Robert Leighton, Griffith Thomas,
Alistair McGrath and J. I Packer, eds.
288 pages, paperback
Reviewed by Rev. Bryan Miller
Available on www.Amazon.com or
The only commentary that Robert Leighton (1611–1684) ever produced was on the book of 1 Peter. Robert Leighton has a fascinating life story, some of which is summarized in the beginning of Alister McGrath and J. I. Packer’s marvelous work updating Leighton’s commentary. Their 1&2 Peter Crossway Classic Commentary begins with a two page biography that inspires further investigation. Yet the content of this commentary is the real treasure, and far too good to be overlooked. An exposition of 1 Peter 1:1–5 can serve as a short example of the jewel that Robert Leighton provided us.
Leighton began by making a good observation one might easily overlook. This letter of 1 Peter begins by saying “Peter, an apostle.” He did not say “Peter, chief of the apostles” but just “Peter an apostle.” Peter was an equal among brother apostles. However, Peter and his brother apostles did share that special, extraordinary office with the spiritual gift of prophecy that has since ceased.1
Peter was described in Galatians chapter 2 as one who had an “apostolic ministry to the (Jews).” So Peter did have a specialty in the sense that he focused on ministry to the Jews, while Paul focused on ministry to the Gentiles. First Peter was written to more than just Jews, though many modern commentators assume Peter wrote only to Gentiles in this book, citing passages like 1 Peter 2:10 that seem inconclusive to me. Peter also used some clear descriptions of the Jewish people, and likely extended those terms to include Gentiles, too. Verse 1 actually says to whom Peter wrote this book. He wrote it to “the elect exiles of the dispersion,” and then Peter listed some territories of the Roman Empire in Asia Minor.
“The dispersion” referred to a historical event when the Jews were scattered among the nations. Ever since Israel was conquered by Babylon, Assyria, and Persia (hundreds of years earlier) the Jews had been exiled and scattered into foreign nations. Many Jews returned over the years, but many still remained (by choice) in foreign lands. Even though they were in foreign lands, the Jews kept their faith and their practices, so they retained their identity.
In his book, Peter used these terms that usually referred to Jews and likely applied them to all Christians, both Jews and Gentiles. Some of these Christians were Jews, so to them it would have felt natural to be called “exile of the dispersion.” But Peter included Gentiles with this Jewish language to show that there is a continuous line between the Old Testament believers and the New Testament believers. Peter was showing that all Christians are the heirs of the Old Testament. Christians are the people of God, and like the Jews of the dispersion, Christians also are pilgrims, strangers, and exiles in this world.
Leighton wrote that, despite being scattered like strangers, Christians are not strangers to God. Christians are known by God and loved by God. Christians are a family of believers in the gospel. First Peter is about the gospel, too. Verse 2 says “grace and peace be multiplied to you.” Verse 3 also speaks of God’s “abundant mercy,” his “great mercy.”
Leighton said it is “free and rich grace, that forgives and swallows up multitudes of sins, even the greatest sins. And not only sins committed before conversion, but sins committed after conversion, as Peter himself experienced. . . . Peter’s wish is that this grace and peace should be ours in abundance. . . . Those who taste the sweetness of this grace and peace constantly ask God for more. This strong spiritual hunger is a virtue, as Christ himself said: ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.’”2
It’s not an accident that verse 3 calls it God’s “great” mercy. Leighton quoted St. Bernard: “Great sins and great miseries need great mercy, and many sins and miseries need many mercies.” So by His mercy God makes us His children, and gives us an everlasting inheritance with Him in heaven.3
One subtle change from an Old Testament greeting in verse 3 is worth pointing out. Peter said “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In the Old Testament, praise went to the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who brought them out of slavery in Egypt.” Praise was given to God because His mercy was seen by delivering Israel from slavery in Egypt. But now, God’s mercy is given in an even greater way, because God delivers from sin in Jesus. In fact, the deliverance from Egypt was a foreshadowing of this greater deliverance in Jesus that was to come. So now, Peter no longer calls God the God of Abraham, but “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This new greeting is meant to remind us of God’s even greater mercy.4
We see the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all together in verse 2. The Trinity is mysterious, but we see all three persons in the Trinity working together for our salvation in verse 2. It speaks of “the foreknowledge of God the Father, the sanctification of the Spirit, and obedience to Jesus Christ. The whole Trinity is described as participating together for the salvation of believers.5
The book of 1 Peter is about keeping the hope of heaven foremost in mind. It’s a very encouraging book, because it gives an eternal perspective. Leighton explained that 1 Peter is about “consolations to encourage Christians in their journey to heaven, elevating their desires to a higher happiness. First Peter strengthens believers against the sinful nature within, and against temptations and afflictions from without.”6 We’re not responsible for our circumstances or for how others treat us, but we are responsible for our response. Our response should be informed by an eternal and heavenly perspective.
Verse 3 says that “God has caused us to be born again to a living hope.” God is the giver of spiritual birth and spiritual life. God is sovereign over salvation, and should receive all the credit. If you have hope for the forgiveness of sins by what Jesus has done, then you can be sure that you are saved, because God has put that hope in you. If you believe in the resurrection of Jesus, and in the hope of eternal life, then you can be sure you are saved, because it is God who gives that faith. You would not trust in Jesus apart from God giving faith to you.
