Peter writes “to the exiles scattered throughout the [Roman] provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia [modern-day Turkey]” (1 Peter 1:1). He starts by reminding them that what they lost didn’t compare to what they gained:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.
- 1 Peter 1:3-4
Peter is trying to separate politics and religion in the minds of his people. The deliverance they received was not what they were expecting. They grew up believing the Messiah would return Israel to the days of David and Solomon, when they were one of the most powerful kingdoms in the Middle East. The Jews were waiting for their version of Julius Caesar, and their desire for power blinded them. No political victory is ever permanent. Nations rise to the top, but they don’t stay there forever. Israel had been ruled by the Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians before the Romans, and they would be ruled by many others after. It didn’t matter who the king was anymore. Jesus hadn’t come to play the game of thrones. He had come to end it.
It’s a lesson Americans need to learn. Like the Israelites, we have always thought we had a special destiny. We were taught that the course of history had been building to this moment, when America spread democracy, liberty and tolerance to people in every corner of the globe. America is the new Rome. We treat the President in much the same way as the Romans treated the Emperor, and we have convinced ourselves that the fate of mankind is in the balance every four years. Our elections don’t just decide which political party controls the federal bureaucracy in Washington D.C. The American people had been given a solemn responsibility to pick the leader of the free world.
The entire thing is a religious spectacle. The ballot box is the church, and the politicians are the preachers. When it is all over, the nation comes together and listens to a sermon from the new President. This is from George W. Bush’s inaugural address in 2004:
America’s vital interests and deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and Earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time.There was less talk of God when Barack Obama won in 2008, but the overall message remained. His speech on Election Night was a call for spiritual revival:
And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world -- our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down -- we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security -- we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright -- tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.I was an organizer for the Obama campaign in the summer of 2008. Before we started, we had a three-day orientation where we got a crash course in campaign strategy. The goal was to contact, either on the phone or in person, every person in every battleground state whom their database indicated was a potential voter. The only way to do that was with an army of volunteers. Our job was to find and train them. To get them to devote months of their lives for no pay, we had to offer them more than politics. We had to offer a purpose. It was a lot like being a missionary. We had to show people how we were changed by working in the campaign. We spent those three days crafting our stories. How had Barack come into our lives? How had he touched us?
A presidential campaign has to inspire voters, and turn the candidate into a symbol of something greater than themselves. Electing Obama was supposed to be the next step in America’s journey towards racial equality. Hillary Clinton’s election was sold the same way, except for women. Instead, a country raised on TV and movies found out that life doesn’t always turn out like it does on the big screen. Election Night was a profound shock to half of the country. The foundations of their belief system were challenged. How could something like this be happening in 2016? Maybe history went in more than one direction. Maybe progress wasn’t inevitable. Maybe the moral arc of the universe was even longer than we thought. Maybe it didn’t exist at all.
Multiply that despair one hundred fold. That’s how the Israelites felt when their rebellion was crushed by the Romans, a few years after Peter’s letter was written. Caligula had demanded the Jews worship him like a god, and they were certain God would destroy the Roman armies who tried to make them. Surely He would show them favor if they were fighting in His name? The war lasted for seven years, but the outcome was never really in doubt. The Romans had built the most fearsome military machine in human history. Over a million Jews were killed for a cause that was doomed from the beginning. When it was over, the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the center of their religious and political life, was razed to the ground. The Romans began ethnically cleansing Israel and re-settling the Jews throughout their Empire. They would not regain political control of the Promised Land for almost 2,000 years.
Peter didn’t want Christians putting their hope in war. None of it mattered anyway, not in the big picture:
For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For, ‘all people are like grass, and all the glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.’
- 1 Peter 1:23-24The quote is from the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament. One way or another, Peter is right. Either Judgment Day is coming, humans will wipe ourselves out, or the sun will go supernova. Even if we escape to the stars, they will eventually burn out too. If this life is all there is, nothing is forever. However, if it is only a prelude to something greater, we can see it in a new light.
