The letters of the Apostle Saint Peter

The first letter of the Apostle Saint Peter that is preserved in our New Testament was addressed to Christians of Asia Minor, now often called ‘Turkey.’ As we can see from the map just below, in Greek times, Pontus and Bithynia were on the north, sitting on the Black Sea, Galatia was the great central area, Cappadocia was on the south-east and Pisidia was west central and south-west. The west of the land-mass was simply called Asia, to distinguish it from Europa, which began across the Bosphorus, the strait connecting the Black Sea with the Mediterranean. Great churches dotted this great land, many of them claiming their origin in the missionary work of early Saints like Saint Paul himself. Some people today seem to doubt that the Peter who wrote these two letters was the Apostle himself, who is called the first bishop of both Antioch (which can be seen on the lower right of the map), and of the mother city of Rome itself and, through his commission from Christ, the prince of the Apostles and the point of unity of the Church. But far greater men than I have accepted this to be the work of the Apostle and I have no problems with the idea. So, onwards!

This letter is absolutely full of gold, and much of it is familiar to those of us who pay attention to the liturgy of the Church, both Holy Mass and the Divine Office of prayer, which are peppered with references to the two letters of Peter that we have. First, there’s the idea of impending tribulations and sufferings to be borne, but to those who persevere the reward and inheritance will be worth it:

“We are to share an inheritance that is incorruptible, inviolable, unfading. It is stored up for you in heaven; and meanwhile, through your faith, the power of God affords you safe conduct till you reach it, this salvation which is waiting to be disclosed at the end of time. Then you will be triumphant. What if you have trials of many sorts to sadden your hearts in this brief interval? That must needs happen, so that you may give proof of your faith, a much more precious thing than the gold we test by fire; proof which will bring you praise, and glory, and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.”

I Peter, 1: 4-7

The Christian theology of suffering takes shape in this early period of the Church, because of the immense persecution coming not only from the Jewish authorities in the Holy Land, but in waves high and low from the Roman authorities. All this Christ had predicted, and the promise of a reward beyond this world is His, but the Apostles and bishops were strong in their preaching and in their ongoing support of the people, going themselves with the people to trial, torture and execution. They were tested by fire, all together and shine down like gold through the smoke of history. This salvation, this glory beyond the present world, was what the prophets were tirelessly preaching; they were not talking about the endless and tiresome prattling and warfare for possession of the Holy Land that continues today. Oh, no. This world will pass away. What will remain?

“Salvation was the aim and quest of the prophets, and the grace of which they prophesied has been reserved for you. The Spirit of Christ was in them, making known to them the sufferings which Christ’s cause brings with it, and the glory that crowns them; when was it to be, and how was the time of it to be recognized? It was revealed to them that their errand was not to their own age, it was to you. And now the angels can satisfy their eager gaze; the Holy Spirit has been sent from heaven, and your evangelists have made the whole mystery plain, to you instead. Rid your minds, then, of every encumbrance, keep full mastery of your senses, and set your hopes on the gracious gift that is offered you when Jesus Christ appears. Obedience should be native to you now; you must not retain the mould of your former untutored appetites. No, it is a holy God Who has called you, and you too must be holy in all the ordering of your lives; You must be holy, the scripture says, because I am holy.

I Peter, 1: 10-16

That last bit is from the eleventh chapter of Leviticus, but remember that Christ also said that we should be perfect, as God the Father is perfect (end of the Gospel of S. Matthew, chapter five). All things are indeed passing away, all flesh is as grass: here today, gone tomorrow. What remains is charity. Another name for which is love.

Purify your souls with the discipline of charity, and give constant proof of your good will for each other, loving unaffectedly as brethren should, since you have all been born anew with an immortal, imperishable birth, through the word of God who lives and abides for ever. Yes, all mortal things are like grass, and all their glory like the bloom of grass; the grass withers, and its bloom falls, but the word of the Lord lasts for ever. And this word is nothing other than the gospel which has been preached to you.”

