Precious Stones and a Royal Priesthood

 

1 Peter 2:4-10

 

As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 

 

Introduction

 

I spent a year aged 15 studying English literature at school in England for state exams. We studied “The Woodlanders” by Thomas Hardy, “The Little World of Mr Polly” by H G Wells and Shakespeare’s “Henry IV Part I”. By the end of my year of study I could place in my mind’s eye nearly every page of these books where the different stages of the plots and narrative occurred. This was not because I was particularly clever but because these books were so two dimensional and limited by the humanity of their authors and was only so much a human being can put into a work of literature … but when the Holy Spirit writes literature through the agency of inspired authors – the depth of the literature is almost limitless.

 

Amongst other subjects, I have been teaching Genesis 1-11 at Eastwest College on and off for nearly 20 years. These 11 chapters are usually about just 8 pages of print in a Bible, but I have to say that fresh things come out of those mere 8 pages every year. The depth of the Christian scriptures is stunning. Every year I am learning new things and wish I could call back my former students and re-teach the course to include the things I didn’t know before. All the Scriptures and all the different themes in scripture are related and interact but they are all fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

 

One of the things I have been discovering for myself and considering in recent months is the role of God’s sanctuary, God’s temple in the Bible. That holy special place where men and women encounter God, and indeed where God is present: beginning in the Garden of Eden which was a sanctuary – going through Noah’s ark, Mt Sinai, the Tabernacle in the wilderness, Solomon’s Jerusalem Temple, all of which are mere shadows of the reality of our salvation through Jesus Christ in the church, and at the end of time the whole re-created universe becomes the temple of God.

 

Today I want to talk about Christians being living stones in God’s temple and about our role as a priesthood in that temple of God. The two are linked in our reading today:

 

As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 

I           You are living stones – ‘a Spiritual House’

 

Some Christians say that a sign of the end times will be the construction of a new temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Israeli Jews there might try to do this, I don’t know – but this will not the true end time temple. I don’t want to get bogged down discussing details of the end times, but this belief is based on a misunderstanding of that long complex description of a future temple in the last 9 chapters of Ezekiel.

 

The true end time temple will not be a physical building in Jerusalem (even if some people try to build one which is quite possible), but the temple of the church which is already under construction, which is composed of you and me and millions of others spread around the world. We are living stones in this temple described in our reading – with Christ as the cornerstone of the whole structure.

 

1 Peter was written to a church in danger of buckling under the strain of general harassment, if not outright persecution, and Peter was using the imagery (of temple and priesthood) of this section to encourage Christians who were discouraged and felt insignificant and forgotten in the difficulties of being a Christian in the Roman Empire (e.g. Egypt today). Peter piles on the titles to show the church is viewed in God’s sight. I will try to amplify these for us all today as we too might perhaps feel increasingly marginalised in these days of intolerant liberalism.

 

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

 

We might not look any more chosen, or priestly, or royal, or holy at the end of this letter, but it declares how we are in God’s sight – and that is the view that matters, and really counts in the universe. We need to grasp these things with the eye of faith.

 

Peter proclaims Christ as the cornerstone of the great new temple he is building which is the church – something Jesus had already claimed for himself in the Gospels. This cornerstone was laid at Christ’s resurrection.

 

As I am sure you know, the cornerstone of the building is the first stone set in place and it is from this cornerstone that everything else in the construction is measured and laid. So the builder and other sytones always refer back to the cornerstone. Individual Christians are the stones put in place to build up this temple, and all are related in some way to the cornerstone – each with our own role and purpose. God loves us so much that he has given us the honour to be laid as stones in the temple – of which Solomon’s great and glorious temple was a mere shadow.

 

In Solomon’s temple we read that the stones were carefully and selectively cut at a site away from the temple site, (as the Bible says – great and costly stones) and they’re brought in ready prepared and fitted perfectly into place. How much more special are we who are being built into the real temple of God which is Christ? And we are not dead lifeless stones as in Solomon’s temple – neither are we like some carved ornamental head or statue as in a medieval cathedral – we are living stones. Such is the delight which the Father has in those whom his Son brings to him in his salvation.

 

II          How can we be living stones?

