by Rev. Julian Duckworth
The two epistles of Peter are well-known around the Christian church for including quite different teaching and referring to statements that are not found in other New Testament epistles. They are generally referred to as 1 Peter and 2 Peter.
Debate goes on as to whether the disciple Peter wrote this epistle or whether another or others wrote it, attributing it to the most well-known of the disciples. The date of writing is around 63 AD and the place of writing is probably Rome. From similar themes in the text, it seems that Peter was well-aware of some of Paul’s epistles (and this is borne out in 2 Peter 3.15-16). A clear example of this is 1 Peter 3.1-7 which calls on wives to submit to their husbands, and husbands to give honour to their wives, mirroring Paul’s statements in Ephesians 5.22-28 and Colossians 3.18-19).
The central theme of the epistle is the suffering and persecution of Christians, and Peter continually comforts the Christians wherever they are and encourages them to live exemplary lives which cannot be faulted by the authorities. There was much official persecution at this time. The opening concentrates on suffering leading to eventual salvation, followed by the experience of suffering in terms of living a holy life.
Words that appear in this epistle in the context of suffering and enduring are very emphatic: suffer, glorify, grace, precious, hope, conduct and holiness. Later in the epistle the example of Christ is given (2.21-25) and our partaking in Christ’s sufferings (4.12-19). Our new life is contrasted with our old life (4.1-11).
A striking theme is what the later church called ‘the Harrowing of Hell’ (3.18-20) describing how Christ died in the flesh but was alive in the spirit, and between the crucifixion and resurrection descended into hell and preached to the spirits from the generation of Adam, now in prison (‘in the days of Noah’) waiting for release and salvation. This formed part of the later Apostles’ Creed and Athanasian Creed and became an official doctrine.
The epistle’s ending is an exhortation to ‘shepherd the flock’, not by constraint but willingly, not by lording over but by being examples, so that ‘when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away’ (5.2-4) and ‘may the God of all grace perfect, establish, strengthen and settle you’ (5.10).
Swedenborg refers to 1 Peter twenty one times, as he does with most other New Testament epistles and links the text’s words and teachings with New Church doctrine, as proof passages from Scripture.
Spiritually, this epistle deals with the point that our spiritual regeneration and life will inevitably bring us into and through suffering of various kinds which we are to understand the purpose of, endure and work on, trusting the presence of the Lord to be with us from the very beginning of our time and for ever. Our ‘old will’ or natural loves will rise up to challenge and confront our ‘new will’, our spiritual loves.
Whoever wrote this epistle, either the disciple Peter or others attributing it to Peter, would know Peter’s frequent tendency to be impulsive on the Lord’s behalf, leading to overstated promises but also to denials and finally disownings. This clear picture seems to lie within the epistle, bringing out personal conflicts and suffering, and making the epistle a rich source for personal reflection and work, and greater trust in the Lord God.