Outline of First Peter
The Epistle of First Peter is difficult to outline, partly because the book deals with only one or two major topics that allows the book to flow smoothly with few transitions. As a result, there are various suggestions for outlining the book. We need to keep in mind that such outlining is really the imposition of our modern logical and categorical ways of thinking onto a text that was not written for such categories. At the very least, that suggests some flexibility in dealing with such outlines, acknowledging that the truth of the book does not lie in its organizational structure but in its content, no matter how we might think it ought to be divided.
The structure of First Peter as presented here is defined by key transition words used as rhetorical markers for shifts in thought and emphasis.
I. Greetings to the People of God (1:1-2)
II. Salvation as participation in community (1:3-2:10)
A. born as God’s people through Christ (1:3-12)
B. living the life of holiness and love (1:13-25)
C. growing up as God’s people; maturity and mission (2:1-10)
III. The Responsibilities of Being God’s People (2:11-4:11)
A. mutual respect as the mark of God’s people (2:11-3:12)
1. respect for Gentiles and political leaders (2:11-17)
2. submission of slaves to masters from the model of the Servant (2:18-25)
3. deference of wives and husbands to each other (3:1-7)
4. unity, love, and humility (3:8-12)
B. suffering and vindication (3:13-4:6)
1. the reality of unjust suffering (3:13-17)
2. the example of Christ (3:18-22)
3. present liberation, future vindication (4:1-6)
C. love for one another (4:7-11)
IV. The Responsibilities of a Community of Faith (4:12-5:14)
A. the fiery ordeal and faithfulness (4:12-19)
B. unity, humility, and diligence (5:1-11)
V. Final Greetings (5:12-14)
The greeting or salutation (1:1-2) is set apart by the typical introductory format of an epistle, concluding by a prayerful wish for grace and peace ("may . . . be multiplied"). The entire book unfolds in the rather typical format of an epistle, moving from theological grounding to practical exhortations flowing as a consequence of that foundational understanding of God. The writer uses "beloved" or "dear friends" as direct address at key junctures in the book to transition the flow of thought between these emphases (2:11, 4:12). This allows us to see the book in three major sections.
Following the opening greeting, the first section (1:3-2:10) establishes the foundation of the Community of Faith in God’s grace as revealed in Jesus Christ. Grounded in that historical revelation of God and their own experience of God in Christ, God’s people are then called to respond to that grace by spiritual growth, faithful living, and testimony to the world of the grace that has called them into being as his people.
The second section (2:11-4:11) moves to more specific obligations of God’s people as they live in a sometimes alien and hostile world. This includes both wider political and social relationships as well as more narrowly defined responsibilities within families, all subsumed under the governing principle of mutual respect and love. This section concludes with the example of Christ that models how God’s people are to live amid persecutions and suffering, with the hope of expected vindication also modeled by Jesus.
The third section (4:12-5:14) repeats many of the same exhortations from the previous section, including the call to steadfastness in the "fiery ordeal" the people are experiencing or will soon experience. But there is an added appeal that the elders will discharge their duties faithfully with humility, as well as for the younger members to respect the leadership of the elders.
The overarching theme of the epistle is encouragement to Christians who are suffering or are about to suffer persecution, reminding them of the source of their identity as God’s people and their responsibilities to live out that identity in spite of their suffering. Faithfulness in actions as well as unity among themselves are to be the mark of God’s people. Even though they may be alienated from earthly social structures, they have been reborn as children of God, and are therefore members of God's household. And though they may suffer for their faithfulness, they can await with confidence God’s judgment on unrighteousness.