What We Believe

Resurrection-Birth in First Peter

Peter Y. Lee

New Horizons: April 2018

Why Be Good?

Also in this issue

Why Be Good?

The Resurrection Touch

The resurrection of our blessed Savior gives us extraordinary hope of eternal life and a “joy unspeakable” as we suffer through the trials of this fallen world and face the final enemy of death. However, what we may not realize is that his resurrection also helps us to understand the nature of our salvation.

The purpose of this article is to show that, according to 1 Peter, our salvation—our new birth in Christ—is in fact a resurrection from the dead.

A New Term

In 1 Peter 1:3, Peter declares that “according to [God’s] great mercy, he has caused us to be born again.” The phrase “he has caused us to be born again” is a wordy translation of the Greek word anagennēsas from the verb anagennaō. It occurs here in 1:3 and once again in verse 23. This verb does not occur in any other book in the New Testament, nor does it occur in any Greek translations of the Old Testament. In fact, as far as scholars can tell there is no attested use of this verb in extrabiblical texts. Peter himself, then, probably coined the term.

Due to its limited usage, the precise meaning of the verb is elusive. The prefix ana- often accompanies Greek verbs to give a sense of repeating an act, which is why the notion of a “second” birth or a “rebirth” is the common understanding.

The immediate literary context of 1 Peter offers additional exegetical clues. Right away in 1:3, the phrase “living hope” imbues hope with a human trait. We often speak of “living” as a characteristic of organisms, not abstract concepts like hope. The reason that hope can be “alive” is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. We have a living hope because we focus our faith on a living Christ, a “resurrected” Christ.

The apostle stresses this theme in 2:4–10 by saying that Jesus is the “living stone.” And in our union with Christ, Peter says that we, too, are “living stones” (v. 5). As the living stone, Christ is the central foundation for constructing the temple of the New Covenant, the church. Believers are described as the raw material (“living stones”) used to build this holy dwelling.

It is truly wondrous to ponder the magnitude of what is being said in this passage. The privileged blessing that was limited to only the high priest of the Old Testament, and then only after making atonement for his sins, is now given to all God’s people in light of our union with the resurrected Christ.

However, it is not only hope that is qualified by Jesus’s resurrection but also our birth. Whereas our hope is given the adjective “living,” our new birth is given a lexical parallel. In Christ, we have a “new-birth” (ANA-gennaō) because of Jesus’s resurrection (ANA-stasis). The birth in mind in 1 Peter 1:3, then, is to be understood as a “resurrection-birth.”

Such a notion of a “new birth” is not limited to Peter, although he is the only one to use the verb anagennaō. Jesus, in answer to Nicodemus’s question in John 3:3 about how one gains eternal life, says that one must be “born again” (gennēthē anōthen), a Greek phrase that can also be interpreted as “born from above.” In other words, this is a spiritual birth. First Peter gives us the historical redemptive source of our being “born from above,” namely the redemptive event of the resurrection of Christ.

Our new birth in Christ is both death to our old sinful nature and new life as a new creation in Christ. This is how Paul understands this birth imagery in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

Those united to Christ in his death and resurrection have already experienced this newness of life.

A New Identity

In our new birth, we also have a new identity. In 1 Peter 2:4–10, Peter provides a parade of glorious titles that the church can claim for herself in light of the accomplished work of Christ. He says that believers are now a holy temple where the glory presence of God dwells, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (v. 9).

In verse 10, he writes that we were once “not a people” but now we are “God’s people”; that we were once a people without mercy, but now we have received mercy.

This is an allusion to the writings of the prophet Hosea, who was called by the Lord to give rather eccentric names to his children. The names reflected divine acts of pending judgment against Israel for their violation of the Mosaic code. Hosea’s daughter was named Lo-Ruhamah, meaning “No Mercy,” and his son, Lo-Ammi, meaning “Not My People.” But, because of the amazing grace of God, Israel would not remain as people who received a covenant curse but would receive the blessings of the New Covenant; they would be called “Mercy” and “My People” (Hosea 1:6–2:1). As rebellious sinners, we also were once “No Mercy” and “Not My People,” but because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our name has been changed! We can now be called “Mercy” and “My People.”

 The identity of the church is indeed a blessing. As we meditate upon our new status, it is truly a source of great comfort and joy to believers. According to Peter, we are who we are because of what God has done for us in Christ: “He has caused us to be born again” (1 Peter 1:3). Therefore, because we are now born anew, we are called to live by the specific moral standard that is consistent with our new identity as citizens of a “holy nation” where Christ is seated as the king.

For example, he calls believers not to feud among each other, but rather to “love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (v. 22). According to Peter, the reason we can have such a godly love is because we “have been born again” (v. 23), where he uses the verb anagennaō for the second time. Our old self is dead and raised anew in Christ, so we can now do what was impossible before—love one another earnestly from a pure heart. In light of this new identity, believers are to put aside “all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander” (2:1). We are called to live a life of humility to various authorities and institutions in society (2:13–3:7). The old ways are dead to us because we now have a resurrection-birth.

Implications of the Resurrection-Birth

This resurrection-birth, however, comes with a price: hostility from the world that sees us with the same hatred as they saw our Savior. As Jesus taught, “the world has hated them because they are not of the world” (John 17:14). Yet we are encouraged to remember that the world only hates us because it hated Jesus first (John 15:18). His suffering now becomes our suffering.

The only other possible alternative to facing antagonism with this world is to make peace with it by becoming one with it. “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own,” Jesus says in John 15:19. If the “believer” compromises to become a like-minded friend of the world, he or she would be welcomed by the world as an ally to its sinful agenda. As pleasant as that peace-making might be for a time, it would ultimately end in facing the wrath of God. Jesus sets up the two options: follow Christ and be in conflict with the world, or follow the world and be in conflict with Christ.

Both John and Peter reiterate this teaching of Christ. God has chosen us from this world. We who were once rebels against the will of God are now born anew into a world that conforms perfectly to the good and pleasing will of God. However, because of this new identity as disciples of Christ who join in his condemnation of the values of the fallen world, that world now sees us in the same way that it perceived Jesus. As a result, we are persecuted and rejected by this world. That is the price that we pay. But, when compared with what we have gained in Christ, everything else is loss. As Paul writes, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8).

Peter continues to describe the impact of the resurrection upon our spiritual blessings in Christ; in Christ, he says, we have an inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4). Our inheritance is invincible because of the resurrection. Although the fullest reality of our inheritance will be revealed in the “last days,” in a real sense it is something that we have now. We have life now! And we have a life that reaches beyond the grave. In John 11:25, Jesus says, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”

This even impacts how we can speak about saints who have gone before. Because of the resurrection, we can speak about deceased loved ones in the Lord in the present tense. In Christ, they are alive! They are blessed! They are no longer suffering! They are rejoicing! Yet, this is a resurrection-birth, meaning there is a part of them that is dead. They once were sinners, but no longer. They once battled with the flesh, but no longer. They once endured the pains of a fallen, sinful world, but no longer. There is only resurrection-birth, hope, and life for them because Jesus was raised from the dead. This same blessed reality is also for us by faith in Christ.

Praise God for the resurrection of Jesus Christ! 

The author is associate professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, DC. New Horizons, April 2018.

New Horizons: April 2018

Why Be Good?

Also in this issue

Why Be Good?

The Resurrection Touch

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