April/May 2013 - Vol. 67

New Birth into a Living Hope 
(1 Peter 1:3–9)

by Dr. Daniel A. Keating

The following brief commentary from the First Letter of Peter, Chapter 1 is excerpted from the book, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: 1 Peter, 2 Peter, and Jude, by Dr. Daniel Keating, published by Baker Academic, 2011. While it was written from a Roman Catholic perspective, the material can be beneficial for Christians from other traditions as well. Dr. Keating explains the aim of his commentary in the introduction to 1 Peter: “The First Letter of Peter is a hidden gem, tucked away among the catholic epistles, just waiting to be discovered. Overshadowed by the longer and weightier letters of Paul, 1 Peter has often been neglected or undervalued. My aim in this commentary is to aid the reader in discovering the riches of this letter, in the hope that he or she may hear its proclamation of the gospel anew and follow the call to suffer joyfully with Christ.” – ed.
Opening blessing and proclamation

The opening blessing of 1 Peter is one of the most inspiring passages in the New Testament. Even in English translation, the powerful language and dynamic movement of the text are striking. Just as in verse 2, Peter offers his blessing in terms of the activity of the Father (vv. 3–5), the Son (vv. 3, 7–8), and the Spirit (vv. 10–12). The blessing is at one and the same time an offering of praise to God for his works and a proclamation of God’s works. It is both a prayer and a proclamation, announcing key themes that Peter will unfold in the remainder of the letter.

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you 5 who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith, to a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the final time. 6 In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, 7so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8Although you have not seen him you love him; even though you do not see him now yet believe in him, you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9as you attain the goal of [your] faith, the salvation of your souls.

OT references: Exodus 20:6; 34:7; Proverbs 17:3; Sirach 2:5 
NT references: Matthew 25:21; John 20:29; 2 Cor inthians 4:17

v. 3:  Peter opens with a Jewish prayer form called a berakah (Hebrew for “blessing”), Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, offering praise to God the Father, the source of mercy, for the benefits Christians have received.23 It was precisely God’s mercy that was the basis for his covenants with Moses and David.24

By speaking of God’s mercy as the basis for the blessings received in Christ in the New Covenant, Peter strongly indicates continuity with the action of God in the Old Covenant.

Peter gives praise to God the Father for two specific benefits. The first is a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. God the Father has given us a new birth25 through the resurrection of Jesus. Why the link between our new birth and Christ’s resurrection? Because the resurrection of Christ is the cause and source of our new birth into God’s people and household. This is why baptism was normally celebrated in the early Church at Easter, the feast of the resurrection.

Peter speaks of a living hope, a theme that recurs throughout the letter (1:13, 21; 3:5, 15). This hope refers to the object of our hope, namely, the full inheritance (v. 4) that we will receive when Jesus Christ comes again (vv. 5, 7). It is a living hope because Jesus Christ himself is alive, and we have come to life in him. As Peter says in 2:2, we are like newborn babes, drinking pure spiritual milk, so that we “may grow into salvation”: this is our living hope.

vv. 4–5:  The second benefit is an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. The triad of adjectives powerfully conveys the security of our inheritance in Christ.26 Whereas all earthly treasure is subject to decay, Peter assures us that we have an inheritance – eternal life in heaven – that cannot perish, that has no stain or defect, and that will never lose its glory. Why? Because it is kept in heaven for us by God himself, where no moth and rust consume (Matthew 6:20).

Peter gives further assurance that even in this life we are safeguarded through faith by the power of God, so we should not be afraid. It is not only our future inheritance in heaven that is secure. Even now on earth we ourselves are safeguarded through our faith in Christ, safeguarded, that is, for a salvation that is ready to be revealed. Peter is referring here to the second coming of Christ (see v. 7). “Salvation” is the general term in 1 Peter that sums up all that we receive in Christ. In some cases it refers to our present status in Christ that comes through faith and baptism (3:21), but here it points to our future destiny that will be ours when Christ returns (see also 1:9, 10; 2:2). For Peter, our salvation is both present and future; it is something that we have already entered into through faith and baptism but that will be completed only when Christ comes again. 

The final time refers to Christ’s return and the end of the world. “Final,” or “last,” translates the Greek eschatos, from which we derive eschatology, the account of the last things that will occur when Christ comes again. “Time” translates kairos, a word that often means God’s timely intervention according to his plan. In 1 Peter, kairos clearly carries this sense (see 1:11; 4:17; 5:6); it refers to God’s providential time when he will act. The “final time,” then, is that moment in human history when God will intervene decisively through the return of Christ and bring our salvation to completion.

Reflection and application 

Peter tells us further (1:23) that we have been “born anew, not from perishable seed but from imperishable seed, through the living and abiding word of God.” What does this mean? The logic is this. Every kind of seed produces something of its own kind. Grass seed produces grass. Human seed produces humans. In an analogical way, divine seed, the Word of God, produces a new birth that brings about the fruits of divine life in us. This rebirth is a remarkable thing: it is what makes us capable of being holy, of loving one another, and of enduring suffering for Christ’s sake. But we have to nourish and cultivate this seed, so that it might bear all the fruits of God’s life in us.

