Was Paul as an Apostle?

Paul claims to be called to be an apostle in each of the undisputed letters (Rom 1:1, 1 Cor 1:1, 2 Cor 1:1, Gal 1:1) as well as several other letters (Eph 1:1, Col 1:1, 1-2 Tim, Titus). In addition to the headings of these letters, Paul refers to his apostleship in several other contexts. In Rom 11:13 he calls himself the “apostle to the Gentiles” and in 1 Corinthians 9 Paul defends his status as an apostle on a par with Peter or Barnabas. But Paul never claims to be one of the Twelve. With the exception of Matthias, the replacement for Judas, this group were chosen by Jesus before the crucifixion.

Was Paul as an Apostle?In fact, in Galatians 1 Paul emphasizes his commission as an apostle but distinct from the Twelve.  An “apostle” is someone who is sent as a representative of another, usually some kind of a group.  Most lexicons suggests the English “ambassador, delegate, messenger” for the Greek concept of an apostle.  Most scholars now associate the Greek apostolos (ἀπόστολος) with the Hebrew shaliach. A person who was sent as a representative or agent acts on the same authority of the sending group.

For example, when the Jerusalem church sent Barnabas to Antioch, it is possible he was send as a shaliach or apostle of the Jerusalem church (Acts 11:22).  He would have acted as their representative on the scene should questions arise. Paul is not an apostle sent by the church of Antioch to the churches of Galatia, nor is he an agent sent out by the Jerusalem church. He never claims to be one of the Twelve Apostles, in fact Galatians 1-2 make it clear he is not part of that particular group. Paul’s claim in Galatians is that is an apostle of Jesus Christ and God the Father.

In 1 Corinthians 15:9 Paul alludes to his status as an apostle in his discussion of the resurrection. Paul was not a follower of Jesus until his encounter in Acts 9. As is well known, he was a persecutor of Jesus’ followers prior to the resurrection appearance of Jesus. Paul claims in in 1 Cor 15 to be an eye-witness to the resurrection, albeit one with different credentials than Peter or James since he did not know Jesus before the resurrection.

This experience was like an “untimely birth” (ESV). This word (ἔκτρωμα) is used for a stillborn child or a miscarriage. Many commentators think this is an insult Paul faced in his ministry, he is not just a “Johnny-come-lately” or someone who is trying to “jump on the band-wagon,” or that he has some spiritual deficiency disqualifying him from being considered a “real apostle.” Rather than responding to an attack, Paul is simply listing himself as the final witness because he was the final witness, and his experience is unique among the apostles. But again, he does not claim to be one of the Twelve; like James, the Lord’s Brother, he is commissioned by the resurrected Jesus to be an apostle, but NOT one of the Twelve.

In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul sarcastically refers to his opponents in Corinth as “super-apostles.” But since this rare word can mean superior, it is possible the opponents considered themselves to be superior to Paul and described themselves as his superiors to the members of the Corinthian church. Some have argued this is a reference to the apostles in Jerusalem, but it seems unlikely Paul would refer the Twelve with this snarky title (like added “so-called” to something to question its authority). More likely the super apostles are Greeks in Corinth who have accepted the Gospel but are now behaving like Greek intellectuals. Like many of the other issues in Corinth, Paul is dealing with a pagan worldview in the church.

By way of summary, there was a group called the Twelve who were apostles, and a few other people who were commissioned by Jesus after the resurrection (James and Paul) and were therefore also considered apostles. There were others who claimed to be apostles, like the super apostles mentioned in 2 Corinthians who claimed authority as apostles but were not commissioned by the resurrected Jesus.

What is Paul claiming when he calls himself an Apostle?  What does it mean for a letter like 1 Thessalonians, where he does not use the title but then says he could have made demands as an apostle of Christ?

