A royal priesthood, holy nation - 1 Peter 2:4-10
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A Royal priesthood/Holy nation
1 Peter 2:4-12
In his book entitled, Passion, Karl Olsen tells the story of such endurance among the early French Protestants called Huguenots. ‘In the mid-18th century in…southern France, a girl named Marie Durant was brought before the authorities, charged with the Huguenot heresy. She was fifteen years old, bright, attractive, marriageable. She was asked to abjure [renounce] the Huguenot faith. She was not asked to commit an immoral act, to become a criminal, or even to change the day-to-day quality of her behaviour. She was only asked to say, ‘J’abjure’. No more, no less. She did not comply. Together with thirty other Huguenot women she was put into a tower by the sea…for thirty eight years she continued…And instead of the hated word ‘J’abjure’ she, together with her fellow martyrs, scratched on the wall of the prison tower the single word ‘Resistez’, resist!’ Olsen goes on, ‘The word is still seen and gaped at by tourists on the stone wall…..We do not understand the terrifying simplicity of a religious commitment which asks nothing of time and gets nothing from time. We can understand a religion which enhances time… But we cannot understand a faith which is not nourished by the temporal hope that tomorrow things will be better. To sit in a prison room with thirty others and to see the day change into night and summer into autumn, to feel the slow systemic changes within one’s flesh: the drying and wrinkling of the skin, the loss of muscle tone, the stiffening of the joints, the slow stupefaction of the senses - to feel all of this and still to persevere sees almost idiotic to a generation which has no capacity to wait and endure.’
Over the last few weeks we have been looking at what it means to be church and some of the glorious entailments of being part of the people of God. But there has been one aspect of being part of God’s family we haven’t yet considered which is well illustrated by the example of the Huguenots- that of suffering for Christ and in so doing witnessing for Christ. To help us understand something of that, we turn to the apostle Peter for help in his first letter Peter chapter 2.
The first thing we are to take strength from as a church is that we have 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 trash of society it is bound to make you feel insecure. Here’s the question: what structure could you think of which would convey a sense of overwhelming permanence and stability which would provide you with security- even sanctuary? What about a great temple like the one Solomon 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 kind of temple like that, but on a far grander scale, a spiritual temple as you come to Jesus who is the chief cornerstone or capstone.
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. And Peter describes Jesus as the ‘living Stone’- he is alive seated above 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, Peter is in effect saying, ‘Look, 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 it is a sign you are different and accepted.
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, God dwelling with human beings as originally intended.
Then Peter extends the metaphor even 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. These were special folk set aside who had to obey very strict rituals to enable them to come into the inner sanctum to offer various sacrifices including sacrifices 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 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 - this is the God who dwells amongst you.
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? 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"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 is the prophet Isaiah speaking to the rulers of Jerusalem 700 years or so before Christ 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 destroyed! And so what do they do? They reject the preaching of the prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel and thumb their noses at God. They were good church going people you see, they thought that nothing could ever upset them! In short, they were trusting in the wrong things-in their own religious heritage, the fact that they had a special building, this they thought gave them special immunity from God’s judgment. But they were soon to be disabused of such foolish thinking when Jerusalem was finally turned into a wasteland in 589 BC. But here in Isaiah God points them to where they should be putting their trust, in this person who was to come, the 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 questions arises: where are people going to put their trust in order to gain some sense of security? What about coming back to the living stone- there is no greater security to be found than in him.
And those who do come to him discover something wonderful, that he is not only permanent but precious, v 7. Of course 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 whether Jesus is to us the 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 present, 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 is laying around the builder’s yard, then we had better watch out for we will trip over him and fall headlong into judgement. 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 can simply mean that the stumbling which results from disobeying the message is the consequence- the destiny. They are responsible for their rejection because they have rejected God. 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, 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. 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 to be our Saviour, becomes our judge. The living stone becomes the tripping stone. Do you see what a serious thing it is to believe or reject the Gospel?
Thirdly, the praise of God- vv 9-12. Here Peter has in mind Exodus 19 and the choosing of Israel to be a royal priesthood, a holy nation. The danger of being referred to as a ‘chosen people’ is that it can cause us to concentrate on the privileges we have, such that we think because we are special we should be pampered. 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. 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 more detail 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 our lives are to 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. They should be able to see that we are people of integrity, that there is a good fit of profession of faith with living the faith.
A few years ago now, a survey was carried out amongst Christians in Britain to find out what it was that initially led them to follow Christ. 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 finally at 13.2% it was a specific evangelistic activity. From our experience here at St John’s those findings shouldn’t surprise us, they underscore what Peter is saying here for our encouragement that the way in which people give glory to God is by the regular, day to day witness of rank and file Christians.
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 ways 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: he could see the figure he wanted, not 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. The art world salutes the genius and the beauty of the Michael Angelo’s David but here is something infinitely greater and more wonderful: 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.
‘You are like living stones, being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Christ Jesus.’
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