Called to Be Holy
First Peter 1:17–23 is part of the lectionary readings for the third Sunday of Easter, April 26. In this passage, the author summoned us to cultivate hope, holiness, and love in our lives, especially during trials.
Many Bible scholars consider this early Christian letter to be part of the persecution literature of the New Testament (which also includes Hebrews, Revelation, and possibly James). The epistle would have been written during one of the three periods of Roman persecution endured by early Christians—under emperors Nero (AD 62–64), Domitian (AD 90–97), and Trajan (AD 111).
If one holds to Peter’s authorship of the letter, the only period that fits would be the time of Nero. Church tradition has it that Peter was crucified outside the city of Rome during the last few years before Nero ended his own life in AD 68.
In 1 Peter 1:13, the apostle discussed the value of mental preparedness by exhorting his readers to “gird up the loins” of their minds. This idiomatic expression draws attention to the fact that in Bible times, many people dressed in loose clothing.
If individuals wanted to move about quickly or perform tasks requiring significant freedom of movement, they would prepare themselves by tucking the folds of their robe under their belt. The apostle drew upon this vivid imagery to urge his readers to be disciplined in their thinking and ready themselves for vigorous and sustained spiritual exertion.
Peter also admonished his readers to be “sober.” This renders a Greek verb that refers to those who are self-controlled, calm, and temperate.
The emphasis is on believers exercising sound judgment in every area of their lives. One way to do this is by submitting to the control of the Spirit (Eph 5:18). Furthermore, Peter commented on the believers’ hope, namely, their eager and confident expectation of good things to come.
Christians could rest assured that the Father would bestow His grace on them when the Son was revealed at His second coming. “Revealed” (1 Pet 1:13) translates a Greek noun that stresses the unveiling of Jesus’ glory and greatness.
In the current age, the Father has veiled the presence of the Son. Though the recipients of Peter’s letter had never seen Jesus, their love for Him was beyond question. Also, despite the fact that they could not see the Messiah, they continued to trust in Him for salvation (v. 8).
At Jesus’ second advent, His followers will be fully and finally delivered from sin’s presence. They will also be glorified and dwell forever with the triune God in heaven.
Peter referred to his readers as “obedient children” (v. 14). “Obedient” renders a Greek noun that refers to those who have a compliant and submissive spirit.
As members of God’s spiritual family, believers refuse to conform themselves to the behavior and customs of the world (Rom 12:2). This disposition contrasts sharply with the way Christians thought and acted before trusting in the Son.
While separated from Father, the unregenerate knew nothing about His love and law. Also, before their conversion, they lived in “ignorance” (1 Pet 1:14).
The preceding term renders a noun that denotes those who are morally blinded to divine truth (2 Cor 4:3–4). Tragically, the unregenerate wander about in spiritual darkness, and their “lusts” (1 Pet 1:14)—the forbidden cravings and evil longings of the sinful human heart—shape and control their lives.
Peter affirmed that the God believers worship and serve is “holy” (v. 15; see Pss 71:22; 78:41; 89:18; 99:9; Isa 1:4; 5:19, 24; 6:3; Hos 11:9). This word renders a Greek adjective that, when used in reference to the Creator, emphasizes His absolute superiority over His creatures.
Expressed differently, whatever the Lord thinks or does is characterized by purity, goodness, and perfection. In short, there is no trace of evil in God, and He abhors all that is wicked and false.
The holy God, who has called us to salvation, wants us to be holy in every area of life (1 Pet 1:16; see Lev 11:44–45; 19:2; 20:7, 26). The starting point is our cleansing from sin through our baptismal union with the Savior. We are now free to obey Him and serve others in an unselfish and sacrificial manner.
Furthermore, a regenerate life of holiness means that we detest wickedness and love righteousness. Likewise, our desires, motives, thoughts, words, and actions are characterized by purity.