Paul’s Mission to the Gentiles

One of the basic assumptions most Christian have about Jews in the first century is they kept separate from the Gentiles. Josephus says Jews “did not come into contact with other people because of their separateness” (Antiq. 13:245-247). Any Gentile who chooses to live according to the Law of Moses may be admitted, but otherwise there is no real fellowship with Gentiles.  

Josephus, Against Apion 2.210 Accordingly our legislator [Moses] admits all those that have a mind to observe our laws, so to do; and this after a friendly manner, as esteeming that a true union, which not only extends to our own stock, but to those that would live after the same manner with us; yet does he not allow those that come to us by accident only to be admitted into communion with us.

But perhaps the situation was not as strict as Josephus would have us believe. Gentiles were not totally excluded from Jewish worship. The Temple in the first century was expanded to include a large “court of the Gentiles” providing a place for Gentiles to worship. On a number of occasions in the gospels Jesus speaks with Gentiles, although usually the faith of the Gentile is in contrast to the unfaithfulness of the Jews (see for example the story in Mark 7:24-30 or the parallel in Matthew 15:22-28)

One factor bearing on this issue is the long standing Jewish belief that purity laws did not apply to Gentiles even when they lived in Israelite territory. The “sojourner laws” (Deut 5:14) define Gentiles as resident aliens and require only a few general laws for them while they are living within Israel. These are similar to the commands given by James at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:24-29 for Gentiles. Although it seems odd to a modern reader, the two biggest factors for avoiding Gentiles were food laws and circumcision. Because Gentiles ate food the Jews considered unclean, for some Jews contact with Gentiles was to be avoid.

Did Jews of the first century consider Gentiles impure and therefore exclude them from the courts at the temple? In the Second Temple re-telling of the story of Joseph known as Joseph and Asenath we are told Joseph never ate with the Egyptians, for this was an abomination to him” (7:1). In fact, he refuses to even kiss the lovely Egyptian Asenath because her lips have touched unclean food.

Several Second Temple period texts indicate Jews did not mix at all with Gentiles:

Jubilees 22:16 And you also, my son, Jacob, remember my words, and keep the commandments of Abraham, your father. Separate yourself from the Gentiles, and do not eat with them, and do not perform deeds like theirs. And do not become associates of theirs. Because their deeds are defiled, and all their ways are contaminated, and despicable, and abominable.

Tobit 1:10-12 After I was carried away captive to Assyria and came as a captive to Nineveh, every one of my kindred and my people ate the food of the Gentiles, but I kept myself from eating the food of the Gentiles. Because I was mindful of God with all my heart . . .

Judith 12:1-4 Then he commanded them to bring her in where his silver dinnerware was kept, and ordered them to set a table for her with some of his own delicacies, and with some of his own wine to drink. But Judith said, “I cannot partake of them, or it will be an offense; but I will have enough with the things I brought with me.” Holofernes said to her, “If your supply runs out, where can we get you more of the same? For none of your people are here with us.” Judith replied, “As surely as you live, my lord, your servant will not use up the supplies I have with me before the Lord carries out by my hand what he has determined.”

In any case, it was certainly not normal for a Jewish missionary from Jerusalem to turn up in the home of a Gentile to teach them about the God of the Hebrew Bible (as did Peter in Acts 10). If a Gentile was worshiping in the Temple or synagogue, such as Cornelius, then that Gentile would be welcome to hear the gospel. But for the Jewish mission in Judea as described in the book of Acts, the home of a Gentile is not really the normal venue for missionary activity!

Yet Paul is called to be the “light to the gentiles” and planned to take the Gospel to places where it has not gone before. He immediately goes to the Roman province of Arabia and begins to do evangelism among the Gentiles. On the island of Crete Paul intentionally approaches the Roman governor Sergius Paulus, and in both Lystra and Iconium he targets Gentiles outside of the Synagogue with the Gospel.

If the examples listed above are a fair reading of Judaism in the first century, then how radical was Paul’s Gentile mission strategy? Is the reaction of both Christian and non-Christian Jews to his interaction with Gentiles a hint at how radical Paul’s mission to the Gentiles was for Second Temple Jews?

