At this time in America of swirling controversy – politically, culturally, and economically – Christians sometimes can get so caught up in the debate that they temporarily forget their identity as Christians and even find themselves identifying more with their favorite political cause than their Christian faith. At times like this, it is important for Christians to remind themselves about who they are.
Who are we as Christians, and how can remembering our identity help us live better in this culture? Among other identities that the New Testament gives Christians (true Israel, adopted sons of God, people in God’s image, etc.), 1 Peter 2 goes a long way to answering the question of who we are.
1 Peter 2:4-9 shows that we are identified and in union with Jesus as the new temple, and it shows the unified purpose of why we are identified as a temple:
And coming to Him as to a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For this is contained in Scripture: “BEHOLD, I LAY IN ZION A CHOICE STONE, A PRECIOUS CORNERSTONE, AND HE WHO BELIEVES IN HIM WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED.” This precious value, then, is for you who believe; but for those who disbelieve, “THE STONE WHICH THE BUILDERS REJECTED, THIS BECAME THE VERY CORNERSTONE,” and, “A STONE OF STUMBLING AND A ROCK OF OFFENSE”; for they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed. “But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light;”
The New Temple
I cannot comment on every part of this passage but will focus on those parts which highlight the Christian’s identity and associated unity. Verse 4 refers to believers “coming to him [Christ] as a living stone” of the new temple, which has been rejected by men but “is choice and precious in the sight of God.” This language is an allusion to Psalm 118:22, which is quoted fully in verse 7 and topologically refers in its context to the coming Messiah as the “cornerstone” of the temple. (Vv. 6 and 8 also apply Isaiah references – respectively Isa 28:16 and 8:14 – about the temple to Christ).
“Coming” to Christ as the “living stone” of the new temple (v. 4) brings one to be identified with Christ as “living stones being built up as a spiritual house [temple]” (v. 5). The probable reason that Christians are identified with Jesus as the “living stone” is that they have come into union with him when they have “come to him,” which is explained as “believing in him” (v. 6). The repetition of “living” emphasizes the organic relationship between Christ and his followers, which is close to the notion of union. They are what he is as the “living” resurrected Christ. He is one new temple, and we are part of that one temple, which is part of the basis for our unity as a church and believers.
How can you know if you are in Christ’s temple? One way is to ask yourself how much you “long for the pure milk of the word.”This concept of union with Christ as the temple is supplied by Psalm 34:8, “if you have tasted that the Lord is good” (CSB), cited directly before our passage in 1 Peter 2:3. The conclusion of Psalm 34:8 (34:9 in the Septuagint) reads, “blessed is the man who takes refuge in him,” which is the unspoken bridge to “coming to him” in verse 4, and explains that the identification with Christ as the temple is due to people “coming to him” and “taking refuge in him.”
This is very close to the idea of union with Christ, which causes us to be identified with him as the temple. In fact, the fuller phrase of Psalm 34:8b (“who [he] takes refuge in him”) occurs several times elsewhere in the Old Testament, sometimes in direct connection with “taking refuge in him [God]” as the temple (Ps 61:4; cf. “taking refuge in him” as a “rock” in Pss 18:2-3, 30-31; 31:1-2; 71:1-3; 144:1-2).
How can you know if you are in Christ’s temple? One way is to ask yourself how much you “long for the pure milk of the word,” mentioned in 1 Peter 2:2. “If you have tasted” of that Word and “the kindness of the Lord,” it will lead you to the temple of Christ; continuing to “long for” God’s Word is a sign you are in the temple. Indeed, one of the activities of priests who served in the temple in the Old Testament was to learn and teach God’s Word to Israel (e.g., Deut 31:9-19; Neh 8). Another sign of being a priest in the temple is if you desire to pray, since this was to be a function of priests in God’s end-time temple (see Isa 56:7; for the role of prayer in the Old Testament temple, see 1 Kgs 8:23-53). So, signs of being in Christ’s temple are if you desire God’s Word and desire to pray to him as his spiritual priests.
This idea of priests serving in a temple is formally developed in verse 5. Verse 5 goes on to say that believers are not only a temple in Christ, but that they are, at the same time, “a holy priesthood,” and as such, they are “to offer up sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Just as Old Testament priests offered animal sacrifices, so believers in the new covenant age are to offer up sacrifices, but these are not animal sacrifices.
What do we sacrifice? We sacrifice ourselves, as Romans 12:1 says: “Therefore, I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” Similarly, in 1 Peter 2:21, Peter also specifies how we are to sacrifice ourselves: “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps.” Christ atoned for our sins by his sacrifice. We are to follow his example of sacrifice, though, of course, our sacrifice does not have atoning power.
There are innumerable ways that Peter says we can “sacrifice” ourselves as priests in the new temple of Christ. Peter sees these sacrifices as involving the following:
“For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God” (1 Pet 2:19-20).
