This is another attempt to sketch the “eschatological” narrative that underlies 1 Peter and shapes the theological content of the Letter. My argument is that the eschatology—the narratively constructed future that can be extrapolated from the Letter—is not merely a component of Peter’s theology alongside other components such as soteriology or ecclesiology. Modern theology has taught us to look for that sort of systematic organization, but the Letter is a response to the concrete circumstances of the communities addressed. Those circumstances are narratively or dynamically or historically constructed; and the theological content is what Peter has to say in the light of that construction. Theology and narrative are inseparable.
The question of readership was discussed at length before and remains a difficult one. I still lean towards the view that the “apostle to the circumcision” has Jewish-Christian readers in view. Some of the reasons for this preference were given in the previous post and in the comments attached to it. I add here the further thought that the use of Isaiah 53 in 1 Peter 2:24-25 implies a Jewish-Christian readership: only Jews can be said to have strayed “like sheep” and to have “now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer” of their souls.
Two passages in particular establish the eschatological frame of the Letter: 1 Peter 1:3-9 and 4:7-18. They make it clear that the Letter was written to address the present situation of a particular group of churches in the light of an impending event.
The Jewish-Christian communities to which Peter writes have been born again through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. They have an imperishable inheritance which is being kept safe for them in heaven; they are being guarded for a future salvation that will be revealed in the last time (1:3-5). For now, however, their faith is being tested by “various trials” or by “fire”—that is, by persecution. Peter carefully explains why: it is so that their faith may “result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:7).
In the second passage Peter emphasizes that they still face a “fiery trial” (4:12), but the “end of all things is at hand” (4:7), and he assures them that they have the practical resources—the gifts of grace—necessary for them to survive through to the moment of “salvation”. He clearly expects that his readers will themselves participate in the glory that will accompany the revelation of Jesus—it is the community that suffers that will be saved when the creator God acts to “judge” the nations.
So the argument links together persecution, the response of faith, a dramatic “end”, the salvation of those that suffer, and the attribution of praise, glory and honour in a single coherent story. It is, of course, part of the larger, continuing story of the people of God in the world, but it has distinct historical boundaries, within which the “elect exiles” must find their identity and vocation.
If we translate the story into rather more historical terms we may get something like this.
The Jewish-Christian churches to which Peter writes have come to believe that the God of Israel raised Jesus from the dead—even though they have seen no firsthand evidence of the fact (1:8-9). This belief, however, has put them at odds with the world, and as a result they find themselves subjected to fierce persecution. Peter writes to encourage them and to give practical advice on how to remain faithful—as communities centred on households (2:11-3:17)—to their exceptional vocation.
In particular, he assures them that the current state of affairs will not last forever. There will be an end. Jesus will eventually be “revealed” to the whole pagan world as one exalted by God to a place of supreme authority; and when that happens, a significant part of the “praise and glory and honour” attending the event will have derived from the behaviour of the martyr communities. The Gentile world will glorify Israel’s God both on account of the “good deeds” of this “chosen race… royal priesthood… holy nation” on the “day of visitation” (2:12), and on account of their extraordinary faithfulness in the face of suffering.
This eschatological narrative defines the existence of the churches. Peter thinks of these “exiles of the dispersion” as forming communities that have been established by God—chosen and formed—with this foreseen day of visitation specifically in mind. They are not simply the church. They are to be agents of imminent eschatological transformation as a result of their communal life, their obedience, their self-sacrificing, and their radical trust in the creator. They are to be the social means by which Israel’s God will be glorified amongst the pagan nations.