The 1st Letter of Peter to the Jewish believers

1 Peter

This letter was written by Simeon Barjonah (Simeon, ‘son of Jonah’ – see Acts 15:14 & Matthew 16:17) – one of Jesus’s close group of twelve apostles – better known to us today by his Greek name, Simon, and his nickname, Peter (meaning ‘the Rock’).

The First Letter of Peter was written to encourage Jewish Christian believers who had been scattered across the northern part of Asia Minor after persecution by the Jews in Jerusalem following the outbreak of war in Judaea in 66AD (see Map 29). During this time of persecution, Peter encouraged them to hold onto the hope of eternal life that had been promised to them through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The letter was written by Peter, shortly before his death in c.67AD.  It was written after Peter had escaped from Jerusalem (probably around the outbreak of war in 66AD) and had arrived in Rome (which is referred to, in coded form, as Babylon – the city of adulterers and prostitutes – see 1 Peter 5:13, Revelation 14:8 & 17:5). 

 

The Forum in Rome

Peter was writing from Rome, nicknamed 'Babylon'

 

Peter sends greetings from John Mark (the author of Mark’s Gospel), whom we know stayed with Paul while he was under house arrest in Rome in 60-62AD (see Philemon 1:24) and probably joined him again after returning from Colossae in 66 or 67AD (see 2 Timothy 4:11 & Colossians 4:10).

It’s not certain who carried the letter to Asia Minor, but we know that Peter (whose knowledge of the Greek language was limited) was helped in writing this letter by Silas, one of Paul’s Greek-speaking fellow-workers from the church in Jerusalem (see 1 Peter 5:12). This explains how Simon Peter – an uneducated fisherman from Galilee (see Acts 4:13) who spoke Aramaic and Hebrew – could produce this letter in excellent literary Greek.

 

           Simon Peter

Simon Peter and his brother Andrew came from the lakeside town of Bethsaida (see John 1:44 and Map 6), but they lived in Capernaum where their father John had a fishing business (‘John’ is the Greek form of the Hebrew name ‘Jonah’ – see John 1:42). Simon’s wife and mother-in-law also lived in the family home (see Mark 1:29-30).

Simon’s realisation at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus was the expected ‘Messiah’ – the ‘Christ’ – marked a turning point in Jesus’s ministry in 29AD (see Mark 8:27-30 and 1 on Map 9), and Jesus gave Simon the nickname ‘Peter’ (‘Petra’ in Greek; ‘Cephas’ in Aramaic) – meaning ‘a rock’ (see Matthew 16:13-20). Six days later, Peter was one of the three disciples closest to Jesus who witnessed the glory of the transfigured Lord high up on the slopes of Mount Hermon (see Mark 9:2-9 and 2 on Map 9).

After Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, it was Peter who followed the temple guards to the High Priest’s house, where he denied being a follower of Jesus three times (see Mark 14:66-72). After the death of Jesus in 30AD, Peter was one of the first to visit the empty tomb (see Luke 24:12) and to see the risen Lord (see Luke 24:34).

Some time later, when Peter returned to fishing on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus appeared to him again. Having reminded Peter of his threefold denial by asking him three times if he still loved him, Jesus commissioned Peter to ‘take care of my sheep’, and prophesied that Peter would eventually be bound and executed for his faith (see John 21:1-19).

 

Mensa Christi

The risen Lord Jesus appeared to Peter on the shore of Lake Galilee

 

Peter was one of the most powerful preachers in the early Christian church. Having been transformed and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, Peter then spoke to a crowd of thousands in Jerusalem. Many of them were moved by the Holy Spirit to receive faith in the risen Lord Jesus (see Acts 2:1-42).

Peter’s healing of the sick (see Acts 3:1-10, 5:15 & 9:32-42) and his teaching about Jesus (see Acts 3:10-26) brought him into conflict with the Jewish authorities, and on several occasions he was arrested and dragged before the Jewish council – the Sanhedrin (see Acts 4:1-23 & 5:17-42).

While staying in Joppa in 35AD (see 2 on Map 19), Peter had a vision of animals that the Jews traditionally regarded as ‘unclean’ and not to be touched (see Acts 10:9-16). Jews regarded Gentiles (non-Jews) in much the same way, and usually refused to eat with them. In this vision, God instructed Peter not to regard anything he had created – including Gentiles – as ‘unclean’.

So when a messenger arrived from Caesarea inviting him to dine with a Roman centurion, he promptly agreed – and Cornelius and his family became the first non-Jewish Christians to be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 10:17-48). On his return to Jerusalem, Peter was criticised for eating with Gentiles (see Acts 11:1-4). But when he explained how the Holy Spirit had come down on the Gentiles (see Acts 11:5-18), the Jewish believers in Jerusalem agreed to accept Gentile believers – as long as they were circumcised as Jews (see Acts 15:1-2).

This disagreement about Jewish religious rituals eventually led to the Council of Jerusalem in 49/50AD where the Jewish Christian leaders declared that Gentile believers would not be required to be circumcised (see Acts 15:1-21). Peter (who had been imprisoned by King Herod Antipas, but had been set free by an angel – see Acts 12:1-19) agreed with this decision, but later appears to have wavered over the issue of eating with uncircumcised Gentile believers (see Galatians 2:11-14), and was criticised by Paul.

The two apostles were later reconciled, and spoke kindly about each other in their letters (see 2 Peter 3:15 & 1 Corinthians 3:22-4:1). Eusebius, writing his Church History in c.310AD, believed that Peter and Paul taught jointly in Rome before their final persecution.

Peter was executed in Rome in c.67AD during the persecution of Christians by Emperor Nero following the Great Fire of Rome in 64AD and after the outbreak of war between the Romans and the Jews in 66AD. St Peter’s Basilica now stands above what is thought to be the tomb of Simon Peter on the site of the Circus of Nero, where Peter is believed to have been crucified upside down, at his own request.

 

St Peter's Basilica, Rome

St Peter's Basilica stands on the spot where Peter was crucified in Rome

 

The Jewish historian Josephus, in The Jewish War, pinpoints 67AD as the year when a ‘universal hatred of the Jews’ was at its peak across the Roman Empire. The Jewish nationalist insurgents in Jerusalem had inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Roman general Cestius in September 66AD, and up to five thousand Roman soldiers had been slaughtered in Jerusalem and at Beth-horon as the Roman forces retreated to Antipater and Caesarea.

To the mighty Roman superpower, this was the equivalent of the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York on 11th September 2001, and produced the same kind of revulsion and desire for revenge against the Jews that 9/11 produced towards the terrorists of al Qaeda.

As prominent Jewish leaders within the Christian community, both Peter and Paul would have been viewed as legitimate scapegoats on whom the Romans might vent their anger and gain suitable revenge against the Jewish nation. Peter probably escaped from the more zealous and violent elements of Jewish society in Jerusalem at the outbreak of the war in 66AD, and may well have met Paul in Rome before they were both imprisoned and executed by the Romans in c.67AD.

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