God's building project - 1 Peter 2:4-12
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 companions, then she was heated on a gridiron, thrown to the wild beasts in the arena and finally impaled on a stake. 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 so special to God? And ‘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.’? Of course not, you are going to have to offer something for more reassuring than that-platitudes will not help when the dark night of the soul comes. You see, what is required is something for more comforting and uplifting- you need to know the Truth. That is, to be enabled to begin to see things the way God sees things. 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 at the centre- the presence of God, the provision of God and the praise of God.
First of all, the presence of God vv 4-5 (read). When you are being kicked around from pillar to post as was happening to Christians at this time, for some had already been driven out of Rome, you are going to feel pretty insecure aren’t you? Having a sense that life is more than a little unsettled . Now what structure could you think of which would convey a sense of overwhelming permanence and stability. Well, what about a great temple, like the one back in Jerusalem, or better still like the one Solomon the Great had built. Here you have 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 temple ,one which will eventually dwarf the temple in Jerusalem, one which will remain when that has been trampled into the dust ,as happened in AD 70. For you, my brothers and sisters are being made into a spiritual temple as you come to Jesus who is the chief cornerstone or capstone. As you are united to him, then you are being incorporated into this huge edifice being made in heaven- a spiritual house. 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 defines the angles of the walls, everything is aligned in relation to this stone. What is more Peter describes Jesus as the ‘living Stone’- he is alive, death having been defeated, for he now exists above all the ruling authorities which are giving you 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, the 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 having the eternal God with you, it is the supreme sign of blessing. For if you think about it, it is moving back to the original state in Eden. There the blessing was that God and man walked and talked together in the garden. Man and God were at peace ,having a harmony totally unsullied by sin. 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 being reversed- as you come to Jesus, God comes to you..
And so Peter extends the metaphor further by saying you 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. So special folk were set aside who had to obey very strict rituals to enable them to come into the inner sanctum to offer various sacrifices including sacrifices which were a sign of thanksgiving. But 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, anywhere and at anytime.
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 made the stars and galaxies and sent them spinning into space, the one who designed the constellations and the nebulas, the one who brought into being and holds into being the DNA molecule-more than that, the very God whose voice thundered at Sinai and sent the Israelites cowering in fear-because it was a voice which terrified- this is the God who dwells in you and amongst you. Certainly 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 not even a nuclear explosion would be able to prize you apart from his love?
So how has this miracle of men and women being brought into God’s presence achieved? Well, 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 (read). Here the prophet Isaiah is speaking to the rulers of Jerusalem who are so cocksure they are safe that nothing could touch them. Certainly the Northern tribes might be wiped out by the Assyrians, but it is inconceivable that those who live in Jerusalem, Mount Zion, with its holy temple, should be attacked. And so what do they do? They reject the preaching of the prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel and keep on thumbing their noses at God. They were good church going people you see, so they thought-nothing could ever upset them. In short, they were trusting in the wrong things-in their own religious heritage, their upbringing and so they were in for a 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. And this is probably the background to Jesus saying ‘On this rock-stone- I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.’
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.’ Isn’t that right? Even more so now after the events of September 11th. But where are people going to put their trust? In the special forces rooting out the Taliban? In the latest soap opera to provide a way of escape? 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? The one who calls us to put his priorities first- the priorities of the Gospel, evangelism and mission? I tell you plainly, if we don’t come to him we will have precious little hope in this life and none whatsoever in the next.
And those who do come to him discover 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 (read). In other words, if we are not careful the living stone can become a tripping stone, and whether Jesus is to us one or the other depends upon how we respond to him. 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 now, he secures us from the judgment of God which is to come. But if we reject him, seeing Jesus as having no more significance, than say, a stone which has been discarded and laying around the builders 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’. You see, if we 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, that he lived the perfect life, and died the sinners death and rose and reigns and calls each on of us to put a loving trust in him, but 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?’ Well, no. Such excuses will not stand. And it is then, you see, that the one who while on earth offered to be our Saviour, becomes our judge who will condemn us for our unbelief. The living stone become a tripping stone. And if we refuse to believe the Gospel then that is what our destiny will be, what we are destined for. Do you see what a tremendously serious thing it is ,believing the Gospel? Literally everything worthwhile turns on our response to it. That is why evangelism figures so highly at St. John’s, why the upcoming mission is so important and getting those newsletters out. And more than that, it is why it is so vital for you to respond to the invitation of Christ if you have not yet done so. Each time you come to a place like this his call goes out to you to submit to him in obedient love, to leave the empty life of which Peter has spoken earlier, and embrace the one who gives true life. Whatever you do, please do not make the mistake of walking away from him and so end up stumbling over him. He is far too precious for that-and so are you.
Thirdly, we come to 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 causes us to focus on all the privileges we have, as if we are special and so to be pampered. Well, yes 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 two fold. There is, if you like, 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 and Peter goes on to explain this a little more in chapter 3. Today worship has been too narrowly defined as simply praise-it is much bigger than that and includes evangelism. So do we want to worship God-then lets get involved in faith sharing, the Lord loves it.
But as well as declaring his praise with our lips we are also to do it with our lives- v12 (read) We are different, we do not belong to this world order which is in constant 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. That doesn’t mean that we are meant to be perfect, but rather that there should be a consistency and integrity 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, their lifestyle is simple they are not as materialistic as the rest of us, and they do seem so content. I hate to admit it, but I do wish I had what they have.’ And on the day of judgment they will acknowledge that.
A few years ago a survey was carried out amongst Christians in Britain to find out what it was that led them to follow Christ in the first place. And what was found was most interesting. It was discovered first of all -for 27.8% it was the influence of a particular church over a period of time. The second greatest factor at 25.8% was the influence of other members of one’s own family. Third, at 19.9% the influence of a Christian friend or friends, and at the bottom of the list at 13.2% it was a specific evangelistic activity. That doesn’t mean we don’t have missions, but it does go to show that what Peter is saying here is right-the way in which people give glory to God is by the regular, day to day witness of ordinary Christians- a group called church, or family, friends. And I am sure that if you are a Christian here this morning you would say the same wouldn’t you? Which is a great encouragement to us not to be shy, but be consistent-live the new life.
So here we are this morning-and how do we feel? A despised misunderstood minority with a hundred and one problems facing us back home or at work? Well, says Peter look again- for you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God’- why? So you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.’
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