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Identity and Mission in 1 Peter 2

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First Peter relies heavily on the Old Testament, and 1 Peter 2 has clear references to Exodus 19. Discerning how Peter uses Exodus 19 opens up new meaning for both texts. In this essay, we demonstrate that Peter uses Exodus 19 to establish an eschatological continuity between the Israelites at Mount Sinai and the first-century Christians in Asia Minor, specifically that the blessings and the responsibilities of the Israelites now belong to the Gentile Christians. By establishing this continuity, Peter offers great encouragement to the 1st-century believers and shows that the mission of God continues from Sinai to the present era. This encouragement and mission include the contemporary church today. Prior to examining this eschatological continuity between I Peter 2 and Exodus 19, it is necessary to understand the stand-alone and time-and-place situation of each text.

 

Exodus 19 is a major pivot passage in the Old Testament.[1] YHWH enters into a covenantal relationship with Israel, whose feet are still muddy from the Red Sea floor. This covenant first identifies Israel as the God’s beloved, then it enumerates their responsibility (the 10 Commandments) as God’s chosen people as they enter the Promised Land. “Exodus 19:3-6 is a crucial speech for introducing the central chapters of the Pentateuch; it presents the rest of the Pentateuch from a new perspective, namely the unique identity of the people of God.[2]

 

Israel had just left Egypt. The wonder of YHWH’s deliverance, protection, and provision must have been fresh in the Israelites’ mind. Reason-defying miracles had leveled the world’s greatest superpower so that they may be free. Without a discernible army, they had defeated the Amalekites (17:8). They were provided with food and water out of almost thin air. They were loaded with Egyptian gold. Yet they also were afraid. Though numerous, as former slaves they were not armed or trained for war. And they were to march into a foreign land to possess it. They must have felt an array of wonder and confidence (reflected in Moses’ song), yet also questions and fear toward a God they barely knew. In this context, God makes a covenant.

 

The relationship between God and Israel is analogous with suzerain treaties of the region, where a lord would swear his protection to the vassal, and the vassals their devoted allegiance to the lord.[3] Especially important is the “if” in 19:5. The covenant is conditional; the vassal must obey the obligations of the lord for the covenant blessing. If Israel will keep God’s covenantal stipulations (the law), then they will be blessed. Thus, “in Exodus the essential elements of the covenant are obvious: the revelation of who God is and what he wants of his people and obedience to God as the path of covenant loyalty and thus of its blessings”[4]

 

Literarily, Exodus 19 divides the book. Chapters 1-19 contain the “narrative of Israel’s miraculous rescue from slavery in Egypt and successful flight to Mount Sinai,” while chapters 20-31 describe God’s covenant with Israel.[5] More locally, Chapter 19 is part of a 5-chapter (19-24) Sinai theophany and covenant ratification process.[6] The basis of the covenant is God’s deliverance from Egypt (19:4). God gives the terms of the covenant in the 10 Commandments (20:1-17), which Israel ratifies with a ceremonial meal and agrees to obey in 24.[7]

 

Chapter 19:3-6 are the core to the whole sequence. Indeed, “At the heart of the book of Exodus is the establishment of a special covenant relationship with God and the Israelites.”[8] As the “if” reflects ANE suzerain treaties, it also forms the theological backbone.[9] Chris Wright captures this dynamic: “Grace came first, faith next, and obedience to the law a necessary third…We have 18 chapters of salvation before we get a single chapter of law. Law is the response to grace, not the means of earning it.”[10] This grace-to-obedience flow is the most important theological feature of the Exodus 19, shown in the names God gives Israel. An elective meaning is certainly present in “a treasured possession among all peoples.”[11] Their elect status brought an inherent responsibility to represent God to the nations.[12] Wright summarizes: “Great was their privilege. Greater still their responsibility.”[13] Throw a pebble into a still pond, water ripples out from the epicenter; Exodus 19 is that splash, and its implications ripple out into all of Israel’s Old Testament identity.

 

God gives Israel three image-identities: treasured possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. Each is significant. God singles Israel out as his representatives, “the separation of his chosen people from the general world population…the beginning of the outworking of his intention to bring close to himself a people that will join him for all eternity.[14] As a “kingdom of priests,” Israel will be not a political entity of priests, but they will intercede between God and the nations for cosmic redemption. “Priests stand between God and humans to help bring the humans closer to God and to help dispense God’s truth…to humans.”[15] This is Israel’s task. As a “holy nation,” they were to be both set apart and ethically pure, primarily through holiness and obedience to the law.[16] Exodus 19 is a primary identity marker for Israel, but also a key place for their duty in response to redeeming grace. Sinai is a place of great grace and great responsibility, for here God chooses them to be his special people for his special redemption.

