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Alert and sober  

What can we learn from 1 Peter? In this second piece in the series, Terry Young shows how the people Peter is writing to are under enormous pressure that boils over regularly into violence against them. Peter’s solution is not to 'muscle up physically and fight back' - but to develop a mind that copes with the present and hopes for the glory to come.


One of the dumb things I remember from university days was a handwritten piece pinned to a bulletin board that said, ‘Be alert. Your country needs lerts.’

Maybe it doesn’t work for you but being alert haunts Peter’s first letter. It’s hard to memorise because the wording in English is slightly different each time:

  • ‘Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober,’ (1 Peter 1:13, all quotations, NIV)
  • ‘Therefore be alert and of sober mind’ (1 Peter 4:7)
  • ‘Be alert and of sober mind.’ (1 Peter 5:8)

Although these look similar to us and the last two are essentially identical, the three have less in common when you look them up on BibleHub. There is a theme going down, because the same word is used for sober each time, although there is a bit of wizardry going on in the translation that I don’t quite understand. It looks, however, like ‘sober’ meant much the same then as it does now – literally (not drunk) and figuratively (thoughtful).

However, the motif captures something about being alert. In the first case, the King James Version – ‘Therefore gird up the loins of your mind’ – captures the allusion Peter is making: it’s about getting ready to run by tucking up your robe to free your legs while you race along.

The second ‘alert’ is about thinking clearly, shrewdly, even. It’s the word Mark and Luke use to describe the man from Gerasene territory after Jesus had dealt with the demons that had possessed him (Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39): finally, he is ‘in his right mind.’

The last ‘alert’ is about being watchful, the word from which the we get the name Gregory, as it happens.

A pattern appears in English that isn’t quite there in the original. As I’ve been trying to memorise the book, I’ve been e-mailing people around the world, who shared their experiences of memory work. A friend who lives in Central America explained that he has given up memorising English versions because they keep changing and started to learn from the original Greek.

I’ve not gone that far but using the tools we have, we can see that Peter is calling us to be wise, wary, and ready for action. His thinking parallels Paul’s teaching in Romans 12, with its focus on the Christian mind, shared gifts, and establishing positive patterns in our behaviour, not to mention the business of blessing those who curse us.

He stresses how much hard work it is: a marathon race that will leave you sweating and exhausted; a vigil that requires watchfulness; and you need to be smart. What has Peter in mind?

The people Peter is writing too are under enormous pressure that boils over regularly into violence against them. Peter’s solution is not to muscle up physically and fight back but to develop a mind that copes with the present and hopes for the glory to come.

Peter doesn’t actually tell us how he wants us to build those mental muscles, so we have to work back from what he wants us to be able to do. His first idea is a bit complicated, however. It is that we should be able to fix our hope on the apocalypse of Jesus, the being-brought-to-us apocalypse (1 Peter 1:13). Your preferred translation will smooth it out, but Peter seems to want us to connect a future glorious event with present joy and contentment in a visceral way, forging a link so solid in our minds that we can almost touch it.

How can we do that? Jesus tells us to think about our treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). It takes mental strength and stamina to drag ourselves away from our daydreams, fantasies, fears or worries, and focus on what Jesus has prepared for us. There’s a story about a student in a hippy heyday, when his mates are high on drugs and mysticism, who keeps searching for a way to learn that transcends mental dedication. It doesn’t exist: nobody does well without a degree of dedication. You want the joy? Learn to stretch those muscles of hope.

It doesn’t have to be a deeply intellectual exercise. You may not be a reader, write poetry, compose music or do anything you associate with really clever people. I don’t suppose many of Peter’s readers or Jesus’ listeners did, either. But they sure got excited about the place where Jesus was, so that the hope of heaven dominated their preaching and quenched their fear of death. As a start, let’s try to talk about our treasure in heaven – maybe just once in the next 24 hours.

The second thing Peter wants us to be able to do is to pray (1 Peter 4:7), also pointing out that poor marital relationships can hamper our prayers (1 Peter 3:7). I remember listening to a chap from the Netherlands explaining how he got into swimming. He had recovered from cancer to win Olympic gold and I’m sure he was simplifying when he explained that the further he swam, the faster he got. In my own small way, I was discovering that just before the first lockdown, watching the time it took me to swim a kilometre, slowly coming down. As with swimming, our problem is not about getting better: it’s just getting into the pool.

Finally (1 Peter 5:8), our enemy is out to scare us. Fear folds before the right mind set, and Peter wants us to win this one by, ‘standing firm in the faith’ (1 Peter 5:9). The benediction that follows, collects together some of the other ideas, promising that the suffering will be brief and that glory follows.

The encouragement here, surely, is to think our faith through, to spend time enjoying the assurance Jesus offers, perhaps even to attempt some of that memory work I’ve been talking about. Want to be a healthy, hopeful Christian? It’s all in the mind.

Image | Claudia van Zyl | Unsplash

This is part of a series where Terry explores 1 Peter
  1. Calling and being called 
  2. Alert and sober
  3. Suffering and glory
  4. An upside down world 
  5. Peter and baptism

Terry Young was born to missionary parents working in the Middle East. He has always tried to unify his life of worship and secular missions, and has been part of church leadership teams in Essex, and at Slough Baptist Church. He has written a few books that link worlds, including After the Fishermen, and Jake, Just Learn to Worship.

After a mobile early childhood his family settled in the UK to the northwest of Birmingham, and eventually he studied at the local university. After his doctoral studies he worked for 16 years in Chelmsford undertaking research and business development in the aerospace sector, where his interest was in fibre optics and photonics. In the end he gravitated to healthcare systems and moved to Datchet with a position as a university professor. He is a member of a Baptist church


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Baptist Times, 11/01/2021
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