The following brief commentary from the First Letter of Peter, Chapter 4 is lightly edited with permission of the author, Dr. Daniel Keating, from his book, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: 1 Peter, 2 Peter, and Jude, 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.
– by Dr. Daniel A. Keating
Love, Hospitality, and Service in God’s Household (1 Peter 4:7–11)
The end of all things is at hand. Therefore, be serious and sober for prayers. 8 Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins. 9 Be hospitable to one another without complaining. 10As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace. 11 Whoever preaches, let it be with the words of God; whoever serves, let it be with the strength that God supplies, so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.1 Peter 4:7
OT references: Proverbs 10:12
NT reference: Mark 1:15; Rom 12:3–8; 1 Cor 12:4–11;
Phil 2:14; Col 3:17; James 5:20
vs. 7-9: Throughout the letter Peter moves back and forth quite easily between how we conduct ourselves outside the Christian church and how we handle ourselves inside the church (e.g., 2:11–12; 3:8–9). He now returns to matters internal to the Christian community, setting the stage for his exhortation by saying, the end of all things is at hand. Is Peter declaring to the Christians of the first century that the world is certainly about to end? No, he is reminding the Christian people that Christ may return at any time, and that they should be prepared and ready when he does. For Peter, the “last days” of God’s plan for the world have already arrived with the coming of Christ (1:20), and we are now living in those last days, awaiting their fulfillment, when the “end” will come. Christians are already living in the days of the Messiah, but they also await the “end,” or “goal,” of their faith that will occur when Jesus returns (see 1:9).
Biblical Background: What Are the Last Days?
New Testament references to the “end of all things,” to the “last days,” or to the “last hour” can be perplexing for modern readers. We tend to understand these as pointing to single moments of time when God acts decisively. Indeed in the Gospel according to John the “last day” does in fact refer to the resurrection of the dead at the end of this world (6:39–54; 11:24; 12:48), and references to “the day of the Lord” in the New Testament point to that decisive moment when Christ will come again (Acts 2:20; 1 Cor 1:8; 1 Thess 5:2; 2 Thess 2:2; 2 Pet 3:10). But for the apostolic authors, the “last days” or the “last hour” can also serve as shorthand for this present time that we are living in. The “last days” were inaugurated with the coming of Christ into the world, when he decisively intervened in history to bring about the salvation he promised in the prophets (Heb 1:2), and they will be fulfilled when he comes again (Matt 24:14). In the meantime we are living now in this “last hour”: “Children, it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18). We are those “upon whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11) and who have received the gift of the Spirit destined for the “last days” (Acts 2:17). In short, the reign of the Messiah has already begun, and we are living in it; therefore, we must remain sober and alert to live the reality of this kingdom now and to be prepared for the “end” when Christ returns and brings it to completion.
Peter names three practices in particular that ought to characterize Christians living in expectation of the “end.” The first is to be serious and sober for prayers. Seriousness and sobriety are in direct contrast to the revelry and drunkenness that mark Gentile behavior (4:3–4) and are vital for the effectiveness of our prayers. To “be serious” (sōphroneō) is to be sensible and clear-minded, like the Gerasene demoniac who, after being exorcised by Jesus, was found “clothed and in his right mind [sōphroneō]” (Mark 5:15; see also Rom 12:3; Titus 2:6). To be “sober” is a theme Peter returns to throughout the letter (1:13; 5:8).
Why are seriousness and sobriety linked to our prayers? Because we need to remain clear-minded and alert if we are to pray with true knowledge and attentiveness (see 3:7).31 For what are we to pray? Peter does not specify here the content of our prayers, but it would undoubtedly include prayers for God’s blessing upon our lives (3:9–12); prayers for endurance in the face of hostility; prayers that others might come to faith in Christ (3:1); and prayers that Christ might return and bring his salvation (1:7).
Living Tradition: First Clement on Love
One of the earliest writings in the Church outside of the New Testament is the First Letter of Clement, traditionally ascribed to Pope Clement of Rome in about AD 95. Writing to the church in Corinth on the blessings of unity, Clement offers a stirring meditation on the place of love in which he cites 1 Pet 4:8: “The heights to which love leads is indescribable. Love unites us with God; love covers a multitude of sins; love endures all things, is patient in all things. There is nothing coarse, nothing arrogant in love. Love knows nothing of schisms, love leads no rebellions, love does everything in harmony. In love all the elect of God were made perfect; without love nothing is pleasing to God.”a
By saying “above all,” Peter gives the second practice pride of place: above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins. By repeating the call to love (see 1:22; 2:17) Peter underlines the fundamental place love holds in the Christian life. This is in keeping with Christ’s injunction to put love of God and neighbor in first place (Mark 12:30–31) and with the constant teaching of the apostolic letters (1 Cor 13:1–13; Col 3:14; 1 John 4:7–11).
What is Peter getting at when he says that “love covers a multitude of sins”? The background to this statement is Prov 10:12 (“love covers all offenses”), which Peter cites rather loosely.32 The primary meaning is that our love “covers over,” that is, “overlooks,” the “multitude” of daily sins that people commit against us. In this sense our love covers over the sins of others. Rather than allowing grudges and judgments to pile up, we are called to put away these offenses through the merciful love we extend to one another. Peter may also mean that our practice of merciful love toward one another will prompt God himself to “cover” our offenses. In this sense one’s love results in our own sins being forgiven by God: “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you” (Matt 6:14). Both meanings are true and Peter may have them both in mind here.
