Peter originally wrote First Peter as a circular letter (which is what “encyclical” means) to a group of churches in Asia Minor in the first century. Their world passed away long ago, but this bright yet sober letter continues to speak to us as the living word of God twenty centuries later. First Peter speaks to us in at least four distinct ways.
First, the Apostle Peter provides us with a profound expression of the gospel and of our new life in Christ. We hear of our new birth into a living hope (1:3-9), of our identity as a holy nation and royal priesthood (2:9-10), and of “the God of all grace” who will “restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish” those who have suffered for the gospel (5:10). In my commentary, I seek to get beneath the surface of these well-known texts, deepening our understanding of their Old Testament context and penetrating more deeply what they mean for us in Christ.
Second, St. Peter challenges us to embrace the high calling of the cross. We sometimes find it hard to accept that we are “exiles and sojourners” in this world (2:11), or that we are called to suffer along with Christ (4:12-13). We need faith and courage to hear and respond to a word that cuts against the grain of contemporary views on happiness and the desire to live a life of comfort and ease. First Peter breathes courage and hope.
Third, First Peter presents a view of relationships foreign to our modern societies and values. Peter consistently calls those in the Christian community to “be subject” or “to be subordinate” to those in some kind of authority (2:13-20; 3:1-7; 5:1-5). St. Peter’s teaching provides a helpful corrective to our individualistic and anti-authoritarian culture, pointing us in the direction of our Lord’s spirit of obedience.
Fourth, First Peter contains several obscure passages that baffle most readers. Who are the “spirits in prison” that Christ preached to after his death (3:19-20)? What does Peter mean when he says that those who have suffered in the flesh “have ceased from sin” (4:1)? While not claiming to reach a definitive interpretation, this commentary explains these difficult passages within the context of the Church’s tradition of faith.
The First Letter of Peter is a hidden gem, tucked away among the catholic epistles, just waiting to be discovered. Overshadowed by the longer and weightier letters of Paul, First Peter has often been neglected or undervalued. My aim in this commentary is to help the faith-filled reader discover the riches of this letter and hear afresh the call to follow Christ and suffer joyfully with him.
First Peter has much to say to our generation. Filled with passages that inspire, challenge, and even perplex us, this first encyclical is very much a word for our day.
Editors’ Note: Dan Keating’s First and Second Peter, Jude, a volume of the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, is now available from Amazon.com or at your favorite Catholic bookstore (ask for it). Dr. Keating teaches theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and is the author of Deification and Grace.