 

We are Christians. We are living stones by faith. Yes, we may be believing students, retirees, builders, doctors, teachers, farmers or mechanics but by faith we are living stones. We are not a pile of rocks thrown together in a heap of rubble – though some churches might seem to look like that – we are carefully chosen and laid for a purpose. The local church is not just a gathering of people with a common interest but an assembly chosen by God. God’s purpose is not just to save individuals, but to bring together a great congregation to himself. We are saved to be part of an eternal church, of which the local church is a foretaste. We each are a laid stone cut and prepared by God. Cut and prepared for a unique place in his church to fit in with others.

 

  1. But it is said that 2/3 of Christians in NZ who claim to be born again NEVER go to church. This is a disaster. And on any one Sunday 1/3 of an evangelical congregation in NZ will be absent, often for pretty lame reasons. The old and new covenants were based on covenant communities. They are not just spiritual unities but physical unities as well.

 

  1. Those Christians who tell you they don’t need to go to church are deluded. When we walk into church on a Sunday we walk into a gathering which is a foretaste of the great heavenly assembly at the end of time – except alas, sin is present. I have to tell you one thing: God will never tell you to stop going to church. He might tell you to lay down a ministry, he might tell you to leave a heretical church. But he will never tell you to stop going to church altogether. We living stones fit together and we need each other. We are all living stones.

 

  1. We are also a community of love. If you don’t go to church you won’t have the opportunity for Christian love, which is for Christians to love one another. If you stop going to church you won’t have to get along with other people and you will have no-one to serve. If we’re absent we can’t encourage one another – and we can’t be part of God’s assembly which is God’s plan for the Christian believer. Jesus strongly desires to use your giftings, especially the spiritual gifts to make his local church stronger and more complete. We are all living stones.

 

  1. So as you come to church – don’t just come because you always come, but pray in advance that you might be a blessing. Ask yourself, who will I make a point of speaking to? Who will I sit next to? Have you prayed in advance for those taking part in the service and how you might encourage them – welcomers, musicians, worship leaders, people who prepare communion etc. And try to answer your own prayers by being an encouragement. Get alongside those to whom you are not naturally drawn. If you know what passage the preacher’s going to speak on, read it through yourself and pray for yourself and the preacher that there would be blessing for all.

 

  1. We are living stones, all part of the same living temple whose cornerstone is Christ Jesus. We need each other if the living temple is to be complete.

 

 

III         Royal priesthood

 

People chase often gongs, baubles, medals and honours, and knighthoods, but these are trinkets compared to the language being applied to real believers here in our reading … to describe you and me. No human being has ever given me titles like this before, … you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession. All this is of course based on the glory of Christ.

 

Our verses link the royal priesthood and the living stones. There is a natural link of course – temples need priests to operate.

 

The Protestant reformation began exactly 500 years ago – when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg in Germany. At that stage Luther was mainly concerned about corruption in the church, which wasn’t a new complaint, but in the subsequent years he developed the distinctive doctrines which became part of Baptist beliefs too. The Bible as the sole authority for doctrine and practice, justification by faith alone and by grace alone for salvation and thirdly, the priesthood of all believers. Luther taught the priesthood of all believers in reaction to the outrageous claims made by the Catholic priesthood of the day, which to be fair I doubt a Catholic priest in Hamilton would hold strongly today. There was a go-between hierarchy of priests between the ordinary church members and God.

 

Luther rediscovered that every Christian believer was a priest. Each believer has access to God through prayer and the indwelling Holy Spirit and had no need of a human priest. But this priesthood of all believers is not just about the Christian’s access to God, but much, much more.

 

What did the priests do in the OT? It was a position of tremendous privilege. They were engaged in worship and service. They tended the tabernacle, they interceded on behalf of those who could not enter the holy place. Priests stood and worked in the area on the temple between the most holy place and the ordinary people. They offered sacrifices, they kept the lamps lit they kept the temple clean and they prayed. The people at one side, the most holy place at the other side and the priesthood in between. Priests were the go-between people.

 

These wonderful titles (chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession) were originally given to Israel as they were about to become the people of God at the foot of Mt Sinai. Israel was called to be a holy nation because they were the chief witness to God for the rest of the world.

