[I am back to teaching the New Testament in my Sunday Evening Bible Study. I spent the Fall teaching in 1 Samuel so I did not post notes for that series here, and we had several weeks off for special holiday services or bad weather. Starting January 12 I plan on teaching through 1-2 Peter and Jude in my Sunday Evening Bible Study, while blogging through the Jewish Christian Literature (Hebrews through Revelation). The audio for this week’s evening service is available at Sermon.net, as is a PDF file of the notes for the service.]
It is possible that the original readers of 1 Peter wondered about the status of their salvation. They knew that God had promised the Jewish people a return from the exile, a return to the “promised land” and a righteous and just king to rule over them in a time of prosperity. Yet the Jewish people remain in exile, Rome rules over them with an iron fist, and the political circumstances of the early 60s would seem to indicate that some sort of war between Rome and Jerusalem was inevitable. The original readers believed that Jesus was in fact the messiah and that his death and resurrection had inaugurated that new age. They were awaiting the return of the messiah to establish his kingdom in Jerusalem. But instead of a glorious return of the messiah, the original readers of this letter were suffering oppression and persecution as a result of their faith in Jesus as Messiah. It is unlikely this was the sort of systematic persecution by Rome that would later be the case, but it was no less shocking given the hope they have in Jesus.
Does the persecution mean that they have not inherited salvation? Have they put their faith in Jesus in vain? Peter’s point in these opening verses is that the believer in Jesus has a new status (they are born again into God’s family) and that their inheritance is kept for them by God himself. In fact, by its very nature, their inheritance is unable to fade or become worthless.
Peter describes our salvation as an unfading inheritance (vv. 3-5). Peter is writing to Jewish Christians who are in fact suffering for their faith, so in this introductory prayer he introduces the main themes of the letter. The Christian will suffer in this age, but that suffering is not an indication of punishment. In fact, genuine salvation is completely secure because it is kept by God himself.
First, we are born again into a living hope. While “born again” is a common way to describe Christians in the contemporary church, Peter is the only writer in the New Testament to use the verb ἀναγεννάω to refer to the spiritual experience of the believer, although the concept appears in 2 Cor 5, for example, and is implied in several adoption passages (we are children of God, etc.). John 3 also describes a relationship with Jesus as being born again.
All of this language refers to the Holy Spirit’s regeneration of the believer. Peter says here that we have “a great salvation” not simply because we get to go to heaven someday, but because we have been fundamentally changed through the power of the Spirit of God and the resurrection of Jesus. Ernest Best points out that this should not be reduced to a metaphor. It is not the case that believer’s experience is “like being born again,” we are in fact born again (1 Peter, 75.)
Second, unlike an earthly inheritance, our salvation is an inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” A Jewish reader might hear the word “inheritance” as an allusion to the Promised Land, and these Jews are living outside that inheritance in the Diaspora. Peter therefore uses three words to describe our salvation in terms in order to highlight the fact that by nature this inheritance cannot be lost. On the other hand, virtually the entire ancient world would understand the importance of preserving an inheritance for their descendants (Jobes, 1 Peter, 86). There was a great deal of social status and honor tied to the size and quality of an inheritance, and most people would have known a situation where an inheritance was far smaller than expected!
- Imperishable (ἄφθαρτος) obviously refers to something that does not die. It is rarely used in the New Testament (8x including variants). It is likely that the next two words are expansions on the idea of an imperishable salvation. How is our inheritance safe? It is pure and unfading. Paul used this word for the immortal God (Rom 1:23, 1 Tim 1:17), our reward (1 Cor 9:25) and our resurrection body (1 Cor 15:52).
- Undefiled (ἀμίαντος) can be translated “pure” in a moral sense (Heb 7:26 for Jesus as the pure high priest), or a religious sense (James 1:37). 2 Maccabees 14:36, 15:34 uses the word for the temple, and it appears three times in Wisdom (3:13, 4:2, 8:20).
- Unfading (ἀμάραντος) only appears here in the New Testament, and in the LXX only in Wisdom 6:12 (unfading wisdom).
Peter’s point is that the readers do not need to be concerned that their inheritance will be lost since it is “unable to be lost” by its very nature.
Third, our salvation is secure because it “has been kept in heaven” and guarded by the power of God. The reason our great salvation is secure is that we are not guarding it, God the Father himself is keeping it for us. The Greek syntax is important here, the verb is a perfect passive participle. Our inheritance has already been kept (the perfect) and it is not kept by us, but for us (the passive). The believer is not responsible for keep their salvation, or maintaining their salvation. It is an expectation that will be realized at some point in the future.
Ultimately that salvation will not be fully revealed until the “last time.” While we might here “when we get to heaven” in this statement, Peter has in mind the return of Jesus, the ultimate vindication of Jesus as the Lord of this world. We tend to think something like, “since Jesus died for me, I get to go to heaven,” which of course is true. But Peter’s Jewish theology and world view emphasized the return of Jesus to render justice and establish his kingdom more completely.
In summary, we can be certain that our salvation is secure because it is based on the death and resurrection of Jesus, by its very nature it cannot decay, and it is being kept by God himself in heaven. If this is the case, what should Christians think about their “present suffering”?