Living stones - Royal people - 1 Peter 2:4-10
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Her name was Blandina. She was a Gallic slave living at the end of the second century. She was also a recent convert to Christianity. Because of this she was forced to watch the murder of her Christian friends, then she herself was heated on a gridiron, thrown to the wild beasts in the arena and finally impaled on a stake. And here’s the thing: she actually died praying for her persecutors. It was pretty much the same story repeated over and over again since this new faith had burst upon the Roman Empire around 33 AD-persecution of one kind or another. Tell me, what sort of thoughts might come flooding into the minds of Christians living under those conditions, as many are living today? Would they not be thoughts like these: ‘Could we have got it all wrong? Are we really so special to God? ‘If so, where is he?’ And if you are a pastor ministering to such believers, what are you going to say to them, ‘Oh, don’t worry. It won’t last for ever. Hang in there.’? No, you are going to have to offer something more than platitudes. What is needed is truth, what is required is an opening up of people’s hearts to the greater invisible reality which lies behind the present seen realities of suffering and opposition- namely, the reality of God. And that is precisely what this pastor, Peter, does for these Christians who feel very much at odds with a world which despises and rejects them. And the way Peter reassures these beleaguered believers- and us- is to draw on the Old Testament imagery of the temple in order to present three glorious truths, all of which have God firmly at the centre.
First, the presence of God vv 4-5 ‘As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ When you are being treated as the dregs of society it is bound to make you feel insecure. Now what structure could you think of which would convey a sense of overwhelming permanence and stability. What about a great temple like the one back in Jerusalem, or better still like the one Solomon built? Here you had this architectural masterpiece, made from huge blocks of stone, 4 feet high and 15 feet long. Well, says Peter, you are being built up into a kind of temple like that, but on a far grander scale, a supernatural temple in fact or, to use Peter’s term, a spiritual temple as you come to Jesus who is the chief cornerstone or capstone. Now I think it is interesting that as Peter takes up the imagery of the temple here as consisting of God’s people, as does Paul in Ephesians 2. But in the Book of Revelation John says that in heaven he didn’t see a temple, the reason being, ‘because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.’ (Revelation 21:22). This is really quite breath-taking. It is not that God’s people have ceased to be God’s temple; rather, it is that the glorious presence of God and the Lamb fills the entire new creation and since we are so united with Christ, we become part of that too.
And all of this comes about when you come to Jesus through believing the Gospel-plain and simple. You see, the cornerstone was not only the first stone to be set in place; it actually constrained the rest of the building. It defined the angles of the walls, so that everything is aligned in relation to this stone. Notice how Peter describes Jesus as the ‘living Stone’? Why? Because he is alive, having defeated death he now reigns over all the ruling authorities which are giving the Christians so much grief at the moment. He is immovable, solid, dependable and true. Sure, he was rejected by men, but he has been chosen by God and is precious to him as he is precious to you. So in one sense don’t to be surprised if the same happens to you, other living stones. Just because you are having a rough time does not mean that God has abandoned you any more than he abandoned Jesus. On the contrary, rejection by men is not a sign that we are rejected by God, for as he is precious, we too are precious as we are united to him.
What is more, the temple symbolised the presence of God, Yahweh dwelling in the midst of his people. There could be no greater blessing than this- we are in one sense back to the situation in Eden when God and Adam walked together. Whereas the sign of God’s curse is being cast out of God’s presence, as Adam was thrown out of Eden, here, all that is reversed- as you come to Jesus, God comes to you.
Then Peter extends the metaphor even further by saying Christians are ‘to be a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices.’ Now the point being made here is this: priests were the only people who were allowed into God’s presence in the Temple. For everyone else to dare to come into the presence of God was to sign their own death warrant. And so special folk were set aside who had to obey strict rituals to enable them to come into the inner sanctum to offer sacrifices including sacrifices which were a sign of thanksgiving. Now can you see what Peter is saying? We don’t need any special priests anymore, why? Because if you are a Christian believer you are already a priest, you belong to the holy priesthood of all believers. You have direct access into God’s presence, anytime, anywhere.
