1 Peter and communities of eschatological transformation

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.

peter wilkinson | Thu, 09/08/2011 - 09:44 | Permalink

Leaving aside the ethnicity of the letters recipients for the moment, the key sentence in the letter for your argument, Andrew, is 4:7b: "The end of all things is near". It's a very small sentence, rather lacking in specific definition, on which to build a very large argument. Everything else in the letter can be argued the other way. Suffering through persecution has begun and is on-going. Judgement is perecived to be behind the persecution, on the church - 4:17 (clearly the church and not the Jews or anyone else). The judgement has a refining purpose for God's people.  

The reference to the servant of Isaiah 53 in 1 Peter 2:24-25 need not imply an exclusively Jewish audience, if the larger story of Isaiah, which is about the inclusion of the Gentiles, is taken to be fulfilled in Jesus. For instance, in Isaiah 49, the task of the servant is said to be larger than the restoration of Israel alone - 49:6b, and is to be also a light to the Gentiles, to "bring my salvation to the ends of the earth". Gentiles were as much scattered sheep as Jews, and being in the same category as Israel in Isaiah 49:6, may also be included in the same metaphors which applied to lost Israel, in their general intent. God's intentions were the same for both groups, to bring them into one family - which brings us back to the intentions of 1 Peter towards its recipients.


It’s a very small sentence, rather lacking in specific definition, on which to build a very large argument.

So you’re suggesting we ignore it then? You also have to take into account the fact that Peter writes as though he expects these particular persecuted believers to experience for themselves the “revelation of Jesus Christ” (eg. 1:13). “The end of all things is at hand” is an argument for a specific type of behaviour (“therefore be self-controlled…”). It’s very difficult to disconnect the temporal statement from the whole argument of the Letter.

Historically speaking, the persecution—whether by Jews or by Gentiles—did not go on for ever. It was brought to an end, ultimately by Constantine. That is not to say that the church has not experienced persecutions since, just that Peter’s outlook is restricted (eg. by 4:7) to a particular historical context.

Nothing in the Old Testament suggests that non-Jews were regarded as scattered sheep. Isaiah 52-53 is addressed explicitly to Jerusalem. It describes a salvation that will then be proclaimed to the ends of the earth. The distinction is apparent in Isaiah 49:6. The servant is used to “raise up the tribes of Jacob… bring back the preserved of Israel”, and then the servant is made a light for the nations. The larger story of Isaiah does not include Gentiles in salvation described in chapter 53.

It’s a very small sentence, rather lacking in specific definition, on which to build a very large argument.

So you’re suggesting we ignore it then?

Not at all - I'm suggesting that there is nothing else in the letter (1 Peter)  on which to base your interpretation. I also suggest that other interpretations are available.

1 Peter 1:13 - "The grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ" - also does not provide a base for your interpretation. Here, the word 'revelation' (apokalupsis) means various different things in the NT. It cannot be enlisted to prove your interpretation of 1 Peter until the interpretation has been proved by explicit support. 1 Peter does not provide this.

Peter’s outlook is restricted (eg. by 4:7) to a particular historical context

Which brings us back to "the end of all things is at hand" - 4:7. What did Peter mean by this? Unfortunately, he does not say! However, there is an entirely different possibility from the interpretation you place on it.

Jesus himself introduced "the end of all things" - which included the destruction of the temple and Judaism as it had been known, but went much further. He was introducing the end of the entire old creation, by introducing the new creation, in himself, and through those who believed in him.

Every believer in Christ lives at this point, of living on the one hand in an old creation world, but experiencing in themselves the realities of a new creation. Every believer's life points to a day, yet to come, on which the realities of the new creation will be totally fulfilled. All believers are in that sense prophetic figures, charged with demonstrating that future state of affairs in their lives now.

In this interpretation of "the end of all things is at hand", Christ is in the foreground for every believer as the agent of wrapping up old creation history, bringing creation to its climax and conclusion (to echo a discussion on a neighbouring thread). We are just as much in this position in the 21st century as believers whom Peter addressed in the 1st.

This interpretation accords with a more coherent understanding of Christ and his historic role, I think, than the one you are proposing. But it doesn't get away from the fact that Peter simply has not provided explicit explanation of what he meant by using the phrase - so nobody is entitled to say they know exactly what he meant. 