Likewise, these sacrifices include “not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead” (1 Pet. 3:9). This is similar to Romans 12:21: “do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.” Appropriately, this concludes Romans 12, which began with “present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” Romans 12:21 is likely one of the ways to “present our bodies a living and holy sacrifice.” Hebrews 13:16 also says, “And do not neglect doing good and sharing; for with such sacrifices God is pleased.”
What is the nature of these sacrifices that we are talking about? The Old Testament talks about a “sacrifice of thanksgiving,” which was an actual animal sacrifice (Lev 7:12-15). The Psalms appear to understand this sometimes in a non-literal manner (Pss 50:14, 23; 116:17), and it is clearly understood in that way in Hosea 6:6: “For I delight in loyalty and not in sacrifice and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Jesus understands Hosea 6:6 in the same way (Matt 9:13). Hebrews 13:15 says, “Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name.” The author of Hebrews writes this to people who “accepted joyfully the seizure of your property” (Heb 10:34). They were to give thanks even when they lost their own homes! That was a real sacrifice!
As a priest in God’s new temple, we are to offer sacrifices of ourselves.How does this apply to the New Testament age? When something is going on that we do not understand, perhaps sickness or some financial setback, how should we react? I remember someone in a church I attended years ago who was an accountant for a car dealership. His boss asked him to “cover-up” some of the dealership’s earnings, so the business would not have to pay as much federal tax. The accountant refused to do so. As a result, he lost his job, but he continued to trust God through this trial. He was sacrificing himself (i.e., his job) in order to be faithful to God.
As a priest in God’s new temple, we are to offer sacrifices of ourselves. To offer a “sacrifice of thanksgiving” now would be to thank God for the trial you are going through and to continue to trust him in the midst of it, knowing that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28, and cf. “called” above in 1 Pet 2:21).
In Philippians 2:3-6a, Paul also lists the general principle of sacrificial living in imitation of Christ: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who although he existed in the form of God,” sacrificed himself.
Thinking of others before ourselves often involves sacrifice, and it is a wonderful recipe for bringing about unity, as “we are of the same mind” about this (Phil 2:2). Peter says we are called to sacrifice because we are priests in the temple of Christ, whose example of sacrifice we follow. As priests in the temple, we are all to have a cruciform lifestyle, and as we are unified in this sacrificial lifestyle, we will make an impact on the world when they see that we live so differently from them. Such different living inspires inquiries from unbelievers as to why we live this way and gives an opportunity for witness.
A Royal Priesthood
As mediatorial priests in Christ’s temple, we mediate the light of Christ to the dark world.But there are other ways in which we function as priests in Christ’s temple, which develops this notion of witness. The reference to “holy priesthood” in verse 5 is developed later in verse 9 as “a royal priesthood,” which reveals another role that we have as priests: “But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”
There are several Old Testament allusions in this verse, but I want to focus on only two. They are “you are…a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” Both these phrases are from Exodus 19:6: “And you shall be for me a royal priesthood and a holy nation.” This is a statement of Israel’s purpose as a nation. The entire nation is to function as “priest-kings.” There are different ways to translate this: either as “royal priests” or a “priestly kingdom.”
The key is that their task had both a kingly and a priestly aspect to it. As royal priests, they were to be mediators between God and the dark world. Furthermore, in order to do this successfully, they had to be a “holy nation,” that is, holy priests who kept themselves clean from the impurity of the world around them (e.g., separate from pagan idolatries and immoralities). They were to mediate the presence of God’s light to a dark world. Spreading God’s light to the world is one way God would work through them as “kings” to dominate the world for him, until “the earth [would] be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Isa 11:9, NIV). They would begin to rule over the world spiritually as part of their mandate. Israel had an evangelical mandate but had to maintain its priestly holiness in order to accomplish this mandate.
The more unified we are about this priestly role of sacrificing ourselves and reflecting God’s light to the world, the more the impact there will be on the world.Likewise, we are to be a “royal priesthood” and a “holy” people in order to be mediators between God and the dark world. Now, in the new covenant age, we are the continuation of true Israel, and we mediate the presence of God through spreading the gospel of Christ. 1 Peter 2:9 further describes this priestly and mediatorial task: “that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” We have been called out of darkness into light, and, now as mediatorial priests in Christ’s temple, we mediate the light of Christ to the dark world. This is our task together as a church and as Christians (Rev 1:6 and 5:10 also refer to the church as a “royal priesthood,” alluding to Exod 19:6 and making the same point).
May God give us the grace to function as mediatorial priests to a dark world. The more unified we are about this priestly role of sacrificing ourselves and reflecting God’s light to the world, the more the impact there will be on the world. May we be of “the same unified mind” in this (Phil 2:2). Indeed, it is through sacrificing ourselves through various forms of suffering that we will reflect God’s light, gain the attention of some in the world, and “silence” the world’s accusations against our faith (1 Pet 2:15). For God loves to demonstrate the power of the gospel through weakness: “I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor 12:9).
Editor’s note: All Scripture references in this article are from the NASB 1995, except where noted.
Frederic Edwin Church, “Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives,” oil on canvas, 54“ x 84”, 1870.