In the span of just a few months, I found myself preaching 1 Peter twice. It was my very first pastorate, and I was eager to walk through books of the Bible with a congregation who had not ever heard expositional preaching (the lack of comparison played in my favor). I was also asked to preach the local youth summer camp. As an inexperienced expositor, I decided to double-up on my study and double-down on 1 Peter. The results were two different outlines, one about half the length of the other, as well as a new appreciation for this short epistle. During a contentious election year, we learned with Peter what it meant to be an “elect exile” in this world, how to suffer with Christ and await the coming glory. It is a joy to me to pass along some of the resources I found helpful in that season and to strongly commend preaching 1 Peter to you. Whether this is your first expositional series or your fiftieth, I pray you will take up Peter’s pattern and follow Peter’s Lord.
Mark Dever (Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington, D. C.)
Being Saved: 1:3-9
The Point: 1:10-12
Like God: 1:13-22
The Children of God: 1:23-2:3
Trash & Treasure: 2:4-12
Good Spouses: 3:1-7
Ready for Judgment: 4:1-6
Like Christ: 4:12-19
Good Leaders: 5:1-5
Our Father is working in the waiting: 1:1-12
What is God doing?
- God regenerates believers into hope.
- God secures believers by His power.
- God purifies believers through trials.
The Gospel gives us hope.
God is working in the waiting.
Our Father has expectations for us: 1:13-21
What are His expectations?
- Watch your hope.
- Work at holiness.
- Walk in fear.
The Gospel gives us confidence.
Your Father has expectations for you.
Our Father has given us a family: 1:22-2:10
What are our family traits? In God’s family…
- We love each other like we’re going to live forever.
- We long for God’s Word like we desperately need it.
- We live for God like He’s better than anything else.
The Gospel gives us a destiny.
Your Father has given you a family.
Our Father has given us a mission: 2:11-3:12
What is the mission?
- Glorify God by doing good.
- Follow the footsteps of Jesus.
- Be ambitious for God’s blessing.
The Gospel gives us strength.
Our Father has given us a mission.
Our Father has given us a King: 3:13-4:11
Who is the King?
- Jesus is the King of our hearts, so we honor Him.
- Jesus is the King of Heaven, so we appeal to Him.
- Jesus is the Judge of the world, so we side with Him.
- Jesus is the Joy of His people, so we serve them.
The Gospel gives us a Kingdom.
Our Father has given us a King.
Our Father has given us a name: 4:12-19
What does the name mean?
- “Christian” means we’re hated like Christ (12)
- “Christian” means we’re loved like Christ (13-16)
- “Christian” means we’re secure in Christ (17-18)
- “Christian” means we endure like Christ (19)
The Gospel gives us joy in suffering.
Our Father has given us a name.
Our Father has given us a defense: 5:1-11
How are we defended from pride?
- We are defended by our pastors (1-5)
- We are defended by our problems (6-9)
- We are defended by God’s promise (10-11)
The Gospel gives us God.
Our Father has given us a defense.
Our Father has given us the truth: 5:12-14
What do we do with it?
- Trust God’s Word (12a)
- Obey God’s Word (12b)
- Share God’s Word (13,14a)
The Gospel gives us peace (14b)
Our Father has given us the truth
Submitting to Masters and Husbands
Two of the more difficult passages in 1 Peter both command submission. The first is 1 Peter 2:18-20, in which Peter instructs slaves to “submit to [their] masters with all reverence” (v. 18, CSB). This submission should be extended “not only to the good and gentle ones but also to the cruel” (v. 18), even seeming to imply that slaves found doing wrong should be beaten (v. 20). Yes, any preacher or teacher expositing the Scriptures will have to consider how to handle the (rightly) sensitive subject of slavery, Peter’s words are some of the more jarring in the New Testament on the topic. Yes, Paul often commands that slaves be subject to their masters (e.g., Eph 6:5; Col 3:22; Titus 2:9-10), but he also frequently commands masters to elevate slaves to treatment expected of brothers (Eph 6:9; Col 4:1). There is no corresponding command to masters in 1 Peter. The second passage is found in 1 Peter 3:1-6, in which Peter commands wives to submit to their husbands, even those who are not believers. These faithful women should look to Sarah who “obeyed Abraham, calling him lord” (v. 6).
