Last week, we started a study on the general epistles by taking a close look at James. As I mentioned in that post, there’s evidence that when the books of the New Testament were first put together the order put James, Peter, John, and Jude’s letters between Acts and Romans (click here to learn more). This meant that if you read straight-through the New Testament, you’d read the general (also called “catholic”) epistles before getting to Paul’s letters. That reading order makes sense, since the letters that James, Peter, John, and Jude write are phrased in simpler language than Paul’s writings. The general epistles also provide a foundation for understanding the connections between Jesus’s teachings, the Old Testament, and our lives as New Covenant believers. You can think of the general epistles as a kind of pre-requisite course to help us with understanding Paul, similar to how you’d need to take general psychology courses before specializing in adolescent psychology or organizational psychology.
In today’s post, we’re going to focus on Peter’s two epistles. While some scholars question whether these two epistles were written by the same person because of the change in style and tone, I see no reason to doubt the author’s self-identification as Peter (1 Pet. 1:1; 2 Pet. 1:1). The change in writing can easily be explained by the epistles being written at different times and with slightly different focuses. Peter’s letters differ from James’s in having an even broader audience–while James wrote to “the twelve tribes dispersed abroad” (James 1:1), Peter wrote to all those “temporarily residing abroad .. who are chosen by God” (1 Pet. 1:1-2, all quotes from NET translation ). Though the Greek word diaspora is typically used of “Jews not living in Palestine” (NET footnote), the context of the epistle hints that Peter is using the term more generally to address all those living in the word as Christians. For the second letter, he simply calls his audience “those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ, have been granted a faith just as precious as ours (2 Pet. 1:1). The audience for these three general epistles broadens as we read through them, mirroring the way God opened the way to salvation up for all people and also laying groundwork for Paul’s more in-depth writings on Jews and Gentiles.
Trials, Joy, and A Spiritual Perspective
Peter begins his first letter much the same way James does by discussing joy and trials. Peter focuses on the cause of our joy–that we’re recipients of God’s great mercy and are being given “an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1 Pet. 1:3-9). This is the source of our joy which doesn’t go away through trials. We can even find joy in the trials since we know they “show the proven character of your faith” (1 Pet. 1:7). We’re each in the process of “attaining the goal of your faith–the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet. 1:9), and that is a wonderfully joyful thing even if there happen to be trails in our lives at the same time.
This theme of trials and salvation is a strong one in 1 Peter. He comes back to it again to point out that we’re called to do good and to suffer for it because that’s what Jesus did, and we really can’t expect the world to treat His followers better than they did Him (1 Pet. 2:19-25). Then a little later Peter tells us to do good, be ready to answer any who come at us with questions about our faith, and be willing to suffer the way Jesus did (1 Pet. 3:13-18). The reason for this emphasis becomes clear when Peter says, “Dear friends, do not be astonished that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Pet. 4:12). His readers were currently facing a trial and he wanted to encourage them to face it armed “with the same attitude” Jesus had, which was “concerned about the will of God and not human desires” (1 Pet. 4:1-2).
Peter’s message isn’t all about passive acceptance of suffering, though. Yes we’re to respect human authorities and accept suffering as Christians (1 Pet. 2:13-25), but we’re also to remember we’re called to be soldiers in a spiritual war. “Your enemy the devil, like a roaring lion, is on the prowl looking for someone to devour” and we need to resist him. We can succeed in this, but only with God’s help and by submitting to Him (1 Pet. 5:5-11). Our Lord has great power, and He gives us everything necessary for life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3). With His help, we can endure through the trials and emerge from battle victorious.
Stirred Up to Hold On to Truth
In Peter’s second letter, he says he wrote both letters “to stir up your pure mind by way of reminder” (2 Pet. 3:1, see also 2 Pet. 1:13). He uses much of his time spent “stirring up” for encouragement, but there’s also a lot of warnings. In the first letter, he focused on the trials we experience in the world. In this next letter, he focuses on trials within the church.
But false prophets arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. These false teachers will infiltrate your midst with destructive heresies, even to the point of denying the Master who bought them.2 Peter 2:1, NET
You can read more details about these false teachers and the dangers they present in 2 Peter 2:12-22. They’re irrational, deceitful, seductive, greedy, and enticing. They say they give freedom but really offer destruction and enslavement to sin. It is vital that we be on guard against such dangers, which is why Peter writes to stir-up faith and remind his readers of the truth. He also emphasizes our reasons for hope, a word which appears more times in Peter’s letters than in any of the other general epistles.
It can be discouraging to have people both inside and outside the church scoffing and trying to tear down your faith (2 Pet. 3:3-13), but we have a hope for our future to hold onto. We know God isn’t delaying His return for no reason; He is patient, giving people many opportunities to repent. We also know it is certain He will return and we need not worry about Him following-through on that, nor do we need to listen to those who question His promises. In fact, we don’t need to pay any attention to those who distort the scriptures.
Therefore, dear friends, since you are waiting for these things, strive to be found at peace, without spot or blemish, when you come into his presence. And regard the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as also our dear brother Paul wrote to you, according to the wisdom given to him, speaking of these things in all his letters. Some things in these letters are hard to understand, things the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they also do to the rest of the scriptures. Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard that you do not get led astray by the error of these unprincipled men and fall from your firm grasp on the truth.2 Peter 3:14-17, NET
Who Should You Be, Given What You Know?
One question Peter asks when talking about Jesus’s approaching return is, “what sort of people must you be, conducting your lives in holiness and godliness, while waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God?” (2 Pet. 3:11-12). We know there will be trials, we know there will be challenges to our faith, and we know that the time of Jesus’s return grows closer each day. Now what do we do with that knowledge?
The answer is woven through both letters. Near the beginning of Peter’s first letter, he tells his readers to be “obedient children” who follow God’s way rather than “evil urges.” In short, “like the Holy One who called you, become holy yourselves in all your conduct” (1 Pet. 1:13-16). Indeed, Peter assumes his readers are already working to purify their souls, obey the truth, and show sincere love (1 Pet. 1:22-2:3). What else would we do as people who’ve experienced the Lord’s kindness?
Being recipients of God’s kindness is something Peter links with a long history of faith. His readers aren’t just new adherents to a new faith in Jesus. They (along with us) are included in the people Hosea the prophet spoke of who once were “not a people” but are now “God’s people;” who were “shown no mercy” but have now “received mercy” (1 Pet. 2:4-10; Hos. 1:6-9; 2:23). We’re all part of this group that God has been working with for thousands of years–a group He calls “my people,” and so we need to devote ourselves to doing what is good (1 Pet. 3:8-13).
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith excellence, to excellence, knowledge; to knowledge, self-control; to self-control, perseverance; to perseverance, godliness; to godliness, brotherly affection; to brotherly affection, unselfish love. For if these things are really yours and are continually increasing, they will keep you from becoming ineffective and unproductive in your pursuit of knowing our Lord Jesus Christ more intimately.2 Peter 1:5-8, NET
As we read these two letters, Peter wants to “stir up” our minds; to remind us to “recall both the predictions foretold by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles” (2 Pet. 3:2). Keeping those foundational truths from both the Old and New Testaments in mind will help us combat false teachers and ensure we’re living godly lives as we wait for Jesus’s return (2 Pet. 3:1-13). During our time here on this earth, we must work to increase in peace, goodness, and patience, guarding ourselves and growing “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the honor both now and on that eternal day.” (2 Pet. 3:14-18).