[Texts: Epistles; 1 Peter]
If I had to sum up the job description of the writers of the Epistles, I would put their purpose and goal like this:
Providing perspective that promotes persevering performance.
This is essentially what Bible teachers mean when they distinguish between the “doctrine and theology” sections and the “practical instruction” parts of a letter, or when they tell you things like, “The indicative precedes the imperative!” What they’re trying to get across is that the writers’ statements about God’s reality (the indicatives) are the ground and motivation for whatever commands (or imperatives) are addressed to the readers. As Christians, we act on the biblical marching orders when (and because) we believe the true doctrine.
Besides the fact that my phrase employs a nicely mnemonic alliteration, I like it because it closely reflects the nature of persuasive letter-writing, rather than academic textbook-production. Paul and Peter and the other writers weren’t producing systematic theologies; they were writing to individuals and communities that they cared about. Even Paul’s letter to the Romans, written to people he didn’t know personally, retains that down-to-earth sense amid all the theologizing. Real minds and lives were at stake there in Rome, and Paul’s concern for the renewal of those minds motivated him to provide a thorough theological perspective to promote the persevering performance of these believers.
Granted, each Epistle was written with a different purpose, reflecting the relationship of the writer to the readers and the specific needs of that community at the time of writing. Some letters berate (or praise!) more than instruct, others spend more words on itinerary than imperatives. But in every case, the writer is concerned both for the readers’ understanding of God’s truth and that they will continue to walk in a worthy way, in light of that truth. And in some of the Epistles, including 1 Peter and Philippians, these two concerns are especially evident. I’ll offer some observations from 1 Peter here, and save Philippians for the next post.
Peter’s first letter, written to unknown recipients living in Asia Minor, continually stresses the necessity of a proper perspective for the facing of persecution with faithful resolve. Statements about the believers’ state of mind are peppered through the letter:
“Therefore, girding up the loins of your mind, and being sober-minded…”
“Have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.”
“…in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…”
“Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking…”
“…be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.”
“Be sober-minded, be watchful.”
Peter’s letter is itself a tutorial in “the reason for the hope that they have,” as he walks his readers through what Christ has accomplished for them, and who they are because of Jesus’ victory. Not just self-controlled and sober minds, but informed minds are necessary in order to endure the fiery trials without feeling surprised (“as though something strange were happening to you”). So Peter offers large doses of perspective:
“He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus!”
“You’re being guarded by God’s power!”
“You’ve been born again of imperishable seed through the word of God!”
“You’re a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession!”
“If when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.”
And Peter is clear that endurance, in God’s scheme of things, isn’t just about grimly hanging on through the white-water rapids of life, caring only for your own survival. The perspective that he shares is meant to motivate towards the persevering performance of “loving one another earnestly, from a pure heart,” shepherding the flock of God “not for shameful gain, but eagerly,” and maintaining honorable conduct in the eyes of outsiders.
Above all, Peter hopes to motivate his readers to “entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good,” following in the steps of their chief Example, Jesus. Reaching for such a high goal is possible only for those whose minds are prepared for action, armed with a God’s-eye view of circumstances. If his words succeed in their mission, then Peter will have faithfully lived up to his job description – providing perspective that promotes persevering performance.
Biblical quotations taken from the ESV, though some are paraphrased.
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