 

The First Epistle of Peter was almost certainly written between the years AD 62 and AD 64 by the apostle Peter himself in Rome. However, Peter does not directly mention Rome itself. Oddly enough he addresses his people from Babylon, an old-world power that no longer reigned supreme. The evidence, however, is convincing that Peter’s use of Babylon connotes the mighty Roman Empire.[17]

 

In the Old Testament, Babylon was the center of worldly power and opposed YHWH and God’s covenant people Israel. By the time of the New Testament, Rome had replaced it both politically and in opposition to the gospel of Jesus Christ. By naming Babylon, Peter communicates to his audience with vivid imagery that the converted Jews and Gentiles were the new Israel, the church God’s chosen people.

 

His overall purpose surfaces in 1:19. He addresses those who suffer “according to Gods will” and challenges them to entrust their souls (lives) to their faithful Creator. They are to live a Christ-like life marked by good works and a hunger for obedience.  Arch Bishop Robert Leighton argues that Peter weaves together three doctrine heads of faith, obedience, and patience[18] throughout his letter to establish his hearers in faith and to encourage them in their trust in God and their obedience to him throughout their lives, particularly when they experience violent persecution.[19] Peter also reminds them of their redemption through Jesus’ death, the hope of his resurrection, and their new status as the same chosen people of God.[20]

 

What was the suffering presupposed by Peter?  An early 60s date of authorship suggests that the church had been experiencing rapid growth for at least 30 years without setback (inferred from the Book of Acts). Christianity was quickly spreading across the Roman Empire, but here the Apostle is addressing his letter to “exiles of the Dispersion” (1:1) who are under distress.

 

Scholars present several theories.[21] The likely situation, given the date and historical situation of the Church, was the great fire of Rome in AD 64. Almost overnight, the Roman government changed its disposition toward Christians.  In response to rumors that emperor Nero himself had caused the fire that destroyed much of Rome, Nero (or his magistrate) charged and punished the Christians.

 

Tacitus, incredulous of the arson charge, called Christianity a deadly superstition in need of punishment.[22] The name Christian now became a vile and almost hunted name.  It was at this point separated from the Jewish religion and given special attention to the people in Rome.[23] So, by writing this letter to those in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, Peter is likely following a mail/trade route of sorts that would ensure that all major centers of Christian influence were reached in Asia Minor.

 

As we dig into the letter deeply, we see that an emphasis is somewhat placed on 1 Peter 2, and more specifically verses 9 and 10. 1 Peter 2 is a significant portion of the apostle’s letter for many reasons. But one, in particular, is its allusion to the Old Testament people, namely their identity and purpose in the world.

 

Peter only alludes to Exodus 19 without explicit quotation.[24] Still, an Exodus connotation is obvious when Peter labels his readers “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (2:9). Peter creates an eschatological continuity between his Asia Minor readers and the exodus Israelites, connecting their respective elect identity and mission ethics. An “eschatological continuity” connects Old Testament anticipation of the Messiah with the New Testament “era [begun] with the resurrection and ascension” of that same Messiah, Jesus.[25]

 

Both audiences are isolated and threatened. Israel was alone in the desert, vulnerable to Canaanite attack. They had no land. They were not sure who this “YHWH” is who redeemed them, nor who they were as the ethnic children of Abraham. Peter’s audience would resonate. They were isolated God-followers and Jews, threatened by foreign religions and persecuted by the government for their faith. As recent converts, they were surely asking questions about who the God-man Jesus is, along with his relation to YHWH. Certainly, they were insecure in their Christian identity.

 

