Two weeks ago, the last time I had the privilege of sharing some devotional thoughts with you, we talked about three verses from the second chapter of Peter's letter written to Christians in scattered communities in what's now Turkey. We learned a lot from those three verses. They challenged us to make sure that we're spiritually mature enough to chomp down on a wide variety of healthy spiritual food, and not just to settle for easy-to-digest milk that we can sip without any work of our own. Spiritual maturity is something we're all commanded to strive after, no matter what physical age we are. We can learn to chew and digest spiritual steak. And that challenges us to ask ourselves what kind of spiritual nourishment we're getting in our Bible studies and in our devotionals. Are we still working with the same kind of basics that we would have used a decade ago? If so, then we probably haven't stretched ourselves very much since then. We should remember to ask ourselves the hard questions. We should force ourselves to think. There's no retiring from spiritual maturity. There's no retiring from getting deeper into the things of God, even if it may be hard work. God calls us to the hard work; he just promises that in Christ, we'll find a healthy rhythm of work and rest. If the devotions we share and the prayers we pray are no more meaty than we could have handled years ago, then maybe we've been refusing to grow – and that's not God's plan for our lives. In the kingdom of God, “we've always done it that way” is not an excuse for refusing to grow; neither is, “That makes my head hurt”, and neither is, “But I don't want to”. We're called to serve a God who transforms, a God who wants us to grow and change even though it stretches and pulls and stings and hurts.
“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.” [[1 Peter 2:4-5]]
“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 cornerstone,' and, 'A stone that causes people to stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.' They stumble because they disobey the message – which is also what they were destined for.” [[1 Peter 2:6-8]]
Now Peter turns a corner to give us some new teaching. He says that Jesus is like a stone who's alive. He's the foundational cornerstone in what God is building. When people in society try to build shelters from the world, or to build schools of thought, or even to build things that honor God, too often people assume that something else can be the cornerstone. Too often people imagine that Jesus Christ is expendable. Too often we in our hearts pretend that Jesus Christ is expendable. But there is nothing expendable, nothing disposable, nothing optional when it comes to the one-of-a-kind Redeemer, the one and only Son of God. Jesus is the living Stone. The human builders rejected him. But in rejecting him, they trip over him and only hurt themselves more, because Jesus is the one chosen by the Father to be the centerpiece, the cornerstone, in his whole construction project. And there's no other foundation anyone can lay but this one. Jesus is not one option among many. Jesus is a necessity.
We can't afford to stumble over him. We can't afford to fall. Peter says that those who stumble over Jesus are stumbling and falling because they disobey the message. When they hear the gospel, they turn away from it. Maybe they think that there's no truth anyway, so there's no point in paying attention. Maybe they think that, when it comes to religion, one thing must be as good as another, and anyone who says otherwise is just being mean and intolerant. Those are popular objections these days. And they're both wrong. Jesus is the Truth. Not the Opinion. Not the Custom. Not the Truth-for-You-But-Not-for-Me. The Truth. More specifically, Jesus is the Beautiful-Truth-in-Holy-Love. There's nothing more loving than Jesus Christ. There's nothing more beautiful than Jesus Christ. There's nothing more holy than Jesus Christ. And there is nothing truer than Jesus Christ. We can say those things in a mean and intolerant and ugly and unloving way, but they themselves are not mean, they aren't intolerant, they aren't ugly, and they aren't unloving. They're what the world needs to hear, and what the world needs to accept. Because to not accept it is to stumble. But what's more, just hearing the message isn't enough. Just agreeing with the message isn't enough. Peter says that people stumble if they disobey the message. The message of Jesus Christ – that he died for our awful sins, that he rose again in victory and life, that he ascended on high as our great High Priest to intercede with us before the Father's throne, that he reigns even now as supreme authority over everything that happens in the whole universe, and that he's coming back to judge everyone both alive and dead – that's the message we're being given, and it has a lot of implications for how we live our lives. One would hope that all those in our churches at least are familiar with the message. One would hope that they all understand the message clearly. Sadly, that's probably too optimistic. But for right now, we have to ask the pressing question: how well are we obeying the message, obeying it with 'the obedience that comes from faith', as Paul says twice in Romans?
But while Peter is talking about Jesus as the living Stone, the one who's most precious to God, Peter says something else here. Peter is telling us that as we come to him, we're more living stones. We're part of what God is building! We aren't just observers. We're God's building materials. And as we let him put us together, what's the finished project look like? Peter says that it's a “spiritual house”. In other words, it's the one and only end-times temple of God, the temple where God's Spirit is living. We together, even we right here, are God's temple in construction. Or rather, we're already a temple, and the temple is growing. This temple is alive!