Paul and the Suffering Servant

Like Philippians 3, in 2 Corinthians 11:23–33 Paul boasts about his ministry. Since this letter is written in the mid-50s, the list refers to Paul’s early ministry. But Paul does not list his accomplishments quite the way we would expect them.

First, Paul claims to be a servant of Christ (v. 23a) and then proves it by listing his hard work and suffering on account of Christ Jesus. In fact, he claims to be a “better servant” because he has suffered! The opponents claim to be servants of Jesus and Paul does not deny the claim. Be the word “servant” and “slave” are identical in Greek. For someone to claim to be a “servant” in English has a different feel than claiming to be a “slave.”

Second, Paul says he has worked harder, been in prison more, been beaten countless times and has been near death many times. Paul uses a series of adverbs (περισσοτέρως twice, ὑπερβαλλόντως once, and πολλάκις once) to overemphasize his difficult life as a servant of Christ. These were not one-time problems he endured for a short time. This is the constant state of his life since he began his ministry!

Third, Paul has already suffered many times for the name of Jesus. “Five time lashed 40 less one” is a reference to Jewish punishment. The Greek says, “I received the forty less one,” which is a clear reference to a lashing. Josephus uses the phrase twice in describing the Mosaic Law (Ant. 4:238. 248). This punishment came from the Jews—it was an attempt from synagogues to bring Paul back in line with his heritage. The maximum punishment in the law was 40 lashes (Deut 25:3).

What is significant is Paul received this penalty five times!  Early in his ministry Paul may have been expelled from the synagogue for teaching that Jesus was the Messiah, and certainly if he taught God-fearing Gentiles they could be fully save without keeping the Law. In Acts 7, Stephen is lynched for teaching Jesus had replaced the Temple, although he did not go as far as Paul with respect to the Gentiles and the Law.

In addition to these beatings, Paul says he was “three times beaten with rods.” This is a reference to Roman punishment. The Greek (ῥαβδίζω) refers only to beating someone with rods, the Latin term fustigatio was distinct from catigatio, lashing, and verberatio, flogging with chains (BDAG). Paul received this treatment in Acts 16:22 for creating a “public disturbance” even though he was a Roman citizen.

Finally, Paul says he was “once stoned and left for dead.” This refers to Lystra (Acts 14:19). Stoning was a typical way for a Jewish group to execute someone. In Acts 7 Paul himself participates in the stoning of Stephen and he is about to be stoned in Acts 21:30 when he is falsely accused of bringing a Gentile into the Temple courts.

I suggest this list of suffering indicates Paul continued to reach out to the Jews in the synagogues early in his career. Acts indicates he never really stopped going to the synagogues to reach the “Jew first.” But he was also bringing the Gospel into the Greco-Roman world in such a way that he was thought to be a threat. In Acts 17:6 the leaders of Thessalonica claim Paul was “turning the world upside down.”

So Paul was Jesus’ slave who suffered greatly to bring the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles. How does this level of suffering for Jesus function as a kind of “missionary strategy”? From a modern perspective, being arrested for rabble-rousing might be seen as counter-productive to evangelism. How might Paul’s suffering for Jesus be a model for Christians today?

 

Paul’s Calling as Apocalyptic

Galatians 1:11–12 (ESV) For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

At the beginning of Galatians, Paul offers his own testimony of how he encountered the grace of God. Although he does not recount the story as we know it from Acts 9, Paul is describing his initial encounter with God as an apocalyptic experience. By this I mean God dramatically broke into history and revealed something to Paul which altered his understanding of God had what God is doing in the world through Jesus.

First, Paul’s claim is that he was not evangelized by other apostles. Although there is a case to be made for Paul having heard the preaching of Jesus before the crucifixion, based on his persecution of the early Christ-followers it is clear he did not believe Jesus was the Messiah before meeting him on the road to Damascus. Although Stanley Porter has recently argued Paul did know Jesus, there is no hint in either Acts or the letters that he heard Jesus teach or was he present at the execution.

