In his summary description of the people of God one of the phrases Peter employs is “a people for possession (peripoiēsis)” (1 Peter 2:9). This terminology comes from Isaiah 43:20-21 where Yahweh addresses Israel, “my chosen race, my people whom I acquired (periepoiēsamēn) to set forth my excellencies” (from the Greek translation of Isaiah). The Hebrew text talks about “my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.”
The prophecy of Malachi also has similar language in which Yahweh promises that “those who fear him and revere his name” will belong to him in the day “when I make them my acquisition (eis peripoiēsin)” (Malachi 3:17 translation of the Greek version). The corresponding Hebrew text says “they shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act.
Both passages in the Old Testament are prophecies defining Yahweh’s future plans for Israel. The Isaiah oracle begins with Yahweh declaring “do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; you are mine” (43:1). Yahweh’s ownership of Israel forms the basis for his plans regarding their future. Similar language occurs in 43:14. The Malachi context expresses Yahweh’s intention to refine Israel and prepare them for the great day of the Lord.
These Old Testament texts give us some traction to discern what Peter might be saying to the congregations of believers in Asia Minor.
The particular phrase “a people for possession/acquisition/ownership” first occurs in Peter’s letter, although lexically related expressions are found in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The noun peripoiēsis conveys the idea of “that which one gains possession of, an acquisition, ownership” or “preservation.”
Let’s consider the second meaning (“preservation”) first. Plato gives us a great example of this sense in his Definitiones 415.c.7 when he defines “deliverance” as “unharmed preservation (peripoiēsis).” In the account of Asa’s battle against the Ethopians (2 Chronicles 14:12(13)) the Greek translation says that “the Ethopians fell so that there was no preservation (peripoiēsin) among them.” When the story of Joseph is retold in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs 6.2.8, God prevents water from accumulating in the cistern where Joseph is imprisoned, “so that there might be preservation (peripoiēsis) for Joseph.” The writer of Hebrews also used this noun when he contrasts those “who shrink back and so are lost” with those “who have faith and so are saved (eis peripoiēsin psuchēs literally “for the preservation of their very life”)” (Hebrews 10:39).
For the most part in the New Testament the sense of the noun is “a possession, an acquisition,” expressing some sense of ownership. Paul used this noun twice in two of his earliest letters. In 1 Thessalonians 5:9 he uses this noun to assure the Thessalonian Christians that God “has not appointed us for wrath but for obtaining (eis peripoiēsin) salvation.” This occurs in the midst of his discussion regarding eschatological issues. He repeats this expression in 2 Thessalonians 2:14 where again he affirms that these believers are being saved through the work of the Spirit and their belief in the truth. God has called them “for obtaining (eis peripoiēsin) the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In both contexts this concept of “active possession or acquisition” has its foundation in their election by God which results in their full participation in salvation and future glory, i.e. the restoration of the image of God in all of its fullness.
We discern a passive sense of this term meaning “something possessed, acquired” in Ephesians 1:14. Paul asserts that believers have God’s mark of ownership placed upon them by means of the Holy Spirit and this reality continues “until the redemption of the possession (eis apolutrōsin peripoiēseōs).” The context speaks about God’s electing purposes which result in human salvation and participation in future glory. The genitive case in which this noun occurs probably is an “objective genitive” which means that “what has been acquired” is in fact the object of this “redemption.” The context would also indicate that “what is acquired” belongs to God given his initiative in providing redemption and all of its consequent benefits.
The cognate verb also occurs with meanings “preserve” or “acquire, possess.” Luke uses it once in the sense “preserve.” When Jesus discusses discipleship in Luke 17:33 he warns his followers that they will destroy themselves if they seek to “preserve [their] lives (peripoiēsasthai).” The contrast with the verb “destroy” requires the sense “preserve” here. However, Luke uses this verb in its other sense in Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders. Paul claims that the church is something which God “has purchased (periepoiēsato) through ‘his own’ blood” (Acts 20:28). Finally in 1 Timothy 3:13 Paul uses it to confirm that “serving assistants” in the church who serve well “acquire (peripoiountes) good standing for themselves.”
Now in 1 Peter 2:9 the writer directs our attention to the context of Isaiah 43:20-21 because of the purpose clause that completes the initial series of epithets. Although he does not quote from the Greek translation, his text certainly parallels the Hebrew text as translated in the NRSV (“so that you might declare my praise”). This indicates that we should take our cue for interpreting eis peripoiēsin 1 Peter 2:9 from the meaning of the cognate verb (peripoiēsamēn “I acquired, possessed”) in Isaiah 43:21. The Hebrew verb means “to form” and the Greek translator apparently has extended this meaning so that God’s formation of Israel results in his possession of Israel. In other words we come back to this notion of divine intent expressed at the end of Isaiah 43:20 by the description of Israel as “my chosen one.”
Peter’s use of this formulaic phrase whose meaning may be paraphrased as “a people formed by God as his possession” parallels the initial expression “you are a chosen race” emphasizing God’s electing initiative in the formation of his family. This reality carries both current implications, i.e. “proclaiming God’s virtuous actions,” and future promise expressed in 1:4-5 and 5:10. To what degree Peter expected his audience to discern echoes of Exodus 19:5 “a people special (laos periousios) for me above all nations” in his expression “a people for possession (laos eis peripoiēsin)” remains debated. However, the Greek terms convey different meanings, although the theological notions implied in both expressions are undoubtedly related.