This time we look at the history and setting surrounding the New Testament book of 1 Peter.
To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 1 Peter Part 1
1 Peter #1. Introduction
We are starting a new series, today, on the first letter of Peter. I am not utterly against doing topical sermon series’, but I’d like to encourage you to think a little differently about that. As we look at First Peter, the text will introduce a number of different topics. When we do things like that, then I am not deciding which topics to preach about. Instead, the text of the Bible tells us which topics to consider. So, this is a topical series, in a sense. It is just that the bible itself will determine the topics.
Peter wrote only two letters that have survived. We will be looking at the first of these. I’ll take this opportunity to give a reminder about how the New Testament came to be. In addition to the New Testament, we have some of the writings of Christians who lived immediately after the time of the apostles, as well as writings of later Christians, down through the centuries. All of the books of the New Testament are mentioned, referenced and/or quoted from the time of the very earliest writings of Christians. So, for example, the first generation of Christians after the apostles mention 1 Peter, and quote from it. Of course, later generations do as well.
About two hundred and fifty years after the time of the apostles, when Christianity became legal in the Roman empire, a large body of leaders, representing most Christians in the world at that time, gathered together. Among other things, they compared notes about which writings were clearly from the apostles (or others who knew Jesus, like Luke and Mark). To be included in the “canon” (later called the Bible) a document had to have evidence that it was considered genuine since that first generation of Christians, as evidenced by early Christian writings. In addition, it had to be recognized by virtually all Christians in the world at that time as having been used by churches for the previous two-hundred and fifty years. So, if a book was only used, for example, in Alexandria, Egypt, but nowhere else in the world, it would not have been considered a true part of the New Testament. Or, if one group claimed a book was written by an apostle, but no other Christian traditions had a record of it, it was not included.
It is quite clear that very early on, all Christians were aware of 1 Peter, and considered it to be genuine, and were using it to encourage one another in following Jesus. In other words, it is a genuine part of the New Testament, as are all of the books in our modern Bibles.
As is true of many of the books of the New Testament, we have a very good idea of exactly when and where Peter wrote this letter. At the end of the letter, at 5:13, Peter writes:
13 She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son. (1 Peter 5:13, ESV)
“Babylon,” is almost certainly a code-name for Rome. Well before the birth of Jesus, the literal Babylon in Mesopotamia was in ruins. The majority of those living within its ancient walls were goats and their herders. There is no evidence that Peter or Mark ever went there, and there would be no reason for them to do so, seeing as there were almost no people remaining there. However, in the Roman Empire, persecution was beginning to become more and more of a reality, as the words of this letter will show us. Probably less than a year after Peter wrote, the Emperor Nero instigated a vicious persecution against Christians in Rome, in which Peter himself was killed. I’m sure Peter could tell that things were getting more and more dangerous. If his letter was intercepted by the government, it would have been disastrous if he explicitly mentioned a Christian church in Rome. So, Peter uses the word “Babylon,” which Christians would have understood to mean “a great city that is opposed to the people of God;” or, in other words: Rome. “She, who is likewise chosen” means, of course, the church. So, to make it plain, Peter means: “The church in Rome sends you greetings.” In keeping with the dangerous times, he mentions only two personal names, Mark, and Silvanus. To name others would be too risky.
Mark is also known as John-Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, and sometime companion of Paul. Most scholars believe that he spent several years also with the apostle Peter. He wrote the gospel of Mark.
Mark would have been quite young when Jesus was crucified – possibly a teenager – but he was probably one of those in the larger group of Jesus’ followers; some people think he was the young man who ran away naked at the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:51-52). In any case, one of the house churches in Jerusalem met at his mother’s home (Acts 12:12), and he would have known Peter for most of his life. Much of Mark’s gospel is likely based upon the stories and teachings of Jesus that Mark learned from Peter.
I mention Mark, because his presence with Peter in Rome helps us set the date for 1 Peter. Mark was in Rome with Paul when Paul wrote Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon. If Peter had been there then, Paul surely would have mentioned it. So Peter cannot have been in Rome, nor written his letter before Paul wrote those letters, which would have been AD 62 at the latest. I would guess that Paul left Rome in 62, traveled in Asia minor, and then returned to Rome, probably at about the same time Peter arrived there, either late AD 63 or early in 64. After a brief reunion, Paul traveled on to Spain, while Peter stayed in Rome, along with Mark and Silvanus (also called Silas). Peter wrote his first letter after Paul left, or he, for his part, surely would have mentioned Paul’s presence with him. A few months later, Peter wrote his second letter.
In any case, we know that in July of 64, the city of Rome burned, and the emperor Nero used that as an excuse to start a horrifying persecution of Christians. He blamed Christians for the fire, and it is possible that he executed some Christians by burning them alive in his palace gardens as human torches. Whether or not that last is true, he most certainly sought to kill Christians and destroy the church. At some point during Nero’s persecution, Peter was found and executed. Tradition has it that he was crucified upside down, though I have my doubts about how that actually works. There is no doubt, however, that Peter perished in Nero’s persecution. Many people think that Paul returned to Rome during this time, and was also killed by Nero.
Peter addresses his letter to Christians in a number of different Roman provinces (Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia). All of these are found in modern-day Turkey, and cover the northern three-quarters of that country. Some commentators think that Peter was writing mainly to Jewish Christians, but the text of the letter makes it clear that he was writing to both Jewish and non-Jewish (Gentile) Christians. In fact, it is likely that the Gentile believers outnumbered the Jewish believers in those areas.
The Christians in those areas were living in uncertain times. Christianity was already getting noticed by the Roman authorities, and the emperor Nero was increasingly unfriendly to it. The rest of the empire took their cue from the emperor. Although the recipients of the letter were probably not persecuted as brutally as the church in Rome (until about thirty years later), it was clear that Christians were not welcome in the general culture of the world at the time. In addition, Peter was writing to people who were experiencing struggles and difficulties of all different types, including things that didn’t have much to do with persecution. In short, 1 Peter is a book written to Christians who were facing hard times. As such, I think its message is very encouraging to us today.
For the rest of this sermon I want you to read the entire book of 1 Peter in one sitting. It isn’t long. Or listen to it, as I read it on the recording above, here at clearbible.blog. I think it is often helpful to start a book by reading the whole thing at once, so we can see how one part flows into another. Without further ado, let’s do it.