Paul Road to DamascusIn fact, Acts describes Paul as a bitter opponent of the gospel. Paul makes a similar statement in Galatians 1:13. Paul likely began to oppose the preaching of Stephen in the Greek-speaking Synagogue of the Freedmen (Acts 6:1-8:1). As a Hellenistic Jew from the Diaspora Paul have fellowshipped at this synagogue, but as a Pharisee he would have been shocked and offended by Stephen’s claim Jesus was the messiah, God had raised him from the dead, and he was going to return soon to render judgment. (Although we do not have Stephen’s speeches before his final one prior to being stoned, it seems likely he would say the same sorts of things Peter and John did in Acts 2-3.)

Second, Paul did not learn his gospel from the other apostles. After his encounter with Jesus, Paul did not submit to a period of discipleship in order to learn the basics of the Gospel nor did he associate himself with the Apostles in Jerusalem. In Galatians Paul claims not encounter the Apostles until after he was given a revelation from Jesus.

This, the origin of Paul’s gospel to the Gentiles is a revelation from Jesus (Galatians 1:12). The noun ἀποκάλυψις appears in Paul’s letters thirteen times, and as might be expected, the word has the connotation of God’s decisive actions in history to bring salvation into the world. This is in fact the title of the final book of the New Testament, the “Revelation of Jesus Christ.” Paul claims that he received this Law-free gospel for the Gentiles through revelation in Ephesians 3:1-6 as well. What Paul experienced on the Road to Damascus was like the prophetic calling of Isaiah or Ezekiel. In fact, Paul is the “light to the Gentiles,” a possible allusion to the suffering servant Isaiah 49:6 and he quotes Isaiah 6 when he arrives in Rome as fulfilled in his mission.

This revelation stands in contrast to receiving a gospel from other humans. Rather than being informed by others of a “Law-free Gospel” for the Gentiles, God revealed it to him through Jesus. In Galatians 1-2, Paul will offer evidence for the claim that his gospel does not come from humans, but from God.

This fierce claim of independence from the Twelve in Jerusalem and the original followers of Jesus is disturbing to some readers. Although Paul claims to be an outsider from the first followers of Christ, he says his authority comes from the highest level: God called him through a dramatic unveiling of Jesus, the Son of God. What are the ramifications of this claim for reading Paul’s letters? Does his claim of independence affect the way we understand his relationship with the other Christ followers in Jerusalem?

The World is Surprised When We Do Not Join Them – 1 Peter 4:3-4

Peter lists a series of vices that were acceptable in the Greco-Roman world. Some of these are associated with entertainment (theater, the games), others may be associated with banquets in the temples. While some of these might be family celebrations and fairly innocent, a meal at a temple would be an opportunity for drunkenness, gluttony, sexual excess.

Bacchus

Sensuality (ἀσέλγεια) refers to a “lack of self-constraint” that goes beyond what is socially acceptable. Traditionally this is translated as “licentiousness” and turns up in sin lists along with fornication. It is the kind of insolence that makes a mockery of what is considered acceptable in polite society.

Passions (ἐπιθυμία) is the typical word used for lust, although that is not always a sexual lust; gluttony, for example, is an inordinate craving for food, etc.) The word can refer to any sort of desire that goes beyond what is necessary.

Drunkenness (οἰνοφλυγία) is not the typical word used in the New Testament for one who gets drunk, but implies that the person is gluttonous for wine. Philo of Alexandria uses this word in his discussion of coveting:

Philo, Spec. Laws, 4.91 When it [coveting] affects the parts about the belly it makes men gluttonous, insatiable, intemperate, debauched, admirers of a profligate life, delighting in drunkenness, and epicurism, slaves to strong wine, and fish, and meat, pursuers of feasts and tables, wallowing like greedy dogs; owing to all which things their lives are rendered miserable and accursed, and they are reduced to an existence more grievous than any death.

