When we are weak – Reflections from 1 Peter

Whether we realize it or not, when we go overseas, we go with a significant level of social power. We are not used to thinking about ourselves in this way. We try to maintain a position of humility and think that we are nothing. However, we unconsciously operate out of the assumption that we have social power. Why is this? First, we come from a country where the infrastructure works for us. When we pay our bills, we don’t have to ensure that the people receiving our payment don’t pocket the money. Our utility bills that come in the mail are based upon our actual usage of the utility. Second, we have learned that we can change things when things go wrong. We have the means to address problems and get them solved. Due to this, we have an underlying assumption that we can change the way things are for the better. We take it for granted that we can set goals and work toward seeing those goals accomplished. When we get out of bed each morning, we get out of that bed with the underlying assumption that we have a degree of social power. Let me put it another way- If we thought we were powerless, we would never have even considered God’s call to go and live in another land.

In contrast, many of the people in the countries we work do not share our underlying assumption about life. Their infrastructure doesn’t necessarily work for them. Their infrastructure often works for itself. Also, there are  not as many opportunities for advancement in their world as there are in ours. As a result, they don’t necessarily see themselves as able to make things happen; rather, they operate with an assumption of being unable to control the events of their lives. So, they may tend to just let things happen. Due to this lack of control over the circumstances in their lives people learn early in life to have few expectations. They minimize their expectations to protect themselves from disappointment.

Since our cultural contexts have led us to form different assumptions about life, it is only natural that we would not be sensitive to those who feel that they are truly socially weak.

We are kind of like Paul. Paul was a man who had social power. He came from a wealthy family. He was also a Roman citizen by birth. He enjoyed an inherent level of prestige and social power due to these advantages. As we watch Paul in Acts, we see that he mingled freely with those in political power. In Paul’s first journey with Barnabas we find him interacting with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:7). Only those with prestige and power could mingle with the elite. And we see in Paul’s letters that he writes them from a perspective of social power.

In contrast, Peter was a man who was acquainted with social powerlessness. He had been a Jew from Galilee. Now, Peter had been a successful businessman. He certainly wasn’t poor. He had his own nets. However, he wasn’t a man with social power and political connections. We don’t see Peter interacting with people of power in the Gentile world. John is the one who got him into the high priest’s court after Jesus was arrested. In Acts, the only people of political power we see Peter interacting with are the authorities- after he is arrested.

Peter’s background gives him an edge over Paul in understanding the sentiments of people who felt powerless in their social contexts. It appears that this is why Peter writes the way he does in his first letter (1 Peter) to those who have little or no social power. This epistle is a letter Paul probably could not have written.

In a previous posting, we discovered that Peter was a man who grew in his love for and his understanding of the Gentiles. In Acts 10 Peter didn’t understand Gentiles. This is because he probably had never developed close relationships with any. They most likely existed at a distance, outside his relational world. Due to this distance, Peter didn’t understand how they thought or felt. However, the Holy Spirit began to change Peter. The Spirit did this in stages. First, he took Peter’s focus off of his fellow Jews in Jerusalem and got him involved in ministering the Samaritans for a brief period. Then, the Spirit had Peter accept Gentiles into his friend’s house in Joppa. Peter subsequently went to Cornelius’ house (Acts 10). Later on, after Peter had to leave Jerusalem and Judea (Acts 12) In Galatians 2 we see that Peter had relaxed in his attitude and we see him freely sitting with Gentile believers and eating with them. Yet, when some friends of James came to Antioch from Jerusalem, Peter’s concern for his Jewish relationships caused him to pull away from his Gentile friends. Transformation by the Spirit takes time. Peter probably offended his Gentile friends. Yet, Peter changed. Here at the end of his life, we see Peter fully transformed, focusing on the needs of Gentile believers. To highlight his transformation, the Spirit inspired these two epistles of Peter. In these epistles we discover a Peter who not only cares for these Gentiles, he understands them.

We as expatriate workers truly care for the people we work among; yet, we may not really understand them. Peter is a good example for us. He has moved beyond simply caring, he now understands them. In addition, Peter no longer considers them as separate, as different. Due to the way he opens his epistle, he intentionally demonstrates his complete oneness with them.

Peter demonstrates his oneness with these Gentiles by using two terms drawn from the heart of the Jewish narrative. Chosen is the first term, and exiles of the dispersion is the second:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the chosen exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, 2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, because of the obedience of Jesus Christ and the sprinkling of his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you. (translation by Joel Green. 1 Peter. 2007, 14)

Why did Peter use these two terms in referring to the Gentile recipients of his letter? To help us answer this question, let me ask two more. What does it mean to be an exile? What do you think it was like for the Jews who were taken to Babylon from Jerusalem?

EXILE

A sojourner or a stranger doesn’t have rights like the people who are citizens of an area. Sojourners are usually without any power or influence. It would be worse for an exile, someone who had been thrown out of her or his land because they did something wrong. Exile is a pejorative term, and exiles have virtually no status in their communities. They are truly weak.

Why would Peter use the term exile (parapidemois) to refer to the recipients of his letter? He uses it again in 2:11, combining the word with the term sojourner. Why did he use this particular term?

