Imagine what it must have been like in those first months and years after Jesus' resurrection.
The fear and despair that the apostles experienced on Good Friday quickly washed away when Jesus appeared to them on Easter Sunday. And then the next forty days were spent learning from Jesus about the kingdom of God in a whole new way. They knew now that they weren't just hearing provocative teachings from a charismatic rabbi. The kingdom that Jesus talked about had become a life-changing reality for them. Jesus had breathed the Holy Spirit upon them, causing them to receive the promise of heaven in their hearts.
Exiles in This World Yet Chosen by God. These first apostles had a direct experience of Jesus, both before and after his resurrection. They knew personally that they were heirs of the resurrection because they had seen, touched, and walked with the risen Lord. As a result of these dramatic encounters, the apostles were filled with boldness, and the Church grew by leaps and bounds. Because of the faith and the experiences of these few men and women, healings and miracles happened almost every day, and a tidal wave of missionary activity was released that stretched from India to Rome and beyond.
Over time, however, the apostles faced a new challenge: How could the new believers they had converted hold on to such vibrant faith—especially since most of them had never seen Jesus face-to-face? How should the first disciples teach and lead all of these new people in such a way that welcomed them into as close an experience as possible of the things that they had seen and heard?
In the First Letter of Peter, we hear the voice of Peter, the chief apostle, exhorting new believers throughout Asia Minor to open their eyes to the high calling they have received. From its opening verses—which sound so much like a hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God—to its final lines—which contain the promise that God will raise them up to heaven—this letter encourages young Christians to hold fast to their faith, confident that Jesus really is at work in their hearts. Today, we face a similar challenge. We are in the midst of the Easter season, yet it can be easy to miss out on all the grace that Jesus wants to pour out: the joy of being raised up with him, the freedom that comes from his forgiveness, and the peace that comes from knowing how deeply we are loved by God. And this is exactly why the First Letter of Peter can be such an appropriate letter for us to read and ponder. Just as Peter sought to show the next generation of believers who they are and the high calling they have received, so this letter can wake us up to see all that God has done—and wants to do—in us today.
A Simple Greeting. To the exiles of the Dispersion . . . who have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood. (1 Peter 1:1-2)
Peter begins his letter with two verses that at first glance seem to be nothing more than a simple greeting to some friends. But if we look more closely, we will see that in this simple greeting he sounds the two key themes that he will expand upon throughout the rest of his letter: God's great gift to us and the challenge of living out our faith.
Peter begins by reminding his readers that God has a special call on their lives. He calls them "chosen" and "exiles": chosen because they have been set apart by God for a special purpose, and exiles because this world is not their home. These two words can be just as vital for us today if we let them define and give shape to the way we live in this world. Because God has chosen and destined us, we have been called into an intimate relationship with him. And this calling has pointed us toward heaven and made us into exiles and sojourners in this world.
Peter then introduces a third word that is equally vital and also very encouraging and filled with promise. He tells his readers—and us—that God has given us his own Holy Spirit to sanctify us. The gates of heaven have been opened for us, giving us access to all the divine grace we need.
The Paradox of Faith. In all this, Peter is trying to lift up his readers' vision. He wants to encourage them to lift up their hearts and believe that God is completely committed to fulfilling his purposes for them. And the same is true for us. God has not given us an impossible calling. No, he has chosen us for something great and sanctified us with all his grace and power. This news should give us cause to rejoice with the same "indescribable and glorious joy" that Peter invites his readers to (1 Peter 1:8).
Yet Peter isn't only trying to raise his readers' vision of what God has done for them. He also wants his readers—and us—to know that our cooperation and obedience to God are just as important as the grace God has poured out upon us. What has God chosen and destined us for? "To be obedient to Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:2).
This is one of the greatest paradoxes of the Christian life. We must exert all of our energy obeying God's calling, even as we rely completely on his power to make us capable of obeying him. It is true that we can live in obedience to Jesus only to the degree that we are relying on his grace. But it is equally true that whenever we face a crucial decision, it is completely our choice, and we must decide whether or not we will obey the commands that God has given us. And it is with this paradox in mind that Peter unfolds the rest of his letter, guiding his readers along the twofold path of faith and obedience.
An Imperishable Inheritance. Why did God choose us? So that we could receive an imperishable inheritance that can never be stained or fade away (1 Peter 1:3-4). When we hear the word inheritance, we may think of the money or possessions that we plan to pass on to our children. But in a deeper sense, our children began receiving their inheritance from us on the day they were conceived. More important than money, they received our genetic makeup, and throughout their formative years they inherit our way of life, our values, and our philosophies. This is the true legacy that parents leave to their children.
Similarly, the fact that we have been created in God's image and likeness is like receiving the imprint of God's genetic makeup. Over time, our likeness to God is meant to grow and become more noticeable as we let the Holy Spirit shape and mold us. Day after day, year after year, we can become more and more like our heavenly Father.
A Pastor to the End. How special we must be to God that he would give us so high and great a calling! And how beautiful—and useful—is his gift of the Holy Spirit to help us fulfill this call! You can just imagine Peter speaking to a group of new Christians, asking them questions that are very pointed and yet very encouraging: "Don't you know that you were in the Father's mind before creation? Don't you know that he created you personally and gave you a specific calling and destiny in this world? Don't you know that you were made for heaven and that this world, as beautiful as it is, is only a foretaste of the home Jesus is preparing for you?"
This whole letter paints the picture of a man with a pastor's heart, someone who wants to help his readers treasure the inheritance that they have received from God. It paints the picture of a man who wants to pass on to a new generation the blessings and miracles that he experienced firsthand when he walked with Jesus. He knows that they will face difficulties and suffering in this world—just as he has—and that they will have to learn to walk by faith in someone whom he has personally encountered.
Like that second generation of believers so long ago, we too are removed from a direct experience of Christ. And yet, for all the distance between our time and the apostles' time, for all the difference between our experience and Peter's, we are still a chosen people and a royal priesthood. We are still set apart to receive a kingly inheritance, each of us personally loved by almighty God. And like Peter and every believer who has gone before us, we have the Holy Spirit within us comforting us, encouraging us and empowering us to walk in this world as a chosen and destined people.