So far from God abandoning you, you cannot get any closer to him than you already are at this very moment. The God whose genius designed the constellations and the nebulas, the one who holds in being the DNA molecule, whose voice thundered at Sinai and sent the Israelites cowering in fear - this is the God who dwells amongst you. Yes, the authorities might have scattered you, but God gathers you as a church so that you will be a blessing to the nations. Sure, you might not look very impressive as far as the world is concerned as you meet together in your houses, or in that listed building at the end of Clough Road, just as Jesus didn’t look very impressive as he was hung on a Roman gibbet, but that is where God was making a special people for himself, that a where he was laying the foundation stone from which a human temple would be made comprising of billions and billions of people, glistening with the translucent glory of God into all eternity.
Now will you remember that when life’s knocks come your way? That you belong to very special people, so cemented to Jesus Christ that a nuclear explosion would not be able to prise you apart from his love?
So how has this miracle of men and women being brought into God’s presence achieved? Peter refers to three Old Testament passages which speak of the provision of God- vv 6-8.
First, we have this quote from Isaiah 28:16, "See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame."
Here the prophet Isaiah is speaking to the rulers of Jerusalem 700 years or so before Christ who are so cocksure they are safe and nothing could touch them. Certainly the Northern tribes might have been wiped out by the Assyrians, but it is inconceivable that those who live in Jerusalem, Mount Zion, with its holy temple, should be destroyed- God would never allow his dwelling place to be desecrated in that way. And so what do they do? They reject the preaching of prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel and keep on thumbing their noses at God. They were good church going people you see, so they thought that nothing could ever upset them. In short, they trusted in the wrong things-in their own religious heritage, the fact that they had a special building, a temple. But they were in for a very rude awakening when Jerusalem was finally sacked with the most unbelievable cruelty in 589 BC. But here God points them to where they should be putting their trust, in this person who was to come, a precious cornerstone.
A few years ago a missionary working in Central America visited Britain and the US and these were his impressions: he said: ‘The dominant feeling I get increasingly in Western churches, is fear- people are afraid. They are afraid of what’s going on in the culture. They are afraid of what is going on in society, they are afraid of the meaninglessness bound up with their young people, they are afraid of their own futures, and out of that fear they lash out. We are a frightened people and a frightened culture.’ That is pretty shrewd isn’t it? But the question arises: where are people going to put their trust in order to gain some sense of security? Well, what about coming back to this one whom God has provided whereby we are made into his children, who offers an eternal future beyond the grave, and his presence with us while living on earth? I tell you plainly, if you don’t come to him you will have precious little hope in this life and none whatsoever in the next.
And those who do come to him discover something very wonderful, that he is precious v 7. But not everyone sees things that way, hence the next two quotes, one from Psalm 118 and the other from Isaiah 8 - v 7b-8, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone,’ and ‘A stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.’ In other words, if we are not careful, the living stone can become a tripping stone; and which of these Jesus is to us will depend upon how we respond to him and his Word. As we have seen, for those who see him as God’s chief cornerstone or capstone, he provides security not only against the uncertainties of living in the present, but he secures us from the judgment of God in the future. But if we reject him, seeing Jesus as having no more significance than, say, a stone which has been discarded and is laying around the builder’s yard, then we had better watch out for we will trip over him and fall headlong into hell. That is the picture. And this is not something which is accidental; it is a deliberate choice on our part-those who ‘disobey’ the message’. And don’t be misled by what Peter goes on to say ‘They stumble because they disobey the message--which is also what they were destined for.’ That is what God decrees to be the end of those who disobey the Gospel.
Just think about it: if you have been coming to a place like this, and week after week hear a clear uncompromising presentation of the Christian message, that Jesus is the Son of God, lived the perfect life, and died the sinners death and rose and reigns calling each one of us to put a loving trust in him, but then we don’t.; then when we do come before him, what are we going to say? ‘I am sorry I had no idea? The evidence wasn’t compelling? I preferred to live without you? I took a chance that you were not who my conscience told me you were?’ Such excuses will not stand. And it is then that the one, who while on earth offered himself to be our Saviour, in heaven becomes our judge who will condemn us to a dark, Christless eternity for our unbelief. That is how the living stone become a tripping stone. Do you see what a tremendously serious thing it is to believe or reject the Gospel? Literally everything worthwhile turns on our response to it.
