Last week it was my privilege and joy to introduce you to Peter as we begin a series on The First Letter of Peter. This week I’d like to introduce you to the original readers. We can’t understand the relevance of this letter for us if we haven’t first met them. In meeting them, we discover the occasion and circumstances that led Peter to write.
The recipients of this letter are our brothers and sisters. They were being persecuted for their faith. They are suffering because of their faith. While this persecution wasn’t a formal state-sponsored persecution, they were nevertheless maligned and mistreated because of their proclamation of the gospel and identification with the crucified Christ. Peter describes it as a “fiery trial” in 1 Peter 4:12.
In his book A Theology of James, Peter, and Jude, Peter Davids describes what this persecution looked like and felt like for these Gentiles following their conversion:
“In Greco-Roman eyes this person was rejecting the gods of the community and undermining the welfare of the city, and he had become antisocial (‘a hater of humanity’) and atheistic. The person was sometimes tolerated but also was often treated according to the local perception of their having become antisocial and thus a threat to the welfare of the community.”
And as we look up from our Bibles and study our culture, we find some striking similarities in our experience. Increasingly, Christians are not viewed as an asset to a community but instead a threat because of the gospel and the ethical implications of the gospel. This letter addresses the role of the Christian and the role of the church in a world hostile to the gospel. No genuine Christian or true church that is faithful to the gospel will be able to avoid this hostility in some form.
So, Peter cares for the original readers by addressing them as “elect exiles of the Dispersion.” Exile is a crucial theme this letter; perhaps the key to understanding the entirety of this letter. Christians suffer because they are in exile, far from home. Everything changed for them at their conversion: they no longer belong to this world. They have become strangers in this world, pilgrims traveling to their true homeland. In his commentary on 1 Peter, Ed Clowney effectively describes this when he writes:
“In relation to their homeland they are the Dispersion; in relation to their place of residence, they are aliens. They carry another passport; they are on pilgrimage to the city of God.”
All Christians are exiles in this world. If you are a Christian, just put your hand in your pocket, and there you will discover that the Lord has placed a new passport. Everything has changed for you. This world is not your home. You don’t belong here any more. Your relationship to this world has changed. You are still in it but no longer of it. This world that was once so welcoming has turned hostile.
This is why Peter’s letter is so relevant to us. He writes so that his readers might understand what it means to be the people of God in a world that is not our home—so they might display a distinctive holiness and happiness that is radically different from this world. As modern day exiles we need the grace and wisdom of this letter for our journey as we make our way to heavenly home. We are just passing through here. This letter prepares us so that the gathering storm clouds of opposition won’t surprise us.