Into this confusion, Peter uses Old Testament labels to describe his 1st-century audience. “A chosen people” probably refers more to Isaiah 43 than Exodus 19, but a Sinai allusion is certainly warranted. According to Carson and Beale, the exodus theme of redemption from slavery so dominated the Jewish mindset that “it is impossible not to see that Peter understands his brief reference to be an affirmation of (typological) prophetic fulfillment.”[26] “Royal priesthood” is identical in the LXX Exodus 19 and Peter’s Greek, further confirming that Peter recalls Exodus. As Israel was rescued from slavery for a special relationship and purpose by God, so the Church was redeemed from sin (another out-of-slavery exodus) for a purpose by God. As “royal priesthood” names the Israelites’ mission, it names the church’s: “[B]oth in Exod. 19 and 1 Pet. 2 the notion of a royal priesthood has less to do with establishing the authority of the covenant people of God (old covenant and new) than with themes of obedience, holiness, privilege, mission, self-identity, under the good purposes of God.”[27] Mission flows from identity. “Peter applies Exodus 19:4-6 directly to Christians: ‘You’ve had your exodus experience [out of darkness]…Now then, live by that story, live out that identity.”[28] Israel was elected for mission, or in ANE covenantal terms, their covenantal obligations to represent YHWH, his rules, and character to the nations. Peter, using the label “royal priesthood,” joins the church with Israel as special to God, and also especially obliged to “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness” to the pagan world.[29] “Now God’s kingdom of priests consists of the church of Jesus Christ. It too is to mediate God’s blessings to the nations, as it proclaims the gospel.”[30]

 

“Holy Nation” is much the same. Again, Peter copies the LXX Greek. This connects back to the promise to Abraham, that Israel would become a unified political entity with land and blessing. Now, “as Peter applies the expression to his Christian readers, the ‘tribe’ or ‘nation’ that he has in mind is made up of Jews and Gentiles alike but constitutes one people, one ‘nation.’”[31] They, like the Israelites, were to be separate in purity from their neighbors. Finally, “a people for his own possession.” The Greek word περιποιησιν means of property, preserving, and acquisition.[32] “As God had acquired the people of Israel by taking them from the Egyptian house of bondage, so He has acquired the Church of the New Testament by the blood of his Son.”[33] Again, Peter applies the Israelite political and geographic experience on a spiritual plane. The sum meaning of these labels is that what was true of the Exodus community is true of the εκκλησια community. God choose and redeemed this people for a specific purpose. “In  the OT context the people so designated are the Hebrews, located between the escape from Egypt and the giving of the law; here in 1 Peter, the people so designated are Christians, in particular, Christians who have experienced their own ‘exodus’ from slavery to sin.”[34]

 

Peter not only gives a continuous identity to the church but a continuous mission. This makes the connection more than typological. Chris Wright brings this to the 21st century church when he writes, “Like Old Testament Israel, we are people who have experienced past grace…we are people who are called to live in response to that grace, with lives that represent God to the world and show the difference between the holiness of the living God” and the false gods that surround us.[35] Peter uses the Old Testament to connect the church and Israel; the church is the same community with the same God, the same ethical standards, and the same mission as the Israelites. God has chosen his people so that they would “declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”[36]

 

For all these continuities, there are a few differences. Most significant is the absence of the contingency in 1 Peter. 1 Peter 1:9 is a predicate nominative.[37] The LXX in Exodus uses a 3rd class conditional (εαν…ακουσητε).[38] The relationship to the commandments changes between the two parties. For the Israelites, covenant blessing was contingent upon covenant faithfulness: if you obey, then you shall be blessed. But for the NT community, Peter states “You are a chosen race…” The single most significant eschatological event has happened between these two communities, the ratification of the New Covenant through the work of Jesus. The identity passage (vs 9-10) follows the description of Jesus as the new cornerstone to a new temple-community (vs 4-8). The church is a holy nation because Christ fulfilled the covenant conditions perfectly when Israel failed. Of course, this is no excuse for license or dismissal of the commands. In 1:14-16, Peter calls the church to holiness with a Levitical exhortation. Like Israel, grace leads to mission, but the contingency is met by Christ.

 

Peter uses the Exodus to name the first-century church. This has tremendous pastoral use, linking the Christian community with the whole people of God. It is more than typology, for Israel is the real people of God, in whom the church is welcomed with the same blessings and responsibilities. Peter creates a single people of God, with a single identity and mission, all equally loved by God and equally charged with “proclaiming the excellencies of his light” to the nations or non-Christians. This identity and mission endure for all times to all followers of the God of the Bible.

 


 

[1] Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 330. (Hereafter MGP.)

[2] Ibid, 255. (Emphasis original)

[3] Douglas K Stuart, Exodus, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers), 2006, 2.440.

[4] Ibid, 2.440.

[5] Ibid, 2.435.

[6] G.C. Chirichingo, “The Narrative Structure of Exod 19-24,” Biblica 68 (1988):  460.

[7] Joe M. Sprinkle, “Law and Narrative in Exodus 19-24,” Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 47, no 2 (June 2004): 241.

[8] T. Desmond Alexander, From Paradise to Promised Land (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 209.

