Welcome to the Priesthood
1 Peter 2:4-10
November 21, 2004
As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men 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. For in Scripture it says: “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.” Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone,” and, “A stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for. But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (I Peter 2:4-10).
Although I did not plan it this way, it seems very appropriate that we would come to this text the Sunday before Thanksgiving because this is a passage that ought to fill our hearts with praise. In these verses Peter tells us who Jesus is and who we are because of who he is.
I. Who is Jesus?
Peter uses one key word to describe who Jesus is. He is the stone upon which the whole church is built. You can see that in four different places in our text:
In verse four, he is the “the living Stone.”
In verse six, he is “the cornerstone.”
In verse seven, he is “the capstone.”
In verse eight, he is the “stone that causes men to stumble.”
But there is even more in our text about Christ the stone:
He is the stone the builders rejected (v. 7).
He is the stone chosen by God (v. 4).
He is the stone that is precious to every believer (v. 7).
We can say it another way:
To the world, he is the stumblingstone.
To God, he is the chosen stone.
To believers, he is the cornerstone.
But that’s not all. In verse four Peter calls Jesus the “living Stone” and he says that we who believe are like “living stones.” That means that he is the Rock and we are like chips off the Living Block. If we understand what Peter is saying, then we know something about the church and we know something about the world. A living stone sounds strange to our ears because stones are always dead. But when we come into contact with Jesus Christ, we are made alive with him. That tells us that the church is more than a human organization. The true church is an ever-growing collection of living stones, being built one upon another by the head of the church, the Lord Jesus Christ. From our perspective, the church often seems weak, confused, uncertain, competitive, divided, and ineffective. But our Lord is building a spiritual temple that spans the generations. And he’s building it one living stone at a time. That temple matters much more than the most beautiful sanctuary or the most ornate cathedral built of brick and mortar. The greatest buildings built by man will one day crumble to the ground. We have the great privilege to worship in an historic church building that once housed the First Presbyterian Church of Oak Park. During the week, tourists stop to look at the beauty of the granite stonework, the massive Byzantine arches, and the ornate stained glass. Last year we completed a renovation that included a new portico. That design was judged so excellent that it won an award for blending new and old construction seamlessly. But these buildings, beautiful as they are, will not last forever. One day they are destined to crumble to the ground. Nothing built by man lasts forever.
Because the temple God is building is made of living stones, it will never be destroyed. It will never crumble and it will never need renovation. And we who believe are part of it. Every Christian is part of God’s temple. Darryl Dash offers the following helpful illustration that helps us understand how our church fits into the big picture. You can always tell when a new building is being constructed by the massive scaffolding that encircles the new building as it rises from the ground. As long as you see the scaffolding, you know the building isn’t finished. The scaffolding is the last thing to go. But when it is removed, you know the building is finished. Every local church is part of the visible scaffolding around the invisible temple God has been building for the last 2,000 years. When the final living stone has been placed in the temple, the scaffolding will come tumbling down, the trumpet will sound, the archangel will shout, and we will get to see the grand work God has been doing for the last 20 centuries.
This is a revolutionary insight if we will grasp it. I know people get frustrated by how slow the church moves. We have so many meetings and groups and we talk a lot about budgets and buildings and programs. It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture if you focus on the ecclesiastical machinery, even though that machinery is necessary for the church to do its work in the world. But God is doing something beyond all of that. If only we could capture Peter’s vision, everything would look different.
§ Every Bible class would be a quarry for living stones.
§ Every children’s worker would say, “I have living stones all around me to polish and to smooth them out until each little child finds his place in God’s great living temple.”
§ And every worship service would be a time of suspense as we wait to see what God is doing to add more living stones to his temple.
§ Every missionary would be a stonemason sent to the ends of the earth in search of living stones for God’s temple.
Cornerstone or Stumblingstone
Peter’s words also teach us something about the world. The world stumbles over Jesus because it has no use for him. Peter says it in some startling ways:
A) The religious leaders (the builders) rejected him.
B) But God made him the Savior of the world anyway.
C) Christ causes men to stumble because they choose to disobey.
D) They were destined for this from the beginning.
That last statement comes from verse eight where Peter explains why unbelievers choose to disobey. The ESV translates the last phrase this way: “They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.” There is perfect balance in that statement. There is the human side (“they disobey the word”) and the divine side (“as they were destined to do”). The human side we understand; it’s the divine side that bothers us. We recoil from statements like that because we value our freedom so much. We like to think that if anyone goes to hell, it’s almost an accident. Peter wants to emphasize that men cannot overturn God’s purposes by their unbelief. Though they reject Jesus and crucify him, nevertheless God makes him the cornerstone of the church and the capstone of salvation. No unbeliever will ever be able to say, “See, I messed up God’s plan. I was supposed to be one of the “living stones” but I said no to Jesus and now there is a gaping hole in God’s building.” Wrong! There are no gaping holes in God’s temple. All those whom God has chosen will eventually be saved. None of the elect will ever be lost. And those who go to hell will discover that though they chose to disobey, God had the final word. If there must be damnation, it is better to understand that it happens by God’s choice, not by ours alone.