The word translated orgies (κωμος) refers to a festive meal usually in honor of Dionysus/Bacchus, the god of wine. The word appears twice in the LXX, in 2 Macc 6:4 it describes the revelries of the Gentiles in the Temple courts before the Maccabean revolt, and in Wisdom of Solomon 14:23 it appears in a detailed sin list (translated as “frenzied revels.”

2 Maccabees 6:4 (NRSV)  For the temple was filled with debauchery and reveling by the Gentiles, who dallied with prostitutes and had intercourse with women within the sacred precincts, and besides brought in things for sacrifice that were unfit.

Wisdom of Solomon 14:23 (NRSV)  For whether they kill children in their initiations, or celebrate secret mysteries, or hold frenzied revels with strange customs

Similarly, “drinking parties” (πότος) refers to carousing, although this is not always with the connotation of drinking in a sleazy bar. The elite often held banquets to discuss literature or philosophy (a symposium) while drinking heavily. BDAG suggests that Peter “has less sophisticated participants in mind.”

Lawless idolatry (ἀθέμιτος εἰδωλολατρία). This final item is scathing in its condemnation of the religious practices of the Roman world.  The word Peter uses here is used for wanton, unseemly behavior, things that even the Roman world would consider too disgusting. In addition, Peter calls these gods idols, something that would not be considered politically correct in the Roman world. You might not worship someone else’s god, but you did not call it a disgusting idol! Not only do these people commit acts that are unseemly, they do so in the service of a worthless idol.

Imagine contemporary celebrations like Mardi Gras, New Year’s Eve, or Super Bowl parties. There are all excuses for indulging in behavior that would be inappropriate at other times. But this goes beyond the pale: imagine someone behaving so badly at Mardi Gras that people thought they were crossing the line.

Peter implies that his readers have participated in some of these things. This is usually taken as a “proof” that the congregation is made up of Gentile converts, since Jews would not have participated in these kinds of debaucheries. But as Karen Jobes points out, this may be an overly idealized view of diaspora Jews living in a pagan culture. That some of them at some point did attend the theater or the gladiatorial games is entirely possible.

Christians developed the reputation for being different because they chose not to participate in such behaviors. In the ancient world, different was always bad. If a Christian choose to not participate in some civic event because it is an excuse for debauchery, they are likely going to be view with suspicion. If the event was dedicated to the gods of the city, perhaps the Christians were endangering the prosperity of the city. If the event was a family celebration, then refusing to participate would have created tension within the most basic unit of Roman culture.

This goes beyond modern Christians abstaining from the drunken festivals of our time. To use the analogy of Mardi Gras, if someone refused to participate in the festivities, they might be considered a kill-joy, or holier-than-thou, or judgmental. But few would consider them traitors to the city of New Orleans, and no one really thinks that the gods are going to bless the city since everyone participates in the revels. This radical call to holiness opened many early Christians to accusations of disloyalty.

 

Jesus is the Precious Cornerstone – 1 Peter 2:4, 6-8

Peter describes Jesus as a “living stone” that was rejected by men (2:4). What is a “living stone”? Some take this as an uncut rock. Altars in the Old Testament were to be built from unhewn rock, not dressed stone.  Water that is used in a Jewish mikveh was called “living water” since it had to come from a “living source” (rain or a spring).  On the other hand, the stone may have been cut, carved and prepared for use as the Temple cornerstone.

Jesus is the “rejected stone” that becomes the chief stone in a New Temple (2:6-8) Peter draws several verses from the Hebrew Bible together in this paragraph. He first quotes Isa 28:16, where the Lord says he is “laying a stone in Zion.” In the original context, this saying referred to the establishment of a stable dynasty in Jerusalem, despite threats against it from the Assyrians.

