Scattered across the Roman provinces of modern Turkey, these Christians are called “exiles” due to their social dislocation within a culture hostile to their new way of life. Though “exiles,” they are nevertheless elect. But for what or to what are they elected? What does this election mean?
In part, it means they have been born again, they are being preserved, and they will be rescued.
1 Peter 3:3-12, in Greek, is a single sentence that begins as a doxology, continues as proclamation, and ends in wonder. It winds its way through the whole narrative of salvation—past, present, and future—in order to locate its readers in God’s story. As the opening to the letter, perhaps as an exordium in Hellenistic rhetoric, it provides a theological frame for the rest of the letter by identifying the redemptive situation of believers. There are no imperatives or commands—only blessing, proclamation, and wonder. This single sentence introduces the whole letter.
Despite their present trials and sufferings, they are the recipients of the goal of God’s redemptive work throughout history. They have been born again through the resurrection of Jesus, continuously preserved by the power of God, and will be finally rescued from suffering in the last times (the Eschaton). They have been infused with hope. Though exiles, they are the heirs of God’s redemptive work.
Consequently, God is blessed, which is a typically Jewish way of praising God (Psalm 66:8; 103:1, 20-22; 104:1; 115:18; 134:1). Moreover, “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” probably reflects a liturgical practice of the early church since the only other places where it appears are in New Testament doxologies (cf. Romans 15:6; 2 Corinthians 1:3; Ephesians 1:3). The letter, then, opens with doxology, and its theology flows from the praise of God the Father.
But the letter also opens with the proclamation, embedded in the blessing, that Jesus is Lord. Its liturgical form emphasizes the importance of this phrase as something Christians regularly confessed in their communities. The God of Israel is the Father of Jesus the Messiah, who is Lord. That is a mouthful. Religiously, it affirms continuity with the Hebrew Scriptures. Politically, it is dangerous since Caesar is Lord within the Roman Empire. Socially, it becomes the object of derision. “Jesus is Lord” is the central confession of the Christian Faith.
Reborn According to the Mercy of God
Peter blesses the God and Father of Lord Jesus the Messiah who, according to (kata) God’s great mercy, “rebirthed” (regenerated) us into (eis) a living hope and into (eis) a sure inheritance.
New birth, or being born again, is an important theological word for Peter (used in 1:3 and 1:23). It is the starting point for a new way of life, a new kind of existence. Indeed, this is what renders us exiles or foreigners in the present world. We do not breathe the same air as others in the world.
New birth is grounded (kata) in the mercy of God, which is one of the most significant covenant terms for God’s faithful love in the Hebrew Scriptures (hesed in Hebrew; cf. Exodus 34:4-6). Our rebirth flows from God’s merciful and faithful initiative; that is, our election.
Our rebirth issues in two realities: (1) a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus, and (2) an imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance. In other words, our rebirth gives us an eschatological perspective, and it ushers us into an eschatological reality. Born again, we already participate in the eschaton; our new life is eschatological life.
A living hope is a present hope. This is not escapism, but a hope that lives. Or, to put it another way, it is an empowering hope because it lives. The alternative is a life without hope, which is ultimately despairing. Indeed, the nature of this hope is defined by the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, which conquers death and promises life without death.
Resurrection is not simply life after death, but it is life in the wake of the annihilation of death. Resurrected life is the ultimate fruit of newborn life. Our new birth is the promise of this resurrection life as we are born into a new mode of existence. That new existence is ultimately the resurrected life of Jesus himself. We are birthed into a new creation, and new creation begins with the resurrection of Jesus because Jesus—raised from the dead—is new humanity clothed with an eternal body. The hope that lives within our hearts is the hope of sharing in that new humanity where our own resurrected bodies are patterned after the likeness of Jesus’s resurrection body.
Our rebirth also issues in an inheritance. This is, again, a word loaded with meaning in the Hebrew Scriptures. Inheritance is about land. But that inheritance was lost through exile because it was defiled by sin. The inheritance of the new creation—of regeneration and rebirth—is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,” which is a alliteration in the Greek text using the alpha-privative (each word begins with the negative “a-”). To put it another way—in the oft-quoted words of Beare that mirror the Greek alliteration—“untouched by death, unstained by evil, unimpaired by time.”
But what is this inheritance? Peter says it is “kept in heaven” for us. Our inheritance is in heaven, but it is not heaven. That is, our inheritance is not life after death where one ascends into the heavenly realms for their reward. Rather, our inheritance is connected with resurrection hope; our hope is new creation or resurrected life.
Jesus sits at the right hand of God in his resurrection body. The resurrected Jesus is the beginning of new creation, and new creation is our inheritance. It is now kept in heaven, but it—our ultimate salvation—will be revealed in the last time (1:5). At that time, as 2 Peter 3 makes clear, a new heaven and new earth will appear as the home of the righteous. This is our inheritance; it is the moment when we will inherit the new heaven and new earth as our homeland. Then, we will no longer be exiles or foreigners; we will be home.
Our living hope is resurrected life on a new heaven and new earth, and that is our inheritance. Even now—in the present—we experience that life through our rebirth, and it is that rebirth which gives birth to our hope and the promise of an inheritance. As people born again into the living hope of the resurrection, we are also born into an inheritance that belongs to the family of God.
Preserved by God Through Faith.
Our present experience, however, is often filled with trials and troubles. In fact, our rebirth—our new life—entails that trials will come since we are now exiles or foreigners. Rather than insulating us from hurts and hostility, this new life attracts them because it threatens the values and commitments of a hostile culture. So, in the present, we suffer.
This does not, however, eliminate our hope and inheritance. Rather, God presently preserves (protects, guards) us in the midst of this suffering through faith. Significantly, it is the power of God that preserves or protects. We do not protect ourselves; God protects us.
At the same time, however, we participate in this process. Faith is the means by which the power of God guards us. This is a divine-human movement; it is cooperative grace. God supplies the power, and we appropriate that power through faith. We do not generate the power, but we receive it through faith. Our preservation is not our own doing; it is God’s work in us and through us by faith. Without faith, however, there is no preservation.
The age-old debate between Calvinists and Arminians finds practical common ground here. Both theological traditions agree that we are elect through faith, and that the elect will persevere in faith. Whatever the dogmatic or theoretical frame, these statements affirm a shared perspective: God guards the elect through faith. At a practical level, the elect believe and the elect persevere in belief. In this, both traditions “bless God” as we recognize God’s initiative in our salvation and God’s empowering grace.
Rescued in the Eschaton
God preserves us for (unto, eis) salvation.
“Salvation,” in 1 Peter, describes the full reality of God’s redemptive work. It is both a present and future reality—it sums up the whole of what God is doing to redeem and rescue humanity from sin and death.
“Salvation” (or deliverance, rescue), in 1 Peter 1:5, is eschatological. It is linked to the “last time” (kairo eschato) and final revelation of God’s saving work in the second coming of Jesus. In other words, here salvation refers to the fulfillment of our hope and the arrival of our inheritance. God preserves us in order to bring us into the full experience of our salvation when our “living hope” is realized and we receive our full inheritance.
Blessed be God, Peter writes, because the Father, through Jesus the Messiah, has birthed us and preserves us for the future unveiling of our inheritance (salvation). God is praised for his past, present, and future saving work.
The doxology locates believers in the story of God rather than in the imperial story. God, through Jesus, is the savior of the world, not the Roman Emperor. Christians live in God’s narrative rather than in the imperial one.
According to Peter, that is the true story, and consequently this is the true and authentic location of Christians. Though they live as exiles in Roman culture, they are nevertheless God’s elect.