The third practice Peter enjoins is to be hospitable to one another without complaining. Hospitality is highly prized throughout the Scriptures.33 In the first-century context, hospitality included the practice of welcoming traveling apostles and other Christians, but its primary meaning was probably the mutual welcoming of one another into the home for common worship and meals. It is the day-by-day hospitality within the local body of Christians that Peter especially is addressing.
Peter’s plea to show hospitality “without complaining” (literally, “without grumbling”) draws our attention back to the exodus and the wandering of Israel in the desert. During their sojourn in the desert the people of Israel repeatedly “grumbled” against the Lord and Moses, and this grumbling was displeasing to the Lord (Exod 16:7–12; Num 17:10). As “sojourners of the dispersion” (1:1) we too must avoid the grumbling that can arise when we feel overburdened with the needs and demands of others (Phil 2:14).
vs. 10-11: Peter now gives a general exhortation on using spiritual gifts for building up the church: As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace.Just as the Greek word for “gift” (charisma) is built on the Greek word for “grace” (charis), so each one’s “gift” (charisma) is dependent on the varied “grace” (charis) of God. He is the single source of the variety of gifts (see Rom 12:3–8 and 1 Cor 12:4–11 for Paul’s treatment of spiritual gifts). In a similar way the word “steward” (oikonomos) builds on the root word “house” (oikos), providing further evidence for one of the letter’s central themes, that the Christian people are “the household of God.” All of us are called to be “stewards” of the spiritual gifts we have been given for the service of our brothers and sisters. Just as the prophets served (diakoneō) not themselves but us (1:12), so we are to use the gifts God gives us not for ourselves but to serve the building up of God’s house.
Peter mentions only two distinct gifts here—speaking and serving: whoever preaches, let it be with the words of God; whoever serves, let it be with the strength that God supplies. “Speaking” and “serving” reflect Peter’s pastoral goals throughout the letter, namely, to encourage righteousness in speech and mutual service of one another. But they may also stand for all the gifts in the church: “And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col 3:17).34
Is Peter addressing all Christians here or just those in leadership roles? By translating the opening phrase “whoever preaches” (literally, “whoever speaks”), the NAB applies this mainly to leaders, and indeed Peter may have leaders primarily in view here. But given the general context (“as each has received a gift”), we should apply this to all Christians, whenever they are speaking of God and serving his people. Peter is not telling his readers to act as prophets uttering oracles, but simply as people who communicate what God has to say. Since Scripture is a rich source of the sayings of God and Christ, no Christian is unsupplied with “the words of God.” If we are immersed in God’s Word, then we are in a position to speak “the words of God” in whatever situation we find ourselves in.
Peter’s dominant concern, though, is how we go about the task of speaking and serving. Those who speak should do so as if they are “speaking the very words of God” (NRSV);35 those who serve should do so with the strength that God himself supplies. Our ability to exercise these gifts does not come from within us—God himself supplies the words to speak and the strength to serve.
Peter concludes by showing that the final goal of our words and deeds is always the glorification—that is, the honoring—of God himself: so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. There is a question whether the one “to whom belong glory and dominion” refers to Jesus Christ or to God; the Greek is ambiguous and scholarly opinion is divided. Both can be defended and both are true. But it is probably best, following the NAB translation, to see Christ himself as the one to whom Peter ascribes “glory and dominion forever and ever.”
The goal of all our activity, whether in word or in action, is to glorify God. “By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” (John 15:8). Peter closes with a doxology, a prayer that expresses honor to God. It is no accident that Peter is doing the very thing he is calling Christians to do—he is speaking “the words of God” to us in this letter, so that God may be glorified in Jesus Christ.
Reflection and application (4:7–11)
In two short verses (10–11) Peter gives us a penetrating teaching on spiritual gifts. He maintains that “each one” has received a gift from God—gifts are not the province of leaders only. Peter calls us to be “good stewards” of the gifts God gives and to use them to serve one another. We are stewards, not owners, and the gifts must be used for the good of the body, not for ourselves.
Peter cleverly shows that “gifts” (charismata) derive from “grace” (charis), but even more that we need to rely directly on God’s grace as we make use of the gifts. God is their ultimate source but also the one who supplies the ongoing grace needed to use them effectively. To paraphrase John 15:5, we “can do nothing” apart from his grace. As a final point, Peter underlines that the goal of these gifts is the glorification of God. This is tremendously important. Because of our fallen nature, there is a constant temptation to use the gifts we’ve been given, natural or spiritual, for our own glorification. Yes, we want to honor God, but we also secretly want to enhance our own standing and reputation. Peter cuts right through this, leaving no room for us to boast in ourselves or to take our bow on stage. He insists that we speak the words that come from God and that we serve by the strength that he supplies. And he shows us the way by concluding his own “speaking the words of God” with a prayer that turns our eyes to God and his glory.
31 For the importance of alertness and watchfulness in prayer, see Eph 6:18; Col 4:2.
aFirst Clement 49.4–5, in The Apostolic Fathers in English, trans. Michael W. Holmes, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 65.
32 James 5:20 also speaks about covering a multitude of sins: “Whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
33 See Lev 19:34; Matt 25:35; Rom 12:13; Heb 13:2; 3 John 5–8.
34 For the coupling of “word” and “deed,” see also Acts 6:1–6; Rom 15:18; 2 Thess 2:17; James 2:12.
NAB New American Bible
NRSV New Revised Standard Version
35 The “words” of God are literally “sayings,” or “oracles.” See Num 24:4 (LXX); Ps 106:11 (LXX); Acts 7:38; Rom 3:2; Heb 5:12.
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. Taken from Living Bulwark. Used with permission.