Peter, that still sounds like an attempt to accommodate the natural sense of prophetic/apocalyptic terminology to a modern Christian perspective, which can be sustained only by disregarding, as you do, the context in which the statement is made.

The sensus literal of the statement “the end of all things is at hand” is the straightforward temporal one: matters are coming to a climax or termination in the not too distant future. It occurs as part of an argument about enduring suffering, not about being new creation. It’s impossible to think that his readers would not have understood his words to the end of the current distressing state of affairs.

The idea of temporal imminence is also underlined by the frequent use of eggizō and eggus in the LXX in relation to a “day of Lord” or suchlike that is “near” or “at hand”, where the reference is to invasion and war (eg. Is. 13:6; Zeph. 1:14).

In Matthew 24:13 Jesus says that “the one who endures to the end will be saved”. The context is the suffering of his disciples, as in 1 Peter, in the period of tribulation—the “birth pains” of the age to come—leading up to the war in Judea and the destruction of Jerusalem and the the temple. He is not talking about “bringing creation to its climax”. He is talking—entirely appropriately—about the concrete experience of his followers in the decades after his death.

It’s impossible to think that his readers would not have understood his words to the end of the current distressing state of affairs.

Andrew: if anything sounds like reading meanings into the text which are not there, that is it. "The end of all things is at hand" does not mean "the end of the current distressing state of affairs is at hand". Peter does not explain his meaning, and there it must stay. However, what is clear is that Jesus had radically changed history, and that this provides a perspective on all the NT writings - 1 Peter included.

In fact, Jesus brought about an end to far more than 2nd temple Judaism, and with the introduction of the new creation in himself and in his followers, he  signalled the end of the old creation - which more naturally fits the meaning of "the end of all things" than the end of a Jewish era alone.  

Suffering, persecution and tribulation for the church did not cease imminently or temporally, in relation to Peter's letter. It continued in a new guise, within a Roman Empire governed by Constantine. This was "the concrete experience" of many of Jesus's followers in the years to come, and remains so to the present day in all parts of the world - not least the part you live in, if for one moment you dare to proclaim your faith outside the confines in which it is tolerated.

It’s not about what we know happened. It’s about what the text says. Peter says that the end of all things is imminent, and he says it in the context of a particular argument, perhaps recalling similar statements by Jesus in the context of his prophetic account of the Roman invasion of Judea. Whatever exactly this “end of all things” was, it had something to do with the immediate circumstances of (in my view) Jewish believers in the diaspora. Of course Jesus brought an end to far more than second temple Judaism, but that’s not what Peter is talking about.

This is how you earlier suggested interpreting the phrase “the end of all things is at hand”:

In this interpretation of “the end of all things is at hand”, Christ is in the foreground for every believer as the agent of wrapping up old creation history, bringing creation to its climax and conclusion (to echo a discussion on a neighbouring thread). We are just as much in this position in the 21st century as believers whom Peter addressed in the 1st.

I would be interested to see one instance in Hellenistic Jewish literature of the period where telos and engizō or engus are used together in this curious existential sense. Every text I can find has a clear temporal sense, for example:

When a dragon charged with fire in both his eyes will come on the waves and with full belly and will afflict you children, and there be famine and war of kinsmen, near at hand is the end (engus…to telos) of the world and the last day and judgment of the immortal God for them that are approved and chosen. And there will against the Romans first of all be wrath implacable, and there, come a time of drinking blood and wretched course of life. (Sib. Or. 8.88-94)

But the third time they will be judged by the Lord God of all, and then, indeed, the end of that judgment is near (to telos engus), and the sentence terrible, and there is none to deliver. And now by three tribunals the judgment of the world and the recompense is made, and for this reason a matter is not finally confirmed by one or two witnesses, but by three witnesses will everything be established. (T. Abr. A 13.7-8)

And he gave portents concerning Jerusalem and all the land: When they should see a stone crying pitifully, the end draws near (engizein to telos). And when they should see in Jerusalem all the nations, the city will be razed to the ground. (Lives of the Prophets 10.8)

Notice too the clear historical setting of the first and third quotation

Similarly, the reference to a coming “day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:12) has a very distinct Jewish background. The most important text is Isaiah 10:3 LXX, where the day of God’s judgment against Jacob is described as “the day of visitation”. Peter’s unambiguous expectation is that the Gentiles who now speak evil of these Jewish believers will glorify God on a coming day of divine judgment. Also, of course, Jesus speaks of judgment on Jerusalem as a “time of visitation” (Lk. 19:44).

