Though we have been working our way through the Book of Acts in an on-going series looking at the where, who, and what of Christian gatherings, particularly in the light of the evangelical response to COVID-19, there is one passage in particular that might summarize this for us and bring to light all that we have been seeing in that study.
In the second chapter of 1 Peter, we find a familiar passage that is often used to frame the scriptural truths of the New Covenant priesthood of believers, a foundational doctrine of the Protestant Reformation. However, upon closer examination, we find much more being communicated here.
4 As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5 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.1 Peter 2:4-5The first thing that we notice in this passage is the description of Christ, which is preceded by the statement of believers, more properly the elect, coming to Him, via effectual calling. Here, our Lord is metaphorically described as a living stone, One which was rejected by men. This is contrasted by the reality that Christ, this same Stone, was chosen and precious in the sight of God. It is this reference of Christ as a living stone that causes Peter, under divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to recall Isaiah 28:16
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,And again, Psalm 118:22
a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” 1 Peter 2:6, c.f. Isaiah 28:16
“The stone that the builders rejectedAnd again, Isaiah 8:14
has become the cornerstone 1 Peter 2:7, c.f. Psalm 118:22
“A stone of stumbling,For Peter, this reference of Christ as a building Stone, the Cornerstone, certainly has parallels to his response of Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am,” found in Matthew 16:15, to which Peter replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” With this reply, Peter receives a commendation from Jesus, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” While this concept of the rock has been oft-debated, it more than likely has a clear reference to the statement of deity that Peter makes with respect to Christ. Matthew 16:17-18 (for more, see here).
and a rock of offense.” 1 Peter 2:8, c.f. Isaiah 8:14
Furthermore, this language of Christ the Cornerstone, implies a structure is being built around Him as the cornerstone. In masonry terms, the cornerstone sets the direction and stability for the rest of the foundation and the entirety of the structure itself. Again, this likely points to the building of His church found in Matthew 16, but most definitely carries with it the idea of temple imagery. This too we may recall from a passage in John where our Lord refers to Himself as the temple, which will be destroyed and raised again the three days (John 2:19) and elsewhere when Jesus declares that greater than the temple is here, Matthew 12:6. All of these references, of course, carry with them Old Covenant tabernacle language wherein God promised to dwell, or tabernacle, among His people and through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, this became a reality as He ‘tabernacled’ among His people (John 1:14). Therefore we are now better equipped to understand Peter’s reference above to a spiritual structure that is being built with Christ as the Cornerstone and that with this, Christ is the fulfillment of all ‘places of worship’ that have come before (John 4:21-24).
It is upon this foundation that Peter is able to refer to believers as living stones, the same language used of Jesus, who collectively are being built into a spiritual house. This would seem to compliment the temple language which was introduced with our Lord and now goes on to include believers as living stones who make up or build this spiritual house in which God dwells. Given the references and typological allusions to Christ as the Greater Temple and tabernacling among His people, perhaps we would expect Peter to say here that believers are being built into a spiritual temple, but he doesn’t (note the temple reference is used in Ephesians 2:21). Instead he specifically refers to them as being built up (oikodomeo) into a spiritual house, oikos. The intentional language here avoids creating a 1:1 relationship with the Old Covenant temple, as well as any connotation of physical structures. House, or even dwelling place, would seem to highlight the New Covenant family of God and that this spiritual house is not geographically constrained to a particular tax parcel. Nevertheless, rather than a building made of bricks and stone, this spiritual house, made up of believers is the place where God dwells (Acts 7:48; Acts 17:24). This truth informs us that the place for worship of God is the place where believers gather together. Foundationally, this is what our Lord meant when He stated that where two or three are gathered together in His name He is gathered in their midst (Matthew 18:19-20).
Next, in our 1 Peter passage, we see believers called a holy priesthood, First a spiritual house, now a holy priesthood, as the theme moves from a place for worship of God to a people for worship of God (yes both refer to people, but the imagery is that of a ‘place’ and now ‘people’). The language of priesthood is not veiled, rather it is a crystal clear reference to the priesthood established under the Old Covenant, one which necessitated lineage from the tribe of Levi, and more specifically from the loins of Aaron, in order to be a High Priest. In this instance, however, there is no required physical genealogy, instead it is a spiritual priesthood for those who have been born again, those who have their genealogy in Christ the High Priest after the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5-7). Additionally, this concept is expanded a couple of verses later in 1 Peter 2:9, where the phrase ‘royal priesthood’ is used. With this, we are to understand this priesthood as a kingly-priesthood and stands as the New Covenant fulfillment of Exodus 19:6, thus a new Israel.
