As I showed in a previous post, 1 Peter is addressed to the “elect exiles of the dispersion” (1:1, ESV). The metaphor for the Christian as a “stranger” or “alien” in this world is very powerful, one that makes for great preaching. Christians sing “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.” (For those who enjoy 80’s Christian rock, think of Petra’s “Not of this World.”) Famous stories like Pilgrim’s Progress describe the Christian life as a long journey through a foreign land. We are slowly making our way through a strange and wicked country to out real home, the Celestial City.
But in 1 Peter 1:1 the “stranger” and “exile” is a metaphor drawn on the experience of Israel. In fact, 1 Peter is framed with the idea of exile. In 5:13 Peter says “she who is in Babylon greets you.” To be “in Babylon” is to be in Exile, living in a strange land which is trying to “convert” you away from serving your God. Think of Daniel, a faithful Jew who served God in Babylon, in the exile. He was a stranger and foreigner, and a model for faithful Jews living in Exile. Peter addresses his letter to Jews living “in exile” as strangers in a strange land.
Does this metaphor address Jews or Gentiles? I think that it is undoubted that Peter drew the metaphor from the Hebrew Bible and the experience of the Jewish people. Calvin commented on 1 Peter 1:1 saying, “Those who think that all the godly are so called [foreigners], because they are strangers in the world, and are going on metaphorically towards the celestial country, are greatly mistaken, and this mistake can be refuted by the word dispersion which immediately follows. This can apply only to the Jews.”
Frequently the recipients are Gentiles, based on 1:18 (“futile ways inherited from your ancestors”). But Jobes points out that the next verse states that the readers are redeemed with the “precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter; BENT, 2005). This description of Jesus as Messiah and a spotless lamb seems in favor of a Jewish recipient. In addition, Jobes points out that Paul considered his Jewish accomplishments as “rubbish”(Phil 3:7-9). It is not surprising therefore that Peter might describe the practice of Judaism apart from Jesus as Christ as “futile.”
Does that mean we who are Gentile Christians ought to ignore this book as “Jewish”? That strikes me as dangerous and foolish, but it is nonetheless important to read these metaphors (and the whole book) in the context of Jewish Christianity of the mid-first century. Peter is addressing Jewish Christians who struggle living as strangers in their culture, which is exactly the sort of circumstance we face now. As Jobes says, “Once the letter circulated away from its original readers, the first sense necessarily receded and the metaphorical sense of “foreigners of the Diaspora” became primary.” (Jobes, 1 Peter, 64.)
How can this distinctly Jewish metaphor be transferred to the situation of the American church in the early 21st century? Or, should it be applied in this way?