What should believers make of Peter’s instructions? Should we chalk it up to “the way things were back then”? We must note the similarity, distinctions, and context of these two passages in 1 Peter. Both passages encourage submission in “reverence” (from Greek phobos, at least somewhat connoting “fear”). Both passages consider a situation in which a believer is under the authority of an unbeliever. However, the distinctions between the two passages are not to be overlooked. While the command to slaves recognizes the sad but real possibility of being beaten (2:20), Peter says nothing condoning violence toward a woman by her unbelieving husband. In fact, two particular elements of the passage seem to imply the opposite: 1. The reference to Sarah calling Abraham “lord” seems to come from Gen 18:12, which depicts a genuine meekness about Sarah and not a forceful dominance by Abraham. 2. Peter commands believing husbands to recognize their physiological advantage and covenantal headship of their wives and leverage this strength to “[show] them honor as coheirs of the grace of life” (3:7).
Additionally, the calling to “reverence” in both passages seems to tie back to the broader exhortation in 2:13-17: the “elect exiles” to whom Peter writes were prone to experience persecution from unbelievers in authority, and they were called to submit “because of the Lord,” honoring everyone (from the lowest peasant to the Emperor himself)—but only fearing God. The “reverence” that slaves were to show even abusive masters and that wives were to show even unbelieving husbands was a reverence rooted in their worshipful fear of God. They were called to “submit as free people” because they were “God’s slaves” (2:16), to follow Jesus’ example, enduring unjust suffering for God’s glory (2:21). How could this path make any sense? Why should “those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing what is good” (4:19)? Because He promises to someday establish justice and set all things right: “The God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, strengthen, and support you after you have suffered a little while. To him be dominion forever. Amen” (5:10-11).
The ‘Spirits in Prison,’ Noah’s Ark, and Salvation by Baptism?
One particular passage of 1 Peter combines a number of puzzling concepts: 1 Peter 3:18-22. Martin Luther’s assessment is understandable: “A wonderful text is this, and a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament, so that I do not know for a certainty just what Peter means.” The passage starts simply enough, reveling in Christ’s death “for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous” (v. 18). Then things get difficult. Peter says that Jesus was “made alive by the Spirit, in which” he preached to “the spirits in prison” (v. 19). These “spirits” were “in the past… disobedient, when God patiently waited in the days of Noah while the ark was being prepared” (v. 20). This is the ark in which “eight people… were saved through water,” just as baptism “now saves” Christians (v. 21). We will consider the “spirits” first and then the question of baptism.
First, who are these “spirits,” how are they “in prison,” and when and how did Jesus “preach” to them? There are basically three views. The first view, notably held by Augustine, have explained the situation like this: Noah preached to the lost world around him, spiritually “in prison” because of sin, and this preaching was empowered by the Holy Spirit, and in that way the preaching was “Jesus’ preaching.” However, the passage refers to Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, so it makes little sense that Peter would interrupt to talk about something that Jesus “did” before those events. Additionally, a reference to “spirits” (Greek pneumata) in the plural nearly always refers to angelic rather than human beings. One point in favor of this view, however, is that it emphasizes Noah’s patient suffering before his deliverance, which is a major theme of 1 Peter.
The second view sees the “spirits in prison” as either wicked people who died before Christ getting a second chance at repentance, or Old Testament saints who had been faithfully awaiting the Messiah and the coming resurrection. The first variation, a second chance at repentance, makes very little sense in light of the rest of Scripture, especially Hebrews 9:27, which teaches us that judgment comes after death. The second variation is far more plausible. Though held in Sheol (specifically, “Abraham’s Bosom,” c.f. Luke 16:22), these righteous ones were greeted by the crucified and buried Jesus, who descended to the place of the dead to proclaim the Good News of their liberation and bring them with Him to heaven in His ascension. While this idea seems foreign to us, it has been held by many throughout church history and seems to fit with much of the Old Testament’s description of death and the New Testament’s testimony of Jesus’ work.