I Peter, 1: 22-25

And then, there’s a little ecclesiology (church science), where the Apostle says that we are a priestly nation, a holy nation, living stones, built upon a foundation stone once rejected, but from whom we inherit through baptism our being a royal priesthood, a people of God, desired by him, called out of the darkness of the world that surrounds us!

“Draw near to Him; He is the living antitype of that stone which men rejected, which God has chosen and prized; you too must be built up on Him, stones that live and breathe, into a spiritual fabric; you must be a holy priesthood, to offer up that spiritual sacrifice which God accepts through Jesus Christ. So you will find in scripture the words, ‘Behold, I am setting down in Sion a corner-stone, chosen out and precious; those who believe in him will not be disappointed.‘ Prized, then, by you, the believers, he is something other to those who refuse belief; the stone which the builders rejected has become the chief stone at the corner, a stone to trip men’s feet, a boulder they stumble against. They stumble over God’s word, and refuse it belief; it is their destiny. Not so you; you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people God means to have for himself; it is yours to proclaim the exploits of the God who has called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.

I Peter, 2: 4-9

Now we see what it means for Christians to each have a priestly role: it is in offering that spiritual sacrifice, a personal offering of praise and thanksgiving, which is acceptable to God through Christ. Christ alone makes the offering acceptable, which gives the Church something rather exclusive in this world – a chosen race, a consecrated nation, etc. The Apostle accepts the social situation in his time, which included the subjection of some people to others, as something that is yet beyond the Church’s ability to oppose and change, but speaks of the benefits of suffering in subjection, for all suffering is redemptive when offered up to God in prayer. 

“Give all men their due; to the brethren, your love; to God, your reverence; to the king, due honour. You who are slaves must be submissive to your masters, and shew all respect, not only to those who are kind and considerate, but to those who are hard to please. It does a man credit when he bears undeserved ill treatment with the thought of God in his heart. If you do wrong and are punished for it, your patience is nothing to boast of; it is the patience of the innocent sufferer that wins credit in God’s sight.

I Peter, 2: 17-20

And the suffering of Christ is itself a model for that patient suffering Peter expects of the Church. Part of this message includes wives, especially of non-Christian husbands, who must bring about a change in the hearts of their husbands through lives of virtue.

“You, too, who are wives must be submissive to your husbands. Some of these still refuse credence to the word; it is for their wives to win them over, not by word but by example; by the modesty and reverence they observe in your demeanour. Your beauty must lie, not in braided hair, not in gold trinkets, not in the dress you wear, but in the hidden features of your hearts, in a possession you can never lose, that of a calm and tranquil spirit; to God’s eyes, beyond price.”

I Peter, 3: 1-4

The rest of chapter three is a counsel for virtuous living and encouragement towards suffering on account of virtue, being prepared always to give account of our hope in eternal life, the reason why we are prepared to suffer loss in this world. Christ is again the model for this. 

“On the upright, the Lord’s eye ever looks favourably; His ears are open to their pleading. Perilous is His frown for the wrong-doers. And who is to do you wrong, if only what is good inspires your ambitions? If, after all, you should have to suffer in the cause of right, yours is a blessed lot. Do not be afraid or disturbed at their threats; enthrone Christ as Lord in your hearts. If anyone asks you to give an account of the hope which you cherish, be ready at all times to answer for it, but courteously and with due reverence. What matters is that you should have a clear conscience; so the defamers of your holy life in Christ will be disappointed in their calumny. It may be God’s will that we should suffer for doing right; better that, than for doing wrong.”

I Peter, 3:12-17

There’s some nice advice about charity in chapter four, such as the wonderful Charity draws the veil over a multitude of sins, and the ungrudging sharing of possessions, where possible. All the acts of mercy and charity of the Church are given opportunity by God Himself, and the performance of these works gives glory to God.