Herodian Stones, Temple Mount

The massive Herodian era foundation stone at the Temple Mount

The first line is fairly clear, but the expansion of stone into a “chosen cornerstone” needs to be unpacked.  The Greek word (ἀκρογωνιαιος) refers to a “capstone,” an ornate stone that would be the final stone added to a building. But a “cornerstone” refers to a stone laid as a foundation. Unlike modern “cornerstones” that are largely ceremonial, the cornerstone for a large building was critical for the building up of the rest of the building.

The second verse Peter quotes is from Psalm 118:22-23. The idea of a chief stone connects the Psalm to Isa 28:16. Jesus called himself the “stone that the builders rejected” after the Parable of the Vineyard in Mark 12:9-11. In Mark 12, Jesus calls the rejected stone the “head corner stone” (κεφαλή and γωνία, corner), although “head” can mean “chief” here. The context of the psalm is a restoration of Israel at the end of the exile, and it appears that the text was considered messianic based on the similarity of the word stone (eben) and son (ben) in Hebrew. David was the son who was rejected, yet he was the chose king who laid the foundation of the line of kings that would result in the coming of the Messiah.

In the Gospels, Jesus quotes Psalm 118 as a conclusion to the parable of the Vineyard, which concludes with the son of the vineyard’s owner being taken out of the vineyard and killed. This is a thinly veiled prediction of what will happen to Jesus in just a few days and is a clear statement from Jesus that his death will be in some ways a fulfillment of Psalm 118, the rejected son (ben) becomes the chief stone (eben) in the building.

The third text Peter quotes is Isa. 8:14. In response to the rejection of the stone, judgment will come. In the original context of Isaiah 8, God has given the sign of Immanuel (a son, ben) to king Ahaz, and now Isaiah is warned to honor only the Lord as holy and to only fear the Lord (rather than the king). The Lord will be a sanctuary (a holy place, the word mikdash is used for the tent of meeting and the Temple) for those who honor him, but for those who have rejected the Lord as their God, he will be a “stone of stumbling.”

Herodian Stones, Temple Mount

At the Southwest corner of the Temple Mount

It is easy enough to connect sanctuary with temple (although the LXX has ἁγίασμα), but the image of what kind of stone Jesus is changes here – he is no longer an honored stone at the highest point in the Temple; rather he is a stone on the ground that trips people up and causes them to stumble. Sometimes this “stumbling-block” is described as a mostly-buried rock that someone does not really see until they trip over it and are injured.

Those who honor Jesus will be honored, those who do not will be shamed. This refers to eschatological judgment. When Jesus returns, there will be a separation of those who honored the stone as precious, or tripped over him and stumbled. Paul used these same verses in a very similar way in Romans 9:33, 10:11. In the present age, Peter says, there are some will believe in the cornerstone, and be honored ‘in that day,” while those who reject the stone will be shamed.

In summary, Peter describes Jesus in this passage as the most important stone in a Temple. If Jesus is the cornerstone or capstone, then the people of God are stones building on that foundation. What is Peter’s main point in this metaphor? Is it just a scriptural argument for Jesus as Messiah, or there are pastoral emphasis as well? Within the metaphor of a Temple, what is the relationship between the living stones of the church and Jesus?

Since You Have Been Born Again – 1 Peter 1:21-22

In 1 Peter 1:15-16, Peter said the reason a believer ought to be holy is that they were ransomed by God with the greatest price imaginable, the blood of Jesus, the perfect and spotless lamb. The second reason Peter gives for his call to holiness is that the believer has been born again (1:22-23). The believer has experienced a change in status before God, we are now his children.

Peter’s description of salvation as being “born again” is drawn from the teaching of Jesus (John 3), but is consistent with Paul’s “new creation” and adoption language. Like Paul in 1 Cor 15, Peter says that the believer has been changed fundamentally, from perishable seed but imperishable. The believer’s salvation is imperishable because it is through the “living and abiding word of God.” The “seed” that creates this new, imperishable life in the believer is the Word of God.

