How to Read 1-2 Peter Theologically
Textbooks and commentaries on 1–2 Peter must address a variety of issues. Often, questions of sources, traditions, authorship, and “problem passages” occupy a disproportionate amount of space. Did Peter write both 1 Peter and 2 Peter? Did he write neither? Does 2 Peter present a Stoic philosophical perspective? Who are the spirits in prison in 1 Peter 3:19–20? Who are the angels in gloomy chains? What was their sin (2 Pet. 2:4)? Where do these ideas come from? Do they borrow from Jewish traditions surrounding Genesis 6 that speak of the sexual sin of angels?
To be sure, such questions have their place. But questions of sources and underlying traditions should be secondary, not primary. Our primary concern when reading any book of Scripture—including 1–2 Peter—is interpreting the texts themselves. Most theories of sources must remain tentative. We simply don’t have enough information to answer them all decisively. Too often in biblical studies we go astray when we make secondary questions primary, and primary questions secondary.
To make the texts of 1–2 Peter primary means we be attentive to the message of these books. We must read them theologically. This means we must wrestle with their doctrinal emphases and calls to faithful living coram deo—in the presence of God. If we miss the practical emphases of these letters, then we have not interpreted them rightly.
The theological message of these letters offers hope for the future, and a reality check for the present. They are written to help readers live faithfully as they follow Christ in the “in-between” time between Jesus’s first coming and his second coming. In other words, these letters are written to audiences in a position much like our own. We must read them theologically. This means we must wrestle with their doctrinal emphases and calls to faithful living coram deo—in the presence of God. Click To Tweet
To this end, I offer a brief overview of how we can read each of these letters theologically. At times it may seem like these letters emphasize works instead of grace, but that is not true. They emphasize both the good news of the gospel that God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves, while also calling us to true discipleship. It is helpful to consider both these angles as we read 1–2 Peter theologically—both what God does for us (sometimes called the “indicative”), and how we are called to live as disciples of Jesus (sometimes called the “imperative”). The indicative and imperative are tightly tethered to one another, but should not be confused.
In what follows, I assume that the Apostle Peter is indeed the author of both canonical letters that bear his name, since both letters claim to be by him.
1 Peter: Following the Steps of Christ
First Peter opens with a reflection on the trinitarian contours of salvation (1:2), highlighting the sovereignty of God over our new birth (1:3). Put differently, 1 Peter opens with the indicative of salvation. Peter identifies his audience as a royal priesthood, and a holy nation (2:9), which reflects the central “declaration of independence” of Israel after the Exodus (see Exod. 19:5–6).
It is striking that this passage seems in 1 Peter to be used of a largely Gentile audience (cf. 1 Pet. 1:18; 2:10). The Old Testament is for all of God’s people—Jew and Gentile.
In 1 Peter our sins are forgiven because of the redeeming work of Christ, who bore our sins on the cross (1:19; 2:24; 3:18). Peter recognizes that we are exiles in this world, but we are beloved by God—we are elect exiles (1:1). Indeed, in 1 Peter the encouragement is that persecution does not mean God is displeased with us, for Christ himself suffered persecution (2:21–24). It may be that the persecution facing God’s people is a sign of their faithfulness rather than an indication of a lack of faith. This is one of many ways in which the so-called prosperity “gospel” goes horribly astray.
In light of the harsh reality of persecution, how are we to live? Not as the ungodly world around us, for it was from such things that Christ redeemed us (1:17–19; 4:1–5). This is where 1 Peter’s emphasis on the imperative is helpful. Indulging in worldly, fleshly lusts wages war against our souls (2:11), and such sins are subject to the judgment of God (4:5). Instead, we should be self-controlled and sober-minded, thinking of how we can serve one another (4:7–11). This may be tough, be we are called to live in such a way that others may see our good deeds and turn to Christ (cf. 2:12). We are to be holy because God is holy (1:14–16), yet this holiness also serves as a light to those around us (see also Matt. 5:14–16).
To sum up the theological message of 1 Peter, those who are redeemed should follow the path of Christ the Redeemer, and that path is one of suffering which yields glory in the end.
2 Peter: Living Faithfully in Light of Christ’s Return
As difficult as 1 Peter can be to interpret, 2 Peter is perhaps even more difficult. But here also, focusing on the interplay of the indicative and the imperative helps. Early in 2 Peter the divine power over salvation is emphasized (1:3). Further, the “righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (1:1, ESV) may refer to the obedience of Christ on which our justification rests. The indicative is further emphasized when 2 Peter speaks of eternal life as an inheritance that we are awaiting (3:13). Jesus is the glorious, risen Lord who will return and consummate the work he has begun (1:16–19; cf. 3:4–10). His return is salvation.
But we must beware in this age, for false teachers will seek to lead us astray (2 Pet. 2:1–3:6), both by their destructive teaching and by their sinful lifestyle (cf. 2:1–3). More specifically, in 2 Peter these false teachers appear to deny the return of Christ, and therefore downplay the importance of obedience. They say there will be no future judgment (cf. 3:3–4). But Peter writes to correct this view. Jesus really is going to return, and how we live really does matter. We therefore should live holy lives and await and even hasten the coming of the Lord (3:11–13). Second Peter emphasizes the necessity of the imperative.
To sum up the theological message of 2 Peter, Jesus has appeared once to bring salvation, and will come again to complete his work; as we await his return, let us live godly and holy lives (3:11).
Though 1–2 Peter are short (only eight chapters), they are remarkably relevant for today. They highlight the uniqueness of Christ’s work, his glorious return, and help us understand what to expect in the meantime. Life may be difficult, and many may be led astray by false teaching. But true disciples of Christ follow his steps: living holy lives and persevering in the midst of difficulty, as we anticipate the new heavens and new earth where righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13).
 For more on these letters, see my book The Message of the General Epistles in the History of Redemption: Wisdom from James, Peter, John, and Jude (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2015), esp. chs. 1–4.