Joy in the midst of suffering

vv. 6–7:  Peter now introduces a profound paradox: the presence of inexpressible joy in the midst of suffering. He says first that we rejoice in this living hope, which is our salvation, present and future. Who would not rejoice? But then he tells us that now we must be ready to suffer through various trials, even if only for a little while. This echoes Paul’s reference to the “momentary light affliction” that is preparing us for “an eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17).

Using a metaphor found frequently in the Old Testament (Job 23:10; Proverbs 17:3; Wisdom 3:5–7; Zech 13:9), Peter compares the testing of our faith to the purification of gold by fire. The sentence structure is difficult to follow, but the point of the comparison is perfectly clear. If gold, the most precious of earthly substances, requires purification, how much more does our faith – more precious than any earthly gold – benefit from the purifying fire of our trials. “For in fire gold is tested, and worthy men in the crucible of humiliation” (Sirach 2:5).

The term genuineness is difficult to capture in one English word. It really means “the genuine quality produced through testing.” The point is this: through various trials faith is made more pure, just as gold in the fire. When Jesus is revealed in his coming again, all these trials will result in praise, glory, and honor for those who have endured faithfully. They will hear the Lord say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).

vv. 8–9:  Peter knows that the Christians he is addressing have not seen Jesus with their own eyes. Nonetheless, he reminds them that despite not seeing him, they came to love him. And though they do not see him in the present time either, yet they continue to believe in him. As Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (John 20:29). Faith and love are not dependent on seeing the risen Lord with our eyes.

More than this, Peter says that they rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy in the present time. Despite serious trials, the living hope they have in Christ brings profound joy. This is not the stoic, cheerless attitude sometimes ascribed to Christians, but rather the deep joy that comes from already possessing a foretaste of our heavenly inheritance. And it is joy that has the upper hand here. Structurally, Peter surrounds the promise of suffering (vv. 6b–7) with joy on either side (vv. 6a and 8). Suffering and trial are fenced in, so to speak, by the overwhelming reality of the great joy that is ours even now in Christ.

Even though Christ is not yet seen, they attain the goal of their faith, which is the salvation of their souls. The verb is best rendered by the English present progressive tense: they are attaining the goal of their faith, even as they move toward that final goal. And the goal is salvation, the full inheritance that will be ours when Christ returns again. But what does Peter mean when he says “the salvation of your souls”? “Soul” here should not be understood in contrast to the body, as if only the spiritual part of us will be saved at the last day. To the contrary, “soul” represents the inner and essential life of a human being but does not exclude the body. The salvation of our souls is the salvation of our entire lives, including our resurrected bodies.

Reflection and application 

How can joy coexist with suffering? In the natural order of things, joy and happiness are equated with the absence of suffering. When suffering arrives, sadness and grief naturally follow. Is Peter then being incoherent when he speaks in one breath of “indescribable and glorious joy” and the suffering of “various trials”? No, not if we take into account the power of the gospel. Only through the gospel can we experience true joy in the midst of suffering. Since we have a “new birth” and a “living hope” within us, the trials of life need not quench our joy. Saint Francis of Assisi is a remarkable example of this. He experienced what he called “perfect joy” right in the middle of his most intense trials.

Peter is simply recasting here what Jesus said to his disciples: “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven” (Luke 6:22–23). Knowing profound joy even in the midst of genuine suffering is a mark of the disciples of Jesus; it shows that we possess more than transient enthusiasm. Even though we haven’t seen the risen Jesus with our eyes, we do have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, and so we can “rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.” As we experience and display this paradoxical joy in the midst of trials, we give witness to those around us that the gospel gives power to engage and overcome the sufferings of the world.

23 The berakah is the standard form for Jewish blessings. For examples in both the Old Testament and New Testament, see Gen 14:20; 1 Sam 25:32; Ezra 7:27; Ps 31:21; Dan 3:28; Luke 1:68; 2 Cor 1:3; Eph 1:3.
24 See Exod 20:6; 34:7; Deut 5:10; 2 Sam 7:15; Ps 89:28.
25 The ESV translates this “caused us to be born again,” whereas the RSV has “we have been born anew.” The verb here, “to give new birth” (anagennao), is unique to 1 Peter in the Bible (occurring here and in 1:23), but it is synonymous with the phrase in John 3:3, “to be born from above,” or “to be born again.”
26 In Greek, the three words display a delightful alliteration: aphtharton, amianton, amaranton.

Dr. Daniel A. Keating (Doctor of Philosophy, University of Oxford) is associate professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan, USA and an elder of The Servants of the Word, a lay missionary brotherhood of men living single for the Lord. 

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