Behind every letter in the New Testament there is a story. Behind Romans, for example, there is the story of communities of Gentile Christians called in Christ to be living sacrifices for the sake of the eventual victory of Israel’s God over the gods and powers of the pagan world. That’s how I read it, at least. Behind the Letter to the Hebrews there is the story of a Jewish-Christian community somewhere that has faced severe persecution and is likely to encounter worse in the near future, but has grown weary of the struggle to remain faithful.
These concrete historical narratives, moreover, are not of merely incidental background interest. They account for the shape of the theological content of the letters. In Gadamer’s terms—sorry, I’ve been reading too much hermeneutic theory recently—the theology has been developed to address “questions that arise” in particular historical situations rather than “problems” in abstraction from real life.
It is important to note also that the “questions that arise” in the New Testament are large-scale political-religious ones about the future of God’s people in the ancient world. The narrative is made up of the memories of communities, their immediate circumstances, and their imagined futures. The theology deals with what it means to get caught up in that narrative.
Justification by faith in Romans, for example, cannot be understood apart from the projected narrative of the eventual public vindication of churches called to risk suffering for the sake of the “good news” that God has appointed Jesus judge of the Greek-Roman world. Justification is not so much a soteriological as an apocalyptic concept.
The elevated christology of Hebrews 1-2 is addressed to a community that desperately needed to believe that the Jesus whom they had once joyfully followed down a path of suffering really had been given authority over his enemies.
A similar story lies behind 1 Peter, and I want to argue here that it determines the meaning of the phrase “at the revelation of Jesus Christ”, which occurs twice in the Letter (1:7, 11). That is, I want to show how a narrative-historical reading of the Letter—a reading that is sympathetic to its historical situatedness—sets the realistic bounds of its eschatology. We traditionally construct our eschatology in absolute and final terms. I suggest, however, that New Testament eschatology is constructed, for the most part, historically.
To the elect exiles of the dispersion
Peter addresses his readers as Jewish Christians who are part of the Jewish diaspora in Asia Minor. There is no hint in the Letter that they have had to integrate Gentiles into their community, though it would not greatly affect what follows if it were shown to be otherwise. They have been chosen “for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood” (1:1-2). They have been “ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers… with the precious blood of Christ” (1:18-19).
Like Peter, they have been “born again… through the resurrection of Jesus”, and they believe that they will receive “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you”; even though they have never seen Jesus, they love him and wait for a salvation that will be “revealed in the last time”, at the “revelation of Jesus” (1:3-4, 8-9, 13).
It is clear, already, that the identity of this group is determined by a Jewish background narrative about redemption from an old way of Judaism and a radical commitment to a new and future inheritance as the people of God.
The call to suffer
These Jewish believers rejoice in the foreseen salvation, but “for a little while” they are having to endure severe persecution (1:6). Indeed, they have been called to suffer for the sake of what is right and good, and in doing so, they emulate Christ:
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. (2:21)
Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. (4:1)
In view of these difficult circumstances Peter enjoins them to conduct themselves appropriately “throughout the time of your exile”. They have to be prepared—mentally, spiritually, morally, communally—for what lies ahead; they must set their minds on the coming salvation; they must remain obedient to their calling (1:13-17); they must love one another, be hospitable to one another, serve one another (4:10-11). In Pauline terms, they have to be communities constructed of non-flammable materials that will survive the coming day of fire (1 Cor. 3:10-15).
This is not generic human suffering. It is part of a particular story about the destiny of a group of people. It is eschatological suffering. it is theologically significant.
Judgment begins with the household of God
So a “fiery trial” of persecution will come upon them, but the “end of all things is at hand” (4:7, 12-13). Judgment is coming. It will be a judgment of those who “do not obey the gospel”—that is a judgment of disobedient Israel. This is a thoroughly Jewish Letter.
But judgment will begin with the “household of God”—and not least with the “elect exiles of the diaspora” (4:17). This must mean that Peter understood the coming persecution to be an intrinsic part of the impending judgment or wrath of God. Their “salvation”, therefore, would come as the culmination to this eschatological crisis, when Jesus would be revealed, when they would share in the “glory that is going to be revealed”, when the “chief Shepherd” of this suffering flock would be revealed, and they would “receive the unfading crown of glory” (5:1-4).
They are urged to live honourably amongst the pagan Gentiles, which includes being subject “to every human institution”, from the emperor down, so that “when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (2:12).
This “day of visitation (episkopēs)” is the day when God delivers his people from those who oppress and persecute them: “in the time of their visitation (episkopēs) they will shine out, and as sparks through the stubble, they will run about” (Wis. 3:7; cf. Dan. 12:2-3). Jesus warns that Jerusalem will be torn down by its enemies because the Jews did not recognize the day of their visitation (episkopēs) (Lk. 19:43-44). It is the day when God will judge the idolatrous nations:
Therefore there will be a visitation (episkopē) also upon the idols of the nations, because, though part of the divine creation, they have become an abomination, a stumbling–block for the lives of human beings and a trap for the feet of the foolish. (Wis. 14:11)
Their exceptional status as reformist Jewish believers is summed up in the image of a new temple and priesthood in 1 Peter 2:4-6, established on the “cornerstone” which was rejected, which has become a “stone of stumbling, and rock of offence”. The stone, of course, is Jesus, but the context of the two passages in Isaiah from which the quotations are taken makes it clear that Jesus was understood as a sign of judgment against Jerusalem (Is. 8:14; 28:16). Jews who “disobey the word” will stumble, but Peter’s readers will be honoured for their belief that God has made Jesus the foundation of a new people.
This is a tightly integrated narrative and should not be pulled apart simply because we are having to make sense of it from a very different place in history. Peter expects the “revelation of Jesus” to come as the climax to a sequence of events that consisted of the persecution of these Jewish-Christian communities and judgment on disobedient Israel. The revelation of Jesus is the apocalyptically conceived moment when Jesus is shown publicly to be right and those who have suffered for his sake are vindicated and honoured.
So to summarize, these Jewish-Christian communities have been chosen by God to participate actively in a narrative of divine judgment and renewal. The nature of their participation has been defined by Jesus. They can expect to be persecuted for their belief that God has made Jesus both a stone of offence in Israel and the cornerstone of a renewed people—indeed, that was the essence of their calling.
But the period of persecution will not last indefinitely. They can see the light of salvation at the end of the tunnel; the end is at hand—a day when Jesus will be revealed to Israel and eventually to the world, when the Gentiles who speak evil of the churches of Jesus will “give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (4:4-5).