of the Exodus: “You must keep yourselves holy, because I am holy. I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, so that I could be your God. You must be holy, because I am holy.”
The same theme crops up again in 1 Peter 2: 9: “...you are the chosen race, the King’s priests, the holy nation, God’s own people.”
This looks back to a moment when God reminds the Israelites of their salvation from Pharaoh’s bondage: “Now, if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own people. The whole earth is mine, but you will be my chosen people, a people dedicated to me alone, and you will serve me as priests” (Exodus 19: 5-6).
Then 1 Peter continues by describing the purpose of this new status of Christians, “…chosen to proclaim the wonderful acts of God, who called you out of darkness into his own mavellous light. At one time you were not God’s people but now you are his people” (2: 9b-10a).
He is clearly thinking here of the delivery of the Israelites from Egypt at the time of the Exodus — an event that constituted them a new people — and of the way they testified to their new calling by wondering at such marvels from God’s hand. The abiding vocation of Christians is to be children of the Exodus.
We may say that this whole paschal theology is magnificently summarised in the passage that opens the epistle (1: 3-5). It embodies the whole meaning of the Easter message. From everything we have said so far, 1 Peter has an Easter setting. Here’s another thing: It has a baptismal setting.
Baptism is explicitly mentioned in 3: 20-22 (as is the Resurrection). The Flood is seen as a symbol of Christian Baptism.
By means of the Flood, Noah was saved; by means of Baptism, Christians are saved. (The primitive church didn’t worry about the choice of symbolism. Is the Flood an appropriate symbol of salvation, when it destroyed nearly the whole human race? The early church did not look for parallelism in every detail of the chosen imagery.)
In fact, we know from other sources that the Flood was a regular symbol of Christian Baptism in early times. In the preceding verse in 1 Peter (3: 19) we have Christ descending into the underworld. This, too, is pertinent to a baptismal context, because (Romans 6) Baptism is dying and rising with Christ.
“When we were baptised into union with Christ Jesus, we were baptised into union with his death. By our baptism, then, we were buried with him and shared his death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from death by the glorious power of the Father, so also we might live a new life” (Romans 6: 3-4).
The descent into the baptismal waters is a re-enactment of the burial of Christ and his sleep in the grave, in the hours between his death and his Resurrection. Easter again! The author of 1 Peter also uses baptismal terminology. Consider 2: 2 where “new-born babies” represent new Christians, made such through Baptism, setting out on the journey of growing up into mature adult believers.
The Greek word is a technical one used of Baptism. So is the word in 1: 3, “gave us new life”, again a link with Easter, “by raising Jesus Christ from death, thus filling us with a living hope.” A reference to Easter and a technical expression for Baptism side by side! The same technical word is used in 1: 23 (“born again” by Baptism).
Then there are some expressions in the epistle that seem to indicate that a rite of Baptism is in actual progress.
1: 6: “Be glad about this, even though it may now be necessary for you to be sad for a while because of many kinds of trials you suffer.”1: 8: “…you believe in him even though you do not now see him.”
1: 12: “the things you have now heard”.
2: 10: Now you are his people…now you have received mercy.”
2: 25: “Now you have been brought back to follow the Shepherd and Keeper of your souls.”
3: 21: “...a symbol pointing to Baptism which now saves you”.
All of these passages could indicate that a rite is in progress. It is just at this moment — “now”, at Baptism, that illumination (light) has come to the people being addressed.
Further evidence for the baptismal setting of 1 Peter is found in references to what could be the primitive catechetical practice. In the instance of the Ethiopian official (Acts 8: 26-39) and the jailer and his household at Philippi (Acts 16: 23-34) Baptism took place immediately after conversion, without any intervening period of testing.
However, as the church began to grow rapidly in numbers, some form of regular preparation would have become common. A period of instruction prior to the Easter Baptism was universal by the third century. The epistle of 1 Peter has some traces of this.