The third view takes the “spirits in prison” to be fallen angels held in the underworld after committing some sin. This story may seem foreign, but it apparently attested in a number of places in Scripture. These would be the same “sons of God” who had relations with the “daughters of men” in Gen 6:2, which is presumably the same group Peter speaks of in 2 Peter 2:4: “…God didn’t spare the angels who sinned but cast them into hell, and delivered them in chains of utter darkness to be kept for judgment.” Jude also speaks of these fallen angels as “the angels who did not keep their own position but abandoned their proper dwelling, [whom] he has kept in eternal chains in deep darkness for the judgment on the great day” (Jude 6). In this case, Jesus’ preaching is not an altar call but a battle chant, a proclamation of His victory over the powers of darkness as He rescues His own (this is where the second and third views overlap somewhat). This view fits well with Peter’s conclusion: Though He descended to the place of the dead, Jesus is now “at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him” (v. 22).
Any of the three views can make some sense, and each exegete will need to discern which is most convincing to him or her. But what about baptism? Does it really “save”?
After all his emphasis on the atoning work of Jesus, can Peter really be saying that the act of baptism saves believers? Yes and no. More clear passages affirm that there are no works or rituals that can justify (e.g., Rom 11:6). However, we should not easily dismiss the plain reading of this text. We need to understand Peter’s intent in his context. He has already said that those on Noah’s ark were “saved through water” (v. 20). We should not that they were saved by the ark from the water. The water is not the instrument of salvation but the danger from which they were saved. Peter draws a comparison to baptism, which saves “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (v. 21) from the “flood of wild living” (4:4) that we all once experienced. So, baptism, like the ark, is a symbol of God’s grace, but unlike the ark, is not the instrument of God’s grace. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the instrument, symbolized by baptism. This is precisely what Peter clarifies: baptism is “not… the removal of dirt from the body, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God” through faith in the work of Jesus (v. 21). Like the thief on the cross, who was never baptized, and like many believers who never receive biblical baptism, the grace of God through the work of Christ received by faith is what saves.
Key Themes and Motifs
Suffering then Glory: Peter encourages believers that suffering is normal for them, just as it was for Christ (3:18). However, they are also promised eternal glory with Him: “…rejoice as you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may also rejoice with great joy when his glory is revealed” (4:13). This theme of suffering-then-glory empowers endurance and faith, as Peter summarizes in 4:19: “So then, let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator while doing what is good.”
Elect Exiles: Closely tied to the theme of suffering-then-glory is the designation of the Church as “elect exiles.” The letter is addressed to “those chosen [elect], living as exiles” (1:1). When ancient Israel was exiled, it was for their unfaithfulness to the Lord. But the faithful also experienced the sufferings of displacement. This letter identifies the Gentile Christians as God’s new covenant people who receive the titles and honors that His old covenant people were given: “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his possession” (2:9). If their sufferings made them question their status, they should never do so again. Christians follow Christ who “also suffered for [us], leaving [us] an example” (2:21). In fact, God has brought these trials to prove their character, “refined by fire,” leading to “praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:7). Thus, Christians, “as strangers and exiles,” should “abstain from sinful desires that wage war against” our souls (2:11).
Elders, Shepherds, and Overseers: Peter provides one of the most poignant passages detailing the roles and rewards of pastoral ministry in 1 Peter 5:1-9. This passage uses the language of “elder,” “shepherd/pastor,” and “oversee” to describe the one pastoral office. These gifted and godly men are to serve as “examples to the flock” (5:3). They are undershepherds, associate pastors to the one Senior Pastor of every church, the Lord Jesus. Pastors and their church members should both “clothe [themselves] with humility toward one another” (5:5), because God will reward them (5:6) and because the devil wants to divide them (5:8). If pastoral ministry brings suffering, pastors should remember the reward promised to them for faithful ministry (5:4) and guaranteed in Christ to all His sheep, undershepherds included (5:10).
Helpful Commentaries and Resources
Thomas Schreiner, 1 & 2 Peter and Jude in The Christian Standard Commentary from B&H Academic: Dr. Schreiner is a scholar and churchman par excellence. He handles difficult exegetical and technical issues with precision and yet keeps his eye on the ball of Christian living and theology. Schreiner’s work includes more than just 1 Peter (as many commentaries on 1 Peter do), but all three sections are worth having.