“The end of all things is close at hand; live wisely, and keep your senses awake to greet the hours of prayer. Above all things, preserve constant charity among yourselves; charity draws the veil over a multitude of sins. Make one another free of what is yours ungrudgingly, sharing with all whatever gift each of you has received, as befits the stewards of a God so rich in graces. One of you preaches, let him remember that it is God’s message he is uttering; another distributes relief, let him remember that it is God who supplies him the opportunity; that so, in all you do, God may be glorified through Jesus Christ; to him be the glory and the power through endless ages, Amen.”

I Peter, 4: 7-11

The final chapter of this fine letter is first a charge to the priests of the pronvinces of Asia Minor, that they should be shepherds worthy of the Prince of shepherds. The younger priests to respect the older:

Be shepherds to the flock God has given you. Carry out your charge as God would have it done, cordially, not like drudges, generously, not in the hope of sordid gain; not tyrannizing, each in his own sphere, but setting an example, as best you may, to the flock. So, when the Prince of shepherds makes Himself known, your prize will be that crown of glory which cannot fade. And you, who are young, must defer to these, your seniors. Deference to one another is the livery you must all wear; God thwarts the proud, and keeps his grace for the humble.”

I Peter, 5: 2-5

And that famous counsel about temptation that we hear often in the Sacred Liturgy:

Be sober, and watch well; the devil, who is your enemy, goes about roaring like a lion, to find his prey, but you, grounded in the faith, must face him boldly…

I Peter, 5: 8-9

The whole was probably given at Rome, which was often referred to by early Christians as Babylon in its pagan turmoil. He speaks of Saint Mark, the evangelist, who was his assistant for a long time in Rome, before travelling to Alexandria to erect the Coptic Church there. And I shall end with the end of this letter which speaks of pagan Rome as ‘Babylon,’ because the Romans persecuted the Christians as the neo-Babylonians had some six hundred years ago persecuted the Jews:

The Church here in Babylon, united with you by God’s election, sends you her greeting; so does my son, Mark. Greet one another with the kiss of fellowship. Grace be to all of you, friends in Christ Jesus. Amen.

I Peter, 5: 13-14

In the second letter of the Apostle Saint Peter, sent much later in his ministry as bishop of Rome, he hints at his upcoming death. The Apostle here demonstrates a high theology of grace, the benefit on the Church of her embracing the God-Man, whose humanity is the channel for all of us of the immense bounty of God’s grace, which manifests in us a life of virtue:

“See how all the gifts that make for life and holiness in us belong to His divine power; come to us through fuller knowledge of Him, whose own glory and sovereignty have drawn us to Himself! Through Him God has bestowed on us high and treasured promises; you are to share the divine nature, with the world’s corruption, the world’s passions, left behind. And you too have to contribute every effort on your own part, crowning your faith with virtue, and virtue with enlightenment, and enlightenment with continence, and continence with endurance, and endurance with holiness, and holiness with brotherly love, and brotherly love with charity.”

II Peter, 1: 3-7

The graces we receive and the virtues they produce in turn enable us to grow in our knowledge of Christ and of God. The first part of the letter is therefore a rousing call to the life of virtue. Very touching here, as the Apostle speaks of his life now coming to an end, is his memory of the glory of Christ, that he and the two sons of Zebedee had witnessed on the mountain at the Transfiguration. This is the voice of the Apostles as witnesses, when they tell us what they saw and heard and that we cannot see and hear ourselves.

“We were not crediting fables of man’s invention, when we preached to you about the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, and about His coming; we had been eye-witnesses of His exaltation. Such honour, such glory was bestowed on Him by God the Father, that a voice came to Him out of the splendour which dazzles human eyes; ‘This,’ it said, ‘is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; to Him, then, listen.’ We, His companions on the holy mountain, heard that voice coming from heaven, and now the word of the prophets gives us more confidence than ever. It is with good reason that you are paying so much attention to that word; it will go on shining, like a lamp in some darkened room, until the dawn breaks, and the day-star rises in your hearts.”

