Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy,
he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you,
— 1 Peter 1:3–4 —
Whenever I read or preach a passage of Scripture that includes a list or series of names, actions, vices, virtues, or any other kind of description, I am looking to see if there is an order or a concrete image that gives shape or cohesion to the list. Sometimes there is not, but often there is. And in the case of 1 Peter 1:4, where Peter speaks of the inheritance that is kept in heaven for those who have been raised to new life in Christ, we find a helpful word picture in Edmund Clowney’s commentary on this passage.
Drawing on a typological connection between Israel’s land and Christ’s new creation, Clowney compares two types of inheritance. He describes how the inheritance that Christians will receive from Jesus on the last day far exceeds the inheritance Israel received at the hands of Joshua. In this way, Clowney provides a faithful and fruitful description of what Christ holds for us in heaven—namely, a place in the kingdom that he will reveal on the last day. Indeed, this promise is glorious, but to fully appreciate what it means, we need to read 1 Peter 1:4 with what the Old Testament says about Israel’s inheritance.
This is what Clowney does, and it is worth our patient reflection, as he explains how “the words that Peter uses to describe our unchangeable inheritance all relate to the land that was the inheritance of Israel” (47). In keeping with the three words that Peter uses (imperishable, undefiled, and unfading), Clowney lists three comparisons. He writes
First, our inheritance can never perish (aphtharton). The land of Israel was at times ravaged and destroyed by invading armies. The prophet Isaiah describes the utter destruction of the whole world in God’s judgment:
The earth will be completely laid waste and totally plundered. The Lord has spoken this word. The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers . . . [Isa. 24:3–4]
In the Septuagint version of Isaiah, the word-stem for ‘laid waste’ and ‘wither’ is the same that Peter uses. But Peter uses the word in a negative form. The world will be destroyed, but our inheritance is indestructible.
Secondly, Peter says that our inheritance can never… spoil (or is ‘undefiled’, RSV). Isaiah, just quoted, goes on to tell how people have defiled the earth by breaking God’s law. In the prophecy of Jeremiah [2:7], too, God declares that he gave Israel a fertile land, “But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable.” The land of Canaan, Israel’s inheritance, was defiled first by heathen inhabitants, then by Israel’s idolatry. In total contrast, the inheritance we have is undefiled and undefilable [sic].
Thirdly, our inheritance is perennial. It will not fade, wither or dry up. Canaan was not only destroyed by invaders and polluted by its inhabitants; it was also parched with drought in God’s judgment [see Jer. 23:10; Joel 1:12]. Isaiah reflects on the judgments of God that cause the land and its inhabitants to wither like grass or flowers: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands for ever” [Isa. 40:8]. Peter quotes that passage at the end of this chapter, and in that context again uses aphtharton, the first word of this series (1:23).
Canaan as the inheritance of Israel is contrasted with our inheritance. Israel received the earthly foreshadowing; we receive the heavenly fulfillment. Because our inheritance is in heaven, nothing on earth can alter or destroy it. Peter must use the negative terms to describe it (‘imperishable,’ ‘undefiled,’ ‘unfading,’ 1:4 RSV) because its reality surpasses our present comprehension. In John’s vision it can be seen as the city of God, but the language is still symbolic. Our inheritance is not simply a land, a city, or even a new earth. It is all that God will give us; his salvation. (Clowney, The Message of 1 Peter, 47–49)
Here is an excellent example of how typology works to illumine a New Testament passage. In the Old Testament, Israel received an inheritance that fulfilled all the promises of God. Yet, in time, that glorious inheritance began to perish, spoil, and fade. Because the first Joshua was fallible, and ultimately mortal, he could not preserve what he gave them in Joshua 13–20. By contrast, Jesus Christ, the greater Joshua, and the Lord who has and who will deliver his people from death to life and earth to heaven, could not only provide an inheritance; he could also protect and preserve it.
To exiles scattered throughout Asia Minor, this was a powerful word of comfort for multiple reasons. First, their inheritance was not on earth but in heaven. Second, their inheritance was preserved by God and could not be spoiled by man. And third, their inheritance was safe with Christ, because it was held by Christ. These truths mean: no matter what they faced on the earth, they would not lose their place in God’s kingdom. For as certain as Christ rose from the dead, so too they had the certain hope of life eternally with him in the cosmos that he would bring on the last day. As Clowney concludes, this was and is and forever will be their salvation. And gloriously, this includes a place in the eternal kingdom Christ is preparing to bring to earth.
For us too, our hope is found in the resurrection of Christ which gives us the new birth and secures a place for us in the coming kingdom. This is a truth we must continue to keep close to our hearts. And by means of reading 1 Peter’s promise with the history and typology of Israel, we are better able to understand and appreciate what God has promised us in Christ.
Praise be to God, he who began a good work in us will complete it until the day of Christ Jesus. And on that last day, we who have been born again can know for certain, that there is a place for us with Christ in his New Jerusalem.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
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