Christians in Peter’s day looked to the Creator for their redemption. To call Him “Father” (1 Pet 1:17) was nothing new, for believers in the Old Testament era also referred to Him in this way (Ps 89:26; Jer 3:19; Mal 1:6).
Peter noted that the Lord will one day judge each person’s work objectively and fairly (1 Pet 1:17). Though the Father will not condemn His spiritual children for their sins (Isa 53:4–5; 1 Pet 2:24), He will evaluate their deeds and reward them accordingly (Rom 14:10–12; 1 Cor 3:12–15). Whatever blessings God bestows for faithful service are not based on personal merit, for He is the one who prompted these works in the first place (Phil 2:12–13).
Peter noted that in this world, believers are “sojourning” (1 Pet. 1:17). This renders a Greek noun that conveys the idea of foreigners dwelling as temporary residents somewhere outside their homeland.
The apostle was stressing the Christian’s pilgrim status on earth. He also emphasized the importance of relating to God in “fear.”
The biblical concept of fear falls into two broad categories. First, it can refer to a sense of alarm caused by the anticipation of danger, pain, or disaster. Second, fear can denote a feeling of awe and reverence toward a supreme being.
Both aspects of fear are evident in the Old Testament. For instance, when the Lord revealed His presence to His people, they were dreadfully aware of His holiness and their sinfulness (Exod 19:16–19; Isa 6:5).
The Israelites also revered God because of His majesty, power, and holiness (Ps 34:9). God’s people demonstrated their respect and awe by obeying the Creator (Prov. 8:13; 16:6).
Both aspects of fear are also evident in the New Testament. By way of example, a sickening dread will grip those whom God judges in the end times (Rev 6:15–17). For Christians, however, there is no sense of dread, because God-given love, which is perfect or complete, expels all fear (Rom 8:1; 1 John 4:18).
Out of reverence for God, not doubt and anxiety, believers seek to grow and mature (Phil 2:12). Their motivation is not a false sense of guilt, but a deep sense of gratitude for God’s mercy.
So, then, the apostle’s reference to “fear” (1 Pet 1:17) does not mean Christians approach the Lord in cringing terror. Rather, we relate to our heavenly Father and Judge with humility and respect.
The lives of those to whom Peter wrote were at one time “vain” (v. 18). The latter renders a Greek adjective that denotes what is futile and useless, at least from an eternal perspective.
Peter reminded his readers about the tremendous cost of their redemption. The Greek verb translated “redeemed” speaks of freedom from the bondage of sin through the payment of a price.
In this context, the focus is on the shed blood of the Son (v. 19; see Matt 20:28; Mark 10:45). His atoning sacrifice is infinitely more valuable than anything the world has to offer.
For instance, fallen humanity values costly metals such as silver and gold (especially in times of acute crisis). One day, however, God will eliminate all these items, along with bringing the rest of the created order to an end (2 Pet 3:11–13).
Of special note is the ritual in which priests would sacrifice lambs on the altar in the Jerusalem temple. To be acceptable, these sacrifices had to be free from any physical defect (Lev. 22:20–25). Jesus was like a lamb that had no blemish or imperfection (1 Pet 1:19).
To be specific, the Messiah’s life was sinless, which qualified Him to atone for the sins of all humankind (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 7:26; 9:14; 1 John 2:2). We should never cease to be grateful for the shame and suffering the Son endured on the cross for our sake. He did not have to do this, but He did so because He loves us (John 3:16).
There are two ways of understanding the Greek verb rendered “foreordained” (1 Pet 1:20) or “foreknown.” According to some specialists, the term is merely talking about God’s foresight. In other words, the Father knew before He created the world that He would have to redeem sinners through the sacrificial death of His Son.
Other specialists think the term implies purpose. Expressed differently, in eternity past the Father selected the Son as the sole provider of redemption.
The Greek phrase rendered “these last times” was a manner of expression used by Old Testament prophets to speak about the end of human history. Both now and in the first century AD, the phrase refers to the whole messianic era, which began with Jesus’ life on earth.
