Peter’s letters proclaim the Faith
On to the two letters of Peter, leaving to the future only St. John. To put it one way, Peter was not by temperament a theologian, as were John and Paul, but he did not hesitate to proclaim the Faith. There is a lesson in this that even the great St. Paul did not learn immediately, for it was only after considerable experience that Paul resolved to know nothing among the Corinthians “except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). Peter seemed to know from the first that you don’t fish for men with the bait of theological subtlety; you fish for men by loving them enough to tell them the truth about Jesus Christ.
Thus in his first letter “to exiles of the Dispersion” (1 Pet 1:1), Peter begins with praise to God, through whose mercy “we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading kept in heaven for you” (1 Pet 1:3-4). The entire letter is an exhortation to live in a manner worthy of so great a mercy and so great an inheritance. It is not just that Peter recognizes that the recipients of his letter rejoice in this gift, though now for a little while they may have to suffer various trials; and it is not only that he knows that, without having seen Christ, they love him (1 Pet 1:6-8). Rather, he wishes to remind them repeatedly of their life’s challenge—that “as the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet 1:9).
For Peter knows how precious is their possession of the Faith. He explains that the prophets spoke of “the grace that was to be yours” when they “searched and inquired about this salvation” as prompted by the “Spirit of Christ”, and in this “they were serving not themselves but you”—speaking of things into which even the angels long to look (1 Pet 1:10-12)! Therefore, Peter insists:
[G]ird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” And if you invoke as Father him who judges each one impartially according to his deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile. [1 Pet 1:13-17]
Immediately, then, in this very first chapter, Peter moves from a proclamation of the great gift and grace which Christians have received to the great responsibility they have for living up to the Divine measure of that gift and grace. Both of Peter’s letters are alike in this respect. In the first chapter of the second letter, he points out that “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Pet 1:3), “by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises” (2 Pet 1:4a), “that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4b). And so:
For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these things are yours and abound, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. [2 Pet 1:5-8]
Moreover, Peter insists that he is going to keep harping on this until he dies: “I intend always to remind you of these things…. I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to arouse you by way of reminder” (2 Pet 1:12-13). At this time he already knows that “the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ showed me” (2 Pet 1:14), and he wants to be sure that after his departure they may be able at any time to recall these weighty truths and obligations (2 Pet 1:15).
In our turn, each of us who read Peter’s letters must understand the personal importance of this message—that is, of remembering both the gift of Christ and the responsibility created by this gift—for all of us who read now are among those living, as Peter put it, “after my departure”.
In closing this section, Peter insists that the leaders of the apostles “did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”, but rather “we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pet 1:16). He refers directly to God the Father’s testimony on behalf of Christ that “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”, which he and James and John had heard—“this voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain” (2 Pet 1:17-18).
Greater detail on personal conduct
As did the writers of most of the New Testament letters, Peter thought it wise to go into greater detail in terms of moral instruction. In the second chapter of his first letter, for example, he exhorts all to put off all malice, guile, insincerity, envy and slander, instead coming to Christ the “living stone, rejected by men” so that they might “like living stones be…built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood” (1 Pet 2:4-5), reminding them: “[O]nce you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Pet 2:10). He urges them to be “subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution”, living as free men, “yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil” (1 Pet 2:16).
Desiring that all should imitate Christ’s suffering, he advises servants to be submissive to their masters, for there is no credit in bearing a deserved punishment patiently, but “if when you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God’s approval” (1 Pet 2:20-21). He also advises wives to be submissive to their husbands, “so that some, though they do not obey the word, may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, when they see your reverent and chaste behavior” (1 Pet 3:1-2). He urges wives not to seek an outward adornment but to “let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Pet 3:3-4). And “likewise you husbands” are to “live considerately with your wives, bestowing honor on the woman as the weaker sex, since you are joint heirs of the grace of life” (1 Pet 3:7).
The remainder of the first letter explains why it is far better to suffer for doing right than for doing wrong, in imitation of Christ. Baptism, Peter points out, is not a bodily cleansing but an appeal to God for a clear conscience (1 Pet 3:21). All of the fourth chapter is devoted to being good stewards of the gifts they his readers have received from God, no longer participating in the old pagan way of life, and always suffering for the right reason:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. [1 Pet 4:12-13]
Peter even warns that the time of judgment is to “begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Pet 4:17).
In the second letter, Peter devotes the second chapter to the same topic which Jude covered in his letter, and in most of the same words. Clearly this is something that was circulating—the denunciation of those who would lead the Christian community astray. This denunciation is somewhat apocalyptic, not so much directed against one particular falsehood as against those who claim a superior understanding on their own authority and use it to subvert the Church, leading others into error and sin. (In his own time, St. Thomas More would denounce the early Protestant publicists—those who should have known better—in much the same way.)
There are three particular subjects which Peter treats briefly that I find to be highly relevant to the Church today. In the final chapter of his first letter, he exhorts the “elders” (that is, the bishops and priests put in charge of the Catholic community in each place). The passage is worth quoting:
Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is manifested you will obtain the unfading crown of glory. [1 Pet 5:2-4]
In the third chapter of the second letter, Peter warns that:
[S]coffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own passions and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation.” [2 Pet 3:3-4]
It is difficult to think of anything more applicable to our own day, and Peter’s advice is the same as we need now: That such people are ignorant of God’s plan, but that we must not “ignore this one fact”:
that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief…. [2 Pet 3:8-10]
Finally, Peter concludes this discussion of the end times by reminding them of the letters of St. Paul:
So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. [2 Pet 3:15-16]
That would be St. Paul, like St. John both a man of visions and a theologian and so sometimes hard to understand, but Peter’s “beloved brother” all the same. For Paul imitated the Prince of the Apostles in preaching the truth, and so Peter can say directly to all who had read any of their letters:
You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, beware lest you be carried away with the error of lawless men and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. [2 Pet 3:17-18]
New Testament Series:
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