In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.
- 1 Peter 1:6This is where Peter puts theory to practice. He is asking these people to rejoice after they had been exiled, their lives had been destroyed, and with the fear of persecution hanging over their head. The only way it makes sense if they really believed God became a human being, walked the Earth and died for their sins. It was the perfect opportunity to live out the gospel. If the first Christians really had something better waiting for them on the other side, even exile wasn’t so bad. And if they were joyful and thankful in desperate circumstances, their new neighbors would notice. Their actions had to align with their words, or their words wouldn’t mean anything.
These [trials] have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith -- of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire -- may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
- 1 Peter 1:7You don’t need faith as much when things are going well. It becomes real when you have to depend on it. The Jews weren’t looking for the Messiah in the Golden Age of Israel, when Solomon was king. God sent Jesus when He knew people would listen. Once they heard, He gave them a push out the door. The trauma of exile and persecution, and watching their homeland be destroyed by the Romans, is what shaped Christianity into a global religion. The first Christians couldn’t put their faith in politics. They had been molded into something new.
That is where the analogy to gold comes from. Gold is not pure when it comes out of the ground. It needs to be refined. Modern jewelers use chemicals to remove the other elements that have been mixed in. In Biblical times, they held the gold over a furnace and let the flames strip the imperfections from the metal. Going through fire is what makes gold beautiful. The analogy is simple. We are the gold, the flames are our trials, and God is the craftsman. We can trust God as we go through our trials because He is using them to craft us into something beautiful. The flames are part of the process. They aren’t just happening for no reason. There’s a greater purpose behind them.
The end result is something worth far more than gold. Like everything else in this world, gold perishes. Human beings are created in the image of God, and our souls are eternal. Jesus once asked, “What good is it for someone to gain the world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36) The answer is nothing. Our souls will last a lot longer. God gets more glory from the life of one man than from the rest of His creation combined.
Horatio Spafford wrote the hymn “It Is Well” when he was traveling across the Atlantic Ocean to see his wife, who had survived a shipwreck that killed their four daughters. The lyrics came to him as he passed the spot where they died:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way /Spafford could hold onto three promises in the face of unimaginable tragedy: his daughters were in a better place, he would see them again, and God would use their death for good. His life is a beautiful example of how Christians can respond to loss. He was a prominent lawyer in Chicago before the tragedy. After he re-united with his wife, they devoted themselves to their faith, had three more kids and moved to Jerusalem, where they founded a ministry that helped people of all religious backgrounds. They ran soup kitchens, orphanages and hospitals, and they were a critical part of relief efforts during World War I. The communal residence where they lived became a symbol of religious reconciliation. After their death, a hotel was built there, and that is where the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the PLO were first negotiated.
When sorrows like sea billows roll /
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know /
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
- 1 Peter 1:8-9Peter is writing to the second generation of Christians, people who had not seen Jesus themselves or witnessed his miracles. They had learned their faith from people like Peter who had. He had watched Jesus turn water into wine, raise men from the dead and feed thousands of people with a few loaves of bread. And yet, despite everything he saw, he still denied knowing Jesus three times before the crucifixion. Peter knew what these people were going through because he had gone through it himself.
Before he was a disciple, Peter was an uneducated fisherman. Some historians believe he didn’t actually write this letter because of how well it was written. Whoever wrote it had an excellent command of the Greek language, as well as a clear understanding of formal philosophy and logic. It’s as if a high-school dropout wrote a law review article. However, just because Peter shouldn’t have been able to write it doesn’t mean he didn’t. His lack of education was the whole point. Jesus purposely chose common men to spread his message. He didn’t want people thinking there was something special about them. It made what they did even more impressive.
When the [Jewish High Council] saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took that these men had been with Jesus.
