One of the great moments in Moses’ experiences with God comes as he intercedes for Israel after the Golden Calf episode. When God agrees to continue His covenant with Israel, Moses asks for God to reveal Himself as a kind of guarantee that He would fulfill His word. God agrees and a new set of stone tablets are chiseled and imprinted with the ten words. The Exodus narrative recounts that God identifies Himself (34:6) as “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands….” This formula expressing God’s mercy and grace is repeated in roughly the same form in Numbers 14:16; Nehemiah 9:17, Psalms 86:5,15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; and Jonah 4:2.
The Greek terms used in the Septuagint to render these Hebrew expressions occur in the New Testament, although not that frequently with reference to God. The exception is the equivalent of “abounding in love”, rendered in the Greek Old Testament by the compound adjective polueleos. The word translated “love” is the Hebrew term hesed that seems to imply an intentional attitude or action that springs from love and results in kindness being expressed.1 The Greek Old Testament regularly renders it by the term eleos, which we tend to render as “mercy”. This emphasizes the ‘kindness’ element expressed by the Hebrew term hesed.
Although the compound Greek adjective polueleos does not occur in the New Testament, we find a close equivalent in 1 Peter 1:3. As Peter moves into the body of his letter after the initial salutation, his first statement is praise to God because He has provided the opportunity for new birth or rebirth “in harmony with his great mercy (polu autou eleos)”. This all depends upon the resurrection of Jesus Messiah from the dead.
Is Peter alluding to the common description of God in the Old Testament through this language? Does he suggest a covenantal aspect to God’s new actions in Jesus Christ for human salvation? Peter never uses the term ‘covenant’ in his letter. However, in his salutation (1:1-2) he makes reference to “the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Messiah” in connection with obedience. Many commentators on this text see a reference to Israel’s acceptance of God’s covenant at Sinai in Exodus 24. On that occasion Moses takes part of the blood of the sacrificed animals and sprinkles it over the assembled people as they pledge their obedience, their loyalty, to God. If this allusion is indeed intended by Peter, then we can conclude that he intends his message about God’s actions in Christ to be understood as an opportunity for people to enter into a covenantal relationship with God.
The only other context in 1 Peter where the concept of mercy occurs explicitly is 2:10. Here he alludes to Hosea 2:23 and God’s promise that He would restore Israel. “I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one’. I will say to those called ‘Not my people’, you are my people.” The Greek Old Testament uses the verb “be merciful” to render the term translated “show my love”. So in his letter Peter writes, “once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” The covenant setting is clear in Hosea’s discussion. Peter similarly links it with God’s intent to make followers of Jesus “a chosen race, a kingdom of priests, a holy nation, a people for His possession”, all terms that occur in Old Testament covenant-making situations. So once again Peter links God’s mercy to His actions to create a new people for Himself. Jesus is the foundation for all of this activity.
Peter has much to say about God. He is faithful, gracious, unbiased, purposeful, creative, living, kind, mighty, and attentive to those who call upon Him. As well He holds people accountable and will judge everyone. Yet Peter at the beginning of his letter wants to stress that whatever else God might be, His actions in Jesus and His offer of salvation, demonstrate clearly that He has “great mercy”. What God revealed about Himself to Moses in Exodus 34:6 remains true. The underlying continuity between the Old and New Testaments rests explicitly upon the consistent nature of God. For Peter, God’s mercy, indeed His great mercy, is the only explanation he can offer for the awesome privilege he has to be a ‘living stone’ in God’s construction project.
When we get caught up in ourselves and our projects, let us remind ourselves that everything is dependent upon this ‘great mercy’ of God. As Paul shares with Timothy, even though he was “the worst of sinners”, God showed him mercy “so that in me the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16)
- 1. Cf. the discussion in R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Volume 1 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), entry 698