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Simon Peter—“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the strangers” (1 Pet. 1:1).
Peter has been called the ignorant fisherman, but no man who had spent three years in the school of Jesus could be called ignorant. The Epistles of Peter confirm this. Peter deals with doctrine and handles weighty subjects. In the first few verses he deals with the great doctrines of election, foreknowledge, sanctification, obedience, the blood of Christ, the Trinity, the grace of God, salvation, revelation, glory, faith, and hope. My friend, you just couldn’t have any more doctrine crowded into a few verses! The way in which he handles these great themes of the Bible reveals that he was by no means an ignorant fisherman.
A great change is seen in the life of Peter from these epistles. He had been impetuous, but now he is patient. He was bungling, fumbling, and stumbling when he first met Jesus. Our Lord told him in effect,“You are a pretty weak man now, but I am going to make you a Petros, a rock–man. And you will be built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ who is the Rock.” Peter made it very clear that the Lord Jesus is the Rock on which the church is built. It is very interesting that although his name means “rock,” he says that all believers are little rocks also: “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house” (1 Pet. 2:5). In other words, he is saying that every believer is a Peter. Simon Peter never takes an exalted position, as we shall see in his epistles. As he opens his epistle, he calls himself an apostle—he is just one of them. Although whenever the names of the apostles were enumerated, his was always first on the list, and although the Lord chose him to preach the first sermon on the Day of Pentecost, he did not feel that he was exalted above the others.
Peter wrote his epistles after Paul had written his epistles, somewhere between A.D. 64 and 67, after bloody Nero had come to the throne and persecution was already breaking out. According to tradition, Peter himself suffered martyrdom.
“The church that is at Babylon, elected together with you, saluteth you; and so doth Marcus my son” (1 Pet. 5:13). There are those who think that Babylon is used here in a symbolic manner or in a metaphorical sense and that Peter really meant Rome. However, there is no reason for him to use it in a metaphorical sense. Peter was an apostle who did not write in a symbolic manner such as we find used by John in the Book of Revelation. Peter writes very literally and practically. He gets down to where the rubber meets the road, right down on the asphalt of life. I believe that if he had meant Rome, he would have said Rome.
My own opinion is that Simon Peter never did go to Rome. I think he was in Asia Minor, the great heart of the Roman Empire, but he was not the apostle who opened up that territory. I think he followed Paul. Paul would not have gone to Rome if Peter had already been in Rome preaching the gospel there, because Paul made it very clear that he went into places where the gospel had not been preached before. Since Rome was on Paul’s itinerary, it seems obvious that Paul, not Peter, founded the church at Rome.
Another very valid argument to indicate that Peter was in Babylon rather than Rome is based on the list of places which he addresses: “To the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Pet. 1:1). All those places are in Asia Minor (the area which is called Turkey today). In listing them, he moves from east to west. This suggests that the writer was in the east at the time of writing. The natural and ordinary way to list geographical places is beginning from the point where you are. When I am in California and talk about going east, I would say that I am going through Arizona, Texas, and finally New York. It is normal to begin where I am and to name the places in sequence. Since Peter lists the places from east to west, it would seem logical that he was in literal Babylon.
After the Babylonian captivity, only a very small group of Jews returned to their land—actually there were fewer than sixty thousand. There was still a great colony of Jews in Babylon. Additional Jews had fled to Babylon when severe persecution began under Claudius in Rome. We know, for example, that Priscilla and Aquila fled to Corinth from Rome. Many others fled to Babylon. There was persecution both of Christians and of Jews. Since we know that the ministry of Peter was primarily to the Jews it seems most logical that he ministered to Jewish colonies in Asia Minor, and particularly in Babylon. Babylon was still a great city there on the Euphrates River, and many of the Jews had remained there after the end of the Captivity.
In spite of the fact that Papias mentions the death of Peter as occurring in Rome, there is no substantial historical basis for this supposition. I see no reason to discount the fact that Simon Peter was the apostle to those of the nation of Israel who were scattered abroad. I believe Peter went east while the apostle Paul went west.
The great theme of this epistle of Peter is Christian hope in the time of trial. Although Peter deals with great doctrines and handles weighty subjects, he doesn’t write in a cold manner. Peter has been called the apostle of hope while Paul has been called the apostle of faith and John has been called the apostle of love. This epistle puts a great emphasis upon hope, but I believe that the word which conveys the theme of this epistle is suffering. Peter also emphasizes the grace of God, and some expositors feel it is his main emphasis. However, the word suffering or some cognate words that go with it occur in this epistle sixteen times. Hope is always tied with the suffering. Therefore, I think it is fair to say that the theme is the Christian hope in the time of trial.
Peter will have a great deal to say about the suffering of Christ. The suffering of Christ has been dealt with by the writer of the Hebrew epistle and by James in his epistle. Also the prophets certainly mentioned it. However, Peter will handle the subject a little differently.
Peter speaks out of a rich experience. Dr. Robert Leighton, in his book, A Practical Commentary on First Peter, makes a very timely comment that applies to Simon Peter. Let me share this with you because it is worth noting:
"… it is a cold and lifeless thing to speak of spiritual things on mere report; but when men can speak of them as their own—as having share and interest in them, and some experience of their sweetness—their discourse of them is enlivened with firm belief and ardent affection; they cannot mention them, but straight their hearts are taken with such gladness as they are forced to vent in praises."
For this reason, Simon Peter, while writing of suffering, emphasizes joy!
This leads me to say something very important regarding young preachers. In this day we have about us some very wonderful young expositors of the Word. I thank God for them. However, as I have listened to two or three of them, I feel very much as Dr. G. Campbell Morgan felt in his day. He and his wife went to hear a young preacher in whom they were particularly interested. He was eloquent, fine looking, and he delivered a great sermon. Afterward, on the way home, Mrs. Morgan was profuse in her praise and was surprised that Dr. Morgan made no response. Finally she asked, “Don’t you think he is a great preacher?” He answered, “He will be after he suffers.” Well, time went by, and this young man found out by experience what it cost to stand for Christ. He went through persecution; he experienced problems in his church; and one day he stood at an open grave as he buried one of his little children. Dr. Morgan and his wife went to hear him again because they loved this young man. After the service Mrs. Morgan asked,“Well, what do you think of him now?” Dr. Morgan answered, “He is a great preacher.” You see, suffering had made the difference.
This has been my personal experience also. As a young preacher, I spoke a great deal about standing for the Lord and about suffering. I used to go to hospitals and pat people on the hand and pray with them. I would tell them that the Lord would be with them. At that time I was a professional preacher, saying what I did not know to be true from my own experience, although I believed it. But the day came when I went into the hospital myself. Another preacher came in and prayed with me. When he started to go, I said to him, “I’ve done the same thing you have done. I’ve been here, and I have told people that God would be with them. Now you are going to walk out of here, but I am staying, and I will find out if it is a theory or if what I have been telling people is true.” Friend, I found out it is true. Now it is no longer a mere theory. I know it by the fact that the Word of God says it and by the fact that I have experienced it. I don’t argue with people about these things any more because there are certain things I know. I would never argue with you about whether honey is sweet or not. If you don’t think it is sweet, that is your business. I had some this morning for breakfast, and I know it is sweet. That is the knowledge that comes from experience.
Simon Peter is not going to give us his theory of suffering. Simon Peter is going to speak to us out of his own tremendous experience, and it will become very wonderful to us as it becomes your experience and my experience.
(McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible Commentary, Vol. 54: 1 Peter. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991.)