Within Jewish tradition gaining access to God was risky business. Those who saw God expected to die. When God gave instructions for building the Tabernacle, He was very careful to protect Himself from unwarranted human contact. Only the High Priest, once a year and only after extensive preparations for purification, could enter the most holy place and be present with God. For some reason Moses was an exception. As God told Aaron and Miriam, with Moses “I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the Lord” (Numbers 12:8). As Jewish history progresses, God tends to be viewed as more transcendent and less accessible primarily because of his people’s sinful activity. A holy God requires a holy people and Israel for much of its history demonstrated great capacity for disobedience. The rest of humanity fared no better, as Paul articulates in Romans 1:18ff.
How then could Jewish people gain access to God? And what about Gentiles, whom Paul characterizes as separate, excluded, foreigners when it came to God’s covenants (Ephesians 2:12-13)? Peter describes the plight of humanity in these terms: “outside of mercy” and “not God’s people” (alluding to Hosea 1:9-10; 2:23 at 1 Peter 2:10). They live in ignorance, being unaware of God, lacking access to Him and having no innate ability to discover Him.
The significant emphasis within the letter of 1 Peter on “revelation”, primarily linked with Jesus Christ (e.g. 1:10-12, 20), indicates that God has resolved the problem of ignorance. But God has gone one step further, He has provided access directly to Himself. “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring or lead (prosagagēi) you to God”(3:18). In using this expression Peter employed a term that had significant history.
Probably one of the most important texts in the Old Testament where this idea occurs is found in Exodus 19:4. God makes this announcement to the Israelites as Sinai:
You yourselves have seen what I have done to the Egyptians and I took you up as though on eagles’ wings, and I brought (prosēgagomēn) you to myself.
In the use of this verb God references all of his activity in the Exodus – the calling of Moses, the plagues, the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea, Israel’s miraculously crossing of the Red Sea on dry land, and God’s provision of water in the wilderness. The pillar of fire by night and the pillar of cloud by day were the means by which God guided them. Their arrival at Sinai is the fulfillment of a centuries old promise God had made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God made the way, God executed his plan, God overcame every obstacle, and God made every provision. Israel’s meeting with God in Sinai is totally and completely God’s doing.
But did Peter have this Exodus perspective in mind when he wrote 1 Peter 3:18? After all, prosagein is a verb frequently used in the Greek Old Testament to describe offering sacrifice, consecrating individuals, introducing people, and giving leadership generally. What tips the scales in terms of evidence supporting an Exodus connection is Peter’s use of material from Exodus 19:5-6 to describe the re-constituted Messianic people of God in 1 Peter 2:5-9. Peter borrows phrases such as “a special people,” “a royal priesthood,” and “a holy nation” from these Exodus texts. It seems that this entire section of Exodus 19:4-6 provides terms and ideas that become fundamental for Peter’s message. Thematic congruence also occurs because both in Exodus and 1 Peter the writers describe God’s actions to create his own people. In Exodus Moses is the human agent God employs to accomplish this; in 1 Peter it is the Messiah himself through whom God grants humans access to himself.
So God has acted again in Peter’s day, like He did in Moses’ day, to provide redemption. As Peter expresses it in 1:3, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead….” The result is access to God for people who exercise faith in the saving work of the Messiah.
This verb also occurs frequently in texts that describe sacrificial ritual. For example, in Leviticus 1:3 God instructs Moses in this way: “If his gift is a whole burnt offering from the cattle, he shall present (prosaxei) a male without blemish (amōmon); he shall bring it to the door of the tent of witness, acceptable (dekton) before the Lord.” Much of this language is applied in different ways to Jesus in 1st Peter. For example, in 1:19 it is the “precious blood of Messiah, a lamb without blemish (amōmou) or defect” that is the basis for human redemption. Again in 2:5 God is engaged in constructing “a spiritual house” so that believers can offer “spiritual sacrifices acceptable (euprosdektous) to God through Jesus Christ.” However, the verb prosagein is operating in two distinct ways in Leviticus and 1 Peter. In the case of Leviticus a person brings (prosagein) an acceptable sacrifice to God in order to comply with the covenant stipulations and enable his or her relationship with God to continue flourishing. With respect to 1 Peter, Jesus himself is the sacrifice and the very purpose of this costly gift is “so that he might lead (prosagagēi) you to God”(3:18), i.e. establish and enable an eternal relationship with God. The sacrifices offered by human beings will never suffice to procure salvation. Only that offered by Jesus, his own life, has that potency and capability. Jesus is willing to sacrifice himself, “the just for the unjust,” so that he, Jesus, might lead them to God.