 

Israel’s God was the only true God and the Creator of the heavens and the earth and the people of Israel were the only way by which non-Israelites could hear or learn about God. OT tells us when Gentiles came to ask Israelites in order to learn about the true God. Rahab the harlot, Ruth the Moabite, the Queen of Sheba, Naaman the Syrian.

 

This is another reason why God was so grieved when Israel broke his covenant God was grieved because they were supposed to reflect the character of God.

 

But now the title of being a royal priesthood has been transferred on to the church. What a privilege that is! But what as responsibility!

IV         “I’m a member of this Royal Priesthood – So what!”

 

  1. Even though we might be plumbers, farmers, builders, teachers, retirees, housewives – we are also priests who are to be worshippers. We can do this because (like Israel’s priests) we wear the robe of righteousness. In our case through the cleansing of the blood of Christ. There was nothing more disastrous for Israel than a wicked priest – likewise we need to keep short accounts with God.

 

The worshipping priest offered their whole selves to God in worship and song thus we present ourselves in worship and service. The dedication of our lives is first of all with our lips as we declare his praises Is 43:21, “The people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise”. In this the new temple the sacrifices have all been fulfilled in Christ, but the worship must continue.

 

So we priests are first of all worshippers of God. (Private worship test). Yes you might be saying – I do that. But the worship of the Christian is much more than filling a church with beautiful song, or a way of lifting up our souls privately and being re-energised spiritually. But as God’s people in worship in this spiritual temple, we join the angels in a wider worship. One of the mysteries for the angels is why God’s Spirit has been placed in fallen men and women such as ourselves. God is glorified before the angels in the heavenly places as his people on earth praise his name through Jesus Christ. There is a heavenly amplifier for our worship no matter how clunky it might feel sometime at this end.

 

  1. Secondly, we priests are intercessors. God has delegated prayer for unbelievers to people like you and me. Why does the Almighty God need Christians to pray in order to get things done? Why doesn’t he just DO it? That’s not a new question – many have wondered at it down the years. I think it is because he wants Jesus to receive all the glory in the universe. That this priestly people whom Jesus has redeemed through his death and resurrection – their prayer is an extension of Jesus’ work. That’s why we pray “in Jesus’ name”. As our prayers in Jesus’ name are answered Jesus receives the glory in heaven (and sometimes on earth) – not so much for the answers but for the petitions in the first place.

 

  1. Thirdly we are God’s witnesses. That is we communicate with unbelievers about the mighty works of God, the excellencies of God – most of all about the greatest work of God which is the gospel of salvation for the lost through the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. Again, God could use angels to spread the gospel but he chooses to use people like you and me. But Jesus is glorified as the work is delegated to ordinary broken people like you and me. As Jesus said to the apostles just before his final ascension to his Father – “You shall be my witnesses.” This means personal evangelism, this means supporting those in evangelism through prayer and perhaps giving. But most of all I believe, in the context of the wider Bible it means that we are involved in the proclamation of the gospel to the nations who have NEVER heard. Now we Christians are the go-between people so the unsaved can hear the gospel of Christ.

 

  1. Christianity can become very self-centred – How can I be saved? How can I go to heaven when I die? Or worse today, How can I get rich? How can I prosper? But the pattern of priesthood is service for the whole wider community. So we can look out of our window at our unbelieving non-Christian neighbour and realise that God has appointed us his priest. Until he comes to faith, we are his go-between between God and him. We are his window on God. We can pray for him, we can witness to him, we can show God’s mercy to him with acts of kindness which might be quite undeserved.

 

Conclusion

 

What does all this mean? How can I conclude? I conclude in the same way Peter ends this very letter.

 

I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it. 13 She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, 

 

He was writing from what he calls ‘Babylon’ (probably Rome) to encourage Christians believers. I feel I am writing from Babylon – not that Hamilton is especially wicked but writing from a world which is hostile to Christ – where people who claim to be rational and people of reason despise our faith in the unseen Christ, yet who are obviously heading for destruction themselves with bade decisions being made at every level of society.

 

Live your life as a living stone together with your fellow believers in your local church and wider Christian community and secondly as a priest before God in wholehearted self-giving worship and in intercession for the wider unbelieving world proclaiming the excellencies of the God before all the peoples of the earth.