Let me also say something about this remark:

1 Peter 1:13 - “The grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” - also does not provide a base for your interpretation. Here, the word ‘revelation’ (apokalupsis) means various different things in the NT. It cannot be enlisted to prove your interpretation of 1 Peter until the interpretation has been proved by explicit support.

Perhaps “revelation” can mean a lot of different things in the New Testament, but there are not many places where we find a revelation of Jesus Christ. There are a number of references in 1 Peter, but the obvious parallel apart from these is 1 Corinthians 1:7-8 (Gal. 1:12 has a different meaning altogether):

…so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you  wait for the revealing (apokalypsin) of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul says that they are waiting (cf. 1 Thess. 1:10) for the revelation of the Christ, in all probability within their lifetimes. It is a reference to the parousia. Peter has exactly the same thought in mind. I don’t see how you can avoid the conclusion that the “end” which is near in 1 Peter 4:7 corresponds to the revelation of Jesus at the parousia and to the “day of visitation”.

You can say that Peter provides no interpretation of the phrase “the end of all things is at hand”, but I think that is just being evasive. Both the literary background and the story that is being told in the Letter about a limited period of suffering that would soon come to an end, when the glory of God would be revealed, seem to me to give very strong support to the view that the various eschatological trajectories in this Letter land in the near future of Peter and his readers.

Finally, J. Ramsay Michaels writes:

Peter’s meaning is neither that the present age has reached its end nor that the end lies somewhere in the indefinite future. His meaning is that the end will be very soon, although he has no interest in setting dates. There is time for action, but no time to waste. Peter sees a continuity between the present situation and the last decisive intervention of God through Jesus Christ (cf. vv 12, 17). In a sense the end-time events are under way; the “end of all things,” although still in the future, is very close at hand. (1 Peter, 245)

I'm not sure that your quotations from Hellenistic Jewish literature of the period say anything conclusive. They may suggest a temporal meaning of "the end", but such were Jewish expectations anyway. Events as they actually occurred, before and after AD 70, proved very different at key points from Jewish expectations of the culmination, or "end" of history.  

Your interpretation of "the end of all things is at hand" also ignores the rather important all things. I'm actually quite happy for my interpretation to be disproved, if the balance of evidence suggests it should be, but it doesn't in any way alter the significance of Christ as the end of the old creation and the beginning of the new - a reality shared with those who believed in him. It's more strikingly curious to me that you can describe this as a "curious existential sense" of “the end of all things is at hand".

Any meaning of "the end" attached to the destruction of the temple can also only be described as a forerunner to the "end", which a Jewish understanding of history was waiting for, with a final judgement, and a complete establishment of the rule of YHWH across the earth. You seem to be happy to ignore, or at least severely limit, the significance of this expectation by Jews of the end of the age. So let's look again at the potential of a double perspective in "the end of all things is at hand". The limited meaning would keep J. Ramsay Michaels happy; "all things" would point to a rather more all encompassing and yet to befulfilled event (if words have meanings). 

"Visitation" in 1 Peter 2:12 may mean the same as in Luke 19:44, but I don't see how it affects a broader interpretation of the letter, in which the perspective of the letter within its NT context is far wider than AD 70. Likewise whatever the meaning of "revelation" in 1 Peter 1:13, its companions "grace" and "hope" scarcely seem appropriate for a context of judgement and slaughter in AD 70. I think there are probably more appropriate contexts for the words. 

There is a historical biblical narrative, and its sweep takes in much more than the period of second temple Judaism. This broader narrative accords convincingly with the NT as a whole, and with the history of theological reflection as well as the growth and spread of the faith, which is where I find your interpretation to be at its weakest.

Interesting post by Peter Leithart today on Ro 10:9,10 that jives, especially the last paragraph (though there’s a better word, I believe, than “preterize”) where he says, “It seems best to “preterize” the verse: The salvation that Paul looks forward to is specifically deliverance from the tribulation that is coming on the world in the first century.  As Revelation makes clear, deliverance in this situation comes to those who are “witnesses” who confess the Lord Jesus even to death.  The saints who are victorious in the tribulation and who reign with Christ are the saints who keep the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus.”