It appears that Peter is drawing attention to weakened status these Gentile believers have within their own communities. As we read this epistle, suffering of some kind is the prevailing characteristic of these people’s lives. Peter refers to their trials in verses 6 and 7 in chapter 1. In how he describes these trials, they don’t appear to be the type that just flare up and then disappear. They are chronic, ongoing; and these trials are testing their faith. The theme of suffering appears again in 2:18-25, in 3:13-4:1, in 4:12-19, and again in 5:10.

As Peter writes about their sufferings, there is no hint that their sufferings included the threat of death.

It is likely that many of these believers were suffering socially in their communities because they had been stigmatized due to their faith. Others of his readers were facing suffering because they were slaves (2:18). In those days, and throughout the history of the world, the owners of slaves determined how slaves would be treated. If the slave owner was an honest and kind person, it could go well for the slave. However, the conditions of a slave’s life were completely at the disposition of the owner. Wives were suffering due to the unkindness of their unbelieving husbands (3:1-9).

So, it appears that Peter is concerned for those who have little or no status left in their community, and to those whose lives were completely at the mercy of others with social power. Peter can understand this because he too had been a man without much social power.

This background context makes sense of why Peter opened his letter the way he did.

CHOSEN

Peter opens his epistle by writing: to the chosen exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. Why does Peter use the term chosen (ekletois) to refer to Gentile believers? Translations traditionally move the adjective chosen and connect it with the phrase according to the foreknowledge of God. This is because the word chosen can refer to the fact that these believers are the elect, chosen from before the foundation of the world for salvation. However, placing it adjacent to the prepositional phrase according to the foreknowledge of God is not how the word appears in the Greek text. The word chosen in the Greek text appears just before exiles, not later on in the verse. It also is an adjective agreeing in case and number with the word exiles (see Green 2007 and Grudem 2009). If we let the internal data of the epistle determine for us Peter’s meaning for the word chosen, it appears from 2:4-6 that Peter is emphasizing the fact that these Gentile followers of Jesus are special to God and they have a wonderful, special relationship with him just as Jesus did. Look at how Peter uses the word in 2:4-6:

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be builtinto a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:

“See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

With this in mind, Peter goes on to refer to his readers as exiles. This does not appear to be the case because they have been driven out of their homes. It appears that they are exiles due to their having turned to Jesus. Peter, by calling them exiles, acknowledges that they have stigmatized, weakened positions in their communities. Peter is seeking to encourage them in their suffering. He is pointing out that their weakened position is according to the foreknowledge of God. God had known that their faith would cause them problems, and they suffer due to this even though they are God’s precious children.

You may initially object to this reading because it stands contrary to how we have viewed this passage, and how the church has interpreted it over the years. However, this interpretation aligns well with the Greek, and it aligns well with the general content of the letter.

This reading is significant because it stands in direct contrast to the prevailing worldview of Peter’s day (and to the prevailing worldviews of our day). People in the Greco-Roman world believed that if the gods were with them, they would be prosperous and victorious over the circumstances of their lives. Put yourself in a slave’s position in the first century. Your owner could taunt you and say: “If your god is so great and good, why are you my slave? If your god was real, I would be your slave.”

Third, Peter said that their sufferings were happening in their sanctification by the Spirit. It is because they were changed and transformed by the Spirit of Jesus that they had come to be in this weakened social position. Their sufferings were not happening because they aligned themselves with the wrong God. Their being stigmatized for their faith and their weakened social status was because the Spirit of God was dynamically working in their lives.

These words of Peter went contrary to everything these believing Gentiles knew as human beings. It also goes contrary to our own default way of thinking. For example: how do we respond when we encounter problems?  I don’t mean problems that just flare up for one day, but the kind of problems that go on for an extended period of time.

I don’t know about you, but when certain problems persist, and more build up, I begin to wonder if God loves me? I also wonder what I did wrong to deserve these problems, if there is sin in my life? I also even question if God is able to get me out of the mess?

When I begin to think this way, I return to 1 Peter. Peter tells me that I am chosen. Peter also tells me that God is well aware of the problems that I am facing. Now, if there is sin in my life, it will be obvious to me. However, if the problems are not due to sin, the Spirit wants me to know that these problems are caused by the fact that God, by his Spirit, has worked in my life. He has worked in my life because of all that Jesus did for me. He died and shed his blood so that I could receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

As I previously mentioned, most of us, if not all, have been graced to have a lot of self-determination in our lives. There are times in our overseas contexts when we get a taste of having little control over the circumstances in our lives. Sometimes we have problems with the landlord, or we have ongoing visa problems, or problems getting permissions for certain tasks. At these times we really feel our social weakness.Yet, even in our semi-weakened state, we retain a significant level of control.

Our ability to retain a level of social power and self-determination can make us insensitive to those around us who lack these things. We oftentimes simply do not understand how how our local friends and colleagues feel.

In this, we should still keep a level, yet reflective head. Paul the Apostle was like us. He was a man with social power. He came from a wealthy and influential family; he was a Roman citizen by birth. Paul had access to rights that Peter never shared. This is why Paul could travel around the Mediterranean world and hobnob with Roman leaders. Even when in jail, Paul had the power to appeal to Caesar. In contrast, Peter did not enjoy any inherent social status in the Gentile world and he had no social power. Yet, due to his background Peter inherently understood how these Gentile believers felt. So, unlike Paul, Peter was in the perfect position to offer these Gentile believers solid advice on how to thrive when weak.

We can learn from Peter what it means to be socially weak and we can also learn from him how to encourage people in their socially weak positions.