If we're going to be God's temple, that carries some serious weight. A temple is the place where God lives. A temple is the place where people go to meet him. A temple is the place where people go to serve him. And a temple is the place where people go to build up their relationship with him. That's what the temple was always for. Only, as we talked about in church this week, the new temple isn't a place. The new temple is us. But what kind of a temple are we choosing to be? If a visitor came to this prayer meeting, would they walk away thinking, “Wow.... God lives here?” If a visitor came to this prayer meeting, right now, would they meet Jesus personally? Would they be able to experience the presence of the risen Christ among us.... or would we get in the way? If a visitor came to this prayer meeting, would they be able to walk away feeling refreshed and connected with God? Or would they have to leave feeling distant from God still? If we're doing our job as a temple here, right here in this prayer meeting, people could come here and meet Jesus. People coming here could fall in love with God all over again. But would they? Are we being that kind of temple? Are we a temple of the veiled-but-visible glory of God? Or as a temple, are we named 'Ichabod' – “no glory”?
But Peter doesn't just say that we're a temple. He says that we're being built up into a temple. This temple is not static. This temple is not finished. This temple is supposed to grow. That means, for one, that we should be out there recruiting some more stones! But it also means that we should together grow to spiritual maturity. Like we discussed before, our job as a people is not to stay still. Our job as individual Christians is not to stay still in our walk. They call it a 'walk', not a 'standstill'! Our job is to grow. Our job is to go deeper, to see farther and wider, and to love harder. Are we growing? When we look back on our week, do we have to admit that we haven't learned anything new that we can use to understand God's word better? Or can we say that we've gotten closer to the heart of what God is saying? And if we can say that, then the next important question is, what are we going to do with it?
“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, 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.” [[1 Peter 2:9-10]]
Earlier, Peter had already alluded to the fact that, as the temple of God, we're also the priesthood of God. A priest is someone who comes before God on behalf of others, and before others on behalf of God. A priest is someone sanctified for God's special service. In the Old Testament, there were plenty of priests, all descended from Moses' brother Aaron. Their leader was the high priest, and once every year, after some intense preparation, the high priest would get to pass through a veil in the temple into a room called the Holy of Holies, the place where the Ark of the Covenant was kept – and on top of that box was a 'mercy seat' representing God's throne, flanked by a pair of heavenly creatures called cherubim. The Holy of Holies was where God's presence was. Under the old covenant, there were a lot of priests, and they kept having to be replaced. None of them lasted. They had limited access to God, and what was worse, the offerings they made couldn't really fix the problem of sin. It was just animal blood and a hamburger or two. It wasn't good enough to clean us inside and out.
But we know that things are different now. Instead of there being many priests, there's really just one. Our Great High Priest is none other than Jesus. He's perfect. He's in God's presence all the time, in the real Holy of Holies in heaven. He's alive forever, so he never has to be replaced, nor is there anybody who could fill his priestly shoes. Best of all just as the change in covenants moved us from many weak priests to one perfect priest, so it moved us from many weak sacrifices to one perfect sacrifice – which Jesus made on the cross and then brought into the Father's presence forever.
So if the whole old priesthood has been replaced by Jesus, then what does Peter mean when he talks about us as not just the temple but as the 'royal priesthood'? Well, remember that as the church, we're the bride of Christ. A woman who marries a king gets to share in his rule through the marriage; so we, in being united to Christ, share in his royal rule and in his holy priesthood. As Martin Luther wrote in 1520, “just as Christ by his birthright obtained these two prerogatives, so he imparts them to and shares them with everyone who believes in him according to the law of the above-mentioned marriage, according to which the wife owns whatever belongs to the husband. Hence all of us who believe in Christ are priests and kings in Christ.”
See, we don't have a priesthood independent of Christ's, nor are just some people in the church priests. But all of us are royalty and all of us are priests – though only through sharing in the priesthood and the royalty that Jesus has. We weren't always a people. We weren't always united together like this, as a 'holy nation'. Before we met Jesus, we were outsiders to God's people and to his plan. We weren't living under mercy. But God is a God who invites the outsiders to become the inner circle. God is a God who takes a bunch of miscellaneous no-goodniks from all backgrounds and all walks of life, and makes them into one new people and one new family and showers them – us! – with undeserved mercy after mercy and blessing after blessing. Peter says that God did this so that we could 'declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light'. We aren't in the dark anymore, the way we once were. We're living in the light, as he is in the light. We've been given rescue from the dungeon. We've been called to be priests and a temple. And the spiritual sacrifice we offer in the new covenant is to praise God with our lips and with our lives for how incredible he's been to us:
O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer's praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of his grace!
My gracious Master and my God,
Assist me to proclaim,
To spread through all the earth abroad
The honors of thy name.
Jesus! the name that charms our fears,
That bids our sorrows cease;
'Tis music in the sinner's ears,
'Tis life and health and peace.
He breaks the power of canceled sin,
He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean,
His blood availed for me.
On this glad day the glorious Sun
Of Righteousness arose;
On my benighted soul he shone
And filled it with repose.
Sudden expired the legal strife,
'Twas then I ceased to grieve;
My second, real, living life
I then began to live.
Then with my heart I first believed,
Believed with faith divine,
Power with the Holy Ghost received
To call the Savior mine.
I felt my Lord's atoning blood
Close to my soul applied;
Me, me he loved, the Son of God,
For me, for me he died!
I found and owned his promise true,
Ascertained of my part,
My pardon passed in heaven I knew
When written on my heart.
Look unto him, ye nations, own
Your God, ye fallen race;
Look and be saved through faith alone,
Be justified by grace.