Living in a prosperous country, many American Christians have developed a false theology of material blessings. Instead of realizing that the Christian life always involves some level of suffering (Mark 8:34-35), they believe that being a Christian means never having to struggle or suffer.
I include myself in this indictment. For this reason, I recently started studying Peter’s first epistle, a book that explains the role of Christian suffering and how Christians are to act in the midst of difficulties. In short, 1 Peter offers a comprehensive “theology of suffering.”
As I work my way through Peter’s first epistle, I’ll share what I’m learning in posts categorized as 1 Peter. (Click the category link on any post to see the full list of posts.)
Peter begins his instruction on suffering by promising that suffering always ends with a homecoming (1:1-9). Suffering never has the final word.
Peter writes his first letter to the “elect exiles” (1:1) who had been expelled from their homelands through persecution. This is an oxymoronic phrase: “elect” is a term indicating God’s love, but “exiles” is a word connected to judgment. The phrase recalls Israel’s exile in Babylon, a punishment brought on by their rank disobedience.
But Peter intends this phrase to encourage his audience: though exiles, they are recipients of God’s favor and love. Like ancient Israel, these Christians are also “elect exiles,” but not because of their disobedience. Rather, Peter identifies his audience this way because exile is the normative state of any follower of Jesus in this world. Though it may seem a cold comfort, Peter begins encouraging his listeners by explaining that the Christian life is not marked by prosperity but by exile, trial, and suffering. What they are experiencing is not an aberrant fluke. God hasn’t overlooked them, but is actually very much at work among them.
A Living Hope–1:3-5
Before discussing the difficulties his audience faces, Peter first addresses their homesickness–their longing for the homeland. The apostle comforts his audience by reminding them of the future hope they have in Christ:
1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
Peter begins by calling his listeners to give praise to God–he calls them to worship. Though they are exiles suffering far from their homeland, worship brings them to their true home in Christ.
The elect exiles have lost their physical homeland, so Peter reminds them that they have been born into a living hope. They have been born into the family of God as his children, and so they also have an inheritance–a new homeland–to look forward to. And this inheritance is so ineffable that Peter can only describe it through negation: it is imperishable (not able to be destroyed), undefiled (not polluted), and unfading (not subject to decay).
The cause and guarantee of this inheritance is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (v3). Christ himself voluntarily endured the suffering of exile, remained obedient to God’s word in exile, and received the exoneration of an exile when he returned to the homeland of his Father in great triumph and joy. Christ’s exile has made our exile livable; Christ’s resurrection has made the triumphant end of our exile possible as well.
All of this is sure and certain, because God himself keeps it for us. God’s power not only keeps the inheritance (v4) but also guards us through faith; his power is at work to ensure that we persevere through exile and receive the inheritance.
So, in three verses Peter has already given a great deal of encouragement to his beleaguered audience (and he hasn’t said one word about their trials yet). He has given them several concrete reasons to be joyful (see v6 also): 1) we can worship God in our true home no matter the circumstances, 2) our living hope is anchored by Christ’s resurrection, 3) we have an ineffable inheritance waiting for us at the end of our suffering, 4) God’s power protects the inheritance and preserves us in our faith so that we will enter into it.
Source: David R. Helm, 1 & 2 Peter and Jude (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008) 21-53.