There is a warning here that we must not miss. The same stone that saves some causes others to stumble. Three times in this passage Peter uses the word “precious” to describe Jesus. But to the world Jesus is not precious at all. You can’t tell the value of something just by checking popular opinion. The world was wrong about Jesus 2,000 years ago, and the world is still wrong about him today. You cannot be neutral about Jesus. He will save you or he will crush you, and there is no third choice.
Jesus is not only the cornerstone, he is also the touchstone of history. Now that he has been revealed from heaven, no one can avoid him. That’s one reason unbelievers often grow frustrated. They keep coming face to face with Jesus and they don’t know what to do with him. They stumble and fall over him, and sometimes you want to say, “Man! Open your eyes. That’s the Cornerstone you’re stumbling over.”
What is Jesus to you? Is he your cornerstone or is he still a stumblingstone? What is the foundation of your life? Build it on Jesus and you will never be disappointed. You will never be moved, you will never be toppled, and you will never be ashamed.
Who is Jesus?
He’s the living Stone.
He’s the cornerstone.
He’s the capstone.
He’s the stumblingstone.
II. Who Are We?
This passage answers that question in a variety of ways:
Verse 4 says we are the people who come to Christ by faith.
Verse 5 says we are a spiritual house and a holy priesthood.
Verse 6 says we are the ones who will never be put to shame.
Verse 7 says we are the ones to whom Jesus is precious.
Verse 9 says we are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.
Verse 10 says we are the people of God who have received his great mercy.
This list is so monumental that it’s easy to get lost in the details. I think Peter gives us a clue about what is most important when he uses the term priesthood twice. In verse 5 he calls us a “holy priesthood” and in verse 9 he calls us a “royal priesthood.” Here’s the key to understanding this concept: In the Old Testament, God called a certain group of men (the Levites) to serve him as priests. They had special privileges and special responsibilities. They had many duties, but you could sum them up by saying they offered sacrifices before the Lord. When the people brought an animal to be sacrificed, the priest would slit its throat, drain the blood, and offer the carcass on the altar of sacrifice. There was one man called the high priest who offered the most important sacrifice of all. On the Day of Atonement each year, and only on the Day of Atonement, he would take the blood of a goat and go behind the thick veil into the Holy of Holies where he would sprinkle the blood on the Mercy Seat, the golden lid of the Ark of the Covenant. That signified that the sins of the people had been atoned or covered by the blood of the sacrifice. But only he could offer that sacrifice and only on one day each year. It was one man, one sacrifice, and only once a year.
The whole Old Testament system sent a message that it wasn’t easy to approach God. The ordinary Israelite could not offer his own sacrifices; he had to go through the priest who offered his sacrifice for him. The priest served as a go-between to bridge the gap between God and man.
Peter says, “That’s all changed now that Christ has come.”
In the Old Testament, they had a priesthood.
In the New Testament, we are a priesthood.
In the church every believer is a priest. The essence of being a priest is having access to God. In the Old Testament that meant going to the priests who had to follow certain procedures that governed what they wore and how they offered the sacrifices. But now that Christ has come, we are all able to go directly to God without offering an animal sacrifice.
What does that mean to us as a congregation? I am your pastor, but I am not your priest. You don’t have to come to me in order to pray or read your Bible. You can talk to God on your own any time you like. Last Sunday night at the Biannual Business Meeting, we elected elders, not priests. There is a fundamental spiritual equality in the body of Christ. We have pastors and elders, but we don’t have a special group of priests. Every believer is a priest. When J. Vernon McGee preached on this passage, he called his sermon, “You are a Catholic Priest!” He’s right because the word “catholic” means universal. We are all priests before the Lord.
So if the chief work of the priest is to offer sacrifices to the Lord, and if all believers are priests, how many of you brought a lamb with you to church today? Did anyone bring a bull and leave it tied up in front of the Sanctuary? Anyone bring some turtledoves? You didn’t bring any animals because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin (Hebrews 10:1-4). That whole system of animal sacrifice ended when Christ died on the cross. But that doesn’t mean we don’t offer sacrifices. It just means we don’t offer animal sacrifices. In his commentary on this passage, John MacArthur lists seven sacrifices that Christians make as part of the royal priesthood:
A) Our bodies (Romans 12:1).
B) Our praise (Hebrews 13:15).
C) Our good works (Hebrews 13:16).
D) Our generous giving (Hebrews 13:16).
E) Our converts (Romans 15: 16).
F) Our love (Ephesians 5:1-2).
G) Our prayers (Revelation 8:3-4).
If you think about that list, it really means that all of life is to be a sacrifice offered to God. All that we do and say should be a heartfelt offering of ourselves in gratitude to God for all his goodness to us.
There is another way to look at what it means to be a priest. The Latin word for priest is pontifex, which itself comes from two words means “to make” and “bridge.” A priest makes a bridge between God and man. Jesus left us on earth to be bridge-builders for him.