Karen Jobes, 1 Peter in The Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (BECNT) from Baker Academic. Dr. Jobes is a masterful interpreter of Scripture who continually brings Peter’s intentions to mind in light of his audience. Dr. Jobes builds her understanding of 1 Peter around the idea that the “elect exiles” were actually physically displaced in the Roman Empire, which only causes the theme of exile to hit home harder.
Joel Green, 1 Peter in The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary from Eerdmans: Dr. Green’s work is part of the fascinating Two Horizons series, which seeks to first interpret Scripture in its context and then clearly lay out the theological message and motifs of the text in an intelligible way. Because the theological message of the text is so important to the task of preaching (and the purpose of Scripture!), this entry from Dr. Green is a worthy addition to the serious expositor’s shelf.
How to Preach Christ from 1 Peter
The incarnate work of Christ was first suffering, then glory (1 Peter 1:11). This pattern is foundational to all of 1 Peter. We see this pattern of suffering-then-glory applied three particular ways in the book:
- This pattern was “testified in advance” by the Old Testament prophets (1:10-11), though they did not see its fulfillment. That fulfillment has dawned in the New Covenant era, the age of the Church. The prophets “were not serving themselves” but Christians, and so the Old Testament ought to be read as if it only makes sense in light of the work of Christ and applied to the Christian life. The “word of the Lord” that “endures forever,” just as Isaiah had promised, “is the gospel that was proclaimed to [us]” (1:25).
- This pattern is the general “life plan” for all Christians. We presently “suffer grief” for “a short time” (1:6), but there is “an inheritance… kept in heaven” for us (1:4). So, we follow Jesus, our example in suffering (2:21). This does not mean Jesus’ suffering was a mere example; He “bore our sins” (2:24) and “suffered for sins once for all” (3:18), atoning for us as a substitute. Yet He calls Christians to take up their crosses and “suffer for doing good” (3:17). We will “share in the sufferings of Christ” and “also rejoice with great joy when his glory is revealed” (4:13).
- This is the overall pattern of this age between Christ’s first and second comings. Though persecution does not affect all Christians at all times equally in the world and throughout history, it comes for us more often than not. Even when persecution does not come through human institutions (3:13-14, 18, 4:1), in this age we are opposed by “the devil… a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour” (4:8). We must “resist him, firm in the faith, knowing tha the same kind of sufferings are being experienced by [our] fellow believers throughout the world” (4:9).
So, sermons from 1 Peter (and all of Scripture) should recognize several realities:
- All God’s blessings are already ours in Christ but not yet fully experienced until Christ returns. We should not overpromise blessings in this age, though we do glimpse them by God’s grace.
- Jesus’ example empowers us to obedience because His blood provided the Spirit. If we could obey in our strength, Jesus would never have needed to die as “the righteous for the unrighteous” (3:18). So, preaching 1 Peter’s commands must be grounded in the power of God by His Spirit as we reflect on Christ’s unique atoning work.
- Even though we have not yet experienced God’s final deliverance at Christ’s return, Jesus is already better than worldly power and pleasure. We do not joylessly deny ourselves ought of mere obligation; we “submit as free people” (2:16). We serve “from the strength God provides, so that God may be glorified through Jesus Christ in everything” (4:11).
Why You Should Consider Preaching or Teaching 1 Peter
Do the believers in your church feel like “elect exiles”? Do they struggle to see the value of submission to unbelieving government officials? Are they discouraged and downtrodden? Are they suffering under the hand of difficult leadership at work or home? Do they view worldly power as the avenue to God’s blessings? Do they idolize those who seem to be ‘doing well for themselves’? Do they resist godly leadership or wish their pastors were more authoritarian? Do they view the “flood of wild living” as a lazy river of delight? Jesus’ glory came on the other side of suffering. This pattern, suffering-then-glory, is the pattern prophesied by the Old Testament, fulfilled in Jesus, and experienced by every Christian until Christ returns. If you want your people to joyfully submit to God and serve those around them with humility, resisting sin and clinging to Christ, encouraged toward endurance all the way to their earthly end, consider preaching or teaching 1 Peter.
 Martin Luther, Commentary on Peter & Jude, 166; as quoted by Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, in The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 184-5.
 For an excellent and understandable overview of the various views here and a sensible solution, see Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, 184-90.