Peter quotes Isaiah 40:6-8, although his words echo that whole passage. The original context of Isaiah 40 was a call for the exiles to leave Babylon and return to the land, the long exile of Israel was over.  Peter addressed his readers as those living in the Exile and claims to write “from Babylon” (1 Peter 5:13). The good news preached to his readers was that the exile is over and those who are born again in Jesus Christ are able to be the holy people that God desired from the beginning.

Baby with CandyIf the believer has really “tasted that the Lord is good,” then they ought to crave more and better food. When children are born, they are only able to drink milk, but they crave it so intensely that when a baby is hungry, everyone knows it!  When kids are young, parents try to get them to eat new kinds of food in order to provide more nutrition than Mac and Cheese with a hotdog. Most kids will not eat stuffed mushrooms or anything that “looks weird” (unless a stranger offers it to them in a store as a “free sample”!) This is the whole Green Eggs and Ham syndrome – if you taste it you will like it (Sam I Am).

The words “Taste that the Lord is good” is an allusion to Psalm 34:8. In that psalm David describes the blessed man who has found refuge in the Lord. The one who is protected by the Lord is safe, while the oppressors (“young lions”) go hungry. Since the believer has in fact “tasted the good things of the Lord,” it is only natural that they should crave.

The believer should put away things that are not consistent with that growth. As with human children, some things do not promote healthy growth. As parents, we tell our kids to eat the broccoli and asparagus because it is healthy and they need the vitamins, and we restrict their junk food because it is just that, junk. This restriction is not because parents are mean (or are hoarding the candy for themselves), but because they want to help their children grow up healthy.

He mentions specifically “all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.” These are the sorts of things that destroy any community, but especially Christian communities. Malice (κακία) is the opposite of virtue (ἀρετή), but appears frequently in vice lists for a kind of “mean-spirited or vicious attitude” (BDAG). It appears with anger, hatred, rage, and even bitterness. It is a kind of attitude that finds fault with everything and cannot see any good at all in something.

Deceit (δόλος) is sometimes translated “underhandedness” or “treachery.” It is the word that appears in the LXX to describe the treachery of Jacob when he stole the blessing from his brother (Gen 27:35) and the treachery of Simeon and Levi when they attacked the people of Shechem.  The word appears in Psalm 34:13, which may supply Peter with his list of vices in this verse.

But it does not take a major sin to stunt our growth in the Lord – simple distractions are usually more effective for destroying our growth than “malice and deceit.” Peter’s point here is that the believer is a child of God and ought to act like it. It is only natural that the believer is growing and developing in holiness.

A Salvation Kept in Heaven – 1 Peter 1:5

Having described our salvation as secure by its very nature, Peter goes on to describe our salvation as “has been kept in heaven” and guarded by the power of God.  A second reason our great salvation is secure is that we are not guarding it, God the Father himself is keeping it for us.

1 PeterThe Greek syntax is important here, the verb is a perfect passive participle (φρουρουμένους, from φρουρέω). 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.  As we will see in the rest of this letter, Peter believes that Jesus is going to return very soon and that believers live in the gap between the first and second coming of the Messiah.

Taken along with 1 Peter 1:4, we can be certain 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”? Peter argues that since our salvation is so certain, the trials of this life are occasions for praise (vv. 6-7).  The believer can rejoice in their “fiery trials” because they know that their inheritance is secured.  The belief that Jesus is Lord and that he is returning to render judgment on the world in the future runs counter to the prevailing belief that Rome is all-powerful and renders justice and that Caesar himself is the ultimate Lord.

In the territories mentioned in 1 Peter 1:1, Rome was venerated in imperial religious activity that could not be separated from civic life. If one was going be successful in the Roman world of the late first century, then Rome must be recognized as sovereign over this world.  This world view would naturally bring Christians into conflict with local authorities.  Why do Christians avoid participating in civic events that are dedicated to gods, or even to Rome itself?