II Peter, 1: 16-19

Yes, indeed, the Apostolic account of the Transfiguration is one of the most memorable accounts in the Gospels. Following this claim of true Apostolic witness, the Apostle reminds us that there exists false witness as well, men who claim to know more about Christ than His own Apostles. We’re all too familiar with people today who claim to know better than Holy Church what Christ would think about this, that and the other. Thus, the Apostle says:

“So, among you, there will be false teachers, covertly introducing pernicious ways of thought, and denying the Master who redeemed them, to their own speedy undoing. Many will embrace their wanton creeds, and bring the way of truth into disrepute, trading on your credulity with lying stories for their own ends. Long since, the warrant for their doom is in full vigour; destruction is on the watch for them. God did not spare the angels who fell into sin; he thrust them down to hell, chained them there in the abyss, to await their sentence in torment.”

II Peter, 2: 1-4

God allows even His angels to rebel against him and their punishment is instantaneous. What then of the men who dare the same type of rebellion? Or try to justify sinful lifestyles, while sneering at the teaching of the Church, which they do not understand.

“Such men, like dumb creatures that are born to be trapped and destroyed, sneer at what they cannot understand, and will soon perish in their own corruption; they will have the reward their wickedness has deserved. To live in luxury while the day lasts is all their pleasure; what a stain they are, what a disfigurement, when they revel in the luxury of their own banquets, as they fare sumptuously at your side! Their eyes feast on adultery, insatiable of sin; and they know how to win wavering souls to their purpose, so skilled is all their accursed brood at gaining its own ends.

II Peter, 2: 12-14

The Apostle is speaking here not generally about worldly men, but particularly about Christians who, having been baptised, have fallen back upon their old lives. Here’s some language that we would be less likely than Saint Peter to use of Catholics who have fallen away from the Faith:

“That they should have been rescued, by acknowledging our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, from the world’s pollution, and then been entangled and overpowered by it a second time, means that their last state is worse than the first. Better for them, never to have found their way to justification, than to have found it, and then turned their backs on the holy law once handed down to them. What has happened to them proves the truth of the proverb, The dog is back at his own vomit again. Wash the sow, and you find her wallowing in the mire.”

II Peter, 2: 20-22

The use of the words ‘their last state is worse than the first’ takes us back to the horrifying picture Christ Himself drew of the exorcised soul that was re-inhabited by the devil that had once possessed it and by some of his fellows to boot.

“The unclean spirit, which has possessed a man and then goes out of him, walks about the desert looking for a resting-place, and finds none; and it says, I will go back to my own dwelling, from which I came out. And it comes back, to find that dwelling empty, and swept out, and neatly set in order. Thereupon, it goes away, and brings in seven other spirits more wicked than itself to bear it company, and together they enter in and settle down there; so that the last state of that man is worse than the first.

Gospel of S. Matthew, 12: 43-45

At the end, the Apostle deals with the accusation that the Church does not know the exact moment of the return of Christ, and the associated mockery. He states that time means nothing to God, and suggests perhaps that the question of when and how should not concern us as much as should the certainty of the arrival of that dreadful Day of the Lord and the perfection that we should struggle to acquire in the waiting.

“But one thing, beloved, you must keep in mind, that with the Lord a day counts as a thousand years, and a thousand years count as a day. The Lord is not being dilatory over His promise, as some think; He is only giving you more time, because His will is that all of you should attain repentance, not that some should be lost. But the day of the Lord is coming, and when it comes, it will be upon you like a thief. The heavens will vanish in a whirlwind, the elements will be scorched up and dissolve, earth, and all earth’s achievements, will burn away. All so transitory; and what men you ought to be! How unworldly in your life, how reverent towards God, as you wait, and wait eagerly, for the day of the Lord to come, for the heavens to shrivel up in fire, and the elements to melt in its heat!

II Peter, 3: 8-12

And there I might end. The letter is a call to virtue and to adherence to the Church, and so to work towards acquiring the promises made to her by Christ. May the holy Apostle S. Peter pray for us.

Giuseppe Cesari, Madonna and Child with Sts. Peter and Paul (1608-09)
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