In other instances, the phrase seems to refer to the period immediately preceding Jesus’ second advent. He originally came to earth to redeem the lost. Through the Son, we put our “faith” (v. 21) in the Father and seek to remain faithful to Him.
The Father raised His Son from the dead and bestowed glory on Him. For this reason, we also rest our “hope” in the Creator.
These truths remind us that the Son is the sole mediator between sinful people and the Father (1 Tim 2:5). Through Jesus’ redemptive sacrifice, He provides the only access to the Father (John 14:6).
“Purified” (1 Pet 1:22) renders a Greek verb that denotes being cleansed morally and spiritually. The Holy Spirit uses the means of grace (that is, the ministry of Word and sacrament) to bring about this sanctifying process (John 6:63; 15:3; 17:17).
As a result, believers display a “sincere love” (1 Pet 1:22) for one another. The apostle, while commending his readers for the mutual affection they had already demonstrated, urged them to pursue an even deeper compassion for each other (1 Thess 4:9–10).
Moreover, Peter reminded his readers that they had been “born again” (1 Pet 1:23). This phenomenon denotes the Spirit’s inner re-creation of the fallen human nature of sinners through the means of grace. The Father’s gift of faith enables them to repent of their transgressions and trust in the Son for salvation (Eph 2:8–9).
The new birth, then, is not produced by perishable, biological means, but by the sovereign working of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, this new life does not originate from something that dies. Rather, it comes from a living and enduring source, namely, God’s holy Word. In this context, the apostle specifically had in mind the life-giving message of the gospel (John 1:12–13; Jas 1:18;1 John 3:9).
In 1 Peter 1:24–25, the apostle quoted the Septuagint (or ancient Greek) translation of Isaiah 40:6–8 to highlight the contrast between the perishable nature of human life and the ever-enduring nature of Scripture. The apostle noted that people wither like grass and their glory fades like wildflowers, simply by the natural process of aging and dying.
Even though grass dries up and flowers fall to the ground, the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection “endures forever.” Peter stated that this was the same message he and other missionary-evangelists (such as Paul) proclaimed to the lost so that they might be saved.
Key ideas to contemplate
Peter called on his readers to praise the Father and Son for a redemption that was planned in eternity past, was anticipated by Israel’s prophets, and climaxed with the redemptive work of the Messiah and His resurrection. Jesus is the guarantee of our hope for an eternal inheritance in heaven.
1. CALL TO SALVATION. Peter opened his epistle with a description of the salvation the Father provided in the Son. Salvation is a broad term in the New Testament.
The word can mean initial deliverance from the penalty of sin, also known as justification (Titus 3:5). The term can refer to the lifelong process of turning from sin to righteousness in daily living, also known as sanctification (1 Cor 1:18). The word can mean the reception of the full benefits of redemption at our death or at the Second Coming, also known as glorification (Rom 13:11).
All three of these ideas are found in 1 Peter 1:3–5, namely, justification (v. 3), sanctification (v. 5a), and glorification (v. 5b).
2. CALL TO CHARACTER. Peter’s concern for his readers was with their renewed thinking and behaving. Before trusting in the Son, we followed our sinful passions and lived in ignorance of the Father’s pure and perfect ways. Now we are to obey God’s call to be holy.
One side of holiness is propositional: we belong to God and His ownership makes us different. The other side of holiness is behavioral: we accept the summons to live consistently with the character of God, who owns us.
3. CALL TO REVERENCE. God is our gracious, merciful, and heavenly Father, but He is also our impartial Judge. We live as foreigners and pilgrims in this world, while we look forward to receiving our true inheritance in another country, namely, heaven.
We also live to please the Ruler of heaven, who is our Creator and Lord. Through His Son, the Father has arranged our ransom from the hostile powers of this world.
Jesus of Nazareth has paid a ransom that only He was qualified to satisfy. For this reason, we can with confidence look forward to sharing in the resurrection and glory of the Messiah.