There are stereotyped forms of moral instruction, given to various groups in society (slaves, wives, husbands — 2: 18-3: 7). These were always incidental to the preparation for Baptism and could very well have been recalled — in summary form — at the Baptism itself.
Then there are credal references. We know from Acts 8: 37, longer version (the Ethiopian) that the use of a credal statement at Baptism is a very ancient practice. In 1 Peter 3: 18-22 we have the outlines of a creed professing belief in the work and victory of Christ, with no mention of the Father or of the Holy Spirit.
We know this is ancient, because, in the evolution of Christian creeds, the most primitive form focuses on Christ alone.
What’s more, this creed is rhythmical, more so than some early creeds, and is thus in keeping with its liturgical setting.
3: 21: “…the promise made to God through a god conscience”, a reference to the baptismal promise.
Other passages that provide evidence of a primitive baptismal liturgical setting are:
2 2: “milk”, Tertullian and Hippolytus tell that the use of milk at the baptismal Eucharist was a regular custom in the early church. If so, 2: 3, “You have found out for yourselves (literally “tasted”) how kind the Lord is, (quoting Psalm 34: 8) is a reference to the Eucharist.
2: 9: “light”. Light has always been prominent in baptismal imagery and ritual, especially at the Paschal Vigil, which began in the darkness of Easter Saturday night and ended with the dawning of Easter Day. (This is still so today, where the vigil is observed.)
The glory of the Resurrection was also symbolised from an early date by the Paschal candle. This came to be accompanied, from the time of Saint Ambrose on, by the words of the Easter Proclamation called the Exsultet, including:
“Of this night Scripture says: ‘The night will be as clear as day; it will became my light, my joy…Accept this Easter candle, a flame divided but undimmed, a pillar of fire that glows to the honour of God. Let it mingle with the lights of heaven and continue bravely burning to dispel the darkness of this night!
“May the Morning Star which never sets find this flame still burning, Christ, that Morning Star who came back from the dead and shed his peaceful light on all our race…”
So it may not be over-bold to see a reference to such customs in the words of 1 Peter 2: 9: “God, who called you out of darkness into…marvellous light”.
With regard to women’s adornments in 3: 3, Hippolytus gives this rule for the Baptism of women: “The ministers shall baptise the women, who shall have loosed their hair and laid aside their gold ornaments. Let none go down into the water having any alien object with her.”
In 1 Peter 3: 3 women are advised that their adornment is not to be “outward aids to make yourselves beautiful such as the way you do your hair, or the jewellery you put on, or the dresses you wear.” The parallelism is as exact as it could be and it strengthens the case for a baptismal context for 1 Peter. After Baptism, the women would put up their hair and resume their ornaments.
May we discover any trace of the celebrant of the rite? Look at 5: 1. The writer is “an elder” and “a witness of Christ’s sufferings”. He’s one who has engaged himself to the paschal life. He’s charged to lead the flock of Christ so that “when the Chief Shepherd appears you will receive the glorious crown which will never lose its brightness” (5: 4).
Shepherds of the Christian flock derive their authority from the Chief Shepherd. Christian pastors on earth are counterparts of the Chief Shepherd in heaven. The same imagery lies behind 2: 25: “You were like sheep that had lost their way, but now you have been brought back to follow the Shepherd and Keeper of your souls.”
“The Shepherd and Keeper of your souls” is the divine Lord, but in a derivative sense he is the Christian minister, the celebrant of the baptismal rite. In this context, those who have just been baptised have ceased going astray, for they have come back from the errors of unbelief into the Christian fold, which is the community whose liturgical ministers are the earthly counterparts of the Divine Shepherd and Episcopos.
From everything we’ve said so far, the themes of 1 Peter are: Baptism, Passover, Passion-Resurrection, moral duties. The one place where all these themes come together is the celebration of the paschal baptismal and eucharistic rite.
We may now ask: What was the primary purpose of the document that became 1 Peter when the introduction and conclusion were added on? The suggestion has been made that it is the celebrant’s script for the Easter Vigil, the most solemn occasion in the church’s year, including Baptism and Eucharist.
