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Identity Empowered by the Gospel–1 Peter 1:22-2:3

by John Mark Hicks

jmhicksA marginalized, refugee community within a hostile culture is potentially filled with stress, suspicion, and selfishness. Communities sometimes turn on each other rather than caring for each other. Peter recognizes this possibility and addresses the need for this new community, living a new life, to grow in love for each other.

As children of God (1 Peter 1:14, 17), they belong to a new family, which calls for “brotherly love” (philadelphian, 1 Peter 1:22), a familial love. They are not children of God in some kind of isolation from others, but as children of God they belong to a new community whose new way of life renders them “aliens and strangers” in the land. In other words, they need to stick together, have each others back, and love each other.

1 Peter 1:22-2:3 is bounded by two imperatives with a quotation from Isaiah 40 at the center. The two imperatives are:

Between these imperatives lies an important quotation from Isaiah 40 that gives theological shape and meaning to Peter’s exhortation.

Conversion

The two imperatives are rooted in a past moment, which Joel Green identifies as “conversion.” Since “X” is true, then you ought to “Y.”

This past moment—“purified” (perfect tense) and “put off” (aorist tense), both past tenses in Greek—refers to their conversion. Some have seen baptismal allusions here—“putting” clothes before their immersion and “purified” (sanctified, set apart, or made holy) through the waters of baptism (cf. 1 Peter 3:20-22). Perhaps “obedience” alludes to this, but it is difficult to specify in this limited context.

The past includes a marker moment, a beginning of their new life that reaches into the present (the significance of the perfect tense). The old way of life is left behind and a new adventure has begun. It was a “setting apart” (a distinct, even alien, way of life), a “putting off” (disrobing, taking off all the past ways of living), and also a “new birth” (born again).

Peter describes this conversion—the turning from one way of life for another, or the exchange of narratives—as a new birth (literally, in the perfect [past] tense, “having been born again” in 1 Peter 1:23). Since Peter introduced this language in his doxology at the beginning of the letter (1 Peter 1:3), it is a significant descriptor. It introduces familial language as well as conversion motifs. New birth entails a new beginning, a new family, a new narrative, and a new reality, a spiritual reality.

How did this happen? The text describes two means or instruments for this event. One stresses human participation and the other divine activity.

Obedience may refer to a specific moment such as baptism, or it may refer to the exchange of narratives, that is, they changed the course of their lives to follow “the truth.” Either way, conversion involves human participation, which is characterized as “obedience.” What “truth” might envision here will entertain our attention in a moment.

New birth through the word of God focuses on divine power and activity. It is the “living and enduring” word, which is language that takes us beyond words on a page and points us to the One who lives and endures. It draws our attention to God’s own eternal nature, and this God births us. 1 Peter 1:3 makes this clear: God is blessed because we are birth by divine mercy through the resurrection of Jesus, that is, by God’s active power that inaugurates new creation and new life in the resurrection. God is our Father because God has begotten us through the living word–not simply words on a page, but a living word.

The new birth means they are nourished by “pure, spiritual milk.” Peter characterizes his readers as “newborns,” but this is not a contrast between “immature” and “mature” (as Hebrews 5:11-14 does). Here the point is that as newborns—people who have experienced new birth—they must crave “pure, spiritual milk.” They are nourished by the reality into which their new birth has brought them.

It is “spiritual” (logikon) milk. Logikon is a difficult word to translate. Translations vary from “rational” to “figurative” to “spiritual.” Consequently, it is uncertain exactly how to understand the term though the broad sentiment is clear: newborns in this community are nourished by God rather than by their own desires and former ways of life.

While some identify the “milk” with Scripture, the written word of God, it is better to regard “spiritual” as a reference to the new reality into which they have been born (see Jobes commentary). They are nourished by new creation, by a new life, which does not originate in their past but draws on their future (“salvation” or the living hope of resurrection). Their new life is a radically new one that is fueled by the future world rather than the present one; that life is nourished by “spiritual” milk.

Isaiah 40 and the Word of God

Sandwiched between the imperatives in 1 Peter 1:22 and 1 Peter 2:2 is the quotation from Isaiah 40:7-8.

