For the past few weeks, I’ve been dropping a short study from the apostle Peter’s first letter in this slot–it’s been a good way to bring my heart and brain around to Sunday, and the prospect of gathered worship. It’s also an opportunity to interact with a powerful, insightful text. Long a favorite, 1 Peter continues to teach, encourage and surprise.
Take this evening’s segment–1 Peter 1:10-12
Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow….
These few lines offer several surprises. First, that prophets–those crusty, formidable OT figures who roared and baffled–brought a message of grace. Has Peter got this right? Aren’t prophets the ones who denounce, condemn, promise destruction?
At times, they do–but a closer read shows that such messages are last resorts, and that the threats they issue routinely come to naught should their listeners relent. So to see grace in their speaking, as Peter does, is not that far off. Indeed, one might say that any warning at all would have been gracious; that prophets regularly spoke on behalf of God who was not willing any should perish shows–by their frequent communication–a generous display of grace.
Second, these prophets had in them “the Spirit of Christ.” We read OT stories of how Spirit filled a few people on occasion, but Peter is telling us that prophets were regular recipients of–receptacles of–Spirit. And, given that there were lots of prophets (those named in the texts are just part of the larger corps), Peter seems to be suggesting that Spirit was more active than we might have imagined. One of these prophets–Joel–mentioned specifically a coming time when all God’s people would experience Spirit; in light of Peter’s claim here, Joel–like others–apparently knew whereof he spoke.
A third point–not so much a surprise as an indication of what Peter wants to bring out for readers–is that Jesus’ “sufferings” were a matter of interest to these prophets. It’s not hard to read a passage like Isaiah 53 and follow the prophet’s pointing finger into the future, but the topic of Jesus’ distress does not seem at first glance a common one for prophets. So Peter is telling us something he knows that, to this point, was not immediately obvious. And in doing so he is circling back to the matter of revelation. Prophets spoke not out of their own imagination or gut feelings, but according to what God gave them to say; the messages they delivered were revealed to them. Now Peter is telling us–by revelation–something else about these people, namely that they had a profound interest in God’s Messiah. Again, it’s a clue about grace: prophets bringing a message of impending doom still expected that God would intervene.
One last point, and this is surprising: Peter says that the prophets “were not serving themselves but you….” The apostle has in mind the gospel that his readers have encountered, and in which the prophets played a part. It would have been easy to revere such figures as giants of the tradition; Peter says that instead, they were laying groundwork, clearing a path those like his readers would later walk. This news from Peter shows not only the long-standing nature of God’s plans, but also indicates that God uses all kinds to accomplish what needs doing, so that many will be recipients of the blessings God intends to spread. Prophets as servants? At first blush, the notion seems odd. But then, is it any more unlikely than, say, God’s own Messiah waiting tables, or washing feet?
The story God is writing: in Peter’s telling, we find ourselves part of a tale that has been underway for some time, one that has a great many twists and turns as it leads toward a marvelous finale.