How do you counsel a persecuted and alienated church?
If you’re Peter, you begin with the gracious fatherhood of God. Speaking to marginalized first-century Christians suffering mistreatment and social estrangement, he comforts them with the knowledge that they are “elect exiles” only by the sovereign “foreknowledge of God the Father” (1 Pet. 1:1–2). And this isn’t just any Father, but the one who deserves praise because, according to “his great mercy,” he has given them “new birth into a living hope” through Jesus Christ (1:3) and an unspoiled inheritance in the heavens (1:4).
So, despite their present suffering (1:6), they are even now being kept and preserved by God for salvation (1:5). God is their loving Father who sees all and will provide for his sons and daughters.
So far, so good. But then you encounter a curveball: “Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear.” (1:17). Fear the Father who judges?
I know God is Father, Judge, King, and much else, but the unblushing way Peter runs Father and Judge together sounds a note often absent in more recent preaching on the gospel of adoption. We usually hear not only that we are forgiven and justified by Christ, but that we are also named children of God (1 John 3:1). In Christ, we no longer live the life of slaves, but that of sons and daughters, since we have received the Spirit of the Son who allows us to cry out with the tender intimacy of love, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).
But if we have the love of the Father, what place is there for fear and judgment, since “perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18)? Christ shows us God’s warm, fatherly heart. It seems like a natural dichotomy: We know God as either Father or Judge, but not both.
Peter seems cheerfully unaware of this binary. Perhaps Jesus addressing God as “Holy Father” (John 17:11) or his instruction to pray that God’s name be treated as holy before anything else (Matt. 6:9) stamped Peter with a deep sense of the majestic and incomparable purity of God’s loving fatherhood.
And since our Father is holy, we’re called to be holy, set apart, as well (1 Pet. 1:15–16). We’re brought in to be “obedient children” who don’t conform to our old patterns of folly and sin (1:14). Indeed, the Holy Father cares about our holiness so much that it was at great cost, by “the precious blood of Christ” (1:19), that he redeemed us out of wickedness.
The holiness of God’s fatherhood means he does not cease his work as the righteous judge. But what kind of judgment does Peter call us to fear?
The author of Hebrews shines a light here: “For what children are not disciplined by their father?” (Heb. 12:7). Fathers who love their children—who want them to grow up mature, healthy, and whole—draw lines and enforce boundaries. They won’t let their children become liars, thieves, or murderers, so they assert the judgment of loving discipline. And that’s why there’s always an edge of respect, awe, reverence, and, yes, fear of a father in a child’s life: that blend of love and power, at once assuring us he is the strong defender we need him to be, as well as the boundary we dare not cross.
God, who “disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness,” deserves far greater reverence than even the best earthly fathers (Heb. 12:10). Peter knows unless his people have a sense of holy reverence for their Father—the Holy One with grand purposes for them far beyond comfort or social acceptance—the pressure to fit the world’s mold, revert to old habits, and blend in will overwhelm them.
We may not be living in the first century, but Christians still need to hear this message. Instead of making all the same “smart” financial decisions as your neighbors, God calls you to generosity. More than pursuing “satisfaction” in your sex life, he calls you to the beauty of chastity. Beyond being on the “right side of history,” he calls you to trust in his Word from beyond history, issued from the seat of his holy throne in eternity.
God your Father is the Holy One who loves you enough to have much more in store for you than just a socially comfortable life.
Derek Rishmawy is a doctoral student in systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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