[9] Chris Wright appropriately notes that their salvation does not hinge upon their obedience. “God did not say, ‘If you obey me and keep my covenant, I will save you and you will be my people.” Vs 3-4, along with all of chapter 1-18 reveal that God had saved Israel by grace alone, irrespective of their faithfulness. Wright continues, “[O]bedience to the covenant was not a condition of salvation but a condition of their mission. Only through covenantal obedience and community holiness could they claim and fulfill the identity and role here offered to them.” (MG, 333.)

[10] Wright, MGP, 117.

[11] Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 256. (Hereafter, Wright, MG.)

[12] Stuart, 2.423.

[13] Wright, MG, 254.

[14] Stuart, 2.422.

[15] Ibid, 2.423.

[16]J.P. Lange, P. Schaff, , & C.M. Mead, C. M, A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Exodus (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 2.70.

[17]  (cf. Rev.16:19, 17:5; 18:2)

[18] Wayne Grudem, Tyndale, New Testament Commentaries: I Peter. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2009), 40.

[19]  Ibid, 40.

[20] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Ed. Theological Interpretation of the New Testament: A Book-by-Book Survey. (Grand Rapids, MI; London: Baker Academic; SPCK, 2008), 2.

[21] Vanhoozer, 5.

[22] Everett Ferguson, Church History Vol I: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation. (Grand Rapids: Zonderan, 2013), 64.

[23] Ibid, 64.

[24] G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson, eds Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 1030.

[25] C. John Collins “How the New Testament Quotes and Interprets the Old Testament” in Understanding Scripture, ed Wayne Grudem, C. John Collins, & Thomas A. Schreiner (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012) 185.

[26] Beale & Carson, 1030.

[27] Ibid, 1031.

[28] Wright, MGP, 127.

[29] Beale and Carson see this differently. Rather than seeing 1 Peter as a mission-driven passage, or how the church should relate to the nations, they interpret the text as how Israel/the church should relate to God, offering sacrifices to God. “Christians are to offer themselves in loyal consecration to God,” which is fitting for the priestly duty of the Old Testament (1031). Regardless, they agree that Peter uses the passage to inculcate meaning of identity, holiness, and certainly a level of mission.

[30] T. R. Schreiner 1, 2 Peter, Jude  (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 37.115.

[31] Beale and Carson, 1031.

[32] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, ed. Frederick W. Dander, 2nd ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press: 1979), 650.

[33] Lange et al, 35.

[34] Beale and Carson,1030.

[35] Wright, MGP, 127.

[36] T. R. Schreiner, 37.115.

[37] Ὑμεῖς δὲ γένος ἐκλεκτόν, βασίλειον ἱεράτευμα, ἔθνος ἅγιον, λαὸς εἰς.

Περιποίησιν (vs 9a) The sentence structure has a pronoun as the subject, along with an implied copulative verb. Cf Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 43.

[38] Wallace, 696. Third conditions span a wide range of possible meanings. Here, it communicates either 1) a hypothetical situation that will likely not be fulfilled (due to human sinful limitations) or a probably future fulfillment. CF Wallace 696, Footnote 29.

 

 


Work Cited

Alexander, Desmond T. From Paradise to Promised Land. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012.

Bauer, Walter. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. edited Frederick W. Dander. 2nd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press: 1979.

Beale, G.K. and D.A. Carson, eds. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007.

Chirichingo, G.C. “The Narrative Structure of Exod 19-24.” Biblica 68 (1988):  457-497.

Collins, C. John. “How the New Testament Quotes and Interprets the Old Testament.”  In Understanding Scripture, edited by Wayne Grudem, C. John Collins, & Thomas A. Schreiner, 181-198. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.

Ferguson, Everett. Church History Vol I: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation. Grand Rapids: Zonderan, 2013.

Grudem, Wayne A. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: I Peter.  Downer Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2009.

Lange, J,P, P. Schaff, , & C.M. Mead. A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Exodus. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008.

Schreiner, T.R. 1, 2 Peter, Jude. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003.

Sprinkle, Joe M. “Law and Narrative in Exodus 19-24.” Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 47, no 2 (June 2004): 235-252.

Stuart, Douglas K. Exodus. The New American Commentary Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J., ed. Theological Interpretation of the New Testament: A Book-by-Book Survey. Grand Rapids, MI; London: Baker Academic; SPCK, 2008.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.

Wright, Christopher J.H. The Mission of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006.

Wright, Christopher J.H. The Mission of God’s People. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010.


Written with Jonathan Clark

AUTHOR - Brandon Scalf

Brandon Scalf is the founder and director of Dead Men. He is a preacher and teacher of God's word. He also holds an MTS from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.