Paul agrees with Peter in affirming this special role that Jesus Christ plays in gaining human access to God.1 In three contexts Paul used the cognate noun (prosagōgē) to describe Jesus’ role in restoring human access to God (Romans 5:2; Ephesians 2:18; 3:12). The text in Romans summarizes well Paul’s thought:
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access (tēn prosagōgēn) by faith into this grace in which we now stand.
The concept of “peace with God” receives definition through the following idea of “gaining access…into…grace,” i.e. the context of God’s favour. Again, Jesus is central to this entire transaction. Romans 3:23-26 explains how the death of Jesus is redemptive and fulfills God’s justice so that any human being can be declared “righteous” and have a relationship with God (Romans 4:25) when repentant faith is exercised.
Peter’s paragraph in chapter 3 ends with the affirmation that Jesus, in his resurrected glory, has “gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand…”(3:22). Jesus has regained his rightful place, moving directly into the position of power and authority “at God’s right hand.” Our access into the presence of God is only possible because Jesus himself occupies this position of intimate relationship with God. Our access is totally dependent upon his access. As Peter affirms earlier, we become living stones because we have come (proserchomenoi) to the “Living Stone”(2:4).
Some have also suggested that Peter in 3:18 is not merely describing a general access to God, but rather is reflecting a change of status, namely the consecration of the followers of Jesus as a “holy priesthood.”2 For example, when Moses consecrates Aaron as high priest, the text in Exodus describes it this way: “And Aaron and his sons you shall bring near (prosaxeis) to the doors of the tent of witness…”(Exodus 29:4). Similar language occurs in Leviticus 8:24 and Numbers 8:9-10 (consecration of the Levites). Dalton links this with the statement in 1 Peter 2:5 wherein God enables believers to become “a holy priesthood, to offer sacrifices to God” because of their direct association with Jesus Christ. Not all commentators acknowledge this connection. There is no doubt that Peter puts a lot of emphasis upon the sacrificial and priestly nature of the people of God in the first two chapters of his letter. Having established that foundation, it would not be unwarranted for him to make reference back to these earlier affirmations in later sections of his letter.
What we must affirm, based on 1 Peter 3:18, is that Jesus, through his sacrificial death has given us access to God. The remainder of Peter’s letter outlines the implications of what this means for those who believe and those who do not believe this good news.
- how conscious are we as believers of this incredible privilege God has given to us – direct access to him through Jesus? What difference does this relationship make to your day?
- what responsibility does this access place upon you? If God has called you to himself (as Peter keeps emphasizing), then what does God want you to be and do for Him?
- the ethical implications of this access are significant. Peter has said in 1:15 that followers of Jesus are “to be holy just as He who called you is holy.” Our access to God must affect our conduct.
- 1The verb occurs in Luke 9:41; Acts 12:6; 16:20; and 27:27. In Acts 12:6 and 16:20 the sense is that of bringing someone before a judge for trial (Peter before Herod and Paul and Silas before the magistrates of Philippi). In Luke 9:41 Jesus directs a father to bring his son near for exorcism. Acts 27 is the story of Paul’s shipwreck on his voyage to Rome and the verb describes their approach to land.
- 2William J.Dalton, Christ’s Proclamation to the Spirits. A Study of 1 Peter 3:18-4:6. Analecta Biblica 23 (Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1989): 134-135.