Thirdly, the praise of God- vv 9-12. Here Peter has Exodus 19 in mind and the choosing of Israel to be a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God. The danger of being referred to as a ‘chosen people’ is that it can cause us to focus on the privileges we have, such that we think because we are special we should be pampered. Well, there are the most tremendous privileges of knowing God personally and being called by name, but the focus is more on the responsibilities we have. Like Israel, the people of the New Covenant have been chosen for a purpose, namely, v9- ‘to declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light’. People like us who have received mercy are to declare to others God’s mercy. And that declaration is twofold. There is, in the first instance, the ‘praise of our lips’. Now although it is worship language that Peter is using here- ‘praise’- and of course the temple was the place par excellence where the praise of God’s people was heard as they sang psalms and the like; in the NT such language is extended to include the whole of the Christian life. So, for example, the apostle Paul in Romans 15:16 speaks of his evangelism as being his priestly duty, the offering up of Gentiles converts as sacrificial fruit offerings to God. So this declaring God’s praise out of shear gratitude for what he has does for us in saving us, bringing us out of darkness into the splendid light of the Gospel, involves sharing our faith as Peter goes on to explain in chapter 3.
But as well as declaring God’s praise with our lips we are also to do it with our lives- v12 ‘Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.’ We are different, we do not belong to this world order which is in rebellion against its Maker, we belong to a New World order which acknowledges Jesus as the rightful ruler, and so we are to lives which reflect that. The point Peter is making is this: though people may not like what we believe, they should not be able to fault the way we behave because of what we believe. That doesn’t mean that we are meant to be perfect, but rather that there should be a consistency forged between belief and behaviour in such a way that folk will say, ‘You know although I can’t go in for all this believing in Jesus stuff, you have to give it to these Christians, they are at least honest-you can trust them; they do work hard, you want to employ them; and their lifestyle is simple they are not as materialistic as the rest of us, and they do seem content. I hate to admit it, but I do wish I had what they have.’
Let me tell you something. In 1450 a vast block of white marble weighing over a ton and measuring more than 5 metres in length, was quarried out of the mountains near Carrera in Northern Italy and transported to Florence. Here it was taken to the workshop of the famous sculpture Duccio, who had been commissioned by the City Council to carve from it a giant figure of Hercules. Maybe his attention was distracted, or perhaps he attacked the block too enthusiastically with his chisel, but it is said that Duccio succeeded in damaging the block at its very centre, so that it was impossible to carve the figure of Hercules. Sadly, the giant block was covered up and left to stand against a wall near the Cathedral. During the next 50 years many famous sculptors visited the ‘Duccio Block’ as it came to be known. They measured it carefully from all angles in the hope that they might discover some way of carving a figure out of it, and at the same time cutting away the damaged portion. But the gouged section was too deeply cut and too centrally placed. In the year 1500 however, the great Michael Angelo visited the block. As he stood before the giant lump of marble it dawned on him that if he tipped the block forward at an angle of 20 degrees and cut a perpendicular figure with hips swivelled away from the damaged area, a human figure could just about be carved. Almost immediately there followed another flash of inspiration: in his mind’s eye he could see the figure he wanted. It wasn’t Hercules, but David in the act of slinging a stone at Goliath. The arm would be raised to take the sling shot, the hips would be swivelled away from the centre, and suddenly the limitations of the block began to appear as its assets, forcing Michael Angelo’s mind into simplicity of design that might never have occurred to him had the block been whole and perfect.
Now the world of art salutes the genius and the beauty of the Michael Angelo’s David but here in 1 Peter is something infinitely greater and more wonderful that that: here is the Son of God, incarnate in a virgin’s womb, quarried out of Nazareth, cast out as useless and crucified at Calvary; but in that very death which seemed to disqualify him he gained his unique victory, became the perfect Saviour by his sufferings, and by his Resurrection opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers. So he is the final question to you tonight: Have you come to that ‘living stone’? Is he your Cornerstone? Do you belong to God’s new community? Have you received a share in the life of Christ? If not, tonight would be a good time to make it a reality. If you have done that, then make sure your life declares the praise of him who has called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
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