It is difficult for contemporary (American) Christians to fully understand this because America attempts to completely separate “church and state.” What we do in church has nothing to do with our loyalty as Americans, and we do not really see our loyalty to America as something that conflicts with our faith in Jesus Christ. But that was just not the case in first century Rome, nor is it the case in many countries today.

Is it possible to be a loyal Christian and participate fully in civic life in China? Or the Middle East? Or many countries in Africa? How can Peter’s assertion that our inheritance is kept for us in Heaven encourage Christians wo are indeed suffering greatly for their faith?

 

Imperishable, Undefiled, and Unfading – 1 Peter 1:4

In order to comfort those who might think their suffering implies a loss of salvation, Peter describes the nature of salvation as an expectation that cannot be lost. It is not possible to lose our inheritance of salvation because it is by its very nature not “lose-able.”

inheritanceA 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. 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 pure and unfading. In the LXX it appears only in Wisdom 12:1 for the immortality of the soul and 18:4 for the “imperishable light of the law” in contrast to those imprisoned in darkness. 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).  Peter uses the word here and in 1:23 for the quality of our salvation. Later he uses the word for “genuine beauty” (3:4).

The word refers to something that cannot get old, rot away or die. The opposite is something that does rot. By analogy, people do not buy bananas as a long term investment. After a few days they turn brown and are not very appetizing. Imagine keeping a banana for a few months!  By contrast,

Undefiled (ἀμίαντος) can be translated “pure” in a moral sense. Hebrews 13:4 uses it for the marriage relationship and in 7:26 the word refers to Jesus as the pure high priest. 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). The opposite (μιαίνω) refers to the stain of dye, but in most New Testament contexts it refers to the “stain” of immorality (Titus 1:15, Heb 12:15, Jude 8), although it may also refer to any uncleanliness (John 18:28).

Unfading (ἀμάραντος) only appears here in the New Testament, and in the LXX only in Wisdom 6:12 (unfading wisdom). Some time ago we moved our couch and found that the curtains on the front picture window were very faded when we saw the lower parts that do not hang in the sun. Eventually the drapes will have to be replaced since the sunlight would eventually ruin them completely. Is Peter’s used of “unfading” an allusion to Matthew 6:19-21 / Luke 12:33? There are some similarities, although the emphasis there is on external attacks on treasure, rather than the inviolability of our salvation. Gundry thought there was an allusion, Jobes reports this without comment, (1 Peter, 86).

Peter’s point is the salvation we have in Christ Jesus is an inheritance so perfect it cannot be lost, as was Israel’s inheritance of the land in the Hebrew Bible. If this is the case, is there any reason to worry about any harassment or persecution on account of our faith?

What are some other ways the nature of our salvation ought to change the way we live out our lives in a non-Christian world?

 

 

Suffering and Salvation – 1 Peter 1:3-5

PersecutionIt is possible the original readers of 1 Peter wondered about the status of their salvation. They knew 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 Jesus was in fact the messiah and that his death and resurrection had inaugurated a 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.

In response to these fears, Peter first describes salvation as “an unfading inheritance” (1:3-5).  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.

Second, Peter says 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.).

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 (Best, 1 Peter, 75).

Third, this regeneration to new life is through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It is somewhat surprising that he does not say through the blood of Jesus, or the Cross. Peter’s focus is on the coming of the new covenant in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead; since he lives, we also can have life.  Peter described the hope we have on the basis of the resurrection of Jesus and the regeneration of the spirit as an inheritance.  This is a very biblical way to describe salvation. In the Hebrew Bible, Israel was redeemed from their slavery in Egypt and brought to the “promised land.” That land was their inheritance, promised to Abraham in Gen 12. In the New Testament Paul describes our salvation as an inheritance (1 Cor 6:9, 15:50, Col 3:24, Titus 3:7; cf., Heb 1:14).

In our increasingly post-Christian America, it is possible some more conservative evangelicals may have the same questions as Peter’s original readers. When is Jesus going to return and judge those people! How should this description of our salvation in 1 Peter change the way we look at the changing role of Christianity in contemporary culture?