Peter continued this theme in verse 4, where he said that our hope is “to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.” Peter wanted to encourage us that our heavenly inheritance is secure. As an imperishable hope, it is not going anywhere. It will not disappear or fade away or get defiled. God keeps our inheritance for us in heaven, safe and secure. God created this inheritance in heaven for us, and God is faithful to keep our heavenly inheritance for us. Peter’s goal is to assure believers that this is true. Christians can be much more strong and courageous and content if we are sure that God has provided and will provide for us forever.
Verse 5 says that heaven is for those “who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” Even though faith is something we do, faith is a gift from God. God actually guards us by giving us faith. Peter said that Christians are “guarded through faith.” God gives us faith to protect us by making us run to Him. Faith justifies Christians, and faith guards Christians. Faith in Christ and God’s promises keeps us well.
Faith takes hold of God’s power. Leighton wrote: “Faith puts us within his walls and sets the soul within the guard of the power of God. The soul that relies on self-confidence and vain presumption it its own strength is exposed to all kinds of danger. Faith is a humble self-denial that rests on the Lord. Thus the weakest believer is safe, because through believing, he is within the strongest of all defenses. Faith is the victor. When the Christian is hard-pressed with temptation, he looks up to him who is the great conqueror of the powers of darkness and calls to him, ‘O Lord, assist your servant in this encounter with your strength, so that the glory will be yours.’ Thus faith draws the power of God and of his Son, Jesus, in to our difficulties. King David was not content with one or two expressions of God’s power, and delighted with many such expressions. Psalm 18 says “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge. He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” Faith overcomes because of the almighty power on which it rests.”7
The ultimate object of our faith is Christ. Faith is depending on Christ for forgiveness. Faith is depending on Christ for our righteousness. Even the good deeds of a Christian can’t save us. We need the good deeds that Jesus did, who had no sinful nature, to justify us before God. Jesus came and lived life on this earth for over thirty years, and during that time, he was doing what we should be doing, but cannot do. Jesus lived with perfect righteousness. And He did that for us, because as both fully God and fully man, He was able to credit to our accounts all the righteousness we need for everyone who trusts Him for it.
Peter wrote of spiritual growth in verse 2. Christians are “in the sanctification of the Spirit, for the obedience to Jesus Christ, and for sprinkling with his blood.” God puts His Spirit into believers at the same time that He gives them faith. It’s the Holy Spirit who lives in Christians and teaches us to follow God. Sanctification is, as Peter says, “for obedience to Jesus.” Jesus taught us how to live, and the Holy Spirit gives us power to make real, spiritual progress during our time on earth, though often times it is two steps forwards, one step back. Leighton commented “Yet when we look at the strength that guards us, the power of God, then we understand why we remain safe to the end. For our omnipotent God supports us, and his everlasting arms are under us.”8
Jesus promised to give us the Holy Spirit if we ask. Leighton challenged: “We must endeavor to have this sanctifying spirit in ourselves, and pray much for it, for his promise to give the Holy Spirit to those who ask applies to us. Shall we be so foolish as to lack this because we do not ask? When we find our souls weighed down, then let us pray for His Spirit.”9
The Christian can be free from guilt and condemnation by God’s promise. Jesus took all our guilt and condemnation on Himself so that we could be spared the most serious consequences of our sin. Such consequences are a load that no one can bear, and that is why Jesus willingly bore it Himself. God calls all people to trust Jesus with that burden and let go of it. We can rejoice as Christians, because “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).
Leighton closed his comments on 1 Peter 1:5 by pointing eyes heavenward. “Earthly inheritances are stained with sin; they all spoil, fade, and perish away. But our heavenly inheritance will never perish, and it makes all earthly possessions pale in insignificance. Everything on earth will one day disappear. But no trace of sin or sorrow is in our heavenly inheritance. All pollution is wiped away, all tears disappear. There is no envy or strife. This inheritance will not change. Its joys will never fade. Do we have anything surer and better here on earth? Happy are those whose hearts God fixes on this inheritance. . . . You must learn to use what you have here as travelers, and let your home, your inheritance, your treasure, be on high, which is by far the richest and safest place.”10
Robert Leighton was no stranger to suffering. His father was a Puritan who was persecuted, imprisoned, and tortured by the Star Chamber for publishing harsh criticisms against the Catholic-leaning Anglican church of King Charles I. Ten years later, Robert’s father was released from prison, and the next year (1641) Robert was ordained. During the next decade, Robert Leighton signed the Solemn League and Covenant and served as a Presbyterian minister in Scotland. Leighton next served as professor of divinity at the University of Edinburgh.
Reluctantly, and never allowing himself to be addressed with the associated title “lord,” Leighton allowed himself to be ordained as a bishop and eventually archbishop of the Anglican church. His great hope was to help mediate peaceful resolutions between the Presbyterian and Anglican hostility. Though he found that both sides were often infuriated against him, he served his responsibilities with a humble and gentle spirituality.
1. Robert Leighton, 1&2 Peter
(Crossway Books, 1999), p. 14.
2. Ibid., 14, 19.
3. Ibid., 21.
4. Ibid., 21.
5. Ibid., 16.
6. Ibid., 13.
7. Ibid., 25.
8. Ibid., 25.
9. Ibid., 18.
10. Ibid., 22, 26.