- Acts 4:13Peter starts the Bible as a student and ends it as a teacher. Jesus spent most of his ministry personally teaching his 12 disciples. He knew that the spending time with someone is the best way to change their life. The idea was that the disciples would pay it forward. The power of exponential growth did the rest. Peter had disciples, and his disciples had disciples of their own, and the cycle has continued all the way to the present. Every Christian is a link in a chain that goes back 2,000 years. When I became a Christian, an older believer began a Bible study with me. The same thing happened to him, and to the guy who taught him. Faith is a torch passed down from one generation to the next.
Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow.
- 1 Peter 1:11Prophecy was a huge part of early Christianity. When Peter and the other apostles preached in the synagogues, they weren’t just asking people to take them on faith. They were citing Scripture to prove that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies about the Messiah. God had given His people the clues to figure out whether or not Jesus was telling the truth. He wasn’t just going to send His son into the world without the context necessary for people to understand what was happening. The whole thing had to be set up. Take a look at this prophecy from Isaiah, which was written 700 hundred years before Jesus:
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed by our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
- Isaiah 53:4-6It’s hard for modern Americans to wrap our heads around prophecies. They seem like something out of Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, not real life. Jason Concepcion, my colleague at The Ringer, wrote a beautiful column about the way fantasy stories appeal to a deep need in the human heart:
Think of Harry Potter's story without magic: A child—a baby, really—loses his parents to a car accident. Scarred, physically and psychologically, he goes to live with distant relatives. Resentful of the burden his care puts on them, they bully and ignore him. He sleeps in a storage space filled with spiders under the stairs. Every day, he watches the mail carrier bring in the mail, and he imagines that one of those letters would be for him, calling him away to someplace better, and none of them ever do. Gradually, a darkness, which has always been there inside of him, which he can't express and doesn't understand, grows. And one day, he just decides to walk into the woods, intent on ending his own life. Pulls his jacket tight about him and thinks about his parents. Wonders what they would say if they were there with him now.
Or think about Game of Thrones without the magic. A boy grows up, never knowing his mother. His father's wife hates him. Desperate for a place to call home and to make his father proud he joins the military. When he's gone, his father and half brother are murdered. An orphan, a refugee from war, on the streets in a foreign land, is sold to a stranger like a piece of furniture by her own brother.The Christmas story starts like a fairy tale. A child is born in a manger. His parents are too poor to afford a room at the inn. He is the son of the true king, but he is raised by a carpenter. He grows up and becomes a preacher who challenges the pretender to the throne. His disciples were expecting a triumphant ending, where the Messiah was crowned as the rightful king. Instead, the story takes an unexpected turn. Jesus is betrayed by one of his closest friends. His followers abandon him. He is publicly executed, and he becomes a laughingstock as he dies on the cross. His revolution had failed in humiliating fashion. His story should have ended right there.
It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
- Isaiah 49:6When this prophecy was written, the Jews were a conquered people being sent into exile in Babylon. It’s a miracle they survived at all. The vast majority of tribes in their position didn’t. The Middle East was the crossroads of the ancient world, and the mighty empires who clashed over it didn’t leave many traces of the people they conquered. Most disappeared from the historical record. The only reason we know about the Canaanites and the Philistines is because they appear in the Bible. Their story ended long ago. There is no modern religion that worships Baal, the god of the Philistines. The Jews were told their God would spread His salvation to the ends of the Earth, and that's exactly what happened. Was that luck? Or providence?
A few years after this letter was written, Peter was killed by the Roman authorities, just like Jesus. He was writing to a few thousand people scattered throughout the Empire. They were the persecuted religious minority of a persecuted religious minority. There was nothing special about them. There was no reason to think Christianity would survive. Unlike Moses and Mohammed, Jesus didn’t die at the head of an army. He was barely mentioned in the contemporary records. So how did a man who died penniless and alone become the most influential person in human history? And why does his life mirror so many prophecies written hundreds of years before his time? The simplest answer is that we are living inside of a fantasy story. The only thing the first Christians needed was faith. Everything else would take care of itself.