The text contains the various prayers and homilies the celebrant would use in this Easter rite. In that case, an outline might be:
1: 3-12: The bishop’s solemn opening payer
1: 13-21: The formal charge to the catechumens followed by the ritual Baptism
1: 22-25: The bishop’s welcome to the newly baptised
2:1-10: The bishop’s instructions on the fundamentals of the sacramental life
2: 11-4: 6: The bishop’s address to the newly baptised about the duties of Christian discipleship, including 3:13-4:6: the Christian’s vocation to the paschal life, that is the life of mystical suffering in Christ
4: 7-11: Final admonitions and doxology
4: 12-5: 11: An address to the whole congregation present at the baptismal liturgy.
If the argument so far is correct, several important consequences arise from it:
It has sometimes been argued that the early Christians worshipped in pristine simplicity and that, later, unnecessary accretions came along to clutter their worship. This has been seen as the dead hand of a so-called “Catholicism”. In fact quite the opposite is the case. Our argument gives evidence of a very primitive “Catholicism” seen in Christian worship from the very beginnings and, far from cluttering and deadening such worship, it was its driving force, giving it life and vitality.
The argument points to the importance of liturgy.
It also points to:
- the importance and centrality of the early celebration of Easter, to the importance of Baptism as the rite of initiation into the community of faith, which is the Body of Christ,
- the baptismal discipline of the early Christians, who tested and prepared their catechumens,
- the rich use of symbolism in the celebration of the sacred mysteries and
- the place of the Eucharist in the early Christian communities as the family meal of the community of faith, to which all the baptised are welcome, those newly baptised as well as those long baptised.
So we are much nearer to answering our original question. How, in the light of what 1 Peter tells us, may we build into our communal life as Christians something of the joy and victory of resurrection faith?
Systems analysts tell us that, if we want to work for change, we must begin with a small group of people who are prepared to reflect the desired new directions in the life of their group. Is it possible for us to recruit small groups of people prepared to live a life of mystical suffering in Christ, namely the paschal life?
That means groups prepared to interiorise the mystical paschal life by following Christ through his humiliation to his execution and through to the joy of Easter by means of a liturgical observance full of rich symbolism and, in this way, give a lead to everyone else in the community of faith?
Should we follow the suggestion of the Methodist Church of New Zealand Faith and Order Committee and tighten up on our baptismal discipline? Should we have more baptisms of adults and fewer baptisms of children?
Should we accept only those children whose parents are serious about belonging to Christ and the community of faith and who make this same promise for their children? Should we restore the practice of the catechumenate and have a programme of instruction for those preparing for Baptism?
Should we restore the practice of Easter Baptisms within the context of the Easter Vigil as part of our liturgical celebration of Easter? Or should we, at least, restore the rite of the renewal of baptismal vows as part of the Easter Vigil?
Close study of Christian origins has long been an important theological discipline on the grounds that the church in its early days was young, vigorous, full of life and effective and thus is normative for a renewal of life in the church in all following generations. For those of us who are Methodist, this is particularly important, for John Wesley liked to think of Methodism as a renewal of “primitive Christianity”.
Since his day, a great deal more evidence has come to light that he could never have been aware of, about the nature of primitive Christianity. We need, I believe, across all the denominations, to examine it carefully and be prepared to take on board as much of it as possible.
Then it may be that something of the vibrant, triumphant joy and exultation that characterises 1 Peter and the communities to which it was sent can mark the life of our own churches today.
Some hymns illustrating the above themes are:
MHB 218: The foe behind, the deep before
MHB 229: Ye faithful souls who Jesus know
WOV 409 When to the sacred font we came
This essay is heavily dependent on: Cross, F L: 1 Peter: A Paschal Liturgy (London, Mowbray [A R Mowbray] 1957, first published 1954, second impression 1957). 50pp, footnotes, bibliography), a seminal text in Scripture study when I was undergoing my theological formation.