Holy . . . Because of Our God (1 Peter 1:15–16)
When we are reading a passage, it is important to keep in mind that how a thing is said (or written) may be as important as what is said (or written).
I saw this illustrated in a discussion with a student in a “Reading Scripture” class. We had been working through a portion of Mark 1 as part of the “lab” in that class (an opportunity to put into practice what is learned about reading texts), and we came to Mark 1:14–15:
Now after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
After working through the text to this point, I asked: “What is Mark telling us?” One eager participant spoke up: “We need to be out there, sharing the Gospel with people!” I paused a moment and then asked, “Is Mark recording some instructions from Jesus for His disciples? Is Jesus telling His followers to do something?” After reflecting for a moment on what the text actually said, the one who had spoken up replied, “I guess that’s not really what this passage is saying, is it?”
A narrative portion that was telling us something about Jesus and the beginning of His ministry was being hi-jacked as if it were an instructional portion telling us what we were supposed to be doing. (It’s not that Jesus’ followers are not to be about the business of sharing the “gospel” with others–it’s just that this is not what that passage in Mark was telling us.)
I think I’ve observed a similar thing happen when listening to an explanation of 1 Peter 1:15–16:
But like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves in all your behavior; because it is written ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.'”
How are we to understand these words? I have often heard them taught as if the point was: “Try really hard to get your behavior in line. Work hard at living in a holy way. After all, the God you serve is holy; it is important for you to strive to be holy in everything you do.” But I am not sure that is Peter’s point.
In early part of this chapter, Peter explained that his recipients had been “born again to a living hope,” were on track to receive an imperishable and undefiled inheritance, and who were “protected by the power of God” (1:3ff). From what Peter wrote, it doesn’t seem as if the life these readers had been brought into was a self-made, effort-derived, works-based life. It is all of grace.
This doesn’t mean that there isn’t some appropriate leaning into this life, as noted in an earlier post (on 1:13–16). But it would seem that whatever Peter’s point is in 1:15-16, it shouldn’t be read as if it contradicts what he had already written.
Rather than reading “You shall be holy, for I am holy” as a command or an instruction set, it might be better to read it as a statement about God’s intention to carry out a work of grace in His people. In the context of Leviticus 11:45 (from where this Old Testament quote is drawn), the idea seems to be more of one of God’s design than mere command. And the language Peter himself uses underscores this. The statement “You shall be holy” is not in a typical command form; Peter uses the tense–it is a statement of what will be, not a command of what must be done by us.
I am not saying that we are not to give ourselves to what God is doing in and through us. I would only want to make clear what I think Peter is saying: We will be holy, because it is God intention to make us like Him by His grace and through the work of His Son.