We do that when we worship.
We do that when we praise.
We do that when we confess our sins.
We do that when we pray.
We do that when we give.
We do that when we witness.
We do that when we perform acts of mercy.
Jesus left us here to represent him on the earth. You can be a priest wherever you are, 24/7. You don’t have to wait to come to church. We are all portable temples and mobile priests.
You don’t have to go to seminary to be a priest.
You don’t have to preach on Sunday to be a priest.
You don’t have to wear a robe to be a priest.
Prayer is one of most powerful ways you can exercise your royal priesthood. On Friday I received a note from Eva Lodgaard who serves with the Scripture Memory Mountain Mission in Emmalena, Kentucky. For those who don’t know, that’s in the Appalachian Mountains of southeastern Kentucky. After “Miss Eva” graduated from Moody Bible Institute in 1945, our church sent her out as a missionary and we have been supporting her for the last 59 years. She spent many years teaching Bible classes to children and helping at her beloved Camp Nathanael. Now she is in her late 80s and her health has not been good. She is mostly homebound and doesn’t get out much. But her faith remains strong and she is an inspiration to all who know her. Near the end of her message, she added this sentence: “I can’t do much any more but I do have time and strength to pray.” But isn’t that the most important thing? Miss Eva is part of the royal priesthood and she is still serving well after all these years.
The Church in Many Places
Last Sunday night I announced that our theme for next year would be, “The Church in Many Places.” We want to emphasize the ministry that happens away from these buildings. The church is not just the church when it meets at 931 Lake Street on Sunday morning. The church happens whenever the royal priesthood comes together to minister in Jesus’ name. I saw a powerful example of that on Thursday night when I joined about 30 people at Rob and Mary Gaskill’s home in River Forest to pray for Pam Steger, a young mother in our church who has cancer. After the first round of treatment a few months ago, the cancer seemed to disappear but recently it has returned. Pam and her husband Mike gathered with many of their friends to pray and encourage each other. We sang and listened to a Bible reading of God’s promises to his children. Mike gave the latest medical update. Then I read James 5:13-16 and anointed Pam with oil in the name of the Lord. We gathered around Mike and Pam, laying our hands on them as we prayed. Because we met in the living room, not everyone could reach them so people touched the person in front of them, and we were all joined together in an ancient biblical symbol of unity. The prayers were deep and heart-felt, and you could hear the sound of quiet crying. We prayed for healing, we prayed that God would give both of them faith and strength, we asked God to protect their two young children, and we prayed that God would be glorified no matter what happens. After the time of prayer, we sang the Doxology and read in unison a paraphrase of Psalm 139. Then there was an announcement about preparing meals for the family because Pam will soon begin five weeks of radiation therapy. The treatment will be difficult to endure and it is not without risk. But it is also her best hope of beating back the cancer once again.
Then Pam spoke. She seemed remarkably composed given all that she has been through and all that lies ahead. Wiping away her tears, she said, “I thank all of you. We couldn’t have made it without you.” Last Sunday was the first time in a month she had been able to come to church. “It was so good to be there. I felt such peace in my heart.”
No one wanted to leave. One by one people came up and hugged Mike and Pam. There were words of affirmation and encouragement. A few more tears. “Your faith helped all of us tonight,” I said.
As I drove home, I thought to myself how simple it all was. We met in a home as believers did in the beginning. We sang, we prayed, we read the Word, we encouraged each other, and we all left stronger than when we came. This is what the church was meant to be. Everything else is just details.
This is what Peter means when he says we are a “royal priesthood.” It’s the church in many places doing the work of God. I long to see that happen in hundreds of places, and someday if God will permit it, in thousands of places as our people are scattered across Chicago as believer-priests doing God’s work in the world.
How Excellent is the Lord!
There’s one other part of the text I want us to notice in closing. In verse 9 Peter says God has done all this for us so that we might “declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” The NASB says that we are to “proclaim the excellencies” of our God. This is the true work of the church. We are left on the earth to proclaim how excellent is the Lord. That’s our job description. That’s our calling. That’s why God left us here instead of taking us straight home to heaven. We serve a God of unending excellencies. It’s our job to make sure the world knows how excellent he is.
And that brings us back to a theme that has been on my heart a lot lately. It’s not about you and it’s not about me. It’s all about God and what he has done for us. When the church fulfills its true calling, it will be radically God-centered.
We were in darkness until God called us into the light.
We were not a people until God made us his people.
We had not received mercy until God showered his mercy on us.
Here is my sermon in just one sentence: God made you who you are so you could tell the world who he is. We exist to advertise God’s excellence to the world. We are in the PR business. We’re God’s agents on the earth. This is the full-time job description of a royal priest—to declare the glories of our God and King.
Where does that leave us this morning? It ought to leave us incredibly thankful to God. Thanksgiving is just around the corner. If we are not thankful to the Lord, shame on us! Christians ought to be the most thankful people on earth. Rejoice and give thanks to the Lord and bless his name. Welcome to the priesthood. Let’s praise the Lord together this week. Amen.