What then is the significance of being called a holy priesthood? First, we ought to note the adjective modifying this priesthood, holy. This highlights the set apart nature of the priesthood, set apart from the world and to God. Additionally, it implies that this priesthood has been justified, that is made righteous through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, but likewise that this priesthood is being sanctified. This certainly speaks to the (new) character and nature of this priesthood. Next, we notice again the corporate, collective language, individually priest but collectively a priesthood.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the priesthood is direct access to God. Under the Old Covenant, it was the priests alone (after Moses and Joshua) who had direct access to God and mediated God, as it were, to the people. It was the priests who entered into the holy place with strict regulations; it was the high priest who entered The Most Holy Place, and him only once a year on the Day of Atonement. In the New Covenant, inaugurated by the blood of Jesus Christ, this access to God has been opened such that we believers by grace through faith may confidently draw near to the throne of God to receive mercy and find grace in our time of need (Hebrews 3:14-16). Furthermore, priests offered sacrifices to God. Now, through the sacrifice of Jesus, as He is both the High Priest and the sacrifice, we too may offer spiritual sacrifices to God, which Romans 12 says is our whole bodies and Romans 6 commands us to use as instruments of righteousness. Fourth, as alluded to earlier, priests mediate or perhaps more accurately, represent God to others. This is our fulfillment of the Great Commission, to minister the gospel to lost souls, make disciples, baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teach them all that Jesus commanded. Those are indeed priestly functions. This duty is described in 1 Peter as proclaiming the praises, or excellencies of God, “who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Gospel proclamation to highlight the excellencies of God. Finally, though there are many more priestly applications we could make, we ought to note the Reformation principle of the believer’s priesthood, namely, the lack of clergy-lay distinction. In other words, as it pertains to the universal priesthood of believers, there are no longer hierarchical positions in the priesthood. There is one High Priest and His name is Jesus Christ and there is one universal priesthood of believers and they all have access to God, a responsibility to offer sacrifices, and a duty to represent God to others. A proper understanding of those who function as leaders (elders, teachers, etc.) cannot usurp the clear teaching of the universal priesthood. This was a hill to die on in the Reformation, unfortunately many who fought for it, ultimately abandoned it. Summarily, the spiritual priesthood from our passage identifies a people for the worship of God.
Lastly, from 1 Peter 2 we find a purpose for the worship of God, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. This, in essence, summarizes and applies our previous two points and shows that each of these aspects are inseparable links in a chain. The place where the sacrifices were made, under the Old Covenant, was the temple. The people who offered the sacrifices were the priests. However, whereas the sacrifices that were offered under the Old Covenant involved the blood of animals, the New Covenant sacrifices are here called spiritual. The reason this transition has taken place is, as mentioned earlier, based solely on the blood of Jesus Christ spilled at the cross of Calvary. His death, and subsequent resurrection, for His people and in His covenant grants them the ability to make acceptable spiritual sacrifices to God.
What are these sacrifices?
As we mentioned above, these begin with the sacrifice of our own lives. This includes our whole body, now to be used as an instrument of righteousness. This means using our eyes, ears, hands, feet, etc. all in sacrifice for the purposes of God. Additionally, all of our heart, soul, mind are to be devoted to love and serve of God. Related to both the priestly nature of God’s people and the sacrifice of worship by God’s people is the set apart holiness that we are called to. To consecrate ourselves unto God by abstaining from fleshly lusts and keeping our conduct pure among the Gentiles is a priestly duty both in our person and our actions. Perhaps no other verses highlight the spiritual sacrifices to be made by God’s people than the following
Jesus answered, “The most important [commandment] is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”A place, a people, and a purpose for the worship of God. This principle holds up whether we are in the midst of peace, persecution, or pandemic. When we understand that the context of Peter’s letter was to encourage scattered believers to remain steadfast and submissive in the face of suffering, it even more highlights the significance of what God is saying here. Though not explicit, it is certainly implied that the place, people, and purpose for the worship of God necessitates the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the gathering in the name of Christ. May our gathering together not be geographically constrained; may our gathering together not be hierarchically dependent; and may our gathering together be for the preparation of our bodies to be sacrifices for God such that we may proclaim the praises and excellencies of Him who called us and saved us to all of the lost world.
Soli Deo Gloria