We know less than we would like about this letter from Peter, written to a scattered diaspora located in what is today Turkey. Most probably, Peter writes it just before the persecution of Christians is intensified by Nero. Peter’s audience is an early church well-acquainted with suffering. Imagine the search for words to comfort and instruct fellow believers who will die horrific deaths for their faith.
Peter transfers their hope from the focus of this temporal life and death to a hope that is beyond this earthly life. He unites their identity and their rejection with that of Christ’s identity and rejection. He gives them a metaphor of a spiritual house, living stones that house a holy priesthood. Peter takes the OT metaphor of Israel’s Temple connects it with Jesus’ proclamation of himself as the Temple, and welcomes the suffering ‘pilgrims of the Dispersion’ to envision themselves as the Church. As their days on earth ebb away, their power to minister is, counter-intuitively, intensified.
In verse 9, Peter draws on the journey out of Egypt for an ancient story for the new Church. ‘You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people …’ which echoes the titles that God gives Israel in Exodus 19:5-6. ‘A special treasure, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.’ Through Moses, God gives the desert-wandering children of Israel a vision of their identity bathed in God’s word of comfort. “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” (Exodus 19:4) For Peter’s suffering diaspora of Gentile converts, whether the empire be clothed in the Egyptian threads of Pharaoh or the blood-letting robes of Nero, God brings us into the powerful, loving, and comforting God-presence. This is true life.
Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we find Peter shaping an identity for the early church that is ours as well. Faced with our own mortality and in the shadow of systems that wield power, even the power of life and death, we step into our identity as the image bearers of Christ. That shared image and shared suffering, counter-intuitively, manifests our ability to minister, to be the testimony of God’s mighty compassion and power to the world.
As we navigate a global pandemic together, perhaps we have new insight into the fear that our early church brothers and sisters surely navigated in their days of Nero. May Peter’s words give wings to our soul and words to our testimony as we become open to how the Holy Spirit leads the Church in these days. And may we, like the children of Israel, and like the new 1st century believers, welcome and lean into the identity that God has graciously given us: a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own special people.