The quotation, however, is no mere proof-text about the “word of God.” On the contrary, Peter quotes the text as a way of recalling the whole backdrop, meaning, and significance of Isaiah 40 (see the extended discussion by Jobes). For Peter it has a new significance in the new setting in which these “elect exiles” find themselves.

Isaiah 40 is addressed to “elect exiles” as well. It addresses Israel in Babylonian exile, and seeks to comfort them with a promise that God will bring about a new exodus through the wilderness. Indeed, the word of the Lord is the heralding of “good tidings” (euangelizomenos, preaching the gospel in Isaiah 40:9). The good news is that God has not forgotten the exiles, is working redemption or liberation for the exiles, and is present among them to give them strength to endure. In fact, God is a shepherd who will lead the flock (Isaiah 40:11), just as Jesus is the chief shepherd who will appear to grant glory to his flock (1 Peter 5:4). The connections between Isaiah 40 and 1 Peter are too numerous to enumerate in this brief post. Peter’s readers find themselves in a similar situation as Israel in Isaiah 40, and just as the “word of the Lord” assured Israel so it now also assures his readers.

What is this “word of the Lord”? 1 Peter 1:22-2:3 has two identifiers—“the truth” and “the good news” (euangelisthen, gospel). Both terms, in context, are Christological in character, that is, they point us to the work of God in Jesus the Messiah. The truth or good news is the revelation of Jesus “at the end of the ages” (1 Peter 1:20), which ushers in new life or new creation through the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection and glorification of Jesus, after his sufferings and death, are the good news, and obedience to this truth is the means by which we are reborn through the implanted seed, which is the enacted word of God—the event of Jesus the Messiah who has worked salvation for us by the Spirit.

While many suggest that the “word of the Lord” is Scripture itself, it is actually that to which Scripture points, that is, the promise of a future through the work of Christ. That is the good news, which is the word of the Lord. Scripture records that good news, bears witness to it, and interprets it, but the good news is not Scripture itself. The good news is Jesus the Messiah, and he is the message of God to a broken world.

A New Community

This new family, empowered by the word of Lord, is called to act as a family.

The positive statement—love each other (1 Peter 1:22)—is paralleled with the negative one—get rid of malice, etc. (1 Peter 2:1). Love means that we no longer act in malice, treat each other with deceit, live as hypocrites, nurture envy in our hearts, or speak slanderously about each other.

The pressures of a marginalized community might affect it negatively or positively. They may turn toward each other for love and support, or they may find opportunity for malice and deceit. Will the pressure turn themagainst each other or will it turn them for each other?

Conversion is supposed to transform us so that we are for each other. If our souls have been purified, then it should lead to a “genuine mutual love” for each other, that is, philadelphian. If we have rid ourselves of all disruptive behaviors, then together—as a community—we can “grow into (eis) salvation,” which is communal, progressive sanctification.

Salvation here is a goal, something toward which we move and something into which we grow. Extending the agricultural metaphor, just as the imperishable seed has been planted in us for new birth, so we will also grow (plants grow) into salvation. Peter has used “salvation” in this first chapter in an eschatological sense, that is, the future full revelation of Jesus. Salvation is something that lies ahead even though we already experience it in particular ways. Salvation is something we “grow” into—we are newborns who grow up into maturity, into the fullness of the reality that God will bring about in the eschaton.

This is true, however, only “if” we have “tasted that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). “Tasted,” as a past tense verb (aorist), once again references conversion, which is described as tasting the goodness (chrestos) of the Lord. More than likely, the play on words—chrestos (goodness, gracious) and christos (Christ)—is intentional. Through our conversion, we taste the grace and goodness of what God has done for us in Christ.

Actually, this is a quotation from Psalm 34, which has already factored into the background of 1 Peter 1:13-21 and is quoted in 1 Peter 3:10-12. The Psalm expresses the confidence that God is gracious to the brokenhearted, protects those who live in reverent fear, and ransoms the servants of the Lord from trouble. It is a reassuring Psalm for exiled people, and Peter intends that his readers hear this Psalm in their own context.

Living their new life within their new family with a new Father, “elect exiles” can live in the confidence that Psalm 34 exudes. Just as they have tasted that the Lord is gracious, so they can feed on the spiritual milk, the God whose protection is promised in Psalm 34.

-John Mark Hicks  is a Professor of Theology at Lipscomb University




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The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

John 10:10